Coincident Pure Reference Extreme
A New Breed of Loudspeaker
The Absolute Sound - January 2011
I don’t think many audiophiles will argue the fact that the loudspeaker is the single most important component in a high-performance audio system. It’s the device that converts the electronic signal into mechanical energy that moves the air molecules we then perceive as sound. How the signal is converted, and what type of material actually interfaces with the air, defines the type of loudspeaker. Be it conventional, horn, planar, electrostatic, or ribbon, each speaker produces a sonic signature at the point of contact with its radiating surface. It is this signature that we either like or don’t like which defines our listening bias. Once we find a speaker with a signature we can live with, we stick with it. I have a listening friend who’s owned KEF 107s for over fourteen years!
I think once we adapt to a speaker we hesitate to look for another. Instead, we relentlessly search for components that highlight the attributes within the speaker that we particularly liked at the get-go. Also, it’s far easier (and cheaper) to swap a cable or switch a DAC then it is to change speakers. We may end up in a proverbial rut and not even know it (or for that matter, even care). It’s only when we hear something new that offers more of the attributes we individually value and/or breaks into a new reality territory that we sit up and take notice.
You’ve heard the words many times. The speed of an electrostatic, the dynamics of a horn, or the punch of conventional drivers. If we could take a favorite attribute from each speaker type and wrap it up into a single unit it would perhaps be the straw that snaps that camel’s back and gets us out of that rut. And this folks, is happening right now. New “take notice” designs from Wilson, Magico, and now Coincident are doing just this. They are causing us to not only re-evaluate our systems but to also rethink our tastes.
Selecting a loudspeaker is a very personal choice. It’s driven by cost, by listening history and by taste. Not to oversimplify the matter but colleague and TAS executive editor Jonathan Valin says there are three basic listener types and each has very specific listening tastes. I think he’s right on target and that we all have a portion of each of them inside us.
The Three Listeners
Listener One, let’s call him Dr. Detail, he likes razor-sharp transients. He selects components based on bandwidth and accuracy. Dr. Detail is a “fidelity to the mastertape” type guy. He wants his recorded music to sound precisely as realistic or unrealistic as the recording dictates and as modern engineering allows. He will listen to the same recording, over and over, as he fine-tunes his system to hear each consonant and vowel of Shirley Horn’s phrasing. You may find Avalon or Kharma speakers in his contemporary loft. He loves to use the word “speed” or “fast” to describe his system.
Listener Two, we’ll call him Mr. Absolute, is more the "replicate reality" type. He wants his reproduced music to sound as much like the real thing as possible, regardless of the quality of the source. He’ll adjust his system to mimic or copy the sound he hears at his local concert venues. You’ll find MBLs or Magneplaners in his dedicated listening room. His favorite audio term is “soundstage.”
Listener Three, let’s call her Ms. Romance, loves the beauty of the music itself. She wants her system to make her feel good and to connect her to the soul of the music—no matter how far it may err from actual reality. You’ll find vintage gear, tube amps and Harbeths in her home. Her favorite buzz word is PRaT (pace, rhythm and tempo).
When the three of them get together all they do is argue.
Dr. Detail inevitably pounds his fist on the table and says: “How can you two consider yourselves critical listeners if you don’t hear all the detail within the recording?” No matter how hard he argues he can’t win the other two over. How do you attack someone’s taste or choice in human endeavor? Mr. Absolute and Ms. Romance breathe a sigh of relief when he finally leaves. They plunk down together on the couch and play some Brahms. Partway through the first movement Mr. Absolute stands up and says: “This isn’t right. I know this recording; the performance is wonderful but the sound is awful. I’ve never heard a multimiked Columbia sound this beautiful.” Miss Romance says with pride, “Isn’t it great! It took me years to get the system to sound so gorgeous. Do you have a problem with that? Are you a music lover or one of those simple-minded equipment people? Don’t you understand intervals, harmonies, tempo rubato, or modes?” After a while Mr. Absolute has heard enough of this anti-audio whining and offers up a litany of the wrongs Ms. Romance is committing like flabby bass, rolled-off top, lack of dynamics, to name just a few. Ms. Romance grimaces and points her finger at him saying, “You’re an equipment ninny; you’re not a true music lover.”
