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Sound Lab Ultimate U-4iA electrostatic speaker Review

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Certain products in the audiophile universe seem unobtainable, so physically large and/or costly that only advantaged audiophiles will ever own them. As might be expected, many are noteworthy performers. Upper end Sound Lab full range electrostatic speakers have a reputation as being huge and expensive, but able to create a lasting listening impression. Once you have heard a big Sound Lab you never forget it!

In the past you needed an oversized room and several tens of thousands of dollars at hand to get into the big Sound Lab game. Now that the flagship speaker from the company has shrunk from the Majestic 945PX at a neck-straining 9 feet high down to the U-1PX at a mere seven feet, more customers have been able to join the Sound Lab family. With the U-1PX you merely need a large room and $45k. But now, at last, a Sound Lab “for the masses” has arrived, the Ultimate U4iA, or “Euphoria.” This is a wisp of a Sound Lab at 56” x 25” x 25” (Those measurements include the attached power supply and crossover at the base; the electrostatic panels are 5.5” thick), with a more manageable MSRP of $21,300! Hope should be rising, as for the first time you might be able to own a top pedigree Sound Lab speaker.

 

Mixed feelings over mega-speakers

I will never forget the first time I spied a speaker so large it both inspired and depressed me. It was about 1988 and I was a post-graduate student when I encountered the tri-fold Magnepan Tympani at a dealership in St. Louis.The salesman cordially invited me to have a listen, but I declined.. What, miss an opportunity to expand my world, to hear a state of the art rig? Yes, I turned it down, partly because of the foolish notion that I would be wasting his time, but also because I thought, “I will never be able to have a speaker like that!” Why dip a toe in a pool you will never swim in? Why take a bite of a meal you cannot consume? At the time I had a mediocre mid-fi system as I had little money and growing school debt. Hearing that system would have ruined me for enjoyment of my humble rig.

Looking back, at the time the visceral thought deeply recessed in my cranium was, “I would never spend that much on speakers!” My perspective was that there was no way, no matter how it sounded, that it would be worth it. That is an easy conclusion to sustain when one has not heard a system. The passage of time and growing income changes one’s viewpoint. As a threadbare student I could not justify such extravagance, but as a man who has been at this hobby for more than thirty years with reasonable expendable income, I not only now understand it, with calculation and planning I pursue it. Having heard some elite products in my home and learning firsthand of the gulf of performance separating the best from the rest, purposeful extravagance is sometimes not so foolishly pursued.

A few months ago, I had the privilege to be invited to dine at the Singapore Cricket Club. I recall the sensation of an environment of mature wealth, not the obnoxious bling brigade of Hollywood or inflated egos associated with new wealth, but the easygoing and assured, low-key wealth of people who can distance themselves from the rest of the world even in the midst of it. In a city-country where land is exquisitely expensive here was a tract of green made over to be an outdoor playground amid towering financial district offices. It gave me a taste, literally, of the upper crust of society.

Two weeks later I was laboring in the sun on a 90-degree day in an impoverished neighborhood in Nosara, Costa Rica, hoisting five gallon buckets of rock and sand to shoulder height to pour into a large portable cement mixer. I was there with my family through our Christian church to help build a home for a family living in a rudimentary open-air shack most of us wouldn’t consider suitable as a shed for a lawn tractor. The bleak physical work stood in stark contrast to the pampered country club experience, yet aside from the physical toil I felt comfortable there. How could such different experiences meld in one person’s life? These disparate experiences happened because barriers were removed; in the first case barriers to my admission, and in the second barriers to others’ admission, helping them obtain a lifestyle closer to my own. Likewise in audio, economic and physical barriers prevent some from participation. Now, Sound Lab has removed the most significant barriers to entry into the Sound Lab club.

Breaking barriers

Roger West of Sound Lab knows about breaking barriers. In the 1970’s Roger was designing speakers for the Electronic Industries Corporation, which owned JansZen Electrostatic Corp. Roger approached EIC with the idea of making a full range electrostatic speaker, but they turned him down as they felt there was no market for it. Roger disagreed and after discussion with his friend, Dr. Dale Ream, they formed Sound Lab Inc. in 1978. Sadly, Dale passed away two years later, but Roger kept the dream alive. Roger and Dale’s vision allowed them to introduce a product that not only broke barriers but also has popularized the concept of  highly realistic sounding domestic speakers.

The impetus for the introduction of the U-4iA was shifting cultural and economic changes of the past decade. Roger pointed out that the Great Recession of 2008 seemed to have a lingering, muting effect on discretionary spending, and that downsizing has become fashionable among the middle-age set. I see articles online continually touting micro houses, and those under 25 years of age seem more concerned about “experiencing” life than building a home. A giant speaker would be a non-starter for those with moderate incomes and less square footage than two generations ago.

Consequently, the smallest speaker in the Ultimate line has been birthed, the technically named U-4iA, interpreted as the next sequential number in the Ultimate series with identical appearance, or “iA.” It was a bolt of marketing lightning that the technical description phonetically yields “Euphoria.” Some products are simply meant for greatness and the U-4iA is one of those products.

 

Like the big ones

As a member of the Ultimate Series, the U-4iA shares attributes both adopted from the other members of the line as well as shared with them. Development of the U-4iA has led to a revamping of the technology employed by Sound Lab to achieve a new threshold of ultimate performance. The long-standing appearance of the massive curvilinear drivers ensconced in grill cloth material and the ground-hugging power supply hanging off the back at the rear like an outboard motor on a boat is unchanged. Still, the introduction of massively thick metal framing in place of wood lends a seriousness and robust build quality that shouts, “I mean business!” The entire business arrives in three hefty wooden crates that are extremely well constructed and internally padded. You may not be able to drop them from a helicopter, but you can with some assurance ship them in the crates across the world without too much concern of damage. Those with cause to consider shipping will find Sound Lab to be competent crate builders.

