Almarro M0A loudspeaker
Never heard of Almarro? That's another thing I like about our HE shows. They give manufacturers who are not household names in the US a chance to show their wares, demonstrate (hopefully) good sound, and shout to our readers: "We are a real company! These are real products! You can buy them through our dealer network!" At HE2004 and HE2005 Almarro produced some of the best sound, in my opinion. What was more remarkable was that the good sound was created with very affordable gear. And what was most remarkable was that the sound was produced by speakers, push-pull amplifiers, and single-ended-triode (SET) amplifiers—all designed and manufactured by Almarro.
Almarro Products is a subsidiary of Network Supply Corp., which specializes in the design and manufacture of electronic communication devices. Network employs 13 in design and production and is located on the second floor of a supermarket in Nagano, Japan. The company's 25-year relationship with electronics parts suppliers in Japan enables it to buy high-quality parts at low prices. Yoshihiro Muramatsu created Network in 1980 from another small company he'd started in 1975. And in 1999 Muramatsu (having learned his craft from his father) inherited his father's woodworking shop.
Almarro's current product line comprises six loudspeakers ($600–$4500/pair), two SET stereo power amplifiers ($800 and $1500), and a push-pull stereo integrated amplifier ($2250). I chose the M0A speaker ($1200–$1350/pair, depending on finish and including integrated stands)—after all, it was an early prototype of this model that I'd heard at HE2004 and that had first attracted me to Almarro.
The M0A is a two-way, rear-vented satellite speaker with a 4" full-range drive-unit and a 6.5" woofer, both with neodymium magnets. That's right—the 4" driver is technically not a tweeter, but runs full-range. According to designer Yoshihiro Muramatsu, the lack of a crossover on the smaller driver, together with the overlap of the woofer's and the small driver's ranges, has more clarity and smoothness than a typical two-way dynamic design. A honeycomb is used for the woofer in order to minimize resonance and maximize linearity throughout its range.
The speakers come with integrated stands; in fact, they're packaged already bolted to the stands. The bottom of the speaker cabinet opens into the stand's interior, which functions as part of the woofer cabinet. Technically, the M0A is a floorstanding speaker masquerading as a bookshelf speaker.
Muramatsu recommends listening to the M0As with their grilles off with SET amplification, and grilles on with push-pull tube amps. He has no views on solid-state, but feels the speaker is compatible with the technology. With both solid-state and push-pull tube amplification, I preferred the more detailed sound of the M0As sans grilles; I heard no difference in tonal balance, grilles on or off.
To describe the sound of the Almarro M0A, I first need to digress briefly on what constitutes the typical single-ended-triode "sound." In every SET system I've heard, there has been a certain "magic" that prevents the SET fanatic from settling for anything else. This intoxicating sound is built around a rich, delicate, holographic midrange with uncanny resolution of low-level detail and microdynamics. Transients are delicate and natural, with superb rendition of soundstaging and recording-venue ambience. The overall textural presentation is warm and relaxed. On the minus side, SET amplifiers tend not to be the last word in high-level dynamic slam or high definition at either frequency extreme. SET junkies tend to listen more to Joni Mitchell and string quartets than to Kraftwerk and Nine Inch Nails.
The preceding paragraph pretty much sums up the sound of the Almarro M0A: the speaker sounded like a SET amp. I never actually drove the M0A with a SET amplifier, and the sound was the same whether I used my Creek solid-state amplification or my tube Audio Valve/Audio Research push-pull combination.
Female vocals were to die for with the Almarros. Madeleine Peyroux's "Hey Sweet Man," from Dreamland (CD, Atlantic 82956-2), had me melting into a puddle in Peyroux's rich, seductive, holographic splendor. From my listening notes: "the most satisfying vocal speaker I've heard in this price range." On Dana Fuchs's rock ballad "Strung Out," from Lonely for a Lifetime (CD, Q&W 1009), the rock goddess's high-energy belts on the chorus gave me the chills I get when I see this masterful singer-songwriter live. Male vocals were no slouch, either—on "Too Proud," from his Give It Up to Love (CD, JVC JVXR0012-2), Mighty Sam McClain sounded sweet, silky, yet appropriately raspy and chesty, although the lower midrange did have a slightly thick quality when McClain sang in his lower register.
The Almarro's midrange also let jazz and classical recordings shine. On The Johnny Smith Quartet (LP, Roost LP 22-3), this underrated master of the archtop jazz guitar was rich, vibrant, and subtle. On every track of this 1950s mono recording, Smith sounded as natural as I've heard a recorded archtop guitar, despite the fact that the guitar pickup was plugged right into the mixing board—an unusual recording technique for the era. On John Rutter's Requiem (CD, Reference RR57-CD), the voices of the male and female choristers were precisely layered across the wide, deep soundstage, and the low-level dynamic articulation was completely continuous and organic.
