Cambridge SoundWorks Ambiance loudspeaker

According to the conventional wisdom, companies selling consumer products fall into two categories: those whose sales are "marketing-led" and those whose sales are "product-led." Marketing-led companies tend to sell mature products into a mature market where there are no real differences between competing products—soap powder, mass-market beer, or cigarettes, for example—whereas product-led companies tend to sell new technologies, such as personal computers and high-end hi-fi components. In the audio separates market, conventional wisdom would have a hard time categorizing any individual company: no matter which you choose, it would be simplistic to say that it is either product- or marketing-led. No matter how good the product, without good marketing the manufacturer stands little chance of success; a poor product superbly marketed may make a company successful overnight, but that success will have hit the end stops by the following night.

Nevertheless, for this review, I chose a model from a company renowned for its marketing strength: Cambridge SoundWorks. This company, which has demonstrated an astonishingly fast rise from nowhere on the strength of Henry Kloss's name and superbly written ad copy, has even disposed of the conventional retail network to sell its products, relying instead on an aggressive mail-order operation, coupled with a 30-day money-back guarantee. We bought the Cambridge SoundWorks Ambiance speakers through the mail. They cost $218/pair plus $10 S/H.

Cambridge Soundworks
Cambridge SoundWorks' Chairman is one Henry Kloss, a name that will be familiar to anyone who has followed the US hi-fi market for more than five years or so. Mr. Kloss has been a speaker man all his life, being involved in Acoustic Research in its formative years, leaving that company to found KLH, then becoming the force behind Advent. He appeared to lose his way in the '80s when his company produced a projection TV system, but the appearance of Cambridge SoundWorks saw a return to his woofer'n'tweeter roots. The company's first product, a tiny satellite/dual subwoofer package called the Ensemble, along with a similar package from Bose, set the style for what now appears to be a bestselling "lifestyle" loudspeaker system (footnote 1). In addition, the notion of selling only direct to the public, with a 30-day money-back guarantee and a toll-free number where expert advice would always be available (at least from 9am to 10pm EST, Monday through Saturday, and 9am through 6pm EST on Sundays), proved a winner.

The Ambiance, Cambridge SoundWorks' second product, is a more conventional minimonitor that resembles a slightly larger-scale version of the Ensemble satellite. Though specifications and literature state that the Ambiance features a 6.5" woofer, this dimension misleadingly includes the mounting plate. The actual radiating diameter of the pulp cone is 4.5". Bass alignment is sealed-box or "acoustic suspension," while the tweeter is a ferrofluid-cooled unit with a plastic phase plate over the dome. A metal grille protects the drive-units, which are mounted on a slightly recessed baffle, while electrical connection is via gold-plated five-way binding posts on the rear. A "keyhole" is included on the rear panel to allow the speaker to be wall-mounted, and a rear brass bush is also fitted so that the Ambiance can be bolted to an optional stand. The review samples were finished in gray Nextel, but primed wood (ready for painting) and solid oak finishes are also available.

The instruction sheet contains concise instructions for getting the best sound from a pair of Ambiances, including a firm instruction that "we have found no audible benefit with any speaker from very heavy (and expensive) 'audiophile' speaker cable." Cambridge SoundWorks supports this statement by saying that if their customer has difficulty in locating their recommended 18-gauge cable, they will send some free of charge. Now that's backing up your beliefs in a solid way!

Sound quality
Correct placement of minimonitors is crucial to getting the best balance between the limited amount of bass available and the rest of the spectrum. Site a pair of LS3/5as against a rear wall or a pair of Linn Kans out in the room and the sound will not fail to disappoint. I felt Cambridge SoundWorks' instructions for the Ambiance—amounting to "anywhere where you like the sound is OK"—are too all-encompassing to be of specific guidance. I started by using the speakers toed-in on 24" stands (footnote 2) (which placed my ears at tweeter height), positioned well away from room boundaries, in order to get a handle on the Ambiance's intrinsic balance.

