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- Written by Doug Schneider Doug Schneider
- Category: Full-Length Equipment Reviews Full-Length Equipment Reviews
- Created: 15 October 2013 15 October 2013
Note: Measurements taken in the anechoic chamber at Canada's National Research Council can be found through this link.
If, this year, you read only one of my reviews from beginning to end, make sure it’s this one.
Aurelia’s two-way XO Cerica is one of the odder-looking speakers I’ve reviewed. It’s also one of the best I’ve heard. And while its price of $7100 USD per pair might seem high for a stand-mounted speaker, even stands integrated into the design and included in the price, that’s offset by the fact that the XO Cerica does things unmatched by any other speaker at any price that I’ve heard. So read on, and find out how Aurelia has challenged the rules of good loudspeaker design, and raised my bar for performance in certain areas.
Aurelia Loudspeakers was founded in Finland in 2006 by Antti Louhivaara, whose résumé is impressive: formerly, he was the lead designer at Amphion Loudspeakers. When, at Munich’s High End event this year, Louhivaara mentioned to me his past employment, my eyes lit up -- Amphion’s Argon2, which I reviewed in March 2002, was one of my all-time favorite stand-mounted speakers. It was also a fave of fellow-reviewer S. Andrea Sundaram, who has some of the best ears in the biz.
Given that history, it’s no surprise that there are strong similarities between the Amphion and Aurelia speakers, particularly in the use of waveguides, which appear in all models from both companies. But the Cerica and the floorstanding Graphica -- the two models in the XO series, the higher of Aurelia’s two speaker lines -- have something I haven’t seen in any speaker from any other company: three 1” titanium tweeters nested in a single waveguide. Weird, to say the least. But there’s method to this apparent madness. Louhivaara’s main design tenet is to focus on the acoustical solution rather than simply the parts being used. In other words, how the drivers are used is more important than what they’re made of.
Basically, the Cerica’s three 1” tweeters are designed to mimic the line-source behavior of a ribbon driver: limited vertical dispersion but good horizontal dispersion. The waveguide serves the same purpose it would if it contained only one tweeter: to shape the tweeters’ outputs to better match their horizontal-dispersion characteristics to those of the outputs of the two 5.5” midrange-woofers, for the smoothest possible crossover, which in the Cerica takes place at a very low 1500Hz. And since it behaves more or less as a horn, the waveguide also provides considerable gain -- some 10dB around the crossover region, according to Louhivaara. That gain is not insignificant -- it means much higher output with far less distortion than if the tweeters had to do all the work on their own. The downside of using three tweeters is comb filtering: at the highest frequencies, where the wavelengths are the shortest, there will be interference between the tweeters’ outputs, since they’re all reproducing the same frequencies. To combat this, Louhivaara has mounted the tweeters very close to each other.
Even though Louhivaara expends most of his effort on the acoustical principles of the design, the parts still weigh in. The tweeter domes are made of titanium, the midrange-woofer cones of TPX, a trademarked name for polymethylpentene, a type of plastic that, Louhivaara says, is woven in ways similarly to Kevlar and carbon fiber. One of the key technologies used in Aurelia’s midrange-woofer is called Dynamic Damping Control (DDC), which limits the cone’s excursion so that the voice-coil stays mostly within the gap, which Louhivaara says greatly improves the damping of the system. A flanged port opens midway up the rear panel, to augment the bass output. The Cerica’s frequency response is specified as 40Hz-20kHz.
The output of the Cerica’s tweeters can be slightly adjusted with the Presence switch on the rear panel, just above the binding posts. This has Hi and Lo settings: Louhivaara considers the Lo setting “normal”; Hi slightly increases the high-frequency output, by about 1dB. I used Lo for my listening and for our measurements.
