Urs Wagner, Ph.D, of Switzerland is a man of modest temperament. His soft but firm tone of voice communicates the depth of his intellect and the extent of his ideology. And once a conversation with him flows, you’ll be even more surprised at his subtle but passionate enumeration of passions and principles in business and life.
Dr. Wagner and his wife had barely a minute’s peace at Alexis Park’s checkout counter at the end of CES 2004, when I recognized the Ensemble boxes he was reeling and introduced myself to him. He and I exchanged greetings and we began conversing on the state of the high-end immediately.
The Ensemble president’s passion in audio extends extensively to an overwhelmingly broad spectrum of thoroughness, from the properties and sonic effects of nuts and bolts in musical reproduction to the culmination of a self-sufficient, all-Ensemble system. The Ensemble digital front ends, amplifications, speaker system and cables are but embers of a vastly ambitious and inclusive cooperative in minimizing oftentimes unwarranted variables that a similar co-op of equipment of varying makes cannot be rid of.
Dr. Wagner’s vision for Ensemble is so encompassing, the company markets no less than 2 power cords, 1 power distribution unit, two isolation transformers-equipped power supplies, 1 speaker cable, 1 interconnect, 1 digital cable, 5 speaker terminals, 4 cable connectors and 2 tube sockets. For music, Ensemble has its own 70-minute-long Highlights Collection Volume 1 – Sounds in Natural Perspective (ECL 20031).
This CD is neither modest in its content nor its origin. Dr. Wagner sourced the music materials from the vault of a classical record label, the Norwegian Simax Classics, which recorded, edited and mastered the original materials in 24-bit, and Dr. Wagner remastered them for his CD using an Ensemble power distribution unit and his power and signal cables.
Prized composers featured in this CD included Giacinto Scelsi (Italian, 1905-1988), J. S. Bach (German, 1685-1750), Benjamin Britten (English, 1913-1976), Bohuslav Martinu (Czech, 1890-1959), Edvard Grieg (Norwegian, 1843-1907), Halfdan Kjerulf (Norwegian, 1815-1868), and Ernest Bloch (Swiss, 1880-1959). Performances chronicled in this CD included that by a baritone with piano accompaniment, a cathedral organ, a string quartet, a violin/piano/cello trio, a piano/cello duo, a flute/guitar duo, a triple percussions with triple synthesizers group, a choir with harp accompaniment, various symphony orchestras, several piano solos and double bass solos.
For the avid music admirers and adventurous music enthusiasts, this Ensemble CD is a gem worth investing into, and reflects the focal point in Dr. Wagner’s activities.
The Making of a Reference
Dr. Urs Wagner intended his company’s reference loudspeaker to produce “mental images that take on bodily shape, become three-dimensional.” He thus named the first Ensemble loudspeaker Figura.
Figura is meant to be a statement in “total energy control in all directions and on all levels”, with “harmonized” construction of cabinet and internal damping protocol for “maximum control of parasitical energy”. In devising this reference loudspeaker, Dr. Wagner employed extensive applications in electrical and mechanical engineering.
The Figura features metallic construction for the entire cabinet except for the front baffle, reclines backwards in a parallelogram configuration to effectuate a time-aligned driver dispersion behavior.
The Figura’s cabinet features what Ensemble coins as “true sandwich construction”, which is created utilizing special diamond tooling to machine two layers of 1 mm-thick, brushed and anodized aluminum sheets to sandwich a center layer of black, high density fiberboard. The front baffle, on the other hand, is constructed utilizing a process dubbed “proprietary harmonizing construction”, culminating in a 30mm-thick wood composite material finished in lacquered metallic.
Glassy to the touch, the Figura’s aluminum body is attached to the precision-machined aluminum footplate via rubber feet for added measures in vibration absorption. Final coupling to the floor is provided by another set of rubber feet beneath the footplate.
In creating his first Ensemble loudspeaker system, Dr. Urs Wagner adopted the quintessential 2-way approach, employing custom built, 1-inch soft dome tweeter fitted with a surrounding 2-inch-wide velvet ring tapered to the cabinet, that claims to have an extended, “smooth, transparent treble performance” on the top-end, with an optimized low-end for coupling to the 6.5-inch mid-bass driver.
Among the smallest in diameter in full-range speakers I’ve auditioned, the Figura mid-bass driver is said to be “a long-throw design, capable of precise low frequency extension as well as excellent mid frequency resolution.” It is further augmented by a forward flare port, the airflow of which Ensemble claims to be highly controlled.
In securing the drivers, Dr. Wagner uses non-magnetic, steel machined screws with a 1.1 mm ultra-flat heads that usually cost 20 times more than normal screws, and for long-term security and vibration absorption in driver mounting, proprietary cork rings are chosen over foam materials.
Extraordinary details are given in the arrangement of Figura’s crossover. Embedded in a “vibration-absorbing medium”, the thick-copper layered and zoned crossover is consisted of custom-made, thick foil polypropylene PROCAP™ capacitors, as well as proprietary air-core coils with zero dielectric loss insulation, for a “linear electrical behavior up to 100kHz. Furthermore, the PROCAP™ capacitor-based internal crossover is claimed to have low phasic shift and group delay, having only to attain a 6dB performance characteristic as accorded by a 12dB design.
