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Ascend Acoustics Sierra-1 Monitor Loudspeakers Print E-mail
Wednesday, 26 August 2009
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Ascend Acoustics Sierra-1 Monitor Loudspeakers
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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.


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