|Fringe with Greg Smith
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Many readers confuse me with Greg Weaver. I get e-mail intended for him all the time. It's certainly understandable, as we have so much in common. We both used to live in Maryland, but moved to more urban venues to advance our careers. We listen to many awesome bands that few have heard of, like Crack the Sky. But I suspect that what makes it most difficult for our readers to distinguish between us is that we share an enthusiasm for audio that's consistent whether we're talking about $10 components or $10,000 ones. Because Greg and I have such similar views on inexpensive gear, I found his review last year of the Clements 107di speakers to be quite a recommendation. But he did push one of my hot buttons by writing most of his comments about the speaker's performance when they were inserted in his "$20,000+ system." The nerve of that guy! I don't know about you, but this Greg is a bit more interested in how the speakers sound with comparably priced electronics.
The Clements product line has been revised a bit recently, so let's start with those details. The 106di ($320/pair) I received for review uses the same tweeter as the older 107di Greg Weaver listened to. Both models now incorporate a new woofer design that features a copolymer-mica/polypropylene cone claimed to be lighter, stiffer, and more efficient than the previous unit. In addition, the current 107di tweeter is a 1" model, which along with the woofer upgrade has raised its total price to $430/pair.
I find the specifications a manufacturer provides particularly worth scrutiny when they are for budget-priced speakers. The 6.5" woofer of the 106di is enclosed in a 13 3/4"H x 8"W x 8.5"D cabinet. The overall sensitivity is rated at 89dB, while the frequency response is +/-3dB from 50Hz to 20kHz. Normally speaker designers working with compact enclosures have a choice between pushing the bass deeper or increasing the sensitivity. It's actually quite difficult to get something small and efficient that still has good low-end response, and the Clements speakers balance such trade-offs as well as any I've analyzed.
Another problem is getting the woofer to merge well with the tweeter. Many designers choose a crossover frequency in the 1.5kHz-2kHz area, which means the matching tweeter has to play very low. This invariably necessitates a steep crossover to save the tweeter from getting damaged. Because Clements designs their own drivers, they've chosen a somewhat different approach. The crossover in the 106di is at 3kHz, and it rolls off each unit at a slow 6dB/octave, which minimizes phase shift from the electrical components added. A matching filter, engineered into the drivers through mechanical and electrical means, adds extra protection. Rounding out the crossover is impedance-compensation circuitry. Where a nominal 8-ohm speaker might vary in impedance from 5 to 50 ohms, one with good impedance compensation will stay much closer to the average level through its frequency range. This is especially important at keeping the transition between drivers clean, and there are some worthwhile side effects I'll get into later. The sum of these efforts is a steep 18dB/octave worth of protection for each driver without adding lots of inductors and capacitors. An additional protection against damage is a thermal circuit breaker that trips if too much current is applied and things really heat up. Despite my best high-volume efforts, I was never able to trip this breaker.
When I pulled the Clements 106di speakers out of the box, I was struck by...nothing. These are the least exciting-looking speakers I've seen in quite some time. You want plain black boxes with drivers whose looks do nothing to call attention to themselves? The Clements speakers are for you. The craftsmanship of the cabinets is excellent, but the end result is just a bit boring. Clements voiced the speakers with the grilles on, and I agree they sound a bit better that way. The grilles take just a slight bit of an edge off the speakers that could put them on the forward side in some systems. There's certainly no reason to show off what the drivers look, so the grilles stayed on for my listening. The binding posts on the back are full-sized and seem substantial, but they could be improved a bit. I found it difficult to twist them down on spade lugs by hand. Regardless, the posts are certainly better than you'd expect at this price point.
I was sorting through a lot of equipment during the time I had the 106di in my office, and they proved to be quite good at resolving the quality of their matching electronics. I started with the CEC 2100 CD player, AMC 3020 integrated amp, and DIY cables made with Belden 89259 and AudioQuest Type 4 wires. This combination was crisp and accurate, but the bass seemed a bit lacking in dynamics as the volume crept up. Since the AMC amp is rated at only 20Wpc, this wasn't really a surprise. Using a Yamaha RX-V595 A/V receiver that kicks out more like 70Wpc was a big step up in the bass department. At the same time, the upper midrange and treble were a big ragged and grating, especially when the music was turned up. Switching to my venerable Proton D1200 amplifier, ten years old and running great after a recent trip to the shop, I found a balance I had few complaints about. A somewhat smooth treble has always been a characteristic of this amp, and it has power to spare for driving low frequencies with authority. All those characteristics shone through clearly while it was driving the Clements speakers.
