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Sanders Sound 10b Floorstanding Speaker Review

You Get What You Need

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No, you can’t always get what you want. The number of loudspeakers surpassing the cost of a decent family sedan is staggering. Then there are speakers that cost as much as a house. Regardless of cost, I believe all audio products need to offer a blend of good performance and decent value. Fortunately, there are some high-end speakers that offer extraordinary sound at a reasonable price. Roger Sanders’ Sanders Sound Systems 10B electrostatic hybrid is one of the few systems, and I do mean a “system”, that offers outstanding value for true, high performance. Actually, considering the product’s unique capabilities and features, it’s one-of-a-kind in value for the dollar. The 10B can go toe-to-toe with speakers costing several times as much. The specs and features of the 10B are somewhat unique, especially if you have lived with ESLs of the past. The following is taken from Sanders’ website, and all the claims seem verified to me.

· The amplifier cannot damage the panel.

· No protective circuitry required.

· Panel is arc-proof.

· Extremely rugged and durable.

· Immune to dust and dirt.

· Immune to humidity.

· Repels dust.

· Unaffected by insects, dust, and foreign objects.

· Higher efficiency (98 dB efficient in the 10b speaker).

· Uses slots instead of holes.

· Highest precision – made with computerized diamond routing equipment.

· Greater percentage of open area and visual transparency.

· A modified version of the ESL Amplifier is used to drive the woofers. The power therefore increases from 200 watts/channel to 600 watts/channel.

· Both balanced and single-ended inputs and outputs are standard.

· The bass control has been split into two frequency sections so you can control the midrange and bass regions of the speaker independently of each other. This makes it possible to perfectly match the speaker to your room acoustics and personal preferences.

· An overall gain control. This is the same, sophisticated, electronic, level control used on our preamplifier. It provides one-hundred, 1 dB steps with channel matching to within 0.1 dB. This makes it possible to match the crossover to your preamplifier’s level control for optimum sensitivity. Since the system level can be controlled by the crossover, it is possible to bypass a preamplifier completely and run a single source directly to the crossover.

· The unit has a blue, digital readout that shows the level of each function similar to our preamplifier.

· All functions are available from both the front panel and by optional remote control. The remote control is so convenient that you may prefer to leave your manual preamp’s volume turned up, and control the system level with the crossover’s sophisticated, remote-control unit.

· Remote control is operated with the Sanders Sound Systems preamp’s Home Theater Master transmitter, which can be programmed to operate every component in your system. This eliminates “remote clutter” and makes system operation extremely convenient.

· Highly efficient operation permits the electronics to left on continually without concern for electricity usage.

· Speakers and Electronics are manufactured in Conifer, Colorado

· Different wood finishes [Natural Cherry, Natural Walnut, Natural Maple] are available.

I think it’s instructive to compare the 10B to another standard-bearer of value: the Magnepan 20.1. Superficially, they seem to be similar products. The 10B is a hybrid two-way electrostatic panel with a transmission line bass unit, versus the 20.1’s all dipole three-way ribbon and planar-magnetic hybrid. Sensitivity of the 10B is a surprising 98dB/watt versus an intimidating 85dB/watt for the Maggie 20.1. What makes the 10B a completely different kind of value is the inclusion of a bass amp with built-in crossover. Active crossovers have major sonic benefits: better damping, especially from tube amps; lower distortion (harmonic, intermodulation, etc.); more efficiency; better clarity. On the downside is the extra stage of electronics.`

