Audience ClairAudient 2 + 2 Loudspeakers Review 
Home Theater Loudspeakers Bookshelf/Monitor Loudspeakers
Written by Andre Marc   
Wednesday, 06 October 2010

Audience LLC was formed in 1997 and is located in San Marcos, CA. In their relatively short life span, they have become one of the elite designers and manufacturers of state of the art signal and power cables. They also produce highly regarded power conditioners, high resolution capacitors, and the Auric Illuminator, an optical disc enhancement kit.  My only experience with Audience products is the Auric Illuminator, which I found to work wonders on compact discs and DVD's to improve resolution and help with problematic discs.

Audience has also recently entered the loudspeaker market. Far from being satisfied with a conventional product, they have decided to take a different path. This approach was formed over a long period of time, with much trial and error, proprietary technology, and determination. Add to that a unique vision. Audience has gotten a lot of buzz and several high profile endorsements for the ClairAudient Line Source Array loudspeaker. The original Audience speaker was the vision of the late Richard Smith whose idea was to overcome the common limitations and compromises inherent in most loudspeaker systems.

The ClairAudient Line Source Array has no crossover which, according to Audience, eliminates many issues including phase anomalies. They claim this reduces distortion, produces a more accurate waveform, and proper transient response. The ClairAudient uses multiple, full range drivers that produce a flat frequency response from 50Hz to 22Khz, with the lowest frequencies reproduced by a separate subwoofer. It also features what Audience calls SweetSpace(tm) Imaging Technology that provides an expanded optimal listening area over conventional loudspeakers.

Driver FrontAccording to Audience, “the A3S driver is a breakthrough full range loudspeaker driver design comprising the patented XBL motor, patent-pending suspension and patent pending basket. The A3S is built like a high power subwoofer driver using a large neodymium motor structure, big voice coil and suspension venting. The A3 is ultra responsive at 2.5 grams total moving mass providing state of the art resolution and dynamic range. The A3S sports 12mm of usable excursion with less than 1 dB compression at levels up to 95 dB SPL. “

What makes this first loudspeaker offering from Audience so interesting is that it's available in driver configurations of 4, 8, 16 or 32 drivers! As mentioned before, some very high profile high performance audio journalists have indicated that the ClairAudient is a breakthrough product; which brings us to the subject of this review, the ClairAudient 2 + 2 stand mounted monitor. The ClairAudient 2 + 2, as its name might indicate, is a bi-pole mini monitor that uses four of the Audience A3S full range drivers that radiate from the front and from the back, plus a passive radiator to enhance bass frequencies.

The 2 + 2, again, features no crossover and no separate tweeter or midrange driver. The ultimate goal, according to Audience, was to provide a seamless presentation and integration of all frequencies. Some of the final notes on the 2 + 2's construction is use of custom internal wiring, and exotic, locally sourced cabinet finishes. My review sample was supplied in a beautiful African Sapeli finish. The speakers can be provided 4 ohm (standard), 8 ohm or 16 ohm impedance ratings as well, pretty unique, for best results with the partnering amplifier. The review sample was 4 ohm rated, and specified at 90 db efficiency. The 2 + 2 is priced at $5000 per pair.

Driver SideJohn McDonald, Audience's CEO and President, invited me to his home for an initial listening session to see if I was interested in doing a review in the first place. I found Mr. McDonald to be very passionate about Audience, highly intelligent, and an all around gracious man. I arrived at his home with a CD-R of very familiar recordings to give the 2 + 2's a first listen. His excellent system consisted of Audience designed Class D amplification, Audience cabling, and an Audience modified digital source. (See an interview with John McDonald at the conclusion of the review.)

