Review: AudioMachina Maestro Ti-200 Speaker
AudioMachina - The Dark Horse in High End Audio
This purpose of this write-up is to document my unique journey and buying experience to become the very first owner of the Audiomachina Maestro Ti-200 outside of the US.
When I first entered college, I opened a stock trading account, and used the money that was given to me for my college tuition to invest (secretly). Those were the good years. In less than a year, I made more than enough to afford my first Hi-Fi which comprised of a Wadia 6 (later 6i) CD Player, Jadis DA60, and a pair of B&W Silver Signature (the original model) with MIT cables. The system served me well throughout my college years and beyond.
While I certainly qualify as an audiophile, in the earlier days, I did not change equipment all that frequently. Once I optimize the system in a room, I tend to just leave it alone and can usually enjoy the system for a few years. Only when I move to a new room, do I get the 'serious upgrade bug'. And such situation happened in 2008.
With a new dedicated audio room (designed by Rives Audio), I began my search for a new pair of speakers to 'augment' my Magico Mini II, (I have finally recently sold the Mini II) which I have enjoyed tremendously for the past few years. The new room is 15.5 x 18.5ft, a room within a room construction with double drywalls, using Green Glue with built in bass traps and various absorption and diffusion panels.
In my nearly two decades in this hobby, I always learn something new when I make new purchases. But no other purchase taught me more then when I decided to purchase a pair of Audiomachina Maestro (later, Maestro Ti, and finally, Maestro Ti-200), designed and built by Dr. Karl Schuemann.
I have made many purchasing mistakes in the past. Buyer remorse is a horrible thing. I have come to realize that these mistakes are usually the results of relying on A) sales pitch (duh!), B) impulse purchase and C) auditioning in dealers' showrooms --- in-home trials do not exist here in Hong Kong. The better purchases, I realized, are the ones that I took my time to understand the design principles and philosophies, and execution. Of course, they have to sound good! That's a given. Even though I am not an engineer, I do consider myself a man of science, and have a good grasp of scientific and engineering concepts. Truly good sound is always backed by good science. I have yet heard a setup that sounds good (in the long run) that is not also solidly engineered.
When I purchased the Magico Mini in 2006, I was floored by them. Magico taught me how good a well-executed, no compromise, 2-way shelf mount, acoustic suspension speakers can sound. The Mini II is still one of my favorite speakers regardless of price. They are truly state of the art in many many aspects. But every design has a set of compromises. One thing I notice after I bought the Mini II, is that I now have a tough time listening to bass reflex speakers. I shall emphasize though, I do not find all bass reflex speakers intolerable, but the majority of them just sound boomy, slow, and monotonic, and always with inferior transients to my ears. And very often, the 'side effects' spill over and affect not only the bass, but the entire audio spectrum. Transients just do not seem to be as quick, and to my ears, some of the bass reflex speakers with the ports tuned to 40Hz or so, just sound like they 'give up' when it reaches that point. But with Bass Reflex being the norm nowadays, it would appear that most people are not bothered by these side effects. However, I suspect if one lives with a properly designed and executed acoustic suspension design such as the Magico designs for a while, many will share my view when they listen critically.
With my new speakers hunt, naturally, acoustic suspension design becomes one of my preferences.
Then there's the crossover. I have read a lot about the pros and cons of first-order crossovers. I am aware that many people claim the advantages of first-order crossovers are not audible or important. But I do see the merits, at least on paper, of a first-order crossover design... even though I am not a first-order-or-nothing kind of person, I thought it may be interesting to look for a speaker that are sealed and first order crossover.
So, sealed and first-order crossover. Should not be too difficult to find?
I was wrong. It is nearly impossible to find! There are sealed speakers, but none I can find uses first order crossover. There are first order crossover speakers but all are ported!
The only manufacturer I could find that do their designs based on these two principles is Dunlavy, which sadly is no longer in business. Based on various forums, and review, it seems that Dunlavy designs were very highly regarded in their times.
My search eventually led me to Audiomachina, a boutique speaker company in the US run by Dr. Karl Schuemann. Karl received his undergraduate degree in physics, but went on to and finished medical school. After finishing his first year of residence, he quitted and started a company with his father, making precision high-end pistol barrels used in the Colt 1911 custom-gun market for shooting sports. This is when he gained first hand experience doing CNC machining.
