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Gemme Audio Tanto Floorstanding Speaker Review

Witness how the $5,495 loudspeaker nearly made Phillip Holmes faint

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Gemme Audio Tanto loudspeaker When Constantine told me that he was sending me a Canadian produced speaker for review, I’ll admit that I had preconceived notions about what I was going to get.

Canada has been producing high quality speakers for years now, and I imagine you can think of multiple brands, like I did. What I’ve heard from them has been at least good and sometimes great. I have a hypothesis about Canada and its audio scene: when it’s cold outside for months at a time, you have to find something interesting to do inside. Here in Texas, we get the occasional “Blue Northern”, but it’s nothing compared to the hard winters in the Great White North. You’ve got to do something to ward off cabin fever, or you might turn into Jack Torrance (Here’s Johnny!).

When I say that I had preconceived notions about Canadian speakers, I’m talking about looks and design choices, not quality. What surprised me about the Gemme Audio speakers is that they aren’t “monkey coffins”. Further, they’re a full-range design with a ring radiator tweeter for augmentation, a 1.5-way, as Gemme Audio refers to it. I haven’t seen everything from Canada, but if you put the Tanto’s in front of me, I would’ve guessed Italy, France or maybe California.

Who is Gemme and How do You Say it?

“Audio products are a manifestation of the producer’s likes and dislikes, their hopes and dreams. The Tanto is no exception.”

Gemme Audio (pronounced gem, the things we dig out of the earth and pay lots of money for) was founded by Robert Gaboury and Jean- Pierre Boudreau and makes its home in Montreal. I can state, without reservation, that Jean-Pierre is one of the most charming fellows I’ve talked to about audio. His enthusiasm for good sound and good music comes through loud and clear. It’s interesting to note that I immediately picked up on his audio goals when I first listened to the Tanto’s, which I’ll get into later. Audio products are a manifestation of the producer’s likes and dislikes, their hopes and dreams. The Tanto is no exception. By the way, Tanto means “a lot” in Italian and is also a sharp knife worn by a Samurai..

Gemme makes a point about their use of environmentally friendly wood products. Before I read the advertising for the speakers, the only hint I had that the speakers used MDF was that they were very heavy for their size. Gemme states it uses formaldehyde-free MDF.

Once you’ve smelled the stuff, you’ll know it when it’s present. I’ve been around building materials because of my day job, and formaldehyde has always caused upper respiratory irritation. I went to the EPA website and found this information:

Sources of Formaldehyde

Pressed wood products (hardwood plywood wall paneling, particleboard, fiberboard) and furniture made with these pressed wood products. Urea-formaldehyde foam insulation (UFFI). Combustion sources and environmental tobacco smoke. Durable press drapes, other textiles, and glues.

Health Effects

Formaldehyde, a colorless, pungent-smelling gas, can cause watery eyes, burning sensations in the eyes and throat, nausea, and difficulty in breathing in some humans exposed at elevated levels (above 0.1 parts per million). High concentrations may trigger attacks in people with asthma. There is evidence that some people can develop a sensitivity to formaldehyde. It has also been shown to cause cancer in animals and may cause cancer in humans. Health effects include eye, nose, and throat irritation; wheezing and coughing; fatigue; skin rash; severe allergic reactions. May cause cancer. May also cause other effects listed under “organic gases.”

“… the benefit of CAD programs and CNC machines…This kind of technology helps small “mom and pop” concerns compete with the big companies.”

Besides really good MDF, Gemme Audio uses Canada’s most abundant natural resources, wood, especially maple. The front panel is two inches thick and complex in shape. A CNC machine cuts complex “V-grooves” in the backs of the front and back panels for “vibration breaking”. “Asymmetrical focal grooves” are cut into the inside baffle to “break and spread standing sound waves”. This is the benefit of CAD programs and CNC machines. It allows you to cut complex patterns in very little time with very little sample-to-sample variation. This kind of technology helps small “mom and pop” concerns compete with the big companies.

The speakers’ feet are a stainless steel tripod affair. It’s easier for you to look at a picture than for me to poorly explain something that looks great and does a good job. With the weight of the speaker bearing down, these firmly couple the speakers to the floor.

The woofer is a 6.5” wool-filled paper affair and the tweeter is a ring radiator. The woofer is run full-range and the tweeter starts to kick in at 5,000 Hz, which is way up there, well out of the all-important midrange (where the ear is most sensitive). There is one capacitor on the tweeter and nothing between the amp and woofer except the connections. Binding posts are from Cardas.

