The speaker dating game
As strange as it may sound, selecting a high-end loudspeaker has been for me like selecting a mate. In my youth, the initial attraction was based on a single sensory perception. If a girl grabbed my eye, I was hooked. My willingness back then to ignore potential incompatibility factors was directly proportional to visual stimulation. In short, the hotter a girl was, the more problems I overlooked.
Thankfully, with age comes wisdom, and I learned that for long-term compatibility balance reigns supreme. Similarly, Ive come to appreciate that my first sonic impressions arent always lasting ones. Rather than rushing to judgment after being smitten with a loudspeaker during a brief demo, I continue to listen for a number of subtle factors that become more crucial to my long-term happiness after the initial "wow factor" has waned.
I approached the review of the Verity Audio Sarastro in this manner, and I discovered that the Sarastro is a special speaker that is best appreciated over the long haul.
The penultimate speaker in Verity Audios eXR reference product line, the Sarastro is a three-way, two-box design with a rear-firing woofer module. It measures 47 1/2"H x 11"W X 20"D and weighs 150 pounds -- not small, but not gargantuan either. A fairly sensitive speaker, the Sarastro is rated at 93dB/W/m and a nominal 4-ohm load with a stated bandwidth of 20Hz to 60kHz +/- 3dB. The Sarastro uses a 2" Raven ribbon tweeter with a high-precision transformer; it covers the range from 6kHz up to 60kHz. Verity crosses over to the Sarastro's tweeter at a rather high frequency to eliminate phase non-linearity and place less strain on the ribbon. The aluminum front plate was redesigned to optimize dispersion and phase, and to mate with the cabinet.
The midrange and woofer drivers have polypropylene cones custom designed by Verity and manufactured by Audio Technology of Denmark. The 6" midrange driver combines an under-hung voice-coil configuration and a symmetrical drive system. A short voice coil and long gap were chosen for linearity and speed. Extending the midrange driver to 6kHz eliminates any crossover point within the most sensitive sonic region to the human ear.
The Sarastro's lower-bass module has an 11" rear-firing woofer with a symmetrical-drive 4" underhung voice coil. The woofer crosses over to the midrange at 120Hz. Verity claims the Sarastros bass response is flat down to the lowest octaves and remains accurate at even the most difficult overload conditions. The Bessel quasi-third-order bass tuning filter incorporates a 6dB room-reinforcement characteristic to flatten the frequency response down to 25Hz, resulting in very modest cone displacement for minimal distortion. Verity feels the gain in output power and reduction in direct-radiator cone displacement from use of the Bessel filter are significant. They claim that the Bessel filter reduces woofer distortion due to better loading and increases bass extension for a given size of speaker system and a given size of room.
Sandwiched between the Sarastro's upper and lower modules is a heavily damped 1"-thick aluminum plate. The top and bottom of the plate are each fitted with five thin Sorbothane pads with dual-sided adhesive. This aluminum-and-Sorbothane sandwich creates a secure bond between the modules while simultaneously and effectively isolating them from each other. The woofer module is fitted with finely adjustable brass spikes. The Sarastros can be single wired or biwired, and they come with well-made jumpers. When single wiring, you can connect the speaker cable to the binding posts at the bottom of the woofer cabinet or on the upper module. Some feel the sound with the upper-module conection is better than with the posts at the very bottom.
The Sarastros cost $34,995 USD per pair, giving a potential owner the right to expect not just top-shelf performance but superb fit and finish. I can tell you from much experience that you dont always get them. However, as with any Verity speaker, the Sarastro's construction and cosmetics are world-class. Made by an independent woodworking factory, the cabinets are finished with numerous coats of Italian polyester lacquer and hand-rubbed to a smoothness and gloss that has to be seen to be believed. The review pair had a silver metallic automotive finish that looked better to my eyes than any automobile Ive ever seen. There wasn't a trace of ripple, orange-peel effect or a seam visible -- not even in direct sunlight.
Equally impressive were the Sarastros custom-made flight cases -- with their multiple recessed handles, wheels on the woofer cases for easy maneuvering, easy-to-use butterfly locks, and form-fitted fabric "socks" for the modules, which set into dense foam molded to their shape. You cant help but feel a sense of both confidence and getting your moneys worth when purchasing a product with such superior packaging.