The three of them serendipitously meet again. This time it’s neutral territory at the local audio dealer. The dealer is featuring a system showcasing a pair of Coincident Pure Reference Extremes (because he read this review). He ushers the three misfits into the listening room. After an hour, they come out back-patting and smiling, all the best of friends.
Seem unlikely? Think again. There are a handful of new loudspeakers that have so few sonic signatures that even JV’s three listeners can agree.
The Coincident Pure Reference Extreme, (CPRE) is one of these speakers. It not only reveals the intrinsic beauty of the music itself, the beauty that Ms. Romance lives for, but it also equally wins over Dr. Detail with its astonishingly accurate sound, plus captivates Mr. Absolute with its sonic realism and holographic soundstage. Why does the CPRE appeal to all three listeners? One reason is that it sounds very much like a Magico. More on this later.
These new-breed speakers are accurate to the benchmark of reality. Their ultra-low colorations demand even more from our ancillary equipment. Component selection is now paramount to a successful system. One wrong cable or amplifier mistake can result in sonic havoc. I’m sure you’ve read the Internet chatter that today’s new cutting-edge loudspeaker designs sound bright or thin. Well, let me assure you, it is not speakers. It’s the setup, or the room, or the choice of amplifier. With the latter being a primary key.
Matching amplifiers to these new-breed speakers is trial and error. (Off topic, but who would imagine that Spectral electronics would perfectly mate with lighting-fast Magicos? I know; I was there and witnessed it at the Overture Audio demo in April of this year featuring the Q5 with Spectral amplifiers. Wide bandwidth meets ultra resolution and not only did it succeed, it was some of the most realistic sound reproduction I’ve ever heard.)
What if though… What if you take an ultra-resolving Magico and match it up to an eight-watt SET amplifier? Don’t expect miracles. In fact, don’t expect much at all. You need adequate power to open up the magic that’s within a Magico.
As surprising as this may seem, this new-breed, ultra-resolution, Coincident marries up perfectly to low-powered amplifiers. How many other efficient easy-to-drive dynamic speakers have almost no colorations? No horn, that I’ve heard, is 100% free of throat coloration. That’s the “cupped hands” or “honk” sound we write about.
I want you to hear it. Put the magazine down. Now cup your hands and bring them to your mouth as if you are calling the kids in for dinner, and say, “Testing, testing, hello.” Now do it again, but with your hands at your side. That folks is the difference between a direct radiator and a horn loudspeaker. Of course, it’s an exaggeration but you get the point. There are indeed many new horn-type loudspeakers that minimize this effect, and Classic Audio Reproductions comes first to mind.
Ok, next. Let’s look at the single-driver speaker. This, in my opinion, is the worst offender when it comes to gross colorations. There is no cotton-picking way a single driver is going to reproduce the full dynamic range of a symphony orchestra. So the makers of such animals engineer into their designs “tricks” to fool the listener into thinking they are hearing a broader response when in fact they are hearing the re-engineered dips and humps of the fancy folded-horn cabinets that are needed to augment and adjust the bass and lower midrange. These designs do well with voice, solo guitar, and small combo jazz. But forget about the Rolling Stones, Clapton, or the CSO; they are not going to properly reproduce large-scale dynamics or the even-keeled frequency response that large-scale acoustic and amplified music demands. Single-driver hybrids with powered woofers are a solution but matching the driver types is a challenge. I have heard excellent results though with speakers such as the Rethm Saadhana. Not seamless mind you, but awful darn close.
This leads to a point of contention in modern day high-performance speaker designs that we should discuss. The extent to which Dr. Detail, Mr. Absolute, and Ms. Romance can agree is dependent upon the type of music they listen to.
A state-of-the-art speaker either (truly) stands out with acoustic music or with amplified music, but not 100% with both. Having lived the past four years with MBL101Es, and coming off a series of listening sessions with some big-sluggers including Wilson Alexandria’s and two pairs of superbly rebuilt IRS Vs, it is very clear (to me) that these Big Boy speakers excel at one thing, and speakers like the CPRE and the Magico excel at another. And both of those things are bass—not the quantity nor the frequency of it. The quality of it.
