POSITIVE FEEDBACK ONLINE - ISSUE 38
mark & daniel
as reviewed by John Potis
The Mark & Daniel Sapphire loudspeaker stands a good chance of being one of the least understood and most underestimated products I've ever used. Despite the fact that it's also one of the more interesting ones, in some ways, it could be its own worst enemy. But before I get to why that is, let's get the basics out of the way.
The Sapphire from Mark & Daniel is a small speaker, but it is remarkably heavy for its size. It stands a scant 11.4 inches tall by 6.7 inches wide and only 8.4 inches deep. Even with its extremely heavy and inert synthetic marble enclosure—which is very dense and heavy as compared to the MDF used in most loudspeakers— the Sapphire only tips the scale at 21 pounds. Sapphire uses Mark & Daniel's own proprietary SX 5.5 mid-woofer, with its 5.5-inch high-excursion driver that achieves a full ±10mm linear. That's .9 inches; which is huge. There are subwoofer drivers that can't approach that. All Mark & Daniel woofers utilize long magnetic gaps and NdFeB magnets for superb control. The Sapphire has a system F3 of 45Hz. On paper, that's some excellent bass extension for such a small speaker. In practice, it's remarkable.
Those unfamiliar with the Mark & Daniel line of loudspeakers might mistake the second driver for a ribbon tweeter …you will be forgiven as it's actually something quite different. It's really a rethinking of Oskar Heil's Air Motion Transformer (AMT), which dates back to 1972. Now that the original patents have expired, clever designers are free to use it in their designs or give it a modern spin of their own. What Mark & Daniel does is springboard off the original AMT design to create what they call their Directly Responding Emitter by Air Motion Structure driver, or DREAMS as M&D calls it. In a nut shell, the DREAMS are indeed a variation upon the AMT and if you want to think of it as a folded ribbon that may help in understanding the way it works. Once folded it works—pumps, if you will—in three dimensions as opposed to the two-dimensional pistonic motion of most drivers. Couple that with a radiating surface that dwarfs other such drivers and the DREAMS becomes efficient at coupling with the air that it excites. It's said to move air four times faster than conventional drivers. This all adds up to a driver within a huge surface area that is also extremely efficient, so much so that the DREAMS' driver is capable of frequency response down to 900Hz and an upper limit of 25kHz. That, in turn, means that from 900Hz up through 25kHz the Sapphire uses a single driver. This means that the speaker suffers none of the discontinuities normally associated with separate midrange drivers and tweeters as well as no crossover components in the signal path.
Like most small speakers that make an effort optimize reproduction of bass frequencies in terms of both frequency and amplitude, the Sapphire does have a low sensitivity. Mark & Daniel quote an efficiency of 83.5dBs and an impedance that varies between 3 and 6 ohms. M&D wisely recommends a minimum of 100 watts per channel and, as it turns out, this is sage advice. The Sapphires like powerful amps with lots of juice.
The review pair came finished in red and I have to say that it was a very pleasant change of pace. The Red Sapphires looked dynamite sitting on black stands in a room festooned with various shades of black and silver components. Sometimes a splash of color is a very good thing. The Sapphires don't come with grills, which is more than good by me as the speakers have a nicely finished appearance and are ready to sound their best at all times.
Around back are two bass ports and two pairs of shielded WBT style binding posts. M&D provides no connecting straps, so users will either need to bi-wire or provide their own straps. Alternatively, M&D recommends the use of two like-power amplifiers for bi-amping.
In the listening room greater than usual care must be taken in situating the Sapphires. These speakers may look small, but they sound large—huge, actually. On paper there are lots of speakers that spec out with numbers similar to the Sapphire's F3 of 45Hz, but I don't know any that can actually pump out the bass that these speakers do. And any speaker with as healthy a bass output as these will require very careful positioning in order to maximize the speaker's overall performance and balance. The object is to achieve proper mid-bass balance and transition and still maximizing soundstage production, as well as image focus and specificity.
