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Aspen Acoustics Lagrange L5 MKII ribbon dipole speaker system

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L1 upper cabinet in production

A distinct experience

I have on occasion visited some wineries in various countries, though I am not an oenophile. I recall one distinctly; we were paraded through the vineyard literally, receiving a tutorial on the process of growing, harvesting and processing the grapes, then served a beautiful dinner with a selection of wines from the vineyard. Ordering and owning a craft speaker as an audiophile is also a distinct experience, much different than selecting a mass-produced product from a dealer or catalogue. One of the delightful aspects of the craft speaker experience is that often one is able to build a relationship with the owner-designer. I will endeavor to describe the considerations involved so that potential customers can determine if this is an experience they wish to pursue. It takes a particular type of customer to properly purchase a speaker such as the Lagrage L5 MkII or the upcoming L1.

The phrase “properly purchase” may seem odd, but just as one might select excursions on a tour, selection of the speaker buying experience as well as the brand and model may determine whether you have a fabulous or frustrating experience. An Aspen Acoustics speaker is not designed for casual listening. When I asked Scott what type of audiophile he is targeting with his design, he replied, “These speakers are built for the audiophile who has that dedicated listening chair and is looking for a full range lifelike listening experience.” He adds, “I started Aspen Acoustics because I felt that the really great speakers were priced beyond the point for most people to obtain.” Even though the speaker uses naturally beautiful materials, some audiophiles will dismiss it for its low WAF (wife acceptance factor), that is, unsuitability for some domestic environments. The review of the Tri-Art Audio B Series Open 5 speaker and components was met with glee by adventurous audiophiles, and disapproval by others. The L5 MkII is a novel design with less living room appeal than dedicated listening space appeal.

There is a necessary trade-off involved in owning a speaker such as the L5 MkII; it is handmade, not meaning hand assembled, but largely handbuilt. The ribbons, crossovers and cabinets are all built by Scott at the shop at his home. Scott did not think it prudent to invest tens of thousands of dollars in a shop with industrial machinery to build speakers if he was unsure that he would start a company. In other words, the cart does not come before the horse, and the world class fit and finish do not come before the company has a backlog of orders. As such the fit and finish of the L5 MkII is not as cut by giant CNC machines, and laminates that are applied do not have the glossy, mirror furniture store finish. There are companies, such as Oswald Mills Audio, also making craft speakers, that will give you a to-die-for aesthetic in a hand-made speaker that has been cut with CNC machines and finished in premium fashion, subjected to extremely tight tolerance manufacturing. In that instance, the boast of having a handmade speaker comes along with a plump five- to six-figure price tag.

There is a less expensive line of Oswald Mills products called Fleetwood Sound Company, among them a two-way, stand mounted speaker called the DeVille for $9,600 in standard black finish, and custom finishes ranging from $12,600 to $18,600. I have nothing to say about the particular sound of Fleetwood speakers as I have not heard them. I do have something to say about the specifications, because I don’t need to hear the speaker to know some critical things about its performance. Looking at the Fleetwood Sound Company website, there is one critical specification missing, that being the frequency response range. I found a loose (perhaps very loose, as it might not be +/-3dB, but maybe +/-6dB) specification in a review showing a frequency response of 36Hz – 20kHz. This speaker has an 8” woofer and a 1” compression driver horn in a 24”x10”x18”, 36-pound cabinet, which I think would ring like a bell, similar to a Harbeth. I am not impressed with any purportedly premium speaker company that does not bother to include tight specifications for frequency response. To me it says the company wants to sell speakers based on having an option for “Handmade Japanese Washi” finish ($14,700/pr).

Contrast the L5 MkII, which obviously is not such a cute thing as the DeVille. Scott is correct that his speaker is for hardcore listeners, not people who want a $5K or more optional finish on a small speaker. Scott’s focus is on the performance of a speaker, not impressive finishes. Comparatively, the L5 MkII is already dollar for dollar in the win column in some respects merely by being a true full range speaker. In terms of scale and spaciousness, it also is in the win category, because a 1” compression driver cannot compete in those respects with a 34” dipole ribbon. The DeVille likely does have better coherence due to the compression driver, as is true of nearly all similar designs, but it will not have a more spacious, defined, and filled out soundstage. Again, I do not need to hear the two-way speaker to know that; it’s a matter of selection of driver types and build.

