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Quintessence Acoustics Shadow Loudspeaker
Arnis Balgalvis
The audiophile voice, volume 3, issue 4

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Here is a loudspeaker that stands tall and proud among the very best products that the high end has to offer. And the loudspeaker game is, as far as I'm concerned, the most heavily contested. I see the Shadow as a very bold statement in today's two-channel scene, showing how much is possible in getting a pair of speakers to really sing, despite the constraints of multiple cabinet-mounted dynamic drivers. I am very taken by its astounding sonic capabilities, the elegant presence of the final design, and by the substantial construction techniques incorporated here. At Quintessence's $19,500 asking price, it better be good. I'm here to tell you that it is.

Just what is it that makes me so sure?. Very thorough research. I have traveled far and wide to hear this speaker under a number of very different conditions. On this quest, literally involving coast-to-coast distances, I auditioned the Shadows at the '97 WCES in Vegas, at the studio of Quintessence Acoustics' Tom Campagna near San Diego, at the home of fellow Audiophile Society member Bill Brassington, and, of course, in my own listening room. Since I was potentially going to suggest that someone seriously consider spending $19,500 for a pair of speakers, I wanted to be on the safe side of the situation.

I was willing to invest this level of time and energy for another very good reason. I am not very enamored of reviewers who set up loudspeakers only in their "revered listening rooms" and proceed to draw "infallible" conclusions. I'm sorry, but that's not good enough for me. To be sure, there are a couple of instances I can think of where the reviewer's listening environment is way above average. David Robinson and Tom Norton, who are both in the magazine reviewer business, have custom-designed, dedicated listening rooms, and Shannon Dickson is in the process of doing something very similar. I'm sure there are others. But in general, the perception of the myth about audio that the reviewer's listening habitat is somehow blessed by the Audio Gods is way out of touch with reality.

The biggest disservice to the industry are a reviewer's negative comments generated under these egocentric conditions. Not only are the readers misled, but a number of very fine speaker designers have had to endure economic hardship, while others have been put out of business altogether.

As far as the Quintessence Shadows are concerned, I am confident that they were evaluated under a wide variety of conditions, situations seldom encountered in a review. The four environments I was able to use were as different as could be hoped for. Even in my own listening lair, I position speakers in for review in two very different locations. I do this because my normal listening position does not allow most speakers to display all they are capable in the lowest lows. Hence position number two, where I get bass galore but the imaging and staging suffer.

Included in this investigation was a wide variety of equipment as well. Let me just summarize by saying that tubes and solid state as well as digital and vinyl were involved, and refer you to the "Notes" sidebar. If you are wondering why I have included the '97 WCES as an experience of significance, let me just point out that the sound at the Quintessence room was one of the highlights of the show. How much so? So much so that Steve Bednardski of Balanced Audio Technology was heard a number times telling people to go listen to The Shadows in the Quintessence room. And that's with Steve knowing that they were driven by Convergent Audio Technology tube gear. The sound in that room was that outstanding, and the incident also shows what type of individual Steve is. By the way, this kind of congeniality has greatly diminished in the high end over the last few years, a situation which takes a heavy toll on the community aspect of this beloved hobby of ours.

The Product

Unless the room is really prodigious, the Shadows are sure to assert themselves with a pre-eminent presence. Each Shadow features a total of eight drivers, and Quintessence rates then at 94.5 dB SPL efficiency (one watt/one meter). They stand 63 inches tall, have a 17 1/2-inch wide by 22-inch deep footprint at the bottom, and end up 10 inches wide by 6 inches deep at the top. The system consists of two parts, a woofer section and a midrange/tweeter section. The woofer portion contains two drivers, an 11-inch unit in a ported enclosure and a 9-inch driver in a sealed box. This section is basically a truncated pyramid with sloping sides and front, but the rear surface is vertical. The bottom dimensions are as I mentioned earlier, while the top of this woofer portion has a surface that is 12 inches wide and 14 inches deep.

The mid/tweeter enclosure sits on top of the woofer section and is held in place by two 1/4 x 20 bolts accessed in a recessed opening on the rear of the unit. A critically time-aligned phased array with a total of five drivers per side is incorporated; the centrally placed ribbon super-tweeter is flanked vertically by a pair of tweeters, which in turn are next to the two midrange drivers.

The drivers are positioned to form an arc where the focus is intended to be located at the listener's ear position. Having a 10-inch-wide by 13-inch-deep footprint, this section extends upward for 18 inches, where the front takes a bend forward at an angle of roughly 15 degrees. This brings the midrange and tweeter drivers situated at the top closer to the plane of the lower midrange and tweeter in order to avoid interference problems at the listening position. If you look closely, you will see the lower mid driver and tweeter mounted on a slightly sloping surface also.

