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Reviewer: Jeff Day
Vinyl: 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 Mk 1 & Mk 2 tonearms; Miyabi 47 MC cartridge [in for review], SME 3012 tonearm, The Cartridge Man Isolator
FM source: Vintage early 1960s Scott 370 FM vacuum tube tuner, Magnum Dynalab ST-2 vertical omnidirectional FM antenna
Digital sources: Meridian 508.20 CD player, Audio Logic 2400 DAC, Superscope PSD340 Music Practice Tool & CD recording system
Preamplifiers: Tom Evans Audio Design Lithos 7 Vibe with optional Pulse power supply
Integrated amplifiers: Almarro A205A Mk1, Leben CS600 [in for review]
Amplifiers: Fi 2A3 monoblocks; Tom Evans Audio Design Linear A
Speakers: Avantgarde Duo 2.1, Omega Super 3 (Skylan Stands); Omega Super 3 XRS [in for 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
Stands: McKinnon Bellevue Symphony media cabinet
Room size: 20' L x 17' W x 17' H
Review component retail: Omega Super 3 XRS $849/pr - Warranty is 10 years on parts & labor for workmanship and defects. Skylan bases $220/pr

I reviewed the stand-mounted Omega Super 3s back in September of 2004 and really enjoyed them. I thought they were beautifully made, with cabinetwork that was second to none. The crossoverless single-driver Super 3s were an easy recommendation to those HiFi buffs looking to enter the world of low-powered single-ended triode (SET) amplification with their easygoing 93dB sensitivity. Their natural, clean, clear, resolving, detailed and spacious sound threw a big soundstage with superb imaging and had enough musical jones to make you quit worrying about the sound and settle back and enjoy the tunes. I highly recommended the Super 3s to 6moons readers in that review and I still do - I really like them. So it should come as no surprise that the Super 3s took up permanent residence at my place and I've been enjoying them ever since. In fact, I'm listening to them right now in my writing room and guest bedroom system of a vintage early 1960s Scott 370 FM vacuum tube tuner, Almarro A205A integrated EL84 valve amplifier and 47 Labs Cable Kit interconnects and speaker cables. It's amazingly good and really gets the tunes right.

Omega Super 3 XRS Loudspeakers
When I saw a News Room brief announcing the
new floorstanding Omega Super 3 XRS, my curiosity was piqued. I sent Louis Chochos -- Mr. Omega himself -- a message asking if I could get my mittens on a pair for review. Louis was kind enough to say "yes" and before long, I had a new pair of single driver Omega Super 3 XRS loudspeakers in my listening room, clad in a absolutely striking Italian Alpine Gold-Pearl 2-tone laminate (the photos do not do its beauty justice). The XRS loudspeakers are available in a number of other finishes [see below - Ed.]. The XRS have grills that attach magnetically (there are magnets imbedded beneath the surface of the cabinet) so that you can remove them without making unsightly grill mounting points visible. In the back you see a pair of gold-plated binding posts and a 2" flared port. The whole package is attractive and striking and well proportioned.

It's not just the outsides of the XRS that are impressive. Louis uses multiple vibration damping techniques in constructing the XRS cabinets to get the best from the Fostex drivers. Louis uses rebond damping, a mass-loaded chamber and a tri-layer baffle and back panel. Rebond is foam rubber sheeting made up of irregular pieces of soft rubber foam glued together or "rebonded" to create sheets that can be used in damping internal loudspeaker reflections (or for providing a cushy layer under your carpet to make your tootsies smile - its most common use). There is a chamber at the bottom of the XRS cabinet that Louis mass loads with sand at the factory and then permanently seals so you don't have to go through the hassle. Louis says the mass loading makes a dramatic improvement on bass quality and extension and as a side benefit helps stabilize the speaker.

When you lift the speakers up, you'll notice that the added mass makes them hefty little buggers, much heavier than they look. Exercise a little caution so you don't throw out your back. Louis says the combined effect of rebond damping and mass loading on suppressing vibration in the cabinet allows for a tighter bass and cleaner midrange. The cabinet uses a triple layer front and back made of softwood MDF, Baltic Birch ply and phenolic sheeting. If you count the veneer as an additional layer, it's actually a 4-layer affair.

