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Published November 15, 2003

 

GOODSOUND! GREAT BUY

Ascend Acoustics CBM-170 Loudspeakers

Before SoundStage! Network publisher Doug Schneider mentioned sending me a pair of Ascend Acoustics CBM-170s for review, I had never heard of the company. A quick look at their website revealed enough information to pique my curiosity. From their relatively expensive Aerogel woofers to their advanced and complex crossover network, the $328/pair CBM-170 uses unusually high-quality component parts for its exceptionally modest price. If you do the math, you soon realize that an extraordinary percentage of the cost of this speaker has gone into the parts that count.

Description

The CBM-170 is a moderately sized "bookshelf" monitor that, at 9"W x 10"D x 12"H, is very nearly a cube. The finish is basic black laminate over 0.625"-thick MDF, with rounded cabinet corners to reduce diffraction losses. While the finish isn’t exactly ugly, I wouldn’t call it elegant either, and the speaker’s middling size means that a pair of them won’t be all that easy to hide. Decorators won’t be thrilled, but they should be able to work with it. The simple, easy-to-remove grille hides a magnetically shielded 6.5" Aerogel woofer with a phase plug and rubber surround, and a 1" soft-dome tweeter with a neodymium magnet. Around back you’ll find a pair of all-metal gold-plated binding posts, a small port for enhanced bass response, and a pair of 0.25" threaded inserts for mounting brackets, should you want to hang the CBM-170s on the wall. At this price point you’re not going to get exotic veneers, but you do get a reasonably well-constructed speaker with a quality of parts much higher than the norm.

Ascend states that their goal for the CBM-170 was to "focus on vocal accuracy and clarity, instead of unrealistic over-emphasized bass." The frequency response supports this claim: the bottom end is listed as 69Hz at the -3dB point, which is higher than many much smaller speakers. Ascend’s philosophy is that if you want deep bass, you should pair their speakers with a high-quality subwoofer. Rather than design and build their own subwoofer, adding to an already crowded market, Ascend teamed up with Hsu Research to offer the VTF-2 and VTF-3 subwoofers directly from the Ascend website. By happy coincidence, I had a VTF-3 on hand for review; the combination achieved a synergy that belied the relatively low combined price.

The CBM-170 is a bit on the short side; Ascend recommends tall stands. My stands were just a bit short of what they recommend, but I was able to use the stands’ spikes to tilt the whole assembly up toward the listening position. This worked just fine. The speakers were fairly forgiving of placement -- none of the positions I tried made them sound at all bad. I got the most balanced sound in my room with the Ascends pointed directly at the primary listening position, about 2’ out from the wall and about 8’ apart, which is just slightly less than the distance from the speakers to my chair.

I’ve dissected some similarly priced speakers that make do with a single capacitor in series with the tweeter for a first-order crossover, but have no crossover at all on the woofer. Ascend uses a second-order crossover that, combined with the natural rolloff of the drivers, produces a fourth-order acoustical crossover. As if this weren’t enough, Ascend also states that there’s a second filter above the crossover point on the woofer, to increase the rolloff of the woofer response even more. Sheesh! A crossover this complex costs money in a price range where cutting costs is already unavoidable.

Sound

The true test of any speaker is its sound, and what better test disc than Nirvana’s Nevermind [Geffen 24425]? I had the CBM-170s hooked up with the VTF-3 while I listened to "Smells Like Teen Spirit" at neighbors-calling, cops-knocking-on-the-door volume levels. This was one potent combination -- these little speakers could rock. I served it up and they dished it out. I fed them juice and they took it. You get the picture. In "Lithium," a cymbal in the left channel never quits -- it was real enough through the CBM-170s that it had me wondering where my lithium was. I’d forgotten how loud this album could get in the hands of an immature male. I reminded everybody else how loud it is, too, but the Ascends didn’t complain; they handled the excessive volume levels and dynamics with aplomb.

I love jazz, but because I get tired of the same old standards and most of the current dreck of so-called "light jazz," I’m forever on the prowl for something a little different. I found it in The Bad Plus’s These Are the Vistas [Columbia 87040]. For those of you who think a jazz piano trio can’t do something different, check this one out. I hesitate to call it "acid jazz," so I’ll just call it jazz with a heavy rock influence. The opener, "Big Eater," gives you a hint of what’s to come, with a heavy bass backbeat and lots of percussion dished out over the piano’s intricate, active, but somehow softer foundation. The Ascends kept up with all of it marvelously. The piano sounded perfectly natural, and cymbals and rim shots came through with astonishing clarity. On Bad Plus’s cover of Nirvana’s "Smells Like Teen Spirit," the attack of the piano, bass, and drums came through to present an intensity of anger that I don’t hear even in the original. Excellent. In The Bad Plus’s cover of the Aphex Twins’ "Flim," the tight and tidy bass and drums are essential to the presentation of this song, which the slightest bit of muddiness or coloration would ruin. No worries -- the Ascends reproduced it correctly.