Yet another tweeter, the sixth driver per side, is mounted on a sloping surface at the top-rear of the mid/tweeter section and is angled to fire up and behind of the cabinet. From there, the back of the tweeter/midrange enclosure is flat and vertical, lining up nicely with the rear surface of the woofer. Both the super-tweeter and the rear-firing tweeter have controls to adjust the level, and you can silence the rear-firing unit entirely. The system is intended to be bi-wired, as each section has a set of binding posts.

There are several examples of attention to very fine detail by the maker. Examination shows that the mid/high crossover is located in the rear and halfway up the enclosure. This central placement is deliberate to keep the lengths of wire to the flanking midrange and tweeter drivers equal. Tom is also convinced that even small vibration irregularities can alter the sound of a transducer, so he goes to great lengths to isolate and damp critical components. The crossover, which is isolated by 1 1/2-inch thick damping materials from disturbances by cabinet vibration, has additional pieces of damping material at critical spots on the circuit board.

Besides utilizing a few crossover techniques that he was not willing to reveal, Tom was emphatic about putting to good use some parallel trap circuitry. This topology goes a long way towards reducing resonant ringing points, especially in the tweeters. And speaking of tweeters, let me point out that each tweeter is rebuilt completely even though it is a very fine Focal design. Quintessence feels that the tweeter frame has to be replaced with one manufactured from their proprietary inert material, again to keep resonances down.

Did I say keep resonances down? Cabinet vibration, I'm sure, is at the top of their sonic enemy list. Quintessence incorporates three-dimensional bracing that sends reinforcements in every conceivable direction inside each enclosure. That's why the woofer section has walls as thick as 4 inches in some sections and yet the Shadows do not have the appearance of being heavy.

But think again. Unless the dealer delivers the Shadows, be prepared for a heavy-duty workout in setting them up: These speakers weigh 210 pounds per side. Fortunately, each speaker is made up of two sections, which greatly simplifies movement and assembly. In my case, I was able to put the pieces together by myself, after the ordeal of getting all the boxed pieces down the stairs into my basement listening area.

I must single out the appearance of the Shadows as one of the most aesthetically pleasing designs in the vast world of loudspeakers. Delivered in piano black, with black speaker griIles to match, the presence of these speakers is one of unmitigated elegance. The Shadows have generated many oohs and ahhs for their looks alone from everyone who has visited my listening room, justifying Tom's efforts to make these speakers user friendly on a sum-total basis. An interesting visual touch is discovered at the rear of the mid/tweeter section. Even though the crossover components for the mid/tweeter section are mounted in a recess on the rear surface, Tom has chosen to display them by providing transparent covers for the crossovers.

It should be pointed out that the version that I reviewed and what Quintessence is now shipping has been changed to make it more versatile to set up, Tom Campagna tells me. The 9-inch woofer is now also port loaded, instead of residing in a closed enclosure. However, they do supply a plug for sealing the port and returning it to the state of the speaker I now have. According to Campagna, the above option was added to increase the bass output in the 30- to 90-Hz region in recognition of the wide variety of listening environments likely to be encountered by any loudspeaker. Time constraints did not permit me to have the speakers I reviewed modified, but I will keep you updated as soon as it happens. Having said that, I hope you do not dismiss this review as yet another work-in-progress situation. That's not the case. This speaker has so many positives going for it that it would be you, dear reader, who would be short-changed if you did so.

The Firm

Why do I bother with a company that is not a household name, that is not widely distributed at least in US of A, and whose dealer count is not quite up to the magic number of five! It's because they, like a number of other companies, deserve a chance. How do you get work experience without a first job? Quintessence is fast out of the starting blocks, at least in the Far East, and I know full well why they deserve a break. It's their marvelous sound. I hope this review will get them the attention they need.

According to Tom, Quintessence Acoustics is here for the duration. And just who is this Tom to make such a statement? He's an extremely dedicated audiophile who, after many years of listening and talking about it, decided to stop talking and do something concrete.

Don't get the idea that this is some brand-new upstart outfit. On the contrary. They set up shop in 1992, and Quintessence has been making serious waves for a number of years with their flagship model, The Stealth. Sporting a cool $55,000 price tag, Tom's been finding buyers for these beauties in the Orient for more than three years. Now, in addition to The Stealth, Tom is also shipping the $12,000 Studio, which was previewed at Hi-Fi '97 in San Francisco, and, of course, The Shadows.

Campagna is not into this by himself. He has had the good sense to work with an established industry resource in the form of Peter Noerbaek, who heads up PBN Audio in the capacity of Chief Engineer. PBN is an "OEM" firm specializing in speaker manufacture. Peter has designed some very well-received products himself with the XP ($15,000) and the SP ($3,500) models. PBN Audio also builds speakers for other firms such as Cary Audio, Soloquily, and others. At the present time, Quintessence and Noerbaek share joint design responsibilities for the Shadow and a new product, the Summit. Peter has been concentrating on the crossover design effort, though with some input from Tom also, while Campagna did the aesthetic design, driver complement, crossover parts selection, and the final voicing.

