Albedo Aptica Loudspeakers
In a large, superbly designed and printed book titled The Absolute Sound's Illustrated History of High-End Audio dedicated to loudspeakers, we will not find a single word on the company Albedo (Robert Harley and others, The Absolute Sound's Illustrated History of High-End Audio, Austin 2013). And it's no wonder—among the distinguished pioneers and veterans of the loudspeaker industry like Altec/Lansing, JBL, Quad, Spendor, KEF or Bowers&Wilkins and new, but heavily advertised and already well-known manufacturers, there seems to be no room for such a young (referring to the veterans) and "low-profile" (with a nod towards heavy promotion) company.
In the early 1990s, two people, Massimo Costa, editor in chief of the Italian audio DIY magazine Costruire Hi-Fi, and Giuseppe Pucacco, with a PhD in Physics from the University of Rome, joined their forces to explore the mysteries of the transmission line speaker enclosure. The fruit of their cooperation were mathematical rules describing this type of driver loading. Tangible result of these calculations was a proprietary simulation software that allows a very accurate prediction of the behavior of any transmission line. The basic design premise has been further expanded by adapting another important solution from the field of acoustics, namely the Helmholtz resonator, used to control the spectral components of transmission line emission (in the frequency domain). Albedo calls this solution Helmholine.
The transmission line and Helmholtz resonator are the two basic characteristics that are the basis of all the three Albedo models—the HL2.2, the Aptica under review and the flagship Axcentia. Of course, the transmission line is not a new thing in audio. Once very popular, it is still used by many manufacturers, such as PCM and Castle. It is Albedo, however, that bears the palm when it comes to systematic research on this technology.
But this is not the only characteristic thing for this Italian company. The other one concerns the drivers used in its speaker designs. And the Absolute Sound's book (which I highly recommend!) dedicates a whole chapter to them, titled Ceramic Drivers and written by Jonathan Valin. Albedo, like other great manufacturers including Avalon Acoustic, Isophon, Kharma, Marten, Estelon and Tidal, use ceramic drivers from the German company Accuton.
In 1984, Bernhard Thiel, an engineer at Backes & Müller in Germany, discovered a way to produce extremely thin layer of hard material called alumina, a crystalline form of aluminum oxide, which is found in nature as sapphire. He also managed to form it into the shape of a driver cone. This is done by burning the component at 2200° C and cooling it down properly. While these first fully ceramic cones had very good internal damping, they showed lots of high Q-factor resonance. To prevent this, Thiel used a laser to cut out holes in the cones and filled them with Sorbothane.
Initially, ceramic drivers were produced exclusively by Backes & Müller, but after a few years from his invention Thiel left B&M and founded his own company, Thiel GmbH in Homburg, Germany. When in 1992 his former employer, Backes & Müller, withdrew from the production of speakers with ceramic drivers, Thiel found himself in financial problems. He was helped in this difficult time by Adrian Bankewitz, his longtime friend and European distributor. Thiel GmbH turned into Thiel & Partner GmbH and has been known since as Accuton, the name proposed by Bankewitz. 1996 saw the first ceramic woofers and 1999 a method for manufacturing diamond cones. In 2009, Accuton added to its lineup ceramic sandwich cones.
The first product from the two Italians, who did not form Albedo until 2009, was a two-way speaker designed in 1995 for Apex Audio and sold exclusively in Italy. Looking at it it's hard to resist the impression that it was a ready form, which after minor changes (more or less, at least) later evolved into the HL2.2 and Aptica. It was a small, slender speaker tapering downwards, mounted to a broad plinth that kept the exit of the transmission line at an appropriate distance from the floor. This shape has remained unchanged to this day. What has changed is the materials used and build and finish quality. The Aptica looks stunning, as if tailor made for refined interiors. And it is not kitschy in the least, which may easily happen. The front baffle is made of hand chiseled wood. The rest of the cabinet, including the back panel, is lute shaped, which is the design popularized by Sonus faber. The Aptica also uses new drivers. The earlier classic ones have now been replaced with Accuton ceramic drivers—a 150mm mid-woofer and a 25 mm dome tweeter with the DSD system. I couldn't find any information on what the abbreviation stands for. According to the white papers available at the Albedo website the DSD is a variant of the Helmholtz resonator designed for high-frequency and used to suppress diffraction and reflections from the tweeter. It looks ultra-professional: on both sides of the Accuton tweeter dome are glued metal plates with cut outs, with damping material behind. The whole thing is simply perfect.
