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|What's the color of a chameleon?
I have been wrestling with this question and suppose it explains why it's taken me more time to get my arms around the nature of the Ronin Paper Dipoles (RPDs from now on) than originally anticipated. They are not difficult to set up, quite the opposite actually. Yet the more configurations I tried, the more I learned about the RPDs. As the mental picture I was building evolved, so did my respect for them. What I considered true one day proved partially wrong the next in a different setup. It was not really a problem as none of those setups were musically 'wrong', just different takes on the RPD flavor and a testament to their polyvalence and potential. Still, it made pinpointing the true nature of the speakers more difficult.
While having a clear personality, these speakers are also among the most transparent to upstream electronics. Attributes I thought inherent to the speakers eventually proved due to a cable, amplifier or source or at least its interaction with the RPDs. In their non-aggressive and truthful way, these speakers also forced me to reconsider what I thought I knew about the rest of my gear as well as other review components - a very humbling experience to say the least but an inspiring one as I emerged with a completely new appreciation for the level of enjoyment possible in my non-dedicated listening room.
|Depending on what your attention latches on to first, the RPDs will surprise you with either a deep and enveloping soundstage or with incredible midrange transparency and intimacy. More than likely, you'll be like me, wondering which of the two is most striking. That's it, the|
|RPDs in a nutshell: engulfing soundstage and unclouded midrange. Except that this description omits everything else the RPDs do so well but perhaps not quite as obviously on first listen because of their mostly non-intrusive nature - treble to bass coherence and integration; precise but not surgical imaging; a delicate and detailed but non-obnoxious treble; deep and controlled bass; dynamics without edge, nuance without lethargy.
The first disc that I used on the RPDs was my usual medley ranging from Jacques Brel to Renaud Garcia-Fons with stop-overs at Mozart, Shostakovich, Tracey Chapman and many others. With the speaker cables connected to the 8-ohm taps of the McIntosh amp, it did not take me long to realize that the 10" woofers were mute. On the 4-ohm taps, the speakers' nominal impedance, things fell into place with a deeper foundation but still on the brighter side of what I normally enjoy. It is only when I tried the McIntosh 2-ohm taps that deep, detailed and solid bass provided a platform for the midrange to take flight from. All subsequent listening was over the 2-ohm taps as they delivered the by far best bass performance. Still, with the McIntosh the registers never completely blended, with the upper midrange still slightly dominant. Thankfully the Musical Fidelity A5 had no difficulty extracting the full bass potential, allowing the RPDs to achieve a seamless presentation from top to bottom.
|Although extended and tight, folks used to more generous subs could regard the Ronins as slightly lean. There's no exaggerated weight from its sealed woofers. As I was spinning Spacemonkeyz versus Gorillaz - Laika Come Home [EMI 7243 540 522 2 4] which has probably the deepest and most powerful bass lines of all the CDs we own, the woofers would not visibly move (on the same tracks, my small FJ towers look like their woofers will jump out of|
|their hoops) yet I could feel the deep pulse going through the house, admittedly without the extra fat I am used to hearing on this music but with a speed and level of nuance I didn't know. Free of break-up distortion, this three-way bass was a revelation, providing a musical foundation I was unaccustomed to from my usual two-ways, yet without any intrusions into the pristine midrange.
This thoughtful voicing preserving the most unique feature of the RPDs does come at a price. If you expect bass to physically assault you, look elsewhere. The RPDs do bass that is deep, detailed and fast but not overpowering. One could spice this part of the register by going with the active version of the speakers and boosting bass output through biamping but keeping in mind that those woofer enclosures aren't ported, bass won't ever bloom and boom as it does with ported designs.