I have read about their previous speakers, The Ultimate Monitor (MSRP: US15,800 (with stands and BOMB)) online and on a Japanese Hi-Fi magazine, The Stereo Sound. It seems like there is a little cult following of Audiomachina speakers in Japan, more than anywhere else.
The Maestro is Audiomachina's current flagship. The rest of the line up includes PURE MKII System (Petite Ultimate REference System) (The PURE was awarded the coveted Stereo Sound Japan Grand Prix Award for 2008.), and a new member called CRM (Compact Reference Model), which is a tiny shelf mount speakers capable of throwing a much bigger sound than their physical size would imply. (the website is unfortunately outdated. I understand a new website is in the works), and the newest model is called CRG (Compact Reference Grand), CRM's 3 way big brother.
The Journey Began
In the summer of 2009, I contacted AudioMachine hoping that they have a dealer in Hong Kong... but I soon found out, Audiomachina is as 'boutique' an operation as it comes. Audiomachina is run solely by Karl. Karl was very detailed in his replies, and told me that without a local dealer, he was willing to sell me a pair 'factory direct'. (Note: Forthwise (http://www.forthwise.com/) in Hong Kong finally picked up AudioMachina in mid 2010, and have been carrying the CRM model since. Forthwise have not imported other models at this time.)
Through his many emails, Karl explained to me the reasons behind some of the design decisions he made for the Maestro. I tried to look up more reviews online but only found one review of the Maestro on Positive Feedback. Digging deeper, I found various blogs in Japanese discussing the Maestro. I used some online translation tools and read everything I could find on them. But as with all speakers, the ultimate test is to listen to them... the one thing I was unable to do. After many weeks of emails, I felt like I understand his design philosophies quite well. We agreed on some terms for this 'blind' purchase, and I placed the order!
It would not be incorrect to call Karl a minimalistic purist. Karl has a motto, "Everything should be made as simple as possible, but no simpler." The famous saying by Albert Einstein. Taking the simple approach is often the most challenging one. From the cabinets construction to the minimal crossovers, Karl applies this principle in every step. The crossovers are minimal, the structure is minimal (just one joint, two solid aluminum slabs). And hence, the loss also becomes minimal. What this means is that every decision is made with great care. Karl thinks every decision through. So while simple, they are in fact extremely well thought out.
Each channel of the Maestro consists of three physical parts. The Main Module consists of a 3-driver, 2-way design in a D'Appolito configuration using Morel's top of the line drivers. The Active Subwoofer Module consists of two 10in Peerless subwoofer drivers. The Main Modules sit on top of the Subwoofer Modules and are connected via two solid copper rods. They are decoupled by two rubber balls and use off-the shelf 3M Visco-elastic tapes for damping and stability (not very audiophilish, but actually works surprisingly well). The tapes are nothing fancy, but according to Dr. Schuemann, why spend "many thousands of dollars and still not have a solution as optimized as that ridiculous package of sticky squares and two precision-ground rubber balls. The best engineering solutions are always the really elegant simple ones. Which of course you rarely see, because most engineers just don't think that way." Together, they sit on top a 1x1ft solid block of aluminum as their bases.
All cabinets are made out of SSA (Solid Slab Aluminum) and are secured together in a Dual Clamshell configuration. The solid aluminum slabs are 0.8in (20mm) thick (the cabinets walls). The number of parts of the cabinets has been kept to an absolute bare minimum thanks to its clever clamshell design. The cabinets are CNC machined by Karl himself, and have a satin-silver anodized finish. These are some of the densest speaker cabinets I have ever encountered, and I have knuckle-tested many, including top of the line Magico, Wilson etc. The Maestro aluminum clamshell construction cabinets are totally inert. I must admit, that the speakers look far better in person than in photos, but as I have come to learn, Dr. Schuemann places functions far above form in all his decisions. The result is among the most solid cabinets I have ever come across. Even though with the cabinets only being 6in deep, 52in tall, sitting on base only 1x1ft, each channel weighs 180lbs. The build is simply incredible.
