Published: 3. December 2012, No. 103
The name Ascendo is surely familiar to many HighFidelity Readers. Not only have we had a distributor (Soundclub) in Poland for some time now, but also Wojtek has already reviewed Ascendo SYSTEM ZF3 S.E. some time ago. I, on the other hand, did a review of a System F model for HiFiChoice. I'm also sure that if you read any reviews, or maybe auditioned Ascendo speakers for yourself, you already know that these are speakers different, at least in some ways, than most other available on the market. German designers of these loudspeakers use namely some quite unconventional solutions. It happens to be true also for herewith reviewed C8 Renaissance. They are part of a different line (different than two models mentioned before) called C, but these are no ordinary „boxes” either. Just have a look on attached pictures. First of all what category C8 fall into? They are called „standmount” as they come with stands, but they are large enough (80cm height) for floorstanders. But that's not all that makes them different. How many drivers do they sport? One? If you take a closer look you will notice that the driver in the front baffle is a coaxial driver, so there are in fact two transducers. Now have a look at the back panel – there is a ribbon driver (called by Ascendo TOS), so there are three? You might think that only until you start listening to them – none of these drivers can deliver SUCH an impressive bass performance. Indeed, there is another driver, 21 cm Kevlar bass woofer mounted inside cabinet, and „communicating” with the outside world via port placed on front baffle, below coaxial driver. So a four-way speaker? Yes, unless you switch off the TOS unit, cause than it will be a 3-way not 4-way anymore. I told you there were unconventional speakers...
Recordings used during the test (a selection):
- Marcus Miller, A night in Monte Carlo, Concord Records, B004DURSBC, CD.
- The Ray Brown Trio, Summer Wind, Concord Jazz, CCD-4426, CD.
- Luis Armstrong & Duke Ellington, The Complete Session, Deluxe Edition, Roulette Jazz 7243 5 24547 2 2 (i 3), CD.
- Al di Meola, John McLaughlin, Paco de Lucia, Friday night in San Francisco, Philips 800 047-2, CD.
- Keith Jarret, The Köln Concert, ECM, 1064/65 ST, LP.
- Beethoven, Symphonie No. 9, Deutsche Grammophon, DG 445 503-2, CD.
- Renaud Garcia-Fons, Arcoluz, ENJ94782, CD.
- Carlos Santana, Shaman, Arista, B00006IR5V, CD.
- Eva Cassidy, Eva by heart, Blix Street 410047, FLAC.
- Cassandra Wilson, New moon daughter, Blue Note; CDP 7243 8 37183 2 0, FLAC.
- Georges Bizet, Carmen, RCA Red Seal 74321 39495 2, CD/FLAC.
- John Lee Hooker, The best of friends, pointblank, 7243 8 46424 26 VPBCD49, CD/FLAC.
- Muddy Waters & The Rolling Stones, Live At The Checkerboard Lounge, Chicago 1981, Eagle Rock Entertainment, B0085KGHI6, CD/FLAC.
- John Mclaughlin and Carlos Santana, Love devotion, surrender, SONY, B0000AKY7R, CD/FLAC.
It looks like both of us, Wojtek and me, had similar experience with Ascendo speakers. We know they can offer amazing sound but to get there one has to make some effort and spend some time adjusting the system, speakers positioning in a room and so on. Because these are surely not a type that can be placed anywhere in a room, plugged to any amplifier and will sound great just like that. I wasn't so fortunate to have at my disposal few amplifiers, sources and cables to chose the optimal ones, but I did what I could to, at least, position speakers in my room in the best possible way. And that took some effort and sweat, as I even re-arranged my room at some point to give these speakers more space. It was the least I could do to let those, very promising speakers sing.
Before we get to the sound I'd like to mention the TOS, a ribbon, magnetostatic tweeter, sitting in upper part of a rear baffle and thus firing towards back wall. Whether you use it or not depends first of all on its how far it sits from the back wall – if it's too close you'd probably have to turn it off. Of course there is also a matter of personal preference – if you rather enjoy using Ascendo without TOS working – go ahead, switch it off. As for me, I like strong, crisp, vibrant treble, huge soundstage filled with air surrounding each instrument, good presentation of recording's ambiance. That's exactly what I get from a dipole Gemini tweeter in my Matterhorns, and that's exactly what TOS delivers if you give it a chance. Obviously each user has to decide for himself, but if you care for my advice – give TOS a chance, and give it on some longer distance, as you might have to get used to it. In my opinion it's definitely worth a shot.
