Update: Still Audio EL84 Integrated and three speaker pairings

Hi everyone,

Just thought I’d give you all an update on my Still Audio EL84 integrated amp and my impressions of three speakers that I’ve paired with it so far.  I continue to be extremely impressed by the Still Audio amp.  It has functioned flawlessly and sounds clear, dynamic, dimensional, and engaging.  I’ve been running it with the new production Mullards that came with the amp. I did swap in a set of new production Tung Sol tubes for a comparison.  The Tung Sols were a touch more transparent and detailed, but I ended up preferring the slight warmth of the Mullards.  

I’m running an analog-only system with an Acoustic Signature Wow XL turntable, a Grado Reference Sonata 2 cartridge (4.8mV output), and an Avid Pellar phono stage (48db of gain). With the low-powered (10wpc) integrated and the analog front end I’m finding that I am right at the border of having enough gain in the system.  In fact, I tried a phono stage with 45 db of gain, and it was insufficient.  It seems that 48db is the bare minimum for my current set up.  

I’ve tried three different sets of speakers so far:

1.         Contrast Audio Model One AS3 Reference:  92 db, 16 ohms, -3db @ 36hz

The clarity of these speakers was startling.  Music emerged from a deep silence, and instruments sounded more realistic than with any speaker I’ve ever heard in my room (even more realistic than with my Harbeths, which I didn’t think was possible).  Every small detail was clearly portrayed – light cymbal work, background singers, brushes on drums, subtle vocal inflections, etc.  I often found forgetting the system completely and listening to what the musicians were doing.  

The two drawbacks of the speaker were the ultimate volume levels and the depth of the bass.  Ten watts and a 5.5” woofer simply couldn’t produce enough of a foundation for the music. I don’t need much bass in my room, as most speakers that can produce bass down to about 50 hz are more than enough. I tried the speakers with a 22 wpc solid state amp, and that small difference in wattage provided better bass depth.  Also, I could only generate musical peaks around 80 db at the listening position before the sound started to get a bit shouty and thin.  For most of my listening, however, I was pleased with the sound.  

 2.         Fritz Carbon 7 mk.2:  88 db, 8 ohms, -3db @ 38 hz   

I had read several positive reviews of the Fritz Carbon 7 SE speakers with 8 wpc SET amps, so I decided to give his new mk 2 a try.  The Still Audio amp drove them fairly well at moderate listening levels, but the sound was too warm and lacking some detail.  I imagine these speakers would sound amazing with a good, moderately-powered integrated like the Rega Elex-r or the Belles Aria.  With the Still Audio integrated, however, they just didn’t quite come to life.  At one point, I put on a Metallica record and turned the volume all the way up.  The highest musical peak that I measured at the listening position was only 80db.   

3.         Nola Boxer 2:  90 db, 8 ohms, 39 hz but no -db spec given

I’ve only recently acquired these speakers, so my opinion may evolve over time. With the volume control just below 50%, I am getting musical peaks around 82-83 db, and the sound is dynamic with good bass depth.  This volume level suits my listening habits, and the bass is more than sufficient in my room.  I will give the speakers a couple of weeks of break-in time before reaching a decision, but I don’t anticipate ultimate volume or bass depth will be an issue.   

The Nola Boxer 2 is obviously the best fit of the three I’ve tried. However, I find that I am missing the clarity and realism of the Contrast Audio speakers.  A little more time with the Boxers may sway me as I become more accustomed to their sound.  Contrast Audio makes two other bookshelf speakers – one is a 3-way and goes a bit lower in the bass (93 db, 8 ohms, 32hz @ -3 db), the other has the same drivers as the Model One but has a front baffle that is decoupled from the speaker and is more sensitive (95db, 16 ohms, 36 db @ -3 db).  I may try one of those to maintain the clarity and realism of the Model One and add a touch more volume and/or bass depth.  

I feel like I may have painted myself into a corner with a low powered amp, the need for stand mount speakers, and an analog front end.  There aren’t many stand mount speakers that are efficient enough with the limited power/gain that I have on tap.  Coherent Audio and Audio Note are a bit out of my price range. I haven’t been overly impressed by the Tekton or Zu speakers that I’ve heard.  I may order a pair of the Omega Super Alnico Monitors to give a single driver speaker a try.  But the list of possibilities is pretty short.

I’ll keep you all posted as the Nolas break in and I consider other speakers. I appreciate all the input that you’ve given me so far, and I'm having a lot of fun with this process.  








Scott, I don't envy you having the amp/speaker paring problem. I spent 3 years searching for a pair of speakers to mate with my Dynaco ST-70. Your situation is more complex than mine. To find speakers that retail under $3000 and that have the sensitivity and impedance to mate well with a low powered EL84 amp is difficult.

Regarding the Contrast Audio Model One AS3s that I have purchased from you, I have paired them with 3 amplifiers: the ST70 with a SYS passive, a NewForce STA200 (SS class AB, 80wpc 4 or 8 ohm) with SYS passive, and a Pathos Model One (tube/SS hybrid, 70wpc 8 ohms, 130wpc 4ohms). Comparison was made in my 12x15 audio room which is treated to my liking.  I find the Contrast speakers to be very much as you have described them, very clean, detailed, with good soundstage and great imaging. As driven by the three amplifiers, my opinion is, like yours, that this speaker likes more power than that provided by a low power SET. 

