Opera Audio Consonance M12 Barque Loudspeakers

October 2006 by Vade Forrester

When I was a young lad just becoming afflicted with the hi-fi hobby, many of the speakers I lusted after in the Allied and Lafayette Radio catalogs were two-way designs with horn-loaded tweeters and large woofers. The most memorable was Altec-Lansing’s A7 Voice of the Theater. Best known today for iPod and computer speakers, Altec-Lansing once made a wide range of consumer and professional speakers. Those had high sensitivity, great dynamics and transient response, and large cabinets. And they played very loud.

Well, Voice of the Theater lovers can celebrate; Altec-Lansing has reissued it, with a price tag of $5800 per pair plus $300 shipping. The reissue looks strikingly like the original, which is to say it's ugly! Its spousal acceptance factor would be measured in large negative numbers. But to be fair, the A7 was designed as a studio monitor, not a home speaker.

Most modern Chinese audio equipment is far from ugly, but up to now such products have been mainly limited to electronics and sources. A few speakers have found their way into Chinese companies’ product lines, but these have never been big successes in the West. However, the subject of this review is a very interesting (and attractive) speaker brought to us by one of mainland China’s biggest audio companies, Opera Audio. It resurrects the two-way configuration of speakers like the Voice of the Theater, albeit in a more compact and far more socially acceptable cabinet.

The Consonance M12 Barque is a two-way speaker that uses a large wooden horn tweeter crossed over at 500Hz to a 12" cone woofer. The pressed-wood horn sits on an MDF woofer module, both with matching fine-furniture-grade veneers. Aside from the cables from the woofer module, the horn is not physically attached to the woofer.

Although the M12 weighs a substantial 100 pounds, it’s relatively compact for a floorstanding speaker: 36 1/2" high by 16 1/2" wide by 17 3/4" deep. The price is $5900 USD per pair. Sensitivity is specified as 97dB, impedance as 8 ohms, and frequency response as 38Hz-20kHz with no +/- variation specified. If you want even more speaker, the M12 has a big brother, the $8500-per-pair M15, which sports a 15" woofer. Because the M15 weighs in at 151 pounds, I elected to avoid another hernia and review the smaller system.

Besides, I thought the M12 was more attractive. As you can see from the photo, the M12 is a sleek, modern-looking speaker. The fronts of both the upper horn section and the lower woofer section have a matching shallow curve, giving the speaker a very stylish appearance. The matching veneers on the two sections contribute greatly to the speaker’s beauty. The horn spans a 90-degree angle to provide wide dispersion. A dome compression driver at the rear drives the horn. The woofer is a 12" paper-cone unit with a cloth surround and a die-cast aluminum basket. The paper cone appeared to be very thin and light, which it would need to be to keep up with the horn tweeter.

While the speaker cabinets may be beautiful, they are certainly not inert. A knuckle rap on the sides of the woofer cabinets produced a resonant-sounding "thonk." A 5" port on the rear of the speaker vents the woofer cabinet. Peeking into the port, I could see that the cabinet walls were unlined and unbraced, at least on the bottom part of the cabinet.

Two sets of WBT-style binding posts can be found on the back of the woofer section, creating the initial impression that biwiring is possible. It’s not. The top set of binding posts is designed to be used with a pair of jumpers that feeds the signal up to the horn tweeter. The speaker cables from the amplifier attach to the bottom set of binding posts, which accept speaker cables terminated with 5/16"spade lugs, banana plugs, or bare wire. The crossover network in the woofer cabinet routes the high-frequency signals to the top output terminals on the woofer cabinet. The jumpers between the woofer and tweeter use banana plugs and braided wire.

Preparation

The first thing you notice when you unpack the M12s from their wooden shipping crates is that they are ravishingly beautiful. The African walnut veneer ("walnut with an ebony trail" is how US distributor Stephen Monte described it) is of better quality than most of the furniture in my home. The pictures don’t begin to do it justice. As soon as my wife saw the speakers, she directed me to buy them. Now that's spousal acceptance!

The large rear-firing ports of the woofer cabinets made it necessary to place the speakers well away from the front wall. The manual recommends a meter or so separation from the wall, and I found 33" to the closest corner of the speaker gave good results. I broke the speakers in with music for around 200 hours. They were listenable after 100 hours, but continued to improve several hundred hours after that.

