2013 THE AUDIO BEAT ABSOLUTE ARABESQUE
l"The Absolute Arabesque offers something unique "
by Roy Gregory | May 3, 2013
Things are not always as they seem, and first impressions can definitely be misleading. Be honest -- how many of you took one look at Crystal Cable’s Arabesque loudspeaker, with its facetted glass enclosure, and thought, "Well, that’s not going to work." Glass speakers aren’t new and if past performance is anything to go by, they’re not clever either. But for every rule there’s an exception, and lurking behind that attention-grabbing exterior the Arabesque contains some remarkable engineering and seriously impressive performance. Crystal’s glass speaker isn’t just a capable and engaging musical performer; its performance makes it quite comfortable going head to head with the established favorites in its price band, which is impressive indeed considering that it represented the brand’s first foray into the loudspeaker market.
If the Arabesque constitutes something of a stealth attack on the high-end speaker market, with an appearance that might have been designed to disarm the competition, the Absolute Dream cables have stolen in just as quietly. Then, next time we looked, there they were, firmly ensconced at the high-end-cable top table. They displayed none of the chest beating or posturing that goes with other claimants to the state-of-the-art crown, just a quiet, almost beatific confidence -- and a remarkable degree of critical consensus. Everybody seems to love these cables. In part I suspect that reflects the fact that the major competition have been effectively blindsided -- something of a Crystal Cable specialty. Nobody saw this one coming and whilst they might all respect the Crystal products, they didn’t take them that seriously; after all, they’re small, delicate, beautifully crafted and presented -- what could they possibly have to do with serious high-end audio? Well, now they know.
Which brings us to the Absolute Arabesque, a product that combines the original glass speaker design and the company’s latest cable technology. The same glass cabinet, separated crossover and driver lineup are used, but now all the internal wiring, including the hardwired network, the transformer and the signal leads for the ribbon tweeter are executed in Absolute Dream cable or the monocrystal silver conductors used to build it. Just how much difference can the internal wiring in a speaker make? More to the point, can it possibly justify the hike in price that results? These are both pertinent questions, but they are not, in themselves, what make the Absolute Arabesque so fascinating. Having completely rewired the speaker allows Crystal to extend that technology, matching the cables driving the speaker to the wiring inside it. Of course, that also extends to interconnects and power cables too. Now we’re really getting somewhere when it comes to system coherence.
But the final piece in this particular jigsaw -- and what makes the opportunity unique -- is provided by Crystal’s sister company, Siltech. The incredibly impressive SAGA amplifiers (reviewed separately) happened to still be in-house when the speakers arrived -- and also happen to be hardwired throughout with the self-same monocrystal silver conductor. All of a sudden, here was an opportunity to hear what happens when literally everything after the output sockets on the source component(s) is wired with exactly the same cable, right up to the terminals on the back of the drive units, and in the case of the RAAL tweeter, right up to the ribbon itself. I love it when a plan comes together.
Beauty is so much more than skin deep
But perhaps I should start with a brief overview of the speaker itself. The glass cabinet is unusual in a number of ways, not just that it features in a remarkably successful design. That success is no accident. Instead it is the result of extensive computer modeling of both the cabinet structure, its materials and the gas dynamics inside it. Using the sophisticated COMSOL modeling software described in the Siltech/Crystal factory visit, the company was able to look at both the resonant behavior of the cabinet itself as well as the impact of shape and dimensions on the enclosed air mass. The result is the curved and tapered footprint of the Arabesque cabinet (rather like a comma in shape), a structure in which each panel is of a different width and angled so effectively to disperse standing waves. It was possible to create a clear cabinet with exemplary mechanical characteristics that, through a combination of minimal internal padding and a carefully calculated slot positioned in the tapered tail section, also controlled the enclosed air mass for optimum bass response. Look inside the Arabesque, and in terms of resonance control all you see is the small domed pad in the base and a pair of foam strips bracketing the slot in the tapered section.
Of course, the appeal of a glass cabinet is dramatically reduced if the internal space is a mess. That means that the back of the drive units must be as carefully finished and presented as the fronts and all internal wiring and componentry must be suitably neat. The sculpted basket and magnet assemblies of the Scan-Speak Illuminator bass/mid drivers certainly fulfill the brief, while the wiring harness should present no issues. But the canniest part of the design was the decision to put the crossover in a separate stainless-steel housing that would double as the base for the cabinet. Not only does this help protect the crossover components from mechanical energy, it tucks them out of sight and also provides a visual foundation for the otherwise transparent cabinet.