Most speakers this size just can't compete with the bass output of the Sapphires and it's here where I suspect that the speakers will be underestimated. I don't refer to people's expectations with regard to the amount of bass output from these speakers but with regard to the quality of that bass. Most people will be shocked with what these speakers can produce in the bass and they'll probably settle for their unexpected levels of power and punch but not take the time to really dial in the speakers for the proper mid-bass-to-midrange balance. They'll assume that big bass is all they can reasonably expect and assume that such a small speaker can't be expected to be both big and articulate. Make this mistake and you'll end up with a small pair of speakers that sound spectacular in the bass (for its size) in terms of power, but one that lacks tonality and nuance as well as being only average through the midrange. But realize their potential by maximizing that bass and achieving the best continuity through to the midrange and the Sapphires sound as impressive through the midrange as they do in the bass. But let's stick with the bass here for a moment.
Once properly situated and mated with a proper amplifier the Sapphires produce a bass that is amazing; literally amazing. Lots of speakers, though few this size, can produce lots of bass for the ears but the listener will have to be satisfied with simply hearing the bass; there's not much to be felt. The Sapphires produce bass that you can feel. It's visceral and physical. Time and time again I was surprised to feel the floor under my feet moving. I could feel the chair under me doing likewise and while the presentation did stop short of mule-kicking me in the gut, I could definitely feel it there. Most moderate floor-standing speakers I've used can't produce the physicality of the Sapphire's bass power. Occasionally I found myself placing my hand behind the speakers as they played to feel copious amounts of air turbulence coming out of the rear ports—no wonder they were placed back there. Sometimes the velocity was so high it was almost comical. Had they been placed on the front of the speaker there's no question that the turbulence would be felt and probably heard in the form of chuffing noises. There were no such problems here.
I didn't have much trouble tuning the Sapphires (through placement) such that the bass was tight, tuneful, and articulate. That was actually pretty easy to accomplish. What took just a bit of doing and what led me to placing the speakers in locations that varied from where most speakers end up in my room, was achieving a natural transition between bass and midrange. In my room it was never a case of the mid-bass getting too lean, it was a case of it getting a little too full. Too much mid-bass adds warmth but it also adds boom to male vocals, thickness to the lower registers of the piano; simply put, an imbalance that masks midrange detail which then throws the treble balance off. Too much mid-bass and the treble appears to roll off too soon and too quickly. What all this adds up to is a pair of speakers that just isn't going to resolve musical detail and nuance as it can; a pair of speakers that isn't living up to its potential. But get the balance right and the Sapphires start to evidence as much brains as brawn.
In terms of my own room the Sapphires ended up about 5 inches further into my room than where most speakers are sited. Each speaker was also placed about 5 inches toward the center of the room. Additionally, my listening chair was moved forward away from the rear wall by about three more inches. And if the email I get with regard to system placement is indicative, it's amazing how often listeners don't factor in the placement of the listening chair within the room. If you've ever heard the changes that can be brought about by moving a speaker an inch this way or that, wait till you find the sweet spot for your chair and hear what can be accomplished with seemingly insignificant movements there too. Proper positioning of the chair is a very important tool in the fine-tuning of the bass.
I've listened to Pink Floyd's The Wall, Peter Gabriel's UP and Roger Waters' Amused to Death on plenty of stand-mounted speakers and reported satisfying bass and adequate results. But the Sapphires turned in a performance that surpassed satisfying and leapfrogged past adequate. The Sapphires sounded spectacular and wholly complete in the way they handled the lower registers. Bass lines had both power and punch. Articulation was never an issue both in terms of tune, tone and texture.
In short and in every way, the Sapphires produce outstanding bass. Just give them some juice and take the time to dial them in and you'll be amply rewarded with exemplary performance normally expected of much larger and more expensive speakers.
But as outstanding as the Sapphire's bass is that's not their best feature. It's what some will notice first, but it's probably not what will endear them to so many listeners. What endears the Sapphires to me is the DREAMS driver. M&D has their reasons for referring to it as DREAMS, but I have my own. In this price range, these speakers achieve what so many others can't and their midrange/treble performance is, indeed, that of which dreams are made of.
