Counterpoint Clearfield Metropolitan loudspeaker
The developmental history of Vortex speakers provides a meaningful framework for the design of the Clearfield offerings, especially the Metropolitans, or Mets. Like the Vortex designs, the Mets are three-ways with transmission-loaded bass. Like the Kevlar Reference Screen (reviewed by Robert Greene in The Abso!ute Sound's "double-issue" 83/84, December '92), the Mets use Kevlar-coned midrange units from Focal that cover a broad range from 125Hz to 2kHz. What's dramatically different is the overall driver layout. While all Vortex speakers use a stepped baffle for time alignment (like the Vandersteens and Thiels), the Mets begin with a flat front baffle and a D'Appolitovertical midrange/tweeter/midrangeconfiguration. Clearfield believes that time-aligned configurations do not perform as well off-axis, although they can be outstanding performers on-axis. To achieve an acceptable range of off-axis performance, Clearfield opted for the D'Appolito arrangement, which mimics a point source.
The Met also differs from the Vortex designs in having doubled-up woofers, the two 8" woofers having an area equivalent to an 11.5"-diameter driver. Von Schweikert credits David Wilson and his WAMM for convincing him that you need a lot of drivers to move a meaningful amount of air to realistically re-create sound. The most meaningful (to me) decision regarding the woofers is the very low 125Hz crossover point. In many respects, the Met's bass drivers are configured to operate as a subwoofer. The two woofers are mounted in a transmission-line enclosure forming the bottom half of each cabinet, with the three-driver satellite setup in the top half.
The Metropolitan is impressively large, 2' wide and standing over 5' tall. The Met's cabinet is uniquely shaped. Seen from above, the cabinet looks like the letter V with the point flattened. This truncated point of the V becomes the 10"-wide front baffle and is covered by a grillecloth running the entire height of the speaker. To the left and right of the baffle the cabinet slopes toward the rear, a styling feature intended both to reduce diffractive effects of the radiated sound and to cut down standing waves inside the cabinet by minimizing parallel surfaces. The combination of cabinet shape, driver alignment, and specifically designed equalization circuitry leads to what Clearfield calls a "controlled directivity response" for improved soundstaging and off-axis performance.
The back of the cabinet tells a great deal more about the speaker. For starters, there are two circular ports for the transmission enclosure located near the bottom (footnote 1). Each port comes with a foam-rubber "Q" cylinder. While the speakers are intended for placement out in the listening room, Clearfield has correctly assumed that some small or problematic listening rooms may simply not allow such placement. In such cases, the bass output could be excessive. Inserting the Q cylinders into the ports modifies the bass output. The very detailed manual provides numerous suggestions concerning room placement to deal with this and any number of other potential problems.
Higher up on the back of each cabinet are two sets of five-way binding posts, along with gold-plated brass jumpers. Using the supplied jumpers, the speakers can be run with a single set of speaker wires from a single stereo amp (or monoblock pair). Since the speaker's sensitivity is quoted as a high 90dB/W, amplifiers with power ratings as low as 75W are recommended. My listening tests with the 50W Metaxas Iraklis amp confirmed this assertion. I was able to get a big sound out of the Mets with very little power. With the jumpers removed, the speakers can be bi-wired or bi-amped. Once again, the manual provides illustrations and explanations of each of these alternatives, including both horizontal and vertical bi-wiring (the latter, using one stereo amplifier per speaker, is my preference, as it only puts the demanding bass load on one channel of each identical amplifier). Though I tried them in every way possible, I used the Mets in a bi-wired configuration with various amplifiers for the majority of my listening.
On the back of each speaker is a second set of jumpers, used to adjust the level of the 1" aluminum-dome tweeter. Each speaker has five discrete balances (+2, +1, 0, 1, and 2dB). Since Clearfield feels the Mets can sound bright when they are breaking in (and they did), the manual suggests attenuating the tweeter levels during this period. The primary purpose of the tweeter-level controls is the same as that for the Q cylinders. Counterpoint recognizes that all rooms aren't the same, the various equipment likely to drive the speakers can vary tremendously, and people often simply have different preferences. The tonal balance of the speaker can be adjusted accordingly.
The back plate, where the binding posts and other controls are located, is made of a combination of two different-thickness aluminum plates sandwiched around an adhesive damping layer of Imoplex-G. Each cabinet is bolted to a massive base plate, or plinth (finished in splattered black), which provides added stability for the tall, heavy speaker. Spikes are mounted in the bottom of the plate.
The last significant piece of the puzzle can't be seen from the outside. The internal cabinet is built with a stressed monocoque technique borrowed from the aircraft industry. Rapping anywhere on the box yielded only the dullest of thuds, attesting to the virtues of this heavily cross-braced design. The speaker is available in a number of finishes, including light oak (the review pair), natural walnut, or black oak, with rosewood available for an extra charge.
The research that has gone into the development of the Clearfield speakers has been intense, not at all what would be expected from a "new" speaker manufacturer (though, as will be seen, the design of the speaker continued to evolve during the review period). In addition to the excellently written manual, Albert Von Schweikert sent me a 12-page, single-spaced letter with numerous attachments describing how each element of the design had been determined. From the Counterpoint side came extensive experience with high-quality capacitors, resistors, wire, and circuit boards, which are made of mil-spec fiberglass with 4oz copper traces.
There was a major change made to the Metropolitan after production began: To improve soundstaging and image focus, the tweeters have been laterally offset from the center of each cabinet and are no longer symmetrically located (as is shown in the company's extensive advertisements). This turned the Mets into mirror-imaged, or handed, pairs. Since my pair arrived with this change already implemented, I can't comment upon its effect on the sound.
A number of pairs of the completed production speakers went out to dealers, as well as to myself and Tom Norton in Santa Fe. Since Tom and I had the speakers in for review, we commented neither to one another nor to Clearfield about their sonic performance. Unfortunately, we both found that performance disappointing. Had those first Met samples been all that were to be reviewed, the results would have been very negative due to the speakers' bass-heavy character. Counterpoint's dealers, however, didn't hold back from sharing their frustrations with the company. The assessments coming back from dealers were identical to the problems I was having with the speakers. Counterpoint responded promptly to the dealer feedback and made still further revisions to the Mets. These were reflected in the second pairs of speakers that I (and JA and TJN in Santa Fe) received.
Footnote 1: As explained later in the review, current-production Metropolitans have just one 3" port. The foam ring insert reduces this diameter to 1.5".John Atkinson