Simplicity with Flare
electricbeach is a cottage industry which wishes to remain as such, created by one Steve Jay and his passion for the Frugal Horn design and its capabilities for natural sounding music reproduction based on simplicity.
With frugal being the overriding brief for the project, Steve has created a system based around the well known Frugal Horn Mk3 design and added an amplifier from Chinese company Dared (a tube based triode preamplifier married to a class D power amplifier) plus his own high purity copper configuration of speaker cables. Simply add a source such as an OPPO universal player or music streamer and you have a minimalist system which can be tailored style-wise to suit your own personal decor and colour schemes.
After being made aware of this speaker/amp combo becoming available for review I quickly showed interest in them and was put in contact with Steve Jay from electricbeach. We had a lengthy chat on the telephone about his aspirations and enthusiasm for the system with him stating that “The system is capable of great musical appeal and that the amplifier is equipped with 6 channels, so has the potential to be built upon with matching rears and a centre speaker”. This however is not the basis for a review for Hifi Pig as we tend to focus on two channel reproduction; although it’s a very interesting addition should the buyer wish to expand the system to cover movies and TV.
I was initially dubious as I, like others, don’t really associate Hifi with Home Cinema, but Steve suggested “It’s an added benefit, not a compromise. The amplifier has no processing and is purely pre amp plus 5 channel power amp, a source would have to do all the processing, it is not anything like a AV based receiver amp, yet can accommodate 5 speakers and a sub (passive or powered)”.
The Frugel3 speakers themselves can be finished in any gloss painted finishes you like, satin or matt, with a combination of a large range of leather and or wood finishes.
Horns by their very nature and design have some wonderful attributes and some areas which can be a partial compromise. Like a lot of other speakers there are always pros and cons and we often audition and buy speakers and relevant components to suit our musical tastes and listening rooms. Horn speakers or single driver speakers tend to have a gorgeous midrange, the top end can be a little rolled off and the bass can be a little loose and lumpy.
The Frugel3 is a hybrid, adopting a part horn and part transmission line design. I’ve never been a great fan of transmission line speakers due to an over blown bass and a long slow extended booming character to their bottom end. The Frugel3 has the first part of its internal chambers constructed to utilise the transmission design and the lower part is based on a horn speaker with a rear bottom mouth which allows the driver to breathe and recreate lower frequencies.
I invited Steve to come down to me for a couple of days in order to get the system to me safely, to work with me in getting the system setup correctly and, most importantly, to listen to some great music and have a good chat about our love of music and hifi.
Steve traveled down to me in the early hours of the morning, arriving in time for breakfast. I had arranged with a good friend of mine who has a large and heavily acoustically treated room for us to spend the first day of our demoing over at his house. I wanted to give Steve the opportunity to have a well treated room to put his system into in order to really show it off before we moved back to my everyday, ordinary domestic living space …and I wanted to have the opportunity to hear the speakers in very different conditions and see how they coped.
We went over to Richards after breakfast and setup the system the same way to which Steve is familiar within his own listening space. It included the Dared DV-6c hybrid amplifier and Steve’s own speaker cables, accompanied by an OPPO 103EU universal disc spinner linked to an LCD screen via HDMi (for music selection) and via a pair of Mark Grant G1000HD interconnects to the Dared. The OPPO has a USB input into which we plugged an external 1TB hard drive loaded with flac, WAV and Mp3 files.
The Dared DV-6c takes 45 minutes for the valves to warm up and sound at its best I was told, although I suspect that the class D power amp section was ready and willing in about half the time.
We began to really sit down and start to pay attention to the sound after the initial warm up period, the speakers sounded cohesive but lacked top end and openness, there was no sparkly or airy sense to the music. I began to think about single drivers I had heard in the past and began to conclude that these fell immediately into the ‘typical’. I looked across at Steve and he turned and said “this room is extremely damped and dead but I can tune the speakers through the removal of some internal damping wool to balance this”.
