Franco Serblin KTÊMA
Price: 99 000 zł (para)
Distributor: Grobel Audio
ul. Ogrodnicza 63, 05-082 Babice Nowe
tel. +48 501 421 445
WWW: Franco Serblin
Country of origin: Italy
Text: Wojciech Pacuła
Photographs: Wojciech Pacuła, Franco Serblin
Last year (2010) it's been exactly 30 years since Franco Serblin presented to the world his first loudspeaker system called Snail. That's no mistake - „system” and not just a „set of speaker” as Snail was a concept with two small speakers (monitors or satellites if you will) and a single subwoofer. They were literally, mechanically coupled as two small satellite speakers were mounted on long extension arms with a subwoofer placed in the middle, all made of wood. Pretty unusual setup at the time, although 2+1 concept was not brand new, but only when home cinema became popular subwoofers started to play a role of a “support” for satellite speakers, and that happened years later. That's how Serblin's successful carrier started, that's how, created by him in 1980, legendary company Sonus Faber started to write its part in world's audio industry history. In February 2007 Franco sold his company to private Italian holding firm - Quadrivio SGR, same one that a year later bought audio industry legend, Audio Research. Nobody really expected Serblin to “retire” in his beautiful house with vineyard and spend rest of his life enjoying fame, glory and significant wealth. His last model prepared for Sonus faber was Elipsa – smaller version of his top model, Stradivari. Almost three years after the end of his Sonus faber era, Franco presented to the world his newest “baby”, that on one hand should be a beginning of something big, on the other hand surely is connected with his previous achievements – Elipsa and Stradivari (models that were quite revolutionary). In 2010 he was ready with the first design created for a new brand. What brand name could ace his own name? That's a rhetorical question, so this new brand-name is just Franco Serblin and the first model is called Ktêma. Well, all right – it's not that simple (it never is with Italian companies involved). Some promotional materials mention name Yter, which is a brand name of audio cables. Invoices for distributors are issued by another company, and the speakers are send from yet another firm. So to keep it plain and simple I assumed that the correct brand name is Franco Serblin.
We mentioned that already when inviting you to Audio Show 2010, where the Polish premiere of these speakers took place, but I think I should repeat the most important information given us by Serblin. As you can read on his webpage ‘ktêma’ is a Greek word meaning something like: a possession for ever - something that, over time, cannot be disputed, just like Franco's passion for building loudspeakers treated as musical instruments, can't be disputed either. Stradivari Hommage was the first model with a design opposing widely accepted standard of speakers with narrow but deep cabinets, as its form was definitely wide. Do you remember it? Cabinet was quit flat – wide front and small depth totally unlike what Franco had been doing up to this time – narrow, deep and if possible with a lute-shape cabinet. Ktêma are different – whole design is based on four arcs – narrow and protuberant in the front, two bit wider and concave at the sides and wide and protuberant in the back. Front sports midrange module including two 100 mm mid-high cardioid radiators that reproduce the significant part of the spectrum. It's achieved thanks to proper crossover points and special cut-out in the cabinet that works in a somehow similar way as bass-reflex does, delivering information from the back side of the diaphragm. Top range is delivered by, what is supposed to be top achievement of Ragnar Lian, a 28 mm soft-dome tweeter. At the back of the enclosure there are two powerful 230 mm compression-loaded and room-interfaced radiators.
One of the first people who bought these speakers was Andrea Bocelli, who later wrote a special letter to Franco.: „I just listened to my own album and felt urged to sit at my computer and write a short letter to you to congratulate you on the performance of your speakers, and thank you for the great enjoyment of listening to the music they gave me… Every recording of my voice seemed bit warmer and more beautiful! It was a fabulous experience to feel the presence of the singer right next to me… Congratulations on your everlasting passion!”SOUND
Discs used during listening sessions:
Japanese issues are available at CD Japan.
