Neil Young introduces his “Journey Through the Past” to his audience (Live at Massey Hall 1971, Reprise) with a little humor: “I’ve written so many new ones (i.e. songs) I can’t think of anything else to do with them other than sing ’em.”
Like most things that make us laugh, there’s a nugget of truth buried in this throw-away line. And the truth revealed here is that music is performance art. As Mr. Young says in his video interview for the Musicians Hall of Fame & Museum, the song is the vehicle. Those notes need to be driven off the page and vibrate the air. It’s not until the song is performed that it becomes art. The artistic expression of a musical idea or emotion doesn’t sit in notated form like framed, painted brushstrokes frozen for all to see for all time. The expression is released through the performance. Music happens. It’s an active, created force.
The wonderful thing about our hobby is that the systems we assemble are a necessary part of re-creating this artistic force in our homes. This is the first and most important job of any system that we purchase, recommend, or just listen to. Can it allow that musical message (driven by performance) to get through? If you think that seems impossible to determine, I beg to differ. It’s the first and most obvious thing you should notice. Simply put, are you listening to the music or to the system? If you get out of your own way, that answer will quickly become apparent.
More good news? In my experience, the ability to allow the musical message through is not tied to a price tag. I can promise you that most of Rage Against the Machine’s messaging gets through the very crude stereo in my car. And I know of a former conductor for a major U.S. symphony orchestra who used to listen to his recordings on a kitchen table radio. The ability to enjoy music in your home (or on the go) is not a privilege reserved for the few. Which, of course, in no way suggests that many don’t still manage to screw up that basic task, at all price points. Want proof? Go to any audio show and count the number of rooms in which you can just sit back and listen to music. That should be the minimum requirement, not a high bar.
The Absolute Sound (and by extension, this review) exists, however, because of a secondary connected potential of these same systems. And that is the potential to recreate in your home the sounds of real instruments in a real space. The best systems can let the musical message through while also allowing all kinds of insights into the physical performance itself. Now please, don’t shoot the messenger, but the bad news here is that these kinds of technical attributes do come with a price tag. If that bothers you, stop reading now and continue listening to the radio on your kitchen counter. I won’t blame you.
My 10-year-old son walked into the room, and I think it was Sonny Rollins’ Way Out West that happened to be cued up. He rarely offers any comments/opinions on anything I have at home (which has been a lot), but this time after about a minute he said, “I like these better.” I quickly turned the volume down to get any unedited nuggets that I could. “Why do you like them better?” He followed with something completely unexpected, and keep in mind that we don’t discuss audio equipment and he has shown virtually no interest in it. He explained, “They project better.” What? Where on earth did that come from? “What do you mean they project better?” Without missing a beat, he continued, “They sound purer. It’s like you’re right there.” That from a 10-year-old who’s never read an audio review and doesn’t really talk to me about the gear I bring home. And it’s not like I have audiophile friends for him to overhear and pick up on their accepted terminology. This was a raw, unfiltered response. He went on to tell me that he used the word “project” because they have a projector at school. In other words, he was telling me that these compact Stenheim loudspeakers were projecting a picture. A real picture. “Like you’re right there.”
In many ways this was a sad, humbling moment. This was the bursting of my sophisticated, experienced audio opinion bubble. It turns out that anyone who merely listens can fully realize just how special the Swiss Stenheim Alumine Threes are. I’ve set up thousands of systems, sold and represented loudspeakers by Rockport Technologies, Wilson, Magico, MartinLogan, Kharma, Dynaudio, ATC, Verity Audio, Avalon, Dunlavy, Quad, Totem, PSB, Wisdom Audio, Eclipse, Penaudio, Linn, Audio Physic, and many more. I’ve lived these kinds of things for heaven’s sake. Yet a 10-year-old boy, who’d rather be playing a video game on a PS4, walks into a room and without even sitting down recognizes a sound with superior purity, projection, and realness. And for those of you out there who say, “I’d never hear the difference,” well, you’d be wrong. My son is living proof.
Stenheim Alumine Three
I’m not sure how the Swiss company Stenheim finds the focus to design and build anything. If I were living and working in the beautiful surroundings of Vetroz, southwestern Switzerland, I’d probably do nothing but look out my windows. Fortunately, these designers and engineers with previous experience at other Swiss high-end manufacturers like Goldmund and Nagra have clearly not been distracted. It seems they’ve been inspired.
