Petits fours. Take Average Joe for a wander ’round the average audio show or high-end store and he’d be forgiven for concluding that peak performance comes from big boxes: 8ft monoliths powered by trunk-sized monoblocks, a pre-amplifier that costs more than your average car and a D/A converter that arrives in three pieces, all stitched together by (Monty!) python-esque cabling whose pricing alone can run into the thousands.
Luxury wire often serves double duty as the context for validating all manner of tweakery. In such instances the audiophile world is happy to lean on the convenience of its own self-justification: spend big and eventually everything blurs into the realm of affordability.
Then there’s the dark art of component matching – a steep learning curve for Average Joe, even when configuring a more modestly-priced multi-boxed system. After which he must find the requisite lounge-room real estate in which to accommodate it. (To rack or not?)
Few folk are able to indulge the luxury of a separate listening room. A consideration quickly sidelined by many once structural concerns and room treatments careen into view. The potential for physical (and emotional) separation from family complicate the issue still further.
For Average Joe, the high-end audio scene is tough to relate to. It lacks relevance. And relevance isn’t just a matter of affordability but also one of accommodation. Literally.
Manufacturers minimising hardware incursion into lounge room space, increasingly valuable among city folk, point to a future for high end audio that comes with growth potential built in to the design.
For high-rise residents of Tokyo, Taipei, Beijing, Seoul, Sydney and Manhattan (among many others) staring down minimal square footage the concept of a home hifi system comprising separates quickly begins to look incredibly long in the tooth.
Are we really surprised at the mass market’s preference for smaller, Bluetooth-infused uni-boxes? They’re cheap, small and require next to no specialist knowledge to get up and running with music playback. Never underestimate the power of convenience.
But high-end audio, like many a septuagenarian, is stuck in its ways. The notion of convenience regularly meets with audiophile sneer, as if overcoming barriers to entry were badges of honour necessary for community acceptance. Pfft!
Convenience doesn’t have to bring mortal damage to quality.
If I were a high street retailer my enterprise’s mission statement would take its cues from pro audio and DJ equipment stores. My hifi retail space would be front-loaded with digital streamers and active loudspeakers. For newcomers, amplifier-to-loudspeaker matching considerations – as well loudspeaker cabling itself – would be shown the door. Even at the higher-end.
Offerings would start with the Audioengine 5+ (US$399) which can rock one’s world on stands as well as on the desktop audio. Proof positive at the entry-level that affordability, simplicity and quality can co-exist. Just BYO DAC or streamer.
Want something a little better that also comes pre-loaded with D/A conversion and proximity switching to accommodate desktop or in-room positioning? That’ll be the KEF X300A (US$599). Drop an extra four hundred clams on their ‘Wireless’ networkable cousins if Airplay streaming is needed. Here analogue interconnects get the boot too. Power cord and USB connected, these active KEFs are the epitome of plug-n-play.
From there, I’d thrown down the leftfield option of a Devialet Phantom (US$1999+) – or make it two with matching stands for a stereo pair. Streaming comes built in.
Alternatively, how about an active Dynaudio? Or, going higher still, would Sir/Madam be interested in the Manger S1 (€13200) or Avant Garde Zero 1 Pro (US$16000)? Keeping the homefires burning: SGR Audio offer the stand-mounted CX3B and floorstanding CX4F, both active options.
Genelec offer a whole slew of options that hold true to the ‘bookshelf’ descriptor. Some models arrive with optional DAC and/or room/speaker correctability in tow.
As exemplified here, active loudspeaker options in the audiophile sector are slowly but surely becoming more numerous but there’s a catch for the apartment dweller of desktop listener: more money down generally means bigger boxes.
Case in point: a Sydney-based audiophile pal owns a pair of Adam Tensor Delta which isn’t unusual until you learn that they’re deployed on his desktop at work!
What choices for the listener for whom the ostentatiousness of an overbuilt, oversized box rings zero bells? If there’s no hit to flavour, why risk the stomach bloat of a main serve when an entree-sized portion will sate?
Headquartered in the Swiss town of Schaffhausen, Eversound Audio’s Robert Kwolek (and his Father, Ted) are internationalists of Polish descent whose only loudspeaker model is a pint-sized active with in-built DAC and headphone amplifier such component matching is already taken care of. This desktop solution serves as the successor to the ES-2 that reportedly saw daylight at the Munich High-End Show way back in 2012.
This father/son Kwolek duo have applied high-end audio thinking to computer speakers with a price to match: €2760 per pair. The most expensive desktop speakers you’ve never heard of? Probably.
Right from the get go of unboxing, the Swiss let us know that theirs is not a product for those who equate size with value.
The top packaging layer serves up three connectivity cables – power, USB and interconnect – with the drawstring-bagged speakers sitting beneath. Extracted from the packaging, the Swiss boxes measure 12cm x 20cm x 18cm but at ~3kg apiece feel substantial in the hand. Build quality comes across as impeccable. We’d expect nothing less at this asking price.