Put all this together and what you end up with is a speaker that is almost as electrically deceptive as it is visually misleading. On paper, a 95dB efficiency would seem like meat and drink to the lower-powered amplifiers out there. But in practice a nominal impedance of 4 ohms (with a 2.8-ohm minimum) and a bandwidth that extends down to a -3dB point at 27Hz suggest that the speakers will work best with an amplifier that delivers some serious grip. Past experience with the original Arabesque has shown that while the VTL MB-450 IIIs and Rowland 725s do sterling work, the Berning Quadrature Zs don’t really get hold of this speaker in quite such an authoritative fashion, despite a 225-watt rated output. This only became apparent after my original review, but as good as the Berning/Arabesque combination sounded, the emphasis leaned towards transparency and clarity, life and a zesty agility, rather than scale and weight -- qualities that are added to the mix by the larger, more load-tolerant amplifiers. All of which make the 360-watt rated output of the SAGA (doubled into 4 ohms) a nearly ideal match.
One other peculiarity of the Arabesque design is that its mirror-imaged cabinets allow you a choice of placing them "tail in" or "tail out." Place your hand against the slot while music is playing and you’ll be surprised by the amount of energy that’s being fired out into the room, which helps explain why the in/out placement of the speakers has such a dramatic effect on their sound and the way they drive the room. As a crude generalization, tails in will give greater depth and substance while tails out increases soundstage width and separation, but the equation is complex and distance to side walls and particularly corners has a significant influence. On the whole, wider rooms will offer the best results tail out, with smaller, narrower ones responding better to a tail-in setup. Interestingly enough, I used the speakers tail out first time round, but this time I found that the addition of the LeadingEdge acoustic panels in my listening room (especially the one on the rear wall between the speakers) meant that I preferred tail-in positioning. This delivered the expected sense of substance and depth, but with none of the spatial or rhythmic congestion I’d suffered from last time.
There were two other changes from the last time I lived with the Arabesque. First, those early speakers offered two switches on the rear input panel, allowing the user a degree of bass cut or treble lift/cut. The newer models have (quite sensibly in my opinion) dispensed with the optional bass cut, although the tweeter lift/cut switch (±3dB) remains. Second, I have the Stillpoints Ultra 5s in-house, and I was able to use these under the speakers. The cabinets are normally each supported on seven feet molded from engineering plastic. They do the job but make leveling the speaker quite a chore, especially given the sharp teeth around their edges that will quickly shred your fingers. I removed three of these feet and substituted Ultra 5s with M8 adapters in their places. Just a preliminary listen had confirmed the sonic benefits of the Stillpoints feet, but getting them physically attached to the speaker was a huge step up in terms of both sound and ease of use. It’s really important to get the Arabesques vertical and with precisely adjusted rake angle, and the Ultra 5s made this simplicity itself. If I were buying Arabesques or Absolute Arabesques, I’d definitely factor the price of half a dozen Ultra 5s into the budget.
What is immediately apparent about the Arabesques is just how tactile and communicative they can be. The challenge in assembling the associated system is to see just how far you can extend those qualities, and there should be no better way of doing that than with a complete set of Absolute Dream cables and SAGA amplification -- a fact that became sensationally apparent as soon as we completed the connection. Fortunately, this particular pair of speakers had seen serious combat, meaning that they were well run in. Even so, the combination of the cabinet material and an unseasonable chill in the air made a two-day acclimatization/warm up de rigeur; there’s listening cold and then there’s listening to products where prolonged handling makes your hands go numb! I played safe and left them to thaw out for a couple of days before getting down to the serious work of setup and optimization. But even fresh from the freezer, it was clearly apparent that there was something quite spectacularly unusual going on here.
Let loose the inner beast!
Although this is a review of a loudspeaker, and I spent some considerable time using the speaker in isolation, it is actually almost impossible to separate the experience of the Absolute Arabesque and the conclusions that result from the profound influence and implications of the driving system. It’s almost as if there are two questions to be answered: what does the Absolute Arabesque add to what is an already impressive speaker; what does the experience of the Crystal/Siltech Absolute System (my terminology not theirs) tell us about how the parts in a system interact and how systems as a whole work?
