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ProAc Anniversary Tablette

ProAc Anniversary Tablette

I remember the first time I heard ProAc Tablette speakers. It was in 1979, just before I began writing for The Absolute Sound. They were playing in a small audiophile shop in Arlington, MA. After I heard them, I couldn’t go back to the mediocre imaging that was the norm for most speakers. In a small room, combined with a sympathetic subwoofer, the original ProAc Tablettes could create three-dimensional magic that few speakers at the time could rival.

Flash forward to 2013. ProAc still makes Tablettes, and they still sound great. But how great? That depends on how and where you use them. On the right-sized playing field the new $2200-per-pair ProAc Tablettes are still champions.

Tech

The ProAc Tablette has gone through nine iterations since it was introduced. The latest version still has that same small, ported, plywood enclosure as its forbears. But the current model sports a new 5-7/8″ Kevlar-coned midrange/woofer and a 20mm dome tweeter. The tweeter includes a specially fabricated front plate, which according to ProAc is designed to “dissipate phase anomalies and cancellations.”

One technical specification that has separated the Tablette from many similarly sized small-footprint monitor speakers is its crossover point. Instead of putting the crossover somewhere between 1.5 and 2.5kHz, the Tablette’s crossover is higher, at 3kHz. This makes it much easier for the tweeter to play loudly without distress. The lower part of its range, where tweeters have power-handling problems, is removed from the equation. This makes the current-gen ProAc Tablette more robust and better able to handle high SPls without the need for a fuse to protect its drivers. Also, since the midrange woofer is doing most of the heavy-lifting, the sound doesn’t change or become stressed at higher SPls as easily as it did in the original design.

The Anniversary Tablette’s midrange driver is probably the most important changeover from previous versions. The midrange/woofer’s Kevlar cone is single-ply. Unlike most Kevlar cones, which are multi-layer sandwiches, ProAc prefers to use single-ply because it is lighter, yet still rigid. The cone itself is hand-made by a firm that specializes in high-performance automotive parts. This is the first time ProAc has used this more exotic cone material in such an inexpensive speaker.

The review samples came finished in a premium rosewood. This veneer has a very noticeable grain pattern that shows off how the same piece of veneer is wrapped around the sides and top of the speaker. Other available finishes include black ash, mahogany, cherry, maple, and premium ebony. Instead of a magnet system to hold on the speaker grille, the Tablette employs “old-school” pressure-fit attachments located near the four corners of the front baffle. On the back of the Tablette you’ll find two pairs of speaker terminals, so it can be bi-wired or used with a single speaker wire via the included jumper wires. As you would expect from a speaker in its price-range, the finish is impeccable.

Like previous versions of the Tablette, the Anniversary model’s tweeter is offset slightly. And while the owner’s manual suggests setting up the speakers so the tweeters are on the inside rather than the outside of the front baffle, I suggest trying both configurations to see if one provides better imaging and spatial cues. On my desktop the inner position was by far the best, but in some rooms the outer position could deliver a more spacious soundstage.

 

Sound

A couple of years ago I was in the ProAc room at CEs, talking with its U.S. distributor, Richard Gerberg. I asked him about reviewing ProAc’s studio 100 speaker, which is quite similar to the Tablettes, but made for the “Pro” market, and he smiled. “I don’t have any to loan you for review. They’re all spoken for. Pros love the Studio 100 for nearfield and location work.” Among the Studio 100’s users are Rick Rubin, John Scofield, and Mike Campbell. Most of Johnny Cash’s last sessions were mixed and monitored via ProAc studio 100s.

In 2005 I did a story for Acoustic Guitar Magazine about the string Cheese Incident recording session with Malcolm Burn. ProAc studio 100s were among the monitors Burn brought into the house he converted into a studio for the sessions. The studio 100s wound up in the “overflow room,” used as monitors so the band could hear their rough mixes.

The newest Anniversary Tablettes have certainly changed since the first incarnation I heard many years ago. Without a subwoofer the earliest generation couldn’t, except in a very small room, handle large-scale orchestral or loud rock at realistic playback levels. But the Anniversary Tablette, while still not able to defy the laws of physics, can play louder, with far fewer signs of sonic distress than the earlier version.

Back before audiophiles discovered high-end desktop systems, the only people who listened nearfield were recording engineers. And while most mini-monitor or “bookshelf” speakers for consumers were designed primarily for room-based sound reproduction, from early on recording engineers adapted certain small speakers, such as the Yamaha Ns-10 and Rogers ls3/5a to be near- and mid-field monitors. I found the Anniversary Tablette especially adept in a nearfield desktop monitoring environment.

