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Aspen Acoustics Grand Aspen speakers Review, Part 1 of 2

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Note to reader: As I have invested time in reviewing the  Aspen Acoustics Lagrange L5 MkII published at and the speaker under consideration here is a new model built using the same principles, I will not be revisiting previously discussed background of Scott Kindt, Aspen Acoustics owner and designer, or my discussion of DLT (Disproportionately Large Tweeter) design in speakers. For those curious about these aspects of Aspen Acoustics speakers, I suggest you read the Lagrange L5 MkII review.

Free from physical risk but exposed to the fiscal risk associated with our hobby, the deeper I go into exploring different genres of audio systems, like a caver pushing deeper into great cave systems, the more unnerving and potentially costly it gets. The hobbyist who is after the ultimate sound had best not obsess about the cost, because there are constant discoveries that reveal the expensive toy that one purchased can be bested by some new product.

There will be some reading this who have spent a boatload on speakers. If you don’t want discomfiting information, perhaps you should turn away because you may be a bit unsettled by what follows. The Lord knows that sometimes I’m disturbed at the discoveries I make in this hobby. Am I suggesting that the company Aspen Acoustics is disturbing to me? Not at all! It’s a delightful craft speaker company, one well worth discussing, especially now that the magnum opus, the Grand Aspen, is shaping up for production.

What can be disturbing about handling a variety of cool products and building lots of wonderful sounding rigs? My experience is mostly a kid-in-a-candy-store experience, until something shows up that sonically trounces the expensive item I recently bought. Ouch! Frankly, one of the reasons I work with several genres of speakers is because, by shifting them about, I can assuage the pain over a new product’s superior performance.

In the interim between my first Aspen Acoustics review of the Lagrange L5 MkII I upgraded to a pre-production model now called the Capella (formerly Lagrange L1 MkII). Even as a prototype, I heard things that I considered characteristic of larger statement speakers but at an uncharacteristically low price. I decided to put skin in the game by purchasing it, with the generous assurance of Scott that he would replace it with the production version. He was true to his word and brought the Grand Aspen to my home a few months ago. To my delight the Capella has not been tweaked but retooled and as the Grand Aspen stands head and shoulders above the previous design. I hereby present my owner’s review. As I have said previously when writing an owner’s review, take it with whatever sized grain of salt you wish. Though I am excited about the Grand Aspen for several reasons regarding its design and performance, I will attempt to not gloss over the realities of such a craft speaker.

Before you proceed to read this article, know that I consider the Grand Aspen to have performance beyond practically all speakers I have previously used and reviewed. Many of you read about them and purchased them. I make no apologies for that, as I cannot predict the future, nor presage products yet to be reviewed or their relative performance. If you are an explorer, or have an insatiable desire to go deeper, to experience something more extreme, but not at the cost of an arm and a leg, then you should hang with me on this exploration.


Unnerving experience

Perhaps disturbing is not a term used by most audiophiles to describe their experiences listening. However, as a system builder who is chasing a hypothetical ideal, it is an appropriate description. How would you feel if you had spent $10K on a particular speaker system and because of your affiliation with the industry you could bring in any number of other speaker systems. You might think it’s a gift from Heaven, until another speaker system handily outperforms the one you paid for. Now you are confronted with the reality that you settled on lesser performance, you know it absolutely, and if you wish to switch it means additional expense. I am well aware that this is a most blessed and self-inflicted condition.

Perhaps a more uncomfortable revelation from building so many rigs is discovery that there is as much variance in sound quality attributable to a manufacturer’s choice of technology employed as to the quality of design and assembly. Consider the recently introduced PS Audio FR30 statement speaker; as a dipole speaker fan and someone who enjoys magnetic planar technology, it is of some importance that I want to have a good, long listen. I wish to form an initial impression of its 10” planar magnetic midrange as it is distinctly different from the 2” x 30” magnetic ribbon midrange in the Grand Aspen. I am aware that indirect comparison yields little more than an impression and that a formal comparison is more valuable. Yet, the FR30 is presented as a statement speaker. What if, after extended listening, I leave with the impression that the larger ribbon midrange of the Grand Aspen outperforms the FR30’s 10” magnetic planar midrange? What prevents the unknown speaker with the unusual configuration and drivers from giving a strong impression that it has outperformed a statement speaker? We see another potentially disturbing aspect of this hobby!