To achieve the size of the Maestro, Karl did a lot of out-of-the-box thinking. One of the goals of boxed speakers is to make the box disappears. This is why designers often go to the extremes to make their cabinets as acoustically inert as possible. By using aluminum slabs, and wool-like material for internal damping, the acoustic inert part of the problem is effectively taken care of. But how does he make the cabinets so small? The conventional size of the box is largely out of necessity for low bass reproduction. Low-frequency capability, box size, and efficiency are three interlinked variables. If any one of the three goes up, it will inversely affect the other two. The Maestro, therefore, accepts the use of a small box by accepting a much lower efficiency. In order to retain the same sound pressure level, a built-in 1000W ICEPower comes into play. As long as the drivers can handle a lot of power and move a lot of air (requiring high excursions) it is possible to have quality and quantity bass in a small cabinet. While many floorstanders at this level can be as deep as 2 or 3 feet, the Maestro cabinets are merely 15cm deep! What you see and what you hear creates a perfect 'clash' of perceptions. This is one case where seeing is not believing. In fact, seeing is deceiving, but listening is believing.
The Main and Subwoofer Modules are both acoustic suspension by design. The Main Module also features Aperiodic Loading. These are not ports like a Bass Reflex Design. The box still behaves like a true acoustic suspension design.
The minimalistic purist's approach of the first order crossover design has only two reactive components in the Main Module. The idea is to keep things as simple as possible to allow the maximum signal to get through. Unlike many modern complex speakers, the Maestro is an easy load (true 8ohm impedance) with 89db/w/m sensitivity. They are sealed, and have first order crossovers. Could these be the holy grail for me?
The Maestro were delivered in August 2009. They were shipped to me in a 203kg heavy crate, inside the crate was 5 heavy duty double carton boxes. I took me about 45 minutes to set them up. I immediately hooked them up to my system, which consisted of a Logitech Transporter feeding a Berkeley Alpha DAC into a Dartzeel NHB-18NS and NHB-108 back then.
The sound was very different from that of the Magico Mini II. One thing that really stood out was that they are very revealing with the greatest sense of 'presence' I have ever heard, but the sound was frankly not enjoyable. Even though there was plenty of deep low bass, the overall sound was bright, and within 30 minutes, I had listening fatigue. I was disappointed.
I let the speakers run for a few more days while reporting to Dr. Schuemann what I was hearing. As my worries grew, I decided to be more objective and fired up my Macbook Pro and used FuzzMeasure to perform several RTA using a calibrated microphone. The RTA shows a slight rise (2 to 3db) in the 'presence' region (1kHz to 4kHz) and I believe that is what caused the sound balance to be 'off'.
Within weeks of receiving my comments and RTA, Dr. Schuemann went back to work. By early September, Dr. Schuemann said he may have discovered an unexpected phenomena in the Main Module crossover. He offered to have the main modules shipped back to him at his expense, and in the meantime, he would ship me a pair of PURE to try out as loaners... again at his expense. (I will leave the PURE for another time as the PURE is a unique crossoverless system that simply deserves its own write-up. My friend bought the PURE that Dr. Schuemann sent me as a 'loaner').
Due to some renovation work, I was without the room for a while. I had to move out of the house, and I took that opportunity to send the Maestro's Main Modules back for the crossover upgrade... the revised Maestro is now known as the Maestro Ti.
It wasn't until April 2010 were the Maestro Ti shipped back to me (my request, the upgrade only took a few days, but due to the renovation works, I could not take delivery of them until April 2010). The Maestro Ti are now 'new speakers' and have transformed into something completely 'new'! The crossover upgrade has apparently lowered the noise floor and this somehow makes the entire speakers much richer and fuller.
The revised crossover has done wonders. The modification once again truly transformational. The speakers are now very dynamic, even richer sounding, but perhaps a little too recessed and the upper bass is not as 'clean' as I wish. But before I could even figure out the full picture, I received another email from Dr. Schuemann, telling me that he has yet another tweak that he wants to do to the crossover.
This is unusual. Dr. Schuemann is the kind of man who thinks a lot before he takes any action. I knew this upgrade must be 'unavoidable'... so again, the Main Modules were shipped back to Audiomachina for the upgrade.
About two weeks later, they came back. In order to avoid any confusion, the model has changed name once again for the last time, and are now known as the Maestro Ti-200. All I know is he changed the crossover point between the tweeter and midrange...exactly what he did, he kept it as a top secret! But my! The Maestros are now truly the master on stage in front of me!
By now, I have sold my Dartzeel combo. I now have two sets of amplifiers, a pair of Pass Labs XA160.5 and a C.A.T. JL2 Signature MKII.
