Price of tested version (in Germany): 4400 EUR
Robert Bastani ǀ Schloss Str. 44a ǀ 55296 Lörzweiler
Manufacturer's website: www.bastanis.com
Country of origin: Germany
Text: Marek Dyba
Photographs: Marek Dyba
Published: 1. July 2012, No. 98
As far as I know, Bastanis is almost unknown on the Polish market, at least when it comes to final products, as I found some information about Bastanis projects on DIY forums. What's more, I had also never heard of this company until about a year ago. For me it all started with... TransFi tonearm.
There is another connection – the TransFi's tonearm and turntable are quite different from most products on the market, and Robert's loudspeakers are also something special. Bastanis are open baffles and horn speakers – surely not the most popular types these days. Those who knew that I am a fan of SET amplifiers and thus high-sensitivity speakers must have already realized that I was really tempted to listen to the Bastanis. After all I have my own 300B SET (modified ArtAudio Symphony II), my own horn speakers (Jericho based project with Voxativ full-rangers and Fostex horn supertweeters), and for the past couple of months I've been using the JAF Bombard speakers that in fact are some kind of open baffle. Ever since I listened to huge open baffles with PHY drivers I wanted something similar for myself – the only problem is the size of my room that is simply too small for such „space-craving” speakers. The OBs made by Robert Bastani are not that big plus he uses large (10, 15, 18''), paper cone drivers for them. All that sounded like my dream come through. If that wasn't enough for me I read about Robert preferring dipole bass and tweeters, offering final products and kits (naturally costing a lot less plus giving the buyer a satisfaction of “building” his speakers with his own hands). Obviously that would not be a totally universal sound fitting each audiophile's expectations and preferences but it looked like it could be exactly what I wanted. How could I resist and not ask for a pair for a review?
Before I did that and after I had talked to Vic I did a quick search on the web. I found some reviews (mostly in the USA and Germany) and I realized that at least a few reviewers – such as Clive Meakins (ETM.com), Steven Marsh (6moons) and Amre Ibrahim (Hifistatement) – kept these speakers after their reviews, which clearly confirms the high level of performance of Bastanis OBs. Vic simply called Robert a genius and gave his highest recommendation to his products, so I didn't wait any longer and just dropped Robert an email. I have no idea whether there was some communication between the two gentlemen but Robert answered quickly offering a pair of his speakers for a review. I have to mention one thing as it shows Mr. Bastani’s approach when contacting customers – before sending me the speakers he asked me (in details) about my room, speakers placement, where I sit, distances from the walls, etc., plus what electronics I wanted to use with his speakers. After getting all the answers he suggested that his OBs would not fit best into my room, as they needed (surprise, surprise) more space around them. He said they would not perform bad, but would not have a chance to show what they were capable of. Instead he offered me his newest product – horn speakers called Matterhorn. Quick look at the manufacturer's webpage and I knew I wanted to listen to them – I forgot the OBs with a smile on my face. The Matterhorn is a horn speaker in a large enclosure with a 15” wide-range speaker and a tweeter. Let’s see – 100dB sensitivity, 15” paper cone driver, dipole tweeter, horn enclosure plus a statement that the speakers sound very well with SET amplifiers, but also with powerful solid-state ones. Wow! It sounded like somebody tailored a speaker for me. I also checked the price – the version I was supposed to receive cost 4,400 EUR – couldn't say it was cheap, but comparing to my other favorites like Avantgarde Acoustics it did not seem that bad. In fact most horn speakers on the market cost much more, so it seemed reasonable, plus there was always a possibility to buy a DIY kit for much less. There was (of course) one downside – each piece weighted 50kg (my horns are even heavier but I had to get them to my fourth floor several years ago, when I was younger). But it was too late to withdraw and the temptation was too strong – I decided to sacrifice my back one more time and we agreed with Robert on the delivery.