Pink noise revealed a rather midrange-forward tonal balance, relieved only by a slight emphasis in the presence region. Except for the top audio octave, however, that balance changed very little above, below, or to the speaker's sides, implying excellent dispersion in the midrange and above. The Ambiance is hardly a "hot seat" speaker where you have to sit with your head in a clamp if the balance is not to change significantly. Lows were missing in action, as might be expected, and moving the speaker to within 24" of the rear wall provided some useful reinforcement in the upper bass. The bulk of the auditioning was done with this placement. Placing the speakers against the rear wall resulted in an unnatural "chesty" effect on spoken male voice, however. Male spoken voice also revealed some presence-region emphasis, with a slight "quack" noticeable lower in frequency.

Playing Stereophile's Poem album, the sound of the flute was too breathy, with a very small-sounding piano. Some notes in the flute's lower register also were too hooty. The soundstage was shallower than I expected, with the instruments presented pretty much in the same plane. (Having produced this recording, I am very sensitive to changes in the way it is presented.) The music communicated quite effectively, however, though I did suspect a lack of dynamic impact not connected with the speakers' restricted LF extension.

Hildegard of Bingen's A Feather on the Breath of God album (Hyperion CDA66039) is one of my reference recordings for female voice. Emma Kirkby's divine voice both suffered a little from sibilance emphasis and was rendered rather small-sounding, with the same cupped-hands coloration noticeable that lent a slight quack to male voice. Lateral soundstaging, however, was quite precise, with no sense that images were localized in the loudspeakers, a sign that the small, solid-feeling cabinet is relatively free from midband resonant problems. The enclosure did seem reasonably dead, though one major resonance centered on 260Hz was noticeable, the entire cabinet literally shaking at this frequency.

Orchestral recordings suffered a little from the presence-region emphasis, which made violins sound rather too wiry. In addition, the top two audio octaves were somewhat depressed in absolute terms, which diminished the sense of air on naturally miked recordings. At low levels, the sound was still relatively clear, but climaxes took on a muffled character. Again I got the impression of a relative lack of dynamic impact to the sound; turning the volume up didn't seem to help.

Listening to my own piano recording on the Stereophile Test CD, I was again struck by the way the soundstage floated free from the speaker positions but with a restricted feeling of depth. There also seemed to be a little confusion in the upper midrange, some notes fighting with others due to an uneven overhang characteristic. The speaker was noticeably less clear here than in the region below. Within its limitations, however, I must say that the Ambiance performed creditably with recorded piano. I have heard a lot worse, and one evening, intending just to dip into the Reference Recordings Nojima Plays Liszt CD (RR-25CD) for a quick sound check, I listened all the way from the start of the first Mephisto Waltz through to the end of the B-minor sonata. The Ambiances may have an identifiable character but they do let enough of the music through.

As described by Bob Katz last December the LEDR test (footnote 3), which is included on a new test CD from Chesky, enables the listener to make an accurate subjective check of the ability of a pair of loudspeakers to reproduce image positions between, beyond, and above the speakers. Specific tracks, labeled "Up" and "Over," should produce moving images that trace a vertical line above left and right loudspeakers, then arch between them in both directions. The Ambiances did quite well on the "Over" tests, the image moving up slightly, then evenly moving across the soundstage before descending. The "Up" pathways were less well-defined, however, first moving inward from the speaker positions as they moved up, then moving out again in an unstable manner. (The Ambiences were much better than the Polks or Thiels in this respect, however.) The lateral imaging test signal also revealed a slight pulling to the sides, evident as a broadening on central images. Moving the speakers more than 2' out from the rear wall slightly improved things, but then, of course, the bass became seriously undernourished.

My primary comparisons were made with the Celestion 3, a budget-priced ($269/pair) English sealed-box miniature that couples a titanium-dome tweeter with a 5" long-throw woofer. Listening first to J. Gordon Holt's Praeludium track on the Stereophile Test CD, the Ambiances were not unpleasant to listen to, the orchestral image being well-separated from the speaker positions. The central imaging was a little unstable, however, when compared with that of the Celestions placed in the identical positions in the room. While sharing the Ambiance's cupped-hands midrange coloration, the Celestion did have less of a midrange-forward balance, though its mids were more clangy than those of the American speaker. This is a contrast between a pure tonal balance problem and one due more to resonant colorations, I guess.