Primping for the first date
Julien Pelchat, co-owner of Verity Audio, and John Quick, Veritys US sales manager, set up the Sarastros in my listening room. After a couple of hours, the Sarastros were positioned approximately 5' from the front wall, 2 1/2' from the side walls, and with a moderate amount of toe-in. This left the speakers 9' apart and 9' from the listening chair. Rear spikes were set slightly higher than the front, effectively tilting the tweeters slightly forward and downward.
The Sarastros were single wired with Silversmith Palladium speaker cables to a pair of Lamm M1.2 Reference mono amps. A Conrad-Johnson ART 2 line-stage preamp, Aesthetix Io Signature phono stage, and a Reimyo CDP-777 CD player rounded out the electronics. I spun LPs on an SME Model 30 turntable with an SME Series IV.Vi tonearm and a Dynavector XV-1s cartridge. Interconnects were Silversmith Palladium and Kharma Enigma. Power products included Harmonix X-DC Studio Master power cords, and a Reimyo ALS-777 power conditioner for the CD player only. My listening room has been heavily treated with a combination of ASC Super Tube Traps and Echo Busters.
The moment of truth
What is the truth, especially where musical reproduction is concerned? Conventional thinking asserts that the goal of an audio system is to sound like live music. I submit that this is the wrong goal.
Lets look at this in terms of, say, basketball. Im 51 and a whopping 5' 8" tall. Therefore, being 6' 6" tall and dunking over Shaquille O'Neal are misplaced goals, not to mention exercises in frustration and futility. Setting realistic basketball goals to, say, dribble better or to improve my free throws will not only be attainable but increase my enjoyment of the sport.
Back to sonic goals. While we may continue to use live (unamplified) music as a reference, re-creating it in our home is simply not attainable. Live music has a physicality in time and space that cannot be duplicated with any sound system. Given this, my main audio goal is to achieve the greatest tonal accuracy while increasing emotional involvement with the music. For me, if a loudspeaker cant get the tonality correct, the rest is a waste of time. Too often, a loudspeaker will deliver slam, sharp transients, good frequency extension -- everything but accurate timbre or tonality. Trumpets dont sound like trumpets, and cymbals dont sound like cymbals.
Although the Sarastro didnt call immediate attention to itself, it was impossible not to notice its spot-on tonality. Instruments and voices sounded like the real thing, which increased the believability of the music. Thanks to Julien Pelchat, one of my new reference CDs is Chris Joness Roadhouses & Automobiles [Stockfish SFR 357.6027.2]. "The Last Fallen Leaf" is a haunting solo-acoustic-guitar piece. The tone, overtones, decay and harmonics of Joness guitar were eerily realistic with the Sarastros -- neither slow nor ponderous, neither thin nor whitish. With close-miked solo acoustic guitar, through colored loudspeakers the lowest notes end up sounding like they're coming from a bass guitar, while brighter, thinner speakers make them sound anemic and overly steely. Through the Sarastros, everything was as it should be.
I recently heard the Great Lakes Chamber Orchestra in an intimate setting. Sitting not more than 20 feet from the performers, I concentrated on the tone of the unamplified strings and woodwinds. While my system has always been enjoyable, Ive struggled to get violins, violas and cellos to sound natural. When I got home, I loaded Hayden's String Quartet Opus 76 by Quatuor Mosaiques [Astree E 8665] into my Reimyo CD player. Ive avoided this wonderful two-CD set lately because it sounds a bit strident, even at reasonable volumes. Through the Sarastros, however, the strings were rich, vivid and strikingly similar to the live sound Id just heard. Violins had an inviting warmth that wasnt accomplished by rolling off the top end or blunting the attack.
I attribute much of this effect to the midrange driver, with its 6kHz extension. The Sarastros have the best midrange Ive heard from any speaker at any price. Never bloated or syrupy, from CD or LP, the mids were supple, rich, luscious and accurate. Although a loudspeaker cannot achieve complete tonal accuracy with an exceptional midrange alone, it certainly is a good place to start. In this regard, the Sarastros are unequivocally the finest speaker Ive heard on unamplified strings, no matter the kind of music.
