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Surely these speakers cannot be perfect. And alas they are not. They could not compete with my Harbeths in the midrange. The Compact 7ES offers a velvety midrange very few in its class can touch. But this is brings with it a darker overall sound, with micro details being somewhat sacrificed. The Sierra-1 felt a bit empty in that region, with the superb detail of the tweeter and the bass authority of the woofer needing, in my opinion, some flesh.
Another area that may be of issue is the bass articulation. Extension and quality, believable bass are beyond reproach. But I felt the bass was a bit similar from recording to recording. It was difficult for me to tell the difference between an electric bass guitar (and the type within that category) and a stand up acoustic bass, or synthesized, keyboard generated bass. The notes were clear and punchy, but that last degree of gradation was missing. This certainly could be due to the way the rear port was interacting with the room. The best I could manage was to keep them approximately 2 feet from the front wall. If I had a choice, I would have given them an extra foot or two. However, my front wall is damped with non reflective material.
I still have a pair of Spendor S35R ($1495) monitors. They are the latest incarnation of the classic BBC Ls3/5a design. The Spendors have slightly smaller dimensions than the Sierras. They also feature a soft dome tweeter, and have a similar published sensitivity rating. I decided to pull them out of the closet for a comparison, as it’s a two way, but with a sealed box design. I set them up in the identical position, toe in, and on the same myrtle wood blocks.
The comparison came off as pretty much as I expected. The Sierras bested the Spendors in bass and dynamics. And the Spendor could not match the hyper detail of the Sierras. Soundstage depth was surprisingly close; I didn’t think it would be. The Spendors shrunk the scale of the soundstage a bit. Again, not surprising, considering the Sierras are designed with cabinet resonance control in mind.
The Spendors did prevail in the midrange. No surprise there. Of course, with the usual tradeoff of some discarded information. Also, the Spendors at first don’t sound as “exciting” as the Sierras, instead opting for a more refined, seductive sound. There were more “wooden” tones, certainly a euphonic coloration, but for sure appealing. But take note that instrument attacks and leading edge transients were unquestionably muted. And let’s remember this aesthetic has its detractors for sure. On a technical note, the Spendors needed more power to make them sing. The volume knob had to go to the right a few notches.
The Sierras mated wonderfully with my Audio Research VS55 50 WPC tube amplifier. Even though the Sierras are of moderate to low sensitivity, I never, not even once, needed more volume, or heard any strain at higher volumes. They also worked wonderfully with my vintage solid state Revox A722 power amplifier. The speaker will play well with others, rest assured.
When I reinstalled my Harbeth Compact 7s, the first difference I noticed is the voice and instrumental image seemed a bit a bit larger. No surprise there as the Harbeths are significantly bigger. I also realized there was a bit of loss in low level detail retrieval. The biggest difference was much of the balance returned to midrange. The Harbeths are every bit a classic British speaker. I was surprised at myself for actually craving a bit of the resolution the Sierras brought to the table.
If I had to sum up my thoughts on the Ascend Acoustics Sierra-1 speakers, the main words that come to mind are precision, brains, AND brawn. At the sub $1000 price point, I have not heard a speaker that does this many things well. Certainly the way they communicate to the listener won’t appeal to everybody. But they will appeal to listeners who want to hear exactly what's in the pits or grooves with very little editorializing. Adding in the excellent build quality, finish, and attention to detail, I would recommend an audition of the Sierra-1s without reservation.
ASCEND ACOUSTICS, INC.
934 Calle Negocio Suite D
San Clemente, CA 92673
Dealers: Factory Direct only
Typical In-Room Frequency Response 39Hz - 22kHz ± 3dB
In-Room Sensitivity 87dB @ 1 watt / 1 meter
Frequency Response (Anechoic) 44Hz - 22kHz ± 3dB
Sensitivity (Anechoic) 86.5dB @ 1 watt / 1 meter
Average Impedance 8 ohms
Minimum Recommended Power 45 watts
Maximum Continuous Power* 200 watts
Cabinet Exclusive V-LAM™ construction featuring vertically laminated bamboo. Bass reflex via flared rear port tube
Dimensions H x W x D** 14.25" x 7.5" x 10.5"
Weight (each) 20 lbs each
Warranty 7 year parts and labor
Reviewers Associated Equipment:
CD Player: Naim CD5x with Flatcap 2X
Preamp: Audio Research SP16
Amplifier: Audio Research VS55
Speaker: Harbeth Compact 7ES
Cables: Kimber/QED/Acoustic Zen (AC)/Transparent (AC)