The Essence is of master/slave configuration: the supplied mini-XLR-terminated interconnect permits right-hand drive of the entire system’s output. Connectivity is found starboard side too: analogue (3.5mm + twin RCA) and digital (USB + optical) inputs feed into a DAC/pre-amplifier board which in turns connects to an ICEPower module. Volume attention comes from the wheeled pot on top. Behind each circular grille sits a fabric dome tweeter coaxially aligned with a 4.5” paper mid/bass driver.
In an interesting twist, Gordon Rankin of Wavelength Audio and AudioQuest Dragonfly/Beetle was recruited for the Essence’s USB implementation.
Stands are built into each speaker’s chassis but tilt-back isn’t easily actionable. Third party elevation is required to get them up to ear level. This is where optimal soundstaging lives.
Hooked up to the mains via the supplied clover-leaf power cord and to a Roon-running Macbook Air via USB, setup could not be simpler. A swishing three-pointer for accessibility.
Let’s hit play.
The Essence’s way with dynamic charge is irrefutable but listening for numerous hours didn’t bring headache or weariness to this commentator.
Next up we note big time holography: the illusion of players laid out across the desk surface. It’ll have first time listeners checking their heads. The Essence render music as an on-desk pop-up book.
Eversound claim the Essence capable of mining down to ~48Hz. That’s none too dissimilar to KEF’s own -6db rating of the LS50 monitor. What we get in Swiss hands is a scaled down performance that gives up next to nothing in terms of speed, conviction and (especially) guitar tone, as dispensed by Matthew Sweet or Neil Young. In being shrunk to mini-me proportions, classics albums like Live Rust and Girlfriend losing none of the midrange lucidity.
The latter observation puts the boot into the popular misconception that Class D is good for low frequencies and little else, the implication being that its delivery above the waist is limp. The Essence’s combo of finesse with high micro-dynamic jump factor plays stern rebuttal to such class snobbery: implementation, implementation, implementation.
On transient delivery, I’d describe the Audioengine – and to a lesser extent the KEF – as cutting through air loaded with a little pre-storm humidity. Contrastingly, the Essence pile on the ionic charge for a presentation that connotes words like crisp, clean, lively, fast and pure. Strong inside-out illumination brings high contrast to surface textures.
The Swiss are light years ahead of the Audioengine 5+ and KEF X300A on detail extraction. These bigger – and it must be said again – less costly rivals counter with greater all-round heft (but not much else). In every other respect the KEF and Audioengine actives eat Eversound’s dust. The Essence are for those seeking a highly intellectual encounter with their music collection.
My introduction to these speakers came by way of Swiss-residing Srajan Ebaen’s own coverage: his own review at 6moons before the baton handover to yours truly via Ebaen’s regular KIH column in these pages. I agree that the Essence might be some of the best computer speakers in the world.
Oh – and the Essence’s 3.5mm headphone output is none too shabby either; quite the cut above the usual integrated amplifier adjunct. I’ll second Ebaen’s assertion that it does a bang-up job of bringing righteous animation to the HiFiMAN HE-1000 and proving that this isn’t just a game for high-end headfi-ers, the Essence lends appreciable tonal brilliance to the more affordable HiFiMAN-400S. That said, I noted some thinning on top when the Sennheiser HD650 were called for duty.
That the Essence could serve as a non-intrusive high-end solution in small listening spaces only heightens their appeal.
Despite being in the process of locking down global distribution channels before going putting the Essence into production proper, Robert and Ted Kwolek show a way forward for high-end audio that does away with back-breaking boxes. Their Essence are a downsize without the downgrade. Truly delightful. Spiffing. Top show. Pip pip.
Further information: Eversound Audio
UPDATE 21st January 2016: Robert Kwolek writes: “A startup such as ours must often choose how best to distribute limited financial resources. In our case, that has usually meant R&D. We’ve viewed marketing and legalities as something of a luxury, which for the most part has allowed us to focus on developing great products. Until recently. Despite the company originally being founded in Indiana, we discovered that a company in the United States had registered the “Eversound” trademark there earlier this year before we were able to, due to a loophole in US trademark law. Trademark law isn’t as international as other aspects of the global economy. Consequently, we would not be able to market our products in the US using our name. As difficult a choice as it has been, considering the many years we have been Eversound, we made the decision to change the name. After many weeks of deliberation, the name we have chosen is Feniks.
The journey to even where we are now has been full of ups and downs, triumphs and difficulties. There have been times when it has not always been certain that we would pull through. But someway, somehow, like a phoenix rising from the ashes, we live to see another day and keep building our beautiful products. “Feniks”, an alternative spelling, is testament to this journey.
The website and our emails have already changed, and we hope you will join us in thinking warmly of this new name.”