Gemme Audio VFlex Katana Loudspeakers
A countrys standard of living
can be judged by such arcane metrics as its gross domestic product and rate of infant
mortality. A far more germane measure of a nations worth, I think, is its
contribution to the audiophile community. While formal studies have not been done,
Im confident that, on a per-capita basis, Canada has been an overachiever in this
regard, and nowhere in Canada do audio endeavors seem to flourish with more vitality than
in the province to the east of me, Quebec. One could handily build several world-class
audio systems using only components manufactured in La Belle Province. Their notoriously
poor driving skills aside, the Quebeckers Ive known are a passionate lot who cherish
food, music, and art above much else. Perhaps its these old-world values, combined
with new-world enterprise, that makes Quebec the nexus of Canadas audio industry.
Gemme Audio, based in Montreal, is a relative newcomer to
the audio scene. Chief designer Robert Gaboury started building horn-loaded loudspeakers
as a hobby over 35 years ago. Early on, he began using Peavey drivers in his designs, and
the resultant speakers were used by his friends in rock bands. In 2004 Gaboury began
experimenting with developing optimal enclosures for full-range Fostex drivers. A
prototype enclosure was sold on a Canadian Internet audio trading site to Jean-Pierre
Boudreau, an avid audiophile and tweaker extraordinaire. When Boudreau requested more, he
and Gaboury decided to pool their resources to build a new cabinet design that required
CNC fabrication. The two formed Gemme Audio in 2005; their first commercially released
product, the Concerti 108, was a single-driver, back-loaded horn loudspeaker based on
Gabourys enclosure design.
The new Katana speaker ($12,995 USD per pair) is the top
model in Gemme Audios VFlex line. Described as a horn/transmission-line hybrid
technique, VFlex refers to the loading strategy Gaboury has developed to enhance the
low-frequency output of the type speaker he favors: a smaller enclosure with a single
and/or smaller drivers. According to Gemme, a VFlex speaker has a compression chamber
behind its midbass driver, and the horns throat is at the end of the chamber. The
horn, said to be about 6 long, is obviously folded within the cabinet. Unlike a
typical horn, in which the mouth of the horn is large, in a VFlex speaker the horn ends in
a "bandpass device" -- basically, a rear-firing port -- that acts as a low-pass
filter. Inside is a reflector plate that directs the movement of air to the bandpass
device. According to Gemme, the end result in the Katana is broad bass reinforcement from
about 20 to 150Hz.
The VFlex bass port also offers flexibility by means of a
tuning ring. Removing or inserting this ring alters the diameter of the port, and thus the
amount of bass reinforcement. The user can use the ring or not, depending on how the
Katana interacts with the room.
Each Katana has a 1.5" Accuton-sourced tweeter and a
7" midrange-woofer driver, both concave ceramic domes. The drivers are crossed over
at about 7.2kHz or 6kHz, depending on which binding posts are connected on the rear panel
-- there are two sets of tweeter posts, linked by jumper cables of Cardas wire. In both
cases, simple first-order networks are used that result in a significant overlap of the
drivers outputs. (First-order networks roll off at only 6dB/octave; if the tweeter
starts to roll off at 7kHz, its down only 6dB at 3.5kHz.) According to Gemme, the
main difference between the crossover settings is a small bit of attenuation (about 1.5dB)
from 5 to 10kHz on axis. Although 1.5dB doesnt sound like much, over such a wide
range this kind of attenuation can have a significant effect and, like the bass ring, lets
the listener tailor the sound to his or her room and taste.
Regardless of the crossover setting used, Gemme crosses the
Katanas midrange-woofer driver over quite high, making it obvious that they want
that driver to cover a very wide range. Some companies do this to keep the crossover well
away from the midrange frequencies. However, as the frequency increases, the midbass
drivers dispersion decreases, and wont likely match the tweeters
dispersion characteristic when the outputs of the two drivers overlap. Such changes
usually dont show up in on-axis measurements, but they do show up off axis.
