Penaudio Serenade loudspeaker Page 2

Having said that, I discovered that the Penaudio Serenade does have its little ways. It isn't a speaker for folks who like to listen at stupid-loud volumes. Nor is it kind to borderline recordings. Crank up a less-than-stellar-sounding rock disc, such as the Heartless Bastards' Stairs and Elevators (CD, Fat Possum FP1019), and you'll get craptacular sound that's hard to ignore. Yes, Stairs and Elevators is not a great-sounding record, but a lot of my favorite music lives on not-great-sounding records that I want to listen to anyway. The Serenade didn't make that impossible, but it sure didn't turn rabbit droppings into raisins.

When I fed the Serenade well, however, it didn't disappoint. David Russell's performance of Albéniz's Asturias, from Reflections of Spain (CD, Telarc CD-90576), simply leaped out of the enclosures with such realistic string overtones that I'm stunned my upstairs neighbor didn't ask me who was playing that Dammann guitar in my living room. That Du Pré lady sounded good, but Russell was right there.


Here's where I get in trouble: I speculate that Penttilä's on to something with his theorizing about ultra-high frequencies. I have never heard better string harmonics than I heard through the Serenade—and that was from CDs. When I pulled out some SACDs, there was obviously something pretty special going on up there.

I'd just been sent a copy of Christopher Theofanidis' The Here and Now (Telarc SACD-60638), a work for orchestra and chorus here performed by Robert Spano and the Atlanta Symphony, and it sounded present to an extent that was almost scary. We're talking big, big orchestral sound, with a nice, soft, absorbent chorus behind it (that always adds extra depth). Theofanidis writes tuneful, consonant music that begs for second and third hearings—and with sound as good as Telarc's always-superb triumvirate of Elaine Martone, Jack Renner, and Michael Bishop has obtained on this SACD, it's sure going to get them at my house. Especially through the Serenades, which seemed to reveal every whisper and breath.

Donald Runnicles' recording of the Mozart Requiem with the Atlanta Symphony and Chamber Chorus (Telarc SACD-60636) was another home run. The intertwined voices in the Tuba mirum had physical heft informed by a solid dose of hall acoustic that was distinctly bigger than that of the Theofanidis disc. Both were recorded at the Woodruff Arts Center in Atlanta, but The Here and Now lists the locale as Symphony Hall, which may or may not be a different space. The two recordings sound distinctly different from one another, however: the Mozart is up close and personal, with performers that seem bigger than life (in a good way); the Theofanidis constructs a smaller version of its reality between the loudspeakers.

Which did I like better? That's the great thing about recordings—you can buy a bunch of different ones. The great thing about really good loudspeakers is that they can re-create many different but equally convincing realities. The Serenades did not force me to choose one reality over another. I dug both of 'em.

Writing like breathing—you don't stop
I still had on hand Thiel Audio's CS2.4 speakers, which I reviewed in the November 2005 issue, and it seemed natural to compare the Penaudio Serenades with them. Granted, at $4400/pair, the Thiels are just a hair under half the price of the Serenades, but they'd impressed me so much that I'd put 'em up against almost any ambitious loudspeaker. Besides, like the Serenades, the Thiels had captured my imagination with their uncanny re-creation of "Ripple."

So I cued up the song again and discovered how different hearing the same thing can be. With the Thiels, the sound was focused and big. The 'Suasions weren't so much between the speakers as they were in the room. I don't mean they were amorphous and without body—boy, was Jimmy Hayes' body ever evident—but that the Thiels didn't confine the sound to a particular pinpoint of real estate.

Eric Thomson's mandolin surfed over the deep male voices—as opposed to peeking through them, as it had with the Serenades. The Serenades gave the group more precise locations within the room. The band was slightly smaller than life and believably placed between the speakers, though the resonant character of the studio was distinctly different from that of my room.

You could say that the Thiels put the Persuasions in my room, while the Serenades reconstructed in my room the space in which the Persuasions had made the recording. Which was more accurate? Looked at one way, the Serenades were telling it more like it was—after all, the group wasn't in my room. But it didn't work out that easily—I liked both presentations. What the Thiels did was more exciting. What the Serenades did seemed more right.

With the Heartless Bastards' Stairs and Elevators, the difference was greater. The Thiels can really push some air, and while this disc still didn't sound good, it sounded like a rock album. It made me want to boogie a lot more than it made me want to take it off, which is all I could ask of it.