The Ambiance also had a seamless quality to the midrange that made the English speaker sound untidy. Usefully for a budget-priced speaker that will be used with low-powered amplifiers, the Celestion was over 5dB more sensitive. It also had significantly more midbass energy—orchestral basses having more weight—to the benefit of the music, and its treble region was both higher in level than the Ambiance's and cleaner overall. There was less sibilance noticeable on female voice, though recorded tape hiss seemed equally audible.

Performing a comparison with the Rogers LS3/5a might be thought to be unfair to the Ambiance, considering the English speaker, at $649/pair, costs a hair under three times its price. However, such a comparison is invited by the Ambiance literature, which states that the speaker "provides a level of performance for its size that makes it directly comparable to the costliest small systems available."

Well, I'm here to tell you that the venerable LS3/5a still has it over the challenger. Apart from the upper bass, where the LS3/5a features the under-damped bloom that engineers in the early 1970s thought necessary in a miniature speaker to compensate for the lack of extension, instrumental tonality was considerably more true, as judged from my own recordings. The seamless aspect of the Ambiance's balance enabled it to offer a very listenable sound quality, but its overall higher level of midrange coloration, coupled with the combination of lispy yet shut-in highs and rather subdued dynamics, rendered its sound significantly less involving. In addition, it just couldn't compete in the area where the LS3/5a is one of the leading contenders, that of the creation of a broad soundstage with convincing depth. Images were significantly more palpable via the English speaker; the Ambiances presented a flat, rather one-dimensional stage. A pair of LS3/5as definitely can take their place as the primary speakers in a high-end system; for a pair of Ambiances to do so is questionable.

Reaching a conclusion appropriate to Stereophile's readership is quite difficult with such an inexpensive loudspeaker as the Ambiance (footnote 4). To be honest, I can't imagine many readers choosing the Ambiance as the featured loudspeaker for their primary sound system. If $230–$270 is the maximum you can spend on a pair of loudspeakers and you need to be able to place them near a rear wall or even on a bookshelf, the Celestion 3 will probably be a better choice, with its higher sensitivity, cleaner treble, better sense of dynamics, and more extended lows. But for the office or den, or as a pair of visually unobtrusive—ahem—ambience speakers in a surround system, I can't imagine a better, more painless way to spend 228 bills.

Footnote 1: Since committing this review to type, I am reminded of a tiny subwoofer/satellite system marketed seven years ago by Desktop Loudspeakers. It appears there's nothing new under the sun in loudspeaker design!—John Atkinson

Footnote 2: The stands were the same that I used for my review of the Spica TC-50 and Celestion 3 last October, $300/pair Celestion SLSi models which are single-pillar designs, with steel top and bottom plates. The pillars are filled with 25 lbs of lead shot, topped up with about another 10 lbs of dry sand. The top plate is a little large for both the Ambiance, so I positioned the speakers at its front edge, coupled to the stand with small blobs of EZ-Tak.—John Atkinson

Footnote 3: The test signals are based on pyschoacoustic research carried out at Northwestern University into how the ear/brain localizes sound sources.—John Atkinson

Footnote 4: "Inexpensive" $228/pair with shipping may have seemed in December 1989, when I wrote those words, but with the benefit of hindsight, when that $253 is equivalent to around $800 in 2008 dollars, it seems quite expensive for what was on offer. For $800 in 2008, you can buy a pair of loudspeakers, like the NHT Classic Three that leaves the Cambridge SoundWorks Ambiance in the dust in both sound-quality and technical arenas. As does the PSB Alpha B1 for just $279 in 2008 dollars.—John Atkinson

Cambridge SoundWorks
120 Water Street
North Andover, MA 01845
(800) 367-4434