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Positive Feedback ISSUE48
Orfeo and Offrande loudspeakers
as reviewed by Tom Campbell
This is my third opportunity in Positive Feedback to audition speakers from the French manufacturer JM Reynaud. I reviewed the Twin Signature monitors (now discontinued) and the Cantabile Signature floor-standers together in 2006, and raved about the Duet monitors (since renamed the Bliss due to a conflict with Harman International, whose JBL brand offers a one-piece speaker system called the Duet) early in 2009. With this review of the substantial floor-standing Orfeo—which will be accompanied by a compare/contrast look at Reynaud's premier monitor, the Offrande Supreme—I have moved significantly up the line of the company's estimable slate of offerings.
According to Reynaud's website, the Orfeo was designed as "a somewhat smaller, more room-friendly, and less costly version" of their ne plus ultra speaker, the Concorde Signature. From a practical standpoint, the Orfeo hits a nice sweet spot for a lot of audiophiles who are serious about their music but don't have the space or the wallet for a large, dedicated listening room. It is a two-and-a-half-way, almost-full-range speaker that can amply fill a good-sized living room without overwhelming it and without dominating it visually. The handsome, medium-dark-stained aniegre wood (spelled so in Reynaud's literature, though usually spelled "anigre" in the U.S.) blends tastefully with almost any décor, and the speaker's footprint (width and depth) is actually smaller than my long-time reference speaker, the stand-mount Harbeth Compact 7 monitors.
At this point I must make a disclosure that may serve as a caveat emptor to some: I purchased the Orfeos outright before agreeing to write this review. So I suppose there may be those who feel that I cannot approach my task with the appropriate objectivity and that I will be biased toward "justifying" my purchase. I don't think that's the case—I knew exactly what I was getting before I bought them—but nevertheless, I wanted to put it out there in the interest of full disclosure.
Anyway, here is how it happened:
Very much taken with the little Duet (now Bliss) monitors last year, and well-acquainted with the Reynaud house sound, I decided that a pair of Reynauds would, after almost ten years, succeed my beloved Harbeths in my main system. Since I moved to a new home in 2005, the Compact 7s had always struggled to fill my larger (14' by 26') living room; it wasn't a matter of loudness per se, but of scale and impact. Plus, after living with the Harbeths for so long, I was simply ready for something new.
Until the Reynauds came along, however, no speaker I'd auditioned over the past 2 or 3 years had made me want to make the leap. I will always love Harbeth speakers for the things they do so well—slightly dry and darkened but otherwise exemplary tonal accuracy and tremendous coherence—but Reynaud's designs offer an equally brilliant though distinctly different perspective, one that, for the time being at least, I find preferable.
I've attempted to describe the Reynaud sound in my two previous reviews. Here is what I wrote last year:
Reynaud speakers, at their best and with sympathetic associated equipment, are at once highly truthful to the source and totally unique. Put another way, while they deliver many of the standard ideals of high-fidelity design, they do so in a way I've not heard any other speakers manage. …They are the most "live"-sounding speakers in my experience, offering an up-close perspective with the kind of presence and immediacy that are among the chief pleasures of in-person performance. In audiophile terms, they are fast… But their speed and agility does not come… at the expense of beauty.
So often—and especially when it comes to loudspeakers—audiophiles find themselves choosing between imperfect solutions: components that offer clarity and detail but are a bit lean and abrasive over the long haul, or ones that have richness and warmth but are just a bit dull. Good designs offer a balance of attributes but most nevertheless display a predilection toward the yin or the yang that exists apart from the additional (and highly significant) factor of component-matching.
Reynauds are the closest I've heard to the best of all worlds. They have clarity—they are not detail monsters, but they reveal the layers of a recording with great lucidity. They have warmth—not the syrupy warmth of added euphony, but the natural warmth that instruments possess. Human voices sound human, woodwinds are woody, brass is brassy. Perhaps above all, they have an uncanny sense of life—they embody the term "involving" better than any speakers I've heard, with a crystalline top end (though not a top end emphasis) that can make the hairs on the back of your neck stand up. It's accurate to say that they are beautifully balanced, but it's almost more than that—they just seem to have everything in abundance, with no sense of having to sacrifice one virtue in order to favor another.
