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Reviewer: Jeff Day
Analog: Garrard 301, Cain & Cain plinth, Denon 103 MC cartridge, Pete Riggle Audio VTAF, Fi Yph phono stage, Auditorium 23 moving coil step-up transformer, Origin Live Silver MkI & MkII tone arms, Paschetto Empire 208 turntable [in for review]
Digital: Meridian 508.20 CD player, Audio Logic 2400 DAC, Sony PlayStation 1 SCPH-1001, Shindo Arome CD matching transformer [in for review], 47 Labs Shigaraki DAC [in for review], Hagerman HagUsb USB to S/PDIF converter [in for review]
Preamplifiers: Tom Evans Audio Design Lithos 7 Vibe with Pulse power supply, Shindo Monbrison [in for review]
Integrated amplifiers: Leben CS600 [in for review], Almarro A205A Mk1 & Mk2
Amplifiers: Fi 2A3 monoblocks, Tom Evans Audio Design Linear A, Shindo Cortese [in for review]
Speakers: Avantgarde Duo 2.1, Harbeth Super HL5 (with 18" Skylan stands), Omega Super 3 (with 24" Skylan Stands), Omega Super 3 XRS [awaiting the new Omega hemp drivers for a follow-up evaluation], Merrill Zigmahornets [in for review], ASA Monitor Baby [this review]
Cables: 47 Laboratory OTA Cable Kit; Nirvana S-L & S-X interconnects, S-L speaker cables, Duo wiring harness, and Transmission Digital Interface; Cardas Neutral Reference digital cable, Auditorium 23 speaker cable; Tom Evans Audio Design interconnects; Shindo silver interconnects [in for review]
Stands: McKinnon Bellevue Symphony walnut media cabinet, Atlantis Video Reference equipment rack, Skylan speaker & amplifier stands
Room sizes: Room 1 - 20' L x 17' W x 17' H; and Room 2 - 11' L x 11'W x 9' H
Review component retail: $2495/pr

Walter Swanbon & Fidelis AV
Most folks who have been around audio for a while have heard of Walter Swanbon and his HiFi shop Fidelis in Derry, New Hampshire. Walter's been plying the HiFi trade successfully for over 25 years, while also applying his knowledge and experience to pro sound reinforcement, engineering live recordings and serving as a consultant for some of the world's top audio companies. Fidelis is that oh-so-rare real deal: A brick and mortar full-service HiFi store of excellent reputation, known for superb service and professionalism and run by music lovers for music lovers. Fidelis also has a full service technical department headed by Dave Plummer, whose expertise in electronics enables Fidelis to perform repairs, modifications and tune-ups on site with a quick turnaround. If you live near Water's Fidelis, consider yourself very lucky. There are very few HiFi shops of that high caliber anywhere in the world.

Walter takes great pains to pick out top-quality products that will stand the test of time in his customers' HiFi rigs. Walter carries many lusted-after brands for his customers such as Quad, Naim, Hovland, BAT, Art Audio, Grand Prix Audio, Cardas, Zu, Avantgarde and many more.

Walter also is the US distributor for Harbeth loudspeakers from the UK, Lavardin amplification components from France, Audiopax amplification components from Brazil and most recently, the ASA (Atelier de Synergie Acoustique) line of loudspeakers from France. For a while, he also imported the Music First Audio Passive Magnetic before new arrangements with Bent Audio changed MFA's distribution structure. Walter clearly has excellent taste in audio and is rather selective about what he wants to handle and represent.

Atelier de Synergie Acoustique Loudspeakers
ASA is a French company that not too many people in the USA have heard of yet. The design criteria for ASA loudspeakers are two-fold in that ASA sells their products to both the pro market and to high-performance home users. This means that ASA wants their loudspeakers to be accurate, resolving, fast and dynamic for the pro-market while still having a natural presentation that gets the musical message across to its high-performance home users. Pleasing both the pro-market and the home high-performance audio enthusiast is a tall order for any design team. It should come as no surprise that ASA puts a lot of effort into their designs to accomplish just that.

The ASA Monitor designation is not to be taken lightly. ASA designs its speakers first for monitoring use in studios and has quite a following in the pro scene in France, much like Harbeth does in England with the BBC. With monitoring in mind, the ASA loudspeakers are focused on those performance elements that are necessary for mixing recordings: transparency, intelligibility of complex signals, imaging and the coherence of phase. ASA voices it speakers to be accurate, fast, transparent and dynamically realistic so that they can deliver the music in "astounding clearness, balance and realism" as they say on their website.

