Ambience Speaker Systems Super Slim 1800 Loudspeakers
by Andrew Chasin
Australian audio manufacturers have traditionally had a difficult time breaking into the crowded North American high-end market. Well known down under, companies like Duntech, Krix, Legend Acoustics, Symfonia and Whatmough have gone relatively unnoticed on this continent. While some have managed to eke out a review or two in the underground press, most have failed to secure a North American distributor with enough marketing savvy to shine a distinctive light on their products.
Enter Ambience Speaker Systems, an Australian manufacturer of hybrid ribbon loudspeakers. Headed by veteran speaker designer Tony Moore, whos been designing and manufacturing ribbon hybrids for the better part of 20 years, Ambience is just now making its way to these shores thanks to distributor NuView Audio and its affable owner, Karl Schaefer.
On paper, at least, the Ambience Super Slim 1800 ($4500 USD per pair), the top-of-the line model in the companys Super Slim series, is fairly mundane as "exotic" hybrid speaker systems go -- no complex active crossovers or equalizers, no electrostatic elements with impedance dips into sub-ohm territory, and no radical proprietary driver technology. Instead, the Super Slim 1800 utilizes a relatively simple crimped-aluminum-foil ribbon tweeter crossed over at 420Hz (at 18dB/octave) to a 6 1/2" doped-paper cone midbass driver custom made for Ambience by SEAS of Norway. The woofer enclosure is reflex loaded and rear ported, and it is tapered in an effort to eliminate the standing waves that occur in enclosures with parallel surfaces. The rear of the enclosure sports two pairs of plastic-capped five-way binding posts for easy biwiring. (Im not fond of these type of posts, but I assume theyve been used to conform with European regulations.) The rear panel is finished off with a gold-colored sticker (which continually came unglued, as did I) upon which is handwritten the speakers model and serial numbers. At this price point, perhaps an engraved metal badge would be more appropriate.
Although a relatively tall speaker at just under six feet, the Super Slim 1800s svelte 9"-wide front baffle (hence the Super Slim designation) gives it a more compact appearance than competing speakers from MartinLogan, Magnepan and Innersound. Unlike the wafer-thin, all-ribbon Magnepans, however, the hybrid 1800s are fairly bulky due to their well-braced, 14"-deep woofer enclosure (made from a nicely finished black MDF), and tip the scales at about 75 pounds each. A nice aesthetic touch is the inclusion of attractive beveled wood endrails, made from exotic jarrah wood on the review sample, that run the full length of the speaker and lend it a well-finished, sophisticated appearance.
Setup and use
Considering the modest size of the 1800s woofer, the speakers in-room low-frequency response was impressive, with useful output down into the upper-20Hz range, as unscientifically measured with the Stereophile Test CD [Stereophile STPH-002-2] and Radio Shacks analog SPL meter calibrated for flat response. Oddly, though, there was a deep (10dB!), narrow trough in the 1800s response centered at 40Hz that no amount of speaker repositioning would eliminate (and my lower back can attest to the fact that I tried valiantly). This anomaly also existed independently of listening position and height, and caused some bass notes to go MIA.
Setup of the Super Slim 1800s was fairly straightforward, notwithstanding my vain attempts at eliminating the 40Hz trough. The manufacturer recommends a minimum of two and a half feet between the speaker and the front wall, but I found that soundstage depth and bottom-end integration improved when the speakers had at least four feet of breathing room behind them. After waltzing the 1800s around my listening room for a few hours, taking some measurements and tweaking by ear, the smoothest response was found when the speakers were four and a half feet from the rear wall, seven feet apart (a minimum of six feet is recommended), and eight feet away from the listening position. The asymmetry of my 18'W x 24'L x 12'H listening room put the left speaker seven feet and the right speaker four feet from their respective side walls -- no sonic harm done. Three spikes per speaker are provided to couple the speakers to the floor and facilitate leveling. I used a modicum of toe-in (about 10 degrees or so) to snap the soundstage into focus.
I auditioned the Super Slim 1800s in my usual reference system consisting of a VPI Aries/VPI SDS/Graham 2.0/Transfiguration Spirit analog front-end sitting on an Arcici Air Head isolation platform, an Audible Illusions Modulus 3A preamplifier with John Curl-designed Gold moving-coil phono section, and a Simaudio Moon W-5 power amplifier. All speaker cables, interconnects and power cords were by Harmonic Technology (still one of the best high-end cable bargains going). Speakers on hand for comparison were the Gallo Nucleus Solos. The Ambience speakers had just come off the demo floor at the January 2001 CES, so they were well broken-in. Distributor Karl Schaefer and his wife Christina were kind enough to deliver them on their way home from Sin City.
