Apogee Stage & Mini-Grand loudspeakers

Dick Olsher & Various, August, 1990

As Laura Atkinson shuffled into my listening room one evening, she spied the Stage loudspeakers tucked away in the corner. "Hey, Dick, those look like Apogees, but they're kind of small." Rising to the occasion, I responded with: "Honey, I shrunk the Apogees." At roughly 3' tall by 2' wide, the Stage is far from intimidating; it even feels more compact and is certainly much cuter looking than the old Quad ESL. Yet Junior's resemblance to the rest of the Apogee family is unmistakable. The canted baffle, the vertical tweeter/midrange along the inside edge of the baffle, and the pleated aluminum-foil woofer clearly bear the imprint of the larger Caliper and Duetta models. It's almost as though Apogee started shrinking the Duetta until the price tag shrank below two kilobucks.

But just because it's the baby in the line and their currently most affordable all-ribbon speaker, it would be a mistake to regard the Stage as a budget model. The level of finish is superb; no corners were cut. And surprisingly, the sound quality does not take a back seat to its more expensive relatives, which should be incredibly good news to most audiophiles.

Ribbons: to Rib or not to Rib
The strict classical definition of a ribbon involves a metallic foil which is freely suspended in the primary field of a magnet. Apogee's tweeter/midrange ribbon obviously qualifies as a "ribbon," therefore. The metal conductors are supported only at top and bottom and hang between the opposed North and South poles of two arrays of magnets. There has been some controversy over the exact technical definition of the Apogee planar woofer, however. Is it really a ribbon? No, in the strict sense of the word. But in the jargon of the 1980s, it clearly qualifies as such. Modern ribbons usually consist of a thin aluminum conductor deposited on a plastic substrate which is then placed in the leakage field of a magnet. The conductor is adjacent to a sheet of magnets, but is never between the north-south poles of the magnetic circuit where the flux lines are strongest.

Like a Magneplanar, but unlike an Eminent Technology push-pull Ribbon, the Stage woofer is a single-ended design. There is a single array of magnets on the back side to provide the driving force. Theoretically, a push-pull design is superior because it eliminates driving-force nonlinearities. For single-ended operation, the driving force becomes nonlinear as the ribbon is displaced farther and farther from the magnets. The nonlinearity, however, only becomes serious as the ribbon's excursion becomes large. And certainly the proof is in the listening. Both Apogee and Magneplanar have produced eminently listenable speakers over the years.

The crossover frequency is around 800Hz. The cutoff slope of the network is a constant-voltage 6dB/octave, gradually increasing to 12dB/octave, while a rear switch, labeled "High" and "Normal," allows the treble balance to be adjusted. Two pairs of five-way binding posts allow the Stage to be bi-wired, if so desired.

The radiation pattern is dipole or figure-eight—with the main lobes to the front and back and little radiation to the sides. I personally like the controlled dispersion of a dipole because of the reduction of early sidewall reflections. Reflections arriving within an 8-10ms window of the first wavefront are most troublesome, as they color instrumental timbres and, depending on their intensity, also serve to diffuse image specificity.

The real issue for a dipole, then, has to do with the backwave. What do you do with it? Surely, to place a dipole very close to the back wall is to court sonic disaster. Unless the back wall is a sonic "black hole," there will be many early reflections. One school of thought prescribes a breathing space of, say, four to five feet from the back wall. The logic behind this is that back-wall reflections will now be delayed at least 8ms and thus will offer only minimal interference with the direct sound. As a bonus, the argument goes, the late reflections will enhance the spaciousness and perceived depth of the soundstage. There is no doubt that this approach works, and that in some rooms it works well even without any acoustical treatment of the back wall; for example, the Sound-Lab A-3s in JGH's old listening room in Santa Fe. Here, even with a bare concrete back wall, the A-3 did very well as long as it was kept at least 5' out in the room. In general, however, I'm dubious that such an approach will work in most rooms without some acoustical damping of the back wall.



Miracle at the Sands
Apogee's Jason Bloom is not one to bury his head in the sand. But during the 1990 Winter CES, I found him holding court at the Sands, one of the Strip's old-guard hotels. That's where I got my first glimpse of the Stage. Positioned 4' from a bare wall the Stage produced magnificent sound from my far-field listening position. I remember thinking to myself, "Jason has done it again—best sound at the show." The soundstage was utterly transparent from the most delicate treble detail to the bowels of the bass octaves. The veiling that afflicts an appalling number of other loudspeakers by obscuring detail and robbing the music of a sense of immediacy had evaporated. That, coupled with exceptional speed, clarity, good dynamic range, and a strong sense of spatial coherence, made the reproduction transcend mere hi-fi. The Stage elicited my immediate respect. It was a magical moment that facilitated a closer link to the experience of live music.

Of course, we were listening to Jason's hand-picked CDs, with which I was not familiar, and no, I was not sure that timbres were right-on. The voicing of the speaker was a bit on the cool side of reality. But, just the same, what a dramatic entrance. If the world is a stage, the Stage had to be a world of a loudspeaker. Naturally, I was interested in a review. I'm not sure if it was my reaction that did it, but Jason promised to send a pair to Santa Fe for review.

Santa Fe: first impressions
As it turned out, I received the same pair of loudspeakers I'd heard in Las Vegas. The accompanying Owner's Manual was very specific in detailing Apogee's thoughts on what constitutes the optimum setup geometry, including the requirement to locate the speaker precisely 4' from the rear wall. I had resolved to undertake a spring cleanup of Stereophile's listening room, to reduce the clutter and free up the front of the room so that the Stage could be afforded just the right performance environment. In the meantime, it seemed worthwhile to experiment with the Stage in what is normally the minimonitor position in the room—about a third of the way into the room from the front wall.

To be perfectly honest, I was a bit apprehensive about the Stage's prospects. What came to mind was the scenario involving the Caliper. Having been blown away by their performance in Chicago in the Summer of '86, I eagerly awaited their arrival in Santa Fe. Yet JA was unable to coax them into the level of magical performance I remembered so well. He tried and tried, but they never came alive here the way they had in Chicago. Was this to be a case of déjà vu?

Another reason for concern was Jason's repeated statements to the effect that the Stage a priori needed a live room for proper tonal balance. The implication being that an unattenuated back wave is important for the Stage's upper-octave balance and that the speaker sounds best in the far field. Well, at least the latter point turned out to be true in my room. From basic principles, I'm uneasy about letting the room into the tonal-balance equation in the middle and upper octaves. Ordinary room surfaces emphasize certain frequency bands by absorbing some frequencies more strongly than others. The end result is iffy at best; the room is given the chance to impose its sonic impression or signature on the music. If at all possible, I'd much rather squelch the contribution of the room by using absorptive materials, or at least balance out the room response with the use of diffusers.

A basic and apparently chronic problem of the Apogee line has been its tonal balance: too much bass and not enough treble. That's how the Caliper sounded. And if you examine the Diva's frequency response (see AB's review in August 1988, Vol.11 No.8), you can clearly see that the lower mids and the deep bass are emphasized in relation to the upper mids and treble. The response begins to droop at 400Hz and is down a full 5dB from 3kHz to 15kHz.

My initial listen to the Stage did nothing to dispel this impression. The clarity and transparency I remembered from Las Vegas were not diminished, but there was too much bass, and the range from the upper mids through the presence region was dull-sounding. At least the promise of greatness was there, however, and I was far from discouraged. It was clear even then that the speaker was something very special. The tonal balance wasn't quite right, but this speaker's transparency, speed, and cohesiveness argued persuasively that here was a transducer that could come dangerously close to sounding live. By that I mean that it sounded less obviously canned than most other speakers when listened to from outside the listening room. For example, while taking a leak in the bathroom, not really concentrating on the music, a message filtered from my subconscious mind: hey, these speakers really do sound live.



I'm sure that most of you have been in the situation of strolling down a street and catching a puff of music leaking from an open window or doorway. At that moment, have you ever had any trouble instinctively telling the difference between live and canned? I should think not. A piece of cake, right? If you've ever failed this test, do not pass go; proceed directly to jail with a lifetime subscription to Stereo Review. It's not so easy to analyze the factors that contribute to at least the audiophile's ability to so effortlessly make this sort of distinction. A key factor to my mind is that canned music is unable to communicate the dynamics, tension, and drama of live music. The Stage impressed me early on with its abilities in these areas—provided that one is willing to cater to its needs.

I started this catering business with a full complement of absorptive material in the room and with the Stage anchored well away from the front wall. After several tries at different tiltback angles, or what Apogee calls the rake angle, I was still unsatisfied with the resultant balance. Contrary to Apogee's instructions, I also experimented with the toe-in angle; Apogee recommends no toe-in at all. A slight toe-in proved beneficial in providing more upper-midrange energy. But there was still too much bass, and I toyed with the idea of elevating the Stage about 8" off the floor in order to reduce some of the bass energy.

At this point, however, I decided to let matters rest until I could organize my listening room in the service of the Stage and also to await the arrival of Classé Audio electronics and Jason in Santa Fe. Because of Jason's strong recommendation, I had arranged to borrow a pair of DR-8 power amps and a DR-6 preamp, and these were used for most of the listening tests. Also, Jason expressed the desire to assist me in the initial setup. Eventually, the stage was set for the Stage, complete with the energetic Jason Bloom.

Jason in Santa Fe
For the first couple of hours I felt like a queen bee. Here I was sitting passively in the listening seat, with Jason moving energetically around the room tweaking this and that, listening to the results, then tweaking again. The commotion had to do with moving the speakers about and slowly adding more and more absorptive material. He started with no fiberglass panels behind the speakers, but the large bay window behind the speakers caused problems. The imaging refused to gel into a tight spatial focus. A tight central image and precise soundstage localization could not be achieved until much of the rear wall was covered with fiberglass. All I could do was smile internally, nodding my head in approval as the imaging gradually improved to the point of respectability.

