Listening #183: Stenheim Alumine Five

Five years ago, I reviewed the Alumine loudspeaker from Stenheim, a Swiss company founded by four former employees of Goldmund SA (footnote 1). I noted the Alumine's surprisingly "high sensitivity and easy drivability," praised its performance for being "clean but neither sterile nor colorless," and admired, in my geeky way, the coated cellulose-fiber cone of its 5" midbass driver, which is made in Chartrettes, France—just southeast of Paris—by a company called PHL.

One year later, almost to the week, I bought my first vintage Altec loudspeakers: a pair of 1967 Valencias, in which a multicell-horn–loaded compression driver is mated to a pulp woofer, the latter a low-compliance thing with a surround of impregnated fabric. The Altecs were revelatory, owing mostly to their even higher sensitivity and even easier drivability, and consequently—or so I think—their breathtaking sense of touch (footnote 2). They redefined my concept of loudspeaker efficiency, and exposed every other ostensibly sensitive, easy-to-drive speaker of my experience as being, by comparison, only somewhat so.

Man gave names to all the distortions
But the Stenheim Alumine, like other speakers that have passed through my hands, had advantages of its own. It was less colored than the Altec, with a less peaky lower treble, and two of them were better at reproducing the spatial information on my stereo recordings, disconnected from reality though that information often may be. The Alumine, which measures 13" high by 9" wide by 10.8" deep and cost $12,795/pair in 2012, is also considerably smaller and thus easier to place—and to live with, in an aesthetic sense—than the Altec, each of which is 28" high by 27" wide by 19" deep, not counting stands.

318listen.spk1.jpg

To each his own should be the whole of the law—reviled though that philosophy may be in domestic audio, where one is asked to accept that the enjoyment of certain products is simply wrong. So, at the end of 2017, I was pleased to review a new Stenheim loudspeaker: the floorstanding Alumine Five ($60,000/pair), which was introduced at the 2017 High End show, in Munich. It's worth noting that the Alumine Five's high price—higher than that of any other speaker I've reviewed—is no less remarkable than other of its qualities, including its weight of 231 lbs. Each.

The Stenheim's heft stems from the fact that its 46"-tall cabinet is made entirely of aluminum—10mm-thick sheets of the stuff, precision-machined and assembled, with hidden fasteners and sparingly applied silicone gaskets, to form four independent chambers: one for its 1" fabric-dome tweeter, one for its 6.5" pulp-cone midrange driver, and one each for its two 10" pulp-cone woofers. The woofer chambers are formed with front-facing ports that Stenheim's English literature describes as laminated, although I suspect the term they had in mind was laminar, as in streamlined. (I intend no snark: Their English is far better than my French, and my German vocabulary is limited to the six words required for ordering a beer.)

Another telling spec: Stenheim describes the Alumine Five as having a sensitivity of fully 94dB, with a nominal 8-ohm impedance that does not dip below 3 ohms. By contrast, the sensitivity of the stand-mounted Stenheim Alumine of 2012 was "only" 90dB (with an 8-ohm nominal impedance claimed to remain above 5.8 ohms, footnote 3).

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Surely the Alumine Five owes at least some of that sensitivity to its midrange and bass drivers—which, like its tweeter, are made by PHL. Those pulp cones terminate in accordion-style impregnated-fabric surrounds and appear to be very stiffly suspended, not unlike the Altec 416-Z woofer used in the Valencia. Indeed, the PHL cone drivers, which appear very well made, lend an anachronistic touch to the all-aluminum Alumine Five, though Stenheim eschews the polished-metal sheen seen elsewhere (the KEF Muon and some YG Acoustics models come to mind) in favor of a lightly textured black front baffle and a more coarsely textured gray finish on the rest of the enclosure, save for a thick, bright, horizontal red line between the midrange driver and the woofers. (Child herpetologist that I once was, I couldn't help being reminded of some species of the North American ring-necked snake, especially the pretty coral-belly ring-necked snake, Diadophis punctatus pulchellus.) The look is elegant, and far more svelte than you might expect from a 231-lb anything.

Slimly, not slimy
Speaking of which: Before their arrival, I wasn't aware of the Alumine Fives' extreme weight, though I should have been: I was fully aware that it's a floorstanding loudspeaker in a metal cabinet. The two Fives were sent from the Albany, New York, airport via a freight truck, strapped to a single pallet. Because, during the last leg of his journey to my house, the driver had to travel uphill, that pallet slid toward the rear of his truck and got caught against the inside of the overhead door, preventing it from being opened—and the pallet was so heavy that it could be induced to move away from that door only by pointing the truck downhill, coasting a bit, and slamming on the brakes.

That was a stroll through the park compared to removing the two cardboard cartons from the pallet and getting the speakers into my garage, pending installation. They were sufficiently heavy that at first I thought I'd failed to cut all their hold-down straps. I hadn't. Ultimately, I needed help just standing them up, let alone walking them, as one walks a refrigerator, from one side of my driveway to the other. After all that, I went inside and left the pallet at the edge of my back yard, where it remains today, gazing at me in mute approbation. I can laugh about it now.


