GOODSOUND!GoodSound! "Equipment" Archives

Published September 1, 2008

 

Blue Sky Sky System One 2.1 Subwoofer/Satellite Speaker System

The idea behind Blue Sky’s Sky System One 2.1 is fairly simple. Blue Sky cofounder Pascal Sijen and his partners wanted to create a studio monitor system capable of fully reproducing modern recordings. To their minds, this meant sealed-box speakers (for their superior reproduction of transients), a large subwoofer capable of handling frequencies down to 20Hz, and bass management to direct the high frequencies to the satellites and the lows to the sub.

Originally, the System Ones were intended for use only as a studio monitor system, but along the way, Blue Sky discovered that they could serve equally well as high-quality speakers for the home. Which was where I listened to them.

Description

The Sky System One 2.1 ($2195 USD) comprises two SAT 6.5 Mk.II active satellites and one SUB 12 active subwoofer. Yes, active: each enclosure includes built-in amplification. In fact, the SAT 6.5 Mk.II, which measures 12"H by 8"W by 10"D and weighs a robust 28 pounds, has two 100W amplifiers: one each for its mid-woofer and tweeter, each amp’s response tailored to provide the flattest possible driver output. The 6.5" long-excursion woofer has a 1.5" voice-coil and a mica-filled polypropylene cone with a rubber surround. The tweeter is a 1" dual-concentric design with a ferrite magnet. On the rear of the speaker are an Input XLR connector and controls for Gain and Power, as well as a fuse and IEC power connection. The rest of the satellite’s rear panel is occupied by a heatsink for cooling the amplifiers.

The SUB 12 subwoofer is the size of a trunk (18"H x 15"W x 20"D) and weighs 62 pounds. Its 12" driver is powered by a 200W amplifier, again with frequency shaping to result in flat response. As in most sat-sub systems, the subwoofer is the point of interconnection. On its rear are six XLR connectors that accept the left and right signals, the left and right connection to the satellites, and the sub-in/sub-out connections that allow daisy-chaining of the SUB 12. Other controls on the rear of the SUB 12 include Auto Mute (which mutes the output when no signal has been received for 15 minutes), Phase, Gain, and Power, as well as a 4A, slow-blow fuse and an IEC power connection.

Because the Sky System One 2.1 speakers are powered, you don’t connect them to the speaker outputs of a power amplifier. The System One 2.1 is connected directly to a preamplifier, or the preamp outputs of a receiver or integrated amp.

System

I used the System One 2.1 with my primary audio setup, which consists of a Dual CS-5000 turntable with Grado Gold cartridge, a Sony X-303ES CD player, a Magnum Dynalab Etude FM tuner, and an Akai GX-620 reel-to-reel tape deck. These feed a Linn Majik-1P integrated amplifier that drives my NEAR 50-Me Mk.II speakers via biwired 14-gauge AR speaker cable. The NEARs are tall, floorstanding speakers with an 8" woofer and a 4" midrange, both with metal-ceramic cones, and 1" titanium tweeter. They were reviewed in SoundStage! in 1997; they’ve since been discontinued.

This, my long-term reference system, now resides in a newly rebuilt room measuring 17’L x 11’W x 7’H. The renovation included extra insulation in the walls, a cork floor, and dedicated, surge-protected AC sources.

To permit direct comparisons of the Linn-NEAR and Blue Sky systems, I rigged up an old RadioShack connector box for an outboard tape deck by running Straight Wire interconnects from the Linn’s Preamp Out jacks, and more Straight Wire interconnects back to the Linn and to the System One sub. (The interconnects to the System One were Straight Wire’s Symphony II, loaned specifically for this review by Straight Wire. The ones from and to the Linn amp are mine; I’ve had them so long I can’t remember their name.)

I set the SAT 6.5 Mk.IIs atop 24"-high PSB speaker stands, secured with a little Blu-Tack. They ended up about 5’ apart, 5.5’ feet from my listening chair, and about 30" out from the front wall. On either side of them I placed the NEAR speakers, which ended up about 6’ apart. The sub was placed between the two satellites.

The final stage of setup was to calibrate the Sky System One 2.1 using .wav files downloaded from Blue Sky’s website. The detailed online instructions, which call for the use of a sound-pressure-level (SPL) meter such as those available from RadioShack, are mainly designed for use in studios, not a living room. Even so, it took me less than 30 minutes to set up everything to my satisfaction.

