MMThree Review – Fernando Andrette – Audio Video Magazine 176

AVMAG176_Evolution Acoustics MMTHREE-1

At the 2010 Hi-End Show in Rio de Janeiro, I was offered a detailed description of the principal characteristics of Evolution Acoustics speakers as described by darTZeel’s owner, Hervé Delétraz, during a lengthy interview with our editor-in-chief, Ricardo Marino, in our room at the show. I remember his unequivocal statement that he had never heard a speaker that sounded so “real”, even when playing at extremely high volume. He also described in detail the innovative ways this speaker addresses standard speaker design issues, such as cabinet construction and crossover development, the result being a speaker that is incredibly expressive!

In May 2011, with a trip to the Munich Hi-Fi Show planned, I had arranged with Herve to visit darTZeel’s room at the show in order to hear the new darTZeel monoblocks and audition the darTZeel system, which featured the Evolution Acoustics MMThree speakers. Because of a health issue involving my son, however, I cancelled the trip and postponed the opportunity to hear the MMThree’s.

At the beginning of September of last year, Vlamir of Logical Design called to say that he had secured distribution rights to Evolution Acoustics in Brazil and asked whether we would be interested in reviewing the speaker. With the arrival of the end of the year, I thought it best to have the speaker shipped at the beginning of January so that we could break them in without interruption.

What I had not guessed was that transporting these speakers would prove to be such an odyssey!  The speaker is comprised of modules, each weighing approximately 100 kg. [220 lbs.]!  In order to unload the truck and carry them into our listening room, we needed six people and an additional four persons to unpack and assemble the speakers.  In total, the modules and their packaging weigh 960 kg. [2,112 lbs.]!  Until we got them unpacked, I thought they were made of lead.

Founded in 2002 by Jonathan Tinn and Kevin Malmgren, Evolution Acoustics has gained enormous prestige in the audiophile community by virtue of the quality of its products and the philosophy of the company. According to its founders, Evolution Acoustics has two ambitious objectives: design and build the best products possible, and invest in research and development prior to releasing products so that customers will not need to upgrade thereafter.

The ultimate objective of every Evolution Acoustic product is to offer the customer a speaker of extreme precision that is capable of reproducing an audio signal as closely as possible to the original, independent of the limitations of the listening room.  And for Evolution’s designers, the only true way to achieve this objective consists of designing and manufacturing a speaker system that can reproduce a square wave. Obviously, up to this moment in time, no speaker manufacturer has designed a speaker that can perfectly reproduce a square wave, but Evolution Acoustics’ founders state categorically that they have come extremely close.

According to Jonathan Tinn, other speaker manufacturers state that the accuracy of their products is confirmed by their flat frequency and consistent phase response.  However, this does not translate into a faithful reproduction of the recorded signal, as high-order crossovers are incapable of reproducing the recorded signal with 100% fidelity.

Evolution Acoustics looks at the problem from a different angle. “There are various elements that must be examined in order to achieve this objective. The speaker must have flat frequency response, but also accurate phase response.  With respect to our speakers, we typically achieve a frequency response of +/- 3 db. from 10 Hz. to 40 kHz. (in the case of the MMThree) with a range of +/- 1 db. in the midrange. As for acoustic phase, our speakers are typically within a window of +/- 5 degrees from 400 Hz. to 40 kHz., and +/- 15 degrees from 10 Hz. to 400 Hz.  The spectral decay is extremely fast throughout the entire response range – all of our speakers are to 3 milliseconds from 400 Hz. to 40 kHz.  This type of response is rarely seen in loudspeakers – only above 10 kHz. in most high end designs.”

“For us at Evolution Acoustics, a speaker must be time-coherent and this is only possible if the acoustic centers of the various drivers are perfectly aligned for an adequate transition from one driver to the next, given the overlap at the crossover frequency.  And finally, the speaker must have a flat electrical impedance and flat phase response. Our designs have impedance values whose variation over the entire frequency range is from 1 to 2 Ohms, with phase inversion limited to a maximum of 15 degrees.”

“When these design objectives are achieved, the result is a speaker with an almost perfect impulse response.  However, the designer has a principal concern when this type of response is the goal, which is one of the principal reasons that most high-end speaker manufacturers do not follow this path – this type of response can only be achieved when the listener is positioned precisely in between the two speakers, horizontally as well as vertically.  Any deviation from the sweet spot and the response suffers.”

 Typically (according to Kevin, the designer), this occurs due to inconsistencies in the time responses of the various drivers, which results in phase anomalies and cancellations at certain frequencies.  At a typical paralleled crossover frequency, these effects can become extreme and in certain cases, result in room echo.