So he began to do so and I sat there thinking it would be nice if they did open up more, but surely, how much difference could a bit of wool really make?
As Steve removed a good few pieces of wool I once again took an admiring look at the finish and styling of the speakers. I loved the copper colour contrast to the black leather and copper drive unit, which accentuated their simple and rather splendid lines.
Seconds later we were listening to the same track again – Holy Moly! I knew the room fairly well and was aware of its liking to soak up treble, but a simple tweak through the removal of some damping material and the speakers transformed to accommodate this adverse effect.
The sound opened up dramatically, the top end soared away with a wonderful sense of space and underlined vocals with an official statement of transparency, stating to all that listened that “we are alive and take note”!
Bass rolled seamlessly off bass guitars into an open cavern of soundstage which seemed to be dedicated just to that one instrument but at the same time harmonically blended into free space, hanging in the air with a timely decay.
Steve said that he has a lively room at home and the speakers were damped to suit this, so being setup in a room which is a complete opposite was for me a very interesting and unexpected hiccup which I didn’t expect to be confronted with or being able to be dealt with in such a simple and quick manner.
Looking through the selection of music at hand Ben Harper’s ‘Whipping Boy’ was chosen and immediately the silent background of the performance with the initial resonant and natural notes sounded much more vivid with a lot more clarity. Once Ben’s voice came in and the strumming of the guitar strings began to ring I thought wow, this is going to be a bit more of an exciting review than I first anticipated.
The Dared/Frugel3 combination came across as being very transparent and insightful. I was sat in a familiar state of mind listening to great vocals and natural instruments from a single driver speaker.
What was also really stood out for me was how wide the dispersion of the driver was as from experience some single drivers can tend to beam and sound hard. The driver used in the Frugel3 is derived from a company whose designer and engineer has created the driver with such fine tolerances that they stand out from many others with their pace, clarity and wide sound staging.
So I sat and intently listened as Steve chose some music he was very fond of including Norah Jones’ ‘Broken’, Eilen Jewell ‘Bang Bang Bang / Hooked’, Rachelle Ferrell ‘I Can Explain’, Anouar Brahem ‘Dance with Waves’, Neil Stacey ‘All the Things You Are’, Nerina Pallot ‘My Last Tango’, Antonio Forcioni and Sabina Sciubba ‘Visions / Take Five’ amongst many others which I forget now.
The system displayed qualities of great intimacy and delicacy but proved to be able to handle dynamics and nuances that were way beyond what I perceived possible from a combination of this price and type. I found bass to be full, whole and detailed on tracks with real instruments. Anything played which had what we can refer to as an unnatural or artificial bass was not as coherent as the wonderful display from real instruments, but still very good… It was just so over shadowed by what can be achieved listening to acoustic music which I have to stress again was utterly fantastic.
As I mentioned previously some single driver speakers I have heard in the past have either a beamy top end treble roll-off or boom and honk in the bass, something which we live with… there’s always a trade off with the type of speaker to obtain those gorgeous open mids but it just wasn’t the case here – at all!
George Dukes ‘The Black Messiah’ is a wonderful piece which once again highlighted the cohesiveness of the Frugel3s – we are still not in big bass territory but the track has fantastic rhythm and great brass and piano dynamics with great expression heard from several parts of the soundstage. I’m not a huge funky-jazz fan, but I appreciate good music and equipment that can display that to me in an enjoyable way and the Dared with its transparency and obvious synergy with the Frugels did just that for me.
So far so good but after a short break and a chat in the garden we all went back in and took up our seats again. Maureen, Richards wife fancied a little Nils Lofgren and as she and Richard were good enough to allow us to make use of his room for the day, who were we to argue! Plus Maureen is a huge music fan.
We put on Nils’ ‘Acoustic Live’ album and proceeded to play ‘Black Books’, it’s a lovely delicate song and the Frugels were once again in their element producing depth, clarity and solid sound staging. The guitar solo was and always is beautiful on a well put together system and this combo didn’t let us down. We were playing at a very good volume which the 2 1/2 inch cones dealt with admirably. Strings decayed amazingly in the ambient background and there was a wonderful dynamic and sophisticated approach to the overall sound which certainly put a smile on all our faces.