When comparing the two approaches, the benefits of well-built active crossovers far outweigh any veiling or distortion from the electronics. The tiny amount of added electronica is swamped by the audible affects of a complicated passive crossover with non-linear chokes, large value capacitors and mediocre resistors. In addition, passive crossovers are power hogs, robbing your amps of damping, power and dynamics. And because the 10B’s crossover also includes a 600wpc bass amplifier, it frees your existing amps of the bass, doubling or tripling their usable power. Let’s say you have a 35-watt-per-channel tube amp. For the 10B, that would be enough. A 1000-watt tube amp? Even better. The ESL panels are rated by Roger to take virtually unlimited power, which is another unique Sanders feature: the ability to rock your ass off without arc-over. Almost miraculously, these electrostatic panels are efficient and can take abuse unlike any other electrostatic panel I know. The Maggie 20.1 will need several hundred watts, minimum, to bring them to life. I’m not disparaging the 20.1 though. It is an excellent speaker, especially if you already have huge amps. But the massive power requirements can almost double the price of the amplifier and speaker portion of your system.

The reason for the higher efficiency and reliability of the Sanders 10B, especially compared to classic ESL designs, is the use of what Sanders calls “Ultrastat” technology. It boils down to building the stators out of advanced materials, and using much improved diaphragm films. If you want a better explanation of the Ultrastat, go to Roger’s white paper:

http://www.sanderssoundsystems.com/index.php?option=com_content&task=view&id=55&Itemid=134

From what I understand, this panel technology allows for closer spacing, which makes for better efficiency and high frequency extension. These panels happen to be flat, in comparison to most of the competition’s use of a curved panel. Roger takes credit for developing the curved panel, but decided to go with a flat panel which has benefits, but also a downside. (For more, read the positioning portion of this review.)

The Ultrastat panels have eliminated a dark quality that I’ve heard in most, if not all, ESLs. There is still the problem of dropping impedance with rising frequency, but the high efficiency of the 10B makes any amplifier’s job several orders of magnitude easier. A poorly-designed amp might run out of power in the highs, making them sound dark. In a reversal of fortune for amplifiers, the impedance of a stat is quite high in the bass, and gradually rises as frequency increases. It can be quite dramatic too, ranging from 50 ohms in the bass to under 2 ohms in the treble. The reason for this is that an ESL is a massive capacitor; a massive film capacitor, in this case. Capacitors present a dropping impedance with rising frequency because of something called “capacitive reactance”. If you want to get into the details, check out this page. What you might hear is that a lower-powered tube amp sounding more romantic or lush, and something like Roger’s ESL amps (or a powerful tube amp) sounding flat (or flatter) in the highs.

A word of caution though: this capacitive reactance can cause problems for some transistor units, causing them to shut down, oscillate, or overheat. Some transistor amps will have a two-fold torture test: they don’t like driving high impedance loads (50 ohms in the midbass of the 10B’s panel), and they like to go nuts when trying to dump current into a 2-ohm capacitive, reactive load. If you have a 35wpc tube amp and a 35wpc transistor amp, the tube amp will sound more powerful and shouldn’t get as stressed out by the capacitive reactance. Roger has been very helpful in answering amplifier-specific questions, such as , “Has anyone used xyz brand amp with the 10B?”

In general, a well-built, moderately-powered tube amp will loaf along driving the 10B’s panel, and perhaps compress or roll off on top when driven hard. A transistor amp with high rail voltages (high for a transistor amp), like Roger’s ESL amp, will have no problem with the 10B’s electrostatic load.

Receiving the 10B’s was a daunting experience. They come in six boxes, two for the transmission line woofers, one for the ESL panels, one for the frames and wood trim, and one for the bass amp/crossover. Additionally, I asked for, and received, the ESL stereo power amp. Incidentally, the ESL amp is one of the finest amps I’ve heard, transistor or tube; watch for a separate review. Once I got around to putting everything together, assembly was quite easy, although a total klutz might take a little guidance. If you can change your spare tire, you can assemble this speaker in 30-45 minutes. The upside to the modular construction is that shipping is much cheaper than if it were shipped in two massive boxes. This makes it an appealing product for overseas audiophiles. It also makes it a simple matter if you need to send something to Sanders to be serviced. If a panel stops working (not likely) you can ship it in a relatively compact and lightweight box. Also, it would only take 20 minutes to take the panel off of the speaker, pack it and get it loaded. Try that with a Sound Labs ESL.

