Review: Triangle Volante 260 Speaker
The Triangle "Volante 260" retails for around $6500-$7000 (it's French, so we're in the volatile world of the Euro -- check the Forex quotes before you call your dealer). I bought mine as demos, for $5000: the pair has a couple of tiny dings in the cabinets, which I don't mind, since I can think of better things to do with $1500-$2000 than contemplate cosmetic perfection in a couple of wooden boxes. I got them for the sound. In one specific sense, they are the best loudspeakers I have ever had in my rather normal-sized apartment living room. First, some background about how my criteria for judging such things have evolved over the years.
After 40 years of pursuing the dream of getting something close to live sound into my room, I still ask myself, "What do you expect a loudspeaker to do?" Do you expect some miraculous transformation of your system from a device that, at its best, spews out 100 times more distortion than the cheapest amplifier? This, after having owned Altec Lansing A-7's, KLH 9's (superb electrostatics that had a dynamic range of about 85-90db -- below that, you heard nothing, and above it, too much), JBL Paragons, Klipschorns, and, in a time closer to the present, Mirage M1-si's, a couple of B&W floor-standers, the original Triangle Celius, and the arm-and-a-leg expensive Dynaudio Evidence (purchased used, or I'd be writing this from bankruptcy court). Even though front-end components and amplifiers are important, we just want them to drive our chosen speakers with some degree of neutrality: it's the speakers that determine 90% of the sound's "character," no matter what you hear about partnering components. Then there is the software. No two CD's sound alike; no two speakers sound alike. About 2000 CD's later, and more vinyl than that, I'm still impressed by the fact that, no matter WHAT you play them through, about a third of your software will sound superb, another third so-so, and the remainder like something akin to a car wreck. Buy new speakers? All you do is shuffle the categories: you still get the same range of bad-to-mediocre-to-excellent, but with different discs occupying the slots. You like "mellow," realizing that a lot of your CD's seem a bit "hot" on top lately? Change to speakers voiced to the mellow side. Recordings that used to sound too bright will now sound fine. But the mellow ones you used to love now have turned to sonic sludge. Take the Dynaudio pair, located in a large (over 7000 cubic feet) room in a different residence: they are so good as to be transcendent on the best recordings, better than merely so-so with the middle third, and...yes, terrible with the others. But I LIKE some of those "bad" recordings. If you don't have this dilemma, you probably just play the software that sounds good on your system, and the rest of it gathers dust or gets frisbeed. This brings me to the rather modest system I now enjoy in my 26'x 13'x 8' apartment living room, when I'm in town for a concert at Disney Hall (or for anything else you can do only "in town"), a system anchored by the Volantes.
More than any other speaker I have ever owned, the Volante elevates the rotten bottom of my collection to a new cagegory -- listenable and enjoyable. True, the other categories have changed, but only slightly -- they're still in the sweet spot. The Volante makes more music sound better than ANY speaker I have ever heard. I know, I know -- you're thinking, "There must be some sort of distortion or omission that evens the playing field," right? I don't think so, because the best recordings still sound the best...it's just that the worst are no longer annoying enough TO DETRACT FROM THE EXPERIENCE OF THE MUSIC. The second best speakers I have ever owned, in this particular sense, were the Celius pair, which I sold (reluctantly). The Volante keeps the Celius' strong points -- openness, transparency, a huge soundstage (with well-defined images within it), the ability to express wide dynamic contrasts, and an indefinable sense of midrange immediacy. Just call that last "presence," manifested most noticeably in the clarity of brass, woodwinds, percussion, and plucked instruments, as they emerge from the massed strings of a full symphony orchestra. What the Volante adds to this mix is a sense of weight and mid-bass authority, and perhaps a bit of refinement in the treble-upper midrange region. Also, a bit more space to the rear corners of the soundstage: the Volante is partially "bipolar," in that the midrange driver and tweeter you see on the front baffle are duplicated on the back of each speaker. What about the Dynaudio, you say? -- the $80,000 wonder that is ruler-flat from below 20Hz to above 30KHz? I don't regret having gotten them one bit, especially at the discount price I paid for a used pair. They are unbelievably fine. Majestic. Stunning. But there are about 500 recordings I won't play through them: it's just too tragic to hear those ungodly moans, groans, thuds, screeches, and booms coming out of such magnificent boxes.
