Cabasse La Sphère powered loudspeaker Page 3

With every familiar LP I played during the months the Sphères were in my room, the absence of time and phase artifacts, combined with amplitude correction that resulted in a subjectively near-flat frequency response in the critical midrange, was the sonic equivalent of finally getting in sharp focus a long, blurry, smeared panoramic photo.

From familiar recordings there were always surprises, and often new information, to be heard. More important, there was a continuous sense of "rightness" about the overall sound. Last night I put on the oft-reviled Mobile Fidelity edition of the Rolling Stones' Sticky Fingers (LP, Rolling Stones/Atlantic/Mobile Fidelity Sound Lab). "Brown Sugar" had never sounded this convincing. This usually mushy-sounding mix is not a great recording to begin with, but never had Bobby Keyes' tenor sax been rendered with such reedy pungency and evenhanded clarity. Each instrument was rendered with greater individual clarity and precision than ever before in my experience, and by a wide margin.

Everyone complains about the hyped-up, out-of-control bass and sizzly top end on "Can't You Hear Me Knockin'," also from this MoFi edition. Not so through the Sphère, which was essentially flat down to 20Hz (or to at least 30Hz in my room). If the Cabasse didn't measure absolutely flat in my somewhat confined space, it sure sounded it, despite what I knew about the speaker's low-frequency boundary-proximity bump.

The bass on this supposedly boomy track was unbelievably deep and tight, well-controlled and -timed. Because of all that, the excess bass was less noticeable than through many speakers of more limited range through which I've played this track. Cymbals rang out solidly, convincingly bright and physically present, with attacks that were credibly fast and clean but never hard or bright or "crispy" (best for potato chips, not sound). Pushed to +100dB, the Cabasses gripped in their iron fists everything in the mix, rendering it with unprecedented precision and coherence. Each element of the mix, including Mick Jagger's vocal, was reproduced with remarkable solidity.

But while ruthlessly revealing, the Cabasse Sphère was also self-effacing. On LP or CD, well-recorded solo acoustic piano—for instance, the recent reissue of Robert Silverman's recording of Rachmaninoff's two piano sonatas (CD, Stereophile STPH019-2)—never suffered from leading-edge crispness or overaggressive attack, nor did it sound mushy and indistinct.

I hope you've been lucky enough to hear, from a good seat in a good hall, a solo-piano recital on a good instrument. If you have, you know that the piano never sounds tinkly or tinny, though it can sound (coherently) bright when pushed. It has a velvety, rich, woody sound that isn't soft or muffled, and certain notes don't randomly jump out at you. It's probably the most difficult instrument to record accurately.

Silverman's analog recording of Rachmaninoff's Sonata 1 got it more or less correct, as did the Cabasse Sphères. Each note's attack had a physical presence that was distinct yet liquid. I could feel the finger pressure on the key and the hammer's response, followed by the reverberation of the sounding board. Each note seemed wrapped in a velvety caress that made it sound and feel like a piano instead of an electronic rendering of one.

I have sampled (no pun intended) Artur Rubinstein's set of Chopin's 8 Polonaises, 4 Impromptus (LP, RCA Living Stereo LSC-7037) many times over the years, but never until the Cabasse La Sphères have I sat down and listened straight through all four sides. This set, recorded at Carnegie Hall, had never before sounded so cleanly or solidly rendered, or as intimate. The distinction between the direct sound of the piano and the reflected hall sound was never so cleanly laid out or pronounced. The piano never sounded as solid, dimensional, and harmonically complete. The brief lags between the direct sound of the notes and their reflections had never sounded as cleanly organized, nor has the picture sounded as three-dimensionally complete.

Better piano recordings sounded more convincing than I'd ever heard them at home. But if you're used to crisp, tinkly leading edges and false "air," such recordings can sound dark and unimpressive—especially if you're unaccustomed to hearing solo-piano recitals in person.

The Sphères and their 5200W of power produced unlimited expression at both ends of the dynamic scale, and sounded equally convincing whether played at excruciatingly loud or very low levels.

Why do original vinyl recordings converted to digital and back still sound better than CDs put through the same process? I don't have the answers. I just know that I and everyone who listened to the Sphères in my room came to the same conclusion. And no one, myself included, heard anything "digital" about the Sphère's rendering of analog sources, even though we'd all heard how the system could produce ultrasolid, three-dimensional images that were markedly superior and better-organized that anything heard previously here—or pretty much anywhere else.

And yet...
Though much was spectacular, and in many ways vastly superior to anything else I've experienced at home, not all was perfect in the microprocessor-controlled digital world of the Cabasse La Sphère. Regardless of the recording, or whether the source was LP, CD, SACD, or a live eight-track analog recording I helped a friend mix down, the way the Sphère's digital processing dealt with fast vocal transients revealed itself as a suspicious sameness that intruded on hard sibilants. That was the one overt way in which the extreme signal processing the Sphère uses to set things right (or the A/D conversion) showed its seams. There were other, more subtle ones.