The RPDs' bass is not solely dictated by the choice of amplification, mind you. Switching from the A5 CD player to the Esoteric SA-60 over the final weeks of the review period revealed greater midbass bloom but less weight and impact from percussive events. I was surprised by how much difference a source change would make, confirming the speakers' extreme faithfulness to the voice of the preceding electronics. The slightly rotund SA-60 paired with the leaner and deeper Musical Fidelity A5 made for a delightful combination. To say that I fell for this bass presentation would be the understatement of the year.
|If you believe in subwoofers as our editor does, you will need to pay particular attention with the Ronins. I don't own a sub but I've had the Dana S600 for a few weeks until a complete lineup change by the manufacturer|
|had us put the review on hold. The S600 uses an 8-inch woofer in a large ported enclosure. For a sub it is well damped and controlled yet could not match the speed and detail of the sealed RPDs. More problematic was that even with the crossover set at 45Hz, I could hear a very unpleasant fattening and smearing of the lower midrange. If you want to add a sub, it should be crossed in actively, the Ronins crossed out and the sub probably be of the sealed variety like Zu's Method or Martin-Logan's Descent.
For everybody else, the bass performance of the RPDs is absolutely faultless as long as your amplifier can feed enough current into at least 4 ohms (preferably 2). On Gorillaz, the Musical Fidelity A5 amplifier confirmed what an amazing performer it is. Not only can it deliver 400 watts into 4 ohms and over 60 amperes of current, it does so without midrange harshness, quite a coup from a solid state design of this power and price ratio. Its higher current delivery drove the woofers deeper and faster than the McIntosh, shifting the focus away from sustain and decay (the Mac's forte) into transients and dynamics. Switching amps almost felt like dropping a gear in a turbo-compressed engine and moving closer to the red zone - less comfortable but what a fun ride! The A5 added weight and body for a more even tonal balance to the speakers, making their upper midrange less prominent. The tube amp's presentation wasn't fundamentally flawed but more tipped up than I enjoy (I do err on the side of density over lightness). Thankfully the RPDs' fidelity responded very well to tone controls. Once more I sent a mental thank-you note to the McIntosh designers for keeping this useful feature which allowed me to tailor the amp/speaker interface to my taste.
|The added bass energy from transistors was well illustrated by Renaud Garcia-Fons' Legend [ENJA 9314-2], probably the reference for virtuoso straight bass performance. When paired with the McIntosh, the RPDs had incredible tone colors and I could hear the harmonics from both strings and wooden body of the instrument in the decays but always felt short-changed on the energy and dynamics I know this record contains. I was prepared to call the RPDs dynamically a bit reserved. Switching to the Musical Fidelity A5, the gentle and reserved RPDs dropped their sheep's hide and revealed a far less placid animal inside, certainly not the big bad wolf of dynamic contrast the Zu Definitions are (few come close) but not reserved or timid as I had originally thought. I certainly gave up little articulation and transient definition with the A5, sitting on the edge of the seat once again as one should with this record. Another|
|lesson taught with this album was that no matter how potent the McIntosh is, it could not conjure up the same depth and slam the A5 could. If you are considering pairing the RPDs with tubes, it might be wise to look into the active version unless you are using particularly ballsy tube amplifiers.
In the near future I hope to test Raysonic's 100-watt class A M100 monos on the RPDs and see if these current-hungry woofers allow the amps to spread their wings and sound their very best. It may seem silly to pair nearly $10K of amplification with $4500 speakers but the RPDs performance is such that their asking price becomes fairly irrelevant in deciding on what electronics to pair them with. High current and an uncompromised midrange are mandatory to get the RPDs to take off. If you want those two characteristics in the same amp, it will come at a price. Here the Musical Fidelity A5 once again proved to be an overachiever at $2500. While it certainly showed somewhat reduced elegance and treble extension compared to the more than twice as expensive McIntosh and lacked the same fluid articulation, the improved bass performance and dynamics as well as overall better treble-to-bass integration made the A5 certainly a serious contender for "most affordable RPD mate". Ideally, 100 pure class A transistor watts might be the ticket (Paul did suggest "to die for"). I also wonder how well the Musical Fidelity KW550 would do with its even greater current ability and darker and denser tones. This also brings up the option of a tube amplifier driving the MF Supercharger...