I also mentioned toward the end of the Duet/Bliss review that if I did end up "taking the plunge on one of Reynaud's larger speakers," I would likely choose between the stand-mount Offrandes and floor-standing Orfeos. In the end, it was a difficult decision between two great speakers. But based on an audition of both at (PFO classical music reviewer) Bob Neil's Amherst Audio salon and some careful consideration of what would sound best (and look best) in my living room, I decided I was ready for my first floor-stander after years of owning monitor speakers from Harbeth, Spendor, B&W and others. Thus did I lay down my credit card for a new pair of Orfeos; however, Bob wanted to afford me the opportunity to hear the Offrandes in my own home, too, and delivered a loaner pair at the same time he delivered my spanking new Orfeos. So I was able to hear both speakers side by side in the fall of 2009.
The Orfeo: A True Olympus?
My longtime preference for monitor speakers was based on several factors. Practically speaking, until moving into my present home, the various apartments I'd lived in generally had smaller living rooms best suited to smaller speakers. Subjectively speaking, I'd always been enamored of the clarity, transparency and coherence of monitors—most floor-standers I heard sounded a bit thick and muddled in comparison. But in recent years—and, as mentioned, especially since setting up in my present living room—I began to feel I was missing something. I wanted more—not just more bass extension, but more size, more scale, a bigger picture.
The Orfeo is, for all intents and purposes, the perfect speaker for my current needs and desires. It has close-to-monitor-like clarity and coherence, but it definitely has the "more" I was looking for, and plenty of it. Music now fills my living room with life-like range and scale. Most importantly, the essential Reynaud characteristics—the unique, near-miraculous ability to sound both fast and lively and warm and beautiful—are fully intact. The Orfeo retains the essential virtues of Reynaud's monitor speakers while delivering the advantages (and none of the drawbacks) of a floor-standing design.
That said, the Orfeo holds a distinct place within the Reynaud line. It is a shade darker—just a single shade, but a noticeable one—than the other Reynauds I've heard. It gives up just a touch of top-end sparkle in favor of a warmer, weightier presentation. This serves most recordings well and happens to be in line with my own taste, though some may prefer the more perfect neutrality of the Offrandes in this area. (More on this subject in a moment.)
The Orfeos' most striking visual feature is their top-mounted tweeters, a double ribbon design enclosed in an elegantly sculpted piece of matching aniegre. These tweeters arrive in a separate box and must be connected to, and dropped into their housings on, the main speaker cabinets. Their bulbous appearance takes a little getting used to—my wife was not enamored at first, though she quickly mellowed—but the advantages of the design are instantly apparent. The ribbon tweeters deliver top-end performance that is remarkable in its silkiness, purity, clarity and continuity—they make most conventional tweeters sound a little blaring—and their placement atop the cabinets results in a sound with less directivity (i.e. a larger sweet spot) than your average box speaker. At the other end of the spectrum, the twin 6.5" woofers, in concert with the tuned transmission line inside each cabinet, deliver very convincing bass extension down to 35Hz.
The Orfeos are efficient (92dB/W/M) but their drivers need a fair amount of power to really fire on all cylinders. So far I have listened to them with three amplifiers: my solid-state reference Coda/Continuum Unison integrated, with its 150 watts per channel; the Blue Circle FtTH integrated, a tube/solid-state hybrid rated at 95 wpc; and the Ayon Audio Orion, an all-tube integrated with 70 watts available in pentode and 30 in triode. In my room, the Orfeos thrived with all except the triode mode of the Orion—those 30 single-ended watts still produced a beautiful sound, but the soundstage was smaller in depth and particularly in width, and the speakers lost a good deal of their frequency extension and dynamic authority. Classic jazz fared just fine, but orchestral music lacked oomph and rock lacked guts. So I'd say that 100 solid-state or 70 tube watts are good baseline reference points for the Orfeos' power needs in most rooms, though I know that Bob Neill, with his much larger listening parlor, feels the speakers need one of the bigger Blue Circle power amps to be at their best.