Then, the speaker is internally wired with Dr. Wagner’s own triple shielding Megaflux™ from the binding posts to the crossover, and Megalink™ cables for driver connection.
Most unusual among the Figura’s features is the company’s own spring-loaded, Synergia™ 5-way terminals, which are designed for use with the company’s upcoming speaker cable that sports an industry-first, 100-ampere-enabled 6mm banana termination. Made of copper with 3 times higher conductivity than standard copper, the Synergia™ are 1.5um thick in direct gold-plating, equivalent to 10 times the thickness of standard flash gold over nickel.
The 62 lbs, 3-foot-4 Figura was slightly shorter and slimmer than the comparably priced Genesis VI; and the 2-way Swiss speaker’s aluminum, silvery construction conveyed quite an elegant visual statement. My wife likened the Figura’s and ELAC’s CL330JET minimonitors’ finish affectionately to “the Mercedes silver”.
Set Up & Auditioning
At the helm were the $26.8k 47 Laboratory 4704 PiTracer CD transport, and the $32k Audio Note DAC 5 Special. Audio Note’s Sogon silver digital cable linked up the transport to the DAC, while the Sogon interconnects connected the DAC to an integrated amplifier. In the concurrent involvement of preamplifier and power amplifier, the Sogon connected the DAC and preamp, while AN’s own AN-Vx served the preamp and the power amp.
The Ensemble Figura’s 87dB/6 Ohm sensitivity negated use of the $22k, 7 Wpc Combak Harmonix Reimyo PAT-777, as well as the $15k, 9 Wpc Loth X JI300, 300B amplifiers that I reviewed respectively in January 2005 and May 2003, as both conceded considerably in dynamics.
Dynamic competence commenced with Audion’s $7,500, 18 Wpc, volume control-equipped Silver Night Parallel Single-Ended Mk II 300B monoblocks, and progressed in 47 Lab’s $7,100, dual-Power-Humpty, 50 Wpc Gaincard S, custom-fitted with DACT24 attenuators and Cardas posts. Then, GamuT’s $6k D3 preamplifier and $6.5k D200 Mk III power amplifier solid-state offering contrasted yet another level of sonic replay – a Figura levy as affirmed in yet another ensemble of powerhouses, the $10k Audio Note M5 tube preamplifier and the $9k Linn Klimax Twin solid-state power amplifier.
Pictorial dimensionality emerged in my listening room when the Figura’s were toed-in directly towards me, and positioned at about 78 inches apart from each other, 5 feet away from front wall, 23 inches from each side wall and 10 feet to the listening position.
At moderate volumes, the Figura’s dynamics would remain contained and was not as uninhibited as from several full-range speakers in my household, such as Audio Note’s new, $40k AN-E SEC Signature, Tannoy’s $20k Churchill Wideband, as well as Genesis’ discontinued, $9.5k model VI and Tannoy’s smaller, $8k TD10. Rather, resembling the 82db/8 Ohm classic minimonitor that was the Celestion SL700, the Figura blossomed at once with sustained dynamics when driven by powerful amplification at above medium-volume presentations.
In compromising between preserving the dimensionality of the Figura’s presentation and circumventing an accentuation of upper bass from increased playback volumes, I toed-out the Figura’s to the point where the two speakers’ on-axis, vertical dispersions would no longer intersect directly at me, but at a point around two feet behind my ears.
Inducing some of the liveliest transients from the Ensemble Figura, GamuT’s $12.5k solid-state D3/D200 Mk III amplification, by virtue of GamuT’s unique single MOSFET technology in the D200 Mk III with a 200 Wpc output, delivered unrelenting dynamics from the commensurate current and wattage, thus catapulting the Swiss speakers to consummating performances.
On the other hand, the 300B-based Audion Silver Night PSE induced from the Figura a presence in the speaker’s midrange that endowed piano solo’s with remarkable tonal luster and character magnetism, a sound that was at once involving and relaxing.
Contrasting the Audion methodology was the GamuT amplification’s fleetingly lukewarm mid- to upper midrange that accorded the Ensemble loudspeaker an exceptionally resolving quality. In addition, the Figura exhibited a top-end with an unusual civility so refined in its perseverance that sounds of flute and piano alike were reproduced with considerable composure and not a trace of indulgence. Also noteworthy is the GamuT’s considerable quelling of a moderate upper bass accentuation from the Figura that emerged intermittently in the presence of the 300B amplification.
Fostering superior dynamics and spectral coherency over all amplifications, Linn’s $9k Klimax Twin power amplifier and Audio Note’s $10k M5 preamplifier effectuated a yet more stately display of dynamics and tonal vibrancy from the Ensemble loudspeakers, only this time even more assertive of a well-formed musical foundation, endowing lower octaves with resounding dynamic sustenance and pitch definition. Via this system, the Figura’s mid- to top-end emerged with more articulate dynamic transients, imparting instruments with a more focused presence and timbre.
