November 2005Opera Audio Consonance Eric-3 Loudspeakers
by Tim Shea
I remember when Honda first introduced the little CVCC econobox to US shores in the 1970s. I can recall snickering to myself as I watched these little automotive oddities scoot around town dwarfed by the big ol American iron that ruled the day. Surely Honda couldnt be serious about cracking the Big Threes domestic stranglehold on the US car buyer.
Turns out they were serious -- and successful. OK, so they can make good cars. Certainly they couldnt impinge on Chryslers minivan dominance, a market the company single-handedly created. Oops. All right, but if Americans do anything well its trucks, and everyone loves big domestic SUVs. Oops again. Anyone notice that Honda just introduced its first pickup truck? I bet that met with some snickers as well. Surely Honda doesnt mean to compete seriously in this most American of all automotive segments. Well, I just read a pretty darn positive review of this newcomer. The more things change .
Something similar seems to be happening in the audio world. It started with mass-market electronics from Japan that were rarely taken seriously in the lofty reaches of high-end audiophilia. Surely a region firmly immersed in high technology and all things digital could never breach the levies that demarcate the realm of the well-heeled audiophile. Well, over the past few years, Ive been reading some pretty darn positive reviews of various tubed and solid-state amps, preamps, CD players, and even turntables that emanate from several Far Eastern countries. In fact, not long ago I penned an extremely positive review of an extremely impressive DAC/preamp from a Korean company, the Stello DP200 from April Music.
OK, but those are all relatively small electronics that the Far East obviously can do well. Certainly they could never challenge the US and European dominance in the speaker market where left-brain electronics must synergistically co-exist with right-brain creativity and artisan craftsmanship. Anyone care to wager a little snicker at this point?
Enter China-based Opera Audio and its relatively new line of speakers. Is that a snicker I hear? Opera has actually been turning out various electronic components for over ten years, and they offer everything from source components (yes, even a turntable) to speakers and everything in between -- cables too. The subject of this review is the largest speaker in the Opera Audio line, the Eric-3.
The first thing that struck me about the Eric-3 floorstanders was their incredibly beautiful finish. Its called African hazelwood, which Ive never heard of. It casts a deep, rich brown-reddish glow that is downright striking, and even the rear of the speaker is fully woodified. Id be honest-to-gosh impressed if this finish was on an $8000 pair of speakers much less a pair that retails for only $1795 USD.
The second characteristic that became evident as I whisked the Eric-3s into their initial positions was that they are relatively light compared to other speakers I have auditioned of similar size (my semi-accurate bathroom scale calculated about 43 pounds each). This was a little surprising because the speakers are said to be constructed of 3/4" MDF, employ additional structural bracing, and are internally coated with yet more damping material. Maybe MDF is lighter in China. Further, upon instituting the very scientific knuckle-wrap test, I noted a distinctly hollow and resonant "thud" rather than the painfully hard "clink" I get from more robust structures. Other manufacturers (Triangle comes instantly to mind) do not belong to the "built like a bank vault" speaker-cabinet club, but I considered myself on alert for any sonic anomalies that might be borne of wood.
The speakers themselves are relatively small by floorstanding standards, measuring 38 1/2"H x 8 1/4"W x 12 1/2"D. They fit the "perfect size" demographic in that theyre big enough to have some balls yet small enough to not trip the spousal-disapproval wire. Again, that gorgeous finish doesnt hurt either. A skosh more controversial might be the brushed aluminum plate on the front of the speaker that occupies a goodly portion of that beautiful wood veneer, although it is said that this metallic intrusion improves the sound significantly. I think it looks kinda cool; my wife did not. Maybe you can just tell your spouse its removable but that youre leaving it on for now, and if youre lucky she might just get used to it. Is better sound worth a little white lie? Hey, they do it for friggin shoes, so we can certainly justify it for something as important as speakers.
Also adorning the speakers front are two 6 1/2" midrange/woofers on either side of a 1" tweeter, and below that array lies a front-firing port. The midwoofers look a little unorthodox in that the dust cap has a pyramid shape that is said to strengthen the cones structure and covers a rather largish 1 1/2" voice coil that is designed to "work like a V8 engine to provide enough driving force." Very un-Honda-like that. The drivers themselves are made of a fiber-filled material; a copper shortcut ring and other structural elements are used to reduce inter-modulation distortion. Around back youll find the all-too-common recessed plastic box that houses two pair of binding posts; biwiring seems to be the preferred connection method according to the manual.
