Priced at $17500 in the US or €13000 in Europe the Ø AUDIO Icon loudspeakers are designed in Scandinavia by Sveinung Djukastein Mala and come with a 12” woofer and horn-loaded 3” tweeter; Stuart Smith sees what they are made of.

High-End by Oz is a distribution company based in Los Angeles in the US, and, unsurprisingly given the name, specialises in the supply of high-end audio components to a prosperous and thriving buying public through its dealers. High-End BY Oz is owned by the charismatic Ozan Turan, who we had the good fortune of meeting at last year’s Rocky Mountain Audio Fest – do you remember when physical audio shows were and actual thing and your circle of physical associates amounted to more than your spouse and whatever creatures have made their way into your home; I know, it’s a long, long time ago so you are forgiven if you don’t recall. I digress. Oz got in touch with us here at Hifi Pig what now seems an age ago offering us the first review out of Scandinavia of a “new to us” brand, specialising in the production of just one model of loudspeaker – the Icon. Now, there is a lot to be said for companies that specialise in doing just one thing and doing it to the very best of their ability, though I believe that Sveinung Djukastein Mala, the name behind Ø Audio has something in the pipeline involving 15” drivers, huge magnets and carbon fibre…but that is a story for another time and place.

Seen here in Gloss Walnut, the Icon is available in Walnut Matt, Black High Gloss and White High Gloss and any RAL colour you fancy.

So, a delivery wagon arrives and this being the time of Covid 19 and pretty much virtual lockdown, a large palette is unceremoniously placed outside the front steps to Hifi Pig Towers. The palette itself is home to a pair of OSB coffins which look just about the right sizes for a pair of corpulent twin six-year-olds. Now, I’m going to have a little moan here about a couple of things, the first being that I had to get a large and heavy box into the house with little help which is no one else’s fault but my own having not secured a bit of help prior to the speakers arriving, though the courier was adamant that dumping the palette was as far as he was prepared to help. The second is the fact that the coffins in no wat reflect the splendor of what lurks inside. These speakers are a pretty high-end, beautifully finished product (more on that later), and too have them arrive in such a non-descript package is a bit of a letdown. However, it must be stressed that Ø audio is not alone by any means in this respect but personally I would have liked to have seen properly constructed, purpose-made flight-cases and preferably with wheels – you know, the kind of things rock bands use to cart their instruments and ancillary kit around the globe…well, the kind of flight-cases rock bands would use to cart their instruments and ancillary equipment around the globe were it not for the fact that no gigs or festivals are taking place at the moment and all bands and artists seem to be performing on Zoom and from the comfort of their own, though socially distanced living rooms. Anyway, I digress; add a bit to the price, up that Christmas morning feel we bang on about all the time a few notches and get the speakers in cases that are commensurate with the luxury feel you get when you get them out of their sarcophagi. Actually, the coffins are OK, and they do their job at protecting the speakers pretty well.

WHO ARE Ø AUDIO?

Sveinung Djukastein Mala has been building speakers since he was pretty young having built his first speakers when he was 12 years old.  From this first design his interest developed more and more into high-efficiency designs with horns. The speakers got larger and larger because horns needs a certain size to work at lower frequencies. At the same time he was building all these speakers he was also running his own distribution company for HiFi/high-end audio and saw that there was the possibility to introduce a good horn speakers into the market. Sveinung says of the horns that were on the market “There were a few, but most of them tended to be tuned in a way that made them sound like horns (not positively). I like horn speakers when they are tuned to sound natural and homogenous in the whole frequency range. I also like speakers that have some real deep bass.”

He then started a project developing a speaker with characteristics similar to large horn systems but put in a cabinet that was more socially acceptable in modern homes He worked with the cabinet dimensions and shape to make it optimal and with no parallel walls and minimal resonances, and as a result he ended up with design we see here.

Of the current speaker, he has the following to say “The woofer used is a special woofer made for us and optimized to be superbly linear in its whole frequency response. In many of these two-way designs out in the market it is often an off-the-shelf professional audio woofer that is used. Those often play nice, but they struggle in the deep bass. Our woofer is tuned to be able to play real bass, and also deep bass without any compromise. The final result is a speaker that in normal rooms have full output down to well below 30hz (often to 25-26hz) and with good capacity at most listening levels.”