Albums auditioned during this review
• Music For A While. Improvisations on Purcell, Christina Pluhar, L'Arpeggiata, Erato 4636203, CD + DVD (2014).
• Arturo Delmoni, The Songs My Mother Taught Me, John Marks Records JMR One/JMR 1G, gold-CD (1994).
• Bing Crosby, The Radio Years, GNP Records/King Records (Japan) 240E 6848, "Very Best Jazz", CD (1988).
• Charlie Haden & Chris Anderson, None But The Lonely Heart, Naim naimcd022, CD (1998).
• Charlie Haden & John Taylor, Nightfall, The Naim Label naimcd077, CD (2004).
• Charlie Haden, The Private Collection, The Naim Label naimcd108, 2 x CD (2007).
• Danielsson, Dell, Landgren, Salzau Music On The Water, ACT 9445-2, CD (2006).
• Dean Martin, "Dean Martin", Capitol D 162295, "The Capitol Collector Series", CD (1989).
• Heinz Sauer + Michael Wollny, Certain Beauty, ACT 9442-2, CD (2006); reviewed HERE.
• John Coltrane Quartet, Ballads, Impulse!/Universal Music LLC (Japan) UCCU-40001, Platinum SHM-CD (2013).
• Jonas Knutsson + Johan Norberg, Cow Cow: Norrland II, ACT 9425-2, CD (2005) ; reviewed HERE.
• Lars Danielsson, Mélange Bleu, ACT, 9604-2, "ACT: Nu Jazz"", CD (2006).
• Laurie Anderson, Homeland, Nonesuch 524055-2, CD + DVD (2010); reviewed HERE.
• Miles Davis, In A Silent Way, Columbia/Mobile Fidelity UDSACD-2088, "Special Limited Edition, No. 1311", SACD/CD (1969/2012).
• Modern Talking, The Collection, E.M.S.S.A. Argentina/Sony Music Entertainment Hong Kong 88725439142, "Limited Edition No. 0420", K2HD CD (1994/2012).
• Pat Metheny Group, Offramp, ECM/Universal Music K.K. UCCU-9543, "Jazz The Best No. 43", gold-CD (1982/2004).
• Pat Metheny, What's It All About, Nonesuch Records/Warner Music Japan WPCR-14176, CD (2011); reviewed HERE.
• Savage, Tonight, Extravaganza Publishing/Klub80 Records CD001, "25th Anniversary Limited Edition No59/150, CD (1984/2009); reviewed HERE.
• SBB, Nowy Horyzont, Polskie Nagrania "Muza"/Belle Antique 142218, SHM-CD (1974/2014).
• ShowBand, Punkt styku, GAD Records GAD CD 013, CD (2014); reviewed HERE.
• Soundgarden, Superunknown, A&M Records 3778183, "Deluxe Edition", 2 x CD (1994/2014). Japanese CD editions are available from CD Japan.
Although I was forewarned that the Albedo speakers deliver "big" sound, hooking them up to my system brought a pleasant surprise, like every time when something good happens in front of me. Manufacturers left and right claim impressive specs, which are often fabricated, and quote design details that only they are capable of employing, which is even more rubbish talk. This applies not only to the audio industry, but in our industry it happens to be difficult to verify. All this promotion talk is to generate a positive attitude towards the product. And then come what may; as if many producers felt that their customers are deaf and will not notice that something is "not quite right".