Footnote 1: Stenheim, Des Gorges 6, 1963 - Vetroz, Switzerland. Tel: (41) 21-731-5886. Web: www.stenheim.com. US distributor: Audioarts, 210 5th Avenue, Ste. 301, New York, NY 10010. Tel: (212) 260-2939. Web: www.audioarts.co.

Footnote 2: Only a 1966 pair of Altec's supposedly identical Flamenco loudspeaker could have—and did, in 2015—tempted me away from my Valencias (which I still think are the slightly better of the two).

Footnote 3: I don't know the sensitivity of the original (1966–71) Altec Valencia, but its impedance was a healthy 16 ohms.

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COMMENTS
Glotz's picture

Once again, a great feeling of space and time throughout the set-up process.. and funny. Nice test listen with the Fi amp as well, showing the speaker's flexibility.

Try the Better Homes & Gardens 2x4 bookshelf; it benefits from thicker support beams and may be a nice alternative to IKEA's offerings (for either vertical or horizontal applications).

Doctor Fine's picture

Art, I read with interest your previous description of your new lodgings and looked at the tight fit of your Altecs on either side of your fireplace in the photos you included with the article.
So how on earth did you squeeze these new behemoths into such a cramped space?
If you have a larger room in your new home specifically for testing speakers please let us followers of all things Art have a look-see.
A well set up room should all ways have nothing in between the speakers to break up their center image.
It should also have properly damped reverberation times to avoid adding mud to the sound. And of course nothing causing second reflections such as a nearby side wall or hard furniture to spoil the dispersion.
Even a coffee table can screw with the sound field by trapping waves up under that mess.
Please Art, tell me how you did this test properly.
It is gnawing at my gut, driving me crazy and giving my cat ulcers just thinking about what these boxes would sound like out on your tiny porch.
Thank you and please help me.
Help me Art. I need help.

Ortofan's picture

... have a look at the listening room of UK reviewer Ken Kessler:
http://www.hifinews.co.uk/news/article/meet-the-team;-ken-kessler/9827

Doctor Fine's picture

Ortofan that picture of Ken Kessler's testing room shows that even Ken has never heard the gear he is testing under optimal circumstances.
It really makes you wonder what on earth is wrong with all these "experts" who inform us about speakers when their listening area is incapable of throwing a clean picture of the soundstage.
Ken's room was designed to dampen reflected energy so THAT'S good.
And his listening chair is in the right spot as are the speakers.
But Ken then does what 99% of the audio show offs do when they pile a mountain of junky amplifier boxes, gear racks and other shiny objects RIGHT IN BETWEEN THE MAIN SPEAKERS!
If the audio press knew their stuff their rooms would be empty in between their mains EXCEPT for diffusion panels or curtains on the walls and a tunable area of reflection dead center which can provide just the right amount of center energy to make the sound EVEN across the front of the room.
I use draperies on either side, windows with thick wood blinds to break up reflected energy when the drapes are open.
And Sonex all around the windows to kill energy that adds mud.
This way I can "tune" the size of the opening that is hard (my center window with the blinds pulled UP) for an optimum image.
The effect is startling.
It is truly 3D on beautifully recorded live music where the recording engineer did his best to use only two mics and capture what it sounded like live.
If you look at the mastering room photos which I have enclosed you will see a theme going on here.
Nearly every one of these rooms is following my prime sound field design dictum:
"Put NOTHING in between the mains unless you want to hear that piece of junk as part of the image!"
Doctor Fine.
https://www.google.com/search?rlz=1C1CHBD_enUS764US764&biw=1025&bih=527&...

Ortofan's picture

... in these mastering rooms at the Abbey Road studio?
https://www.abbeyroad.com/mastering

Also, which speakers do you prefer to use?

Doctor Fine's picture

Ortofan, Abbey Road rooms 5 and 30 are used primarily for vinyl master cutting decisions. The lack of soundfield tuning here doesn't raise any eyebrows.
Rooms 6, 7, 13 and 25 look decent. All show a lack of clutter in the front soundfield judging by the photos.
B&W 802s are honest enough monitors and can be "learned' similar to "learning" what a Yamaha NS10m is telling you.
I am surprised to see 802s in a perfectionist audiophile mastering setup however. 802s are not known for coaxing out the last word in life like realism.
I suppose the thinking here was to use an accepted industry standard (802) so that a revolving door of engineers coming and going would all feel at home in short order at Abbey Road even if the speakers are not perfection.
I myself use Harbeth 30s mounted in a Wilson Audio WAMM-type stack.
Beneath the 30s are active sealed box 12s (early SVS) mounted in correct time alignment and adjusted for phase response along with parametric notch filters to keep the mid bass and bass from getting bloated. These 12s have adjustible response curves and crossover points which help with room and speaker coherence.
Beneth the 12s are 15" Velodynes used only for truly deep bass and sub frequencies down to low 20s.
At the rear are a pair of Townshend Maximum Super Tweeters which surprisingly need careful time alignment and help tighten up the BASS even as they extend the upper end to 40K or so. I still marvel that super tweeters change the bass but others have noted this strange effect once things snap into such clear focus in the time domain.
The speaker arrays, like a Wilson WAMM are adjustible in an arc to provide correct time domain coherence and this is when EVERYTHING starts to make big differences and apparent realism hits a full gallop.
My setup is of course only a fraction the cost of WAMMS.
I am a retired high end audio installation and sales advisor. And I have designed recording studios for folks you have heard about.
My idea to build a stack around a known midrange over achiever has certainly paid off in my opinion.
The Harbeth house sound has helped center the stacks and forced any add-on additions to measure up or go home. As I routinely listen eight hours a day a lack of listener fatigue was a big deal, thus no 802s for ME.
Not, as Jerry Seinfeld said, that there's anything WRONG with that (802s).
You yourself seem to know what questions to ask and of course have named yourself after one of my favorite compaines, Ortofon.
Pleasure meeting you out here on the edge of musical playback reality.
I think I have talked enough to fall off a cliff myself ha ha.