So how does the Volante do it? I can only guess, not being technically competent enough to analyze the guts of the design. First, they are extremely sensitive -- spec'd by the manufacturer at 93db. The impedance doesn't go below 4 ohms. That means, compared to the other speakers I have owned recently, they have a better chance to optimize the ruler-flat response traces exhibited by nearly all modern amplifiers. In my 2900 cubic-foot living room, 25 watts does as well as 250. I mean that literally. Amplifiers, we all know, are either optimized or degraded by what they "see" in the speakers they drive. All the other speakers I've heard recently (save the Celius) have been less sensitive and thus more difficult for the amplifiers to drive to potential. The Mirages had terrific bass, for example; but, at 83db sensitivity and 1-2 ohm dips in the impedance curve, they punished every amplifier I tried with them so severely that even SLIGHTLY overcooked recordings, particularly in the bass, were made worse by the amplifier/speaker interaction. Of course, these kinds of irregularities tend to spread all the way through the response range. And the Dynaudio pair isn't much better (again, WITH POOR SOFTWARE): I doubt, still, that I have the right amplifier for those beasts.
Second, the Volante has an absolutely magical midrange. Since many recordings are overcooked at the frequency extremes, probably to accomodate the cheap gear most folks play them through, speakers that measure flat can make them sound recessed and overly polite through most of the midrange, and screechy and boomy at the extremes. You turn them up to make them more dynamic in the mids, and the screech and boom become intolerable: you've turned up the distortion as well. In terms of the highs, I'm not just referring to the treble region, but the 4000 to 8000 Hz region, too: we hear this range as "highs," even though it is classified as "upper-midrange." I haven't seen response curves on the Volantes, but they may have just the right emphasis in the 800 to 1200 Hz area to bring them to life with ALL recordings, and balance things out with the bad ones. Again, the old Altecs, JBLs, and Klipschorns could put a needle through your brain, with their emphases on the upper-midrange, even with old tube gear, and the Mirages and Dynaudios can be very annoying with recordings that are thus boosted. The Volante's designer lists its frequency response as +/- 3db, 35-20,000 Hz, but we all know this number is essentially meaningless. The "art" in the difficult task of designing an outstanding speaker lies precisely in the myriad smaller decisions the designer makes by listening and tweaking, once the basic design is technically feasible. M. Renaud de Vergnette must listen to a lot of live music and do a lot of comparing to all manner of recordings; I cannot imagine a more neutral design for normal listening rooms than the Volante.
Third, the Volante can "disappear," leaving only a wall-to-wall, floor-to-ceiling duplication of instruments playing and voices singing in space. I suspect the rear-firing drivers enhance this speaker's wonderful ability to re-create the depth captured on the recording, but the Celius had a similar ability, so, again, maybe M. de Vergnette just knows what he's doing. It is amazing what great soundstaging can do to minimize damage done in other aspects of the recording process. After all, live music, in a bad venue, can sound boomy and shrill, too. And, again, you don't need $20,000 worth of amplifiers, a collection of wires that only a neurotic billionaire could be proud of, and some magical AC cords to get great sound out of these speakers.
Fourth, they are absolutely grain-free. Absolutely. Now, some recordings have managed to create their own special recipes of hash, but the Volante will contribute none of its own. None. This goes back to the midrange magic, I believe, since a lot of garbage inhabits that critical 4000 to 8000 Hz frequency zone.
Finally, they are not too ambitious in trying to get at the bottom octave. There is NOTHING on a commercial recording below 30-35 Hz that I want to hear. 40 years of chasing the dream have taught me this. Owning the Mirages and the Dynaudios has reinforced the same old dilemma: unless you have a library of perfectly recorded master tapes, almost all of what comes out of a speaker below 30-35 Hz is not only garbage, but ruinous to anything else on the recording that has been done right. Distortion moves up through the frequency spectrum, and there are a lot of 70-100 Hz humps in a lot of good speakers -- all that last octave does is compound the boom that is more easily noticed higher up. After all, the lowest fundamentals in a symphony orchestra, excluding things you beat with some manner of club, are around 40 Hz. The Volante will go low on your best recordings, but won't exaggerate the boom on your worst. More on this in a moment.