Louis says, "I find the cabinets sound the best when you vary the materials. They all have different resonance points that tend to cancel each other out. It makes for a very rigid platform for the driver and the back of the cabinet. The multiple glue lines also wrap the cabinet tightly, more so than any type of other finish. The glue used for veneering is PVA and cold-pressed. This is a hard glue line and much better than contact cement. I use it for sound and strength even though it takes much more effort and time. It will never delaminate either."

The Omega Super 3 XRS is a small 'parlor' sized floorstander. Parlor is guitar speak to denote the smallest guitar body size. In the photo below, you will see my parlor sized Larrivee guitar next to the diminutive 27" H x 11" W x 7.5" D XRS. The 'XRS' stands for eXtended response system and the XRS plumbs the depths down to a claimed 40Hz instead of the regular Super 3's 58. That's impressive woofing for the modified 4.5" shielded Fostex ES driver. The Foxtex's light 2.9-gram cone plus strong motor give an easy 93dB sensitivity suitable for low-powered amplifiers. There's no crossover needed because it's a single driver design. The XRS uses Omega internal cabling between binding posts and drivers. Louis says his implementation of the driver gives "incredible speed, transparency and excellent detail" and he's not just blowing smoke. The driver is fully shielded so you can put your television between your speakers without giving yourself an alien abduction-like magnetic field experience.

When you look at many contemporary floorstanders, you'll notice how narrow they look from the front. They are designed such to improve soundstaging and imaging in an attempt to mimic the superior imaging strengths of the classic mini monitors which so easily disappear in the listening room. They are also fairly deep front to back to assure adequate cabinet volume for LF support. The XRS -- as well as the original Super 3 that sees daily use at my place -- are both wider than they are deep. The little full range Fostex drivers aren't known for smoothness and tonality, sounding often a little lean and aggressive. They need to be balanced out with warm and smooth-sounding equipment to achieve natural tone and a musically non fatiguing presentation. Louis says that a wide baffle combined with a relatively narrow depth compliments the Fostex driver by adding additional midrange smoothness and density. It's the opposite approach to many multi-driver loudspeakers and Louis' design has evolved to get the best out of the little Fostex.

Skylan Speaker Bases
The XRS can be placed directly on the floor or upon optional Skylan platforms. The Skylan speaker bases are nicely finished in matte black The bases are constructed as isolation platforms that inhibit resonance effects. Noel Nolan, maker of the Skylan bases, says that "the external panels take advantage of the strength, low cost and acoustical superiority of MDF. Sandwiched between these panels is a proprietary viscous material with excellent mechanical isolation properties." The XRS speakers rest against two pegs at the rear of the bases and there is a riser at the front of the base that the speakers rest upon to allow the tilt angle to be adjusted to your preference by adding or removing spacers to the riser. Louis says that when the tilt angle is dialed in just right, you get better soundstaging. And man does the XRS soundstage well.

Single driver primer
The ultimate goal for a single driver loudspeaker is to cover the full range of musical instruments and the human voice with a single high-performance driver. Pipe organs can extend down into the infrasonic range below 20Hz where you don't hear them so much as feel them as the frequencies wash over your body. Unless you're a big pipe organ fan, there's not much else that happens in the infrasonic range from a musical perspective. So for most people it's not worth spending too much time worrying about the low 20s.

At the opposite end of the spectrum, James Boyk of Caltech has demonstrated that musical instruments can have meaningful output up to a rather shocking 102.4kHz. Boyk says that "at least one member of each instrument family (strings, woodwinds, brass and percussion) produces energy to 40kHz or above, and the spectra of some instruments reach this work's measurement limit of 102.4kHz. Harmonics of muted trumpet extend to 80kHz; violin and oboe to above 40kHz; and a cymbal crash was still strong at 100kHz. In these particular examples, the proportion of energy above 20kHz is, for the muted trumpet, 2%; violin, 0.04%; oboe, 0.01%; and cymbals, 40%." Given those frequencies are way above the limit of human hearing, do they really matter? Some believe frequencies that high have no influence on the perception of live sound but others insist that there are bone-conducted effects that are perceived. I personally think that loudspeakers rolling off above 16KHz sound the most musically natural and enjoyable so I don't worry too much about the über frequencies beyond 20kHz.

