Publisher Profile

Ryan Coleman visits a reader who owns a pair of the $170,500 Acapella Triolon Excalibur four-piece horn loudspeaker system

System Profile #1

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Acapella Crowder TriolonIntroduction

Benchmarks are a good thing. Students are given standardized tests to ensure they’re on par with their classmates, and CPAs are given re-certification exams to ensure the tax returns they prepare are properly construed. Audiophiles are no different: we typically use (or should use) live music as the benchmark to which our home stereos are compared. While approaching the standard of live music is an audiophool’s errand, it is worth pursuing; when comparing my rig to live music, I always try to find the weakest link in my home playback, and address it, and then reassess, continually finding a now smaller weakest link, and thus making progress in terms of reaching the goal of the illusion of live music in my listening room.

Frequently, we audiophiles use benchmarks within the categories of components that high-end audio offers. As time moves on, technology progresses and finds its way into new products, and new designs exceed prior benchmarks, thus resetting our benchmarks. Personally, I use the Einstein preamplifier as the “standard” by which all other preamps are compared, much the same as I use the Acrolink Mexcel cabling for speakers or AC. These are two products that use latest & greatest manufacturing and design techniques to deliver quality of performance that I’ve not found in prior competitors.

For a few years, I’ve considered the $69k Acapella Campaniles as a benchmark for loudspeakers (though they never fooled me into the illusion that we all long for). Certainly they are not perfect; imaging is somewhat diffuse (likely from the horn midrange), there’s never been as much mid-bass slam as I prefer, and there’s some missing deep bass extension. That said, they are highly dynamic, have incredible micro-detail retrieval without the tonal colorations that horns are frequently guilty of, and they posses the Accapella Ion tweeter, which I dare say is nigh-on perfect for upper frequency extension, tone and decay. Taken as a whole, they are marvelous loudspeakers and I wish my room and my budget allowed for them.

I’ve listened to the Campaniles many times at the home of one Fred Crowder, local audiophile and all around swell guy, and have worked with him from time to time to identify and address “the weakest link” in his system, and his system has moved from excellent to world-class in the time he owned the Campaniles. Unfortunately for Fred (but fortunately for me), the upgrade bug bit him very badly, and low and behold he now is the proud owner of the Acapella Triolon Excaliburs. When I asked if he’d mind if I wrote a piece on them for Dagogo, he was all for it (like I said, an all around swell guy).

Background

I concede it’s a bit unusual to offer a review of a piece that does not make it into your home, but that would be logistically impossible and unfair to the speakers. First off, my room is entirely too small at 15’ x 12’ to allow such massive speakers as these to breathe; the Triolon Excaliburs are over seven feet tall, almost four feet wide, and weigh over 800 pounds—each! If you took Shaq and made him a loudspeaker, he’d be about this big. And that is a large loudspeaker, by any standards. Similarly, moving speakers like that is not a trivial concern. You don’t have enough friends, nor would you want to trust friends with gear like this—it’s a job for the professionals, people, so think large trucks and piano movers. This isn’t like dragging about a 100-pound box with an amplifier inside, which I’d gladly do for you, dear Dagogo reader; but uncrating, assembling, installing, and re-crating two 800-pound loudspeakers? Unless you plan on sending me some strong backs to do the work or a LOT of cash, this is all I can do for you!

However, I can say that the system the Triolon Excaliburs were installed in is very familiar to me; to run down the components used, we see both a Rockport Sirius turntable and the Esoteric XO1-D2 SACD player used for sources, the Einstein the Tube preamplifier (and accompanying Einstein phono stage), Parasound JC1 monoblocks, with Isoclean speaker cables / AC conditioning and interconnects / AC cables by Acrolink (he heard them when I had them in for review, and subsequently bought them), all stationed on top of a Finite Elemente Master Reference stand. Of these components, I’ve reviewed two of them and personally used all except for the Rockport and the Finite Elemente and have an excellent idea of what each conveys. And I must say that these components are some of the standards in the high-end industry, though the JC1s are a curious choice of amplifiers, one which Mr. Crowder has stated will be the target of his next major upgrade ($170k speakers with $7k in amplification seem a bit mismatched if you ask me).

Back to the Triolon Excaliburs: I won’t comment on the factory or designers, as I trust Brian Ackerman of Aaudio Imports (the US importer for Acapella) is able to do a far better job than I on the matter. As I mentioned, these speakers are huge! With the unique design and configuration that the photos convey, I suspect that integrating these things into a family living area is about as easy as getting Paris Hilton to join the Peace Corps. So, a large and dedicated listening room is expected.