Impedance is 4 ohms and sensitivity is 91.5db, making them two to four times as easy to drive as the other speakers I have in the house (a 3dB gain in efficiency cuts amplifier power in half—my other two sets of speakers are 87dB per watt efficient). The frequency response is rated 18 to 30,000 Hz. The bottom-end is totally dependent on room positioning and room volume. I think the highs are very revealing and I wouldn’t be surprised if the highs are pretty flat to well above 20kHz. I could hear lots of air and ambience on good vinyl, which would seem to agree with the 30,000Hz specification. The top-end is totally unimportant if you only listen to CD as I can’t hear anything worth hearing above 10kHz on a CD, which brings me to a tangent.

I’ve noticed that single-ended amps and full-range drivers are very popular with guys who primarily listen to CD. It figures. The more revealing a system is in the top frequencies, the worse digital sounds to me. I had an interesting discussion about digital with Albert Porter (who, like me, much prefers vinyl). He stated that he’s had extremely expensive digital playback gear, but that all it did was make the high frequency problems more evident. That doesn’t mean the expensive gear was bad. An analogy would be turning up the lights to find out the “date” you picked up at the club wasn’t so nice looking after all. He decided that a forgiving/warm CD player is much preferable to an accurate one. This, to me, explains the popularity of non-oversampling players and simple digital design. There’s nothing you can do to replace the missing high frequencies. You can only cover the weakness up. End of tangent.

The Tanto employs a technology that Gemme calls VFlex. I’m not sure how that technique differs from other loading schemes, but it apparently is similar to a transmission line terminated with a port (there’s a port on the back of the speaker). I asked about the loading, and this was the answer:

“Many things happen in the cabinet. We do not want to reveal our secret (!), but it is correct to assume that the back of the mid/bass driver is loaded by a special horn/TL design. What makes VFlex able to produce very deep bass with a single driver (the TANTO uses a 6.5 inches, but the VIVACE uses a single small 4 inches driver to go almost as low) is related to the chamber located just behind the port at the back. VFlex creates a focused, and pressurized sound wave that is precisely sent through the port hole (size and position of this vent are critical). Cabinet sturdiness is also of prime importance since sound is pressurized internally. At one time we had a speaker “really” explode. The sides were made of maple panels (a la Sonus Faber) and they really burst out. I want to make a photo during the Holidays and post it on our web site so people see some of our “experiments”!

Sometimes at higher level, you will sense the port “breathing” by placing your hand near it. It inhales as well as exhales. VFlex really takes control of the driver movements. It is similar to how a servo-controlled system works, but all done using acoustical means. The VFlex acoustic loading system is the result of many hours of experimentation during the last 2.5 years.”

Nice Looking Speaker, Kemo Sabe!

You know a product is successful when your wife likes it. After unpacking the Tanto’s, the first thing my wife said was: “These are pretty. How much are they?” I nearly fainted. That’s the first time she’s ever said any piece of audio equipment was “pretty”. Her usual reactions are “over my dead body”, “…ugliest thing I’ve ever seen”, “hide them when company comes over”, and “you audio people are stupid”. Obviously, we’re more concerned about performance than looks, but it sure helps when an audio component is attractive to your significant other. How many of us have wanted some huge speaker, only to be shot down by the wife?

The finish of the cabinets is flawless. My pair was finished in Cherry Charcoal. The side panels are hand sanded and stained and treated to eight coats of lacquer. The front and back panels are sprayed with six coats of black lacquer. The quality is to the same standards as a top flight concert grand piano. Even the stainless hardware is well done. There’s nothing about these speakers that would indicate they came from a small company.

Unpacking and Setup

Packing materials are well made and with my set of speakers, withstood shipping from Canada to two other places before they arrived here. The boxes has some rub wear, but had withstood the slings and arrows of outrageous shipping. The interior packing materials are well made and perfectly protect the speakers. Short of dropping them off the back of the truck or running them over, I think they’re going to get where they’re going without damage.

I listened to the Tanto’s in two different positions, one well out into the room and fairly close together, and the other further apart and closer to the back wall. The recommended positioning is a minimum of 2 meters apart and 16 inches from the back wall. Recommended distance from the listener is 1 to 1.3 times the distance between the two speakers. For example, if the speakers are 10 feet apart, the listener should be 10-13 feet away from the speakers.

