Listening #183: Stenheim Alumine Five Page 2

Fortunately, I had help installing the Alumine Fives: Gideon Schwartz of Audioarts, the Manhattan retailer that also serves as Stenheim's US distributor, visited my house in early November, and between the two of us we got the speakers unboxed and moved into place in my new listening room. After a few rounds of listening and fine-tuning, each Alumine Five had wound up 42" from the front wall and 27" from its sidewall—both distances measured from the center of each front baffle—with the cabinets toed-in toward the central listening area, about 8' away, although not so drastically that I couldn't see the cabinets' inner panels when I sat down. (The Stenheims are handed: the tweeters and midrange drivers are mounted a little more than an inch off-center on each speaker's front baffle, the intention being that these drivers should be nearer the side panels that face each other.) Although the Alumines come with a total of eight height-adjustable spiked feet, plus the tool necessary for adjusting them in situ, Schwartz and I felt they performed well without them, with the cabinets sitting directly on my hardwood floor.

I started simple, with a mono recording of works by J.S. Bach transcribed for piano by Liszt, Busoni, and Myra Hess, and played by Yvonne Lefébure (10" LP, EMI FBLP 1079/Electric Recording Company ERC ERC011). In the Fantasia and Fugue in g, BWV 542, Lefébure's arpeggiated chords had the right tactile and tonally rich sound, each note bursting forth with distinct pitch and well-defined attack. (This was with my 20Wpc Shindo Haut-Brion amplifier, itself no stranger to the task of tactile music-making.) Lefébure's left and right hands were in fine balance with each other, and her dynamic nuances were not compressed—in this regard, the Stenheims approached those kings of drama, the Altec Valencias. Lines of notes had fine momentum, and the recorded performance was as emotionally stirring as I've ever heard it—again, no small feat.


Listening to Lefébure's Bach, I kept in mind my review of the earlier Stenheim speaker, and how it exhibited "a slight departure from neutrality" with piano music, heard as a dulling of notes in the left hand. The Alumine Five had no such colorations with this or any other piano recording I tried—in fact, it seemed free of obvious colorations of any sort.

That's not to say that the Fives were colorless: "Chelsea Bridge," from Gerry Mulligan Meets Ben Webster (mono LP, Verve MG V-8343)—a standout LP not only musically but also for its ultra-saturated tonal colors, and about as close as I get to the idea of a "reference" recording for reviewing purposes—came to life between the Stenheims, Webster's richly hued tenor sax coming across with good body and presence, and just the right amount of texture. Leroy Vinnegar's double bass was reproduced just as colorfully by the Alumine Fives—there is, forgive me, a juicy quality to the sound of his instrument in this recording, and the Stenheims nailed it—though my Altecs allow the instrument greater weight and slightly greater force.

The Stenheims' good way with musical colors carried over to the recording, by Peter Pears, hornist Barry Tuckwell, and the London Symphony Orchestra, of Britten's Serenade for Tenor, Horn, and Strings, conducted by the composer (LP, Decca SXL 6110). Pears's very English tenor voice sounded especially right—additional evidence, if I needed it, of the Stenheim's lack of timbral distortions. Note attacks in the pizzicato strings weren't as realistic as through my Altecs, lacking that last degree of tactile snap. But through the Stenheims this recording's spatial information became more apparent, and more integral to my enjoyment, than through my references. The balance between the solo voice—not too far forward, not at all recessed, but simply, rightly there—and the horn and strings surrounding him was convincing. The sense of scale was imperfect—I like a bigger sound from this record, and my Altecs deliver that, though I can't say whether they're correct in that regard (see paragraph four)—but in all other respects, the Alumine Fives' spatial performance really impressed me on this one.