One thing I have found to be true of all Reynaud speakers: they love tubes in their amplification chain. For whatever reason, none of the models I've heard have much liked my solid-state Unison—which was surprising, since I have found it to be highly consistent in character and quality with almost everything else with which I've ever auditioned it. The Orfeos actually fared better with the Unison that some of their brethren, but the sound was still a bit lacking in body and soul. The speakers got along grandly with the all-tube Orion (review forthcoming)—and were even better, glorious in fact, via the Blue Circle FtTH with its tube preamp section and solid-state power section. I've now had the opportunity to audition the FtTH with three different Reynaud models as well as my Harbeths and Spendors, and it is a truly special integrated amp. I'll be writing a proper appreciation of it for PFO very soon.
Listening to orchestral music through the Orfeos after years of owning monitor speakers was, to say the least, an eye-opening experience. The openness, layering, lack of congestion, and increased frequency and dynamic range that the Orfeos delivered is not just a different park, but a whole new ballgame. Musicians no longer sound miniaturized or suspended in mid-air—as stand-mount speakers tend to render them—but full-bodied and grounded to the floor, like performers in a real space.
This advantage extends to smaller-scale performances, too. There is an old cliché in audio writing whereby mini-monitors are frequently referred to as "ideal for chamber music" or words to that effect. Well, not really. Just as the Orfeos made orchestral players sound more life-sized and palpably present, so too did they with chamber players—more so, really, since the speakers are more fully capable of reproducing the spatial presence of, say, a string quartet, and of moving almost as much air as the players would themselves. The 2008 recording of the Quatuor Ebēne playing the music of Debussy, Ravel and Fauré was stunningly beautiful: a French quartet playing French music through French speakers. Á la perfection.
So far, it may seem I'm praising the Orfeos mainly for what they do—as floor-standers rather than monitors—as opposed to how they do it. But I assure you, they are exemplars of the breed. As I mentioned earlier, I've listened to a lot of floor-standers from a lot of different manufacturers (both in my home and in audio shops) and I have never been completely happy with any until the Orfeos came along. Most of the ones I've heard had trouble achieving a good balance: either ultra-detailed with an obvious treble emphasis or bass-heavy with a murky midrange. Some just sounded kind of lifeless. Many had trouble with cabinet reflections. Many were hard to place in a room without over-exciting it (the room that is). Perhaps most of all, many had trouble with noticeable discontinuities between their drivers, to which I am particularly sensitive having owned Harbeths—which are almost peerless in the ability of their drivers to speak with one voice—for so many years.
The Orfeos fall prey to none of these potential pitfalls. They are rich, but they offer lots of top-end energy and life. They have satisfyingly deep bass but are very room-friendly; they're quite easy to place fairly close to the walls without the sound getting tubby or congealed. (I place mine about 3 feet out from the back walls and about 4 feet from the side walls, with my equipment rack in between.) And, of course, like other Reynaud models, they have a midrange to die for. In brief, they are gorgeously balanced, with that magical Reynaud knack for giving you everything you want and nothing you don't want. They don't quite have the see-through transparency of a top-flight monitor—in other words, of the Offrandes—but they have uncommon clarity and coherence by any other standard.