Hence, those manufacturers that actually do use in their products interesting solutions, which actually work, deserve special recognition. I'm saying this because I cannot explain such a large soundstage and so good volume of instruments other than by a very good synergy of well-matched and properly crossed over drivers with the transmission line and Helmholtz resonator - the three distinguishing features of Albedo designs.
The bass does not extend "surprisingly" deep nor is it "surprisingly powerful." This simply cannot be obtained from such a slim enclosure, no matter how cleverly designed. However, similarly as in the best standmount speakers from Harbeth, Spendor and Rogers, nothing seems to be missing here. The presentation is absolutely satisfactory, with no signs of "lacking" anything in the bottom end department. I could only tell that after auditioning several piano albums, an instrument that I used to sound engineer and record for years. A comparison with the much larger Harbeth M40.1 was also helpful.
At the same time, the Aptica showed the same combination of incredible smoothness and attention to detail that I'd previously heard from other good speakers equipped with this type of drivers, like the Avalon Transcendent and the Isophon Berlina RC7. In the Aptica, these two tendencies, usually mutually exclusive, were combined with high resolution and large musical planes, and a fairly average selectivity. I mean an internally rich sound that wasn't lacking any of its truly amazing attack, which was way above average, and at the same time resulted in a warm presentation, with slightly recessed upper midrange.
The CD cover of Hainz Sauer and Michael Wollny's album Certain Beauty released by the Munich-based ACT label includes the following paragraph:
In one of my books I once wrote something that seems valid here. Under the heading "About the inner realms of duo-playing" it reads: "Jazz without drums, isn't that a paradox? Like water flowing upstream? Sure, if you believe that jazz normally requires the noise level of a Boeing 747, then it is inconceivable without drumming. But let me send this friendly message to the friends of Gene Krupa, Buddy Rich and Max Roach: Doing away with the drums in jazz can have its rewards", because, as Stan Getz once confided to me: Jazz is rhythm, man, and rhythm is inside you, nowhere else!"
The words echoed in my ears along with wonderfully sounding well-recorded classical albums from Naim, ACT, ECM and Nonesuch. The speakers seem to be created for this kind of music, i.e. small ensembles, good production, peace and space between the notes and musicians. I would venture to say that if someone does not particularly like the appearance of the Harbeth M30.1 or M40.1 and wants a similar quality while listening to, say, Charlie Haden, Pat Metheny, Bill Evans and others, the Aptica would be my first recommended speaker. It is a very similar way of building up the sound that has the same texture, with great soundstaging and momentum, realistically sized instruments, and the same outstanding resolution executed by a very precise attack. And it's all smooth, silky and soft. You want detail without harshness or brightening? Here you are, the Italian speakers are the champions in this respect.
I would even say that in terms of conveying transient attacks without sound compression they are better than my Harbeths. I am mainly thinking treble here. Their pitch differentiation in this range is much better than that of my M40.1. Ceramic drivers have an edge over any other type of driver design, with the possible exception of (good) diamond and some metal cones. This cannot be simulated or imitated in any other way.
The Albedo's predilection for small ensembles is part of something bigger. The speakers sounded fantastic when not loaded too hard with a continuous noise. That's why Heinz Sauer's quote referred to earlier was so well suited to the review situation. Pushed towards more chaotic and compressed popular productions, like Modern Talking from the Japanese K2HD remaster or the—otherwise excellent—remaster of Savage's Tonight produced by Damian Lipinski, they exposed their problems. That's good, as differentiation is one of the basic characteristics of high-end audio. The Aptica does it this way: "We know that all our children are beautiful and we love them all the same because they are ours. But look how beautifully Hanna plays the violin and how good a swimmer James is!" I hope you understand what I'm trying to say. The speakers do not bash the albums that are not so great. The more "successful" ones, however, are the apple of their eye.