Assembly amounts to attaching the bottom cross bar with supplied hardware, then attaching the spikes. It was so easy that I didn’t need a manual. The binding posts are well made and easy to torque down on your cables. Tada! The speakers are installed.

My room is 17 by 23 feet with 10-foot ceilings. Further, the room opens to the dining room and hall way through two separate cased openings (and there are no doors to close). The room volume is greater than 3,900 cubic feet. I knew going into this review that positioning would be critical. Thankfully, acoustics aren’t too much of a problem with carpeted floors, records covering two walls and drapes on a third wall. The system is on a 17-foot wall, across from a wall covered with vinyl (vinyl and books make a great acoustic treatment).

The first setup saw the speakers approximately four feet from the back wall and six feet apart, well away from the room corners. The listening position was the same for both setups, with the first setup being closer to the big chair. Speakers get blamed for things they didn’t do, and with the first setup, it would’ve been easy to dismiss the Tanto’s as lightweight sounding, with a little too much treble and great imaging. But that would be grossly unfair, seeing as how I’ve had to augment speakers much larger than the Tanto’s with subwoofers in this room. These room dimensions are at the upper boundary of what is acceptable for these speakers, and to make them work, you have to use the boundaries for bass gain.

The second setup gave up some of the imaging for much better bass. They were placed 28” from the back wall and 9’ apart, closer to both the corners and to the back wall, correcting what was a thin-sounding presentation. Though I gave up some imaging, I got better staging with this setup. It just goes to show that the room has as much to do with the sound as your system. Careful placement can make good speakers sound great. Poor placement can make any speaker sound awful. One thing this experiment did was make me wish that the tweeter had a rheostat. It wouldn’t have given me better bass, but it would’ve helped correct the tonal balance when the speakers were too far out in the room. Of course, adding a rheostat would’ve added 25% more parts to the speaker design and burned off precious wattage.

Amplifier Choices and Transparency

The first amp I connected to the Tanto’s was a heavily modified and updated pair of Heathkit W6M monoblocks. These amps have some of the finest transformers ever used, but the design is somewhat quirky. They sounded pretty good, with explosive dynamics and with plenty of high frequency extension with the previous speakers. However, with the Tanto’s, I noticed a midrange coloration, a golden aura or thickness that didn’t sound right. At first I assumed it was the speakers, but after swapping amps, I was proven wrong. These speakers are very revealing of amplifier sound, and presumably everything else upstream. I tried several other amps, using a pair of MFA Luminescence M150, 150-watt monoblocks, then moving on to a classic McIntosh 240.

With all the amps, I could easily hear the character of the amp, the differences in tube rolling, difference in biasing, importance of amp warm-up and the sound of cables. When talking to Jean-Pierre, he urged me to use a very powerful transistor amp. Unfortunately, I didn’t have one. The 150 watt MFAs were as powerful as I went. With that amp, I could hear that these speakers could play very loud and without distress. I don’t know if it’s the voicing of the speaker, the easy load it presents, the simple design, etc., but they can really jam without sounding ugly. Regardless, I think these speakers, in a moderately sized room, can be driven to realistic levels with 35 tube watts. In my large listening room, the Mac 240 could drive them to almost painful levels without too much stress (the Mac showed the stress, not the speakers).

“… since these speakers direct couple a full-range driver to the amp, with little in between, they’re going to have less of their own sound than a speaker with a complex crossover design.”

But, to make a point, since these speakers direct couple a full-range driver to the amp, with little in between, they’re going to have less of their own sound than a speaker with a complex crossover design. If you do use transistors, they need to be very clean and of low distortion. Further, anything that is colored will show up instantly. With my Vandersteen’s, I couldn’t hear these kinds of differences—they have four drivers and a complex crossover. With my Maggies, I couldn’t hear this kind of transparency through the midrange since my Maggies have the crossover in the all important midrange. These speakers are very transparent through the most important part of the listening band. Subsequently, if something sounds colored or distorted, it probably isn’t the speaker. Going between my turntable and CD player, it was easy to hear the problems with my cheapo universal CD player and the transparency and accuracy of my turntable. The Tanto is a chameleon, just as a good loudspeaker should be.

