What’s a four-letter word for musicality? Answer: K-a-y-a. Specifically, Kaya S12, Vivid Audio’s smallest loudspeaker in its four-model Kaya range. At a mere 15 inches tall, this two-way, ported stand-mount was supposed to know its limitations. Yet, throughout the lengthy review period the Kaya constantly upended my expectations. From its radical outward façade to the sophistication of its engineering the S12 was never short on surprises.
The shape is pure Vivid—complex, organic, almost free-form, and just a little like something that fell to earth from a passing comet. The numerical designation of Kaya 12 correlates to its 12-liter internal volume. (The larger floorstanding models, the Kaya 25, 45, and 90, follow that same pattern.) The S12’s seemingly playful shape is not arbitrary, however; it’s designed to minimize diffraction. There are no parallel surfaces or edges, at least not in the sense of the crisp, sharp corners found on many box enclosures. Founder/designer Laurence Dickie pointed out that the cabinet or “shell” is fabricated of a RIMcast polyurethane resin similar to that in the KEF Blade. The material is well suited to smaller volumes and is very stiff. Cabinet tuning is just above 40Hz with a slow roll-off.
The two transducers combine the new with the familiar. On the new side is the 4″, long-throw, C100L-alloy mid/bass driver, which uses Vivid’s patented, exponentially tapered, tube-loaded reflex design, first introduced on its much larger sibling, the Giya G1. Refined through finite element analysis (FEA), the large dust cap raises the breakup frequency. Treble frequencies are handled by the D26 1″ alloy dome tweeter, used throughout the entire Vivid range, which is also tapered-tube-loaded. The tweeter is housed within a shallow waveguide, which not only increases output a few extra dBs but also aids time alignment and matches the dispersion of the midrange at the 3kHz crossover point.
Around back, the speaker terminals are single wire only. The sturdy optional three-legged stands add to the whimsical illusion of a space invader. Standard finishes are piano black, pearl white, and oyster matte, but any PPG automotive color is available on a special-order basis.
Given the non-traditional shape of the cabinet, controlling internal resonances was a large challenge. Dickie and his team engineered a unique solution. The “omni-absorber” is described as an internal half-shell that is wrapped within, or “tracks,” the external cabinet shell and is equipped with radial ribs that absorb resonances in all dimensions—top to bottom and laterally. To paraphrase Dickie, it “addresses not only vertical modes within the cabinet, but modes along all planes.” And it does this without attenuating the output of the bass port.
Room placement was fairly standard for the Kaya S12. With imaging as pristine as this speaker is capable of, a healthy distance from sidewalls should be in order, to attenuate those nasty first reflections. Also, shorter distances to a backwall were helpful for bass reinforcement.
In sonic performance, Kaya S12 demonstrated the kind of outgoing, uncolored midrange and top-end poise that made it one of the biggest little crowd-pleasers to ever spend time in my listening room. Given its size and the driver complement, it was not surprising that its overall balance was a lighter, cooler one—a top-down sort of affair that had a midrange-forward character and a very clean, if slightly dry treble. Transients were fast, from violin pizzicatos to flat-picked guitar arpeggios, and had the glint of authenticity rather than steely edginess.
Small monitors such as the S12 walk a tightrope in balancing voicing, dynamics, and output. But even when asked to do things outside of its bailiwick, like kettle drums or standup bass, the Kaya remained poised and transparent and rarely edged over the line in the treble or became ill-defined in the bass or overly compressed in dynamics. And though the expression of resonance and sustain from the soundboard of a concert grand or a standup bass was not up to full-range-speaker standards, it was near the top of the heap for a monitor of this specification.
Equally impressive was its go-for-broke high output—a critical component of the home-cinema experience. Obviously, playback levels that veered upward to near-rock-concert or Top Gun intensity resulted in some modest congestion and image blur, but the Kaya S12’s limits were exceedingly high for this size monitor.
While true bottom-octave bass response was beyond its reach (sorry, pipe organ fans), I learned early on not to count out this game little speaker. There was much in the way of satisfying mid- and upper-bass response. It was of a nicely tapered quality, with good pitch and timbral detail. The low-frequency roll-off was gentle and didn’t rely on ill-defined, one-note pulses or other bass-bump sleights-of-hand to suggest response where there really is none. To its credit port noise and general windage effects were practically non-existent. Though the full weight and majesty of a symphony was beyond its paygrade, the Kaya S12, nevertheless, communicated the gist of the source material with clarity and purpose. Even trombones, bassoons, and bass violins, though reduced in scale, were nicely defined in character, timbre, and texture. And the Kaya could still “bring it,” so that the iconic opening vamp of vocal, drum, and bass guitar during the Beatles “Come Together” was pitch-perfect and dynamic. Further, because of Kaya’s smooth mid/upper-bass response, those who opt for deeper bass output via a subwoofer will find a very good companion in the Kaya S12. I would suspect that smaller fast subs from REL or GoldenEar would be a good match with the Kaya.
