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Gemme Audio Vivace Speakers
A Rare Commodity

 

October 2007

         



As is readily apparent from a perusal of Stereo Times or a visit to a local audio store, the vast majority of modern speakers utilize two, three or more drivers. The reason for this design choice is straight-forward: Multiple drivers provide greater frequency extension than a single driver, and allow each driver to be operated in its most linear range. Why then is there a market for single-driver speakers? The answer resides in the fact that the benefits of multiple drivers come at a price. Many listeners -  myself included -  feel that multi-driver speakers often lack coherence for a variety of reasons, including driver-to-driver differences in positioning, efficiency, dispersion pattern and distortions. Moreover, multi-driver speakers typically use complex crossovers which, in addition to inducing phase shifts, have a tendency to rob the music of its energy. Last but not least, multi-drivers speakers often require very powerful amplifiers; I am perhaps in the minority amongst my Stereo Times Colleagues in subscribing to the school of thought (as espoused most notably by the late Harvey “Dr. Gizmo” Rosenberg) that low-powered amps, especially SET amps, sound considerably better than their higher-powered brethren.

At first blush it might seem that designing a single-driver speaker is both simple and easy. Regrettably, this is not the case. While single driver systems have the advantage of functioning more-or-less as a point source, they typically have two major drawbacks, namely (1) limited bass extension and (2) a tendency to exhibit some peaks, typically in the upper frequencies. To increase bass response one can of course select a larger driver, but most often the solution is found in back-loading the driver. There are of course many variations as to how this is done, with various degrees of success. To manage the high frequency peaks, designers sometimes modify the driver, add phase plugs, or - as in the case of the Teresonic Ingenium speakers reviewed here - tune the cabinet so as to flatten the frequency response. While the cabinet design is important in any speaker, it is arguably moreso with single driver speaker than with other designs. It is not an exaggeration to say that the cabinet can truly make or break the speaker.

One of my favorite rooms at last year’s Montreal Audio Show was that of Gemme Audio. Gemme Audio is a small speaker manufacturer company based in Montreal. They currently have two offerings, the one and a half-way Tanto and the single-driver Vivace. Of the two the Vivace was more to my liking, and I made at least a half dozen visits to the room during the course of the show. I felt immediately comfortable with designer Robert Gaboury and his business partner Jean-Pierre Boudreau. After numerous E-mail exchanges with J-P, he agreed to send to me his own personal pair of Vivace’s for review, as the demand for the speakers has outstripped the supply.

Arrival and Set-Up
Thankfully, the Vivace’s arrived in New Jersey without incident. The speakers are shipped in a double carton, and the speakers themselves are encircled by three styrofoam “rings” for added protection - an ingenious and economic solution. The speakers are designed to be tri-spiked, allowing for easy leveling even on uneven floors, as well as allowing for adjustable rake. The spikes come packed in a cardboard box which is nestled in the cardbox box. A cross-member containing two spikes attaches to the bottom of the speaker at its rear via two screws. A separate spike screws in to the bottom front of the speaker. Spiking both speakers took less than ten minutes.

  

The speakers themselves are of modest dimensions, measuring approximately 36" in height x 10" in width x 16" in depth. They are however surprisingly heavy for their size, tipping the scales at 80 pounds. The sides of the speakers are covered in a beautiful wood finish  - in the case of the review pair, high gloss Bubinga Pommele -  and have a gentle curve to avoid parallel surfaces. On the front surface is a 2”-thick black baffle, near the top of which is mounted a 4” diameter Fostex FE108ESigma driver. On the back surface is a similar but thinner (approximately 1”) baffle. Mounted in the lower one third of the rear panel is a small port. Near the middle of the rear panel is a solidly constructed connector plate which contains a Cardas connector. The top of the speaker is black, matching in color - though not design -  the front baffle. The fit ‘n finish is excellent.

Just as the cross-over is the heart of a multi-way speaker, the cabinet is the heart of the Vivace. Gemma Audio refers to the design as “V-Flex” and while some general information is provided on their website, Robert and J-P are understandably tight-lipped about its internal construction. Peering into the port I could discern a vertically-mounted support piece with a few holes but no other details. Their site states “The slanted sides of front baffles reduce diffraction modes, while the curved surface is machined with V grooves to break surface vibrations. The baffle width and density is designed to spread the main resonance frequency, so no peaking frequency can be associated with the massive baffle construction...All baffles are also machined on the inside. Even though you’ll never be able to admire the complex inner construction, we took the extra step of machining the inside panels as well. Contrary to run of the mill speaker boxes, inside baffle walls are machined with resonance dispersing focal channels of different shape, width and thickness. This effectively breaks and spreads standing sound waves. Also, no two parallel surfaces are to be found inside the enclosure and resonances are perfectly controlled.”

