Speaker Art Super Clef Loudspeakers
by Doug Schneider
From an almost accidental discovery of this small but interesting company nearly two years ago to yet another personal encounter with its products, my understanding of Speaker Art is becoming much clearer. Located in Bakersfield, California, Speaker Art is owned and operated by Bob Gross, and all speakers in Bobs line rely on his patented crossover network. The goal is to make a loudspeaker that not only measures well, but sounds good too -- and most importantly, sounds like music -- with its full passion and involvement intact. This is a feat not all speakers, even very expensive ones, achieve.
I was quite taken with the standard Clef loudspeaker when I first heard it -- a bookshelf loudspeaker with a very robust sound, impressive bass, smooth midrange performance and subtle, non-fatiguing highs. I was smitten because of its natural, very realistic-sounding balance. Now we have the Super Clef, nearly an identical speaker except for a few key new features.
What's appealing to many is that Speaker Art keeps its speakers at a pretty reasonable price -- $1299 for the standard Clef that I reviewed a number of months ago and $1599 for the Super'd version. So what's so super about it? Essentially, it is the same loudspeaker with an upgraded tweeter (a Scan-Speak instead of a Vifa) and a slightly different crossover to accommodate the new tweeter. There is also a different and better set of binding posts on the back. Cabinet construction, finish, etc. are all the same. And there is good news for Clef owners. Speaker Art will do the upgrade to Super status for $300, so you're not out a thing, except shipping costs, if you want to take things a step at a time.
The Clef series of loudspeakers are quite large for bookshelf monitors (21"T x 10.5" W x 13"D), but they are still fairly unassuming and pleasing to the eye. Perhaps their appearance, real wood veneer in a box enclosure with rounded corners, is a reason many audiophiles pass them by -- nothing special inside, or so they think. According to Speaker Art, the Clefs patented asymmetrical high-order series crossover network with fourth- and seventh-order slopes, (24dB per octave on the woofer, 40dB per octave on the tweeter) has a large impact on the overall sound of the speakers. Both drivers meet with very little overlap.
Obviously, there is more to a speaker than the crossover alone. In my review of the Clef, I had remarked that although the high frequencies were clean and extended, they lacked that final bit of sparkle -- meaning that infinite extension which brings that last bit of air and sheen to a recording. Bob attributes this characteristic to the Vifa tweeter used in the model, and that is the exactly what the Scan-Speak is intended to solve in the Super Clef. According to Gross, the Scan-Speak tweeter has much better response -- up into the stratosphere. This not only affects the highest frequencies, but also has an impact on the upper midrange region where the woofer hands over to the tweeter.
The Super Clef was used with a number of products that I've had on hand over the last couple of months, but was mainly used with a SimAudio Celeste 4150se stereo amplifier, the Sonic Frontiers Line 1 linestage, and my Theta Digital components. Cabling started out as the excellent Nirvana Audio S-L speaker cables and interconnects, which worked exceedingly well. However, I thought something a little more comparable, price-wise, would make a more appropriate pairing given the price tag of the speakers. I chose DH Labs BL-1 interconnect and T-14 speaker wire (two pairs). Stands were the excellent Osiris Audionics models.
So how does the Super sound in comparison to the standard Clef? In short, almost identical -- and so it should. The bass-to-midrange performance is identical -- same drivers, same cabinet, and same sound in that region. To summarize the Super Clefs performance in this regard, it is a very gutsy speaker that, when amply powered, can fill a room with surprisingly deep bass performance (according to Speaker Art, down to 25Hz in most rooms) and a smooth, lush quality that extends through to the midrange. You should hear the opening track of Fiona Apple's Tidal [Clean Slate 67439] through these speakers -- it will more than impress power-hungry bass freaks. Piano, an extremely difficult instrument to reproduce, came through with realistic weight and energy -- better than I've heard other bookshelf speakers near this price do. If the Super Clefs are to be faulted, it is that by offering this weighty performance, they give up a little bit of tightness that some monitors offer and some listeners will prefer. They are not quite as quick-sounding as some, and they dont have quite the resolution. However, this can be ameliorated by the type of amplifier you use them with, something I will expand on in a bit.
