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As a fella who'll think thrice before reviewing a $20,000/pr of mini monitors but then commits to the job anyways -- and whose reference rig costs more than two really nice cars at full retail -- I do have one redeeming quality: I love to mix it up at times and review cheap shit (especially when it's neither cheap nor shit but excellent and affordable). One, it's a powerful reality check to counter-balance getting carried away by the really expensive stuff. That should be wonderful to justify its existence. Still, the nagging questions always remains - how much better is it really? Two, as someone who rents rather than owns and lives a rather modest existence once you discount the - er, obsessive involvement with the hobby, I'm well aware that if I had kids, college tuitions and the whole lot, I'd be listening to the kind of gear under review today, not Audiopax, Avantgarde, Walker and Zanden.

Since the Avantgarde Duos do smile at me on a daily basis -- and believe me, I work hard for my toys -- I strapped 'em to the SP3 just because I could. But I want to keep things sane today. Let's just say then that many folks, upon hearing the li'l $999 Onix on a pair of $20,000/pr loudspeakers of appropriate efficiency to not wear out its 38 watts of welcome, might get quite flustered or even royally pissed. (Insert evil laugh.) Back in the real world however, I preceded the SP3 with the equally overachieving $899 MiniMax CDP and leashed the two together with Crystal Cable's most affordable $399 Piccolo interconnect. Granted, the Crystal Reference speaker cables and power cords were financial overkill but they are what I own. They're also exceedingly neutral and I know 'em - well.

As I recently reported in my review of Terry Cain's Abby/Bailey trio, the Onix amplifier even into 95dB noise probes -- those speakers of higher-than-standard efficiencies that'll promptly telegraph component noise issues regular speakers will not -- proved to be well beyond the competition in how quietly it went about its job and how very low its native noise floor was. In fact, so impressed was I by its performance into the Abbys that I called Terry and 'made' him order an SP3 for his growing collection of affordable electronics that he can confidently recommend to his customers from personal experience. One Onix integrated is enroute to Walla Walla too as I write this.

Unlike tube amps voiced for extreme liquidity, wetness and bloom which can soften the edges to get a wee bit woolly and indistinct, a mite overly luscious and romantic to cast a prettifying hue over everything, the SP3 reveals a far more modern flavor of valved components. As a push/pull amp with unspecified amounts of integral feedback, it's taut and ballsy and casts one of those laterally enormous stages, with just the right balance between clear edge definition and organic blending. Even with the conventional dynamic Ref1 speakers, it's one dynamic bugger as well, scaling crescendoes rather farther than you might expect.

This is an amp with very good control, something that came in handy to maximize the bass quality of the Onix speakers. Relying on venting to extend their reach below what a sealed alignment can provide, they would occasionally exhibit a slightly hollow character with those bass notes that approached or hit their port resonance. On Renaud Garcia-Fons' famous "Ghazali" solo meditation [Oriental Bass, Enja 0334-2], the SP3/Ref1 combo proved that even a 5-string upright's lowest open string remained within -- slightly rolled-off -- reach. Lovers of the elegiac Charlie Hayden/Pat Metheny mediations on Missouri Sky need not think subwoofer when considering this system.

Vifa's soft-dome ring radiator is justly famous. It and its Scanspeak tweeter equivalents appear in more and more speakers to suggest that for once, speaker designers agree on something. Instead of sizzle and blinding reflections of hard-dome break-up modes, this tweeter is matched to the midrange in such a way as to be slightly on the meaty side of fence neutrality. Because the speakers are naturally restricted in how low and loud they can play bass -- thereby also limiting how well they could balance out one of those stratospheric super tweeters SACD supporters tell us we need to enjoy the new high resolution formats -- the French Triangle designer responsible for the crossover wisely opted to "walk the middle". Unlike the contoured treble lift of Triangle speakers, the Reference 1 does not add energy in the upper band, a wise choice when you consider long-term comfort.

Listening to the Ref1s, not merely their size and appearance began to soon suggest the Soliloquy Model 5 whose design objective had been a gutsy, slightly warm and full voice. By eliminating the latter's biwire option, prospective Onix owners can save money on the cabling or avoid replacing sonically compromising jumper straps with after-market cable links. One aspect of their performance that continued to surprise me were the dynamic crests of instrumental and especially vocal climaxes. The music got louder than expected as though a high-jumper's hurdle had been reset to weed out the lesser athletes. Having just come off the dynamically truly liberated Abbys, this made for a very pleasant return into dynamic 2-way land where unavoidable crossovers always downplay the faster reflexes of hi-eff single-driverdom.

For break-in, I'd originally wired the Ref1s into our miniature living room video rig. Parked on the floor with Walker Audio Valid Point brass cones underneath their fronts to tilt 'em up, they'd initially benefitted from the bass boundary reinforcement while the mid/woofers came to life. 10 days later however, even movie effects bass had become too overdone to suggest that the speakers were now ready for free-air stand-mounted performance. Going African with Khadja Nin's gorgeous Ya [Mondo Melodia 186 810 062-2], I once again felt stumped to explain how the heavy drums on "Kuji Fondeya" came across with more heft and leading-edge impact than seemed kosher for a 5.25" two-way in the affordable sector. Ever since the reign of the BBC's original LS3/5A (revived again as Ken Kessler's recently reported), the two-way
monitor has established itself solidly as the speaker design for real-world music lovers who simply listen to tunes without attempting to break any new Olympian records. Anyone taking a vacation from flat-to-20Hz audio by enjoying a fling with a good descendent of the LS3/5A bloodline will have to concede that even though certain items are clearly missing or only suggested -- depending on what material you play -- the impact on enjoyment is far less than sales people intent on moving full-range speakers would have you believe.