I have tried to convey what I feel is so special about these speakers -- the way they have with recordings you might otherwise cringe at. They DO, by the way, sound terrific with average-to-outstanding software. But that's not so unique, these days: I need something I can play while sober with any recording in the house. In my experience, THAT's what is so unique about the Volante. Some examples. "Rule, Britania"(CD, Nimbus, NI 5155, John Wallace on the trumpet, the English Festival Orchestra, William Boughton conducting) sounds like some guilty pleasure, but it's really a superbly performed, badly miked and equalized, collection celebrating the 17th Century English patriotic spirit as expressed by, among others, Jeremiah Clarke, Henry Purcell, Handel, and Arne. You wanna see every Brit in your local pub pop to attention? Take this baby, stuff it in the portable behind the bar, and play Arne's complete version of "Rule, Britania." But buy a couple of rounds for the house, first: the chorus and orchestra are recessed, so when you crank in enough gain to hear them, the bass becomes thick, and the highs will peel paint off the walls, varnish off the floor, and lipstick off the pint glasses. Is it too hot on the Volante? Of course it is! The engineer probably stood too close to a Howitzer during artillery practice. Yet, it IS listenable. You can even enjoy it! I couldn't get halfway through this collection of banshees on the Mirages, which I owned when I bought the CD, and I have the good sense not to try it on the Dynaudios. I could apply the above statements to just about any of the 200 or so Deutsche Grammophon recordings I own, both vinyl and CD. There's more. The performance I prefer most of the Mahler 5th is an EMI Classics reissue (a twofer, $10 for 2 CD's, including a magnificent "Das Lied Von Der Erde"), with Klaus Tennstedt leading the London Philharmonic (5 74849 2). After the opening fanfare, the double basses, tympani, cymbals, and kitchen sink come in, FFFF. WHOOMPH!, says the Mirages (and Dynaudios -- I actually had the temerity to try this recording on the bigger system). Unlistenable. I thought my living room had been invaded by rhinos. The Volantes? Beautiful. You could actually separate out instruments. A tad heavy, but still musical. Plummy, as they say in the mags. The miracle of it all is that ordinary bass sounds plenty deep on my other recordings. Now, I DO miss SOME of the last bit of visceral impact you get with the bass drum and/or pipe organ on 3 or 4 (no, I do NOT mean 10 or 20) of the recordings I've heard that properly capture this phenomenon. But I want to play EVERYTHING, and the Volante allows me to do this without bracing myself. I don't have a lot of rock music, but these speakers are plenty dramatic on Meat Loaf, The Doors, Credence Clearwater, Linda Ronstadt, James Taylor, Bob Dylan, and Bonnie Raitt (gaffer rock, I suppose -- go ahead, laugh...but at least I made it to retirement with both ears still attached and functioning). There is no lack of bass sock, and boyoboy do these babies capture the vocals. As is the case with all good systems, the singers are 5-6 feet tall and right between the crosshairs. No rasp or chestiness unless the singer is having a bad day.
One quick mention of the good stuff. I just found a pristine version of "88 Basin Street," the one made recently famous by JVC's outstanding XRCD remake. The vinyl (PABLO 2310-901)is better, but only slightly so, in that special way vinyl has with the indescribables. In my smaller room, the Volante does this as well as the Dynaudio does in the bigger room. I get just as good a "picture" with this modest set-up as I do with the whole hog. All members of the band are exactly in place, the drums are rear left, the piano is out front, each soloist enters from his own space. To be fair, I doubt I could get a comparable effect setting the Volantes up in a 7000 cubic foot room, but how many of you folks out there have one of those? Another example. Benjamin Britten conducting his own "The Young Person's Guide to the Orchestra," "Variations on a Theme of Frank Bridge," and "Simple Symphony." Again, a recent JVC XRCD reissue of an album I have in one of the vinyl versions (London "Jubilee," 417 509-1). This is as good as a full orchestral recording gets, and the Volante conveys it all. Period. No system I have ever heard does it better, and I have trucked this album (both versions) all over California, listening to it in various "salons" (don't you love that word? "Where's the bathroom?", I always say, "so I don't have to pee on your salon floor..."). Admittedly, in the larger space, the Dynaudio can do well-recorded full symphony orchestras "bigger," with more dramatic effect because of its unrestrained ability to go loud, but one has to deal with ordinary rooms and software most often.