All this swapping left me in a bit of a quandary. I was spending a whole lot of time listening to the character imparted by the matching electronics while not learning very much at all about the speakers! The 106di had a poker face, never showing its own hand. It's rare indeed for a $320 pair of speakers to not have any obvious sonic deficiencies, but every time I thought I'd picked up something worth criticizing I found that swapping the amplifier would banish it. I was starting to sympathize with Greg Weaver's use of his big rig to try the speakers out; their acoustic signature is too slippery to get a hold of easily with inexpensive equipment.
So back to my regular listening room they went, connected in place of the Genesis APM-1. The rest of my home system has been dropping in price lately as I re-focus on inexpensive gear. Nowadays I'm using a Sony DVD player and the Technics SH-AC500D DAC/preamp (not a bad little unit for $300) to drive my home theater. I reconnected my Warner Imaging Endangered Species amplifier to remove any boundaries in that area. Digital interconnect was the Max Rochlin Memorial Cable, analog interconnect was the new JPS Ultraconductor, and speaker cable was AudioQuest Type 4.
Switching from the Genesis speakers, at almost 30 times the retail price, to the 106di gave a very quick lesson in the limits of the smaller speaker. The little Clements drivers were hard-pressed to fill the 23' x 15' area with music. There was definitely some strain with demanding material like my recent recurring demo music, Dead Can Dance's Into the Labyrinth [Warner Bros. 945384-2]. Although the cymbals on "The Ubiquitous Mr. Lovegrove" sounded good, they certainly do sound quite a bit clearer on more upscale speakers. And that doesn't just mean ones that cost an order of magnitude more. During "How Fortunate the Man With None," even the $500 Magnepan MMGs do a splendid job of presenting the opening with great immediacy, really drawing you into the soundstage. The Clements speakers were successful at painting the sonic panorama of the music, but it was just that -- a panorama you're listening to, not a place you become a part of.
While I was on a roll finally finding flaws to pick on, I fired up David+David's Boomtown [A&M cd5134/dx729]. Unsurprisingly, the drivers weren't moving enough air to really make the big drum whacks hit you in the chest. One problem I felt compelled to address was an emphasis in the lower midrange, which was thickening up the bottom of David Baerwald's vocals. I'd noticed this on the Dead Can Dance tracks as well. I had started with the speakers about two feet away from the wall behind them. Increasing this to four feet totally cleared up the little boom that had been bugging me. With their big rear-firing port, the 106di's might be a bit cramped in rooms where you are forced to place them very close to the walls. They'll fit in a small area, but I suspect you'll get less-than-optimal results.
I continued into the two David's "Swallowed by the Cracks." Since I can't help but play this one loud, it was obvious that the limited deep-bass capabilities of the woofer can leak distortion into the midrange, despite the attempts to keep the driver crossover slopes high. Satisfied I was getting a feel for the upper volume boundaries of the speakers, I decided to put some numbers on the peak output capability. The old B&W 602s came out again as the standard to compare against, in a similar fashion to my Audes 105 review a few months ago. Music this time was Rush -- "Big Money." With both speakers about 7.75' away from the listening position, I was able to hit about 96dB with either speaker before I became uncomfortable with the distortion. It's quite impressive that the more compact Clements speaker, with a slightly smaller woofer, was able to match the B&W evenly. There were certainly fewer problems at higher volumes than I'm used to hearing with speakers using a 6dB/octave crossover, which normally get quite unpleasant when pushed hard. While I expressed some concerns with how loudly things would play above, the cold reality of my measurements point out that the 106di will do quite well indeed when presented with material that doesn't go too deep into the lower bass.
