Sjöfn HiFi (the clue) loudspeaker Page 2

Exasperated, I tried for a while not to think about audio reviewing. I played one record after another, doing my best not to analyze, but just enjoy. But every record made me tense and unsettled, so before it finished I'd take it off and put on another, hoping it might be more satisfying. One recording did stand out and play quite well: Kander and Ebb's "You're My Thrill," from the soundtrack to Philip Leacock's 1960 film, Let No Man Write My Epitaph, on Ella Fitzgerald's Clap Hands, Here Comes Charlie! (CD, Verve/Classic VSCD-4053). This disc showed enough of that great force we call "Ella" to make me forget for a while that I was reviewing speakers, and reminded me of the good sounds I'd heard in Sjöfn's room at the Capital Audiofest.

Annoyed with my inability to get The Clues to sing, and trying to grasp what was really happening, I remembered that, like The Clue, my much-loved Totem Model One Signatures ($2295/pair) also needed to be toed in so that I could just barely see the outer edges of their cabinets. I placed the Totems in my room's sweet spot, about 19" from the front wall, and played "You're My Thrill" again (I never tire of this record). Instantly, the bass was richer and deeper. The trombone, which had sounded skinny and cold through The Clues, was now too fat and warm. I felt I'd a fallen into a Jack Sprat and Wife situation: The Totems played slightly fat in the lower midrange and upper bass, The Clue played noticeably lean. The Clues' smaller but much airier soundstage made the Totems' stage seem a bit thick and bloated. Hmmmm?

While speculating about what Jack Sprat's wife really looked like, I remembered that I'd asked Lars Erickson what amps they'd used to voice The Clue. "We used a number of amps, but primarily a Hegel H70 integrated." When I looked up reviews of the Hegel online, these words and phrases kept jumping out at me: "warm," "warmer," "internal warmth," "not overly detailed," "overly saturated," "strong upper bass," "massive," "weighty."

Realizing that the Hegel may have added all those traits I felt were missing from The Clue, I fired up my Line Magnetic LM-518 IA 22W integrated amplifier, with 845 tubes, just to hear what would happen. I didn't expect much—Erickson had told me that The Clue "liked power"—but I connected the Sjöfns to the LM-518's 4-ohm taps and let 'er rip with the Commander Cody tracks. Much to my surprise, this combination played forcefully and effortlessly. Don't ask me why, but now Andy Stein's saxophone in "20 Flight Rock" had those more flatulent textures and vivid colors I enjoy, the steel guitar had a little more Technicolor in its twang, the piano had a more authentic tone. This low-powered tube amp made The Clue noticeably more enjoyable. Thinking I might be on to something, I tried my ancient B&K ST-140 power amp and NAD 1020 preamp. The sound was even warmer, even more colorful.

While installing the Erickson-recommended Supra speaker cables and interconnects, I remembered how the legendary Linn Kans had also needed to be close to the wall behind them. Some Kan fans even cut holes in the wall for the cables and binding posts! The Kans didn't image worth a damn, but they set new small-speaker benchmarks for bass, punch, and drive. Because they had such a remarkable upper bass and lower midrange, the Kans could play the boogie-woogie bejesus out of certain not-too-complex records. I also remembered how Linn dealers used only records that showcased the Kan's strengths in their demonstrations, and avoided things like Mahler symphonies that made them seems harsh or unsophisticated. (I didn't buy the Kans because I thought my Badger Kit LS3/5As could better reproduce the scale and tone of a symphony orchestra.) I also remembered using, favorably reviewing, and completely enjoying Sally Bowles through the Spendor S3/5s.

Deciding it must now be showtime, I pulled out that fierce big-brain master of the keyboard, Egon Petri, playing Busoni's hallucinatory Indianisches Tagebuch (LP, EMI HQM 1112); and Bartók's even more dissonant and mind-expanding Sonata for Two Pianos and Percussion, with Bracha Eden and Alexander Tamir (LP, London CS 6583). I use fantastic musical performances the way some people use drugs, and Petri's version of these four studies based on Native American folk themes, and Bartók's folksong-inspired sonatas, are what I imagine taking peyote or mushrooms must be like. The Sjöfns—with the rich-sounding Zu Audio DL-103 cartridge and Roksan K2 BT integrated amp—tracked this extremely complex music with some authority, and allowed me, perhaps for the first time, to "see inside" the eerie dissonances of these very sophisticated interpretations. Finally, I was able to use The Clues' strongest points—their detail and transparency—to aid my understanding and enjoyment of the music.

