July 2003Ascendo System M Loudspeakers
by John Leosco
"What is time?" This sounds like one of those unanswerable questions my grade-schooler might ask. For audio purposes, proponents of time alignment want the output from each driver in a loudspeaker to reach the listeners ear at precisely the same instant. This is not a small feat. High-frequency drivers react much faster to impulses than larger and heavier low-frequency units. To at least partially compensate, a common industry practice offsets vertically mounted drivers, placing the woofer closest to the listener with the midrange and tweeter set progressively further and further away. And herein lies a problem. Since the distance from the ear to individual drivers within a fixed array depends on both the span to the loudspeakers and the listening height, any geometry is only optimal within a certain range of listening positions.
Ascendo GmbH was founded in 1999 to perform research and development in the area of acoustics. The company is strongly supported by the German government, the Federal Ministry of Education and Research to be exact. In addition to speaker systems, Ascendo produces digital-room-acoustic processors, absorption panels, and software for measuring and analyzing room response. Consulting services include acoustic measurement and listening-environment design.
Time alignment is of paramount importance at Ascendo, with innovative adjustment methods evident across the company's entire speaker line. Part of Ascendos solution to the problem of time was to develop a movable tweeter. Changing the distance between the midrange and the tweeter moves the location where the in-phase reproduced sounds will converge from those two drivers and aims at solving the problem of a very rigid listening range for a speaker.
M = mass
The System M, Ascendos top-drawer offering, is a massive three-piece modular design consisting of separate high- and low-frequency units held in position by a metal stand. One System M loudspeaker commands approximately 61"H x 19 1/2"W x 25 1/2"D of floor space and bends the scales at 265 pounds. A pair breaks the bank at $30,000 USD. A variety of finish colors are available for the cabinets and stands, and veneer is possible. Chrome stands cost an additional $6574, and for those really feeling bucks-up, nine layers of piano lacquer may be applied to the cabinetry for an additional $4880. The System M's modular form and stand provide mechanical isolation both between the two cabinets and from the entire loudspeaker to ground.
To shave costs, Ascendo also offers a System M without the stand called the M-F ($25,694 per pair). Otherwise identical to the M-S (System M with stand), the M-F woofer cabinet sits on the floor and the tweeter mounts to a rail system on top of lower cabinet to permit front-to-rear movement. Ascendo also makes a very similar-looking System Z ($25,000 per pair), which is identical in terms of its midrange driver and tweeter but uses a slightly smaller woofer in a bass cabinet that's also smaller. According to Ascendo, the choice between the System M and System Z mainly comes down to room size, preferred musical material, and the overall size of the speaker itself. "The decision between System M and System Z is not a question of quality or overall performance," the company sez.
What an eye-catching assemblage the System M review pair was -- glistening chrome stands contrasted by a flawless jet-black painted finish. Reflections looked as deep as the ocean. But inconspicuous? No way! These speakers are about as easy to ignore as a clown at a funeral. Everyone who entered my listening room commented on the System Ms presence, most agreeing that the speaker gives off a classy, industrial look.
Prior to placement the steel stands may be filled with sand, and then leveled via four integral threaded cones. The bass module rests on top of the stand in a three-point stance; two threaded cones support the front corners above the base, and a ball-and-socket hanger suspends the rear of the cabinet from the stands vertical riser. Extending horizontally from the riser is a section of pipe for inserting the cantilevered tweeter module. A 3" diameter, 14 1/2"-long, stainless-steel shaft protrudes from the tweeter assembly to allow at least 4" of displacement for time alignment. Two threaded fasteners secure the shaft, once adjusted.
Constructed of an MDF/bitumen sandwich, the 36 1/4"H x 15 3/4"W x 17 3/4"D System M bass cabinet discloses only a single 8" midrange driver and a large 4" frontal port. Hidden away inside, an 11" Eton Hexacone woofer assumes the bass duties. The midrange is sourced from SEAS, an Excel unit with a hard-paper cone and copper-colored phase plug housed in its own closed internal chamber. Outside, the speaker is au naturel -- meaning no grilles are supplied.
Fed by a pair of rear-mounted WBT binding posts, a dedicated low-frequency crossover splits the signal at 100Hz. Ascendo describes its critical crossover designs as "third order with a constant voltage kernel . The acoustic slope is much more than 18dB/octave, actually around 30dB/octave in the critical bands." According to Ascendo, the trick is to combine the impedance of the two speakers with the crossover so the drivers electrically damp each other and there is no acoustical break in the crossover range. As a whole, the patented technology is called SASB, which translates to "dynamic current-damped woofer and semisymmetrical bandpass."
When asked if the bass unit has perfect time behavior in relation to the midrange driver, the response was: "Yes it has. We use a system that allows us to adjust the phase (and therefore the time) of the low-frequency system exactly to the top parts. The most important thing is that there are no phase steps in the crossover areas. The wavelengths of these low frequencies are very large, so the time behavior is nearly independent of the listening position."
