ACI Sapphire XL Reviewer: Bob Albano Digital source: Audio Alchemy DDS-PRO, Perpetual Technologies P1-A/P3-A Modwright Level II/Monolithic PS Power Amp: Underwood HiFi Onix A-120MKII/Onix H34 Tube integrated Speakers: ACI Sapphire 25th Anniversary/Onix Reference 1 MKII/Onix Reference 3/Quad 12L Cables: Onix Grand Master II speaker cables, Onix Grand Master Digital Coax, Onix Grand Master IC’s, Revelation Audio I2S and Power Cables Power Cords: Onix Grand Master, Onix Statement, Revelation Audio PC Powerline conditioning: Cinepro 2400 Sundry accessories: Sorbathane Isolators, Osiris 24.5 stands Room size: 12' by 14' with 8' ceiling Review component retail: $1500/pr Piano Black or Satin Black ($1600 in White Pearl) factory-direct with 30 day hassle-free return policy I have listened to a number of Mike’s audio speakers, including Emeralds, Sapphire 25th Anniversary, and the Sapphire XLs and have always understood and respected what he was trying to accomplish with his design. In January 2005, at the Consumer Electronics Show, I was able to very briefly listen to Mike’s latest creation…the Sapphire XL’s. The XL’s were quite different aesthetically then ACI’s prior offerings. Although ACI speakers have traditionally been finished with wood panels, the XL’s had a top notch glossy finish. After talking with Mike at CES, I asked if I could spend some more time with the XL’s on an extended bases. Those who have visited CES know one cannot do any type of critical listening at audio shows. Fast forward to March of this spring….I received a pair of Piano Black Sapphire XL’s. For the record, Mike told me that he has never been a fan of short listening sessions as he feels that it take some time to get to know a speaker and the design goals behind the speaker. I have to say that I couldn’t agree more. I received the speakers from ACI and I was thoroughly impressed with the care that goes into packaging these speakers. The speakers arrived in a single box packed with high density foam…each speaker wrapped in its own cotton sock. VERY NICE packaging assures that you new speakers will arrive unscathed. Once I removed the speakers and examined them, it became apparent to me the care and craftsmanship that went into making these cabinets…the piano black looked like it had been dipped in black ink…I was absolutely mesmerized with the depth of the finish...something more along the lines of fine furniture then a speaker cabinet. The connectors were typical ACI fine quality connectors, accepting both spade and banana plugs. There was also a port plug included for those who want to experience the differences between a sealed and ported enclosure. I set these speakers up with the tweeters 6ft apart, 27 inches from the back wall and 7ft from my listening position. In my room, this setup resulted in the best sound. The height of the tweeter was approx 38 inches off the ground…a little low for me…26inch stands would have been about perfect for my seating height. I found that the XL’s need a good amount of toe-in with the tweeter on the inside of the cabinet to provide the tightest image without sacrificing soundstage width. Initial impression of this speaker were sort of hmm…not that I didn’t like them…they just didn’t WOW me. I let them play for a couple days giving them their recommended 100 hours of break-in without doing any critical listening. After 100 hours of break-in, I sat down for some critical listening with a number of my favorites…Dixie Chicks, Vienna Teng, Alison Krauss, Dave Matthews, Dido, Johnny Cash, Five for Fighting, and many more. I have to give Mike all the credit in the world for creating a speaker that does exactly what he intended it to do…present a very neutral sound. I spent about 150-175 hours with this speaker over the 2 months that I had it in my possession and never once did it “bite” me. Mike’s goal was to create a speaker that did not exaggerate either the top or bottom end. The XL’s meet this goal head on. . There are a number of things that go into designing a speaker…driver selection, cabinet material, size, and most importantly the x-over…In my opinion, the x-over this is the toughest thing to get right but if you do…it will pay you back in spades. In this case, Mike and crew absolutely nailed it! This speaker is in a word…balanced…no over-accentuated highs, bloated mids, or flabby bass here. An interesting observation, and one that those who have attended audio shows will readily appreciate. Sometimes, when manufacturers show their speakers, the person doing the demo will often hold a remote control in their hand and continuously adjust the volume in a given piece of music to make sure not only that the sound is at the appropriate volume, but also to make sure that the top end does not make people cringe. This is not necessary with the XL’s. After listening to the XL’s for many days, I realized that the reason I wasn’t wowed initially was because I was used to listening to speakers that had a little more “sizzle” on top as well as a little more mid-bass energy. While the Sapphire XL’s don’t have the extension on the top end that some other speakers have, they make up for it in clarity, transparency, and focus…Take for example cymbal crashes…On the XL’s they aren’t as prevalent but they are clean and clear…no smearing at all. They are a speaker that can be played for hours and hours on end without ever having the urge to turn them off or down…and that is exactly what I did. After talking to Mike, I understand that the top end was designed this way for a reason…people