The final position for the speakers ended up at 4' from the rear wall, a lateral separation of 70" from inside edge to inside edge, and with no toe-in. With the listening seat about 12' back from the plane of the speakers, the tweeter wasn't really that far off axis. With all of the absorptive material behind the Stage, the balance proved to be more correct with the tweeter control set to High.

The final configuration was clearly unorthodox by Apogee's standards, but I'm sure Jason would argue that the window necessitated the actions taken. Jason proved not only a practicing pragmatist, but also to possess a keen ear. The key during the setup process proved to be lots of patience; odds are the Stage will not work right out of the box. But the patient audiophile will be rewarded with a soundstage that is quite remarkable in some respects.

To fill in the rest of the details, the DR-8s were bridged and operated in a balanced mode, with a 30' run of AudioQuest's Lapis Hyperlitz interconnect back to the preamp. The Stage was bi-wired with Symo speaker cable. This is a relatively inexpensive cable that Apogee imports from Switzerland. It is made available to dealers, but Apogee does not actively promote the product. According to Jason, Symo works very well with the Apogee line; much better, in fact, (he says) than some other highly touted cables. Because I found that hard to believe, and because I just happened to have a modest collection of cables on hand, we decided to conduct a quickie cable evaluation. The results proved to be quite shocking. The Symo worked well, while TARA Labs Space & Time TFA/Return and Temporal Continuum, Cardas Hexlink, and Weber Wire all failed miserably.

The basic problem was that the sound became either steely or bright. J. S. Bach's "Komm, Jesu, Komm" chorale (track 12 of the Fine Arts CD by Grundig, MD&GL 3322) was used heavily during the setup process. With the other cables, the sweetness of the soprano's upper registers evaporated to steeliness. And while the Symo managed to preserve a sense of drama in the mids, the other cables did not. The exhalation of breath by the singers was propelled outward at warp speed by the Symo. The others failed to reproduce the power and majesty of the mids to the same degree.



I'm not suggesting that all of the other cables are no good. Clearly, the Stage is quite sensitive to the choice of speaker cable, and in other contexts with other loads, the Symo's competition will do very well. As you know, I've lived with Space & Time TFA/Return for a long time, and have found it to be an exceptional performer with a variety of speaker loads. This was the first instance in which it significantly failed to measure up. Just when you think you've discovered a universal cable, a counter-example presents itself. It seems to me that dealers and audiophiles had better relisten to the Apogee line with the Symo cable in the chain.

At this point, Jason was quite pleased with the setup. He declared it to be one of the best sounds he'd ever extracted from the Stage, and if he could bottle it, he would take it with him.

Post-Jason impressions
Clearly, there was much to be pleased with. The addition of Theta's latest DS Pro Basic digital processor to the system brought forth the best CD sound I've ever experienced anywhere. Max Bruch's Kol Nidrei (Max Bruch: Collected Works for Cello and Orchestra, EBS 6060, footnote 1) was reproduced with startling transparency. The sensation of being able to reach out and touch someone was very strong. The upper mids were reasonably sweet, and the harmonic envelope of the cello sounded utterly cohesive. Bass detail and lack of bass coloration were far superior to any bass reproduction I've heard out of a box speaker. Bass lines were utterly clean and tightly defined. The body and extension of the cello were superbly retrieved without the colorful resonances we've grown more or less accustomed to with boxes.

Instrumental outlines were naturally sketched within the soundstage, neither bloated nor collapsed to a point source as some minimonitors are apt to do. (The rising high-end response typical of many minimonitors, which etches treble transients, coupled with a lack of lower-midrange energy and upper-bass body, combine to collapse the apparent image size to artificial smallness.)

The realistic reproduction of image size was consistently one of the Stage's most likable attributes. Its ability to reproduce the power and size of a cello was absolutely frightening, and in this respect it came very close to capturing the Gestalt of live music. Here's an experiment you can do quite cheaply without even having to go to a concert hall. Have some one sing in front of you, preferably in your listening room. Now, close your eyes and visualize a mental picture of the singer's outlines. You should be able to differentiate and localize the throat and chest of the singer. What you will discover, however, is that the overall outlines of the sound source appear quite large and that the sound appears to bloom and expand as the volume level is modulated. While you can at any time point unequivocally toward the spatial outlines and the center of mass of the sound, there is never the impression that the sound is emanating from a point.

The Stage appeared to possess the innate ability to mimic this characteristic of live music. Staying with the cello for the moment, try Jacques Offenbach's Suite pour deux violoncelles, Op.54 (Harmonia Mundi HMC 901043). Through the Stage, the spatial outlines of the cellos were unmistakable. I would go so far as to say that the image outlines were precisely localized in the sense that one could mentally trace their spatial outlines, but each cello occupied quite a bit of space within the soundstage. The sensation of concert-hall spaciousness was captured realistically.

One aspect of the soundstage that was not reproduced nearly as well was that of depth perspective. With the Ensemble Reference that I reviewed in June, I've experienced a level of image palpability that the Stage clearly could not match. This 3-D effect was achieved with the use of the Air Tight tube amplifier, which of course is not the ideal amp for the Stage. It appears reasonable, therefore, to consider the Stages' soundstage depth compression an artifact of the solid-state electronics in the chain.

Reproduction of the proper tonality of a harpsichord gives many speakers a tough time. The average speaker tends to err in the direction of too clangy and overbright a tonal quality. Not the Stage. Take for example J. S. Bach's Sonatas for Viola da Gamba and Harpsichord, BVW 1027-1029 (Simax PSC-1024, footnote 2). The recording was made in the Gample Aker Church in Oslo using two B&K omnis for the harpsichord and a pair of Schoeps for the viola, all feeding a Sony F1 processor. This is lovely stuff. The sensation of being within a church acoustic is very believable, and the Stage had no difficulty in recreating a clean picture of the hall sound. The attack and decay of the harpsichord transients were very clean without any perceptible smearing. The Stage released energy quickly, with impressive risetime and controlled decay.

There was, however, a residual artificiality in the treble—sort of a zippy aftertaste—that again I was inclined to attribute to the electronics or possibly even the Symo cable. This wasn't in the nature of an active irritant; it's just that the highs sounded a bit hi-fi-ish. Another example of this was Therese Juel's sibilants on track 1 of the Opus 3 Test Record 1. These were very well-defined, without the sizzle that often accompanies her voice. But the texture of the treble was not entirely convincing, being a tad grainy.

Footnote 1: The EBS line, as well as the Fine Arts CD and other small European labels, are available from Audio Advancements, P.O. Box 100, Lincoln Park, NJ 07035, Tel:(201) 633-1151.—Dick Olsher

Footnote 2: Simax, a small Norwegian label, is distributed in the US by Ensemble/Graham Engineering.—Dick Olsher



Despite being the baby of the Apogee family, the Stage, as Jason puts it, can "boogie." It can move from soft to loud, as the program material demands, with the speed and impact of a photon torpedo. Relistening to familiar program material through the Stage can prove to be a startling experience. Most of you should be familiar with Ariel Ramirez's Misa Criolla—the Philips recording with José Carreras (Philips 420 955-2). Larry Archibald has accused this performance of lacking a suitable degree of primal savagery. That may very well be, as this production highlights the lyrical aspects of the music. The smooth, detailed mids were cleanly reproduced by the Stage, but this performance does pack a punch. And the drama and dynamic range of the music were not slighted, as was the case with the weight and authority of Carreras's timbre. The Stage could cover the dynamic range from soft to loud effortlessly. It did start to sound stressed, however, during very loud peaks around the mid-90s spls. This coincided with visibly gross excursions of the treble/midrange ribbon.

Next came the Lesley Test, which for me is the most revealing test of midrange and lower-treble timbral accuracy. Timbral deviations that may otherwise take me hours to pinpoint become obvious very quickly with the help of my wife Lesley's voice. The presentation was strikingly transparent, with an appealing image size and commendable solidity. There was a slightly grainy and dry quality through Lesley's upper octaves. Her lower registers were just fine, without any resonant colorations. The middle registers were smooth, but the upper registers were somewhat dull and lacking in sheen. Lesley's vibrato was slightly dry-sounding and lacking textural richness, as if the upper mids were recessed. Transients were reproduced amazingly fast, and with excellent control. The bottom-line impression was that the upper mids were lacking sheen and sunshine.

More cables, amps, and preamps
Although I was by now quite pleased with the Stage's level of performance, I was not yet convinced that I had realized its full potential. It seemed reasonable to me to try to improve matters further in the areas of extreme treble smoothness, soundstage depth, and tonal balance. Toward that end I undertook additional listening tests with several other amps and preamps and a remarkable set of cables that had just arrived on my doorstep.

First, the cable. As good as the Symo was, and certainly at its asking price it's unbeatable, I still had an inkling that it might not be the optimum speaker cable money could buy for the Stage. According to Jason, Sumiko's OCOS cable also works very well with the Stage. But what did arrive in time to include in the testing was the Lindsay-Geyer cable. This is a cable I'll have a lot more to say about very shortly; a full review is forthcoming. It's a bizarre cable in that it breaks convention by using a magnetic conductor—traditionally considered a no-no for HF conduction. While others try to minimize the skin effect, David Lindsay tries to maximize it. Because of its high resistance, it is better suited for interconnect applications. Even with six strands per leg, the Lindsay speaker cable still comes in at around a 1 ohm DC resistance for short lengths. At the time I only had a pair of 6' lengths of the speaker cable, so in the bi-wire mode I was only able to substitute the Lindsay for either the tweeter or woofer runs.