Up through the midrange and into the treble, there was indeed a decided improvement that is undoubtedly a result of the higher-quality tweeter. There was that extra "life" at the top end and an apparent increase in air. As well, the upper midrange took on an extra smidgen of sweetness and fullness, particularly on female vocal music that emphasizes the upper registers. When Sarah McLachlan wailed and Jewel crooned, there was a touch more realism and life. Guitar has a notch more fullness and detail, with speed the Vifa tweeter seemed to lack. On the other hand, vocalists, particularly males, with lower, more chesty voices, were rendered virtually identically through both the standard and Super versions, which came as no surprise. Still, anywhere that high frequencies shone -- on cymbals, harmonica, guitars, violins or whatever -- the Super Clef was a step above the standard Clef.
Placement of the speakers is relatively easy as long as you follow a few well-known guidelines. A width between speakers of anywhere from 6' to 8' allowed a very good lateral spread with rock-solid center imaging. Because both Clef models have very respectable bass performance already, room loading can have a detrimental effect and make the speaker sound bloated on the bottom end. I found the best results when the speakers were at least 2.5' from the rear wall -- the further I got out, the better, up to 5' or so. Results will obviously vary depending on room placement, so don't be scared to move the speakers around.
A little bit of amplifier swapping revealed important differences in sound could also be realized. Experimenting with the Clef and Super Clef, I've found that they can, in fact, be easily driven with lower-powered amplifiers, even tubes. The result, in general, is a silky-smooth, lush sound that many will enjoy. However, I've found that although they'll live with relatively low power, they really take hold of the music and deliver when you put some real balls-to-the-wall power behind them. Both Clefs can certainly suck up the power and end up playing quite loudly when given enough juice. Under-powered amplifiers seem to get them only to a certain volume level and then no more, even as you continue to crank the volume.
For much of my listening, I used the excellent SimAudio Celeste 4150se amplifier -- 150W into 8 ohms and 300 into 4. It's a powerhouse, and a good one at that. With this amplifier in place, both Clefs retained their lush, smooth character, with bass that was deeper, tighter and more visceral -- an excellent combination. Vocals that could tend to the chesty side were tighter and more detailed. Weighty piano and strong drum tracks, such as those on Tidal and Sarah McLachlan's The Freedom Sessions [Nettwerk W2-36321] had greater weight, improved resolution and could produce a volume of sound comparable to that of larger floorstanding loudspeakers. Large-scale classical pieces also benefited by having the increased power and could display a wall-to-wall stage. And when the time came for more simple, intimate pieces, both the Clefs and the Celeste amp clicked in accordingly and cast solid images with excellent width and good depth and fine detail.
So is the Super Clef worth the $300 upgrade from the standard Clef? That will first depend on whether you enjoy the Speaker Art loudspeakers in general. In my estimation, Bob Gross has something special with both the Clef and Super Clef. Both speakers are virtually identical, sonically and visually -- but the Super Clef is the slightly more refined sibling. They are unique loudspeakers in that they are very easy to listen to, robust and full-sounding, and play close to that of floorstanding, full-range loudspeakers -- not an easy feat for affordable bookshelf monitors. And most of all, they sound like music. Their flaws are that of omission -- the Clefs arent the last word in detail, but the Supers offer more so in the high frequencies. However, they are not hyper-detailed like some monitors can be. They reveal musical nuance, but they don't quite dissect a recording -- perhaps this is what makes them so eminently listenable on a wide range of recordings and can even make many poor recordings, particularly those with thin midranges and tizzy top ends, a bit more palatable.
The standard Clef model is definitely good value. Unlike with some lower-priced speakers, the Vifa tweeter in the Clef does not scream and sizzle. Instead, it simply lacks a little sparkle, but still retains a smooth and extended sound. However, the improvement that is brought by incorporating the Scan-Speak tweeter is definitely worth the price increase. I believe that the $300 value is better spent on this improved speaker than the same amount on, say, electronics or cables (assuming that the associated equipment used is at least of reasonable quality). The numerous readers who wrote me about how much they like the Clef should definitely seek out the Super Clef upgrade. The hardcore audiophile in me sees (and hears) the value.
The key to the Clef series, I believe, is in the balance of the design. The Clef's don't do everything perfectly, but they do many things -- and most importantly, the key things --exceedingly well. To me, this is the hallmark of a well-designed loudspeaker. As one listener to my house remarked, "I can't put my finger on it, but these speakers are really easy to listen to -- they sound very good." That about says it all, and its why I bought the Supers to keep them as a listening reference at this price point. I advise checking them both out.
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