The Serenades didn't have the Thiels' sheer power at filling my large listening room, and they just didn't cotton to the Bastards. It was kind of like watching a beloved but oh-so-proper aunt trying to get jiggy with it at your sister's wedding. I respected the effort, but I felt a bit embarrassed at asking them to make it.

Don't get the impression that the Serenade isn't "a rock'n'roll speaker." It could be. Fed a great-sounding rock album, such as Dengue Fever's Escape from Dragon House (CD, Birdman BRG 137), it delivered the goods: good bass, crisp guitar, and a whole bunch of strange instruments I'd never heard of (such as the dan bau, a single-stringed Vietnamese instrument). Then there was vocalist Ch'hom Nimol—no question about it, the Serenade shone with vocals.

The Thiel CS2.4 gave Dengue Fever more "edge," which isn't inappropriate for a group that pushes all kinds of boundaries; it also played louder, projected bigger, and had a more forceful bottom end. The Serenade is rated to 28Hz, while the Thiel is claimed to go to 36Hz—but in every comparison in my room, the Thiel seemed to have more bass heft.

That, of course, could have been a factor of my room. And I was aware, as I said earlier, that I never did get the room/speaker equation exactly right for the Serenade. The speaker may sound its best in a room smaller than mine.

Did I feel bass-deprived? No, the Serenade gave me good, deep bass and persuaded me that orchestras and choruses were full-range ensembles. But it never flapped my trousers the way the Aerial 20T did when I auditioned it in the same room. For that matter, neither did the Thiel CS2.4.

It's a good thing that The Here and Now stands up to repeated hearings—I listened to it many times while comparing the CS2.4 and Serenade. The two were so different, and each in its own way seemed quite right. The Thiel continued to sound bigger and brawnier than the Penaudio, which was quite appealing. The Thiel wasn't sensational, but it was exciting, and conveyed the thrill of a big orchestra and a big chorus digging deep into themselves to deliver the music. You could say the Thiel had physicality—if that means it delivered the physical excitement of music making.

The Serenade was more restrained. Part of this was that it didn't easily deliver the same big, room-filling mass that the CS2.4 achieved so effortlessly, but it also had to do with the Serenade's tonal balance—which, as I've said, was less weighted toward the bottom end, but was also smoother from the upper mids through the ultra-high frequencies.

Part of the excitement of the Thiel, I realized while listening to the Serenade, was its slight brightness in the upper octaves. I'm less sensitive to this than some, partially because I do listen at a fair distance from the speakers, which mitigates it to some extent. But I couldn't ignore it when comparing the Thiel with the Serenade, which was simply magic throughout the mid to high frequencies. You listen to voices? The Penaudio Serenade will enchant you.

No, the Penaudio wasn't perfect, but I ended my comparison without a knockout winner. The Thiel is exciting, seems to play deeper (in my room), and can play loud when I want it to. I like it a lot. But the Serenade is a very special loudspeaker that delivered the midrange and highs with a delicacy that never palled. My room may be a tad big for a pair of them, but they played to my susceptibilities very nicely.

I tend to listen at low levels a lot, and that's where the Serenade was magic. It didn't need a kick in the butt. I'd love to hear it with the First Watt F2 amplifier Art Dudley reviewed in his December 2005 "Listening." I also listen to acoustic, vocal, and choral music a great deal of the time, other areas where the Penaudio reigned supreme. I could give up a little bit of slam for what makes this speaker so special.

Then again, when I want to kick it, I love the Thiel CS2.4. I wish I could have everything.

A song makes you feel a thought
That's the problem, of course—no speaker is perfect for everything. You can't buy a speaker that doesn't reproduce the music you like and then get mad at it. You need to choose what sounds good to you. You need to decide for yourself, using the music you most love.

That's a bit of a problem with the Serenade. Penaudio doesn't have a huge dealer network, though they're working on it. Try to hear this loudspeaker, however. If you don't have a huge room and don't listen at extreme volume levels, it's really quite revelatory, especially with well-recorded material.

At $9000/pair, the Serenade is pricey, but its fit'n'finish are superb, as you'd expect from a hand-built luxury. Would I buy a pair of 'em, knowing everything that's out there? Yes. Definitely. And as soon as I clone myself, so I can work twice as hard, I'm going to see if I can.

Penaudio USA
46 Southfield Avenue
Three Stamford Landing, Suite 250
Stamford, CT 06902
(203) 357-9922