Signet SL280 loudspeaker Page 2

But to return to Chapter 1: I initially set up the Signets on their dedicated stands 6–7' out from the short wall of the listening room, 3–4' from the sidewalls. The height of the stand plus the loudspeaker placed the listening axis roughly level with the center of the woofer, with the tweeters then a few inches above ear-level. The speakers were toed-in and aimed at the listening position. The grilles were removed for all of the sessions. The first amplifier in the ring was the Rowland Model 1 (prior to an update which had not been incorporated as of this evaluation). The result was striking. "This is wonderful," my listening notes read—"a real soundstage." The image was solidly defined within the bounds of the loudspeakers (though not beyond them). Highs were detailed yet clean and unobtrusive.

The Astrée Sampler (Astrée E 7699) was the program material, and this recording's delicate, detailed, and very un-digital-like highs were silky and sweet through the Signets. The loudspeakers simply refused to call attention to themselves, yet the reproduction was in no way dulled or bland. A natural shade of warmth—definitely not overdone—avoided any hint of analytic sterility. I did notice that somewhat forward quality, but as long as the volume was kept to a level appropriate to the music, it simply added a bit of life to the sound and did not intrude. On band 6, Hopkinson Smith's lute was sublimely natural. The artist could be clearly heard breathing on this selection, yet this non-musical bonus never sounded out of place or competed with the instrument for attention. It merely added to the realism of the event—of a flesh-and-blood artist performing in a real space. The harpsichord on track 7 was fully detailed, accompanied by an unmuddied sense of appropriate weight.

The very lowest organ notes on track 8 were not there, but I was never left with the feeling that the instrument lacked body or was threadbare. Organ reproduction was highly satisfying, though not gut-wrenching. Only as the sonic fabric on this disc became complex did I become aware of that subtle obscuration of midrange detail—of a thin scrim, if you will, between the loudspeaker and the listener. But this was not an effect which caused me any great concern. I was simply enjoying myself too much.

And I did not become disaffected with extended listening. The timbre and presence of Radka Toneff's voice on Fairy Tales (Odin CD-03) were palpable and heart-stopping, the accompanying piano warm and sweet. Her vocal inflections were vividly conveyed, and there was no feeling of veiling on this simple, intimate recording. There was a real sense of three-dimensionality on Misa Criolla (Philips 420 955-2), with the soloist (José Carreras) set slightly back at stage center, the chorus spread around and behind him, and various instrumental highlights firmly located in width and depth across the space between the loudspeakers. And although the image did not extend beyond the loudspeakers themselves, I never had the feeling that the soundstage was constrained or miniaturized by the Signets. It was, in fact, broad and expansive, the SL280s doing a convincing disappearing act.

I did occasionally feel that the Signets were a trace too sweet and laid-back (in a dynamic, not a spectral sense) with the Rowland amplifier. A sweet, almost tube-like quality has been attributed in the past to Rowland amps—although this was my only firsthand experience with one to date, and I elected to experiment with other amplification. I was also motivated by the realization that few users would be likely to use a $2950 amplifier with a $900 pair of loudspeakers—although, judging from the results, the combination is not at all as bizarre as it would seem. My first alternative was not much of a step down in price—the $2395 Classé DR-8. My experience up to that time with the Classé had indicated that it is a livelier, more upfront-sounding amplifier than the Rowland, although less silky-sweet and refined. Both amplifiers are of quite modest power—60Wpc/8 ohms for the Rowland, 70Wpc/8 ohms for the Classé—but both have excellent current capability and drive difficult loads well. (Although the Signets are of moderate efficiency and do not appear to be demanding of amplifier low-impedance grunt-power.)