 “In our constant-voltage crossover, these differences are minimized to an extreme – we achieve an ample sweet spot with excellent musical energy off-axis, as well as phase and time coherence.  The result is a speaker that behaves well off-axis, and that has accurate response even outside of the sweet spot. In addition, the various components used in a paralleled or in-series crossover will always add something in between the amplifier and the drivers. The principal advantage of our implementation is that, due to the avoidance of energy loss in the signal path to the drivers, we naturally achieve greater macrodynamics, because there is nothing in between the amplifier and the drivers.”

“We also tried to imagine a hundred different rooms benefiting from no acoustic treatment whatsoever and designed into our speakers the ability to adjust frequency response through a series of controls, thus allowing the listener to dial in the performance of the speakers in a given room.  We do this because we believe that the type of customer who purchases a product like ours must have the ability to achieve the performance that he or she prefers.”

The controls on the MMThree include tweeter (off / -6 db. / 0 db.) and woofer, specifically: Bass Filter (50, 100 and 150 Hz.), which the user may vary in accordance with his preferences and needs for correction (in our case, we crossed the speakers over to the woofers at 100 Hz., which is the recommended frequency for rooms having no frequency response anomalies); Bass Level, a volume control which can be adjusted from flat to + 6 db. and should be used only if the room features a room mode near the woofer’s crossover frequency; and Bass Quality, with adjustments of Tight, Neutral, and Full

The Bass Quality control should only be used if the positioning of the speakers results in a loss of bass definition and articulation.  In our room, the ideal setting was Neutral.  The Bass Extension control may be adjusted in 0, 1 octave or 2 octave increments. This filter controls the mechanical excursions of the woofer cones. When set at 2 octaves, one can clearly see that the 15-inch woofer cone moves with greater intensity, while when set at 1 octave, it moves less (in our room, we chose the “1 octave” setting). Finally, there is a Rumble Filter for those who also have a turntable. When listening to digital sources, the filter should be turned “Off”, and with vinyl, it should be turned “On” (I suggest that these instructions be followed unless you want the four 15-inch woofer cones to land in your lap, because the cone excursions are incredible when LP’s are played). 

When you focus on the details of the construction of the MMThree’s cabinets, the extreme weight of this speaker is understandable. The speaker is designed to sound as if it were a single, giant driver. As such, the cabinet construction differs for each driver – each is a “receptacle” as opposed to a cabinet!

The material used for the cabinet is Baltic birch (a wood used by other manufacturers), and each cabinet uses a thousand layers of the wood assembled via a sophisticated computer program that, after being cut, assembled and laminated, are placed in a press and compressed at a pressure of six tons!

Internally, rather than use wool or other absorbent materials to absorb standing waves, an anechoic chamber is created using thousands of layers of varying sizes (between 3 to 6 inches) in order to eliminate internal standing waves.

The exterior of the speaker is entrusted to a luthier who worked for fifty year at Fender and who recommended that the speakers use the same color that is employed for violins, which, when exposed to air, neither fades nor loses its luster.

According to the manufacturer, the drivers are mounted into a transmission-line loading scheme in order to achieve the best response. The principal reason that ceramic drivers were chosen is that their spectral decay marries perfectly with the spectral decay of the ribbon tweeter, with a window of less than 3 milliseconds at the crossover point, extending octaves above and below this point.  Such a response is so rare that even companies that manufacture drivers are unable to achieve such a result.

The crossover is constructed of the finest components, for example, film and laminate capacitors of the highest grade, Goertz inductors with copper laminate coatings of the highest purity, ultra high-current 1% tolerance Mills resistors, and Teflon-coated copper wiring.  All of these components are point-to-point soldered, with no circuit boards being used.

Evolution Acoustics speakers were designed to be used as modules. As such, the customer can begin with the MMOne, which consists only of the middle module from the MMThree. Afterwards, the speaker may be upgraded to the MMTwo (which consists of adding a woofer module that contains a 1,000 watt Class D amplifier driving a 15-inch bass driver). Finally, the customer can upgrade to the MMThree, which is a MMTwo with an additional woofer module positioned on top of the midrange/tweeter module that is driven from the 1,000 amplifier in the MMTwo’s first woofer module. The upgrades are simple and are accomplished by simply connecting the various modules via cables that are included with the upgrades.

The same approach is used with the model line directly below the MM series, called the “Mini”. In my opinion, the innovation achieved by this manufacturer was to have obtained customer loyalty through the creation of products that are easily upgradeable to models higher up in the model line-up.