The speakers were toed in pretty severely (45 degrees), and they were on 28 inch stands, which McDonald recommends. My initial impression was that I was clearly listening to something different than a run of the mill mini monitor, with a standard driver array and crossover. The sound stage was much larger than I had anticipated given their size, and the room was filled with large scale, lifelike music; even more surprising considering McDonald's living room was not small by any means. I would categorize it on the larger side of medium.  After getting a handle on the presentation, words that came to mind were "warm", "spacious", and "coherent". When I mentioned to McDonald that I don't often get to hear tweeter-less, crossover-less speakers, save for panel designs, he said something that stuck with me, "“the 2+2 are direct coupled to your amplifier”. I also came away pretty impressed with the bass performance. I will state clearly here that it was the highest quality bass I have heard from a monitor that size, bar none.

Set Up and Listening:

I set up the 2 + 2 first in my bedroom system to give them break in time and casually get to know their personality. They were put on 26 inch Atacama sand filled stands, and driven by Belles electronics and QED speaker cables. After about a week, I was ready to move them into the main system; normally occupied by my Harbeth Compact 7ES3 monitors. I first hooked them to the 200 wpc  solid state McIntosh MA6600 integrated amplifier and Transparent speaker cables. The results are exactly what I heard at McDonald's, but now I was able to understand what the 2 + 2 were doing in my familiar set up and room.

With the McIntosh solid state powerhouse (McIntosh MA6600 Review), the 2 + 2 was smooth, detailed, and very seductive.  Again, the bass was seriously impressive for monitors about a third bigger than the classic LS3/5A design, of which I owned two pairs in the past.  After a good amount of listening sessions, I was ready to come to a few conclusions. First, the presentation was as close to an electrostatic panel, the holy grail of seamless as I have heard from a box design. And this was with none of the typical limitations of an ESL, specifically inadequate bass and limited volume levels.

Audience Front AngleI also had on hand the Manley Neo Classic 300B tubed mono block amplifiers on hand for a pending review. The Manley’s output is rated at 11 wpc in Single Ended mode and 24 wpc in Push Pull Mode. I was surprised how easily they drove the 2 + 2’s without breaking a sweat.  And the sound? Simply gorgeous.  Just to cover all bases I also used my main amp, the Audio Research 50 wpc VS55 with stunning results as well.

I remember hearing the track “The Cuckoo” from the great Pentangle’s 1968 classic, Basket of Light, on big, expensive Martin Logan’s, and being astounded at how wide the soundstage was and how individual instruments seem to hang in the air, free in space, like a holograph. Hearing the track on the Audience 2 + 2’s came as close to that experience, which I have been chasing ever since, as I have found to date. It was especially true with percussive instruments, like piano, vibes, cymbals, and bells.  

Richard Thompson, a hugely underrated singer, songwriter, and guitarist, best known for his work with the classic English folk rock ensemble Fairport Convention, has for decades consistently put out superb albums, including 2007’s Sweet Warrior. This excellent recording serves the brilliant songs well, with Thompson’s, close miked husky singing voice hanging in space, and his stinging electric guitar work weaving in and out. The 2 + 2’s really shown here, providing a very intimate presentation and an “ in the room” experience.

To provide a bit of counterpoint, I threw on the new disc from Malian legend, Sailf Keita, La Difference. The title track has officially cast me under its spell. It features, dense,  West African modal vocal melodies, percolating percussion, snake like lead guitar lines, and pulsating bass. A complex, dense track, with Keita’s soaring lead voice on top. Through the 2 + 2’s it was a real treat, with a tightness and a completeness to the sound that can easily trip up any loudspeaker with even minor shortcomings.

I must also point out there was a very small period of adjustment for the 2 + 2’s. Initially, I felt the sound was a bit overly warm, and that there was a bit of loss of high frequency detail.  But, and this a big “but”, everything just sounded so “right”. The coherence, the smooth midrange, the beautiful integration across the whole frequency spectrum sounded as natural to me as live music. Why did I have to “adjust”? I have some theories. I have always thought that most conventional designs have tweeters that overly emphasize the treble and that most crossovers add some amount of distortion. But I also felt that ultimately, the best speaker designers could compensate for this. After hearing the 2 + 2’s my theory is that most audiophiles have become conditioned to the “beaming tweeter” and just live with it as the accepted way high end speakers are supposed to sound.

