Janine Elliot takes a listen to the SoundKaos LIBéRATION Loudspeakers that use an open baffle design along with ribbon tweeters in a package costing just over £17,000.

Martin Gateley is Swiss, though he resides in the UK and was born in Jersey. With Swiss mum and Brummy dad he went back to Switzerland (well, who wouldn’t) but left for the UK again in his mid-twenties, though hopes to return to Switzerland at some point in the future. An architect by profession with a commendable CV including Systemworks, MDA and Interfair, plus events and exhibition management projects at Kaos Events Ltd, he has since 2009 turned his ears and eyes to making very distinctive speakers, using the full range Enviee drivers from Alman Galm coupled with a ribbon top end.

The Wave 40 was their first offering with 8 inch Enviee full range paper cone and Raal ribbon for the top. Whilst his Swiss Egg shaped Wave 40 and the 42 that replaces it uses special tone wood the LIBéRATION reviewed here liberates the drivers from the limitations of any box at all. In a conventional ‘box’ a loudspeaker radiates sound in two directions – at the listener and into its box. As Martin Gateley states, “Half goes out, half stays in and this pressure excites the walls of the enclosure. It bounces around like a bunch of billiard balls and attempts to escape through the thin driver diaphragms. Because it arrives at your ears delayed in time, it causes the equivalent of motion blur. That’s a slight audible smear and fuzziness often mistaken for warmth”. Damping the box with padding of some sort kills or suffocates some of the direct sound too. In the Wave series rather than capture and damp the rear wave of sound, Martin claims the special wood construction he uses dissipates this unwanted wave rapidly and freely. I wrote at length about the technique used by Flare Audio in stopping sound pressure in their headphones and IEMs from affecting and ruining the sound. The Soundkaos LIBéRATION speaker is something completely different to his earlier speakers as he does away totally with any enclosure at all, giving much more clarity to the sound and no pressure or “tightness”. The sound is very open, with as much released out from the back as from the front, creating a large sound-space which is very real and easy to listen to, but with great detail and sound positioning from the 14cm ribbon dipoles.

His company, SoundKaos, has a motto stating ‘unnecessarily well-made audio’, and their new loudspeaker certainly lived up to that title when I received it for review. Beautifully built, though with a weighty price tag of £14,276 + VAT and a physique of over 40Kg each speaker, I was keen to have a play with this duo, though not perhaps lifting them. Both possessed features that instantly lit up my face; open back, large 18” bass-unit, and ribbon top-end. Topped with this, two full-range speakers, meaning there was no 3-4kHz crossover set right in the middle of that all-important and most sensitive listening area of the voice and strings that daunts so many speakers I have listened to and reviewed. This beauty crosses over at 200Hz for the massive Spanish Beyma 18” bass and up at 8500Hz for the Serbian Raal ribbon speaker supplying the top end all the way to 50,000Hz.

In between are the two full frequency 8” Enviee drivers made by Galm Audio in southern Germany, just as in his Wave 40 and latest Wave 42. One is low/mid frequency and the other, with a whizzer cone made of maple, is mid/high. Typical of a number of full-frequency single driver speakers I have heard over the years that ‘top end’ can sound rather brittle and, as Martin puts it, “shout” at those top frequencies. So, as in common with the Wave series, the mid/high is rolled off with a simple second order filter at around 8.5kHz. The two Enviee drivers have a notch filter at 800 Hz to correct a slight anomaly in the driver, but otherwise they are theoretically running fully open. “Because they operate in free air” Martin explained “we had to stiffen the surround and the spider to keep maximum excursion under control. They also have 28 Ohm voice coils rather than the normal 8 Ohm [as] in the WAVES.  This was done to bring them more in line with the RAAL ribbon tweeter”.  They are also extremely light. “Armin from Galm Audio has some 35 years’ experience in driver design and manufacture and the Enviee project has been a bit of a labour of love for him” Martin told me. “It started as a side line ‘I want to try this’ and was never designed to be a commercial product.  It is loosely based on a 1930 driver from Telefunken and he has tried over 100 different membranes until he was satisfied with measurements and sound.

Martin likes to use similar/same components or materials so all three motor drivers are paper coned, and the simple 2nd order crossover is visible from the grilles behind the speakers, each hexagon cabinet connected via a solid wood structure with bi-wire connectors at the rear bottom of this support. For the crossover Martin uses high quality Jantzen capacitors and ribbon/wax inductors he has made.  He claims these components are very much responsible for the LIBéRATION’s relaxed sound. All in all, the drivers combine to produce impedance between 4 and 6 ohm.

