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ClaraVu 88 Monitor loudspeakers
as reviewed by John Potis
Hey, it's not often a writer is allowed the opportunity to direct the reader to a video introduction of the subject of his review and I'm going to take full advantage of that in very short order. At the recent Rocky Mountain show in Denver, the folks at Soundstage.com took note of the ClaraVu 88 loudspeaker and filed a video report, of sorts, that the reader can view by clicking right here. If a picture is worth a thousand words, how many words for both visual and commentary?
Originally, Gingko Audio made its name by producing elegant and affordable vibration and isolation platforms for components—including large and expensive turntables and their reputation gained greatness seemingly overnight. They also make a line of attractive equipment stands. But Gingko Audio's Vinh Vu seems to always have had speakers on the brain. In 2005 he introduced a smallish floor-standing speaker that was a little odd to look at but even more unusual on the inside. For cabinetry, he used tubes. At the bottom was a flat plinth and attached to that was a large circular vertical tube. Perpendicular to that tube was a horizontal tube that housed not one 6.5-inch woofer, not two, but three of them in a compound configuration—one behind the other. Mounted, very B&W style, on top of the tube of woofers was a free-air dome tweeter. The speaker didn't sound bad but, well, it was aesthetically challenged. So Vinh set about taking the lessons learned from the Tubulous 1 to create a more domestically friendly loudspeaker. At that, he has certainly succeeded.
The ClaraVu 88 is a much more handsome loudspeaker but chances are that unless you've seen them in the flesh, they're larger than you may think. That woofer you're looking at in the pictures is a full 6.5-inch paper cone and that's a full 1-inch tweeter above, albeit protected behind a hard mesh dome. The speaker stands 22 inches tall, 15 inches deep and 9 inches wide. When seated on their optional, though matching (and quite attractive) stands, the speakers rise to 48 inches tall—quite tall for a stand-mount and even the tweeters rise 42 inches from the floor. Compare them to a lot of floor standers and you'll find that they don't elevate their tweeters to the same degree.
As briefly discussed in the video, none of ClaraVu's drivers are mounted to the face of the speaker, which can be removed to see the inner-workings. Everything is well-mounted to the cabinet. The dual imported and custom designed Chinese woofers are mounted piggy-back within their own tube, which is mounted to the rear of the cabinet. Even the imported silk dome tweeter (sourced from TBI and made in Malaysia) and crossover (said to include coils from Jantzen, caps from Solen, and OCC copper wire from Taiwan throughout) are not front- mounted to the facia and can be easily replaced through the easily removed speaker face. Freeing the speaker's fascia has certain practical ramifications, too. First, place your hand on the face of our speakers as they play sometime and you'll likely notice that it vibrates. ClaraVu decouples their drivers from that vibrating plane. And, should you ever damage the face of the speaker; a replacement can be purchased and a swap is easily accomplished. Third, and this hasn't been finalized yet, but it's a real possibility… if you get tired of looking at one speaker with one face, buy a second or third replacement set in a different finish and swap them out with the seasons. There's a nice imitation brushed aluminum finish that'll crisp things up during those dog days of summer, a simulated leather finish that'll warm things up as those chestnuts are roasting on an open fire and the sky is the limit for the spring and fall months or just go with the available matte black. Your available cabinet finishes include maple, cherry and gloss piano black. I've seen samples of them all and they're all extremely well done. (I confess a slight preference for the dark cherry that was warm and full figured on the pair I saw.) A simulated leather baffle finish is also available as a special order allowing the purchaser a total of 12 cabinet/fascia combinations. Good thing that they all promise to look great on a high gloss black stand.
I should note that the matching stands, though a little pricey, work beautifully with the ClaraVu's as the top plinth follows the curved sides of the speakers and match the dimensions perfectly. Even more important is that the mirror black finish is superb as is the thoughtfully contrasting textured strip running down the front of the stand and connecting the top and bottom plinths. It's a very nice touch. The stands seem very well made and come with brass cones that screw in with such a buttery feel as I've never encountered in a speaker stand before—so well executed is the machining.
