Ruark Equinox loudspeaker
I guess that's why Wes Phillips was surprised when I indicated a serious interest in auditioning the Ruark Equinox. But recently I've been impressed by a number of "little boxes"—from ProAc, Platinum, Sonus Faber, etc.—that have been able to create formidable sounds under controlled conditions, and yet whose size and design allow them to almost disappear from visible notice. Could the Equinox do this under the more strenuous conditions of a real listening room and long-term auditioning? I really wanted to find out. It was a good omen that they arrived on their nameday!
The Equinoxes arrived in two large cartons, one containing the speakers and the other the dedicated stands/crossovers. Assembly instructions were clear and trouble-free. After careful unpacking, each stand was placed onto a floor-plate bearing adjustable spikes, and each speaker was placed atop its stand. (The speaker actually rests on the stand via three points on the underside; the loosely connected safety bolts between speaker and stand serve only to prevent disasters.) Finally, a dedicated four-conductor cable with locking Neutrik "Speakon" connectors and specified directionality is attached between the speaker and the stand-mounted crossover. The stand's gold-plated input terminals provide for bi-wiring.
Stoutly constructed of 25mm-thick MDF, multiple figure-8 braces, and heavy external wood dress panels, the Equinox is Ruark's all-out effort in small speakers. The review samples were finished in a deep, rich walnut, and stood up smartly, with elegant chamfered edges on all external panels, including the stand and the grille frame. Removing the grille reveals a smart, black, grooved-surface panel bearing the drivers. The LF is a 165mm paper-cone driver supported by a pure rubber surround and driven by a 40mm voice-coil wound on a Kapton former and a large vented magnet assembly. The 25mm silk-dome HF driver has an aluminum voice-coil, ferrofluid damping, and vented magnet assembly in its own subenclosure. These drivers are set flush in the panel but are fixed with slightly garish, gold-plated, protruding Posidriv bolts. (I urge listeners to retain the grillecloths/frames for setup and for extended listening. Removal reveals a little brightness in the treble, as well as in the bolt heads.) The rear panel bears an identifying plate, the connector for the input cable, and a large ducted port with a smoothly flared orifice. The seven-element crossover is designed for a transition at 2.8kHz.
Associated equipment & setup
Some things change with the seasons, but my listening environment hasn't. The L-shaped room with the 15' by 26' listening area still retains my basic electronics setup: Audio Alchemy DDS•Pro/DTI•Pro 32/DDE 3 CD source, Klyne 6L3P preamp, and McCormack DNA-1 amplifier. A Theta Data Basic II transport was used advantageously with an Assemblage DAC-2 and Sonic Frontiers Power-2 power amplifier. In addition, I did a fair amount of analog listening via my Heybrook TT2/Rega RB300/Koetsu Black phono setup.
I had to make an organized effort to find the Equinoxes' "sweet spots." Ruark recommends placing the speakers no closer than about 1' from the rear wall, but that was much too close—I got bass, but I also got a thickened midrange. Better was 2–3' from the rear wall. Ruark also suggests up to 9' between speakers, but achieving that spacing will depend on how wide your room is. I found it better to compromise on this than to get the speakers too close to the side walls. In fact, the major issue with the Equinoxes is to get them as far as possible from anything (with the exception of the rear wall)—objects within 2' of the speakers affected the sound, almost invariably for the worse.
I initially settled on speaker positions about 30" from the rear wall, 8' apart, and about 2.5' from the side walls. This gave a surprising bass extension, with 32Hz test tones fairly well produced. However, there was an annoying "caw"-like nasality in the midrange and a notable lack of weight on musical signals. The cure was to move the Equinoxes a bit so that their backs were about 26" from the rear wall. This raised the response in the 100–300Hz range, and corrected the imbalance of this range with the 400–800Hz range (I attribute the "caw" to this imbalance). Though the extreme bass was less noticeable from this position, it was better integrated with the rest of the spectrum.
The imaging was most spacious but diffuse with the speakers facing straight ahead, but too much toe-in was almost as bad. This adjustment proved critical and site-specific; my result (about 10° toe-in) is less of a guide than is my approach. The best tool was a Haydn symphony, with its dependence on woodwinds for much of the melody and harmony. Minor adjustments in toe-in changed the prominence of the winds; I was able to titrate the balance nicely with a bit of testing and repetition. The result of such careful setup was a quite neutral frequency presentation through the crucial midrange, and no obvious crossover anomalies.
Serious listening at last
Starting out with my regular equipment and familiar recordings, I found that the Equinoxes threw a huge soundstage. Voice and instrument placements were solid and consistent, with excellent simulation of depth. Listener position was entirely uncritical in the horizontal plane—I could even sit directly in front of one of the speakers and still enjoy a balanced presentation. There was less leeway in the vertical plane, although enough to accommodate seated listeners of average height. (I tested this by first scrunching down into the couch, then perching on two thick pillows.) If I stood up, imaging suffered, and there was some treble droop.
The Equinox seemed not to favor any part of the spectrum, and its transient capabilities could be startling. And the Equinox loved the human voice. Listening again to the Cowboy Junkies' The Trinity Session was a newfound pleasure. All the subtle little details were there, to be sure—the rain dripping, the air-conditioner humming—but now how nakedly and purely Margo Timmins's voice was presented on track 11, and how cutting the harmonica comments were. Similarly, every small group—from Cyrus Chestnut and MJQ to Dr. John and Jennifer Warnes—was revealed as a coherent ensemble of individual voices.