Another way of putting it is that people who dine out frequently have been conditioned to think that overly salted or overly sweetened food is “tasty”. When this heavy handed over seasoning is removed, the food is thought to be “bland”.  But nothing could be further from the truth, it is just that things are being presented correctly.

During the review period, Audience sent an entire set of their cables to work into the system. This included their single ended AU24 e interconnects, speaker cables, and their PowerChord AC cables. I believe the system went to a new level with the Audience loom installed. I don't know if it was the synergy of an all one brand set up, or the fact that the 2 + 2 are internally wired with the same high quality copper as found in the Au24 e line.  Either way, the presentation went to a different dimension. I am impressed enough that a full review of the Audience cables installed will follow down the road.

Conclusion:

I believe after spending well over 500 hours listening to the Audience ClairAudient 2 + 2 monitors that its a breakthrough product.  Using them with at least three amplifiers, tube and solid state, various cables, and in two different rooms confirmed that that the 2 + 2's provide a natural, coherent, and seamless sound. There is nothing artificial or ginned up about their presentation. They remind me very much of my days listening to my father's Quad ESL's when I was a teenager. Except the 2 + 2 can handle lots of power and have plenty of bass.  While some listeners may, incorrectly, in my opinion, get an initial impression of too much warmth, I believe this is due to being conditioned to the unnatural sizzle of many tweeters and due to the distortion introduced by many crossover designs.

I found my time with the 2 + 2's immensely rewarding musically. I never found my self growing fatigued, bored, or unengaged. I really believe those shopping for a top class monitor should really find a way to hear these. Besides their sonic beauty, they are also beautiful too look at, and will integrate into any decor.  The 2 + 2's are extremely well made and are hand crafted at Audience's factory in Southern California.  The 2 + 2 is the result of a long period of development and pursuit of a vision. If that vision includes an untarnished, coherent, and dynamic window into the music, I say well done. Highly recommended.

An Interview with John McDonald of Audience LLC:

AVRev: Can you tell us about how Audience got started, and did you have a certain philosophy in mind when you entered the marketplace?
 
JM: Audience was formed in late 1997 with the primary purpose of designing an ideal loudspeaker. Our efforts towards that vision continued over the past 13 years. The idea…instead of working around conventional design limitations like disparate drivers and crossovers…was to not have those “work around” problems in the first place.  The vision was to have a highly resolving, highly coherent, highly dynamic low distortion one way loudspeaker. Over the years we tried a great many approaches.

John McDonald ShotApproximately three years ago we gave up thinking that it was not possible to achieve our goal. At the time we were using already available full range drivers. However, those drivers could not do the entire job that we envisioned. As such we then set out to design a better loudspeaker driver, the result of which proved to exceed our expectations. The Audience proprietary 3 inch full range A3S driver itself is truly a breakthrough in loudspeaker design given its frequency range, long and linear excursion, power handling/output and low distortion. Its 12mm excursion is something you would ONLY expect to see only on a larger woofer.

The long excursion coupled with very light moving mass of 2.5 grams and exceedingly powerful motor control of the patented dual gap XBL2 magnet…provides a combination of traits heretofore never achieved in a small full range loudspeaker driver…wide bandwidth, seamless and high resolution, high dynamics, high power handling/low distortion and linear response.  The Audience A3S driver is at the heart of the ClairAudient 2+2 design and has enabled the Audience vision to come true. Throughout the years of developing an ideal loudspeaker Audience developed other award winning high end cables and power conditioning products for which it is now well known.

 
AVRev: Can you gives us more detailed information about the technology, construction, and benefits, of the 2 +2, and the  A3 driver?