The point I’m making is that when it comes to a craft speaker, the spectrum of cost-to-performance is wide, and these two speakers exemplify it. Even if money meant nothing to me, and I could blow $280K on a speaker, the bottom line for me is still performance. Would the Aspen Acoustics L1 compare well in terms of performance with the OMA Imperia? Based on the design of these two craft speakers, it very well could. I have no declarations to make unless I hear them both. Conversely, I do not default to the conclusion that because a speaker maker has products with to-die-for aesthetics, that means the sound is superior. I adjure, never presume you are actually obtaining superior performance from a craft speaker maker simply because of exorbitant pricing or exquisite appearance. Could I be bowled over by the sound of OMA products? Perhaps, maybe even likely so, but the question of which would be preferred in comparison can only be resolved in comparison. Short of that, one has to weigh the variables of the design, as I have.

Another insight is that these two speakers, the Lagrange L1 and the OMA Imperia, would sound radically different from each other, even if the specifications were similar, and they are not. Scott indicated that the L5 MkII has specifications of impedance of 4 Ohms and frequency response of 27-20kHz, which strikes me as quite conservative on the low end, as the speaker plumbs the depths more so subjectively than the Vapor Audio Joule White, which on the low end was 22Hz +/-3dB. A double ribbon with active 12” oppositional subwoofer would be distinctly different than a multi-way horn system. I would expect audiophiles to be split in their preference merely on the technologies employed, aside from real world monetary and performance considerations, which have an influence upon most audiophiles. For $10K you can get a handmade two-way stand mount speaker from Fleetwood that carries the idiosyncratic box speaker character and has brilliant aesthetics, or a handmade, but not museum grade, floorstanding, full range speaker with active bass with equalization (important for integration into the room) from Aspen Acoustics.  Indeed, there really is something for everyone!

Aspen Acoustics Lagrange L5 MKII

Think of Amish country furniture

In the audiophile community, saying that a product is not perfect in any respect can chase away some people. In certain genres of handmade furniture, a rougher, less polished finish is not a flaw, but a sign of the techniques used in assembly. That is how I consider the fit and finish of the L5 MkII. The build quality is excellent; for instance, the cabinet is so solid that the mid/bass tower exhibits very little of the bark, the cabinet noise, that often accompanying dynamic floorstanding speakers. As robustly as the Vapor Joule White’s cabinet was built, it carried more of the cabinet contribution in its sound than the L5 MkII. The surfaces are not glassy, as would be expected from a Bowers & Wilkins or Salk Sound speaker. These other manufacturers have been in the game long enough to have the fabrication and finishing machinery to obtain those results. If it would rankle you to have anything aesthetically less than perfect, then you should not be an Aspen Acoustics customer. Customer know thyself; do not be a turd who says it won’t bother them, then harasses Scott and seeks a return of the speaker because of ever so slight undulations in the curvature of the cabinet that are small enough not to be observable, but that can be felt by touch, or because it is not shiny enough.

Frankly, I am amazed at how close to perfect the speakers are considering the limited inventory of tools available to Scott. He uses hardwood veneers of Cherry, Walnut, Maple or Oak. The Cherry veneer with the four layers of premium clear, satin lacquer finish on the review speakers look more natural than prefab boxes, and as they had recently been made, I could smell the scent of the wood distinctly for several weeks when I entered the listening room! The acclimatization period was enhanced by the clean, fresh smell of the speaker, and getting a nostril full of the scent primed the mind to hear them.

Another consideration of buying from a small company is the potential for disruption of time schedule and/or supply lines due to the owner’s health and family concerns, and more risk of a devastating event that could put the company under entirely. That would negate any warranty issues. Speaking of such, the speaker performed flawlessly, and I see no reason to expect that it will not continue unabated in perfect performance for the foreseeable future. Aspen offers a two-year limited warranty on parts and labor. Sometimes a shorter speaker warranty period can be a sign of potential trouble, but I do not consider that to be a high risk in this instance. I would presume that as Aspen Acoustics matures and production methods extend, so will the warranty period extend closer to the industry standard of five years.