Serblin's loudspeakers arrived in a quite special moment for me – they got their place in the line between many other quite expensive devices I listened to in the last months, including also very expensive loudspeakers like: German Physiks HRS120 Carbon, Isophon Berlina, or just before Ascendo System ZF3 S.E. I would include in this list also Avalon Ascendant, my Harpia Acoustics Dobermann, that I don't have anymore but still remember their sound very well, and one of the best monitors - Harbeth P3ESR. I monitored the test, as always, with Sennheiser HD800 headphones with Leben CS-300 XS [Custom Version] amplifier and my recently acquired Acrolink 8N-A2080III Evo cable. In my opinion I had it all that was necessary for comprehensive test of the new Franco Serblin's product.
First couple of days with Ktêma were not so great as I expected. Unlike with Avalons it was not about positioning them in the room. Italian speakers integrate with a room quite easily although there are some changes in tonal balance when you place them closer to the walls or further from them. These changes are not significant though, definitely not something that would spoil the sound – it is more of a choice between different good options – more or less bass, bit bigger or smaller soundstage, but the proper description here is “different” and not “better or worse”. So I had to make a choice that would fit me best and the best per se. You might say that there is only one proper tonal balance, proper size of the soundstage and so on but when you listen to loudspeakers of such a great performance you realize that there is no one objectively best choice. And Serblin's products are surely among the best. One of their primary strengths is outstanding resolution. Absolutely outstanding! Although I know most of Serblin's Sonus faber designs I also know that these can take you by surprise with this particular feature – resolution. I mean mostly Elipsa and Stradivari, but also a very special one – Electa Amator MkI. Except for treble which is slightly better in Electa, resolution of new Serblin's babies is simply supreme. The “funny” thing is that it was the extraordinary resolution that made these first couple of days bit painful for me as I couldn't get used to it. It felt like there was too much information in the midrange. Now I realize that it was the matter of quite significant difference between Ktema, Isophone (I listened to shortly before this test) and Chario Academy Sonnet (that I used for direct comparison with Italian speakers). On the other hand I think that when they arrived they were still not fully broken in and they needed some more time to show their full potential.
The already mentioned fabulous resolution helped me to point out differences between two high-end preamplifiers - Ayon Polaris III and Thrax Dionysos. Both are top high-end devices which makes it impossible to cross-reference them with some better product and thus even to name these differences, strong and weak points. It is easiest to appreciate this resolution when analyzing low range. Yes, that is not a mistake. Bass range of Ktêma is amazing. Only once I heard something slightly better – and it came from Hansen Prince v2. Bass was even better extended, with more muscle, richer. But on the other hand Serblin's speakers were able to present upper bass range in a better way by better differentiation of different recordings, different double basses and so on, while Hansens tended to unify this subrange slightly. In general there is plenty of bass which was to be expected judging by two giant woofers at speaker's back. On the other hand it was not possible to foresee what would be the effect of their very specific placing and loading. In this particular case it seems that special design had its reasonable purpose, it was not just about making it different from competitors (which worked too by the way). The amount of bass can be manipulated by different positioning of speakers in the room but it is only a question of how much bass we get – a lot, or more than that. If my memory serves I always got a lot of rich bass from big loudspeakers in my room and I never tried to fight it – I always rather liked it. That makes recordings sound natural, with verve, never lean, never “technical” which is often a case with presently recorded music. For me THIS tonal balance is the preferred one. Does it mean that it is the best, it is natural? Neutral in the absolute sense – probably not, but to be honest such neutrality that does go with the music is not something I could accept – I deny it, kick it out, forget about it. I care about music and not about achieving perfect neutrality. Sure – neutrality is important as long as it serves the purpose. So even though Ktêma's tonal balance was slightly shifted towards low range I found it very attractive.