As I already mentioned these large, but still, monitors, might get you by surprise with their powerful, hefty bass. One might be even more impressed if unaware of a bass woofer hidden inside cabinet. Obviously it depends on what kind of music will start the auditioning session. In my case it was, by coincident, Isao Suzuki's Blow up recording. I guess, I mentioned Aquamarine tune, opening this record, already many time, as since I listened to it on Hansen Audio Prince V2 speakers, it became kind of a benchmark of speaker's bass capabilities. To be exact it allows to assess how well extended it is, and whether or not it goes down to the very bottom with proper weight and richness. Hearing that bass on not so big C8 one risks a classic „jaw dropping” experience. Isao Suzuki's bass goes in this piece down to the very gates of hell, and the sound has full energy, richness to the very bottom. Well it wasn't so perfect as with Hansens, but still it sounded better than many bigger, floorstanding speakers did. Only few loudspeakers are capable of such rich, deep, tuneful and nicely differentiated sound of that amazing instrument played by brilliant musician. The bass is not only strings and not only huge soundboard. It's about the proper balance between both. So when it's played, the sound is not just a short pluck of a string, as it's followed by resonance in a soundboard that in fact might have more weight and last longer than the sound of string itself. Some speakers that deliver very tight bass can't really play bass so well, as they tend sometimes to cut the resonating sound, delivered by soundboard, short which destroys the beauty of its sound. But Ascendo, even though few would complain about their grip, play bass in an amazingly true, realistic way, presenting its whole complexity, and richness. At least I was so amazed that after that first recording of Suzuki I continued with more great bassists including, of course, Ray Brown, confirming again and again my preliminary impressions.
And than I „jumped” to Marcus Miller and his electric bass guitar. The point is that often speakers that play bass in such an amazing way don't deal with short, tight electric bass so well and that's exactly how Marcus Miller usually plays. Some speakers have a problem following a speed of Marcus play. Ascendo surprised me again dealing with relaying immediate attack and a fast decay, or quite the opposite – nice long decay, effortlessly, making it sound easy to deliver. I was also impressed with great timing and the level of energy delivered by C8.
It seemed only natural to move to some rock music – using both Salvation and AD FONTES turntables I played the black Metallica record, AC/DC's Live and Pink Floyd's The Wall, among other records of course. That allowed me to confirm all previous observations – there was a strong, energetic sound, with hefty bass, and impressive pace&rhythm that I truly enjoyed a lot – all that delivering so much fun and distracting me from my „reviewer's responsibilities”. On the other hand there was not so much to analyze – none of this recordings is an example of a perfectly realized one. Even the special edition of Metallica, even though the best one I know, isn't, not even The Wall, which is quite good but still not an exemplary recording. What's interesting in the latter (apart from music and lyrics, or course) are all these special effects/sounds – helicopters, explosions and so on, plus spatial effects, that guys from PF loved so much. All these elements might be a subject of an assessment. That's where TOS comes really handy because it increases significantly ability of C8 speakers to create huge, detailed, very well, precisely aligned space. I'm not saying that without TOS all that is gone – of course not. But this ribbon tweeter helps to create even bigger, more convincing space, makes it easier to watch everything that is happening somewhere there deep down the soundstage. That's why Ascendo portrayed so amazingly well all those spatial effects on Amused to death.
There was only one step from Roger Waters to Muddy (the latter playing fantastic concert with guys from Rolling Stones) and later I just carried on with electric blues, including such masters as John Lee Hooker, Eric Clapton, BB King and Stevie Ray Vaughan. After spending the whole day with this music I realized that for future reviews I should rather use some music I don't like. Why? Because when I started to play my favorite blues I wouldn't stop until I realized that my neck hurt from rocking my head, my toes hurt from tapping the floor and that the whole day passed by without me really noticing. Since the very interesting Oprah's review with Steven Taylor (that you can find on You Tube) was still fresh in my memory I had to check my toes for any signs of deformation (if you don't know why, you should really check out this review). They were OK but I had to wonder, what would happen if I were an owner of C8 Renaissance for some time? Well, the joy these speakers brought, delivering blues with fantastic pace&rhythm, in a way that allowed me to truly feel this music, was definitely worth the pain of hurting feet and neck. Blues might not be the most sophisticated music of all, but still each of these musicians is brilliant and relaying that in such an accurate way is a tough task for many speakers, but not for Ascendo. You might think that any system, any speakers can play the blues, but I heard many speakers that couldn't deliver either pace&rhythm, or feeling, or mood, and with just one of those elements missing blues wasn't blues anymore. Speakers have to deliver this music in such a way that listener can feel it and as a blues fan I have to say that there were not so many systems that let me enjoy blues that much, as reviewed speakers did. Ascendo C8 plus my ModWright amplification „felt” the blues damn well, period.