The textured wave guide around the tweeter was a late development on the ClaraVu 88. I saw earlier pictures and it was quite different. Then Vinh tried his own logo carved into what amounts to a large yet shallow horn of sorts and he was quite taken with the change in the speaker's voicing and that, my friends, is called serendipity.
Though Vinh Vu distributes the solid-state Innersound line of Electrostatic speakers and electronics, at heart I wonder if Vinh isn't a tube guy—he's never admitted it to me, but I wonder. He certainly wanted the ClaraVu 88 to be a speaker friendly to tubes. A quoted system efficiency of 89 dB is a good start but what's really gonna make your El34, 6550s and KT88s wanna come out and play is the nominal impedance of 10 ohms that never dips below 8. If you're new to the world of tubes, I'll just tell you that if you were a tube amplifier, driving the ClaraVu 88s would be like a day at Club Med. So much so that if you're thinking about an OTL (output transformerless) tube amp—an amp design that is extremely finicky about partnered speakers; an amp that demands the utmost in stability of its speakers, the ClaraVu 88s seem to be right up their alley.
So, we've got a largish stand-mounted two way speaker available in a plethora of colors and combinations that promises to be very tube friendly and at 89 dB efficient, shouldn't require huge amplifiers for good effect. So what did I do? I hooked them right up to my 1000-watt Bel Canto e.One Ref1000 monos. Truth is, (and much to my chagrin) I just don't have an appropriate amplifier under my roof at the moment. True, I purchased the un-friggin-believable Atlas from Rogue Audio that I reviewed last time and subsequently named it one of my two best finds for 2008 --along with its stable mate, the tremendously value overloaded Metis preamplifier. But I'd already made the mistake of taking it along on a hike to my father-in-law's house for a date with his Ohm Walsh 3000 Mk IIs (which on paper looked like a matting from hell) and he instantly fell in love with it. I have to agree, I'd never heard those big and seemingly power-hungry speakers sound better and I didn't have the heart to bring the amp home with me. And that left me with my old stand-by Bel Cantos despite the fact that I'd guess that the ClaraVus would have loved the Rogue Audio Atlas.
Summarizing the ClaraVu 88s into an accurate description isn't as easy as it may be with some other speakers. They have a fairly big yet accurate-to-the-recording soundstage that regularly swells and then deflates as dictated by the recording. In other words, they soundstage very accurately. Any speaker that explodes the dimensions of the stage on every recording is actually doing something wrong, not all soundstages are created equal, you know. And the ClaraVu 88 will tell you much about your recordings in that regard. But when the recording was up to it, the ClaraVu 88 took the best traits of large speakers (big and spacious) and combined them with what little speakers do so well—image focus and specificity.
The first sonic question mark came in and around the output of the tweeter. At first I wasn't certain if what I was hearing was a fairly low-rez tweeter or if the output had been every-so-slightly shelved down as compared to the rest of the speaker's output. Eventually I was to observe that it was the latter. The ClaraVu 88 is voiced to be a musically friendly speaker, even if that means giving up the last iota of detail and truth from the recordings. Of course this means that if you put on your favorite recording you may miss a little detail… a little spark from your music. But go ahead, pull something out from the other 85% of the recordings you don't listen to anymore because they're just too bright and shrill and give it a try. For me that meant reaching for Eric Johnson's "Desert Rose" from his Ah Via Musicom CD [Capitol] and giving it a spin. What a great song. What a virtuoso performance on the Fender Strat… and what a horrible and irritating recording… most days, anyway. The ClaraVu 88 made the recording completely palatable.
Then came the pondering of the ClaraVu 88's bass performance. I'd expected to hear just a little more pounding and power, what with the dual compound woofers. Once again, I had to listen a little harder to realize what was really going on. There I'd assumed that dual woofers meant more power and extension. It would appear that this isn't at all what Vinh Vu was going after. Within only a few cuts… of whatever I was playing… that I noticed that while the ClaraVu 88s produced bass only into the mid 40s whereupon it would drop judiciously yet gracefully from the scene, down until that point the ClaraVu 88s were performing with grace and speed that is fairly uncommon in speakers this size. In other words, from somewhere around 45Hz on down, the ClaraVu 88s did exactly the right thing—they dropped off and they dropped off hard and in no time at all they just ignored the signal. This is as it should be. If a speaker can't produce 40Hz without errors of commission it should do the honorable thing and just get itself out of the way and say nothing at all. But, down to that poin—that I'd guess is around 45Hz (which may be considerably deeper than you might guess), the ClaraVu 88 produces admirably. There was no bloat, not slowing or slurring of speech. They articulate very nicely as far as they go, and they remain nicely dynamic with very good speed.
