Ascendo Active 2.1 System w/21″ Sub & Trinnov Amethyst Processor – Hands-On

Ascendo Hands-On 

When I recently moved from a stand-alone home (Philly rowhouse) to a high-rise apartment, I foolishly swore off auditioning monster subs and industrial-strength speakers. I figured that with the limitations of city living, my days of blasting a system in a dedicated home theater were over. However, as fortune would have it, I was offered a chance to check out this Ascendo Immersive Audio 2.1 system, featuring to hang on to it for a couple months, and here we are. This core system consists of one pair Ascendo Immersive Audio CCRM12 speakers, one SMS21 subwoofer and a Trinnov Amethyst processor.

I’m glad I said yes to this review! First impressions (admittedly subjective) elegantly support the hypothesis that a huge sub, well-tuned & powerful coaxial driver speakers, plus sophisticated room correction add up to something approaching “ideal” sound. One of the best things about this rig is that it sounds nothing like how it looks (it looks very industrial). Most impressive, to my ears, is the soundstage that genuinely holds up when you are seated off-axis. Normally you can only hear “phantom center” imaging if you are seated in a tight sweet spot. Here, the soundfield does not collapse until you are way off-axis. This is key because I did not just run this rig as a 2.1 system, I also integrated the speakers and sub (without the Trinnov) into my existing Atmos rig, making it a part of a 6.1.4 speaker system used for watching movies.

Given the limitations imposed by my current living space, this is going to be a bit of a “gonzo” hands-on type review. Before this week is out, I will run room correction with the Trinnov, currently I’m relying on Audyssey and my Denon AVR-X8500h to you handle base management and room correction. What I can say, unequivocally, is that this system make me not want to go back to the GoldenEar Triton 7 speakers they temporarily displaced. There’s simply no comparison in terms of capability, and it’s across the board improved: From a soundstage that is deeper and wider and holds up better, to their ability to play at live music/concert/movie reference levels with the zero hint of distortion or dynamic compression, the outclass everything I have heard in my home to date. You certainly wouldn’t know by looking at them, but these are some of the finest sounding speakers that I’ve heard.

The Ascendo Immersive Audio SMS21 is the first 21” subwoofer that I have had in my home, and easily one of the most powerful subs. I am familiar with the joys of having such power on tap (a bit over a decade ago I ran a dual 18″ sub). And more recently I reviewed both the SVS PB-16 Ultra and a dual-15″ Rythmik G25HP, both offerings are no slouch in the output department. Nevertheless, this 21″ beast is a professional-quality bass making machine with 1600W (RMS) power pushing a high-excursion 21” cone, equipped with a quadruple voice coil motor. The resulting performance absolutely amazes me with it’s delicacy as well as its physicality.

Because Ascendo makes dedicated infrasonic subs (including a 50” model), the ported SMS21 does not focus on that range. What this sub does (masterfully) is present bass that’s in the audible range, free of coloration and distortion, with all the impact and definition you could ask for out of a live performance. Frequency response is rated at 23 Hz to 200 Hz at -3dB (note that +/-3 dB is the same as -6dB) and with room gain etc. there’s no issue getting down to 16 Hz (as confirmed with both sine waves and real content that’s confirmed to dig that deep). You can feel 16 Hz organ notes (Rutter, Pie Jesu – Turtle Creek Choir) as if you were in the auditorium with the real organ—I’ve demoed that track on some amazing systems over the years and this sub NAILS it.

Things actually get scary when I played my bass testing standby, the soundtrack to Tron Legacy. “Disc Wars” is one of my favorite torture tracks and it’s one case where (after confirming my neighbors are out/at work) where I “stretched” the system to the point where the 21″ woofer was getting “excited” and visibly moving. Turn’s out the track is mere child’s play for this sub; it was rendered with a throbbing verisimilitude. Even if I turned it down, the sub delivered the bass with a tactile solidity that escapes all but the best subwoofers. Some people call it “fast” but really what we’re talking about is “clean and tight.”

Having said that, there is absolutely no way that I can tap into this subwoofers claimed 130 dB peak output. Nor do I want to experience that level of output. But, much like enjoying driving a high-performance sports car does not require that you drive it at its absolute top speed, appreciating this subwoofer does not require that you constantly play it at top volume.