With the treble connection via the Lindsay cable, it was immediately obvious that the treble was smoother. More detail was apparent through the upper octaves, and the extreme top was more natural-sounding. Still, the upper mids were drier-sounding than the Symo. With the Lindsay feeding the woofer, there wasn't much of a benefit in the treble, while the quality of the bass deteriorated. The bass octaves lost their tightness and control. To evaluate the Symo and Lindsay one-on-one, I had to return to a single-wire connection of the Stage. With the Symo completely out of the signal path, the spatial impression became more solid and palpable—more 3-D, if you will. But, again, the bass suffered, being more loosely defined than before. The final possibility was to shotgun or parallel the Symo and Lindsay for each channel, and this turned out to be the best of both worlds. The upper mids became slightly more alive and sweeter, while the bass stayed tightly defined with all of the heft and impact of the all-Symo connection.

With the success evidenced by the Lindsay speaker cable, I moved on to their interconnect. The first change was from the Kimber KCAG to 2 meters of the Lindsay between the Theta DS Pro and the Classé DR-6 preamp. The sound became smoother, yet with cleaner and more delicate textures. Image outlines became tighter in space. More information was resolved. Massed voices were better delineated, and soprano upper registers were more natural-sounding. Next to be replaced was the 30' run of AudioQuest Lapis Hyperlitz from the preamp to the amp with a 25' run of Lindsay. The presentation grew even more relaxed and better-focused. The sense of cohesiveness was greatly enhanced—as though the Lindsay was able to align treble transients with the rest of the harmonic envelope and thus reduce spatial smear.

This stuff really works! The cable is stiff, behaves like an oversized slinky, and flies in the face of conventional wisdom. But it was able to push the performance level of the Stage to a higher plateau: more natural highs, improved soundstage focus and palpability, and a slightly better balance through the upper mids. But I was still not happy with the recessed tonality of the upper mids.

I compared the line-level section of the Classé DR-6 with those of the Threshold FET-10/e and the Air Tight ATC-1 preamps. If anything, the FET-10/e was even more detailed, but its upper registers were not as smooth. The treble did not soar and bloom nearly as well, and the DR-6, on the basis of being slightly warmer and sweeter in the midrange, proved a much better match for the Stage. The Air Tight sacrifices detail in favor of a softer presentation that, in the tradition of tubes, was also lusher and warmer than that of the DR-6. The bass was a weakness, though, being less extended and not as well-delineated.



Late in the evaluation, I received a sample of the Cary Audio CAD-5500 analog CD processor. My first impression was that this is one hell of a processor. It carried the Stage and the entire system to new heights (a full review is forthcoming). The areas of transduction in which the Stage already excelled became even stronger: soundstage transparency and the clarity and ease of the presentation were noticeably increased. And as a bonus, the mids became more liquid and suave, while the sense of depth increased as you would expect from a tubed unit. It also appeared that one reason for its success was the excellence of its line-level section. The Stage needs a bit of tube sound to smooth the highs and liquefy the mids, and the Cary proved to be a most accommodating partner.

A combination that worked quite well during analog playback was the FET-10/e phono stage feeding the Air Tight ATC-1 line-level stage. The DR-6 was more dynamic, but failed to reproduce depth perspective as well.

Several amps were auditioned in the hopes of finding an even more synergistic match than the Classé Audio DR-8s. The Threshold 12/e amps came in for a brief audition, more out of curiosity than anything else. With a price tag at well over 10 kilobucks, they're not likely to partner a $2000/pair speaker. But you don't have to worry: though the sound was very smooth and the treble was better controlled, with less fizz, than that of the DR-8s, it never came alive. The drama and musical tension that the DR-8 generated failed to materialize with the Threshold.

The Mark Levinson No.29 dual-mono amp was next, proving smooth and very detailed with the Stage. It had no problem at all resolving the audience participation on the "Goodnight Irene" cut of the Weavers album (Vanguard VSD-2150). The treble was not as extended or as airy. And the mids, while exceptionally liquid for a solid-state amp, were in general laid-back. That's precisely what the Stage did not need. Itzhak Perlman's violin tone (Bruch's Violin Concerto 1, EMI ASD-2926) was not as sweet as it should have been. After a while I also began to notice a reduction in dynamic contrasts. A switch back to the DR-8 enhanced the sweetness of the upper mids and also enabled the Stage to go from loud to very loud much more convincingly. It was as though the Apogee came alive with the DR-8. The sense of excitement returned in spades.

Taj Mahal's Recycling the Blues & Other Related Stuff (Columbia 31605) brimmed with raw energy. Listen to "Sweet Home Chicago" with the young Pointer sisters in the background to see what I mean. It has to do with immediacy; the music communicated more readily with the DR-8.

The final contestant was the Muse Electronics 100W stereo amp. I was interested in it because it was reasonably priced at around $1200, and rumor had it that it was a fine match for the Stage. Well, it was like a flashback to the '60s. The darn thing sounded so much like an Ampzilla that I had to verify the date to assure myself I had not fallen into a timewarp. The Muse sounded pretty good, but far from good enough to extract the Stage's full potential. The Stage revealed the Muse's shortcomings easily enough. The sound was pleasant enough with strong bass, but there were losses in the areas of transparency and detail resolution. The highs were closed-in and lacking in air, textures were slightly grainy and hard—not what the doctor ordered for the Stage.

The final tweak
With all of the speaker cable and interconnect changes described so far, the Stage had gained tighter image focus and enhanced transparency. Textures were cleaner so that inner detail was easier to resolve, and the upper mids had picked up a measure of sweetness so that this range was now just slightly dull and lackluster. Pilar Lorengar as Princess Pamina (The Magic Flute, London OSA-1397) was beginning to sound much more correct tonally. It was time for one final tweak.

I tried a modest toe-in of 5", as measured from the outside edge of the frame relative to the original straight-out position. This placed the tweeter/midrange ribbon on the listening axis, as opposed to being about 10 to 15 degrees off-axis before. Before too long, I had to return the tweeter control to the Normal position to cut the lower treble by about 2dB. But the overall tonal-balance transformation was astounding! The laid-back character of the Stage I had attributed to an upper-midrange recession disappeared. Female voice, including Lesley's, was almost right-on in timbral accuracy.

Take a look at fig.1, which shows the in-room response of the Stage at 2 meters, on-axis with the tweeter. Here the tweeter control is in the High position. Fig.2 shows the in-room response at the same location with the tweeter in the Normal position. The strong deep-bass emphasis in the range from 40 to 50Hz is clearly evident. But above 200Hz, the response is quite uniform (each division represents 2dB). There is certainly no evidence of a midrange recession.

Fig.1 Apogee Stage, room response at 2m on tweeter axis, HF control High (2dB/small vertical div.).

Fig.2 Apogee Stage, room response at 2m on tweeter axis, HF control Normal (2dB/small vertical div.).



Let's move the mike to the listening position and look at what happens in fig.3. Here, with the mike off-axis in relation to the tweeter, a midrange recession is quite obvious from 500Hz to about 2kHz. Look at the energy output at 2kHz relative to that at 5kHz and 300Hz. This is a significant and broad valley that you'd better believe is audible.

Fig.3 Apogee Stage, room response at listening position, 10 degrees off-axis (2dB/small vertical div.).

Finally, in fig.4, the measurement of fig.3 is repeated—but with the speaker toed-in 5" toward the listening seat. The midrange response is much more uniform now, resembling that at 2 meters, and the midrange recession has vanished. What all of this means is that setting up the Stage is a bit tricky and requires experimentation with not only the rake angle and distance to the wall, but also with toe-in. Based on my experience so far, the Stage's sweet spot is quite narrow. Venture more than slightly off-axis and the tonal balance changes.

Fig.4 Apogee Stage, room response at listening position, toed-in, HF control Normal (2dB/small vertical div.).

DO summarizes
It's good-looking, with excellent bass extension and definition. In terms of soundstage transparency it rivals any loudspeaker money can buy. It's capable of resolving low-level nuances and deftly reproducing transients with considerable speed and control. Dynamic contrasts from soft to loud are reproduced with ease and no sense of compression. Its ability to portray instrumental outlines with realistic spaciousness and bloom is nothing short of amazing. In terms of clarity and transparency, the Stage is without peer at its asking price. It possesses the innate ability to communicate the music's essentials at a level that comes very close to capturing the feeling of live music.

Ron Cox, a good friend of mine, also happens to be a Buddhist monk and a lifelong audiophile. He has pretty much managed to curb his appetite for material things in keeping with the teachings of Zen. Well...with the exception of a lust for tube amps and the like. He has argued that the art of Zen is essential for transcending the crude limitations of one's system. Being bound to the visual reality of big boxes and heaps of electronics makes it difficult to accept and communicate with the music. Thus Zen can assist in shedding the technical façade of a system and transport you to a state where the music can touch the heart and the soul. With the Stage, one would require very little help from Zen in accepting the message. It is pure and lifelike.

Yet, having said all that, if Lord Darth Vader were to grasp me by the throat and demand a recommendation for the world's best small loudspeaker, I would hesitate to recommend the Stage. Why? Well, what if his Lordship does not own Classé Audio electronics or Symo cable? And if he did, would he have the patience to tweak and cater to the speakers? The Stage is very sensitive to the amplifier/cable interface. In the context of the right electronics and cable, it is clearly Class A in the small-speaker category. Thus, I hesitate to recommend it outside of a well-defined system context. If you already own all of the "wrong" electronics, then the Stage is not for you. If you're unwilling to devote floorspace to the Stage, then look elsewhere. Room treatment is also a possible requirement, as it is with most speakers worth owning.

The Stage's most immediate competition is really the Martin-Logan Sequel II. Despite the fact that the Sequel is more expensive, this is what it takes to approach the Stage's performance capabilities. While the Sequel favors the upper octaves, the Stage emphasizes the bass and midrange. The Stage has to be considered better integrated top to bottom, and blows the Sequel away in the bass registers. The Sequel is brighter by comparison and more delicate in its voicing of treble detail. The Stage is more cohesive and, ultimately, to my ears more convincing musically.