A real-world full-range loudspeaker is generally considered to be one that covers the range of human hearing - approximately 20Hz to 20KHz. As
far as I know, there is no single driver that can cover the full 20-20 range. For example, the Omega Super 3 handles 58Hz to 20kHz but completely omits the low bass (20-40Hz) and parts of the mid bass (40-80Hz).

The Omega Super 3 XRS extends the performance envelope further downwards into the mid bass - pretty impressive for a single-driver speaker with treble. This allows the listener to hear the full range of the human voice -- the bass, baritone, tenor, alto and soprano -- without ever having to partially hand off a voice to another driver. It also means you can hear the full range of woodwinds like the piccolo, flute, oboe, English horn, clarinet, bass clarinet, alto saxophone, bassoon and most of the contrabassoon. This Fostex now covers the full range of brass instruments like the trumpet, French horn, tenor and bass trombone and the tuba. Kettle drums are covered in their entirety as well. Strings are covered pretty well too: the guitar, violin, viola and cello completely, with harp and bass mostly. The piano eludes us in its lowest registers from the 1st to the 4th keys (27.5 - 36.7Hz). But you can still hear the other 84 of the piano's 88 keys.

From a sonic perspective and when compared to speakers that extend to 20Hz or below, one aspect the Omega speakers will diminish is the "hall sound" of the recording venue anchored in the infrasonic region. The reach of the Omega Super 3 XRS means that you can hear every meaningful note of every instrument except for the very lowest notes of the pipe organ, harp, contrabassoon, bass, and piano.

Conventional HiFi wisdom predicts that the more you manipulate a signal, the more you compromise its ability to convey the full sonic and musical attributes any given recording is capable of. So it's advantageous to have a single driver cover as much of the 20/20 range as possible. Multi-driver loudspeakers tend to work like a vegomatic. They slice and dice and then hope to seamlessly recombine the musical spectrum. What happens to the music meanwhile? First, you lose low-level information. You also lose some of the directness, impact and dynamics encoded in a recording. Percussion sounds less percussive, plucked strings sound less plucky and so on. To my ears, this is more noticeable with microdynamic nuances than macrodynamics. With multi-driver loudspeakers, no two drivers speak with exactly the same voice so things are bound to sound a little different than the real thing. Given that the output of nearly all musical instruments spans multiple drivers in a complex loudspeaker, it's bound to make the instruments less natural and coherent. With only one driver, there are other benefits, too - no gross time domain errors, no crossover-induced phase shifts, no multi-driver lobing.

It seems intuitive that when you split the music into pieces to be fed to different drivers, it requires more work (or oversight) in the ear/brain mechanism to reintegrate everything. It's safe to say that slicing and dicing up the signal doesn't do any good.

Then there's the matter of harmonics: those overtones that give the fundamentals of voices and instruments their own unique tone depend in proper timing in relation to the fundamental. Some believe that multi-driver loudspeakers do the most damage in the realm of harmonics - or the "voices" of vocalists and instruments. The attack on the notes isn't as sharp, the decay isn't as continuous because both are broken into several pieces and distributed to various drivers. Single driver loudspeakers have a better chance at getting the overtones right because the music is coming from one driver. On to the XRS.

Right out of the box, a number of things were immediately apparent. On the positive side, they
had a lot deeper and more powerful bass than the standard Super 3s. They were much more detailed and imaged and soundstaged like bandits. On the negative side, they were unpleasantly shrill and aggressive. I worried whether I would get a complimentary match with the equipment I had on hand. Those little Fostex drivers can be nasty little buggers before they break in fully - and it can take them a long time to fully do so. I resorted to setting them face-to-face hooked up out of phase and blasting the crap out of them with pink noise for a few weeks. Every now and then I checked in on them. If they start to bug you again after listening, back they go in the garage for more pink noise. I suggest you do the same. It'll be standard MO for these speakers.