We then proceeded to integrate a smallish 10″ subwoofer from BK into the system, electricbeach offers a surround sound package which the Dared amplifier can accommodate, leaving the processing to the Bluray player for instance. For the purposes of this review we used it just for the music aspect of things.
Once the sub had been integrated into the system and levels adjusted we once again played through a large number of the tracks that are mentioned above. The sub didn’t increase bass levels but lent its hand to recreating lower notes that were not as apparent before and in turn adding body to the mid range and a perceived opening up of it with the treble having a bit more punch.
I played some more commercial music from the current charts and some dance music and the subwoofer was definitely a help here. The speaker drivers themselves are fast, but due to the design of the cabinet bass can be a little slower than standard box cabinets and they don’t have as much attack in the bass. The subwoofer really helped this along, now I wouldn’t say to the degree of other speaker types or multiple driver systems, but it was a definite marked improvement that most would be quite satisfied with. I could imagine for movies that it would be a huge plus point for the drama and effects.
Towards the end of the day we played some busier rocky, grungy type material, which really wasn’t my thing so I could not judge any qualities as such, it just sounded like noise to me to be honest, however Richard who initiated this little test for his own satisfaction remarked “I know that you may not like this but I wanted to see if they could do speed and bass….and they can!”.
I had my own plans for music I wanted to play once the speakers were in my ordinary listening space rather than his treated room as the performance would be truer to a potential customer, but what I had heard in a larger room which had acoustic features and the commercial music I played had impressed me, once the speakers were adapted or you could say easily modified to suit.
Steve had mentioned earlier in the day that he uses his own hand made speaker cables for the Frugels, they are his own tried and tested configuration of a high purity copper on a budget, keeping in with the whole idea of the Frugel brand. I had some LAT International SS-800MK2’s with me and Richard had some multi core weave design cables which had no brand but created another option to see how a quick steer away from what Steve offers within the total Frugel package.
The multi core cables were straight away unsuited to the speakers and took all the life, clarity and vividness away from what I had previously experienced that day and they were very quickly taken back out.
In with the LATs and immediately there was a noticeable change. We began to revisit many of the tracks which we had played earlier in the day. There was a general better control to leading edges and a seemingly enhanced body to the overall sound with a thicker and richer presentation, which in turn retained all of its sparkle and the overall featured sound of the day. I think the very top end of electricbeach’s own speaker cables produced a more airy and atmospheric character to the presentation but they didn’t have the body of the LATs. Each would be easy to live with in my eyes as they promoted the speakers characteristics well.
After a day of intense listening, which Steve and I would like to thank Richard and Maureen for, we took the Frugal 3s over to my more modest listening space and the following day after lunch we reconvened Steve’s demo and my listening tests.
A few initial problems arose before we could sit back and enjoy the music again. First of all speaker placement in a room where the speaker needs to be close to the back wall (especially with a hybrid horn and transmission line design like these with a bottom rear mouth which needs room to create the roll-out of the bass) and the second the damping in the speakers as I have a typically more lively room than the custom treated room of the previous day. I do have plenty of furniture, a large rug and thick curtains, with a fair bit of soft furnishings… as I say, a typical room really.
So I connected the Dared up this time with the Mark Grant interconnects to my PS Audio Reference Dac which is fed by my Fidelity Audio modified Squeezebox Touch with Teddy Pardo PSU and a Nordost Valhalla Digital Coax. We also kept to the Electric Beach speaker cables. As my front end is connected to my NAS drive which has the Squeezebox software on board it was the best way to put the system together – essentially as if I had just bought the full electricbeach setup and used it with my own source connected.