The idea of putting one midrange-woofer above and the other below the tweeters is done so that the whole system acts as a line source, which limits vertical dispersion and, in turn, floor and ceiling reflections. This sort of midrange-tweeter-midrange (MTM) driver array is nothing new, but Louhivaara says that his triple-tweeter variant -- MTTTM, if you will -- makes a key difference. In a typical MTM array, the single tweeter behaves as a point source and the midrange-woofers more like a line source. The output of a point-source driver decreases by 6dB with every doubling of distance. In other words, if the output is 90dB at 1 meter, then it will be 84dB at 2m and 78dB at 4m. But with line sources, the output decreases only 3dB with each doubling of distance, which means there’s a mismatch between the outputs of the tweeter and the midrange-woofers. According to Louhivaara, in his MTTTM configuration the tweeters act more like a line source and so better match the output of the midrange-woofers.
All drivers are wired in series, which keeps the Cerica’s impedance much higher than if they were wired in parallel. As a result, the speaker’s nominal impedance is specified as 8 ohms, and its sensitivity as a modest 87dB/2.83V/m. Most amplifiers -- even low-powered tubed models -- should have no trouble driving a pair of Cericas.
The cabinet, made mostly of MDF but with aluminum top and bottom plates, measures 21.3”H x 5.7”W x 13.7”D. The caps are always finished in matte black, but the front, sides, and rear come in high-gloss black paint or real-walnut veneer. The integral stand comprises three 23”-high aluminum poles attached with tiny threaded rods through a metal plate to the speaker’s bottom plate, and to the stand’s circular, wooden base, which rests on the floor. Some assembly is required, but it’s not too tough a job. Small carpet-piercing spikes can be screwed into the base to give the speakers a firmer footing on carpeted floors, or felt discs can be used for floors that easily scratch.
The Cerica’s overall quality of workmanship is good. I liked the fact that, secured to its stand, the speaker felt solid but weighed only about 40 pounds -- it was easy to move them around. Although each tweeter’s dome is protected with metal mesh, no grille covers the drivers -- with the narrow baffle, the vertical driver array, the cabinet’s rounded corners, and the tubular stand, the Cerica has a modern, space-age look. Given the Cerica’s fairly high price, some cosmetic embellishments might be warranted, given the focus other companies are putting on making their products look more like luxury goods. But from my conversations with him, I got the strong impression that Antti Louhivaara is a no-nonsense guy concerned mostly with . . .
I had no idea what to expect from a speaker with three front-firing tweeters nestled in a single waveguide and tucked between two midrange-woofers. Whatever preconceived notions I might have had sure as hell wouldn’t have had anything to do with the jaw-dropping soundstaging and imaging I was presented with. The stage was so shockingly holographic and specific in terms of width and depth that it completely changed my perception of how realistic an illusion of a soundstage could be reproduced by two loudspeakers. For example, Sade’s voice on her latest release, Soldier of Love (16-bit/44.1kHz FLAC, Epic), was more focused, tangible, and three-dimensional than through any other speakers I’ve heard in my room, at any price. In “Long Hard Road,” in particular, her voice seemed to emanate from a bulbous point in space that I swear I could see.
I’ve often used “Everest,” from Ani DiFranco’s Up Up Up Up Up Up (16/44.1 FLAC, Righteous Babe), to assess image specificity -- in particular, the placement of her voice and guitar at the far left of the stage and a few feet back of the plane defined by the speakers’ front baffles. Many speakers have re-created this track with a high degree of specificity, but none with as much focus and tangibility as the Cericas -- not even close. DiFranco’s voice, like Sade’s, was placed rock-solidly, seeming to emanate from a space of its own, unmistakable as to where it was coming from. Nor were female singers favored by the Cericas. Listening to the Goldtop Edition of Daniel Lanois’s Acadie (16/44.1 FLAC, Opal/Red Floor) revealed the same kind of specificity as well as incredible depth, something I talk more about below. One word for what I heard: Wow!
