Audio Physic Step loudspeaker

Immedia introduced the German Audio Physic speakers at the 1994 Winter CES. As I mentioned in my Show report (Vol.17 No.4), I felt the price:performance ratios of the three models displayed was an indirect one: the least-expensive—the Step—sounded best (footnote 1). Since I'm always looking for products that offer great bang for the buck, I arranged to receive a pair of review samples.

The speakers looked innocuous at first glance: typical minimonitors with two drivers—a ¾" metal-dome tweeter and a tiny woofer with a chassis just 4" across—and a rear-firing port 1.25" in diameter. But the connectors are female bananas which, though popular in Europe, have never caught on in the US. It got weirder. Each speaker has a small, oval, metal plate on the bottom near the front, and two more ovals plus a threaded tap on the back. Huh?

I unboxed the dedicated Sound Anchors stands while pondering these oddities. The stands' pile of rods, bolts, plastic caps, and different-sized spikes looked like an erector set. The owner's manual had not yet been translated into English, so I was on my own. But since there were two speakers, I figured there had to be two stands. I separated the parts into two equal piles. Assembly was actually pretty straightforward: I just lined up the holes in the various rods.

As soon as the stands were fully assembled, I understood what the speakers' three metal plates are for: they protect the speaker from the stand's support spikes, which delicately balance each speaker. The speaker is then secured with a bolt, which goes through the rear of the stand into the threaded tap on the back of the speaker. When everything was together, each three-legged stand firmly held a speaker, tilting it back slightly to help time–align the drivers.

I called Immedia's Allen Perkins and confirmed the accuracy of my setup. He went on to tell me that Sound Anchors will soon be building the stands for all Audio Physic Step speakers sold in the US—manuals and instructions will be provided for both the speakers and the stands. In addition, the female banana connectors will be replaced with Cardas binding posts, which, in all likelihood, will be more familiar, easier to use, and sonically superior. I plan to find out and report the results in a Follow-Up.

Once properly set up, the Steps looked intriguing. The combination of high-tech, tilted stands and grilleless speakers made for a modern, industrial look that most visitors to my listening room found striking.

The Step is small, but not because it's a budget product; it was specifically designed as a high-quality product for use in small listening rooms, and to perform optimally with high-quality ancillary equipment.

Minimonitors are unable to produce prodigious amounts of deep bass, and the Step was no exception. But the quantity and quality of the bass that was there was very impressive. In my difficult room, with the speakers a third of the way into the room from the rear wall, bass performance was strong to 60Hz, and still making noises at 20Hz. I found the bass performance from these little boxes astounding.

As expected, they were not ideal for reproducing organ music, Aerosmith, Holst's "Mars," or punk rock. The speaker's tonal balance was noticeably lightweight. The net result was a presentation that sounded slightly bright. And I wouldn't recommend them for loud parties in big rooms. But they weren't designed for any of these things.

I listened for some time with the Steps aimed directly at the listening position, taking maximum advantage of the speakers' stunning soundstaging capabilities. However, the lightweight tonal balance became fatiguing. To my surprise, the Steps were able to provide nearly the same level of soundstaging splendor when aimed directly ahead. With the listening position off the direct axis, the tonal balance was less of an issue; the majority of my listening was done with this straight-ahead setup.

The Steps' soundstaging presentation was consistent: excellent width and depth, pinpoint placement, and loads of spaciousness. For virtually any musical performance, I felt as if I was sitting at least mid-hall. Performers were never sitting out in the room or on the plane of the speakers. Rather, they were well behind and around the back. In addition, unless recorded as such, the music was never located in the cabinets. While many people may dislike the Steps' distant presentation, I found it quite enjoyable. However, I didn't find it an accurate re-creation of the full range of differently recorded soundscapes.

On symphonic recordings, such as Hovhaness's Mount St. Helens (Delos DE 3137), the performers were located on a deep, wide, distant stage. As the presentation was that which would be heard from a distant hall seat, the lack of an overpowering bass foundation was to some extent natural. However, the percussive impact of the third movement, "Volcano," was greatly diminished, and the deep-bass attenuation was accompanied by a constriction of dynamic range. The overall tonal presentation was mellow but not warm, clean but not bright, and consistently intelligible, making musical themes easy to follow.

This same combination of pluses and minuses was clearly illustrated by Enigma's The Cross of Changes (Charisma 39236), especially "Out from the Deep." Once again, the musical presentation was distant and spacious, and sound effects were located with pinpoint precision and precise rhythmic integrity. The open, mellow, female background vocals provided the appropriately eerie setting. On the down side, neither the bass nor the drums seemed to sufficiently energize the listening room.

Understanding the major weaknesses of these speakers—the lack of true deep bass, restricted dynamics, and the consistently distant presentation—allowed me to finally use them to best effect. The Steps were generally at their best with small-scale music: James Taylor, Kronos Quartet, Bill Evans, Andres Segovia, Acoustic Alchemy, or virtually any performer, ensemble, or group that didn't depend on massive deep bass and an extremely wide dynamic range. Since the Steps were so wonderfully open, live performances, such as Midori's splendid Live at Carnegie Hall (Sony SK 46742), were especially enjoyable. I turned out the lights and was there—the applause of the audience was electrifying.