I started to play an album and immediately we hit a problem just as the day before and quickly realised that the detrimental sound was due to a damping factor once again. A few minutes spent unscrewing the drivers and replacing the damping we’d previously removed and we were firing on all cylinders again. Once again a very worthy scenario to have fallen upon as it proved how quick and easy the speaker can be adapted to individual listening spaces.
I wanted to first of all revisit some of the music we had listened to the day before to get a bearing on things. I must stress how much I preferred my listening space with the Frugel3s, I love control to my sound but lots of transparency and sparkle with a great open, wide and deep soundstage and to my amazement the speakers really thrived in my run of the mill domestic and modestly sized room.
The speakers once again had an overall pleasing character to them. The Dared hybrid amplifier with its tube preamp stage coupled to the Class D output modules is a winner for me, a combination of fluid mid tones and a level of transparency which belies it meagre £400 price tag. I could go into more detail about this amp but the review would get even lengthier than I fear it may already end up. Let’s just say that there must have been someone up there forcing the Frugel/Dared marriage as the complete system is so grown up and sophisticated you wouldn’t expect electricbeaches very modest price tag.
Now what I wanted to hear from the speakers was how far I could push these drivers and if they were going to hit a brick wall and say “sorry, Frugel by name frugal by nature”.
As a fair play initial test I disconnected a Teac A-H01 from its system, the amp is also Class D just like the Dared, has virtually the same output power and costs about the same. Unfortunately that’s where the similarities ended, it sounded cold, thin and absolutely uninvolving on the Frugels. It was quickly disregarded!
Next up was the Morgan S300 Deva integrated, a well regarded, smooth and musical amp from the former Morgan Audio, the amp currently sits in my Mac system and has had many speakers passing through, it’s a wonderfully engaging listen. Price tag was £650.
Attached as before to the electricbeach Frugel3s and after some warm up time it produced a soft, warm and fairly boring sound, the response from top to bottom was there but there was nothing that grabbed you, it was all a bit too pipe and slippers and uninteresting again. Once again I thought, that Dared is a little star…
Next up was dear Emilly (Emille KI-40L) an all valve, class A beauty. Now a bit over the top at £6000 but I want to be able to push these little 2 1/2 inch metal drivers and see what I could achieve from them and who better than her Majesty to give them a proper work out.
This time with the inclusion of the Emille I also introduced the rest of my current system, which is the Neutral Cable Fascino interconnect from a previous review, the Audioquest K2 speaker cables, my DH Labs mains cables and Isotek Powerline Axis mains unit. Straight away the texture of the sound and timbre of the instruments was absolutely gorgeous!
Rachelle Farell’s voice cut through the air like a knife through butter, yet retained its own place in the soundstage, think of a Formula One car in a wind tunnel, the car slicing through the torrent of air, the breeze rushing over all it’s aerodynamic bodywork, interacting with the wind, yet still firmly holding its own space in time. Dear Emilly and wonderful Rachelle really expressed to me what these drivers were truly capable of – with the Dared she sounded great, but this is a track that commands you to turn up the wick and at higher volumes her beautiful range of 4 octaves could be a little overpowering in the top end with the Dared. With the all valve Emille the control of that top end was awesome. Subtlety of her quieter passages combined with the dynamic flares of expression in her voice was truly breathtaking. I could hear her distance from me with the harmonics of the recording space portrayed into my own. I played the track three times over just to check I was really hearing what I can only describe as “a truly grown up speaker”.
Newton Faulkners ‘Feels Like Home’ graced a black background, he plucked his strings out of a transparent and three dimensional area of the soundstage that almost allowed me to walk around him and with me stepping from side to side he remained planted centre stage. The overlay of his vocals in relation to the guitar never imposed on each other.
