You are reading the older HTML site
Positive Feedback ISSUE 5
ensemble Figura loudspeakers
as reviewed by Larry Cox
Ensemble is a Swiss firm that first came to light in the U.S. in the late 80s with the B-50 Tiger integrated amplifier and Reference mini-monitors. The Tiger is still sought after, but is rarely on the used market, leading me to conclude that people buy them and keep them. Ensemble is involved in constructing virtually every link in the audio replay chain. Whereas manufacturers like Krell make "everything" from CD players to amps, preamps, and speakers, Ensemble goes one step further. The only thing that they don't make is an LP playback system, though they do make a phono stage. The "they" in Ensemble is actually one man, Urs Wagner, although Urs will consult with others to ensure delivery of his intended results.
His wife, Anne, says that when Urs commences something, he doesn't stop until he's done. His wife relayed that Urs has started a gardening task and, undaunted by the sun going down, puts up floodlights until he is finished, sometimes at 3:00 AM, although Urs urges that 3:00 a.m. is an ungodly hour and has stopped so as not to disturb owls and bats. When it comes to Urs finishing things, ask Brian Ackerman, Ensemble's importer, who has frequently waited months for a component to be finalized.
The name Figura comes from figure, or more specifically, Urs sites Websters Third New International Dictionary under "figure "6. An imagined form : phantasm; and "conspicuous part or appearance; impressive effect... " Ensembles only speaker at this time, the Figura is made primarily of aluminum, and is a two-way, front-ported design with a claimed response of 30Hz to 30kHz. Pulling 30Hz signals from the 6.5-inch woofer seems like an unfair demand, but that was the assignment. Treble duties fall to a 1-inch dome driver. Urs has applied thought to nearly every aspect of the speakers design. In conversation with him at CES, I noted that the speakers disappeared visually in our room decor, yet didnt hide themselves. A smile appeared on Urs face, indicating his intention was successful. This characteristic, he replied, was designed into the appearance of all of his electronics.
The Figuras are floor standing speakers, although they dont literally stand on the floor. Rather, the speaker is attached to a platform. The speaker is attached through a piece of aluminum, so that the speaker is "sitting" on a hinge, and is decoupled from the floor. The premise is that floor borne or speaker-generated vibrations induced in the surrounding environment do not have a mechanical pathway back to the Figura. The speaker looks like it is floating, and is bobbing in place if you press on it. Synergia speaker terminations are part of Ensembles design of virtually everything in the audio chain, and are quite ingenious. They are five-way binding posts with built-in springs, so that if you are connecting a banana or bare wire, the spring gently tightens around the connection, and with a twist or two of your wrist they are firmly coupled. The speaker is internally wired with Ensembles Megaflux and Megalink cables.
With a sensitivity of 87dB, the speakers must have relatively flat response, as they can be powered by as little as 10 watts, although they can take up to 120. I heard them with the Wyetech Labs Onyx 13-watt tube monoblocks, and while they played loudly, they didnt display the dynamics that a more powerful amplifier would allow. The sound of the Figuras is somewhat mercurial, though they hew closely to a "just the facts" presentation consistent with their name. Simone and I really enjoyed them, feeling that they were among the best, if not the best, speakers weve had in our home. They had the most musical sound weve heard, whether driven by high-quality solid state or tube amplifiers.
For the review, the Figuras were coupled to either a GamuT D200 Mk II amplifier by Calrad balanced interconnects, or to an E.A.R. 534 by single-ended Jena Labs interconnects. The speaker cables were my "homebrew" Belden 1219As, Ensembles Megaflux, or Supra Swords. The Supras are new to the United States, as far as I know, although they have been making high-quality audio cables for over 25 years. The GamuT plus wires and the Figuras represented a $14,400 combination, and the E.A.R. 534 plus wires and Figuras represented about $12,500, so were in wallet-deflating territory. Surprisingly, the presentation of the GamuT and E.A.R. amplifiers was quite similar on most material. The 50-watt E.A.R. presented images and music more theatrically, with a greater physical presence of players in the room. Where the 200-watt GamuT edged ahead was in the power and drive of music, no doubt the result of its greater power.
The first night we had the Figuras at our house, I hooked them up to the GamuT D200 MkIII at about 10:00 PM to make sure nothing had been damaged in transit and proceeded to sample more than thirty CDs until well past 2:00 AM. Simone thought I was just searching out musical nuggets for her listening pleasure, but I was rifling through my collection to hear how the speakers fared. They were doing nicely. If youve heard Ensemble speakers in the past, the Figuras represent a shift in presentation. The first time I heard Ensemble gear was at the 1988 Stereophile show. I remember how gorgeous, liquid, and meltingly beautiful the music was, with a wonderful, classically "tube" sound. The Figuras (and, from what I heard at CES 2003, the rest of the new Ensemble line) speak slightly more to my mind than my heart, but with a much more even pull. These are not brash, in-your-face speakers. Although very detailed, they are not harsh. Their bass response will not stir, let alone shake your martini, nor is the speaker lightweight or rolled off. Warmth came and went with individual recordings. The Figuras are a mostly balanced affair that want the best to deliver the best.
