POSITIVE FEEDBACK ONLINE - ISSUE 33
as reviewed by Ed Kobesky
It's been raining little speakers at Positive Feedback's Scranton branch. First came the Silverline Audio Minuet (reviewed here), an adorable $699 mini-monitor that sounds surprisingly rich and smooth. Next up was Orb Audio's Classic One sub/sat system (reviewed here), which redefined my expectations of a $550 sub/sat package. And this summer saw the arrival of Role Audio's little Kayak, an American-made, nearfield monitor that sells for $695.
Several reviewers have compared the Kayak to the legendary BBC LS3/5a, and with good reason. The Kayak shares many of the LS3/5a's positive traits, including an uncolored midrange, the ability to disappear and throw a wide and deep soundstage, and good tonal balance. But the Kayak also reminds me of why I despise the LS3/5a: they have no bass and zero ability to render large instruments with convincing authority. Every moment spent listening to them is an endurance test because every note is just a tease: here's 50% of the music presented beautifully ...sorry, can't help you with the rest.
That's great if you listen only to small jazz ensembles or folk music or such, but for anything else, I say leave the LS3/5a back in the broadcast van where they belong. Likewise, going from my Triangle Celius 202 floorstanders to the Kayaks took a loooong period of adjustment. When I first fired them up with Tom Petty's new CD, Highway Companion (American Recordings R-843295), I knew I was in for a challenge. How could I properly and fairly evaluate a speaker that I immediately wanted to heave out the window for being so damn good at some things and so frustratingly incapable of others?
I started by taking a closer look at the speaker itself. It's really a wonderfully-made product that gets bonus points for having been designed and assembled in North Carolina's Research Triangle at the facilities of NSM Audio, Role Audio's parent company. The Role Audio brand was conceived as a "lifestyle" alternative to the no-compromise designs of NSM: prettier, more unobtrusive, and easier to blend with modern décor. At just 5.5" wide by 8" high by 6.5" deep, the 7-pound Kayak is a perfect example of that philosophy in action. They're plain but not unattractive.
The Kayak uses expensive components inside and out of its acoustic suspension cabinet, including a 4.5" woven carbon fiber woofer (dressed tastefully in black rather than the popular yellow), a lovely-sounding 1" soft dome tweeter and some decent five-way binding posts around back. Inside, Role Audio points out their use of film foil capacitors and metal oxide resistors in the first-order crossover. Components are connected with premium wire including a run of DH Labs silver-over-copper cable to the tweeter. Everything is hand-wired, hand-soldered and covered by an exceptionally long 10-year warranty. Very confidence inspiring.
The optional $399 "Sandbags" 30-inch speaker stands are also quite nice, if a little pricey. They're made of high density anti-resonant medite board instead of metal and finished in a uniform coat of satin black paint. Like the Kayaks, they arrived meticulously packed with thorough assembly instructions despite they fact that the only real assembly amounts to screwing the top and bottom plates to the pillar and attaching the spikes. If you have a cordless drill, use it. I did the job with a screwdriver and have the blisters to prove it.
Back to the sound. After experiencing the unfussy nature of Silverline Audio's Minuets, I assumed the Kayaks would be similarly easygoing. Big mistake. I lashed together a bedroom system consisting of a vintage Onkyo Integra A-8087 integrated amp and a Denon DVM-3700 DVD changer. The Onkyo has powered some pretty big and unforgiving speakers, but it had neither the punch nor the delicacy to properly match the Kayaks. It also didn't offer enough high-frequency extension to make magic with the Kayak's fine tweeters.
I wish I still had Rega's entry-level Brio integrated amp around ($645; reviewed here) because that was one clear and precise little critter. Instead, I pulled out the big guns: PrimaLuna's new DiaLogue One integrated amp ($2295; review forthcoming). This 64-pound, EL-34 based integrated has tremendous moxie. It doesn't have the Rega's toe-tapping rhythmic qualities but what it does offer is tremendous clarity, a lush but not romanticized musical delivery and pure brute force.
Now we were talking. The Kayaks stopped sounding bland in a hurry as the PrimaLuna pounded them into submission. (With a rather low sensitivity rating of 84dB, it doesn't hurt to have plenty of current on reserve.) While they didn't sound as big and rich as the Silverline Minuets, they were more accurate throughout their usable range, which Role Audio says is 65Hz - 20kHz.
According to Role, the Kayak wasn't designed with the LS3/5a in mind. That was a comparison drawn by reviewers, myself included, after the fact, so it's unfair to ask them to live up to a legend. But since I happen to think the legend is overrated anyway, I have no problem saying that that the Kayak does much of what the LS3/5a is reputed to, yet with better midrange dynamics than I remember hearing from my old Rogers pair and certainly improved transient response. They're also exactly $1000 less expensive than the celebrated, current-production LS3/5a V2 from Stirling Broadcast.
Regina Spektor's major label debut, Soviet Kitsch (Sire 48833), showcases what the Kayaks do well…and not so well. The speakers disappear more completely than any mini-monitor I've heard in recent memory. Spektor's vocals—particularly with the PrimaLuna switched to triode mode—are exceptionally clean and there. But when she starts banging on the piano, the Kayaks simply can't reproduce the authority of a baby grand, though they don't strain as much as you might expect. Electronic music, like Thom Yorke's The Eraser (XL 200), doesn't generally work for me without the bottom end. Yet if you concentrate on the vocal, it's easy to get lost in the performance because the speakers are literally invisible.
Of course, there's a simple solution to the lack of bass. The Kayak would get on well with just about any fast, high-quality subwoofer, maintaining their virtues while adding extra low end whenever necessary. Role Audio offers their own matching sub, the $595 EXP, a pair of which helps form what they call the Kayak Armada system. It's intended as an alternative to monitor-pedal systems such as those from Wilson Audio for those who value imaging over dynamics. (Since that's a completely different animal than the Kayak alone, I did not audition it for the purposes of this review.)
Once you adjust to their limitations, listening to music through the Kayaks is an agreeably intimate experience. Image depth and precision were outstanding, whether judging by the spatial cues of Keith Jarrett's latest live set, Radiance (ECM 000431402) or instrument placement in full orchestral works like Paavo Järvi leading the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra through one of the my favorite performances of Berlioz's Symphonie Fantastique (Telarc 80578).
Particularly striking was how smoothly the Kayaks handled high frequencies. This is a make-or-break criterion for judging small speakers, and the Kayaks get it very right. They manage to sound natural across the board, even on peaky or grating recordings, without a sense of being rolled off or intentionally polite. That makes them an easy long-term listen. These would also be some of the best speakers I can imagine for those who like to fall asleep to their favorite music.
Judged on their own merits, the Role Audio Kayak is a fine small speaker that gets the music exceptionally right, and at a very attractive price. All of its shortcomings are purely subtractive and completely unavoidable given their size. If you're attracted to a speaker of its size and virtues, I doubt you'll be disappointed. Ed Kobesky