There are a couple of views on how best to design enclosures for loudspeakers. ASA takes the position that enclosures should be completely inert so that they won't add or subtract anything from the sound. The internal structures of ASA loudspeaker cabinets are asymmetrical to break up the worst standing waves and the port is positioned in a specific position on the front face to optimize performance. All of the cabinet edges on ASA loudspeakers are rounded over to eliminate diffraction effects not unlike the curved airfoil surfaces of an aircraft. The speaker grill is isolated from the cabinet so that it does not effect the enclosure's tuning.

ASA says they design their loudspeaker networks to maintain the purity of the input signal without altering, degrading, coloring, distorting, compressing or altering the phase to give an "alive" feeling to the musical presentation. To maintain the purity of the input signal, ASA keeps the signal path of the crossover as short and simple as possible. ASA claims it took them many years to perfect their crossover designs and maintains that they do not deteriorate the signal at all and remain perfectly in phase.

All of ASA's final voicing of their loudspeaker designs is done by ear with the goal of achieving a "smoothness and elegance" of presentation that will please the home listener as well as the mastering engineer. ASA says their design process results in loudspeakers that allow "the emotion, the space and the dynamics which govern any performance" to fully develop while providing a wide and deep soundstage that gives a tactile sense of musicians playing music.

ASA makes six models of loudspeakers:
the Monitor Baby, the Monitor Standard, the Monitor Standard Wood, the Monitor Pro, the Grand Monitor Standard and the Grand Monitor Pro. Except for the Monitor Baby and Standard -- painted -- all of the other models are finished in wood.

ASA Monitor Baby
The Monitor Baby is ASA's entry-level loudspeaker. ASA specs the bandwidth at 38Hz to 25KHz, with an impedance of 8 ohms and a sensitivity of 90dB/W/m. The cabinet's finish on my review pair was enameled in a nicely done finish about the color of a dark gun metal blue. The connectors oddly enough both look the same. They are not marked with the usual red (right) and black (left) identification but they appear to be of high quality and will accept spades or banana plugs. The speakers weigh in at 11kg each and carry a manufacturer's warranty of 10 years.

I placed the Monitor Babys on Skylan 24-inch stands and followed ASA's setup recommendation for placing them well out from the walls and directed towards the center of the listening position. I settled in with the Monitor Babys 3 feet from the front wall, a little over 10 feet apart and angled in towards the listening position to where only the front face of the cabinet was visible. This positioning gave the Monitor Babys a wide and deep soundstage with a huge sense of space. I thought the Monitor Babys sounded best with the grills off - smoother and more articulate.

Given the impedance and sensitivity ratings, I expected the Babys to be an easy load for amplifiers and they were, with amplifiers of 10 to 30 watts (Leben CS600, Shindo Cortese and TEAD Linear A) all working well. Any of these amplifiers had more than enough power to achieve loud listening levels when called for even in my rather large main listening room. ASA recommends you use a high quality amplifier that is "musical" to get the best results with the Monitor Baby. I found amplification choice to be critical for best performance during the review. ASA recommended the Leben CS600 integrated valve amplifier from Japan to Walter Swanbon as a particularly nice match for the Monitor Baby. This worked out very nicely for me as I have the new Leben CS600 integrated valve amplifier in for review from Tone Imports. It's always gratifying to know as a reviewer that you're hearing the sort of system balance which a manufacturer intends for their product. This is not always possible due to timing and availability issues.

Towards the end of the review period, my mischievous audio pal Pete stopped by with an audio underground digital favorite, the Sony Playstation 1 SCPH-1001. Though I had heard rumors of how good this particular version of the PS1 is when used as a CD player, this was my first time with it. The PS1 went with the ASA Monitor Babys like peanut butter and jelly - a great combination! Who would have thought that a kid's video game player could have such outstanding audio performance? I was floored. There's a lot of technology and computing power in that little box that no high-end audio firm could afford to pay development costs for. There are 100 million parents that made it profitable for Sony to do so. Sony sold 100 million units so there are plenty of them around. I was able to pick up one locally in mint condition for $25. I know it seems ridiculous but it's great combo so I used it for the review to extract the best performance from the system. The underground buzz says the newer versions of the Playstation suck for music but I haven't checked 'em out myself. I'll have more to say about the little PS1 wonder in the future after I more thoroughly investigate its performance in larger variety of contexts. Stay tuned. [There's a published report from a group of advanced scientists who paralleled x-number of these Sony Playstations to assemble a virtual super computer. Not only did they succeed, they were aghast at the sheer brain power this consumer video product incorporated. - Ed]

I used Shindo silver interconnects and Auditorium 23 speaker cables from Germany, a nice match for the Monitor Baby. For amplification I used the recommended Leben CS600 integrated amplifier for the majority of my listening. I also included my usual Tom Evans Audio Design (TEAD) Vibe preamplifier, Pulse power supply and Linear A amplifier as an alternate reference. Ditto fpr the Shindo Monbrison preamplifier and Cortese amplifier in for review. This gave me a better idea of what kind of performance one can expect across a range of amplification voicings.