Connecting the bass amp/crossover is very flexible. It includes balanced and single-ended inputs, high-pass balanced and single-ended outputs, low-pass line-level outputs in balanced and single ended, plus bass power out to the speakers. If you want, you could use the bass amp/crossover as a single-input preamp and active crossover feeding whatever amps you want to try. I liked the combination as-is, so I didn’t do a lot of amp switching. The matching ESL amp that Roger sent is a natural companion, with balanced inputs, the correct gain, and matching cosmetics.

The review system included my trusty Denon DP80 “motor unit”, SME V, ZYX Airy 3 cartridge, Allnic Verito cartridge, Haniwa HCTR01 cartridge, Allnic L1500 and H1500 preamp and phono stages, and multiple makes of wires.

One thing not related to sound, but something I take very seriously, is that Roger offers a lifetime transferable warranty. He also offers a 30-day audition period. The man is bending over so far backwards that his head is touching his heels. I’ve never had a more pleasant experience with a manufacturer. He even provides over-the-phone support, even on weekends.

Positioning and Tuning

This is probably the most important part of the article as positioning the 10B is key to its success or failure. The most important thing to know about this electrostatic panel is that it is flat and consequently that it beams. Think of the panel like a flashlight and you get the basic idea, except that a flashlight only shines in one direction. Of course, these are dipoles, so the out-of-phase portion of the signal is free to interact with the wall behind the panel. I was somewhat surprised when Roger told me that these are meant to be used with the walls behind them left bare. In my experience, it did open up and broaden the sweet spot when set up that way, which also contributed to the nice portrayal of concert hall depth. In contrast, my old Maggies can tend towards brightness with its ribbon’s out-of-phase info sometimes combining with the in-phase portion of the signal to create some nasty peaks. For the 10Bs, I never felt like I needed absorption behind them.

Roger recommends placing the speakers a fair distance apart, and aimed directly to the listener. In his demonstrations, the speakers and listeners almost form an equilateral triangle. Whatever you do, you must aim the panels directly to the listening position, or you will only hear reflected sound at dramatically lower levels than with the speakers on-axis with your ears. The benefit is that these panels interact with the listening room less than any speaker I’ve used. As a result, in my room, these present more realistic imaging than omnidirectional designs. The room and the AC supply are probably the weakest links in most high-end systems. Upgrading the house wiring is relatively easy. On the other hand, dealing with acoustics can be a real problem. The room is the least linear part of the system, with dramatic comb filtering, echoes, standing waves, cancellations, and hot spots. In my experience, reducing the amount of reflected sound lowers listener fatigue, and uncovers the subtle details that make for rewarding sound.

The relative position of speakers and listening position was 10’ apart for the speakers, aiming at the listening position about 13’ away. The biggest drawback of the 10B is that the sweet-spot, though very sweet, is fairly small, maybe three feet wide in my set-up. Unlike classic ESL designs, there is no “venetian blind effect”.

Not Tweaky; Tweakable

The bass amp/crossover includes a BASS CONTROL with a setting of 0-12, a MIDRANGE CONTROL with a setting of 0-99 and a GAIN CONTROL of 0-99. In my system, the overall gain when directly driven by the Allnic H1500 phono stage was between 65 and 80, depending on the transformer settings of the Allnic. When using the Allnic L1500 line stage, I set the unit on 94 or less, anything above which revealed some low-level noise in the L1500. When directly driven by the Allnic phono stage, which uses a traditional capacitor coupled output, the performance was full-range, meaning the Allnic was seeing a tube-friendly input impedance. Though not stated in the marketing material, I believe the input impedance is 47k (the Sanders Preamplifier has a 47k input impedance). For most of my review, I drove the Sanders crossover/bass amp direct, what some people like to call hot-rod connected. The Sanders crossover does sound and behave like a single input preamp, that happens to have a bass amp and crossover. If you are a one-source listener, have a simple switching passive preamp, or you don’t mind swapping cables, the crossover/bass amp should be heard without a preamp. It might save you some serious money.