In addition, design changes may come more frequently with a small speaker maker, as running changes are implemented relatively easily; the speaker you buy today may not be the precise speaker sold next year. These potential issues can make the resale value of the speaker softer. I mention this because some audiophiles are notorious for attempting to buy and resell their gear with minimum or no loss. Only God knows how many people are churning gear on HiFi resale sites. The odds are good that the used piece you bought may have been in an additional one or two other persons’ hands, and I would not trust half the entities on such sites if they said they were the original owner. Cynical about that? Absolutely! Resellers often disclose nothing of the history of the piece.

Further, an unrealistic expectation besets the community such that people think that because the most popular brands, such as Vandersteen or Magnepan, hold value to the point that one can swap certain ones with little to no loss, that they should be able to do that with nearly any speaker. There is a strong contingent of owners who make it a point to decide they like a speaker as much for the residual value as for the actual sound. I invite such persons to turn away from Aspen Acoustics. No craft speaker (or component) maker needs people who are penny pinching, worried about the amount they can get from resale before  they even purchase! To such people I say this: please seek a different speaker. Go get your Vandy or Maggie or other cookie cutter speaker and be happy. You won’t have the daily agony of looking at the speaker wondering how much less you will get for it if you hang on to it another six months.

Since I have bought the Aspen speakers, there must be incentives for me involved. The incentives do not relate directly to my reviewing. I am not paid to write, and I do not make deals for equipment. I have no involvement whatsoever with Dagogo’s finances and advertising; I couldn’t even tell you the first number associated with the publishing and readership. I want it that way, because I want to be unencumbered by the business and politics of the industry. For me, the appeal of the product and whether it is worth the accommodation price offered is the sole decision. I could not care less how popular it is; I care deeply how well it performs relative to its peers. I hold no illusions that this particular pair of L5 MkII will hold value like a mass-produced speaker. Neither should you; don’t be so foolish as to think it will be Teflon in terms of resistance to devaluation. It will, like any other speaker, trickle down in value. As Scott may have running changes, it may devalue further. If he is successful in building out a larger shop and making speakers with tighter tolerances in cabinets and finishes, it will slide some more. The only thing to save it from such would be a sky-high reputation and hot market for the speaker, which could occur. But, often the salvation of the older build of the speaker comes after decades of ownership; don’t expect it next week.

My bottom line is that the appeal of the handmade product must reside in the performance and its availability right now. In the case of the L5 MkII, both the design and performance are unusually strong. The design I do not see anywhere else in the industry, and the performance —well, yet another listening session was enjoyed this evening, and the thought came to me once again that if there ever was a speaker as The One, my one ultimate experience, this could be it. The experience is akin to sliding one’s butt into the seat of a high-performance car knowing that the ride is going to be thrilling. Am I going to wait five years while Scott ramps up the company, gets the machinery to produce this speaker with industry equivalent finish, and the price doubles? No, I am not. The speaker’s value may fall over time, but the early buyer will not pay a premium for the later, prettier and yes, perhaps revised version. I have also had the frustration of having to wait a year or more for products, since when orders come in, some manufacturers slide me backwards because the customer comes first. It is not fun for me to be a serious buyer but to be put on hold until the order queue is low enough to get to my unit. That is the downside of the reviewer accommodation. With some companies, being first doesn’t really mean first. But the review unit may still be sitting in my room, and I have not had a manufacturer get mad at me yet for saying, “I’m buying the review unit.” My decisions can be as fraught with uncertainty as a typical customer. I know, your heart bleeds for me having such problems!

