Great Cheap Treats: Apogee Caliper Speaker Review

Before you spend big bucks on a new set of speakers, maybe
you should check out the Only Slightly Used section first.

Review by Francis Vale

Take an English style monitor speaker and steamroller flat all of its voice coils. Stretch the now thoroughly flattened upper midrange/tweeter coils into a long and narrow foil ribbon strip. Now pull taut the lower midrange/bass units into a thin trapezoidal sheet. Finally, get the air moving both front and rear, dipole style. And what do you have? An Apogee Caliper Signature loudspeaker.

The Calipers' dynamic range and bass handling qualities are squarely in the mid-sized monitor class of speakers. Like their British brethren, the Calipers have a smooth, transparent midrange, are laid back in their presentation, and do wonderful things for human voice.

Unlike most of the monopole Brits, however, the Calipers throw a huge, solidly 3D soundstage. This is a result of the Calipers' dipolar design. A dipole speaker fires its sound front and rear, but the sonic backdraft is out of phase with the front, causing cancellation lobes that effectively cancel out sound at the Apogee's sides. Quads are also dipoles.

A true bipole, like the Mirage speakers, on the other hand, radiates its sound all in phase, and in a spherical pattern. True bipolars are therefore more 'spacious' in their sound, but are also more susceptible to side wall reflections than a dipole.

The 3D spaciousness of the Caliper's soundstage is one of its strongest points, and lends it a greater sense of realism. There are those who will object to this type of presentation, preferring a more tightly focused, thump in your chest sound. This is strictly a matter of taste. But we would argue that in a real life concert with acoustic instruments, the sound is by nature very diffuse. After all, the notes are not beamed straight at you, like some sonic laser.

Whatever, the audiophile world seems divided into two camps: Those who like planar speakers, and those who like conventional straight ahead domes. This ongoing disagreement is obviously good economic news for the seemingly thousands of speaker makers out there.

The Calipers do a number of things very well. But always bear in mind that even though they are stylistically imposing, at four foot high, two and half feet wide (narrowing to two feet at the top), and two inches thick, the Calipers are still midsized monitor-class speakers. The Caliper's bass, provided by a 37" by 14" panel, is effectively AWOL below 50Hz or so. When the bottom end really gets busy and starts to dive, doubling is not uncommon. And if the bass hits below 30Hz with any kind of punch, the bass panels will start to flap around like a wounded pigeon.

Disconcerting though this sight may be, it apparently does no harm to the speaker. Thus, there can be a gnawing sense that the lower foundation is somehow absent; but this loss is very source material dependent.

The Caliper's upper mids and highs produced by its 37" x 1" ribbon are a different story, however. On vocals, the sound is uncolored, and the treble soars. The female vocalist's heart wrenching lament on Henryk Gorecki's Symphony No. 3 (Elektra Nonesuch, 79282-2) will pierce you like a bayonet. Even older vinyl recordings transferred to CDs do well. 'Detour Ahead' by Billie Holiday is vibrantly blue, and soulfully satisfying (Blue Vocals, Vol. 2, on Blue Note, D-124729). So long as the source components hang in there, female vocals are not at all steely.

And for male blues vocals, you cannot beat Muddy Waters, Folk Singer, on the gold Ultradisc from Mobile Fidelity, (UDCD 593). On the Calipers, Muddy's anguished laments are so striking, you can get paranoid about the chain gang boss comin' to get ya for slackin' off.

In our rig, we use a Cary SLP-90L line-level tube preamp which helps tame CD harshness. In addition, the Rat Shack 3400 CD that we use as a transport, coupled with an Enlightened Audio Designs 1000 Series II DAC via an Ensemble Digiflux 75 cable, also treats voices very well. The 3400/EAD combo may not have the low end bass punch of a Krell or a Levinson player, but the Calipers probably couldn't deal with it anyway. The 3400, amp, pre-amp, and DAC all sit on top of the remarkable Black Diamond Racing Pyramid Mk3 & Mk4 Cones (see accompanying review, this issue).