By now, you should realize that the Stage is a steal at the asking price. You owe it to yourself to own a pair, but, like Morris the cat, be prepared to feed it exactly what it wants.—Dick Olsher



Sidebar 1: 1990 Measurements

After Dick delivered the review copy to me, Tom Norton and I quickly carried out a set of measurements to see if the Stage had any other idiosyncrasies other than the ones Dick had uncovered. Looking first at the speaker's impedance as measured with Stereophile's Audio Precision System One, fig.5 shows the impedance with the HF control set to Normal, fig.6 with it set to High. Both average around 3 ohms, with a slight rise at 400Hz due to the crossover. A comparison of the shapes of the two curves suggests that the High position is the natural output of the ribbon drive-unit, the Normal position applying a degree of EQ. Note the slight wrinkles in the bass in both phase and magnitude plots in figs.5 and 6. These reveal the woofer panel's "drumskin-resonance" tuning, which appears to lie at two discrete frequencies, 47Hz and 37Hz.

Fig.5 Apogee Stage, electrical impedance (solid) and phase (dashed) with HF switch set to "Normal" (2 ohms/vertical div.).

Fig.6 Apogee Stage, electrical impedance (solid) and phase (dashed) with HF switch set to "High" (2 ohms/vertical div.).

Turning to the time domain, as assessed using the DRA Labs MLSSA FFT analyzer, the Stage's impulse response (with the speaker raised some 24" to push reflections of the pulse from the floor back in time) can be seen in fig.7. Examination of the individual drive-units reveals that though the mid/HF ribbon is connected with the correct polarity, the woofer is actually inverted, a positive-going pulse producing a negative-going acoustic output, indicating a second-order crossover.

Fig.7 Apogee Stage, impulse response on tweeter axis at 48" (5ms time window, 30kHz bandwidth).

The MLSSA system allows you to window just the portion of the impulse response that is free from room reflections; carrying out a Fast Fourier Transform (FFT) on that windowed section gives the speaker's anechoic frequency response (with a frequency resolution inversely proportional to the length of the window; ie, a 5ms time window equates to 200Hz resolution). Fig.8 shows the individual responses of the two ribbons, taken at a 48" measuring distance midway up the treble ribbon axis. Level matching between the two on this graph can only be approximate, but it can be seen that the treble ribbon handles pretty much everything above 500Hz. The woofer ribbon seems remarkably free of breakup problems above its crossover point, this undoubtedly contributing to the speaker's clean midband reproduction. A slight bit of woofer nonsense can be seen just above 3kHz, but as this is 25dB down, it should be inconsequential. The treble ribbon, however, seems a little lively in the mid-treble, with then a gradual rolloff above 15kHz on this axis. (The HF control was set to Normal for this and the next measurements.)

Fig.8 Apogee Stage, anechoic responses of woofer and tweeter on tweeter axis at 48", corrected for microphone response.

With all of the midrange and treble handled by the narrow, 5/8"-wide ribbon, it is not surprising that the Stage offers basically good horizontal dispersion. Fig.9 shows five anechoic responses (taken at a 48" distance) ranging from 15 degrees off the ribbon axis on the treble side (front) to 15 degrees off the ribbon axis on the woofer side (rear). The central response is on the ribbon axis. Note that the smoothest response through the treble, or at least the one without a significant suckout, is obtained off-axis on the woofer side. This will tend to make positioning of the Stages rather critical if the listening room's sidewalls are either too close or too reflective. Looking at the off-axis response on the treble-ribbon side, it can be seen that the 15 degrees off-axis response—what a listener would hear with the speakers firing straight ahead—can have its exact mid-treble to high-treble balance adjusted by toeing the speakers in slightly. But toe them in too much, so that the listener is facing the ribbon, and, as DO found, the highs become a little excessive in level, even with the switch set to Normal.

Fig.9 Apogee Stage, horizontal response family at 48", normalized to response on-axis midway up panel, from back to front: differences 15 degrees and 7.5 degrees off-axis on woofer ribbon side, reference response; differences 7.5 degrees and 15 degrees off-axis on ribbon tweeter side.

The Stage has a much narrower dispersion in the vertical plane, as can be seen in fig.10. The central curve is the same on-axis response at 48" as in fig.9. The frontmost curve, however, was taken with the microphone still at a 48" distance but now some 8" above the top of the baffle, this axis approximately representing a standing listener at the back of a typical listening room. The treble ribbon shelves down by a severe 12dB or so on this axis: it is essential, therefore, for Stage owners to be seated so that their ears are level with the midpoint of the ribbon if they are to get a full measure of treble. The rearmost curve in fig.10 shows the effect of switching the HF control to High, the entire region above 8kHz then lifting by 2dB or so.

Fig.10 Apogee Stage, anechoic response midway up ribbon axis at 48", corrected for microphone response, with HF switch set to "High" (top), set to Normal (middle), and at 48" with mike 8" above baffle top (bottom).

To get an idea of how the Stage would sound in a room, I averaged the five curves in fig.9 to give the speaker's overall anechoic response in the 30 degrees window encompassing a typical listener, resulting in the curve to the right of fig.11. To the left of fig.11 is the Stage's bass response measured in the nearfield, with the microphone almost touching the protective mesh over the diaphragm. Above the dramatic rise in the bass (which will be compensated for in-room by the usual dipole cancellation as the back wave increasing wraps around to the front with decreasing frequency), the speaker's sound can be seen to be characterized by a gently sloping trend from around 80Hz to 8kHz. Beautifully smooth, this will contribute both to the speaker's slightly mellow tonality and to its seamless presentation of midrange sounds.

Fig.11 Apogee Stage, anechoic response averaged across 30 degrees horizontal window, corrected for microphone response, with nearfield LF ribbon response plotted below 300Hz.

It's a matter of conjecture how the woofer's highish-Q drumskin resonance, which leads to the 17dB boost at 45Hz, will be perceived subjectively. On small-scale chamber-music and human-voice recordings, it is unlikely that it will be directly excited, allowing the speaker's smooth, uncolored midrange to be perceived in all its glory. But on full-scale orchestral recordings and rock music, it will add majesty in the first instance but a ponderous quality in the second. It will also make the Stage intolerant both of amplifiers lacking control in the bass and of cables that themselves are rather "slow," subjectively.

In the treble, the Stage has some measured liveliness that will add a degree of treble brashness: DO did note "a residual artificiality in the treble—sort of a zippy aftertaste." Listening to the Stages myself, this character was definitely noticeable and reminded me, though to a lesser degree, of the treble featured by the ribbons of both the Celestion 3000 (reviewed in May) and the Carver Amazing loudspeaker (reviewed in February), where a basically uncolored treble was overlaid with added brightness due to high-frequency ribbon resonances. (I know it's unwise to stretch analogies too far, but I can't help thinking of this character as a kind of "crinkly" noise that one associates with aluminum foil.)

The cumulative spectral-decay plot for the Stage on the ribbon axis (fig.12—ignore the ridge at 15.75kHz, which is due to the microphone picking up the computer-monitor line whistle), though featuring a clean initial drop of the impulse, also shows some residual hashiness between 3kHz and 10kHz. I understand that the degree of this treble hash is proportional both to the mass of the ribbon and to the degree of its self-damping—it is therefore naïve to think, as I once did, that a ribbon is inherently resonance-free. This slight treble hashiness will also make the speaker less tolerant than some of ancillary cables and amplifiers with a similar tonal signature.

Fig.12 Apogee Stage, cumulative spectral-decay plot at 48".

With one exception, there are no real surprises in these measurements. The exception, however, is important in that though the midrange measures as being commendably smooth, if a little downtilted, nothing prepared me for the degree of tonal versimilitude—read musical accuracy—with which the pair of Stages, optimally set up, reproduced recordings with which I was familiar.—John Atkinson



Martin Colloms commented on the Stage in February 1991 (Vol.14 No.2):

I had fun with the Apogee Stage, which I regard as a real honey. While not perfect—nothing ever is—the Stage was wonderfully friendly, sounding good from day one and improving further with time and experience. An eminently musical transducer, you can believe all the good things you've heard about this model. Just as I was about to suggest that a stand might be an advantage, I hear that Apogee makes one! A pad of Dacron wadding may also be used, applied to the back panel to tame the 42Hz bass resonance according to taste.—Martin Colloms



Sam Tellig commented on the Stage in March 1991 (Vol.14 No.3):

Let me tell you about my friend Lou.

Until recently, Lou rarely hung around with audiophiles. As a result, he's been able to enjoy music and hasn't had to worry much about sound. Actually, his system has been one of the best I've heard—partly because of his superb listening room, with its cathedral ceilings.

Five years ago, Lou bought a pair of Croft OTL mono tube amps from England—still probably the only pair of Croft OTL amps in North America. (Good thing Lou knows how to service his own amps.) He also has a Croft tube preamp and Linn turntable. JA would undoubtedly approve. Ken Kessler surely would. Speakers, until a few months ago, were a pair of Acoustat 2+2s.

Setting the stage

Then Lou heard a pair of Apogee Stages over at the Brass Ear's house and had to have a pair for himself.

The Stages are interesting speakers.

I have heard them sound absolutely wonderful—even at CES, which is quite an accomplishment. I have also heard them sound—well, rather disappointing, at a dealer's and at Stereophile's listening room in Santa Fe, where I thought they sounded their absolute worst. It's true these are twitchy speakers. You need to place them right, use the right cable (Symo) and the right amps.

Lou didn't have the "right" amps, but decided to get the Stages anyway. Remarkably, the pair of Croft OTL tube amps drive the Stages quite well. Bass is not as tight as it might be, and the amps do eventually run out of steam, but the amps are much less problematic than I might have thought.

