December 2007Audes Excellence 5 Loudspeakers
by Tim Shea
It takes a certain amount of hubris to include the word "excellence" in the name of your product. Not nearly as much as using the extremely presumptive term "reference standard," but still pretty ballsy nonetheless. If youre going to go that route, you had better have the goods to back it up, and with the level of competition in the floorstanding-speaker category, "excellence" is tough to define these days.
Off the top of my head, I can name some pretty credible contenders in the $7000 to $10,000 price range, from the likes of Vandersteen, Silverline, DeVore, Usher, Audio Physic, Thiel, Von Schweikert, Magnepan, Merlin, Focal, and others. Not that Audes hasnt had its share of success, but veering head-on into this competition with the moniker "excellence" attached is at least, lets say, bold. This is exactly what Audes has done with the Excellence 5 floorstanding speaker ($8995 USD per pair). The people at Audes contend they gave their engineers carte blanche and challenged them to create the best-sounding speakers available for the money. If you look down the spec sheet for the Excellence 5, it appears that Audes certainly chose some primo components, but speakers, like all audio products, are not simply the sum of the parts. They need to be engineered and constructed so there is synergy between both design and components to achieve overall "excellence." Lets see if Audes has succeeded.
Audes, in case you havent heard, is an Estonian company that has been in the audio business for many years. In addition to loudspeakers, the company produces individual drivers, amplifiers, and transformers. For perspective, the Excellence line sits right below the Orpheus reference loudspeaker, and the Excellence 5 sits at the top of that line, followed by three smaller siblings, and theres also a center-channel speaker. So theres a full slate of Excellence available for your consumption.
Although very slender at 8" wide, the Excellence 5 is 54 1/3" high and 19 1/2" deep. It incorporates a 10" side-firing woofer and 10" passive radiator near the bottom of each cabinet. These are said to be proprietary paper-based drivers engineered and built at Audes. The rest of the drivers are sourced from SEAS and are arranged in an MTM configuration. The 1" tweeter is built to Audes specifications and flanked top and bottom by two 5" paper-based midranges. The drivers cross over at 100Hz and 2000Hz with second-order slopes, and frequency response is stated as 28Hz to 20kHz (+/- 2dB). Audes points out that the crossover incorporates premium parts, such as Auricaps and Mundorf capacitors. The recommended amplifier power range is 50 to 300 watts, and sensitivity and nominal impedance are rated at 92dB/W/m and 4 ohms, respectively. The Excellence 5 is sealed-enclosure design, so theres no port.
Although the sides of the cabinet dont seem overly inert, the front baffle is purposefully constructed to be a solid launching pad for the drivers, and it has curved edges to aid in dispersion and minimize diffraction to go along with the minimal width. The cabinet is constructed of 1" MDF on the sides, while the front baffle gets 2" of MDF, and the structure itself is further braced internally. The Excellence 5 ends up weighing in at a solid 106 pounds (probably more like 160 pounds with packaging). Although they are objectively large speakers, in use the Excellence 5s create a minimally invasive presence due to their svelte physique. From the front, the appearance is fairly minimalist and spartan. You are basically looking at two slim, black towers that taper upward from the top front to the rear. The sides are graced with a nicely finished wood veneer that shows more grain than Im used to seeing. It has a little of an added-on look to it, but overall it successfully warms up the look of the speakers and gives the Excellence 5s a more distinctive appearance. The side-firing woofer and passive radiator are covered with a non-removable cloth grille, and there are also slim, removable grilles for the fronts that I never used during listening.
Setup & use
The Excellence 5s are a bit of a bear to move about, made all the more difficult by the fact that theres no port to aid in lifting the speakers. Suffice it to say that I "walked" them around quite a lot during their stay. So much so, in fact, that during one of my many "walks," one of the spike threads partially snapped off. Fortunately I was still able to insert the spike back into the base, but US distributor Naum Dorkhman informed me that the company realized the speakers require beefier spikes and a fix is in the works. Other than this relatively minor incident, the Excellence 5s were as sound as a pound (and certainly more sound than a US dollar).
I found the Excellence 5s to be a relatively easy load to drive, and I never raised the volume control above the 11:00 position on my preamplifier. With my Soliloquy 6.2s, which are also a relatively benign load, I frequently crank it up to 2:00 to reach the same volume levels. Because the 6.2s are fairly tube friendly, I would think tubes are a viable option with the Excellence 5. I can say this with a good deal of confidence, because Audes itself only builds bottle-based amps, so feel free to light em if you got em. However, Ive been told the Excellence 5s are stubborn dudes that require 500 hours to fully break in, so your tubes will take a sizeable hit while youre waiting for things to open up.
