Apogee Stage & Mini-Grand loudspeakers Page 6

Late in the evaluation, I received a sample of the Cary Audio CAD-5500 analog CD processor. My first impression was that this is one hell of a processor. It carried the Stage and the entire system to new heights (a full review is forthcoming). The areas of transduction in which the Stage already excelled became even stronger: soundstage transparency and the clarity and ease of the presentation were noticeably increased. And as a bonus, the mids became more liquid and suave, while the sense of depth increased as you would expect from a tubed unit. It also appeared that one reason for its success was the excellence of its line-level section. The Stage needs a bit of tube sound to smooth the highs and liquefy the mids, and the Cary proved to be a most accommodating partner.

A combination that worked quite well during analog playback was the FET-10/e phono stage feeding the Air Tight ATC-1 line-level stage. The DR-6 was more dynamic, but failed to reproduce depth perspective as well.

Several amps were auditioned in the hopes of finding an even more synergistic match than the Classé Audio DR-8s. The Threshold 12/e amps came in for a brief audition, more out of curiosity than anything else. With a price tag at well over 10 kilobucks, they're not likely to partner a $2000/pair speaker. But you don't have to worry: though the sound was very smooth and the treble was better controlled, with less fizz, than that of the DR-8s, it never came alive. The drama and musical tension that the DR-8 generated failed to materialize with the Threshold.

The Mark Levinson No.29 dual-mono amp was next, proving smooth and very detailed with the Stage. It had no problem at all resolving the audience participation on the "Goodnight Irene" cut of the Weavers album (Vanguard VSD-2150). The treble was not as extended or as airy. And the mids, while exceptionally liquid for a solid-state amp, were in general laid-back. That's precisely what the Stage did not need. Itzhak Perlman's violin tone (Bruch's Violin Concerto 1, EMI ASD-2926) was not as sweet as it should have been. After a while I also began to notice a reduction in dynamic contrasts. A switch back to the DR-8 enhanced the sweetness of the upper mids and also enabled the Stage to go from loud to very loud much more convincingly. It was as though the Apogee came alive with the DR-8. The sense of excitement returned in spades.

Taj Mahal's Recycling the Blues & Other Related Stuff (Columbia 31605) brimmed with raw energy. Listen to "Sweet Home Chicago" with the young Pointer sisters in the background to see what I mean. It has to do with immediacy; the music communicated more readily with the DR-8.

The final contestant was the Muse Electronics 100W stereo amp. I was interested in it because it was reasonably priced at around $1200, and rumor had it that it was a fine match for the Stage. Well, it was like a flashback to the '60s. The darn thing sounded so much like an Ampzilla that I had to verify the date to assure myself I had not fallen into a timewarp. The Muse sounded pretty good, but far from good enough to extract the Stage's full potential. The Stage revealed the Muse's shortcomings easily enough. The sound was pleasant enough with strong bass, but there were losses in the areas of transparency and detail resolution. The highs were closed-in and lacking in air, textures were slightly grainy and hard—not what the doctor ordered for the Stage.

The final tweak
With all of the speaker cable and interconnect changes described so far, the Stage had gained tighter image focus and enhanced transparency. Textures were cleaner so that inner detail was easier to resolve, and the upper mids had picked up a measure of sweetness so that this range was now just slightly dull and lackluster. Pilar Lorengar as Princess Pamina (The Magic Flute, London OSA-1397) was beginning to sound much more correct tonally. It was time for one final tweak.

I tried a modest toe-in of 5", as measured from the outside edge of the frame relative to the original straight-out position. This placed the tweeter/midrange ribbon on the listening axis, as opposed to being about 10 to 15 degrees off-axis before. Before too long, I had to return the tweeter control to the Normal position to cut the lower treble by about 2dB. But the overall tonal-balance transformation was astounding! The laid-back character of the Stage I had attributed to an upper-midrange recession disappeared. Female voice, including Lesley's, was almost right-on in timbral accuracy.

Take a look at fig.1, which shows the in-room response of the Stage at 2 meters, on-axis with the tweeter. Here the tweeter control is in the High position. Fig.2 shows the in-room response at the same location with the tweeter in the Normal position. The strong deep-bass emphasis in the range from 40 to 50Hz is clearly evident. But above 200Hz, the response is quite uniform (each division represents 2dB). There is certainly no evidence of a midrange recession.

Fig.1 Apogee Stage, room response at 2m on tweeter axis, HF control High (2dB/small vertical div.).

Fig.2 Apogee Stage, room response at 2m on tweeter axis, HF control Normal (2dB/small vertical div.).