Three sharp brass spikes support each chunky speaker, forming a tripod mount that prevents the speakers from rocking back and forth on uneven surfaces. Opera Audio thoughtfully includes brass disks to go under the spikes to prevent scratching. Unlike some speaker spikes, the M12s’ are sharp and thin enough to pierce carpet and couple the speakers firmly to the floor underneath. Much to my surprise, the speakers' low end was just a bit deeper and had more weight when the spikes were removed. However, with the spikes installed, bass was better defined, and I preferred listening this way. A set of wooden disks are provided to position the horn section above the woofer cabinet. These are rather slick, so before installing the spikes, be sure to remove the horn tweeters to prevent their sliding off the woofer cabinets.

One gripe: The M12's manual looks like it was written in Chinese and translated by computer. For example, it refers to the speaker as a "loudhailer" and the port as a "phase inverter sonic structure." Thank goodness the manual provides pictures!

The sound

The Consonance M12 Barque’s lively but non-aggressive sound encouraged long listening sessions. Several times I sat down to sample a new CD and wound up spending the entire evening listening to the M12s.

The M12s' 12" woofers produce deeper bass than the 38Hz lower limit would indicate. However, not only was the bass deep, but it was tight and fast as well. No, it didn’t descend to the 20Hz range, but orchestral pieces had realistic weight, which is something that many speakers don't achieve. With jazz pieces, I could hear the lowest notes of the double bass. The M12 could not quite reproduce the deepest notes in Eije Oue and the Minnesota Orchestra’s performance of Kabalevsky’s "Overture to Colas Breugnon," from the CD Bolero! [Reference Recordings RR-92CD], but those notes seem to be the province of speakers costing several more than the M12s do or any three-way Usher speaker.

Highs were also very extended and had plenty of detail. The tweeter section was rather directional, demanding careful alignment to realize best soundstaging. Missing, however, was any vestige of peakiness that sometimes plagues horn tweeters. The M12s’ tweeters were oh, so smooth, and even somewhat forgiving of poorly recorded music. Both male and female voices were quite realistic. Instrumental timbres were also very good. On Chris Jones’s Roadhouses & Automobiles [Stockfish SFR 357.6027.2], Jones’s deep baritone voice was expressive and powerful (when required). The minute inflections that Jones (and any other singer) used to shape his interpretation of a song were crystal clear. The guitar solos on this CD projected both the body and string sounds of the guitar truthfully, including fingering noises. The M12s floated Barbara Bonney’s delicate "Våren" (from her Diamonds in the Snow CD of Nordic songs [Decca 289 466 762-2]) ethereally in mid-air, and then, when the climaxes came, they projected her operatic power without strain.

While soundstaging was very good, occasionally there was a sense that some of the sound was coming from the speaker cabinets and not from the space in between. Performers centered between the speakers imaged very solidly, but a few times instruments near the edges of the soundfield sounded like they originated from the right or left speaker. I suspected the M12s’ large cabinets created a psycho-acoustic effect wherein the ears followed the eyes’ perception. Most recordings had very believable soundstages, although performers weren’t localized quite as precisely as I’ve heard from other speakers. Unless you’re listening hypercritically (as reviewers do), you will probably never find the M12s' soundstaging lacking.

Dynamic abilities, as I expected, were excellent. The M12s’ could launch a massive orchestral climax without compression or distortion, even with a low-powered amplifier. With Verdi's Requiem (Robert Shaw conducting the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra and Chorus [Telarc CD-80152]), the massive choral and orchestral forces projected out with remarkable power, yet the quieter individual parts were easy to follow. And the legendary Telarc bass drum was awe-inspiring!

The M12’s transparency let me hear the results of changing any upstream system components. For example, when I changed my amplifier’s input tubes, I could clearly hear the more extended high frequencies and musical character of the new JJ/Tesla 6922 tubes. Another example: I was evaluating some myrtlewood blocks used as footers under my system components, and the M12s clearly revealed the differences between the myrtlewood blocks and the HAL-O footers I had been using (the blocks skewed the frequency response toward the bass).

This is a high-resolution speaker system, so choosing just the right amplifier involves lots of auditioning. My reference Art Audio PX 25 sounded superb with the M12s. With deep bass, extended highs, and, best of all, a healthy dose of that "SET magic," the PX 25 produced the best sound I heard from the M12s. Bass went quite deep, with good detail, although there was more bloom than with the other amps I used. Still, the PX 25 showed remarkable performance for an SET amp.

