June 2000Cliffhanger Audio Bulldog Loudspeakers
by Doug Schneider
As soon as Cliffhanger Audio designer Ian Smith told me the name of his newest stand-mounted loudspeaker, I quickly painted a mental picture of it. The name Bulldog, after all, delivers a very vivid image. He then briefly described the driver configuration, and I filled in the missing pieces. When I finally saw the speaker, I cant say I was too surprised. The Bulldog is definitely not a traditional minimonitor; perhaps the term maximonitor is more appropriate.
A brief history of mine
I already own Cliffhangers CHS-2/W-2 loudspeaker combination, use it regularly in my system, and know its sound exceedingly well. The CHS-2/W-2 is part of Cliffhanger's CHS series, and the Bulldog is part of their new Elite line of loudspeakers that includes another more expensive model called the Bliss. The Bulldog was first shown at CES 2000 in Las Vegas, and the Bliss made its debut in the spring of 2000 in Montreal.
Cliffhangers goal with the Bulldog was to build an all-out monitor loudspeaker that would bridge the gap between stand-mounted and floorstanding loudspeakers in terms of sonic presentation. This means deep bass response, large-scale dynamics, soaring SPLs, and high transparency -- all done with audiophile finesse. In other words, a stand-mounted monitor that does it all. While the price tag of $3699 per pair is higher than most would expect for a stand-mounted speaker, the fact that this one has floorstanding aspirations should set most of those minds at ease.
While Ill describe the Bulldog in detail below, its first worth mentioning that what took me most by surprise with this speaker is that it does not really compete with Cliffhanger's CHS-2/W-2 loudspeaker combination that retails for just a few hundred dollars less. You would think that pricing speakers this close together would leave one model in the dust. Its really not the case here since each was designed with a specific purpose in mind and, subsequently, each has strengths that will likely appeal to different listeners. Which is best suited for a system will depend on numerous variables, and thats why comparison between the two is all the more valuable.
As its name implies, the Bulldog is a thick and almost intimidating loudspeaker. It may sit patiently on a stand, but its imposing appearance makes you well aware that it means business. Im sure that if it could jump down off that stand and attack, it would. Its not only big, its heavy too. It measures 19"H by 8"W by 16"D and weighs in at a hefty 60 pounds -- certainly not the biggest and heaviest speaker you can get, but when you consider that its not a floorstander, you realize that its a humdinger in terms of size and weight. The Bulldog, JMlab Mini Utopia and pint-sized Mirage MRM-1 are the heaviest speakers I've heard in my system based on the number of square inches they occupy.
To accomplish their design goals, Cliffhanger selected a unique combination of drivers and placed them in an extremely sturdy cabinet that is braced internally with wood and steel. Since this speaker is physically smaller than the two-piece CHS-2/W-2 combination but sells for more, the company could put more money and time into the construction of the cabinet itself to make it as rigid as possible and finish it to a higher standard. Besides the extensive bracing and thick MDF cabinet walls, a composite compound has been applied to the inside of the panels to further stiffen them. Knuckle rapping on the sides indicates a very solid enclosure.
Getting to the nuts and bolts of the speaker, its a three-way design that uses a 6.5" polypropylene woofer, a 2" metal-dome midrange driver, and a 2" ribbon tweeter. Together they make for a pretty unique and interesting combination. The woofer is the same one that is used in the W-2 subwoofer (the W-2 uses two). It's made by Hi-Vi Research in Canada and is also used by other companies, such as Totem in their Forest loudspeaker. With a 3" voice coil, this small driver has high excursion and power-handling capabilities and can therefore move a lot of air. The other two drivers are new to Cliffhanger speaker designs. The ribbon tweeter is again from Hi-Vi Research, but the metal-dome midrange is sourced from a company in Germany. According to Ian Smith, all drivers were chosen for their high power handling and low distortion.
The Bulldog's literature says that the crossover is designed to "simulate acoustically fourth-order Linkwitz-Riley type networks." "Simulate" is an odd word to use, I thought. I dug further and found that what the company seems to be talking about is that the fourth-order roll-off is a result of a combination of electrical components (the crossover) and mechanical components (the natural roll-off of the drivers).