The Tablettes are not terribly sensitive at 86.5dB at 1 watt/ one meter. But on my desktop, driven by an Accuphase P-300, the Tablettes used virtually no power to achieve what I consider perilous SPl levels. According to the Accuphase P-300’s romantically lit power meters, 94dB SPl peaks at listening position translated to a -27dB output level from the amplifier!

With professional, especially nearfield professional monitors, listeners are often forced to weigh detail and decipherability against listener fatigue. Some of the classic “high-resolution” studio monitors can be hard to enjoy after a few hours at moderate SPl levels. But the Tablettes straddle that thin line between musicality and high resolution. They supply all the necessary musical information without subjecting listeners to aural abuse. I spent many 8-plus-hour days listening to music through the Tablettes. I never needed to turn them off, or even down, because of listener fatigue.

Take it from someone who’s heard a lot of small, near-pinpoint-imaging speakers, imaging through the ProAc Anniversary Tablette is exemplary. These little guys just disappear, even when they’re positioned only 32″ from tweeter to earlobe. Using my patented “spin and point” test, where I close my eyes, spin around in my desk chair five times and try to point to where I think the speakers are, I located the speakers correctly zero out of five times. Yep, they disappear.

 

Speaking of the tweeter, if you do plan to use the Tablettes in a nearfield setup, it’s imperative to raise them up off your desktop to the point where the tweeter is between one and three inches above your ear height. I used closed-cell foam squares with an ultimate support’s adjustable speaker platform on top to raise the Tablettes to the correct height. If they are set up too low the harmonic balance changes and you lose some upper-frequency energy. According to the distributor the speakers should be mounted on heavy metal stands rather than the foam squares for the best bass response, but that setup isn’t practical on a desktop.

Well-recorded vocalists through the Tablettes take on an almost supernaturally solid and three-dimensional character. Listening to any track with an unprocessed human voice through the Tablettes, whether male or female, bass, baritone, tenor, alto, soprano, or even countertenor, the Tablettes got high marks for both the naturalness of their timbre and the absence of speaker- added grain. At the end of February I recorded the Boulder Philharmonic performing Richard Danielpou’s A Woman’s Life with mezzo-soprano soloist Angela Brown. The piece, which was written for Brown, has seven movements, each with its own unique sonic texture. The sixth movement, “My life Has Turned To Blue,” features a “bed” of struck chimes and gongs behind the soloist. You can clearly hear the power and velocity of the soloist when her voice expands as she leans into her notes.

How often have you heard someone drone on about how the midrange is where the music resides? While redundant, it’s still profound. The Anniversary Tablettes get the midrange right. I spend a lot of time listening to unamplified acoustic guitars, mandolins, acoustic bass, and fiddles, live and in-person. Many of my reference tracks focus on these instruments. On Bryan sutton’s sublime 2006 album Not Too Far From The Tree, the Tablette’s ability to correctly capture both the attack of a flatpicker’s pick, as well as the bloom of a note emanating from the guitar’s body, is testimony to its midrange prowess.

With some speakers used nearfield, the ideal listening area is so small that it’s easy, even when seated, to move out of the speaker’s optimum listening window. The Tablettes definitely do not have this problem. Their listening window is as large as any speaker I’ve used on my desktop. No matter how much I gyrated or swayed to the music, the image remained rock-solid with no shifting or frequency-domain changes.

Bass extension through the Tablettes is rather limited. While they do produce bass down to 30Hz (according to ProAc’s specification sheet), they don’t produce very much bass near their frequency limits. The good news is the upper-bass response is quite smooth with no midbass humps or augmentation, so blending them with the Velodyne DD+ 10 under my desktop, or the pair of Jl Audio Fathom f112 subwoofers in my mid-sized room, was a snap.

One of the reasons I much preferred the Tablettes in a desktop rather than room-based system is that on a desktop the Tablettes provide enough heft in the upper bass and lower midrange to be convincing. In a room the Tablettes remind me of the otherwise excellent Emerald Physics Cs-3 speakers, which when placed in a mid-sized room, couldn’t deliver enough meat and potatoes in this critical frequency range to be completely satisfying, even though they could produce pristine high sound pressure levels easily.

I’ve already written about the Tablette’s superb midrange, but I found their treble to be equally enticing. I’d be the first to admit, I’m one of those “old audiophiles.” When I last tested my hearing, which was less than two weeks ago, my upper limit hovered around 12kHz. That’s considered “average” for a fifty- year old. so, if a speaker does something especially weird at 15kHz or higher, I’d never know it. But neither will most other audiophiles of my age. Within my age-limited treble hearing range I found the Tablette’s upper frequencies to be just right. Going back to Richard Danielpou’s A Woman’s Life, the struck percussion instruments in “My life Has Turned To Blue,” contain a cornucopia of upper harmonics. Through the Tablettes I could track the high-frequency energy bouncing off the side and rear walls, especially on my 64X DSD recorded version.