The Alumine Three is Stenheim’s most advanced “compact” floorstanding loudspeaker, intended to deliver the quality and character of the larger Alumine Five in a smaller and more affordable package (more affordable, not generally affordable—$30k won’t be in the wallet of the many). The Three is about attractive as a box can be. And a box it is. No curves or soft edges. But to these eyes and all who viewed them in my room, they are exceptionally well judged in color and proportion. Better yet, the closer you get, the more they exude the quality one expects when you know that something is designed and made in Switzerland. My brother visited and, after nudging these reasonably sized (just over 41″ high), yet shockingly hefty (approximately 155 pounds each!) objects, quickly proclaimed, “I thought you were reviewing more affordable gear for The Absolute Sound?” It doesn’t take an industry insider to know that you won’t find these blister-packed at your nearest chain store.
Stenheim has a very close working relationship with the French driver manufacturer PHL Audio. PHL’s main focus had been on high-sensitivity professional products, but it’s clear that the manufacturer is capable of further reach. Which isn’t to say that either PHL or Stenheim is overly generous in publicizing the technology behind the drivers themselves. Go ahead. Visit websites for both and see if you can spot what materials are used for the driver membranes themselves (seems like a no-brainer to me, but what do I know). What I can tell you is that this reasonably sized loudspeaker has a high sensitivity of 93dB, with a nominal impedance of 8 ohms (5 ohms minimum). One “laminar flow” front port aids the two coated pulp/paper 8″ bass drivers; above the woofers is a 5¼” midrange, and above it is a soft dome tweeter with a wave guide. Lots of neodymium magnets are around, making for a very friendly-to-your-amplifier package.
My Alumine Three review samples are the latest on offer. The Three is a 3½-way design, where the bottom woofer is taken lower in frequency, and the upper 8″ higher. (They share what’s in the middle of the bass passband.) This combination of bass drivers is the best I’ve heard in a loudspeaker of this type. Speed. Power. Dynamics. Extension. Best of all worlds.
The cabinet is heavily braced-and-damped aluminum. It’s a small tank, anchored to your floor with spikes. There are two isolated, independent chambers inside each Alumine Three—one for the tweeter and for the midrange, and one laminar-flow port-loaded section for the two 8-inchers. I saw the raw crossovers within, and can report audiophiles would be sufficiently impressed.
Enough already. On to the listening.
In a project called “Stenheim Acoustic Sessions,” Stenheim has created an opportunity for artists to be recorded at its facility in a wonderful acoustic environment with exceptional recording equipment. This partnership with musicians and live music also has the benefit of informing Stenheim’s loudspeaker research and design. Like Mark Levinson (Part 1), Spectral (through Keith Johnson), and Wilson’s Peter McGrath in the United States, there is a recognition that the best reference for real is…wait for it…real. The sponsorship of the art makes these kinds of projects a win-win. The recordings become a constant source of inspiration and reference.
The first impression given by the Alumine Three is one of explosive dynamic capability, and I’m certain that this is at least partially the result of Stenheim’s recordings of live instruments. I kept thinking “launch pad,” and this didn’t just relate to an ability to jump very high on command, but to take off from an unshakable, immoveable platform. The compact Three combines these massive dynamics with the ability to stop, right now. More incredible still, this level of control was in no way in the same zip code as “dry” or overdamped. It’s free, projected energy without being loose. Controlled without squeezing the hell out of the signal. Fun. Real.
Look, I can rarely last more than five minutes through the final movement of any version of Beethoven’s 9th Symphony. I’ve always felt it’s just too big a piece to squeeze through a “normal” loudspeaker. When the music gets big, the sound inevitably gets small. But I listened to the entire final movement of the 1961 Reiner/CSO performance (RCA) of this majestic work. In digital format no less (that’s doubly unusual for me).
Off her 1983 album Girl at Her Volcano” (Warner Bros.), Rickie Lee Jones’ version of “Under The Boardwalk” positively explodes with each percussive transition. Paired with a full complement of Einstein electronics, the Stenheims frankly defied belief. I had to re-listen to that track two more times to confirm what I had heard. This wasn’t a wall-to-wall set of giant horns efficiently coupling the air in my room. The Stenheim’s little-engine ability to land a fast, powerful, and accurate punch wasn’t as much “I think I can” as “I just did.”
I trust in my physical responses to listening to music. Tapping my feet, bopping my head. Air guitar. Singing along (trying at least). It might seem strange to report, but one of my recurring responses to listening through the Alumine Threes was a furrowed brow. It was hard to accept that I was believing so hard in the presence of instruments in space in my room. I found myself reevaluating what was possible in the comfort of my living room, and as an industry professional, I like to think I already know everything. I don’t like having to recalibrate my expectations. My puzzler gets sore.
Allan’s psychological struggles aside, the Stenheims meet the expectations for a reference speaker in being able to have instruments easily, believably differentiated in their space, whether big or small, and without forcing a perspective. This is always a concern of mine when faced with any speaker that “projects.” Is it a result of a frequency push, phase abnormality, or energy spill, or do instruments appropriately retain their proper position, size, and dynamic envelope?