Then the Imp of the Perverse bit me. I took my old Rogers LS3/5As off their wall brackets in front of my desk, placed them on stands 18" from the front wall, and played the Busoni again. Not surprisingly, these ancient British classics couldn't match the Sjöfns' apparent speed or definition. Even so, the Rogerses' octave-to-octave tonal balance was significantly more realistic (yes, Lars Erickson, I heard that bump), and the soundstage was more open and naturally proportioned. Compared to The Clue, the Rogers reminded me of comfortable slippers and my well-behaved old dog— except now, I could enjoy something a bit stronger burning in my meerschaum pipe.

No more Jack Sprat Syndrome, no more too much or too little—that's what I found when I replaced the Rogers LS3/5As with the KEF LS50s ($1499/pair). After playing the Petri and Bartók records all the way through with the LS50s, I rediscovered just how relaxed, balanced, and flat-out musically engaging these little speakers can be. The Clue, the Rogers, and the KEF all have 5" mid/woofers, but the LS3/5A and the LS50 produced sufficient weight and instrumental body to sound believable and not distracting. The Clue did not.

I don't swear much, but when I replaced The Clues, the 5As, and the LS50s with my DeVore Fidelity Orangutan O/93s, I began repeating three-word exclamations that began with "Holy" and ended with the name of my headphone amp. If the KEFs added $5000 to my piano sound, the DeVores ($8400/pair) added another $20,000.

With The Clues, the pianos were roughly 4' wide and maybe 3' tall, but distant sounding. With the O/93s, Egon Petri's instrument became a genuine, full-size Steinway, with me and the mikes sitting right there up close to the pianist—I could have shot him with a rubber band.

At the beginning of the review process I felt, "Whoopee! I'm gonna review my first loudspeaker for Stereophile!" By the end, I felt as if I'd been knocked down and assaulted by an anonymous wooden box. Usually, the reviewer reviews the speaker; this time, it felt as if the speaker were reviewing me—as if I were being tested. I felt that my taste, my knowledge, and my ability to perceive sonic reality were under siege.

But feelings are not facts. I kept thinking that Sjöfn HiFi's The Clue was probably extremely good—maybe even some sort of breakthrough, especially for the price. I mean, what the hell; The Clue was transparent and highly detailed. It played fast and smooth. Its high frequencies were extended and well dispersed. Its bass was sharp and detailed, and put in notable efforts below 50Hz. The pair of them projected a wide, clear soundstage.

I did not have a Hegel H70 integrated amp, but I drove The Clues with a B&K ST-140 power amp and four integrateds: a Rogue Audio Sphinx, a Line Magnetic LM-518 IA, a Creek 4330, and a Roksan K2 BT. Each made the Sjöfns sound very different. (Surprisingly, the speakers sounded best with the moderately powered B&K and Line Magnetics amps.) At the end of this whole process, I'm upset with myself because I couldn't find a way to really enjoy my listening time while The Clues were in the system.

I think Jim Croft and Lars Erickson should step back and take another, perhaps slightly humbler, look at what they have accomplished. They have created a moderately priced loudspeaker to a singular, optimized-use model—an ambitious and admirable concept—that will deliver sensational performance to audiophiles who value detail, transparency, and dynamic ease above weight and balanced tone; who are willing to position The Clues precisely as required; and who will take the time to find an amp that makes them play according to their taste.

Did The Clue trounce the KEF LS50? Some among you may think so. I think the little KEF will end up ranking among such classic, time-honored designs as the Quad ESL-57, the Altec 604, and the BBC LS3/5A. Is The Clue "full-range"? I'll let John Atkinson and his MLSSA system answer that. Is The Clue an "affordable state-of-the-art monitor"? To me, state of the art is more a marketing than an engineering term.

What I do know is my own, very specific "use model" for a loudspeaker: one that lets me play one recording after another, one genre of music after another, without anxiety, distraction, or negative thoughts about sound quality. For me, a good loudspeaker is a comfortable coach (with something like vaguely flat in-room response) drawn by a pair of mythical horses (well-designed amplifiers) that can cross rivers, mountains, and deserts with ease and aplomb. A great loudspeaker is one that lets me travel to faraway places and never makes me want to come home. The Clue made me homesick for my little dog and warm slippers.