Excellence is as excellence does
I have to admit that I goofed with these speakers, and as a result it took longer than it should have to finish the review -- my apologies to Audes. Why and how did I goof? Well, as a fairly experienced reviewer, I should have routinely explored all avenues to get to the truth if I felt that what I was hearing was not what the product was capable of producing. Upon first hearing the Excellence 5s, I noticed somewhat woolly bass and mushy treble with a good dose of promising midrange thrown into the mix. In other words, par for the course as first listens go, especially with speakers that purportedly need 500 hours to strut their stuff. I proceeded to set the old CD transport to repeat and let er rip for several days before returning for first listen part deux. The first thought to cross my mind was what a waste of laser light this exercise was. The second was how unfun it was going to be to write a review of these speakers. And the third was how the hell did Audes listen to these and deem they were worthy of a "Halfway Decent" moniker, much less "Excellence"?
Of course I went through the usual gyrations of moving the speakers in, out, front, back, and sideways (hence all the "walking") along with the obligatory tilting back and swapping of cables -- all for naught. Mush and bloat still ruled the day. Finally and despite guidance that the woofers were to remain facing inward, in a fit of desperation, I flipped them outward. Voilą! The big surprise was not that the bass firmed up and was better integrated into the sonic picture, but that midrange, treble, imaging, soundstaging, transparency, sense of air and space, basically the whole shebang improved along with it. Immediately I thought of those who tell tales of adding a subwoofer (obviously properly adjusted, positioned, and dialed in) and how it magically improves many aspects of sound above the bass range as well. Thats pretty much what happened here.
Now there was something to work with. Now all those quality components were finally showing up to the party. When I told Naum what had happened, I heard a silence that screamed of skepticism, but there it was nonetheless. Hey, Pfizer initially didnt realize Viagra would work as it does either. I guess the lesson in both cases is that sometimes you have to try things in different or unexpected ways to get your equipment to work properly. Anyway, onward and, um, upward as they say.
After recycling all my previous listening notes and starting anew, what I found was a dynamic, tonally rich and overall musical transducer. Certain bass elements remained an issue, but this could easily be a function of my room size and dimensions. In general the bass was well integrated, deep, and well articulated.
Given the size of the Excellence 5s, I thought Id start with something with some spirit, so I put on Dave Matthews Crash [RCA 66904] to put dynamics and slam to the test. This comes as no real surprise, but the Excellence 5s sounded like the big speakers they were. What does that mean? In my experience larger speakers can express a level of authority and solidity along with a sense of ease thats conducive to relaxing into the music while simultaneously experiencing it on a more physical level. Its not unlike listening to a quality high-power amplifier, except more dramatic, and although there are always tradeoffs, the benefits are sure enjoyable. One of the Excellence 5s strengths is that the tradeoffs were minimal.
On "So Much to Say," I was immediately impressed with the image of the lone acoustic guitar by the sheer naturalness and balance of it. With many speakers it sounds pretty decent, but theres often too much string and strum and not enough of the body of the guitar. The Excellence 5s really nailed the woody innards of the instrument without overwhelming or artificially minimizing the sound of the strings being struck. In fact, if anything, the image may have been a little larger than life. As the rest of the band joined in, however, the scale seemed perfectly appropriate, and the lower frequencies that were unleashed created a rock-solid foundation throughout the piece, making it more visceral and involving overall. This is big-speaker territory, and the Excellence 5s pulled it off nicely and kept things moving along well to boot.
On the smaller-detail front, things were clicking as well. The cymbals tonality was as good as Ive heard while also letting you know these were metal objects being struck by a wooden stick, and they were also floated nicely within the sonic space. Ive always heard a bit of a sheen on vocals with this CD, and although still there, it was minimal almost to the point of nonexistence. This, to me, pointed to a very refined character that showed itself consistently throughout my time with these speakers. That is not to say the Excellence 5s glossed over glare or detail, as Matthews voice was very detailed and present, and the differences in the way vocals were miked were very apparent from track to track -- for better or worse.
I found the midrange of the Excellence 5s to be an area where the speakers truly lived up to their name. This was a very expressive and emotional midrange with a very enticing combination of clarity, quickness, refinement, and power. It had that ability to move you while drawing you into the music without distraction or analytical overkill. Sibilants were there but not overstated and nicely integrated, and detail was abundant throughout its range. For folks who feel music lives in this spectrum, the Excellence 5s should not disappoint.