The LIBéRATION is very distinctive in appearance; a bronze fronted robot with two 8” woofer eyes and ribbon nose, looking like a long-lost cousin of the ESL57 or – as a visitor to my house commented – an art deco fire guard. Not that I would be so rude. With wooden edges on the baffles made from 40mm solid spruce tone wood with an edge surround in either solid walnut or maple and oiled with wax, this looks more like a piece of art deco artwork that also sounds good, and something I got to know and love whilst it was a resident in my house. Indeed its distinctive looks raised a few comments from visitors, and being such a thin speaker made giving around 24” free space behind the units was easier than if it were a big box.

This is an exceptionally well made speaker. The distinctive and beautifully crafted wooden feet are coil-sprung stopping that excellent bass-end from being affected by, or affecting contact with, the floor. I am of the Townshend isolation fan club rather than worshipping spikes on the floor, so this was another teacher’s tick from me. The removable bronze front and rear mesh covers of the maple/bronze version for review are made from woven bronze wire coated with a clear coat lacquer to protect it, and forming a rigid protective cover for the drivers, cross-over components and wiring. The opening of the mesh is 2.5 x 2.5 mm which gives a transparency of 70%, so it does not influence the sound quality. This means the covers can be left in place during that all-important listening. There is also an anthracite mesh cover version which is coated with an automotive paint, though this version isn’t my preferred choice.

Martin works closely with Christien Ellis CEO of CE Electro Acoustics, a UK based consultancy specialising in engineering design of electro acoustical products. He works on the electrical and voicing side of things, a relationship that goes back to the original Wave 40. In that product he felt the full range Enviee needed more ‘top-end’, so Martin wisely added the ribbon tweeter, something central to all his speakers ever since.

Music

For this review I played a lot of music and from sources including vinyl, reel to reel, CD and digital radio, and using three different amplifiers. The large and open design was perfect for classical music, and my first listening sessions were from my valve 8W Leak Stereo 20 (Soundkaos state their speakers loves tubes). I did find music well known to me on the LIBéRATION not quite right from this amplifier, particularly in the mid band, showing the speaker needs more power to drive it well, so I switched to the 25W Graham Slee Class-Ab solid state Proprius and Magestic DAC/preamp and listening first to live Radio 3 Proms via Virgin digital radio channel 903. The depth and power of sound from Beethoven’s Eroica symphony or gentle piano solo recordings that followed just showed how great this speaker was at showing both intricate detail and real authority that I haven’t heard from loudspeakers for a while. The company name ‘SoundKaos’ certainly wasn’t living up to his name, just as Schiit Audio and other carefully chosen company names vie to get your attention. Martin laughs when talking about the company name, a name taken from his original events and exhibition company Kaos Events. Whilst the sound was without stress or any sense of there being a box holding back or shaping the sound (indeed the musicians were in my room, and not emanating from boxes, and classical music had never sounded so good from digital radio) it was only when turning to a rock channel that that sound started to get a bit chaotic. It was just not so clear, with the incessant compression and over modulation in the radio broadcast making for Kaos, but I wanted to audition this to see how an open baffle would work in this kind of music environment, something I refer to later in this review. However, sanity returned for the moment and I continued with high-end analogue through amplification provided by Krell/Music First Audio. The Leak and Slee amplifiers I had previously used were low powered and the LIBéRATION worked surprisingly well but I wanted to now listen from higher powered sources, as the LIBéRATION certainly warrants an amplifier of 25W or more. My gorgeous old Krell KAV250A can deliver 500W at 4Ω, so no worries about enough grunt.

I started gently with Pink Floyd’s double-LP ‘The Division Bell’. The first track, “Cluster 1” wakes up gradually just like the early summer morning as the sun works its way behind the houses to the rear of my garden, hardly any cluster of events. A long ‘C’ drone with a conversation between piano and guitar for some minutes until it modulates to A minor then D minor and then E minor and back to A again. A cyclic 3-chord phrase that builds up with ride cymbals that play so real that I forget these are speakers and not actual musicians in my room. That is the objective of speaker reviewing, after all, that there shouldn’t actually be speakers in the room. All completes with a long happy C-major finale. That should make for happiness from me. The next track “What do you want from me” on this nameless album – no track names at all except on the record spines – is in E-minor, and only then do I hear a slight “shouting” from the sound in the mid-band, something I heard when listening to pop and rock from the Slee amplifiers. The detail is immense from these speakers; acoustic guitars on left and right in the third track “Poles Apart” show just how meticulous these monitors are. I don’t normally have to turn Floyd down, but felt the need to here; the speakers are very efficient and the soundstage is enormous so careful listening is vital. I wondered if having just one 8 inch full range would work better, though that would make for a pair of one-eyed robots in my room, and Martin assured me that the two work better. Reduced amplitude for the rest of the album enabled me to highly value these monitors, but that mid band area showed me just why classical music, particularly vocal and instrumental, was the best source for these speakers. In addition to that the ribbon meant cymbals and top frequencies gave the detail and clarity that makes for me dipoles the des res of any speaker design. Coupled with the other drivers working as dipoles, this was a well thought-out ensemble.