Recordings used during test (a selection):
I had to wait for the delivery a bit but it finally got here 2 days before the Polish long weekend in the beginning of May. Getting them to my apartment was a great challenge but I managed to do that with the courier’s help (thanks one more time!). I was however so exhausted that I decided I’d start to listen to them after I come back a week later. It took me less than two hours and two glasses of wonderful Merlot to recover and regenerate and after that I realized that if I went for my short holiday without even trying to listen to Matterhorns it would surely have been a very non-relaxing holiday. I received the Bastanis speakers with two pairs of tweeters – the standard ones and the dipole ones called Gemini, costing the additional 600 EUR. I started my audition with the regular tweeters and the Matterhorns hooked up to my modified ArtAudio Symphony II (Tom replaced regular transformers with those from Diavolo), which is a SET amp built around the legendary Western Electric 300B tubes. As I mentioned before Robert claims that the Matterhorns perform equally well with s-s amplifiers, but considering their 100dB sensitivity I had to start with my SET (also because my own horns and some others I had a chance to audition never sounded too good with solid-states). I used those 2 days I had before vacation to listen to this rig and... to be honest I wasn't really thrilled. I left for holiday a little disappointed but it was bugging me the whole time I was away. I had an access to email during my vacation so I exchanged some emails with Robert and received some clues from him, including suggestions about speakers’ placement. So when I came back home I made some adjustments, changed the tweeters to Geminis and swapped amplification for my other system which consists of the Modwright LS100 (tube preamplifier) and the KWA100SE (s-s power amp) and... I started to like what I heard very much. Sure, I was also rested after the holiday which always helps with a more “friendly” perception of sound. But the more time I spent with this system the more I liked it, despite solid-state amplification! It sounded great and... not really like horns. Horn speakers usually offer amazing midrange, but their sound is also somewhat colored and both range extremes are rolled-off at least to some point. It is easy to love such sound as the midrange, carrying around 80 percent of the whole music information, is unbeatable, the presentation coherence of a single driver is outstanding, with high-efficiency and great dynamics being additional assets. If you can accept the flaws (mostly rolled-off extremes) you can spend the rest of your life with such speakers. If you can't live with these flaws you have two choices – either buy some other speakers or add tweeters and maybe also a subwoofer/s (you lose some of the coherence of course). I lived with horns for quite some time, accepting their flows, loving their advantages. Then I added tweeters and a subwoofer. Then I became a reviewer and horn speakers were not a good choice for a reviewer even though they offered fantastic, holographic soundstaging, musicality and realism/palpability of the midrange that no other speakers (except for better horns) could rival. The problem is that they offer all that only with low-power tube amps. Sure there are Avantgarde Acoustic speakers that can be driven with any (good) amplifier, but they are simply out of my (financial) league and an active bass module also makes them not the best tool for a reviewer. So for some time I used my horns (mostly for my own pleasure) and other speakers (like JAF Bombard) for my reviewer’s job but believe me that moving around two pairs of heavy speakers is no fun at all if you have to do it regularly. Thus finding a single pair of speakers that would allow me to enjoy the music in my “off time” and also use them for reviews became my priority, obsession even. The Genesis G 7.1f came close but the active bass module was a problem for the reviewer’s job. Now it seemed that I might have finally come across speakers that would sound well with low-power SET and s-s amp – I needed to check if they were also capable of clearly showing differences between various system components.