My Belden 1219As have been great cables, doing wonders despite their $20 retail price in systems approaching $20,000. However, in this review system, the Beldens were bright and unwelcome. The Figuras sounded best with Ensembles Megaflux FSF speaker cables ($1600 for three meters) or with the Supra Swords ($800 for three meters). The Megaflux provided more detail, with a faster, more articulate presentation than the Supras, but the Supra cables were sweeter and more liquid. Depending on my temperament or the music, I could happily chose one or the other.
Weve moved into a new home with a much larger listening room, and Im still adjusting to the new acoustic. My listening room now has ceilings that start at 10 feet on the speaker side of the room, rising cathedral-like to 14 feet at the other end. The listening/dining room bleeds into the kitchen, so there isnt a right wall to contend with as far as reflections or sound reinforcement goes. The room, not counting kitchen or dining room, is about 16 feet by 24 feet, so there is a lot of space to move air in the room. I listened with the speakers 42 inches out into the room, and about 60 inches from the left wall.
The Figuras imaged very, very well, for those that care about that. They were fast and light on their feet, with loads of gently-presented detail. Their speed suggested insufficient bass foundation. Luckily, I had ATCs superb 12-inch subwoofer ($3800) on hand to check on the Ensembles performance. For the most part, when I switched on the ATC sub, there was a slight warming to the sound, but rarely did it appear that missing bass was being added. Periodically, when I thought that there should be more bottom end, as in "The Still of the Night" from Ella Fitzgeralds Cole Porter Songbook, I turned on the ATC sub only to find that the bass fill-in was as much psychological as it was substantial. On "Hello Grandma" from Lyle Lovetts I Love Everybody, the kick drum lacked just a bit of air movement, but again, adding the sub didnt pressurize the room so much as it improved imaging. Improved imaging could be desirable, but the nearly $4000 worth of subwoofer just wasnt missed on most music.
The Figuras midrange performance was rich and beautifully drawn. Lyle Lovetts vocals were warm and impish on "Hello Grandma." Female vocals were even more engaging on the Indigo Girls "Least Complicated," from Swamp Ophelia. The Ensembles ability to retrieve small details without making them etched was illustrated by the effortless presentation of the Girls swooping harmonies. Instead of smearing the two voices together, the magic of harmonizing was illustrated time and again. I could go on about every 100Hz band in the listening spectrum, but that would be almost as boring to read as it would be to write. The one place where I found a shortcoming was in the Figuras uppermost treble. There was a slight high-frequency heat that made for riveting listening, but not the kind of listening where my mind melted itself into another frame of reference. It was not evident on every recording, but on ones with lots of high frequency information. I wonder whether this top-frequency response could be damped. Perhaps placing a weight on the top of the speakers or installing sorbothane devices inside them. I should reiterate how engaging the Figuras were. Finances allowing, we would purchase a pair.
Id like to close with a few other peoples reactions to the Figuras, and my reactions to their reactions. It surprised me that Dave Clark said he liked them, as we often have quite disparate responses to gear. More often than not, equipment he's been enthusiastic about, I don't care for, and gear I've liked has been not been more than "okay" for him. Normally, Dave likes a different sound than I do, so for him to appreciate (if not praise) the Figuras was unusual. The same goes for Francisco Duran. Frank appears to be on the path to good sound through inexpensive tube amplifiers and mini-monitors. His re-conversion to tubes is so recent that he seems to barely tolerate solid state, so it was quite a surprise that he liked the GamuT-driven Figuras, though I should note that he also wondered about their bottom-end response.
Not everyone liked the sound of the Figuras. The only "nay" came from a set of ears I have trusted for several years. A tube listener, he heard the Figuras through his own E.A.R. 534 amplifier (I had borrowed it for the review) and my E.A.R 864 preamp, linked with the Belden 1219A speaker cables. To him, the Figuras sounded "audiophilish" and a bit hot on top. Neither of these characteristics are hallmarks of E.A.R. gear, so the culprits had to be the Figuras. However, pulling out my Belden speaker cables and inserting the Megaflux surprised him, earning a reluctant, "Well... maybe" bit of appreciation. Id agree that the Belden cabling didnt sound nearly as good as the Ensemble Megaflux or the Supra Swords, but I dont think the Figuras ever sounded audiophilish.
The Figuras are "refined" speakers. Theyre not hard rock speakers, even though theyll do bass. On subtle, melodic, or complex music of the traditional variety, they are extraordinary speakers that will delight the mind and soul. The Figuras were welcome visitors to our house. We wish they were still here. Larry Cox