Not one to tamper with success, the factory elected to use the same Acapella Ion tweeter as found in the Campaniles; if you’ve never heard this unique Ion driver, you don’t know what treble performance can be had in the home. What makes the Triolon Excaliburs different than the Campaniles is the use of an additional mid-bass horn, which covers a frequency range extending from 170Hz to 700Hz (in contrast, the woofers on the Campaniles run all the way to 700hz, well beyond where most 10” woofers could go). This means that the entire midrange / mid-bass frequency area for the Triolon Excaliburs is delivered by the horns, and one would expect superior transient performance with this configuration vs. the Campaniles, though I must say I never heard a slow transient with the Campaniles.

However, it’s worth noting that these are not a typical compression driver horn; the Acapella’s use a conventional dynamic driver surrounded by a conical horn in what amounts to a very unconventional implementation, dramatically changing the tone and the loading characteristics of the driver. I cannot speak to the advantages of having done so, as I’ve never encountered it before, but I can imagine this creates tonal anomalies that must be addressed (which this review covers in due course) by juggling other design parameters such as the crossover. Accompany these unique drivers with four 10” woofers and a very benign sensitivity plot, and you’ve a very large loudspeaker that can accommodate the wimps of the SET amp world with no compromise in full range sound. One final point of interest to those grade-A audiophile nervosa sufferers: you can tri-amp the speakers, so you can elect to use 1 amp (as the case in this review), or up to 3 amps per channel. Is there no end to the madness???

Listening Impressions

I must say that when one walks into a dedicated listening room with a stereo system such as the present one, it is awe inspiring, and almost like a religious experience. I almost felt like I was walking into the audiophile version of St. Paul’s Cathedral in London, and me without my incense! At the very least, these things deserved a sacrifice of some sort, right?

(I’ll leave the sacrifice to Fred Crowder, who had to pay for these monsters. Me, I’ll just report.)

When looking at this imposing setup, before even beginning to listen, I took stock in the gigantic, but exquisitely constructed and rather lovely, speakers before me: four 10” woofers in the first seven-foot cabinet, a plasma tweeter, and two large horns mounted in the second seven-foot cabinet, with both cabinets connected together, and the same thing in the other channel.

And immediately the skeptic in me started thinking: no way, no freaking way those drivers are going to integrate! Too many drivers are the scourge of coherence, as multiple crossovers disjoin the music in the hopes that the drivers can reassemble it properly—which seldom is the case. This is why orchestra lovers gravitate to electrostatics: an orchestra’s sound is launched as one large unamplified waveform, and what better way to recreate that sensation than with one large driver, the electrostatic panel, that uses no crossovers? Well, for audiophiles who feel electrostatics reflect the best choice for their recreation of an orchestra, the Triolon Excaliburs offer an alternative that simply must be heard.

When I threw on Debussy: Images by the Boston Symphony Orchestra, I was face-to-face with the same sonic characteristics found in a concert hall: the uninterrupted, coherent wave of music, the layered and organized staging of the performers, and a remarkable sense of venue information thanks to excellent deep bass extension courtesy of the four 10” woofers per side (not quite 20Hz, but close). (Whilst it is reasonable to not expect a $5,000 pair of loudspeakers to be able to dig down into the 20Hz zone, it is not reasonable to not expect a $170k pair of loudspeakers to accomplish it. Instead of Mr. Crowder’s Parasound JC-1 monoblocks, I wonder if a more substantial pair of solid-state monoblocks, like the $20k Pass Labs X600.5 that Ed Momkus just reviewed, would contribute in this criterion. –Ed) However, unlike stats, I was also able to get the visceral impact and dynamic explosiveness found punctuating a live piece of music, whether from a tympani, a French horn, or even a triangle (a simple instrument that is remarkably difficult to reproduce). The myriad driver configuration of the Triolon Excaliburs can excite the room much like the underlying Boston Symphony did, and very quickly these speakers struck me as an ideal transducer for those whose listening preferences center on orchestral / symphonic pieces.

In my review of the Esoteric XO1-D2, I mentioned a few simple yet effective yardsticks to tell the accuracy and musicality of a high-end component; a recorded drum kit is a great test. In this one instrument, we can get a quick read on dynamics, tone, weight, detail, and scale. My favorite recording is Jack Johnson’s On and On release, the track “Wasting Time,” which has terrific mastering of great and simple music. The track incorporates a bit of cymbal play, which when played through the Ion tweeter of the Acapella speakers, absolutely startled me.

Listening to the Ion tweeter, I almost felt like I needed to find a new pursuit instead of critiquing audio equipment; I can say, in all shame, that I could not find fault with the treble performance of the Ion tweeter. I’ve listened to a lot of live music, and I know full well what a cymbal should sound like; and the Ion rendered the cymbal in that Jack Johnson track just like it was live. It has the combination of attack, tone, and decay that was heretofore impossible to recreate in the home environment; there’s no whitish tone and no blurring of the complex overtones as the cymbal decays—just pure brass cymbal reverberating in space. Now, other speakers (cough, Quad, cough) can get mighty close with the tweeter, but they cannot come close to reproducing the heft of a kick drum, which is why they’re incomplete speakers.

