Ascend Acoustics Sierra-1 Monitor Loudspeakers 
Home Theater Loudspeakers Bookshelf/Monitor Loudspeakers
Written by Andre Marc   
Wednesday, 26 August 2009

Small, two way monitors have traditionally been revered by those who sought precise stereo imaging in smaller rooms, and by those whose listening tastes leaned towards a smaller scale. There was the usual trade off; the lack of any real bass weight and compression at much higher volumes.  Those who worshipped at the alter of classic BBC monitor sound were content with the warm, velvety midrange, at the expense of much musical information in the frequency extremes.

Much has changed recently as many speaker designers have overcome the usual shortcomings of mini monitors. Advances in cabinet construction, drivers, and electronics have provided a canvas for some companies to produce smallish two ways that offer the usual strengths, while greatly, if not in some cases, eliminating the weaknesses.

There are a few speaker models available that can play plenty loud without strain, offer credible if not outstanding bass, and the detail and complete presentation that are usually the trademark of multi-way floor standers. Current designs rock out with the best, not limiting their owners to smaller scale acoustic music.

Ascend Acoustics is a small company based in Southern California that offers a variety of speakers direct from factory to consumers.  Not including a traditional distributor/dealer network allows Ascend to sell products at reasonable prices, and to keep the quality control high. The speakers are designed and assembled in the USA. The principal designer and head honcho is a gentleman named David Fabrikant.

The subject of this review is the Sierra-1 monitor speaker (MSRP: $898). It is a rear-ported two way that uses a 26mm soft dome tweeter made by SEAS of Norway, and a 5.25” proprietary driver. It is of medium sensitivity with published specs of 86.5 dB. The published frequency response is 44Hz – 22Hz. Nominal impedance is listed at 8 ohms.  The cabinet is made of bamboo, an unusual choice that, according to Ascend, controls resonance. Creating the cabinet out of bamboo is also environmentally conscious as it is a sustainable natural material. There is also proprietary resonance control material in the cabinet the company calls VLAM. The speaker pairs are hand matched and measurements for each speaker are supplied to the customer.

glossyMy review samples arrived in espresso gloss. The finish quality was very impressive, and not just for this price point.  There are two high quality speaker binding posts. The speakers were packaged very soundly, with an excellent manual and, as a classy touch, a pair of white gloves for which to handle the speakers.  My first thought when unpacking the Sierras was, this does NOT look like an $898 speaker.  It reminded me of models by other manufactures costing three or four times as much.  

The Sierras are broken in slightly at the factory before shipping, but Ascend recommends an additional 50 hours. I did hook them up to my AV system and did not start any critical listening until the 50 hours was up. I did so mainly in my system comprised of Audio Research tube amplification, QED, Acoustic Zen, Transparent, and Kimber cabling, and my front end is a Naim CD player with external power supply. The speakers were placed on a pair of high quality stands filled with sand and lead. The room is relatively small, roughly 12’ x 10’. The speakers come with removable, acoustically transparent grilles, which I opted to leave off for all of my listening. The manual recommends the speaker be positioned so the tweeter is at ear level, which I did. My stands were slightly too short, so each speaker was also placed on a 4” block of myrtle wood.



Testing

My initial impression was surprise at the authority of the lower frequencies. The bass was BIG, tuneful, and believable. We are talking about the kind of bass you feel in your chest.   This is not what you would usually expect from a sub $1000 two way.  Many assume they have to mate their small monitors with a subwoofer.  I’m not a huge advocate of subwoofers, as it's usually a arduous task to integrate them correctly with high quality imaging monitors. Dialing it in is a hair pulling endeavor.  I have a feeling that any prospective owner of the Sierras will not have the inclination to go down that path.