Contradicting my usual approach, I have spent a lot of time describing bass and dynamic performance, the reason being that those two elements are the only ones that could possibly disappoint a listener depending on taste and expectations but really be due to associated electronics. I thought it worthwhile to spend a little longer than usual describing what to expect from the RPD's performance in this regard. Especially with the A5 amplifier, it is delightful to me but I come from a 2-way, low-sensitivity background. Everything else in the RPD's arsenal seems state of the art for a sub $8K pair of speakers. I have not heard anything below five figures to eclipse the RPD's midrange and soundstaging. The Sonus Faber Cremona (at least the old version, I have not heard the M yet) is as good as it gets in that category for midrange intensity but the RPD goes even further in transparency and intimacy. I did not think I would be able to say that of a speaker below $10,000, much less of one costing half that.
From the very first instant, this quality of the RPD was very obvious, maintaining tone density and neutrality without an artificially projected upper midrange. Violins and horns sound as natural as I've ever heard them from any still reasonably priced speaker (a pair of top-line Audio Notes driven from an Ongaku did leave an unmatched impression in that regard but by now could well be a romanticized souvenir and one certainly not reasonably priced).
|I have been a fan of Viktoria Mullova ever since I heard her for the first time in a Paris concert about fifteen years ago. Her passion and energy in Sibelius' Violin Concerto with Ozawa and the Boston Symphony orchestra [Philips 416-821-2] is intoxicating. In recent years I've found her playing blander and less inspired, until I ran into one of her new releases of Bach's Sonatas for violin and keyboard [Onyx 4020]. That she would be accompanied on harpsichord (played by the excellent Ottavio Dantone) came as a surprise but her violin sounded different as did her rhythm and pace - more upbeat and lively. Reading through an article in the French magazine Diapason later, I came to understand why. Viktoria had changed from metal to gut strings on her prized Guadagnini. What a difference. Gone was the ultra precision, replaced by a warmer and harmonically more complex sound perhaps less stable and exacting. That I could not hear|
|quite as much of a difference through the FJ OMs which are extremely nuanced in that range speaks even more highly for the RPDs' transparency.
Until they arrived, I had been of the opinion that excess transparency could eventually compromise musical enjoyment. This anecdote got me to somewhat reconsider my position. I would obviously have missed the whole point of this artist's transformation had the RPDs not been able to convey this subtle but critical difference. I still believe that artificial details in forward midranges or overblown tweeters are pleasure killers but transparency is something else altogether. That kind of self effacement on the level of excellence the RPDs exhibit can be truly thrilling, never once sounding thin or harsh, using paper drivers for no mistaking their affiliations.
At times I would have preferred the RPDs to be a little easier to drive in the bass. This would have allowed the Mac amplifier to transfer all of its tonal richness instead of sounding a tad forward as it did. Still, it was also the combination that gave me the highest level of midrange intimacy and fluid articulation. More current and bass drive equals easier listening, less bass drive equals more midrange focus.
|Never was that more obvious than on Rafael Kubelik's Rigoletto with "Coro e orchestra del theatro alla Scala" [DG437 704-2]. Far too often Rigoletto has been turned into a showcase for star tenors and sopranos, which it really isn't. When the opera is served by faithful singers that eschew showbiz altogether and focus on the score, one is left with a very intense and inexorable path towards death, not the jolly celebration that "la Dona e Mobile" à la Three Tenors could have you imagine. Kubelik's version is stripped to the bones and the Orchestra alla Scala is for once completely up to the task of supporting the dry and haunted baritone of Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau as Rigoletto. The good-natured FJs produce enough additional warmth and density to make Fischer-Dieskau sound less panicked but through the RPDs powered by the MA2275 there is no mistaking that he knows what fate has in store for him|
|and his daughter to be inexorably destined to the haunting conclusion. Switching to the A5 amplifier settled in-between, fleshier than the Mac-driven RPDs, more inexorable than over the FJs.