The upper cabinet measures 20 1/2"H x 10 1/4"W x 4 3/4"D and holds a ribbon tweeter originating from Swans Speaker Systems and an isolated high-frequency crossover. The RT2H_A driver consists of a Kapton-film membrane with a pattern of aluminum conductors between two rows of neodymium and barium-ferrite bar magnets. The tweeter is completely disassembled and modified prior to installation. The upper crossover point is specified at 3kHz. A second rear-mounted set of binding posts may be bridged from the bass module with long jumpers, but two separate pairs of cables run from the amplifier in biwire mode are recommended.
The Ascendo System M loudspeaker has a specified frequency response of 26Hz-35kHz (-3dB), 60Hz-30kHz (+/-1dB). Sensitivity is specified at 88dB (2.83 V/1m). Nominal impedance is specified as 8 ohms, with a minimum impedance of 4.5 ohms at 105Hz. Maximum recommended power is 600W program, 1000W peak.
M = movement
I placed the speakers 8' apart, 10' from my chair, and with only 20" of space separating the rear of the stands from my front wall where the System M discharged a full load of bass. The transducers were drastically angled-in and aimed almost directly at my ears. Distinct images were tightly focused, and applause from live recordings would spread nearly as wide as my peripheral vision.
Once the speakers were situated, it was time to measure. I confirmed the distance from my listening spot to the front of the bass module as 119". Seated, the height of my ear canal from the floor is 39". After a quick metric conversion (2.54cm per inch), the provided table specifies moving the tweeter cabinets face 3.7cm behind the front of the woofer cabinet. A couple of quick corrections and voilą -- time alignment complete.
But possessing a sick audiophile mind, I couldnt just leave well enough alone and listen to music. No, I had to vary the tweeter offset to determine if this whole time-alignment thing holds merit. Shifting the high-frequency module about 1cm to each side of the recommended setting yields sound changes akin to focusing a camera. With everything aligned, images were more precise with enhanced depth and detail. Positions away from the specification introduced some nagging vagueness with a magnitude similar to swapping the ideal interconnects for another cable that doesnt quite match.
More so than any other loudspeaker Ive had in my home, the System M behaves like a highly directional point source. My asymmetrical room enlarges from one side-wall reflection point into an alcove where I often eat or pay bills while listening to background music. With these transducers in play, significantly less reflected energy departs the listening area. Even sitting in the sweet spot, moving my head several inches upward gives severe high-frequency suck-out. Tilting my head and chair backward causes weird changes in response that sound out of sync. The Ascendo System M demands careful listener placement for optimal performance.
The terminal plates on both modules contain two-position switches marked VD-H and VD-N. The switches modify the impedance curve to compensate for power-amplifier damping factor. On the bass module, VD-N gives flat frequency response, while VD-H should reduce response in the 100-250Hz range by about 3dB. The high-frequency module gives 1.5dB greater frequency response from 4k-30kHz in the VD-N position. In my system and room, I preferred the VD-N setting on both units.
The Ascendo System M went onto the tail end my reference system, which includes an Ayre K-1x preamplifier and V-1x amplifier. An all-digital source consists of a Dodson Audio DA-217 Mk II D digital-to-analog processor fed by a PS Audio Lambda CD transport via an Illuminations D-60 digital cable. Single-ended AudioQuest Diamond interconnects link the components. Ascendo shipped their own broadband speaker cables with the speakers, which I swapped back and forth with Synergistic Research Designers Reference and Resolution Reference. An API Power Wedge 116 conditioned power for the front-end.
M = music
I know a product intrigues me when I grasp for every long-term reference disc in the rack to re-examine familiar melodies anew. Such was the case with the Ascendo System M. First up -- the sublime Hollywood ballads from Miles Davis Seven Steps to Heaven [Columbia CK 48827]. Davis lyrical muted trumpet stems from a baseball-sized core at center stage but about one foot in front of the loudspeakers. Soft, vulnerable phrases embrace subtle modulations of breath and lips, a seductive combination of focused micro-detail and rich image palpability. The timbre sounds natural. As the passages escalate in volume, the trumpets flare expands in a bell-shaped profile, pressing outward and growing in diameter, until the displaced air seems about three feet across. Any discord or tension did not accompany the increase in force, aiding a graceful portrayal.
Before I go too far, let me emphasize how convincingly the Ascendo System M communicates the smallest of details with less intrusion than any other loudspeaker Ive heard. Rather than resorting to brute force, I think the System M uses spatial cues with impeccable timing to work its magic. Especially on fine minimalist recordings, individual sources and the air they excite, the blending between sources, and their interaction on their environment were all clearly delineated. This resolving power transformed the listening experience into a near-virtual reality. With the Pretenders The Isle of View [Warner Bros. 9 46085-2] spinning and Chrissie Hynde before me, I was momentarily fooled into thinking I might actually be present at the recording session.
