My kids are pretty good at saving their money. Granted, at seven and eight years old, the saving process lasts only so long, and for my son it usually ends with the purchase of a set of Legos he’s eyed for a few months. Still, the fact that he can keep it together long enough to reach even that goal is admirable.
But I’d never put him in charge of our retirement planning. That sort of thing is better left to grown-ups with degrees and experience in financial planning. As Clint Eastwood once said, “A man’s got to know his limitations.”
Though rarely followed, that good advice is just as sound when applied to loudspeaker design. Coming up with a good midrange driver is not child’s play -- it requires specialized engineering expertise and enough financial backing to design, model, test, build tooling for, and manufacture and assemble the parts -- and, once that’s all done, quality control. If a speaker maker can’t perform every one of those steps properly, they’re almost certainly better off letting Scan-Speak or Audiotechnology do the hard work for them. Those companies know the driver business, and chances are you’ll end up with something really good, if not exceptional, from them. Lots of speaker makers follow just this recipe, instead putting their efforts into other areas of design. And that’s OK.
Those who know Andy Payor, founder, owner, and chief engineer of Rockport Technologies, know that his attention to detail is fanatical. They also know that he’s a brilliant engineer with an aesthetic sensibility that defines the speakers that bear his company’s name. When it comes to making Rockport speakers, he’s a control freak -- and I mean that in a good way. This is the guy you want in full control of the loudspeaker-design process. In terms of design and engineering, it’s hard to imagine Payor ever finding himself in over his head.
When Payor introduced the Avior some three years ago, it marked a sea change for Rockport Technologies. These were the first Rockport speakers with drivers designed from the ground up by Payor himself. The previous generation of Rockport models had used hybrid drive-units: Payor-designed cones on motor systems engineered and built by Denmark’s Audiotechnology. The new drivers in the Avior were Payor designs through and through. The Avior has been a success, and is likely the best speaker Rockport has yet made for the price point of $32,500 USD per pair.
What separates very good loudspeakers from the truly exceptional? You could say that it’s all in the details. In a recent conversation, Payor revealed his thoughts on the subject:
Unfortunately, many loudspeaker designs that are technically competent and measure well using available test protocol simply do not do a very good job communicating the essence of music. So what’s wrong? The problem is that reproducing the subtle cues that exist within the fabric of the musical presentation -- the artist’s ‘expression,’ if you will -- is a much more elusive and demanding task than simply providing flat frequency response and having a reasonable impedance curve for the amplifier to deal with. As should already be evident, I’m a firm proponent of technical competence in loudspeaker design, including flat frequency response, good phase summation through the crossover regions, low distortion, low enclosure signature, reasonable impedance curve, etc., etc. What makes a loudspeaker truly "high-resolution” is that the design has been elevated to a point beyond mere competence (for which the standard battery of measurements is the accepted metric), and is now capable of capturing and delivering the ‘magic’ that actually makes it music.
Beyond mere competence . . . that’s the part that struck me, for reasons you’ll see below.
The Atria ($21,500/pair) looks like a smaller Avior. The easiest way to think about this new model, at least in terms of driver complement, is that the Atria is an Avior with a single 9” woofer as opposed to the latter’s dual 9” woofers. The Atria’s cabinet is scaled down to match the single-woofer requirements, which means about half the internal volume dedicated to bass reproduction. This also means that the Atria -- which measures 43.5”H x 12.5”W x 20”D and weighs 150 pounds -- can fit into tighter places and smaller budgets.
The Atria’s 9” woofer and 6” midrange are Rockport’s newest driver designs. Each features a Rohacell core and carbon-fiber skins in a composite sandwich. They’re designed to be light, and stiff to resist deformation -- in other words, to maintain pistonic action. According to Andy Payor, they’re also inherently well damped. The goal is to prevent the creation of any distortions within each driver’s operating bandwidth. The tweeter is a 1” beryllium dome made by Scan-Speak. The crossover slopes are acoustic fourth-order and are intended to keep the drivers working optimally within their passbands while blending their acoustical outputs for seamless frequency response on and off axis.
The Atria is ported -- the port’s aperture, made of machined aluminum, is visible at the rear of the cabinet, just above the single pair of gold-plated Cardas binding posts. The cabinet itself is raked back and beautiful to look at -- its lines make it appear sleek and aerodynamic. The front baffle -- over 4” thick -- is generously chamfered so that the drivers “see” an ever-varying distance from driver edge to baffle edge, to minimize edge diffraction and therefore produce a more controlled frequency response. The walls of the Atria’s cabinet vary in thickness to as much as 2.5”, but they’re not merely thick -- their three layers take advantage of constrained-layer damping to minimize resonances that could rob the speaker of transparency and the ability to reproduce the subtle details of recordings.
