Copious bass from small cones, but achieving good sound from the baby Audioplans is a game of two halves
Perhaps because Audioplan is more than just a loudspeaker manufacturer – it makes cables, Sicomin isolation and damping products, and mains conditioners as well – the German company offers just three models of speaker. Each is a two-way design, although the costliest Konzert III incorporates three drivers: two forward-facing and a second bass-mid driver firing rearwards from the back of the cabinet.
The bottom of the range Kontrapunkt IV B, on review here, has no such elaboration but still sports some unusual features. First of these to catch the eye is its – for want of a better term – cabinet stand.
At a fleeting glance you might take the Kontrapunkt to be a tall, slim floorstander of which there are many now on the market. But a longer inspection shows the speaker itself to be the smaller of two cabinets, perched atop a larger one, to which no connection is made other than via the three circular feet on the bottom of the speaker proper. These engage with three matching rebates in the top of the lower cabinet.
Also, an upward-pointing aluminium spike from the latter engages with a hole in the underside of the upper cabinet, making it much less easy inadvertently to knock the speaker off its perch. In effect, then, the lower cabinet acts as a stand for the speaker cabinet proper, but, rather than being an aesthetically inharmonious piece of steel girder, instead continues the veneered box down to the integral plinth and thence floor level.
It is pointless to debate whether it might have been better to exploit this extra enclosed volume to enhance bass performance or sensitivity: this is the way Audioplan wanted it. Nevertheless, having a potentially resonant box with a large radiating area physically coupled to a small cabinet, one of whose benefits is an inherently stiffer cabinet with small radiating area, does seem like a design decision that Sir Humphrey from Yes Minister would have termed ‘brave’. Audioplan has a solution to this potential problem, one that past generations of audiophile – I’m thinking back to the 1950s here – were very familiar with: filling the lower cabinet with sand. A full 20kg worth is recommended, no less, which as well as damping vibrations of the cabinet walls will also have the stabilising effect of lowering the speaker’s centre of gravity. I therefore had hoped to try the Kontrapunkt with sand installed but that was ruled out by the distributor, with assurances that the improvement it makes is actually quite small.
BASS ON TOP
The second feature of interest becomes apparent immediately you unpack the Kontrapunkts to reveal an inverted arrangement of bass-mid driver and tweeter, with the latter below the former rather than above. For background on why Audioplan uses this unusual but not unique arrangement, please refer to the box-out.
There is little else about the Kontrapunkt’s phenotype to comment on, except to report that it incorporates a split crossover accessed via two pairs of terminals at the back of the smaller cabinet, which allow either bi-wiring or
bi-amping via chunky 60amp-rated terminal posts. As usual, bare wire, spade and 4mm plugs are all catered for, and a pair of shorting links is provided for single-wire connection – of which more in a moment. The cabinet is available in a range of finishes to suit most tastes and decor: grey effect enamel, black and white structured enamel, black high-gloss and four wood veneers (cherry, beech, maple and apricot). Price varies somewhat according to the finish selected.
A reviewer’s first duty is to extract the best performance he can from the product under test, even if that means taking issue with some of the product’s features or its manufacturer’s recommendations. So it proved to be with the Kontrapunkts.
Initially disappointed with their sound, which lacked precision and insight, my gaze turned first to the AntiSpike feet and thence to the metal jumpers that connect the two halves of the split crossover. Two such apparently minor details can have a surprising influence on sound quality.
Audioplan’s proprietary AntiSpike feet were developed, according to information on the website, ‘in an attempt to combine the advantages of hard coupling with regulated damping’ and ‘are suitable for all support surfaces including carpeting’. Well, I beg to differ. While I didn’t try replacing them with spikes – something you can easily do, since the AntiSpike feet screw into M6 inserts, a standard thread type for aftermarket spikes – I did place the Kontrapunkts, complete with their feet, on top of spiked MDF platforms to achieve a rigid coupling to the floor beneath. The result was a crisper, better delineated, more insightful sound.