It was almost like three different recordings. The FJ's interpretation was easiest on the ear but did not convey the full intensity of DFD's singing, downplaying some of the anxiety the RPDs conveyed. The choice of amplifier eventually stripped any remaining hope (McIntosh) or left just enough warmth to maintain ambiguity (Musical Fidelity). Interestingly, on all other speakers I have tested both amplifiers with, the reverse usually happens, with the A5 far more stripped-down and inflexible than the McIntosh. Gear synergy is not just a myth.
|From the last comments, you could erroneously conclude that the RPDs are dry and lacking life. Listening to Joyce DiDonato's gorgeous mezzo soprano in arias from Mozart's La Clemenza di Tito [Glossa 921107], her rich timbre prevailed in all its plenitude just like I heard it a few years ago at L'Opera Bastille. There is no leanness or dryness in how the RPDs portray this disk, with the nod this time going to the MA2275 for its clearer transients and more fluid articulation.
|Moving to Mozart's Mass in C minor K.427 under Philippe Herreweghe [Harmonia Mundi 901393], I at times wanted to turn down Jennifer Larmore's voice a little to preserve my ear drums from a hot recording (surprising for an HM disc). Although I would certainly not call the RPDs clinical -- their paper midrange does provide sufficient tone density to make even poorly recorded|
|performances bearable -- they are less forgiving than my FJ OMs. That said, all it took to restore perfect tonal balance with the Mac was to insert the rich and dense Sound Quest SQ12 CD player which took care of any digital glare polluting this recording.
In another review, the Ronin Magnesium Dipole was described as offering "no place to hide" for poorly recorded music. Even if the RPDs warm things up a little by comparison, it is not enough to take the edge off brighter CDs; garbage in still equals garbage out. Hence I'd avoid CD players with a bright or sterile midrange. The RPDs will mercilessly reveal that flaw.
|I have already mentioned the huge soundstage. On appropriately recorded performances, the musicians spread from wall to wall but on the best, the stage will also start a few feet in front of the speakers to spread well beyond the wall behind them. This is especially true with SACDs which add a tremendous amount of ambient information over their CD counterparts, contributing to an even more extended stage. I'll leave those details to the upcoming SA-60 review but the RPDs' transparency and staging ability are|
|particularly well suited to the high resolution formats. This combination was particularly exciting.
From a pure soundstaging standpoint, the RPDs do not exceed what the best omnis can achieve. Where the RPDs leave behind any omni I've heard is in image specificity within a tremendous soundstage. Without exception in my experience, omnis will have images wander around depending on frequency. The RPDs are mostly immune from this which makes following a symphonic work a lot easier. They do not focus wit the precision and pin-point localization a pair of narrow-baffle monitors can achieve but instruments don't move around either. They just softly blur into each other very much like it happens in a concert hall.
What did take me by surprise on Mussorgsky's Pictures was, for the first time, actually seeing the second violins sitting behind and to the right of the first violins. I love the omni presentation but the RPDs convinced me of the superiority of open baffles in this regard, providing the same enveloping stage (perhaps deeper even) without the lack of imaging precision.
|Richter's performance of Beethoven's Sonata No. 22 [RCA Red Seal 82876-59421-2] probably remains the all-time reference and certainly is a very physically involved version exploiting the whole dynamic range a piano is capable of. The RPDs handled the harmonic complexity and attacks reasonably well although, as I was by now accustomed to, there was just a touch of excess lower treble energy when driven by the McIntosh amp which disappeared with the A5 to add overall body. The RPDs did however show their limits on the dynamic scale of the piano with either amplifier. I am not sure though I could name many speakers below $5000 doing a better job. The Watt/Puppy System 8 I went to listen to last week powered by the same MA2275 with a McIntosh source did a better job at conjuring a credible grand piano in the room. At 8 times the cost of the RPDs, it should have of course.
|The RPDs are not perfect nor did I expect them to be. I know speakers that are either better finished or offer a sweeter treble presentation, more weight in the bass, greater dynamic abilities, greater forgiveness on poor records or easier drive - but those with a combination of these qualities cost multiples of the RPDs' asking price.