He adds ”The horn-driver we use has a special 3” nitride coated titanium diaphragm and an extremely strong motor. The strong motor makes it have better top-end response and the Nitride coating makes the diaphragm extremely stiff and therefore moving the resonances out of the hearable range. The crossover is made with high-level Jantzen silver capacitors, Jantzen aircoils and the most important part – The Duelund resistor to pad down the horn to match the woofer.  The Ø Audio Icon is not super-high sensitivity with its 93db, but it is high enough to be easy to drive with most amplifiers. We chose to not make a more efficient design because we wanted a real full-range speaker that also plays deep base with great authority without the need for subwoofers. The impedance is never below 8ohm and it is therefore an easy load for most amplifiers.

DESIGN AND BUILD

The Icons are beautiful! OK, beauty is in the eye of the beholder and all that but I really don’t think anyone could look at these speakers, particularly in this walnut piano finish we have here, and not think anything but “WOW!”. For the purposes of completeness, I have to tell you that other finishes are available: Walnut Matt, Black High Gloss and White High Gloss are the standard finishes but should you so desire you can also get any RAL colour you fancy…a pair of Hifi Pig Pink Icons perhaps?

Side firing ports and no parallel surfaces make for a striking design for the Icons.

A quick tour around the speakers and we see the 12” woofer that Sveinung mentioned and that has a Lambda motor, the horn-loaded 3” tweeter with a 3” voicecoil, a pair of side-firing bass ports and around the back a single pair of good quality binding posts.

As Sveinung said, the Icon employs an asymmetrical design (the cabs are made in Poland) that has no parallel surfaces; the idea of which is to reduce internal reflections and to reduce resonance. Saying all that may lead you too think the Icon looks a bit odd – it doesn’t look odd at all!

The woofers mentioned are from Acoustic elegance and the compression drivers for the tweeters are Italian made. Add to this the use of the Dueland and Jantzen components in the crossover and you start to appreciate that a great deal of thought has gone into the design and implementation of the Icons.

That horn! I love how it looks (purposeful and utilitarian) but I can well see how many may think that it detracts from the overall aesthetic. Anyway, it employs, Sveinung tells us “Controlled Directivity of 60 degrees horizontally, which is less than most speakers but results in less reflections from the sidewalls od the listening room and offers up “ a better and more precise soundstage in most situations”.  I’ll speak more about the soundstage in a bit but there is a definite sweetspot for sure where everything just snaps into a glorious three-dimensional stage that expresses height, depth, and width. With that said, even left or right of that sweetspot of around 50cm in width, you still get a really nice feel of the recording space and the placement of instruments in the final mix.

For those of you that feel the need to know the Icons are still pretty sensitive in the grand scheme of things and Ø Audio reckon you can get away with an amp of 8 Watts upwards to drive them effectively. Now that 8Watts figure is interesting as it’s what a 300B single-ended amp will bat out, and, whilst I don’t currently have one of said valve amps about, I can’t help but think these speakers may have been developed with that very valve in mind. On the amp front, I did try numerous with the Icons (Class D and Class AB) before finally settling on a late 80s Krell KST 100 power amp which, for these purposes, will have been running in Class A the whole time. The Krell is overkill in terms of output but as a combination, it worked brilliantly.

The claimed frequency response for the Icons is 27Hz to 20KHz and whilst these speakers did go low in our room, I can’t help but think that they roll off pretty dramatically at 35Hz, aided and abetted by those two side-firing ports. I had these ports firing at each other (sort of) rather than towards the room’s sidewalls as that is where I got the most pleasing results – Your Mileage May Vary.

On Positioning. I had the icons well out into the room and well clear of sidewalls and toed in towards the listening position  – again, as with all speakers, placement is a case of educated trial and error. For this review, they were 2.5m apart with the sweetspot forming the point of the equilateral triangle.

The Icons are large at 100 x 50 x 36 (HWD) but they don’t dominate the room – that said they aren’t going to fade into the background either and I quite like this; If you are going to be spending this kind of money on a pair of speakers I for one would certainly want folk to comment on them were they to pop round and visit  – social distancing norms notwithstanding.  I mentioned the horn and for those more squeamish about it looking at them then there is a set of grilles included, though I didn’t bother as I like my speakers like I like my burger – naked. That last sentence could have gone much worse! Oh, and did I mention that these are heavy beasts too – 54kg apiece to be precise.