Mikeymort's picture

You mention the Dynaco ST120/A-25 combo which is my reference as well. (I still use my A-25's but sold my ST125 years ago.) I have kept the A-25's in service as they have the quality of never being fatiguing. I listen to audio almost constantly, music, news and sports. (I love a baseball game on the radio, or these days, being streamed over the internet) Since you have liked the A-25's, I'm guessing you heard this quality as well.

You never really followed up on on how the Sjöfn was different from the Dynacos, I'm sure it's better on the top-end, I'd be interested in your observations.

Allen Fant's picture

Nicely done! HR-
IME, Creek builds a very nice integrated that does well w/ many loudspeakers, inculding my reference, Thiel CS 2.4 - while the little Creek cannot satisfy the high power/current hungry Thiel spearks, it holds its own regarding "timbre".

dalethorn's picture

I'm not surprised by any of this. They need to optimize at both ends - best cases and worst cases, and it looks like they did only one.

Ishmael's picture

I very much enjoyed the article, well done Herb. I myself own the Clues and am very impressed with them but it was not an easy road to get here. I, like you, tried the suggested configuration for setup. I also rolled through tons of amps and sources. I ended up with good but not great result.

After about 6 months of trying (I was about ready to bail on the whole thing) I ended up trying more placement options in a last ditch effort to make the things work. I went extreme on the wall placement - nearly touching on the one corner, slightly more distance on the other due to toe-in. I also spread them out more than usual which put the left speaker up against a side wall - an unthinkable placement with most any other speaker. Bingo. This did the trick, and I'm getting substantially better sound than any other speaker I've tried in this room (including the LS50 and a bunch more in the $2k-3k range).

In summary, I bought these hoping for easy placement and good sound in my difficult room. I ended up with GREAT sound but it took more work to get there than with any other speakers I've owned, in any other room I've tried.

brian2010's picture

I wonder if this is the same Jim Croft who built transmission line four channel speakers for me in Vancouver, WA in the 1970s? He and a gentleman named Huber were just starting out in the industry and the speakers, hooked up to a Pioneer QX-8000 receiver, Thorens, Nakamichi and Teac sources were awesome. The system is still the best I have ever owned four decades later.

brian2010's picture

It is the same Jim Croft and I can tell you from experience any speaker he is involved with is going to be exceptional. I will soon go to Seattle to personally check these speakers out and you should, too. I doubt he has regressed in 40 years in the business.

Hi-Reality's picture

Dear Herb,

I use a pair of (the clue) loudspeakers from Erickson/Croft at Sjöfn HiFi driven by a pair of Khartago Mono Extremes from Klaus Bunge at Odyssey Audio as a reference system. They generate a dynamic and transparent experience with an amazing LF response ('Coffee', rather than 'Wine', is perhaps a good word to describe them. I think they will perform even better after I am done with the necessary improvements planned. One of my to-do items is to ask Lars Erickson for some Supra speaker cables and interconnects.

So my question #1: did you sense improvement/added realism after you installed them? this info was unfortunately missing from your report.

My question #2: What were the room size and shape you tested (the clue)'s in? what I can reveal at this point of my project is that these speakers' highest performance level is achieved in smaller and symmetrical rooms (I can't say what shape or how small though :-). So, in that sense they are performing as near-field monitors rather than the usual stand-mounters. And damn good ones!

My question #3: you have listed headphones and headphone amplifier in your equipment list; but there is no mention of them in the review. what was their function?

Thanks for this review. I was very happy to finally see a Stereophile review of Sjöfn HiFi (I had previously asking Stereophile to be kind and review them, see url below for one)

I am looking forward to your feedback.

Regards, Babak
Founder, The Hi-Reality Project,

corrective_unconscious's picture

I see your base instincts have come to the fore.

danger's picture

HR starts out in his high chair and ends in his slippers with his little dog. Seriously!? I think the review says more about HR than the speakers. Writing is unfocused just like HR's review process. He is all over the place.

argyle_mikey's picture

The company website diverts you to their eBay page. That offers plenty of nice looking cables etc but no sign of this most interesting sounding speaker. I do hope that they didn't stop making it.