My favorite feature of the crossover/amp is the split bass and midrange gain controls. They offer a lot of flexibility when integrating the speakers into your room and with your existing amplifier. All rooms have wild frequency response variations, especially when comparing bass and midrange response. My room tends toward a midbass suck-out at the listening position, so the ability to tweak the levels to compensate was welcome. The remote control allows quick adjustment of all the crossover functions, and I found myself tweaking the MIDRANGE CONTROL on shrill recordings. Just a couple bumps up in level made a huge improvement. Unlike a tone control, the effect is subtle, didn’t seem to add any distortion and provided a seamless effect, in contrast to a bubble or hump in the frequency response. These aren’t a gimmicky little add-on. In an older version of the crossover, there was a bass gain and main level gain. I’m sure that there were problems matching the Sanders bass amp with some other amps. This MIDRANGE CONTROL was flexible enough to bridge the gap with a couple wildly different amps. I’m not sure what the MIDRANGE CONTROL’s bandwidth is, but it is highly effective when contouring the response of the system.

Listening Impressions

There are several hallmarks of the 10B which make their performance state-of-the-art. The first is that regardless of playback level, the intermodulation distortion of the panel seems vanishingly low. I played all kinds of music, from historic classical recordings to rap and heavy metal. Nothing seemed to push the stats to any kind of distortion, aside from occasional mild compression (which might’ve been the amp—I don’t know for sure). I’m talking really loud levels here, above 100dB on a consistent basis. Most stats have low IM distortion. Unlike any other ESL on the market that I know of, the 10Bs marry this clarity to the ability to play at headbanging levels. On Mission Of Burma’s Vs., (Matador Records vinyl reissue), the effect was interesting. It’s a raw recording, one that is quite good, but can drive many speakers to ugly distortion. I found I could play this at high levels, but had none of the listening fatigue I’ve had with other speakers. I’d caution people that they need to watch the level. I could give myself “cauliflower ear” in as little as 45 minutes, which quickly put an end to the listening session. Listening to levels like this for long periods will damage your hearing. It’s not a problem with the 10B. Just like if you buy a Corvette ZR1, you’ve got to watch your speed. When you want to crank it, the 10B’s low distortion at high levels can put you “in the club” or “in the studio”. The only area I heard anything that sounded like distortion was in the bass while playing the Mobile Fidelity UHQR pressing of Pines of Rome. It has some impressive low bass from the organ, going down into the low 20’s. The panel sailed through quite easily, but I heard something that sounded like cabinet resonance from the transmission line. It wasn’t cone break-up. It could’ve been distortion or cabinet resonance. It’s the only time I heard the bass do that. By the way, it was also at real live concert hall volumes.

The 10b’s do a masterful job at recreating the recording’s space. Regardless of recording quality, you can hear what is going on. It’s a two-edged sword though. On multi-miked recordings, things can get really strange. Listening to von Karajan’s Beethoven’s 9th with the Berlin Phil and Vienna Singverein (the ‘70s Deutsche Grammophon recording; Japanese pressing MG 8317/8), all was well until the choral section began. First, the bass (Jose van Dam) sounds as if he is 10 feet in front of the orchestra. Next, the chorus comes in and sounds as if they are floating five feet above the orchestra, about even with the front row of strings. Really weird. Really accurate to the recording, too. These ‘70s era DGs are known as atrocities of engineering. It’s still a good performance. Too bad DG had a bazillion microphones laying about.