Turning to the brilliant Respighi ‘Pines of Rome’ (New Philharmonia Orchestra under Rafael Frubeck De Burgos, CFP), this is a highly realistic soundscape encompassing different environments of sounds and dynamics; as varied as Rome itself. The third movement is a night piece complete with nightingale bird sounds from a tape. Resphigi when composing this epic work instructed that “a recording of a nightingale be played from the orchestra”, though at the time of writing this work only wind-up 78rpm discs were available and no BBC sound effects library, since in 1924 the then company was a mere 2 years old. I have two versions of this LP, my favourite from the Cleveland Orchestra, both epic recordings of an epic work. Turning fittingly to Ravel’s ‘Ma Mere L’Oye’ (The Mother Goose Suite) complete with ‘cuckoos’ and other beautiful bird noises, this time played by the orchestra, I was able to enjoy some amazing three-dimensionality from a well-loved Pye ‘Q-S’ 4-channel stereo record. Whilst the Audio Technica AT33sa cartridge is only two-channel, there is certainly a sense of space in this recording which the Liberation speakers pull off well, both front and back of stage, something lacking in many speakers I have listened to, and not just the fact that these ones are all dipoles. With the atmosphere and beautifully written simplicity from the strings and woodwind and glockenspiel I was beginning to love and get to know these unusual shaped three legged visitors to my house. A sense of seamless captivation and understanding of the music from them made me rather sorry to see them leave my house at the end of the review. I could only complete this relationship with possibly my most favourite tunes of all, the Bela Bartok 2 Romanian Dances Op 8a. Dating form 1910, also from this same record, this lovely work is made up from folk songs that Bartok had heard, and marks the start of his interest in folk music. Whilst there are two movements, they contain lots of different themes and emotions. The first movement might have a forthright heartbeat but the personality from string melodies is both human and loving, and rarely heard so well. The high pitched first violin B-minor ‘cry for help’ is soothed by long chords from the rest of the orchestra. The A-major melody just before the jubilant closure is one of the simplest and most beautiful tunes a composer could ever set on paper, not even Bartok; one that sets me crying whenever I hear it, the LIBéRATION giving a very open sound with clarity from lowest to highest frequencies, nothing sounding hurried or confused . As an encore I played “John Barry – The Collection” a four-disc CD that has some good and bad recording in it, but all are highly spacious and something the LIBéRATION was excellent in separating the instruments, particularly the percussion; which are always key part of John’s writing for film. The “Midnight Cowboy” could set me in the Grand Canyon with the grandiose sound from the strings and enchanting mouthorgan solo. The Last Valley offers the snare drum clearly far left of the speakers but vocals and strings mid-stage could sound somewhat confused and almost phased. This is not a good recording and it rarely work well on any speaker, and on the LIBéRATION that slight mid band complexity didn’t get separated into its individual instrument and vocal parts as much as I had hoped it would. With everything else though, this was a very clear, fast and stress-less performer.

Conclusion

The LIBéRATION is a breath of fresh air in the loudspeaker marketplace and a product that should be taken very seriously if you are in the process of buying a high-end monitor, providing a very open and large sound-space, but with great detail as to placement of instruments, largely from that Raal ribbon. It does work best on classical music, but once I had positioned it correctly and fed it with well-engineered rock and blues, this little robot was very well mannered and I really was sorry to see it go home to its maker.

ATA GLANCE

Build Quality:  Excellent construction and use of components and feet – something often overlooked by manufacturers
Sound Quality:  A detailed and wide soundstage, better on classical music.
Value For Money:  At £17130 including VAT this is not cheap, but boy does it sound good, and beats a large number of speakers at this same price point and higher

Pros
A very open and controlled sound
Wide soundstage
Covers deepest bass to highest highs
Detail and transparency

Cons
Not cheap!
I don’t have the space for another pair of speakers

Price: £17130

Janine Elliot

Specifications:

Bandwidth                       (+/-3dB) 28Hz – 50kHz
Sensitivity                        96dB
Nominal Impedance         6 Ohm
Recommended power     30 – 150 W
Dimensions each             W 60 cm D 32 cm H 102 cm
Weight each                   40kg

You must be logged in to leave a reply.