John Atkinson's recording of Kohjiba's Transmigration of the Soul, from Festival (CD, Stereophile STPH007-2), begins with a wailing voice walking up to the stage from the rear of the hall. Soprano Kendra Colton was chillingly wonderful, and every bit of the size and shape of Santa Fe's St. Francis Auditorium was audible through the M0As. Cellos were simultaneously woody and warm, with just the requisite amount of rosiny "scratch." This recording showed off the Almarro's high-frequency capabilities as well. During my early listening sessions with the speaker, I thought it lacked extreme high-frequency extension; detail seemed to decrease as the frequency climbed. I was wrong. The high-frequency detail was there, but it was relaxed and did not call attention to itself. The piccolo on Transmigration of the Soul was extended and airy, but also sweet and not overly etched. Violins were also extended in the upper register, but naturally sweet as well. Similarly, on George Crumb's Quest (CD, Bridge 9069), the closely miked and highly dynamic bells were extended throughout their upper harmonic range.
The M0A's midbass was slightly warm, though with no recording did this warmth detract from my enjoyment of the music. The string bass on the Crumb sounded woody, natural, and relaxed. With electronic music, the prominent bass synth on Sade's Love Deluxe (CD, Epic 53178) was slightly warm, but also was quick, forceful, and linear, with no sense of overhang. On the Rutter CD, the organ-pedal notes were warm but also natural. Although the organ pedals did not shake the room on this recording, I'd be curious to see JA's measurements of the M0A's lower bass limits—it seemed to go quite deep for a satellite speaker.
I was very impressed with the M0A's transient capabilities. On all recordings, the transients were rapid, yet relaxed and never etched. There was also quite a good sense of pacing. On Gary Wilson's "She Makes Me Think of Endicott," from his mid-1970s album Mary Had Brown Hair (CD, Stones Throw STR2097), the interaction of Wilson's bell-like Fender Rhodes piano and quick, punchy Fender bass gave a nice sense of jump to this jazz-funk instrumental.
Although the Almarro's high-level dynamic capabilities were respectable, they never approached the speaker's subtle, low-level dynamic strengths. The difference was most noticeable on highly modulated fortissimos on rock recordings, such as the chorus on "How Am I Different," from Aimee Mann's Bachelor No.2 or The Last Remains of the Dodo (CD, Super Ego SE 002). Although every vocal and instrumental timbre was in place on this highly processed electric recording, the powerful crescendos during the song's catchy bridge tended to flatten out a bit.
My comment about Nine Inch Nails notwithstanding, for some reason I kept wanting to crank up headbanging rock music to ridiculous volumes with the M0A. On Hole's highly compressed Celebrity Skin (CD, Geffen DGCD 25164), the punchy recording really burned at 90–95dB levels. On Sun Never Sets in Dramaville, the inaugural release of Ultra High Frequency, my latest fave indie band (CD, Mugshot MUG0001), Frank Fussa's rich, forceful vocals provided the glue that bonded the high-octane guitars, which are distorted but naturally rich.
The single disc that brought the key characteristics of the Almarro together was the André Previn recording of Messiaen's Turangalîla Symphony (LP, EMI SLS 5119). The transients of the piano were delicate, articulate, and uncolored throughout the instrument's range. The upper registers of the piano and percussion were relaxed and sweet, though perhaps lacked a bit of top-end air. This recording's dynamics were very convincing—especially the bombastic bass drum at the finale. As this recording combines high-level drama with extensive use of pianissimo passages and open space, any dynamic compression was not as noticeable as with some high-energy rock recordings I tried.
The Amphion Helium2 was silky, airy, and detailed, with a more articulate and extended top end than the Almarro M0A. The speakers' midranges were equally rich, detailed, and natural, but low-level passages were easier to follow on the Amphion. The Almarro's low-level dynamics were as good as the Amphion's, but the latter's high-level dynamics were somewhat more realistic.
The Nóla Li'l Rascal Mk.II also has a detailed midrange; its highs were more extended than the Almarro's, but less delicate. The speakers' levels of inner detail were about the same; the Nóla's midrange had a bit more neutrality, but less body than the Almarro's. The Nóla had better midbass definition and bass extension, and more forceful high-level dynamics, but overall seemed less refined.
The Epos M5's rich, warm midbass was tighter than the Almarro's, but the two speakers' levels of midrange detail were in the same league. Although the Almarro's bass extension was better, the Epos won in high-level dynamics. And the Epos' high frequencies were more extended than but not as delicate and detailed as the Almarro's.
Almarro Products has done a superb job of producing an attractive, engaging speaker that's a superb value and performs well with a wide range of musical programming. Moreover, fans of SET sound will appreciate similar qualities in the M0A, even if a solid-state amplifier is used. To this newcomer to American shores, I say, "Well done." I look forward to auditioning other Almarro products in the future.