Apogee Stage & Mini-Grand loudspeakers Page 2

Miracle at the Sands
Apogee's Jason Bloom is not one to bury his head in the sand. But during the 1990 Winter CES, I found him holding court at the Sands, one of the Strip's old-guard hotels. That's where I got my first glimpse of the Stage. Positioned 4' from a bare wall the Stage produced magnificent sound from my far-field listening position. I remember thinking to myself, "Jason has done it again—best sound at the show." The soundstage was utterly transparent from the most delicate treble detail to the bowels of the bass octaves. The veiling that afflicts an appalling number of other loudspeakers by obscuring detail and robbing the music of a sense of immediacy had evaporated. That, coupled with exceptional speed, clarity, good dynamic range, and a strong sense of spatial coherence, made the reproduction transcend mere hi-fi. The Stage elicited my immediate respect. It was a magical moment that facilitated a closer link to the experience of live music.

Of course, we were listening to Jason's hand-picked CDs, with which I was not familiar, and no, I was not sure that timbres were right-on. The voicing of the speaker was a bit on the cool side of reality. But, just the same, what a dramatic entrance. If the world is a stage, the Stage had to be a world of a loudspeaker. Naturally, I was interested in a review. I'm not sure if it was my reaction that did it, but Jason promised to send a pair to Santa Fe for review.

Santa Fe: first impressions
As it turned out, I received the same pair of loudspeakers I'd heard in Las Vegas. The accompanying Owner's Manual was very specific in detailing Apogee's thoughts on what constitutes the optimum setup geometry, including the requirement to locate the speaker precisely 4' from the rear wall. I had resolved to undertake a spring cleanup of Stereophile's listening room, to reduce the clutter and free up the front of the room so that the Stage could be afforded just the right performance environment. In the meantime, it seemed worthwhile to experiment with the Stage in what is normally the minimonitor position in the room—about a third of the way into the room from the front wall.

To be perfectly honest, I was a bit apprehensive about the Stage's prospects. What came to mind was the scenario involving the Caliper. Having been blown away by their performance in Chicago in the Summer of '86, I eagerly awaited their arrival in Santa Fe. Yet JA was unable to coax them into the level of magical performance I remembered so well. He tried and tried, but they never came alive here the way they had in Chicago. Was this to be a case of déjà vu?

Another reason for concern was Jason's repeated statements to the effect that the Stage a priori needed a live room for proper tonal balance. The implication being that an unattenuated back wave is important for the Stage's upper-octave balance and that the speaker sounds best in the far field. Well, at least the latter point turned out to be true in my room. From basic principles, I'm uneasy about letting the room into the tonal-balance equation in the middle and upper octaves. Ordinary room surfaces emphasize certain frequency bands by absorbing some frequencies more strongly than others. The end result is iffy at best; the room is given the chance to impose its sonic impression or signature on the music. If at all possible, I'd much rather squelch the contribution of the room by using absorptive materials, or at least balance out the room response with the use of diffusers.

A basic and apparently chronic problem of the Apogee line has been its tonal balance: too much bass and not enough treble. That's how the Caliper sounded. And if you examine the Diva's frequency response (see AB's review in August 1988, Vol.11 No.8), you can clearly see that the lower mids and the deep bass are emphasized in relation to the upper mids and treble. The response begins to droop at 400Hz and is down a full 5dB from 3kHz to 15kHz.

My initial listen to the Stage did nothing to dispel this impression. The clarity and transparency I remembered from Las Vegas were not diminished, but there was too much bass, and the range from the upper mids through the presence region was dull-sounding. At least the promise of greatness was there, however, and I was far from discouraged. It was clear even then that the speaker was something very special. The tonal balance wasn't quite right, but this speaker's transparency, speed, and cohesiveness argued persuasively that here was a transducer that could come dangerously close to sounding live. By that I mean that it sounded less obviously canned than most other speakers when listened to from outside the listening room. For example, while taking a leak in the bathroom, not really concentrating on the music, a message filtered from my subconscious mind: hey, these speakers really do sound live.