From 900Hz to 25kHz, the Sapphire sings with a single voice. Not only is there not a crossover through the midrange or treble, the signal doesn't even change drivers. It's the DREAMS driver all the way. We're talking unprecedented levels of coherency here from a very small speaker. Now, I'll confess that I'm not much bothered by the coherency of most quality two-way monitor speakers and it's rare when I can point to the transition point between mid-woofer and tweeter. But the Sapphires do sound different. There's something going on here that's pretty easy to hear, even on an almost unconscious level. It just sounds natural. It just sounds correct to these ears.
With the aforementioned caveats satisfied with regard to placement in order to achieve proper balance into the midrange, the midrange performance of the Sapphires is very; very good. The speakers are so full and warm that they don't telegraph detail as some thinner sounding speakers do and they'll never sound stark or clinical. But it's all there, nevertheless. The Sapphires don't put detail in your face, preferring to produce it in a more musically convincing way.
If you're looking for light, airy or ultra transparent, these may not be your speakers. These speakers have tons of Grade-A meat on their bones and they throw up a very solid presentation with excellent focus and dimensionality. Tonal colors are realistically saturated, which is to say that these are tonally and harmonically dense.
But what really sets the Mark & Daniel Sapphires apart from the rest of the pack is the purity of their midrange; its complete lack of grit and grain. While the observation was almost immediate once setting up the speakers (I first heard it in spades when I reviewed the larger Mark & Daniel Apollo II speakers) it actually took me a while to be able to characterize and articulate it. I've always thought of it as smoothness and sweetness, but that has always seemed to connote a euphonic glossing over of certain realities of the music that I wasn't hearing here. I didn't want to convey the impression that the Sapphires take the edge off the saxophone or that they tame the distorted electric guitar or even add artificial sweetness to vocals, none of which are true. But there's certainly something different going on, something that gives these speakers a fatigue-free presentation that not only allows louder listening levels without fatigue, but actually encourages them. It may also amount to nothing more mysterious than less distortion because there's a coarseness found in a lot of other speakers that just isn't here, particularly when played loudly. I was particularly enamored with their portrayal of brass; trumpets and saxophone in particular. Both instruments can get somewhat rude and edgy and the last thing I want is a speaker that rounds those edges off. And the Mark & Daniel speakers don't, but somehow they sound more pure with less grain and with absolutely nothing that induces fatigue.
There's a sense of ease to their reproduction that reminds me of electrostatics. If that statement doesn't mean anything to you it's because you may never have occasioned sitting before a speaker, such as a good electrostatic, and experienced instrumental voices that don't sound as if they could possibly come from a speaker at all, such is the sense of ease. The Mark & Daniel speakers aren't quite that good, but they don't come with any of the baggage associated with electrostatic speakers either and in terms of bass, dynamics and dispersion, these are certainly a lot easier to live with. I can't name many electrostatics selling for the price of the Sapphires either. And let's not even get into spousal acceptance factors. But the point here is that in some respects—the respects that set these speakers apart from the pack, the Sapphires rise above the performance of any speaker that I know of in their class and considerably beyond. And we're not talking about some little endearing quirk, either. We're talking about sophistication through the midrange that the great majority of speakers out there can't match. And while the bass capabilities of the Sapphire are somewhat astounding, it's not the bass that makes the speaker's most significant impact on the music and it's not my favorite aspect of the speaker's performance. It's the midrange performance of the DREAMS driver that, to me, makes the Sapphire a most remarkable speaker.
And that magic isn't confined to the midrange. Transition through the treble is as good as I've heard anywhere around this class. Midrange to treble coherency and continuity is very good, as one would expect of a single driver system. I hesitate to use the word polite when describing the sound of the Sapphires because most readers would read into that description a euphonic coloration or a reticence, which isn't there. But that grain-free distortion-less character is maintained through the treble as well. All the music is there and there's no rolling off of the highs at all, but there's a complete lack of hardness and grain that plagues, at least to some degree, most speakers in this price range. While the treble isn't such that the speakers telegraph oodles of air and space, as some do, these do an admirable job of projecting both height and depth. There's lots of space created by the Sapphires, you just don't hear the swirling of air currents within that space. Vocal sibilants are minimized yet high percussion is superbly present and realistic, if not supernaturally so.
