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Tablette Reference 8 Signature loudspeakers
as reviewed by John Acton
ProAc, a prominent and respected manufacturer of dynamic box speakers for over two decades, seems to have returned to its roots recently. In the late 90s, the company surprised its loyal followers with the release of the Future series of loudspeakers. Significant research and development went into the Future loudspeakers, and ProAc claimed that they represented the pinnacle of the company's design efforts, but the designs, which incorporate wide baffles, dipole radiation patterns, and ribbon tweeters, were an about-face with respect to the company's prior work. Today, however, the Future appears to be history (so to speak), and ProAc has circled back to familiar territory. The company's latest designs are grounded firmly in their tried and true cones-and-boxes methodology.
The return to form can also be seen in the latest incarnation of the Tablette mini-monitor. The Tablette has been a constant staple in ProAc's lineup since 1979. In the years between its inception and 2001, the Tablette grew larger, both in cabinet and driver size, to meet the perceived market demand for deeper bass, greater power handling, and increased dynamics, yet with the introduction of the Tablette Reference 8 and Reference 8 Signature loudspeakers, ProAc has apparently recognized that compromises were required to accomplish these improvements, and has scaled the mini-monitor back to its original dimensions. The justification for such a bold move hinges upon improvements in driver technology, which are responsible for gains in scale and dynamics.
One thing that has not been downsized is the price. At $1800 a pair, the Tablette Reference 8 Signatures are expensive when sheer size is taken into account. Competitive speakers with bigger cabinets, more drivers, deeper bass, and greater dynamics can readily be had at that price. What, then, is ProAc's goal with the Reference 8 Signatures? Their promotional material claims that these speakers are for the music lover with room or budget constraints—the listener who is willing to forego the ultimate in bass extension and dynamics for world-class musical performance.
The Reference 8 Signatures are 10.5 inches high, 6 inches wide, and 9 inches deep, about as small as you can get and still have two drivers on the same baffle. The driver complement consists of a 4.5-inch doped woofer and a 10-inch silk dome tweeter. The Signature version's woofer is considerably more advanced than that of the non-Signature version, incorporating a radical new neodymium bar magnet structure, copper rings, and a copper phase plug. The driver costs four times more than the one in the standard speaker. According to ProAc, the crossover employs only the highest quality components, with the Signature version utilizing a larger bass inductor for higher output. The input terminals are high quality five-way binding posts that support bi-wiring and bi-amping. The cabinet is made from marine birch ply, which ProAc prefers to the more typical medium-density fiberboard. A small gold badge on the back of each speaker sports the signature of Stuart Tyler, chief ProAc designer.
The appearance of the Reference 8 Signatures is commensurate with their price, and they exude the highest level of quality. Three premium finishes—yew, bird's-eye maple, and ebony—are available, although the U.S. importer will only provide the yew finish on special order (without additional cost). My Signatures have the ebony finish, and are simply exquisite. While grille cloths are included, it's an insult to the speakers to cover up their pretty faces. Sensitivity is 86dB, nominal impedance 8 ohms, and frequency range 38Hz to 30kHz, with no tolerances provided. The recommended amplifier power range is 10 to 100 watts at 8 ohms. The speakers are packed in one box, and are matched both acoustically and aesthetically.
The manual is quite substantial until you realize that it covers the entire ProAc line and is translated into several languages. With respect to the Reference 8 Signatures, the manual only scratches the surface with regard to matters of placement and usage. ProAc does recommend that the speakers sound best with the listener's ears at tweeter height or slightly below, and with the speakers toed in toward the listening position. Placement away from walls is recommended, as is the use of heavy stands. Break-in is said to be lengthy—the manual states that critical listening should be avoided until the speakers have had at least a week of constant playing.
The Tablette Reference 8 Signatures proved to be quite finicky in their positioning requirements. I found that placement too close to the rear wall resulted in an upper-bass boominess that obfuscated clarity and detail in the midrange. Likewise, positioning the speakers too close together caused the soundstage to shrink and congeal. Soundstage depth flattened, and its height dropped down to the plane of the speakers. I finally settled on a nearfield setup, with the speakers positioned 3 feet 10 inches from the wall behind them, 6 feet 8 inches apart, and 6 feet 6 inches away from the bridge of my nose, with all measurements taken from the tweeters. Both long wall and short wall arrangements worked in my room as long as I held to an approximately equilateral setup and gave plenty of space behind the speakers. They were toed in to where I could just see the inside edges, and were placed on sand-filled 28-inch Target HR70 stands. Blu-Tack was used to secure the speakers to the stands, and the stands were spiked to the floor. I spent a considerable amount of time making sure that the Signatures were exactly symmetrical with my listening position. Once this was done, everything snapped into focus, and the difference was not subtle. I encourage those who audition the ProAcs to make sure that they are properly set up. You'll know it when you hear it. Lastly, make sure that the Tablettes are at the correct height. If the tweeters are below ear level, the midrange gets pushed forward and a hollow quality makes itself known.
Keeping ProAc's recommendations in mind, I abstained from critical evaluation until running the Signatures for more than 200 hours. They sounded quite musical right out of the box, but break-in solidifies and strengthened their virtues. I noted significant improvements in dynamic expression, bass definition, and midrange openness as the hours racked up. When the speakers were properly positioned and run in, I was quite amazed by several aspects of their performance. They married all of the virtues of top mini-monitors to some of the virtues attributed to much larger speakers. The Signatures may be small, but set up correctly, they sure don't sound small. What struck me over and over again was just how musical they were. Over the years, I have sometimes found myself falling into the trap of listening to the sound of a recording rather than to the music. The Signatures had a sweetness that made it easy for me to forget about the recording and concentrate on the musical message. There is a common belief that musicality and accuracy are antithetical, but the ProAcs prove that these two qualities can coexist.