On the opposite side of pianoland is Michael Nyman’s The Piano Concerto [Naxos 8.554168]. The Ascends proved their abilities again, but this time with subtleties. Where the music ebbs and flows, the Ascends were right there, neither leading with an etched treble nor following with a muddy bass line or midrange. The CBM-170 is one of the few budget speakers I’ve heard that seemed equally comfortable playing soft or loud. It presented a nice balance throughout this recording, adding a sense of presence with a touch of sparkle in the horns in the background of "The Beach," and good layering of instruments in "The Hut." This is the stuff of much more expensive speakers, or so I used to think.

One album of jazz standards I can never get enough of is Bill Berry’s For Duke [RealTime 5001]. The beauty of this collection of Duke Ellington hits lies in its simplicity. The original recording, cut directly to vinyl back in 1978, was one of the sweetest, most involving jazz recordings of that era. For more than 20 years, I’ve listened to several tracks of this album through every speaker I’ve had in the house, so to say that I know For Duke well would be an understatement. And a simple recording should be easy to get right, shouldn’t it? Wrong. I’ve heard it sound every way, from dry and analytical to fat, bloated sludge, and a whole lot in between. The best speakers let the album live and breathe with a touch of warmth and sweetness, while retaining exceptional articulation. So far, only three speakers I’ve had in my house have nailed it. The first was a pair of Magnepans I once owned. The second are my current references, the Silverline Sonatinas. The third is the Ascend Acoustics CBM-170. The Maggies and Silverlines are pretty lofty company for a $328/pair speaker!

If you’re in the mood for a little fun, check out Ween’s Chocolate & Cheese [Elektra 61639] -- but be prepared for more than a little bad taste and political incorrectness. Speaking of which, the chimes on "Spinal Meningitis" travel between and beyond the speakers with perfect precision. The Ascends reproduced this effect accurately.

At all times during the course of this review, the Ascend was the absolute model of clarity and precision, without sacrificing musicality. It easily kept up with the fast, funky toe-tapping pace of Voodoo Lady, whose pop tunes were no challenge. With the Hsu Research VTF-3 sub switched in, the combo got down and dirty with "I Can’t Put My Finger On It," freely and loudly punching out all the grunge of the vocals in this track.

Comparison 

The reference speakers to compare with the Ascend CBM-170s would have to be the $399 Paradigm Esprit v.3 and $400 Mirage Omni 50. Compared to the Paradigms, the Ascends were more detailed all along the frequency spectrum, with especially clear vocals and upper frequencies. The Paradigms imaged just a little better and threw a soundstage that was ever so slightly larger, but the two were very close in this regard. The small-tower Esprit v.3 covers another octave on the bottom of the audible spectrum than the Ascend does, which you should consider if you don’t see a subwoofer in your future. And the fact that the Ascends require decent stands to sound their best negates their lower price.

The Mirage Omni 50 was a closer match, with nearly as good detail and clarity through the upper frequencies, though the Ascend was smoother across the spectrum. This, I’m sure, had much to do with room interactions, which are taken into consideration as part of the Omni design. The effect of those interactions is a huge soundstage and openness that few, if any, conventional speakers in this price range can hope to match. The Ascends couldn’t defy basic physics; while they produced a good soundstage, they couldn’t match the Omnis in this respect. On the other side of the equation, the Omnis’ design means they pay a price in image specificity; here the Ascends prevailed, with excellent image specificity and good soundstage depth.

Conclusion

While writing this review, I kept coming back to The Bad Plus’s These Are the Vistas. It’s one of those collections of music that conveys and evokes a tremendous range of emotions. To convey those emotions successfully, the speaker in question must get out of the way and let the music speak. Many budget speakers on the market can accurately translate the signal sent them by the amplifier, but there are all too few, at any price, that can fully convey the emotion of a song. The Ascend Acoustics CBM-170 does that in spades. It represents, in my opinion, the state of the art of budget loudspeakers.

...Jeff Van Dyne

Price of equipment reviewed


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