The ongoing reissues of Blue Notes from Chad at Acoustic Sounds and Music Matters also proved a little frustrating. These stereo reissues of recordings that were intended to be released in mono showed that, for the most part, they are dual mono. Two or three microphones are sent to one channel, the rest to the other channel. Rudy used the two-track tape machine to allow for balancing different parts of the group when he did his mono mix-down for release. When the entire group plays tutti on “Back To The Tracks” by Tina Brooks, you can hear the sound of Rudy’s studio. All the microphone channels are open. You can hear the horns spread out, with the rhythm section further back in the studio, and with a little studio ambience. As soon as a solo begins, you can hear Rudy pull down the other horn mics and/or piano microphone, completely collapsing any sense of depth.

On much better recordings, like my favorite Kenneth Wilkinson-engineered Deccas, the sound went way behind and outside the panels, flowing naturally through to the center. Especially pleasing were the Ernest Ansermet recordings, with an ultra-rich tonal quality in the strings, but plenty of brass bite and reedy resonance in the woodwinds. Mind you, even on the poorly recorded works, they could still bring pleasure. There was still plenty to enjoy about even the worst of recordings. I became emotionally involved while listening to a Furtwangler 1937 live recording of Beethoven’s 9th (EMI HMV Dutch press, ED 2701231) recorded with his beloved Berlin Philharmonic in London with the Philharmonic Choir (English singers). It was definitely “old school” recording technology. Still, I could hear some depth and lots of resonance from the wooden stage and risers. Of all the speakers I’ve used, the Sanders Sound make classical recordings the most rewarding because of the recreation of space, and likewise distance between players, and…

…Nearly perfect recreation of instrumental timbre. The one place where stats rule supreme is their low coloration and continuity from the lower mids up to inaudibility. All aspects of instrumental timbre were dead-on correct. On the aforementioned “Back to the Tracks”, it was much easier to follow the tenor of Tina Brooks and the alto of Jackie McLean. To be sure, the excellent pressings help. Most of the time, with less coherent speakers, it is easy for me to confuse alto and tenor when they are playing in unison, or very close to each other. The beautiful recreation of timbre and overtones made it much easier to follow which player was doing what. In comparison, all multi-way speakers have discontinuities where the drivers cancel each other out, making for some peaks and dips. Surprisingly, the transition of woofer to ESL panel didn’t seem to mess up the overtones of bass instruments. I would guess that the outboard active crossover was painstakingly tweaked to get this kind of blending. The only times I could hear the difference between woofer and panel was in transient speed and some occasional overhang of the transmission line. It’s not much to fault though.

The transparency and continuity of these speakers are amongst the best I’ve heard, revealing all manner of tonal nuance, timing cues, phase information, and space. Gentle Giant’s Octopus is a show stopper of prog-rock excess. Dozens of tracks weave in and out, popping up outside and behind speakers. Percussion plays peek-a-boo. Voices are stacked on top of each other, suspended in space. With the Haniwa cartridge, the combined effect was a tour-de-force of audiophile sound, while staying calm (even soothing).

The Bottom Line

prag·ma·tism\

Function: noun

1 : a practical approach to problems and affairs

2 : philosophical movement founded by C. S. Peirce and William James and marked by the doctrines that the meaning of conceptions is to be sought in their practical bearings, that the function of thought is to guide action, and that truth is preeminently to be tested by the practical consequences of belief

Roger doesn’t seem to be blinded or misguided by any particular technological constraints, puritanical audio holy grails, or the insidious desire to go along with what everyone else is doing. I’ve run into a good many audiophiles and designers who latch onto one singular technology and develop a dogmatic approach to audio. To clarify this a little, I mean many of us refuse to use transistors, or refuse to create or audition hybrid designs (amps, speakers, whatever), or refuse to listen to digital, or automatically dismiss products with tone controls, won’t add a tweeter on our super-expensive full-range horn, and would never consider a moving magnet, moving iron or strain gauge, and all the other ideological constraints in audio. It’s as if some of us fall in love with a technology and consider it apostasy to try something else. I prefer tubes and full-range stats, but have been willing to concede that a well-designed hybrid could perform better. And these speakers – the result of years of research, engineering, and asking many tough questions – come very close to giving me what I hear in live sound. When playing to their strengths, they can be spooky real. When playing to their weaknesses, they still sound better than much of the competition.

