Positive Feedback ISSUE 62
july/august 2012

 

The following submissions are for the 'Readers Who Want to be Writers' Contest. The authors are not Staff members of Positive Feedback.

 

Tetra 222 Loudspeakers
by Sean Lawson

 

Tetra Audio has to be one of the best kept secrets in high end audio. One look at the the Tetra website list of famous musicians that own and love Tetra will heavily underline this statement. One of my all time favourite albums of any genre is Miles Davis Bitches Brew... Yeah, and who is listening to Tetra? How about Herbie Hancock, Ron Carter, Dave Holland? If you love Miles you will catch my drift.

Since 1983, owner and designer Adrian Butts has been hand crafting speakers out of Ontario, Canada.

I enjoyed a fairly detailed exchange of emails with Adrian over the course of my review. He was always quick to respond and always amused me with his playful good humour. I do hope to one day sit down and talk over a beer with Adrian; everything he says is honest and down to earth—his lack of audio-snob guile and his total commitment to his craft makes him unforgettably likeable. He is Canadian after all!

Above all Adrian is a true music lover and it shows in his intent and in his unique designs.

Enter the 222's

For years I have been on a long and quixotic path to find a perfect 'monitor' speaker. A path that has taken up a lot of my time and energy. I have been listening to music seriously since the age of 10 and I have been making music on and off for the last 15 years. My ultimate goal has probably differed from that of the average audiophile—in that I have been looking for a speaker that is a perfect partner for home listening and monitoring of studio work.

After discovering Tetra and making contact Adrian sent me a well packaged pair of 222's in red cherry. My first impression was very strong—these speakers are a visual treat. The baffle that houses the drivers is a beautifully finished solid piece of wood backed by a smaller than expected tetrahedral housing finished in flat black.

The internal volume of the 222's is quite small at 4 litres and the overall effect is of a speaker quite smaller in footprint than it's stated dimensions.

The 222's are a standard 2 way monitor with a carefully hidden port that vents up behind the tweeter—this also acts as a clever handgrip for lifting the speakers around.

A Peerless 5" glass fiber woofer and a Morel 1" fabric tweeter are mated together to create a very easy to drive speaker with a sensitivity of 88dB and a nominal 8 ohm load. The front face sits back at an angle to time align the drivers to the listener.

Crossover is a simple 1st order design and all wiring is Tetra's own Artet cabling.

So, what makes any of this different from a dozen other small speakers that use simple crossovers and Scandinavian drivers?

I can only answer this initially with an analogy: my wife is a pasty chef (it's true) and she has always stated that anyone can learn to cook—but, to make pastry you have to also be part scientist. Let me explain: take four simple key components: eggs, butter, flour, and sugar. Put them together in varying quantities using various exacting techniques, baking time, shape, thickness, etc. and you have before you a whole universe of different unique tasty creations.

Now take a speaker with it's four essential ingredients: drivers, housing, cabling and crossover—put them together in varying quantities using various techniques, size of driver, types of crossover, speaker shape, cabling, yada yada… and you get a universe of different speakers that present sound in their own unique fashion.

Now, I chose this analogy specifically because Adrian Butts is to me like that mad chef/scientist in pursuit of total perfection (insert Heston Blumenthal here)—he chooses his ingredients very carefully then he tries a multitude of variations: carefully adding a perfectly spiced capacitor, an extra strand of copper wire to the cabling, matching the tolerances of all his drivers then tweaking and seasoning till he has reached total and utter satisfaction.

It takes Adrian up to 3 years to get his designs just right… and one of the things I most admire is that he is not going to release his product then surprise you one year down the road with an 'S.E.' Special Limited Signature Edition that costs and 'delivers twice as much and is a major advance' from the lowly speaker you bought yourself! No, the end product Adrian wants you to buy IS the best version he can make himself… as Adrian wrote to me, "you will be pleased to know that I am actually 'looking out' for your best interest."

Set Up

Set up with the Tetra's was a snap—in fact, the easiest set up of a pair loudspeakers I have ever done: I removed my reference speakers from their 24" sand-filled Atlantis stands and plunked down the 222's in their place. Toe-in looked just right; insert speakers cables; turn on amp—voila!

Straight out of the box without any burn-in I was hearing some magic. I can usually tell within the 1st 5 to 10 minutes how a speaker will perform in my room. If I hear any bass thump or brightness in the treble I have a pretty good idea that it will be a long ride till I get used to a speaker's sound. The 222's just eased into life with no fuss.

Right away I was carried into the soul of the music. Treble never sounded so clear and so smooth; mid range was superb and incredibly communicative, and the bass while light in weight had a 'rightness' of tone completely unique to any small transducer I have had the pleasure of auditioning.

The 222's can also play loud which is a massive selling feature to me. I like to crank it up on occasion and it's good to know the headroom is there. I have entertained a few Proac monitors in my home and while they often thrilled me I was let down with distortion and compression when I tried to turn up the volume.

