Cabasse Artis Baltic II & Thor II loudspeaker system Page 2
The only change came when Cabasse America's Dale Fontenot paid a visit. He was gratified to find that I'd done a reasonably good, if not perfect, job of placing and blending the system, but suggested reversing the polarity of the entire system by flipping the Baltic IIs' speaker-cable leads and sliding the Thor II subwoofers' phase switches to 180°. That made what I'd thought was a very fine-sounding system into an exceptionally fine-sounding one, with improved spaciousness. (But how could I have known about the tweak when the instructions don't even suggest trying it?) Of course, the improvement depended on the absolute polarity of the recording being played. But that's a conceptual observation; I don't pay attention to polarity. Some audiophiles do, going so far as to mark each record and CD for it; but without a phase switch, I'm in the hands of the mastering engineer.
A hard act to follow
Context plays a bigger role in audio reviewing than many reviewers are willing to admit—after the performance put on by the Wilson Audio MAXX2s, any loudspeaker entering my system would be at a distinct disadvantage. But, after the Wilsons' departure, once my ears and head had cleared out and I'd given the Cabasse Artis speakers a chance on their own terms, I was more than satisfied with their performance. I kept them in my system for almost two months, and their long-term listenability was outstanding. Any doubts I'd had about their ability to create a subjectively coherent, top-to-bottom sonic presentation were quickly dispelled—quite the opposite of my previous exposure!
The system's tonal balance was smooth, airy, and—especially—texturally rich, with a fast yet buttery finish that didn't hide detail and was free of sharp spikes. The presentation had an almost planar-magnetic transparency, openness, and resolve, with the suggestion of a slight but broad presence-region elevation (or a sharp dip above it)—the kind that's easily ignored over time and doesn't interfere with proper timbral presentation, but that adds an almost imperceptible sense of liveliness.
Violinist Daniel Gaede and pianist Xuesu Liu's very revealing The Tube Only Violin was an ideal demo record for this system (180gm LP, Tacet L117). These subtly miked performances of works by Tchaikovsky, Ysae, Elgar, Massenet, Schubert, Schumann, and Kreisler for violin and piano, subtly miked and recorded without the use of transistors, revealed the Artis system's smooth and relaxed personality as well as its ability to resolve fine textural gradations. I couldn't ask for a rendering of a solo violin that was more convincing harmonically, texturally, and spatially. The Artises let me feel the bow hairs being drawn against the strings without unnatural edge or harshness. The piano, somewhat more distantly miked, was presented effectively focused, believably sized, and with a sophisticated balance of percussive touch, reverberation, harmonic complexity, and effective decay, all of which helped to create the illusion of actually being in its presence.
Another piano disc that sounded particularly pleasing was Hold Me to This: Christopher O'Riley Plays Radiohead, recorded in summer 2004 by Da-Hong Seetoo in a church in Palo Alto, California (CD, World Village/Harmonia Mundi 468034). Seetoo comes from the audiophile side of the pro-audio fence—he used to work for Fanfare International's Victor Goldstein, and he knows what good sound is. He captured it on this disc. The Baltic-Thor combo scored points with me for its credible presentation of both the solo piano and the church space. The piano managed a rich, woody warmth without sounding muffled or thick.
The system's freedom from congestion and its lack of boxlike colorations rendered human voices eerily palpable. I picked from a bunch of recently arrived CDs a new one by Judy Collins, Portrait of an American Girl (Wildflower WFL 1305). The old gal's voice still sounds as supple and open as a 25-year-old's (she's 66), but for some reason, Collins, who also produced, decided to bathe herself in ghostly amounts of reverb, which hardly sounded necessary. The Baltic IIs and Thor IIs managed to float a solid yet delicate, unclouded vocal image within the wall-to-wall reverberation field. A recently released vinyl edition of Ella Fitzgerald Sings the Irving Berlin Songbook (2 LPs, Verve/Speakers Corner MG VS-6005-2) produced a most thrilling and transparent 3-D Ella in the room, though the Cabasses' resolve was sufficient to tell me that my original Verve pressing, though noisier, offers greater clarity, transparency, and focus. This was probably the result of the tape having been a copy, at least one generation down, and suffering from signs of aging.
Well-recorded male voices also had fine weight and body and were free of excess chestiness, which made a sample of the third UK Island pressing of Nick Drake's Bryter Layter (footnote 1) (ILPS 9134), with its chamber-music-like orchestrations, sound ethereal; Drake's guitar had a sparkling yet delicate attack, the strings a warm, resiny richness, and his voice the intimacy, three-dimensionality, and believability that are produced only when the many components that define the male voice convincingly jell.
One evening I made a CD-R for a friend of an original pressing of Fritz Reiner and the Chicago Symphony's 1954 recording of Strauss's Also sprach Zarathustra (RCA Living Stereo LSC-1806). I was pleased with the weight and authority of the organ, the balance of the strings (woody but not warm), and the brash but not piercing brass. Whatever the Artis system gave up in ultimate weight it more than made up in unerring, irresistibly natural musical flow. I recognized the instruments. They sounded right.