When you think of state-of-the-art products, pragmatism doesn’t usually come to mind. Mostly you think of ghastly price tags, tweaky set up and lots of qualifications on what the associated equipment must be, such as a certain kind of cartridge; a massive amp; a massive room; etc… The 10B distinguishes itself as a pragmatic approach to audio by blending technologies, adding useful functions, and using a supposed weakness (beaming) as a strength. It shows three-dimensional thinking and great problem solving skills.

Is the speaker perfect? None are. Though it can play ear-bleeding-stupid-loud, it doesn’t have the midbass punch that some rock listeners are looking for. The transmission line goes very low and has been carefully tailored to blend with the panel. You can fiddle with the bass and midrange settings to get a little more oomph, but these will never be mistaken for a Klipschorn or Hartsfield. For me, they have more than enough punch, more than my old Maggies, more even than the quite punchy Feastrex equipped MaxxHorns. I never wanted “more” when listening to punk, rap, heavy metal, and what have you.

I’m really looking for things to criticize at this point. I felt that the panels did need a certain amount of output to come alive. What I mean is that the music didn’t quite have the same quickness or immediacy at low levels. I hardly listened to them that way, save for when my wife was asleep. It was much better than a complicated multi-way speaker at low levels, but not quite up to the levels of full-range horns which “speak” at very low power inputs. Compared to a more traditional two-way dynamic driver speaker, like the Gemme Audio Tantos, these will keep the same basic spatial and tonal character at low levels. The acoustic space seemed the same. The timbre was the same. But these need to be driven with more than a couple watts to sound immediate.

Aesthetically, the 10B’s blended quite well with my room. My wife, notoriously anti-speaker, said they looked nice. She’s hard to please. The only fly in the ointment, in this regard, was that you have power cords going to the speakers to energize the panels, and the speakers are biamped with two sets of speaker cables. She hates wires more than she hates speakers. On the other hand, tweaky Dagogo reader will love the opportunity to try different power and speaker cables. More power to you!

This latest incarnation of Roger’s design must be on your list if you want a lot of speaker for the money. Forgetting price, if you have $100K, you still should hear them. They embarrass quite a few competitors charging three and four times the price. Building good speakers (and electronics) takes time, trial and error, and lots of patience. Thankfully, Roger Sanders perseveres, bringing to market one of the best overall speakers I’ve heard. Bravo!

Manufacturer’s Comment:

Thank you for reviewing my Model 10b speaker system. I have no specific comment on the review as it is excellent and needs no comment from me. However, I would like to add the following:

Sanders Sound Systems now has the Model 10c speaker system available with digital crossovers, as well as with the analog crossovers (Model 10b) used by the reviewer. The digital crossover system offers even better performance in several ways.

Specifically, the extremely steep crossover slopes (48 dB/octave compared to 24 dB/octave) offered by digital crossovers allows the speaker’s crossover point to be lowered from 330 Hz to 172 Hz. This allows the electrostatic panel to reproduce the entire frequency range from the upper bass up, and there is no woofer energy in the midrange!

While the transmission line woofer used in the Model 10 is superb, let’s be honest — no matter how good a woofer is, it cannot match the midrange performance of a massless electrostatic panel. So by eliminating the woofer from the midrange entirely, the Model 10c speaker performs even better than the Model 10b in the review.

The result of using a digital crossover solves the problem of full-range, crossoverless electrostatic speakers, which is that they simply cannot produce loud, deep, powerful bass. The Model 10c is now essentially a full-range, crossoverless ESL — but with transmission line quality bass.

Sanders Sound Systems sells direct and through selected dealers throughout the world and offers risk-free, 30-day, in-home auditions. Feel free to call 303 838 8130 to arrange to hear them for yourself.

Great listening,

Roger Sanders

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