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Surreal Sound Fifth Row Speakers Review

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Ralph explained that to increase lower frequency extension, certain other wide-band drivers use an overhung coil, providing as much as 10 mm excursion; unfortunately, this results in increased 2nd and 3rd harmonic distortion. In contrast, the Tangband’s voice coil is under hung and has only 3 mm excursion, resulting in a more linear excursion within the gap. Ralph uses just a single capacitor on the Tangband which, by blocking the low frequencies, further ensures that the voice coil remains in the gap. Moreover, the Tangband has a symmetrical magnetic field created by nine individual neodymium disc magnets. So all-in-all, the Tangband trades off some cone excursion for lower distortion.

Ralph delivered the speakers to my abode in NJ, and helped with the set-up. We positioned the speakers in approximately the same place as I place my Oswalds Mill Audio horns, and made only minor adjustments in position and toe-in. The final position measured from the center face of the Tangband had the speakers 76” from the side walls, 120” from the front wall, 115” from one another, and 125” from my seating position. I preferred them toed-in such that they were aimed just outside of my shoulders, as this gave the best combination of tonal balance and soundstage width to my taste.

As I mentioned above, the Fifth Row bass is dipole. There are many fans of dipole bass and there are solid, physics-based reasons for their enthusiasm. Because of wave cancellation in the plane of the speaker, there are nulls at the sides and above the speakers. As a result, dipole bass speakers excite fewer room modes than traditional, monopole bass designs. Based on my own experiences with dipole bass speakers, it seems that this is not just a theoretical benefit, but very much an actual one. Because dipoles exhibit cancellation of the front and rear waves at and below frequencies determined by the baffle width, they need to be equalized, and thus require separate amplification. For many years, I bought into the notion that all drivers in a speaker need to be powered by the same amplifier so as to give them the “same flavor.” While this may afford some benefit, I now believe that any such benefit — even if real — is far outweighed by the downsides. The first downside is applicable to all speakers, and relates to the fact that a significant contributor to bass performance is room interaction. The ability to adjust the cross-over point, within reason of course, the volume, and the phase — precisely as one can do with virtually any subwoofer amplifier — allows one to adjust the bass for the room and one’s personal taste. The second benefit is applicable to those of us who use low-powered tube amplifiers, especially SET amps, with high efficiency speakers. While such amps may provide sufficient gain, they rarely have a damping factor adequate to properly control the woofers. As a result, the bass tends to be loose and flabby. Having a separate higher-powered, solid state amplifier for the woofer obviates both these problems.

The Fifth Row speakers come with two monoblock amplifiers from Parts Express. These amps provide enormous power (over 700 watts), and adjustable cross-over, gain and phase. Sonically, they are not in the same league as my main amplifiers but here’s the key factor: The Fifth Row woofers work only from approximately 150 Hz and down, a region in which it is far less critical to use the most sonically superb amplifiers. This design element is a major advantage of the Fifth Row speakers. One thus gets the benefits of a powerful, fully adjustable amp for the bass, while retaining the ability to use the amp of one’s choice for the mids and highs.

Because my preamp has only a single output, I used a “Y” adaptor, from which one set of interconnects went to my main amplifiers which powered the Tangband drivers, and the other set went to the woofer amplifiers. Due to this arrangement, one needs two runs of speaker wire.

The Sound

Ralph’s most difficult challenge was the bass, so it seems logical to start there. But before doing so, I want to digress for a moment. For the past few years I’ve noticed a trend in which nearly every review, professional or otherwise, of minimonitors speaks in glowing terms of the bass. Yet the deficiencies of such speakers is immediately apparent by comparison to larger, more traditional speakers. The traditional speakers need not be very expensive; examples of affordable speakers with exceptional bass include Gallo Reference 3.5 and the even more affordable Classico line, as well as Paradigm Reference Series speakers, just to name a few. All speakers have trade-offs, and I can understand fully that some may be willing to sacrifice some bass performance for what minimonitors do well, but this does not explain the glowing terms with which their bass is described. On giving this some thought I believe that the explanation relates to the phenomenon of Confirmation/ Disconfirmation Perceptions, which Chris White and I discussed in an article we co-authored a number of years ago. Consider for a moment two speakers, one a small monitor with an 8” mid-woofer, the other a much larger floorstander with two 15” woofers. Let’s assume that both speakers have identical bass response, I am of course aware of how unlikely this is but play along as it will help make the point, and let’s assume further that the bass response is better than one would typically expect from a small monitor, but poorer than one would expect from a large speaker with two large woofers. When listeners audition both speakers side by side, they will in most cases express greater satisfaction from the smaller monitor. The explanation is that we expect the large speaker to have the “benefit” of deep and powerful bass, whereas we expect the monitor to have the “disbenefit” of a thin and anemic bass. The large speaker underperforms our expectations, whereas the monitor outperforms our expectations. As a result, we are pleased and impressed with the monitor, but disappointed with the large speaker. This I believe is what happens with minimonitors; we ”expect” them to have poor bass and if they are able to surpass our expectations, we instinctively and subconsciously react favorably to them, and in doing so lose sight of their actual limitations.

A second explanation has to do not with psychology, but with physics. Most reviews of small monitors speak of how tight and tuneful their bass is, and make it seem as if this is in spite of their small size when in truth, it is largely because of it. An unfortunate but inescapable fact is that the deeper and more powerful the bass, the more room problems it creates. As a result the easiest way to avoid room problems is to restrict bass response, which is precisely what minimonitors do.