For the review, we had at our disposal an arsenal of excellent products and cables. The two amplifiers used most to break in the speakers were the Audiopax Maggiores M 100 monoblocks and Goldmund Telos 350 monoblocks (for the listening test, the speakers were used with the Goldmund amps). The preamps used were the darTZeel NHB-18NS and Audiopax Model 5 SE. CD players used were the mbl 1531 A and the DCS Puccini with U-Clock.  Interconnects used were the Logical Cables Millennium III, Kubala Elation (XLR and RCA), and Transparent Audio Opus MM2 (XLR). Speaker cables used included Logical Cables Special Edition, Kubala Elation, and Transparent Audio Reference XL.  The turntable used was a Transrotor Rondino Free Magnetic Drive with SME V arm and Benz LP-S cartridge.  Equipment racks included the Audio Concept Signature and Solid Tech.  Power conditioning was provided by the AC Organizer LC 311 SE Plus.

Although the manufacturer emphasized that the speakers needed an absolute minimum of 350 hours of break-in in order to demonstrate full performance, to our surprise, they sounded really good right out of the box.

As we had no idea what would be the ideal position for the speakers, we opted to set them up, at least initially, in the same place where the Dynaudio Temptations were positioned, specifically, 4.4 meters (14 ft. 5.2 inches) between the speakers and one meter (3 ft. 3.4 inches) from each side wall. The problem is that the Evolutions are much deeper than the Dynaudio Temptations, which left us in doubt as to the bass performance of the Evolutions given that they were so much closer to the wall behind them.  Our doubts were assuaged, however, because the woofers are acoustic suspension and the midrange/tweeter module is transmission-line loaded. 

Reading the owner’s manual carefully (which is well-written and complete), we ended up opting to maintain during the entire break-in period the settings that are recommended for rooms that are acoustically perfect.

Our initial impressions during the first 24 hours were a mixture of shock and incredulity, because a recreation of the original musical event is brought before you with zero physical effort from the speakers, which is to say that the performance achieved by these speakers is absolutely off the charts!

When I put on the first CD, a solo piano performance by pianist Stephen Kovacevichi of Beethoven’s Sonata, Opus 101, I was immediately placed in front of a piano of real proportions with a focus, surgical precision, and balance between micro and macro-dynamics that was spectacular. 

In any review I undertake, the first quality that attracts my attention is always tonal balance, and it is only thereafter that I begin to note other performance parameters. With the Evolution Acoustics, it was the first time in my twenty years as a reviewer that tonal balance became a secondary consideration for me, given the magnitude of the performance of these speakers in such areas as harmonic integrity, dynamics, silence, focus, and precision.

The owner’s manual explains that the performance of the speaker in the high-frequencies will improve gradually, taking (depending upon the intensity of break in and the style of music chosen) up to 100 hours to achieve maximum potential, and I spent the first three days listening exclusively to large symphonic works, big-band, and innumerable discs featuring a lot of percussion.  This was how I discovered a new dimension of listening ease and volume.

The more you ask of the MMThree’s, the more they feel absolutely comfortable reproducing every genre of music, without having to choose between recordings that are merely average and those that are excellent.

 When talking with Victor Mirol about the speakers, I joked with him that I was listening to a speaker that had the width of Nove de Julho Avenue in Buenos Aires! Or the same sensation that I’ve had when navigating the Negro River in Pará, whereby you are not able to see the banks when you’re in the middle of the river.

With almost 120 hours of break in, the high frequencies were already absolutely correct with extraordinary extension, speed, and naturalness that were captivating, convincing, and addictive.  With an additional 60 hours, the bass frequencies changed from being stylish, but constipated, to what I can confirm was full extension (imagine, readers, extension to 7 Hz.!) and speed, with the time element of the music and energy correctly extended throughout the listening room, without the phenomenon of bass lobes firing in only one direction as is the case with home theater woofers.

The appearance of the Evolution MMThree’s gives us the false impression that those impetuous 15-inch woofers are going to kick us like a horse, but to listen to the speaker, one realizes that, just like in a good concert hall, the bass frequencies are distributed evenly throughout the room. But to feel the power of the bass delivered by the MMThree’s, all you have to do is put your hand on the sofa, walls, or the LP shelves, and you’ll feel them rumbling as if there were an earthquake!

Only a pipe organ can give you an idea of what I am describing. Our collaborator, Henrique Bozzo, was in our listening room and had an interesting observation: “reproducing a pipe organ correctly requires a speaker to convey the sensation of complete listening ease, intelligibility, and a certain shiver of fear.”  It was precisely this effect that we both experienced when we listened to Bach’s Prelude via a magnificent performance of Peter Hurford.