These new-breed designs break new ground in low-frequency reproduction. They not only reveal each and every nuance in the lower frequencies; they do so so gosh-darn naturally that it is frankly uncanny. It’s as if they wash away a bunch of yet undiscovered distortions in the 20 to 150Hz range. I don’t know how they do it but the result is a higher resolution of pitch in the mid and upper bass. And this helps to better reveal the upper frequencies and do so more naturally. It’s much like building blocks. When you get the foundation right the rest of the building is easy. These new-breed designs have sliced and diced the lower frequencies so they fit better together. And this, friends, works wonders in real-world listening rooms.
Listening rooms fail more often in the lower frequencies than the upper frequencies when a sweep is conducted. You’ll often see valleys and mountains in the response through the vital 20–150Hz range that affects the tonal balance of the whole system. If a designer gets it wrong here you are going to know it. Our own Robert E. Greene harps about this all the time and says that digital signal processing, especially in the low frequencies, is the only way to listen.
When I suggest that some speakers are better in low frequency pitch definition than others speakers, what I am leading to is that some speakers are better in the bass with acoustic music than they are with electronic music.
It’s not that these new-breed speakers don’t set new low-frequency standards. It’s just that they don’t give you as much gut-wrenching, dance-club bass and drive as some of the Big Boys do. How important is dance-club bass? Only you can answer that. If you play Madonna’s Bedtime Stories at concert hall levels and you rely on your system to 24/7 vibrate you and your chair into a euphoric state of mind you may want to explore the addition of a JL Audio Gotham subwoofer.
The quality and the quantity of the CPREs’ low-frequency response is simply outstanding. If you witness its bass reproduction on the Arvo Pärt “Fratres” track from the Angel Dances CD, you will jump out of your seat when the drum thwacks are sounded. The clarity and pitch definition is off-the-charts. I know it sounds like I’m double-speaking here, that these new breeds don’t do bass quantity. They do it all right- just not as bombastically as the Big Boys.
Please take note that I am the only listener in my audio group (nicknamed The Audio Nerds) that listens to stadium-level rock and electronica, and I’m totally satisfied with the low-end impact of these new-breed speakers. So, yes, there are tradeoffs with these types of speakers. Like more real vs. less real, more lifelike pinpointed images vs. layered imaging, and natural bass vs. electrified bass.
Coincident Speaker technology was founded by Israel Blume in 1993. This is not a fly-by-night company with no track record. Blume came to market with a concentric design housed within a cylindrical tube with a separate subwoofer system. He sent a pair to this magazine and Frank Doris declared it one the finest loudspeakers ever produced. Over the years Blume has refined the design with several iterations. He’s now come to market with what may be his best achievement.
The CPRE was born from the side-firing, tall-and-thin, single-box Pure Reference system. The Pure Reference was Blume’s cost-effective attack at being an easy-to-drive ultra-resolution speaker system. Genius is at times doing the right thing at the right time. A Coincident customer wanted a home-theater system based upon the ultra-revealing Pure Reference. He wanted the tweeter and midrange units in their own separate enclosures so he could use them as rear and center channels. Blume agreed and went about the new design thinking nothing special would come from sawing the box in two. Heck, he could even reduce the Pure Reference’s tall height by lowering and widening the separate bass unit while keeping the same inner dimensions. This allowed him to make a small mini-monitor enclosure for the mid and upper frequencies.
The CPRE is a two-box-per-side system, comprising a tweeter midrange unit which I call the “Pod” that sits upon a separate subwoofer enclosure. The Pod houses one 1.2** ceramic tweeter and one 6.5** ceramic midrange driver sourced from Accuton in Germany. The drive units are custom-manufactured to Blume’s exacting high-efficiency requirements. Accuton drivers sit at the pinnacle of today’s state-of-the-art designs. They are used in Kharma, Avalon, and Ayon designs to name a few.