My first impression – the Matterhorns are full-range speakers. Their manufacturer does not offer any technical data (apart from sensitivity) so I don't really know their frequency range, but from what I can hear there is plenty of bass, including the lowest one, and there is great, nicely extended treble, too. And just against my whole experience the 100dB horns perform damn well with my solid-state amp, plus their price doesn't kill you. Well, OK, 4,400 EUR is not some pocket money for most of us, but look around on the market – that's surely not a price that would scare off most audiophiles (unlike so many prices one can see nowadays). Also if you can't afford 4,400 EUR then you can choose the kit, build them yourself and thus get great speakers at a very reasonable price. Not only that but tons of satisfaction to boot ‘cause you may brag about them to all your friends saying that you built them. That last aspect might be particularly attractive to many people. It is almost a DIY activity and you don't need extended knowledge about building speakers to assembly a kit. I realize that working with your own hands takes time and effort but believe me (and that comes from a guy whose “DIY-ing” is limited to rolling tubes and swapping his horn drivers for better ones) that even such simple activity can bring amazing amount of satisfaction. You put it together, plug it in and... it works! Wow! What a great moment, how proud it might get you – try it yourself. Anyway, I received the final, beautifully finished product for this review – this way Robert could be sure I wouldn't mess anything up during assembly.
As already mentioned the Matterhorn looked like my dream come true – a horn with a huge 15” paper-cone driver. I'm definitely not a fan of the ‘narrow front’ loudspeakers trend that's been dominant on the market for several years now. Manufacturers keep on trying to get bigger bass from smaller and smaller woofers to make smaller cabinets that would better fit in people's apartments – that seems to be their new objective, not the best sound anymore. In my opinion a large diameter woofer will always offer more natural bass – it might be not so impressive/aggressive as from many bass-reflex designs, but it gets some much closer to what you can hear at live concerts. That's my opinion and I'm not going to claim it is the “absolute truth” but you should check it for yourselves.
The new Standard tweeters are... standard tweeters from the line of a manufacturer... but they also offer a phenolic diaphragm and the frequency response is linear up to 20Khz, the efficiency is 102dB and the level of distortions is extremely low, even at high listening levels. In comparison to other expensive tweeters the Standard tweeters compare very well but the Gemini’s are a class of their own...” Both standard and Gemini tweeters are placed inside heavy, wooden horns, square or rounded; these in turn are plugged to binding posts placed on top of the Matterhorn cabinets. The cabinets are quite heavy at 50kg a piece. They look a bit like huge monitors as the cabinet is placed on three metal legs that are fixed to a solid plinth. These are floor-firing (or floor-loaded) horns so such design always gives a proper distance from the horn exit to the plinth but you need to remember that floor-loaded bass means working together with the floor, so the distance cannot be too large. That's very important because there are no feet or cones under the plinth which might be a problem on some floors (like mine). You might want to use some kind of ‘feet’ but you need to remember they have to very short – Robert recommends maximum 1cm high and he suggests trying different materials (wood, cork and so on). In my case I used the Slimdiscs from Franc Accessories and they worked very well. Without them I got a lot of bass but it was rather boomy. When I slid the 3 Slimdiscs under each speaker the „boomy” effect was gone and I could enjoy a pure, taut, and powerful bass. Then I had some work finding the best position for the speakers in my room; although all other horns I’d had before were very simple to set – no toe-in at all – this time I had to toe the Matterhorns in a little as this position worked best. Since the Geminis are dipole tweeters and they stand freely on the cabinet you can always try different positioning for them – the main cabinets might be toed-in but the tweeters shooting straight ahead. You need to find the best position in your particular room.