After the XRSs finally smoothed out some, I plopped them down in place of my standard Super 3s in my 11' x 11' tiny TV room system. I used either my trusty Almarro A205A EL-84 integrated or the stunning new Leben CS600 5881/EL-34 (in for review for the Music Lovers series). Sources were my inexpensive Toshiba SD-3109 DVD player, the snazzy Red Wine Audio-modified Olive Musica (in for review) or the Charter Communications supplied Motorola CATV converter. Connections were made with Auditorium 23 speaker cables and various interconnect sets like the 47 Labs Cable Kit interconnects, the Analysis Plus Silver Ovals or the Tom Evans Audio Design interconnects.

Even after their preconditioning, the XRSs were still too aggressive to make listening much fun. My stock Almarro A205A just wasn't cutting it . Ditto for the Leben. Pal Pete and I had been talking about modding my Almarro with copper Jensen paper-in-oil (PIO) caps based on their reputation for a warm, slightly dark and lush presentation. The XRS provided the final impetus to give that a try. Synchronously, Jonathan Halpern of Tone Imports sent along a set of EL34s for his Leben CS600. In both cases, those tweaks proved just what was needed to make the XRSs shine. Whew!

Cap rolling isn't something everyone feels comfortable doing but tube rolling certainly is within the reach of all tube heads. Truth is, cap rolling the Almarro didn't take much longer nor was it much more effort than valve rolling the Leben - and it yielded even more dramatic results, the subject of a future report for the growing legion of Almarro A205A fans. It'd be cool to make caps a plug'n'play affair so you could swap them out with the same ease that you do tubes . Hmm. The PIO'd Almarro sounds really nice with the XRSs but that's a story I'm reserving for the mod report. All speaker impressions below used the suave Leben CS600 fitted with Svetlana 'Winged C' EL34s in place of the stock National 5881 valves, giving it a more sophisticated, nuanced, smooth and naturally warm sound in this context than the 5881s proved capable.

The Super 3 XRS's overall sonic signature is definitely to the bright side of neutral. Think white sunny spring day without a single cloud in the sky. Perspective is mid-hall, with the amount of instrumental downsizing one associate with those seats, say half-way back in Kennedy Center hall. Vocals project well in front of the speakers, with backing instruments layering back from there to deep within the soundstage and well behind the speakers. The XRSs really do disappear from the sonic landscape by imaging completely free of their enclosures. They cast a sound space that filled my listening room for an immersive listening experience.

The XRS's most impressive sonic strengths are in the areas of low level dynamics, nuance and detail recovery, soundstage size, transparency and superb imaging. Listening to Balalaika Favorites [Mercury Living Presence 4320002] through the Olive Musica was a good example. I got a real feel for the textures of string sounds from the domra, goosli and balalaika and the different feel of the shepherd's horns, for example.

While listening to The Royal Ballet Gala Performances [Classic Records 6065], I marveled over how superbly percussion was reproduced. Triangles and cymbals sounded particularly good, with top notch articulation, natural decay and a shimmering likeness. Timbres of orchestral instruments were very good in general, making it easy to identify the voice of each and every instrument and its accurate location within the soundstage. Simultaneously, large orchestral works like Balalaika and Royal Ballet do reveal the limitations of the little Fostex driver. It unravels on climaxes to get shouty and shrill. If most of your listening is to large rambunctious orchestral works, look elsewhere for a speaker more suited to them.

I found the XRS's forte with smaller and less dynamic settings such as For Duke & Fatha [RealTime 5001]. For its tiny size, the Fostex's bass extension is impressive and bass articulation rather outstanding. Greg Brown's Milk of the Moon album is another good example of nuance recovery, showcasing the speaker's ability to modulate even the most subtle micro- dynamic variations. The XRS's ability in this area is in fact the most impressive I've heard from any loudspeaker yet. Its prowess in these two areas gives an intimate and engaging quality to the music.