Yet another step and off we go from blues to jazz. I decided to spin a disc with recording of another two guitar masters – Carlos Santana and John McLaughlin. That's another recording from years ago, and might also not be the perfectly realized one, but despite of that, or maybe because of that (?) listening to it with Ascendo in my system was a great, refreshing experience. Santana's bit syrupy, very emotional guitar sounded sweet, lush even, but somehow creating a perfect harmony with more stringent, though as sophisticated John's guitar.
Speakers delivered every detail, every subtlety in each musician's play so nicely captured in the recording. It's not easy to deliver so sweet sound of the electrical guitar in a way that leaves no doubts that it is in fact an electric guitar and not some keyboard pretending to be one – there must be still some roughness, sharpness in the sound, it's always there, when guitar plays, no matter what. The other guitar, more raw sounding, with sharper edges of each sound really complemented Santana's, like it couldn't really exist without the other, like only together they created a whole.
As I mentioned this is also not an example of a perfectly made recording, but while listening to it with C8 in my system I didn't think about it even for a second – it was all about music, emotions, about being involved in a wonderful experience. German speakers makes you listen to the music, not to the sound. And it's not about hiding flaws of the recording, about making sound more beautiful, nicer than it really is – Ascendo don't do that, as they don't really have to. It's about fantastic coherence of the presentation, about how natural it is – so it's bit like with live concert – something must be really, really off to take away the pleasure, the enjoyment the performance gives you. So until there are some critical mistakes made during recording's processing you just tend to accept it as it is.
But still if for whatever reason you want to analyze the recording you will find its flaws in Ascendo's sound – they are there. An example – after above mentioned recording I decided to play Santana's Shaman, and this time from the very first piece it was obvious that this recording was a victim of so called „loudness war”. The C8s were not willing to cover that up – as the saying goes: sh.t in sh.t out. Their capability of focusing listener's attention on music, instead of sound, is amazing but it has its limitations, and obviously Shaman went beyond their limits. Another example – most recordings of U2. I love the music but I hate the sound and Ascendo couldn't do much about it – sound was flat, bright, no real space, and not even TOS unit could do anything about it. You can't blame them for it – there is no magic, so they won't make poor recording sound great. They do relay the true nature of each recording focusing listener's attention rather on music than on the sound, which helps to enjoy, at least to some point, even those less than perfect recordings. That's quite a rare feature – most so „truthful” speakers like the reviewed ones deliver all the flaws of every recording in such a way, that usually you can't enjoy them anymore. Other speakers, that make some recordings sound better, nicer, do so but at the cost of lower resolution, roll off at both frequency range extremes and so, which is not, what most audiophiles expect. The Ascendo C8 combine the ability of delivering truth about recordings, with another ability of exposing their musical virtues. That make brilliant recordings sound fantastic, but also allows to enjoy these bit less perfect ones, each time getting a taste of what's most important, most valuable in each of them.
C8 can satisfied even such a „mid-range freak” like me. From my point of view it is the presentation of vocals and acoustic instruments that is the basic feature of any loudspeaker if I am to consider it even for my own personal use (hypothetically of course). Of course I moved already past the times where midrange was all I needed to enjoy music, but it is still very important to me, and both range extremes should only compliment the midband. If I have to I can accept some compromise in treble or bass, but never in the midrange. The point is that there are almost no compromises when it comes to Ascendo. Even though these are „only” monitors they deliver powerful, well extended and tuneful bass, vivid, detailed, airy (especially with TOS on) treble, and both these range extremes combine with rich, smooth, colorful midrange in a wonderful, coherent way. Vocals sound like they were delivered by good widerange speakers – palpable, rich, emotional , sensual and with proper texture. C8 are capable of delivering amazingly intimate presentation of vocals, that gives listener an impression like the signer was singing only for him standing just a meter or two away.
That's also how I perceived most recordings of acoustic instruments – my favorite acoustic/classic guitars delivered rich, strong sound, all the small details – fingers sliding along strings, touching the soundboard and so on. The way of presentation was very convincing, it was easy to forget I listened only to the recordings and not to Paco de Lucia, Paco Pena and others. Also brass instruments sounded very true, vibrant, with beautifully relayed tone, with palpability on a level that I rarely experienced.