All this comes together in a two-way design connected by a third-order crossover at 2.6 kHz with a stated frequency response of 42Hz to 24kHz (no +/- range given). Impedance is stated as 4 ohms with 91dB sensitivity, and all but the most flea-powered of tube amps are said to be fine to drive the Eric-3s, despite their stated bass capabilities. All I can say is that they seemed to be an easier load than my Soliloquy 6.2s, which are also supposed to be tube friendly, so I have no reason to doubt Opera's claim.
I found the Eric-3s to be rather forgiving of setup as they imaged very well and disappeared into the surroundings no matter where I placed them. What did change appreciably was in-room bass response. Despite the speakers' front-firing ports, I found it important to keep the Eric-3s a fair distance from the front wall to avoid boominess -- at least in my room. I ended up placing them right where my reference speakers resided, approximately five feet from the front wall, two and a half feet from the side walls, six and a half feet apart, about ten feet from the listening position and slightly toed in. Despite their smallish size for floorstanders, I could see them presenting problems in smaller rooms or rooms where the acoustic dimensions reinforce certain lower frequencies. There were no instructions for break-in, and I noticed very little if any change in the Eric-3s sound after many hours of listening.
In fact, the Eric-3s were consistent not only over time but also across many genres of music. Right out of the box they sounded very full and rich with plenty of low-end punch and upper-range sparkle. Their dynamic capabilities are also considerable, and when combined with the tonal properties above, the Eric-3s came out sounding like much larger speakers. If blindfolded I would have guessed them to be easily twice their actual size.
OK, so they sound bigger than they are. But as all audiophiles know, quality is often more important than quantity, especially when it comes to speakers. Another oft-stated belief is that speakers can live and die by the quality of their midrange reproduction, and if thats the case, the Eric-3s will not be in need of life support anytime soon. In fact, in this regard they seemed to possess a combination of the best qualities of other speakers that have passed through my room. They had the clarity and speed of the Thiel CS1.6es, the heft and dynamic involvement of my Soliloquy 6.2s, and the overall natural presentation of the Sehring 602s. I was surprised by this, because many two-way speakers Ive heard that incorporate somewhat large dual midrange/bass drivers dont always sound as unfettered or coherent across the midrange, and I have to believe its not easy to make those two drivers integrate seamlessly. Kudos to the Opera folks for figuring a way to pull that off. Maybe there is something to those pyramid-shaped dust caps after all.
One of the first songs I played that tipped me off to the Eric-3s midrange and dynamic potential was Stevie Ray Vaughan and Double Troubles "Tin Pan Alley" from Couldnt Stand the Weather [Epic/Legacy 65871]. Those tom-tom whacks all of a sudden seemed like they were more closely miked and that Id been missing some of the woody tone and depth of impact contained therein. When things got going, the Eric-3s never flinched. I felt like I was sitting much closer to the stage, and this turned out to be a defining character of these speakers, as it translated to everything I put through them. Whether this is a good thing depends on your perspective on, well, perspectives -- more on this in a bit. One thing I did note was the bass line seemed a little on the wooly side; it was less focused than I am used to. This could be a function of my room, but I did start to wonder if the cabinet could be contributing something of its own here.
Moving on to Ralph Towner and Gary Peacocks A Closer View [ECM 1602], it was clear that there wasnt much sluggishness in the bass region, and overall I give the Eric-3s high marks in the pace, rhythm, and timing department. The only aspect that gave me pause was that as the bass worked its way down to the lower regions there was decidedly less force being generated from the lower notes. Whether this is representative of some low-frequency hump or bass roll-off I cant say, but it was there nonetheless.