Skipping through a number of the RCA Living Stereo SACDs – from Ravel's Bolero (Munch/Boston) to Liszt's Hungarian Rhapsody (Stokowski/RCA Symphony) to Rimsky-Korsakov's Scheherazade (Reiner/Chicago)—the speakers displayed a faultless ability to communicate the distinctive sound of each orchestra and their respective halls. I am a big fan of solo piano—recordings of the greats from Paderewski to Paul Lewis make up probably 30 to 40 percent of my classical section—and the Orfeo exponentially increased my enjoyment of same. The size and weight and bottom-end foundation of the instrument were majestic. This is, without doubt, a great classical speaker, but it is by no means a classical specialist. All genres of music are well-served; I suppose if one was a head-banger, one might find the treble edge of hard rock to sound just slightly softened, but I had no complaints. The new vinyl reissues of the Nirvana catalogue were just about as heavy (Nevermind) and as brutal (In Utero) as they were meant to be.
As I was forming my initial impressions of the Orfeos, the Offrandes were sitting in their boxes in my study. There was no question that I was mightily impressed, but would I like the Offrandes—large stand-mount monitors with stated extension down to 30Hz—even better?
The Offrande Supreme: The Latest and Greatest?
The Supremes are the sixth and latest iteration of the Offrande, the design that is regarded by many Reynaud partisans (and by Jean Marie Reynaud himself) as the company's quintessential speaker. Stepping out of the third-person voice that accompanies most of the model descriptions on the Reynaud website, JMR writes of the Offrandes in a first-person narrative:
"Very soon after I saw the first outlines of the technical study of the original Offrande and then saw the results of the first tests, it was clear to me what the potential for the speaker could be. From that point, it became for me a continuous source of passion, astonishment, and joy.
Since its conception in 1994, I have worked ceaselessly to enable the Offrande to evolve, attempting in each new iteration of the speaker to get closer to the musicians and the music. Today's Supreme testifies to the constancy of my search for the best possible result."
Clearly, the elder Reynaud (who now shares the duties of running his company—both the business and art of it—with his son Jean Claude) has a special place in his heart for this, his most famed design. In many ways, almost all of the models in the Reynaud line can be viewed as offshoots of the Offies—either scaled-down (the Bliss monitor) or scaled-up (the top-of-the-line Concorde Signature).
The Offrandes are, indeed, the epitome of what the Reynaud sound is all about. They are very immediate and their perspective is very up-close, but somehow they never sound bright, harsh or abrasive. On the contrary, their tonal richness and accuracy is beyond reproach. They image like crazy, and are box speakers that never sound boxy. The Offies are monitors in the best sense: they'll tell you exactly what it is on a recording, but they just put it out there for you—they don't throw it in your face. In other words, they are highly revealing without being "ruthlessly revealing." Their overall character might be described as cool—the Orfeo is a bit of an outlier within the Reynaud line in its relative warmth—but it is the coolness of neutrality, not enhanced detail.
Listening to a well-done, studio-assembled recording like Nigel Godrich's work for Paul McCartney on Chaos and Creation in the Backyard, there was a palpable sense of rightness—of "Wow, this is exactly what they were going for, and what they wanted it to sound like." Godrich creates a distinct sound world for each act he works with, and the intimacy he brings to this uncharacteristically personal set of songs from Macca is very appealing—and the up-close perspective of the recording definitely plays to the Offrande's strengths. When Paul picks his solo acoustic guitar and sings "Jenny Wren," the immediacy gave me chills.
The Offies come with custom-designed, exceedingly solid, matching-finish wood stands. (So, unlike a lot of monitors, there is no additional outlay for stands.) Viewed from the front, the speakers actually appear smaller than my Harbeth Compact 7s, but when viewed in profile you can see how they create their considerable bass energy: they're almost 17" deep! However, while the Offrandes actually spec lower than the Orfeos—their stated extension is 30Hz, while the Orfeo only claims 35Hz—the quality as opposed to the quantity of their bass cannot match the Orfeo with its floor-standing cabinet and transmission line design. The Orfeos' bass is solid, impactful and musically correct—to my mind, it hits just the right mid-point between "fat" on one end of the spectrum and "tight and tuneful" on the other end. I always use stand-up acoustic basses as references in this area; I don't like when an acoustic bass sounds like an electric bass, as they tend to through speakers that err toward the bright side. The Orfeo gets its right: listening to Charles Mingus' bass intro on "II B.S." (on Analogue Productions' fantastic 45 RPM cut of Mingus Mingus Mingus Mingus), the speaker communicates the size, the air, the woodiness and the inherent wooliness of the instrument, as well as the nimbleness of Mingus' playing and the nuances of his touch. Of course, the Orfeo does not go down to the very deepest bass notes, but in most appropriately-sized listening rooms it is all the bass most listeners will want or need.