Even with the Croft OTLs and proper placement, though, Lou was able to make the Stages sound rather steely simply by using the wrong cable, namely, Lars's favorite Purist Audio Design cable, sometimes known as the Texas Cable, or Texas Water Cable. That's right—the cables are filled with water; actually some kind of blue liquid rumored to be poisonous. This could be quite an advantage, because if an audiophile decided he no longer liked his system, he could commit suicide by simply drinking his cables. (No, I don't think the cables are that toxic.)

There's no question that the Apogee-aproved Symo cables resulted in smoother sound than the Texas Water Cables. The water cables sounded...dry. The Symo cables, on the other hand, without the water, sounded more liquid. More detailed, too—rosin in the cellos and that sort of thing.

The fun began when Lou asked me to bring over my new pride-and-yoy B&K M-200 balanced monoblocks. Lou had heard, through the grapevine, that these sounded spectacular in my own system.

"I thought you were going to replace your (unnamed) amp with a new (unnamed) amp," Lou said.

"That was before I got the B&K M-200s. I changed my mind."

"How about bringing them over and putting them on the Stages?"

Much to Lou's later chagrin, I did so. The B&K M-200s were superb on the Stages—better suited than the Croft OTLs. There's more power and tighter, deeper bass. The Crofts, being tube amps, may be slightly more dimensional, but not by much.

"These B&K amps are superb," said Lou. "So transparent."

"We should bring them over to Lars's house and put them on his WATT/Puppies," I suggested.

The Stages are difficult speakers, which makes the performance of the M-200 monoblocks all the more remarkable. Not only is there plenty of power to drive these ribbon loudspeakers, but the sound, with the approved Symo cables, is as smooth as you could want—no hint of hardness.

"I'd better tell Jason Bloom about this. These B&K amps can drive the Stages beautifully and cost no more than the speakers themselves!"

With proper placement, the Symo cables, and the B&K M-200 amps, the Stages truly disappeared—the way that planar speakers can when everything is right. Imaging was excellent and bass was beautifully delineated, even if it didn't go down to the very bottom. The overall tonal balance was superb—which is to say, just right.

I walked behind the speakers and placed my hands on the heatsinks. "Ah, good and hot," I exclaimed. "That's because of the speakers' low impedance and the amps' high bias. Lots of heat—that's the secret to good sound.

"Gad, these amps are magic on the Stages," I carried on.

"And the Stages are magic on the amps," Lou chimed in.

"I'll just have to write another column and tell everyone about this. The speakers and the amps offer amazingly good sound for the money. People don't have to buy Classé or Krell to get good sound from these Apogees. They can get it with B&K. In fact, I don't hear how it could be any better, do you?"

"Well, maybe the Crofts," said Lou. "But I'm amazed by how smooth, detailed, dynamic, and transparent those B&K amps are. I never would have believed."

The B&K M-200 amps were biased high, as I mentioned in a previous column. This gives the amps that "pynchebutt" quality missing when the amps run cold: there's welcome warmth, which is all the M-200s need, in my opinion, to put them in contention against the very best amps available at any price—tube or solid-state.

CD or LP, recording after recording, the amps and the speakers made beautiful music together—never turning shrill, even when we tempted fate with the least promising recordings.

Of course, there was fun to be had along the way. As you know, I'm never happy unless I'm stirring things up. Lou put on the Chesky recording of Pictures at an Exhibition. "I think the Crofts clip on one passage," he said. "Let's see how the B&K amps perform."

"They'll clip, too," I predicted. "Ten to one it's cartridge mistracking that you hear. You should buy a Shure. Linn/Ittok/Shure, that's the combination."

Lou was quite taken aback a few months ago when his brother took my advice, but not Lou's, and bought a Shure.

"Smart move," I said to Lou.

Sure enough, the passage on the Chesky LP came and the stylus couldn't hold the groove. This was on the B&K amps.

"Well, now we know it's not the Crofts."

"It could be the B&K clipping," said Lou tentatively.

"Bull! You heard the way those amps sailed through those CDs with no clipping. That's cartridge mistracking if I ever heard it. I'll be happy to bring over the Shure test records to prove it. This is how John Atkinson ruined a good part of his record collection—low-compliance moving-coils."

Lou is pleased as punch with his Stages, but still not certain if the Crofts are up to driving them. (I think they are, but the B&K amps definitely pack more punch into the Stages, whose impedance is just under 4 ohms, fairly consistent at all frequencies.) The B&Ks win out on the basis of bass control. The Crofts have a slight advantage in terms of dimensionality.

Vertical listening angle

Meanwhile, the Brass Ear has sold his Stages.

"He did what?" I asked incredulously when I heard the news.

"He sold his Stages," my anonymous friend repeated.

Just a few weeks earlier, Brass had been telling the world that the Stages were the best speakers he'd ever had. Now he'd sold them. But don't take this too seriously. Like a lot of audiophiles, Brass sells everything.

I've never visited the Brass home, but I've been told that Brass Ear has this special electric chair. Its place on the floor is carefully marked. The chair is adjustable so it moves up and down. That way, Brass can get the Brass Ears at just the right plane—and he can change the listening plane depending on the recording. This beats readjusting the cartridge VTA. Brass adjusts the height of his ears—vertical listening angle, or VLA!

But Brass has been spending a lot of his time lately chez Lars, listening to the WATT/Puppies. So out went the Stages, in went the WATT/Puppies. Now, apparently, these are the best speakers the Brass Ear has ever heard.

The Brass Ear embarrassed

Here's the thing.

Brass is embarrassed. What will he tell his good buddy, Jason Bloom, of Apogee? (Well, Brass, I think Jason found out within 24 hours, so I'm not the one to spill the beans.) There has been a great deal of secrecy surrounding the Brass Ear's selling of his Stages.

"Psst. Don't tell anyone. You're not supposed to know. The Brass Ear has sold his Stages."

Everyone in the New York area audiophile community knew within hours. The problem is, will the Brass Ear keep his WATT/Puppies long enough to really enjoy them? Or as soon as he has them properly positioned in his listening room, will he turn around and sell them for who knows what?

"I understand that Lars and the Brass Ear fiddled for hours trying to get the Stages to sound just right," said my anonymous tipster friend. "I mean hours. Lars got out his tape measure and positioned the speakers at exact distances from the back and side walls—to the fraction of an inch. Then I hear that Lars measured the distance from the tip of the Brass Ear's nose to each speaker, just to make certain the chair was centered."

"All that work for nothing?" I asked.

"It seems so. I don't know if the Brass Ear actually had much time to listen to the Stages. He was too busy setting them up. Then when he finished setting them up, he put them up for sale."

Audiophile madness. It afflicts everyone—reviewers in particular.—Sam Tellig



Thomas J. Norton commented on the Stage in July 1991 (Vol.14 No.7):

At the beginning of the second and last day's listening sessions for this massive group test of inexpensive speakers, JA requested that, when it was all over, we set up the Apogee Stages to get a feel for the program material over a solid Class B recommended loudspeaker. At the end of the sessions, though fatigue was rapidly setting in, we conducted this audition, and decided to score it. Of course, even though the Stages were also behind the screen, everyone now knew what they were listening to.

The reactions were, well, ah, er, palpable. Just like the sound of the Stages themselves. GL asked if he could take them home. They scored an overall average of 8.24 points, compard with an average of 4.83 for the inexpensive speakers. Of course, it certainly helped that the program material had been originally selected over these same Apogees, in this same room.

I have no doubt that the Stages would be challenged strongly in the point total if they were put up against other good high-end loudspeakers, Apogee's own more expensive models included. My point here is that compromises are required at any price point; the loudspeakers auditioned here are certainly no exceptions. The panel was hard on them as a group, but definitely found some that are worth your investigating.—Thomas J. Norton

Thomas J. Norton offered further thoughts on the Stage in April 1992 (Vol.15 No.4:

The Apogee Stages presently on hand here at Stereophile are not the same pair which DO reviewed in Vol.13 No.8 (August 1990). Shortly after the review appeared, a new pair of Stages arrived with updated tweeter ribbons. We also received a pair of the stands made specifically for the Stages.

This most recent pair of Stages floats in and out of my reference system as the need arises: to either review other loudspeakers, or substitute a loudspeaker which tells me something about a component under review which the Apogees cannot. There aren't many examples of the latter; deep bass, perhaps. But the Stages are by no means lightweight in the low end; I have definite reservations about their being pegged in Class B—restricted LF—in our "Recommended Components" list. Their bottom end will frequently knock your socks off. But it's a bit euphonic and Technicolored, and not effective much below 35-40Hz. The aforementioned stands do help considerably in tightening up the bass (and in raising the effective soundstage to a more reasonable height), but cannot completely eliminate the problem. And certainly the room may bear part of the responsibility.

But for whatever reason, there is a fullness to the Stages' sound which, while not entirely accurate, can be immensely seductive. On full-scale orchestral material the Stages can sound more majestically convincing than any number of other audiophile loudspeakers, many of them far more expensive. Bass drum will pin you to the wall. While the effect is certainly somewhat exaggerated—our measurements indicate a sharp response peak in the general vicinity of bass drum fundamentals—it somehow sounds right. Perhaps it has something to do with the fact that the membrane of the Stage more closely resembles a drumhead than does a conventional woofer cone. That explanation does not particularly satisfy me—too close to technobabble for comfort.

But for whatever reason, I find the Stage's way with drums, and with the low end in general, to be subjectively more satisfying than that of many loudspeakers more textbook-accurate in the bottom octaves. But you should note JA's comment, in the original Stage review Measurements sidebar, that the characteristics of the Stage's low end may be less than compatible with rock, of which I listen to very little. Something to watch for if your musical tastes run that way.