Ortofan's picture

... do you suppose that the Townshend super tweeters would still offer an advantage if the Harbeth 30 speakers were replaced with their Super HL5plus model, which have a built-in super tweeter?
The Stereophile test of the Super HL5plus shows that its frequency response extends out to (at least) 30kHz, where the graph stops.

On the subject of subwoofers, Harbeth seem to favor the REL Acoustics products. The REL line-up includes models incorporating either 12" or 15" drivers. Have you ever tried any of the REL units?

Doctor Fine's picture

Sorry but I was hit from the rear and am experiencing whiplash from the accident and lost the thread slightly.
And I apologize to Art Dudley for our leaving his review for the nonce...
As for you query about why I chose the Monitor 30s instead of a home audio version Harbeth Super HL5Plus the reason was because I wanted the somewahat more forward presentation of the Monitor 30 Harbeth and its less fatiguing cloth soft dome tweeter instead of a pair of metal tweeters as are found in the HL5Plus home speaker.
My design brief looked forward to the possibility that the Harbeth Monitors I chose may have wound up in a small control room environment where their slightly forward presentation would have been of benefit for track monitoring.
The Harbeth HL5Plus has dual metal tweeters which would be more fatiguing in a small room monitoring setup and I sometimes listen to audio for eight or more hours per day.
The much larger cabinet of an HL5Plus would have also upset the time alignment of a speaker stack by its very size .
I chose the Monitor 30 version and listened to it by itself and concluded that what it had to offer in Mastering sound was that its midrange was just about perfect.
As for the super tweeter which is included in the home audio version HL5Plus the main problem I had with it was that it was not time aligned.
When I put the Townshends into the mix as outboard tweets I was able to experiment with the coherence they offered by moving them around behind my Harbeth boxes and indeed putting them in front of the boxes.
It was a tough call as at one point I actually preferred not having anything mess with my Harbeth 30s at all but the extra clarity the Townshends offers eventually won the day.
Lets continue this discussions somewhere else as I hate to intrude on the initial evaluation of Art Dudley's review.
Thank you.
Doctor Fine

Doctor Fine's picture

As for Velodyne subs versus Rels with a pair of Harbeths.
I was a dealer for both.
Both either offer incredible benefits.
I bought a pair of 15 Velodynes for cheap on accommodation and my opinion is that the very bottom octave should be purchased as cheaply as possible as it has almost Zero impact on the main mid range magic.
If you have an ear for blending a sub I suggest you use the most cost efficient deep setup you can get your hands on. Forget about pedigrees and go for cheap frequency extension because deep bass doesn't influence the quality of the music until you have the mid range perfect.

Doctor Fine's picture

no comment required

Doctor Fine's picture

As for subs you really should insist for multiple crossover choices, parametric notch out EQ and Zero to 180 Phase control KNOBS with infinite adjustments for phase as that is what is necessary to integrate a sub into a main mid-range mid bass speaker...
Don't let the sub dealers sell you anything less...

Doctor Fine's picture

I simply must add that those B&W 802s at Abbey Road which are harsh and nasty on upper frequencies may well explain why the remastered Abbey Road Box Set edition Beatles Stereo mixes are so completely devoid of treble.
I can imagine that the Abbey Road Beatles remastering team was bleeding from the ears with their 802 monitors and turned down all the treble accordingly.
And Sir Paul insisted that his Hoffner bass be turned up to MoTown levels.
All of which makes the Boxed Set Beatles Stereo remixed Masters sound like crap compared to the original masters that Sir George Martin in England and Capitol in America issued on vinyl in the 60s.
I am apparently going to be forced to purchase original 60s vinyl just to avoid the abortions being done to the original Beatles mixes.
On my system I can clearly hear what a mess the new "re-mixes" are doing to what was originally very clear stereo and all the placement of instruments before they were destroyed by the "new kids who know nothing."
Not that this has anything to do with Art's review of some new speakers.
But it has everything to do with what is happening to audio in general...

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