The Fifth Element #77

A particular audio interest of mine has long been cost-effective systems that work really well together. I think most of the audio sob stories I've heard can be traced to one or both of two things: mismatched equipment, and inadequate attention paid to room acoustics. I've previously written about systems that range in price from $7500 to under $1500. Here's as minimal and classy a high-performance system as you can ask for: one box for the electronics (including USB connectivity), and two stand-mounted, two-way loudspeakers. The total cost is just under $10,000, but I think the price is justified not only by swank looks, but by the sound.

A new loudspeaker or an updated classic?
The Anima is a two-way loudspeaker from Canalis Audio, a new enterprise of longtime importer Immedia, of Berkeley, California. Canalis is thereby related to Spiral Groove, and Canalis speakers bear the Spiral Groove logo on their terminal plates. Spiral Groove, founded in 2005, makes turntables; their SG2 ($15,000) was favorably reviewed by Brian Damkroger in the June 2010 issue. Canalis makes at present four models of loudspeakers, all designed in collaboration with noted engineer Joachim Gerhard, formerly of Germany's Audio Physic. All Spiral Groove and Canalis products are made in the US.

For the time being, Spiral Groove/Canalis products come only from the electromechanical end of high-performance audio, not the purely electronic (let alone digital) end. The focus on addressing electromechanical rather than electronic challenges appears to be a consequence of Immedia founder Allen Perkins's rubric of "Balanced Force Design," which posits as the overarching design goal the optimal integration of "materials, performance, function, manufacturability, and aesthetics." This focus is, as well, a consequence of Perkins's interest in vibration and resonance control—not surprising, from a turntable designer.

The Canalis line comprises the Anima, a stand-mounted, rear-ported two-way ($3250/pair); the Anima CS, a tricked-out Anima with a ¾"-thick bottom plate of solid stainless steel and upgraded crossover parts ($6000/pair); the Cambria, a floorstanding two-way ($5000/pair); and the Allegra 2.0, a modular loudspeaker with a two-way, sealed-box upper cabinet crossed over to a bass module containing two 8" aluminum-cone woofers ($17,500/pair).

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The Anima's driver complement consists of a ¾" hybrid tweeter that combines a textile surround with a metal dome and is used in all Canalis models, and a 5" anodized aluminum-cone woofer. The Anima measures 16" H by 10" W by 10.5" D and weighs 14 lbs. Its front panel tilts back at an angle of about 9°. High-quality Eichmann terminals permit single-wiring only.

Canalis states that the Anima has an impedance of 8 ohms, a sensitivity of 86dB, a crossover frequency of 1900Hz, and a frequency response of 44Hz–33kHz, –3dB. They also claim that the design of the crossover incorporates a proprietary "Joachim Gerhard DC-Module" that minimizes the baffle-step effect.

The Animas come very securely packed in a sturdy double carton, along with a very complete guide to room placement. The review pair was very handsomely finished (including the rear panel) in low-gloss polyurethane in a shade Canalis calls Licorice, but which I would call Jacobean—think of the chunky, heavy, very dark brown wooden furniture from the reign of James I. Other finishes are natural, which Canalis calls Honey, and a warm, reddish, medium-brown that Canalis calls Cinnamon.

The Anima is not provided with a grille, so there are no grille-mounting attachments on its front panel. The front of the bottom plate is slightly recessed, and carries a metal strip embossed with the brand name, as well as threaded metal inserts to secure the speaker to its dedicated stand ($1500/pair), or allow the use of Spiral Groove's proprietary resonance-control pods, the Strange Attractors ($800/set of eight). These go between stand and floor, or between the speaker and a shelf or third-party stand. The Attractors' metal upper hemisphere is anodized the same bright red as the blind nut that secures the bolt that pierces the three crossed legs of the stand.

Although I consider the Canalis Anima to be a new loudspeaker, reasonable minds might differ on that point. Readers with long memories may recall Wes Phillips's enthusiastic July 2007 review of a loudspeaker, also called the Anima, from a company called Sonics by Joachim Gerhard, and also imported and distributed by Immedia. Earlier, while at Audio Physic, Gerhard had designed the very-well-received Step and Step SLE loudspeakers. The Sonics by Joachim Gerhard Anima was a refinement, at that time, of his earlier design.

