Isophon Europa II loudspeaker Page 2
The smooth, even pink-noise tests accurately predicted the Europa's treble response, which was extended and open, sweet and nonfatiguing. Billy Drummond's Zildjian cymbals at the beginning of "The Mooche," on the Jerome Harris Quintet's Rendezvous (CD, Stereophile STPH013-2), had a transparent metallic shimmer instead of the hiss I hear through most speakers. Steve Nelson's vibes had the most natural, ringing quality I've heard in a while, and were placed holographically to the left and center. Similarly, the shimmering bronze of the cymbals in "Nardis," from Patricia Barber's Café Blue (CD, Premonition/Blue Note 21810 2), were brilliantly reproduced.
Overall, the Europa II's drivers blended well, the tweeter phasing smoothly over to the midrange drivers and allowing for wide soundstaging and fine ambience retrieval. The Turtle Creek Men's Chorus's layered-in-space voices and deep pipe-organ accompaniment on "Lord, Make Me an Instrument of Thy Peace," from John Rutter's Requiem (CD, Reference Recordings RR-57CD), gave me the sense of a huge performance hall. Voices in the choir were easily resolved without detectable colorations.
The Europa's reproduction of vocal music was unusually good, enabling me to understand sung words with ease. For the first time, I could follow and understand all the words in the selection from Elgar's The Dream of Gerontius, Part 1 (Test CD 2, Stereophile STPH004-2). When I heard Harry Connick, Jr. sing "Don't Get Around Much Anymore," from the When Harry Met Sally... soundtrack (CD, Columbia CK 45319), I was struck by the natural vocal timbre of his voice, which had no sign of honk through the Europa. The speaker's speed and dynamics were evident in the startling rimshot that ends that song.
The sopranos in the chorus singing behind José Carreras on the Kyrie of Ariel Ramirez's Misa Criolla (Philips 420 955-2) had the most open, extended sound, and it extended from wall to wall. Carreras's clear tenor had a liquidity and immediacy that was uncanny. I particularly enjoyed hearing Albert Jordan's lilting tenor separate out from the other singers on the title track of Deep River, the latest release from male choral group Cantus (CD, Cantus CTS 1203).
The Europa II also excelled at capturing the natural timbres of musical instruments. It conveyed the impact and speed of the Bösendorfer 209E reproducing piano in a small room when playing Beethoven's Sonata 24 in F-sharp, Op.78, from Robert Silverman's complete cycle of the sonatas (CD, OrpheumMasters KSP 830). While the Europa II reproduced the trombone's "brassy blattiness" from "The Mooche," on Jerome Harris' Rendezvous, I had difficulty hearing the crackle of air in the instrument's mouthpiece that engineer John Atkinson wrote about in his article about his Editor's Choice compilation CD (Stereophile, July 2003). Switching from my now-ancient Mark Levinson ML-2 monoblocks to the more recent No.334 brought the crackle back.
The Europa II's bandpass woofer system produced solid, tuneful, powerful bass from 35Hz up. The speaker is tailor-made for pipe-organ enthusiasts—it reproduced most of the growl, weight, mass, and impact of the king of instruments that you'd hear from a high-end system. Driven by the ML-2s, the Allegro from Widor's Symphony 6 for Organ, performed by Marcel Dupré on Recital (CD, Mercury Living Presence 434 311-2), shuddered the air in my listening room. Similarly, the deepest notes in Gnomus, from Jean Guillou's organ transcription of Mussorgsky's Pictures at an Exhibition (CD, Dorian DOR-90117), rattled the cabinets in my listening room. But the Europa' bass system did so well with organ music because it played in a controlled fashion with a minimum of bass overkill. The organ accompaniment to John Rutter's A Gaelic Blessing, from Requiem, had just the right amount of volume and pitch definition, not the bloat I've heard from lesser speaker systems.
Via the Isophon speakers, Owen Reed's La Fiesta Mexicana, from Fiesta (CD, Reference RR-38CD), opened with weighty, solid, well-defined bass-drum beats mixed with shimmering, reverberating chimes. And all of the following were easily heard and felt: the dense, synthesized bass notes that depict supernatural footsteps in "No Sign of Ghosts," from the Casper soundtrack (CD, MCA 11240); the soft but ponderous bass-drum beat on "Cosmos Old Friend," from the Sneakers soundtrack (CD, Columbia CK 53146); the sodden heartbeats that crescendo at the beginning of "Speak to Me," from Pink Floyd's Dark Side of the Moon (SACD, Capitol 58236 2); the raspy, edgy, throbbing didgeridoo that opens David Hudson's "Rainforest Wonder," from Didgeridoo Spirit (CD, Indigenous Australia IA2003D); and the subterranean synthesizer rumblings on "Assault on Ryan's House," from the Patriot Games soundtrack (RCA 66051-2).
However, the Europa's bandpass system filtered out the very deepest bass notes. I heard only faintly the sustained organ chord that ends the passage from The Dream of Gerontius on Test CD 2. I totally missed the thuds and rumblings in "The End of Our Island," from the Dinosaur soundtrack (CD, Walt Disney 50086 06727). And I could just barely discern the sustained 32Hz double-bass note that introduces Richard Strauss's Also sprach Zarathustra, on the Time Warp compilation (CD, Telarc CD-80106).
Last but not least, I listened to Mobile Fidelity's SACD reissue of that 1974 Skrowaczewski-Minnesota recording of Ravel's Boléro, Pavane for a Dead Princess, and Daphnis et Chloé (MFSL UDSACD 4002). Playing the Pavane over the Europa IIs produced an immediate, pleasant flashback to that Saturday in May when I sat in Paul Stubblebine's studio, eyes closed and leaning back, letting wave after wave of clear, translucent, reach-out-and-touch-it sound sweep over me.
Isophon's Europa II delivers open, extended, nonfatiguing sound, and exactly positions images in the soundstage. This imaging capability was enhanced by its excellent deep-bass extension and definition. While its price of $13,020/pair is close to that of the coaxial-ribbon Piega C-8 Limited that I reviewed in January ($12,000/pair), the Europa's real competition will come from less expensive floorstanding systems such as the MartinLogan Prodigy ($10,000/pair), the Quad ESL-989 ($9500/pair), and the InnerSound Eros Mk.III ($8000/pair). Although each of these loudspeakers has excellent treble extension, midrange definition, and soundstaging, the Isophon Europa II earns its higher price tag with its tight, well-defined bass. One must be willing to spend more, for a speaker like the Revel Ultima Salon ($15,000/pair), to grab the handful of deeper Hz missed by the Europa II.
Lovers of pipe organ, percussion, and special effects, take notice: The Isophon Europa II might sweep you away, too.