Beyond their pleasing spectral balance, the Artis Baltic IIs and Artis Thor IIs had a pulse-like rhythmic agility and a sense of musical "whole" more commonly heard from single-driver horn systems, but with far better extension and less coloration. This system will not bowl you over in the short run, nor did I find its sound particularly vivid or draw-me-in inviting—but if what you hear on first encounter pleases you, my experience indicates that, chances are, it will satisfy you over the long term as well. Even immediately following two months of Wilson Audio MAXX2 dynamite, I continued to enjoy all varieties of music through the Cabasse Artis system—right up until I had to move on to the next review sample.
While the Baltics and Thors could play loudly, their balance was far more effective, pleasing, and relaxing at moderate SPLs. Pushed too hard, the system's sound became somewhat glassy, bright, and a bit forward—probably due to that one minor response anomaly somewhere in the upper mids. But I had to push it to higher-than-normal SPLs to get that.
The Artis system's biggest shortcoming was its dynamic scaling. While microdynamics—those small dynamic gestures that give recorded music life—were rendered with great detail and delicacy, perhaps even somewhat better than the Wilson MAXX2s, the Artises faltered somewhat when asked to express the grandest musical gestures. Don't expect realistic symphonic dynamic scale; but then, only big rigs costing a lot more do that correctly (including of course, the MAXX2s).
The Baltic-Thor combo was also slightly deficient in its ability to project realistic stage height—but again, only when compared to the floor-to-ceiling stages produced by the MAXX2s and many planar-magnetic and electrostatic designs. Same with center image fill, where I've heard greater solidity and across-the-stage integration.
But the Artis system's rhythmic swagger, and especially its tuneful bottom-end punch, were noteworthy. While the Thor II's performance was punchy, it was anything but "one-note bass." When properly blended with the Baltic II, the Thor II's low-frequency performance was nimble, well-defined, texturally believable, and most tuneful. Jazz and rock were particularly well served by the system. These speakers were unerringly "musical"—but if you're not careful with how high you set the subwoofer level, all bets are off.
Keep your eye on that eyeball and you might find it difficult to get beyond the Cabasse Artis system's unusual looks. Still, the design seems to make perfect technical sense. A few visitors claimed to be able to aurally "see" the subwoofers and eyeballs, but after two months with the system, I became convinced that one's own eyeball can deceive. Presented with such an unusual combo of speaker versions of R2D2 and C-3PO, the eye can overwhelm the ears and create a false impression. Lights-out listening convinced me that this system had legs as well as eyeballs.
The absence of a baffle and the presence of what sounded like an exceptionally coherent and concentrated wave launch produced a spacious, wide-open soundfield across the room. Because of the subjective smoothness of the Artises' frequency and power responses (not flat, but free of peaky behavior) and the open space they freed up in my room (especially after the unusually voluminous Wilson MAXX2s), I often felt as if there were no speakers present at all. The concerns I had about getting hovering, ungrounded, flying-saucer–like sonic images from the Baltic IIs vanished once the Thor IIs were properly dialed in.
While the Baltic-Thor combo didn't produce the kind of wall-to-wall, floor-to-ceiling sonic pictures managed by some other larger, more expensive speakers, it compensated with an unusually open, airy, coherent sound that I found addictive. Recordings of solo performers and small ensembles were nearly ideal in every way.
The system's mild dynamic limitations were also compensated for by its almost full-range (and self-powered) bass performance, though some may find it slightly dry and a touch mechanical—especially if you can't avoid the temptation to crank it up to stomach-popping levels. The Baltic II's 93.5dB sensitivity means that less powerful and therefore less expensive amplification, including tubes, can be used. That makes the Artis system's $13,000 price with two subwoofers somewhat easier to take in the context of a complete system's cost.
Be prepared to spend a lot of time positioning the Thor IIs and adjusting their crossover frequency and level in order to get an effective blend with the Baltic IIs. And remember that the footprint of the two components will be greater than that of many full-range speakers. The tall Baltic II makes sense for a home theater, where most people put the subwoofer in a corner and forget about it. But for a two-channel system, a frame allowing the TC22 eyeball to be suspended at ear height directly above but isolated from the Thor II would probably be more space-efficient. In a two-channel system, you'll need to place the Thor IIs where they need to go, then hope you can find room for the Baltic IIs so they can produce the desired soundstage.
Overall, the eye- and ear-catching combination of Cabasse's Artis Baltic II and Thor II constitutes a unique and fascinating slice of speaker technology, and a nearly full-range system at what I consider to be a very reasonable price. Don't miss the chance to hear it properly set up: when you do, you may well be sold on it.
Footnote 1: It's indicative of how few albums Drake sold during his brief life and up until this mid-1970s disc that it was pressed from only the third stamper made from the first mother produced by only the second lacquer cut from the master tape—and, for all I know, the first lacquer was chucked, which would mean that even first pressings may have been generated from the second lacquer. Having never seen a pink-label original, I don't know.