Both Savage and Modern Talking as well as Soundgarden on the anniversary edition of Superunknown had a nice color, were not tiring and never sounded overly bright. At the same time, however, their dynamics was somewhat flat, as was their color differentiation. Yes, it is a problem of this type of recordings. Large loudspeakers or those combining high selectivity with resolution (real ones, not simulated by sharpening the attack) are capable of some kind of refining these weaker productions, without pretending that there are no problems with them. Other designs, focused primarily on selectivity, will continue to gnaw at their problems to the point where we are fed up with everything and will never come back to the given album. The Aptica chooses the middle path, presenting everything in a smooth and warm way, but without trying to authenticate it somehow.
During his visit to my home and then listening to music at Janusz's, at a meeting of the Krakow Sonic Society, Srajan Ebaen said that people tend to build their audio systems to suit their tastes and music they listen to (see HERE). I think he was right. You can pretend to strive for universal sound and absolute system transparency. It is a worthy goal, and my full respect to those who keep an eye on it! It is nevertheless a utopia, even if most beautiful. It is good if an audio system can equally well handle the widest possible variety of music styles, production and release types. In the end, however, what's the point of it if you still choose your favorite type of music and album releases. Is it not better to "push on" in this direction? I think Albedo prepared the perfect gift for all those in whom the words of Sauer stirred a dormant, and seemingly long-buried, longing for beauty, fullness and calm.
Let me repeat: the point is not that the Italian speakers "do not play" anything, unless it came out of the hand of Ken Christianson or John Marx. But when you listen to Charlie Haden and John Taylor's Nightfall, Pat Metheny's What's It All About or vocal music from the 1940s and 1950s, you will realize that this is something you will henceforth aspire to. And you will get it with the speakers that look simply flawless, better than all that designer crap that people are pushed to buy. The speakers that are slender and do not occupy too much space, and are equally good with this type of music as the powerful, big Harbeth M40.1.
It is generally true that when you read about an artist a bit more than just a note on the book cover, a mini-essay in the album booklet or a short mention in an exhibition catalog, you start to perceive their work in a different way. Literary theory has for years seen two opposing positions on the fundamental principles of interpretation of a literary work. According to one you should learn as much as possible about an author and the times in which he or she lived, and make cross-comparisons with their other works and the works of other writers. In this perspective, only full knowledge can bring us close to the most accurate interpretation. There is, however, an opposing look, in which the only way to "read" the literary work is to treat it as an autonomous, independent being. Any attempt at linking it with the author results in psychologizing and losing its authenticity. I must say that the latter approach was much more appealing to me during my university years. I was not alone in this, even though Polish universities tend to be very conservative in their teaching methods. In this case, conservatism meant tying a literary work to its author's biography. We considered it a sign of backwardness. Postmodernism, introduced to us by professors Tadeusz Nycz and Michał Paweł Markowski, was incredibly attractive and we considered the method of "discovering" the literary work through its deconstruction to be a true revelation.
However, I notice that as I get older I am more and more inclined to the classical approach. I can better understand what I read and what I listen to when I know whose work I read and whose song I listen to. And, better still, if I have an opportunity to see and hear the person live. This way I can link a work of art with my own emotional experience—an interpretative monstrosity! And yet, it seems to me that it is much more real and to be moved by it is what all this is about.
The Apticas sound in a way that clearly refers to a particular system of values, needs and aesthetics. They are fantastic in that. Large phantom images, absolute smoothness and incredible sensitivity to individual sounds and their attack result in something truly unique. I am not saying that it is the best in the world, but that it is completely sufficient. Provided that we listen intelligently, and our album collection largely includes small ensembles.
