Review: Peak Consult Incognito X Speaker

Category: Speakers

Review: Peak Consult Incognito X

Peak Consult has been in business for over a decade, and produces speakers which have garnered several awards (e.g. the Empress was Co-speaker of the year for Stereophile in 2005).
A relatively new addition to their line is the Incognito X, which first debuted at the LA High End Show in June of 2006. The Incognito X is a floor-standing two-way rear-ported design. (A prior Incognito model, from which the X is derived, was a stand-mounted two-way). I have owned a pair of the Incognito X since mid-November of 2006. Since they are now fully broken in, I feel it is time for a review.
Since the Incognito X is a floor-standing two-way, the most appropriate comparison would be other speakers with the same basic design. I will be comparing the X to the Merlin VSM MX used with the superBAM and with a prototype tube BAM designed and built by David Berning. There are other two-way floor-standers on the market, but the Merlins make a particularly appropriate comparison for several reasons. First, I use the MX for comparison because I own them. I have also owned other versions of Bobby Palkovic’s speakers over the years, from the large Signature 4's to earlier editions of the VSM Milleniums, so I am very familiar with the ‘Merlin sound’. (I must point out, though, that I have not have the opportunity to hear the VS-MXe in my system, or the superBAM with the better batteries). The reason I repeatedly buy Merlins is because they are everything they are cracked up to be–certainly deserving of their place in Stereophile’s Class A (restricted LF) category. Second, they are fairly close in pricing; roughly $11,000 dollars for the Merlin, $16500 for the X. While a $5000 dollar price difference may not seem ‘close’, I would point out that the Peaks are manufactured in Europe, so there are exchange rate and shipping issues not relevant with the Merlins. Second, the Peaks are clad in solid one-inch thick finely crafted hardwood (not veneer), which no doubt adds appreciably to the price.
As for the rest of my components, you can find them in virtual systems. However, in general my system is quite similar to one that has been used in recent shows–Berning amplification, Stereovox IC’s and speaker cables, Stillpoints isolation (and speaker stands). I don’t have the Caliburn turntable (a bit out of my price range :)) or the Berning preamplifier (at least not yet, I’m waiting), but I am using the AA Capitole Mark II SE and a Tron Comet, the little brother to the highly regarded Tron Syren. .
Enough of the preliminaries, on to the sound. Perhaps the best way to sum up the sound of the Incognito X is to say that they do not sound like a two-way speaker. I mean that in a positive sense. Two-ways are often noted to have exceptional coherence, imaging, soundstaging, and abilities to ‘disappear’. The Incognito X have all of those qualities, plus something else–the sort of ‘weight’ one typically can only get from much larger speaker designs. They sound so much bigger and fuller than they really are that it amazes me. In fact, when I have friends over to listen, they typically ask where the rest of my speakers are; they cannot believe that all that sound, and especially all that BASS, is coming from the four little drivers in front of them.
Let’s move through the frequency spectrum, starting with the bass. This is at first take the most obvious difference between the X’s and the Merlins. I have defended Merlins against criticisms that they ‘don’t have any bass’. When set up and amplified properly, they most certainly do ‘have bass’, given Bobby’s deliberate design decision to cutoff at 28 cycles with the BAM. However, if Merlins have bass, the Incognito’s have BASS!. Not just lower bass, but more bass. Now, if all you want is bass quantity, go get a cheap sub. The Incognito’s not only have more bass, but extremely high quality bass. I must admit that, at first, I thought that the Merlins had the edge on bass clarity and articulation. After break-in, though, I must say that the Peaks have just as much clarity and articulation as the Merlins, with the added benefit of the weight. I’m not sure if this is technically correct, but it seems as though the Merlins give you the harmonics of the bass without the fundamental while the Incognito’s give you the fundamentals and the harmonics. Or, to put it another way, Merlin bass is more ‘lean and mean’, like a hard-hitting free safety (to use a football analogy), while the Peaks are lean, mean, and powerful, like an outside linebacker. To further the football analogy, subwoofer bass would be a defensive lineman–big, powerful, but kind of fat and slow, not as athletic.
Let’s jump to the highs. This is the second most obvious difference between the Incognitos and the Merlins. Merlins are often accused of being ‘bright’. Maybe I’m just playing word games here, but to me the problem with the Merlin highs is not that they are bright, but that they CAN sound hard, edgy, maybe harsh (not that they always DO sound that way). On the other hand, Merlin highs are certainly detailed, extended, and ‘clear’, for lack of a better word. On first listen, the highs on the Incognito’s sound very rolled-off, very laid back. Then you realize that they are not rolled-off or laid-back. They are in fact just as clear, detailed and extended as Merlin highs (even more-so, I would argue). What they are NOT is hard, edgy, harsh. They are there, but in a more balanced and natural manner. Cymbals, for example, on Merlins have plenty of zing but (to my ears) not enough of the metallic shimmer they should have. On the Peaks, the zing is accompanied by the metallic shimmer to make them sound more like, well, cymbals.
On to the all-important midrange. Two instruments that I always thought were really hard to reproduce were the trumpet and the saxophone. The problem with trumpets (I am, or should say was, a trumpet player) is that it is hard to get the right amount of brassiness without sounding shrill or edgy. The problem with saxes is that you need the ‘honkiness’ without it becoming too much like braying at you. Many speakers give you one without the other. The Peaks give you just the right mix. Trumpets are appropriately brassy without sounding strident, and saxophones, wow, especially the tenor and baritone sax, just sound unbelievably real.