Rockport Technologies’ QC procedures are exceptional. Believe it or not, I’ve visited loudspeaker companies that don’t bother to acoustically measure the outputs of their finished speakers prior to packing and shipping -- even though the sound of the finished product is what the customer is paying for. At Rockport, each Atria is acoustically measured, and the crossover is fine-tuned by Payor himself. The crossover is then potted, and final assembly and testing are done. This process ensures that the customer will get a pair of speakers that are acoustically closely matched to each other, and that the final acoustic output of each precisely meets the frequency response Payor has specified -- in the Atria’s case, 28Hz-30kHz, -3dB, as well as a nominal impedance of 4 ohms and a sensitivity of 87.5dB/2.83V/m.
I’m often disappointed by the qualities of finish and build of the components passing through my Music Vault. The Atrias were exceptions. Their piano-black finish was entirely devoid of the “orange-peel” problem that commonly plagues automotive-paint finishes. Cabinet edges met in near-perfect joins, and the quality of machining of even the stainless-steel spikes exuded precision. All should result in ample pride of ownership. When you unbox the Atrias and see them for the first time, you won’t be disappointed.
Big. I mean, BIG. The Atrias replaced Kaiser GmbH’s very impressive Kawero! Classic loudspeakers ($56,000/pair) in the Music Vault. I had been completely satisfied with the Kaisers’ low-frequency foundation, and commented at length that they produced more big-speaker sound than seemed possible from cabinets of their size (47.6”H x 13”W x 19.4”D). Imagine my surprise when the Rockport Atrias -- which, at 43.5”H x 12.5”W x 20”D, are a bit smaller than the Kawero! Classics -- played even bigger.
Of course, it all began in the bass. I could not believe how low and powerfully this speaker could play. But it wasn’t just that; the Atria’s bass was also articulate, textured, and punchy, with no tradeoff of quantity for quality -- fairly amazing, given their size. I simultaneously felt deep bass (down into the mid-20Hz range) and heard satisfyingly weighty, agile midbass. The quality of low-frequency reproduction remained constantly high no matter what music I played. Tracks like Enya’s classic “Orinoco Flow,” from her Watermark (16-bit/44.1kHz AIFF, Geffen), were great fun. For this song to really blossom in your room, the bass foundation must be at once anchored solidly under the music and remain fleet of foot throughout; the result should be subtle but firm, powerful yet not overbearing. I was amazed that the Atrias were able to pull off this balancing act with this demanding track, given the speaker’s compactness, but they pushed all the right buttons. When I closed my eyes, I “knew” that these speakers just had to be huge. When I opened them, I wondered where all that bass foundation was coming from -- after all, my subwoofer wasn't hooked up. This happened on multiple occasions throughout my listening sessions. The Atrias didn’t just hint at good low bass by delivering weighty midbass -- they delivered the actual goods down low, while never sacrificing their ability to boogie a little higher in frequency. In a word, their bass performance was complete.
At the risk of repeating myself, I was impressed not only by the depth of the Atria’s bass, but also by the quality of its transitions from low bass to midbass to lower midrange, which made music at once immediate, full-bodied, and present. Whether a five-string double bass’s lowest note (31Hz) or the entire left-hand range of an 88-key acoustic piano, the Atria’s reproduction of bass seamlessly blended with its presentation of the rest of the audioband. The sound was consistent in detail and texture, regardless of frequency range. I’ve often heard speakers that seem to get one section of the audioband just right, but only at the expense of another section -- which makes me avoid playing recordings that have lots of musical content in those areas where I know that speaker is weak. Not a problem with the Rockports. In my room, the Atrias were superbly linear with whatever music I played. For instance, the drums in the title track of Donald Fagen’s Morph the Cat (24/96 AIFF, Reprise/HDtracks) had excellent slam, and his voice maintained its detail and presence in the Vault. Simultaneously. Again, there was no tradeoff -- the sound remained ideally balanced.
With this excellent foundation underneath it, you might assume that the soundstage cast by the Atrias was expansive and enveloping. You’d assume right. Images were precisely placed, but without the laser etching of some speakers. If you love the latter sound, these may not be the speakers for you, though they do lean closer to the precise than to the amorphous side of the ledger. Also avoided was the image wander that can drive listeners crazy as their ear-brain systems work to clearly “see” the musicians. I thought the Atrias were expertly balanced in this regard, and that they should therefore suit most listeners. Their well-defined soundstage stretched from wall to wall, and all the way to my front wall. This was no doubt aided by the excellent acoustics of my heavily treated Music Vault, but still -- the Atrias’ threw a bigger soundstage than I’ve heard from 90% of the speakers I’ve reviewed here. For instance, when I listened to Enya’s “Orinoco Flow,” I could clearly hear a wraparound effect that made the experience thrilling. I couldn’t resist the urge to turn up the volume and just let the music wash over me from all sides.