Back to that wonderful midrange. Norah Jones Come Away With Me [Blue Note 32088] sounded simply fabulous, and this is where the coherence thing made itself evident. When reproduced well this disc can really bring Norah into your room, but not all speakers maintain the clarity and detail of her voice, especially when she reaches down to the lower parts of her range, where things can easily get a little muddy. The Eric-3s did as good a job of reproducing a perfectly even flow and tone to the vocals as any speaker thats been in my room. Where I felt the Eric-3s fell a little short was at the upper end of the mids (or maybe its the lower treble?) as some of Ms. Joness breathiness was withheld. Although it did not detract from the overall beauty of the vocal reproduction, it did take away some of the "thereness" that has the effect of drawing you in, creating that last important bit of involvement.
I found a similar or perhaps related effect on "Sex Machine" from Cheskys Larry Coryell, Victor Bailey & Lenny White [Chesky 308], where the air around the instruments was somewhat squelched, which partially masked the sense of the space that I know Chesky goes to great lengths to capture. Its almost like the recording takes on a little more of a damped studio quality rather than taking place in open air and space. This also translated to a slight softening of the leading edge of drum strokes, but, once again, the Eric-3s seemed to leave nothing on the table dynamically. Cymbals were very crisp, clear, and undistorted during loud crashes and at high volumes, but as the Eric-3s do tend to pull your seat forward, the cymbals can sound a little prominent within the overall fabric of the performance. There also seemed to be more metallic "ping" than tonal essence and weight, and again I wondered if the lower treble was a bit absent.
Moving on to bigger things, "The William Tell Overture" from William Tell & Other Favorite Overtures [Telarc 80116] was truly spectacular, as the brass and woodwinds were portrayed in all their sonic impact and splendor. This is where the Eric-3s really stood their ground and proved to be true overachievers while only lacking a little bit of image height, probably due to their shorter stature. With many smaller speakers the bass drum tends to hide in the background, and we only get a hint of its contribution, but the Eric-3s let you hear and feel that it's there, playing an important role. They also do a great job of disappearing, which further facilitates immersion into the music without sonic cues creating an equipment-induced distraction.
On the flip side, the price thats paid for this up-front seat is that you lose some of the perception of depth; the front wall never quite melts away to reveal where the rear of the stage may lie. I say "may lie" because in actual performances I dont perceive much depth either, but if recording engineers work hard to provide it to make up for missing visual cues, I want to hear it. But thats me, and I know a number of audiophiles and musicians who dont care a whit about depth perception (although it sure comes in handy if youre out driving your Honda around).
Act II: Comparison
The speaker that immediately jumped to mind when I first heard the Eric-3s was the excellent Paradigm Reference Studio 100 v.3s ($2200 per pair), particularly due to both speakers outstanding midrange and dynamic presentation. As with the Eric-3s I also had some bass issues with the Paradigms, although I was in a less bass-friendly room at the time. Interestingly, one of my few concerns with the Studio 100 v.3s, as with the Eric-3s, was its relatively lively cabinet structure, something that Paradigm seems to have addressed in the Signature series.
One of the main differences between the Studio 100 v.3s and Eric-3s is that the more expensive Paradigms manage to preserve dynamic impact while also taking a few steps back and allowing for a better view into the layered depths of the soundstage. Id also give the Paradigms the edge in the treble department -- they offer similar detail with a more full-range sound through that region. For their part the Eric-3s counter with a more user- and spouse-friendly package due to a finish that frankly leaves the vinyl-clad Canadian speakers in the dust.
Id give the sonic edge to the Paradigms, but theyll cost you more both monetarily and in real estate, so there is no free lunch here. The Eric-3s get you a good part of the way there sonically and look better doing it for less money. There you have it.
As with Hondas initial foray into our car market, Opera Audios Consonance Eric-3 isnt perfect, but it sure hits many of the most important areas hard, offering an impressive level of refinement and grace, and a touch of derring-do. The Eric-3s offer a glorious midrange amid bombastic dynamics, while avoiding grievous sins of commission. And they come in an unassuming and beautiful package. The Eric-3's most obvious areas for improvement would be to flesh out the upper-mid/lower-treble range and instill a better sense of depth for those audiophiles who care about such things. Given their relatively modest asking price, the Eric-3s offer a lot, and more than you get from many of their competitors, which are mostly minimonitors.
A loudspeaker from China? Snicker if you must, but youre doing so in ignorance until you hear this impressive new entrant into the speaker derby.
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