I settled on the Mac 240 after messing with the amps. The 240 doesn’t have enough power to drive the other speakers I have in-house, in this room. Due to the decent efficiency of the speaker design, the ultra simple crossover and the bass loading, the Mac did quite a job with the Tanto’s. I need to write more about the 240 some other time. The Mac is a very fun-sounding amp with dynamic ease and plenty of drive. This, combined with the good dynamics of the Tanto, made for more fun than I’ve had in a very long time. It’s a shame that Mac won’t reintroduce the 240 and 225, which are better sounding amps that the 275. Anyway…….

Listening Impressions

One thing I noticed while listening to music and changing LP’s and CD’s, is that these speakers are almost omni-directional. Walking between and behind the speakers, I could still hear treble detail and decent spectral balance. This means that the speakers are putting out relatively equal amounts of sound in all directions. That’s a good thing. If the speakers were really “beamy”, then the room would reflect back and strengthen everything except for what is most problematic, making the contrast between good and bad even more obvious. In other words, if the treble is beaming at you, and the midrange is omnidirectional, you will hear an even lusher, bigger midrange after it bounces through your room, when you compare it to the beamy highs. The shape of the enclosure must contribute to this as the sides are rounded and almost look like the profile of an airplane wing. Further, I assume this contributes to the good soundstage.

“I’d rate the soundstaging ability of the Tanto’s to be first-rate… They might be state-of-the-art in this regard.”

With almost everything I listen to, with either speaker positioning, the Tanto’s are able to precisely place a palpable center image, nearly every time. When there was no center image, it was because the recording didn’t have one. I was able to get a solid center image even with the speakers further apart than any other speakers I’ve used. That makes the Tanto extra easy to setup for good sound. Many times, to get good bass, you have to push the speakers too far apart or too close to room clutter to give a good center image. Not so with the Tanto’s. I’d rate the soundstaging ability of the Tanto’s to be first-rate. They kept a solid center image and then threw big images outside of the speakers, all while playing loud and complex music. They might be state-of-the-art in this regard.

Depth was good, but not quite as impressive as the staging. This might have been due to the room, or setup, or amplifier choice, but it wasn’t quite as realistic and state-of-the-art as the staging. Still, imaging was good. One place where these speakers aren’t state-of-the-art (and they can’t be) is image height. They can’t do what big line source speakers can do. On the other hand, those same big speakers make vocalists sound like their heads are 10’ tall, where the Tanto can project a tight image between the speakers that more closely resembles a human voice. Because of this difference, I find myself listening to large classical works and other massive productions (Led Zeppelin, Phil Spector) on big line source speakers and smaller works (Jazz and classical quartets, for example) on smaller dynamic speakers.

Where the Tanto’s are best is with dynamic contrast, attacks and interplay of musical lines. Most recordings have attacks and dynamics and the Tanto’s make you take notice. Complex interplay of rhythmic lines is easy to follow. Bass lines seem to push ahead without losing momentum while everything above does its own thing. The bass drum is clean and crisp and the sound starts fast – with a 6.5” driver, transients should be good, and they are. There was no muddiness or overhang in the bass. Further up in the frequency range, attacks from other musical instruments are just as good. This makes listening to dance tracks, jazz, drums and anything with lots of rhythm very enjoyable. Even when pushed really hard, the speaker’s lack of overhang and solid imaging makes the interplay of instrumental lines and the attacks very easy to hear. Why? Perhaps it’s that lack of a crossover between woofer and amp. Perhaps it’s the well built and very solid cabinet construction. Most speakers that start to sound confused at high levels have flimsy cabinets and nasty crossover networks of dubious quality. That’s not an issue with the Tanto’s.

“There was plenty of the bite of the instrument with the correct amount of tone, all spectrally laid out in proper balance.”

With the Gemme Tanto, I started gravitating to records that had tenor and baritone sax, trombones, male vocals and good female altos. The good lower midrange of the speaker made listening to Ellington’s and Basie’s sax and trombone section a real delight. I mean, honestly, you could hear so much character from the tenor and baritone sax that it was like listening to a different jazz band. In particular, bari sax players Harry Carney, Serge Chaloff, Jerry Mulligan, Bob Gordon, Pepper Adams and trombone players JJ Johnson, Curtis Fuller and Frank Rosolino sound as good as they’ve ever sounded. On vocals, Joe Williams and Johnny Hartman had huge, beautiful voices, with no bloat. Why did they sound so good? Well, I would guess that it’s because there isn’t a crossover to interfere with the sound. There was plenty of the bite of the instrument with the correct amount of tone, all spectrally laid out in proper balance. You might think of a baritone as a low vocal, but everything that differentiates one singer from another is in the overtones, which are in the midrange and treble. The lack of crossover made these lower instruments and vocalists sound more real and more “there” than most speakers I’ve heard. Female vocals sounded good also, but the altos really shine here (again, an alto’s range falls in the crossover of most speakers).