Strings, though, werent the only instruments well served by the Sarastros. On Heres the Deal from Chicagos hard-driving funk/jazz group Liquid Soul [Shanachie 5065 CD 2000], the Sarastros proved they could boogie and deliver the impact and nuance of the groups horn section. As a former professional trumpet player, I was particularly impressed with Ron Haynes' two trumpet solos on "Sex Tablet." Too often through other loudspeakers, Harmon-muted trumpet solos sound tinny and anemic. Through the Sarastros, I could easily hear Haynes fat tone coming through the Harmon mute. Then, when he removed the mute, his full-bodied tone continued while retaining its growl and bite.
The upper frequencies were as airy and extended as those from any diamond tweeter Ive heard. What set them apart, however, was their delicacy and sweetness. On the JVC XRCD24 tribute album Portrait of Bill Evans [VICJ-61171], Brad Mehldaus piano dances that difficult step between accenting the string and emphasizing the felted hammer. In the upper registers especially, the pianists attack was quick and light but without sacrificing body. Cymbals were also a treat through the Sarastros. They had just the right amount of sheen and extension.
The Sarastros bass response is what surprised me most. In my experience, bass can be a bit ripe or boomy with rear-firing woofers. With the speakers properly positioned, the Sarastros low end was full, rich and articulate. As Verity claims, the speakers interaction with the room boundaries provided plenty of bass with low distortion. The pulsating drum cadence on the soundtrack from Master and Commander - The Far Side of the World [Miramax 475 398-2] had plenty of power and majesty, yet the sound of mallet striking the drum skin was never overshadowed by its percussiveness. With electric bass, Marcus Millers aggressive style and foundation-shaking deep bass were easily reproduced on "Boogie on Reggae Woman" from Silver Rain [Koch CD 5779]. Avishai Cohens nimble and rapid-fire acoustic-bass solo on "Fingerprints," from Chick Coreas Past, Present & Futures CD [Stretch Records SCD 9035-2], arrived through the Sarastros with speed, clarity and convincing articulation. I suspect my heavily treated room helped in this regard.
In addition to their stunning tonality, the Sarastros were equally adept at imaging and soundstaging as well as conveying a transparent view of the music. Voices had a three-dimensional quality and image density that made me feel that I could reach out and touch the performers. The guitar intro on "Jesus of Rio" on Crosby-Nash [Sanctuary Records 2004] extended well beyond the speakers, and images floated in space unencumbered by the limitations of room boundaries. The sound of the Crosby/Nash band was simultaneously vivid and unforced as well as coherent from top to bottom. Images were stable and well focused without feeling disjointed from the overall presentation. The performers were life-sized but not exaggerated -- no 20-foot tall saxophones here.
Realistic tonality and transparency without realistic dynamics, however, can compromise the overall performance of any loudspeaker. To test the Sarastros dynamic capabilities, I spun Jim Brocks Tropic Affair LP [Reference Recordings RR-31]. "Pass-a-Grille" begins with a subdued piano solo overlaid with Brocks wispy percussion accents. After about 30 seconds the song virtually explodes with a fortissimo horn-laced blast followed by the melody line. The Sarastros went from 0 to 60 with effortlessness and audible delicacy at both extremes. The expressiveness of Brocks music was equally compelling during the quiet and the explosive passages.
The best way to describe what the Sarastros do (and dont do) is by visual analogy. My church has auditorium seating. Due to its size, two large drop-down film screens flank the stage. In the balcony (where I sit) there are five television monitors. The two screens and five TV monitors simultaneously project the live event, so everyone can get a good view. If you look at the pastors clothes viewing only the screens or TV monitors youre left with the impression that the TV monitors are much more accurate than the screens because colors are so much more vivid, pronounced and bright. However, one look at the real person quickly reveals that it is the screens that are almost dead accurate. In real life, a blue or purple shirt is much more subdued, and denim pants are lighter and have more of pastel hue. In essence, the hyped-up sharpness and contrast of the TV monitors, while impressive taken in isolation, simply dont portray reality.
Like the TV monitors, many high-end speakers turn up the sharpness and contrast and thereby fail to portray the realistic tonality of voices and instruments. The Sarastros, like the film screens, dont hype the leading edge of transients, ramp up the contrast or attack you with exaggerated frequency anomalies. They simply produce the true essence of the message and in doing so portray the realism of the performer better than any transducer Ive heard to date.