The CPRE Pod is made from braced MDF and is designed to be as small as possible to reduce diffraction effects. The midrange unit covers an ultra-wide frequency range from 100Hz on up. These drive units are practically indestructible says Blume. I put this to the test with a wayward mouse move on the volume slider. My hard-drive front-end EMU 1616M soundcard has a user interface with a slender, teeny-tiny-sized volume slider. If you take your eyes off the screen for a nanosecond, you can inadvertently bump the control to full volume. Ouch! My ears were ringing for a while but the tweeter and the midrange units survived with nary a blip!
The Pod’s two drive units are time-aligned on a rearward-sloping baffle with contoured sides and top. This gives the Pod a true mini-monitor soundstage with outstanding pinpoint imaging. During the design phase of the speaker, Blume was so amazed by the size of the soundstage that he thought perhaps more drivers would be even better. He built a floor-to-ceiling-sized, cost-no-object prototype based upon the Infinity IRS with multiple Accuton drivers. In testing, this multi-array design failed to deliver true-to-life scale. It lacked the accuracy and naturalness of the soundstage produced by the two simple drive units in their cute little Pod.
The Pod sits upon the subwoofer box, itself a rectangular affair with two dual, side-firing, 12** Peerless Nomex heavy-duty fiber-cone drivers. The drivers are mounted on a double wall of 2.3** MDF within the braced box. The user selects inward or outward firing by left- or right-side placement. The front of the box is plain looking but grows on you after a while.
The crossover is a first-order design and is very popular for audio applications because it’s considered “transient perfect.” In other words, it passes both amplitude and phase unchanged across the frequency range. First-order crossovers also have the fewest parts. Indeed, the signal path contains but one Mundorf silver-gold capacitor and two inductors both constructed of proprietary 10AWG oxygen-free copper litz—one for the midrange and one for the bass. And get this! There are no wires in the crossover. The lead from one end of the capacitor is directly soldered onto the driver while the other end is soldered right onto the binding post. Same with the inductors (coils). It is elegantly simple, easy-to-drive, and ultra-phase-coherent.
The CPREs were placed in the exact footprint of the MBL101Es in listening room number one. This room is a 14’ x 24’ x 8’ living room with plaster walls. The hardwood floors are covered with wall-to-wall carpet with a wool Oriental rug placed on top. Behind the speaker position is a 20-pane bay window with those 1950 2 x 6 rectangular dividers. These dividers help break up direct reflections.
Speaker-to-ear and speaker-to-speaker measurements are all 10 feet. It’s a near-field equilateral triangle setup on the long-wall with no coffee tables or equipment stands between the speakers and the listening position. The amplifiers sit on low stands in front of the bay window.
Key to the sound of the loudspeaker is the amplifier it mates to. I had on hand the ultra-expensive 35W Lamm ML3 Signature monoblocks, the 55W Komuro 212E Reference monoblocks, the over-the-top excellent 55W Ayon Vulcan II, Bob Carver’s new 275-watt 6550-based Cherry Sevens, and a Sophia Electric Model 91 300B-based pair of monoblocks. Certainly more than enough variety to road-test the CPREs. Blume claims the CPRE is so revealing that differences between amplifiers are exposed as if under a magnifying glass. Believe him.
Prior to placement in listening room number one, the CPREs were installed in the multichannel HT room as left-rights. My listening panel and I were not prepared for the inordinate amount of natural detail the CPREs extracted from movie soundtracks. And this was from just the left-right and not a center-channel speaker-change. Instead of one movie a week, it was one movie a day with the CPREs in the system. Good things to come.
The rest of the system included the following preamps; the Lamm LL1 Signature, the Ayon Polaris II with the Regenerator Power Supply and the Wyetech Opal. Folks, these are some of the finest tube preamps ever made and while they all have their own set of individual characteristics they each share one big similarity—extraordinary and non-fatiguing detail retrieval.
The front end was the Sony VAIO PCG 2A1L with the EMU 1616m outboard soundcard feeding the bitstream by S/PDIF to the outstanding Ayon CD5s player/DAC. All rips at full WAVE and upsampled by the Ayon CD5s to 24/92Khz. This combination produces the most “analog-like” digital I’ve ever heard.