Hmmm. I hear you… "So far we have a speaker with truncated highs and lows… "
Well, if your glass is half empty, you may have a point and you have been warned. But live in an apartment building with low-bass restrictions and if you really do have a sizeable collection of music and often find their reproduction hard, glassy, etched and fatiguing, suddenly your glass should be looking half full. Additionally, if you're thinking about a satellite/subwoofer system, the ClaraVu 88 would make a grand choice for those looking for an easy-to-mate speaker system. As a matter of fact, the crossover point is said to be 4kHz, which is quite a bit higher than with most two-standers.
There are indeed areas where the ClaraVu 88 requires no equivocation. Don't close up the review yet! Again, as far down as they go, the ClaraVu 88's bass is very good. We're talking no bloat, no boom, and no overhang. It's got a terrific sense of bounce about it as well as great tonality and an appropriate sense of power and grunt. The ClaraVu 88's bass presentation is musical and fun. It's satisfying, even on its own. And given its unusually high crossover point, it's very coherent through the midrange.
The bass-to-midrange transition is very good, too. With the exception of the slight shelving of the treble energy at the top of the ClaraVu 88's reach, the speaker is quite coherent and suffers no obvious discontinuities, coloration or aberrations. I found them fairly easy to place—they'll sound good just about anywhere—and this also makes them a very easy to live with speaker. When a speaker doesn't demand much of the room or of the driving amplifier, you've got half the battle won!
If you're still ascending the mountain sometimes known as Mt. Stereo Nirvana and you're pretty sure that your next pair of speakers are going to allow you to listen into your favorite guitarist's heavily distorted riffs and allow you to determine whether he's using flat-wound strings or regular… the ClaraVu 88s may not be for you, either. In other words, the ClaraVu 88 is not designed to be the ultimate in detail before all else type of listener. It's designed more for the audiophile who's been to the peak of Mt. Nirvana and is working his way down the other side as he has discovered that listening for the musical whole; listening for a speaker that presents the entire musical cloth with its preserved weaves and workings is indeed the way to listen to music. If he's hunting in and around the ClaraVu 88's price range, these speakers may be a very worthy stop for him because they do just that; they don't pick the music apart, but they present it as the intended musical whole and they do what any good speaker should—they just make it fun to listen to. They're as transparent and neutral as any speaker in this class should be and they do a pretty good job of just getting out of the way of the music.
The duration of the Eric Johnson Ah Via Musicom CD billowed through my room with Johnson's often dreamy and phase-altered guitar melodies and riffs. High percussion was nicely presented with none of the sharp edges and barbs so often encountered on other speakers. Johnson's vocals, as overplayed with reverb as they are, emanated from a nicely, though not supernaturally highlighted point in space. Bass lines were fully satisfying and at no point in time was I left looking for more. In short, I've never enjoyed listening to this disc more.
One of my workhorse CDs over the last year has become Stevie Ray Vaughn's In Step [Epic-Legacy 65874]. In particular I'm talking about the CD with the 5 extra bonus tracks and interview with SRV himself. It's all good stuff but when evaluating components I usually slide on down to track 10, Riviera Paradise and then way down to 15, "Live Without You". "Riviera Paradise" is a song with a jazz signature (something SRV was never said to be comfortable with) and a really easy-going personality. But "Live Without You" was recorded in a live setting and in the middle of the song SRV talks candidly with the audience about what, now that he's clean and sober, he's finding is important in life. It's a great cut. But from a musical perspective I tune into Tommy Shannon's bass lines throughout the entire song and, if the system is up to it, you should be able to hear the character of his bass lines change significantly. In particular, when SRV's addressing the audience, Shannon's notes have much greater transient snap and dynamic articulation. And throughout the song you can hear how this aspect of his playing changes. It was through this track that I could have wished for just a touch more weight from the ClaraVu 88s—just a little. But the speaker almost made up for it entirely by laying texture and tonality across those bass lines like a far more accomplished… or at least aspiring… speaker.