Rock enthusiasts might easily prefer the recently reviewed Hyperion Audio HT-88 monoblock amplifiers. This $2800-per-pair 18-watt amplifier took to the M12 like a duck to water. They really rocked together. The HT-88s’ deeper and more detailed bass produced a very exciting sound.

To discover how the M12 would sound with a solid-state amp, I borrowed a Belles Soloist 5, which is rated very conservatively at 65Wpc and with a damping factor of 1000. Needless to say, the Soloist 5 had oodles of power. It drove the M12 to ear-bleeding levels, and neither the speaker nor the amp flinched. The M12 was capable of truly enormous dynamic range, free from compression. However, I thought the Soloist 5 actually overdamped the M12s’ woofers, making the bass sound rather lean.

The point you should take from these comments on various amplifiers is that the speakers made the characteristics of, and differences among, the amplifiers clearly audible. I experimented with other changes, like replacing the wooden disks under the tweeters with rubber disks and with myrtlewood blocks. I also replaced the wires between the woofer and tweeter sections with high-quality speaker wire. The effects of both changes were clearly audible, although I preferred the sound of the stock disks and wires. It’s obvious that the designers listened carefully to every part of the M12s before finalizing the design.

In comparison

My Second ReTHM speakers ($7500 per pair) are taller, narrower, and much deeper than the M12s, and they use single 8" drivers. Although they use an elaborate horn enclosure to reinforce the bass from the driver’s rear wave, the ReTHM speakers really don’t have deep bass response. Their strength is a very fast and detailed midrange, and good if not spectacular highs. The ReTHMs’ simplicity results in a high sensitivity: 102dB/W/m. That makes them a natural partner for the gnat-powered SET amps that appeal to me.

It came as no surprise that the M12s had much deeper bass than the ReTHMs, but I was pleased to find that the M12’s treble range was also somewhat more extended, illuminating some details not obvious with the ReTHMs. The Second ReTHMs’ midrange coherency was superior to that of the M12s, and ReTHMs were slightly more dynamic as well. They were also faster, and threw a much more solid and believable soundstage.

So the tradeoff is between the M12s’ clearly superior frequency extension and the ReTHMs’ faster and more detailed midrange and slightly better defined soundstage. Given the vast differences in these two speakers, a choice between them will be very personal and likely depend on the type of music you listen to. If I had to choose between the two speakers on the basis of musical performance and not analytical capabilities, the M12 would win hands down.

In conclusion

The Consonance M12 Barque speakers’ striking, fine-furniture finish and -- more important to me -- their dazzling sound were awe-inspiring. For high-sensitivity speakers, their frequency range is quite wide. They were also very pure-sounding, with excellent instrumental timbre and tonal color. The M12s can handle whatever music tickles your fancy, from delicate chamber music to rowdy party music played at obscene levels. Their sparkling but non-aggressive sound caresses the ear just as much as their exquisite finish caresses the eye.

The M12s exceeded all my expectations, and that's not easy to do for under $6000. If you lust for a pair of Voice of the Theater speakers, new or old, you would be wise to hear Opera Audio's M12 Barque speakers. You just might choose 'em -- I would.

...Vade Forrester
vade@soundstage.com

Review Summary

Sound "Lively but non-aggressive"; "the M12s' tweeters were oh, so smooth, and even somewhat forgiving of poorly recorded music." "The M12s' 12" woofers produce deeper bass than the 38Hz lower limit would indicate. However, not only was the bass deep, but it was tight and fast as well." "Dynamic abilities, as I expected, were excellent. The M12s' could launch a massive orchestral climax without compression or distortion, even with a low-powered amplifier." "A high-resolution speaker system."
Features "The Consonance M12 Barque is a two-way speaker that uses a large wooden horn tweeter crossed over at 500Hz to a 12" cone woofer." "The horn spans a 90-degree angle to provide wide dispersion. A dome compression driver at the rear drives the horn. The woofer is a 12" paper-cone unit with a cloth surround and a die-cast aluminum basket."
Use "Much to my surprise, the speakers' low end was just a bit deeper and had more weight when the spikes were removed. However, with the spikes installed, bass was better defined, and I preferred listening this way."
Value "The M12s exceeded all my expectations, and that's not easy to do for under $6000."

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