As they approached 250 hours of break-in, we finally began to experiment with the positioning of the speakers, and they wound up only 12 cm. (4.7 inches) in front of the Temptations. With this subtle change, the soundstage expanded monumentally in both width and depth. With LP’s that I have owned for years, instruments that previously extended 30 cm. (11.8 inches) to 40 cm. (1 ft. 3.8 inches) beyond the speakers now traveled out much farther.  With this change, the sensation of ambience, focus, and incision was amplified exponentially.

Every day brought a new, big surprise. With the increase in extension at the frequency extremes, we came to learn that the MMThree’s don’t care if the recording is compressed – it’s crucial that the listener accurately adjust the volume, in which event the sound will be in absolute order. We listened to recordings that 99% of the speakers we have reviewed simply cannot play, such as the song Dangerous Curves on King Crimson’s The Power to Believe, and the 1812 Overture of Tchaikovsky on Telarc SACD.

 Those who own these recordings know how frustrating it is to have to continually monitor the volume so as to avoid blowing anything. Now, imagine listening to these performances at realistic volumes, without risk.  This is what the MMThree offers. The listener only has to prepare for a level of adrenaline that will overcome the body, while watching these speakers produce a wall of sound without ever breaking a sweat.

I put on both recordings during our listening test and know that at least one of our listeners will comment.  It is almost disturbing to know that the speakers can play at such volumes, because if the listener doesn’t demonstrate care, he will in several weeks time be listening at levels previously thought unimaginable. 

As such, after two months of listening, I became careful not to exaggerate or, when I did go too far, to limit such sessions to forty minutes!

One of the participants of the listening test described the speakers in his own way when he commented during the coffee break, “they’re like a public address speaker, but with the finesse of an audiophile product”.  If we consider the high volumes that they are able to play at, his observation makes sense. However, don’t think that the Evolutions, because of their size, are only good for playing large-scale symphonic works – their delicacy and beauty with solo voice or solo instruments is moving.

Everything is presented with such naturalness and reality that, listening to them for only a few minutes, the experience will be etched in your listening memory forever. Textures are so palpable and hover in front of us so convincingly that it’s as if we can feel velvety or rough hands reaching out and touching us.

The same phenomenon can be seen with respect to these speakers’ correct portrayal of instrument size (principally revealed by recordings on vinyl).  To listen to Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony performed by the Chicago Symphony with Sir Georg Soli on a Decca recording from the 1970’s was one of the most significant experiences I have had as a reviewer.

There are two things that I had never heard through another speaker: the entry of the double basses in the fourth movement, with such authority, body, and weight, and the entry of the chorus, with two hundred voices! What intelligibility, focus, and precision, dear reader!  All duly established in their proper plane, without flattening images and without making the sound become bi-dimensional during the most dynamic passages.

The authority with which the MMThree imposes itself is alone worthy of making it the reference speaker for its presentation of symphonic music. Its ability to recreate huge spaces with large numbers of instruments and keep everything in its proper place is something one only hears with live music!

While I have tested speakers that can reproduce quite well the microdynamics of a symphony, there is always compression during fortissimos that makes images become bi-dimensional.  The consequence of this flattening is that the choir portion of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony seems forward, like the horn section. In some recordings of the Ninth, the entrance of the vocals is accomplished on top of the double basses!

I have left for last the most important issue of the test – the speaker’s tonal balance – because I thought it should only be evaluated when the speakers were fully broken in (although at almost 400 hours, we are still observing subtle changes at the frequency extremes).

Readers who have been following my work for the last twenty years know that my reference speakers have always been Dynaudios. In total, I’ve had seven different pairs of Dynaudios, and my choice has been dictated by several parameters that I always insist upon: among the most important are the speaker’s speed, its tonal balance (once the speaker has been dialed in), their high level of transparency – all of which makes them an excellent tool – and because they possess extremely accurate, uncolored bass.  If there is something that I cannot live with, it is slow, ill-defined bass.

Although in the 20 years I have been reviewing speakers there have been some that enchanted me for various reasons, none of those speakers shook me enough to make me consider buying another brand. However, as darTZeel’s designer, Hervé Delétraz, predicted, it’s simply not possible to resist the MMThree’s after several months of living with them. That is exactly what happened to me. After two months of living with these speakers, there is simply no going back.

