Stenheim Alumine loudspeaker Page 2
Listening to Malcolm Sargent and the London Symphony's recording of Prokofiev's Symphony 5 (LP, Everest/Classic SDBR 3034), I heard what would endure, throughout my time with them, as the Alumines' greatest strengths: very good musical involvement (including excellent musical timing); a sound that was open and clean but neither sterile nor colorless; and bass response that was satisfyingly deepnotably so, for such a small loudspeaker. The Stenheim also gave respectable weight, plus superb color and definition, to the kettle drums in the marches and canzonas of Purcell's Music for the Funeral of Queen Mary, recorded in the late 1970s by John Eliot Gardiner and the Monteverdi Orchestra and Choir (LP, Erato STU 70911). Better still, the Stenheim captured the manner in which the sound of those drums increased in scale as their loudness increased.
Make no mistake, there remained low-frequency tones that escaped the Alumine's abilities. When I listened to At Shelly's Manne-Hole, a 1963 live album by the Bill Evans Trio (CD, JVC 0036-2), Chuck Israel's string bass didn't have the depth, body, or scale that it did through my Audio Note speakers. And the sound of the Commendatore's statue knocking on the door in Bernard Haitink and the London Philharmonic's recording of Mozart's Don Giovanni (LP, EMI 157-1436653) lacked a certain menace. But the Stenheims sounded well-balanced enough, from bottom to top, that their low-frequency limitations seldom came to mind in day-to-day listening.
Even with my modestly powered (25Wpc) Shindo Corton-Charlemagne monoblocks, the Stenheims had satisfying impact, drama, and touch. With recordings of very loud choral singing, such as the Purcell LP, the Alumines remained slightly more listenable than my Audio Notes, with less of the very subtle audible breakup to which, I would imagine, we've all become accustomed at one time or another, and with less confusion and spatial "smearing" between choral sections. Solo vocal crescendi, of which there's no shortage in the great recording of Mahler's Symphony 8 by Leonard Bernstein and the London Symphony (LP, Columbia M2S 751), were also remarkably clean through the Stenheims.
At the softer end of things, the first of guitarist Joe Pass's series of Virtuoso albums (CD, Pablo/JVC VICJ-60256), while not a great-sounding record in absolute terms, was a one-instrument ambassador for almost everything that's good about the Stenheims. The speakers communicated the attack components of every noteevery bend, slur, slide, and rest strokeand Pass's sense of the dramatic came across as well as I've ever heard from a non-horn loudspeaker. The guitar's spatial presence, and the reproduction of its unique timbral signature, were also remarkable. Dumb audio-reviewer cliché though this may be, there were times, while listening to Joe Pass through the Alumines, that I could have been fooled into thinking I was hearing the real thing.
The Alumines' sense of scale was good, especially considering their size. I'm sure that had at least something to do with the speaker's installation requirements, and the fact that I sat closer to them than to my reference Audio Note AN-Es; the latter speakers, by contrast, are meant to stand close to the corners, and to consequently use the room itself, and early reflections therefrom, to develop their sense of scale. Suffice to say, the two speakers loaded the room differently, yet each succeeded in allowing music to sound enjoyably large.
The Alumine's vertical dispersion was a bit discontinuous, with rolled-off trebles when I listened from a standing position. (This was similar to what I experience with my Quad ESLs, though not nearly as severe; by contrast, with my Audio Note AN-Es, vertical dispersion anomalies make themselves known much more as upper-midrange colorations than as a rolled-off treble.) Side-to-side dispersion was more even in my room. Unsurprisingly, the Alumines sounded a bit brighter and more open on axis, yet remained musically and spatially enjoyable when heard from a chair off to one side. I first noticed that one evening while sitting at my desk, listening to Louis Armstrong and Ella Fitzgerald perform "You Can't Take That Away from Me," from an HDtracks download of the classic Verve album Ella and Louis: Despite my being way off center, when Armstrong entered, the very real sound of his voice startled the hell out of me.
The Stenheims' spatial performance was of the sort that may appeal to traditional high-end audio enthusiasts. Image placement with stereo recordings was precise, with good stage depth and, perhaps more remarkably, good differentiation between upstage and downstage performers, as heard with some well-recorded operas (including that Haitink Don Giovanni). In addition to good image specificity, the Alumine allowed individual performers to sound solid and whole, enhancing my enjoyment of the decent-sounding 1997 recording of Bob Fosse's Chicago (CD, RCA 68727-2); the duet between Bebe Neuwirth and Marcia Lewis in "Class" was especially convincing.
With most of the recordings I tried, the Alumines had a freedom from obvious coloration that was in keeping with their openness and transparency. But after weeks of close listening, I noticed a slight departure from neutrality with recordings of piano music. While listening to the Bach-Busoni Organ Chorale-Prelude, BWV 659, played on the piano by the late Mindru Katz (AIFF, ripped from Cembal d'Amour CD 112), it dawned on me that Katz's right hand sounded brighterand thus louder and more forwardthan the left, which sounded muffled by comparison. This characteristic remained in place with all the piano recordings I tried. The imbalance seemed less severe during loud passagesthe "storm" section of the Chopin Prelude No.15, Op.28, for examplebut even so, my reference speakers did a better job of allowing the piano's lowest notes to retain their full spectrum of higher-frequency overtones.
Bear in mind that my reference Audio Note speakers tend to allow, with some recordings, a slight and subtle prominence to the pianist's left hand, owing no doubt to cabinet resonances that favor the affected range of notes. But that effect has never been more than subtleand besides, lower-range piano notes through the Alumine didn't sound weak so much as a little bit dulled, and lacking in their higher overtones. Later, I paid close attention to some good spoken-word recordingsportions of the above-mentioned Chicago, as well as Stereophile's own cannily titled Test CD (STPH-002-2)and heard the same very subtle distinction, transposed to voices: Through the Alumines, men sounded just a little chestier than usual. This was a subtle distinctionand, I admit, a curious one in a loudspeaker that didn't otherwise lack treble content.
The Stenheim Alumine was just plain fun in virtually every way. I'm impressed with every aspect of its sound: its good scale, drama, openness, color, texture, spectral balance, and, perhaps most of all, its ability to do all this with a modestly powered amplifier. And because both speaker and stand are so well made, they were fun to useor, at the very least, not unpleasant to install.
For those who are in the market for a small, high-sensitivity, monitor-quality loudspeaker, the only real concern might be the Alumine's five-figure price. The manufacturer and distributor suggest that the price is being kept as low as possible, given the considerable cost of machining the Alumine's high-tech cabinetry. As so often happens in high-end audio, a designer has pushed the performance envelope by taking perfectionism in manufacturing to a new extreme: Only the prospective buyer can decide if the one is worth the other.
Loudspeakers that combine good sound with high sensitivity and easy drivability are usually fussier than thisand often wind up imposing too much character on the listening experience. Given that, the unambiguously high-performance Stenheim Alumine has already made a place for itself in an otherwise jumbled marketplace: Notwithstanding its high price, the Alumine is one of the most recommendable small speakers I have heard.