Tested loudspeakers made double-bass sound very natural, very interesting as it was able to fulfill large space. For the first time I heard in my room such a way of presentation of this instrument. The best loudspeakers, like the ones described here, simply disappear from my room leaving only a presence of an instrument. To achieve that I usually have to set the speakers in a way, when the straight lines coming from them cross just in front of my listening spot. Not all speakers allow such setting and than illusion is not so realistic but still good. Serblin's speakers were directed directly to my ears but it probably wasn't the most important factor. I think that the designer achieved something that seemed rather impossible – he turned speakers into musical instruments. And no, it's not really about this very special design. When I listened to jazz and when well recorded double-bass entered like e.g. Paul Chambers'es from Cool Struttin’ by Sonny Clark and …the way it was! Art Pepper's, or Ben Tucker's from same session I “saw” a double-bass instead of loudspeaker. It wasn't presented somewhere behind speaker, at the side, in front and so on (all that concerns recordings with double-bass present only in one channel), but simply in place of a speaker. Lots of air, great acoustics, and fantastic presentation of playing technique – all that thanks to fabulous resolution of a midrange and treble but unachievable without great presentation of continuous, solid rock but also vibrant and energetic bass range. I couldn't hear the driver, cabinet, reverberations in the room – just almost real-like instrument. This was a very particular experience for me.
My impression were quite similar when I was listening to electronic music, or to electric bass guitar This time it wasn't about replacing one of the speakers with bass guitar because it is usually recorded in both channels, but more about this strong and rich presentation regardless of which recording I played. Even with not so “heavy” recordings like Nirvana's Nevermind (far from perfect from technical point of view), or Playing The Angel by Depeche Mode (same here) I didn't lack anything which happens way to often when I use different speakers. That's one of the features of these speakers – they somehow support the music, even if it means playing it in less neutral way. Whenever instrument plays quietly, or sound engineer rolled it off a bit – Italian loudspeakers will give you exactly that. Ktêma offer very deep, strong bass, but it is not exaggerated, and it is really well differentiated so it doesn't sound the same all the time. This was perfectly proven by Bud Powell's Jazz Giant album including recordings from 1949 and 1950 – these are quite uncomplicated recordings and it is easy to tell that for sound engineer the piano was the most important instrument, and bass only supported it. These two instruments were surely not treated equally – bass played less important role on both sides of the record (Ray Brown played bass on side A, and Curly Russell played on B). Serblin's speakers delivered it exactly according to sound engineer's intentions. I focused mostly on a bass range as it, together with outstanding overall resolution, makes these speakers what they are. They offer “big” sound with strong, rich (maybe even too rich) midrange and pretty distinct treble. In terms of timbre balance they sound more like Harpia and Physiks than Hansen or Avalon loudspeakers. The latter two deliver more creamy sound, maybe slightly rolled off. Probably also resolution is not that amazing, and they don't differentiate sound that well.
Spacing offered by these speakers is spectacular, although presented in a different way than the one of German Physiks – German speakers are unquestionable champion when it comes to the size of soundstage, and the soundstage delivered by Hansen and Avalon speakers is more “creme”. Here everything is expressed in a bit more “raw” way – it's like taking raw steak instead of well done. Instruments are presented quite closely to the listener but their placement on the stage is very precise. It's easy to pick up sound engineers interventions or decisions they made when working with the material in studio. For many people it might be so kind of a surprise when they realize how quietly are the voices mixed into most pop and rock recordings – for example on Depeche Mode's Violator, or Alison Moyet's solo debut album (Alf). It is really difficult to present such recording in such a way that it is clear that this was a premeditated choice of sound engineer and not a flaw of recording or system. On some recordings like Close-up, Vol. 1 by Suzanne Vega or Moyet's Hoodoo it is clear that it is a flaw but you know for sure it's sound engineer's fault not system's nor recording's. Ktêma present all those subtle differences very distinctly so you have no doubts which one is for each recording – recording, system or sound engineer's fault. Speaking about vocals – Italian speakers keep the proper scale of each voice, at least assuming that they get it from the recording. There is always a perfect match, perfect balance between voice and instruments – they are shown exactly how the sound engineer intended them to be. If he wanted big voice of Vega in the front of the band – you get just that, if he planned to place vocal far away from us, hidden somewhere between instruments (like it usually is on Depeche Mode albums) – you get that. Important thing is that it is always a part of a bigger plan and not just exposing midrange, although voices usually sound a bit privileged. After I thought about it for a while I realized that these are extremely transparent, clear sounding speakers and that is why every vocal delivered with this clarity and resolution sound very natural, real and that attract more attention to it than it usually does. At the same time Italian loudspeakers are not “ruthless” for recordings or other elements of the system. I declared that already many times before – the better device, loudspeakers, cables and so on we listen to the less we care about some minor flaws and the more we focus on the music itself. There is no dissonance – it's nothing more but an urban legend that highly detailed sound is an answer for everything. Sure it is necessary but more as a framework to build the sound upon. I hope you will understand what I mean – Serblin's speakers clearly show the difference between reproducing sound and making sound – of course they can only reproduce but they do it in such a way that you can't tell for sure it only “reproduction..