Although I tried to resist, I have had to accept the fact that if we want to test products that score above 90 points on our scale, it will be necessary to invest in a reference system that is at least 10 points better – only this will prevent us from committing injustices with the high-level products that are now appearing on the market.

Changing our reference system at this new moment is a commitment that we are making publicly to the entire market (readers, manufacturers, and importers). Although the MMThree is superior to our previous reference speaker in all respects, what finally decided the issue for me was the Evolution’s absolutely correct tonal balance in terms of timbre, naturalness, and especially, realism.

Everyone who heard the speakers in our listening room cited as the principal distinguishing difference its level of realism, which permits an ease of listening that is unimaginable!  It is difficult to put into words this sensation.

I will site two examples.  There are two discs that I have listened to for years, the first being the Wynton Marsalis Septet, recorded live at the Village Vanguard.  I like the entire record, but there is one track that simply torments me with the scale of its virtuosity and creativity – Track 10.  In this song, Marsalis opens with a seven-minute solo, using a mute at several centimeters from the microphone.

The sound of his trumpet is rough and cuts like a knife. Playing this solo is hard work for any tweeter, often leading us to give up on the song. The problem is that, even at low volume, the problem persists. What about the correct volume? My reference speaker always confirmed the problem, it being evident that at correct volume, the boundary between listenable and unlistenable was as thin as a hair!

The realism with which the MMThree’s present music is so amazing that any harshness is entirely in the background, Wynton Marsalis materializing in front of you. The sensation is difficult to understand, as if we were stuck on every note, it being difficult to assess whether the notes are dirty, rough or biting. The listener’s concentration and focus is taken to another dimension.

After Marsalis’ solo is another from the pianist, also long at five minutes in duration.  Of such complexity and virtuosity is the playing that you again feel that you are right in front of the musician, at a distance of 5 meters (16 ft. 4.9 inches). It’s as if there are visual cues, because the listening function induces the brain into “seeing” the event.

The second example is Pat Matheny’s Secret Story, Track 13, in which Matheny is accompanied by a string orchestra and uses a semi-acoustic guitar for his solo with a heavy tuning of the strings.  His solo is simply majestic, and the speed with which he plays the highest notes is genuinely virtuosic.

In all of my systems, I’ve never had any difficulty following the solo from beginning to end.  However, as Matheny progresses toward the high notes, I thought it strange that the string section would outshout his solo. In fact, what happened is that he is so near the end of the neck that the pressure required to maintain the notes is simply incongruous with the music’s tempo.

At this point, something “magic” happens when this passage is heard through Evolutions: we stop being listeners and become accomplices of the guitarist. To me, it’s as if I were filming Pat’s hand and wanted, somehow, to help him make it through the passage.

I have always believed that the best tonal balance brings with it greater timbral accuracy and consequently, greater listener ease.  Hearing the MMThree’s, I have to reconsider this belief and postulate that another factor well above timbral accuracy and any other performance parameter leads to a level of realism that we have never before experienced.  And this sears into our brains a sensation of well being and pleasure that is even more striking – why not spell it out – addictive!

Tweeter:                                 1 5-inch aluminum ribbon

Midranges:                             2x 7-inch ceramic

Woofers:                                 2x 15-inch treated paper

Frequency response 

(-3 dB):                                    10 Hz – 40 kHz

 Frequency response

(-6 dB):                                    7 Hz – 70 kHz

Nominal Impedance:   7 Ohms

Impedance variation:   +/- 2 Ohms

Sensitivity:                   93 db.

Alignment:                   3-way

Type of crossover:       Constant voltage

Time aligned:               Yes

Phase aligned:              Yes

Controls:                      Tweeter and woofer

Onboard amp output:   1,000 watt RMS

Maximum gain:                        +6 db. 

Maximum amplifier     

power:                              400 watts RMS

Minimum

recommended

amplifier power:          5 watts RMS

 

Cabinet:

Type:                           Concentric matrix tower

Baffle thickness:          2 inches

Spikes:                         2 inches x 3/8 inches

Weight:                                    238 kg. (524 lbs.)

Dimensions:                 457 mm. (1 ft. 6 inches) x 1.880 m. (6 ft. 2 inches) x 762 mm. (2 ft. 6 inches)

 

Tonal balance:                 13.0

Soundstage                      13.0

Textures                             13.0

Transients                         13.0

Dynamics                          12.0

Harmonic integrity           12.0

Organic wholeness         12.0

Musicality                           12.0

 Total                                100.0

 

VOCAL                                 **********        

ROCK, POP                        **********

JAZZ, BLUES                      **********

CHAMBER MUSIC             **********

SYMPHONIC MUSIC         **********