I have a modest 'mid-fi' system I am quite proud about and the Tetra's settled in perfectly. I did get the feeling that while they benefit from quality components the 222's would still give their best even with a more modest budget system.

Treble

As I said the high end treble delivery of the 222's is indeed magical. I heard details and ambient cues placed in the soundstage in a way that gave them more voice than I had heard before—I do not mean that they shined a spotlight upon the music but rather they seemed to lift the details up closer to the listener, similar in nature to the best aspects of high-end headphones.

I have been going back over a lot of 90's electronic music lately and I put on Boards of Canada's sophomore release Music has the Right to Children. The Tetra's gave the album a meaty 3 dimensionality, synth tone and bass lines were all incredibly realistic, but what stood out was the infusion of energy I heard in all the small ambient layers that were cleverly mixed in—each minute ambient sound had it's own unique voice enhancing the overall listening experience.

I also cued up via iTunes Michael Jackson's 1979 release, Off the Wall. Once again on the first track, "Don't Stop Till You Get Enough" I heard Michael's close mic'ed whispered intro with a 3 dimensional clarity that pulled all the details forward sounding more alive and correct in the mix.

Classical music was right at home on the 222's from Mahler symphonies to solo piano the upper registers were all uniquely layered and alive with musical detail.

The treble has that perfect combination of detail, smoothness and airiness that makes them completely non-fatiguing and an absolute joy to listen to.

Midrange/Tone

If you visit the Tetra website take note of what the constant theme is from the many Tetra fans. Smoothness with detail and a rightness of tone—tone that makes people like Dave Holland declare that he finally heard a speaker that sounds like what he hears when he plays live bass!

To me the tone of these speakers is the most cherished aspect of their performance—they replay musical instruments and human voice with a 'rightness' that is uncanny.

The first night I had them at home I was chilling out after dinner doing the dishes and I put on The Best of Neil Diamond. Well, we have all heard "Sweet Caroline" a million times before, (at least I have) and then I heard it played through the 222's. Everything about this a.m. radio staple seemed to play anew to me—the smooth recorded horns, the gently tapping rhythm of the single piano key all rolled along with a fresh musicality. When Neil entered the room—which I swear he did, the rightness of tone combined with the incisive detail recreated in his voice had such a lustrous realism that I had a feeling of being present at the time of it's recording. Bravo!

A standard test disc I use for midrange/vocal performance is Willie Nelson's Red Headed Stranger. On many speakers I have tried this album with Willie's voice can at times beam, sounding shrill and jagged, but again with the 222's Willie appeared before me his voice loud, clear and gravelly—and completely real.

It didn't seem to matter what genre of music I threw at the 222's the midrange always remained sweet, smooth and musical… and alas, this is also one of the only shortcomings of this speaker: that it sounds so sweet!

When I check a mix at home sometimes what I need is the ability to hear all the nasty shrill grit to get an idea of where my mix stands. If a guitar is recorded with feedback that tears into the ear I need to feel that stab in the eardrum, if I record with a lot of distortion I expect the mix to leave my ears ringing a bit— like the day after a Motorhead concert.

The problem, (which is also a supreme virtue of the 222's) is that it makes all those nasty sounds, again, so damn musical! You actually hear them afresh as unique and enjoyable sounds and you hear the actual tone of that feedback.

When I mentioned this slight quibble to Adrian his reaction was to straight away send me a set of Artet speaker wire and an interconnect to add to the path. He is also very proud of his Artet cables and the synergy with Tetra. He said he often wonders if maybe they should always be sold as part of his speaker package so the message is closer to his intention.

So, I replaced my Townshend DCT Isolda speaker cable and my Van Den Hul Orchid interconnects—I can't say I expected much as both cables are world class and the best I have ever used. Well, the Artets brought back that snarl in Angus Young's guitar I had been missing. The overall sound was a little cleaner, more transparent as they say. The 222's are probably too sweet in their representation to please fans of hyper detailed analytical—style transducers (which I despise), but the addition of the Artet's certainly brought a touch more realism to the picture.

Bass/Scale

Adrian told me bass players love Tetra and I can hear why. I put on a variety of jazz LP's during my test of the 222's and on every album I heard the true voice of the bass come through. Subtle inflections, string picking, bowing and bass tone were all fleshed out to have that life-like realism that is an obvious hallmark of the design.

I put on Sonny Rollins, The Bridge and sat entranced listening to Bob Cranshaw's double bass—not only did it have the right tone and bounce but the 222's seamed to weave the bass around the mix; wrapping itself around the 4 other players and pulling them in tighter together like a drawstring. Part of that effect is from the exacting tolerances between drivers and speaker—the 222's have near perfect centre-fill.

