They walk in beauty ...SUJESH PAVITHRAN takes a Greek goddess to task. He gets intimate with Athena and finds out the reality that all mere mortals face ...
LOUDSPEAKER designers have mostly adhered to traditional dogma during the past half-century or so--they matched two or more transducers and mounted them on a box, the shape and size of which varied from model to model, but which almost always remained, er, box-shaped. There have been exceptions to this tenet, of course, notably in the realm of electrostatics, but these too were usually rectangular or trapezoid panels.
Rarely, in the past two decades that I've been a hi-fi disciple, has a loudspeaker with physical dimensions other than those mentioned above crossed my path. The Athena, the debut offering from a new Danish company called ArciTec Acoustic, breaks the mould.
ArciTec, I'm reliably informed, was set up about 18 months ago by a team whose members include a furniture maker and two electronics engineers, who are also marketing men. The brief was to manufacture a speaker that was high end in sound, aesthetics and functionality. The resultant product was named after the Greek goddess, for its strength and beauty.
Surely, given the noble intentions and classical passion, the Athena has to be something special ....
... Which indeed, it is. One look at the slim cylinder--hewn from extruded aluminium--tells you that this is no ordinary speaker. The cylindrical shape was chosen to maximise internal space, ensure the cabinet's sonic stability and eliminate internal standing waves.
Aluminium was used because it was the easiest and most malleable metal to work with and, although, as the designers admit, metal tends to "sing," the potentially adverse effects of such an occurrence have been nullified by other design innovations.
Essentially, however, this is a bass-reflex, two-way floorstander. The aluminium cylinder, which comes in seven lovely colours, is mounted on a spiked metal base, under which the cables must run to access the bi-wiring terminals.
The top half of the cylinder extrudes into a rectangular baffle, on which, from top to bottom, are mounted a soft-dome tweeter and two five-inch NRSC-cone woofers--beneath the second woofer is the port. If I'm not mistaken, the combination is Vifa-Scanspeak, in two-way configuration and crossing over at 2.5kHz. Here, the Athena returns to convention.
Frequency response ranges from 45Hz to 20kHz, impedance is four ohms, sensitivity is 83dB--but don't shy away just yet--and recommended amplifier power is between 50 and 250 watts. Each unit weighs in at just over 12kg, so solo setting up is pretty much a breeze.
The Athenas were initially run-in with my resident AV system, and they stayed there for a couple of months because, 1) they sounded as good as anything I'd run in the system and 2) my wife thought they were cute and took up very little space!
During this time, the speakers were driven in turn by the Sony TA-VA80ES and Yahama DSP-A1 AV amps, using a variety of DVD, CD, LD and VCR machines; cables were Straightwire Encore.
The more critical sessions were carried out on the hi-fi set-up; here, the Athenas were driven by the very powerful Krell KAV-300i integrated amp via Nordost Flatline cable (in bi-wire mode). Sources included Audiolab 8000CDM and Theta Data transport routed into Theta Pro-prime DAC, via Ensemble Digiflux and Straightwire Virtuoso connects.
No complaints, really, about how the Athenas performed in the AV system. Driving them at volume levels to which I'm accustomed, there was little these speakers couldn't take, unless it was absolute bass grunt--the solution, obviously, was a subwoofer! But they handled ambient detail very well, showing a flair for detail and depth--the resultant sound was tight and solid, with little intrusion of the speakers' characteristics upon the whole system.
However, closer scrutiny--hooked up to the hi-fi system--revealed the true nature of the beast, parts of which were pleasant enough and others, well, fundamentally flawed. Don't forget, though, that this is first and foremost, a lifestyle product, with aspirations to The High End.
The good bits included the very tight bass--almost to a fault--and the cohesive manner in which these speakers presented the sound. Unfettered, rhythmic and very nicely timed, the designers of the Athenas obviously know a thing or two about pace and punch. Or, one has to ask, were these purposely tweaked to complement the speakers' drawbacks?
I figure the drivers and the crossover design have been optimised to overcome the negative attributes of the aluminium cabinet, which is why the Athenas can sound so taut and in control, up to a certain volume. Push them real hard, and they begin to shout a bit, with a suggestion of fragility. And at lower volumes, the slight resonance in the upper bass frequencies won't go unnoticed by more discerning listeners.
Also present is a tonal aridness that, while not altogether unpleasant, has a tendency to make guitars and cymbals sound steely--thoughtfully, the designers used conventional drivers, otherwise, the somewhat pinched treble would have "zinged." And while one can't fault the Athenas' ability to dig up detail--the instrumental layering and vocal nuances are obvious--the sound stage isn't altogether spot-on.
You must hand it to the ArciTec guys for daring to try something different--if this were merely a lifestyle product, competing on familiar territory, it would take almost everything else to the cleaners. But the Athena isn't satisfied to remain merely this.
Hence, the shortcomings, although I doubt the designers ever intended the speakers to go at the end of a highly critical system, with the listener at the crucial sweet-spot. However, in an AV system, they work marvellously, the only drawback being the price-tag--RM12,000, with some change back, isn't exactly cheap. Still, worshippers of that great god, Boring Wooden Box, won't be too impressed.
One would think these cylinders work best on both sides of the fireplace, mantlepiece or wall corners, where they will draw gasps of pure appreciation from visitors for their looks and "big" sound.
Model: ArciTec Acoustic Athena loudspeakers
Price: RM11,980 per pair
Review sample courtesy of TRIKAY SOUND SYSTEMS SDN BHD (03-757-5353, e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org), 7 Lorong Universiti C, 46350 Petaling Jaya, Selangor.
For: Cursory listeners, lovers of lifestyle products and most mortals will love the fabulous looks and appreciate the decent sound; the aspirations are noble ....
Against: ... and perhaps a tad ambitious ... see text ....
AudioFile © 1999, Star Publications (Malaysia) Berhad (No. 10894-D).