To stand the speakers on you have a set of four (per speaker) milled disc feet that screw into the bottom, though I would have preferred something like the IsoTek Gaia feet being employed, but then you can add them later should you so wish.

THE SOUND

We have had a bit of an embarrassment of ludicrously good loudspeakers arrive at our humble abode of late and given that, the Icons will be judged accordingly.

The Icons sport a large horn-loaded tweeter.

Needless to say, given their price point the Icons went into the main system which comprises an Auralic G1 streamer, Lampizator Big 7 DAC, Origin Live turntable and arm combo with a Goldnote Tuscany Red cartridge that feeds a Lab 12 melto phono stage, with the preamplifier being the Music First Baby Reference. Cables were by Way, Tellurium Q, and Chord whilst power management and cables were by Way and Atlas. As I mentioned, and after much swapping in and out, we decided on the old Krell KST 100 – whodathunkit?

Firstly, let me just say that I absolutely loved the presentation of these speakers right from the off with Sveinung having run them in for around 150 hours – so good to go from the off.

In the sweetspot and listening to Steve Reich’s Music for 18 Musicians (Coldcut Remix) I’m enveloped in wave upon wave of sounds that wash over and wrap themselves around my head in a very three-dimensional sense. This experience is pretty difficult to describe, but imagine being in a bubble extending a little way back of the speakers and you being directly opposite, with sounds appearing to come from the front, the back and the sides. All a bit trippy, in fact, but very enjoyable none-the-less. As I’ve already mentioned, get yourself in the sweetspot and the image just snaps in to place; the forward and back thing is still there but the left and the right image seems to focus even more to a pinpoint. Hopefully, that makes sense to you, dear reader.

Opening, from the album Glassforms by Bruce Brubaker and Max cooper has the piano (when not effected) sounds just like a piano should and with a real “in-room” presence, and, whilst this piano remains a constant throughout in the mix, there are other sounds that ebb and flow in the mix and they too feel correct in timing, positioning, and texture. Even small electronic “poofs” of sound further back in the mix appear in three-dimensional space in a very visual sense. Layered! Yes, layering is the word I’m searching for! There is front to back layering to the soundstage and it is very easy to see/hear it in a reach out and touch sense. Funny how music when presented really well excites not just our sense of hearing, isn’t it? When compared to the Fink Team Borgs or our Audiovector R3s, both of which have AMT tweeters, there does appear to be less airiness around the very top frequency sounds, but that is an inherent difference in the presentation of the different tweeters in my opinion.

Alright, that bass and the claimed 27Hz. Let’s have a look, shall we? I’m not going to play organ music as I don’t really enjoy it but one tune I do have that does go low is Todd Terry’s Black Out from the Resolutions Album – I use this a lot in reviews as regular readers will be aware. Yes, the Icons go low, but it’s low and very tight. In fact, there is such a lack of flabbiness that you often get when speakers are pushed in the bass department that it can feel like the Icons aren’t really going THAT low at all – this is psychoacoustics at play I think and that lack of bloat and overhang are a very welcome addition…or omission, whichever way you look at it. Control and poise in the bass department are the order of the day with the Icons. On balance I do prefer the bass on our Avantgarde Duo XDs as there is just so much more air being moved at volume and they feel more visceral, but then you are speaking about a speaker that is twice the price and with a total of 4 12” sub drivers.

At this point, I ought to say that, like the last few pairs of speakers that have found their way into the big review system, I’ve just been able to sit and listen to tunes without really wanting to get involved in analysing the sound or taking notes, and the Icons had this effect too – this has to be a very good sign in my book. Though, as a bit of an aside I’m listening to Elton John’s Candle in the Wind (I’m listening to Qobuz/Roon) and the thought comes to me as to how incredibly dry and lifelike the kick drum is at the start of the record. Funny how some things just jump out when you are kicking back and just enjoying the music.