On my visit to Quintessence Acoustics' studio in San Diego, I was able to hear a nearly finished prototype speaker system of Quintessence's next project. Named appropriately The Summit, this speaker was awesome. In appearance, it is a scaled-up version of the Shadow, but sonically it was far more than just "scaled up." The Summit is Tom's new statement, and it will start in the "around forty" kilo-buck area. When finished, he intends to have crossovers in the digital domain as well as incorporating many other very exciting technical highlights which he asked me to keep under my hat. The final pricing will be commensurate, let me assure you.

The Sound of The Shadow

The Buddhists contemplate the sound of one hand clapping, while Simon and Garfunkle sang about "The Sounds of Silence." Here I was faced with the sounds of The Shadow. It is one thing to hear something at a show and another to live with a product. When it became apparent that I would be reviewing the Shadows I had mixed feelings. To be honest, I had an attitude. I mean, just how much better could these $19,500 speakers be than, say, the $3,500 Paragon Regents or the similarly priced Sony SS-M9s? Of course, the Shadows would be better, but to what degree? Just how much room for improvement is there? Well, let me tell you I was in for a BIG surprise!

It seemed obvious the Shadows would be able to play loudly, what with all the drivers used in this speaker. And this they did. What caught me off guard was the quality of loud, clean sound that was now possible. The dynamic contrasts now revealed were simply stunning. And this does not only apply to violent sounds, such as rim shots. No, the resolution was present across the board. Bowed violins, voices, plucked instruments, be they guitars or lutes; you name it, everything was cleaner, clearer, better resolved and revealed. As a result, the presentation was more enjoyable, involving, and thrilling.

But this speaker is not only about loud. The single most pleasant surprise was the transparency. This is one speaker that does not take a back seat to any other, The Shadows are in the driver's seat! Urged on by something very transparent to begin with, like the Krell FPB-600 with TARA Labs' Decade or Purist Audio's Dominus cables, there was a see-through quality unprecedented in my listening room. It was thrilling and mesmerizing. The presentation was much more accessible, now that a number of significant layers of grundge were very apparently just not there to obscure the finer points of the sonic scene. More masking components were out of the way, and this allowed finer points of the musical event to be revealed.

For example, hearing the JVC's XRCD CDs became a much more dramatic experience because the advantages of this very refined process were revealed more clearly. It was also exciting to revisit some older vet beloved CDs. The true worth of an improvement can best be assessed by playing a favorite disc that has not been heard for some time, say a few months. This is a case where familiarity breeds contentment. Well, the Shadows were overwhelming in this regard. Not only was there new information revealed, but the incremental improvements in many areas could now be heard, presented in a manner that had a sense of fitting together, a feeling of being comfortable. Palpable and pleasant, yes. But it was more than that.

And that's because there was a second truly outstanding performance parameter appearing in the form of imaging. I am really at a loss for words to describe what The Shadows can do in throwing up what seems like a hovering cloud of spatiality, and yet without sacrificing pinpoint imaging within this vast soundstage. What abounded was a profusion of detail aglow with sonic presence.

There was many a time when I would be shocked to realize that this was, after all, a design utilizing eight drivers per side. To say that the drivers blended very well is not enough. There was no such thing as hearing crossover points. This was acoustic synergy at its best. The speaker behaved as one large instrument filling the room with a seamless spectral and spatial presentation dazzling the senses with an impression that is very credible and, for me, indelible.

Image stability, focus, and subtle spatial cues appear with the precision of a mini-monitor, but without constriction of dynamics or low-frequency performance. The Shadows excelled in a most remarkable fashion at implying the weight and power of some large sound source, such as a full orchestra or a big band. Fortunately, listening to solo instruments and voices did not give the impression of exaggerated size or proportion.

Call it palpable, pleasant, or plausible. Maybe alluring, articulate, or captivating. But this speaker is more than that. It really has something else going for it.

This characteristic had to do with big picture aspects that melded in a way unique to The Shadows. Like the replication of dynamics, the even spectral balance, the transparency, the low coloration, the combination of imaging and spatiality. Some refer to this as voicing but that term implies an assignment of a personality. I am talking about something at the opposite end of scale from that. This is a neutrality and sublimation of character that appeared to be an active ingredient, a tactile unity that ingratiated itself to me whole-heartedly.

What I am talking about is state-of-the-art replication of reproduced sound, a sound that, within this context and under the right circumstances, will make your hair stand on end. Or tickle your fancy in some other equally thrilling manner. Few speakers have the capacity to provide the listener with such a rewarding bounty of sonic pleasure, and yet that is exactly what the Shadows have managed to deliver to me consistently and convincingly. Give Quintessence a call, and see what can be arranged; ask Campagna about their new 30-day home trial program.

You just might end up as overwhelmed as I am. And as satisfied. These are my new reference speakers.

for the passion, for the love of music
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