Given what Ive pointed out so far, you might think the Excellence 5s would fare well with classical music, and they do. Ive listened to "Overture to Guillaume Tell (William Tell)" from William Tell & Other Favorite Overtures [Telarc 80116] hundreds of times on many systems, but the Audes speakers still left me with goose bumps. Of particular note was that, even during the quiet passages, the individual instruments retained their tonal characteristics and detail to the point that, although they were recorded at a distance, it was still easy to hear the phrasing and how the instruments were being played. The Excellence 5s did a nice job of placing various elements throughout the stage, but they are not the kind of speakers that hit you over the head with such detail. Instead they give you enough information so you sense where theyre coming from, all in a natural way, similar to how you hear such things at a live performance. In a related vein, the brass retained its requisite bite, but it was not so clearly pronounced that it sounded over the top or exaggerated.
Moving on to a more intimate live performance, I put on Keith Jarrett at the Blue Note: Saturday, June 4th, 1994 First Set [ECM 1577] to see how the Excellence 5s would handle music on a smaller scale. Again, the well-recorded cymbals served to point out how tonally impressive and refined the Excellence 5 tweeters were, although in this case there was a little less stick on metal that kind of pushed them back in the mix a bit -- not bad, just different. The stand-up bass was exceptional in its tonal richness and temporal acuity, and I heard phrasing and innuendo I simply hadnt heard from this disc before. Part of this is due to the ability to go down deep enough while maintaining composure as the instrument delves into its lower octaves. Jarretts piano was life-sized in all respects, and again the ability to convey the entire envelope of harmonics and hollowness from the soundboard did not come at the expense of the sound of the hammers striking the strings.
It is also worth noting how adept these largish speakers were at staying out of the way of the music. However, there was one aspect of the performance that did not surface, and that was the sense of re-creating the Blue Notes space within my space. This recording has enough air and ambient cues to pull that off, but the Excellence 5s preferred to transport the players more than the venue into my room. I heard this with other live recordings as well. Reverb trails, while present, did not quite tail out to the ends of their useful lives. Maybe Im just used to hyper detail in this range, but it was the only element that left me a bit wanting during my time with the Excellence 5s.
The only other limitation is with regard to the side-firing woofers and passive radiators. As I mentioned earlier, despite the distributors recommendation, I achieved significantly better results pointing the woofers outward rather than inward. On almost all types of music this was perfectly fine, but on certain bass-heavy material, such as the double bass on Tony Falangas Soul of the Bass [plane 88846], my room became overloaded. In those instances, I heard some of the bass protruding outward from the woofers themselves. Now, again, this could be simply how the speakers coupled to my room, but it is something to take into consideration when auditioning the Excellence 5s.
Excellence compared to what?
By this point, it should be clear I was impressed with the Excellence 5s. That was not totally unexpected -- theyre more than three times as expensive as most of the other speakers Ive had here. However, there are particular areas where less expensive (yet still excellent) competitors Ive had in my system more than hold their own and such comparisons are instructive for purposes of context.
For example, my Soliloquy 6.2s ($2699 per pair when still available) offer a little clearer perspective in terms of the portrayal of air and space within the soundstage rather than more of a black silence that is the general background portrayed by the Estonian speakers. And although the midrange shares the Audes expressiveness and energy, the Excellence 5s add even more flesh to the bone along with more refinement in the remaining treble range. And they flat out leave the 6.2s in the dust when it comes to bass extension, definition, quickness, and overall dynamic impact.
At the end of the day the Audes speakers reminded me most of the "excellent" Paradigm Studio 100 v.3s ($2200 per pair) I reviewed a while back (since replaced with a newer version). In fact, my sense is that if Paradigm's cabinet were shored up and the mids and treble were a bit more refined, the Studio 100 could make for a very interesting comparison with the Excellence 5. Wait a minute -- wouldnt that speaker be in Paradigms Signature series? Thats the kind of company the Audes deserves to run in.
Overall, I found the Audes Excellence 5 to be a very accomplished and natural-sounding speaker. It is a musical transducer that oozes refined and meaningful detail, but it does not thrust it in your face. Rather, it entices you, seduces you, and sucks you into the music with its emotional and physical yet coherent and balanced presentation. Although I sensed some softening in the upper-treble range that somewhat reduced the perception of air and space as well as some leading-edge transients on certain recordings, the rest of the treble range was exemplary and paired well with the transparent and ultra-communicative midrange. I would caution that the considerable bass output capabilities of the Excellence 5s, as with most larger speakers, require the appropriate amount of space (or treatments) to avoid overloading a room, but the side-firing woofers and passive radiators at least give some flexibility in this regard. There are several smaller Audes siblings that would be a better match for smaller settings and likely offer many of the benefits I found in the Excellence 5s.
Excellence in speakers, especially at this price level where quality parts and design are usually a given, is as much a matter of personal preference as anything else. The Audes Excellence 5 exhibits some sonic qualities Ive heard in the cost-no-object offerings, and as such it is certainly worthy of a serious audition alongside its formidable competition.
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