And if we have some more information, for example about the method of recording, everything gets even more beautiful. This was my experience with Naim releases, which I could appreciate even better after my earlier correspondence interview with Ken Christianson, the chief Naim producer and creator of the True Stereo system. A similar thing happened with albums from John Marx, an editor for Stereophile, who by some miracle dig them up for me. They have long been out of print and often command shockingly high prices on eBay. Again, that was after my long, ultra-interesting interview with John. Both interviews are published in the current "High Fidelity" issue. The Albedo speakers also rewarded my deepened interest in them with an even better sound.
The Italian speakers have a somewhat recessed upper midrange. Not even its level as much as its energy, which is damped. The result is that all albums that are similarly withdrawn will sound less vivid, as was the case with the SHM-CD re-edition of SBB album New Horizon released by Belle Antique label from Japan. Neither the new remaster in Japan nor the exclusive pressing could help that much and the poor production from the mid-70's was evident. But even here the Aptica remained calm and smooth. However, it also showed that they are not fully universal speakers.
They will definitely suit a particular group of music lovers and a certain body of recordings. Here, they will be true champions. Pair them with a good amplifier—preferably a powerful solid state machine—and you will have a system for life. Polish Albedo distributor also offers Crayon amplifiers and these will be a great match (see the review of the Crayon CFA 1.2 HERE). But do not forget about the Accuphase E-600, the two-piece elinsAudio Manufacture Mille and Vitus Audio components. The Albedo Aptica are superbly made and exquisitely finished speakers with a big, warm heart beating just for us.
Actually, all important information about these speakers has already been given in the introduction. It is a two-way design in a transmission line enclosure, with a Helmholtz resonator to linearize response. The Aptica employs acoustic resonators inside the transmission line for cancellation of the unwanted line's resonances and as acoustic impedance compensators. The line's walls are additionally lined with medium porosity polyurethane. Albedo calls this solution Helmholine. A smaller variant of the Helmholtz resonator called DSD is mounted on both sides of the tweeter. The floor facing transmission line exit is located at the rear. To keep the speaker at the right height above the floor and prevent it from tipping over, it is mounted to a heavy steel plinth. It sports four pretty top-adjustable spikes. Leveling the speakers is fairly easy thanks to large locking washers. The speakers come with steel spike pads. I did not use them. Normally I use spike receptacles from Acoustic Revive, but this time the distributor supplied the Harmonix RF-900 MkII tuning spike bases, which is what I used during the review. The speakers were placed on the Acoustic Revive RST-38H isolation boards.
The Aptica uses drivers from German Accuton—the 158 mm (6.25") C158-8-085 mid-bass woofer, and the 25 mm (1") C25-6-012 tweeter. The latter has an inverted dome. The drivers are crossed over with first-order filters (6 dB/octave). Phase coherence is one of the pet subjects of the people from Albedo, and it can only be achieved with this type of crossover. The crossover network is mounted on a printed circuit board. Although the first order crossover only requires a single capacitor and a coil, the Aptica uses a much more complex circuit, consisting of three audiophile class M-Cap capacitors, four air coils and three resistors. They are used for phase and impedance linearization. The signal is fed to the speaker via a single pair of speaker terminals that are mounted at an angle so the bananas plug in from below.
The build and finish quality is perfect, including both the hand chiseled front baffle and the rest of the cabinet. The pair under review was finished in high-gloss varnish. The manufacturer recommends a 100-hour burn-in period.
Specification (according to the manufacturer):
Applied drivers: 158 mm mid-bass ceramic woofer | 25 mm ceramic dome tweeter with the DSD system
Enclosure type: transmission line with Helmholtz resonator
Crossover: 1st order
Nominal Impedance: 8 Ω
Sensitivity: 85 dB SPL (2.83 V / 1 m)
Frequency response: 45 - 20 000 Hz
Dimensions: 260 x 190 x 1010 mm
Weight: 19 kg / pc.
Available finish: Macassar ebony, glossy graphite ebony, black
Price (in Poland):
33,000 PLN/pair – basic veneer
41,500 PLN/pair – graphite and black finish
MADE IN ITALY