Gavin Bryars' hauntingly beautiful The Black River (ECM New Series 78118-21495-2) was simply lovely with the Steps. The combination of soprano Sarah Leonard and organist Christopher Bowers-Broadbent was pleasantly natural, with a warm, distant, spacious character. Since the organ's contribution wasn't heavily dependent upon its lowest registers, the Steps were at home. The upper reaches of the soprano voice were particularly well-reproduced. I was similarly impressed with the reproduction of Barbra Streisand and Frank Sinatra on "I've Got a Crush on You" on Sinatra's Duets (Capitol C21Q 89611 2). The Steps were well-nourished on a steady supply of female voice—eg, Diane Reeves.

The quality of the low-end reproduction of Dave Holland's bass on Joe Henderson's So Near, So Far (Verve 314 517-674) was wonderful. Once again, since the heart (and soul) of the music is in the mid- and upper bass range, the Steps were up to the task.

Small-group acoustic jazz was consistently satisfying. Everything was very clean and quick, rhythms were tight and punchy, and the open, spacious soundstage helped create the illusion of a small club. Since music like this doesn't rely on the bottom octave, massive dynamic swings, or three-digit dB levels, everything worked much better than fine.

The Audio Physic Step is a small, high-quality speaker intended for a modestly sized room. Mated with high-quality equipment, the Steps were musically satisfying—I enjoyed them immensely on modestly scaled material. Other than their inability to reproduce low frequencies and their distant soundstage presentation, the Steps were faithful to the source recordings. Though expensive, they could be an intriguing alternative where their small size might make them an optimal choice.

Footnote 1: The floorstanding Tempo ($2995/pair) was one of the speakers reviewed in our latest blind listening speaker survey (August 1994, Vol.17 No.8, p.103), and was judged by the listening panel to be one of the two best-sounding speakers reviewed. (See also in this issue JE's discussion of the test results.) Robert Deutsch is currently working on a review of the Audio Physic DSP digital equalizer for the Tempo.—John Atkinson
Audio Physic GmbH
US Distributor: Goerner Communication
91 18th Avenue Deux-Montagnes
Quebec, Canada J7R 4A6

FSonicSmith's picture

Who is Jack English?

Separate and aside from that issue, what is it with S'Phile and minimonitors? While it is true that all of audio comprises compromises, I feel that for over twenty years S'Phile has unduly emphasized minimonitors. I blame JA prinicipally (how long were B&W SS's in his primary system?), and Tom Gillette secondarily. When, ever, have the reviewers or contributors of this fine magazine pointed out to and educated the reader that sound reproduction is not best considered in terms of frequency response, but based instead on energy production throughout the most important portions of the frequency spectrum? I was a long time owner of minimonitors and then I learned an important lesson; minimonitors excel at all the things that tend to distract away from the essence of the music. Things like pin-point imaging, soundstaging, wrap-around, halo efffect, and laser-like treble. At the end of the day, they are sound effects and not music. I would go so far (admittedly an extreme view to make a point) that for too many audiophiles, minimonitors incentivize the owner to set up their speakers incorrectly and to listen for all the wrong things. For those that have apartments or small listening rooms and for those that are on a low budget, they serve a great purpose. They do not deserve the emphasis they get in this magazine. 

volvic's picture

FSonicSmith, far be it from me to defend Atkinson and anyone else at S'Phile but most of us mortals live in compromised environments; small budgets, small rooms that necessitate the purchase of mini monitors.  I enjoy reading about mini monitors because I am sure like most people it is all we can afford and they are optimal for our listening environments.  Would love MBL's in my room and enjoy reading about them but get very excited when a mini monitor appears for review.  

FSonicSmith's picture

I conceded that many have small listening rooms and need minimonitors. Is that true of the majority of audiophiles in the US? Considering that the demographics demonstrate that the average reader of S'Phile is (educated guess) 38 or so and earns 100K or so, I don't think so. Let's put it simply; Stephen Mejias needs minimonitors, JA does not. Art Dudley, go figure, has his priorities right. It's about the essence of the music and not about particular facets of sound reproduction that give rise to the "gee-whiz, that's cool" response. The latter is very enticing. I learned.

John Atkinson's picture

FSonicSmith wrote:
Let's put it simply; Stephen Mejias needs minimonitors, JA does not.

I hate it when people put words in my mouth like this. You are erroneously assuming that your own needs and desires define everyone else's. A renowned audio engineer said it best decades ago: "Large speakers make large mistakes." Unlike you, I will sacrifice 2 octaves of bass extension and ultimate loudness capability in order to maximize midrange and treble purity and imaging accuracy and stability. That doesn't make me wrong; it just means my tastes and needs are different from yours.

John Atkinson

Editor, Stereophile

ms142's picture

... which I wish were true. I guess FSonicSmith lives quite far from a metropolitan center. Both my wife and I make six figures, and even if we don't have kids, I can't see myself living in a place that doesn't require minimonitors.

remlab's picture

..but if you don't know who Jack English is..

Anyway, that review was from 1994.

FSonicSmith's picture

The bad resolution photos should have been a tip-off. I usually catch the distinction between the posted-date and the original publishing date and didn't here. I feel like Roseann-Roseannadanna. Never mind. Well, mostly never mind.

volvic's picture

I thought your critique was based on mini monitors in Stereophile since 1994, guess the main thrust of your argument isn't lost whether it's 1994 or 2014, but I still like mini monitors.  

remlab's picture

You really should mark anything not current as historical. "Looking Back.." would be a good heading in bold face. To many people don't catch it and get confused. Personally, I love these period pieces. Keep it up..