The distant guitar on Goyescas: Intermezzo, from the TAS SuperLP listed Hi-Fi A La Espanola (Mercury) was held in a beautiful, delicate, electrostatic-like suspension. Similarly, the opening small percussion of Yo-Yo Ma’s “Legend of Herlen” from Silk Road Journeys (Sony Classical) had their own far-off reality. Nothing struggled for space, or unnaturally crept forward.
So it’s not just that the obvious stuff, like the vocals on favorite original Dylan or Peter, Paul, and Mary LPs, was rendered in stunning acts of recreation; it was also that I could so easily enjoy the orchestration of Ella Fitzgerald Sings The Rogers and Hart Song Book (Verve). “The Lady is a Tramp” was finger-snappin’ fun, but not just because of Ella. All the musicians played a part. All were equally present and vibrant.
The Alumine Three presents a stage filled with dynamic, textural, and spatial possibilities, but the feeling when listening is not that musicians, instruments, and space are merely represented. It’s the rarer illusion of a compelling reality. That music and instruments in their space and proportion are given life.
OMG. The Bass
Hand me a contract right now that says from now on every loudspeaker I listen to will have the bass performance of the Alumine Threes, and I’ll have but one question: “Where do I sign?” Yes, there are only two 8″ drivers, and yes, the physical rules of the universe are intact as far as I can tell. But in my approximately 14′ x 20′ room that is open to others on two sides, the compact Stenheims were beyond criticism in low-frequency quality and quantity.
Didn’t hear a port. No resonant distractions, overhang or compression (and that’s not without listening effort on my part). Responsive and engaging. Even on previously un-noteworthy basslines like that in Simon & Garfunkel’s “Punky’s Dilemma” from Bookends (Sundazed) I found myself drawn to the musical contribution of that instrument. The slow and steady upright bass on Jennifer Warnes’ version of “Famous Blue Raincoat” (Cisco) was realized as a distinct, real, believable instrument. More than just accompaniment.
For me, that’s what put the bass performance over the top. Even though specs say it goes down to just 32Hz, the Stenheim Alumine Three can do all the big impressive stuff that makes you think “bigger speaker” and “Where’s the subwoofer?” Like Kodo drums, synth, pipe organ, kick and kettle drums. But it’s the ability to provide bass frequencies with the same feeling of responsiveness and freedom given by the whole package that really impresses. Musicians playing instruments. That’s valuable, desirable…and rare.
The Alumine Three makes clear the differences in recordings and/or the equipment it’s paired with. Just as easily as one can tell the differences between Emil Gilels’ 1955 performance of Tchaikovsky Piano Concerto No. 1 with Reiner’s CSO and the pianist’s later 1975 concert of the same piece with Maazel’s New Philharmonic Orchestra (the earlier performance is far superior, IMHO), changes in electronics are also immediately conspicuous.
Originally driven by my Devialet Expert 200 integrated, the top end felt as though it had a bit of a lid on it. The overall presentation was certainly involving/forgiving, but I found myself wanting things to open up—to take me out of my room. Thanks to retailer Fidelis in NH (also market representative for Stenheim), I had the great fortune to substitute in the Einstein The Poweramp, The Preamp, and The Perfect Match phono preamplifier (Einstein must have had writer’s block—it happens). With this change, it was like the top was blown wide open. I stepped outside my room. More playful. Perhaps more dangerous. Devastating speed and dynamics. It proved that the Threes will reward electronic upward mobility, if not simply proper selection.
I know that many low-powered amplifier fans will also be drawn to the Stenheims given their high sensitivity and easy electrical load. I was given the chance to insert both the Pass Labs XA25 power amplifier and the Unison Research Sinfonia Anniversary tube integrated amplifier to see what 25 watts can do. Guess what? Turns out it depends which 25 watts you choose! The Pass XA25 was an amazing match for the Alumine Threes. While not as airy, playful, dynamic, or holographic as the Einstein separates (at about 1/10 the cost, though), the XA25 would be a fabulous first (maybe final!) choice of amplification. Open, smooth textures with plenty of control. Driven directly from the wonderful dCS Bartók DAC, the Pass would make for an approximately $50k digital-only system. The Unison’s similar 25 watts were less successful. It was an obvious case of just a poor match. It turned the Alumines into small monitors, lacking the fundamental power and extension they’re capable of. As with everything, choose wisely.