Midrange, namely, just as other parts of the band, is very well differentiated, it's offered with great resolution, selectivity and clarity which allows listener to follow any instrument he likes without much of an effort, no matter how big the band is. Let me repeat one more time – the TOS unit takes a lot of credit here, so I can't really imagine too many people turning it off. It enhances the size of soundstage, its precision, clarity, ambiance, there is more air with it on, it helps to create more 3D images on the stage. It helps even the great piano to sound fuller, richer, more powerful, more realistic. You want proof – I suggest a session with Jarret's Koeln concert. You will experience (yes, experience) this fabulous concert in a way you probably never did before. I was simply surrounded with the audience and all of us, together enjoyed and admired what an extremely talented guy could do with his piano, simply having fun.
What I still needed to be sure that these were complete, versatile speakers was their performance in large, classical music. Beethoven's 9th Symphony on one hand, and Carmen with amazing Leontyna Price on the other – these are two recordings I like to you during my tests. The former proved that C8 were fully capable of relaying huge dynamic range of that recording. It was hard to imagine by the looks/size of these speakers that they would deal with dynamics and scale of this symphony, but they did very well, where many, bigger speakers failed before them. They did also very well on low listening levels, delivering as many details as at much higher volume levels.
Listening to Carmen using Ascendo you have to appreciate and admire the mastery of Leontyna Price. I guess this particular recording was also the most comprehensive test of the reviewed speakers. Wonderfully palpable, sensual and very clearly articulated vocals, the power and clarity of the orchestra, huge, precisely defined soundstage with singers and choirs moving on it most of the time – all that delivered with utmost precision and every detail included in the recording. You could simply „see” it all happening in front of you, you could feel true emotions and be touched by the story – a spectacular performance.
Ascendo C8 Renaissance seem to be a true achievement of German designers. It is one of the not so many products, that despite significant price are, in my opinion, not only worth every penny you have to pay for them, but, comparing to the competition, even more than price would suggest. First of all I think that most people could not say, in a blind test, that these were standmounted speakers. Secondly despite the fact, that when TOS unit is on, these are 4-way speakers, they offer amazingly coherent sound. Both range extremes are too nicely extended to tell (still in a blind test) that these are single-driver speakers, but for me they surely sounded as one in terms of coherence. There are very few speakers (at least that I know of) that offer so much more than one would expect judging by their look. Of course there are many small monitors that deliver exaggerated bass to pretend being bigger, but even if they can full you at the first moment you quickly realize that it doesn't sound right. But not in Ascendo C8 case – yes, the sound seems bigger, more powerful, more dynamic than you'd expect judging by their size, but the longer you listen to them the clearer it becomes that there is no cheating here, that the designers managed to push these speakers to the limits, but without crossing the line. There is a sweet, smooth, palpable midrange, crisp, airy, vibrant and spacial treble, and powerful, well extended, tuneful bass with a nice grip and very good timing. But what amazes even more is this coherency of the sound, how well all 4 drivers work with each either delivering sound reminding single-driver speakers. Knowing economic reality in our country I can't say that these are inexpensive speakers – 25 kPLN for most Poles sounds way too much to pay for speakers, but at the same time it's not a „crazy” price yet, and the price/value factor is damn good comparing with competitors from the same price level. I'd say that if you consider purchasing speakers from 20 to maybe even 40 kPLN price range for 20-35sqm room (Manufacturer suggest they are intended for use in rooms < 100 m3) you should definitely add C8 to your list of speakers for auditioning.
Ascendo C8 Renaissance is a large 3/4-way, standmounted speaker, using proprietary Ascendo's solution called SASB, and a ribbon tweeter unit call by the Manufacturer a TOS. The former is about using two drivers the reproduce lower midrange and bass. One driver sits on the front baffle, and the other inside cabinet, working is a closed box, while the other side of the diaphragm radiates to the other chamber that is ventilated with a port placed on front baffle. The outer driver is current damped with semi-symmetrical band pass. Unit working inside cabinet is a 21cm Kevlar driver, and the unit on a front baffle is a coaxial driver with 17cm woofer with XP cone and a 25mm Neodymium-fabric-tweeter. A switchable TOS unit, which is a ribbon tweeter is placed on the back baffle and works in another, small, closed chamber. Speakers sport a double binding posts which allows to drive them with a single amplifier, but also to use bi-wiring or bi-amping. Monitors are to be placed on special bases equipped with adjustable cones underneath, and finished with black, piano lacquer. There are five round deepenings in the upper surface of the bases – before putting speakers on bases one needs to put five rubber dampers into these. Speakers are available in one of five different finishes – 4 natural veneers and a black, piano lacquer.
Technical data (according to the Manufacturer):
Dimensions: 28/80/40 cm (without base)
Base dimensions: 40/30,5/40 cm
Speaker's weight: 35kg
Base's weight: 14kg
Frequency response: 29 Hz – 32 kHz
Power: 350 W
Sensitivity: 88 dB/1W/m