Gemme claims for the Katana a frequency response of
28Hz-20kHz (38Hz-20kHz, +/-3dB), a nominal impedance of 8 ohms, and a sensitivity of
Each Katana weighs 100 pounds and stands 40" tall by
8" wide by 18" deep. Insertion of some nicely machined stainless-steel footers
adds 2" to the overall height. The speaker strikes an elegant pose -- its narrow
front baffle and gentle back-tilt are somewhat reminiscent of the graceful but deadly
curved Samurai long swords for which the Katana is named. The cabinets are finished in
multiple coats of true piano lacquer buffed to a glossy finish. The side panels are
available in gloss piano black, ebony, or rosewood. The speakers name and logo are
engraved in gold on the front baffle, and while at first I found this a distraction, with
time it grew on me, bringing to mind the image of a fine piano -- which Im certain
was Gemmes intent.
Setup and system
The Katanas went in my main listening room, which measures
22L by 14W by 8H. I sited them some 42" from the front wall and
25" from the sidewalls, 90" apart from tweeter to tweeter (a little farther than
is recommended by the manual), 105" from my listening position, and toed-in by about
An early problem was encountered with the three footers
supplied with each Katana, which didnt make the speakers laterally stable on my
carpet. While these would work well with hardwood floors, I suspect there would be
stability problems on any but the thinnest carpet. To overcome the possibility of a
disastrous tipover, I placed Symposium Svelte shelves between the carpet and the footed
Katanas. Gemme tells me that theyre developing an outrigger-type stand for the
I used an Audio Research 100.2 solid-state amp or Nagra VPA
845 tube monoblocks, along with an Audion Premier Quattro full-function tube preamplifier.
Both of these modestly powered setups worked exceptionally well with the Katanas. Sources
were my trusty Oracle Delphi V turntable with SME V tonearm and ZYX Universe-S cartridge,
as well as EMMLabs original CDSD transport and DCC2 DAC. Cables were mostly Purist Audio
Designs Venustas, and power for the entire system was provided by a dedicated 20A
line conditioned through a Shunyata Research Hydra Model-8.
Im a little leery about "breaking in"
loudspeakers. There may be small changes in performance over the first few weeks, but I
think most of the changes ascribed to "break-in" have more to do with the
listener becoming acclimated to the speakers sound. This is not dissimilar to
opening a second bottle of wine during the course of an evening. The first sip or two from
the second bottle will best reveal its differences from the first. But after a couple of
glasses, its all good. In short, first impressions are important. In my listening
room, I can usually tell within a few minutes if Im going to enjoy a component or if
there is some gross deficiency. After that, its nitpicking -- which, after all, is
what this hobby is all about.
Right out of their boxes, I found that the Katanas produced
a satisfyingly full-range, seamless sound that was very easy to listen to. For a
"break-in" period of nearly two months, I greatly enjoyed listening to a wide
variety of material through them. They never generated an unpleasant sound, while seeming
to take nothing away from the music. Then, over my last month with them, I realized I had
to write a review using all the usual audiophile descriptors. In keeping with the
Katanas provenance, I pulled out several of my favorite albums by Canadian artists
with which to evaluate their sound.
The small-footprinted Katanas "disappeared" to
throw a huge soundstage -- provided such information was on the recording to begin with.
The Nylons are an a cappella quartet that started out in Toronto about 30 years ago.
Purists may decry their use of electronic percussion accompaniments and their
recordings heavy-handed production effects, but Ive found their albums to
sound consistently spectacular. Of their recordings, One Size Fits All (LP, Open
Air OA-0301) is my favorite. The music spread out from the Katanas to fill the room, such
that I almost thought I was listening to five speakers instead of two. The portrayal of
depth was also impressive, particularly the falsetto voice on "Silhouettes," as
it rose and disappeared into the rear of the soundstage. Cranking up the volume here
produced ever more enveloping sound with little evidence of congestion. In addition to
this "disappearing" act, the Katanas imaged like exceptional minimonitors, and
were superb at rendering spatial cues. In the Nylons beautifully complex doo-wop
harmonies, the groups four individual voices were distinctly reproduced and
discretely positioned on the stage.