I'm not in a good position to compare the top end of the newest Stages with that of the original samples; the new Stages arrived in Santa Fe only shortly after I did, and while I did hear the earlier pair, it was without stands and in the Stereophile listening room's previous incarnation; ie, pre-update (see Vol.14 No.10, p.93). I do know that there is a remarkable solidity yet delicacy to the top end of the new pair. There is also a degree of brightness in the mid-treble, but it never sounds etched or over the top. I do prefer the Stage's tweeters set on Normal rather than the High setting favored by DO when he shared this listening space. At the very top of the range is a certain lack of air and spaciousness to the sound, the latter rendered less troublesome by the dipole nature of the Stage's radiation pattern.

The Stages throw a wide, relatively deep soundstage. Positioning, while less precise than that from small, direct-radiating loudspeakers, is well defined. I would never refer to the Stages as holographic in my listening room, but their soundstage is, for me, fully satisfying. I tend to toe them in a bit more than Apogee recommends, though still well short of aiming them directly at the listener; this arrangement tends to give a strong, well-defined central image. For this I sacrifice a bit of width, which I consider less important. I listen to a considerable amount of vocal music, and well-positioned soloists are important to me. The Stages fill that requirement superbly. Like the Majors, however—and perhaps even more so—the Stage demands to be listened to sitting down; stand up and a wet blanket goes over the sound.

Indeed, it's what the Stages do with vocals, and the midrange in general, that makes them a great loudspeaker. I have (over-?) used the word "palpable" before, but you'll know what I mean when you hear a pair of these small Apogees properly set up. Soloists have a presence, a "thereness," which can be spooky. This has nothing whatever to do with any presence peak or boxy colorations—the latter are totally absent. But there's a rightness about the sound of the Stages through the midrange which is riveting. It startles me every time I return to them after spending time—often enjoyable time—with other loudspeakers, many of them excellent in their own ways. I always wonder if, somehow, the Stages will lose some of their magic after I've spent time with other designs having deeper or tighter bass, more airy, spacious highs, or more pinpoint soundstages. Perhaps some day I'll hear a loudspeaker that does all of the things the Stage does plus all of those other things. It hasn't happened yet.

When I heard Apogee's flagship Grands at the 1991 Summer CES, a dream came to me shortly thereafter. The Grand, you'll note, is also a hybrid, though their cone subwoofer crosses over quite low—below 100Hz, I believe. Why not a Baby Grand, based on the Stage but with a supertweeter ribbon added, and a powered subwoofer built into a slightly larger base? Combining the strengths of the Centaur Major (while extending the bottom end a bit further), the Stage, and the Diva—all in a package of workable size and relatively reasonable cost. Don't wake me up.—Thomas J. Norton



Thomas J. Norton reviewed the Apogee Mini-Grand, based on the Stage, in March 1994 (Vol.17 No.3):

á-po-gee: the farthest or highest point.

When Jason Bloom and Leo Spiegel founded Apogee Acoustics in 1979, they picked an ambitious name. I've never heard the original Apogee loudspeakers (Steven Stone still has a pair), but a friend of mine could scarcely contain his enthusiasm after hearing them at the 1981 Summer CES. My first real exposure to Apogee was at a Frankfurt (Germany) High-End Hi-Fi Show in 1983. The model I heard there, which left me with an indelible favorable impression, was the Scintilla, a now-discontinued model with an amplifier-challenging 1 ohm impedance.

But all of this, and much from Apogee which has followed—striking though some of it may be—was merely a warm-up to the real Apogee: the Grand, which was introduced with much fanfare at the 1991 Summer CES. The Grand, a four-way system with four amps per channel, blew the minds of a bunch of speechless reviewers and other assorted scribes in the very large listening room in which it was being demonstrated. The Grand established two new milestones for Apogee: It was their first flagship loudspeaker to use dynamic cone drivers for subwoofers, and it boasted a numbing price tag which vaulted it into Wilson WAMM and Infinity IRS territory.

When I reviewed the Apogee Centaur Major back in 1992 (Vol.15 No.4, p.215), I made a wish: Wouldn't it be nice if Apogee could take their Stage loudspeaker—one of my longtime favorites and, not coincidentally, a longtime fixture in "Recommended Components"—and give it the Apogee Grand treatment, substituting subwoofers similar to, but less ambitious than, those in the Grand Grand for its optional stands? (footnote 1)

And so came the Mini-Grand, the subject of this review. There's also a bigger adaptation of the Grand design, the Studio Grand (footnote 2), sized between the Mini and the Grand, but with a cost closer to that of the Mini.

From the front, the Mini-Grand Stereo Subwoofers look like slightly taller, deeper versions of the standard Stage stands—they're tall enough to accommodate two custom-built, heavy-duty 8" drivers per side in reflex-loaded enclosures. The subwoofers are designed to be powered by an outboard amplifier chosen by the user—Apogee only specifies the recommended power range. A single pair of inputs on the rear is the remaining distinguishing feature.

Apogee also furnishes the Mini-Grand with an outboard electronic crossover. Like the active crossovers they've supplied with some earlier Apogee loudspeakers, they refer to it as a DAX (Dedicated Active Crossover). And like those other crossovers, it's designed specifically for this application. The specified crossover frequency of the Mini-Grand DAX is 80Hz, with a rapid rolloff in the stop-band (see the "Measurements" sidebar). Front-panel controls permit level settings of ±3dB on both the high- and low-pass sections, to accommodate individual setup needs and/or differing amplifier sensitivities. While use of identical amps on the top and bottom is usually a good idea (and Apogee's apparent preference), many users will, through design or necessity, elect to use different models or even different brands.

The DAX is designed to be used in either balanced or unbalanced mode, to be chosen through internal jumpers. Reconfiguration is a bit of a hassle—in order to get inside the chassis, you have to remove the control knobs—but not all that difficult.

Though the Mini-Grand's cosmetics are new, its heart remains the Apogee Stage. The Stage sits atop the subwoofer on brackets that allow for variable tilt-back—an important feature for proper setup. For those unfamiliar with the Stage, it is a two-way, inherently full-range design. The midrange/tweeter is a 26" ribbon which handles the range above 600Hz. A dipolar, electrodynamic driver takes over below that frequency. Apogee calls this driver a ribbon, but this is not quite correct—it's a large film panel with embedded conductors, located near a large array of permanent magnets on one side. The drive-unit is loosely analogous to a planar electrostatic driver, but the operating principle is electromagnetic rather than electrostatic—no external polarizing voltage is required. The current in the conductors reacts to the fixed, permanent magnetic field, causing the panel to move.

The Stage can be bi-amped via two sets of terminals on the rear. A two-position switch selects between two level settings for the midrange/tweeter—Normal and High—altering the overall balance. While I briefly experimented with the High position, I ultimately did most of my listening in the Normal mode, consistent with my extensive previous experience of the Stages. Even when used alone, the Stage—the most domestic of Apogee's non-hybrid panel designs—is an awesome loudspeaker; adding a subwoofer is intended to address its low-frequency extension and bass dynamic-range problems.

Footnote 1: These should be considered mandatory to get the best sound from the Stage.—Thomas J. Norton

Footnote 2: I'll take no credit for planting the idea of a Mini- (or a Studio) Grand in Apogee's plenty fertile brain trust. The concept isn't much of a stretch anyway, what with the Grand itself in place and Apogee's recent concentration on hybrid models (the various Centaurs). Anyway, my idea was a little more grand: I suggested a three-way sort of super-Stage plus subwoofer. Apogee hasn't gone quite that far here. The upper-range units in the larger Studio Grand resemble the now-discontinued Duetta Signatures, though they're considerably more expensive. The three-way Diva is also now apparently discontinued, making the only three-way Apogee the big Grand itself.—Thomas J. Norton



The Mini-Grand Stage's cosmetics have been considerably changed from those of the standard Stage—a combination of a textured black-matte finish with black grillecloth. Combined with the matching Mini-Grand Stereo Subwoofer, it's a striking package—more than slightly reminiscent of the Grand itself.

1994 System
The Mini-Grands were set up facing down the long axis of my new 18' by 26' by 11' main listening room. The associated system consisted of Krell electronics: the Reference 64 processor, DT-10 transport, KRC preamplifier, and two KSA-300S power amplifiers—one driving the Stages, the other driving the subwoofers. Note that the KSA-300S has a higher output than the recommended maximum for these loudspeakers. This matter's significance, particularly with respect to the subwoofers, will become clear in the course of the review.

In addition, the Rowland Consummate preamp, Hafler Trans-Nova 9300 and 9500 power amps, and an analog phono system consisting of the VPI HW-19 Mk.IV turntable (not a recent version), SME V tonearm, and Lyra Clavis cartridge were also used. Cables included TARA Labs RSC Master from CD processor to preamp (ST fiber optic from transport to processor) and, except as noted, Cardas Hexlink from preamp to power amp—or DAX, as the case may be. Loudspeaker cable was Symo.

The Mini-Grands can be set up in two different ways. First, you can hook up the entire system—Stages, subwoofers, DAX, etc.—and optimize soundstage, balance, and bass simultaneously. Or, you can set the Stages atop the subwoofers, but temporarily ignore them and leave them disconnected. That is, use the subwoofers as stands, but drive the Stages full-range and concentrate your attention on getting the soundstage right. Neither setup is necessarily "right." I chose the latter because I'm familiar with the Stages' sound (though primarily in a different room), and didn't want the possible distraction of dealing with what was, with the subwoofers, a potentially very different loudspeaker overall.

In other words, I shot for the "Stage" sound with which I was familiar, allowing for the inevitable changes resulting from the larger room, before tackling the subwoofer integration problem. But there's at least one disadvantage to this approach: dipole bass responds differently to a room than does conventional bass. As a Stage, the system is a dipole all the way down. As a Mini-Grand, it behaves more like a conventional system below its 80Hz nominal crossover frequency (footnote 3). The differences will likely be more noticeable in a small and/or poorly dimensioned listening room. Since my new listening room is fairly large and, in theory, optimally proportioned, I chose to set up by listening to the Stages alone first. If I had to compromise, I preferred to do so later, in the bass alone.