Throw in imaging up the olde ying-yang, a significant reduction or outright elimination of room-boom and there's much to be said for the relative minimalism of the genre. Ditto for the well-hashed advantages of integrated amplifiers. Those starting there may harbor suspicions that the grass is greener over yonder, in the speaker cemeteries of monkey coffins and Harley-Davidson-type amplifiers finned like V-twin engines. But I'm hear to tell you that even someone with massive hornspeakers and truly world-class amplifiers can easily scale back and not feel deprived when the basic balance isn't thrown off. That's the trick - how to steal from the Sunday morning collection plate without anyone noticing. The SP3/Ref1 system is a very accomplished thief in that regard. What it leaves on the table is so opulent that you completely forget to look underneath the linens.

At about 10 feet removed, 12:30 o'clock on the SP3 equated to truly rocking volumes and the quality drivers in the Ref1s
-- aided and abetted by what I assume is a better-than-usual damping factor with the SP3 -- refused to break up or signal distress at anything I consider still sane levels. Don't expect them to play a 30' x 40' ball room with vaulted ceilings, of course. Still, the beauty of this gear is that it ain't meant for that crowd. Much of audio deals with scenarios that are unrealistic for many listeners. Subterranean bass and the ability to dish out max SPLs without distortion to fill over-sized spaces are two of the most challenging aspects ultra audio attempts to address. The common losers -- besides their wallets -- are those who stick such audio into average-sized spaces where it will either outright tank or at best never enter the zone of special competence you paid so dearly for.

To cut to the chase, Mark Schifter's special buy-in offer is truly perfect for mid-sized spaces. I can't find anything to criticize. The component match is plainly ideal. Two inputs are plenty sufficient for such a system. The air right above the tubes is clearly warmer than any parts of the chassis ever get, suggesting that the Melody amp doesn't push its bias voltages to stress the valves and produce borderline power while shortening tube life and raising distortion figures. How the attenuator is stepped never had me wish for the missing in-between value and the amp is potent enough to rock down the casbah into the kind of spaces this system will be used in. Since the unbelievable pricing of this combo mandates you purchase the speakers and the amp, that's how I reviewed 'em. Folks, this ain't a fly-by-night White Van special! It is cheap but as far from ordinary as I've heard for three times the money since I got bit by the HiFi bug.

Okay, there's one thing. The present owner's manual of the Onix amp fails to mention at what value the 5881/6L6s should be biased with your voltmeter probe. That's easily fixed with an addendum or insert but should be addressed. Outside of that one solitary nit, the SP3/Ref1 combo by Onix is a slam dunk whose only failing is conformity with pricing expectations. The use of valves makes for a fullness and roundness of tone plus soundstage layering that completely avoid the often zippy, lean or flat demeanor of equivalently priced solid-state contenders. The combo voicing is slightly warm but such a far cry from the soggy syrup tube newbies tend to anticipate as to never belong in the same sentence with the SP3. Ever. Macrodynamics are surprisingly good and in fact better even than the microdynamic shadings on tap. From Pavarotti to Leonard Cohen, Jacques Loussier to Anne-Sophie Mutter, Tulku to Salif Keita, this rig refused to get tripped up, fall short or apart. Yes, ultimate transparency was a bit foreshortened compared to my colossal rig but I'd rather take warmth than thinness.

Build quality is so spectacular especially with the amp as to be silly. The SP3 simply begs to be inserted into a far more upscale context to tease out just how good it really might be. Hence a follow-up with my Accustic Arts/Audio Aero front-end and Gallo Reference 3s is next on the menu. The Ref1 speakers don't set any new standards per se but are truly accomplished examples of this most prolific of speaker breeds. They clearly benefit not only from cheap Chinese labor but the expert voicing of a highly experienced European master whom Onix contracted for their new speaker line. Their immaculate and deep Rosewood veneers are not something you'll readily encounter elsewhere anywhere near their mark. Clearly Mr. Schifter is throwing his OEM manufacturing weight around and behind these products to unapologetically take advantage. I'm told his Chinese workers enjoy salaries well in excess of the standard rates so buyers needn't feel like colonialist pigs either. Granted, I'm not sure what the present offshore trend holds for the future of our domestic audio industry. However, I am sure as Sherlock that for value and performance, today's contenders can't be beat. For $1,200, this is a steal on which time will have to put a stern lock - eventually. While inventories exist, you'd be wise to act if you're even remotely in the market. Hell, I'd be happy to buy this amp for $1,200 and give the speakers to a friend. I'd look like a saint and still laugh all the way to the bank...

Mop up
In the end, when you're asked to recommend anything, you always ask yourself what else you would buy if not your own recommendation. What else would $1,200 buy you elsewhere? For an amp of the SP3's caliber, I only have personal experience with the MiniMax. That's $899, not an integrated and only 8wpc. The excellent Unison Research Unico already busts our budget before we ever get to the loudspeakers - and the SP3 has the edge in tone. I don't believe the Jolidas would quite keep up with the Onix. Last time I checked, the Soliloquy Model 5 ate up our total budget by its lonesome. The Von Schweikert VR1 Doug Schneider praised clocks in at $995/pr. I could go on shooting blanks in the dark. The point is, it's hard if not impossible to add anything else to a 3-piece integrated/speaker reco that would compete at this price point. Even dyed-in-the-wool 'philes with serious rigs should put this rig on the menu if a study, bedroom or second system had been in the works in theory but nobody ever got around to pulling the trigger. What else is there to say? As an ex salesman, I'd now have to ask for your credit card. Time to make my hasty exit and leave you ponder this impossible, vexing effrontery of a - situation? Fabulous offer is more like it! Over and out...
Click next for follow-up of SP3 with Gallo's Reference 3 speakers
AV123 website
Melody Valve Hifi website