With the ST-70 the midrange and treble was glorious. Rich with harmonics, notes hung in the air, great imaging. Bass was lacking however, the ST-70 is not known for bass, so I fault the amp in this regard, probably not the best pairing for bass heavy music. Adding the right subwoofer(s) might make for a great system. 

The STA200 brought the bass back to what I am used to in my room, to what I believe to be desired. This combination leaned more toward detail (analytical), lacking the richness and bloom in the midrange and treble, however being very satisfactory. I could live with this combination, many would prefer it.

The Pathos made for a great pairing, providing the desired falling intermediate between the two afore described amps regarding midrange and treble.

I have driven the Contrast speakers to over 90dB as measured by my radioshack SPL meter with all three amps. I am very happy with my purchase and intend to continue exploring their merits in my many systems.

Hope this helps.  
Regarding Pathos, 'providing the desired bass while...".
I happily lived with the Nola boxers for four years, they are excellent and love tubes. They will most likely open up to your likening even more. However, once I paired my el84 set with omegas, it was all over but the shouting. They don't do the deepest, they don't play the loudest, they don't even have that extra shimmer, but damn if they aren't the most musical. And that's what it's all about for me, the music.
@mesch Thanks for your detailed review of the Contrast Audio speakers with your various amps.  It confirms my suspicion that they need significantly more power than I was giving them.  I certainly couldn't get anywhere near 90db out of them.  

But the sound of those speakers is still stuck in my mind.  I am leaning towards the Contrast Audio Lens (which is a couple of db more sensitive than the Model One).  If those don't work well with the Still Audio amp, I may demo some more powerful tube amps or a tube phono stage and ss integrated amp.  If that works out, someone is going to get a good deal on a used Still Audio amp :).  

Will keep you all posted...


Scott, I am not sure the Model Ones are as sensitive as the 92dB rating.  I would like to try them out with a more modern 40wpc+ tube amp, having greater capability in the lower couple octaves. 

Good luck in your search.

@mesch Mike - I agree.  Nearly every speaker is rated a few db higher than they actually measure, if you go by reviews that provide measurements, so the Model Ones are likely in the high 80s.  I'm really starting to lean towards a good tube preamp and a SS amp in the 100wpc range.  10 wpc is even more limiting than I thought it would be.  Live and learn....

Yes, given the room size we are talking about, the speaker options allowed by a solid 40WPC amplifier far surpass that of a low powered SET. I use a Jolida Fusing tube pre with a BEL 1001 MK5 SS amp. The BEL is rated at 50wpc however 'doubles down' into 4ohms and again into 2ohms. Can drive just about any speaker in my 12'x15' room. I have not yet played the Contrasts as driven by the BEL.

I look 1st at speaker impedance/amplifier power into that load, then look at speaker sensitivity/room volume when considering putting together a system. Mating speaker to room, then amplifier to speaker.

Given you were interested in a tube integrated when you purchased the Still amp, you might consider looking for a higher powered (40+wpc) tube amp that provides close to the sonic benefits you like from the Still. Many great speaker that would mate well with such an amp. Just a thought.

As an aside, I intend on setting up the Contrasts with the Pathos Model One today and enjoying some fine tunes. Will get back with additional thoughts.

Again, good luck in your search.
Smrex, Im not really sure I understand the situation. 10wpc with the right or even adequate speakers will far and away exceed 80db, it will run you out of a small room at even moderate volumes. I was driving Harbeth 30.2 and Dali Rubicon 2’s with one of my el84 amps which is rated at 12wpc and never got past 9oclock on the volume. Are you sure something else isnt amiss?

i have a pair of old Red Rose/Mark Levinson monitors and they simply sing on my el84 based amps. I hesitate to bring this up but is your source outputing proper signal? Are you sure your Still amp is operating properly? Which taps are plugged into?
Scott, yesterday I drove the Contrasts with my Jolida Fusion tube pre/ BEL 1001MK5 SS amp as placed in my treated 15'x12'room. To me this proved to be the best of my possible equipment combinations for these speakers. The base presence was improved and the midrange treble qualities maintained (improved?). The Contrasts truly have a smooth midrange and treble, as you have indicated. The tube pre added 'bloom'. the amp provides great unexaggerated bass. 

I listened to them for an extended period and then replaced them with my Esoteric MG-10s. (They 10s have a 71/2" woofer, a TAS review can be found online.) The 10s also have a smooth detailed midrange and treble and extension into upper frequencies. What they also have, that I believe the Contrasts lack, is greater presence in the lower midrange and upper bass which adds the needed warmth to support the upper frequencies.  They also supply more mid bass, however roll off the bottom 1 1/2 octave. For most all my music I get plenty of bass out of them with no problematic bass modes.  