Listening Impressions
Walter warned me that the ASAs need lots of break-in time (circa 200 plus hours) so I set them up in my second system and let them play their little hearts out until they passed the 200-hour mark. Initially they sounded a little lean and bright, which put me off,but they smoothed out and developed more body over time. After break-in was complete, I placed them in my main listening room to do a little listening.

In true pro-monitor fashion, the ASA Baby loudspeakers are accurate, resolving, fast, lively, dynamic and shockingly transparent. Because of the pro-style sonics, every slight difference in setup and equipment is magnified more than with other loudspeakers that I routinely use and am familiar with. I found the choice of associated equipment, tweaking and setup to be more critical than is usually the case but I also found that even small differences paid big dividends in achieving a high level of musical performance. Amplification aside, here's the setup and equipment that I found to provide the best blend of sonics and musical expression in my listening room. I positioned the Babys ten and a half feet apart and thirty-six inches out from the front wall. I think they sound best with the grills off and the speakers pointing directly at the listening position. Shindo interconnects and Auditorium 23 speaker cables -- with the connectors treated with Caig ProGold conditioner (which made a big positive difference in getting rid of that last little bit leanness that I was hearing early on) -- rounded out the wiring. The source was the above-mentioned Sony Playstation 1 SCPH-1001. It slaughtered all challengers in this particular system. Now let's continue the story with a couple of different choices of amplification.

First I tried the Monitor Baby with my usual reference gear to establish a baseline to inform my perceptions: the Tom Evans Audio Design Vibe preamplifier with its optional Pulse power supply and the Linear A amplifier. I predict that mastering engineers and sonic warriors will go nuts over the TEAD + ASA combo. Nothing beats the TEAD gear for recovery of detail and nuance and its authoritative 'Voice of God' way of presenting the music. When combined with the ASA Monitor Baby, I realized in a hurry that ASA's claim of an accurate, fast, transparent and dynamic presentation was no bull. This combo of gear resolved so much detail that it really was astounding - just like ASA says. If your highest priority is hearing everything encoded on a disc, this combo's resolution, space, imaging, soundstaging will likely make you feel like you've died and gone to heaven.
The presentation was smooth and extremely detailed but not edgy or bright. That made enjoying all that resolution possible for me. The presentation of pace, rhythm an timing (PRaT) was very lively, perhaps too lively for some - akin to an extended adrenaline rush. Or as Stephæn said, "It's PRaT on crack!" For listeners like Stephæn whose primary criterion for listening pleasure is a relaxed and laid-back presentation, this is not the right combination. While Stephæn said that he found the combination too lively for his tastes, I did notice his foot tapping to the beat of the band. There's no question about it, the TEAD and ASA combination is the stereo equivalent of an electron microscope for the ears, resolving down to the musical electron level with an aliveness that'd bring the dead to life in a foot-tapping frenzy. For my tastes though, the TEAD gear is a better match with the Avantgarde Duos. There it takes on a more natural and musical balance for simply stunning synergy. The TEAD + ASA combination's presentation will not be everyone's cup of tea but for those who fancy it - wow!

I next replaced my usual TEAD reference gear with the Shindo Monbrison preamplifier and Cortese amplifier in for review. Both the TEAD and Shindo gear are priced similarly and represent the pinnacle of musical performance in their respective -- and distinctly different -- design genres. They will likely appeal to different listeners for that very reason. With the Shindo gear replacing the TEAD gear, the Monitor Baby's resolution was toned down a couple of notches (but was still rather incredible), warmed up with an inner fireside glow and infused with ultra-saturated and richly hued tone color. The top end was a little more rolled off and the bottom end a little more tipped-up - the classic music lovers balance. PRaT went down a notch too, approaching what was actually a more natural presentation. I think quite a few listeners might find the Shindo and ASA presentation beguiling, possibly even addicting. Others may find it a little too colorful in the way Technicolor films were colorful. Technicolor was a treat for the eyes and prized for its hyper-realistic, ultra-saturated levels of color. Hollywood used it for filming musicals like Fantasia and provide an even more magical and spellbinding movie experience. With the ASA Monitor Babys, the Shindo gear gave a Technicolor-like presentation with an almost hyper-realistic, ultra-saturated tonal color palette. I think the Shindo gear is better matched to Shindo's own loudspeakers or the Living Voice models than the ASA Monitor Babys. Those other combinations had a great musical synergy that I enjoyed immensely when I heard 'em, never moving over into Technicolor territory as the ASAs did.