The Acapella Triolon Excaliburs did get the kick drum’s weight & heft that’s present on the Jack Johnson track, albeit with a slight reduction in true-to-life-size weight and pit-of-stomach visceral effect. I’d suspect this slight reduction in heft is because of the horn driver used for covering the frequency range of 170Hz to 5kHz, as a horn cannot deliver the same mid-bass slam that a dynamic cone driver can, and it is that mid-bass slam (that speakers like Wilson’s are so good at) which gives recorded drums a visceral characteristic that is found with a live drum kit. I find the fact that the Acapella’s get so much of the weight with the horn driver to be a minor miracle, but I got to call it like I see it. I suspect only audiophile drummers will complain about this; I’m certainly not, as I think the performance in this regard is terrific, but I’ve got to do my job here in critiquing this speaker.

Now, heft and visceral impact don’t mean much if you lose the transient attack, tone, and low-level detail that defines the instrument’s holistic musical envelope, but fortunately the Acapella’s deliver that in spades. No surprises here: with a horn driver for the midrange, one would expect lightning-quick transients as the driver has far less mass than a typical dynamic cone, and that’s exactly what I found listening to the Acapella’s when the drumsticks strike the skin. Low-level detail is served equally as well, as found in the decay of the drum skin, where I was actually able to hear the micro-resonance and the texture of the drum skin after its struck. And much like with a recorded piano (which I’ll touch on in a moment), the Acapella’s faithfully render the tone and pitch of the drum kit, which I almost found surprising. Anytime a speaker relies on a horn driver for the midrange, it takes great effort to take away the “honk”, which is a tonal coloration that I find most objectionable. The Acapella’s are free from this coloration; for this kind of money, I’d expect nothing less, but frankly, just because something is expensive in this hobby doesn’t mean it’s good.

In the case of the Acapella Triolon Excaliburs, rest assured, they’re good!

I’ve never owned horn-based speakers, as every time I encountered them I was always struck with a tonal anomaly, a “honky” sound where the midrange was colored in a most objectionable manner. Earlier in this review I touched on how I noticed the absence of tonal coloration with a drum kit, but what about demanding tests of tone: female vocals and a grand piano? Well, I’m left tipping my hat to the designers at Acapella, as they appear to have overcome all tonal anomalies associated with a horn-based driver.

Listening to An Evening with Herbie Hancock & Chick Corea, I was unable to hear any part of the piano register that didn’t approximate the tone I’ve heard whenever I’ve listened to a live grand piano. Lower registers had weight, upper registers had sweetness evolving into the slight-whitishness that comes with the highest keys, along with a sweetness and water-like quality in the middle registers that makes me always wish I had learned to play. And with all registers, there was never any doubt that this was a percussive instrument. Capturing low-level detail and providing a true-to-life leading edge are critical to revealing this fact, as lesser playbacks obscure the fact that hammers are striking strings in a wooden box.

Moving on to female vocals, I always loved listening to The Most of Dan Hicks & the Hot Licks, a track called “My Old Timey Baby.” By and large, this CD’s sound quality is low as they simply repackaged original recordings, but this version of “Old Timey Baby” is obviously never before released and fresh off the master, and it’s just wonderful. The female harmonies on this track are delicious, seductive, delightful and only confirmed to me that these speakers can present the most difficult harmonies in a wholly believable manner. Ironically, whereas I used to think horns were a cause of midrange colorations, the way Acapella used them actually reduced the likelihood of any colorations; when you have a driver covering a frequency range from 170Hz to 5kHz, you’re keeping an anomaly-causing crossover out of the midrange. Success by accident? I think not. Too much engineering and thought went into this speaker, and no part of its performance is an accident.

The Acapella’s throw a stage that mimics reality and not the audiophile parlor trick 3-D stage, and I strongly suspect the reason they cannot throw a Rockport-type soundstage is because of the use of horns covering the midrange region. It’s not like the ancillary gear isn’t up to snuff, nor can I say that the build quality of the speakers is inadequate; rest assured, it’s the horns. Then again, you might not give two flips about this aspect of playback (and also, very few recordings are engineered well enough to deliver it, but Low “Trust” and the aforementioned Jack Johnson both are). Dimensionality aside, the Acapella’s throw a very well proportioned soundstage that otherwise is difficult to fault.

On the “Time is the Diamond” track off the aforementioned Low CD, these monolithic speakers vanished and I was left with simply a panorama of music extending to both side walls of the listening room. Stage depth and height was uniformly excellent, but what I was surprised with was the competence these speakers had with image placement and center fill. The Acapella’s deliver a stage with an incredibly strong sense of center fill and I could easily identify a life-size figure standing between the speakers, along with associated musicians placed around the recording studio.

