November 2001Silverline Audio Panatella II Loudspeakers
by Paul Schumann
When I first installed the Silverline Panatella II speakers in my audio system, I had a strange sense of deja vu. I could not help but be reminded of my early days of audio exploration with my first audio system -- Dynaco PAS preamp and ST-70 amplifier ("borrowed" from my dad), Pioneer tape deck, and ADS L620 speakers. I ended up living with the L620s for close to 20 years before I traded them in for my current Thiel CS1.5s. While I still love my Thiels, the freewheeling ADS speakers made a lasting impression. They were easy to drive with their 91dB/1W/m sensitivity and an 8-ohm impedance (which was quite important with the 35Wpc ST-70 amp). They also had killer bass with those 10" paper-cone woofers. What can I say? I was 18.
The $1990 USD Panatella IIs are a two-way floorstanding design with a 1" fabric-dome tweeter crossed over at 2.7kHz to two 6" cone drivers that handle midrange and bass duties. The drivers are mounted on a sloped baffle for time coherency. The Panatella IIs are rated at 92dB/1W/m with a nominal impedance of 8 ohms, which should make them an easy load for tube amps. Silverline states that the frequency response is 32Hz to 22kHz. The speakers measure 38"H x 8"W x 16"D and weigh 55 pounds each.
The review samples I received were in a high-gloss curly maple finish, which I have to say is drop-dead gorgeous. Rosewood and cherry finishes are also available. The Panatella IIs have separate sets of gold-plated binding posts for the tweeter and the bass/midrange drivers to facilitate biwiring. Since I didnt have the cable available for such a setup, I used my trusty Audio Magic Excalibur II speaker cables connected to the midrange and bass drivers with the provided jumpers hooked to the tweeters, as recommended in the manual.
As I stated, the Panatella IIs quickly reminded me of my old ADS L620s in several areas. These are both speakers that tend to be more freewheeling in nature, with both small-scale and large-scale dynamics taking precedence. Now Im not talking about the in-your-face dynamics of horns, but same effect to a lesser degree. I think it was this dynamic excitement of the L620s that swayed me so many years ago over the smoother but less dynamic Magnepans of my youth. The Panatella IIs also display this characteristic, but in a more controlled manner. This most likely has to do with the use of two smaller drivers instead of one big one to produce both the midrange and bass frequencies.
If youve ever been told that speakers cant be evaluated without understanding how they are a part of an electromechanical circuit with the amplifier, the Panatella IIs will help you grasp this fact. The JoLida SJ202 integrated that I used for this review is a classic push-pull pentode design. The pentodes in question are EL34s, the same as those used in many guitar amplifiers. When used in pentode mode, these tubes add quite a bit of lower-range odd-order harmonics, which gives them what many observers describe as "warmth." This is not necessarily a bad thing; it's just a natural result of this configuration. With the Panatella IIs, this added bit of warm fuzziness is quite distinct. When listening to the Anonymous Fours A Star in the East [Harmonia Mundi HMU 907139], I could hear how the voices of these remarkable women are given an extra burnished glow that makes them even more seductive and entrancing. I know Homer wrote of sirens entrancing men to their destruction. If there is a modern equivalent, these women are it.
During the process of this review, I made several upgrades to the JoLida SJ202 to, as I put it, "get the muck out." First, I replaced all of the factory el cheapo coupling capacitors with polystyrene types. With the Panatella IIs, this change was immediately apparent. After breaking in these caps, I noticed a definite improvement in the clarity. Recordings like The Sundays Reading, Writing, and Arithmetic [Geffen Music D2-24277], which I always considered quite muddy-sounding, suddenly sparkled with a new life that was refreshing. Still there was a fine grain to the music that the Panatella IIs laid bare.
While looking for a cure to this sometimes-annoying affliction, I became interested in further upgrading the SJ202 by replacing the factory-supplied small signal tubes with some vintage NOS tubes that were readily available for a reasonable cost. I ended up purchasing some tubes from Kevin Deal of Upscale Audio (see the archived feature article). The insertion of these tubes produced greater refinement in the midrange and treble, which the Panatella IIs telegraphed to me in spades. Many albums that I had for years considered "hot" in the upper frequencies were now imbued with a cleaner, more natural sound. Ive always loved The Pat Metheny Groups Offramp [ECM-1-1216], but now I was struck with the nearly grainless cymbal work and preternatural overtones from Methenys guitar. The result of this was a more enjoyable listening experience. I felt I was listening more to the music than the system itself. It is to the credit of the Panatella IIs that I was able to make this exploration without obviously sugarcoating the results.
