Acoustat Spectra 1100 loudspeaker

666acoustat1100.jpgAcoustat Model Twos have been my reference loudspeakers for almost five years. I remember, on first hearing them in a high-end store in Illinois, how they let the music through in a way new and important to me. I knew I must own them! They seemed, despite their imposing appearance, to step aside when the music came on. The effect was akin to having a door opened onto the performance. One became privy to intimate details captured in recordings which are rarely heard outside the concert hall. Not veils, but flannel sheets were lifted from the sound! If one fussed around enough with placement, the Twos truly disappeared into the soundfield—music came from in front of, to the sides of, between, and behind them as if they weren't there. Focusing them like a fine camera lens on the listening chair created a "sweet spot" which, when I sat therein, raised within me a sense of awe usually associated with things magical. You knew when you entered this space, for it was different from that surrounding it. The musical presentation assumed an almost holographic palpability.

The magic had its price, though. Standing up eliminated the highs. Turning my head collapsed the soundstage. I was forced to sit immobile, facing straight ahead, lest the sensation disappear. I became a selfish listener with these speakers, requiring severe prodding or intimidation to give up the sweet spot. These were not the speakers of choice for critical group listening, or late-nite cuddling with a loved one. Nevertheless, they were excellent conduits for the passage of information to this music lover, and still serve, without fuss, as fine reviewer's tools.

Those who value a carefully assembled hi-fi system for the degree of musical involvement it provides will be glad to know Acoustat is alive and well and still making loudspeakers (their electrostatic panels still carry an unprecedented lifetime warranty). James C. Strickland, Acoustat's chief engineer for the past 20 years and the man responsible for development of the new Spectra series of hybrid and full-range models, and Andy Szabo, Director of Engineering (also an avid model railroader), beamed with pride at the Spectras displayed in Acoustat's hospitality suite in Las Vegas last January. Tom Norton's glowing Vol.13 No.2 review of the Spectra 11s was a year old and arrangements were being made to have the 1100s, sitting mute in a room somewhere in Stereophile's office compound, brought to my apartment for audition.

The thought of living with another pair of heavy speakers about the same height as myself (setting them up, you literally waltz across the floor with them, as you would a woman in a dance hall) was a bit scary considering the modest size of my living quarters, but I bravely accepted the assignment: I wanted to hear these babies. Would these hybrids be an improvement over my beloved Model Twos? Would I hear a lack of integration between the dynamic woofer and the electrostatic panel (as I do with the hybrid MartinLogan Sequel IIs)? Would I experience true bass response (which I do not with the Sequels or my Model Twos)? Would they be as persnickety regarding room and head placement? Would they, above all else, provide me the same degree of involvement in the music, and for the same amount of time, as I was accustomed to? The questions poured forth as voluminously as hail falls in our brief Southwestern summer thunderstorms as I helped Danny Sandoval carry the 1100s, casket-like, up the stairs to my apartment.

I see little need to repeat Tom Norton's detailed account of the history and principles of electrostatic loudspeakers in his review of the Spectra 11s (February 1990), or Dick Olsher's review of the Spectra 22s (October 1989). For those readers interested in such details, I refer you to those articles.

The Spectra 1100s share the same "hybrid" design as the less expensive 11s; ie, they combine an 8" acoustically suspended woofer with a single, variable-width electrostat. They differ from the 11s in that the bass driver (sourced in-house) uses a stiffer, higher-quality felted cone material with an improved butyl rubber surround. The magnet is also larger, weighing 23oz compared with the 11's 14.4oz. Different woofer-enclosure material (medium-density fiberboard on the 1100s compared to particleboard on the 11s) is said to contribute to their improved bass performance.

