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One man’s dream: the Acapella Spharon Excalibur speakers system (a consideration)

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Introduction

I became friends with Jim some years ago, as we were both pursuing an interest in the Audio Note UK top DA converter at the showroom of Colorado dealership Audio Federation. Jim’s determination to build a system that could reproduce as well as possible the sound of live music, particularly the symphonies and piano concertos of Beethoven, was of interest to me. I had a similar goal, but I sensed that I was more willing to accept limits than Jim. Over the years of chasing the audiophile dream, I’ve become convinced that the real goal, for me at least, is to reproduce a satisfying illusion of something related to live music. And, I should be clear, by “satisfying illusion,” I do mean something that is quite superb. Yet, and perhaps it is because I attend so many concerts, I have come to doubt our ability to create that illusion beyond a certain point. Yes, some illusions are better than others, and at the top of the experience are illusions that capture quite a bit of the magic of live music, if only briefly. But limitations hold me back, limitations of room size, room acoustics, technology, time, and funds to devote to achieving the most extraordinary illusions of musical reproduction. And these are limitations that I have come to accept and respect, certainly for myself.

What I gathered from my conversations with Jim was that he was not yet at that point of accepting these limitations. Rationally, perhaps yes, but Jim had come off of selling a successful business, had not long before lost both of his parents, and struck me as a man of both remarkable drive and singularity of purpose — a man who was ready for a challenge. His journey would be one to watch. At the same time, because of my experiences as an avid listener and reviewer, Jim seemed to enjoy sharing parts of his journey with me. And, finally, we both shared a love of orchestral music. So, we were pointed in a somewhat similar direction. Jim’s goal was to hear what the microphones (and the conductor) hear … the details up close as opposed to how it sounds out in the concert hall when the sounds of the various instruments are consolidated into a full mix, i.e., from a seating position close enough to emphasize the sound and placement of the orchestra sections before they have merged into a single consolidated sound, lovely and enticing as that can be. In his own words, “I prefer close-in where left and right are heard as well as front and back and the dialogue between the sections.”

Ten or so years on, Jim has reached a point from which it appears he will not likely go much further, except perhaps for minor changes — details. This commentary, then, is mainly to describe what I heard when I went to visit Jim recently, as well as some of the stops on his journey that I encountered as a visitor.

 

A spoiler and a caveat

Let me get two things out of the way before we begin. First, I found the sound of Jim’s new system to be outstanding, perhaps the best I’ve ever heard. I will describe the experience of it in much greater detail below. However, I need to be clear that I had, essentially, only parts of three days with the system. I do not know what it would be like to live with the system for an extended time. Nor was I separately familiar with any of the components to which we listened. My own main speakers are Acapella Audio Arts Triolon Excaliburs, about which I’ve written. Jim’s Acapella Spharon Excaliburs maintain some level of family resemblance to the Triolons, but I cannot speak to that in detail in the context of Jim’s system, as much as anything else because the room in which they sit is a good three times the size of my own listening room and its acoustics is handled differently.

This brings me to my second point, about which I want to be completely clear. This commentary should not be considered a review of any of the gear discussed herein. Generally, I am reluctant to comment on the sound of a piece of equipment unless I have heard it in my home system. A single unknown piece of equipment installed in my home system can be evaluated in a context with which I am, obviously, extremely familiar. Under those circumstances, I can do a proper full review. In this case, I am commenting upon my reaction to a system as a whole. Certainly, I will mention aspects of the pieces of gear in their contribution to the whole where it is clear to me. Keep this article’s limitations in mind as you read on.

 

Explorations that led to the current system

I have had the good fortune of having visited Jim on a number of occasions over the last 10 years. Most times I heard something new. Here, I want to briefly comment on several of Jim’s explorations of equipment that helped lead him to where he is now. My reason for doing so is, frankly, to make clear the breadth of Jim’s experimentation with audio gear, the experience of his ear, and the level of his determination to find what he is looking for. When I met Jim, he was essentially working on two systems at a time, for two different-sized rooms. The smaller system included Marten Coltrane speakers driven by EAR electronics and digital, using Jorma Prime cabling. I enjoyed that system, though it did not move the amount of air that would have been necessary for Jim’s larger listening room, known as the “Great Room”. In the Great Room, Jim was working with Wilson Audio Alexandria XLF speakers with which he was not happy. Given his success with the Marten Coltrane speakers, he decided to travel to Europe to visit the Marten plant in Sweden to audition the Marten Momentos; such was the level of his determination. This ultimately resulted in the purchase of the Momentos. At some point, Jim built an outside room (the “Pool Room”) to set up a third system. He tried different electronics, including the EMM Labs monoblocks, the MTRX, which I reviewed and own myself.

