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Positive Feedback ISSUE 23


Dr. Sardonicus Ponders the Issue of Expectations - The ACI Sapphire XL, a preview


I often wonder about the significance of things. I have not seriously looked at a two-way "monitor" speaker since my review of the ACI Sapphire - Titan combination way back in our print days: Positive Feedback, Vol.9, #2 November, 2001. In a smallish, secondary room, I found that combination quite entertaining, as I recall.

But such things are a major departure for me, because as I have unabashedly avowed, I am a full-range guy, and whatever the various merits of monitors, full range they ain't. As a result, most of these little speaks either leave me completely cold, or fit firmly into the "novelty" category. (I did get a major hoot out of watching the blowback from the port on a little Totem monitor kicking the curtains around at the Home Entertainment show in New York.)

You see ...monitors are about compromises; compromises in size, power handling/power consumption, low-frequency response and SPLs. I am not a big fan of compromises. And, of course, there are always the deadly "adjustments" made in the frequency response to trick the listener's ear in to thinking you are getting full range from a tiny box. Whatever the Borg, uh, Bose has convinced the general public of, still ain't so. Mid-bass is not bass. My venerable old KEF-102s even had an active equalization module to try to coax some actual bass out; it didn't work but hey, snaps for the effort.

But, over the years I have kept the KEFs and I have always found places and applications for them. Simple fact is that highly-portable two-way monitors often become utility speakers for hard-core audiophiles. My KEFs have rarely been out of some sort of service. But a two-way monitor for serious listening? Please. The closest I have been to that reality in a long time was the luscious Wavac integrated 10-watt SET stereo amp in a bedroom system with the KEFs. Man, I still lust after that Wavac. (I admit it; I am a sucker for a pretty face). Like my first girlfriend, I just enjoyed the simple process of turning it on.

But, expectations, always expectations...

I would say the price of speakers I have been listening to of late STARTS in the ten thousand dollar range and goes up from there. Even at this lofty price level I have been mostly unmoved and unimpressed. What possible allure could there be for me in the sub-2k range, a niche primarily occupied by entry-level and cookie cutter mass produced products, most of which are rabidly competing for the mercurial HT dollar? (I do so relish occasionally playing the role of the effete audio reviewer ...Garcon! More larks tongues!).

What possible attraction is there in a two-way monitor I can easily tuck under one arm, that sits on a stand, when what I really want is one of Jennifer Crock's first four-column, cost-no-object, masterpiece speaker systems (BUILD THE FREAKING SPEAKER, JENNIFER!)?

But life, and time and tides are complex and interwoven in ways that would make blush a sophomore-level philosophy professor doing a series on the existential angst of the poetry of Rod McKuen.

So, here I sit with a piano-black pair of diminutive two-way ACI monitors (the damned things have a sub-six inch woofer, for cripes sake!), being driven by a Chinese integrated amplifier of surprising charm, and I wonder about my expectations.

Now, here is where the reader braces him or herself for the non sequitorial revelation that the jaded reviewer has found salvation in the simple fare.

Naw ...You can put the pee-test cup away. I still want the Bentley Turbo. But—and this is almost as big a butt as I personally sport—the new generation ACI Sapphire XLs exceed any reasonable expectation for a speaker this small and this keenly priced.

Mike Dzurko will put a set of these little jewels in your hands, delivered, well south of two thousand dollars, with a host of excellent finishes from which to pick, a no-BS satisfaction/return policy, and a five-year warranty.

And for your minor ducats, you get a beautifully executed little work horse, equally at home in an HT or music system—Scan-Speak® drivers and other quality components, and this unflappable personality that reminds me of nothing quite so much as my 1969 BMW 2002 (yep, they did import the successor to the 1600 into the US in 69).

The BMW 2002 - The ACI Sapphire XL

The 2002 was basic; it was small; it was not hugely powerful nor, in its parts, equal to or superior to a number of other sport vehicles of the time. What it was, was one of the most artfully integrated and completely enjoyable cars I ever owned. From the huge field of vision, to the plucky little 2.0 liter engine, it was about as good as bare-bones, two-door sport coupes for-modest-dollars, ever got. More importantly, it was hugely fun to drive.

However, unlike the 2002, the Sapphire XL is pretty. Say what you want about the 2002, pretty it isn't.

This, my friends, is the Sapphire XL. It is this charming little speaker that will NOT back down from a fight, loves music and the cinema, and is off the scale on a price-to-performance ratio.

I am still not satisfied with my lash-up (danged speaker stands are a royal pain the patooti), and I badly need more of Jennifer's wire, but true to my commitment to a more in vivo approach to reviewing, here are my first impressions.

  • Damned things will play LOUD without distress. I have them in a fairly substantial great room, which opens into my kitchen ...lots of cubic feet to fill, and they act like they are at least twice their size, given adequate power.

  • Fast and articulate, makes the Sapphire XL a natural for cinema applications. They do a stellar job with the human voice.

  • Yes, there is the traditional mid-bass push-out, common to nearly all monitors, but in this speaker this euphony is quite subtle and does not result in chestiness or slowness. It's just a bit...

  • Warmish sounding, without losing detail. Dark = dim, and the Sapphire XLs ain't dim. Considering the typical electronics used to drive a speaker at this price point, the speakers will be forgiving of glare in modest solid-state amplification and the oft encountered coldness in budget CD/DVD players. That being said, they are also up to resolving the detail in better gear. You can't lose! Neither zippy or boomy, this is a highly competent speaker.

  • The bass is tuneful, lightning fast, and surprisingly present for such a small driver—but physics are physics. While most listeners will be delighted with the Sapphire's as is, ACI makes what appears to be a remarkable (just got ‘em in the system a few bleems ago) subwoofer, The Force™, a single, powered ten-inch, downward firing sub, which appears to match up very nicely with the Sapphire XLs (and costs under a grand). I am doing one per side. This extends the Sapphire into full range. Most importantly, it appears that the subs are sufficiently fast and tuneful, and flexible enough in operational settings to allow for virtually seamless integration (always a challenge). I have a lot more set up work to do with the subs, but my initial findings are positive.

  • Whatever anyone else may say about small tube amps with single digit power ratings for this speaker, I suggest you ignore them. These girls need high octane to sing. My Bryston 60-watter didn't even come close; the Sapphire XLs sucked it dry. Granted, the Bryston really performs more like a 40-watt amp, and is often a bit ticklish for speaker loading. Right now I am feeding the Sapphire XLs 250 watts, and while that much power does provide a certain, ahem, headroom, it is not overkill. Think a SOLID 60-100 watts per channel. Minimum.

Over the next bit I am going to be working on dialing in the set up, and playing with the subs. I will keep you posted. But, and hear this clearly, the Sapphire XLs are a truly meritorious product and worthy of consideration for discerning audiophiles who have:

  1. A small space and cranky neighbors.

  2. A small pocketbook and champagne tastes.

  3. An aversion to spending more than you have to.

  4. A friend, relative, etc. just entering audio, whom you want to help avoid the zing-zing, boom-boom pitfalls of mass market dreck.

  5. Home theater needs.

  6. A need for a secondary system of very high quality, where size matters.

Here would be a sweet system ...this amazingly inexpensive (under $800) 100-watt Dussan integrated amp, a modest, entry-level SACD player, Jena Labs Soloist level wire, and the Sapphire XLs, all for under $5k. I am tempted to lay such a system aside for when they take me to the assisted living villa.

In short: the ACIs exceed expectations. More to come.