The Atria’s Scan-Speak beryllium tweeter is used in any number of today’s top-shelf loudspeakers, and has a fine reputation as a detailed and neutral performer. In the Atria, it might sound a little different than in other models: the Rockport’s highs were chock-full full of detail without ever sounding overtly brilliant or splashy. Some might even describe the combination of this and the Atria’s full-range bass response as a slightly warm sound. I wouldn’t argue, but would add that that sound was in no way subdued or syrupy as the frequencies rose. I found the Atrias to be, simultaneously, speakers that I could listen to for hours without fatigue, and that gave me as much detail and presence as the recordings of my favorite music could provide. For instance, Jerry Junkin and the Dallas Wind Symphony’s Crown Imperial (24/176.4 WAV, Reference HRx-112) sounded stunning, the title track’s bells and cymbals delicate but as clear as could be. There was none of the splashiness that might indicate tweeter breakup, nor did I hear any truncating of fine detail. We don’t often talk about control in the treble -- in the audiophile lexicon, the word usually describes good bass -- but the Atria had what I would characterize as extended yet controlled treble. And yes, the bass-drum whacks at 5:24 into Sir William Walton’s Coronation March “Crown Imperial” still took me aback with their effortless slam.
A speaker I’ve reviewed that’s within reach of the Atria’s price is the Raidho Acoustics C2.1 ($28,000/pair). The Raidho has a lot to like. The outputs of its ribbon tweeter and midrange driver meld just right, providing a seamlessly integrated treble that is as resolving as it is easy to listen to. And they’re precise, outlining images with high definition on the soundstage. The C2.1s produced no listener fatigue, and could play rock with more upper-bass punch than you might think possible from two 4.5” midrange-woofers in a 2.5-way configuration.
Still, the Rockport Atrias were clearly the better speakers. First, they played much bigger than the Raidho C2.1s. They had deeper bass, providing a far more robust foundation to music, which in turn gave their soundstage more bloom and expansiveness. The Rockports simply had more grunt in the low end, which made tracks such as “Low,” from Jonas Hellborg’s The Silent Life (16/44.1 AIFF, Day Eight Music), more physically satisfying. This superiority continued up into the midrange, where the Atrias produced more texture and fine detail. The Rockport tradition of excellent articulation in the midrange is continued in the Atria, this quality trumping even the clear, neutral midband of the Raidho. The highs were a draw: Both speakers were detailed and nonfatiguing up top, the Raidho being a touch airier and the Rockport revealing a tad more meat on the bones. In terms of build quality, there was no comparison. The Atria is far more robustly constructed, and its finish left the Raidho C2.1’s in the dust. The difference in price makes the Atria the clear winner.
Sonus Faber’s Amati Futura ($36,000/pair) proved a more serious contender. Like the Atria, the Amati Futura could play down into the 20-30Hz range, and could put out greater volumes than the Raidho, perhaps matching the Atria in this regard. The Amatis’ bass had weight and substance, and on more than one occasion their soundstage melted away the Music Vault’s walls. Also, the finish quality on the Sonus Fabers was superb. Still, the Rockports held up well in this comparison, with tighter bass and an overall more transparent sound from the lowest bass to the highest treble. The Atrias let just slightly more information through, opening a clearer window on the music, if not as grand a view. The Rockport was also slightly more extended in the highs, though this was close. Considering the $14,500 difference in price, the Atria comes out the screaming bargain.
I’m not sure how you could not love this little speaker (I know -- “little” is relative). It doesn’t sound like a little speaker, but plays big and goes deep -- typically the purview of much larger loudspeakers, and something of a Rockport specialty. Andy Payor knows how to design a speaker so that you get more than what most other really good designers can give you with the same bill of materials and cabinet dimensions at the same price. Call it art, or simply making the correct choices among the tradeoffs that all speaker designers are faced with. The other attributes on your must-have list are here too: The Atria is as transparent as anything I know of at its price, it’s tonally seamless from top to bottom, and it produces a textured and immediate sound that should give you many hours of pleasure.
All in all, the Rockport Technologies Atria is the best speaker I’ve auditioned at its price. It flat-out slays some very competent, high-profile contenders costing thousands more. And you can revel in the fact that when you take a pair home, you’re getting something fine-tuned and micro-inspected by Mr. Rockport himself. What a great price for a loudspeaker that easily transcends mere competence and enters the realm of the special.
. . . Jeff Fritz
- Speakers -- Magico Q7 and S1, Sonus Faber Venere 3.0
- Amplifiers -- Ayre Acoustics MX-R monoblocks
- Preamplifier -- Ayre Acoustics KX-R
- Sources -- Apple MacBook running OS X Snow Leopard, iTunes, Amarra 2.4.1, Audirvana; Calyx Audio Femto DAC
- Cables -- Nordost Valhalla interconnects, speaker cables, and power cables; AudioQuest Meteor speaker cables and Niagara interconnects; Siltech Explorer speaker cables, interconnects, and power cords; Dynamique Audio Celestial speaker cables and jumpers
Rockport Technologies Atria Loudspeakers
Price: $21,500 USD per pair.
Warranty: Five years parts and labor.
Phone: (207) 596-7151