This review is not done, it’s more like it has just now begun. Next step is to add the Trinnov to the mix and see if it can improve upon Audyssey XT32. I have yet to perform “critical listening” to this rig but even casual, sighted, biased, yada yada it’s a “holy wow that’s awesome” sort of system, more comparable to Seaton Sound or JTR than to any mass-marketed consumer speaker brand’s product. I don’t know if it’s the same/better/worse than those ID companies that are popular here but I know it’s all ballpark the same class and of course using similar technology (concentric active pro-driver speakers, huge subs).

Update 02/26/2020

Yesterday I had a chance to speak with the man who designed the speakers and the sub, Geoffrey Heinzel. It was a great chat, covering the company’s design philosophy and how it settled on active speakers with concentric pro-style drivers along with sealed subwoofer systems that use “normal” size drivers for audible bass as well as infrasonic subs that feature huge drivers to handle the very lowest frequencies.

The long story short is Ascendo’s approach strives to make each speaker within a custom install system a distortion-free point-source capable of exceeding cinematic “reference level” output by 10 dB. It achieves this by offering speakers with a variety of concentric driver sizes spanning from 6 inches to 12 inches, with a 15-incher also entering the lineup. The company is able to modify the dimensions of the cabinets to match the requirements of a specific job, making it a true custom install solution.

I liked what I was hearing about the reasoning behind going with concentric drivers and working to achieve a true point source driver by time aligning the cone with the tweeter. The end result is a highly focused soundfield that does not collapse when you’re off axis, unlike so many speakers I’ve heard where that same claim did not hold up to scrutiny. There is literally no need for a physical center channel in my system. With these speakers, if you’re sitting anywhere on my couch, you are going to hear a very convincing phantom center channel effect. Of course ideally for home theater you will use a real center channel located behind the screen, I simply mention this because it is proof that time alignment matters when it comes to the quality of your stereo imaging, as well as the soundfield of a surround-sound system.

Of course I discussed subwoofers. How can you not discuss subwoofers with the creator of the 50 inch sub? There’s been considerable discussion of why Ascendo created such a large sub when you could instead use multiple smaller drivers instead. The answer is simple enough… When dealing with the very lowest frequencies, Ascendo wanted to lower the resonance point of the sub driver. Adding weight to a smaller driver is one approach, but it did not yield results Jeffrey sought. Another way to lower the resonance frequency is to go big, and by creating a 50 inch carbon fiber subwoofer cone Ascendo is able to hit those subterranean notes without telltale distortion. It’s fair to say that even the mere sight of the giant driver makes a strong impression, but the company did not create the 50 inch subwoofer as some sort of gimmick; its purpose is to handle the extremely low frequency content that is present in movie soundtracks—sometimes it can be single-digit Hz.

The thing is that you do not so much hear frequencies that low, as you do feel the pressure differential. Ultimately, you need to move a lot of air to even notice an 8 Hz tone (you’ll find one in Black Hawk Down in the “****ing Irene” scene where they are boarding the helicopter, for example). And if there’s distortion, that’s what you’re going to hear. But if you achieve the right pressure level, without the distortion, then you’re going to feel the sound. In the previous example, the visceral nature of 8Hz “whomp” sounds create the visceral sensation of walking underneath spinning helicopter blades.

Another thing that happened this past week is that I ran room correction With the Trinnov Amethyst. It’s certainly a very nice system, and I will get into what it’s like at a future time. Suffice to say, it does a great job at room correction and offers a ton of options for tweaking the result. However, the Ascendo speakers have their own DSP calibration capability. Next week I will go through that process, which involves taking measurements using Room EQ Wizard. The point being that you can calibrate these speakers even if the source components offer no EQ or other adjustments whatsoever. So watch for the next update that will cover the calibrations, both directly within the speaker and when utilizing the Trinnov.

Speaking purely anecdotally, I have not had this much fun with a stereo system in a long time. What’s remarkable is how great it sounds even at low volume levels and how easily it accomplishes everything that a high-end audiophile two-channel system ought to. Simply put, it sounds sublime.

Stay tuned for more…