Other differences include a three-position, high-frequency contour switch (located on the back of the interface chassis) to adjust the speaker's top-octave response. With this switch in the "high" position, response is down 3dB at 19kHz. The other settings each cause an attenuation of about 2dB at that same frequency. There is no "correct" setting, as each listener will have his/her own preference. For most of my listening evaluation, I left the switch in the medium position. I found the "high" position gave a livelier sound to some recordings, especially if they had a tendency to sound held back. The "low" position relaxed the sound a bit (a quality which benefited many pop recordings).

Whereas the Spectra 11s had a single pair of 5-way binding posts, thus precluding bi-wiring or bi-amping, the Spectra 1100s have two sets of 5-ways, facilitating such configurations. I didn't particularly like the posts being recessed as they were, though. My fingers, which some have said resemble bananas, had difficulty maneuvering especially stiff and bulky speaker cable, such as TARA Labs' Temporal Continuum, onto the posts. Things can get really crowded back there when you bi-wire/bi-amp!

Removable spiked feet are provided to couple the speakers firmly to the floor. Do not attempt to move these speakers around with the spikes attached! Not only will you stand a good chance of destroying your carpet, you might bend or pull out the fittings the spikes screw into. Position the speakers, then attach the spikes and level 'em up. Incidentally, I ended up using the spikes supplied with the Spica Angelus instead of those included with the Acoustats. The Spica spikes were longer and heavier, giving the speakers a solid coupling to the floor, despite my 1½"-thick carpet and pad. Unlike my Model Twos, which sound best tilted back slightly, the Spectras should stand straight up.

Other differences between the 11s and 1100s are largely cosmetic, including hand-rubbed, solid wood accent trim with a brass inlay surrounding the electrostatic array. Choices of dark oak or high-gloss painted black wood veneers, beige, black, or silvery-grey grille cloths, are also available. My pair of 1100s looked quite attractive in dark oak veneer and trim. The beige grille cloth made the speakers less imposing in my off-white room. Finally, the 1100s are 1" wider and 4.5" shorter than the 11s. The woofer box is 2" deeper.

Listening impressions
This section could be titled "A Speaker in Search of an Amp." I discovered, during the time I spent with the Spectras, that they were quite "picky" regarding the choice of amp. To me this is not a bad thing, as I've found that the better a component is, the more sensitive it is to ancillary equipment. Part of the thrill of the high end is discovering that combination of components which enables a system to truly "sing" in a musical way. Careful system matching is a must with gear at this level.

It didn't take too long to realize that low-powered amplifiers were not complimentary to the Acoustats, the speakers' low-end response and dynamic capabilities suffering when not fed properly. For example, my initial listening was with Quicksilver monoblocks placed between the Spectras, sitting on custom-made bases from Paul Amato (footnote 1). With the Quicksilvers powered up, I fed the Tercet a recent CD purchase, Kodály's Sonata for Solo Cello, Op.8, performed by the Spanish virtuoso Luis Claret (Harmonia Mundi HMC 901325, footnote 2). Upon hearing the first notes, I realized what it was that compelled me to cling to the Quicksilver/Acoustat partnership for so long. These amps where made to reproduce cello!

Footnote 1: I was sent a pair of bases for the Quicksilvers by Paul Amato of Dayton, NV, just outside of Carson City. Paul is a hi-fi buff and music-lover who does woodworking when not attending to his tack business. He builds isolation bases for Cary Audio Design amplifiers (seen in Las Vegas this past Winter) and other products on a custom-order basis. The bases he sent me are finished in solid oak and look great under the Quicksilvers. The amps, with the rubber feet removed, sit in a frame suspended from a floor-spiked subbase made of alder (a material which Paul says is acoustically "dead"). Such isolation provides a firm coupling of the amp to the floor (or whatever else they're placed on). With my Quicksilvers nestled in, I noticed an immediate improvement in bass performance. Pitch definition was better, woolly low bass was "sheared," and extension seemed deeper. Soundstaging benefited also, with better focus on instruments and voices and a perceptible increase in width, height, and depth. Music took on a more three-dimensional aspect. I highly recommend these bases for Quicksilver owners.
Brand no longer in existence (2014)