Assaulting the giant of presupposition

Statement, bespoke, state-of-the-art — these are the terms found in HiFi magazines meant to assure you that you are contemplating and hopefully going to purchase the very best. A problem arises when a speaker that none of these appellations have been applied to sounds better. It can be a crisis when the much lower cost speaker you are hearing is manifestly superior to the many higher profile speakers you have owned or heard in several, if not all, respects. I do not refer here to the FR30, as I have not heard it in my room. I will be discussing comparisons of the Grand Aspen to speakers I have used personally, particularly the ones that I currently use.

Audiophiles are groomed to believe the best sound comes from designs put forth by established companies. Higher profile companies work to cultivate a reputation of unassailable sound. I have always been uneasy with the presumption that pedigree assures the best sound. There are times when, in my system building, I have an experience that calls that presumption into question, if not entirely, then partially.

Allow me to present an observation tangentially by questioning an audiophile conventional wisdom, the assertion that the music lives in the midrange, that it is the most important part of the frequency spectrum. I disagree and assert that such a viewpoint creates a false dichotomy in terms of performance, which can lead to purchase and system setup decisions yielding poorer performance. The recent, potentially disruptive experience, I have had involves the midrange performance of the Grand Aspen. In several systems with other higher profile speakers and in extended listening, the Grand Aspen’s unusual midrange combination of a handmade 2” x 30” magnetic ribbon driver in tandem with a 6” Accuton midrange driver has outperformed the midrange of all previously owned and reviewed speakers, except for the Legacy Audio Valor Speaker System, an $86K product.

How can that be? I presume 45% of the readership will dismiss my claim and another 45% will wonder. Perhaps 10% of persons reading this will believe me based on familiarity with my previous work and concluding I have credibility in such observations. The answer as to how such a result could occur might involve surface area of the midrange. There seems to be a correlation between cone driver surface area and a more mature, relaxed bass response. Perhaps for superior midrange performance the surface area is an essential attribute allowing one to sound better than another. It has been borne out in my comparisons of dynamic midrange drivers, as speakers with more total midrange driver surface area sound more appealing to me. I tend to care less for speakers with midrange drivers under 6”. Perhaps that effect also holds across technologies and a larger ribbon midrange holds great appeal to me. It is something I will explore going forward. I suspect that makers, sellers, and users of larger midrange drivers would generally agree, while those endorsing other forms would adamantly disagree. Whether they agree or not is of not much concern to me, as my impression is based mostly on direct comparisons of speakers.

A hobbyist for whom coherence is everything might retort that midrange produced by a ribbon in conjunction with a ceramic cone, as in the Grand Aspen, cannot sound good. If a point source launch of the midrange is one’s sine qua non, I agree. Case in point, the pair of PureAudioProject Trio15 10” Coaxial Speakers I outfitted with upgraded Mundorf Evo oil-filled caps has a tightly focused center image. The Grand Aspen’s center image is not as compact. However, it has a smoother and more generously appointed center image. The Grand Aspen’s midrange shows greater development toward a realistic image of the performer than either dynamic or panel speakers I have used. When I first encountered the Lagrange L5 model, I suspected there was something special about the DLT arrangement — Disproportionally Large Tweeter (my term) — and my suspicions are being upheld as the speaker design is developed.

For coherence fans objecting in principle to the dual hybrid midrange driver arrangement of the Grand Aspen, the output of the 2” ribbon midrange can be adjusted relative to the Accuton ceramic driver, which has a fixed output tied to the preamp’s listening level. The locus of midrange can be shifted to reside at the Accuton driver, the 2” ribbon driver, or somewhere equidistant! As I have experimented with maneuvering the midrange, I have preferred the output of the ribbon driver as evidently higher than the Accuton driver such that the density and tightness of the center image, as well as the ribbon’s superb cleanness, is highlighted.

Statements as above, about preferring the Grand Aspen’s midrange, can be like nitroglycerine: highly volatile. A fraction of readers will be convinced I am playing reviewer games and am lying. No, I am not. Here would be a lie; protecting the seemingly unassailable reputation of higher profile speakers, because one never knows when the desire to review one of theirs might surface, at the expense of the Grand Aspen’s performance, downplaying the novel, unknown speaker in order to protect my interests as well as those of higher profile speaker makers.The problem would become more acute if the Grand Aspen happened to assert itself in other parameters of performance. Technological leadership in manufacturing speakers changes over time, and companies that have been regurgitating the same thing essentially unchanged over decades are evidently not that hard to beat by an enterprising upstart. Leadership in terms of sales of units is not necessarily linked to leadership in terms of performance. Evidently, an upstart such as Aspen Acoustics can outperform, but it can take a while before the community comes to believe it and the company captures increasing sales.

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