The final revision: Maestro Ti-200
The first word I told myself was .... well nothing .... because I just listened. What I heard was not reconstructed digital bits, but wholesome, organic music. Karl has achieved something very special here with the Ti-200. The Maestro threw a huge soundstage, wide and deep with good layering and separation. But unlike some imaging 'champs', the images are not artificially outlined and defined. I find many speakers with extremely precise imaging, very 'fake' and artificial. They may wow the listeners, but at least to me, razor sharp precise imaging is unnatural. Close your eyes in any concert hall, and you will hear a continuous soundscape, not one that defines the space of the clarinet as if it has been outlined. Some speakers can be very impressive by 'outlining' each instrument in front of you. The Maestro Ti-200 do not do that. That took me a while to fully appreciate, but the images the Maestro project occupy a huge space with good depth, and the individual instruments are all properly spaced and placed but they blend seamlessly to create a highly convincing overall soundscape. They do not artificially emphasize the edges of where the instruments begin and end. It's like a blank canvas vs a child's coloring book. The preprinted outlines on a kid's coloring book is unnatural. The Maestro is a canvas. The music is as defined as the recording engineers managed to capture, with no artificial sense of 'separation' and 'air' for each individual instrument. No halo. There's an overall 'air', but not one that makes a single instrument stand out unnaturally. This is new to me. And the more I listen, the more I appreciate this very natural and realistic presentation.
The natural richness of each instrument is accurately portrayed. Images not only have 'location' but have body, texture and definition.
The Q on the subwoofers is established by the Linkwitz Transform filter and is set at 0.577 (Bessel alignment, which is optimum for minimum phase/group delay, and gives excellent transient response). The bass is tight and fast and can plunge really really deep, probably as low as my Wilson Benesch Torus Infrasonic Generator. 20Hz in room is definitely not an issue with the Maestro. In fact, if you look at the RTA measurements of the Maestro in my room, I have quite a hump at around 28Hz or so. This is clearly a room mode issue. I still have not decided if I want to build some Helmholtz resonator to take care of the hump. Anyway, The Maestro are truly full range and definitely go low (and high) enough for all musical purposes. The active subwoofers not only pump out volume but are also quick and tight. Bass is always tuneful with excellent pacing. What surprises me still is how seamless the bass blends with the rest of the audible spectrum, providing a solid foundation for everything else.
Moving up the spectrum, the subwoofers hand over to the Main Module at 100Hz. While the spec tells me the range of operation for the subwoofers and the main modules, in actual listening, even with the knowledge, I can never detect where the transition occurs. The Magico Mini II may be one of the most coherent dynamic speakers on the market, well, the Maestro is imho, just as good. The Main Modules possess all the merits. The upper bass is full and dynamic, while the midrange is transparent and delicate, with a great sense of presence and 'live' quality.
The highs however, were not as extended as I had hoped. But knowing that the Morel tweeter is an excellent driver, I thought it may be the Pass amps that is lacking.
The CAT JL2 Sig MK II brings out yet another side of the Maestro. Using 16 6550C, the JL2 produces 100W Pure Class A Triode power. As soon as the music flows through, I knew this combination is something special. With the Pass, everything was convincingly displayed in front of me. But it is only when you hear something better do you realize what is missing! First off, the highs on the Maestros are seriously good, but it took the CAT to bring this supreme quality out. The highs with the CAT/Maestro combo was extended, airy, and 'pure', completely grain-free. Cymbal crashes sound like they will extend forever. Human hearing is certainly the limitation here.
While the Pass and Maestro combo has a great sense of presence, the CAT and Maestro combo creates a fascinating illusion. The midrange now has even more 'live' quality than before, truly magical. And the soundstage is just different. The CAT makes things 'float' a little more, while the Pass has entire stage planted down. There is a greater sense of layering with the CAT, but the Pass has more 'substance', more 'beef'. The CAT has a prettier soundscape, more bloom. Just a prettier sound!
This now sounds like an amplifier review. But do keep in mind, this is how transparent, revealing and truthful the Maestro are! Every change in the upstream will show up through the Maestro. In fact, what shocked me most was when i first heard the progress of the amp warming up. I always knew that amps takes time to warm up, but to actually hear the progress so clearly is a first for me, and it's really because of the truthful, revealing nature and utter transparency of the Maestro. They pass on so much information. Every speaker loses some information, whether it's in the crossover, the cabinet or the drivers. But as a whole, the Maestro seem to lose less information than most.
