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Tri-Art Audio Series B System Review

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Tri-Art B Series Open 5 open-baffle speaker

Cage match

Budget audio is like a cage match, with manufacturers pitted against each other in a battle to be declared the best value in audio. Two perennial loudspeaker contenders are Vandersteen and Magnepan, and for the sound quality each presents, they deservedly reap their share of customers. The principles at each company must breathe a sigh of relief that their designs are so different, lest they engage in an even more painful battle.

Imagine a professional fight in which a power lifter (Vandersteen) and a CrossFit champ (Magnepan) are going at it, when another contestant enters the ring. This one is a hipster (Tri-Art Audio). In the punishing contest for dominance, which one will emerge victorious? You guessed it, the hipster! Not possible? There’s no way that the Tri-Art Audio 5 Open Speaker can compete against a mid-level Vandy or Maggie? That conclusion would be wrong, and the reason why is because the disarming environmentalist design of the Tri-Art 5 Open masks a few brilliant technological advantages, including:

  1. Open Baffle (OB) to eliminate box resonances
  2. Twin 15” drivers for stress-free bass with extension
  3. Full range 8” for superior cleanness and center imaging
  4. Attenuation of full range driver to manage bass output

Those other companies have their virtues as well, as must be conceded, and many customers love the combination of virtues they offer. But neither Vandersteen nor Magnepan offer anything like the combination of virtues seen in the 5 Open, and that combination of virtues is every bit as compelling, perhaps more so.

There is a set of characteristics produced by an open baffle dynamic speaker that is not attainable by either box speakers or non-dynamic panels. Note that I did not say difficult to obtain, but unobtainable. A typical dynamic speaker will not avoid box colorations. A panel design, be it magnetic or electrostatic (unless hybrid), will not yield the drive and capacity to load a room like a dynamic speaker. Neither group has the image focus and density of a full range primary driver. Here, then, is the sum of the characteristics of an OB: power and frequency structure similar to a dynamic speaker, scale and openness similar to a panel speaker, and coherence and imaging similar to a speaker based around a full-range driver.

Let’s see what this hipster open baffle speaker can do!


Hipster Hifi

Who puts a GAIN switch on a power bar with a tube? That was just one of the many questions that peppered my mind as I surveyed the Tri-Art Audio Series B audio system. Others followed, including why put GAIN switches also on the preamp and amp? Why use separate power supplies for a passive preamp and a Class D amp? The biggest question of all was, why bamboo?

I first encountered the exotic, extraordinary Tri-Art Audio system on the last day of AXPONA 2019. I had things to do pertaining to finalizing items sought for review. I was moving along quickly when I glanced into the Tri-Art Audio room and saw the sizable 5 Open Speakers. Their form looked unusual. I scanned them in a second, noting they were open baffle speakers – wait! Is that bamboo? I honed in on the sound. Not bad! Within an hour I was finalizing a plan to review several components and the speakers. It did not take long at all to realize that this was an outlier, as I said in the one-line description of it in my 2019 AXPONA show report: “Freakishly, outlandishly capable! (From what I’ve heard) Top 3 of show.” Having lived with this system, which Tri-Art describes as a full range speaker with assistance in bass and treble, for a few months, I confirm that I was on target with that initial assessment. This review period has strengthened my impressions and deepened my respect for this quirky bamboo system. Tri-Art Audio is a manufacturer that has seemingly come out of nowhere to enter the fray that is affordable HiFi.

Not exquisite materials (doing my part to save the planet)

A surge of magnanimity courses over me each time I turn on the Tri-Art system. With its passive Pre-Amplifier, Class D Amplifier, Power Bar and other bamboo-based products, an owner of this equipment is helping to save the environment! Well, perhaps not saving it, but depleting it at a slower rate. When it comes to bamboo as a raw material, discussion of depletion rate hardly applies. A plant that can grow up to 1 foot per day and has a replenishment rate of 5 years versus 25-30 years for a hardwood is not in much danger of depletion. God put bamboo here so that when humans in their stupidity have ravaged the forests, there will still be a good, renewable, wood replacement resource to work with (I’m only half joking).