Whether listening to the Boston Symphony or Chick Corea / Herbie Hancock or even a live recoding of the Who, the Acapella’s never failed to sound big, bringing the scale of the musical event into the listening room. This is something smaller speakers simply cannot do – sounding big (and it’s one reason I love Wilson loudspeakers, as they sound much bigger than their small footprint would indicate). But can these beasts scale down and deliver intimacy? I offer a guarded yes with a but.

When listening to Jack Johnson, it was obvious that I was listening to a slightly larger-than-full-size rendering of a 3-piece band with minimal arrangements; there were no four-foot wide vocals nor any 10-foot wide guitars, but they did seem a bit larger than life. Was this distracting? Absolutely not; what I’m critiquing is the degree of sizing. As I said, the Triolon Excaliburs deliverd a stage that was slightly larger on an objective basis, though not gargantuan and distorted; the former makes the performance believable while big and exciting, the latter makes it distracting. Throwing in the compulsory Kind of Blue, I was left with a distinct sense of the recording studio, with the players organized throughout in a very proportional manner. Miles had height the others did not (center stage), but was not falsely scaled to reflect the preeminence of his trumpet in the mix. Returning to the Boston Symphony Orchestra, there was little doubt that what I was experiencing was properly scaled and proportioned.

In all these cases, the playback was simply scaled to reflect the recording and the music being played. In essence, the simpler the arrangements, the larger the Triolon Excaliburs make them, but never so much as to be distracting. So, while the Triolons cannot scale down like mini-monitors (though who’d want that?), I can safely say that the Triolon Excaliburs will deliver a satisfying rendition of all sorts of arrangements big & small.

I always like to listen to live recordings: after all, what we as audiophiles are trying to do is recreate the live event, and what better test than a live recording? As corny as it would sound, the Blues Brothers Definitive Collection has a few terrific live tracks that are very well engineered, and say whatever you will about Belushi and Ackroyd, but the band they assembled absolutely rocked. With underappreciated harmonica work and a world class horn section, the Blues Brothers live tracks are also quite demanding from an audiophile perspective; horns and harmonicas are not easy instruments to recreate—their dynamic explosiveness is too much for most speakers to handle. The Acapella’s proved highly adept and were able to properly reproduce these instruments, from dynamic explosion to brassy decay, while always serving the groove of the band.

Another great live disc, Neil Young’s Unplugged, showcases some beautiful music adorned with well recorded harmonicas, piano, and even a broom. During “Helpless” and “Harvest Moon”, the Triolon Excaliburs delivered a remarkable amount of detail but always with the low-level detail and tonal fidelity required to convince me that the piano was real, the harmonica was real, and that the boom was real. With both the Blues Brothers and Neil Young, the Acapella’s always deliver the event to you, an effect so strong that it almost seems wasteful to listen to studio recordings (I question if the strength of the sensation of the live event is enhanced by the imaging as I described earlier, as it’s more reflective of reality). To me, nothing beats the magic of a live performance of a band that’s on, so if you’re a fan of live recordings, I question whether any speaker can bring the live event home better than these.

Let me restate this point again, as I think it is integral to answering the question “why the Triolon Excaliburs?” if one is in the market for a speaker at this level. These speakers seem designed specifically to play well-recorded live music (which plenty of classical music is). The event is just so damn present! Poorly engineered studio recordings through these speakers would be like driving a Ferrari in rush hour, simply wasting the performance you have at your command, so for those of you who have lots of software that is poorly mastered and need forgiving speakers, these might not be a great ticket for you. The Triolon Excaliburs are simply soooo resolving that errors can be magnified to a point that you’ll simply prefer listening to your better engineered software, as the latter will give an exceedingly strong sense of the illusion we strive for. And in my limited experience with the Triolons, the illusion they cast can be bewitching.

Parting Thoughts

As I said at the beginning of this review, I implore you, dear reader, to send money! Money so that I can 1) buy a home big enough to house these things, and 2) pay for the movers so that I might get the Triolon Excaliburs in my own system for an in-depth review. Hell, while you’re writing the check, throw another $170k in, just in case I find that, like Mr. Crowder, these speakers are not to be improved upon, and they become my last speaker.

In the event that the check is not coming from you, dear reader, I will leave you with some enduring thoughts I have from my experiences with the Triolon Excaliburs. In a nutshell, the Acapella Triolon Excaliburs strike me as the best transducer one can buy for orchestral music or live recordings of any kind, though they never seem anything less than awesome playing any type of music. Insofar as the illusion goes, software limits what these speakers can accomplish, as many times with high quality recordings I found myself muttering that I doubt it can get better than this in the home. Once again, Acapella has redefined my reference for what is possible in the home, and I encourage anyone who has considerable means to listen for him/herself to the Triolon Excaliburs before writing a check for something else.

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