Most of my listening is to classical CDs. With these, the Equinox was open and spacious, and never flinched at high sound levels. Nonetheless, there was still a distinct lack of weight in chamber music, as well as on the big stuff from Mahler and Shostakovitch. Oh well, I thought, these are just little boxes, after all; I expect too much from them. But in time I relaxed enough to start sampling some of the LPs I've gleaned from flea markets in recent months.
Now, don't think I'm raising the old analog-vs-digital issue here. It wasn't that at all. My analog setup is, shall we say, warm and quite rich in the bottom end. With my regular Apogee Duettas, it could be a bit overripe, but the Equinoxes just blossomed with it. Ry Cooder's "The Very Thing That Makes You Rich," from Bop Till You Drop (50 cents at the local flea), sounded more live and palpable than Ry had ever been in my room. His guitar riffs and voice were centered in the plane of the speakers, but I could hear the back-up singers backed up against the studio wall. And the bass was tight, clean, and more full than these little boxes had any right to provide.
That was my cue. I had Sonic Frontiers' Assemblage DAC-2 perking away silently for a day or so; and, knowing that the Theta transport is invested with a particularly strong bottom end, I switched over to this pair from the Audio Alchemy digital trio. This did the trick. Retaining the AA digital components but swapping in the SF Power-2 amp for the McCormack DNA-1 had a similar effect. The balance achieved with these source and/or drive changes was much like what I heard from the analog source: smooth treble, full mid- and upper bass, and excellent extension. How extended? Well, I didn't expect much, but I had to see what the Equinox could do with Béla Fleck's Cosmic Hippo (Warner Bros. 26562-2). Zowie! Every note was clearly delineated, even though most of the air movement for the low bass came from the rear port.
In conclusion: With the proper source components, the Equinox's tonal balance and bass extension were remarkable.
Living with them
The Equinoxes' soundstage permitted me to locate instruments with certainty, and find them presented with harmonic accuracy. At HI-FI '96 I discovered Roots!! African Drums, an excellent recording of the National Percussion Group of Kenya (Denon DC-8559). On track 5, the singers are placed strongly left and right while the drums are centered and just a few feet back. Through the Equinoxes, the voices extended beyond the speakers and the drums were firmly in the middle, but the whole ensemble maintained coherence. And, oh, those drums! They had an incisive and explosive impact, outperforming my revered Duettas and rivaling the megabuck monsters I heard at the Show. Git it, Beau Jocque! (Rounder CD2134) really rocked, even at levels that made me fear for reprisals from the neighbors.
What about the really big stuff? (I knew we'd come to this.) Great as the Equinox was on so much music, I couldn't completely accept them on the stuff that has the most emotional impact on me: late 19th- and early 20th-century symphonic music and opera. They simply could not move enough air to present the low strings and brass at levels commensurate with an orchestral forte. In the last movement of Mahler's Symphony 6, many forceful timpani blows—even hammer blows—punctuate the music, these presented with solidity and vigor by Benjamin Zander and the Boston Philharmonic on IMP DMCD93. Though the Equinox offered these particularly dynamic events with satisfying impact and weight, in the same movement orchestral chords of similar loudness suffered from a tonal shift that I attributed to a subtle but significant lack of power in the not-so-extreme bass. It's as if the rug had been pulled out from under the music.
Another example is in the beginning of the Dorati/Detroit recording of Bartók's Miraculous Mandarin (London 411 894-2). The low brass should shudder, warning of the great, brooding evil to come. With the Equinox, I could hear all the notes, but the villains no longer menaced.
In this regard the Equinoxes were the victims of their own success. Because they had such wonderful spatial characteristics and did not shrink at cranking out the spls, they dared me to feed them the most challenging material. I had no problems with their abilities on jazz and pop material—this, it seems, has to do with harmonic structure. But particularly in highly chromatic symphonic music, the lowest instruments contribute substantially to the tonal identity of orchestral chords; any loss of weight subtly changes the harmonic balance.
One can, however, get a real boot and satisfaction out of orchestral music on the Equinoxes. I've been reveling in the sound they (and the SF Power-2) get from Exotic Dances from the Opera (Reference Recordings RR-71CD) and Arnold for Band (Reference RR-66CD), especially The Padstow Lifeboat. Both of these discs are quite spectacular, and the Equinoxes were up to the task, playing this harmonically simpler music with great size and impact. It's been hard to believe, even with my eyes open, that this concert-hall experience is being created by such tidy packages.
The Ruark Equinox is not just another cone-and-dome-in-a-box. It's the real deal: a high-end loudspeaker with few compromises in performance. Although physically small, the Equinox is a big speaker in almost every other way. First, they throw a huge, wide, and deep soundfield. Second, they will play loud without effort or complaint. Third, they have sufficient bass and transient abilities to give a real "jump" effect when called for. Third, despite their own modest dimensions, they need a lot of space. In addition, they reproduce the voice sympathetically and can virtually disappear into the music. They are a bit particular about system sources, and I have some reservation about their compatibility with my taste in large-scale music. That said, don't pass up an opportunity to audition them with the music of your choice. Odds are, you'll love 'em.