Curious as to whether the Stenheims could rock as well as they did everything else, I tried the title cut of King Crimson's Red (LP, Discipline Global Mobile KCLP 7). Robert Fripp's electric guitars sounded appropriately raw, as did John Wetton's bass—both players adopt suitably metallic tones in "Red"—and the music lunged forward with all due momentum and force. For his part, William Bruford's drumming sounded small and compressed—but that's how it is on the recording, and it's a rare loudspeaker that can do a better job of it. To hear how the Alumine Fives could do with a record with a little more raunch in its grooves, I played a few songs from Big Joe Turner's Careless Love (Savoy MG 14016), here on loan from Ken Micallef, who found it while he and I were record shopping (just five minutes from my house!). To hear this ostensible mainstream high-end speaker play a gutbucket R&B number like "Johnson and Turner Blues," and to put across not only the perfect rolling rhythm of the piano and the relentlessness of the simple guitar solo but also the song's undiluted and slightly dangerous attitude, was impressive: Yes, these slimly elegant-looking things could rock.

Hour of low power
There was something else I had to do before parting with the Stenheims, something urged on me by their distributor: Gideon Schwartz all but insisted that I spend time with the combination of Alumine Five speakers and Fi 421A power amplifier, the latter a single-ended design that tops out at 4Wpc. (Through Audioarts' retail business, Schwartz commissioned and sold a number of amps made by Fi's founder, the late Don Garber.)

The suggestion seemed overly optimistic, perhaps even reckless, but I saw no harm in trying, and I'm glad I did. Not only did the combination work, it sounded lovely. As I'd discovered four years ago, when I bought my 421A, playing large-scale music at higher-than-average volume levels is beyond its pay grade—but especially at the more modest levels associated with late-night listening, even a work such as Sibelius's Symphony 4, performed by Paavo Berglund and the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra (LP, EMI ASD 3340), sounded enchanting, with decent levels of flesh and blood, and superb flow and pitch definition. Only with piano music—even Yvonne Lefébure's Bach LP, which wouldn't strike the casual listener as being nearly as "big" as the Sibelius—did the combo falter, the hardest-struck notes sounding more timbrally fierce than they should.

Over the years I've thought of a few products as all-arounders: things that seem capable of pleasing almost any hobbyist, regardless of his or her sonic and musical priorities. The Stenheim doesn't quite fit in that category; if nothing else, its price seems sure to keep it from being daydream fodder for the vast majority of hobbyists. But the Alumine Five sets itself apart by offering traditional high-end audio strengths—very wide bandwidth, excellent spatial performance, and freedom from gross colorations—with the drivability and consequent good levels of touch, force, and musical momentum that are seldom associated with loudspeakers of contemporary design and manufacture. Especially for the audiophile of means with an interest in very-low-power amplifiers, it would seem to have few peers.

Linens: highly overrated
I promised updates on my record-storage crisis, and here's the first: At deadline time for this issue, I finished transforming a first-floor linen closet in my new house into an LP closet. With all sleeping accommodations upstairs—a downstairs bedroom now serves as my office—there was no need to store linens on the ground floor anyway, and those louvered doors were way out of place in their surroundings.


The cost of lumber was minimal—roughly $100 for the necessary 1" x 12" pine boards—and the most difficult part of the job was removing the hinges that held those louvered doors in place. (The ancient screws that fastened hinges to woodwork had been painted over so many times that their slots were no longer visible.) The second-most-challenging task was to precisely cut the boards to length—lacking a table saw, I used bar clamps and a straight piece of plywood as a makeshift rip fence to guide my circular saw—and maintain perfect right angles. I wound up spending an extra $12 on a new, clean T-square, and I'm glad I did: Instead of routing dadoes or assembling the thing with wood screws, I assembled this rack with Titebond glue and ¼" wooden pegs; the T-square was invaluable in lining up the many holes I had to drill.

The finished product holds some 700 LPs. That's just a small portion of my collection, but hey—it's a start.

Still, IKEA beckons . . .


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:;-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.

Ortofan's picture

... in these mastering rooms at the Abbey Road studio?

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...