I assume that the Step (which remains, I assume in further-evolved form, in production from Audio Physic) was named to highlight what its makers perceived to be an unusually successful implementation of baffle-step compensation. Baffle step refers to the rise in a loudspeaker's frequency response that comes about because, above some frequency primarily related to the front baffle's width, its output is directed mostly forward. Whereas, below that frequency, heading down to the deep bass, soundwaves are increasingly omnidirectional, and less energy, therefore, is directed at the listening position. Although a baffle-step graph, when read from left to right, might suggest a rising treble, I believe the acoustical phenomenon is actually one of weakening perceived bass.

Baffle-step compensation, of course, is only one aspect of the "Squeeze it here, it bulges there" art of loudspeaker design. Time alignment of the outputs of woofer and tweeter is an issue, and then there's always the Allison Effect, aka the floor-bounce effect: a frequency-specific bass cancellation related to the distance from the center of the bass driver to the floor. And other factors.

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Regardless how they came up with the Step name, I think it's fair to say that, in the early 1990s, the Audio Physic Step's crisp, clear, dynamic sound and remarkable imaging represented a new paradigm in minimonitor sound, and one that was warmly received by many reviewers, including Stereophile's Jack English in his October 1994 review.

The Sonics Anima that Wes reviewed in 2007 had front and rear panels of marine-grade plywood; its other panels were of high-density fiberboard (HDF). It had a grille, which Wes found made its optimal sonic contribution when removed. The Sonics Anima's tweeter and woofer, I was told by Allen Perkins, were essentially the same as are now found in the Canalis Anima. Indeed, Perkins told me that during the development work on the Canalis Anima, he took pains to ensure that the cabinet's internal volume remained essentially identical to the Sonics version. As it turned out, the new speaker could even be shipped in the same packing materials as the older.

Given all that, why would I consider the Canalis Anima to be a "new" loudspeaker? I view the Canalis Anima the way I view Harbeth's P3ESR, vis-à-vis the BBC LS3/5a from which it descends. In both cases, the footprints are the same, and the cabinets can function as drop-in replacements (Harbeth's P3ESR can drop into the soffit space left by a defunct LS3/5a). However, design changes in each case have resulted in performance that I believe constitutes a clean break with the predecessor's. In the case of the P3ESR, the cabinet remains the same, but the drivers and crossover changed. With Canalis's Anima, the cabinet material (but not its size or shape) changed radically, while the drivers remained the same (though there are revisions to the crossover). In both cases, I think, evolution turned the corner into revolution.

What is revolutionary about the Canalis Anima? In a word, bamboo. Allen Perkins told me that he'd begun thinking about and experimenting with bamboo plywood as a speaker-cabinet material 10 or so years ago, and that he still has stain and finish experiments from that time. The plywood of Canalis's speaker enclosures and the Anima's stand is ¾" thick, and distinguished by the fact that its core consists of substantial, vertically oriented fillets of bamboo rather than the usual multiple thin horizontal layers of hardwood, as in the Baltic-birch plywood often found in high-quality speaker enclosures. In most Shahinian speakers, for example, the enclosure's edges are beveled to reveal the layers of plies (and to make it clear that the cabinet is not made of MDF). The surface layers of Canalis's bamboo plywood are laminated of thinner fillets, oriented cross-grain to the core.

Why bamboo plywood? The short answer is: rigidity, plus self-damping. In this regard, it's important that Canalis chose bamboo plywood for acoustical performance reasons, which is different from choosing a bamboo veneer for aesthetic or ecological reasons. After a few weeks of living with Canalis's Anima, I found myself thinking of bamboo plywood as the poor man's carbon fiber. Indeed, the Anima's sonic coherence called to mind fond memories of various incarnations of Wilson Benesch's ACT loudspeakers. Gerhard bases his work on mathematical models by Don Keele, specifically the QB3 alignment, an overdamped woofer alignment that Gerhard claims behaves more like a sealed box, because of its longer port. Gerhard also believes that it's better to concentrate on getting the overtones of bass notes right and let the ear/brain system fill in the missing fundamental, than to make the trade-offs involved in including a large woofer in a two-way design. He chose the crossover frequency of 1900Hz to stay away from the range where the output of his 5" woofer becomes directional.

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