When I was finally happy with the setting I started my auditions (with the Modwright amplification). If this had been a movie I would have placed here “a week later...” logo, because that's more or less how long it took me to stop enjoying the music and start auditioning the Matterhorns. During that week I just placed more and more discs in my CEC transport, more and more vinyls on the Salvation, and more and more files in my computer playlist. Although I started with some of my favorite recordings I soon found myself listening to albums I had not heard for a long time, wondering how they might sound with the Matterhorns in my system. Then I started to search for some recordings that might prove me wrong in my “glorifying” the speakers under review. But I failed – the longer I listened to them the more I liked them. Why? That's the hard part – sometimes it's not easy to express what you feel or how you feel it. I could just say that the Matterhorns presented the music in a way that touched my soul – but that would not tell you much, would it? So how about that: have you ever attended a live concert where music was not really your favorite? And if/when you did, didn't you eventually enjoy it simply because it was live music that you could not only hear but also feel; because there was this incredible connection with the musicians, their instruments and the ambiance? In the end you just found yourself realizing that the music was in fact quite good, the musicians were as good as your favorite ones and their instruments sounded as good as those you usually liked. I bet many of you experienced something like that simply because experiencing any live music is so much more profound an event than listening to even the best recordings over some high-end systems. But then you stumble on some amazing loudspeaker/amplifier/whatever – like the Matterhorns – and you find out that a similar experience is possible even in your room. Suddenly you realize that the sheer joy of listening to the music through these speakers is more important than what you listen to. Sure that's still “only” live music reproduction as it's not possible to get live music from any rig. Yet what's important is how close the performance gets to what we experience at a concert and in which aspects thereof. There are some great speakers that deliver precise, detailed, transparent sound; there are others that focus rather on musicality, tonality, timbre, spacing, etc. High-end speakers should be able to show it all at once; to be as close to live performance as possible – the best example I know is the Hansen Audio Prince V2.
And now I met the Matterhorns. These speakers should not sound good – a 15” driver extending up to 6 kHz?! That can't be right, can it? Yet I couldn't stop listening to all sorts of music for the whole first week, totally forgetting about my review. It was an amazing experience to re-discover many recordings in my library, lots of them completely forgotten, and what's more each time I listened to whole albums, not just single tracks. That did not happen to me while I was reviewing the above mentioned fantastic Hansen speakers, or the Avantgarde Acoustic Duo Omega, or the Genesis 7.1f, even though they were all great speakers that impressed me more than any others I’d listened to so far.
The treble (especially with the Gemini tweeters) is amazingly spacy, tuneful and vibrant. I kept looking for different recordings with xylophones, triangles, bells (and similar instruments) just to savor how vibrant they sounded, how wonderful the “ringing” in my ears could be. I don't mean anything negative by “ringing”; rather something often experienced during live concerts – there is this ringing in the ears that doesn't stop once the cymbals, triangle or whatever stop vibrating, but you can “hear” it bit longer and it's a great experience. As expected from horn speakers the space was holographic; both its size and the impression of palpability. I felt as if not only the music, acoustic ambiance and the audience “happened” in the space created by speakers, but I was also drawn inside that space, becoming a part/participant of the musical spectacle. It never felt as if I were observing the music from a side, or from a large distance – I was always part of what was going on in the recording, I was involved at least emotionally in it. That's exactly why I simply couldn't resist listening to more and more (particularly live) recordings, and just as I never leave real concerts before the end, I couldn't stop listening to the very last note – I don't remember using the “pause” button. I was so involved in the performance that I couldn't risk losing a single second of it, as if it were to never happen again. Of course you can always play the same recording again and again but with the Matterhorns I never remembered about that – there I was, taking part in some special, one-time event and nothing could draw me away from it.
And last but not least – the sub range expected to really shine when listening to horn speakers – the midrange. As I already mentioned (probably more than once) the midrange offered by my own horns is simply unrivalled by any other speakers I’ve ever heard (maybe except the Avantgarde Acoustic) – the Voxativ full-rangers are that good. But being objective I must admit that it has partly to do with the less than outstanding range extremes; I mean they are very good for a full-ranger, but objectively not as good as from best tweeters and woofers so the midrange really shines through being so much better than the rest. When it comes to the Matterhorns at the beginning I was impressed by both extremes but slightly disappointed with the midrange. It seemed like the 15-incher could not really deliver good mids – they weren't so clearly, distinctly better than treble and bass. It took me a while to realize that it was simply the case of the midrange not dominating other frequencies but rather perfectly complementing them. That's why I was initially missing something but on the other hand that's why the whole presentation was so much better, more complete, more even throughout the whole frequency range. A strong, taut, tuneful, very well differentiated and articulated bass, smooth, rich, colorful midrange and amazingly airy, spacy, detailed, sparkling treble. Thanks to the minimalistic crossover the presentation is nearly ideally coherent – much like a one driver speaker, but truly full-range. I mentioned that these speakers look somewhat like huge monitors, and they also sound like ones – they disappear from the room completely.