Unlike other hybrid or full-range ribbon systems, the Super Slim 1800 is relatively amplifier-friendly, featuring a claimed nominal impedance of 4.9 ohms and a sensitivity of 89dB/2.83V/meter. According to Ambience, 30 watts should do the trick, although the Simaudio Moon W-5s nearly 350Wpc into the 1800s nominal load provided tremendous bass control and really made the speaker sing -- more on this to come. In some ways, the design of the Super Slim 1800 reminds me of Apogees Centaurus hybrids of the early 90s (may they rest in peace), although I believe that Tony Moores mating of these two very different driver technologies has been the more successful in sonic terms.
The first thing that struck me about the Super Slim 1800s was their accurate presentation of musics scale. Suddenly, musicians had torsos and legs, upright basses stood tall and mighty, and drum kits had realistic breadth. Listening to Scott LaFaros poignant bass solos on Bill Evans Waltz for Debby [Analogue Productions/Riverside AAPJ 009] was a joy. Both LaFaro and his towering instrument were so "there" in terms of their height, width and spatial relation to each other that it was almost spooky. I listened to this LP numerous times during the review period and was in awe each time at how convincingly the Super Slim 1800s conjured an eerie, life-size apparition of Evans, LaFaro and drummer Paul Motian wrapped in the acoustic of the Village Vanguard. Think of the 1800s as the aural equivalent of Madame Tussauds.
Tonally, there was little to fault with the Super Slim 1800s. Clarinets sounded like clarinets, oboes like oboes, violas distinct from violins. Drums tuned to slightly different pitches were also easily distinguishable. Listen to "Ride Me Like a Wave" from Janis Ians Breaking Silence [Analogue Productions/Morgan Creek AAPP 027] and youll not only hear the ponderous thud of the floor tom, but youll also hear how loose and resonant the membrane is against the drums shell. Its not that other speakers, like the excellent Gallo Nucleus Solos, arent capable of similar feats, but the degree to which the Super Slims fleshed out an instruments complete tonal picture was, in my experience, unmatched at this price point.
The Super Slim 1800s were capable of surprisingly good low-end reproduction, despite the 40Hz trough I encountered. They never sounded anemic or lacking in bottom-end punch no matter what music I threw at them. From the shuddering organ pedals that open the third movement of Saint SaŽns glorious Third Symphony [Mercury Living Presence SR90012 LP], to the Richter-scale-pegging bass notes on the title track from Enyas Watermark [WEA 24 38751 LP], music always had a satisfying foundation that never became muddy or indistinct in pitch. Unlike with other hybrids (the early MartinLogans, for example), this bass performance did not come at the expense of superb integration between woofer and ribbon tweeter -- quite the opposite, in fact. Despite the two different driver technologies employed, the Super Slim 1800s sounded as though they were cut from a single sonic cloth, in much the same way as the excellent Innersound Isis I reviewed several months back. Its encouraging to see speaker designers finally melding differing driver technologies into a coherent sonic whole with great success.
One of the beauties of a well-executed electrostatic or ribbon driver is the low coloration of its midrange. These low-mass drivers have an uncanny way of reproducing the human voice with great fidelity (give a listen to the Magnepan MG3.6/R ribbon for a fine example). The Ambience ribbon driver was certainly no exception in this regard. Vocals had a clarity and in-the-room quality that were addictive. Listening to the husky-voiced Cassandra Wilson sing Lewis Allans "Strange Fruit" [New Moon Daughter, Blue Note 7243-8-32861-2-6], sent shivers down my spine, so present and vivid was her image (this two-disc, 180-gram LP should be in every vinyl addict's collection.) Ella Fitzgeralds Ella Swings Lightly [Verve VG-4021 LP] contained similar delights. Although the Super Slims revealed the limitations of the late-'50s recording technology employed, Ellas beautiful tone and swinging style came through unscathed. This was a truly wonderful record done proud by the Ambience ribbon. A final example: Ive never really been much of a Jewel fan, but the sound of her voice via the Super Slims [Spirit, Atlantic 82950-1 LP] was captivating. Ditto the sound of the acoustic guitar, which had just the right combination of steely bite to the strings and woody resonance to the body. Ive listened to this record on several systems since the Ambience ribbons went back to the distributor, but I have yet to experience the same degree of magic.