To give Audioplan due credit, its input terminal jumpers are not made of any old metal, and not gold-plated de rigueur. Rather, they are of copper with a heavy silver plating. But still I preferred the Kontrapunkt’s sound with them removed and replaced by Chord Company Signature jumper cables. Again, this had the effect of sharpening up and tidying up the sound a little, to the benefit of more captivating music-making.
Even with these changes, though, the Kontrapunkt is not the last word in transparency. It delivers wide and deep imaging and has a neutral tonal balance, particularly if you toe the speakers out a little, away from the listening position, to peg back the slightly over-prominent final octave. But they don’t provide quite the airiness or insight of, say, the Thiel CS1.6.
For instance, I have just downloaded the 24/96 version of pianist Tor Espen Aspaas’s Mirror Canon (www.2l.no) – buy the surround version and you get the stereo mix free – which contrasts two Beethoven sonatas with three works by Schoenberg, Webern and Berg. If you know the Second Viennese School then you’ll rightly expect the latter pieces to be challenging and not the kind of tunes you’ll find yourself humming around Sainsbury’s. It is because of this, I reckon, that 20th century atonal music is particularly critical of system sound quality. You need its reproduction to be as pellucid, as hear-through as possible to ‘get’ the composer’s intentions.
So it proved with the Webern piece (Four Pieces for violin and piano, Op.7). There’s a inescapable clouding to the Kontrapunkt’s sound that ratchets back the sense of realism a detent or two. It didn’t deliver the specificity of imaging, the nuance of timbral fidelity or the whipcrack dynamics required to make this piece rivet your attention as it can and should. Is this something which adding that 20kg of sand to the lower cabinet would counter? It’s possible but in the circumstances that has to remain a supposition.
This character may equally well be an inherent quality of the small bass-mid driver that no amount of tweaking can eliminate: I’m simply not able to say. Talking of which, the Kontrapunkt’s bass performance is not as compromised as you might suppose from the small cone area, and Audioplan’s decision to spurn the extra internal volume that the lower cabinet might have provided. Although the Kontrapunkt manifestly cannot deliver the very lowest bass fundamentals, and will quickly run out of excursion capability if you push it with difficult programme material, the fact is that on most music played at modest volume levels it performs creditably in this department, aided by room boundary effect.
CHANGE OF MOOD
This was manifest when, in a complete change of mood, I switched from Webern to Clapton and played ‘Double Trouble’ from Just One Night [Polydor 531 827-2], a piece I also used for the recent group test of floorstanders whose range of prices encompassed the Kontrapunkt’s. Lack of bass extension or output capability wasn’t an issue here – not at the sub-PA listening levels I use, at any rate – but once again it was the case that vitality was bled from the performance, suppressing some of the raw presence by which a good live recording can subvert the technical superiority of a studio equivalent. Somehow even the hum and buzz of the guitar amps was less telling than it ought to be.
If this suggests that the Kontrapunkt is better suited to less energetic forms of music I wouldn’t demur – but even here its character is reticent. I tried one of the simplest, least messed about recordings of female voice I know – Sara K’s rendition of Don McLean’s poetic ‘Vincent’ [Tell Me I’m Not Dreamin’ Chesky JD 133]. It’s a piece of music whose original will probably never be surpassed, but Sara K’s understated performance – just her and acoustic guitar – has a charm of its own. The Kontrapunkt delivered smooth vocal and guitar sound, of the type you might relish at midnight with a good malt. But mid-morning, when I was listening, I craved more insight into Sara K’s distinctive voice and the acoustic in which the recording was made.
Novel a design as the Kontrapunkt is in some respects, ultimately it needs to deliver something a bit special regarding sound quality in order to cut a niche for itself. This area of the loudspeaker market is extremely competitive and the plain truth is that the best of the Kontrapunkt’s competitors – like some in our recent speaker group test – offer more, physically as well as sonically, for less money.
Originally published in the September 2009 issue
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