With the XRS, the different instruments are all cut from the same acoustic cloth despite existing in their own definable part of the soundstage, expressing their own resonant acoustic envelope. This, I think, has to do with the fact that the single driver never slices and dices the signal and in this particular implementation yields unrivaled detail recovery. While listening to Greg's title song "Milk of the Moon", I was struck by how natural the attack and decay of the notes was - without question state-of-art. These speakers recreate the sense of the recorded acoustic so strongly, it fills my small room, with banjo notes on "Lull it By" seemingly decaying off into infinity. You get a real feel for instrumental air columns and string reverberations are phenomenal.

The Super 3 XRS is competent but not outstanding with PRaT, overall musicality, immediacy and emotive ability. Tone color is somewhat bleached compared to the deeply hued tone colors the Zu Druids or Harbeths cast, for example, but neither of those can touch the 3s in their strengths. Like every loudspeaker, the Super 3 XRS have a few weaknesses. Moderate and macrodynamic swings are a bit restrained and there's not a lot of dynamic contrast between mezzo (medium) and forte (loud). In fact, forte passages fairly routinely caused the little drivers to lose their cool. Finally, instruments and vocalists don't have quite as much flesh and blood as I'd like.

Where the XRS particularly shone was with soundtracks through the humble Motorola CATV converter supplied with my Charter cable TV subscription. This I didn't expect. The Moto's dark yet smooth sonic signature and less dynamic character was perfect for the XRSs to give television shows like Vanishings! on the History Channel a natural, spacious and detailed sound. While watching James: Brother of Jesus, I was impressed by the seamless continuity of the sound and how it filled my TV room with the intended ambience. I was very much impressed by vocal articulation and how naturally that was rendered.

The XRSs are particularly impressive in their ability to recover even the most subtle details. Little tiny things that remain unresolved by other speakers are fully resolved in astonishing clarity. Especially striking are how overtones reverberate through the soundspace. This made soundtracks of well-produced shows positively entrancing
with their interplay of music, vocals and foley effects. It transformed such shows into somethig far more interesting and gripping than I would have thought possible. TV isn't supposed to sound that good and be that much fun!

Wrapping up
These speakers have an absolutely first-rate fit'n'finish and outstanding build quality. The Skylan stands are a worthwhile addition particularly on carpet where they give a helpful dose of extra stability. In standard 2-channel music listening mode, I had a hard time toning down the Super 3 XRS's overall presentation to something I was completely comfortable with. To get them to sing, I had to carefully combine laid-back and warm source, amplification and cabling. When you get that combination correct, the XRS can be very impressive.

Particular strengths are low-level dynamics, nuance and detail recovery, coherent and huge soundstaging and precise imaging. Percussion sounds particularly amazing, cymbals and triangles as real as I've ever heard them. For such a small driver, bass extension is impressive and bass articulation is exceptional by any measure.

In the areas of PRaT, emotive ability and musicality, the XRS is competent but not exceptional. Tone color is somewhat bleached rather than deeply hued. While soft dynamic gradations are first class, mezzo dynamics are a little restrained, no doubt the reason also for the somewhat restrained PRaT. Macro dynamics troubled me the most. They can cause the XRS to get shouty and shrill when pushed. Finally, instruments and vocalists don't quite have as much physicality as I'd like.

Reader David reported on his audition of these speakers, thinking them "so outstanding ... these little puppies had tone, detail, speed and balance ... I wish I was getting half of the bass out of my single drivers as these ... please tell me that I wasn't just hearing things again and that these boxes with little circles of paper on their fronts are actually amazing beyond belief."

David's assessment of the XRS speakers is spot on as long as you have the right associated gear. The XRS is simply more critical than most in this regard to bring out its best. Or so it seemed until I swapped drivers...

