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Aspen Acoustics Grand Aspen speakers Review, Part 2 – conclusion

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Rotation for confirmation

Here is an example of the Grand Aspen asserting itself. After hearing its best setup for a few weeks, I rotated back into the listening room the Kingsound King III along with the Perlisten D212s subwoofers. I used the precise same components and even gave a cabling advantage to the King III by switching from the Iconoclast Speaker Cables to their jumper cables made of the same stock. Not only did I switch to jumpers, a significant advantage in wiring a speaker, but I also doubled/paralleled the jumpers to each set of the King III’s binding posts. Both maneuvers give a distinct system building advantage to the King III versus the single wiring of the Grand Aspen. It will be noted below, however, that the Grand Aspen has its own unique system building advantages.

Though I gave the King III the ultimate treatment to see how it would compare, it was not as transparent as the Grand Aspen, understandably less precise in image formation, and had weaker dynamics except in LF, which is understandable given the presence of the Perlisten subs. The advantage in the setup of the King III was the bottom end below 60Hz, where the King III is supported impressively by the D212s subs. Consequently, the King III seemed even more enormous than the Grand Aspen due to its being a large dipole and having the extra LF extension. When the subs were removed from that equation, the scale remained largely intact, but the dynamic fortitude retreated, showing the King III unable to pull off both the scale and heft of the Grand Aspen.

From the mid-bass on up, checkmarks are given to the Grand Aspen, as it simply retrieves more fine resolution than the King III. Electrostatic fans default to the conclusion that no other speaker genre is as refined and can retrieve as much from a recording as an ESL. That is wrong, simply wrong. It depends on the genre and quality of the transducer, the ancillary system including all cabling, and the degree to which the system has been optimized, that is, how many iterations of the system have been built in order to achieve the best outcome. Any of these variables can tip the vote in favor of the competing speaker. It is an act of ignorance to simply set up a speaker in one’s tuned, long-established system and declare whether the new or the old speaker is better. In that scenario, there has not been any sort of sensible comparison conducted, yet this is the habit of audiophiles and too many reviewers.

In the above comparison, when I first set up the King III the sound was relatively so flat, so lacking in power and presence that I knew immediately that several changes had to occur. The King III is a superb dipole speaker. Having much experience with it, because in that iteration it was uninspiring, I knew that I had to spend a day or two on system changes to make the comparison to the Grand Aspen fairer. Even though the cabling changes had been made, it still was not enough to perk up the speakers in a bid to see if they could compete well with the Grand Aspen. After adjusting the fixed versus variable attenuation (with the Grand Aspen the Sonore Signature Rendu SE’s software volume control through Roon was fixed and the COS Engineering D1 DAC + Pre-Amplifier’s volume control was variable. These were reversed for the King III), trying Roon’s digital signal management (upsampling) as an alternative, turning off the COS D1’s up-conversion feature, and replacing the ANTICABLES Level 3 Power Cords with Clarity Cable Vortex Power Cords on the Legacy i.V4 Ultra Amplifiers, the King III was pulled into approximation of the Grand Aspen in terms of tonality. It did not reach the same degree of vividness and cleanness as the Grand Aspen. From the mid-bass up the frequency spectrum from the Grand Aspen was more exciting, had better delineated complex passages in the music, better revealed the spatial relationships and acoustic envelope surrounding each performer and instrument, allowed the minutia in the music to be heard better, and had an overall character of being more organic, more like listening to a real performance. In other words, the hybrid beat the dipole at its own game.

In a future experiment I will test the will of Scott Kindt by turning off the plate amps on the Grand Aspen, rerouting the RCA line level signal to the Perlisten D212s subwoofers, and integrate them along with the rest of the speaker. The result should be even more impressive than the speaker’s native subwoofers. There is a chance the result may be disappointing, but I don’t think so. If the D212s lifts the overall performance of the King III noticeably, I suspect it will make the Grand Aspen even more dominant. Not everyone can try such things, and it is an anomaly to port into a speaker system two subwoofers with an MSRP of $14K. Since I have them, I will certainly try, for my goal is ultimate system building, not merely conventional system building. To achieve it one must think outside the box. After all, the Grand Aspen wouldn’t exist if Scott didn’t think outside the box!

