Revel Ultima Studio2 loudspeaker Fred Kaplan, December 2009
Toward the end of a highly favorable review in the March 2008 Stereophile, Kalman Rubinson wrote, "What's not to likeindeed, loveabout the $15,999/pair Revel Ultima Studio2?" Having listened to these speakers for a few months now, I'd say my colleague underrated them.
As far as Kal goes, I agree with his assessment of the Ultima Studio2: top marks on highs, lows, midrange, dynamics (macro and micro), depth, and imaging. But what impressed me as much as any of those, if not more, was a quality KR didn't mention: the way the Ultima Studio2 unraveled musical detailsnot just the notes and rhythms of a passage, but also the overtones and texture of an instrument or an ensemble.
My reference recording most revealing of such matters is of Górecki's Symphony 3, with David Zinman conducting the London Sinfonietta (CD, Elektra Nonesuch 79282-2). It brutally exposes the deficiencies of most speakers. But the Revel Ultima Studio2 revealed still more wonders of this disc.
The first movement begins with the double basses bowing the theme near the bottom of their range. Many speakers present this as a rumbly growl. With the Studio2s I could hear not only every note cleanly and crisply, but also the distinct sound of resined bows on strings, against vibrating wood.
About three minutes into the movement, various sections of the orchestra begin playing different melodies, in rondo or counterpoint. The Studio2s let me follow all these lines more clearly than any speakers ever have. With many speakers, the bass tones under all these crisscrossing lines get muddy, but not with these. At about 8:00, the orchestra begins to swell; at this point, with every other speaker I've had, the double basses turn to mush; there's too much going on, something gives way, and in such circumstances it's the bass that tends to give way most easily. Yet even here, the Studio2s preserved the bass lines and their textures. Similarly, when the piano plays very softly behind Dawn Upshaw's voice, I could hear the sound of the fingers tapping the keyboard. I don't think this is the result of excessively close miking; this recording was made with classically "natural" methods involving very few microphones.
The same traits shone through when I put on the San Francisco Symphony Orchestra's recording of Mahler's Symphony 9, conducted by Michael Tilson Thomas (SACD/CD, SFSO 821936-0007-2): the tremulous bowing of the violins, the brassy blaring of the horns in the distance, the swaying of the double basses. And when the music swelled in a crescendo, the Studio2s kept it all together: no breakup, no harshness, no mud.
But don't get the idea that the Ultima Studio2 was merely "analytical." At about 6:00 into the Górecki movement, when the high strings start bowing, they sounded as silky as they ever have. When I listened to Lorraine Hunt Lieberson singing "Ich habe genug," from her recording of J.S. Bach's Cantatas BWV 82 and 199 with Craig Smith conducting the Orchestra of Emmanuel Music (CD, Nonesuch 79692-2), my heart went pitter-patter, as usual. On Maria Schneider's Sky Blue (CD, ArtistShare AS0065), when her jazz orchestra begins to blow the opening passage of the first track, I couldn't help but sway along. The Studio2 was about as neutral a speaker as any I've heard in my system; if there's emotion on the disc and it hasn't been wiped out by the intervening components and cables, the Revel will pick it up and pass it along.
KR said that setting up the Ultima Studio2s wasn't all that delicate a task, but it was in my room. True, they weren't as persnickety as some speakers I've dealt with; I managed to find their sweet spots after just a few iterations, not a few dozen. But I found that changing the toe-in angle by 10° or even 5° made a big difference: If I toed them in too much, the midbass boomed a bit; if I toed them in too little, the upper midrange sounded thin, sometimes unpleasantly. In my room, the Revels sounded best when their tweeters were pointing to a spot just an inch or so outside my ears.
This setup narrowed the soundstage, though only a little. On "Jonah," from Paul Simon's 19641993 (3 CDs, Warner Bros. 45394-2), the hand drum was still well to the left of the left speaker; ditto for John Coltrane's tenor sax on side 1 of Miles Davis's Kind of Blue (LP, Columbia CS 8163). In either case, the Studio2s conveyed a palpable, layered depthand if the recording was made in a concert hall, or a big studio such as the converted Greek Orthodox church that Columbia used in the 1950s and '60s, they also gave a convincing sense of the venue's dimensions and ambience.
Flaws and shortcomings? Well, a speaker of roughly similar design, but with more and larger woofers, would probably sound a bit warmer and heftier; I assume, though I've never heard it, that this is what one gets with Revel's own Ultima Salon2 ($20,999/pair). But, again, it would be way off the mark to call the Studio2 cold or bass-shy. When I put on Don Pullen's Sacred Common Ground (CD, Blue Note CDP 8 32800 2) to check how the Studio2 would handle pianist Pullen's slight darts and accents (very deftly, by the way), I was completely taken aback to hear how much more clear, woody, and thumpy Santi DeBriano's exquisite bass lines sounded; it was as if I'd never heard this part of the record before, though in fact I've listened to it dozens of times over the years. I should also note that, as clean and extended as the Studio2's highs sounded, thanks to its stiff, light beryllium tweeter, they don't quite match the stratospheric purity of a very good ribbon tweeter such as that in Verity Audio's Sarastro II ($40,000/pair).
Kal wasn't too thrilled with the Studio2's appearance, finding that its high-gloss piano-black finish looked too plastic. The units I reviewed were finished in mahogany, and looked both very attractive and genuine. (They also happened to go very nicely with the mahogany trim of my living room.)
All in all, I found the Revel Ultima Studio2 an involving, enticing, deeply pleasurable loudspeakeramong the best I've ever heard in my room.Fred Kaplan