Speed and agility were two of the hackneyed
audiophile terms I jotted down in my early listening notes. The synthesized drum sounds on
One Size Fits All were tight, quick, and punchy. Another example came from the
Holly Cole Trios Girl Talk (LP, Alert Z1-81016). On
"Cruisin," Dave Piltch uses the body of his upright bass as a percussion
instrument, slapping it to provide this tracks rhythmic underpinning. The
Katanas transient attacks here were electrostatic-like in speed, but more complete
in terms of body and weight.
Again and again, the Katana got the midrange right. Girl
Talk was recorded live with a single microphone, in a small but empty theater. On most
cuts, Cole is accompanied only by piano and bass. The sound was immediate -- Coles
voice locked in to the center of the soundfield and was rendered with a pure, natural
tone, the sound of the piano was vibrant and lifelike, and the bass was satisfyingly full
and free of bloat and overhang. Cabinet colorations were notably imperceptible.
While the Katana didnt generate the dynamic slam that
my Wilson Audio Specialties WATT/Puppy 7s are known for, they did a remarkable job of
reproducing smaller dynamic swings. Holly Coles reading of "Downtown" on Girl
Talk, and Neil Youngs debut of his song "Old Man," on Live at Massey
Hall 1971 (LP, Reprise 43328-1), served as nice examples of how the superior
resolution of a vocalists shifts in dynamics can foster a greater emotional
connection to the music. My experience suggests that it is the combination of speaker and
amplifier that is most responsible for this aspect of sound reproduction, and not
surprisingly, the Nagra VPA 845s did a marginally better job of this with the Katanas than
did the Audio Research 100.2, itself no slouch in this regard.
Such dynamic swings are just as important in the
appreciation of instrumental music. Most of the tracks on Oscar Petersons Mellow
Mood (LP, Pausa PR 7044) are anything but. This is Peterson at his finest,
overpowering the piano with iron fists in one instant, caressing it with kid gloves a
moment later. The Katanas enabled my intimate connection with Petersons
expressiveness, readily helping me to appreciate just how masterful a musician he was.
A trio session with bassist Sam Jones and drummer Bob
Durham, Mellow Mood was recorded in the early 1960s in the home of Hans Georg
Brunner-Schwer, owner-producer of the MPS label, before a small and very lucky audience.
But while the performances are nothing short of spectacular, this is far from my
best-sounding Peterson record. The sound is aggressive and "hot" --
Brunner-Schwers piano sounds somewhat tinny. I can only surmise that this would be
exacerbated on the SACD edition, which Ive not heard. The Katana did nothing to
alter the curious tonality of the piano, nor did it emasculate the forward, dynamic nature
of the sound. However, it did attenuate some of this recordings treble energy,
smoothing over some of the unpleasant edge.
The politeness of the Katanas tweeters was generally
a welcome feature that didnt interfere with my enjoyment of music. On the Cowboy
Junkies Whites Off Earth Now!! (LP, Latent Latex 4), the ambience and
"air" of this live-in-the-studio recording -- recorded, like Holly Coles Girl
Talk, with a single mike -- sounded somewhat diminished. Nevertheless, this took
nothing away from Margo Timmins eerie vocals, or the funky sounds of Michael
Timmins guitar, which combined to give this album a wonderfully dark and ethereal
feel. I strongly preferred using the Katanas "High 1" (upper) tweeter
binding posts, as this produced a more open, extended top end in my room.
Several songs on Whites Off Earth Now!! feature
strong bass lines from Alan Anton. Although the Katana didnt produce bone-rattling
bass, what it did generate was more than satisfying -- even surprising, given its 7"
driver and compact appearance. Closer examination revealed that a considerable amount of
air was moving through the VFlex port with no significant chuffing. Removal of the port
tuning ring increased the midbass output, producing what might be described as a "BBC
hump," though in my room this came at the cost of some loss of midrange clarity and
detail. I did virtually all of my listening with the ring left in place.