The XO Cericas’ transparency -- my ability to hear into a recording with them, with no sense of veiling or obscurity -- ranked so high that I was immediately reminded of Vivid Audio’s Giya G2s, which cost $50,000/pair and are not only the most transparent speakers I’ve heard, but also the best-sounding overall. I was also bowled over by the Cericas’ presentation of the smallest spatial cues -- these cues were startlingly easy to hear, which made depth easier to discern than through my reference Revel Ultima Salon2s ($21,998/pair). In turn, that high resolution made older recordings sound as if they’d been remastered. For instance, I’ve used the score for the 1986 film The Mission (16/44.1 FLAC, Virgin) as long as I’ve been reviewing, partly for its fairly natural, purely acoustic sound, but mostly because of the awesome spread and exceptional depth of its soundstage. As audio gear improves, the re-creations of the soundstages on The Mission just sound better and better. When the speakers and the rest of the system can reproduce all of the tiny nuances that make it possible, “On Earth as It Is in Heaven” has a stage that extends way past the front of my listening room. With the Cericas, the soundstage was not only as deep as I’ve ever experienced it, but had as much detail as with the best speakers I’ve heard, and with better delineation of the voices in the choir. In Musica Nuda, an album I discovered on a recent trip to Italy, singer Petra Magoni and double-bassist Ferruccio Spinetti perform mostly bare-bones versions of popular songs (16/44.1 FLAC, BHM). The recording is excellent, in particular the immediate, natural sound of Magoni’s voice and the excellent capturing of acoustic space around her and Spinetti. The Cericas positioned her voice center stage with uncanny accuracy, and spotlit her tiniest inflection -- I could hear everything in this recording through the Cericas, with no hint of veiling or any other kind of obscuring.
I was so mesmerized by the Cericas’ extraordinary soundstaging and imaging and their impressive transparency, detail, and openness that at first I had trouble focusing on their tonal balance. But when, at last, those aspects of the speakers’ sound became my new norms -- and, in turn, my new benchmarks -- I could concentrate more fully on other things. The Cerica’s midrange was as neutral as my Revel Salon2’s, which is huge praise; the bass was surprisingly full for a speaker of modest size and just two 5.25” midrange-woofers; and the highs were not only very extended but a touch lively, not unlike KEF’s voicing of their LS50 ($1499.99/pair), and Paradigm’s of their Reference Inspiration ($2599.98/pair), both of which I’ve recently reviewed. That said, this liveliness was with the Cericas’ Presence switches in the Lo position. With Presence set to Hi, everything remained the same except for the highs, whose level was subtly increased, and not to my liking -- the sound was now just a little too pronounced up top. Louhivaara recommends Hi if the room is very absorbent, or if the associated electronics sound soft or rolled off on top.
My best estimate of the Cerica’s bass depth matched its claimed frequency response of 40Hz-20kHz: strong output to about 40Hz, enough to make this svelte speaker sound big, bold, and weighty; and deep enough that I couldn’t see any music lover needing a subwoofer. What’s more, the low end kept its composure even when I played Sade’s “Soldier of Love,” which is heavy in ultra-deep bass, at higher-than-normal listening levels -- they pounded! It was only when I went to way-higher-than-normal levels that I heard some distortion through the midrange-woofers and had to back off.
The Cerica’s bass was also pretty punchy -- more so than, say, the Grand Cru Audio Essentiel monitor ($8200/pair without stands), which I’ve also recently reviewed, and which reached as low in the bass as the Cerica, but without nearly as much impact. In short, the Cerica could reach pretty low and boogie. If you audition them, don’t hesitate to play any kind of music, even hard rock -- of which I played plenty.