that are spending $1500.00 on a pair of speaker aren’t always going to have the best front end in the world. A speaker that is extremely revealing up top is going to provide all the glare and grain that is in the signal path giving you that hard and edgy front end that I oh so hate. If there is one thing that I can’t tolerate in a speaker it is that bite on the front end of the notes…the XL’s simply didn’t have this in them. They were smooth on the top end presenting all the information in a very natural non-intrusive manner. One of my favorite tracks to listen to is Top of the World by the Dixie Chicks as there are some amazing string sections in that passage. I have heard Natalie Maines voice be shrilly at times, but the XL’s did a remarkable job at presenting the information in a sultry way that made you want more and more. The string section was something that I was waiting to hear as I expected the XL’s to give up a little of the micro detail that I’m used to hearing…like the plucking of the bass, the rubbing of the bow across the violin string…well I’m very happy to report that Mike has found a way to soften the top-end without losing the all important micro detail that true audiophiles look for and lust after. I was never really able to get the laser imaging that I have gotten from some monitors in my system. I would say that the XL’s were good but not great in this area. This could have been for a couple reasons. My other monitors are a bit taller then the XL’s so the added height could have been the difference …or perhaps I just needed to play with the placement a little more. The upper-mids are a little more recessed then my current speakers, making them sound more natural in their presentation. This was good thing for me in that I like my mids to have that smooth tubey sound…lush and liquid are two of my favorite attributes in this arena. In my opinion this is the most important part of a speaker in that the majority of the sound is produced in this frequency band…the vocals of Vienna Teng were simply amazing…so smooth and engaging. Going from the XL’s to other speakers the vocals just seemed hard and lifeless compared the the XL’s. There is something about the upper-mids that are so inviting that it’s hard to describe. You literally feel like you are sitting in the 5th or 6th row of a black room with her standing there singing to you…simply magnificent. The XL’s really excelled with the sustained decay of a piano for example. It had a more natural tone to my ear then the other monitors that I compared the XL’s to. How did the XL’s fair with Rock??? They beat…that’s the only word I can’t use…they simply can take a beating and beat you back! It’s amazing what happens when you combine quality drivers and a great x-over implementation…music to my ears! Mids and bass are the next thing that I listened for with these speakers. I would guess that in my room I was getting decent output into the lower 40’s or upper 30’s without the port plugs in…add the port plugs and things started to roll off in the 70’s…perfect for implementation of a sub. The scanspeak revelator woofer that ACI chose might be one of my favorite woofers on the market today in that it doesn’t store a ton of energy, making it lightning fast. The tactical impact that this little woofer is able to deliver is simply astounding…I was simply never able to get it to sound congested no matter how complex of a passage I threw at it. It also has a tonality that I flat out like…complex musical passages had great separation and detail that I didn’t quite get in other woofers…kick drums sounded like kick drums deep and full…snare drum didn’t have a metallic edge to them…they just sounded oh so right. I can’t express enough how much output these speakers have…there must be some Black Art in that Black Box because these speakers simply amazed me everyday that I had the privilege of listening to them.. How did the the XL’s fair with solid state compared to tubes? I would have to admit that with my Onix Reference 1’s I prefer the tubes as it softens the front end and makes them a little more engaging. With the Sapphire XL’s I never felt they needed tubes as they are extremely smooth and rich to begin with. Switching back and forth between the H34 (45 watts) tube amp and my Onix A-120MKII (120 watts @ 8ohm) I ended up preferring the A-120MKII. I thought that the solid state controlled the speaker better not only on the bottom end but there seemed to be a bit more air on top as well. If I had to compare the Sapphire XL’s to other monitors that I have heard before it would be the Ellis 1801b’s and the MBL 321E’s. Both speakers have a very similar presentation across the entire frequency band. I heard those speakers a number of times on solid state as well as tubes and each time I preferred their presentation with solid state…much more dynamic and controlled. Conclusion: In thinking back to my listening time with these speaker I have to say that I really appreciate what Mike was able to accomplish with the Sapphire XL’s. This speaker is truly top notch from the cabinet, to the components, to most importantly, the sound quality they reproduce. After spending so many hours with the Sapphires it was hard to go back to my other speakers. The Sapphire XL’s helped me understand the design choices in my other speakers and what my preferences are. Since the XL’s have left my house, my listening has decreased more and more…partially due to less time but more to due to the fact that I MISS MY XL’s…when can I expect my set Mike???