Overall fit and finish are very good. Although the Bulldog looks similar to the CHS-2/W-2 speakers in terms of the rounded edges of the cabinet, the speaker's cabinet is finished in a much nicer fashion. The real-wood veneer is called anigre (a wood that Ive never heard of) and it looks better than whats on the CHS Series. It is complemented further with a thick, high-gloss finish. The front and rear panels are done in a glossy piano black, which gives this big speaker an elegant look (the CHS Series is painted matte black on the front and rear). Like all the Cliffhanger speakers, no bi-wiring option is given. On the back are one set of high-quality binding posts and dual ports that sit side by side toward the top of the cabinet. They look sort of like exhaust pipes!
The shiny and well-finished Bulldog is not bashful. It stands proud and naked with all its drivers exposed since there is no grille to cover up its privates. Thankfully, its ribbon tweeter is recessed enough so that any damage from prying fingers will have to be deliberate, and a mesh grille protects the midrange. The woofer is unprotected, but can take a bit of touching and prodding, Im sure.
Finally, like almost all monitors, the Bulldog doesn't come with stands. I caution to take care in what you use as stands and definitely dont cheap out with flimsy ones. The Bulldog is much deeper than most stand-mounted speakers, so you will need something extremely sturdy that will handle the weight and will not tip. If you can still dig up some Osiris stands, they will work very well (that company has gone out of business but some retailers have retained stock of these very good stands). Im sure Target could offer something good as well. Depending on your preferred listening height, the size of stand you need will likely range from 20" to 24" tall.
As its name implies, in terms of power requirements, the Bulldog is a bit of a brute. In order to drive it, you need a very good solid-state amplifier with a robust power supply that can deliver about 100Wpc into 8 ohms and is stable into lower impedances. The company rates the sensitivity at 86dB, but that must be in-room, which would give it a few dB of lift. It can play at very high volumes, but certainly seems to need a lot of power to get it up there. My 75Wpc single-ended Blue Circle BC2s simply didnt stand a chance with it -- thin, lifeless, and hardly any volume, let alone dynamics. Single-ended is definitely out, and I suspect that very few tube amplifiers, even if theyre push-pull, will do well with it either. However, the $2750 100Wpc solid-state Magnum Dynalab MD 208 receiver that I reviewed previously works quite nicely. While I never drove the amplifier to clipping and was wholly satisfied with its performance, I could sense that having 150 or 200 watts would be even better with the Bulldog. This requirement for a high-power amplifier is just one aspect thats in sharp contrast to the CHS-2/W-2 combo. It has an 88dB sensitivity, and I am not only able to drive it with my singled-ended BC2 amps, but also with the single-ended Topaz amplifier from Wyetech Labs, which delivers only 18Wpc!
I used the Bulldog in my regular listening room, which measures about 13 by 15 feet. The speakers were well out in the room, about five feet, with six to seven feet of spread between them. I found that this speaker can be spread apart farther than CHS-2/W-2, and I would have done so if I had the room. As well, the Bulldog had no trouble filling my room with sound at very high volumes. Its definitely a speaker suitable for much larger rooms.
Although I started my listening with the Bel Canto DAC1 and Theta Data Basic transport as a digital source, I ended up doing most of this review with the luscious Audio Aero Capitole CD player -- for reasons Ill get to in a bit. As mentioned, I used the Magnum Dynalab MD 208 receiver for amplification and all cabling (speaker and interconnect) was Nirvana Audios S-L series.
Clean, clear and very close to full range was my first impression of this speaker. The Bulldog may sit on a stand, but if I didnt know this, I would have guessed that this speaker is four feet tall. It sounds big and can go loud. However, it didnt take long to figure out that the sound of this speaker was substantially different from the CHS-2/W-2.
First, to summarize the CHS-2/W-2, I would describe its sound as very smooth, nicely detailed, and with a warm and robust but slightly laid-back presentation. Bass is deep and ample, as well as highly coherent with the rest of the speakers range. On the down side, it is not necessarily the ultimate in low-end tightness and control. Soundstage presentation and imaging are very good, and it has the ability to throw a wide and deep stage with excellent precision. There are a few speakers that I have auditioned -- the Mirage MRM-1, Waveform MC and Merlin TSM-SE, for example -- that are a little more holographic in the imaging department, but given that those speakers can be considered outstanding in that regard, the CHS-2/W-2 gets nothing but high marks. What really sets the CHS-2/W-2 apart, though, is its silky smooth and almost effortless presentation in the midrange. It is this quality that I love about it. I hate to use the words tube-like to describe its midrange quality, but it has a liquidity and smoothness -- something many associate with tubes -- that makes this speaker so easy to listen to.