ASA's suggested 'musical' match for the Monitor Baby, the Leben CS600 integrated amplifier, really did deliver the perfect match. It was this combination that most flattered the Monitor Baby's overall balance to give the most musically natural presentation. One of the nice things about the Leben CS600 is its flexiblity. It can utilize a number of different output valves to voice the amplifier to your tastes. It also puts out about 30 watts (max, depending on the valve choice), which easily drove the Babys to very loud levels. I went with an old favorite of mine, the EL34, for its silky smooth and warmly nuanced brush across the music.

For example, the Reference Recording Star of Wonder album with the San Francisco Choral Artists was breathtaking in its beauty while providing a huge sense of natural space and extremely good articulation of the vocals. For a small monitor speaker, the Babys gave a real sense of weight and articulation to the pipe organ that belied their overall size. I never got the sense that I was listening to a small loudspeaker. The Babys were able to fill my rather large listening space even with the relatively low power of the Leben CS600 fitted with EL34 valves (20-something watts). The Babys' imaging was pinpoint in accuracy and the image sizing on the soundstage was realistic. I never once got the sensation that the images were diminished in scale as they are with some other small monitor speakers. Clarity of the Babys was exceptional by any measure, with oodles of detail reproduced in a smooth and elegant fashion that was never analytical or etched sounding with the Leben.

Listening to the pipe organ in Star made me curious about how much in-room bass extension I was getting with the ASA Monitor Babys. Recently my SPL meter went to the great anechoic chamber in the sky so I did the next best thing and pulled out Stereophile's test CD. I ran through the low frequency test tones for a simple ear check. The Babys did very well down to 40Hz on the third octave warble tones and not surprisingly dropped off noticeably at the 31.5Hz tone. This means that all but the low bass range (20-40Hz) will be down in volume or missing, depending on the frequency and instrument. You might be asking, "What is the musical impact of losing the bottom octave?"

Not much. All you wouldn't be able to hear is the lowest register of the piano between the 7th key (38.9Hz) and the first (27.5Hz). Similarly, you wouldn't hear the lowest notes of the harp, string bass or contrabassoon. Another thing that would be diminished is the "hall sound" of the moving air column within the recording venue if it exists in the recording. Hall-sound ambience extends down through the lowest audible frequencies into the infrasonic region. With the Babys, you can hear the lowest note of nearly every instrument except for the pipe organ and piano. The realization that it is possible to hear nearly everything of musical significance through a small loudspeaker like the ASA Monitor Baby will surprise a lot of listeners.

Buddy Guy and Junior Wells' Chicago blues album Alone & Acoustic really came to life with the ASA + Leben combination. The speakers completely disappeared and Buddy and Junior appeared like holograms on the holo deck of the Enterprise. Reproduction of the dynamics on voices, guitar and harmonica from micro-level subtleties to large swings gave the music a very 'live' feel. Buddy's guitar playing sounded tonally right on and you could hear every little nuance he incorporates into the music to give it lots of emotive feeling. The ASAs picked out the melody and rhythm with aplomb and I found myself marveling at Buddy's playing in ways that I'd never quite noticed before. Harmonicas can be tough instruments to reproduce realistically as they can get shouty and shrill if a system's balance is off at all. Junior's superb harmonica playing came through beautifully - articulate, tonally rich and dynamic.

Charlie Haden and Pat Metheny's Beyond the Missouri Sky is a mind blower! The musicianship and the recording quality are stunning and I found it rather difficult to write this little part of the review while listening because my attention kept being drawn so strongly to the music. The clarity and articulation of the strings was world-class, and there was an absolutely enormous sense of reverberant space. The scale of image size was spot on. The ASAs most assuredly do not scale down instruments, projecting instrument sizes that equaled my reference Avantgarde Duos. That's impressive. The Babys also recovered more detail and nuance than my Duos are cable of too - doubly impressive.