Sixteen years ago, when my wife and I were disappointed to find that the bedrooms and living room of the older home we thought had oak floors and particle board underneath the carpet, we considered installing bamboo flooring, but it was a tad too pricey. Given that a majority of speaker cabinets are made of an MDF derivative, it is both an aesthetic and economic boon to see a speaker utilizing bamboo. I have always been amazed that a plant so tasty as a sprout is agreeable for flooring, or speaker baffles, in maturity.

Historically, I have paid little attention to calls for energy efficient audio electronics, primarily since I have compared several Class D amps over the past decade and found them wanting sonically. I do not leave any equipment running, as I have proven to myself that warm up (except for some tube equipment) is essentially a waste of energy and time. I’m not terribly interested in products that have obscene manufacturing demands, nor ones with exotic materials. My ears tell me that whatever such materials are supposed to add to the performance of the product, usually it is not enough to sway my judgment of their performance holistically. I don’t recall ever thinking, “Wow, this speaker sounds so good because of the [insert material, e.g., aluminum, x-material, composite or MDF] cabinet!” Likewise, a great number of larger, more demanding to build speakers are not terribly impressive. This system from Tri-Art drives home the fact that it is first and foremost the genre of speaker, then circuitry, wiring and drivers, not the fanciness of the chassis or cabinet materials that overwhelmingly determines the sound quality.

Tri-Art Audio likely has a difference of opinion with me on this point. As Steve is known to say, “Bamboo was chosen first and foremost for its sound properties… It is a very fast material, has an incredible isolation to both airborne and structural vibrations… imparts a warm, natural contribution to the music that is missing in today’s digital world. I like to call it Mother Nature’s Carbon Fibre, speed without the dryness to the sound.” Having reviewed the Wilson Benesch Curve speaker, which has a carbon fiber cabinet, I did not find that speaker to be dry, but to my ears had plenty of warmth. My assessment of what works best in the 5 Open would have more to do with the fact that it is an open baffle with an attenuated full range driver, versus the fact that the baffle is made from bamboo. Regardless, it is a great choice for a contemporary and warm appearing speaker, and if the bamboo does add some acoustic warmth, more power to Tri-Art.

Over the decades I am beginning to lean toward the conclusion that a noisy cabinet is a detriment rather than an aid to a speaker. I find my attention steadily being drawn to panel and dipole speakers. Of the past five speakers I have owned, only one is a dynamic speaker with full cabinet, the Vapor Audio Joule White, and that is because it exhibits less of the hindrances of cabinets than most dynamic speakers. The appeal of the open baffle speaker to my ears has steadfastly grown over the decades.

The open baffle design of the 5 Open, and the “internals” of the Preamplifier and Amplifier are the thing with this system. Some people at Tri-Art know their craft when it comes to topology of components and selection of parts. That knowledge is spread across three lines of components, uninspiringly named the “S Series” for the beginner audiophile, the “P Series” for the audiophile moving up, and the “B Series” as the current ultimate expression of Tri-Art design.

Here is the first shocker in this article, regarding the little Tri-Art B Series 60-Watt Amplifier: I have used more powerful Class D amps but have not used any more luxurious sounding, including the previously owned Red Dragon S500 Amplifier. Such things contribute to the cognitive dissonance experienced when approaching Tri-Art products. Upon spying them, the audiophile is tempted to dismiss them as a niche product for people who are seeking a sustainable Earth and who are clueless as to HiFi sound. I’m happy I did not prejudge the company and the components in such a fashion.

B Series 60W Amp (bottom), Pre-Amp (top)

Unorthodox build, exotic sound

To that end some of the seeming strangeness of the Tri-Art philosophy of component creation comes to the fore. On the company’s website particular aspects of build are highlighted, among them the use of sheep’s wool to dampen the internal space of the components. While that is unusual, it is not a crazy idea; wool is considered a fine option for dampening walls in construction of dedicated rooms for audio and HT. Also, if one makes a lighter component, some form of dampening material is a good idea, even if an ecological material.