All that happened with the Modwright amplification, which by the way I appreciate more and more the longer I listen to it (meaning at least 1.5 years now). But eventually I had to try the speakers with my 300B SET. Robert Bastani wrote that although due to their 100dB sensitivity the Matterhorns work well even with the 45 SET (output power of 1-2W) and obviously with the 2A3 or 300B (ca. 8W), the best rig he heard was with more powerful SET amps based on the 845 tubes. I'm not looking for any other tube – the 300B is my choice so, as already mentioned, I need speakers that would sound very good both with my 300B SET and with my solid-state amp, and if I were to use them for my reviewer’s job, they would have to be able to clearly show differences between any audio components I connect to the system. Yes, I know it sounds like mission impossible but it looked like the Matterhorns could be IT. They sounded damn well with my Modwright rig and with the Accuphase E-360; even the much less expensive Goldenote Micro Line (the M7 power amps and the HP7 preamp) paired with the German speakers sounded much better than I would have expected from anything at that price level. The most important message for me was that the Matterhorns clearly showed different sonic characteristics of each of those amplifiers, but at the same time even with the inexpensive Goldenote rig they showed their „magic”. So what was left for me was to try one more time to make them work (sound) equally good with my Symphony II. Fortunately it was pretty simple. SET amps (in my experience) prefer solid-core speaker cables. Thick, multi-strand ones usually don't work that well especially with full-range drivers involved. I will not even try to support my personal experience with some solid tech-based knowledge but that's exactly what my experience tells me. So my reference LessLoss cable landed in a drawer from which I pulled out a solid-core copper cable I bought (cheap) some time ago on the Audiogon – it looks just like a piece of wire but it already saved me a couple of times in situations like this one. And it solved my problem again – the sound became vigorous, alive and palpable. I was a bit surprised that the bass changed only slightly against what I heard with the solid-state amps – it was still taut, fast, tuneful and powerful. I would have expected it to lose some edge, to get softer, more rounded at the bottom – but it didn't really happen. The treble remained amazingly spacy, airy, vibrant and detailed. The only easily recognizable difference I noticed (it wasn't that big though) concerned the midrange (of course). The Western Electric 300B tubes can do that especially to vocals’ presentation – there is this breathtaking sweetness, smoothness and palpability that no solid-state can offer (and very few other tubes can). Voices that already moved me before, cheered me up, now touched my soul directly with pure, lively emotions. There was this longing in Eva Cassidy's voice, so much energy in Etta James’s, such a great zest for live from Louis Armstrong, and so much drama in Marek Dyjak's tone. There is only one way to get more of that – at a live concert (which is not any more possible for so many fantastic vocalists).
After the last paragraph you might start to think that the Matterhorns are but typical horns – great vocals, maybe some acoustic music and that's it. Absolutely not! Once I played Marcus Miller’s first recording I had to play them all (that I had) – finally I had loudspeakers capable of delivering powerful, extended, fast bass with all of its energy; capable of massaging my liver (when needed) – and all that without the damn bass-reflex! I also re-discovered drums in many recordings –something that was always somewhere there and I would sometimes notice nice cymbals or a hi-hat, maybe bass drum but only now did I realize that with some recording I could focus entirely on drums, as they sounded (finally) so good. There was a proper speed and strength of the stick hitting the drum; I could hear how bouncy the drum was, how clearly the speakers showed the difference between stronger and weaker hits, how much energy flowed from the drum set to the listener and how much fun that offered.