I mention all this because what I described for minimonitors similarly holds for the performance of, and reaction to, speakers with a single wide band driver. In contrast, the bass from the Fifth Row speakers is everything the bass from a single-driver or minimonitor speaker is not, but wishes it was. In fact, the Fifth Row speakers have amongst the best bass I have heard. Period. In my experience, to obtain bass this good one typically needs to spend two to three times as much. Two notable exceptions that come to mind similarly use a low cross-over point, and separate high-powered amps for the woofers. Yes folks, the bass really is that good. It is tight, lightning fast, which I suspect is actually due to the woofer’s “stop,” rather than their “start”, and detailed. I must assume that this is a function of the low-mass drivers, the dipole slot loading, and the proper amplification. Bass guitar — stand-up or electric — cello, and baritone sax were all reproduced superbly well, with each note having a proper attack, rise time and decay, yet never sounding analytical. The bass is not just impactful but tuneful, by which I mean that bass notes sounded like they came from real, full-bodied instruments, never, unlike the case with many large speakers, sounding bloated or ill-defined. Listening to well-recorded double bass and cello was a delight, as one could distinctly hear strings, the body of the instrument, and the room in which it was played, as well as the musicians’ fingers sliding up and down the strings. This was true with a variety of musical genres including jazz, blues, chamber, electronic, and symphonic. It is worth noting that Ralph is considering selling the bass modules alone and while they would not be inexpensive, I can think of no woofer system that would mate better with a Quad or Maggie. But be warned: To listen to the Fifth Row speakers is to be reminded, or to learn for the first time, as the case may be, just how flawed so many other speakers are in the lower frequencies.

Moving up in frequency, everything above about 125 Hz is handled by the Tangband. Perhaps the best known wideband drivers are those from Lowther. Lowthers are extremely punchy and dynamic but as is well known, they have some nasty peaks: the so-called “Lowther shout.” Like many other listeners, I like what the Lowthers do well, but simply cannot live with them because of the shout. Much to my delight, the Tangband has many of the Lowthers’ good traits, but without the shout. The Tangband in the dipole configuration does many things extremely well, as follows:

First, it has high efficiency. Ralph estimates that with his loading scheme, the sensitivity is about 95 dB. Combined with a benign impedance, the speaker is quite easy to drive. The sensitivity and impedance of the woofers are essentially irrelevant, because of the separate, high-powered solid state amps. I drove them easily with my 30 W/channel parallel single-ended Tube Distinctions Soul monoblocks.

Second, because it approximates a point source, it has superb coherence. With the exception of poorly-designed speakers, I am not often aware of imperfect coherence. However, when I hear a truly coherent speaker, the benefit is immediately apparent. The Fifth Row speaker sounds smooth and integrated, with no obvious discontinuities. The importance of this should not be underestimated, as it adds considerably to the sense of realism one gets when listening to such a speaker.

Third, the midrange is palpable and beautifully textured, without sounding mushy or overly-lush. Voices, both male and female, have appropriate weight and body, never sounding like disembodied mouths as they do with far too many speakers. String instruments were clear and harmonically rich, but not syrupy.

Fourth, the midrange and treble, while not the last word in resolution, are detailed, with barely any sense of glare, grain or harshness. The speakers allow one to hear deeply into the music, without any listener fatigue whatsoever. Brass has bite and power, but never sounds harsh. Cymbals sound like real instruments with mass, never tinny.

Fifth, the woofers and Tangband integrate seamlessly. As a result, the speakers sound like a single driver but without the frequency limitations, and disappear as a source better than just about any speaker with which I am familiar.

Sixth, they throw a wide, deep and layered soundstage, the result I presume of the excellent coherence.

There are only three nits I could pick. First, the Fifth Rows speakers lack the last bit of air and treble extension one gets with a dedicated tweeter. Second, though they are more dynamic than many speakers on the market, they are — not surprisingly — less dynamic than my 104 dB-sensitive horns; but then again, few speakers are. Last, though the bass is superbly detailed with excellent transient response, it does not have as much “slam” as some other speakers, and less than I think it capable of given the six 10” woofers. To address this last issue, Ralph is evaluating different amplifiers.

You have probably noted that I have avoided the flowery language that typifies audio reviews, opting instead to simply state the facts. Lest the message get lost, let me make my feelings crystal clear: The Fifth Row speakers rank amongst the most enjoyable speakers I have heard. Unquestionably, there are speakers that play “larger,” speakers with even deeper and more powerful bass, and those with greater resolution. However, those traits typically come with staggering price tags, enormous size and mass, and the need for very high-powered amplification. The Fifth Row’s sins are more of omission than commission, always a wise trade-off, in my opinion, and the speaker represents a well-thought out and implemented balance in which the whole is truly more than the sum of the parts. It is not a speaker that encourages analytical listening but rather, one which simply allows the listener to sit back and revel in the music. That to me, is the highest compliment I can pay a speaker.

The Fifth Row speakers are made in Virginia USA. The MSRP is currently $26,500 but for a limited time they are being offered at an introductory price of $19,500. That is certainly not chump change, and there are a number of very fine speakers at that price point. The Fifth Row distinguishes itself from many of its competitors by being nearly full-range yet with a relatively small size, and thus high Spouse Acceptance Factor, and by its ability to be driven by low-powered amps. But its most endearing quality is how superbly well it reproduces music. I’ve enjoyed every moment I’ve had with them, as have the numerous guest to my listening room. I give them my highest recommendation.

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