I have fairly eclectic tastes and at the time of receiving the 222's I was rocking out heavily to the long awaited re-release of Queens of the Stone Age's first album. On the track, "Walkin' on the Sidewalks" bassist Nick Oliveri opens the song with short dragged stops that move from low to high notes—this usually sounds a little muddy and blurred; again on the Tetra's the bass tone carried the notes forward in a musical and clear manner.

The only thing that really niggled at me during my review was a certain lack of grunt with the 222's. While most instruments sounded strong and muscular I did find drums sounded a little 'shy' or recessed in the mix. This can be obviously related to the physical size of the speaker and it's 55Hz low end frequency. I like drums to have a physical feel and punch that attacks when needed and I found the drums moved into the back of the mix on many recordings.

I did blend my Rel Strata III sub in to fill in the bottom end but this didn't work 100% for me. I heard the top end of the drum with perfect tone the Rel filling in the bottom oomph of the bass in the drums. Yet it didn't quite pull out that dynamic punch I was looking for, leaving a slight pocket missing between the 222's and the Rel. Do not take this to mean that the 222's do not have a big sound. I was often dumbfounded at what these little wonders could do.

I put on Oasis' single collection album, The Masterplan. Not exactly noted for great recordings Oasis are all about concert sized big production and on the first track, "Acquiesce" Noel Gallagher's guitar came bursting into the room—it was downright HUGE! Then the band all fell in and a monster took over my house, wow… another CD that took me by surprise was Heresy by Lustmord. A pretty obscure release by a long time industrial musician from the 80's, Lustmord makes some of the darkest and moodiest soundscapes ever recorded. 'Heresy' was recorded in deep caves using sound generators, synth tones and percussion using the natural decay and ambience of the cave to create his signature dark ambient music. This was probably the least likely music I thought to succeed with the 222's with their limited physical size, but I was way wrong. The scale and size of the caverns seemed to stretch across my room, the height had almost no bounds, everything gained an added musicality and I was able to see deep into the mix adding an extra layer of detail to the whole.

Comparison

My current set of speakers are a pair of Neat Momentum 3i's—fairly close in price with the 222's but of a wildly different design. The 3i's are an isobaric speaker: they use an extra inner bass driver working in parallel with the outer driver to produce big and deep bass down into the low 30Hz range—a real unique feat for a bookshelf speaker. The internal volume is also a generous 14 litres which really helps beef up the size and scale of deep sounds.

Making a comparison the 3i's beat out the 222's with punch and attack—crank up some Slayer and all that ridiculous double-kick drum will be knocking cracks in the walls. Hip hop and electro both benefit from that punch that gives percussion more force and aggression. This was completely the Neat's forte.

Again, I emailed Adrian with my concerns and his response was typically Adrian-esque. Yes, he admits the 222's don't do deep bass like I suggest—his intention all along was to create the 222's as a satellite for optional bass modules that he is still in the process of perfecting! The addition of the bass module will lighten the bass load in the monitor and create a full range speaker—I think after that Adrian plans to take over the world.

Conclusion

It is well known that mini-monitors are the stuff of choice in Japan and in most of Asia. Manufacturer's such as Harbeth, Proac and Spendor sell a huge number of very small speakers to the eastern market—and the reason is obvious: people in Asia, (Japan especially) live in small spaces. They need speakers that convey the heart and soul of music, that don't take up much space and don't intrude upon the world outside.

A lot of the cult speakers in Japan—take the Harbeth P3ESR and the Spendor SA-1 for instance, are all about expression in the midrange—they are not hard punching monitors that pound the walls apart they are speakers for close listening in an intimate setting. With the 222's I believe a perfect unity has been achieved: it's ability to throw a huge soundstage with effortless confidence; it's smooth, detailed sound—and it's overall tone (let me repeat tone, tone, tone); practicality with set up; ease of drive and the ability to play LOUD when needed means: the 222 should be THE cult speaker of Japan!

My Neat Momnetum 3i's are an excellent design and I have been very happy with them—they share the ability of the Tetra's to be detailed without being bright and they place all the elements of a recording in a tidy realistic picture.

My feeling with the 3i's is akin to looking through a newly washed picture window upon a grand scene of mountains and big sky—with the 222's, although the scene is a little more modest in scale I actually got the feeling that a window had been opened—that I was no longer looking through glass but also breathing in the sweet fresh air of nature. The Tetra 222's are the closest thing I have heard that comes to true perfection for my tastes, no other speaker has connected me to the music quite like them.

My only concerns were from a professional standpoint for monitoring mixes—these are probably not the same concerns held by most music listeners. In fact, I have anxiously considered selling off my current speakers, buying back the 222's and picking up a cheap pair of self-powered KRK Rokit's for mix monitoring. That way I can return to the joy of Tetra, sit back, enjoy music and forget about speakers altogether… that is until the bass modules are ready to be delivered.

 

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