Norah Jones’ ‘Come Away With Me’ was absolutely sublime, her voice was rendered with such perfect tone and delicacy. Norah’s vocals are so beautiful on this album, accompanied by guitar, banjo and violin, the feeling of space was atmospheric, huge, live sounding and eerie at times. Notes had a remarkable way of lingering in a soundstage full of animation and emotion. The most intricate of inner details were delivered with their own gentle dynamic flurries swarming around the encapsulated soundstage I found myself embodied in. I listened to this album and Feels Like Home in what seemed like a heartbeat, I was whisked away, around and back to ‘Come Away With Me’ for a second time all the way through without coming out of my seduced state. At this point I was ready to ask for Norah’s hand in marriage!
I played ‘Blanket’ by Urban Species next. This track has a lumpy big bold bass note to it and an incapable speaker will accentuate these notes and over shadow the vocals and tone down a wonderful intricate, delicate and harmonic top end.
The Frugels dealt with the bass very well and kept the beat accurate allowing for the vocals to star and sit at the forefront. This is not a very busy track but it does have demanding elements- the Frugel3s can certainly hold a tight bass note. The top end really stood out for me on this track as it has so much harmonic dispersion and very small out of phase nuances that give space to the very focused centralised vocals and bass. The speakers really proved to be extremely top end extended and controlled; displaying confidence in how airy and open they are up there. Sometimes what can seem to be a simple piece of music has so many layers and attributes that unless properly reproduced by a loudspeaker, one doesn’t realise that they are on the recording at all.
Lauren Hill is mostly know for being a member of the Fugees and for her rapping ability, but there is another very passionate side to her demonstrated on her ‘MTV Unplugged’ album. Lauren’s deep side comes out and she embraces the crowd very emotionally and personally with her raw vocals and simple guitar. Each song’s meaning and intent is explained to the audience and has a powerful message and reality which the listener can tell is from her heart. She becomes very emotional on the album and sometimes pauses and sheds a tear. ‘Adam Lives in Theory’ is a song to describe all of humanity and her emotion and personal touch, feelings and experiences are expressed to the crowd as if she is having a deep meaningful conversation with a loved one. Her guitar’s timbre is incredible through the Frugels. Her personality and passion really comes across. The album isn’t about sound staging and other hifi type attributes, it’s a stripped back, pure acoustic performance from her soul. It simply grabs the listener and says listen here.
Music is easy to listen to but emotion is hard to hear!
I believe coupled with high end electronics the electricbeach Frugel3 is enthusiastic and sophisticated enough to engage even the hardcore audiophiles out there and gain their respect.
Damien’s Rices ‘Volcano’ is another wonderfully vocal track which is accompanied by some great guitar work, I could hear every rub of the acoustic string and rasps of its plucked note – I swear somewhere in the background was a person on a zither having fun just adding an extra layer to the music. The bass guitar notes rolled and flowed as is if they had just announced themselves from a perfectly hand carved instrument about 6 foot behind the speakers just off centre and the tender female vocalist he was accompanied by.
I really am astonished how such a small coned metal driver manages to paint a picture of such ease and vibrancy, delicacy and emotion. It just keeps me thinking ‘how is this possible?’
Do not under any circumstances believe what electricbeach offers as a complimentary package to be the be all and end all of these speakers abilities, I have 10’s of thousands of pounds of gear plugged into these and they just thrive on it.
On the other hand, keeping with the frugal brief the electricbeach Frugel3, Dared DV-6c and supplied cables are fantastic in every way and are a match made in heaven. Complimented with great styling, tailored to your specifications and an ability to be tuned to your specific listening room, they offer flexibility as well as great sound quality.
Don’t underestimate what is achievable from such a budget priced speaker. Nothing I have heard within their price range could even become a contender in my eyes. Whether you are looking for a complete package which you know works excellently together, or you have a high priced system and want some speakers with a different flavour and are intrigued by what a well put together, single driver design can really offer the Frugel3 gets my recommendation (so much so I have purchased the Frugel3s and Dared amplifier). A triumph in design which has been adapted by a company who have refined it to create a true marvel!
Speaker pair as reviewed (painted finish/ audiophile driver) – £825
DV-6C amplifier – £395
Speaker cable supplied with combined speaker and amp purchase (not sold separately)
Author – Dan