Before exiting discussion of the development of the DLT, I wish to share a brief comment on how the caliber of the speaker system can confer qualities that are often associated with analog sources. A larger speaker system generally has more ease in replication of the source signal, typically due to larger drivers that play more strain-free. Larger dipole speakers are often described as rendering more detail with less stridency than dynamic speakers. The bigger ribbon midrange and tweeter drivers (hence my designation of DLT, Disproportionately Large Tweeter, initially referring to the design of the Lagrange L5 MkII) of the Grand Aspen have a greater capacity to render texture of notes and vocals than the more diminutive ribbon drivers used in the Legacy Whisper. The sense of having both increased information retrieval and ease are attributes commonly associated with vinyl. The Grand Aspen’smore formidable and fuller low end than the PureAudioProject Trio15 or King Sound King III makes drums and piano more convincing both tonally and dynamically. The Grand Aspen is excellent at all of these, and as such when switching from a different speaker, the Grand Aspen is perceived to be more generous. The speaker one selects has an overarching influence on how erudite the music sounds, even when the source is a file or streaming.


Two unusual features make the Grand Aspen standout

Accident does not have the capacity to design and that is why I never write that a speaker has evolved. Speakers do not evolve, they are developed. If I hear you say that a manufactured item evolved, I will correct you. Accident does not design, it destroys. God designs things very well, but man designs merely adequately. The designer makes the difference. Also critical is the execution, the production. If your designer is competent and the build superb, you will have a lovely speaker that will give you good sound. If the design follows convention, no matter how elegant, it will not be a SOTA speaker, at least not in terms of performance. Regarding designer Scott Kindt, I see in the Grand Aspen an exceptional design with competent build. Use of the speaker confirms the critical difference that the designer makes. It is a clear example that a speaker with exceptional design and competent build quality can holistically outperform most of these others especially when set up optimally.

I credit two aspects of the Grand Aspen’s design for giving it a fundamental advantage over more conventionally designed speakers. The first is extensive use of passive attenuators, and the second is its capacity to be powered by up to 8 channels of amplification. Together, these design features lift the Grand Aspen’s performance such that even high profile conventional dynamic or dipole speakers holistically are not as good.


Extensive use of passive attenuators

Since the end of grade school in the early 70s I have enjoyed fiddling to find the limits of an audio system’s performance. On my first stereo, a compact Lloyds all-in-one unit with accompanying speakers, I often adjusted the dials for bass and treble for the best sound. As I grew older and obtained separates, I thrilled to the use of multi-band equalizers and I thought the pattern of lights at the tips of the sliders were as pretty as the sonic effect they made. When I bought my Nakamichi CR-1A Cassette Deck I was fastidious about the type of tape, recording controls, and protocol for playback. As an early adopter of CD, I ran dozens of trials to reach a point where my cassette recordings were nearly indistinguishable from CD playback. I enjoy adjusting an audio system until it seems close enough to real that I can relax and enjoy it. As I have advanced, I continue to fiddle with settings, but also with entire system setup. It is the exploration of entire systems that has informed my philosophy of advancing a HiFi system.

Consequently, I tend to resist received truths of audiophilia that percolate through the industry and community. In recent years a small but ardent group of industry members and hobbyists have insisted that active speaker systems are inherently better than passive. The conclusions reached by this group range from promoting the hypothetical superiority of active speakers to the assertion that active speakers of nearly any pedigree and price outperform a myriad of far more expensive passive speakers. I consider these conclusions to be false. Having conducted extensive comparison of the Legacy Audio Whisper DSW Clarity Edition to itself — the speaker can be run in either passive or active crossover mode — I found its active operation was only superior when paired with certain components and cables. Also, its active operation was not universally preferable to other passive speakers in alternative system configurations. I concluded that an active speaker can only reliably be claimed superior to the identical passive speaker from the same manufacturer. Aside from that, there is no assurance that any given active speaker will outperform or be preferred over any given passive speaker.

I will repeat for emphasis; given extensive comparison through setting up many systems of the Whisper in both passive and active modes, I have shown that performance in active mode can be outperformed by passive mode with an alternative set of electronics and cables. However, in comparison with itself in active or passive mode, the active version is superior. The problem is, who can put together an ad hoc system with an active speaker and, without direct comparison, say it is superior to any given passive speaker system? Ouch! That’s not what hard core active speaker fans want to hear. The case for active speakers being vastly superior to passive speakers was not upheld in my informal experimentation comparing the two modes in several systems.

Recalling the performance characteristics of the larger actively crossed speaker systems from Legacy Audio, the V and the Valor System, I hear from the Grand Aspen qualities that are supposed to characterize active speakers. I refer to powerful bass with exceptional cleanness and fullness (expected as the Grand Aspen has an active subwoofer, though the 12” forward firing woofer is not active), razor edge transients that cause drum whacks and violin strokes to cut through the air like the real instrument, and vividness or illumination of the soundstage.

