Apogee Stage & Mini-Grand loudspeakers Mini-Grand part 3

I did encounter one unexpected problem with the Stages. Apparently, Apogee, in a production change, used washers that tended to loosen and rattle on some samples. This happened with both of ours. First the left began buzzing on bass-heavy program material, seeming to resonate only at a particular frequency. The unit was replaced, the new sample broken-in, and the auditioning continued. Then, late in the second test cycle, the right loudspeaker (the Stages are mirror-imaged) began to buzz slightly. This was also replaced, but because there wasn't sufficient time to properly break-in the new panel and still complete the review by deadline, I finished the testing with the original panel. It only rarely buzzed when used as a Stage alone, and never when used as a Mini-Grand with the DAX's 80Hz high-pass filter.

The replacement will be pressed into service shortly, and any problems will be reported later. The original replacement is fine, and Apogee apparently made another production change as soon at they were aware of the problem (subsequent to our receiving our first samples, but prior to our asking Apogee for replacements).

As I stated above, in my new listening room the Stages sounded very much as Stages have sounded in the past in the Stereophile listening room—but not exactly the same. In the larger room, the sound was more expansive (a plus) but less intimate (something of a minus). The bass in the larger room was less potent and punchy—not as immediately impressive—but was smoother and less prominent. On balance, the low end of the Stages in the new room was better behaved, if less wowie-zowie.

I was somewhat troubled by one aspect of the Stage's performance in the larger room—the mid-treble brightness I briefly alluded to above. While this had always been noticeable with the earlier pair of Stages in the Stereophile room, it was never much of a problem for me. In my new room, I was finally able to tame it on most program material by damping the lower 4' of the wall behind the loudspeakers. (This has a large window covered by heavy vertical blinds.) This didn't completely solve the problem, which, I'm certain, could be partly cured by further acoustic treatment of the room, which is a project-in-progress.

In any event, the Stages worked extremely well in my listening room once all the setup niceties were taken care of. Next it was time to hook up the subs and get on with the second act.

Mini-Granding the Stage
Everything was ready to go. The second Krell KSA-300S was in place, and extra lengths of Symo loudspeaker cable were on hand. The DAX was set for balanced operation. Since I didn't have a complement of one brand of balanced interconnects sufficient to handle the complete preamp-to-DAX-to-dual-stereo-power-amps lash-up, I used a somewhat eclectic mix: TARA Labs RSC connected the DAX to the Stage amp, AudioQuest Lapis Hyperlitz did the same for the subwoofer amp, and Cardas Hexlink connected the preamp to the DAX.

My initial reaction was definitely positive, though a little more restrained than I'd anticipated. Good bass extension was evident, an improvement on the Stage's already very satisfying bottom end. But it didn't seem all that much more potent. True, the interface was handled with aplomb; I wasn't conscious of any sort of discontinuity. And the DAX seemed transparent enough, though it has a gain of 3.6dB (see "Measurements"). But I wanted more.

And I got it—in two different stages. First, I remembered that the phasing of a subwoofer, relative to the upper-range loudspeaker, is not cast in cement. Even with a subwoofer as purpose-designed as the one here, experimentation is not a bad idea. I made a few very rudimentary measurements—the sort you can perform yourself with a $30 Radio Shack spl meter and the warble tones on the Stereophile Test CDs. Using the LF warble tones, I checked the response at the listening position of the Stages alone, then of the Mini-Grand—the latter configured with all-positive electrical phasing.

The result was fascinating. The biggest difference with the subs in the system was a somewhat higher output in the 50-60Hz region and a little more output at 20Hz—but it wasn't a major difference. Then I reversed the phasing of both subwoofers. Yeeks! That was more like it. Now the measurements showed at least 5dB more output below 50Hz. There was still some emphasis in the 50-60Hz region—possibly due to a room mode—but the bass was not only smoother overall, it was noticeably more potent.

The proof, of course, is in the listening. The sort of measurement described above, while useful, is a rough approximation at best. It can, and does, save hours of chasing up deaf alleys trying to decide if a given change in hookup or positioning is a net gain or a loss in performance. Very seldom do you gain something by altering a setup without simultaneously losing something else—the trick is to gain more than you lose. Once again, I learned this lesson later in my listening sessions.

But even at this point the sound was really coming together. First, and perhaps most important, is what the subwoofers in the Mini-Grand did not do. They did not muddy or fatten the overall sound; when there was no serious bass present, they did not exaggerate the mid- and upper bass. Mokave, Volume 2 (AudioQuest AQ-CD1007), for example, doesn't serve a constant diet of room-shaking bass, but the bass that is there—notably a growly, gravelly double bass—definitely makes you sit up and take notice. Apart from that, the sound was classic Stage: open, detailed, and transparent, with a palpably rich midrange and a bit of brightness in the mid-treble. On Leo Kottke's That's What (Private Music 2068-2-P), the low end, while not particularly deep, was nevertheless full and solid. Although the subwoofers weren't appearing to do much here, they were certainly doing something—this recording sounded better than I recall it ever sounding in the past.

On material with a real bottom end, the Mini-Grands didn't disappoint. While the bass did not sound as potent as the best I've heard in the (smaller) Stereophile listening room, it was extended, tight, and gutsy. Combine that with a big, expansive soundstage—Jean Guillou's organ transcription of Pictures at an Exhibition (Dorian DOR-90117) nicely demonstrated both of these qualities—and the result was quite astonishing. If the result was never quite trouser-flapping or room-shaking, remember I was listening in a +5000ft3 space with a concrete slab floor. More than once I noted that this is what a top-quality minimonitor might sound like if it could be made to respond below 30Hz.

The Rule of Thirds
Subwoofers in the system seems to bring out the Neanderthal in me: "Yah, yah, bass. Bring me bass! More bass!" But the purist pulls back, saying, "No, no, you're losing it! Bass—who needs it?" "But can't I have both?" says the idealist.