The analog source was either reel-to-reel tape through a Technics 1520 deck and Concord DBA-10 Dolby decoder or LP though the Goldmund Studio/T3 with a Cello low-output moving coil (made by Miyabi). If you play older pre-recorded reel tapes you must have at hand a Dolby unit (all the Barclay-Crockers are Dolby-encoded). I have found the Concord to be one of the best. It has little sonic signature and can be easily found, on-line, second-hand and cheap.
I also used three identical setups of Pierre Lurné’s mid-90s sleeper, the J1 ’table, all with outboard motors and Black Widow arms. This multi-’table setup is a great cartridge-evaluation kit. Not only are the ’tables the same but the phonostages are as well—all Motif’s MP11s. The Motif is brutally revealing but big in sound with excellent pace and rhythm. The cartridges on the multi-’table setup included a Koetsu Standard (new model), a freshly rebuilt Grasshopper Gold III, and the excellent vintage Goldbug Mr. Brier. A new, a re-do, and a time-tested design. The system is cabled with TARA Labs RSC and Crystal Piccolo.
Listening to the CPREs
Notable listeners to the CPREs included myself, Charles Gagnon, Hd. Recording Engineer, Philadelphia Orchestra, Robert Grossman, Principal Librarian, Philadelphia Orchestra, Loren Lind, Flute, Philadelphia Orchestra, Andrew Quint, Sr. TAS Writer, Dan Williams, Second Horn, Philadelphia Orchestra, and a cast of audio nerds.
Best way to start this is with Nerd #1. His name is Al and he said the CPREs setup under review was the best audio system he has ever heard. Nerd #2, named Jack, said the speakers were extremely revealing but at the same time very natural. Nerd #3, Chuck, said the same thing in a different way. Charles, the recording engineer heaped on the highest praise saying the speakers sound exactly like his recordings.
Flutist Lind said the CPRE were more even-keeled than the MBLs. Horn player Williams was impressed with the CPREs’ naturalness and Grossman thought it the best and most accurate midrange he’d heard. Quint sat up and took notice at some bells that popped out from nowhere in Hindemith’s Symphonic Metamorphosis by Blomstedt and the San Francisco Orchestra. Andy turned to me and said, “These are really good speakers.”
Yes, the Coincident Pure Reference Extremes are really good. In fact, they are so good that they are almost non-existent. A great loudspeaker reproduces sound without adding its own. The first impression one gets with the CPRE is, “My gosh, who stole the box?” I get close to this kind of vanishing act with the MBL01Es and I’ve heard other “new-breed” dynamic speakers do it as well. It’s uncanny. You close your eyes and you are inside the recording; you open them up and you are back in your room. The Great Houdini couldn’t have had a better act. Next, you realize there is no, read zero, bass overhang and absolutely none of that (all too common) lower midrange color or warmth. Yes, I know this sounds like the perfect recipe for an ear-ripping transducer. A speaker with ceramic drivers, no warmth, and no box would appear to be custom made for the Dr. Detail listening character.
Not so fast. It is this very lack of low-frequency coloration that allows each and every musical nuance to freely flow. And flow it does, without edge and without grain. It’s as if the music has been set free from the audio experience since there is no “audio experience.” Let me explain. When you listen to an audio system you first hear the signature of the transducer. Next you hear the full transient. It’s like looking at a painting. You first see its size, then the colors and then the textures, before you see the actual subject. It happens in a nanosecond, this eye-brain processing, and it results in you experiencing an image and not actual reality. Same thing with sound. You know if it’s live or if it’s Memorex, and instantly. I am not about to suggest that the CPRE is going to fool you, me, or anyone else into thinking the sound it reproduces is real. It’s not. But it sure can trick you into believing that you are hearing the sound of a real live instrument.