The Cerica’s mids and highs sounded even more controlled than the bass at very high volume levels, which likely has to do with the tweeters’ load sharing, the waveguide aiding them, and the composure of the midrange-woofers once they’re out of the deep-bass range. Petra Magoni’s voice soared as effortlessly and freely at far-beyond-normal as at ultraquiet levels, as did Sade’s and even Leonard Cohen’s voices, the latter obviously quite a bit lower-pitched. Ferruccio Spinetti’s double bass always sounded notably full, natural, and remarkably clean, even when played extremely loudly -- quite an accomplishment for a modest-sized speaker with such small drivers. In contrast, KEF’s LS50, Paradigm’s Reference Inspiration, and Grand Cru’s Essentiel could all play pretty loud -- just not as loudly or as effortlessly as the Cerica.
Every speaker, no matter how accomplished or expensive, is the product of sonic trade-offs, and despite my sky-high praise of the XO Cerica, there are a few things to be aware of. First is the Cerica’s bass; it’s great for the sizes of the speaker’s cabinet and drivers, but with an overall frequency response of 40Hz-20kHz, it can’t qualify as full-range -- it won’t go down to 20Hz, something that only very large floorstanders with big bass drivers can do. This is a place where something like the Revel Ultima Salon2, which is much bigger and three times the price of the Aurelia, really steps ahead. Next is the Cerica’s combination of a quite neutral overall tonal balance and superb clarity. Neutral speakers with this kind of clarity tend to sound flavorless (i.e., uncolored) compared to speakers that have, say, a pumped-up bass (which can make them sound warm), or depressed mids (which can make them sound relaxed), or some other anomaly that colors the sound in a way that some might find pleasing. The Cerica didn’t add any flavoring or embellishments of its own to the sound.
The final thing to be aware of, and probably the most important, has to do with the Cericas’ vertical dispersion. As long as I remained seated, the Aurelias sounded like any well-designed, dynamic-driver speakers -- the preferred listening seat was still the center position for soundstaging and imaging, but the tonal balance remained intact over a wide listening window. But when I stood up, most of the mids and highs disappeared, leaving a sound that was incredibly dull. This has to do with the driver configuration, which has nearly ideal horizontal dispersion but cancels out certain frequencies above and below. Vertically, the proper tonal balance was maintained from about the middle of the bottom midrange-woofer to the middle of the top one: a range of 16”. In short, the XO Cerica is a sit-down-and-listen speaker. If you audition the Cericas while standing or lying down I can guarantee that you’ll be unimpressed. But sit down in a chair, preferably in the center, and with your ears at middle-tweeter height, and you’re likely to be as awestruck by this unique speaker as I was.
Antti Louhivaara’s focus on the acoustical solution has resulted in the XO Cerica looking different from anything else out there, and in it outperforming, in certain areas, almost everything else. When you’re sitting in the sweet spot, two of those areas are its soundstaging and imaging, which put the speaker in a league of its own, regardless of price. But the Cerica’s neutrality, transparency, resolution, and low-to-high-volume composure, too, all ranked very high, even when compared to much-higher-priced speakers.
The Aurelia XO Cerica is an expensive stand-mounted speaker. It’s also an exceptional one that not only deserves to be heard by audiophiles interested in what groundbreaking performance sounds like, it demands to be heard. If I were looking right now to spend up to $10,000 or even a little more on speakers, a pair of Aurelia XO Cericas would likely be what I’d take home.
. . . Doug Schneider
- Loudspeakers -- Revel Ultima Salon2, KEF LS50, Grand Cru Audio Essentiel, Paradigm Reference Inspiration
- Amplifiers -- Anthem Statement M1s (monos), Ayre Acoustics VX-5
- Preamplifier -- EMM Labs PRE2-SE
- Digital-to-analog converter -- Meitner Audio MA-1
- Computer -- Samsung laptop running Windows 7 and JRiver Media Center 18
- Digital interconnect -- AudioQuest Carbon
- Analog interconnects -- Nordost Valhalla
- Speaker cables -- Siltech Classic Anniversary 330L
Aurelia XO Cerica Loudspeakers
Price: $7100 USD per pair (including stands).
Warranty: Five years parts and labor.