Audience ClairAudient The One loudspeaker
As the years pass and I turn into a crotchety old man, I'm reminded of those old TV ads for the Honda Accord: "Simplify." Even though I now have more things going on than at any other point in my life, I try to eliminate complications everywhere I can. I now can't believe that, for over 15 years, I used the Infinity RS-1B as my reference loudspeaker. Sure, I loved itthe RS-1B was the first speaker I'd owned that produced a wide, deep soundstage, the full dynamic range of an orchestra, and bass extension down to 25Hz. But it was ridiculously complex: a five-way design with three different driver types and a servomechanism for the woofers. It also required biamplificationI got the best sound with a combination of high-powered tube amp and high-current, solid-state amp.
I wouldn't put up with such a complex setup today. For my own purchases, my biases now lean toward simple, three-way, dynamic floorstanding designs for cost-no-object speakers, and two-way, dynamic bookshelf models for affordable speakers. These simpler designs have simpler crossovers, and there's much to be said for minimizing crossover complexity. The ideal speaker would have no crossover at alljust a single driver that could produce full-range sound. However, finding a single-driver speaker that can accurately reproduce the entire audioband is a tall order. The most satisfying one I can think of is Quad's ESL-63 electrostatic. I've enjoyed many hours of listening to a broad range of music through the ESL-63s over the last 30 years, especially when they're driven by first-rate tubed electronics. (See J. Gordon Holt's excellent review of the ESL-63 from 1983 here.)
So when Audience asked if I had any interest in reviewing their ClairAudient The One ($995/pair) which has only a single dynamic driver and no crossover, and which they claim is a full-range loudspeaker . . . well, I jumped.
The ClairAudient The One is a "bookshelf" speaker that measures only 7" high by 5.5" wide by 7" deep and sports a single 3" full-range, dynamic driver. The driver's cone is made of a titanium alloy, has a moving mass of only 2.5gm, and is capable of 12mm excursion. This A3-S driver is the same one found in Audience's flagship model, the ClairAudient 16+16 ($72,000/pair), which uses 32 of them. According to Audience, the elimination of the inherent sonic compromises of a crossover and dissimilar drivers eliminates phase distortions and transient response degradation, and results in improved resolution. The One loads its single driver with a rear-facing, circular passive radiator. This occupies most of the speaker's rear panel and is mounted above a pair of binding posts. The One is wired internally with Audience's Ohno continuous casting (OCC) monocrystal wire. Audience also sent me a pair of the One's optional desktop stands ($75/pair) and a sample of their Ohno speaker cable ($199/3' pair, $249/5' pair, footnote 1).
The One is currently available in high-gloss black, but I was supplied with four samples, one pair each in blue and black; both looked sexy, rugged, and unimposing. On spying the blue pair, my 12-year-old daughter, Caitlin, remarked, "What a cool speaker! How much are those?" Caitlin has seen dozens of speakers enter and leave my house. This is the first one she's commented on.
I tested the Ones with and without their attractive, magnetically attached cloth grilles. They sounded nearly identical in both configurations; leaving the grilles off resulted in slightly improved detail.
All the lonely speakers . . .
Audience claims that the One is capable of full-range sound when placed on a desk or near a wall, but that "a subwoofer is required for full-frequency response when The One is situated away from a wall." I tried them in two configurations, both without a subwoofer: 1) , driven by Audio Valve and Audio Research electronics, and sitting on my 24" Celestion Si stands (loaded with sand and lead shot) about 4' from the front wall of my large (15' by 35') listening room; and 2) on a console table, the Ones at about the same height as when sitting on the Celestion stands, approximately 6" from the front wall, driven by a Creek Evolution 50A integrated amplifier (reviewed in the August 2013 issue).
With setup 1, I expected to hear a bass-shy sound, but I was proven wrong with the very first track I listened to. Bill Evans's piano, on his Live at the Village Vanguard Featuring Scott LaFaro (CD, JVC JVCXR-0051-2), was rich, deep, and involving in the instrument's lower-midrange register. Throughout the recording, the piano never sounded thin, and the trio's sound filled the entire roomI felt I was listening to much larger speakers. Jack DeJohnette's Dancing with Nature Spirits (CD, ECM 1558), includes interesting interplay between the drummer and pianist Michael Cain that's full of transient subtleties and great dramatic swings. Every minute detail of the musicians' phrasing was perfectly captured, each piano note and drum stroke followed by a long decay. Even the high-level passages bloomed with no trace of compression or strainbloomed so much that the Ones triggered the Ellen Test: my wife told me to turn the music down.
The One resolved so much inner detail that the wide variety of acoustic and electric guitars played by Bill Frisell on the various tracks of his solo album Ghost Town (CD, Nonesuch 79583-2) were clearly differentiated. The One's resolution also ruthlessly revealed differences among recordings. Unfortunately, its reproduction of an early CD edition of Herbie Hancock's Cantaloupe Island (Blue Note CDP 8 29331 2) was uninvolving, two-dimensional, and dead, with very little color or liveliness to Hancock's piano or Tony Williams's drums.
I'd wondered if the One had been optimized for the midrange, and if it was capable of extended, detailed, uncolored reproduction of the high frequencies. With every recording I tried, the highs were natural and shimmering, without a trace of coloration and no curtailment of upper harmonics. The massed string tone in Paul Paray's recording of Hector Berlioz's Symphonie Fantastique, with the Detroit Symphony (CD, Mercury Living Presence 434 328-2), was silky, airy, and never strident, even in the violins' upper registers. And every plunk and pling of Derek Bailey's extended guitar technique on his Improvisation (CD, Ampersand Ampere 2) was perfectly reproduced. The One's excellent articulations of transients, combined with its high-frequency extension and purity, made it a showcase for dynamic and complex percussion recordings. With each track of Chick Corea's The Ultimate Adventure (CD, Stretch/Concord SCP-9045-2), I was able to follow every nuance of the dramatically explosive and syncopated textures created by drummers Steve Gadd and Vinnie Colaiuta.
Footnote 1: The Audience Ohno is slightly smaller in diameter than 24-gauge lamp cordit's the thinnest speaker cable I've ever seen. The cable comprises conductors of continuous-cast, single-crystal, OCC copper, insulated with polypropylene and jacketed in cross-linked polyethylene.