They note also that only formaldehyde-free MDF is used in the construction of the speakers, which are assembled entirely by hand in Canada. The Vivace’s are stated to be 92 dB sensitive and to have a nominal 8 Ohm impedance; while I am not in a position to verify this, I can vouch to the fact that they are extremely easy to drive.  To position the Vivaces in my room I began by placing them approximately three feet from the front wall, and incrementally pulled them farther into the room while listening for tonal quality and in particular, bass response. The best results were achieved when the speakers were precisely at the half way point in the room (i.e., the front baffle 10’ from my rear wall), a position which has worked well with other moderately sized speakers such as the new DeVore Fidelity “The Nines.” Things were improved a bit when I positioned the speakers somewhat asymmetrically with regard to the side walls, such that the front inner corner of the left speaker was 45” from the side wall, while the front inner corner of the right speaker was 30” from its adjacent wall. In this position the drivers were approximately 7.5’ apart, and I sat about the same distance from the speakers. In this position I was about 2’ from the rear wall, against which are two RealTraps Mondo Traps. I much preferred the speakers with considerable toe-in, whereby the drivers were pointed approximately at my shoulders.

The Sound
As the speakers had already been played for a few hundred hours before reaching me, no significant break-in was required on my part. From the moment the needle first touched vinyl, I heard the same terrific sound I had experienced in Montreal. Let’s begin with the bass. The bass from the Vivaces was very good, and worked extremely well in my sometimes-problematic room. Admittedly, it was not “pound you in the chest” bass - there’s only so much a 4” driver can do - but the bass went surprisingly low. Every visitor to my room was impressed with the Vivace’s bass output. Equally important to its “quantity,” the bass was wonderfully tuneful and articulate and importantly, it kept up well with the rest of the music; this latter point is something that cannot be said for a fair number of back-loaded single driver speakers, with which the bass often seems to lag the remainder of the music.

Moving to the other end up of the frequency range, the Vivaces had very nice treble extension and importantly, were virtually devoid of the peakiness I had heard in Montreal (most likely a result of inadequate break-in), and which typifies many wideband drivers. In this regard, the Vivaces reminded me of the de-wizzer coned Lowther drivers used in the wonderful Horning speakers. Horns and female voices, for example, were reproduced with very good clarity, detail and extension. In the midrange, the Vivaces were very impressive. Male vocals for example were reproduced with impressive clarity, texture and detail. Notably, they lacked the “cupped hands” coloration which typifies many front horn-loaded speakers. The midrange misses the “great” mark because of what is perhaps the speaker’s most notable flaw: They are somewhat lacking in the lower mid/upper bass regions. As a result, the tonality of voices and certain instruments is slightly off, and instruments don’t sound quite life-size. This is common with single-driver speakers using a relatively small driver and truth be told, many “conventional” smaller speakers display the same weakness. The plus side of a smaller drivers resides in their reproduction of inner detail.

Nothing I’ve written thus far distinguishes the Vivaces from countless other speakers on the market, and you may well be wondering why I was so enamored with them. The explanation is that the Vivace’s strengths lie in areas that - regrettably, in my opinion - have been relegated to the back burner in lieu of modern trends in audio. Allow me to explain.

First, the Vivaces have wonderful coherence, the kind occasionally approached by two-ways but rarely if ever with speakers with three or more drivers. I am often asked what coherence sounds like; like many things in audio, it is best identified by its absence. The best explanation I can offer is that when speakers lack coherence, the music sounds - literally - like numerous pieces, instead of a continuous whole. Coherence is not ear-catching or “wow-inducing” the way, say, deep bass or very extended highs are. Instead, coherence manifests in its ability to allow a stronger emotional connection with the music, a property obviously not readily measured with oscilloscopes and the like. This is a property that the Vivaces have in spades, and which made long-term listening a consistent joy. When neighbor and Stereo Times colleague Dennis Parnham dropped by for a listening session, he commented on the stability of the image. While my room treatments undoubtedly contributed to this phenomenon, what Dennis was most likely responding to was the perfect phase, something few if any multi-way speakers can achieve.
The next property in which the Vivaces distinguish themselves is dynamics. As the term dynamics is often used in different ways, it is worth taking a moment to describe just what I mean by it. In simplest terms, dynamics refers to the difference between the loudest and softest passages, and the ability of a system to reproduce these differences. Virtually all large speakers are capable of playing loudly and producing a “big” sound and they are often described as being “dynamic,” yet many suffer from severe dynamic compression. How can this be? The answer lies in the fact that inherent in the concept of dynamics is speed: To capture the dynamics of music a speaker must be able to respond quickly. As such, I refer to the “big and loud” sound as having impact, and reserve the adjective dynamic for those speakers which exhibit minimal dynamic compression. While we’re on the topic of dynamics, it is useful to distinguish between micro- and macro-dynamics. The former refers to the structure of individual notes; their rise, their sustain, and their decay. Macrodynamics on the other hand refers to large scale changes in volume, for example that of an orchestra’s crescendo. Macrodynamics are more ear-catching, but the importance of microdynamics to musical realism cannot be overstated.

