The Fifth Element #20 Page 2

A different-drummer loudspeaker
To judge from his Arpeggione loudspeaker, Jean-Marie Reynaud (footnote 3) is an individualistic and perhaps even idiosyncratic loudspeaker designer in the mold of Paul Klipsch, Amar Bose, Irving M. "Bud" Fried, and Dick Shahinian. The Arpeggione is the floorstanding version of the Twin Mk.3 bookshelf speaker, having the same 6.5" mid-woofer and 1.5" soft-dome tweeter. The differences being cabinet volume and woofer loading, the Arpeggione has more bass extension and volume than the Twin. Its price increment over the Twin ($1200 vs $895) seems quite justified.

As soon as I got the Arpeggiones up and playing, I was reminded of Bud Fried and had to smile. I am not saying that Jean-Marie Reynaud is working from the same assumptions as did Fried. What I am saying is that, quite obviously, Renaud's speakers are designed to be compared to the experience of live music, and not with other speakers per se. I suspect that their measurements may not be spectacular. But at the end of the day, I go by in-room response and musical convincingness.

The Arpeggione's tweeter is positioned on the front baffle below the mid-woofer. The tweeter has a fan-shaped waveguide disposed horizontally in front of it, which would appear to have a protective function as well. At the bottom of the front panel there is a rectangular slot with foam filling, which is the terminus of the transmission-line woofer loading. The rear terminal block provides for single wiring. Impedance is a nominal 4 ohms, and the claimed sensitivity is 89dB/W/m.

Any speaker involves tradeoffs, even if only trading off affordability. In the case of the Arpeggione, I find myself in agreement with most of the choices I can infer were made in its development. This is a speaker that for $1200/pair delivers deep, tuneful bass and a wonderful sense of musical richness and fullness—quite notably, even at moderate volume levels.

Not to administer the Kiss of Death, but the Arpeggione does appear to be a Music Lovers' Loudspeaker. First, it is easy to listen to. Second, you get a real sense of not only the beginnings and ends of notes, but also the middles, the all-important sustain. Although such characterizations can turn into a dangerous game, the Arpeggiones are the most British-sounding French loudspeakers I have heard. Thin they are not.

The other side of the coin is, well, the other side of the coin. I was not overwhelmed by transient detail or high-frequency information. If other well-regarded French loudspeakers in this price range (you know who they are) have struck you as a bit disembodied, the Arpeggiones are the yin to that yang. But if your goal is "high-definition" sound, you will probably be happier looking and listening elsewhere.

A brief digression about system synergy: When I dropped the Arpeggiones in, in place of the Peak Consult InCognitos I wrote up in September, using the darTZeel amplifier and">Stereovox interconnects and speaker wires, they did not sound very good at all, even allowing for break-in. With the darTZeel, much better results were obtained from the Reynauds with Wireworld's new Eclipse wire goods, which are substantially less money.

Substituting the marvelous little Sugden A21a integrated amp for the darTZeel began to make the Arpeggiones sound as being perhaps worth the money. But it was only by going to Nordost's Solar Wind wire goods that I was able to sit back and say, "Ah! Now I hear what all the fuss has been about."

These are individualistic speakers, and they appear quite sensitive to system interaction. At their price, they give an awful lot of good sound that is convincing in its own way. If you're tired of "me-too" components, check out the Arpeggiones.

A jewel of an amp
The Sugden A21a has been in production, handbuilt in Yorkshire, for more than 30 years, with just evolutionary changes to its basic design of a low-power (25Wpc), class-A-biased solid-state integrated amplifier. Although I'd read about them over the years in British hi-fi magazines, this was my first experience with a Sugden product (footnote 4).

The A21a is a jewel of an amp, a real sweetheart. What it may lack in mod cons (modern conveniences), such as a remote control or headphone jack, it more than makes up for in musical purity, and in throwing dynamic punches far above its weight class.

The A21a is a conventional black (also available in silver) horizontal box, reminiscent of Creek designs of a decade ago, with the exception that the Sugden has cooling fins running horizontally along the sides front to back, which seems to make a lot more sense than vertically. The A21a measures 17" wide by 3" high by 12" deep and weighs about 20 lbs.

The front panel has a source-selector knob (phono card is optional), pushbuttons for tape loop and mono, knobs for balance and volume, and a power pushbutton and indicator light. The indicator light is amber, and the script for the function designations is pale gold. Each knob has a small hole drilled a short distance into its faces to indicate its position, or the source selected. The balance knob is detented; the volume knob is not.

The rear panel has conventional RCA inputs and speaker binding posts. These items are not exactly overwhelming as works of applied engineering, and are spaced a bit closely, but, given the A21a's price—well under $2000—and excellent sound, one should not complain.

What the A21a succeeds marvelously at doing is presenting a crisp, lively, but very continuous and quite nonfatiguing musical experience. I attribute the lack of fatigue to class-A's avoidance of switching distortion. I never had the sense that I was listening to a 25Wpc amp, or that it ever was in danger of running out of power. Dynamics were crisp. The A21a seemed to work very well with the Reynaud Arpeggiones, and was just as happy driving Shahinian's Compasses.

I think that, at its probable $1500 price (footnote 5), the A21a would be an ideal step up from a receiver or an integrated amp in the $500-$800 price range.

My favorite all-things-considered integrated amp, the Plinius 8200, is being replaced by a new model I have not yet heard, the 9200, for $3500 (a $500 increase over the 8200). But, based on memory, the A21a has little to apologize for—only incremental shortcomings in midrange palpability, treble refinement, and ultimate oomph into difficult loads. Indeed, like the Plinius, the Sugden uses only NPN transistors in its output stage. Fancy that!

The only characteristics the A21a has that I can envision as being negatives in certain situations are, first: it runs hot, even at idle. The metal knobs themselves grow quite warm to the touch, and this was in a rack that is open on all four sides. Second, it is not a "forgiving" or "analog-like" amplifier. Like FedEx, it just delivers the goods.

Despite its comparatively low price, the Sugden A21a made quite apparent the sonic differences between a $299 DVD player and a $6000 upconverting CD player. And that is a good thing. Highly recommended.

Questions or comments.

Footnote 3: Jean-Marie Reynaud products are imported by Fanfare International, (212) 734-1041.

Footnote 4: Sugden products are imported by Stanalog Imports, (518) 843-3070.

Footnote 5: The dollar is getting hammered; by the time you read this, there will probably have been a currency adjustment in the US list price.