The Ascendo System (M)agic Loudspeaker
1. Ma-gic. The art that purports to control or forecast natural events, effects, or forces by invoking the supernatural. 2. The practice of using Ascendo System M loudspeakers to attempt to produce supernatural effects or control events in nature. 3 The exercise of sleight of hand or conjuring for entertainment.
Hailing from Germany, the Ascendo System Z is a new an unusually musical transducer that has electrified nearly all who sat before it. After living with the Ascendo System Z loudspeaker as reference, displacing the mighty Talon Khorus MkII’s, my long time favorite, I purchased them without hesitation. Of all its world-class strengths;―sound staging, image specificity and density, along with an extremely smooth and yet detailed presentation―I discovered there was one area that I thought could be improved upon (long after I purchased them). That one area was bass impact. To be honest, bass impact is not really something one immediately asks of a loudspeaker so utterly capable of delivering the kinds of musical excellence audiophiles seek. But having lived with and been spoiled by what I can only describe as bass monsters like the Talon Khorus, I was finding myself itching for a similar level of bass from the Ascendos. Sometimes life can make it hard differentiating one’s wants from one’s needs. I certainly didn’t need more bass impact. I only wanted it.
Enter the flagship Ascendo System M
What you get in equal portions when you switch to this bigger version of the Ascendo is world class dynamics and musicality. At $40,000 ($45k with chrome stands), the Ascendo System M rests smack dab in the middle of what essentially becomes world class category: capable of reproducing sonics without making any apologies for lack of bass prowess, treble extension, soundstage (depth, height and width, etcetera, etcetera). I still laugh at recommended components costing tens of thousands, given top honors yet attached is a note that they are low-frequency restricted! At the end of the day one can only sit stupefied.
Lets Get Physical
The Ascendo System M and Z models are both equipped with the same external metal bridge which is designed to both support the ribbon tweeter right above the midrange/bass section, and to expunge all unwanted resonances[mine arriving in the more expensive shiny chrome finish. See photo]. The only difference between the Systems Z and the M can be seen when you look at the midrange/woofer enclosure. The tweeter and midrange drivers (8” SEAS) are identical in both models. What makes the System M more expensive is its substantially larger woofer: an 11” Eton nestled in its belly, versus the 8” woofer housed in the System Z. This gives the System Z a more slender look, making it more of an eye catcher and thus more WAF friendly.
In terms of sensitivity, there are also differences. The nominal impedance of the System M, for example, is a rated at 8 ohms compared to the System Z’s rated 5 ohms. Sensitivity can be critical depending on the amplifier used.
Located under each midrange driver are the vent ports, and again the System M sports a noticeably larger (5 1/2” diameter) port, compared to the System Z’s 4”.
Both loudspeakers use the same crossover employing Ascendo’s unique S.A.S.B. low-frequency drive unit (or dynamic current-damped woofer and semisymmetrical bandpass) technology. (Stromdynamisch, the German term for current-damped, allows for the 8" SEAS Excel paper cone midrange, which is housed in a dedicated sealed box, to remain electrically damped and matched in impedance with the internally hidden 11” bass driver). On the rear of the midrange/bass
enclosure of both loudspeakers is toggle, switching between VD-H (Verstärkerdämpfung hoch) and VD-N (Verstärkerdämpfung niedrig). Switching between these settings will affect the speaker's sensitivity relative to the damping factor of amplifier used (i.e., a highly damped amplifier = VD-H, lower damped = VD-N, the “normal” setting). As with the System Z, I ultimately preferred the normal setting and for the life of me could hardly tell you what the differences were when I switched to the VD-H setting. I have a sneaky suspicion it doesn’t matter as much using digital amps and hybrids such as the Bel Canto, Acoustic Reality and Chateau Research.
In terms of hookup, again both speakers are equipped with sameplastic encased, Euro-styled WBT binding posts for tweeter and midrange/bass. Bi-wiring is mandatory while bi-amping is optional. Physically, aside from the larger mid/bass section of the System M, it would be difficult, if not impossible, at a glance to tell both loudspeakers apart. So, then I ask, why invest in the bigger System M?
Don’t Disturb This Groove
The Ascendo System M simply sounds bigger, and in my humble opinion, in part due to its larger woofer and greater sensitivity, better. The TacT 2150 amplifiers sound better driving the larger System M than they did on the smaller and slightly less efficient System Zs. Don’t get the impression they sounded strained on the System Z because they did not. But there was certainly more ease and effortlessness when the amplifiers were strapped to the larger sibling.
When I listened to the opening of Dance of the Seven Veils from Salome from the Exotic Dances CD (Reference Recording RR71CD), I knew immediately that the System M possessed bass that was both deeper and possessed of more low-end impact. By virtue of these strengths I got the benefit of a greater (perceived) three-dimensionality in the lower regions as well. Three-dimensional low end? When your aural senses detect something like that, you know something special is going on.
Pianist Jacky Terrasson’s funky smooth jazz remake of Stevie Wonder’s Isn’t She Lovely from his Smile CD (Bluenote 7243540668) serves as a near perfect illustration of deep, three dimensional bass. Bassist Sean Smith does a worthy job of handling multi-rhythmictempo with his unique playing style, while Terrasson tickles the ivories in his own inimitable way. Overall, I like the way they sound together, and the mixing of this disc was excellently done, which makes this CD a “Must Getz” (the new title of our recommended jazz CDs).