The resulting change was not a surprise. There was less warmth with the Classé, though the sound was not unduly leaned-out. Inner clarity did appear to be tightened-up somewhat, at the expense of a somewhat more obvious top-end. The differences between the lone analog-mastered cut on Fairy Tales ("My Funny Valentine") and the rest of the album (a somewhat greater ambience and a more natural quality to the analog, footnote 3) became more obvious. Midrange clarity on the Astrée sampler was also enhanced, though the sound did turn a bit analytical. It was very definitely not overbright or etched, and the increased HF energy was appealing on music that depended more on dynamics and incisiveness than on subtlety to make its point. Low frequencies were also noticeably tighter.

To this point most of my listening to the Signets had been via CD. This was simply because my own, familiar, analog setup (not to mention most of my LPs) was still in the storage mode from my recent move. But the listening room had just undergone a new addition to its currently resident Aura turntable—the Graham tonearm and Koetsu Rosewood Pro IV cartridge. The latter, alas, was Bob Graham's personal sample and only in our possession for a week. So while it may seem doubly bizarre to use a $3500 cartridge in an even more expensive turntable-tonearm combination with the Signets, I couldn't resist.

The result was rather stunning—despite my past and continuing reservations on super-high-priced cartridges. Vocal reproduction was vibrant, full-bodied, and "there." Imaging and depth were arrestingly good, midrange coloration no factor. The round yet detailed HF response of the Koetsu rendered the slight brightness of the Classé irrelevant. Some warmth was noted—to a degree which had not been present with CDs. And some recordings with which I am quite familiar—although not, to be fair, on the turntable/arm/cartridge combination at hand—had less inner detail than I had heard from them in the past. James Galway and The Chieftains' album In Ireland (RCA 5798-1-RC), for one example, displayed some loss of transparency through the midrange as the going got complex. While I am reluctant to ascribe this entirely to the Signets until I gain more familiarity with this analog setup, it did tie in with similar impressions gleaned from CD-based material. What I can say with assurance, however, is that the Signets were, overall, disarmingly effective in transmitting information from a front end which, on the basis of price, they probably had no business associating with.

At this point I felt it was time to "get real" and insert an amplifier which was more likely to be chosen for use with the Signets. Even here I probably stretched the point a bit by selecting the Kinergetics KBA-75 ($1495). The power output (75Wpc/8 ohms, doubling into 4 ohms) remained essentially the same as with the previous amplifiers. But whereas the prior auditions had used balanced preamp-to-power-amp interconnects, the Kinergetics did not allow for this; fortunately an unbalanced set of Cardas Hexlinks was at hand, so the change involved only terminations, not brand of cable (although the unbalanced Cardases were a few feet shorter than the balanced ones).

Though my initial impressions with the Kinergetics in the system were mixed, the more I listened (and perhaps the longer the amplifier had to warm up), the better things started to sound. While the SL280s do not appear to be all that amplifier-fussy (and I have no doubt that other, equally synergistic pairings for them are out there in Audioland), I began to feel that the Signets may have met their match—in the literal sense. The Kinergetics appeared to nicely split the difference between the sweetness of the Rowland and the incisiveness of the Classé, and added its own ingredient to the mix: a more robust, solid, defined low end than the Signets had demonstrated with either of the other amplifiers. And it was also with the Kinergetics that I really got a grasp of the surprising dynamic capabilities of the SL280s—on the way they "do" large-scale symphonic/choral/operatic material.

But I must digress a bit here. After I felt reasonably familiar with the sound of the Kinergetics/Signet combination, I decided it was time to compare the Signets with a natural competitor—the Thiel CS1.2. The Thiels, designed to be used directly on the floor, are priced somewhat higher than the Signets with the latters' dedicated stands. This was my first exposure to the 1.2s in a familiar listening environment, and I enjoyed it. They are very good loudspeakers. Their balance is, in my opinion, well-chosen, their midrange clarity and lack of colorations notable. They seemed a bit lightweight in the bass in my room, without really sounding thin. I noted their clean treble, though with a mixture of top-octave air and a slight softness directly below that, they seemed to lack just a shade of natural liveliness, coming across as either forgiving or just slightly silvery, depending on the program material.