The Momentos were good, but not quite what Jim was looking for to use in the Great Room. He heard my Acapella Triolon on a visit to Houston and concluded that they represented a good direction for him to try in the Great Room. So, he made a trip to Germany and acquired a pair, first running them with an Acapella integrated amplifier and later with the EMM MTRX. The front end was an Einstein pre-amp and EMM digital, with a Kuzma turntable, although Jim was not as addicted to vinyl as I am. He liked the Triolons, and let the Coltranes go, but eventually concluded that he needed something larger for the Great Room. This entailed another trip to Sweden, which culminated in the purchase of Marten Coltrane Supreme 2 speakers for the Great Room. About two years later, he sold the Marten Supreme 2 speakers and once again visited Germany to listen to the Acapella Spharon Excalibur built by Herman Winters. Ultimately, Jim and Herman found common ground, and several months later, a pair of the Spharon arrived and was subsequently installed in the Great Room. The Triolon moved to the Pool Room, where they have stayed. Jim ran the Spharon with the EMM monoblocks but also began experimenting with David Berning amplification (which he also tried on the Triolons).

The Spharons are the speakers I heard during my recent visit, which was a couple of years after installation. By the time I heard them, they were being driven by a different set of electronics, which I will describe separately, as well as how those electronics came to be in Jim’s system.

The room in which the Spharons are located is very large with an upper seating area mezzanine. The dimensions are 19.5 meters long x 13.7 wide and 6.4 high. The speakers are run full range with a Berning Hi Fi One Silver Edition 4-box SET amp, which retails for $200,000. The room supports a solid 16 hertz and has a relatively smooth frequency balance. The room is sealed with very thick doors and heavy plaster walls. It has a heavy beam wood lattice ceiling. The beams were taken from a 100+ year old mill in the northeastern United States. The tumbled marble floor is covered by a 5 x 7 meter antique Persian carpet, which provides some damping.

Jim engaged Ricky Brown of Hi Fi One to build the system around his loudspeaker of choice. Their collaboration first addressed the room, then electrical and mechanical isolation, and finally the all-important amp/speaker interface. A consortium of industry professionals formed the nucleus of a team led by Steve McCormack of SMc Audio, Dave Kleinbeck of Enklein cables, Paul Wakeen of Stillpoints, and Mark Dohmann of Dohmann Audio, the Helix One Mkii turntable designer/installer.

The Spharon

The Spharon Excalibur has long been the ultimate expression of what Acapella Audio Arts could build. In contrast to the early Spharon models, the current system does not require a separate bass horn coupling to the room. Today, the Spharon is comprised of four modules, two rather imposing bass modules, each taller than a man at 2.3 meters, and each incorporating four 18” woofers in a rear ported enclosure. The second module on each side is what Acapella refers to as a spear and provides a structure to anchor the low midrange and upper midrange horns. Sited between the two modules on each side is a “bridge,” which houses the plasma tweeter. While crossover points have not been specified, I would guess that the woofers crossover to the horns at about 100 Hz and that the crossover from the lower midrange horn to the upper is at about 350 Hz, with the upper midrange horn crossing to the plasma tweeter in the range of5000 Hz to 7000 Hz (note that the crossover is 6 dB/octave for the tweeter, which explains the rather wide range). In any event, the transition is seamless. Crossovers are passive. The system also includes Acapella’s proprietary power amplifiers, although in this instance they have been removed to allow the owner to choose his own amplification.

The speakers weigh approximately 1,350 kilograms or 3,000 pounds per side. Dimensions in centimeters are 230/150/130, or 90/59/130 in inches. Efficiency is 100 dB/1 watt/1 meter.

4 Responses to One man’s dream: the Acapella Spharon Excalibur speakers system (a consideration)


  1. Robert B says:

    Amazing room and system. I don’t pretend to understand even 10% of the technical discussion, but I thoroughly enjoyed this piece. Wonderfully descriptive and engaging writing — I felt like I was in the room.

  2. Fred Crowder says:

    Thank you so much for the positive comments. My hope is that I was successful in passing along my enthusiasm for this system and my respect for its owner. Jim continues tweaking the system with some success. This is more fine tuning than anything else.

  3. zombean says:

    I have a couple of questions. First, how does it sound with acapella’s own lamusika amplifier and mono rear stage? Second, would it be better to use fm acoustics 268c/1811? Third, this sound system is supposed to be the top of the world. I wonder how it compares to the fm acoustics inspiration xs1-c/268c/1811 set?

  4. Fred Crowder says:

    Good questions to which I unfortunately do not have the answers. By the time of my visit, the amps provided by Acapella as part of the package had been disconnected so I did not hear them. I am convinced that the Berning SET amps were a perfect match for these speakers. With respect to FM Acoustics, I have great respect for their products but have not heard their current line-up so cannot offer an informed opinion.

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