Neil Young is one of my favourite artists, not least when he is performing with his all but house band crazy Horse – regular readers will be well aware of my love for the old curmudgeon. Anyway, Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere is a fine record, if not the definitive Young/Horse collaboration, and the Icons present this iconic album brilliantly and very much to my personal taste. When the guitars get to the point of feedback where it all feels it’s going to breakdown into a mess you hear it and feel that “right on the edge” feeling, but then when things get more acoustic, like on Round and Round (It Won’t Be Long) the Icons step back a little, relax and just let the music flow in a manner that is relaxed and effortless. I’m REALLY impressed here at how well Robin Lane’s plaintive backing vocals are delivered. Perhaps this is the first time I’ve really heard how utterly beautiful her delivery is on this record – and this is a record I’ve played and heard dozens if not hundreds of times over the years. This is a testament to the Icons just getting out of the way and letting the mid-band really shine through here. Timing and the play between bass and the laidback drums at the start of Down By The River are eye-opening on the Icons! It was hearing this last little detail in the music that had me get in touch with Oz and ask him the price, and I was pretty shocked if truth is known! The Icons sound more composed and high-end than their relatively modest (in the grand scheme of things) asking price would suggest in my opinion.

Here’s the thing; I listened to the Icons a lot whilst they were here and only once was I less than very impressed by their performance. This was late at night whilst listening to a less than perfect recording and I got the impression that the top-end was a little grating on the brain –  I don’t even recall the tune but do recall it didn’t last long. Now, this could be seen as a double-edged sword with regards to the Icons – play poorly recorded tracks on them, particularly toppy tracks, or formats that are less than optimal and you hear it – with that said, who is going to spend all this money on a Hifi and then play MP3s through them.

Vocals and mids on the Icons are presented in a languid, relaxed, and effortless manner whilst detail is excellent; think of having a large glass of wine languid and relaxed. Cat Stevens’ Hardworld had me wanting to reach for the volume control and crank it right up so relaxed were the speakers and when I did so that same graceful feeling pervaded…only louder. Even at low volumes, though, there was that unmistakable tone to Mr. Stevens’ vocal – a good sign for any speaker to be able to convey this level of intimacy at such low levels.

New to the main listening room is a projector and associated big screen affair for watching movies and even without using a sub we were impressed in how the Icon’s behaved. Speech was natural and central with explosions and other effects having their place in space (even though only two channels). Indeed, so impactful was the first explosion we heard (Inception if I remember correctly) one of the cats did its disappearing act…again.

The Icon is a large speaker you will want to show off.

CONCLUSION

These are beautifully finished and great looking speakers, though the latter point is always going to be down to personal preferences. Their presentation is effortless and yet authoritative with all kinds of music and I like them a lot!

The soundstage is all-enveloping, bass is tight and low and the high frequencies, other than that last track I mentioned, pretty relaxed and precise – though certainly not rolled off.

In all, and I don’t just mean for the money being asked, these speakers are pretty difficult to fault – sorry folks. They just don’t give a monkey’s toss what you throw at them, be that banging techno (Surgeon had the effect of being so visceral as to have both cats fleeing for the relative safety and calm of the upstairs offices) or more laid back vibes (Van Morrison actually got an airing which is very unusual here). The Icons just seem to get on with doing what they do without getting in the way. Of course, they are not completely transparent and they do have a flavour of their own – dry and unshowy with a slightly forward top end – and the words I wanted to use were poise, detail, and slam in a relatively uncoloured package.

AT A GLANCE

Build Quality: Apart from the decidedly workaday packing crates that I felty let the overall package down a little, these are beautifully put together and presented loudspeakers. The footers are fine, but I’d like to have seen isolation footers added as standard, even if that meant a hike in price.

Sound Quality: I never found the Icons wanting in any way: Bass is tight and low, mids are languid and nicely presented and tops are incisive and precise, though they can get quickly fatiguing in poor recordings/formats.

Value: I actually had these down as being more expensive than they were so that should tell you something about where I feel they fall value-wise.

Pros: Beautiful looking speakers with a high-end fit and finish and with a sound to match. Present themselves very well, even in the company of pricier competition.

Cons: Don’t like poor recordings/formats. Packing crates are lacking and detract from the overall package.

Price: $17500 or €13000

 

 

 

 

 

Stuart Smith

Review Kit List: Origin Live turntable and arm, GoldNote Tuscany red cartridge, Lab 12 melto phonostage, Auralic G1 Streamer, Lampizator Big 7 DAC, Music First Baby Reference Preamplifier, Cables by Chord, Atlas, Way and Tellurium Q. Room treatment by GIK Acoustics.

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