Audio Physic Step loudspeaker
Immedia introduced the German Audio Physic speakers at the 1994 Winter CES. As I mentioned in my Show report (Vol.17 No.4), I felt the price:performance ratios of the three models displayed was an indirect one: the least-expensivethe Stepsounded best (footnote 1). Since I'm always looking for products that offer great bang for the buck, I arranged to receive a pair of review samples.
The speakers looked innocuous at first glance: typical minimonitors with two driversa ¾" metal-dome tweeter and a tiny woofer with a chassis just 4" acrossand a rear-firing port 1.25" in diameter. But the connectors are female bananas which, though popular in Europe, have never caught on in the US. It got weirder. Each speaker has a small, oval, metal plate on the bottom near the front, and two more ovals plus a threaded tap on the back. Huh?
I unboxed the dedicated Sound Anchors stands while pondering these oddities. The stands' pile of rods, bolts, plastic caps, and different-sized spikes looked like an erector set. The owner's manual had not yet been translated into English, so I was on my own. But since there were two speakers, I figured there had to be two stands. I separated the parts into two equal piles. Assembly was actually pretty straightforward: I just lined up the holes in the various rods.
As soon as the stands were fully assembled, I understood what the speakers' three metal plates are for: they protect the speaker from the stand's support spikes, which delicately balance each speaker. The speaker is then secured with a bolt, which goes through the rear of the stand into the threaded tap on the back of the speaker. When everything was together, each three-legged stand firmly held a speaker, tilting it back slightly to help timealign the drivers.
I called Immedia's Allen Perkins and confirmed the accuracy of my setup. He went on to tell me that Sound Anchors will soon be building the stands for all Audio Physic Step speakers sold in the USmanuals and instructions will be provided for both the speakers and the stands. In addition, the female banana connectors will be replaced with Cardas binding posts, which, in all likelihood, will be more familiar, easier to use, and sonically superior. I plan to find out and report the results in a Follow-Up.
Once properly set up, the Steps looked intriguing. The combination of high-tech, tilted stands and grilleless speakers made for a modern, industrial look that most visitors to my listening room found striking.
The Step is small, but not because it's a budget product; it was specifically designed as a high-quality product for use in small listening rooms, and to perform optimally with high-quality ancillary equipment.
Minimonitors are unable to produce prodigious amounts of deep bass, and the Step was no exception. But the quantity and quality of the bass that was there was very impressive. In my difficult room, with the speakers a third of the way into the room from the rear wall, bass performance was strong to 60Hz, and still making noises at 20Hz. I found the bass performance from these little boxes astounding.
As expected, they were not ideal for reproducing organ music, Aerosmith, Holst's "Mars," or punk rock. The speaker's tonal balance was noticeably lightweight. The net result was a presentation that sounded slightly bright. And I wouldn't recommend them for loud parties in big rooms. But they weren't designed for any of these things.
I listened for some time with the Steps aimed directly at the listening position, taking maximum advantage of the speakers' stunning soundstaging capabilities. However, the lightweight tonal balance became fatiguing. To my surprise, the Steps were able to provide nearly the same level of soundstaging splendor when aimed directly ahead. With the listening position off the direct axis, the tonal balance was less of an issue; the majority of my listening was done with this straight-ahead setup.
The Steps' soundstaging presentation was consistent: excellent width and depth, pinpoint placement, and loads of spaciousness. For virtually any musical performance, I felt as if I was sitting at least mid-hall. Performers were never sitting out in the room or on the plane of the speakers. Rather, they were well behind and around the back. In addition, unless recorded as such, the music was never located in the cabinets. While many people may dislike the Steps' distant presentation, I found it quite enjoyable. However, I didn't find it an accurate re-creation of the full range of differently recorded soundscapes.
On symphonic recordings, such as Hovhaness's Mount St. Helens (Delos DE 3137), the performers were located on a deep, wide, distant stage. As the presentation was that which would be heard from a distant hall seat, the lack of an overpowering bass foundation was to some extent natural. However, the percussive impact of the third movement, "Volcano," was greatly diminished, and the deep-bass attenuation was accompanied by a constriction of dynamic range. The overall tonal presentation was mellow but not warm, clean but not bright, and consistently intelligible, making musical themes easy to follow.
This same combination of pluses and minuses was clearly illustrated by Enigma's The Cross of Changes (Charisma 39236), especially "Out from the Deep." Once again, the musical presentation was distant and spacious, and sound effects were located with pinpoint precision and precise rhythmic integrity. The open, mellow, female background vocals provided the appropriately eerie setting. On the down side, neither the bass nor the drums seemed to sufficiently energize the listening room.
Understanding the major weaknesses of these speakersthe lack of true deep bass, restricted dynamics, and the consistently distant presentationallowed me to finally use them to best effect. The Steps were generally at their best with small-scale music: James Taylor, Kronos Quartet, Bill Evans, Andres Segovia, Acoustic Alchemy, or virtually any performer, ensemble, or group that didn't depend on massive deep bass and an extremely wide dynamic range. Since the Steps were so wonderfully open, live performances, such as Midori's splendid Live at Carnegie Hall (Sony SK 46742), were especially enjoyable. I turned out the lights and was therethe applause of the audience was electrifying.
Gavin Bryars' hauntingly beautiful The Black River (ECM New Series 78118-21495-2) was simply lovely with the Steps. The combination of soprano Sarah Leonard and organist Christopher Bowers-Broadbent was pleasantly natural, with a warm, distant, spacious character. Since the organ's contribution wasn't heavily dependent upon its lowest registers, the Steps were at home. The upper reaches of the soprano voice were particularly well-reproduced. I was similarly impressed with the reproduction of Barbra Streisand and Frank Sinatra on "I've Got a Crush on You" on Sinatra's Duets (Capitol C21Q 89611 2). The Steps were well-nourished on a steady supply of female voiceeg, Diane Reeves.
The quality of the low-end reproduction of Dave Holland's bass on Joe Henderson's So Near, So Far (Verve 314 517-674) was wonderful. Once again, since the heart (and soul) of the music is in the mid- and upper bass range, the Steps were up to the task.
Small-group acoustic jazz was consistently satisfying. Everything was very clean and quick, rhythms were tight and punchy, and the open, spacious soundstage helped create the illusion of a small club. Since music like this doesn't rely on the bottom octave, massive dynamic swings, or three-digit dB levels, everything worked much better than fine.
The Audio Physic Step is a small, high-quality speaker intended for a modestly sized room. Mated with high-quality equipment, the Steps were musically satisfyingI enjoyed them immensely on modestly scaled material. Other than their inability to reproduce low frequencies and their distant soundstage presentation, the Steps were faithful to the source recordings. Though expensive, they could be an intriguing alternative where their small size might make them an optimal choice.
Footnote 1: The floorstanding Tempo ($2995/pair) was one of the speakers reviewed in our latest blind listening speaker survey (August 1994, Vol.17 No.8, p.103), and was judged by the listening panel to be one of the two best-sounding speakers reviewed. (See also in this issue JE's discussion of the test results.) Robert Deutsch is currently working on a review of the Audio Physic DSP digital equalizer for the Tempo.John Atkinson