Ascend Tower Review
Its been a week and I felt it was time to post some more formal thoughts on the Towers. I have been spending each night after work listening to various tracks, movies, trying different configurations, locations, etc. After about a week of tweaking and of taking measurements using my RS SPL meter and REW, I have them dialed in as best I can for now.
First off I want to say I am not overly experienced in writing my thoughts down in regard to audio reviews. I am not one to go out to various A/V stores and listen to various speakers from different manufacturers. I have instead gone the Internet direct route based on all of the positive reviews from all of you over the years. Plus, I just don’t feel as comfortable going into these stores and sitting there for quite some time listening to music other folks in there may or may not like including the sales folks. To summarize my musical (speaker) resume it would include the following:
Most of the Ascend Acoustic models from the little HTM-200SE’s to the Sierra-1 Nrt’s and everything in between.
Boston Acoustic Towers from about 10 years ago (VR-950’s or something)
Salk Song Towers (Ribbon Tweeter)
Paradigm S8’s, their matching bookshelf, and the Studio 100’s and matching bookshelf as well.
AV123 Towers speakers, 850’s maybe?
Dynaudio Contours (don’t know model)
SVS MTS line of Towers and Bookshelf’s including both first and 2nd versions
Various other smaller speakers from some of the previous GTG’s I have attended.
On to the goods! I will start out by describing my setup so everyone knows what they are being run off of.
Proceed Amp 3 – 150w @ 8ohms for front three speakers, 250w @ 4ohms per channel (the Towers fall somewhere between 4-6 ohms so I imagine they are being fed over 200w easily)
Parasound 2100 2ch Preamp with HT bypass
Squeezebox Touch - as source playing mostly FLAC files.
Rythmik D-15SE sub EQ’ed pretty flat in room with a Behringer FD and REW.
Ascends bulk 11g speaker wire for front three speakers – nothing fancy here, sorry.
Room is 17’ wide and about 30’ long splitting into an area with a pool table, and it also open up into the Kitchen and hallway. Ceilings are vaulted and peak at about 13’. Speakers are toed in slightly, I sit about 13’ from them, and they are about 9’ apart.
I choose to create a CD / playlist of my personal favorite tracks that I feel were well recorded. I use these 18 tracks for most of the critical listening.
Nils Lofgren – Keith don’t go and Man in the Moon
Daryl Stuermer (from genesis) – In too deep & Man on the corner
Dire Straits – Ride across the River
Jesse Cook – Switchback, Virtue, Matisse the cat, Café Mocha
Jack Johnson – Breakdown, Rodeo Clowns, Upside down
Rob Thomas – all that I am
Santana – Corazon Espinado
NIN – Into the void
Fleetwood Mac – Go insane (Live), Seven Wonders, Family Man
To start my review I must publically thank Dave F over at Ascend for all he did for me during the creation of these speakers. I had actually ordered the Salk songtowers and ended up cancelling the order after speaking with Dave one day when he told me he had some Tower ideas being thrown around☺ I opted to wait it out, not knowing it would take over 18 months, but now that I look back, it was well worth the wait. Along the way, he provided me updates and even asked for my feedback(not sure how helpful I was). I probably emailed him weekly asking “are they done yet” ☺ Anyways, he is a perfectionist and made sure every aspect of this design was fully optimized before he would release them. The results definitely exceeded me expectations. Thank you Dave!
The Towers arrived packaged in separate boxes (I took a pic of the UPS truck pulling up just to follow in the footsteps of all the Salk owners over on AC) ☺ Each one double boxed, held in place with foam and wrapped up well.
This was maybe one of the largest roadblocks Dave encountered along the way. He originally was shooting for a local CA vendor to do a specific finish and things did not quite work out. He then opted to try another local Guitar finishing company that does a true hand finished Piano Black. The results are stunning! Here is what Dave posted
“This pair is a very unique true piano black. What makes them unique is that they are 100% hand finished, hand buffed Made in the USA - and the finish is a polyester resin based piano black. Most piano black finishes (especially from Asia) are polyurethane. Polyester buffs to a higher sheen and is harder. The finishing on this pair was completed by an experienced guitar finishing company.
Regrettably, this is a very expensive option and will add $700 to the introductory base price of $1898/pair.”
In my opinion, the finish on these look much better than the sierras I have although my sierras were very early run models and things have improved greatly since. They are truly mirror like. Construction - Full bamboo cabinet, which is probably the most inert tower speaker I have felt.
Sound (finally right)
Originally I had them running off my 2100 preamp with a 80hz crossover setting from my previous Sierra setup. Both Dave and others convinced me to run them full range instead (the only other option with the 2100). So I did. If you did not know already, the Towers are a full 3 way speaker design with 2 modified sierra-1 drivers for bass duty only, the same 1” SEAS NrT tweeter used in the upgraded Sierra, and a new 5.25” SEAS midrange driver housed in its own enclosure. With the mid driver in its own enclosure, leaving the 2 two woofers to play deeper bass will not negatively effect the mid range performance, hence me running them full range. With the sierra-1, running them full range with too much bass material will ultimately effect the mids(in a negative way) since the driver has double duty.
First thing I notice, the IMAGING! These things image like crazy and fill my room much better than the sierras. Where as the sierras had a great soundstage and imaged well, the Towers take it to the next level if not more. Vocals float in the air centered between the two speakers while other instruments come from all around. Certain tracks especially the NIN one (why I chose it) is crazy. The opening part has this buzzing sound emanating all around you like surround sound, I had never heard it quite like this until now, very impressed.