Based here in Toronto is Tafelmusik, a baroque orchestra
using period instruments. In a smallish church near the University of Toronto, they
perform concerts for a diverse and casual audience of which I have been a part for over 20
years, intermittently attending their Friday-night performances in an attempt to unwind
from the week. Their 1984 recording, Popular Masterpieces of the Baroque (LP,
Collegium COL 82-01), is just that: an anthology of baroque standards, all of which
Im pretty certain Ive heard Tafelmusik perform live over the years. The
recording is beautifully done; after all, it was one of Prof. Keith O. Johnsons
earliest engineering efforts.
When I played this record through the Katanas, I lost track
of all the usual audiophile minutiae. Pinpoint imaging and soundstaging gave way to
immersion in the melodies. Air and ambience yielded to the musics rhythmical ebb and
flow. Frequency-response concerns were overshadowed by the overall harmonic richness.
These are the things that one usually appreciates when attending a concert. During
Pachelbels Canon and Gigue in D Major I found myself with eyes closed, lost in
thought, nodding my head in time with the music -- much as I do at Trinity-St. Pauls
Church after a long work week. In other words, the Gemme Katanas were able to bring me
close to the experience of a live event.
An affinity with the music and a familiarity with the
performances certainly helped me attain this state of musical bliss, but also playing
large roles were a remarkably coherent sound free of audible frequency-response anomalies,
and a textured and detailed midrange rich in dynamic shading and absent of spurious
coloration -- all hallmarks of the sound of the Gemme VFlex Katanas.
Loudspeakers are clearly the foundation of any
systems sound, which is possibly why audiophiles and manufacturers alike so
vehemently defend their choices. For the past few years my choice has been Wilson Audio;
currently, their WATT/Puppy 7s serve as my in-house references. In one sense, comparing
the Gemme Katana with the W/P7 may seem inappropriate because of the Wilsons far
higher cost ($22,400/pair); although many speakers now share this market segment, it seems
that none have made it into my listening room. On the other hand, the distinctive house
sound of Wilson speakers -- dense, detailed, and dynamic -- is well known to many
Aside from costing twice as much as the Gemme Katana, the
Wilson WATT/Puppy 7 is a different animal: a two-box, three-way design with a more complex
crossover network. The W/P7 is meticulously designed and built, with an emphasis on
resonance-squelching cabinet materials. Thats not to imply that the Katana is
slapped together in someones garage. Its enclosure is made of CNC-machined MDF, 50mm
thick at the front and back baffles, the cabinets rigidity is enhanced by the use of
strategically placed internal braces, its passive components were chosen after extensive
experimentation, and the VFlex loading architecture itself is the product of careful
thought and innovation.
Compared to the Katana, the WATT/Puppy 7 generates a
frequency bandwidth extended at both extremes. It can play louder and with more dynamic
impact, but also excels at presenting the nuances of the less complex musical material
that I prefer. The W/P7 is capable of drawing me into music of all types simply by the
sheer amount and scale of sonic information it presents. By contrast, the Katana enchants
with a sound thats simpler, more coherent, perhaps understated but just as refined.
As such, it offers fewer distractions and permits a more satisfying connection to music.
At its list price, Gemme Audios VFlex Katana faces
stiff competition from established players, as well as innumerable others approaching the
upper echelons of the loudspeaker game. Im not about to proclaim it a bargain at
$12,995/pair, but when compared to other speakers using similarly configured ceramic
drivers, the Katana is, at the very least, competitive in the global marketplace.
The Katana wont appeal to everyone. It wont
give you gut-wrenching dynamics, trouser-flapping bass, or dog-hearing highs. It will
provide a complete and highly communicative sound in which audiophile pyrotechnics take a
back seat to musical involvement. It is also beautiful to look at. If these qualities
match your priorities, I suspect youll be captivated by the Katana, and I urge you
to give a pair of them a serious audition. With the VFlex Katana, Gemme Audio has raised
Canadas standard of audio living by one more notch.
. . . Ken Choi
|Gemme Audio Katana Loudspeakers
Price: $12,995 USD per pair.
Warranty: One year parts and labor.
9697 St. Laurent Blvd., #103
Montreal, Quebec H3L 2N1
Phone: (450) 472-5908
Fax: (450) 735-4262