Louis, always the consummate gentleman, expressed bewilderment about my findings of the XRS getting aggressive, shrill and breaking up on big dynamic swings. "It shouldn't sound like that," he wondered. "It uses the same drivers as the standard Super 3 and should sound similar to yours but with more bass. There has to be something going on with the drivers in the XRS. Would you mind switching out the drivers with those in your
Super 3s and see what happens?"

Changing drivers proved super-4-easy as just four screws hold in each driver. I backed them out, unclipped the leads, then did the same with the Super-XRSs. I noticed that the chassis of my drivers were damped with soft brown putty-like material whereas the drivers in the XRS were damped with foam strips. Other than that, they were identical yet the XRS were completely transformed: "The XRSs lost their edginess and aggressiveness and the bass is dramatically increased, albeit a bit boomier and less articulate than before. They don't break up on forte passages at all now. I even cranked them up until I got the drivers to bottom -- scared me silly actually -- yet they never broke up. They now have good tone and a much more flesh-and-blood feel to them." So went my e-mail to the Editor who suggested I add my new findings at the end of this review.

I asked Louis if he thought the difference in performance was due to the different damping materials on the drivers. "No, there should be very little if any difference between the two materials. There has to be something wrong with the drivers that went into the XRS for them to sound like that." The audio review maxim once again proved itself: whatever can go wrong will go wrong and at the worst possible time - during a review.

I installed the XRSs into my main rig in place of my usual Avantgarde Duos, with the Tom Evans Vibe preamp, Pulse power supply and Linear A amplifier in the amplification chain and a Meridian 508 with Audio Logic valve DAC doing duties at the source. Cables were a combination of Nirvana and 47Labs. Prior to changing drivers, the XRSs were unlistenable here and far too aggressive. With the new drivers, the XRSs made my concerns over equipment matching vanish. Trio Da Paz' Café [Malandro Records71019], an album of superb Brazilian jazz, has been getting a lot of play lately. The music now was detailed but natural sounding and musically expressive for the pleasurable experience I crave. The detail recovery of the little XRSs is impressive, besting even my reference non-Omega Duos.

The Super 3 XRS's overall sonic signature went from bright to being pretty dead-on neutral to by comparison give a warmer and rounder presentation with a flowing ease that I found quite enchanting. Interestingly enough, the change in drivers also changed the perspective. I was closer to the performance, making for a more intimate and engaging experience. All of the positive qualities described earlier were either maintained or improved - except for bass articulation, which seemed not quite as good as with the other drivers. The XRSs still disappear from the sonic landscape, image terrifically and create a large and expansive soundspace. Low level dynamics, nuance and detail recovery are truly exceptional and with the new drivers even more natural sounding.

The driver swap also improved the overall feel of PRaT and emotive ability to the extent of erasing any quibbles. Tone color went from bleached to richly hued. The most noticeable change was to the mezzo and forte dynamics which no longer falter on the big dynamic swings with big classical works. I now can unhesitatingly recommend the Omega Super 3 XRS as a very high performance loudspeaker. Moral of the story? If these Fostex drivers refuse to break in -- and they do take their time -- don't give up. You might have ended up with an out-of-spec driver which Louis will gladly replace...
Omega Loudspeakers responds:
Hi Jeff,

Thank you and Srajan so much for the amendment of the review and also for accommodating me by pulling double duty and swapping the drivers out. I'm so happy in the end it was out-of-spec drivers. The XRSs are an extension of the Super 3. The main objective of the design was to add bass extension while retaining the Super 3s' sonic signature.

All speakers that leave the factory go through a series of checks. The last step is running sweeps. This seems to be an isolated case but I'm in the process of making a preconditioning rig for the drivers. This is very handy in giving the drivers a kick-start into break in.

"Moral of the story? If these Fostex drivers refuse to break in -- and they do take their time -- don't give up. You might have ended up with an out-of-spec driver which Louis will gladly replace."

I couldn't have said it better and I will be happy to replace them at 100% my cost.

Thank you so much for the terrific review.

Louis Chochos
Omega Speaker Systems
Manufacturer's website