Impact Airfoil 5.2 loudspeaker system Page 4

Another piece of the softening was the Airfoils' handling of dynamic transients, which simply weren't as large or precise as with the best speakers I've heard. Introduction and Fandango is a scorching flamenco-style piece. With most speakers, the transients will positively explode, the notes starting and stopping in a sharp transient that impresses a kind of aftershock into the air. With the Airfoils, the explosions just weren't there.

"In the Mood," from The Carnegie Hall Jazz Band (CD, Blue Note 36728), was another good example of the Airfoils' slightly soft perspective. The trumpets just didn't have the brassy bite and edge that they should, and the central solo—which concludes near the very top of the instrument's range—didn't seem to rip the air the way it does with other speakers, or the way it would in a downtown jazz club. On the flip side of the coin, the Airfoils did an absolutely superb job of reproducing the natural space around the instruments on Carnegie Hall, and while the sax's leading edge lacked bite, its woody, meaty character was perfectly portrayed. From my notes: "There's a great sense of space around the sax, and the bass is just right. It's got the right tone, weight...and the way it seems to pressurize the air around it is almost eerie."

As for the Airfoil system's horizontal dispersion and sensitivity to setup and positioning: In a gross sense, their tonal balance and imaging remained remarkably constant as I moved from the sweet spot to positions well beyond the speakers. Nearer the sweet spot, however, the imaging and tonal balance were quite sensitive to movements of my head, particularly from front to back. As I moved—from a few inches to a few feet—toward the speakers, the focus improved, dynamics seemed a little crisper, and the tonal balance shifted upward, to the point of occasionally having a bit of upper-midrange edge. Unfortunately, moving closer to the speakers also resulted in a Cinerama-style image.

I began to experiment with the orientation of the towers, and found that rotating them outward maybe 20 degrees produced noticeable improvements in focus and detail. I was able to get a bit more impact as well, and what seemed like a bit more power in the upper midrange/lower treble. The shifts didn't completely ameliorate the shortcomings I mentioned earlier, but did improve the situation a little. The punchline here is that although the Airfoils may be relatively insensitive to setup in a gross sense—it's easy to get the first 80-90% of their performance—dialing them in precisely is critical to getting their very best. And although the Impact folks were happy with their setup, I'm not certain that I ever heard the speakers at their very best.

The Bottom Line: Big Toy, New Toy, Neat Toy, Better Toy?
The Impact Airfoil 5.2 system is a new speaker technology that is definitely intriguing in its basic approach, appearance, and performance. Although I experienced a few bugs—not surprising for an ambitious all-new effort from a small manufacturer—Impact has built a luxurious, reliable, and impressive new speaker system.

The system's performance was in some ways dramatically different and better from that of any other speaker I've heard. For one, it had a top-to-bottom coherence and balance that gave instruments a natural "rightness" that was captivating. The soundstage was huge, and the Airfoils did a much better job of reproducing its outer regions than I've heard before.

But the Airfoils weren't perfect, or even as good as the "best I've ever heard" in all aspects—although that's exactly the bar set by their $35,000 price. For example, they didn't have the precision and focus of the Thiel CS7.2s, or the weight and power of the big Thiels' bottom end. Up top, they couldn't match the extended, airy treble of Magnepan's MG3.6/R. They could produce the scale of a full orchestra as well as the Genesis or Infinity supersystems do, but lacked those speakers' ability to scale down, to accurately reproduce the size and balance of a more intimate setting.

The Airfoils also had a distinctive natural feel to their overall presentation. Part of this was solidly in the plus column: coherence and freedom from distortion. Another piece of it, however, was a shortcoming: a slight softening due to their texture, lack of focus, and softened dynamics.

Amid all the pluses and minuses, one point that shouldn't be lost is that the Airfoil 5.2 is the first realization of a new technology. My comments reflect comparisons to designs that have been refined and optimized over decades. The Airfoils most definitely do have unusual strengths, and a great deal of potential. But I do think they may be a generation—or a handful of tweaks—away from fully realizing that potential.

Even in their first incarnation, however, the Impact Technologies Airfoil 5.2 was extremely enjoyable to listen to. No one who heard them left without commenting favorably on their performance and on how much they enjoyed listening to them. I urge any serious audiophile to find a set of Airfoils and give them a listen. I know my toys, and the Airfoil 5.2 is one really cool toy.