Purists might consider Scott’s extensive use of passive attenuators to be a mistake. However, I have shown that some purists’ conclusions regarding active speakers are suspect. I try not to preclude a design from having exceptional performance due to its being unconventional, such as using several passive attenuators. Passive attenuators are used for the Grand Aspen’s super tweeter, dual ribbon tweeters, midrange ribbon, and 12” bass drivers. One of the two sets of binding posts on the midrange/tweeter tower sends amplification to both the twin tweeter ribbons and the super tweeter, but they have individual attenuators. The other set of binding posts is dedicated to the midrange ribbon. On the main tower, the 12” Aurum Cantus and the 6” Accuton drivers each have their own set of binding posts, however only the bass driver has a passive attenuator.

Why would a speaker that is an attempt at statement sound use devices that are deemed by purists to diminish the integrity of the signal? Scott was spending a lot of money and time buying and assembling high quality capacitors to tune his handmade crossovers (the recipe of the mix of capacitors he does not wish to be published) but found that with changes to source or amp the nuances of the speaker’s sound due to the particular combination of capacitors was not consistently to his satisfaction. One set of caps in a crossover was great with solid state amplification, but not with tubes. Another set of caps was lovely with vinyl, but not as beguiling with digital playback. Scott was experiencing a problem of speaker design, one that makes reaching a final form of a crossover extremely difficult.

I recommended that he use passive attenuators to adjust the output and, consequently, the tonal interaction between drivers. Many speaker companies from the ‘50s through the ‘70s used attenuators to allow owners an informal tuning method to contour the speaker’s sound to their preference. At first Scott objected because it is not a purist approach. Had he not relented and eventually outfitted the speaker with individual attenuators for drivers, the speaker would not be suitable for the second part of exceptional performance, amplifier channels for discrete drivers much like an active speaker.

The irony is that even 10 years ago I likely would not have endorsed it, much less recommended it. Decades ago, I disdained reviewers who revealed that they tolerated a bit of system noise in exchange for perceived better sound. I thought they were wrong for accepting any noise. As I matured and built many rigs, I learned that they were correct. I now tolerate low level noise in a system if the result holistically is superior to a system which reduces noise but filters the signal unacceptably. Likewise, I have experienced the advantage of adjusting the outputof drivers, or sets of drivers, that is possible with some active speaker systems. The use of multiple passive attenuators accomplishes a similar effect in a passive speaker system. Keep in mind that the effect of using multiple attenuators is not cumulative, in which case it would be disastrous. As each driver has its own attenuator, the degradation to the signal is no worse than filtering the signal to the entire speaker.

Experimentation can yield unexpected results. For that reason, when possible, I usually compare RCA and XLR interconnects in systems because I cannot absolutely predict in a new setup which will sound better. I ask the reader a question: Which technological option would you prefer to hear, a speaker with fixed crossovers tuned to the designer’s reference system, or a speaker with at least one passive attenuator to allow you to contour the relationship of the drivers as used with your system? Obviously, the speaker will measure less perfectly with a passive attenuator in the signal path. Would having the ability to contour the relationship between the drivers lead to a more pleasing result overall? The proper answer is you don’t know, the designer doesn’t know, and I don’t know. It would need to be compared, and anyone who attempts to give a definitive answer is simply sharing their opinion. Most speaker companies don’t give you that option, but the Grand Aspen has that option. I am happy it does because Scott’s front end and amplification is quite different than mine, and I suspect yours is also quite different than mine.

In the mind of some, the use of a mechanical attenuator is a technology no longer defensible in the face of minimalist crossover design, active crossovers, or active speakers. Yet holistically the performance advantage to practical system building is clear; the ability to contour a multi-way speaker with attenuators dedicated to their drivers is highly advantageous. Who would have thought that old school attenuators combined with novel driver configuration of the DLT and radical system building, i.e., 8 channels of 600wpc class D power, could be superior to late generation bespoke or statement speakers. It has been a surprise to me.

5 Responses to Aspen Acoustics Grand Aspen speakers Review, Part 2 – conclusion

  1. Allen Edelstein says:

    Just a detail which has nothing to do with your comments on the Grand Aspen performance. But looking at the photos the mid range and tweeters do not look like ribbon drivers(I know the designer calls them ribbons). But both drivers look like they are supported on all 4 sides and that makes them planars, not ribbons. And the two types of drivers don’t work the same. If I’m incorrect I do apologize but I see planars called ribbons too often.

