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Positive Feedback ISSUE 51
Orfeo Loudspeakers - a Follow-up
as reviewed by Tom Campbell
This past February, I experienced a major Homer Simpson-esque "D'OH!" moment. My highly positive review of JM Reynaud's Orfeo loudspeakers—one which I had taken rather too long to get around to finishing—was finally completed and ready for PFO's March/April edition when I received an email from Bob Neill of Amherst Audio, Reynaud's U.S. distributor. Bob informed me that a "Mark 2" version of the Orfeo with newly designed crossovers had just been released, suddenly making my shiny new review something less than current.
Prior to posting, I managed to insert a postscript announcing the launch of the Mark 2 and promising a follow-up review of the revised speakers (the original version of which had already become my new reference speakers). So I traveled from Boston to Amherst this past spring to pick up a pair of the new crossovers, had them installed a month or so later by a local audio repair guy, and proceeded to allow them a leisurely break-in period during the summer months.
It has been my pleasure over the past three years to audition several models within the Reynaud line, and to lend some exposure to this French company that enjoys a considerable following in Europe but is little known in the States. While I can't say I've heard every major speaker brand out there, I've heard a lot, and nothing I've heard hits the spot for me the way the Reynauds do—for me, they are the perfect marriage between detail and clarity on the one hand and natural body and warmth on the other.
I make a point of saying "natural" body and warmth because I feel too many audio reviews advance the idea that accurately sweet tonality is somehow over-baked or unnaturally euphonic. But if you're listening to Hilary Hahn play a magnificent Guarneri violin, or Mstislav Rostropovich play his Duport Stradivarius 'cello—or Neil Young play his famous black Les Paul, for that matter—and the sound is sharp and thin and pinched, you're not hearing these artists (or their instruments) the way they are meant to be heard. Yes, you want the speed and air and transients to be there, but the midrange has to be correct above all.
This is all an introduction to saying that I've yet to hear any speakers that do everything as well as the Reynauds. They make the case that you don't have to choose between speakers that skew toward speed and detail a la, say, Linns or Thiels, and ones that are tilted toward midrange warmth, a la classic Spendors and other BBC-inspired models. In what seems to me a semi-miracle—but is really just a tip of the hat to Jean-Marie (and his son Jean-Claude) Reynaud's design brilliance—Reynaud speakers achieve a near-ideal balance between right-brain and left-brain, or what in audiophile reviews (in a malapropos fashion) is usually termed "hi-fi" and "musical."
As I pointed out in my April review, however, the Orfeos are just a bit of an outlier within the Reynaud line. Here is what I wrote then in contrasting the Orfeo with its closest counterpart in terms of size and range, the large stand-mount Offrande:
Let me be clear: Orfeos are still very much Reynauds in their combination of clarity and texture, and in their ability to deliver both intellectual satisfaction and emotional involvement in equal parts, and in spades. They also have the same tweeter as the Offrandes, so it's not like they have less absolute top-end extension. But their bass foundation is considerably deeper than the Offies, and their overall balance is weighted just a bit more toward the mid-bass than it is in the Offrandes. They're still quite "fast" compared to your average speaker, but compared to the Offies, they have a bit more meat on their bones.
Which brings me to the new crossovers. First off, I should mention that the replacement work I had done is a highly non-recommended—i.e., warranty-voiding—operation. Special dispensation was made to me as a journalist in providing the new crossovers in the first place; you can't contact Reynaud and order the parts separately. So this is a review of the Orfeo IIs as currently available, not a how-to on retro-fitting the originals. The surgery I had done on my pair was not without risk—it could have been botched – but fortunately it was successful, and I was able to get down to listening in short order.
A speaker's crossover filters split the signal between drivers in order to integrate the sound from top to bottom, so are a crucially important aspect to a design's clarity and coherence. The Reynaud's new crossover is distinguished by the addition of very high-quality tin capacitors; the parts require a full 100 hours of use to reach optimal performance. Since I currently have an all-tube integrated amp (the Ayon Orion) in my system, I don't like running continuous low-level music for hours and hours to break-in a new piece. So I would say it took close to two months of normal listening for the crossover to fully blossom. But right off the bat, the fundamental difference was evident: the light blanket of additive warmth had been lifted from the speaker's balance. The overall sound was closer to neutral, the "excitement" factor jumped a notch or two up, and midrange clarity, bass impact, and dynamics were all improved.
It's interesting that the main difference in the new crossover is one of upgraded metallurgy, because the improvements rendered are similar to those of a significant cable upgrade: not only does the new crossover seem to let more information through, but it imparts less coloration along the way. The Orfeo II is a livelier speaker than its predecessor—faster and livelier, without introducing any hint of hardness or brightness, an impressive feat which the Reynauds seem uniquely gifted at achieving. The new Orfeo is now less of an outlier, and more in line with the traditional Reynaud house sound.
Make no mistake, however—the Orfeo is still the Orfeo, and the Offrande is still the Offrande. The Orfeo still has a bigger, more full-bodied, more majestic sound, while the Offrande is lighter and faster, with more "see-through" transparency. The new Orfeos are more immediate than the old, with a slightly more forward perspective that brings you a couple of rows closer to the players—but they are still not as forward as the Offrandes, which put you virtually in the front row. While less obviously warm than their predecessors, the Mark 2 Orfeos give up nothing in the way of beauty—in fact, their midrange sweetness and presence, and firmer, more musical bass, make them sound more beautiful than ever.
At this point, I must sheepishly admit that this "update" review will soon become obsolete itself. In 2011, Reynaud plans to release yet another iteration of the Orfeo incorporating its new woofer suspension technology—essentially, a new way of structuring the interior of the cabinet. The company is in the process of rolling out this technology by working its way up the line, starting with the little Bliss monitors (re-introduced with upgraded wiring and the new woofer suspension as a "Bliss Silver" edition), then moving up to the small floorstanding Cantabiles, then the Offrandes and Orfeos. I heard the Bliss Silvers at Amherst Audio in May, and upon hearing them it took some time to pull my jaw from off the floor; compared to the (still-available) original Bliss speakers that I reviewed in 2009, the sound was altogether bigger, deeper and more room-filling. I was astounded at how well the Bliss Silvers filled the large listening room in Amherst—in my original review, I had concluded that the Blisses (then called the Duets) were wonderful but too small for my living room, which is in fact a good deal smaller than the Amherst salon. Inside the Orfeo, this new suspension might (repeat: might) have revelatory results. So if you are considering the Orfeos and are the type of audiophile who must have the latest in everything, you may want to postpone your purchase until 2011.
Before I close, it's worth noting that there is nothing even vaguely "wrong" with the original Orfeos. I've loved mine since day one, and if you own and love a pair yourself, there is no need to lose any sleep about upgrading: don't worry, be happy. The first edition of the Orfeo remains a fully-realized, gorgeous-sounding speaker, and absolutely everything I wrote about them earlier this year still holds true. Likewise for the Orfeo Mark 2's: when I eventually hear the new Orfeo III's, the II's will still be the fantastic speakers just described. And, of course, I (or you) might even prefer them: it is important to remember in this endlessly subjective hobby that every 'improvement' is also a change.
What I can say in no uncertain terms is that the Mark 2 edition of the speaker loses none of the magic of the original, and manages to improve upon it in several important ways. It is clearer, more detailed, more dynamic, more involving. The first Orfeo was my choice for best speaker of its size and in its price range—the second edition further distances the Orfeo from its competition. It is a great speaker made even greater. Tom Campbell
North American Distributor