Compared to the AN/Linn’s tube/solid-state coupling, the less expensive GamuT D3 and D200 Mk III system germinated a level of upper bass and lower treble resolution that differed in a less evocative midrange and a tonally less flamboyant bottom-end that was dynamically expressive and invigorating nonetheless. Texturing-wise, the D3/D200 Mk III/Figura system attained liquidity, and induced exemplary top-end polish that may stir waves in the tube camp.
As the $19k system of Audio Note M5 preamplifier and Linn Klimax Twin power amplifier surpassed all amplifications in vanquishing the Ensemble Figura, 47 Laboratory’s Gaincard S represented the most affordable alternative in quenching my thirst for dynamics from the speakers.
In driving the Swiss speaker, the Gaincard S satisfied my craving for dynamic agility and tonal shading, an impressive feat in the presence of the GamuT and AN/Linn powerhouses. Possible outcries from scrutinizing DAGOGO readers wanting more affirming performances than what a 50 Wpc solid-state amplifier can muster from the Ensemble notwithstanding, the 50 Wpc 47 Lab Gaincard S possessed a sonic disposition most communal in counterbalance to the Figura’s characteristics per my overbearing subjectivity. For its MSRP, the Gaincard S should be given first crack at the Swiss speakers in a DAGOGO reader’s system.
Physically, the Ensemble Figura was a product of solid engineering, reflective of the extraordinary measures taken in creating a precision scientific instrument, while the manifested sonics served as convincing testimony to that of a musical instrument. It had a well-executed spectral continuity between its tweeter and woofer, and its mid- to top-end was among the most refined in sheer texturing without the smallest extent of careless indulgence, representing a civility unusual among speakers.
But perhaps just as insistent of any great instruments, the Swiss loudspeaker was idiosyncratic in a small but most inconvenient appointment of the spring-loaded, Synergia™ speaker terminal that proved wanting in its way of securing cables.
Although solid-state power amplification was generally preferred for the Figura due to its sensitivity, the mild transition of characteristics from solid-state preamplification to that of a tube, as in the Audio Note/Linn coupling, suggested a sub-$10k sonic disposition that could hold possibilities for audiophiles that prefer a mainstream approach capable of reawakening their mental taste buds.
Most importantly, in the Ensemble family reside the Fuoco and Evivo, the former a $6.5k, 100 Wpc hybrid integrated amplifier utilizing dual-triode tube input gain stage and a bipolar power transistor output stage, while the Evivo is the power amplifier version of the Fuoco. In exploiting the Figura’s potentials further, either Ensemble amplifiers may just be the most ideal candidate as intended by Dr. Wagner.
Digital Front End
47 Laboratory 4704 PiTracer CD transport
Audio Note DAC One 1.1x Signature
Audio Note DAC 5 Special
47 Laboratory 4706 dual mono Gaincard S with DACT24 & Cardas posts
Audion Silver Night PSE 300B monoblocks
DK Design VS-1 Mk II Integrated
GamuT Audio D3 preamplifier
GamuT Audio D200 Mk III
Harmonix Reimyo PAT-777 300B stereo amplifier
Linn Klimax Twin
Loth X JI300 integrated amplifier
Monarchy Audio SM-70Pro monoblocks
Reference Line Preeminence Two passive preamplifier
Reference Line Preeminence One Signature power amplifier
47 Laboraotory 4722 Lens minimonitors
47 Laboratory Essence
Apogee Duetta Signature
Audio Note AN-E SEC Signature
Audio Note AN-E SEC Silver
Tannoy Churchill Wideband
Tannoy Dimension TD10
Tannoy ST-200 SuperTweeter
Audio Note Sogon digital cable (1m, RCA)
Audio Note Sogon interconnect (2m pair, RCA)
Audio Note AN-Vx interconnect (1.5m, RCA)
Audio Note AN-V silver interconnect (RCA 1m, 2 pairs)
Audio Note Sogon LX speaker cable (5 feet, spade/banana, bi-wired)
Audio Note AN-SPx speaker cable (2m, bananas, bi-wired)
Audio Note AN-La copper speaker cable (8 feet, bi-wired)
Boelen Digital-Precise digital cable (1.5m, RCA)
Canare L-5CFB 75-ohm digital cable (RCA, 1.5m)
Canare D206 110 ohm digital cable (AES/EBU, 1.5m)
Cardas Quadlink 5C (8 feet)
Granite Audio #470 silver cables (RCA 1m, 2 pairs)
Granite Audio #560 AC Mains (2)
Harmonix Reimyo Studio Master AC cord (2)
Illuminations D-60 75 Ohm digital cable (1.5m, RCA)
Van den Hul MCD-352 (8 feet)
Harmonix Reimyo ALS-777 line conditioner
Salamander Synergy 20 (2), Twin 30 and Amp Stand, ASC Tube Traps and Flat Traps
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