Orpheus 808 loudspeaker

So far, as part of my quest to find good affordable box loudspeakers, I have reviewed 20 models, in the August, October, and November 1987, and January and February 1988 issues of Stereophile (Vol.10 Nos.5, 7, & 8, Vol.11 Nos.1 & 2). Nearly all affordable loudspeakers have to be used with a pair of stands: as these have an important influence on the integrity of the sound and tend to cost upward of $100 a pair for good models, this makes such speakers less of a bargain. This month, therefore, I review loudspeakers designed from the outset to be floor-standing: three from the USA—DCM's Time Frame TF1000, the planar-magnetic Magnepan MG2.5/R, and the Orpheus 808—and one from Sweden, the Rauna Balder. The prices are pretty closely grouped, with the DCM being the least expensive, at a hair under $1100/pair.

The Orpheus 808 ($1400/pair)
Orpheus is a small, Long Island-based loudspeaker manufacturer that has been in existence since 1978, selling directly to the public since the Spring of 1987. Orpheus's continued persistence and obvious ability to survive over the long run intrigued me, so, prompted by some readers' letters asking what the speakers sounded like and if they were a good buy, I felt that we should review a pair of the 808s.

A fundamental aspect of the 808's design is what its designer Louis Montesano calls its "Duo-Coupled" bass loading. He feels this a significant enough development to have applied for a patent on it; he has also told me more than once that he feels this Duo-Coupled principle is a significant enough development to represent a major threat to other American manufacturers. What is Duo-Coupling? Two woofers are used in a reflex enclosure optimally sized (2 ft.3) for just one (fourth-order Butterworth alignment): one appears to operate full-range in the bass; the other rolls off above 100Hz. The combination is said by Montesano to give more bass output than either woofer on its own, due to the coupling between the two which makes the full-range driver in effect act as a passive radiator for the band-limited driver, in addition to emitting its own share of bass frequencies.

Having puzzled over Montesano's description and scratched my head at frequent intervals, I have to say that I don't get it. There have been more than a few commercial twin-woofer loudspeaker systems with one woofer rolled off before the other, primarily, as I understand it, to avoid having a physically extended source in the crossover region—three drivers all handling the same signal—which would otherwise result in severe vertical beaming. All that I can see the 808's double bass-unit array doing apart from that is to increase the sensitivity and lower the distortion below 100Hz at the cost of doubling the drive current required. This could be a useful characteristic in increasing LF extension, but not one I would have thought a significant step forward in system design.

The proof of any new theory, though, is in the listening. In the meantime, the two woofers used in the 808 are identical 8" polypropylene-coned units, the full-range positioned above the "subwoofer" and placed symmetrically on the baffle. The enclosure itself is reflex-loaded, with a 12" passive radiator placed at the bottom of the baffle. The third driver is a soft-dome, ferrofluid-cooled tweeter positioned above the woofers, this surrounded by foam strips to offer some control of diffraction problems (the entire baffle is recessed behind a surrounding ¾"-deep trim strip).

The cabinet is completely wrapped in a brown-knit "stocking," with a hardwood panel inset on the top. On the review pair, these panels were of oak. Separate wooden bases, painted black and prefitted with carpet-piercing spikes, are supplied with the 808s; these bases have to be screwed into the cabinet and hold the speaker at an angle of 10° to provide a degree of time alignment between the tweeter and top woofer.

The seven-element crossover uses first-order, 6dB/octave slopes, and is constructed from high-quality components: air-cored inductors and metallized-polypropylene capacitors. Electrical connection is via two pairs of inset five-way binding posts on the speaker's rear. Monster Cable jumpers are supplied to join these together for single wiring—internal wiring is also with Monster Cable—but the manual strongly suggests bi-wiring, the below-100Hz subwoofer being driven separately from the tweeter/woofer combination.

The Sound
Trial and error indicated that the best response was obtained with the 808s positioned well clear of the rear wall (at least 24" is recommended in the instruction leaflet) and toed-in to the listening seat. The optimum listening axis appeared to be level with the tweeters, which is quite a high seating position; be warned that this speaker's sound changes quite significantly with height.

I started off my listening sessions with the 808s single-wired. Initially, my impressions were favorable. Low frequencies had considerable impact and extension, while the stereo image was deep, if a little vague laterally. Choral recordings with organ accompaniment were almost breathtaking in their lifelike quality. Very seductive performance. However, the more music tracks I played, the less satisfied I became, as even quite diverse recordings had a similar tonality imposed upon them, indicating that the 808s quite definitely had too much character.

