Reviewed by: docthemoose
Review Date February 1, 2010
Overall Rating 4 of 5
Value Rating 4 of 5
Used product for Less than 1 month
The Sierras are part of an epic audition process, the goal of which is to replace a pair of Revel Concerta F12’s. In actuality, I’m attempting to find a suitable replacement for the speakers that preceded the F12’s, the musical and warm Linn Tukan — the spousal unit’s all time fave and my selling of which she has yet to forgive.
The set up arrangement in our great room (approximately 27’x30’, living/dining/kitchen) was thus: Sitting atop 24” sand-filled stands there was 65” between the tweeters (flanking a 50” plasma TV); 15” from the rear port to the back wall; main listening seat was 12’ from the grill covers. Components at work were an ATI AT-1502 amp, B&K Reference 5 preamp, Sony DVD/CD player, Canare and Beldon cables, and an Energy S10.2 subwoofer, called into action during bang-zoom movies.
Issue: Location, location, location. I’ve been an A/V dweeb long enough to know placing a pair of speakers on both sides of a 50” span of glass and expecting the ultimate in undistorted, dimensional audio reproduction is an exercise in futility. Nevertheless, that’s the lay of the land here in Casa Nearprairie and the speakers chosen will have the ability to make the best of the challenging environment, plus they’ll probably have to look like cherry Linn Tukans, sound like Tukans, match the Shaker and Mission furniture like the Tukans, and so on and so forth.
Amphion Helium2, Aperion Audio 5B’s, Axiom M22, B&W 685, Hsu Research HB-1 Mk2, Monitor Audio GS10, Monitor Audio RS1, NHT Classic 3, Paradigm Studio 20, Phase Technology Premier PC3.5.
To welcome the exotic bamboo speakers way over here to the grain fed, redneck near prairie and commence with the warm-up/break-in ceremony I spun Patricia Barber’s Nightclub. First notes read, “Deep bass, broad soundstage, clear vocals, easy to discern all the instruments; cymbal and piano work on ‘Invitation’ was revelatory, tactile; may learn to like jazz.” Well doggie, Ellie May, them there loudspeakers sound like they can play music. Sit a spell and let’s see what else they can do.
Cowboy Junkies Trinity Session officially started the audition. On “Blue Moon,” Margo Timmons sounded her aching best while the stage placement of the background cymbals and rhythm guitar were unmistakable. On “I’m So Lonesome,” hair raised as Timmons inhaled and parted her lips before letting loose the first lyrics. Hoo, momma! On the other hand, the audible ambiance of the church where this live-to-two-track recording sounded better on Amphion Helium2’s.
The spousal unit wanted to hear cuts from Iz Kamakawiwo’ole’s Facing Future. The “Somewhere Over The Rainbow” medley caused tears to well. Iz sounded so pure, so right, that I wanted to believe in something, anything. On these speakers a ukulele played well and matched with such a soulful voice became a powerful thing.
Next came the chesty testy, Johnny Cash’s Unchained. Most bookshelf speakers ruin Cash, making him sound, thanks to the love hump tuned into the ports, like he sang with a chest full of tar-coated phlegm. What a joy to hear him sans respiratory coloration, just the man in black warbling and growling as he lived. “Spiritual” was, um, revelatory. As with the Helium2’s, the Sierras nailed the scale of the heavy guitar reverb that begins the song and when a cello joined to support the emotion in Cash’s plea at 3:40 the instrument also became another voice.
Holly Cole Trio’s Don’t Smoke In Bed was all that, too. Cole’s sexy sibilants on “Tennessee Waltz” and “I Can See Clearly,” were crisp and clear, on the brink of, but never strident or harsh; her seductively growly lines oozed with the right amount of throaty, vocal heat while the bass fiddle and piano simply sounded spot on.
The time came for some real music: Bluegrass. Once asked for a succinct definition of this genre I wrote, “Bluegrass is what jazz wants to be when it matures.” Anyway, too many speakers butcher bluegrass with the dreaded combination of glassy tweeters and wrongly located crossover frequencies. Nasal-driven high harmonies blended with banjos, mandolins and fiddles need room to breathe to sound anything near a live, acoustic performance and the Sierras provided a slightly forward but strain-free field for The Grascals, High Country, Red Molly, Ricky Skaggs, et al. Whoo-hah and boy howdie!
I also spun Alison Krauss’ Forget About It. This CD was mixed to offer an up-close-and-personal, one-on-one kind of listening experience and when “Maybe” began it seemed as if the only thing between me and the bluegrass goddess was the pop screen on her ribbon mic. There is an urgent, sensual frailty to Kraus’ tight vibrato and the Sierras were as effective as the Helium2’s in recreating the intimate recorded presence.
They sort of rock and roll, too. To hear how the Sierras gave it up as the volume count escalated toward unity gain, Ozomatli’s Street Signs was called into service. A west coast fusion of rock, reggae, rap, Middle Eastern and Latino influences, this CD is crammed and compressed to the stops with lively, bouncing, speaker-challenging jams. Immediately evident, the Sierras held their own on the down low. Impressive bass; makes a subwoofer seem superfluous. They also did a good job of staying open and fighting off the usual hardening, glare, and shrinking of the sound stage that accompanies high volume playback.
Movies. The latest “Star Trek” played well with crisp, clean dialogue, excellent separation and steering during bombastic and moving action scenes, and a wide soundstage. Same for “Terminator: Salvation,” the Bourne Trilogy, etc.
Regardless of the flick, the mid-80’s SPL efficiency rating of Sierras, combined with having to work in a great room, required pushing the pre-amp volume level to zero dB to hear audio at anything approaching theater sound levels. While the Sierras never ruffled the carpet or peeled paint recreating myriad special effects, they did extremely well with complex, multi-soundtrack scenes and never left us guessing about dialogue or with ears buzzing from listening fatigue.
TV audio was a different thing. In our set up the Sierras were bass heavy at low volume, making programs sound a tad thick and the mid-range obscured. The recently auditioned Hsu HB-1 Mk2, on the other hand, was so good at this task they reminded me of studio monitors I’ve used to mix and sweeten soundtracks.
Summing up, the Sierra-1’s are truly impressive speakers. If you’re a beer budgeteer and wondered if you’d ever be able to afford Grade A sound, the Sierras are your ticket. From one who’s owned high dollar transducers, sold and installed mega buck models like six figure Wilsons and mixed audio in a few production suites, the Sierra-1’s are the real deal – honest to goodness, state-of-the-art, high-end speakers. They uncover a lot of nuance, have a very wide soundstage, can hold together while playing fairly loud in the right size room and, most importantly, do a fantastic job of playing the music much as it was recorded. Like the Amphion Helium series, but over $600 less, the Sierras nailed song after song and were never tiring to listen to. Where the Amphions surpassed was the reproduction of scale and their ability to play louder (in our setting).
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