Such a delay in the queue can confound customers as well; orders can ramp up so quickly that the maker is swamped, bumping fulfillment down the line like a meal swallowed whole by an anaconda. It is notoriously difficult for a small manufacturer to hold absolutely to lead times. In the case of Vapor Audio, those lead times morphed into indefinite times – thankfully, I gave clear warning of that potentiality in my review – but I do not see that happening here. If the reaction by interested buyers to this review is strong, though I do not monitor such things, and they never are discussed in relation to what I continue to use on loan or buy, I advise that the customer line for Aspen Acoustics could grow considerably. Consider that it took Scott the better part of 3 months, not full time, he’s also a teacher, to build the Lagrange L1 that I will review. Scott can gain efficiency by building several at a time, but note that financial constraints cause that to have a limit. Production has to grow organically, if possible. Wisely, Scott relayed that he does not plan on taking deposits unless the speaker will be in the actual build process. No long lines of paid customers. If you are the irritatingly impatient type, please do not go there. I know that Scott would improve his build process and shorten the lead times as necessary, but at this point an Aspen Acoustics speaker is not a three weeks wait, even if the first in line. If that bulge in orders should happen to Scott, I will vouch that he has been flawless in meeting commitments and true to his word on all aspects of the review process, both for the L5 MkII and the upcoming L1.

11 Responses to Aspen Acoustics Lagrange L5 MKII ribbon dipole speaker system

  1. Mike DeBoard says:

    Your belief in an invisible man in the sky who kills his son for three days and continues to hide like a coward has nothing to do with speaker design. Please leave the fables out of your reviews.

    • Dave P (BSc, MSc, PhD) says:

      What he said.

      The ‘reviewer’ can have his voice heard on audio matters without bringing mention of imagined entities into it. I feel the same way when I read a Clive Barker novel, who has to spoil his incredible way with written terror by lacing each story with oodles of his preferred sexuality. We may be tolerant of differing beliefs and sexualities, but that doesn’t give you license to stuff them into everything you present to the world, promulgation-on-the-sly. Indeed, I imagine your average patriarchal fundamentalist would take some exception to your trivialisation of his belief system by bringing it into an op-ed piece on the sound of a speaker box about witch no more than a-few-100 people in a world of thousands-of-millions care tuppence about.

      To be a scientist is to think about the world through the lens of reason, and to do so Always in All things. The notion that one can be “…educated enough in science” to suspend their reason and critical faculties when is suits is as laughably medieval as it is depressing to hear in the second millennium.

      If I was an audio manufacturer, the co-deist Mr. Kindt notwithstanding, I would think twice about submitting my product to a reviewer and a website that is content to turn-off its readership for the sake of needless indulgence of the reviewer’s fundamentalist beliefs.

      But, I shall take yours and your sponsor’s advice, as suggested, and hereafter ignore anything I see on any audio site with the name “Doug Schneider” at the head of it, “Dagogo” likewise.

  2. Mike,
    God’s Peace to you,

    If you wish to be fair, give grief to all those who import the religion of Naturalism into their articles.

    If you don’t like my faith, don’t read my articles. I certainly will not stop discussing it because of those who can’t tolerate contrary worldviews.

    Douglas Schroeder

    • As Christian philosopher and theologian Ronald Nash summarizes:

      Nature is a self-explanatory system. Any and every thing that happens within the natural order must, at least in principle, be explainable in terms of other elements of the natural order. It is never necessary to seek the explanation for any event within nature in something beyond the natural order.

  3. Constantine Soo says:

    Dagogo supports civil expression of contradictory opinions. If you want your voice to be heard, then allow others the same privilege.

  4. Lash says:

    You lost me at “Christians”.

  5. Constantine Soo says:

    Dagogo is about the audio hobby, and our reviewers may draw parallels from their personal beliefs and experiences to illustrate a point. Reviewers with fervent conviction in their worldviews often utilize those varying disciplines and beliefs for illustration of certain points in their Reviews. There are Dagogo readers with equally passionate stance of opposing viewpoints submitting countering comments. The absence of comments by readers neutral and sympathetic to the reviewer’s stances only serves to underline the urgency of the antagonistic sentiments, and Dagogo Review Comments Section is not the right place for accusations and condemnations.