Listening to the Juilliard String Quartet's Intimate Letters with two violins, viola and violoncello proved enlightening. The recording quality is good but not stunning as Beyond the Missouri Sky - yet the musicianship is wonderful as you would expect from Juilliard. The Monitor Babys passed a very important test here. They were able to play the strings on this album without ever becoming edgy or bright, preserving the rosiny feel of the strings and all of the dynamic nuance, which is essential for getting the most out of classical music. The music was also completely freed from the loudspeakers themselves, providing a panorama-like view across the front wall of my listening room.

I listen to a lot of jazz. I love jazz. Take Miles Davis' Bags Groove for example: you can hear everything in total transparency just as you would expect from a monitor-style loudspeaker. Milt Jackson's vibes sounded breathtaking, with a tonal beauty that only vibes can achieve so easily. Muted trumpet is always difficult to reproduce satisfactorily because of its shrill character. The Babys are no exception here and if you overcook the volume while listening to muted trumpet, it'll go over the top and you'll find yourself reaching for the volume control. The Babys do an excellent job of infusing the listening room with the sound of the recording acoustic, giving a "you are there" feel to the music. Cymbals are particularly impressive in Bags Groove and you can hear every little subtle nuance and vibration.

I love Lucinda Williams' poetic sense of songwriting and her ability to evoke moods with the interplay of the instruments and vocals. World Without Tears is a brilliant piece of work on Lucinda's part. She sings with a passion and feeling that is second to none. I don't know what her life is really like but Lucinda has the ability to make you think each song is autobiographical in nature. That's how strong her ability is to infuse the music with personal feeling. This recording is impressive the way all the instruments interplay but is somewhat edgy and shrill at times. Through the Monitor Babys, you hear everything and yet they still handle the overt blemishes in the sonics of the recording pretty well. They don't completely destroy the music. They allow you to keep listening where other systems would have you already reaching for the 'eject' button.

There's some great music on Cash Unearthed, with my favorites being those stripped down to their bare minimum, just Johnny's voice and guitar. The Man in Black sounded appropriately rich, dark, deep and positively scary on "Delia's Gone". Simple playing on a big dark guitar adds a stark beauty as a backdrop to his lyrics - a winner all the way around.

Summing Up
The ASA Monitor Baby loudspeakers are accurate, resolving, fast, lively, dynamic and shockingly transparent. ASA's dual focus for the pro market means that you will have to put in some work to get a good setup and carefully select complimentary associated equipment to end up with a natural presentation that gets the musical message across. I made a major step forward in their setup towards the end of the review period that gave me significant gains in musical performance while not diminishing sonics one iota. Once you get the ASAs dialed in, they are impressive and capable of delivering both the music and an incredibly high-resolution and life-size listening experience to provide all the imaging, soundstaging, resolution and dynamics anyone could want. The Monitor Babys completely disappear when the music starts playing. They have a smoothness, richness and elegance of presentation (just like ASA says) that I think many will find beguiling.

My Music Lovers reference speakers, the Harbeth Super HL5, make an interesting point of comparison when dropped into the system in place of the ASA Monitor Babys. The Harbeths are warmer, darker and less resolving. They are more relaxed and natural though. The Harbeths don't have the same level of articulation or huge sense of space. They are larger speakers and go considerably lower in the bass, with audible output down to 20Hz on the Stereophile test CD. The Harbeths have a more flesh'n'blood feel to them, with more bass authority. Yet it is a bigger and looser sound, less refined and taut than the ASAs. There is also a certain punchiness in the midrange which the ASAs can't match. The ASAs are smoother, the Harbeths more textured. This seems a little weird to me because the ASAs recover considerably more detail. The Harbeths are almost twice as expensive as the ASAs.

I think that the ASAs will please the kind of listener who places equal emphasis on sonics and musicality. The Monitor Babys do play music well but they don't have that same sort of overall music lovers' balance which the Harbeths epitomize. Those sacrifice some sonic performance in comparison. The Monitor Babys infuse the listening room with the acoustics of a recording giving a 'you are there' feel to the music that places the listener at the recording venue. The Harbeths do it the other way around, giving the listener a 'the musicians are here' perspective. I think this difference in presentation is mostly due to the fact that the Harbeths don't recover as much of the venue's acoustics on the recording. Your own room's acoustics will dominate.

The bottom line is that the ASA Monitor Babys are an ultra high-performance small monitor loudspeaker that has a lot going for it. The sonic abilities are spectacular and their musical abilities are quite good, too. If you are looking for a small monitor style loudspeaker that combines fantastic aural fireworks with carrying a tune, you should give the ASA Monitor Babys a listen. They may be new to the market but there's good reason why they've finally landed in the US.
Manufacturer's website
US importer's website