Open-baffle speakers are resolutely moving out of the DIY community and are slowly going commercial again. After Jamo's recent statement speaker and Nelson Pass presenting a prototype OB concept in Denver, AV123 is gearing up to redefine the entry price-point of such speakers while Crystal Cable waits in the wings. Yet what Nomad Audio proposes in the RPD has no real competition today [Emerald Physics excepted of course - Ed.] I suspect this will remain so for a while. What makes the RPDs successful is the hard-to-achieve integration of attributes that Paul Hilgeman has managed to weave around an immaculate midrange and a gigantic soundstage while staying with a budget accessible to mere mortals.
|All through my listening sessions, I had to force myself to pay attention to a given performance aspect which stubbornly refused to be singled out. When I forget to take notes and just listen instead for hours on end, I know something special and rare is happening. If I made it sound as if there were huge differences in performance depending on the choice of amplifier, this was mostly due to a reviewer forcing a trait to make a point. There were differences enough for me to prefer the A5 amplifier but the Mac with a light touch on its tone control did a superb job as well and would probably have finished in the lead on a pair of RPD-As.
If the Ronins were priced at $8000/pr, I would still recommend them as a great OB entry but at $4500 ($5500 for the active version), they rank among the best hifi bargains and certainly are a very valid option for panel lovers looking for a little more bass, macro dynamics and texture. For a few hundred dollars more, I would probably go with the bi-amp version. That gives the most flexibility for tube/transistor mixes plus active bass equalization (think along the lines of the one-box amplification equalization solution rumored to be under development by Zu, with a lush push-pull 50-watter on top).
I have heard very few of the RPDs' direct competitors, a gap I plan on closing over the coming months. The Nola Viper Reference provides similar intimacy with the music and better bass performance but the $9000 price difference would more than cover bi-amplification and active equalization for the RPDs to shrink any major in-room performance differentials.
|If you think inside the box, there are myriad options available in this price range. The FJ OMs remain my favorite pick for their unique combination of lushness and transparency. If however you want to transcend the box with its ubiquitous colorations, Nomad Audio's Ronins are a very easy recommendation, so easy in fact that I am buying this pair as my new reference speakers, to put my money where my pen is; and more importantly, to enjoy this performance every day.
Quality of packing: Shipping crates of very high quality are a $750 option ($650 refunded if returned after delivery). Standard packing wasn't reviewed.
Reusability of packing: Crates are reusable indefinitely.
Ease of unpacking/repacking: Speakers are easy to slide out of crates when standing; installation of base is very straightforward.
Condition of component received: Flawless.
Completeness of delivery: Nothing missing.
Quality of owner's manual: No manual provided.
Website comments: Rich information on design and products available on site or directly from designer via his Audio Circle interactive forum.
Warranty: No information provided.
Global distribution: Through Nomad Audio's website.
Human interactions: Professional and courteous. Very helpful support to understand design specificity.
Other: 30-day at home trial period.
Pricing: At $8000 they would be highly recommended; at $4500 (or $5500 for active version) they are exceptional. Many finish options, bi/tri wiring, external crossover, digital equalization also available at a very reasonable surcharge.
Application conditions: Won't mate happily with all amplifiers and require high current capacity into 2/4 ohms to get their 10" woofers to sing but also require a very refined but rich amplifier midrange.
Final comments & suggestions: If you favor tubes, consider the active version with higher impedance throughout and better bass control; it should be the most versatile of all RPD versions. The RPDs are also ideal for the old recipe of 'tube on top, solid state at the bottom' if you are willing to handle the added complexity. If you want to add a sub, pick it lean, lightning-fast and detailed (think Zu Method, Martin Logan Descent or REL Q108), anything else will smear the crystal-clear midrange.
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