Setup/What to Watch For
I don’t care how precious your loudspeakers are to you or how much they cost. They all have a personality. A voicing. A signature. As someone who sets up systems a lot, one of the most valuable pieces of information for me is a loudspeaker’s sonic-failure mode. I want to know what it’s typically like when it all goes wrong with setup and/or partnering gear. Finding out what to avoid can be more difficult to quickly assess than what to look forward to.
The Alumine Three’s make-or-break consideration lies with the midrange. In the first case, there is a definite window within which Frampton comes most alive. Put another way, it’s directional. I’d say there’s an approximate plus or minus 30 degree lateral window (60 degree total then) to the front of the speakers that you should sit within, which is well accounted for with typical toe-in (I could see 2 or 3 inches of the inside surfaces of each loudspeaker, for instance). There is also a more appropriate vertical positioning. The easy solution is to sit in your listening chair and tilt the loudspeakers up at the front (tilt the cabinet backwards) such that the top surface of the speakers is level with (or slightly above) your eyeline. The sound’s not disastrous outside either of these windows. In fact, our family enjoyed music all through our house with the Stenheims! But to hear why I rave about them, you need to pay attention to these details. Don’t stand at the back of a demo room and think you get it. You won’t/can’t.
In the second case, I could easily see electronic choice being taken too far in the direction of a bright upper midrange. Why? Because it might seem too irresistibly exciting. It doesn’t have to be this way. (Bright I mean. It should be exciting). The Threes are not reticent, so don’t get carried away chasing your own personal best for dynamic expression. You might find yourself losing the musical plot, because the Threes will happily empower your chosen direction. Please don’t make them accomplices in your audio crimes and then frame them for the fall.
Welcome to the Club
A loudspeaker is a horribly inaccurate device. Even compared to the technical atrocities committed by a turntable (which is, regardless, still my favorite source at home), loudspeakers are the weakest (and as a result, perhaps most important) link in the re-creation chain. They are variable in frequency response to a degree that would be rejected by any amateur electronic designer. They vary in the electrical load presented to the amplifier. They vary in their polar/power response—the way in which they illuminate a room off the main listening axis. They vary (and this is big) in where they can be placed in a room. Loudspeakers are the final ingredient before all those musical vibrations reach our ears, while offering up what must be the biggest, variable threat in those notes’ long journey. It’s a wonder we can have a magazine dedicated to the absolute sound at all. And yet…
And yet we do. And yet there’s a hobby dedicated to the idea that occasionally we can re-create in our homes a real impression of musicians playing music. The Stenheim Alumine Three did this more frequently, and to a greater degree than any other loudspeaker I’ve had in my home.
The Three is a compact, exceptionally built, and easy to drive loudspeaker that fits into real rooms, with the heart of a large horn system and touches of electrostatic transparency thrown in for good measure. At, or near the top of finest compact loudspeakers available today, and one that joins the small club of products I’d recommend going out of your way to experience.
Specs & Pricing
Type: 3½-way dynamic loudspeaker
Driver complement: 2x 8″ woofers; 1x 5¼” neodymium magnet midrange; 1x 1″ neodymium magnet tweeter
Frequency response: 32Hz–35kHz
Sensitivity: 93dB, half space
Nominal impedance: 8 ohms (5 ohms minimum)
SPL max: 115dB
Power handling: 150W RMS, 300W peak
Recommended amplifier: 10W to 200W
Dimensions: 9.8″ x 41.3″ x 13″
Weight: 154 lbs. each
FIDELIS AV (U.S. Brand Ambassador)
460 Amherst St.
Nashua, New Hampshire 03063
Amplifiers: Devialet Expert 200; Einstein The Poweramp; Pass Labs XA25; Unison Research Sinfonia Anniversary; Eclipse TD A502
Preamplifiers: Einstein The Preamp; Pass Labs HPA-1; Einstein The Perfect Match phono preamplifier
Cables: MIT EVO Two speaker interface; MIT EVO Two Audio Interconnects; MIT SL-Matrix Phono Interface; MIT Predator 3 power cord and Noise trap
Vinyl: Roksan Xerxes 20 Plus with Tabriz Zi tonearm; Soundsmith rebuilt Denon DL-S1 cartridge
Digital: Baetis Reference computer/server; dCS Bartók DAC; Chord Qute HD DAC; Qobuz streaming service
By Allan Moulton
Let’s just start with a confession of sorts. I enjoyed listening to the combined talents of Roger Whittaker, Nana Mouskouri, The Irish Rovers, Zamfir, and Chuck Mangione with my family as a youth (Allan winces).More articles from this editor
Read Next From ReviewSee all
Krell KSA-i400 Stereo Power Amplifier
- Dec 01, 2023
NAD C 3050 LE “Stereophonic” Amplifier
- Nov 29, 2023
Best DACs: Under $1,000
- Nov 28, 2023