Many are the speakers claimed to need two persons to set them up. In most cases, with some ingenuity, I have been able to do it myself as I am able-bodied and have both a light hand truck and heavy-duty furniture dolly. In the case of the U-4iA, it is taking unwarranted risks to attempt removal of the panels by yourself; best get a second set of hands to be sure. Thankfully, the 152-pound speaker is in two parts, the panel and powers supply/crossover, so it was not difficult weight-wise to bring them down the stairs to my listening room in my basement.

Moving them about when assembled is not entirely worry-free. While most people will assemble them in place, I needed to move them in and out of the listening room since I review other speakers. The construction of the frame and module attached is plenty strong to allow moving of the entire affair. I use a regular hand truck, place a large bath towel folded several times at the base of the hand truck to protect the bottom and lower sides of the electronics housing, then slide the apparatus under the housing and slowly lever the speaker back toward the hand truck. The speaker thus rests on the back of the power supply housing at the bottom and the top rests lightly against the top of the hand truck. The towel at the bottom helps greatly in ameliorating sway of the speaker, as it is actually resting upon a tubular footer welded to the housing. I use one hand to steady the speaker and the other to push the hand truck. Not terribly risky, but more so than moving most speakers. If you have less confidence, get the help necessary to do the job when moving them. If you can set them up near their final position that is the ideal. The frame is plenty strong to allow a mighty grip on the upper side posts to walk the entire assembled speaker on front footers to achieve small step-like movements for final positioning. Obviously, this should be done while the smooth footers are installed, then once in position the spikes can be inserted in place of the footers.

Also provided are aesthetically appropriate solid milled caps for the frame’s side and back metal tube supports. I advise taking them out when moving the speaker. The framework is finished in a black, eggshell-like color that appears a touch more reflective than a flat paint. Generously sized spikes with spike cups to protect hard floors are included. Angling of the speaker’s front baffle forward and backward by use of provided spacers allows elevating the soundstage to one’s preference at four positions: 0, 2, 4 or 6 degrees. Roger points out that “tilting the panel rearward introduces a vertical component in the sound wave that invites ceiling and floor reflections. Tilt angle is normally slight, so the effect is usually sub-aural.” The owner is advised to use the least amount of angle of tilt necessary. If most listening will be done while standing, the backward tilt becomes more important, as the speaker has little vertical dispersion. Roger states, “the vertical limit of the sound field is essentially the height of the speaker, thus the ear needs to be within these limits to obtain optimum sound quality.” This is nothing new; most panel speakers have severely limited dispersion due to the nature of their flat diaphragm. However, standing and listening at the back of the room, approximately 18-20 feet away I did not sense a greatly compacted soundstage. I add that if a person is listening to a very large panel, taller than the U-4iA, or in a very near-field setup, they may wish to tilt the speaker forward slightly to focus the soundstage at the listening position, otherwsiea great deal of the sonic event may pass overhead. I do so with both the Kingsound King III electrostatic speaker as well as the Legacy Audio Whisper DSW Clarity Edition speaker, both close to 6’ tall.

5 Responses to Sound Lab Ultimate U-4iA electrostatic speaker Review


  1. Jerry Belben says:

    Wow!!! What a thoughtful, descriptive and moving review. Thanks for introducing me to a speaker that I had no previous knowledge of. ( I use PSB Image Tower 3’s and Prima Luna Dialogue HP Integrated Amplification) can you compare and contrast the PSB’s to the Sound Lab u4iA’s?

    Also I am in the market for a DAC and up to this point I have been leaning towards the PS Audio Directstream. Can you compare and contrast the two and if you were buying a new DAC what would you choose? Lastly do you have any reason to believe the results you achieved with the Excel Comet DAC with upgraded power Supply would be replicated with another system such as mine?

    Thanks again for a thorough and thoughtful review?

    Regards

    JerryB
    Halifax, NS

  2. Miguel Dunkelberger says:

    As an owner of SoundLab A1’s I can attest to the outstanding customer service SoundLab offers. I shipped my circa 2004 electronic plates to the factory for the updated Torid and hot rod upgrade. You deal with Dr. West and he is a very nice man who accommodates custom requests. In my case, I asked to have silver WBT binding posts installed and the work is flawless. SoundLabs are the pinnacle of electrostatic technology and I for one will not consider cone based Speakers again.

  3. alan trahern says:

    Correct me if I’m wrong but I believe a 12 db per octave filter is a second order, not fourth order.

  4. Jerry,
    God’s Peace to you,

    PSB makes a high value speaker; I have always admired that in a speaker company. The performance of the U-4iA is quite different than all moderately sized floor standing dynamic speakers. Chiefly, the scale of the soundstage and coherency, the sense of being woven as a tapestry, are the most striking first impressions. The level of detail achievable is first rate. Some people adore panel sound and some do not, but you should endeavor to hear a good panel speaker; you may be smitten by it.

    I have heard PS audio gear a fair bit in the past and have heard their DACs. I had the PerfectWave DAC in my room for a week and decided not to review it. The Exogal, on the other hand, mightily impressed me, especially with the Ion. YMMV.

    I believe you would realize similar benefits by moving to the Exogal Comet and Ion, however, for many reasons you would not have replicated the U-4iA with those components and the PSB speakers.

    Blessings,
    Douglas Schroeder

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