I mentioned couple of times in this text that some elements of the sound are presented better by some other speakers at similar 25 000 EUR price level. I believe that Esotar tweeter used in Electa Amator is a better transducer than the one used in Ktêma, but it doesn't make the latter less amazing. Also a metal driver from SEAS used in Dobermann offers similar performance. The Scan-Speak's soft-dome is a very good one, but these mentioned above and also ceramic one from Isophon are able to deliver more firm treble. Tested speakers tend to accentuate some elements but not via more precise presentation but rather slower decay. The second small “but” is a subtle dryness of the midrange. I'm pretty sure that everybody can happily live with what Ktema deliver in this aspect but I simply remember Hansens and Avalons that delivered it in a bit more “creme” way (but without even slightest unification of this range!), so I know that there is a way to do it even bit better. That's exactly why the soundstage is not so dense, full as delivered by Hansen. It is also the truth that Prince v2 are the only loudspeakers I know better in this particular aspect.
Apart from this two small “buts” I don't see any flaw, problems and so on. These are world class, expensive as hell speakers perfectly finished and delivering absolutely top performance. Plus they are made by a legendary designer, quantity to be delivered to the market is limited, and they are simply exclusive products. Just like some watches used but blue-bloods.DESCRIPTION
Ktêma are large, weighting over 50 kg/pc loudspeakers. Their triple arch-shaped structure makes them look rather lightweight. It is one of the very few designs appreciated by all members of my family. Everything about them seems well thought-through, perfectly implemented and finished – although I would try to find another solution for top and bottom as I'm not a fan of chrome finish. New Serblin's product is a four-way and five-drivers design. They employ two 230-mm modified Scan-Speak woofers. Drivers radiate towards rigid baffle placed in front of them that deflects part of sound waves directing them to quite wide gaps between baffle and cabinet. Obviously the cabinet itself is a closed design. There are some cut-outs close to midrange woofers that allow release of air moved by the back side diaphragms. These are two 100 mm drivers with coated paper membrane and a metal phase plug. They are equipped with rigid, moulded suspensions and large magnets. There are no markings on them so I can't tell who made them. They work in a separate chamber with cut-outs at the sides. Tweeter is a coated silk dome - Scan-Speak D2905 – Serblin says it's the best driver designed by Ragnar Lian, who's one of the most famous driver designers. It is equipped with non-resonant chamber. Cabinet is made of MDF panels strengthened with steel panels at the bottom and on the top, and with aluminum panel in front which serves as a support for drivers mounted to it Front is covered with black leather. Loudspeakers are equipped with for large spikes and already known from many Sonus faber models string-grill (which can and should be taken off during listening sessions). At the back there are single WBT 0730 binding posts.
Internal cabling is designed by Serblin's son in law Massimiliano Favella and branded as Yter. These are flat, not too wide ribbons made of silver-palladium alloy. Sensitivity of Ktêma is quite high - 92 dB, but impedance drops as low as 3,2 Ω at 70 Hz which means that they require quite a lot of juice from amp, so you better get a powerful one. Ktêma is a limited model with Serblin's signature engraved to the top panel.
Technical data (according to manufacturer):
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