Sound

I used Blue Sky’s Sky System One 2.1 for some time before sitting down to listen critically, but even early on, I heard -- and felt -- the system’s incredible bass extension. After about 50 hours of break-in, I ran a test CD through the System One and then the Linn-NEARs to check the systems’ frequency responses. The NEARs were down several dB at 31.5Hz, although I could still hear some output. The System One, on the other hand, was strong down to the 20Hz bottom limit of the tones -- just the thing for Saint-SaŽns’s "Organ" Symphony.

How well a speaker reproduces the human voice is important to me, so I began my critical listening with a series of vocalists. "This Can’t Be Love," from Diana Krall’s Stepping Out: The Early Recordings (CD, GRP GRD-9425), evinced what I heard generally throughout the review period: the Sky System One 2.1 had less midrange output than the NEARs. This tended to make Krall’s voice sound a bit more distant through the Blue Skys, much more up-front through the NEARs. In fact, the difference was almost extreme. After listening to the NEARs for a while, I’d switch to the Blue Skys and think, "Wow! Where’s the midrange?" Then, once I’d become accustomed to the Blue Skys, I’d switch back the NEARs and think, "Whoa! Too much midrange!"

The systems’ high-end responses were fairly similar: highly detailed, smooth, and extended. The Sky System One 2.1, as noted above, consistently outperformed the NEARs at the low end of the spectrum, but that was part of the design brief for the Blue Skys: extended, flat bass response.

One song that really revealed the differences was "You Can Call Me Al," from Paul Simon’s Graceland (CD, Warner Bros./Rhino R2 78904). The Sky System One 2.1 excelled at bass slam -- the reproduction of highly rhythmic sounds such as electric bass runs and kick drums. This track has many such sounds, especially the bass run in the bridge, and the Blue Skys’ reproduction of them was fabulous -- very tight and well defined. The NEAR 50-Me Mk.IIs, on the other hand, weren’t quite as well controlled, and the bass wasn’t quite as tight. Still, the NEARs really shone in their reproduction of the brass and tin whistle, and, again, placed the vocal more at the center of the stage. Both philosophies of design have their merits, but the more I listened, the closer the Sky System One 2.1 sounded to the truth.

Trying to coax a bit more midrange from the Sky System One, I shifted the satellites’ positions: closer to the front wall, then farther away; toed in, then not toed in; sitting closer to them, then farther away. I concluded that their sound pretty much was what it was, varying little with changes in position -- a very good trait for a nearfield monitor. Changing the NEARs’ positions to reduce their overly enthusiastic midrange response proved pretty fruitless. Pointing them straight ahead instead of toeing them in reduced the mids, but reduced the highs even more -- proportionately, the midrange was still just as much in my face.

Another track that showed up the differences between the NEAR 50-Me Mk.II and the Sky System One 2.1 was Manhattan Transfer’s performance of Weather Report’s "Birdland," from The Manhattan Transfer Anthology: Down in Birdland (CD, Atlantic D200146). Janis Siegel’s lead vocal sounded warmer through the NEARs, more in line with what I’ve experienced hearing ManTran in concert, and the group’s sound was presented with more blending of the voices. But Tim Hauser’s lead vocals sounded honky, a bit as if Hauser had a cold. The Sky System One 2.1 sounded cooler -- voices were a bit recessed in comparison, although the "slam" of ManTran’s largely synthesized accompaniment was spectacular, and the soundstage that much more precise.

Conclusion

After listening seriously for about ten hours over three days, I concluded that the NEAR 50-Me Mk.IIs offered more warmth, while Blue Sky’s Sky System One 2.1 provided precision in spades. In the end, the choice will depend on what you want. The Sky System One offered the most precise, most detailed sound I’ve ever heard, and would probably be magnificent as a studio monitor system, which is what it was designed to be. The Blue Skys offer exceptionally refined sound and incredibly extended frequency response. With many tube preamps, they’d probably pick up the slight bit of midrange warmth I feel they need to be exceptional home speakers. But even with this caveat, and no matter what your gear, the Sky System One 2.1 deserves a critical listen.

. . . Thom Moon

Price of equipment reviewed


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