As a general statement, acoustic music does very well on the Calipers. But pianos, when they choose to thunder, can be an exception. For example, Arvo Part's 'Te Deum', (BMG 78118-2003-2) which uses a 'prepared' piano for sonic shock effect, just doesn't have the shuddering impact that it should. However, this CD's vocals and strings are especially well treated. The emotion still comes through. Other en masse vocal works also do very well.

Rachmaninoff's 'Vespers' (Telarc, CD 80172) for Russian Orthodox sacred services is beautifully rendered on the Calipers. Voices are always kept distinct, and never get muddied up by the Apogees. Another good example of how evangelic these Calipers can be is a John Taverner work, 'The 'Protecting Veil' (Virgin Classics, 7590522). This piece's opening features an incredibly sustained series of high register notes, which, at first, you think are played on solo violin, but are actually being played on a lone cello. The Calipers do artistic justice to this virtuosi string work.

Large orchestral pieces, thanks to the holographic qualities of the speakers, are well treated. Although the lower notes may get slighted, the sense of orchestral attack and driving crescendos come right on through. The IVth movement finale of Respighi's 'Pini di Roma' (on BMG/DG D135381) positively soars. It makes us proud to be Italians.

Speaking of whom, Astor Piazzola, the Argentinean-born creator of nuevo tango, comes through in all his quintet's glory on the wonderfully recorded 1987 Central Park Concert CD (Chesky, JD107). The highly accurate dipoles make it quite easy to spatially locate all the instruments in a very solid soundstage. Piazzola and his Bandoleon (an accordion-like instrument) convincingly move about, never getting masked over or confused with the other player's instruments as they run through their exotic riffs. Best yet, your wallet is safe from Park muggers.

Another CD having roots in a far off place is 'Talking Timbuktu' (BMG/Hannibal D103178), with Ali Farka Toure and Ry Cooder on guitars. This CD is an amazing blending of Afromusic (Mali, in particular) and jazz. The two guitarists create cascading, rhythmically undulating waves of music that the Calipers pass through unhindered. If you don't move to the rhythms of these two players, then bequeath all your gear, as you are dead.

Brass also fares well. Mile Davis' quixotic horn playing in The Miles & Quincy Live at Montreux concert (Warner Bros. D135011) stays intact. The drummer, thanks to the deep Apogee 3D soundstage, plays his kit in the next door apartment.

The very good looking, anthracite gray Calipers like to have their volume cranked up. At low listening levels, the sound will tend to recede. At higher levels, the sound really starts to open up and otherwise hidden details begin to emerge (as will the neighbors in our high rise apartment building). But this is not a rock and roll speaker. It won't get down and dirty. It is too sophisticated in its presentation. Others may just call it laid back. So if your taste swings in the funky direction, then indulge yourself, and buy some head banger Cerwin Vegas.

The prior incarnation of the Calipers presented a very difficult load for an amplifier. It was not uncommon for the impedance to drop to two ohms or less. The Caliper Signature edition solved that load problem, and the nominal 3.0 ohm impedance stays relatively flat throughout the frequency range. Nonetheless, at 84 - 85 DB sensitivity, they like the juice. So, a high current amp with at least two hundred watts is recommended. We use a 200 watt/channel Rotel 990BX, which at $995, is a genuine sonic bargain. The Rotel pumps out the current, and doesn't get flustered when heavy demands are made on it.

The speakers have four binding posts, and are designed to be easily biamped or biwired. We biwired the Calipers with a custom made 'hyperlitz-style' cable. Apogee's Symo cable supposedly gives the best results with their speakers, but we have not had a chance to try it. Some cable comparisons may be in order here, as the speakers are quite revealing of source components. E.g., Gordana's suggestion to acoustically isolate the CD 3400 made a large sonic improvement; as did the addition of the Black Diamond Racing Pyramid Cones. So changing cables around may also produce a gain. (Can excessive cable tweaking ruin a marriage?)

