Icon Parsec loudspeaker

"My vision for the future is one where all manufacturers sell their products directly to the end user. In this way, even the audiophiles in Dead Horse, Alaska can have access to all the audio manufacturing community has to offer." Thus wrote loudspeaker designer David Fokos in a letter introducing his new company Icon Acoustics to the press at Stereophile's High End Hi-Fi show in San Mateo, CA last April (footnote 1). Mr. Fokos, a Cornell graduate who for some years worked for Conrad-Johnson Design and designed that company's well-regarded Synthesis and Sonographe loudspeaker models, feels very strongly that the traditional retailing setup is inefficient when it comes to exposing audiophiles to a wide enough choice of product, particularly when it comes to loudspeakers. With 300 speaker manufacturers listed in the Audio directory issue but even a major retailer restricted to probably six brands, even big-city audiophiles will only be able to audition a fraction of the total number of brands. "Our industry is suffering from product saturation of its retail distribution network."

Dave went on in his letter to develop the theme that, in an analogous manner to personal computer retailing, where Dell Computer became immensely successful by bypassing the entire retail setup, a loudspeaker manufacturer can better serve his customers by selling directly to them. By doing so, he ensures that the customer can audition the loudspeakers at length in the best possible location: his or her own listening room. "Rather than the 20 or 30 minutes you usually have to make a decision in the store, Icon gives its customers 43,200 minutes," Dave claims, due to his policy of shipping a pair of loudspeakers via Federal Express for 30 days' home trial to the customer who calls Icon's 800 number. At the end of that period, if the customer is not satisfied, he or she returns the speakers to Icon at Icon's expense, again via Federal Express, and receives a full refund (provided the speakers are undamaged).

Icon is not the first loudspeaker manufacturer to go this route. Henry Kloss's Cambridge SoundWorks has done very well with its range of inexpensive systems (including the $250/pair Ambiance that I reviewed last March), and has now extended its mail-order operation to sell Denon, Magnavox, and Pioneer portable CD players, laserdisc players, and Dolby-surround processors. And the commercial success of The Audio Advisor, Crutchfield, and Audio Express confirm that many audiophiles like to buy by mail-order. But Icon Acoustics is the first company, as far as I am aware, to sell exclusively high-end loudspeakers by mail.

Icon's range currently consists of two models: the two-way, stand-mounted Lumen at $695/pair, and the floorstanding, three-way Parsec at $1495/pair, which marries the Lumen's drive-units to a 10" woofer. (Both prices include Federal Express delivery charges.) After some discussion with Dave, I decided to request a pair of Parsecs for review.

The Parsec's large, well-proportioned cabinet is constructed from ¾" MDF (medium-density fiberboard), veneered on both sides (footnote 2), and is extensively braced in its bottom half, both front to back and from side to side. The review samples were finished in a light oak veneer—Black Oak and American Walnut are also available—and were visually somewhat imposing. The enclosure is filled with what appears to be 1.5"-thick polyurethane foam and some acrylic wadding. In the top half of the cabinet, a 45° sloped internal board completely separates the woofer enclosure from that of the midrange driver and tweeter. The two ports, each 14" deep and 2" in diameter, are placed on the front baffle just above the woofer, which is held in place by no less than eight hex-head bolts. The woofer uses a graphite-impregnated pulp cone with a rubber half-roll surround and has had a putty-like damping material applied between its magnet and chassis. The midrange unit is made by Vifa in Denmark and features a shallow-flared polypropylene cone of approximately 5" radiating diameter. Completing the lineup is a version of the familiar 1" aluminum-dome tweeter from SEAS in Norway, this recently heard in the Signet SL280 as well as in the Meridian D600.

As with the Allison floorstanding speakers, because of the close spacing of the Parsec's woofer to the floor, the normal "floor dip" in its response, due to the interference between the driver's direct output and the reflection of its sound from the floor, will be pushed up to around 500Hz, well above its passband. Similarly, because the midrange unit is 36" from the floor, its floor dip will occur at around 170Hz, an octave below its passband. Unlike conventional stand-mounted or floor-standing loudspeakers, therefore, the Parsec will maintain its full response throughout the lower midrange. Whether this is appropriate or not is open to question. There is no doubt that the human ear and brain are used to hearing a dip in a sound source's spectral response in this region—it happens every time someone speaks to you, for example—and it is possible that human beings have learned to tune it out. In addition, this drive-unit layout results in the maximum excitation of floor-to-ceiling axial room resonances. With its close proximity to a boundary, the woofer's efficiency will be also increased somewhat compared with its behavior in free space.

As befits its high-end heritage, the Parsec's crossover is no ordinary beast. Following the electrical signal on its journey from the two pairs of elegant Tiffany binding posts, doubled runs of AudioQuest Type 4 cable take it to the bass low-pass filter. This is a second-order type with more of a slow-rollout Bessel characteristic than the more usual Butterworth, and consists of a series ferrite-cored choke—said to handle more than 500W before saturation—and a shunt capacitor, this a polypropylene-dielectric type from Solen in France bypassed with a smaller-value polystyrene. The signal, now with frequencies above 350Hz filtered from it, is taken to the woofer with another doubled run of AudioQuest Type 4 (footnote 3). The tweeter/midrange crossover is constructed on a separate board, with all the components hardwired to short lengths of tag strip. Both high-pass and low-pass slopes for the midrange unit filters are second-order, with a Bessel characteristic. Air-cored coils are used, but again the capacitors are Icon's parallel mix of low-value polystyrenes and Solen polypropylenes. The tweeter carries the signal above 1500Hz—a lowish frequency, considering that it is fed by a first-order filter. Some tonal shaping is also applied to the tweeter's drive signal. Single runs of AQ Type 4 cable are used for the two upper-frequency units.

Footnote 1: The Icon room at the show, which featured their speakers driven by a Mark Levinson No.23 power amplifier via AudioQuest Green Hyperlitz cable, came in an excellent 15th in the visitors' poll on the best-sounding room.

Footnote 2: Though well-protected in its double shipping carton, the Parsec lacks any kind of plinth, so it is essential to unpack it on to a carpeted floor if the veneer is not to be chipped at the speaker's base. I also think it would be a good idea for Icon to mark the inner carton as to which is the Parsec's base and which end its top, to avoid the carton being opened upside-down. I learned these things the hard way, of course.

Footnote 3: Icon can take orders for AudioQuest cable at a special price from their customers; AudioQuest will ship the cable directly to them.