The Sapphires image as you'd expect such a small speaker to do, which is to say extremely well. Image focus and specificity are outstanding. Soundstage depth is good too, when the recording indicates it. As I said before, they don't quite illuminate the largest and most airy soundstage I've heard, but they still do quite well and they're anything but closed-in and claustrophobic, no sir.
Thomas Dolby's The Golden Age of Wireless CD [Capitol] helped me clarify a couple of issues early on. It's a cold recording with punchy bass, but not much body or warmth. On top it is a crisp and fairly bright recording that, particularly on the wrong system, can be quite arduous. I found that the Sapphires produced it well and very much as I would have hoped for. Bass was indeed punchy and very tight but more importantly, the Sapphires didn't add any bass bloom or warmth that I knew wasn't there in the recording. Up top, the treble was still bright and very forward, but as I was to observe, over and over, the smoothness of the DREAMS driver made it more listenable, thanks to the aforementioned lack of grit and grain. The CD was bright but not nearly as fatiguing as a lot of speakers can make it. The M&Ds did nothing to mask the fact that it's a fairly sibilant recording but somehow I just didn't find it quite as offensive. The sibilants were there punctuating Dolby's vocals but they didn't scorch my eardrums.
When I wanted to assess just how open and naturally spacious he Sapphires could sound I went for Neil Young's Unplugged CD. What I got was one of the widest soundstages I'd yet to hear from the Sapphires and this live recording. It went wall-to-wall. The Sapphires did an excellent job laying out the instruments before me with an excellent depiction of depth upon the stage. I was looking for signs of congestion within the midrange, there among all the various acoustic guitars and Young's vocals. Not only did the Sapphires sort it out for me but the precisely delayed echoes from the rear of the stage served to enhance the spaciousness of the depiction. For this "unplugged" concert, Young used two microphones on himself; one to capture his vocals and harmonica and another to capture the guitar. That means that his acoustic guitars were very closely mic'd and the recording captured a great deal of its (slightly exaggerated) bass power and weight. It also means that there's a percussive nature to his guitars as you sense the weighty slam of the guitar strums against the strings. The Sapphires captured all of it superbly and, once again, they embellished none of it. Of course they performed with no less aplomb when it came to capturing the somewhat odd nature of Young's vocal timbre. Young's harmonica on "Pocahontas", in particular, brought to mind the smooth and fatigue-free upper midrange that I talked about earlier with regard to the DREAMS driver's way with brass instruments. It was beautifully present and intimate yet it never got aggressive as it sometimes might with other systems.
The perfect monitor speaker then? Well, no. For perfection I'd require two things. I'd love to see a higher efficiency. At 83.dB efficiency, these speakers need amplifiers that are not faint of heart to sound anywhere near their best. I found them to be well served by the 250-watt Musical Fidelity A5 integrated amplifier. And judging by the amount of heat on the A5's heat sinks, it was getting a workout. Keep in mind that I was giving the speakers a workout as well with volume levels well in excess of what would preclude polite conversations while the music was playing. As a matter of fact, I suppose it would be appropriate to mention that I never approached these little speakers as if they weren't anything but high performance monitors. I didn't treat them as fragile or miniature facsimiles of the real thing. I approached them as if I was considering them more for myself and I wanted to know if they were going to be able to handle everything I could throw at them head-on or would they shrink from the challenge. If it's not already clear, they not only met the challenge but exceeded most reasonable expectations.
