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To combat the ubiquitous presence region rise of widebander designs, Joey Roth has installed a notch filter. He worked with an audio engineer on the specifics. "It compensates for the enclosure's baffle-free design and flattens the response a bit at the expense of some efficiency. This makes the sound warmer where it was too bright before. I wish I had a non-filtered set to send for comparison but those early prototypes are long gone." The enclosure is also stuffed with bamboo fiber fill to absorb certain reflections. The cork plug is somewhat lossy to provide some air spring compression of sealed loading without being completely sealed. Here's another interview with Joey Roth on this project.

For his green Zen packaging, Joey had to overcome serious objections from his offshore suppliers. They kept pushing glitz to incorporate print-style glossy adverts. Joey was adamant about keeping it simple and organic. The final solution is a molded egg-crate affair which cleanly separates all parts, surrounds them with some crumple zone to be safe and arrives tied with natural twine rather than tape. Design all the way.

There's one potential bone of contention. The copper speaker cables whose banana connectors make exceptionally tight fits with speakers and T amp alike—excellent!—are hot pink. Huh? I'd have opted for a more low-key off-white to match the speakers. It's no big matter and easily handled if it bothers. My wife never even commented on the cables. Of course pink and girls usually go together. Enough banter now. How serious is all this from an audiophile perspective? As you'd know from the interview, Joey was at first quite leery to approach us. Our kind doesn't think twice about spending more on a power cord than he wants for his system cables included. We must seem like a lost cause. It's a good reminder just how bizarre—geeky, intense, committed, enthusiastic, off the rocker, neurotic, nerdy—we must appear to outsiders looking in. But we are who we are. Could we get this?

As a concept, absolutely. It's groovy and different in a good way. It also comes from the outside via a normal music lover whose first focus was industrial design. What would someone like that bring to sonics? First off, a small 2-way monitor like the $370 M3 Version 2 from value firm Axiom Audio kills this ceramic speaker on extension, dynamics and resolution. That should surprise no one. On raw performance, it's no contest. Naturally, Axiom & Co. give you a bigger box. Joey didn't want a box. What he did want was small and just one driver. Therein lies a foregone limitation. You automatically buy into it when making this particular choice in this particular price range. The super affordable 4-piece Qinpu system of $249 speakers, $279 integrated amp and $99 active bass box for example goes sonic places Joey's will never see. With return shipping to the US more expensive than the B stock value for the Qinpu importer, he'd not wanted his stuff back. I still had it. In fact Ivette uses it on her play-anything Chinese DVD player with swivel screen. So we A/B'd. No contest. She couldn't wait to get back to the Qinpus. On conceptually and fiscally close competitors, Glow Audio's $348/pr Voice One is actually one of the closest to Joey's I can think of. Let's use them to compare apples to apples.

After break-in chez Ivette, I set up Joey's rig in my office. Because my iPod had crashed and was in the computer clinic for reanimation; and because the High Resolution Technologies Streamer + had long since departed; a real-world source had to involve my Macbook Pro. D/A conversion was now handled by the Calyx Kong or HeadAmp Pico headphone amps with USB inputs. Run-of-the-mill USB wires connected to these variable gain DACs, their mini stereo outputs to Joey's T amp via his supplied mini-to-mini leash. The Kong's lower gain meant that its attenuator could be fully bypassed without overdriving the T amp's input. The Pico's far stouter gain meant its attenuator had to be trimmed or the T amp would distort. Because the Pico sounded significantly better, Kong followed Elvis out of the building. Because the sound improved significantly when the Pico controlled the level, the T amp's attenuator remained wide open. That became the system.

Even though the Glow runs a smaller widebander, its larger and ported enclosure produces more bass while the treble too is more extended. Anything with a walking bass line has just enough foundation hints to avoid sounding obnoxiously lightweight. Going ceramic then meant two things. First, the sound hooded by having some lights switched off, some treble sparkle extinguished. Two, the same bass lines now were barely hinted at. Half its goods had dropped below the perception threshold. The specs already predicted this and it's the case. Without some form of bass augmentation, Joey's speakers are about the midrange. When this much bass is subtracted however, the third dimension of audible space gets very compressed in the depth domain. It's not just about bass notes. It's about low-level ambient data which our brain transforms into a semblance of a recorded venue. The Glows did it better. Without their excellent companion subwoofer, their tonal balance is still noticeably compromised but livable. With the subwoofer, it's a very different ball game. That now enters into respectable hifi.