Being dipoles, the Calipers like room to breathe. The factory recommends 36" to 48" out from the rear wall, and at least 8" from the side walls. In our room, 38.5" was optimal. Apogee also recommends that no more than 3/8 inch toe-in be used. We concur, and in fact, got best results with the speakers aligned perfectly parallel to the rear walls. Speaker separation is suggested to be 68" to 78". We found 82" to be best. A plumb bob is also supplied by Apogee to accurately position the tilt back angle at five and one half degrees.

No question, Apogees live up to their reputation for being fussy about set-up. An inch either way can make big difference. You will have to fiddle with them, which at 85 pounds each, makes for some exercise. Gordana & Francis pushed them around (Don't believe her. Francis did all the sweaty pushing) for several trial and error months before getting the sound pinned down. But the results were worth it.

One last word about positioning: Keep your Apogees away from direct sunlight! Last summer, we bought another John Taverner CD, "Thunder Entered Her" (Virgin Classics). The 'Angelis' opening of Tavener's choral work is dramatized by an organ playing in a sustained lower register. The Apogees sought to take wing with the angels every time we played this section. The flapping of the bass panels was so bad, we gave up trying to play the CD. This was the only recoding in our entire collection that caused this disconcerting effect.

But while going over our listening experiences for this review, we dug out the disc one night, and played it. Mirabile dictu! The offending organ suddenly filled our apartment with intestine massaging notes. The Apogees sailed right through this once tortuous passage. But yet, nothing had changed in our system. In the morning, just to be sure, we played the piece again. Still no problem -- but -- the right speaker, which can sometimes collect direct sunlight, flapped around more than the left.

We originally purchased this disc in July, and had always tried playing it during the afternoon. This was now fall, and it played in the evening and morning without problems. Bingo! The summer sun is at a different angle, and is able to shine its rays much more directly onto the speakers, especially the rear of the panels. What should have been a mild flap had turned into a ribbon uproar.

We spoke with Apogee about this thermal heating problem. To be fair, they said this problem was a first, so far as they knew. After we talked some more, it seems that the unusual position of the speakers relative to the direct summer sun was the likely culprit. The afternoon sunlight was probably able to heat the metal frames holding the ribbon woofer panels just enough -- a 1/4" would do it -- to let them flap around like they did. Moral of the story: Treat your speakers like sleeping vampires, and keep them out of the direct sun.

One bum rap the Apogee's seem to have gotten is their being a highly singular, 'sweet spot' speaker. That is, they supposedly 'beam' the sound along a narrow listener path. We collectively disagree. Assuming we haven't been fighting about the relative worth of changing around cables, we can sit comfortably close, and both of us will get a realistic rendering.

There is also a three way position toggle switch on the speaker's rear, marked low, normal, and high. This is just a 1.5 ohm resistor, and provides approximately 1.5-2.0 DB adjustment for the tweeter. Unless your room is very bright, we found that it works best set in the high position (i.e., the resistor is out of the circuit).

In sum, the Calipers are highly transparent, uncolored, cast a huge, solid, 3D soundstage, and have a wonderful midrange and treble. Feed them quality sources, and both you and they will be very happy. But they are laid back, and don't like deep bass too much. It is a speaker well suited to smaller rooms.

Like Dirty Harry said, know their limitations. But used intelligently, the Calipers will give you no end of listening pleasure. Although they are no longer marketed by Apogee., used Caliper Signatures can be readily found that cost less than a $1,000. 'Pre-listened' Caliper Signatures are Great Cheap Treats, indeed.

But what would happen if the inexpensive Calipers were to be paired with a good quality, low price subwoofer, like Hsu Research's $850 HRSW12V? This system combo may yield sonic satisfaction way out of proportion to your modest investment. Naturally, we just had to try this Apogee/Hsu combo out. To find out what happened, see you next issue!

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Copyright 1996, Francis Vale, all rights reserved,

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