I believe the problem with the Contrasts is frequency balance between the mid-midrange/treble and the lower-midrange/bass. They almost provide too much of the former, and not enough foundation from the latter. 

Always, just my opinion, which I do allow to change with additional experience.
@mesch Mike - thanks for the update on the Contrasts.  I imagine that the Contrast Model One (with the 5.5" woofer) is not designed to have any of the boosted upper bass that makes small speakers sound larger than they really are.  I'd bet that measurements would show a very flat frequency response.  In some ways, it allowed the upper bass to be much more clear than with other speakers, but it also seemed to roll off earlier than some similarly sized speakers (Harbeth P3, for example).  I'm still curious about the larger Contrast speakers.  

@ghasley I don't think that there's any issue with any of my equipment.  The combination of an analog system, a 10wpc amp, and speakers that are likely in the high 80s is just barely sufficient to provide decent listening levels, but it doesn't allow for enough in the way of dynamics. 

I'll keep experimenting...

Cheers, Scott
Hey Scott,
Thanks for sharing!

I have not followed your whole story, but are you limited to the size of speakers?  There are many larger speakers that can approach or exceed 100db efficiency with higher impedences that tube amps like.
@audiojerry Unfortunately, due to a couple of curious small dogs, floor standing speakers are not a possibility.  
Scott, I am quite certain that the Contrasts lack the bass boost you described. I don't perceive my MG-10 as having that either. I do have a SPL meter (Radio Shack) and the Stereophile Test CD which contains a 20-200 hz, 1/3 octave test signal track. Maybe one day I will explore this. For now I will just listen to music, rotating speakers in and out of my primary and secondary systems. Hope to hear back on what you decide to do regarding amplification and speakers.

Mike - I'd be really interested to find out the results of the test track on the Contrast speakers if you do the experiment.  I've finally admitted to myself that I need more than 10wpc, so I'm going to put the Still up for sale.  Tough decision, but I'd rather not be so limited in speaker choice.  

I'm going to give the Boxer 2 some more burn-in time with a moderately powered SS amp and see if they are a good fit for my room.  

Will keep you posted.  And if you know anyone who is interested in an amazing 10wpc amp, send 'em my way :)

Cheers, Scott  
Yea, for my funds the SET/speaker combinations that I would like to own would be beyond budget. 

It will be a couple weeks before I will get to testing the Contrasts. I will let you know the results.
Yesterday I paired the Dynaco ST-70 with my Jolida Fusion tube pre and drove the Contrasts. The frequency balance was much improved over using the SYS passive. With the tub preamp I am now getting from the ST-70/Constrast Model One pairing what I was hoping for. 

I have not found what the input impedance of the ST-70 is, however I am not sure that it is a good candidate for use of a passive pre. 

Thanks for the update on the Contrasts.  I would imagine that a tube pre in the mix would make a nice difference.  I have a Sys as well, although it's not in my current system.  When I used it before with solid state amplification, I was impressed by the clarity, but the dynamics and overall body of the music was slightly diminished.

I'm still very tempted to try the Contrast Audio Lens with the Still Audio amp.  I listed the Still amp for sale for about a week, but after not getting any offers or questions, I decided to take it down.  It just sounds so good.  The Nola Boxer 2s sound good with the Still at volumes that are just a touch lower than I'd like.  I'm not as impressed by the Boxers as others seem to be.  I have a Rega Elex-r that I'm using with them, and the speakers are a bit veiled and somewhat lethargic sounding (even with the upbeat Rega).  I'm going to return the Boxers and try the Ascend Sierra 2 with the Rega.    

I was excited to see that Mark Still just came out with his tubed phono stage - https://stillaudio.com/phono-stage.  I have one coming this week, and it should be a great match with the Still amp and will likely sound great with the Rega as well.

So, I've kind of got two systems going - the Rega with the Sierra 2 and the Still Audio looking for a suitable speaker.  At this point, I am leaning towards trying the Omega Super Alnico Monitor.  I've read many positive comments from owners of that particular model.  

Will keep you posted on my speaker quest...

Cheers, Scott

I have been listening to the Contrasts again today, driven by the Jolida/ST-70. I appreciate this system the more I play it. I remain convinced they respond to greater power than the Still provides. From my short time with them I believe the Contrasts shine with romantic (classic) tube amplification. 

I use my second(3rd?) system outside in my back deck, which serves as my spring through fall audio room. Looking forward to trying the Contrasts under that environment. The second system is a revolving one that allows me to explore my own sonic biases and preferences, as I have several speakers/amplifiers to rotate within.

You did the right thing shutting down your Still ad prior to spending a reasonable time getting to know it's merits. I have far more regrets from hastily selling a piece than in buying one. I have sold gear that should have remained in rotation within my second system.

I will keep the ST70/Contrast as a pair. Should I decide to sell either piece I will likely sell both as my other speakers are well suited to SS amplification (at least more so than with the ST-70).  Should I decide to sell the Contrasts sometime down the road I will let you know should you decide you might like to revisit them. Understanding they are depreciating.

Again, good luck in your speaker search. Looking forward to hearing what you choose.