However, if a loudspeaker ever had a decisive sonic calling card, imaging would be it. Kaya 12 proved to be the very definition of the incredible disappearing compact. Inter-driver coherence was excellent, essentially seamless during critical transitions and with no evident treble beaming. The tweeter and mid/bass simply melded together in the same fashion that a fine coaxial driver does. With an almost cloudless purity, Kaya produced images that were unshakable in placement on the soundstage—an indication of precisely matched left/right pairs. An example would be the backing harmonies during Cat Steven’s “Moonshadow.” Placed in a full-bodied pocket of sound behind and to the left of Stevens, each voice was reproduced with a timbral complexity and eerie transparency that I’ve rarely heard on any loudspeaker system.
Imaging and soundstaging were so impressive on small-bore material that I threw caution to the wind and cued up one of classical music’s big guns, Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony [Reference Recordings; Pittsburgh Symphony, Honeck]. During the final movement the soloists were conveyed with a striking sense of vocal intimacy. Similar was the Kaya’s ability to isolate the tiny gradations of timbre from members within the large, layered chorus. Its facility at imparting an expansive and three-dimensional soundstage equaled or surpassed any small monitor I’ve encountered to date.
This level of imaging precision also contributed to making Kaya S12 a richly engaging voice speaker, verging on human, you might say. It was particularly sensitive to female vocalists and tenors. (Conveying the weight of a chesty bass-baritone like Bryn Terfel was more of a challenge.) On Alison Krauss’ performance of “He’s Just a Country Boy” and Norah Jones’ “Not Too Late,” there was no denying the presence and immediacy that the Kaya was gathering from both tracks.
Vivid Audio’s Kaya S12 flat-out caught me off guard—not an easy thing to do given the number of two-ways I’ve road tested over the years. Nonetheless, few compacts have managed to achieve the overall sense of midrange balance, tonal verisimilitude, and seat-of-the-pants musicality of the Kaya S12. Within its limits it offered an unfiltered, uncolored window on the music. Its whimsical appearance belies a serious engineering effort to extend the capabilities of the small loudspeaker segment. An impressive achievement and a joy to listen to.
Specs & Pricing
Type: Two-way, bass-reflex loudspeaker
Drivers: 1″ alloy dome, 4″ alloy cone
Frequency response: 45Hz–25kHz (–6dB)
Sensitivity: 87dB (1m, 2.83V)
Impedance: 8 ohm (5.3 ohm minimum)
Crossover frequency: 3kHz
Loading: Exponentially tapered tube enhanced bass reflex
Recommended amplifier power: 25Wpc–125Wpc
Dimensions: 9.3″ x 15.75″ x 10″
Weight: 13.25 lbs.
Price: $6900 ($7400 any PPG automotive color); $2000 stands
By Neil Gader
My love of music largely predates my enthusiasm for audio. I grew up Los Angeles in a house where music was constantly playing on the stereo (Altecs, if you’re interested). It ranged from my mom listening to hit Broadway musicals to my sister’s early Bob Dylan, Joan Baez, Beatles, and Stones LPs, and dad’s constant companions, Frank Sinatra and Tony Bennett. With the British Invasion, I immediately picked up a guitar and took piano lessons and have been playing ever since. Following graduation from UCLA I became a writing member of the Lehman Engel’s BMI Musical Theater Workshops in New York–working in advertising to pay the bills. I’ve co-written bunches of songs, some published, some recorded. In 1995 I co-produced an award-winning short fiction movie that did well on the international film-festival circuit. I was introduced to Harry Pearson in the early 70s by a mutual friend. At that time Harry was still working full-time for Long Island’s Newsday even as he was writing Issue 1 of TAS during his off hours. We struck up a decades-long friendship that ultimately turned into a writing gig that has proved both stimulating and rewarding. In terms of music reproduction, I find myself listening more than ever for the “little” things. Low-level resolving power, dynamic gradients, shadings, timbral color and contrasts. Listening to a lot of vocals and solo piano has always helped me recalibrate and nail down what I’m hearing. Tonal neutrality and presence are important to me but small deviations are not disqualifying. But I am quite sensitive to treble over-reach, and find dry, hyper-detailed systems intriguing but inauthentic compared with the concert-going experience. For me, true musicality conveys the cozy warmth of a room with a fireplace not the icy cold of an igloo. Currently I split my time between Santa Fe, New Mexico and Studio City, California with my wife Judi Dickerson, an acting, voice, and dialect coach, along with border collies Ivy and Alfie.More articles from this editor
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