Answering the first of those questions is comparatively easy. Even without a standard Arabesque for direct comparison, it is apparent that the Absolute Dream wiring loom allows the upgraded speaker to dig far further into the signal. In fact, the combination of the Arabesque’s sensitivity and lightweight driver diaphragms with the Absolute Dream’s monocrystal silver conductors creates one of the most musically transparent speakers I’ve ever used. Notice the qualification: this is not transparency in the normal hi-fi sense, the terminology of audiophile description. This is transparency to nuance, those tiny details that identify the nature of an instrument and just how it is being played. The Absolute Arabesque simply seems to dig deeper into the fabric of the sound, liberating detail and resolving information and timing cues that escape other speakers. These are almost microscopic particles within the musical stage, yet if the difference is quantitatively insignificant it is musically smack-you-in-the-face obvious -- especially when taken to its maximum extent.
The key here, what makes the additional information so significant, is that it is resolved in two domains: We’re not just getting more clearly defined data, that data is more accurately arranged in the temporal domain too. The impact on instrumental harmonics -- the energy envelope of each note -- is what matters. You hear the leading edge (which many speakers will produce to some degree at least), but here it is placed with unusual precision. However, you also get a clear indication of the duration and tail of the note -- its decay. The result is a much more natural and more intelligible pattern of notes, more natural instrumental colors and particularly textures. The whole performance becomes more engaging, convincing and communicative; the band sounds like better musicians. Of course, neither the band nor the recording has changed. It’s just that the speakers have let more of their essential nature through, doing less damage in the process. Which raises the question, what happens if we can extend that quality? But we’re getting ahead of ourselves.
There’s one other aspect of the Absolute Arabesque that is both musically significant and, I believe, telling. This speaker delivers music with a substance and authority, a sense of scale and power, that quite escaped the original version. The standard Arabesque was always a quick and crisp speaker, but I can imagine listeners wanting more weight and sheer impact from a speaker at its price -- the old subtlety versus muscularity tradeoff. I can’t imagine the same criticism being leveled at the Absolute Arabesque. It delivers low frequencies with solidity and such emphatic confidence that short of direct comparison with a genuinely full-range design, I can’t imagine musical program demanding any more bottom end. The attack and solid whack of the snare on Nick Cave’s "Jubilee Street" (from Push the Sky Away [Bad Seeds Ltd. BS001V], fast becoming a firm favorite) is astonishingly present, while the bass is tuneful, shapely and pitch perfect, full of texture and human input. Big orchestral tutti breathe with a swelling energy that is both impressive and familiar, while still retaining that sense of multiple instruments, multiple players, all working together.
This collective effort is so much more convincing and natural than the monolithic orchestral slabs that are tipped, shuddering to the listening-room floor by many bigger (and even more expensive) systems. Anybody who has played with supertweeters will have an inkling of where this is going. On paper the two speakers are identical, certainly in terms of bandwidth and low-frequency roll-off. Yet the bass potential of the Absolute Arabesque is much greater and significantly more satisfying/convincing. Yes, I’m sure that the cable feeding the bass-mid drivers has an influence, certainly when it comes to resolution and texture, possibly even a little extra weight, but I suspect that the real answer lies at the other end of the spectrum. Where do you hear the influence of a supertweeter? In the clarity, transparency and definition of the bass. The substitution of the monocrystal silver wiring in the tweeter’s transformer and signal leads significantly extends the coherence of the internal wiring loom, bringing the integration and contribution of the RAAL ribbon into far greater intimacy with the rest of the range.
The result is not so much more bass, but much more effective bass. The speaker is able to make much greater use of the low-frequency energy it has available by delivering it in a more focused and concentrated fashion -- at least that’s my suspicion. I have no hard data to back it up, but there’s no escaping the sudden increase in bottom-end impact, the available expressive energy and scale that the Absolute Arabesque possesses. There’s also no escaping the way that focused purpose and energy extend across the entire range. There’s no diminution of substance as you climb in frequency, and the solid sense of presence that attends a brushed cymbal makes you realize just how insubstantial most tweeters sound. It’s almost as if there’s not one shred of wasted energy in the speaker, so direct, so precise, so purposeful is the music produced. By any measure, this is a truly remarkable speaker, capable of genuinely remarkable musical coherence.
But for all this there is a caveat: The speaker is only a window, and it can only show you the view that’s there -- assuming the weather allows. You won’t get to see the show if your system rains on the parade, which brings me to the second half of this review and the contribution of the Absolute Dream cables and SAGA amplification.