The Bulldog sounds good too, but in a much different way. The most noticeable difference comes in the midrange presentation. Where the CHS-2/W-2 is a bit laid-back, the Bulldog is ready to pounce with its lively and visceral presentation. The Bulldog is not necessarily a forward-sounding speaker, but it is definitely more forward than the CHS-2/W-2. Although each speaker can throw a soundstage with great width and depth, the Bulldog tends to throw the stage closer to the front of the room. As a result, guitars, piano and even drums seem to have great precision and impact, and they are rendered through the Bulldog with much more vibrancy and immediacy.
With the different perspectives in midrange presentation, playing recordings that feature vocalists proved very interesting. Both speakers portray the voice rock-solid in the stage; however, the CHS-2/W-2 sounds slightly distant and a little more polite. The Bulldog, on the other hand, is not only more up-front, but a bit more resolving too. Voices have a little more texture, body and weight than with the CHS-2/W-2. It does this without being chesty, woolly or bloated, which is the Achilles heel for many speakers. This highly resolving nature can bring up some problems, though. I found that the Bulldog can highlight a weakness in your system, or in a recording, like there is a magnifying glass on it. For example, Amanda Marshalls Tuesdays Child CD [Epic EK 80380] has good dynamics, but on the whole it is rather up-front and aggressive, even on low-resolution systems. While the CD is wholly listenable on the Bulldog, this speaker highlights the grain and grit that plagues this recording and so can be a little fatiguing on the ears. This is one reasons why I preferred the Bulldog with the Audio Aero Capitole CD player. The Bel Canto DAC1/Theta combination is very good, but in this system I was getting some detail overload, which made the whole system sound a tad too analytical. Substituting the gorgeous-sounding Capitole brought in some of that tubey magic, admittedly at the expense of some detail, but the resulting balance was better.
This ability to show detail -- not just in the midrange, but from the low to high frequencies too -- is an area of performance that the Bulldog has over its CHS-series brother. It is more akin to something like the super-revealing VSM-SE from Merlin. Both of these speakers put out what theyre fed. While something like the Amanda Marshall disc sounds harsh, the lush and liquid-sounding Autumn Leaves (The Songs of Johnny Mercer) by Jacintha [Groove Note GRVCD1006] sounded just that -- lush and liquid. When Ian Smith dropped off the speaker, he told me to expect higher resolution from this speaker than the CHS-2/W-2. He attributed much of it to the cabinet bracing, as well as the choice of drivers. He said that when they finally got the cabinet damped the way they wanted, the speaker seemed much "quieter." This quietness is akin, I guess, to a lowering of the noise floor, which makes the system all that more revealing. The ability to highlight good and bad recordings is only one way to show the resolution of a speaker. Playing music such as a large choral piece can effectively demonstrate this resolution too, which shows up in the improved width and depth of stage over the CHS-2/W-2, and also the delineation of the individual voices within that stage. Having all this detail is good, but I find that the slightly less detailed CHS-2/W-2 is a little more forgiving of the equipment its associated with, and this may be relevant for some systems.
Another area where the Bulldog is a notch up on the CHS-2/W-2 comes in the high frequencies. Although my past experience with ribbons has been that they can sound fabulous in terms of their smoothness and detail, there can be a tendency to be too directional, and this can be off-putting. Move your head too much this way or that and the glorious sound can turn into a mess. However, the dispersion of this ribbon seems excellent, even on the vertical axis. Im used to moving my head above the top of the tweeter and hearing a massive roll-off in the high frequencies with some ribbons. Its not nearly like that here. There is a slight reduction, but nothing drastic. In fact, even when I stand up, the speaker sounds good and shows only a subtle reduction of high-frequency information, but not enough to sound dark. Left and right dispersion is also very good, with no "venetian blind" effect. And where this tweeter really shines is in its resolution and transparency. While I thought the CHS-2s dome tweeter was exceedingly clean, in comparison, I now find its tweeter to have a smidgen of fizz compared to the ribbon used here -- nothing really offensive, but its definitely there when you compare.