So what does all this have to do with the Vivaces? In a word, everything. The Vivaces have superb microdynamics. Music heard through the Vivaces is lively and energetic, and subtle differences in intensity are reproduced with startling clarity. Truth be told, I was astonished to hear such performance in a sub-100 dB sensitive speaker. This of course is what Fostex drivers are famous for, and the Vivaces allow the full expression of the driver’s strengths - a testament to its superb implementation. Moreover, the Vivaces can play at reasonably high volumes without serious distortion or compression, though they do lack the impact of larger speakers. Music is not a sine wave but is instead comprised of countless “blips,” many of which are both small and brief. Not surprisingly, rapid transient response is critical for another essential element of music, namely resolution (AKA, detail retrieval). Here too, misconceptions abound. As my friend Jules Coleman has described in some of his articles, what is frequently mistaken for resolution is actually frequency aberrations, in particular an emphasis of upper mids or trebles. While this can initially be ear-catching, it often leads to listener fatigue. Moreover, the frequency aberrations color the sound, lending a sameness to the music - the antithesis of resolution. Fostex drivers are known for being highly resolving and the Fostex-based Vivaces deliver this in spades. They do so with a relatively even tonal balance (despite the slight weakness in the upper bass, as noted above), and reproduce many of the subtle intonations, truly allowing one to “hear deeply” into the music. Listening sessions with the Vivaces were always delightful and inspirational, and often continued into the wee hours.

System Matching
One of the many contentious issues in audio concerns how much of one’s budget should go to speakers vs. that spent on the electronics. Representing the extreme positions are Ivor Ttiefenbrun of Linn who advocates spending the most on the source, while Dave Wilson of Wilson Audio argues that the bulk should be spent on speakers. I have typically equivocated on this issue as I have heard wonderful examples of each, as well as systems more evenly balanced price-wise.

Most of my listening with the Vivaces was done with my reference Shindo electronics - Shindo-modded Garrard 301 turntable, Giscours preamp (with Auditorium 23 Hommage T1 step-up transformer), Cortese F2A set amplifier. (Digital was via my Reimyo Dap 777 DAC, which was fed from either a modded Sony transport or a modded Olive Musica.) Most of my electronics are more expensive - some considerably more - than the Vivace speakers. While I don’t envision most purchasers of the Vivaces using gear at this price point, doing so revealed a great deal about the Vivaces. Shindo gear excels at capturing the harmonic structure of music and its ebb and flow, and the Vivaces did an admirable job of allowing these traits to come shining through. I did briefly use the Onix SP3 Melody integrated amplifier, which costs considerably less than the Vivaces. While the music lost much of the Shindo magic - hardly a surprise - the Vivaces nevertheless retained the excitement, detail and emotional involvement. In short, the Vivaces held their own with top-notch electronics, yet sounded wonderful when paired with more modestly prices electronics.

It was interesting to compare the Vivaces with my DeVore Fidelity Super 8s. These speakers are similarly priced, about the same size (the Vivaces are a bit larger), easy to drive, and work well in small-to-medium sized rooms. The Super 8s bested the Vivaces in terms of tonal balance, smoothness and refinement. In contrast, the Vivaces produced better and deeper bass in my room, and had a more exciting presentation. Both speakers are, in my opinion, superbly crafted, and represent different yet very satisfying approaches to musical reproduction.

Concluding Remarks
The Vivace’s retail for approximately $4,000 U.S., a not insignificant amount of money and a price point at which there is considerable competition. Speakers at this price are generally well constructed and offer sound that is considerably better than that from mid-fi products. It is reasonable to wonder how the Vivaces stack up to the competition. To the average consumer, perhaps not so well: Most speakers at this price point have more drivers, possibly more expensive drivers (the Fostex 108ESigma retails for less than $100), and many will have more powerful bass and most a bigger sound. But this type of analysis misses the point. In a culture in which “supersize me” is almost a way of life, the Vivaces buck the trend and demonstrate that less can indeed be more. What the Vivace brings to the table are properties increasingly rare in mainstream speakers, namely (1) the ability to be driven with low-powered amps, (2) a dynamic, coherent and palpable sound, and (3) an attractive and room-friendly package. The attainment of these goals is a testament to the superb design and manufacturing abilities of the folks at Gemme Audio. To say that that I recommend the Vivaces would be a massive understatement; they are in fact one of the most enjoyable speakers I have heard and in my opinion, one of the best speakers at their price point. I am buying the review pair.

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Specifications:
Single-driver small tower speakers
Vflex turbo-charging sub-bass technology
Natural sound Fostex FE108E Sigma 4" driver
Machined front and back baffles with surface vibration breaking V grooves
Minimal coloration through sturdy, heavily braced cabinets
Inside baffle panel asymmetric focal grooves break and spread standing sound wave
Gold plated Cardas multi function terminals
Tripod footing with integrated adjustable spikes

Sensitivity: 92dB 1W/1m
Impedance: 8 ohms
Recommended amplifier power: From 3.5 watts (tube amp friendly)
Frequency response: 20 - 18,000 Hz
Dimensions: 36" H x 10" W x 16" D
Weight: 80 pounds each (36 kg each)

Price: $4,000.00 US


Contact:
Website: http://66.130.192.248:9081/gemmeAudio/
Email: jpierreboudreau@gmail.com