Any complaints? Nit-picks mainly. First, dont expect to throw the Sarastros willy-nilly into a room and think they will strut their stuff. The Sarastros demand that you take the time and effort to find their optimum placement. Second, if you connect to the upper-module binding posts, the speaker cables drape down across the woofer. I cant help but think this affects performance in some way. Next, although the Sarastro can play plenty loud without strain, there came a point where increasing the gain on my preamplifier didnt seem to increase the volume any further. Unless you plan on listening at 120dB, however, this shouldnt pose a problem. Finally, the price of admission is roughly that of a new luxury automobile. Then again, for music lovers, the gift of a pair of Verity Sarastros will keep on giving for more years than most cars.
The Sarastro certainly had a tough and heavy act to follow in my listening room. My current reference loudspeakers, Kharma Exquisite 1Ds, are quasi-custom speakers that would cost nearly $100,000 per pair if they were in production. My speaker differs from Kharmas current version of the Exquisite 1D by virtue of its larger diamond tweeter (1 1/4" as opposed to the standard 1") and different woofer (a Focal woofer preferred by the first owner of the speakers for its punchier bass).
While both my speakers and the Sarastros are clearly expensive, the 1Ds are almost three times the price of the Sarastros. The larger, more inert Kharmas, with their forward-firing 13" woofer, had the edge in bass speed and punch, while the Sarastros bass seemed fuller and extended deeper. On material with low-end oomph, the Kharma speakers delivered a punch in the gut, while the Sarastros produced a ground-shaking experience. The dual, stacked ASC Super Tube Traps behind each speaker allowed the Sarastros bass to be free of boom and prevented it from intruding on the midrange. The result was deep, accurate bass with a flat response in my room below that of the larger Kharma speakers.
The Kharmas 1 1/4" diamond tweeter (also with claimed extension to 60kHz) has always produced crystalline upper frequencies that have amazing speed and clarity. Accordingly, I was quite impressed when the Sarastro matched the Kharmas clarity and extension. Even more impressive was the delicacy and sweetness of the Sarastros ribbon tweeter -- which I slightly preferred over that of the big Kharma.
Where these two titans differed most was in the area most crucial to me -- the midrange. While the laser-cut ceramic midrange driver in the Kharma speakers provides images with pin-point accuracy, great focus and startling detail, the Sarastros midrange was harmonically richer and, to my ears, more tonally accurate. Thankfully, this harmonic purity isnt delivered at the cost of resolution. Over the years I have noticed that ceramic midrange drivers like the one used in my Kharma speakers can ring at certain levels, leading to listening fatigue at loud volumes or over extended sessions. However, this never occurred with the Sarastros. On the vast majority of the 60-70 CDs I used to compare the two speakers, I preferred the silkier and richer midrange of the Sarastro. Voices, strings, and brass instruments all had a huskier, earthier, more organic presentation through the Verity speakers that gave music an immediacy that was both enticing and compelling.
The Kharma, however, seemed to be able to play louder than the Sarastro when pushed to the extreme. However, as mentioned above, this was not an issue for me (and I am known to play music at real-world levels at times). Conversely, the Sarastro comes to life at lower volumes better than the bigger Kharma speaker, and that could be a big advantage for your aural health. Finally, both speakers were equally proficient at getting the sound out of the box, free of the cabinet. Both the Verity and Kharma speakers were Houdini-like at disappearing. Both produced a wide and deep soundstage with a slight edge going to the Sarastro.
Choosing between these two world-class performers is like choosing between milk chocolate and dark chocolate: It's a matter of personal preference, but the result will always be tasteful. For me, the edge goes to the Verity Sarastros.
Making the call
If you are currently courting a loudspeaker and prefer a transducer with the wow factor of Pamela Anderson or the misleading made-up presentation of a super-model, you may want to look past the Verity Audio Sarastro. However, if you prefer a girl-next-door natural beauty with inner qualities to last a lifetime, assuming you have the resources, the Sarastro may be your dream date. The more time you spend with the Sarastros, the more you will appreciate what they can do. I grew to admire many things about them, including their honest tonality and beautiful midrange. In this hyped-up audio world of exaggerated resolution and analytical "hi-fi" sound, the Verity Audio Sarastro stands out as a balanced, honest, stunningly beautiful performer that will make you want to remain speaker monogamous.
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