    Dagogo allows its reviewers judicious use of varying principles, including and not limited to Creationism and Darwinism, in illustrating points in their Reviews. Readers are welcome to submit comments in discussion of products reviewed but challenges to the reviewer’s personal beliefs will be excluded. Readers interested in religious debates are advised to participate in theology-centric, appropriate forums.

  6. Dan C. says:

    Audio reviewers who spill a lot of ink over speculation and conjecture about a competing design that they have not auditioned other than reviewing design specifications risk having their audience skip over those musings. The intended audience here are interested in real life impressions. They want to know whether they can assess the reviewer’s percipient impressions in a sensible way to consider next steps, such as a personal audition of the reviewed product.

  7. Ian says:

    Speaking of faith , you are asking us to believe that an amateur, working on a part time basis in his garage and presumably with very limited testing equipment, has produced one of the best speakers in the world? Contrast that with say the Harman Group that has put vast sums of money at the disposal of the likes of Toole and Olive to research what makes a speaker sound good and to then implement those findings. It is possible of course that this speaker is as good as you say, but most rational audiophiles who know a modicum amount about speaker design theory are going to want to see a full set of “spinorama” measurements before accepting such a contention. To give one example to illustrate my point, do you understand why its important for a tweeter and a midrange driver to be as physically close as possible? Have you seen how far apart they are on this speaker due to the twin tower design! So, my advice to Mr Kindt is to send his speakers to Erin so that he can measure them on his Klippel machine. That will tell us whether your subjective impressions are more than delusions. No doubt you will say that is unnecessary because that would after all be applying a scientific approach to the subject.

    • Dagogo welcomes discussion on relevant topics to continue as long as it is carried on with civility and no personal insult. Corporations with considerable funds and resources are able to develop new technologies and improve upon the manufacturing process, resulting in a lower entry price points for the consumers in many cases. However, there are respectable and superior designs coming out of garage-operated manufacturers as well. The key takeaway is not whether a business is conducted in a garage or expensive corporate industrial parks but who is doing it.

      Last not least, measurements and theories of the design of a speaker are just as important as how it sounds, and Doug has heard it.

  8. Ian,
    God’s Peace to you,

    I believe Apple computers began in a garage. There are many successful businesses in audiophilia that began in a home. I do not consider a large factory a criteria for a successful speaker design.

    I enjoy discovering aspects of audio that are overlooked due to convention, because it avoids numbing repetition, as evidenced by the myriad of similar tower speakers for sale.

    I have now entertained six seasoned audiophiles in the room to hear the flagship Lagrange L1 preproduction speaker, and all were impressed by the design and execution, as well as the sound quality. Not a one of them mentioned anything amiss with the tweeters. There are, of course, various designs where ribbon tweeters are separate from the mid/bass driver(s), too. Scott had in mind to recreate the sonic signature of an Apogee speaker, and in several respects he has done so, as a former owner of Apogee Caliper Speakers.

    I do not believe I called the Lagrange L5 MkII, “one of the best speakers in the world”, as you say, but certainly better than the range of mass-produced floor standing speakers of similar size and cost that I have reviewed. I did say it is a unique sound signature that in some respects is better than that of standard towers. The Lagrange L1 prototype now in my room (BTW, it is so good, I bought it) is a big step up from the L5 MkII, in coherence, too, which would be expected.

    There are some very unusual designs in the industry, as I would presume you to be aware. Each has its idiosyncrasies. I have owned several genres of speakers, and not a one of them is perfect. I can pick apart problems with all of them. If a person wished, they could condemn any of them for one aspect of design. I prefer to look at a speaker holistically and see what the uniqueness of the design offers the audiophile. Measurements are important, just not available to the public in this instance.

    Yes, a physics teacher who read prolifically books by Toole and others, who modeled the speaker on computer, and has the tight tolerance parts knowledge and skills to make his own ribbons, made these speakers – with premium parts, I might add. I do comparisons of products, and the best product wins. It’s my way of doing things.

    I am not interested in a debate on this topic. If you feel I have overstated my case, when you hear the speakers, you can decide for yourself.

    Douglas Schroeder

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