Take Isaac Stern’s violin on the Beethoven Violin Concerto, the 1975 reading with Barenboim and New York Philharmonic. On both the MBLs and CPREs, the violin appears from the front right of the orchestra (as it should). It hangs in space, since it’s spot mic’d, and you easily hear the transient, sustain, and wood as a single unit as Stern plays. On the CPRE there is an ever-so-slightly greater sensation of reality because there is less “noise” attached to the lower midrange. It’s simply cleaner down there. This is a great accomplishment for a loudspeaker—the ability to capture the lower fundamental frequencies without adding color or noise. When Stern tackles the main dance theme in the Rondo and then circles around it with his embellishments, you get more easily drawn into the musical line (the notes) with the CPREs than with the MBLs. Why is this? Easy—there is simply less coloration of the instrument’s lower fundamentals. Also, the imaging with the CPREs is actual and not as “manufactured” as the MBL. This has an effect on the believability of many recordings.
As Mr. Absolute will tell you, the soundstage is vital. I adore the MBLs for this one reason alone. Even if the recording is flat and two-dimensional, you get a room-filling soundstage with the Radialstrahlers. That Beethoven recording is a great example. It is actually two recordings in one. The violin, and then the multi-mic’d, spatially flattened orchestra. On the MBLs both the violin and the orchestra share a vast space between and around the loudspeakers. It’s a wonderful experience. On the CPREs the violin is separate and distinct from the orchestra, and sounds way more real. But when the poorly recorded orchestra enters, it’s a let-down. Both experiences are valid but one is more real. Now, take an average recording, not an audio system demo disc, but any old 1980s orchestral piece, like that Hindemith Metamorphosis of Quint’s liking. This is an ordinary London with a multitude of microphones but with smarter engineering—and you can hear it. We are now entering into Magico territory.
The magic of the CPRE and the new breed is not just a lower saturation of unwanted color but also a heightened sense of speed and accuracy. Dr. Detail territory. This is attributable to advancements in driver technology and cabinet construction. I believe the CPRE excels, and can compete with the Magico (non)sound, not in spite of, but because of its multiple boxes, Pod head, and simple crossover. Now, when you add in the ability to match the CPRE to the world’s most exotic and expensive (per watt) amplifiers you have a new avenue to attain sonic realism.
I enjoy both high-power and low-power systems and I’m keenly aware of the differences between the two. I have to have two systems to fully exploit my wide range of musical interest. Simplifying it: It’s dynamics vs. realism. If you could take the realism of an SET amplifier and mate it with the dynamics that approach a super speaker such as the first-generation Infinity IRS or the MBLs and then toss in the naturalness and ultra-resolution of a Magico you could have the best of many worlds. Now you can. And surprise, it’s not going to cost you a vacation home mortgage.
The Coincident Pure Reference Extreme is priced at $26,000. That’s far below the price of many of the amplifiers I matched up to it. Remember earlier when I reported that Blume said the CPRE magnifies the sound of the amplifier? Now I really know that the $139,290 Lamm ML3 is Carnegie Hall, that the $39,500 Ayon Vulcan II is Verizon Hall, that the $4000 Sophia Electric Model 91-01 is the Village Vanguard. Let’s not forget Bob Carver’s new project, the Cheery Sevens (price fluctuates with the market on eBay). They are like Sting at the Wachovia Center. In other words, you can alter your listening experience with the CPRE by simply changing amplifiers. I’ve been at this game awhile and I’ve never experienced such profound differences between amplifiers. The speaker is a virtual chameleon.
Think about it. A faster speaker, with better imaging, and close to zero colorations that sounds as realistic as a Magico and can be driven with 8 watts per channel. That is exactly what we have here. Israel Blume’s Coincident Pure Reference Extreme is an extraordinary achievement.
Peter deserves a tremendous amount of credit and our thanks for clearly discerning and eloquently articulating the qualities that make the Coincident Pure Reference Extreme so unique and so special. There is not much to add except that we design all our speakers so that they can be optimally driven by all amplifiers- everything from low powered SETs to big power tube and solid state. Due to their high sensitivity, phase coherency ( both electrically and acoustically), the absence of hard phase angles, their uniform high impedance modulus, and virtually unlimited power handling capabilities, Coincident speakers make amplifier choice a personal one.
Thank you TAS and Peter for such a wonderful review. It is especially gratifying to have all the hard work and countless hours of R & D be recognized and appreciated.