The soundstage was well-defined, but a bit small-scaled. Simpler program material was handled very well. Larger forces were a bit restrained dynamically, with a noticeable (though not severe) lack of low-end power. Altogether a very respectable performance for a loudspeaker in this size and price class. And to be fair to the Thiels, additional fiddling with placement (they were positioned in the same location as the Signets) might have improved the low-end heft, and a more powerful amplifier might have upped their dynamic quotient (though they're slightly more sensitive than the Signets—playback levels were adjusted accordingly). In addition, the Thiels do not provide for bi-wiring and were therefore driven with a single run of AudioQuest Clear.

When I returned to the Signets, the first piece I played was the opening of the first act of Otello—the CD remastering of Karajan's 1961 London recording (411 618-2) with the Vienna Philharmonic. The sheer impact and dynamics of this performance are electrifying. No polite, laid-back nonsense here. Some music demands restraint, of course, but that is certainly not what Verdi had in mind (footnote 4). The opening to his Magnum Opus either evokes an emotional gut reaction or it leaves you flat. From the opening crescendo, to the live cannon shot (this is a John Culshaw production), to the chorus and the entry of the double-basses and the blatty blare of the brass, to the low-frequency underpinnings (the "hum" of the orchestra), the sound produced by the Signets on this piece defied their size and price. Their weaknesses remained, of course. As the going got heavy, the reduction of midrange clarity became audible and the sound became more forced, with some glare in evidence, prompting an inclination to back off a bit on the volume. And I also noted a tendency for the sound to become more two-dimensional at these high levels.

But we're talking here of a common limitation of small two-way loudspeakers. What was surprising was just how effective the Signets were in conveying the weight, drive, and dynamics of this heavyweight material. Within the limits noted, they seemed to relish in unleashing the fury of von Karajan's Vienna forces. They did not turn to mush at levels that might well make your neighbors want to make the same of you. The Thiels could not match the dynamic expansiveness of the Signets, nor the latters' way with the massiveness of the proceedings. I also preferred the more elevated soundstage provided by the taller (on stands) SL280s, finding it simply more involving and convincing. As was the case with the Signets' low end. The Thiels had the edge in midrange transparency and balance, though the margin was small; the 1.2s appeared less aggressive and insistent. It was a similar horse-race in the high end, with the Signets' subtly more precise lower treble lending them a trace more definition and silkiness. Both loudspeakers made music. The Signets added a bit of magic.

In the morning light of the next few weeks, as I turn back to hearing Apogee Stages, Mirage M-3s, and other more exotic, complex, and pricey loudspeakers, I'm sure that I will doubtless be reminded that you get what you pay for. But I suspect that I will also be reminded of the old law of diminishing returns, and that the Signets were (and are) remarkably satisfying on a wide range of music, from the most intimate to the most bombastic. They are solid Class C loudspeakers, in my judgment, but they also pound heavily on the door of the far more expensive and panache-drenched Class B minimonitors. They will embarrass most of the latter in their low-end reach and dynamic capabilities, and challenge them seriously in soundstaging and high-frequency detail and neutrality. Only in the all-important midband will the minis' clearly more see-through transparency allow them to keep their pride (and position) intact.

Footnote 3: I hasten to add that this entire album is sonically and musically recommendable. It is possible that the differences noted here may have as much to do with the difference in recording venue and microphoning as with any fundamental analog/digital question.

Footnote 4: Perhaps, although for me Aida marks the peak of his creative powers.

Signet division of Audio-Technica US, Inc.
1221 Commerce Drive
Stow, OH 44224
(330) 686-2600

volvic's picture

How all these old reviews show how many great companies have come and gone. Why does this seem to only exist in hi-fi? I remember Signet, Hovland, Sonaudax, Tandberg etc., many more I cannot even remember. Great products that I loved and wanted but where the manufacturer no longer exists, sadly. All these great turntable manufacturers today makes one one wonder how many will be around 20 years from now.