Gauder Akustik (formerly Isophon) is a German company that is relatively new to the U.S. high-end scene, but has been making a considerable sensation, including various glowing mentions in show reports. Gauder makes quite a few models ranging from the small Arcona 40 two-way to the large, multi-driver, floor-standing Berlina RC11. The model under review, called the Cassiano, is somewhere in the middle of the range in size and price.
The Cassianos, like all the Gauder models, use ceramic drivers. (A considerably more expensive version of the Cassianos replaces the ceramic inverted dome tweeter with a diamond tweeter.) Ceramic drivers have been around for a good while now, but it remains striking to see the pure white drivers of the Cassianos arrayed, in the particular version I had, in a pure white cabinet. Ceramic drivers are robust in use but fragile to the touch, and they are each covered here with a rigid open-wire cage to prevent damage.
The Cassianos are moderate in size—about 44″ tall—but they make an emphatic if pleasant visual statement, with their white drivers and the gracefully, and one supposes functionally, curved enclosure, which is incidentally filled between its two layers with sand—shades of the Wharfedale 60s of many years ago. (In my youth I built a woofer enclosure that had a two-inch space all around its cabinet surfaces to be filled with sand—but I had to leave it behind when I graduated from college—it was too heavy to move. The Cassianos use less sand, it seems, as the speakers are of rational weight, 66 pounds each.)
Along with the super-dead cabinet and the ceramic drivers, there is another distinctive aspect of the Cassiano’s design that is not visible but is surely audible: They use extremely steep-slope crossovers. Even with pink noise, which is ultra-sensitive to such things, no lobing, no interference effect, to speak of is observable between the midrange and tweeter drivers. This sort of thing is familiar from, for example, Joseph Audio products, but it remains striking, so accustomed is one to a vertical “sweet spot” away from which most multi-driver speakers have a sort of in-and-out interference pattern. As it happens, the Cassianos also have a vertical sweet spot for another reason, but the absence of inter-driver interference effects remains a striking positive point.
The Cassianos have two 7″ woofers and a midrange driver of effectively the same size combined with a 3⁄4″ inverted dome tweeter. Crossover points are 180Hz and 3.2kHz. One of the potential problems of extremely steep slopes is discontinuity between drivers but in fact the Cassianos sound coherent in spite of the “50dB slopes” (this presumably means >50 dB since passive crossover slopes are necessarily whole number multiples of 6dB). The Cassianos have adjustable bass level, 0 and ±1.5 dB, as they are described. I started with + and ended with –, the + and 0 settings being audibly (and measurably) somewhat bass-heavy in my setup.
In principle, really steep slopes in a passive crossover give rise to extreme phase-angle rotation around the crossover point, but I cannot say I heard anything that I would associate with this with any certainty. Perhaps since they occur over such a narrow band, they are somehow not really observable as such.
To say that the Cassianos are sonically striking would be to understate the case. In many ways, they impress one immediately as being uncompromised—indeed, as described on the Web site, as aiming at and reaching the artsiest state of the art. In particular, they could be used as a defining example of the concept of a silent background, of the speaker that speaks only what is put into it. This is a quality not easily measured, although it is possible to measure it (nonspectral contamination is one way that does pretty well). But in any case it is surely easy enough to hear. And as one expects, it lays bare both explicit musical detail and the nature of the recording venue, on recordings which offer that information. This quality in itself will vault the Cassianos high into the Pantheon for many listeners.
Of course audiophiles are always talking about veils removed, new details revealed and so on. Such remarks can come to seem like a mantra and as unrevealing of specifics as an Om chant. But all I can suggest is a listen to verify that for the Cassianos we are speaking of something that is really there. If you like complex music, heavily orchestrated symphonic works for example, you will be delighted at the way in which the complexities are revealed. Even when the orchestra gets really tootling along, the Cassianos remain unruffled and unconfused. Everything stays clear and in its place and unobstructed by any extraneous noise from the speakers themselves.
Whether this quality comes from the dead cabinet or the exceptionally low distortion of the drivers is hard to say— perhaps both are involved. But the quality itself is unmistakable.
Listening to the Cleveland Orchestra’s Mahler Fourth conducted by Dohnanyi [London] (how nice to hear an orchestra that really plays in tune!), one hears not just the lines in the sparsely orchestrated parts, and there are many of those, but the same kind of clarity in the occasional “big moments,” when the orchestra plays not in chamber subgroups, as in much of the piece, but as a gigantic totality. The Cassianos will play really loudly, given enough power, but even when doing so, they do not lose their clarity and what one might call their sonic composure.
Reference Recordings sampler Tutti also came through with full resolution, and a remarkably detailed sense of the different venues and microphone techniques involved. Sometimes it was hard to believe it was the same engineer, so much did Keith Johnson vary his methods for the different musical styles and so distinctively did he capture the various recording venues, with the Cassianos showing all the variations very clearly.
The Reference Recordings also gave the Cassianos a chance to show off their impressive bass performance. Precise and defined, the bass was, even so, abundant (indeed, too much so until I shifted to the -1dB setting, as noted). There was power to spare in the bottom end and an excellent sense of hearing the bass all the way down to the bottom of the orchestra. And the Cassianos excelled in what Keith Johnson likes to call “jump factor.” The pizzicato notes near the end of the second movement of the Mahler Fourth were shocking. Even though I knew them to be there of course (I know this score pretty much by heart, having played the work a number of times), I did indeed jump a little at the intensity with which the Cassianos projected them out of the background stillness surrounding them—stillness that is from the speaker itself.
If you are getting the idea that I like this speaker, you are not at all mistaken. It is fascinating, one of those speakers where you sit down (if you are a reviewer) to do your work and end up listening simply for pleasure.
