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as reviewed by Les Mertz
John "Fritz" Heiler is a passionate audiophile and speaker builder. He is well versed in all aspects of audio, and he loves to talk, over the phone or in person, and to convey his extensive knowledge. Fritz began making his own loudspeakers more than thirty years ago. As he tells it, "I was very interested in having a nice sounding stereo, but only had a $300 budget (actually pretty good in 1974 dollars.) Everything I liked soundwise, and therefore wanted to own, such as Altec's Segovia (then $1200 a pair) was completely out of my range." So, like many do-it-yourself types, he began building his own speakers, using drivers available through electronic supply stores like Lafayette Radio and Heath, or through mail order sources like the long-gone McKee Radio, which always had great surplus drivers from Europe and Japan. After Fritz had made several attempts at speaker design, friends started asking him to make speakers for their home systems, and he was hooked. He now sells loudspeakers on his website, but he occasionally sells prototypes, or models that haven't gone into production for one reason or another, via Audiogon.
Discontinued drivers are especially problematic for small manufacturers like Fritz, not to mention those wishing to make speakers for themselves. Some European drivers are no longer available by the time the project is ready for production. When the desirable European manufacturers (Dynaudio, Focal, Audax) withdraw their lines, they exacerbate the problem. Even the prolific Vifa line is history. (I was shocked to learn that Vifa had been absorbed by Peerless, with only a few of the very latest Premium Line drivers remaining available.) When you add the fact that sources like Madisound, Meniscus, Parts Express, etc. prefer to sell only to large-scale manufacturing houses, things start looking really bad for DYIers.
In recent years, Far Eastern manufacturers have jumped into the driver market with knockoffs and reverse-engineered products. It requires a trained eye to discern any difference between, say, a Dynaudio or Scanspeak driver and its Far Eastern clone. The Eastern drivers used to be identifiable by their almost unbelievably bad sound, but now the sonics have improved to the point that most listeners would not be able to identify the originals.
The Fritz Minis are two-way speakers that use the Far Eastern Dynavox 5-inch woofer and a Morel MDT-32 soft-dome tweeter. The MDT-32 tends to be used in speakers costing three or four times as much as the Minis, so Fritz gets very high marks for not going cheap on the tweeter. At first glance, the woofer appears to be a knockoff of the famous Dynaudio 15W75 midrange/woofer—it has a similar polypropylene cone, cast spider frame, and large (3-inch) voice coil—but the similarities are only cosmetic. A comparison of the specs reveals that the Dynaudio and the Dynavox are completely different, but when it comes down to sound, the Dynavox is impressively warm and very satisfying, even after long-term listening.
The small port located on the rear of the Mini's enclosure is designed to fill in the midbass, and while the speaker goes fairly low (55-60Hz) it does not dig deep. Of course, you should not expect that from such a small speaker. Note that the Fritz Minis do not have the famous (or infamous, depending on your point of view) 125-160Hz bump of the LS3/5a BCC mini-monitor, designed long ago and now making a comeback with revised drivers and crossover. The Mini's small box (approximately 12.5 x 9.25 x 7.25 inches) is nicely made. My pair was finished in what Fritz calls Tiger Oak, in which the grain has been enhanced with a black spray finish that is then sanded away, leaving the grain darkened. Other veneers are available, including maple, cherry, walnut, and mahogany at the standard price, with rosewood and teak at additional cost.
Setting up the Fritz Minis is very easy, due to their size and weight. I used the Usher stands, which are adjustable in height, arranging them in roughly a six-foot equilateral triangle including my listening chair, with the speakers towed in and aimed just outside my sitting position. The standard height for tweeters is ear level, but I am not certain that this axiom is always true, as it fails to take the speakers' crossover design into account. Most crossovers do not produce a straight line beaming from the tweeters, as the designers (and reviewers) suggest. Some tilt the beam up, some down. Offset tweeters compound the problem, with shifts inside or out depending on their location. I played around with the height of the Minis, and suggest that you do the same with any stand-mounted speakers. It may be well worth the time and effort.