The only complaint I came come up with, if I have to find one, is that the bass could benefit from a tad more definition. This is not to say the Maestro are muddy in the bass. Not at all. Perhaps the slight lack of bass definition comes from the ICEpower amps powering the subwoofer. I am not sure. While the bass is tight and full bodied, there does seem to be a tiny inconsistency between the bass texture and the rest of the spectrum. Mind you, I am being very picky here.
There is a strong sense of ease with these speakers. I am sure the XA160.5 are excellent amplifiers, but it is not difficult to detect that the XA160.5 seems to be taking a toll when they drive the Mini II, but with the Maestro, the combination just cruise along in total harmony. The amplifiers simply do not sound stressed, and the Maestro always maintain its sense of ease. This is not a quality audiophiles talk about a lot these days, but I think I finally understand why there is a cult of audiophiles who will listen to nothing but SET amps pair with high efficiency speakers. Many say power is cheap these days, I would argue that good quality power is still very expensive. It is easy to find an amp with 300W or even 500W, but if you want those to be a good 300 or 500W, you are gonna pay dearly. All of a sudden, the total cost of ownership will jump. The fact that the Maestro, while not exactly high in sensitivity, are at least very easy to drive. The impedance does not drop below 7.8ohms. You can use amplifiers with medium-low to medium power to drive them with ease.
To put it another way, using the same Pass amp to drive the Mini II and Maestro, is like putting the same engine in a heavy car vs a light one. Despite the Maestro being physically larger with more drivers, they feel like the lighter car. The Mini II, on the other hand, is the heavy vehicle. Even though physically, this seems ironic, the fact is, the Maestro feels like a BMW M5 while the Mini II feels like a BMW 525. They both get you to your destination, but I think most would prefer to drive a car with the power to weight ratio of a M5 vs that of a 525.
The Maestro deliver macro dynamics like no other dynamic speakers I have had in my room. I relate this quality to the effortlessness. Micro details simply flow as part of the music, and despite what some may worry a first-order design with its shallow roll-off slopes, the Maestro has no problem handling the Mahlerian and Wagnerian climaxes I crave so much. I have turned them up to a point where I feel like the room is falling apart, yet the Maestro remain calm and stable.
The Maestro Ti-200 have come a long way since the original Maestro I received a little over a year ago. The new revisions done to the crossovers have finally made the Maestro truly matured and allow them to compete at a higher price bracket than what they are asking for. This is solid engineering at work here. There are far too many 'me too' designs on the market. The Maestro is the result of a real scientist's years of hard work. Of course, at this price level (USD52,000), the Maestro has some serious competition. It is not easy to choose. But I do admire Karl's approach. The Maestro are extremely natural sounding, and with the right setup, are one of the most enjoyable speakers I have come across. This is not to say everyone will prefer them over the competition, but because of the limited distribution, audiophiles in the market for speakers in this price range *could* miss them... and it would be a mistake to make a purchase at this level without hearing the Maestro first.
So are these speakers beyond reproach? I think at this level of performance, it really boils down to personal preference. In my books, there is no absolute sound, but the Maestro most certainly belong to the very very best of what the market has to offer.
I also need to add a paragraph on Karl. The man is a genuine gentleman. I really like his style and approach... working out most everything in his head before taking action. But that does not mean he is stubborn. As I have described above, he takes constructive criticisms really well. The various feedbacks he has from me and his other customers (many of which are recording studios) have led the evolution of the Maestro. I believe the current version, the Maestro Ti-200 is a true world-class transducer by any standards.
I have never seen Audiomachina advertise anywhere. It's probably a combination of reasons... scale, budget and possibly, politics? I am in no way affiliated with Audiomachina, but an audiophile who believe to have discovered a true dark horse in the world of high end audio. They deserve to be heard by a much wider audience. Hunt them down and listen. You will be in for a surprise.
The above review, with photos, can be found here:
Power: Equitech 5WQ-E Wall Cabinet System
Transport: Logitech Transporter
DAC: Berkeley Audio Design Alpha DAC
Switch: Luxman AS-R50 (for easy comparisons)
Preamp: Dartzeel NHB-18NS (sold)
Solid State Amplification: Dartzeel NHB-108b (sold)
Solid State Amplification: Pass Labs XA160.5 Monoblocks
Tube Amplification: C.A.T JL2 Signature MKII
Speakers: Magico Mini II (sold)
Speakers: Audiomachina Maestro Ti-200
Speakers: Magnepan MG1.7
Cables: Siltech G6, Audio Note, Straight Wire, PS Audio, ESP...
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