JM: The ClairAudient 2+2 is not just another monitor speaker that we threw together to start making speakers. It is the result of many years of development and perseverance to a long held dream.  It is entirely unique.  There is no other loudspeaker on this planet that embodies all of the significant traits of the 2+2…at any price. Yes, that is an enormous statement. However, here is the list:

  • No crossover/highly coherent/single line source
  • No disparate drivers…see benefits at http://www.audience-av.com/parts/a3faq.php 
  • Wide bandwidth
  • Ultra high resolution
  • Highly dynamic
  • Exceptionally linear and seamless response
  • High power handing/low distortion
  • High efficiency

Now let’s look at the construction of the speaker. First, note that each speaker is equivalent to two speakers. The 2+2 would work, and will work, as a mono pole 2 driver speaker…this product will also be made. The cabinets are all handmade by J&F Wood Products in Riverside California, 40 year veteran loudspeaker cabinet makers. The cabinet edges are radiuses for low cabinet diffraction.  The wood is 13 layer Baltic Birch and is dado adjoined for superior rigidity.  The front and rear plinths, made by Neil Feay in Santa Barbara California are CNC machined from aircraft quality aluminum. The aluminum plinth baffles provide a number of benefits, primarily for exceptional construction and mounting rigidity AND eliminating cabinet obstruction around the inside of the drivers. Whereas mounting drivers into wood inherently means that the sides of the cut out mounting holes are close to the emitting waves resulting in a cavernous type sound reflection.

All of the internal wiring is made with the highest quality OFCC (mono crystal) wire. The OFCC wire strands are the same as used in the renowned Audience Au24e cables. The wire, Cardas binding posts and harness solder joints are cryogenically treated. Inside the cabinet there are no parallel walls and no fibrous damping materials that absorb low level information. The proprietary cabinet interior is much like an anechoic chamber with all that implies. The extraordinary seamless imaging that you get with the 2+2 is representative of sound staging that is only possible when a great many factors are correctly in place.
 
The ClairAudient 2+2 sound is much bigger than one would expect from a small loudspeaker. Just turn off the lights or close your eyes and hear for yourself. You do not get the feeling that you are listening to a small speaker. In fact, the speakers virtually disappear. The large soundstage is not what one would normally expect to hear from a small speaker. The ClairAudient 2+2 therefore offers an opportunity for superior sound reproduction in smaller rooms where larger speakers are not an option.

 
AVRev: It is always a challenge to introduce audiophiles to new concepts and technologies. Are you looking forward to the task?

JM: Yes, very much so! Playing music for people through the ClairAudient loudspeakers is the fun part of this endeavor.


Listening Playlist

  • The Clientele: Minotaur (2010) Merge Records
  • Salif Keita: La Difference (2010) Decca Records
  • Preservation Hall Jazz Band: Preservation (2010) 
  • Ray Lamontagne: God Willin and the Creek Don't Rise (2010) RCA Records
  • Ray Lamontagne: Till the Sun Goes Black (2006) RCA Records
  • Yes: Going: For the One (1977/1994) Atlantic Records
  • Bert Jansch: Black Swan (2006) Drag City Records
  • Richard Thompson: Sweet Warrior (2007) Shout Factory Records
  • Grateful Dead: From the Mars Hotel (1974/2006) Greatful Dead/Rhino Records
  • John Coltrane: Soultrane (1959/2006) Prestige

Testing System 1

  • CD Player: Naim CD5 XS with Flatcap 2X,
  • Preamp: Audio Research SP16
  • Amplifier: Audio Research VS55, McIntosh MA6600, Manley Neo Classic 300B Monos
  • Speaker: Harbeth Compact 7ES3, 
  • Cables: DH Labs, RS Cables, Kimber/QED/Acoustic Zen (AC)/Transparent (AC)/Element Cable, Shunyata, Pangea, Audience
  • Accessories: Symposium Rollerblocks, Shakti Stone, Sound Anchors stands, Timbernation platform, CablePro Noisetrapper

Testing System 2

  • CD Player: Marantz 5003
  • Music Server: Squeezebox 3
  • Tape Deck: Revox A77, HHB CD Recorder, Edirol 96/24 WAV recorder
  • Preamp: Belles Soloist 3
  • Amplifier: Belles Soloist 5
  • Speaker: Spendor S3/5R
  • Cables: Kimber/QED/Transparant/Shunyata(AC)/PS Audio(AC), Pangea Audio, RS Cables, Element Cables.





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