The ClaraVu 88s also have a charming way with classical music. Their neutral if ever-so slightly laid-back mid-band places the orchestra well beyond the front wall of the room and, in particular, I liked the slightly elevated stage they project. By the time I recline my listening chair I often feel as if I'm viewing the font rows of the orchestra from between my feet, yet this was not the case with the ClaraVu 88s. One day I reached for David Zinman & the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra and Chorus for some Berlioz La Marseillaise & Other Favorites (Telarc). I was very pleased with the overall presentation. No, the bottom octave was mostly hinted at, but the word castrato wasn't coming to mind, either. As a matter of fact, there was a fair amount of vibrational feed-back reaching me and the presentation was anything but anemic sounding. In particular, I loved the sound of the massed strings, cellos and basses. It's not that they were supernaturally detailed but they had tons of meat on their bones, the timing was correct and well, OK, they were indeed nicely detailed. Brass instruments, too, had lots of body and weight and their brassiness was completely commensurate with the mid-hall perspective that I was getting. I love Berlioz. At times he can be quite brash and a little boorish… and so could the ClaraVu 88s, which I thought kept up nicely in my room.
Hey, Christmas is right around the corner! It was time to dig out The Brian Setzer Orchestra's Boogie Woogie Christmas CD and see if these ClaraVu 88s could cook up some Christmas Cheer! Right out of the gate the 88s had the bass it took to rock out on "Jingle Bells" and the rest of the disc, as well. I loved what I was hearing! I was in the mood to boogie and so were the ClaraVus! As expected, Setzer's vocals rang true; his hollow-body Gretsch cut the air with just the right amount of Christmas twang. But what I really appreciated about what I was hearing was the high levels of gravitas. There was an appealing amount of musical mass emanating from these, er, two-ways that I don't get from a lot of other monitors. Unless you're looking specifically for something that these speakers just can't produce, they do have a way of sounding like much larger speakers and they evidence having drivers a good deal larger than they actually do. In terms of impact and output, they easily sound the equivalent of a good 8" two-way… maybe a little bigger. Particularly on "O Holy Night" I enjoyed layers of choral back up singers while Setzer kept things anchored solidly in the center. Simply put, when a pair of speakers can place so much weight and solidly present music before me, well, these are my kinds of speakers. I don't care if they're small two-ways or larger and more ambitious designs. When I close my eyes and feel as if I can almost reach out and feel something, I'm happy.
Sometimes I hear speakers such as the ClaraVu 88s from Gingko Audio and wonder how such an upstart speaker designer can so clearly hit one out of the park while other companies seem to flounder in mediocrity. In terms of the market, it's gotta be a bear to break into; what with so many speakers already out there. Why take a chance on an upstart? Why even bring one to market? In a lot of ways, it makes little sense to me. But then again, I'm not the manufacturer. I'm just the reviewer and if it's my job to report to you what a review piece sounds like, here it is: the ClaraVu 88s are darned nice speakers. The more I listen to them, the more I like them. I like that they are voiced for musicality first, and to be ultra-detailed second. They're kind to recordings that benefit from such benevolence but after a short period of acclimation one can accept the 88s on their own terms and playing well-recorded music seems equally right. The more I listened, the more I just accepted ClaraVu's interpretation of what I was listening to because, in reality, it wasn't very far from mine. So if you're looking for a two-way stand-mount speaker that isn't really all that small but sounds even bigger than it is, here's a pretty good place to start. If you don't want a speaker that's going to render a lot of your recordings unenjoyable, neither does ClaraVu. If you're looking for a speaker that doesn't quite do it all (bass) but you have plans on a subwoofer down the road when funds allow, again; ClaraVu. Oh, and I'll mention it one more time: the stands are pricey… but boy do they look good and they match the speakers beautifully. Nice Job, Mr. Vu and Gingko Audio. John Potis
ClaraVu 88 Monitor Loudspeaker