The main strength of the Panatella IIs is their reproduction of the midrange. When coupled with the JoLida, vocals pop to the front with astonishing ease. I dont know if this is entirely accurate, but it sure makes for fun listening. Going back to Reading, Writing, and Arithmetic, one of the most enjoyable aspects of The Sundays music is Harriet Wheelers uniquely unpretentious vocals. Listening to this CD through the Panatella IIs, I luxuriated in her soft, lilting voice, giving me a better understanding of the sly, underplayed lyrics that permeate this still-stunning debut album.
Another favorite of mine that makes its way into my CD player on a regular basis is Annie Lennoxs Medusa [Arista 74321-25717-2]. Im sure by now that you have figured out that I have a weakness for British female vocalists. While Harriet Wheeler is mezzo-soprano, Annie Lennox is unquestionably a first-soprano -- a first-soprano with attitude. In the opening track to this CD, "No More I Love Yous," Lennox opens at the upper limits of her voice, clear and direct, yet unstrained. As the song progresses, her vocals become more urgent, telegraphing the pain of a loss of innocence. Ive listened to this song many times in my home, but it was with the Panatella IIs that I fully experienced the shifting emotions. Weve all been told that the midrange is the meat of the music, but the Silverline Panatella IIs make this painfully evident.
If I have one quibble with the Panatella IIs, it is in the nether regions of the bass frequencies. Silverline states that the Panatella IIs produce base to 32Hz. For many of experienced listeners, this is subwoofer territory. Once you get below 40Hz, only few speakers can honestly get to those depths in a convincing manner. My old ADS speakers were supposedly rated to 20Hz, but any test CD would show that they really gave up the ghost at around 38Hz. I didnt have test CD on hand for this review of the Panatella IIs, but I did have available the next best thing, Reference Recordings Pomp & Pipes [RR-58CD]. This recording combines the ageless Frederick Fennell conducting the Dallas Wind Symphony with Paul Riedo cranking up the awesome organ at the Morton H. Meyerson Symphony Center. If any recording can be called testicular, this is it. While the Panatella IIs rendered the kettledrums quite nicely, they just couldnt reproduce those well-renowned bass drum "thwacks" that give this recording some of its excitement. Its not like this detracts from the music, but after hearing the low end from other systems, I know that its missing here.
With most of my music collection, however, this lower bass wont even be missed. Sometimes we audiogeeks get caught up in these trivial matters, pulling out our audiophile-approved recordings and saying to ourselves, "See, I knew that this gizmo doesnt reproduce the second-chair cello as well as the last gizmo I listened to it!" In the bigger picture, these things mean very little. So what if the Panatella IIs dont make my chest vibrate. Ive lived with them in my system for quite a while now, and Ive never sat there saying to myself, "Gee, I wish there was more bass!" My quibble is not with the lack of reproduction of the nether regions of the musical spectrum. It is just that I could not get the Panatella IIs to play down to manufacturer-stated bottom-end frequency with any authority.
So how do the Panatella IIs compare to other speakers Ive used in my system. As I mentioned previously, the Thiel CS1.5s are the resident speakers in my system. The strength of these speakers has always been their amazing coherency. If you can pinpoint the crossover point in these remarkable two-way speakers, then you are better listener than I. Even though the CS1.5s have stated low-frequency response of 42Hz, they are able to reproduce the midbass transients with greater command than the Panatella IIs. The flip side to this is that the Panatella IIs dig out so many of the low-level nuances that give music its heart and soul.
I also noted that the Panatella IIs are a little more polished in the upper frequencies. This may be due to fact that the CS 1.5s use an aluminum tweeter in a two-way configuration, while the Panatella IIs use soft-dome tweeter in a three-way setup. The big advantage of a three-way configuration is that the tweeter is not asked to work in the bottom of its range, where it tends to distort the most. Metal domes and soft domes both have their adherents, but most of the better soft domes (such as the Dynaudio tweeters) give a more relaxed presentation of those oh-so-critical highs. I tend to be more sensitive to the distortion in this frequency range, so I probably notice it more than others do. The bottom line is the Thiels and Silverlines are both wonderful speakers with different strengths and weaknesses.
I must commend Silverline Audio for their accomplishment in producing a reasonably priced floorstanding speaker that does so many things well. There is a plethora of competition in this price range (the Thiels are similarly priced), so you must be able to produce a transducer that stands apart from the crowd. The Panatella IIs, with their beautiful fit and finish, easy-to-drive nature, refined highs and seductive midrange, are definitely head-turners. My wife recently asked me which speakers I preferred, the Thiels or the Silverlines. To be honest, I really dont know. What I do know is that Ill really miss the Panatella IIs when they're gone.
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