Not surprisingly, the Ambience ribbon drivers reproduction of high frequencies was impressive. Ive never heard Paul Motians cymbals on "My Foolish Heart" from Waltz for Debby sizzle quite so convincingly. Similarly, the wide array of cymbals used by Roy Haynes on his composition "Hittin It" from Chick Coreas Trio Music: Live in Europe [ECM 1310 LP] danced and shimmered like never before. If I had one minor gripe with the Super Slims upper-octave performance, it would be that it seemed subjectively less extended than that of the Gallo Nucleus Solos. Perhaps this was related to the extreme refinement offered by the Ambience ribbon, but I couldnt help but feel that I was missing the last iota of top-end sparkle on familiar recordings. I dont want to belabor this point because I rarely, if ever, felt shortchanged by the Super Slims top end. But Id be remiss if I didnt point out a slight rounding off of musics highest frequencies in comparison with other transducers. If the Super Slim 1800s were a phono cartridge, theyd surely be more on the Koetsu than the Clearaudio side of the fence.
On the soundstaging front, the Super Slims were hard to fault. Depth and front-to-back layering were up there with the best Ive heard (the Maggie 3.6s are also creepy-good in this respect), especially in the context of a solo artist or a small jazz or chamber ensemble (replicating large concert-hall acoustics in the typical home listening room is a nearly impossible task for any loudspeaker). During the opening bars of Miles Davis "So What" from Kind of Blue [Columbia CS-8163, six-eye LP], the Super Slims threw Paul Chambers bass way behind the plane of the loudspeakers, seemingly pushing back the rear wall of the listening room several feet. When Davis, John Coltrane and Cannonball Adderley join the fray, the horns can be heard to occupy a completely different spatial plane than that created by the rhythm section of Chambers and drummer Jimmy Cobb.
Need another example? Try the LP of Malcom Arnolds Overtures on Reference Recordings [RR-48], one of Professor Keith Johnsons finest efforts. At a point about midway through "A Sussex Overture," a wood block is struck towards the left rear of the stage. The Super Slims rendered the sound of the space surrounding the block so vividly that it was possible to clearly visualize the percussionists location relative to the rest of the orchestra. Impressive.
If youre concerned that the Ambience ribbons wont play sufficiently loudly to do justice to your favorite rock or metal disc, let me allay your fears: on more than one occasion, the Super Slim 1800s hit 100dB peaks in my 5000-cubic-foot listening room without breaking a sweat (or melting a tweeter). Keep in mind, however, that while the Ambience ribbon has been tested up to peaks of 114dB without any "apparent damage," it can be destroyed if overdriven or your amp clips. (Ive heard of many a Maggie ribbon meeting just such a fate.) The ribbon is also susceptible to damage by air turbulence, such as wind, and curious fingers. Never place the speaker near an open window or attempt to clean it by vacuuming! Unfortunately, a damaged speaker will likely have to make the long trip back to Australia for repair, so its advisable to take the necessary precautions.
I think it goes without saying that I greatly enjoyed my time with the Ambience Super Slim 1800 loudspeakers. Much like the Innersound Isis I reviewed some months back, the Super Slim 1800 exhibited superb integration between woofer and tweeter, sounding like a coherent whole rather than two different speakers crammed into the same enclosure. The Super Slim 1800s reproduction of the human voice was second to none in my experience, and its top end was smooth and finely detailed. Soundstaging and depth, in particular, were also first-rate.
Of course, theres no such thing as the perfect loudspeaker (certainly not at this price point, anyway), and the Super Slim 1800 is no exception. A deep notch at 40Hz, which caused some bass notes to go missing in action, could not be ameliorated regardless of where the speakers were positioned in my listening room. The Super Slim was also not the last word in top-end extension or transparency, sounding a bit soft and forgiving on some recordings.
All this said, this relatively unknown speaker from Australia provided me with some of the best sound Ive experienced in my home, and it's more than worthy of an audition by anyone considering a rival exotic or hybrid speaker from MartinLogan, Magnepan or Innersound.
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