Acarian Systems Alón Circe loudspeaker Follow-Up from October 2001

A Follow-Up appeared in Stereophile October 2001, Vol.24 No.10

When Acarian Systems announced an upgrade for my reference Alón Circe loudspeaker (reviewed by Wes Phillips and Jonathan Scull in the May 1999 and April 2000 issues, respectively), I couldn't wait to have the pair I had purchased updated to the latest spec. The Circe upgrade actually incorporates three distinct modifications:

• A new woofer, which, via an improved voice-coil, is designed to provide lower electrical distortion as well as higher power-handling capabilities. (Designer Carl Marchisotto pointed out to me that, as woofer distortion creates upper-harmonic distortion artifacts, a woofer of lower distortion can create benefits audible in the midrange and high frequencies as well as in the bass.)

• Cabinet couplers, in the form of copper discs that couple the top section (which supports the midrange/high-frequency assembly) to the lower section of the bass enclosure. The couplers are intended to better control vibration and rigidity.

• An upgraded crossover. Marchisotto has developed a proprietary crossover topology—trickled down from his $120,000/pair Alón Exotica Grand Reference flagship—designed to provide a smoother impedance curve with less reactance, so that the speaker presents a more resistive load to the amplifier and is hence easier to drive. Marchisotto was very secretive about the technical details, but the new topology is intended to achieve a more linear dynamic response. The upgrade also includes an improved method of mounting critical crossover components.

Circe owners can upgrade their speakers for $2000/pair, but Acarian Systems has decided to keep the Circe's retail price at $12,000/pair, despite the higher production costs of the revised version. The upgrades are included in all Circes manufactured since June 2001.

I spent two consecutive weekends listening to the Circe, before and after the speakers were updated, using the same source material. The crossover upgrade was performed at Acarian Systems' factory during the intervening week, while the woofer and cabinet-coupler upgrades were performed in my listening room during the second weekend.

I noticed the bass improvement in the revised Circe immediately. Before the upgrade, the bass performance was fairly natural and extended to 25Hz, but was a bit warm in the midbass region. The bass from the revised Circe was tighter, cleaner, and faster, but with no loss of dynamic impact or extension. The electric bass on "Walking on Sacred Ground," from Janis Ian's Breaking Silence (Analogue Productions CAPP 0227), sounded deeper and more dynamic, while the upper-bass articulations were tighter and clearer, and the upper harmonics of the string bass were more audible. The rhythmic pacing of the bass was also more tuneful, and better aligned with the rest of the musical spectrum. The string bass on Miles Davis' "So What," from Kind of Blue (Columbia/Classic CS 8163, 45rpm), was also cleaner, with more of the instrument's woody sound evident.

The enhanced dynamic performance of the revised speaker was also fairly dramatic. The Circe seamlessly reproduced every nuance and gradation from ppp to fff, and did so consistently across the frequency spectrum—much as in live music. From the delicate and subtle articulations of the low-level percussion in John Cage's Third Construction (from Pulse, New World/Classic NW 319) to the bombastic crashes of piano, percussion, and brass in Messiaen's Turangalîla Symphony (LSO/Previn EMI 5117), the speakers breathed with lifelike organic realism.

The Circe's noise floor seemed lower, particularly in the midrange. On Janis Ian's "Some People's Lives," the subtle piano transients were more articulate, with more air, but without giving up a trace of the piano's natural warmth.

Speaking of pianos, I was listening to George Crumb's Makrokosmos III (Music for a Summer Evening), for two pianos and two percussionists (Nonesuch 71311-2), when my five-year-old son, Jordan, entered the listening room. He looked puzzled; when I questioned him, he said, "Oh, nothing. I thought I heard a piano playing in here." In the five years that I've subjected Jason to equipment reviewing (he wanders the house singing Janis Ian songs, not Barney tunes), this was the first time he'd mistaken a stereo playing in a nearby room for live music.

Finally, there seemed to be a very subtle improvement in the high frequencies. The upper harmonics of electric guitars, deacon chimes, and ride cymbals seemed a touch less mechanical, but without losing those instruments' requisite transient bite.

Acarian Systems has made the same three-step upgrade available for the $3895/pair Alón Lotus SE ($1000 upgrade). Woofer-only upgrades are available for the $22,000/pair Phalanx ($1600 upgrade), as well as for the $5500/pair Alón V Mk.III ($200 upgrade).

It's commendable when a speaker designer can make such noticeable improvements in an already excellent product, and more commendable still when that improvement can be executed without increasing the speaker's price. But that's progress, innit?—Robert J. Reina