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While low-frequency extension seemed deep, the entire bass region was elevated in level compared with the midrange. My room is a little unforgiving of excesses in this region, but even allowing for that, there was just too much bass. On small-scale classical music, it was often pleasing, adding a musical voluptuousness, but on a typical well-recorded rock album, such as Jennifer Warnes's famous Famous Blue Raincoat (Cypress 661 111-2), kick drum, synthesizer, and bass guitar were overripe in this region, leading to a lack of dynamic contrast, a "slow" character. And on a work with rich orchestration and already bass-heavy sonics, the Julius Katchen Rachmaninoff Piano Concerto 2 (417 880-2)—a $6.99 CD bargain on London "Weekend Classics"—for example, the sound degenerated at climaxes into a subway-like roar.

An obvious remedy was to try bi-wiring the speakers. If even a muscle amplifier like the Mark Levinson No.20 couldn't hang on to the 808's bass when single-wired, it would suggest that bi-wiring must be mandatory with this speaker. Not having two identical pairs of speaker cable, I experimented with what I had to hand, ending up with the Madrigal cable on the woofer/midrange/tweeter array and Monster M1 on the subwoofer. This transformed the sound in the low register, the lack of control being much ameliorated. The level, however, still was excessive for my tastes and room (concrete floor and thick adobe walls); I can only suggest that the designer has done all his formative auditioning in a relatively flimsy, wooden-framed room, which will be quite transparent to low-frequency soundwaves (a topic examined elsewhere in this issue by Peter W. Mitchell).

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The midrange seemed clean, apart from a slight cupped-hands coloration occasionally noticeable on woodwind instruments and upper strings. Voices also took on a slight "ooo" quality. There was an overall lack of body, however; Marni Nixon's voice on the Reference Recordings Gershwin song collection sounded even smaller than usual. The cowbell on the HFN/RR Test CD drum track also lacked body, as did mid-pitched instruments in general.

Soundstaging had plenty of apparent depth, but I felt after a while that this was due more to a lack of energy in the midrange than to the ability to present recorded ambience and reverberation in a coherent manner. Laterally, the stereo imaging was fairly well-defined, but central images were a little wider at some frequencies than at others, perhaps a function of the relatively wide baffle.

The mid-treble frequencies from 2kHz up to about 8kHz, the bottom two octaves of the tweeter's passband, made up the area I was mainly unhappy with. What had at first sounded like a detailed presentation was due, in fact, to what sounded like a resonant effect in the lower of these two octaves. This added a useful emphasis to the leading edges of acoustic guitar and percussion; it also gave a slightly trumpet-like tone to woman singers and boy trebles which was not unpleasant. On recordings already a little overblown in this area, however, the sound became a little steely. Close-miked strings also became too rosiny, and reed organ stops acquired too much of a chiff. There was also some LP surface-noise emphasis.

This forward lower treble will make the choice of matching amplifier somewhat problematic: the loose low frequencies will require an amp with good control in this region, something like a Hafler XL-280 or perhaps a Carver M1.0t. However, both these amplifiers have rather a dry-sounding treble which will exacerbate the 808's HF balance; the speaker is better suited to something like a B&K ST140 or Counterpoint SA-12, which have more tube-like tonal balances, but will be less able to hold the lower frequencies in check.

Rereading the paragraphs above, I seem to be very harsh about the 808's sonics. It would be worth repeating what I said at the beginning that the sound was very seductive for much of the time. In my opinion, however, it fell very short of being accurate.

Conclusion
I suspect that the 808 was designed primarily by ear, rather than with the help of test equipment, because its faults tend to be euphonic with many kinds of music. The loose and exaggerated low frequencies add weight, what many listeners would feel to be "power"; the recessed midrange adds image depth, even to recordings quite forward in balance; the prominent low treble, too low in frequency to make the sound hard, both accentuates the percussive edge of plucked and struck instruments and adds a not-unpleasant slight trumpet tone to voice; and the lack of energy in the top octave could be interpreted as a seductive sweetness.

However, concerning the eternal battle between euphony and accuracy, if I can't have both—which is where true high-end equipment makes its mark—then I will have to opt for accuracy. The pleasant-sounding but fundamentally inaccurate Orpheus 808 comes up against some very strong competition in this price range and cannot be recommended.

COMPANY INFO
Orpheus
Company no longer in existence (2022)
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