Apogee recommends setting up the back of the loudspeaker panels (not the back of the subwoofers) 3'-4' from the wall behind—my experience with the Stages and other Apogees told me that 3' is a bare minimum. I began with +4' and ended up with somewhat more than that. (The exact distance isn't relevant here—the optimum setup will vary from room to room and from listener to listener.) The same holds true for lateral spacing, toe-in, and back-tilt.

While only the last is seldom a consideration in setting up conventional loudspeakers, dipoles are inherently trickier to position. Despite what you may read elsewhere, there really is no single "right" position for dipoles in any but the rarest of rooms. (This is true of any loudspeaker, though the rear radiation of dipoles makes their positioning somewhat more critical in certain respects.) Instead, there will be a number of good positions, each with its own compromises. With reasonable care and a dose of good luck, you'll find positions whose compromises you can live with.

With just a slight back-tilt and a toe-in marginally greater than the 3/8" maximum recommended by Apogee, I found a satisfactory position. And, with the Stages alone, the system sounded very much as I expected. For those unacquainted with the Stage, and for those who haven't seen one of our prior descriptions of its sound, a few words here will set the, ah, stage for the Mini-Grand. The Stages produced a big sound, with an expansive yet by no means featureless soundstage. Lateral imaging, while definitely less precise than that from the best direct-radiating loudspeakers, was more than sufficient to generate a convincing presence. The central image, indeed, could be astonishingly precise in the sweet spot; solo vocals and instruments were almost spooky in their "in-the-room" feel. Indeed, the cliché "palpable presence" might well have been invented to describe the overall impression produced by a pair of Stages that are well set up and driven by a good front end.

The immediacy of sound of which I earlier spoke was never far from my consciousness. Depth was first-rate; when properly set up, dipoles in general are noted for their ability to generate a sense of three-dimensionality. With the Stages, this depth always seemed perfectly natural and part of the recording, though in truth some of it, as with all dipoles, resulted from the reflection of the rear radiation from the wall behind.

The bass response of the Stages was surprisingly extended, though it appeared to be slightly emphasized in the low to midbass. Bass drum—which is concentrated in this region—could be surprisingly potent from these smaller Apogees within their power capability. The same held true for string bass. While the response dropped off quite rapidly below this point (somewhere just below 35-40Hz), the Stages never gave the impression of having insufficient weight. In fact, their response was tilted toward the bass and lower midrange. A band of brightness in the mid-treble kept them from sounding dark, however, while the spaciousness of their radiation pattern compensated for a certain lack of air at the extreme top end.

Footnote 3: This doesn't happen suddenly at 80Hz, of course. There's an inevitable range of overlap, which is one reason why melding a dipole with a conventional subwoofer not specifically designed for it is not always successful.—Thomas J. Norton



I did encounter one unexpected problem with the Stages. Apparently, Apogee, in a production change, used washers that tended to loosen and rattle on some samples. This happened with both of ours. First the left began buzzing on bass-heavy program material, seeming to resonate only at a particular frequency. The unit was replaced, the new sample broken-in, and the auditioning continued. Then, late in the second test cycle, the right loudspeaker (the Stages are mirror-imaged) began to buzz slightly. This was also replaced, but because there wasn't sufficient time to properly break-in the new panel and still complete the review by deadline, I finished the testing with the original panel. It only rarely buzzed when used as a Stage alone, and never when used as a Mini-Grand with the DAX's 80Hz high-pass filter.

The replacement will be pressed into service shortly, and any problems will be reported later. The original replacement is fine, and Apogee apparently made another production change as soon at they were aware of the problem (subsequent to our receiving our first samples, but prior to our asking Apogee for replacements).

As I stated above, in my new listening room the Stages sounded very much as Stages have sounded in the past in the Stereophile listening room—but not exactly the same. In the larger room, the sound was more expansive (a plus) but less intimate (something of a minus). The bass in the larger room was less potent and punchy—not as immediately impressive—but was smoother and less prominent. On balance, the low end of the Stages in the new room was better behaved, if less wowie-zowie.

I was somewhat troubled by one aspect of the Stage's performance in the larger room—the mid-treble brightness I briefly alluded to above. While this had always been noticeable with the earlier pair of Stages in the Stereophile room, it was never much of a problem for me. In my new room, I was finally able to tame it on most program material by damping the lower 4' of the wall behind the loudspeakers. (This has a large window covered by heavy vertical blinds.) This didn't completely solve the problem, which, I'm certain, could be partly cured by further acoustic treatment of the room, which is a project-in-progress.

In any event, the Stages worked extremely well in my listening room once all the setup niceties were taken care of. Next it was time to hook up the subs and get on with the second act.

Mini-Granding the Stage
Everything was ready to go. The second Krell KSA-300S was in place, and extra lengths of Symo loudspeaker cable were on hand. The DAX was set for balanced operation. Since I didn't have a complement of one brand of balanced interconnects sufficient to handle the complete preamp-to-DAX-to-dual-stereo-power-amps lash-up, I used a somewhat eclectic mix: TARA Labs RSC connected the DAX to the Stage amp, AudioQuest Lapis Hyperlitz did the same for the subwoofer amp, and Cardas Hexlink connected the preamp to the DAX.

My initial reaction was definitely positive, though a little more restrained than I'd anticipated. Good bass extension was evident, an improvement on the Stage's already very satisfying bottom end. But it didn't seem all that much more potent. True, the interface was handled with aplomb; I wasn't conscious of any sort of discontinuity. And the DAX seemed transparent enough, though it has a gain of 3.6dB (see "Measurements"). But I wanted more.

And I got it—in two different stages. First, I remembered that the phasing of a subwoofer, relative to the upper-range loudspeaker, is not cast in cement. Even with a subwoofer as purpose-designed as the one here, experimentation is not a bad idea. I made a few very rudimentary measurements—the sort you can perform yourself with a $30 Radio Shack spl meter and the warble tones on the StereophileTest CDs. Using the LF warble tones, I checked the response at the listening position of the Stages alone, then of the Mini-Grand—the latter configured with all-positive electrical phasing.

The result was fascinating. The biggest difference with the subs in the system was a somewhat higher output in the 50-60Hz region and a little more output at 20Hz—but it wasn't a major difference. Then I reversed the phasing of both subwoofers. Yeeks! That was more like it. Now the measurements showed at least 5dB more output below 50Hz. There was still some emphasis in the 50-60Hz region—possibly due to a room mode—but the bass was not only smoother overall, it was noticeably more potent.

The proof, of course, is in the listening. The sort of measurement described above, while useful, is a rough approximation at best. It can, and does, save hours of chasing up deaf alleys trying to decide if a given change in hookup or positioning is a net gain or a loss in performance. Very seldom do you gain something by altering a setup without simultaneously losing something else—the trick is to gain more than you lose. Once again, I learned this lesson later in my listening sessions.

But even at this point the sound was really coming together. First, and perhaps most important, is what the subwoofers in the Mini-Grand did not do. They did not muddy or fatten the overall sound; when there was no serious bass present, they did not exaggerate the mid- and upper bass. Mokave, Volume 2 (AudioQuest AQ-CD1007), for example, doesn't serve a constant diet of room-shaking bass, but the bass that is there—notably a growly, gravelly double bass—definitely makes you sit up and take notice. Apart from that, the sound was classic Stage: open, detailed, and transparent, with a palpably rich midrange and a bit of brightness in the mid-treble. On Leo Kottke's That's What (Private Music 2068-2-P), the low end, while not particularly deep, was nevertheless full and solid. Although the subwoofers weren't appearing to do much here, they were certainly doing something—this recording sounded better than I recall it ever sounding in the past.

On material with a real bottom end, the Mini-Grands didn't disappoint. While the bass did not sound as potent as the best I've heard in the (smaller) Stereophile listening room, it was extended, tight, and gutsy. Combine that with a big, expansive soundstage—Jean Guillou's organ transcription of Pictures at an Exhibition (Dorian DOR-90117) nicely demonstrated both of these qualities—and the result was quite astonishing. If the result was never quite trouser-flapping or room-shaking, remember I was listening in a +5000ft3 space with a concrete slab floor. More than once I noted that this is what a top-quality minimonitor might sound like if it could be made to respond below 30Hz.

The Rule of Thirds
Subwoofers in the system seems to bring out the Neanderthal in me: "Yah, yah, bass. Bring me bass! More bass!" But the purist pulls back, saying, "No, no, you're losing it! Bass—who needs it?" "But can't I have both?" says the idealist.



I wanted it all. To try and get it, I pulled out the stops and tried the "Rule of Thirds"—something for which I've never before had the space. Simply put, the Rule of Thirds requires you to place the loudspeakers one-third of the room length out from the front wall, with the listener one-third of the room length from the rear wall. You don't need a calculator to figure out that this requires either a very long room or a very intimate relationship with your loudspeakers. Since my new room is just under 26' long, it was a practical alterative. "This can't work," I thought, as I was sitting much closer to the Mini-Grands than I had been before.

But it did work. The loudspeakers themselves nearly disappeared as discrete soundsources. The soundstage was immense, with a layered depth stretching beyond anything I'd previously heard from the Mini-Grands or the Stages alone. Imaging precision, while not in the minimonitor class, was nevertheless convincingly real. The mid-treble was now smoother, less prominent. While this characteristic didn't disappear completely, the added distance to the wall behind the loudspeakers was clearly having a positive effect on the overall balance. And the bass? The sound was now decidedly warmer, but in a positive way—a bit less of the extended minimonitor bass, a bit more of the Stages-alone-in-the-Stereophile-listening-room quality.

Measurements similar to those described above showed an increased emphasis in the 50-60Hz region and less extension at the extreme bottom. But what I heard was decidedly more impressive than that. The string bass sound on Impending Bloom (Justice JR0801-2)—a superbly recorded female vocal and double-bass compilation of what has been described as "Twin Peaks" arrangements (Corey Greenberg would have a seizure if he heard the version of "Heartbreak Hotel" here)—was dynamic and punchy, yet had an irresistible, full-bodied richness.