My main test instrument for any audio system is the guitar, since I have played guitar for roughly 30 years, have many guitar playing friends, both professional and amateur, and the bulk of my music collection is guitar music, ranging from blues to jazz to (some) classical to rock to heavy metal to, well, things that are hard to categorize musically. No matter the genre, the Peaks sound just right. Acoustic guitars sound like they are right in the room with you. Live recordings of electric guitar, blues, rock, whatever, sound about as close to the real thing as you could expect. I know, because some of the recordings I have are of musicians I have seen in person, so I KNOW what they sound like.
What about audiophile things, like imaging and sound-staging?. Both are phenomenal. Soundstage width and height are roughly equal between the Merlins and the Peaks, but the Peaks throw a much deeper and more 3-d soundstage. Subjectively, if the Merlins throw a soundstage about 20 feet behind them, the Peaks throw one about 50 feet behind them, obviously not on all recordings, but when the recording has natural (or artificially manufactured) depth and layering, the Peaks do it better. Individual instruments within the soundstage are portrayed in a more fully fleshed-out manner with the Peaks than with the Merlins. To use an analogy, instruments and voices with the Merlins are like full-sized cardboard cutouts, with the Peaks they are sculptures.
Finally, and this is not exactly an audiophile approved comment here, but these things will play LOUD without breaking up, distorting, compressing, whatever. I often find myself having to turn the volume down when listening because I get out the Radio Shack meter and find that I’m listening at 90-95 db! When you turn these speakers up, the sound just gets bigger and bigger, louder and louder, but doesn’t get worse. In comparison to the Merlins, there is simply no way that I could ever listen to the MX at these volume levels, it would have been just too much.
This is getting rather long, so let me try to wrap it up. After all the positives, I should address what is wrong with these speakers. First, they ain’t cheap, especially considering that they are ‘just’ two-ways. Second, they are incredibly heavy, there is no way that anybody (except maybe one of those guys from the strong-man competition) can handle these things by themselves. Third, listening to these makes me really wonder what the next ones up the line (the Empress, or the ultimate El Diablo) can do. Seriously, though, I can’t think of much to say. Yes, they could go a bit deeper into the bass, but for what I listen to I don’t need it, they go plenty deep enough. For a huge room, they probably wouldn’t move enough air, although my room is not small (17 x 30) and they fill it up just fine for me. I’m sure there are better speakers out there, but you would have to pay a heck of a lot more to get them.
I just want to close with a word about the Merlins, which have not come off very well in this comparison. I have the utmost respect for Bobby and his speakers. I have owned a number of different versions of Merlins over the years. Each iteration of the VSM’s has been a marked improvement over the previous one. As I said at the start, I have not heard the Mxe with the better batteries and other lead-free parts. And it is true that my room is larger than Bobby recommends for the MX (but to be fair, it is larger than recommended for the Incognito's too), and the Berning/Stereovox/Incognito combination is very synergistic, as indicated by their pairings at shows. These factors may all play a role in my preference for the Peaks. However, in reading Bobby’s comments about how the sound of the different versions of the VSM's has changed, from the SE to the Millenium, to the MX, to the MXe, comments in which he describes the changes as making the successive versions sound ‘fuller’, more ‘balanced’, more ‘relaxed’, it seems to me that what he is describing is moving toward the sound the Incognito X’s already have. I still have my MX’s, and, (if finances work out) will probably send them up to him for the upgrade. If and when I do that, I’ll post a further comparison.
Oh, and I have NO connection to Peak Consult or to their importer, Signals Superfi, other than that I bought the speakers :)

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Thank you for your very thorough review. I enjoyed the comparison quite well.

I have had the Peak Consults Incognito's come in on trade and was very impressed with them. I found them extremely musical and very well balanced. I have also heard the Merlin's and most of the iterations and find them to be a very capable product. Although not my cup of tea, I do respect the line.

From my experience, I would agree with your very well articulated assessment.
A thoughtful review, and in line with my findings as well. I have had a pair of these wonderful speakers in my system since last November. Initially, I thought they were lacking in highs and had bloated bass - but then they broke in. This took a very, very long time due in part to the break-in required for the crossover components. I have owned various other expensive speakers, Merlin and J.M. Reynaud to name the two most recent, and have enjoyed them sonically and for the pride of ownership they have elicited. Nothing I have had in my system has compared however to these Incognito X's. They portray music in such a natural way, without ever imposing on the listener or thrusting themselves into the music. The presentation is seamless from top to bottom. They have scale, weight and authority coupled with extended, natural highs, rich, palpable mids and taut extended bass. Add to this their build quality and finish and you have a captivating loudspeaker which I can't imagine parting with. To be frank, I have an association with a dealer who carries Peak Consult. This association has allowed me to experience some very fine equipment over the years. These loudspeakers have to be some of the finest on the planet. Happy Listening!