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Positive Feedback ISSUE 54
march/april 2011

hardware.jpg (10798 bytes)

 

consensus audio

Lightning SE Loudspeakers

as reviewed by Robert Learner

 

consenous

We have recently been informed that the designer of Consensus Audio has passed away and that the Consensus Audio website is no longer accessible, with that in mind, purchases of Consensus Audio products should be undertaken with due caution in terms of warranty and support. Please contact your Distributor for assistance and information.

 

 

 

 

ROBERT LEARNER'S SYSTEM

LOUDSPEAKERS
Scaena 3.2s and two 2 JL Fathom 113s subwoofers.

ELECTRONICS
Audio Research Ref 5 preamp, Classe SSP800, Dynavector phono preamp. Audio Research Reference 210 mono amps, 1 Llano Trinity 200wpc 3 channel tube/solid-state hybrid amp (center, rears), 1 Rotel RB 1072 stereo amp (sides).

SOURCES
Squeezebox Touch using Apple Lossless, Oppo 980, Oppo BDP 83, Apple TV, Hanns T20 TT on Gingko platform w/Dynavector XX2mkII. Projector is a JVC RS2 with a Stewart Studiotek 130 110" screen.

CABLES
Signal Cable, Speltz Anti-cable, DH Labs, Blue Jeans (Belden), Main speaker cable Supra Sword.

ACCESSORIES
Audiav Zirconia main rack and amp stands. Shunyata Hydra 8. Corner bass traps, absorption panels at the point of first reflection and on the front wall by GIK Acoustics, Cornertunes 'triangles' by Michael Green.

 

Backstory

I've seen audiophiles step in front of a system and before their ass hits the chair during the descent, they form strong opinions. 'Too bright, too much detail, mids too forward'. BAM, butt hits chair. 'Oh, and the bass is slow'.

How do they judge so fast? Or more telling, why?

For me, it's a gut check. I'll quickly feel whether a speaker gets it or doesn't. If so, I try to follow the ride of what the designer's giving me, sidecar into their idea of what great reproduction is. It's a while before I can break it down into elements; transparency, dynamics, up tilted, blah, blah, blah. With good stuff, it's awhile before I want to break it down. In relationships, this is known as the honeymoon period. And following their lead, their ride, that's what's known as wisdom.

consenous

Though there were some obvious things about the Consensus Audio Lightning SE, it was among the most difficult components to break down that I've encountered. The reason is the overarching strength of this speaker, and that is coherence. Separating the presentation into its elements becomes vivisection. For the purposes of writing this review, I was jealous of the judge on descent crowd.

consenous

Consensus speakers look to be an expression of one man's vision of how a speaker should be designed—that being Stefan Fekete who had previously been a designer with Lumen White. There is a basic purity in their execution.

The driver complement of the entry level two-way Lighting SE is three 7 inch midwoofers and one 1.2 inch tweeter. An Accuton black diamond tweeter is available as upgrade and is said to provide a bit more openness at high frequencies. Custom made Mundorf capacitors are used in the crossover. And although the drivers are not physically time-aligned, the speaker is said to be largely phase and time coherent.

The Airflow port, cabinet, and drivers all conspire to minimize resonance within the cabinet and obviate the need for damping materials which Consensus believes robs the speakers of speed, energy, and precision. Unlike many speakers, there are no subchambers for the individual drivers—while the box is braced, it is one continuous cavity. Combining and coordinating the back waves' of the drivers is one of the tenets of the airflow concept.

consenous

Cabinet finish is of particular note—it is as well built and finished as I've seen. Note how the veneers—African Etimo in my sample—are perfectly aligned. The box itself is made from seven layers of birch ply curved then glued together, not unlike how some musical instruments are built. This is expensive construction.

consenous

Threaded steel couplers on the base of the speaker accept the robust floor spikes. Floor-sitting 'pucks' made with a choice of woods are supplied to accept the spikes. It's said that the different woods subtly alter the sonics of the speaker; being relatively tweak-averse, I didn't test this notion.

Sound

Most of my listening was done with either an Ayre QB-9 or Bel Canto 3.5vb DAC feeding an Audio Research Ref 5 preamp/210 monoblock amp setup. A Macbook Pro via USB fed the Ayre, a Squeezebox Touch via S/PDIF the Bel Canto. Music files were either Apple Lossless ripped from CDs or 24/96 FLACs downloaded or ripped from DVD-A.

Speaker setup was the classic equilateral triangle arrangement; ten feet apart and ten feet from the listening position. Moving them toward the front wall slightly increased bass weight; away from it increased perceived soundstage depth. The Lightnings are not fussy positioning-wise—rather they are blessedly plunk 'n play.

Smooth, fast, and coherent, with a soundstage well behind the speakers—these are the obvious qualities of the Lightning SEs. Hearing them after my old VMPS RM40s made me aware of the driver discontinuities and transitions in those less expensive speakers.  The seamless presentation disarms—it's work to find what's lacking in speakers that just… work.

The very present vocals on the title track of Anjani's Blue Alert had ease and transparency. I noted a very subtle, not unpleasant sheen, almost a lacquered quality on the presentation here and other songs. I believe this is a signature of the ceramic Accuton drivers, as I've heard it on other speakers employing them.

"Boogie Street" on Leonard Cohen's great Live in London played smooth, seductive and liquid; transparent and incisive without etch.

Patricia Barber take on the Doors' "Light My Fire" demonstrated a 3D image well behind the speakers. The image was well spaced laterally, but did not extend above the speakers, a trick I've seen some others pull off. Presentation of the cymbals had notable definition and decay.

It took a lot of listening to discern slight dynamic compression on some tracks. The effect was to very subtly close in and diminish the tension of the performance.  Bass is punchy and defined, but extension is no greater than you'd expect from a medium sized cabinet with three smallish drivers. The VMPS RM40s, for example, have more than twice the cabinet volume and nearly twice the surface area of the bass drivers. Not surprisingly, there is commensurately more extension. I'll guess that moving up the Consensus line directly addresses and improves bass extension and dynamics.

Conclusion

To paraphrase Arthur C. Clarke, the best engineering presents as alchemy. Be it the use of ceramic drivers exclusively, the 'Airflow' cabinet that lacks any sub-chambers or damping, the crossover—the Lightning is a combination of technologies that play as a single instrument.

As such, the speakers marry qualities that others can force you to choose among. Their presentation is easy and relaxed, yet the sound is very present, i.e. not 'laid-back'. Resolution is high, leading edges sharp, and yet the sound is never unforgiving. The Lightning's share the addictive coherence of single driver speakers, but unlike those designs are powerful-sounding when the music demands it.

The question is at near $20K, if you're willing to trade some extension, and slight dynamic compression, for a coherence and flow that sounds so immediately right. Few multi-driver speakers play as such an organic whole. It was illustrative at CES this year where the speakers in many rooms struggled to engage, the sound in the Consensus room just worked. In a crowded price point, the Lightning SEs are a compelling choice. Robert Learner

Lightning SE Loudspeakers
Retail: $18,750

Consensus Audio
web address: www.consensusaudio.com

US Distribution

Highend Electronics
web address: www.highend-electronics.com

We have recently been informed that the designer of Consensus Audio has passed away and that the Consensus Audio website is no longer accessible, with that in mind, purchases of Consensus Audio products should be undertaken with due caution  in terms of warranty and support. Please contact your Distributor for assistance and information.

 

 

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