After going through a lot of jazz, I turned my attention to pop and rock (and rap and heavy metal too). All these genres sound fun with the Tanto’s.

On Emmylou Harris’ Bluebird, “Heaven Only Knows” has plenty of detail but remains warm, with a big acoustic. “Icy Blue Heart” showcases Emmylou’s prodigious vocal range, which remains well balanced from her lowest notes to her highest. Also, you can easily follow the background vocals as separately recorded tracks. On “Love Is”, there’s lots of body to the various stringed instruments, but the attacks of the notes are kept attached to the body and the overtones. That’s difficult to do.

On Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, “Being For The Benefit Of Mr. Kite”, the calliope is huge sounding and other worldly. The speakers allow you to transport to another surreal world on this track. Crazy, spooky and psychedelic.

On The Beatles, the rhythmic interplay on “Dear Prudence” makes the song propel forward with grace. On “Long, Long, Long”, the recorded space sounds very large with an eeriness that I hadn’t heard before. On “Savoy Truffle”, I was able to crank it and play it at lease-breaking levels with no sense of strain.

On CSN&Y Déjà vu, the recorded volume and space between and around individual voices was distinct. The tailing end of reverb was easy to follow as it tailed off to inaudibility.

On Metallica’s Garage Days Revisited, I could play what is a pretty awful sounding recording wide open with less strain that I’m used to. With AC/DC’s Back In Black, it was the same, but the recording is better sounding. It’s rare to find a speaker that can handle heavy metal. Most can’t.

On The Beastie Boys’ Hello Nasty, the Tanto’s are able to recreate the complicated sound landscape that the Boys created. All the tracks are a complicated collage of samples, vocal tracks, backing rhythm track, bass tracks and synthesizer sound affects. While the boys are rhymin’ ‘n illin’ between the speakers, these weird synthesized sounds are popping up far outside the speakers, all the while the bass line continuing its relentless assault with some loop or sample in the background, audibly behind the Boys. The Tanto’s made me pull out my guilty pleasure recordings. They’re very fun speakers.

On Blackbird, by Neko Case, the Tanto’s were able to make me fall more madly in love with Neko. Her voice is a slightly husky alto with lots of range and power. The Tanto’s are able to express all the emotion of the music. On this recording, which isn’t the greatest sounding, the speakers always disappeared, leaving a big studio generated artificial space. On “Tightly”, the music swung gently, highlighting the easy way the Tanto’s have with bass lines, percussion and interplay. On “Look For Me (I’ll Be Around)”, the emotion comes through with lots of passion from Neko. The Tanto’s made me think of Patsy Cline on this track, something I hadn’t noticed before. On “Running Out of Fools”, the sadness/loneliness of the character is easy to identify with, the sign of a good speaker, I think. I wanted to crawl into the recording with Neko.

Final Thoughts

In one of my email exchanges with Jean-Pierre, we were talking about the ability of the Tanto’s to play loud without listening fatigue. He stated that their goal was to design a natural sounding speaker, and to me, Gemme Audio succeeded. Can I recommend these speakers? Of course I can. Are they perfect? No. Is there such thing? No.

My recommendation for any transducer (whether speaker or phono cartridge), is to make sure it’s the correct fit. That being said, the Tanto’s are able to fill large rooms with plenty of sound and probably really come into their own in medium sized rooms with tube amps of moderate power. I really didn’t consider price while evaluating the Tanto, as price is no indication of performance.

At the price point, there are other very good products, but many aren’t near as pretty and/or spouse friendly. Further, the Tanto’s can be driven by many affordable tube amps. If you were an audiophile working with a budget of $7-8K for speakers and amps, you could spend the money on these speakers and buy a budget tube integrated and be very happy indeed. 35 watts is sufficient and 70 would be optimum in a small to medium sized room. There are hordes of good sounding EL34 and KT88 based integrated amps out there that would pair nicely with these speakers. On the other hand, if you have a big (and good sounding) amp, you should still consider the Tanto. I heartily recommend an audition if that sounds like you.

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