Anyway, the good news is that the $2350 price for a pair of Sapphires is considerably less than a lot of today's better monitor speakers and they'll allow you to hang on to some of your cash and put it toward a good powerhouse of an amplifier. As I said, the Musical Fidelity A5 made a great match as did my Bel Canto e.One Reference 1000 mono blocks, that are priced at almost $4k and clearly beyond what most would consider appropriate for speakers in the Sapphire's price range. So I approached Bel Canto's John Stronczer and asked for a loan of the more affordable and rationally priced S300 power amplifier. This tiny stereo analog switching amplifier pumps out a meaty 150 cool-running watts per channel and it was a fantastic match for the Sapphires. The S300s teamed up with my own Bel Canto Pre2p preamplifier for better detail and sophistication than the A5 could muster and the Sapphires laid it all out for me. Truth be told, at this point I was pleasantly surprised at how well the S300 synergized with the Sapphires and that includes their way with the bass, too. The S300 is a great match for the Sapphires. And by the way, Stronczer mentioned to me the imminent arrival of the $3k per pair M500s that'll deliver 250 watts each at 8 ohms and 500 watts into 4. This promises to be a killer pair of amplifiers at a more-than-fair price and I've been promised review samples. With any luck at all I'll still have the Sapphires when they arrive.
Some may also wish that the speakers threw as expansive and airy a soundstage as some other speakers can. If that's you, I don't blame you one bit. I don't agree with you, but I don't blame you. I love a huge and airy soundstage, too. But in any price range, let alone a speaker in this price range, you'd do well to be very careful here. Frequently such expanse comes at the price of a tipped-up treble that can sound open and exciting in the short term yet fatiguing and irritating in the long term. I'm not saying that this is a hard and fast rule and I'm sure that other more costly speakers can give you your cake and allow you to eat it, too. But I don't know of many speakers anywhere near the price of the Sapphires that will. And absolutely none of them, that I know of, that will give you everything else that Mark & Daniels do—unbelievable bass and smoothly refined and articulate midrange—along with that perfectly airy treble. It ain't gonna happen at anywhere near the Sapphire's price range.
My own personal perspective on reporting on gear is that it shouldn't matter whether or not I like the piece under review. What's really important is for me to describe what I'm hearing as best as I can and leave it up to the reader to decide whether what I'm describing sounds like something that should be sought out for a demonstration. After all, just because something is just what the doctor ordered for my system and room doesn't mean that it'll perform any miracles or even have any synergism at all with your system. So, if you agree, pay absolutely no attention to the fact that I love these speakers. That's completely immaterial. Don't even give a second thought to the fact that within my modest room I could very easily live with this tiny and inexpensive pair of speakers. I don't care if the next least expensive pair of speakers I own really do cost twice what the Sapphires do, another pair costs 4 times their price and my most expensive reference speakers cost almost 9 times as much. It's completely and utterly irrelevant.
What is important is that I've reviewed a slew of small speakers including some very excellent ones costing up to twice the asking price of these Sapphires. While they all have different strengths and there's always the variable of personal taste to account for, I have to conclude here and now that I've never heard a speaker that is a better total package than these Mark & Daniel Sapphires for anywhere near their price or even at twice the price. Once properly situated in the room and partnered with a worthy amplifier—two caveats not to be taken lightly—these speakers are spectacular performers. What's just flabbergasting is that these are very small speakers that are certain to have a much greater appeal with the significant other than other larger and more expensive speakers of commensurate performance—or less. And if you're considering a big floor-standing speaker in this price class, you'd do yourself a great service by considering these speakers and you'd make your significant other happy as well—if that means anything. No, I didn't think so. But I'm buying this pair anyway. Believe it or not, even I get tired of looking at big hulking speakers all the time and I've had my eye out for a while for reference monitor that not only does it all, but is just a lot of fun. The Mark & Daniel Sapphire is exactly that speaker. John Potis
Mark & Daniel
Mark & Daniel Audio Labs of North America, LLC
Please accept our sincere thanks for everything; the Sapphire review is a great report indeed!
One response for your reference on the review: I perfectly understand your efficiency concern on M&D speakers and we have also no problem with designing the higher efficiency speakers, if really necessary! However, the acoustic physics states clearly: to the major targets on efficiency, enclosure volume, and deep bass response (for both frequency and amplitude) one then can only get any two of the three; no way to get three of them in a same time. That is the unfortunate fact. M&D therefore, voted the deep bass and smaller enclosure for their speaker systems. This is a necessary trade-off in speaker design.
Thanks again and all the best,