Bass – I’ll admit, the sierras have phenomenal bass for such a small bookshelf speaker and only a 5.25” driver. So I had pretty high expectations for the Tower version. I was not disappointed. They are by no means a bass monster, but the bass is very articulate and clean. I can say the bass has more “texture” or detail to it than the transmission line design of the Salks(its easier to remember bass notes over mids or highs) They provide plenty of low end if one chooses to forego a sub. Although I have not heard these directly compared to other speakers, some Towers with larger 6.5” or bigger drivers will probably reach a bit lower. Dave has admitted his design goals were not for extra low bass reproduction. For music, they are more than sufficient, for movies, I still firmly feel a sub is needed to satisfy that extra low material found in many modern Blu ray releases. Lately I have been experimenting with the Rythmik on and off while listening to music. I still prefer the Rythmik playing although without a real accurate sub with servo like the Rythmik, I would lean towards leaving the Towers to run solo. The bass hits hard and low with authority and I have not even come close to their limits.
Power Handling –
Another thing that jumped out at me right off the bat was they require less volume on the preamp, they are obviously more efficient! Plus my amp is probably feeding them quite a bit more juice than the sierras received. So those with mid level receivers, don’t worry, they don’t need much power. Although, they do rate around 4-6 ohms, so make sure your gear can handle it. I have not taken any max in room SPL numbers thus far, but the Towers will blow your socks off if asked to do so. They provide a lot more output than the sierras. I did crank them pretty loud several times and they handled it effortlessly. I know Patrick (warpdrv) can attest to this, the sierras can max out without trying to hard(of course they were being fed over 250w). I highly doubt the Towers will run into this issue, in fact I do not want to find out how LOUD they go.
Mid Range / vocals
This was one of two areas I felt the sierra-1s needed improving on. After first hearing the towers were going to be a true 3-way design, I knew good things were in store. Most of my listening consists of male vocals but so far, all vocals have more weight and detail to them without being “honky” or muddy in any way. The vocals are very airy like and simply fill the room with clean, and very articulate sound. It was much easier to pinpoint the vocals coming out of the sierras when you closed your eyes during listening. Now with the towers, they hover all around from the front soundstage and you don’t get the feeling they are coming from a music “box” per say. I listened to several tracks, which really stood out, and one is the Rob Thomas track I listed. His vocal performance on this track is amazing and the way its portrayed on the Towers is very intoxicating. The vocals move around and it’s a neat experience. I did listen to Stevie Nicks voice on several of the Fleetwood mac tracks and even some Diane Krall not listed above. So far, all sounded improved on over and above the sierra-1 even the Nrt version, which has a little better mid range over the standard version.
After hearing Nuances Songtowers for the first time, I knew what a great midrange sounded like. It was this sound I was hoping for on the new Towers. I cannot say which speaker is better(my audio memory in this regard is not that good), but the Towers provide better mid range and vocal performance over the sierras which I will use as my reference point.
After first hearing the NrT tweeter on my sierra-1, I was sold. Myself, and a few others I know had always felt the sierra-1 needed a bit more energy and detail up top. I would not call it veiled, but it lacked that sparkle some highly refined tweeters have such as the Be one found in the Paradigm S8’s. The Nrt tweeter is spectacular and closes the gap. I have not heard a ton of soft dome tweets, but this is by far the best one for me to date. Its very airy(sorry to use this term again) and extremely detailed without the negative attributes such as sibilance. Its very snappy if that makes sense. Cymbals and other similar instruments sound much more natural and realistic. The Nrt is far from laid back or veiled, in fact if you prefer that type of sound, you may not like it. I like my highs to be somewhat forward as long as they do not cause any fatigue or harsh sibilance. After hearing live music up close, it always seems the cymbals and etc playing back on my previous speakers could not match the timbre accuracy or “power” of the live performance. With the Towers, I feel like this frequency range is portrayed much more accurately. I will not call them “forward” speakers but rather a very very accurate speaker.
The tracks here that really showed off the Nrt tweeter(and mid woofer) were the acoustic guitar tracks from Nils. This live album was recorded so well. Its unbelievable how realistic the guitar sounds in my room. The intricate plucks, finger sliding, etc is portrayed so well and with so much detail, its very cool. The “Keith don’t go” track is highly recommended if you want to hear some awesome guitar work. Other tracks by Jesse Cook provide some ear candy for highs as well. His work is very unique and it incorporates such a variety of instruments and interesting sound. It really showed off the Towers and their ability to accurately reproduce complex passages. In my mind, I am most critical of a speakers top end as it seems to jump out at me first. Some metal dome tweeters sound too harsh while some soft domes sound veiled. After hearing The Salks Ribbon tweeter, and the Be tweeter form the S8’s, I truly feel the Nrt can hold its own against them.
Overall as you can tell, I am very impressed with the Ascend Towers. They improved upon the two areas I felt the sierras needed work on(mid range & highs). I feel the 3-way design was crucial in improving upon those areas allowing each driver to focus on what its best at. I know 3-way designs often falter due to poor crossover integration among the drivers, but Dave definitely did his homework here and it shows. I would not have the slightest clue on how to “describe” how the proper blending of the drivers sounds, other than I don’t hear it. Simple as that, they sound like one unit, all playing together in harmony☺ If you were to ask me what I like best or what the biggest difference is between it and other speakers such as the sierra-1, I would say the imaging is phenomenal and the detail and accuracy of the mids/highs is very realistic. I wanted to get this review completed before I host a small GTG at my place next weekend. I will be curious to hear others thoughts on them and if they mirror my own impressions.
Thank you guys for sticking with me as I waited for my dream speakers! I feel very privileged to own the first Ascend Tower speakers.