My wife, in whose ears I trust, came down for a first listen. Without knowing anything about the digitization and heavy processing the Sphères were doing, she heard Fleetwood Mac's familiar "Station Man," from Kiln House (LP, Warner Bros.), and said, "I don't like it. It sounds processed. It sounds dark and mushy and everything is back there." As the tune continued and her ears adjusted, she heard all of the Sphères' tremendous organizational skills and ability to retrieve real detail, which can only be heard by listening "in" to the presentation as opposed to having them dumped in your lap by brightness and leading-edge accentuation. She came to appreciate all that, but still felt the overall presentation sounded "processy."

I, Mr. Analog, was somehow less bothered by that, and more irked over time by a feeling that, in his quest for near-perfect response characteristics and the Sphère's other considerable achievements, Christophe Cabasse had sacrificed both resolution and high-frequency air and delicacy. Recordings I've known for years to be bright and have tape hiss sounded smooth and hissless. That told me that the system's high-frequency response was rolled off, or simply cut off by the limitations of 48kHz digital. Can I still hear beyond 22kHz? I doubt it—but what happened to the hiss, and some of the attractive sparkle, on those familiar records?

After hearing the tune for more than 30 years on many great systems, when I played Roxy Music's "Do the Strand," from For Your Pleasure (LP, Island), the Sphère's ability to lay it all out with complete control—especially Andy MacKay's sax part—was absolutely stunning. Yet, as astonishing as it was, there was a "processy" quality to the sound, particularly singer Bryan Ferry's sibilants, and to some degree the organization came at the expense of high-frequency air and extension. Other familiar albums, such as Buffalo Springfield's Last Time Around (LP, Atco SD33-256), which had always sounded open and exciting, now sounded closed-in. While some records revealed heretofore unknown star qualities of sound, and others that had always sounded great continued to do so, still others were big disappointments—as if the Sphères' signal processing just didn't like something about the recording.

Spatially, while the system projected as far back into the soundfield as I've heard, nothing—despite the measurements cited in Cabasse's white papers—seemed to extend forward of the plane described by the fronts of the speakers. That contributed to the sense of mush and the lack of drama or surprise, and ultimately elicited from me a response to the Sphères' sonic achievements that was more intellectually than viscerally stimulating.

I was more aware of this tradeoff when listening to analog sources than to "Red Book" CDs (and in that case I was grateful for it). But I spent many nights listening to LPs straight through, almost till dawn, transfixed by what the Cabasse system was revealing about many very familiar records, most of which it transformed in positive ways.

As I said, it's impossible to separate out the contributions made by the speakers, the processor, and the ICE amps. I've heard, however, that ICE amps in general can sound smooth and dark. The Sphère's tonal balance did sound smooth, dark, and starved of air, although part of that surely must have been the boundary-proximity bump—there was too much bass, though not of the obtrusively boomy variety.

Lest I leave you with the wrong impression, the two months I spent with Cabasse's La Sphère were among the most exciting and enjoyable I have experienced as an audio reviewer. The speaker is an amazing achievement.

The system delivered the sonic ride you'd expect and demand for so great an investment: full audible frequency response, full dynamic range, rich detail. And having heard it in a very large space at Shows, I can assure you that the Sphères are capable of delivering all the goods there as well as in my sorry little room. In a big, open room they sound positively magnificent, and far more open and expansive than my room permits.

In terms of organizational skills, timing and phase coherence, and timbral and textural accuracy, Cabasse's La Sphère system sets new sonic standards. Its reproduction of the piano and the human voice is light-years ahead of anything else in my experience. Its ability to produce solid, three-dimensional images on a stable, remarkably well-organized soundstage also beats anything I have ever experienced anywhere, and by a considerable margin. And in terms of textural solidity, harmonic structure, overall control, and low-end extension, its bass performance is similarly unprecedented.

But as set up in my room, the Sphère didn't produce the air and shimmering high-frequency extension that can be found in the grooves of many LPs and SACDs, and that are not recording artifacts. (If your listening is limited to CDs, this won't be an issue.) And the Sphères' failure to push their soundstage in front of themselves, whether more accurate or not, somewhat reduced their visceral impact, producing an experience that involved the head more than the heart. Finally, there's that issue of "processiness." A lot of processing goes on within the Sphère system, and unless CD is your only source, 48kHz is a barely sufficient sampling rate. With the exception of vocal sibilants, this processing wasn't grossly audible per se, but it certainly affected the system's ability to sound real, as opposed to sounding really great.

It comes down to the usual balancing act: Is what's achieved worth the cost? But by cost, I don't mean dollars. The best part of a system such as the Sphère is that software upgrades are easy to make. I would assume that, should a faster, higher-resolution processor come along—say, 24-bit/192kHz—or even just some improved software, a box swap or software upgrade should be possible.

That said, I feel comfortable asserting that, as currently configured, the very expensive, unusual-looking La Sphère sets new standards, both measurable and audible, for accuracy in the reproduction of music. I hope you get to experience it for yourself.

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