As I’ve already said, it is difficult to separate what the Absolute Arabesque does from what it is capable of. Believe it or not, I’ve tried hard not to oversell its capabilities, so far reflecting on what I’ve heard from the speaker hanging on the end of the Berning Quadrature Zs (the amps that featured most prominently with the original speakers) and the Avantgarde XA combination. Now it’s time to wheel out the Siltech amps and the flagship cables, and it’s also time to go descriptively hog wild. Collectively this is one of the most convincing and musically communicative systems that ever I’ve enjoyed at home. And it’s not just me. A string of visitors (audiophiles as well as simple music lovers) have been left equally floored and flabbergasted. This is one of those systems where you ring round the people you know, trust and respect and give them all the same message: "You’ve really got to hear this!"
Essentially, take everything that I’ve described above and extend it dramatically: more shape, more texture, more color, more focus. At the same time you need to factor in better timing, better continuity, better coherence, better musical communication. Then there’s the less: less system, less room, less of the mechanics of reproduction, and crucially less distance between you and the original event. What you are talking here is a system that puts you closer to the original performance and steps further away from the process of doing so than almost any system I’ve heard. What this system does is music -- and you don’t hear it doing it. There is an almost magical quality, an invisibility to the equipment that re-creates the event. We talk about speakers that disappear, and I certainly referred to the invisibility of the SAGA amps when I reviewed them. I’ve also talked at length about system optimization and making the equipment musically unobtrusive. But this combination of cables, electronics and speakers, along with the associated infrastructure that goes with them (racks, AC supply, grounding, etc.), has moved closer to that ideal than ever before.
Time to look at what separates the musical performance of the Absolute System from other setups. If you want instant access to what makes this system so special, just pick a piano recording -- almost any piano recording. I can talk about microdynamic resolution, definition, texture, weight and concentration -- but it’s when you listen to a piano through this reproductive chain that it really dawns on you what all those terms mean individually, but more importantly collectively. Pianos are large, heavy, complex things. Listen to Basie (Analog Productions 45rpm reissue of Farmers Market Barbeque [Pablo 2310-874]) and the tonal complexity of the instrument; its scale, weight and power are both remarkable and remarkably familiar. It actually sounds like a piano. Which is when it dawns on you just how little most systems really do sound like pianos, how miserably they fail to capture the sheer weight and complexity of this massive instrument. It’s not just the layered energy, it’s the percussive quality and attack, especially when Basie chooses to punctuate proceedings.
Another AP disc, Ellington and Ray Brown on This One’s for Blanton (the gold CD in this instance [CAPJ 015]), underlines the fact. The tactile catch and release of Brown’s fluid, agile bass lines is perfectly poised against Ellington’s masterful phrasing and stabbed lines. It’s not just the degree of detail, the ability to resolve the complex patterns of energy coming off of the instrument, it’s the fact that the system gets all that energy in exactly the right place and at exactly the right time. It’s not the grains of sand, it’s the way they are arranged in the sandstone sculpture -- the whole being so much greater than the sum of the parts. This is what makes the music so natural, so intelligible, so convincing -- and what allows the system to disappear so easily. The telltale disturbances and discontinuities in the instrumental identity, the musical pattern, are reduced so significantly that we no longer notice them. Over time they may well reemerge as we become more familiar with the system itself and slowly come to grips with its limitations, but for now they are so far below the familiar audible horizon as to be almost completely invisible -- or at the very least irrelevant.
What this system does for a complex mechanical and musical structure like that of a piano it does just as convincingly for a band or orchestra, maintaining the pattern, the internal relationships between the parts and players. So, when you listen to the famous performance of Beethoven’s 5th with Kleiber and the VPO [DGG SACD 471 630-2], what you are aware of is not the impressive dynamics, the musical authority or amazing resolution of the system. The musical authority and control come from Kleiber’s baton, the drama and scale from the superbly drilled orchestra. What you hear is a great performance by great musicians captured at the top of their game and on a very, very good day. It’s that moment in musical time that matters, and it’s that moment that the Crystal/Siltech system reveals. Likewise, comparing the Orfeo disc [SACD C700 051B] of Kleiber conducting the Bayerisches Staatsorchester in the 7th Symphony to the DGG equivalent (again with the VPO) it is the liveness of this concert recording that stands out, the extra frisson of tension and drama that always seems to attach itself to a great live event. The incidental noises from the hall, the coughs and shuffling from the audience have an almost ghostly realism, and time and again I was caught out by noises behind me when I knew I was actually alone! The perspective, the atmosphere, the sense of human presence and the relationship with the orchestra on stage, their instruments and the energy coming off of them are all so convincing and so beautifully integrated into a single coherent whole that it becomes incredibly easy to forget the system entirely and lose yourself in the performance.
