Cabasse La Sphère powered loudspeaker Page 2

$140,000 gets you the two speakers, the outboard active crossover and DSP processor, and installation, including computer-coordinated custom room correction. While you have the option of using enough separate, non-Cabasse amplifiers to achieve the required eight channels of power, Cabasse strongly recommends its own Bel Canto–sourced power package, comprising eight fully balanced ICE-powered digital monoblock amplifiers: four 1kW bass/midbass amps and four 300-watters for the midrange drivers and tweeters. That's 5200W for $25,000, and a total package price of $165,000.

You'll also need four pairs of balanced interconnects between the processor and the monoblocks, and four pairs of loudspeaker cables.

Easy Installation
Carrying the Sphères, which come with their stands pre-installed, was an easy two-man job. Thanks to Cabasse's room correction, placing the speakers wasn't quite as critical as it usually is in my room. The pair ended up where most speakers sound good here: 8' from my listening chair, 2–3' from the front and sidewalls, and about 8' apart. Christophe Cabasse flew in for the installation, and while there's no guarantee he'll do the same for you, someone highly qualified by Cabasse to do the job will.

Once the speakers, the crossover, and the stack of amps were in place, it was time to wire them all up. Cabasse had been using Monster Cable at public showings, but because the Sphère is internally wired with Kimber Kable, they decided to supply me with a full array of Kimber Select interconnects and speaker cables.

When everything was connected and powered up, Monsieur Cabasse fist made several measurements of the woofers alone, to understand the effect of the LF room modes. Then he placed a microphone at my listening position and, using a test tone, measured each channel's response. He looked at the resulting curves and pronounced the room's response excellent, in need of only minor correction—although with a pair of 22" woofers in close proximity to the front and sidewalls, there was, of course, the usual exaggeration of low-frequency response due to boundary reinforcement.

While I did other things, Cabasse played with various fixes for the better part of an hour before choosing one. When I listened and felt the bottom end still too prominent, he went back to work, and produced another solution that was somewhat less pronounced in the very low frequencies.

When I looked at the screen of his laptop to see the final curve, I was impressed by its smooth midrange, its extended and reasonably flat bass response (taking into account the boost from the speakers' proximity to the walls), and its non-peaky treble, even if the trace in the graph sloped slightly downward from bottom to top. Throughout the two months I listened to the Sphère, its overall balance always struck me as slightly on the warm, mellow side of neutral, this associated both with the bass boost and the downward slope of the response curve at increasing frequencies.

However, Cabasse insisted that such a curve was his preferred in-room response. He also felt, and I concurred, that the sound was somewhat disappointing—the music seemed to cling to the Sphères instead of floating free of them. This wasn't what I'd heard at shows, and not what Cabasse himself had become accustomed to. We listened for a while that way, and believe me, it didn't suck. It just wasn't as open and as expansive as I would have liked.

I then substituted my reference preamp-to-amp interconnect, the TARA Labs Zero, for the Kimber Select. Sure enough, the sound opened up considerably. Was TARA willing to supply four pairs of their Omega Gold speaker cables and four pairs of Zero balanced interconnect? They were, though it took them a few weeks to produce and ship the Omegas. That was fine with me; it was only fair to give the Kimbers time to break in, and eventually they did—the sound opened up, particularly on top. But when, after a few weeks, I replaced them with the TARA Omega Golds, the immediate result was a sound that was notably more open, expansive, fast, and extended on top—all things that the Sphères needed. All of my comments on the Sphère's sound are with the TARA cables.

So—to $165,000, add another $100,000 for the four pairs of speaker cables and balanced interconnects, for a grand total of $265,000—and that's just for the amps and speakers and the wire to hook them up with. Preamp and source components and their wires are extra.

At a time when the US economy is sliding into the toilet and tens of thousands of Americans are losing their foreclosed-on homes, spending over a quarter of a million bucks just to hear some music is disgusting, disgraceful, decadent, grotesquely indulgent, well off the Bad Taste chart, and blah blah blah. But even with a robust economy, zero unemployment, and free healthcare for all, spending $265,000 to play some music would still be all of the above. And there is still, and will probably always be, a waiting list for Ferraris. Some people will continue to fetishize and wear obscenely priced wristwatches the size of satellite dishes. The good life goes on for the terminally well-off, of whom surely some read Stereophile. Please, the rest of you, indulge your imaginations and hold your envy in check for a few more pages, just as the readers of auto magazines do. Even if you can't afford the car, try to enjoy the ride.

The big D in the room
To say that the Cabasse La Sphère system is not for analog purists is an understatement. If, for you, purity comes before performance, you would never want the Sphère, no matter how good it sounded. Not only is it "digital," but its resolution of 24 bits/48kHz, bandwidth-limited to 22kHz is relatively low. How many SACD enthusiasts want to redigitize the analog conversion from DSD at 24/48? How many CD enthusiasts will want to redigitize their CD players' analog output, even if the Sphère's resampling frequency and bit depth are greater than the original? And regardless of the resolution, how many vinyl enthusiasts will be willing to convert their vinyl to digital at all? I know what you're thinking: In addition to the analog input on the Sphère's crossover module, couldn't a digital one have been included, along with a high-quality volume control? Perhaps Christophe Cabasse's "Manufacturer's Comment" will provide an answer.

Then there's the Sphère's class-D ICE amplification, which, while not "digital" per se, uses pulse-width modulation and a lot of feedback. And finally, why not run the A/D converter at at least 24/96 or, better yet, 24/192, which chipmaker Analog Devices says is indeed possible? Again, perhaps Cabasse will comment on these questions; for now, I suspect it's a matter of the limits of processing power.

It sure sounded different
Though the Sphères were then still in development, their rendering a few years ago of a CD-R I'd made of "Tin Pan Alley," from Stevie Ray Vaughan's Couldn't Stand the Weather (LP, Columbia/Pure Pleasure), was among the more memorable listening experiences I've had at a Consumer Electronics Show since I began attending in 1978. My hope was for a similar experience at home with the finished version.

It's impossible to separate from the Sphère's overall performance the individual contributions of the processor, amplifiers, and speakers. The only question really worth answering is How does it all sound? Given the claims Cabasse makes in its literature for the Sphère's performance, and the speaker's staggering price, the first time you plop yourself down in front of a pair of them, the experience should not only be staggeringly different from anything you've ever heard before, but, at least in some ways, better.

That's what happened to me. On an enormously wide and—especially—deep soundstage, the Sphères produced the most stable and solidly three-dimensional images I've ever heard, in my room or anywhere else. These images hung convincingly suspended in space with almost alarming solidity—it was like looking at scenes through a View-Master. At least in that respect, the Sphères did sound fundamentally different from and better than anything else I've heard. It was like moving from widescreen CinemaScope to triple-projector 3D Cinerama. The Sphères traded the usual pinpoint "sweet spot" for an area the size of a candy factory, over which soundstaging, imaging, and instrumental timbres remained fundamentally unchanged (although, in my relatively small room, the low-frequency balance did vary off axis).

But even more than startlingly superior staging and imaging, the harmonic structure of instruments also sounded more correct, more coherent, more lifelike than I am used to. And this was with digitized vinyl. Digititis, grain, etch, edge, and every other quality of CD sound that repels so many, were simply not evident in the sound of this system, which operates wholly in the digital domain. The organization of the time element resulted in unprecedented ease of listening—the sense of musical relaxation I usually associate with live music.

Cabasse SA
US distributor: St. John Group
4396 Saddlestone Drive
Bellingham, WA 98226
(360) 756-2205