  2. Allen,
    God’s Peace,

    I discussed your question with Scott Kindt, and while there is some variance on what people call a ribbon versus planar driver, Scott feels there are enough characteristics of his driver to consider it a ribbon. It is attached at the top and bottom, not four sides. It is positioned between rows of magnets. It does have a “backing” (Scott’s term) to support the ribbon. He said he could make the ribbons without that backing element, but they would be vulnerable to tearing and not have the same durability. He pointed out what many of us know, that Magenpan blurs this distinction somewhat by calling their driver a quasi-ribbon. Yet, they are mounted on all four sides to my knowledge.

    Imo, Scott’s drivers have some elements of a ribbon and some elements of a planar driver. He is sticking with the description of them as “dipole ribbons”, and I do not see an airtight argument for saying they are not.

    My response is not intended to cause a battle over nomenclature of driver technology, but to add to respond to the comment and add manufacturer input.

    Douglas Schroeder

  3. irenee Grand says:

    I can understand how you feel about this speaker. I have an old pair of Eminent Technology LFT 3 from back 1987 and I have done many modifications as cabinetry, crossover and cabling and it is so interesting how I haven’t heard other speakers do better in the you are there sensation (Focal, Dynaudio, MBL etc…

  4. Irene Grand,
    God’s Peace to you,

    Ah, a true Eminent Tech fan! I also have a vintage set of LFT VI that I have paired with some smaller Hsu Subwoofers which are nice but the combo falls well short of the Grand Aspen. It is a curious thing how well Scott achieved his goal of recreating the sound of a big Apogee speaker using a hybrid design. The large 4″ ribbon does a great job of opening up the speaker like E.T.s and other dipole designs.

    I find it interesting how different characteristics of radically different speakers elicit that “you are there” experience with listeners. Some must have coherence, and others massive bass/LF, while others love the scale of dipoles. I think they’re all legit but none perfect.

    Douglas Schroeder

  5. God’s Peace to the community,

    I am motivated to offer an unsolicited update and impressions of the experimental system I proposed in the article, that of using the Perlisten subwoofers with the Grand Aspen.

    My latest experiment was to try the Perlisten D212s Subwoofers with the Grand Aspen Speakers. That necessitated leaving the internal subs silent and sending the line level signal to the Perlisten subs. That is not to be taken as a negative comment on the GA’s internal subs, which are excellent. The Perlisten subs are smart subs with room correction and have been tuned to my room.

    The results are impressive! I am using all 8 channels of the Legacy Audio i.V4 Ultra amplifiers (2 units with 4 channels, the maximum number of channels in the Ultra version of the amp is four), so the combined Wattage for the system including the powered subs is conservatively 10,800 Watts. The speakers have an immediacy I have not heard previously from dipoles I have used, and this setup has exceptional resolution and extension at both ends of the frequency spectrum. The dynamics are high efficiency/horn-like, but with the generosity in sound stage similar to a dipole. I love the particular combination of characteristics of this system, and it is one of the most perfect combinations of equipment I have assembled. Listening across a very wide spectrum of musical genres, the only adjustment I make to the system is a +/- .5dB output adjustment of the Perlisten subs. Older recordings which are light on the low end take the extra .5 dB, while the newer recordings get dialed back .5 dB. The subs have so much capacity to pressurize the room that I have to operate them between -6 dB and -6/5 dB.

    The system:
    Small Green Computer sonicTransporter
    Signature Rendu SE with systemOptique
    Clarity Cable Supernatural USB
    COS Engineering D1 DAC + Pre-Amplifier
    Full loom of Iconoclast Cables, using 2 pair XLR IC, 2 pair RCA IC, and 4 pair of speaker cables, and Iconoclast’s Belden PCs
    Grand Aspen Speakers
    Perlisten D212s Subs with Iconoclast’s RCA 3m interconnect and Belden’s PCs

    There is an irony in the hybrid setup incorporating two products which are dissimilar in terms of their development. The Perlisten subs are from industry veterans with extensive capital at their disposal. The Grand Aspen Speakers are the work of one man working in obscurity. I don’t recall having such a radical disparity in a system, yet I rank this system as easily in the top 3 I have ever built. I hesitate to name it absolutely the best ever, for fear of inappropriately downgrading other fine equipment that involved other components, cables, etc. and so did not allow for a direct comparison.

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