SOTA Panorama loudspeaker

In their seminal work on the subject of audio "Bluff your Way in Hi-Fi" (1987), Sue Hudson and John Crabbe stated that "the perfect speaker would have no mass and no dimensions. The perfect speaker does not exist, and if it did, it still wouldn't." One might add, as a corollary, that a speaker with zero dimensions would also have infinite cost. At least there seems to be a trend in that direction. The Wilson WATT and Celestion SL700—to use today's two most visible examples—may have attracted considerable attention because of their exceptional performance, but they have also attracted at least as much because of their price/size ratio. Even in a considerably "lower" price bracket, a "simple" two-way loudspeaker with a 6" or 7" woofer costing $1000–$2000/pair would, at one time, have had most audiophiles laughing themselves silly.

No one is laughing anymore. Today's market realities dictate that such a loudspeaker, with high-end aspirations, will be priced somewhere in the low end of this range. And there are definite advantages in a small, high-quality two-way design. The smaller cabinet has an easier time getting out of its own way, both with respect to the resonances generated by its supposedly inert walls, and to the diffraction interference it causes with its own signal—interference caused simply by the physical reality of its being in its own space (by, if you will, its having dimensions). Another advantage of such a design, not often credited, is that its drivers often integrate better at a closer listening distance than more complex systems. A closer listening chair means more direct sound and less reverberant (room) sound—often resulting in a less confused soundstage.

The design of a two-way system also involves far fewer complications. The single crossover point can be placed well out of the range of most musical fundamentals, minimizing the adverse effects of even a well-designed crossover network. But there is a penalty for this. The larger the woofer, the more difficulty it runs into in the 2kHz–4kHz crossover range most commonly used in a two-way system. An 8" woofer can work well in such an application (and does in a number of systems), but it can be a sonic stretch. And while a 4" or 5" low-frequency driver may be superb in the midrange (many three-way systems use midrange drivers of this size), it cannot hope to produce a very realistic bass. So the choice comes down to a woofer with a cone size between 6" and 7", and a cabinet of under a cubic foot—optimal for most such drivers. With careful design, such systems can provide a high-end–worthy midrange and a low end extending to perhaps 50Hz or so—decidedly lightweight, but acceptable for many listeners (especially considering the cosmetically discrete cabinet size). Output levels will be limited, but capable of discouraging conversation (while still sounding coherent) even in a large listening room.

Three excellent examples of such a loudspeaker, previously reviewed (and recommended) here, are the Snell Q, Epos ES-14, and Thiel CS 1.2. All are priced within a couple of hundred dollars of that $1000 mark (stands excluded, footnote 1). Go above that price level for a two-way system and you should expect something more. Perhaps more expensive, sophisticated drive-units and an added wrinkle or two in cabinet design—which may or may not translate into improved sound quality.

The Panorama SOTA has chosen to take the latter route with their Panorama loudspeaker. While it is certainly not priced in the WATT range, it shares many design concepts with that highly regarded loudspeaker. First of all, in its cabinet: Both designs are solid and nonresonant. Though far less massive than the Wilson loudspeaker, which has a 60 lb synthetic marble and lead-damped enclosure, the Panorama's cabinet is about as dead as that of any other loudspeaker I have ever seen. The enclosure walls are composed of two layers of MDF having a total thickness of 1.25", heavily braced. The result is a solid structure which produces little more than a dull thud in the knuckle-rap test.

The general configuration of the Panorama's enclosure is also very WATT-like in its use of a rearward-sloping baffle and inward-sloping sides. This lack of parallel surfaces (top and bottom excepted) minimizes internal standing waves. All of the external corners are rounded (except for the bottom), reducing diffraction effects, and all surfaces (minus, again, the bottom) are finished in high-quality veneer. A thin, easily removable foam grille covers the drivers.

Designer Jack Caldwell has chosen an aperiodic loading scheme for the Panorama. First used (to my knowledge) in a commercial system in the Dynaco A-25 of 20 years ago, it is basically a sealed box to which a heavily damped release hole or holes have been added, this consisting in the case of the Panorama of a foam-filled slot at the front of the speaker's base. The purpose of the latter is not to tune the system as in a ported design—the loading parameters resemble those of an acoustic suspension system—but to form a controlled leak to relieve internal box pressures. The principal proponents of the technique today are Dynaudio (which manufactures a special plug, which they call a "variovent," made specifically to use in damping the release holes) and Audio Concepts. Jack Caldwell has, not coincidentally, contributed many designs to the latter company—which also uses Dynaudio drivers in many of their systems.

The drivers chosen for the Panorama, however, are both made by Focal. The tweeter uses a diaphragm formed from Kevlar, a very light and rigid woven material. The tweeter is an inverted dome with a foam suspension and a voice-coil smaller than its diameter—in a way it resembles a very small cone more than the conventional dome. Again, similarities with the WATT crop up. The latter also uses a Focal tweeter, but one with a fiberglass dome (the designer's preference) and rear venting.

The woofer in the Panorama also uses Kevlar as a diaphragm material, but in this case the construction is more elaborate. Focal calls it their "K2" cone. It consists of two thin foils of Kevlar bonded by a synthetic resin/microball foam compound. The thickness is only 1mm, and it is said to be extremely rigid, extending the range in which the driver acts as a pure piston.