My first impression of the Minis was very good. They had solid weight in the bottom end and great projection in the midrange. The Minis use John's exclusive series crossover design, and while he says that "series crossovers are a real pain in the a** to get close to perfect, as changing any component changes both of the driver's responses," when done right, as they are here, they can make several drivers sound like one. The Minis sound like point sources, although they occasionally produced a spot-lit effect, particularly from horns on live jazz albums. This may something you want, and it certainly was surprising on several occasions. The overall sound is especially sweet at low to moderate levels, but the Minis are not the speakers to use in large spaces. As the output level goes up, so does the fatigue factor, as the small drivers get pushed to extreme excursions and distortions increase.
Solo piano music is a difficult task for loudspeakers, so I hauled out a half-dozen of my favorite piano recordings. The Minis conveyed nice weight and great sustain in all but the very lowest registers. All of the piano recordings were engaging, to the point that I put down my notebook and just listened. Particularly engaging were the Robert Silverman recordings done by Stereophile. During the periods of audience applause, the concert hall seemed smaller in scale than I am used to hearing, but the overall sound was very satisfying.
Cello music is also revealing of speaker flaws, and I have several great solo cello recordings that I pull out for relaxation. Boris Pergamenschikow (Bach Suites on Hanssler CD 92-120) is one of my favorites. It is a magical recording, and may be the best of this often-recorded material. On the Minis, the cello sounded biting as the bow hit the strings, but while the overall sound was enjoyable, the Minis did not reproduce the cello's deep resonance in the low end, especially when compared to the floorstanding speakers I normally listen to (a DYI Dynaudio transmission-line design).
Male voices were forceful, with a slight chesty quality that was not objectionable, and could be tuned out by changing the speaker height or using pillows on the carpet midway between the speakers and the listening chair. Female voices were excellent, with absolutely no nasty sibilance. The images of the performers were small in scale, in a good spread left to right but shallow in depth. The Minis are great for smaller groups. They try mightily with the larger stuff, but are not really the way to go for that type of music. Rockers will probably pass over these gems in favor of speakers with much larger woofers—ones that move some air.
In my time with the Fritz Minis, I experimented with a number of speaker tweaks. Placing the Minis on two-inch-thick granite blocks at near floor level boosted the bass by changing the low-frequency radiation fields, but made it bloomy and overcooked. The overall sound became muddy and distorted, as if I'd turned the bass tone control all the way up, overdriving the woofers.
Placing FIM roller blocks between the speakers and the Usher stands resulted in the bright, hyper-detailed sound that many audiophile craves, but which was not my cup of tea because it reduced musical involvement and, after a short time, gave me a headache. I also tried placing three hardwood buttons (available in most hardware stores, and usually used as caps over carriage bolts on furniture) between the speakers and the stands. That was my favorite sound. The balance of detail and musicality was first rate. Fritz listened to this setup, and said that he would try the buttons on some other, smaller speakers that he had at home. The buttons decouple the boxes from the stands, but not to the extreme degree of the devices that use steel balls.
When Fritz delivered the Minis, he also brought samples of five of the other models in his lineup. I was impressed by the workmanship evident in all of them. The rosewood bookshelf model was beautiful in finish and proportion. Another outstanding unit was a slender floorstanding two-way with a soft cherry finish that instantly made me think of the older ProAcs. Very nice! Fritz also brought the latest Blue Circle units—a small line stage ($500) and a matching solid-state power amp ($900). Both had black faceplates with minimal features, but the sound was realistic and intriguing. I wished he could leave them for further evaluation, but they had to go back to the distributor before CES.
I am a big fan of Gilbert and his innovative Blue Circle gear, but the prices of Canadian equipment have been soaring. Of course, they're just keeping pace with the European price hikes, as the Euro and the British Pound pull away from the dollar. In the past, Canadian gear was a certified bargain, but it has now begun to surpass US-made gear at similar performance levels. I wonder where all of these price hikes will take the high-end market. It seems to me that the average guy would rather buy an HD television, which has become much cheaper than even a modest stereo system.
I enjoyed my time with the Fritz Minis, and give them a hearty recommendation. Fritz is a personality—very outgoing, and very willing to bring his speakers to your home for a demo if you live within his driving range, which is roughly San Diego to San Francisco. He'll set his speakers up for you and make recommendations for your room and system. That's the kind of gentleman (and company) you don't find too much of these days, certainly not at these prices. Bravo Fritz! Lester J. Mertz