The Offrandes' bass is lighter and a bit looser in comparison—you don't feel it in your chest like with the Orfeos. This trade-off has its own rewards: it makes the Offrandes' top end sound airier and more open that the Orfeos' and contributes to the Offrandes' sense of utter transparency. The two speakers share the same tweeter so it's impossible that one would have more top-end extension than the other, but its overall balance makes the Offrande sound like it does.
A comparison of the same track—David Bowie's "Ashes to Ashes," from Ryko's 1990 double-vinyl of ChangesBowie—on both speakers was instructive. This is a brilliantly engineered production, with tremendous range that tests the limits of any system. Through the Orfeos the sound is bigger, more full-bodied and impactful, and more like a live performance. Through the Offrandes, the individual components that make up the studio assemblage are laid out a bit more clearly, and you can "see through" the mix to a greater extent. Additionally, the Orfeos' top-mounted tweeters create a more blended sound—stereo separation is very good, but not as sharp as through the Offrandes with their captive tweeters. This "blended" sound is actually closer to the way our ears experience music in person, of course, but I know many audiophiles like the exaggerated separation of stereo. On balance, the distinguishing characteristics of the Offrande are all about being truthful to the recording—reflecting recorded music's tendency toward maximum clarity, separation and an up-close perspective—while the distinguishing characteristics of the Orfeo are more about translating the recording into an organic, musically natural performance.
In the end, I feel a bit like a scientist who conducts a lengthy experiment only to arrive at an obvious conclusion: the Orfeos are truly great floor-standers—big, full-bodied, and majestic—while the Offrande Supremes are truly great monitors—fast, upfront, and highly revealing. The Offrandes are JM's reference point, the definitive statement of his preferences and of his idea of objective musical truth; the Orfeos add just a dollop of subjective warmth to maximize beauty and complement the strengths of its design.
From that description, you may think you know which you would prefer, but you really should hear them both. I could easily settle down with either for a long haul, but for the moment I am happy with my choice of the Orfeos: I've now spent six full months with them, and they continue to thrill me every time I sit down and listen. Some day, I may go the other direction, toward the Offies and all that they do so well.
I am notably monogamous when it comes to loudspeakers: while I know plenty of audiophiles who "flip" their speakers with regularity, my relationship with the Spendor/Harbeth/BBC school lasted from the mid-'90s to 2009. But that relationship has finally been supplanted, and these two brilliant offerings from Reynaud are my new ideal of sound—the standard against which others are measured.
Postscript: This review had a longer-than-usual gestation period of several months, as what was planned for late-'09 publication extended into early 2010. While I was preparing the final edit in February, Bob Neill—who is once again Reynaud's North American distributor after briefly passing the baton last year—informed me of a planned revision to the Orfeos.
Since then, the Orfeo II has come out. According to Bob, the II differs from the original only by the substitution of the new crossover. He tells me that while the new crossovers of his floor pair are still breaking in, the differences are all to the good: "The Orfeo II's are more present and captivating in the midrange, a bit tighter in the bass, but maintain the distinct identity of the Orfeo sound. Nothing lost, a good deal gained."
I plan to do a follow-up to this review as soon as Bob and I can get together in Amherst so I can hear the II's firsthand. In the meantime, I see no reason to further delay getting the word out about these extraordinary speakers—speakers I feel are absolutely world-class, and that deserve wider recognition in the U.S. Tom Campbell
Offrande Supreme loudspeakers
North American Distributor