There are other systems that can conjure a near-reality and there are other ways of doing it. The Crystal/Siltech setup doesn’t have the sort of life-sized, carved-from-solid, walk-in soundstage that other, much bigger systems can deliver. Ultimately, at the widest end of the dynamic scale there are systems that go that much bigger that little bit more gracefully and there are certainly systems, like the Kondo/Living Voice Vox Olympian setup, that have a greater sense of warmth or romance to their performance. But the big systems cannot match the expressive dynamics, the sheer speed and agility of the Crystal/Siltech combination; the big horn/triode setups rarely come close to its linearity and tonal honesty. It is the way the Absolute System sits so squarely across the middle ground that makes it so successful; that and the fact that it has its own special strength in terms of timing and rhythmic integrity. It really does produce music -- and music that is all of a piece.
Marriages made in heaven -- or should that be in the Netherlands?
To experience the Crystal/Siltech Absolute System is to be confronted by a number of significant yet potentially uncomfortable conclusions. Once you have the system installed, any substitution or deviation produces a disproportionate downgrade in performance. That’s not because the components in question are so superior to anything else; it’s because they are working in concert and a system should be (by definition) greater than the sum of its parts. What the Absolute System experience reveals to me is just how fragile signal integrity really is. After all, the function of the cables and electronics is just to pass the signal from one transducer to the other, yet the difference between an end result that is extraordinary and one that isn’t is as small as changing a single interconnect. What makes this system unique is that the conductors carrying the signal (and power) are identical, not just between the boxes but even within them. This level of metallurgical and topological coherence is almost impossible to replicate (maybe an all-Kondo system, from cartridge to speakers, but that’s the only example I can come up with -- and even there the speaker cables and interconnects use quite different construction, though the conductor material is identical). What it reveals all too clearly is just how much we take for granted -- and how critical signal transitions from one conductive medium to another really are.
The high-end audio market has been built on the premise that we can separate the performance of the various elements within a system, optimizing (or assessing) each in turn. It’s the fundamental belief that underpins the vast majority of reviewing, shores up manufacturing and justifies dealers. Yet a true system solution such as these Crystal/Siltech components clearly demonstrates just how much of a compromise that approach introduces into what we so fondly refer to as a no-compromise pursuit. The Crystal and Siltech products are clearly excellent, but what really elevates them is the opportunity to use them in concert. The benefits really are profound and get awfully close to the audio ideal of more of the music more of the time.
Which brings me back, finally, to the Absolute Arabesque. In some ways you have to feel sorry for loudspeakers. Not only do they have to put up with the indignities imposed by the room, its acoustic inadequacies and any domestic demands, the only tools they have to deal with the situation come secondhand from the rest of the system. As I said earlier in the review, the speaker is only a window and one of the things it reveals is the state of the system upstream from it. The Absolute Arabesque offers a remarkably clean and clear viewpoint, a light-touch approach to passing the musical signal that does significantly less damage than most of the electronics and cables that will precede it. Its naturally fluid, agile and responsive nature will bring out the best in a wide range of driving electronics -- but you will still need to select those electronics with care, and disjointed, underpowered or sluggish partners will be all too clearly revealed.
The performance of any product is a case of potential -- potential that is fully realized on very rare occasions. The Absolute Arabesque offers something unique -- and I’m not talking about its looks. What it provides is a clear roadmap, almost a set of instructions that, if followed, really will deliver its full, considerable musical potential. First step is the Absolute Dream cables, followed ultimately by the SAGA electronics. Those are expensive steps, but then who buys a Ferrari if he can’t afford to service it and fill the tank? If you can afford the Absolute Arabesque, then you can afford the system to go with it. Parting with that much cash might be painful, but what you’ll be getting in return is truly exceptional. The cables and amplifiers all play their part, but don’t underestimate these speakers. They are capable of a remarkably engaging and musical performance, as forgiving of recording quality as they are unforgiving of inadequate partnering equipment. An exacting and demanding partner they may be, but that just helps ensure that your system is up to scratch.
Answer those demands and the results are extremely rewarding, so much so that I can see many a listener and many a different system welcoming the Absolute Arabesque, allowing it to sit center stage through many a happy hour of musical pleasure. Yet as satisfied as those customers will be, only a very fortunate few will ever experience what’s really possible with these speakers. Impressive in their own right and quite capable of competing with the bigger (and arguably higher-profile) competition head on, the Absolute Arabesques also exist on a separate, higher plane of system integration, one where they point unerringly to the future.Back to overview