Bass that can boogie
I can't talk about an exceptionally large stand-mounted speaker like this and not talk about its bass performance. Cutting to the chase, I can tell you that tight, deep bass is definitely this speakers forte. Cliffhanger rates the Bulldog's -3dB point as 37Hz, and my experience shows that prospective buyers should have no trouble getting in-room response like this. If I had to hazard a guess, I would say that I was getting rock-solid in-room response down to 40Hz (perhaps lower), which is very deep and very good for a speaker on a stand. Other stand-mounted speakers that deliver this type of weight include the Clef series from Speaker Art, as well as the Eire from Shamrock Audio. No, the Bulldog (or the others speakers) still cant quite plumb the depths like a really big driver can, nor can it pressurize the room with a massive rush of air like a true subwoofer that extends to 20Hz. But it can deliver deep, tight bass response with outstanding impact and clarity thats among the best Ive heard at this price point.
I remember listening to Jim Cuddys All In Time [WEA CD23107] with the Bulldogs. This recording is only so-so due to its only decent dynamic range, but on some of the tracks I was astounded to hear the impact of the drums. It was like I was hearing it for the first time. Were the Bulldogs delivering more bass than the W-2? At first it seemed so, but I realized quickly that in terms of extension, they werent. Whats more, the W-2 goes as deep, and maybe a little deeper than the Bulldog! The dual woofers on the W-2 can pressurize a room more than the Bulldog. But what the Bulldog was doing was delivering rock-solid bass with impact, slam and detail that the W-2 cant quite muster. Playing recordings that really do deliver low bass -- organ, naturally recorded drums and some orchestral pieces -- are almost a revelation for a small speaker. I cant imagine many music lovers really needing any deeper or tighter bass than this speaker will deliver. In fact, the Bulldog is one of the best rock-monitors Ive heard. Its combination of clarity, speed, transparency, and, perhaps most importantly, its bass response and dynamic prowess add up to a loudspeaker that can really cook!
Soundstage and imaging
When I first started listening to the Bulldog, I thought that the CHS-2/W-2 was cleaning house on it in terms of imaging. The CHS-2/W-2 seemed to float its images with more focus, with edges crisply cut. When Ani DiFrancos percussion is back, left in the stage, it is distinctly far back and placed right there when played through the CHS-2/W-2. When Jewels voice is presented rock-solid in the center of the stage, it is almost like a three-dimensional cut-out. On the other hand, the Bulldog seemed a little more diffuse and unfocussed at times. This result was the same thing I had mistaken with NSMs $385 Model 5 and $995 Model 10S speakers when I reviewed those some time back. Like the Bulldog is to the CHS-2/W-2, the 10S has better resolution than the 5. As a result, the 5, like the CHS-2/W-2, presents its images more starkly than the 10S. However, they are more cut out in their nature because the low-level information between the main performers is diminished. To use an analogy: imagine a black-and-white picture in which the performers all wear black jackets and the areas around them are all shades of gray. If you reduce the resolution and only show the darkest and lightest (pure black and white), the distinction between the performers would be very stark. Allow the grays back in and the distinction is really the same, but there is more information trailing off and connecting each. The Bulldog shows its superiority in the wealth of musical information in and around the performers, and this can make things seem a little more diffuse when theyre really not.
Cliffhanger has created a gutsy, dynamic, high-quality loudspeaker that can play virtually any type of music with ease, but will still likely appeal to a specialized listener. First off, you have to have a reasonably powerful solid-state amplifier to get the most from it. If you really want to use a tube amp, definitely try it with this speaker first. Second, despite the fact that it is a stand-mounted speaker, it is physically quite imposing, very heavy and works best at least a few feet out into the room. This is not a small speaker that you can tuck away. Treat it like a floorstander and be thankful for the glossy finish because this speaker will undoubtedly be in full view. Finally, the Bulldogs highly detailed and up-front presentation coupled with its excellent dynamic agility will be a hit among listeners looking for such attributes in a speaker. However, these characteristics may not make for a good match with other components in your system that share that same qualities. The CHS-2/W-2 is a lot more forgiving of the components it plays with, where the Bulldog is not.
While I thoroughly enjoyed my time with the Bulldog and did grow to appreciate many of its fine qualities, I still love the silky and seductive nature of the CHS-2/W-2. Sure they are not quiet as resolving, wont play as loud, and arent as tight, articulate and visceral, but that speaker has a liquidity that I find endearing. Although I wish I could combine only the strengths of the two, I cant. As a result, Im willing to give up just a smidgen of detail as well as the pristine high end and the tightness and control down low that the Bulldog is capable of and keep my CHS-2/W-2 speakers instead. However, if you already have a powerful amp or prefer solid-state anyway, and you are looking for a very high-quality monitor that delivers detail in spades and successfully bridges the gap to floorstanding-speaker sound, then the choice may be much different for you.
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