In addition to their ability to draw me into the music, the Signatures excelled at many of the other qualities audiophiles look for. Imaging and soundstaging are very important to me, as they help to make the performance more lifelike. The Signatures' imaging and soundstaging abilities were stunning. My previous references for soundstaging were the Tempo IIIi loudspeakers from Audio Physic, but the Tablette Reference 8 Signatures surpassed them. On music that was not hard-panned to the extreme right or left, the Signatures utterly disappeared, leaving nothing but a huge soundstage between, behind, and above them. Even when I was staring right at the cabinets, there was no way to localize the speakers as producers of sound. On occasion, I felt the irrational urge to move them out of the way so as not to obstruct the music. This effect was especially notable on audiophile recordings like Diana Krall's All For You: A Dedication to the Nat King Cole Trio (GRP-182). On "Frim Fram Sauce," Krall's voice hovered between and above the speakers with a three-dimensionality that I've never heard before. I could easily discern her movements as she pulled away from and leaned toward the microphone. The piano was spread out behind the speakers, all the way to the farthest corners, and the guitar was dead center. Even on less polished fare, like the White Stripes' De Stijl (V2 63881-27132-2), there was a tactile quality to Jack White's singing and guitar playing that drew me right into the garage-y atmosphere of the album.
Aside from their imaging and soundstaging, the thing that struck me most about the Reference 8 Signatures was their utterly uncolored and musical midrange. They imbue the midrange with light and emotional warmth, yet remain completely neutral. Voices, acoustic guitar, and piano mesmerized me. I hadn't heard that kind of sheer openness since listening to Martin Logan electrostatic speakers some years ago. It was as if a layer of film had been removed from the recordings, allowing me to hear every nuance, every tonal inflection. On many occasions, I would listen to an entire album, only realizing at the end that I'd failed to take notes. Art Garfunkel's poignant vocals on the title track of Simon and Garfunkel's Bridge Over Troubled Water (Columbia/Legacy CK 66004) were so real, so warm and natural, that I found myself really listening to this song again, even though I'd heard it a million times on car radios and Muzak systems. Likewise, I was surprised by how great Greg Lake's voice sounded on Emerson Lake & Palmer's eponymous first album (Rhino R2 72223). His close-miked vocals on "Take a Pebble" were more alive then I'd ever heard them.
ProAc has always been proud of their speakers' treble reproduction, and after listening to the Tablette 8 Signatures, I feel that this pride is justified. The tweeters sound airy and extended, yet very sweet. I found the treble a little prominent when compared to the Quad 11Ls or Audio Physic Tempos, but despite the extra energy in the top octave, the tweeters sounded more musical and clean, calling less attention to themselves. The percussion on Van Morrison's latest release, What's Wrong With This Picture (Blue Note 90167) was rendered superbly. The attack and decay of the cymbal work was realistic. This recording really let the little ProAcs show off their dynamic prowess and ability to rock out when needed. And speaking of rockin'n'rolling, I was quite frankly shocked at how well they did with the Secret Machines (Reprise 48544-2). These shoebox-sized speakers played loudly and strongly, with no signs of compression.
It is unfair to expect mini-monitors to equal larger speakers when it comes to bass extension and power, and no, the little ProAcs did not defy the laws of physics in this regard. Extreme low bass was missing in action, and I believe that ProAc's claims for 38Hz extension are optimistic. Still, the bass that the Signatures produced was quick and supple, and provided an adequate, if not Stygian foundation for most types of music. The Secret Machines and Van Morrison albums certainly sounded full and warm, and I never found myself wanting more extension or power. Nevertheless, I sometimes noted that image size became a little truncated in the lower reaches. Kick drum and left-handed piano was oddly diminished in size when compared to instruments higher in the frequency range. The effect was subtle, but it could detract from the almost spooky realism of the Tablettes' imaging and soundstaging. Another thing I noted was the tendency for image size to shrink at the far left and right of the soundstage. Hard-panned instruments appeared smaller and less tactile than those between the loudspeakers. This was not a gross effect, and it was only noticeable on certain recordings. Lastly, while the Reference 8 Signatures are not power-hungry, they do prefer to be played at medium to loud levels. I usually listened between 70 and 80dB measured from my listening position, which worked well, but if I reduced the level to below 70dB, the presentation fell apart and the speakers sounded small and lifeless. Dynamics became constricted and image size retracted. These are not speakers for late night or background listening.
The Quad 11L loudspeakers, at $700 per pair, perform well above their price range, but they were simply outclassed by the Tablette Reference 8s in almost every respect. The Quads were essentially neutral, but lacked the lit-up quality of the Tablettes that drew me into the musical performance so convincingly. In the treble, I found the Quads' treble less prominent than that of the ProAcs, but the top end was grainy and splashy in comparison, and lacked the Signatures' sweetness and natural presentation. The Quads, not surprisingly, were slightly fuller sounding in the bass, but the ProAcs bettered the larger Quads in transient speed and bass agility.
I realize that I've dissected the aural characteristics of the ProAc Tablette Reference 8 Signatures in an attempt to tell you what they sound like, but how they sound is just one facet of their presentation. Ultimately, it comes down to music. The ProAcs excel in their ability to marry the often-exclusive virtues of musicality and neutrality. Yes they're expensive, and for that kind of money you can buy more loudspeaker, but at what cost? If getting "more" means compromising the incredible soundstaging and midrange magic conjured up by these pint-sized wonders, I'm not interested. These are keepers. Listen to a properly-set-up pair and see if you don't agree. John Acton
Tablette Reference 8 Signatures