What about classical music? I already mentioned how fabulously the organ sounded but so did whole symphonic orchestras or, at the other end, small string quarters; they all sounded amazing thanks to impressive micro- and macro-dynamics, the capability to show sudden dynamics shifts, pace changes; a big, open, free presentation that could be rivaled only by very few loudspeakers I'd ever heard. I was so impressed that after the first Mozart's symphony I planned to listen to all of them in a row (knowing very well that not all of them were so great). There was so much of the composer's zest for life portrayed in the music that it was really hard to resist (I finally didn't do it after realizing that it meant nearly 2 days of continuous listening). I also contemplated the amazing Chopin's music performed by Josef Hofmann. These recordings are really old; there is a lot of noise, cracks and whatnot in the sound but the performance is so amazing and the sound so natural that you forget about the technical downsides after one minute of listening (tops).
I'm not a great fan of electronic music but this time I simply had to listen to one of my favorite soundtracks – to the “Blade Runner” – or some Andreas Vollenweider’s albums. Regardless of what I listened to there was always one thing in common – the Matterhorns were able to deliver the essence of each recording – the music itself and emotions that it carried, plus most of the times I felt like participating is some amazing event. So are these perfect speakers that do everything in the best possible way? From where I stand they can perfectly do everything that really matters (at least until other speakers prove to me that it could be done even better) if you are interested in enjoying the music, participating in it, living it. Sure, there are some speakers with higher analytical abilities, some capable of delivering even more details in a slightly more precise way; some with even better defined bass – the already mentioned Hansen Prince V2 can do it all while being still very musical speakers. But to have them at home you need to spend circa 40k USD (not sure if the newest version doesn't cost even more). If that's what you expect and that kind of money is not a problem – go for it. But if we consider the price/performance ratio I don't see any competitors for the Matterhorns, being as they are quite versatile speakers fully capable of delivering any kind of music you like, as long as you drive them with a decent quality amplifier (decent source is obvious, too). You get the speed, the details, the amazing 3D spacing, the bass power, the sparkling treble, the sweet, smooth midrange and you don’t just listen to music – you live it. Ain't that something? Is there a way to play music in the “Matterhorn way” but even better? Robert Bastani claims there is, as his open baffles with active bass modules should be even better performers than his horns, offering even more open, richer, and more colorful sound. After listening to the Matterhorns I find no reason not to believe him and I envy the people who have rooms big enough to try/use his OBs.
The Matterhorn is the newest addition to the German Bastanis’ portfolio. It's their “top of the line passive speaker.” It's a floor-firing horn design with a 15” wide-band driver and a tweeter. It looks a bit like a huge monitor as the cabinet is placed on three metal legs that are fixed to a solid plinth. There are two tweeters for the customer to choose from – a standard one, and a dipole one called the Gemini (at 600 EUR extra – although it is included in the price of the reviewed version). The tweeter is installed in a heavy, wooden square or round horn enclosure that is placed on top of the main speaker's cabinet next to the binding posts that are used to connect the tweeter. Each tweeter has permanently fixed cables terminated with banana plugs. The main binding posts are located at the bottom panel, with a large custom made graphite resistor with silver leads installed between them. The resistor is paralleled to the drivers helping to flatten the response characteristics in the upper midrange (where it takes out some energy) and also to flatten the impedance, making the speakers perfect partners for tube amps. The enclosure is made of 30mm birch ply plus (in the reviewed version); there is an additional thick front panel finished with thick natural veneer. Robert prefers to keep the loudspeakers details his secret (which in understandable) so I only know what he decided to share with me. The basic diaphragm material of the 15” wideband driver is paper that undergoes special treatment (it's oiled and lacquered). It works up to 6 kHz and rolls-off naturally at this frequency – no crossover whatsoever is needed. From the 6 kHz up the job is handled by a tweeter with a phenolic diaphragm. The regular tweeter is “standard from a manufacturer who makes them”; the extra cost Gemini also undergoes some special in house treatment (as Robert said, without his treatments it’s limited up to 17Khz, with the treatments the Gemini tweeters easily climb above 20Khz). There is only one crossover component here – a single capacitor (also custom made). The customer may order speakers in a different finish – the reviewed model is one of the most expensive available.