TennesseeTuxedo's picture

As an owner of the clues for many years now I am politely mystified by this review. As a Denver resident and long standing audio nut and therefore a regular attendee at RMAF (Rocky Mountain Audio Fest), I stumbled upon the Sjofn Hi-Fi room many years ago back when they had a product called the Guru, which was an excellent speaker though, alas, out of my price range at the time. I lamented that to Lars Erikson, the man in the chair in socks and sandals at the Sjofn room and he said "Don't give up on us. We're working on that!" And a few years later I was pleased to find the clues in the Sjofn room, and in my price range no less. In addition to being affordable I made numerous trips to many rooms and to come back and compare the clues sound against: NHT, Sonus Faber, Zu Audio, Vandersteen, everything by Andrew Jones, Siggy Linkwitz, Hsu Research, Emotiva, Macintosh (!), Magnepan, Audio Research, German Physiks, YG and I don't remember the others. What impressed me was that the clues sounded as good as the best of those, and much better than the worst of them. So I purchased a pair of the clues and have been QUITE happy with them ever since. I knew they would sound best in a smaller damped room like the hotel room I heard them in. So I paired them with a simple Yamaha Natural Air integrated amp/receiver and a Carver FM tuner and just plunked them on tv tables in the corner of my smallish bedroom. I can tell you Colorado Public Radio and KUVO the jazz Station sounded PHENEMONAL, balanced, rich, and 3-dimensional. And whatever computer audio I was running also sounded excellent (without a DAC). Now I have a tall condo with a tv hutch and wouldn't you know it - the clues are a perfect fit for tv hutch design, now paired with a Denon AV Receiver/Integrated amp (and boat wire tin coated copper as speaker cables - hee hee hee!). But they need lots of clean power and symmetrical geometry in the room. You give them that and they will reward you for years to come, as mine have.

I also have a robust Rotel component system powering Revel M22's, Vandersteen Model 2's and Thiel CS 1.2's all connected via the requisite absurdly expensive cables. All three of those speaker sets sound best in a BIG TALL room. Whereas the Clues rule the SMALL COZY room. So basically if your ceiling is over 12 feet the clues are not going to impress you. If the ceiling is under 12 feet and you put them very close to the wall on stands 22 inches high with a smidge of toe in, then you will be delighted. Music. Home Theater. Whatever.





argyle_mikey's picture

Well, Lars responded to my email pretty quickly. The Clues are still available for 999 of your US dollars and he will post to the UK, so I'm going to jump in too. Amp will be a NAD M2, which seems to fit the bill power-wise at least. Should be interesting...


LostnAmerica's picture

Greetings from across the pond, I am eager to hear if you have received your speakers how your setup is working with your "the clue" speakers and, if any insight you might share in seting up. I thank you in advance...



LostnAmerica's picture

The latest comment from November of 2016 gave a little hope, they are still available, thats good news for the average consumer. I am taking a "chance" on a used pair of the clue that I found. And are patiently waiting for their arrival this week. I read as many reviews on this speaker as possible and about 90% were positive and encouraging that is why I searched and searched for a used pair. With the exception of the review on Stereophile which had led to (less than favorable) a recommendation which is a little confusing. I understand that the issues of concise placement and possibly the correct power supply (?) and I hope to conquer them, being a novice, this will be fun. I am excited about these little gems and will hope to draw out their full capabilities . Time will tell. Meantime, I hope others will report of their successes and issues with these speakers and look forward to reading and learning. I can understand how the performance of such a diminutive speaker and company could conceivably cause issues with the mainstream and "hi-End" speaker system companies, but really...I would add that I am a subscriber to this magazine and love it. And I would hope another updated "review" by possibly another of these speakers with no malicious intent to the original reviewer/author (however unprofitable as this might be) for the average consumer who might be able to afford the $1000 speaker and might see and eventually hear. Thanks for listening to my tirade...

argyle_mikey's picture

The curse of the audiophile - household repair demands for your hard earned cash - delayed my purchase. Sorry. In the meantime, I also think it's time for a reappraisal. I can't think of another component that received such a mixed review but remains in the Stereophile Recommended list. This speaker appears to be a bit of an enigma.


argyle_mikey's picture

Just bumping this (do people still bump things?) because I’m genuinely curious.

I don’t understand why some long-standing products get re-reviewed every few years - Totem Mani 2 seems to get a full review more often than I change my underpants - yet others are ignored. If ever a product required a follow up, I’d say it was this one.

How about it JA ?