Joey's concept meanwhile lacks even a bass extender, never mind subwoofer. We're really dealing with a scaled-up table-top radio. Here there is clearly more tone density than you'd get from two 2-inch paper cones with no cavity volume. Still, the sound is shaded and actually muted from lack of top-end sparkle. Believability meanwhile is undermined by emasculation from missing bass weight. Voices that should come from the chest come from the throat. Instruments with resonant bodies shrink and flatten. Fire on strings has no luster. That's the crux of the matter. It's the price to pay for such a design exercise. It values being cool more than enlarging the clever enclosure to Glow or nOrh precedents. That would extend response downward by another 20 cycles or so to become sufficient. As is, it's not.

For most music. For the spoken voice, it's perfectly adequate. Talky flicks without big-bang FXs watched on a 15" screen come off well in a cozy nearfield setting. But make no mistake, a Grado SR60i headphone has a far more realistic and satisfying tonal balance. Again it's the spatial dimension that compresses from lack of low-frequency cues. This has nothing to do with Hip-Hop or Reggae. Nobody in their right mind would feed these minis with such fare. It has to do with a basic hifi goal of recreating not just the sounds but also the space in which they occurred. On bass notes meanwhile, saying that the only stuff you can't play is club fare is as dishonest as the above frequency response curve. Try Pat Metheny and Charlie Haden's acoustic duet album and you'll see what I mean. There's just too much missing.

With a quality source signal—which given the price of this proposition could be an oxymoron—the sound over the limited bandwidth was rather robust however. This TangBand driver is clearly capable. It just would like to see more cubic inches behind its cone to really speak up and stand tall(er). That in fact would be my recommendation to Joey Roth. I'd use a small Axiom, Paradigm or PSB speaker to reference what's sonically possible from a $300/pr monitor. Then I'd scale up the current ceramic enclosure. The 'must be small' argument doesn't wash. As long as the diameter of the drum doesn't exceed the height of an open laptop, it'll be visually fine. I'd also revisit the tilt angle. I'd increase it so that in desk-top applications, the driver actually fires at the ears and not into the rib cage of the listener.

From an audiophile perspective, the present system is an exercise in organic style and Zen chic but not substance. Given how much street fi is really about fashion, that's completely legit. It's simply not what magazines like ours cover. We are burdened by certain expectations. We place sound first. If it's between better sound and conventional or even ugly looks, we go for conventional each time. Clearly that's not Joey Roth. He's already licked the cool factor. Now it remains to be seen whether he can—or even wants to—lick the other. No shame if he doesn't. Just fashion is plenty hip already.

PS: This admittedly is not how I'd hoped this review would conclude. We need fresh outside blood. The iPod nation is growing in leaps and bounds of course. Music listener numbers per se aren't the issue. How many will cross over into the hi(er) half of the fi equation is. At least ours. The music industry at large could care less as long as the figures on music consumption remain up. Hardware quality and quality of experience don't factor one bit. That's where audiophiles differ. But we're probably lost causes and reading this review will do nothing to dispel that notion.

Actually, the above interview contains an interesting tidbit about Joey's next project. He's revisiting the Sora tea pot in a Version 2. He wants to make it easier to use (i.e. clean and put back together). That's telling. A young man's initial fascination with design cool is being slowly tempered by more 'mundane' aspects like, how does it actually perform? With the Sora pot, there's enough commercial interest to warrant refining the original. For the ceramic speaker, the next project are custom editions. Those will use the present white ceramic as a literal canvas for painterly self expressions. That's still about looks. After that, perhaps Joey will do further work on his speakers not as fashion statements but as the mechanical transducers of sound audiophiles understand them to be primarily?

Quality of packing:
Very good.
Reusability of packing: A few times even though it is a bit of a puzzle piece.
Ease of unpacking/repacking: A cinch.
Condition of component received: Flawless.
Completeness of delivery: Perfect.
Human interactions: Good.
Pricing: For an object d'art, fine. For affordable performance audio even at $500, you can do a lot better elsewhere.

Joey Roth website