Even more impressive are the power-usage figures. The 106di's rated sensitivity is 89dB/W/m. Even when the speakers were pushing out 96dB on peaks in my big listening room and I was almost 8' away, I never saw the power estimate on my Proton D1200 amps go above 10W. The B&W 602 is rated at 90dB sensitivity, and I did need to turn it down about 1dB after switching between the two to get a fair comparison against the Clements speakers. But when both speakers were going at the same volume, their power usage seemed identical. Even playing the speakers as loudly as I could bear to play them in my office (late at night, after everybody else was home), I never saw the power-usage figure jump above 25W, even on peaks. These speakers seem ideal for someone who wants to use a lower-powered amplifier and still play at a reasonable volume. The impedance-compensation circuitry seems very effective at keeping the power consumption low, so you should be able to get good results from just about any amplifier. Despite the lower overall wattage figures, I did find beefier amps gave more control over the bass, which isn't smoothed out as much by the impedance-compensation circuit. But even the 20Wpc AMC 3020 was powerful enough to drive the speakers about as loudly as they will play.
Satisfied with the extremes of their performance, I think it appropriate to spend some times considering how the Clements 106di does with realistic volumes and material. Topping my play list for the last month is The Best of Kayak [Renaissance RMED00110]. If you're a fan of '70s rock but are bored hearing the same old songs the radio has been blaring at you for over 20 years now, you should give Kayak a try. I've been playing this disc non-stop for weeks now. The first track, "Keep the Change," has a punchy bass line that really shines through on these speakers. As is the case with a lot of regular music, you'd never miss the low frequencies below those that this speaker can give you. The lead vocals are quite solid and firmly in the front of the listening room. "Periscope Life" is a song filled with mayhem, yet the 106di clearly resolves the subtle piano parts in the background.
Some comparisons to the much better-known B&W 602 speakers seemed in order, so I started with Robbie Robertson. [Mobile Fidelity UDCD 618]. The 602s get a bit ragged during the chorus of "Fallen Angel," and the massed vocals just don't come through very well. The Clements speakers do a much better job in this area, and they really pull out the "angel-el-el" echo added to Peter Gabriel's backup vocal. During the opening to the song, the heavy bass part is more natural on the Clements speakers, while the B&Ws have the kind of lumpy sound that has given ported designs a bad reputation. The vocal presence of Robbie in the center was equally good for both speakers, which is surprising because that's usually one area the B&Ws beat similar designs. Unsurprising is that the 106di is less fatiguing, with cymbals being audibly in the background instead of the somewhat in-your-face quality the 602 can impart.
Another CD I've just really discovered lately is The Completion Backwards Principle [EMI BGOCD100] from the Tubes. "Talk To Ya Later" was the big hit from that one, but the rest of the tunes are excellent too. "Amnesia" on the Clements speakers features great-sounding guitars suspended in space during the middle break in the song. You can hear some of the recording/mastering flaws by focusing on the occasional bit of overdone sibilance, but this isn't too obtrusive. The B&W 602 takes those same vocals and gives them a spitty edge. More disturbing was some sort of resonance that builds up during the guitar parts, which made them sound harsh and unpleasant. I went right through the middle break without even paying attention, as the presentation wasn't compelling at all. In fairness, I should point out that it is possible to make the B&W speakers sound better than I'm giving them credit for here. Using the more laid-back Proton D1200 amp instead of the unforgiving Warner Imaging amp made the 602s a lot more enjoyable to listen to.
I found the right experience to end my listening while playing Tom Petty's Full Moon Fever [Mobile Fidelity UDCD 735]. Listening to the B&W 602 speakers, I heard a recording where Tom Petty was singing and someone was shaking some percussion to the right. With the Clements 106di speakers, it was as if I were at a Tom Petty session, and it was obvious that those noisemakers were actually maracas. Listening with the Genesis APM-1? Now I was hearing the musicians inside a recording studio, assembling their parts on the mixing console.
No, the Clements 106di doesn't give you the ultimate in resolution. Yes, the physics of bass response limit their low-frequency impact and maximum volume. But when operated within the parameters reasonable for a $320/pair speakers, these little guys offer some of the most balanced sound I've encountered. While I still think I prefer the presentation of the slightly more expensive Magnepan MMG speakers, they require an enormous commitment in terms of amplification and setup. The Clements speakers come very close to being the nicest I've heard for under $500, and they do so with nearly universal amplifier compatibility because of their efficiency and easy impedance curve. I'd need to rev my review hyperbole machine up into a higher gear than I'm capable of to praise these speakers sufficiently. Let me attach the Reviewer's Choice tag to them instead and suggest that anyone who is shopping near their price find an authorized dealer and listen to the Clements line of speakers. Two out of two Gregs at SoundStage! agree they are an excellent buy. You may too, even if you have a different name.
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