Three dimensional bass is not some figment of imagination but one measure of what is possible when engineering and science are joined in a firm handshake. I think there was a lot of handshaking going on at Ascendo when you consider the integration of the crossover network and three drivers. This integration sounds flawless to my ears, and the TacT equipment is able to weave its magic completely in the digital realm, through both its room correction preamp and D/A conversion, before the signal is rendered analogue. In theoretical terms, this is supposed to be the best of what is possible via the digital approach. And to my ears it very well may be.
Dare to Compare
Greg Petan owns the Talon Firebird and his most recent review tells of his admiration for the make, feel and sonic character of this most audacious loudspeaker. Greg and I are not just audiophiles who write for the same rag, but two friends who value each other’s opinions and attitudes. It is with this in mind that I say the Talon Firebird is an awesome loudspeaker that will dazzle anyone that’s wealthy enough to afford them, and all the ancillary equipment needed to make them sing. Ditto the Ascendo. At $32k, ($40K with the Diamond tweeter) the Firebird isn’t even remotely affordable to most of us. Sadly, though, it seems more and more loudspeakers today are being priced in this range. I mention ancillary equipment because I believe that both these speakers will pick up on lesser component flaws, so fine equipment with very high synergistic characteristics become a must. (Far too often, super-heavyweight systems sound bad because someone went out and bought all highly touted products without ever once considering whether they’d work well together.)
Greg and I have systems that are very different, so my impressions are based only on what I heard on Greg’s equipment when I’m over for a listening session. I like the Talon Firebirds. I like them a lot more in Greg’s setup. I think they do exactly what Greg finely illustrates in his review. The Firebirds possess the incredible ability to create the illusion that live instruments are in the room, which is something I’ve always craved and tried to recreate in my own listening room. Greg’s room, which is humongous, allows him certain privileges and freedoms that my relatively quaint setup (17’ by 21’ with an 8’ ceiling) simply does not.
Quaint does have its advantages when it comes to intimacy. The ability to feel as if you’re at one with the music is more apparent due to my setup being a strictly dedicated one, with only a pair of windows keeping the world out. Everything is quieter and closer than at Greg’s, so the ability to get lost in the music tends to be easier. This gives the impression of the System M possessing more resolution, which is something Greg and I both spoke of. I think the Firebirds are simply too big for my room. Their personality isn’t characteristically subtle. They want to sing, and you probably are going to need the space to let them do just that. The Ascendo are much more laid-back sounding, due in part to its ribbon tweeter. The System M sound is much more reminiscent of the planar designs than designs employing dynamic drivers. As a result the sound is unusually relaxed but at the same time alive, but not too close-up and personal. This comes as a big plus in a room the size of mine. The Ascendos literally make my room sound bigger than its true physical size. Hard to explain, but easy to hear.
On the other hand, the Ascendos could not keep up with the insanely high levels of playback as the Firebirds. Both play louder than they should ever be required to. But the Gryphon Encore amplifier, rated at something like 500 watts per side, driving the Firebirds is something to behold. They epitomize the meaning of “driving” a loudspeaker.
Both these loudspeakers will delight their respective owners with hours of listening pleasure. The Ascendo is not very well known around these parts while the Talon has gained a stronghold in the past couple of years. My hope is that Ascendo will develop into these regions with a strong marketing approach. Their design team possesses the obvious expertise to make loudspeakers throughout their line, from the smallest to the largest, that have that signature Ascendo sound: warm, relaxed and utterly involving, without the slightest hint of distortion. Most recently the Ascendo C5 loudspeakers arrived for review and, amazingly, without employing a ribbon tweeter this loudspeakers sounds exactly like the larger Ascendos…minus a couple of lower octaves.
If I had to choose one I would have to go with my heart and pick Ascendo for its ability to remain unfazed and relaxed no matter the source. Add to that a ribbon tweeter which has to be one of the best high-frequency transducers made today.
Hey, $40,000 is a lot of dough for anything, much less a loudspeaker! That was the required down payment on my house. Why, for that amount of bread I could go on a world cruise and take the family…and a couple of relatives. But this is the high-end, whose very name bespeaks grandeur, pomposity and very large piles of greenbacks. And the System M has been appointed high-end, in the truest sense of the word, by virtually everyone who has heard it.
Granted, the System M isn’t going to fit most tastes in décor, with the exception of the audiophile who finds the look of this most unusual loudspeaker as attractive as I do. Mine is in a dedicated room so I don’t have to worry about looks. But there’s no question that the Ascendo M is an exceptionally domineering presence in one’s living quarters. In terms of performance the Ascendo System M resides as the most musically satisfying loudspeakers to have graced my listening room. It hasn’t skipped a beat no matter the musical venue, electronics or digital format. As a matter of fact, the Ascendo System M seems to crave high resolution devices. Case in point: Alex Paychev’s modified Philips 1000 SACD player. Playing SACD’s through this modified mechanism opened greater possibilities for both SACD as well as what this very capable loudspeaker is MORE capable of. Certainly there’s going to be something to replace the Ascendos as technology continues to move forward. But I must state that this is one that may go down as an ageless classic, like the Infinity RS1B’s, the Maggie Tympanies’, and the Quad ESL’s have. The Ascendo System M certainly has earned my highest accolades.
Principle: Three way SASB-technology
Dimensions: (B/H/T): Stand: 40 / 128,5 / 60 cm
Loudspeaker: 29 / 148,5 / 35cm
Loudspeaker+Stand: 40 / 156,0 / 60cm
Weight: 95.5 Kg
Sensitivity: 87 dB / 1W/m
Price: $40,000 /with chrome stand $45,000