The crossover between these two drivers has a 12dB/octave high-pass filter for the tweeter, a 6dB/octave low-pass for the woofer. The rear-mounted terminals provide for bi-wiring if desired. My only ergonomic problem with the Panorama was that the recessed terminal block is cramped and difficult to reach with spade lugs. The removable heads on the high-quality, Tiffany banana jacks do help alleviate this irritation, but in a day when loudspeaker wire resembles auto jumper cables (and is sometimes used as such, footnote 2), why do manufacturers insist on neat little recessed terminal blocks for their loudspeakers? Especially those, including the Panorama's, which mount the plus and minus terminals vertically, leaving the speaker cables to splay out toward the sides of the loudspeaker instead of dressing neatly straight down?

Sound Anchors makes dedicated stands for the Panorama which raise them about 19" off the floor and provide a means of tilting the rear of the cabinet sharply backward while still maintaining rigidity. The correct tilt will depend on your listening height and distance; SOTA provides a useful, printed diagram with recommended settings to get you in the right ballpark. My only complaint with these very solid stands concerned their out-of-the-box smell—a problem with the paint used by Sound Anchors which I have noticed in their other products. It eventually dissipates (give it several weeks).

Sound I initially set up the Panoramas, on their Sound Anchor stands, in the same locations normally occupied by my B&W 801 Matrix Series IIs. They were tilted back slightly on their stands and toed in toward the listening position. My first listen was decidedly underwhelming. No deep bass (as expected), but a lack of body in the mid- and upper bass as well. An OK soundstage—but clearly less convincing than that from the 801s. And a high end that was (for me) more than a bit excessive, though not so much as to be unlistenable.

Clearly, I had work to do. I diddled. And fiddled. I tried several different listening positions in the same room. To check for room/bass interaction, I tried the Panoramas in a much smaller room (an 11' by 12' video room/den). The latter was not successful; the smaller room did nothing positive for the imaging and only marginally assisted the bass. Different degrees of backward tilt were tried. I went from bi- to mono-wiring and back again.

Finally I received SOTA's recommended setup directions, including the diagram describing the recommended tiltback. (It hadn't been included with the original shipment.) I wound up with the Panoramas in nearly their original positions, but slightly closer together and tilted back decidedly more than previously. I moved my listening position a bit closer—just under 9!0 from the plane of the loudspeakers (which were just under 8!0 apart), rather than the former 10!0. I went to a sweeter-sounding phono cartridge—the Benz-Micro MC-3. The power amplifier metamorphosed from a Levinson No.23 to a VTL 90/90.

Things continued to improve with each change.

Footnote 1: The Thiel is floorstanding.

Footnote 2: See my 1990 Winter CES report in the March 1990 issue.

SOTA Sales and Service Center
10830 S. Nagle
Worth, IL 60482
(608) 538-3500

es347's picture

..who couldn't care less about reading eqpt reviews from decades ago? Sorry but this sort if thing is nothing more than filler...ok end of rant...carry on

John Atkinson's picture
es347 wrote:
am I the only one who couldn't care less about reading eqpt reviews from decades ago? Sorry but this sort if thing is nothing more than filler.

If you had paid to read the articles and reviews on this website, you would have a point. As you didn't, you don't.

Seriously, many people find these vintage reviews to be of value. Read, for example, the comments appended to the 1978 Beveridge 2SW review also posted this week.

John Atkinson
Editor, Stereophile

es347's picture

..reply John but I hear you. I still could not care less...sorry..

es347's picture the way I've had a paid subscription for your MAGAZINE for decades but I guess that doesn't buy you much here on line eh? Priceless..

John Atkinson's picture
es347 wrote:
I've had a paid subscription for your MAGAZINE for decades but I guess that doesn't buy you much here on line eh?

I am sorry you don't care for these vintage reviews. But as I said, other subscribers do like them. Thank you for subscribing to the print Stereophile all these years, but that doesn't mean your opinion on what content should be posted on our free-access website should be given greater weight than those of other subscribers. Sorry if that offends.

John Atkinson
Editor, Stereophile

es347's picture

"that doesn't mean your opinion on what content should be posted on our free-access website should be given greater weight than those of other subscribers"...come on man. Where did I say anything of the kind? I guess I was taken aback by the snarkiness (a word?) of your reply...

John Atkinson's picture
es347 wrote:
John Atkinson wrote:
that doesn't mean your opinion on what content should be posted on our free-access website should be given greater weight than those of other subscribers

...come on man. Where did I say anything of the kind?

You wrote "I've had a paid subscription for your MAGAZINE for decades but I guess that doesn't buy you much here on line eh?"

Those words suggest that you seem to think that your opinion should result in action on our part.

John Atkinson
Editor, Stereophile

es347's picture

..expect to win an argument with a British journalist....white flag waving...whew..

Osgood Crinkly III's picture

Burst my sides laughing reading this.

To think I once subscribed to the Archibald/Holt Stereophile. Never again.

dalethorn's picture

"Those who fail to learn the lessons of history often repeat the mistakes" -- quote approximate. In my case (just another audiophile), it's great to have a refresh when the review contains important lessons, since a lot of history fades from my immediate memory. The measure of success in these things is the response of many readers, but I'm just one reader, so we'll see...

corrective_unconscious's picture

When they're of products I remember as being noteworthy in one way or another.

I'm less enthusiastic when there's reviews or comparisons with vintage gear in (limited page number) print.

Of course it's not really a serious complaint since it's so trivial to just skip uninteresting reviews (or strugglingly disputatious posts) online.

volvic's picture

Never even knew that SOTA at one point made speakers,maybe I forgot, I do remember in the 90's they also made a CD player. I find these old reviews and articles perfect compliments to my subscription and would be very disappointed if they didn't continue.