Acarian Alón Li'l Rascal Mk.II loudspeaker Page 2
On the opposite end of the frequency spectrum, rock and jazz fans should appreciate the Li'l Rascal's rendering of acoustic and electric basses. Although the Rascal was natural and uncolored in the reproduction of all strung bass instruments, I was most impressed by the uniformly dynamic bloom throughout the midbass region. Through most budget bookshelf speakers I've auditioned, bass guitar descending into the lower register tends to sound compressed and dynamically constrained. Not so through the Rascal. Gary Wilson's Fender bass on "When You Walk Into My Dreams," from You Think You Really Know Me (CD, Motel MRCD007), traverses the entire range of the instrument. Each note was uniform in timbre, attack, and presence on the Alón.
Similarly, classical fans will appreciate the Li'l Rascal's rendition of bass drums (Stravinsky, The Firebird, Mercury 90226) and timpani (Kohjiba, Transmigration of the Soul, from Festival, Stereophile STPH007-2). These were tuneful and natural, and about as dramatic as I've heard from a bookshelf speaker. Don't expect much bottom octave, however—the lower organ-pedal notes in John Rutter's Requiem (CD, Reference RR57-CD), although uncolored, were significantly down in volume and didn't shake the room much. But I'll be interested to see John Atkinson's measurements on the Rascal's low-frequency extension—aside from the organ-pedal recording, the Rascal never once sounded bass-shy.
Well-recorded works, as on the Stravinsky and Festival CDs, demonstrated the Rascals' resolution of detail and depiction of precise dimensional images on a wide, deep stage. Furthermore, the Rascal's ability to delineate hall sound and reproduce wide dynamic swings might make it the ideal speaker for the orchestral music fan with limited money and space. I did note, however, that on the Stravinsky, the trombones and trumpets had a slight "blatty" quality that might be related to the Rascal's crisp upper-midrange/high-frequency reproduction.
Fans of rock music will appreciate the Rascal's ability to follow separate instruments in electronic mixes. On "2," from Café Tacuba's Reves/Yosoy (CD, Luaka Bop 47574-2), I was amazed at the wide timbral and dynamic colors the composers extracted from the bass synthesizers and drum machines that dominate this mix. Listening to "How Am I Different?," from Aimee Mann's Bachelor No.2 or The Last Remains of the Dodo (CD, Super Ego SE002), I imagined myself as the recording engineer, analyzing each fade, EQ, and compression of the instruments, thinking, "How Would I Have Mixed Different?"
The Rascal shone best as a jazz speaker. On "I'm an Old Cowhand," from Sonny Rollins' Way Out West (CD, JVC VIC 160088), Rollins' tenor sax was natural and vibrant—but I found myself ignoring everything but the drums. I was analyzing Shelley Manne's wonderful clip-clop syncopation throughout the head, and following every subtle dynamic inflection of the uncolored snare and ride cymbal during his solo. I then began seeking out other drum-solo recordings to hear through the Rascals, but couldn't find my copy of The Sheffield Drum Record—I'll need to borrow Art Dudley's copy.
I compared the Li'l Rascal Mk.II with the usual suspects: the Paradigm Atom ($189/pair), the Polk RT25i (discontinued, $319/pair, when last offered), the NHT SB3 ($600/pair), and the Alón Petite ($1000/pair, discontinued).
First up was the nearest price competition, the NHT SB3. The NHT had a more liquid presentation than the Rascal, with a silky midrange and smoother but less detailed highs. The dynamics were excellent but not in the Rascal's league, and the high frequencies were less airy. The midbass was also slightly warmer. On balance, the NHT SB3 was slightly more romantic, more polite, and less revealing than the Rascal.
On the lower end of the price range, the Polk RT25i was impressive in its midrange and resolution of high-frequency detail, and was very natural and intimate in its overall presentation. Vocals were not as sibilant as on the Rascal, nor were they quite as dimensional or involving. Although the Polk's midbass region was uncolored, its bass extension and high-level dynamic performance were far inferior to the Rascal's.
Further down the price ladder, the Paradigm Atom was smooth and fairly uncolored throughout its range, but with fairly good detail resolution and dynamic performance. High-level dynamics were the least impressive of the group, with high frequencies that were not as extended or as airy as the Li'l Rascal's. But remember—the Atom costs less than a third as much as the Rascal.
The "final answer" question for me was "Does Alón's $595/pair Li'l Rascal Mk.II outperform their $1000/pair Petite?" Overall, the Alón Petite was uncolored, with detail resolution, transparency, and low-level dynamic articulation that equaled the Rascal's. The Rascal had far superior high-level dynamic capabilities, as well as more extended and dramatic midbass performance. On balance, however, I found the Petite's HF presentation to be more delicate, articulate, and sophisticated. One should keep in mind that, although the Petite design is nearly a decade old, it has the same tweeter as the original Alón IV ($3500/pair).
Overall, Alón by Acarian Systems has made quite a splash with its latest entry in the budget loudspeaker market, the Li'l Rascal Mk.II. In several areas, Carl Marchisotto may have set a new standard of performance for an inexpensive bookshelf design. I was pleased with how the Li'l Rascal satisfied musically over a wide range of program material. I am most impressed, however, that a speaker designer has been able to trickle a design element from a $120,000/pair speaker all the way down to one costing only $595/pair. That's an achievement.
When I'd completed this review and an edited version had been sent to the manufacturer for comment, it occurred to Acarian Systems that my samples of the Li'l Rascal Mk.II—Carl Marchisotto's own pair—might not be representative of current production.
When the original Li'l Rascal was introduced in 1999, its tweeter was fitted with 1"-wide felt rings around the circumference of its dome, to modify re-radiation of high frequencies from the cabinet edges. According to Marchisotto, the ring purifies and smooths the speaker's high-frequency response. The first production run of the Mk.II version, however, was sold without the rings. The idea was that a ringless speaker would produce a livelier high-frequency presentation, and thus be a better match for inexpensive electronics with less revealing high-frequency response.
Marchisotto ultimately changed his mind, and the Li'l Rascal Mk.II now comes with diffraction rings. As it turned out, my review samples were of the early, ringless variety; JA felt that I should listen to them—and that he should remeasure them—with rings installed. Acarian Systems mailed me a pair of rings, and I fitted them to my review samples.
The diffraction rings tamed some of the vocal sibilants I'd noted on the Madeline Peyroux recording: the highs sounded smoother and more refined, and Mark Ribot's dobro was a touch less metallic. The difference was less noticeable on Mighty Sam McClain's Give It Up to Love—with the rings, the reproduction of vocals and cymbals was almost indistinguishable from the sound without the rings—but the Fender Stratocaster's high-frequency attacks were tamed a bit. (The latter difference was akin to turning down the Twin Reverb amplifier's treble knob one number—more subtle, in guitar terms, than flipping off the Bright switch, or swapping a silver-panel, 1970s-vintage amp for a mellow pre-CBS version from the early 1960s.) The more highly modulated passages of Janis Ian's "Walking on Sacred Ground" (LP, Breaking Silence, Analogue Productions CAPP027) were less forward and more natural with the rings fitted, but there was very little difference on the low-level passages.
Overall, the effect of adding the tweeter diffraction rings was subtle, and more noticeable with some recordings than with others. The effect was not as great as switching from the Creek to the Audio Research amp, for example. On balance, however, the rings resulted in a more balanced, musical, and involving presentation overall. Acarian Systems has promised to provide diffraction rings free of charge to owners of early-production Li'l Rascal Mk.IIs. I recommend that they be taken up on the offer.—Robert J. Reina