That does not mean, however, that I was totally disarmed. First of all, the tweeter seems to me not entirely flat and set at a higher level than it should be. The whole treble region seems to rise out of a slightly recessed midrange. Now please understand that this is most definitely in the context of a speaker that is, in common terms, flat. But as a speaker approaches being truly flat, the more it seems one can hear the small deviations of a broadband nature that remain. (John Dunlavy, who was truly seeking El Dorado as far as neutrality in particular was concerned, used to bemoan this to me a lot in our conversations, saying that as he got the speakers flatter and flatter, more and more nearly neutral, how the ±1dB errors— and his speakers did fit such a window—became all the more obvious to him.)
It is of course the case that a great many speakers today have a pushed up top by a dB or two or three. This has apparently come to strike people as normal. But still, truth is truth and superior to exaggeration almost always, and the Cassianos sounded better to me with the relatively small but definite treble rise eliminated. How much this mattered musically of course depended on the material.
The sense of the midrange being somewhat pushed back was added to again by the fact that the speaker seems to have a bit of extra energy in the 500–800Hz range, with 1–3kHz then comparatively down. It is possible that a lot of people will like this effect. In a famous study for auditorium acoustics, the great Danish acoustician V. L. Jordan determined that performing musicians tend to like a little more energy around 2kHz in auditorium sound than does the general public. Take that for what it is worth. But still, in measured terms the Cassianos are a bit laid-back in the 1–2.5kHz range, where many speakers are in similar measured terms, actually a bit projected. (I don’t like that much either—flat is good here.) These things are small, but they matter. You need to listen for yourself. The push a little below 1kHz was large enough to make the violin notes just below A 880Hz on the Sitkovetsky Bach Goldberg Variations (Nonesuch) pop out of the mix a little. Absolute smoothness is not really a specialty of the Cassianos, over-all flat though they are.
A second aspect—virtue as I think of it, failing as other people might hear it—of the Cassiano has to do with a combination of the high crossover point to the tweeter, the large size of the mid driver, and the fact that ceramic drivers behave as perfect pistons, really perfect up to their first breakup mode (which needs to be well out-of-band of the driver’s operation). There is no “controlled breakup” as there is in the polypropylene drivers that the BBC heritage speakers like to use in their two-ways where the bass/mid driver often runs up to a similarly high crossover frequency. As a consequence, the Cassianos are quite beamy at the top of the mid-driver’s range—in particular in the 1–3kHz range. This no doubt adds to the impression of this range being recessed a bit, though it is in fact recessed a bit on axis as well. But at the same time, it makes the speaker image extremely well and gives a very strong impression of one’s own listening room simply not being there. “Make the world go away”—that could be the Cassiano’s motto. I have always liked this—have a look at this review that I wrote years ago: regonaudio.com/ SpendorSP12Loudspeakers.html.
Still true! When a speaker beams, one needs to be on axis, but when you are, “Wow” is the word for the imaging and sense of being in the original venue. Combine this with the Cassiano’s ability to let one hear into the acoustical details of the original venue through its silence of background, and wow is definitely the word for feeling as if you were there.
But of course one has to admit that off-axis listeners, while they hear a pleasant sound—the speakers remain quite smooth off axis, through the absence of lobing effects—also hear a sound that is even less midrange-y than it is on axis and that some people might feel is a bit lifeless. And then of course there are people who regard correct precise image as anathema and say that speakers that image precisely through beaminess do not have a “soundstage.” (Oddly enough, the designer Dr. Roland Gauder is on public record as emphasizing the importance of wide radiation, but in fact this does not happen with a zero-break-up 7″ driver driven up to 3.2kHz. One can look this up in say Beranek’s Acoustics. In later models, Gauder started to use smaller midrange drivers. But this does not alter the situation for the Cassianos.)
One valid objection, however, is that the beaminess is attached to a hint of coloration. It is not a gross thing at all and indeed is rather subtle. But there is some hint of the sound that comes from horn-loading—or at least I think that is the best way to describe it. Apparently this is not noticed by everyone: No review I have seen, and there are a few on the Gauder Web site, says anything about this. But to me the midrange sounds a little off, albeit in a subtle way, compared to the least-colored transducers in sight. When I play along with a violin recording, especially one I know is spot on, the effect is quite clear—there is something a bit out of kilter in upper middle notes of the violin.
Times have changed and a speaker that costs $17,500 per pair is almost a mid-priced item in the high end. Gauder itself and many other companies offer much more expensive options. In this context, it is surely impressive—and I think absolutely true—that in a number of ways, one can say of the Cassianos, in Cole Porter style, “You’re the top.” Or at least essentially so. For those people like me whose main interest in audio is the absence of midrange coloration, some doubts may arise. But for people who are devoted to the categories in which the Cassianos excel—quietness of background, clarity of sound, low distortion, dynamic capacity in a relatively small enclosure (if you have the amplifier power and the current capacity—I think these are not good speakers for tube amplifiers, but the Sanders Magtech was as always unruffled by the demands of the 4-ohm nominal load), the Cassianos offer something close to the ultimate at a considerably less than ultimate price. A lot of audiophiles will feel that they have indeed found “the tower of Pisa and the smile on the Mona Lisa” and all the rest of Porter’s top items.
SPECS & PRICING
Type: Three-way floorstanding loudspeaker with four ceramic drivers per speaker in a ported enclosure (floor-firing port); passive high-order crossovers (slope >50dB/octave)
Driver compliment: Two 7″ ceramic woofers, one 7″ ceramic midrange driver, one ceramic tweeter
Crossover frequencies: 180Hz, 3.2kHz
Power handling: 220W continuous, 410W impulse power
Dimensions: 8.3″ x 43″ x 16.2″
Weight: 66 lbs.
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