As the hours went by, I became aware this was a high performance monitor that was punching way, way above its weight class. The amount of musical detail being presented was quite startling. I have owned many pairs of classic British monitors, where the midrange rules, along with an overall balanced presentation. The price paid is that a lot of detail gets tossed off a cliff, but there is never any penalty paid in the form of listening fatigue, beaming tweeters, or booming bass as a distraction.   I found myself wondering if a change in direction might be welcome. My reference monitor is the Harbeth Compact 7ES. It is a two way, front ported speaker.  When I first replaced the Harbeths with the Ascends, the soundstage shrunk a bit, which I expected, as the Harbeths are roughly twice as big and are actually on the larger size for a monitor. Yet the specificity of images was startling and surpassed my reference.

backThe spacial relationship between instruments on well recorded albums was world class. An example would be the xylophones that accompany Lisa Hannigan on the song “Teeth” from her first CD, Sea Sew (2008, ATO Records).  It was as if you could “see” the mallets striking and the delicate bell like tones were “in the room”.  Her vocals weaved between the various instruments, but rendered with an immense purity as the glue that held it together.

I found myself hearing the littlest things on CD’s I was already intimately familiar with. Case in point, the overlooked, and truly excellent remastered Beatles “Capital Albums” box sets. These were the “American” versions of the classic Beatle albums, originally released on Capital Records with slightly different track listings, mixes, and eq, supposedly more to the taste of American audiences at the time. I must have had “Rubber Soul” in my collection since I was 11 years old. And yet, I managed to get NEW information thru the Sierras on such key, classic tracks as “My Michelle”, “I’ve Just Seen a Face”, and “Norwegian Wood”. I actually said to myself, this might be the closest I will ever get to hear what the engineers at Abbey Road studios must have heard during mix down.

Another example is from the Malian legend, Salif Keita, on the track “Madan” on his album Moffou (2009, Decca Records). It’s a very complex arrangement, with a mix of dense African percussion, stringed instruments, electric bass, and call and response vocals. The Sierras were able to make sense of this and unravel it in a coherent and exciting way. This track is sure to trip up lesser contenders, with the potential of disintegrating into a blob of sound. Not here.

All the popular music I listened to with the Sierras was amazing at allowing me to hear how “wet” the vocal was. The amount, and type of reverb applied was always apparent, as well as the singer's relationship and distance to the microphone. This is NOT what sub par monitors deliver, I can assure you.

Sound-staging, important to the convincing reproduction of classical recordings, was top notch. With the various orchestral pieces I spun, the Sierras were quite good at carving out each group of instruments, but maintaining a seamless whole. On a few well recorded recordings of large scale orchestral works I popped in, the depth of the hall was easy to distinguish; although I could have used a bit more of a “woody” tone.

To cover my final musical base, I used various classic jazz recordings. Coltrane’s remastered “Impressions” (2008, Verve) was a real revelation. The brassy tones of Elvin Jones’ cymbals were also impressively “in the room”. And of course, Coltrane’s saxophone came thru with a dimensionality that speakers at this price have no right reproducing. These recordings also spotlighted the fact that the Sierras were very good with dynamics.  There were natural swings between quiet moments and crescendos.

The soft dome tweeter offered silky, detailed highs that were never artificial.  I’ve been mostly partial to soft dome tweeters, but lately, I have become more open to the idea of alternatives. And indeed I have heard tweeters made of more advanced materials that were very impressive.  So I was very moved by the detailed, yet organic sound offered here.

The risk of hearing all this wonderful detail is that you become analytical, instead of an enjoyer of music. I never felt that way with the Sierras. I was being drawn in closer to the artist’s performance, with lip purses, breathing, and emoting from vocalists becoming more obvious, and as stated before, each layer of instruments becoming more distinct. I really felt the little Sierras were just sending the message along, and if you aren’t enjoying what you are hearing, don’t blame the messenger, but the recording and mastering engineers.

Working strictly from memory, the Sierras remind me a bit of the Acoustic Zen Adagio Junior ($3500) monitors. I had them in my listening room a while back, and came away very impressed. The Zens also had bass extension that belied their size, and imaging was very precise.  The Zens had slightly bigger dimensions than the Sierras, and were a bit much for my small listening room.

Quibbles?

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.

cdAnother 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.


Manufacturers Specifications:

ASCEND ACOUSTICS, INC.
934 Calle Negocio Suite D
San Clemente, CA 92673
Tel 949/366-1455
http://www.ascendacoustics.com
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)






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