 

It’s common knowledge that small speakers are usually dynamically challenged when forced to play in too large a room. And the diminutive Tablettes are not exceptions. But on my desktop, used nearfield, I was unable to push the Tablettes past their dynamic comfort zone. Their micro-dynamic presentation was subtlety nuanced, and macro-dynamics were equally impressive. On the recording I made in 2011 of the Boulder Philharmonic performing Astor Piazzolla’s 13-minute composition Tangazo (boulderphil.org/concerts/past-concerts/ jan-15-concert) the Tablettes did a superlative job of capturing the dynamic subtleties of its quiet pastoral beginning as well as the passion of Piazzolla’s frenzied high-volume closing lines.

Although they are small, the ProAc Tablettes were certainly not fragile. Near the end of the review I substituted a brand-new lynx Hilo DAC/Pre for the Benchmark HGC DAC-2 that had been in my desktop system.

Professional gear often uses slightly different terms for its inputs and outputs than consumer gear. With consumer gear “monitor” is usually a fixed line-level output, while “output” is usually variable, controlled by a volume knob. On the lynx Hilo the “output” is at full level, while “monitor” is the variable output. I connected the Hilo the way I connect 99% of the DAC/preamps I receive, and (hi) lo and behold, when I turned it on the ProAcs got a two-second dose of full power output at full-scale levels from the Accuphase P-300. That’s not exactly “best practices.” Miraculously, the Tablettes did not melt down and none of the drivers croaked. I daresay the same happy results would not be possible from many mini-monitors.

Comparing the ProAc Anniversary Tablettes with several of my usual desktop references was an interesting exercise in subtleties. For this test I place the speakers right next to each other on my desktop, set matched output levels using a 1kHz test tone from the AudioTest app, and then switch between the two while playing a mono recording.

The Tablettes produced slightly more lower-treble energy than the Role Kayaks in a nearfield setup. I also noticed that the Tablettes provided more inner detail than the Roles. But the Kayaks delivered more lower midrange energy, giving the Roles additional weight and gravitas.

When I did the same test using Aerial Acoustics 5B monitors I immediately noticed that the 5Bs produced a slightly darker harmonic balance than the Tablettes. After more listening time I determined that the Tablette’s upper midrange and lower treble was a bit more prominent than the same frequency region through the Aerial Acoustics 5Bs, which made the Tablettes appear, especially at first, to be more detailed. But after a few minutes of A/B comparisons I concluded that the added detail I heard was primarily the result of the Tablette’s additional upper-midrange energy. Especially when using them in a critical monitoring situation, the ProAc Tablettes were the easiest to “listen into” of all the passive monitors I’ve auditioned recently.

Final Thoughts

Over thirty years ago, when I heard the ProAc Tablettes for the first time I thought they were an exceptional speaker. Not much has changed in the interim. I still think they have a special magic. Tablettes offer a unique combination of high resolution and musicality that makes them a top contender for desk space, if you are looking for a small-footprint high-resolution monitor speaker.

SPECS & PRICING

Driver complement: 5.875″ (150mm) polymer-impregnated Kevlar mid/bass cone with black acrylic phase plug; 20mm ProAc silk dome tweeter with damped front plate. Mirror image offset configuration.
Nominal impedance: 8 ohms 
Recommended amplifiers: 10 to 120W
Frequency response: 35Hz to 30kHz
Sensitivity: 86.5dB linear for 1 watt at 1 meter
Dimensions: 6″ x 10.625″ x 9.75″
Weight: 5kg (each)
Price: $2200

Modern Audio Consultants (U.S. Distributor)
P.O. Box 334
Stevenson, MD 21153
proac-loudspeakers.com
(410) 486-5975

Associated Equipment
Source devices: MacPro model 1.1 Intel Xeon 2.66 GHz computer with 16 GB of memory with OS 10.6.7, running iTunes 10.6.3 and Amarra 2.5 music playing software, Pure Music 1.85 music playing software, and Audirana Plus 1.35 music playing software
DACs: April Music Eximus DP-1, Empirical Audio Off-Ramp 5, Mytek 192/24 DSD DAC, Benchmark HGC DAC-2, Lynx HiLo DSD DAC
Amplifiers: April Music Eximus S-1, Accuphase P-300
Speakers: Aerial Acoustics 5B, Velodyne DD+ 10 subwoofer
Cables and Accessories: Wireworld USB cable, Synergistic Research USB cable, AudioQuest Carbon USB cables. PS Audio Quintet, AudioQuest CV 4.2 speaker cable, AudioQuest Colorado interconnect, Cardas Clearvinterconnect, and Crystal Cable Piccolo interconnect

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