Cassandra Wilsons New Moon Daughter [Blue Note CDP 532861] contains a variety of stringed instruments -- from banjo and violin to a plethora of guitars. Each stroke of bow or finger releases a dense matrix of complex harmonics and pure fundamental tones, the vibrating string in concert with essential body resonance. The System M is certainly luscious, sleek, and pleasing to the ear. Adding to the allure, images were not overly lush or diffuse and were held in place with pinpoint stability. Regrettably, the soothing sounds I heard were not necessarily complete ones, either. Individual strikes lack some snap and rasp almost as if the sharp leading edges were slightly smoothed over. Drum skins have muted crack. Personally, Id prefer a bit more rosin on the bow.
Vocals were a special treat through the Ascendo System M. Wilsons deep inflections float just ahead of the speakers with full body and convincing form, and others assume an even more-forward posture. Norah Jones aura from Come Away with Me [Blue Note 7243 5 32088 2 0] hovers two to three feet in front of the speakers, and Anita Bakers soulful presence on Rapture [Electra 9 60444-2] projects outward nearly halfway to my listening chair. Recording quality on the Rapture disc is, shall we say, less-than-perfect. Fortunately, the forgiving nature of the System M strips away Bakers strident peaks without obscuring the busy mix and conveys an eminently enjoyable rendition.
The word seamless is likely overused in the audio lexicon to describe an undetectable transition between drivers, but in this case, seamless is valid. Ill be damned if I could tell when the rich midrange stopped and the ribbon tweeter took over. The highs were always in character with the mids -- detailed, nuanced and delicate, but never offensive, steely, or harsh. Cymbals rang true with splash and shimmer.
Moving down, way down, Bill Crows acoustic bass from Marian McPartlands Hickory House Trio - Reprise [Concord Jazz CCD-4853-2] was located between the speakers and sounded woody, full, and vibrant with no bloat. On Janet Jacksons All For You [Virgin 7243 8 10144 2 4], the particularly strong bass lines were just that -- powerful and extended. I kept waiting for the behemoths to flap my pant legs or kick me in the chest, but the resounding lows werent physical and seemed to come from no discernable source whatsoever. Take it from a bass lover -- the Ascendo System Ms invisible woofers delivered wonderful bass.
And yes, theyll play loud, very loud, and throw up a big soundstage when called upon. Top to bottom, the Ascendo System M furnishes a remarkable, poised view on full-range sound.
M = menagerie
It's a large-speaker showroom here at the Leosco house. My reference $11,000 B&W Nautilus 801s were joined by the recently reviewed $16,000 Dynaudio Confidence C4s and of course the Ascendo System Ms. These three transducers are extended, revealing, and musical. Im pleased as punch to have experienced each of them and grown to respect all of them. That said, the Ascendo System M raises the bar to another level of musicality with its nearly lifelike mimicry of space and timing -- albeit at a price double or triple that of the other contenders.
Lets play odd man out. The Confidence C4 offers a midhall perspective while the other two place the listener closer to the action. The Nautilus 801 transmits more treble than the others, but, on the other side of the coin, the Confidence C4 served up the strongest bass in my room. The Ascendo System M slightly softens ultra-dynamic spikes of energy the other two speakers clearly pass along.
Heres an observation you might find interesting. Each of these speakers has a distinctive characteristic that both sets it apart from the crowd and is obvious enough to polarize listeners. The very trait one person may highly value, causing big grins or even necessitating a mandatory purchase, another may consider a total turn-off. For example, the Ascendo System M throws luscious, intimate images and is somewhat lenient with inferior source material. Some people may consider the System M a little too mellow. On the opposite side of the spectrum, the B&W Nautilus 801 can be intensely dynamic and incisive, and that might be too much of a good thing. The Dynaudio Confidence C4 is amazingly quick and clean, but some may think the Confidence C4 comes across as aloof or cool.
Sorry, but theres no unconditional recommendation coming from me regarding these three speakers. You pay your money and you make your choice.
A discussion of the Ascendo System M cant end without confronting the inevitable big M -- money. If you want these speakers, you have to pay dearly for them. Their $30,000 cost buys a whole lot of just about anything. Ascendo also makes less expensive speakers that follow the principles developed in the System M. Rather than buy first and try later, I would suggest a thorough audition to decide if their sonic priorities align with yours.
The System M is discreet enough with its virtues that I didnt fully appreciate them until the speakers became a part of my daily regimen. By setting a new standard for spatial resolution and musical insight, they are the most genuine and refined loudspeakers to ever inhabit my room. I will hate to see them go.
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