In my 26'x 13'x 8' apartment living room, I have them firing down the length, almost exactly 6' from the rear wall (measured from the rear of the boxes to the wall), and almost exactly 3'from each side wall (measured from the center of the tweeter to the wall), which makes them about 7' apart. I listen, usually, about 10'-12' from the speakers, but they sound fine from just about anywhere. They are quite holographic: as you move around in the room it is somewhat analogous to changing seats in a concert hall -- the orchestra stays in place, while you hear it from different angles. When I first set them up, I felt that, closer to the rear and side walls, they sounded less neutral (I COULD make the bass somewhat boomy by moving them closer to the rear wall, and if I got them too close to the side walls, the upper midrange lost some openness and got a little clangy -- you'll have to give these some breathing space, out into the room). As for appearance, I like simple things, so I think they're quite handsome. They're just boxes, but nicely finished.
One last word. BREAK THEM IN! You will hear hints of their greatness (my opinion, obviously) in bits and pieces, but you'll also hear some congestion, 2-dimensionality, midrange suckout, "dryness," and other aberrations until you get at least 500 hours on them. They NEVER sound "bad," but break-in is a process: different changes will occur and recur as you go through that process. I used a combination of music and the brown noise track of the Ayre break-in CD ("Irrational but Efficacious"). The bass will be the last to come around. It will not "bloom" until you have a LOT of hours on them. I believe it was Wes Phillips who coined the term, "gringo hips." Perfect. I have been playing the hell out of mine for 6 months, and, I swear, the bass still seems to be going lower and becoming more expansive. This is inconvenient, but if you judge them too soon, you may be disappointed. Just as an aside, I wonder if Paul Messenger, in his review of the Triangle Magellan Concerto (March Stereophile), which is similarly-sized but a MUCH more expensive system than the Volante, had enough time to FULLY break those speakers in. Time is an unattainable luxury when you are a professional reviewer, I imagine, and some of the "dryness" and "matter-of-fact" lack of "drama" he noticed could have been due to the necessity to move on before these were ready to come alive. Just a thought.
Let me repeat the main point of all this. I am in the process of culling out the best third or so of my collection, in terms of sound quality. I am going to either buy new copies or duplicate them, and take THOSE to my place in the mountains above Lake Tahoe and pig out. I'm going to blast them through the Dynaudios in levels audible to folks from Sacramento to Plumas County. That's what they do -- play loud and undistorted, and they are ruler-flat in a room big enough to hold them. I hope nobody minds, and the people who protect the hearing of bears don't have me locked up. I get excited just thinking about it: I have dreamed all my life of a system like this one. If you think I'm stupid, with misplaced values, fine...just remember, I drive an $11,000 Honda, not a $40,000 SUV, and mine was paid for 3 years ago. And I ain't buyin' another one. But when I come to Los Angeles, I'm going to hear MORE music, and enjoy it just as much, in my little one-bedroom apartment with the Volantes.
Musical Fidelity A308cr Preamplifier, A3.2cr Power Amplifier, TriVista 21 DAC.
Sony SCD-777ES SACD player, Basis 1400 turntable+Rega RB300 arm+Benz M-09-0 cartridge, Meridian 508-24 CD player (used as transport), AudioQuest cables, Audio Innovations Series 1000 monoblock amplifiers (class A operation, 50 watts per side, EL-34's), Cinepro Powerpro 20 Line Conditioner (balanced power), Fanfare FT-1A tuner.
Triangle Celius, Mirage M1-si's, Dynaudio Evidence (recent loudspeakers I have owned or still own).