Things get curious in the Elements section of the website, under the subheading Sonic Purity. There is a short discussion of what is entitled “Naked Components” with the following description:

“All electronic components on our circuit boards have had their outer skin (plastic shrink identifying wrapping) removed. And for good reason: we discovered during our listening tests that stripping away plastic wrapping removes the sonic characteristics plastic brings to the electronic component.

We remove as much associated materials as possible that have negative sonic signatures.”

There are certain things in audio that I scoff at, such as seashells in a jar or a plastic clock to be placed strategically atop a component. Brass bowls and dishes I leave to the desperate or chintzy, and I declare them to be fundamentally off-base in system building. You will not find me spending my money on dots and spots, bowls and baubles to stick around the room, nor devices to slip onto cables. I don’t have patience for insipid, uninspiring changes. My initial reaction to stripping plastic from internal devices is, “whatever”. I have heard enough materials in dielectric, speaker cones, and cabinets that I do not subscribe to an audiophile version of Phrenology, that whatever material is used imparts an overriding sonic signature to the component. For this reason, I respectfully pass on spending time with the provided Tri-Art Bamboo Cable Stands and Tri-Art Iso-Feet, which are composed of Sorbothane half circles held by bamboo cups and are to be placed under components. Should Tri-Art leave the system with me for a while yet, if I have time I can experiment, but my time is best spent assembling another system, not placing footers.

Steve and the team at Tri-Art may be disheartened to see that I am eschewing what they likely consider a critical part of their system. I suspect they will be disappointed that I did not fully implement every part of the chain. Here is where manufacturer and reviewer principles and expectations part company. Some reviewers would gush over the more trinket-like elements of the system, and from my experience that would be poor reporting. It would present the tangential aspects of the system as though they were determinant. I prefer to give a solid assessment of the elements that touch the power and signal paths, as these are universally important. If a system can’t get it done in terms of the primary elements of audio, it doesn’t matter how many or what kind of footers are used. I am judging Tri-Art’s core competency here, the creation of speakers and components, and I leave the peripherals to other reviewers.

When it comes to alternative methods of making components, I do not care if Tri-Art Audio soaked the internals of the Preamplifier and Amplifier in lemon juice, painted them with a DARPA anti-radar coating, or stripped the plastic from them. I care about how the component performs relative to its price. When I reviewed the Wells Audio Innamorata Amplifier, I was appraised that as part of the upgrade over the Akasha Amplifier it contained Bybee products, which have been questioned as to their complexion and efficacy. My simple assessment was that as this was not the only upgrade to the Innamorata, and the amplifier performed at a clearly higher level than the Akasha, it was worth the additional price.

That is how I assess the stripping of plastic from internal parts of the Tri-Art Audio components. Then again, I have been asking myself how in the world do they get this amazing sound quality from such seemingly inexpensive components?

“All our B-Series boards are uniquely designed and assembled by Tri-Art in house,” offered Steve, “we are using many unique design characteristics and high-end parts. For example, Tri-Art branded multilayer board with positive and negative isolated on their own layer and grounds on separate layers – four layers in total, very thick boards. Great attention in the board design was taken to keep impedance consistent 47ohms throughout the traces of the board with no hard corners to the traces. The passive design is a shunt volume using a motorized Alps Blue Velvet shunted through custom valued naked Vishay resisters.  All signals are sent through custom pair of “GE” inspired balanced transformers providing pseudo balance through the RCA outputs and true balanced output through the DIN. All switching and loading settings are using best quality Elma switches.  Also unique to our design is the use of super tweeters off the headphone amplifier section of the board for conditioning the internal box (or room) for an improved environment for the electronics.

As you can see anything but stock in its design. Our amps are also very unique to their design.”

How utterly unexpected! I do not know that I have handled gear at this lower price point with so many high-end methods and parts. This revelation explains much of the surprising sound quality I hear from Tri-Art components.

Interior – B Series 60W Amp

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