The extended bottom end on the Jurassic Park (MCA MCAD-10859) and The Abyss (Varèse Sarabande VSD-5235) soundtracks was dramatically charged—particularly on The Abyss. The room was loaded up with bass I could feel and hear, adding real drama to the music. And the sense of space on Enya's Watermark (Geffen 24233-2) was nearly overwhelming—the bass almost rocked that slab floor, particularly on "The Long Ships," in which the bass punctuation, deeply placed in the layered soundstage, provided a real foundation for the piece, notably near the end where the drum strokes are doubled. The Mini-Grands took no prisoners.

Was this the absolute best placement for the Mini-Grands in this room? Maybe yes, maybe no. But there's no escaping the irony of my initial efforts to optimize the placement of the Stages alone, only to find that a radical placement solution which never occurred to me earlier in the listening tests turned out to improve the overall performance. I still would have liked to have tamed the midbass a bit while also bringing up the bottom end a bit more, but the Rule of Thirds position turned out to be a very satisfying solution; I kept the Mini-Grands there for the duration of the tests. I did try reversing the subwoofers' electrical polarity again (back to all positive) in this new location, but found that this raised the level of the entire bottom end below 200Hz to an unacceptable degree.

This does not necessarily mean that this sort of positioning will be best for your situation, which is fortunate—it's not really practical for most rooms. Even if your room is big enough, such a setup pretty much turns the room into a dedicated listening room. But in most average rooms there'll be a reasonable solution. Experiment. And don't be afraid to try locations that might look a bit crazy. I would, however, take Apogee's 3' minimum spacing from the rear wall quite seriously.

Power problems
I encountered one troubling problem with the Mini-Grands' subwoofer: power handling. With the admittedly very powerful KSA-300S driving the subwoofers, I encountered a few too many instances of woofer overload. I first noticed an alarming degree of very-low-frequency subwoofer driver pumping on a number of recordings. Those 8" cones do have an impressive excursion capability, however, and though they appeared to be working their little tushes off, woofer bottoming from this alone was rare. To ensure that something else in the system wasn't causing this problem—which only occurred with a recording playing—I swapped preamps, CD players, and amplifiers (initially swapping the KSA-300S driving the Stages and subwoofers, later substituting a Hafler 9500 as the subwoofer amp). The fluttering continued. One of the subwoofer drivers in each cabinet seemed to be more prone to overloading than the other—though only on extreme excursions, and not to such a degree that I would suspect out-of-spec drivers.

But the overload didn't seem to be directly related to the driver pumping: it sometimes occurred on recordings which produced no pumping, and sometimes was no problem on recordings which did pump. It was only a problem on the most challenging recordings. (For instance: the lead-in drum attacks on Jurassic Park; the drum on "O Vazio" from Tropic Affair, Reference RR-31CD; the lowest bass growlings in The Abyss and Pictures at an Exhibition; the falling drumset on Däfos, Reference RR-12CD; and the final "Rhinefalls" cut on Staccato 2, German Audio magazine CD 101013. The last is a genuine torture test I wouldn't fault any loudspeaker for failing.)



On these and similar recordings there was a restriction of available playback levels. What was happening seemed to be the result of a combination of the extreme low-frequency boost produced by the DAX (see "Measurements" sidebar), infrasonic signals which were not attenuated but were reproduced in full and at high power by the KSA-300S, combined with the Mini-Grand subwoofer's reflex loading (footnote 4) and a large listening room. Because the Stage used alone was not subject to the DAX and its attendant LF boost, it actually played louder with some of the selections mentioned, though extreme low-frequency power handling is one of the Stage's few weaknesses.

Amplifier changes
The subwoofer amplifier was amenable to change: In place of the KSA-300S, I substituted the Hafler Trans-Nova 9500, rated at 375Wpc into 4 ohms (vs the Krell's 600Wpc into the same impedance). I had to reset the DAX for unbalanced inputs and outputs (the Hafler only has single-ended inputs). The subwoofer level on the DAX was reset to account for the Hafler's different input sensitivity.

The Mini-Grands' overload margin greatly improved with the change in amplifiers. Some material was still out of bounds—"Rhinefalls" from Staccato 2 and the drum on Tropic Affair, each of which is problematic for many loudspeakers—but some was significantly improved. Däfos played considerably louder though still required some caution. The other recordings mentioned above sailed through without a hiccup. The pumping continued on the same recordings as before; though it may have been slightly less noticeable, I was beginning to feel that some sort of infrasonic filtering (perhaps in the DAX) might be appropriate, and might well cure the last vestiges of subwoofer overload. But with the Hafler, the bass finally had a more than acceptable dynamic range.

Interestingly, the previous overload had been a combination of what seemed to be woofer bottoming and port noise (a "chuffing" sound). Although the latter is not truly overload, it can be confused with it. With the Hafler in place, the bottoming was reduced significantly and the "chuffing" virtually disappeared. These two observations are both consistent with reduced workload on the woofers.

With respect to bass quality, however, there were some minor sacrifices with the Hafler. The bass was a bit less punchy, tight, and defined than with the Krell. The effect was not pronounced, however, and could easily be lived with—especially when you consider that the money you'd save with the Hafler would almost cover the price difference between the Mini-Grands and the larger Studio Grands. Of course, with the Studio Grands you might find the Krell's somewhat better bass performance more desirable. Who said life was easy? But for most of us who can't afford such options, the Hafler, in addition to putting less stress on the subwoofers, does a perfectly fine job driving them.

What about using less-expensive amplification all around? I had another Hafler amp on hand—a Trans-Nova 9300. Apart from the fact that the 9300 and 9500 have different input sensitivities which require a bit more jiggering around with the DAX's level controls, hooking up the Mini-Grand with all-Hafler amplification was no big production. Here I was also able to use Cardas Hexlink all around, as four short, unbalanced lengths of it were available to run between the DAX and the amps.

The result was unsurprisingly effective, considering what we already know about the Haflers' performance. The main changes from the Krells: the sound was a little more forward, somewhat less divorced from the loudspeakers' locations; the sense of depth was less alarmingly real, but still effective; the top end was a bit drier and less liquid; and the bottom end, to repeat what I noted above, wasn't quite as tight and punchy. Individually, none of these differences is worthy of more than a passing comment. Collectively they add up to a somewhat less compelling performance.

That said, I have to note that the savings—about $15k—will buy you a packed-to-the-gills, completely tricked-out economy car, or, again, a complete Apogee Studio Grand. The Krell—particularly on the top end—is worth the difference for those able to pay for the added performance. But I wouldn't hock the Mercedes or auction off the mink for it. I loved the performance of the Mini-Grands (bass power handling, but not bass quality, excepted) with the Krells; I could live happily with the Haflers. And there are other cost-effective options as well. I haven't heard the complete Mini-Grand system driven with Aragon 4004 Mk.IIs, but I suspect, based on my experience with that amplifier driving the Stages, that it would be a good combination. And while we haven't yet tried the new Classé amps with the Stages, we found that earlier Classé models worked well with them. In this case, however, our usual caution about careful amplifier selection goes double, to ensure that the chosen subwoofer amp, in particular, won't overdrive the Mini-Grand's subwoofer.

Further thoughts
I believe that good old-fashioned infrasonic filtration—a single, small change—would greatly increase the Mini-Grand's practicality. Such filtration is merely good design practice with ported systems using boosted low-frequency response, yet my measurements of the DAX show no evidence of rolloff down to the 10Hz lower limit of our Audio Precision test set. A sharp rolloff below, say, 15-20Hz would most certainly increase the Mini-Grand's output capability and would probably eliminate the last vestiges of overloading at anything like a reasonable playback level.

Footnote 4: Reflex loading leaves the drivers unloaded below the tuning frequency.—Thomas J. Norton



And the infrasonic boost in the Mini-Grand makes such a filter somewhere in the system virtually mandatory if you plan on playing LPs (most high-end preamps, and especially solid-state designs, do not provide this). Though the woofers didn't bottom with any of the LPs I played through the system—probably because there's little program material below 20Hz on most LPs anyway—I was not reassured by the sight of the woofers pumping from common LP warps and other low-frequency groove garbage. (And they did come very close to bottoming with the occasional higher-than-average edge warp.) I used extreme caution—eg, never raising or lowering the stylus except with the preamp in mute—to avoid extra strain on the system in this mode. But such efforts would be distracting and in the long run. Remember, I have a solid concrete floor; the thought of the acoustic feedback possible with footfalls on a suspended floor with this system is alarming.

The best solution might be a powered version of the Mini-Grand subwoofer. This would allow the manufacturer to optimize the performance and minimize the system's overall complexity. It would surely add to the cost, but you already need two more amplifiers for the system anyway. While full-range loudspeakers with integral amplifiers, despite their many advantages, have never caught on with the public, powered subwoofers have, and they make a lot of sense.

One final concern: In the owner's manual, Apogee cautions against turning the DAX on or off while the power amps are on, as this could send a pulse through the amplifiers and loudspeakers which could damage either or both. In light of my observations above, I had to see what would happen if the DAX was turned off while the system was operating. Even if this was done unintentionally, a power failure could have serious consequences. Until just recently, I experienced brief power failures in my new house every week or two; to me, the risk of inadvertent shutdown is not academic.

To check out the possible risk, I tested both the low- and high-pass sections of the DAX separately, and began by placing another preamplifier between the DAX and the amplifier in use. This allowed me to creep up on the maximum level, watching for signs of stress in either the subwoofers or the Stages and allowing me to stop the test at any point short of unity gain. The pulse occurred at turn-off and didn't recur at turn-on. With the Stages, the maximum effect was a non-alarming "chuffing" noise. With the subwoofers, at worst the cones pulsed to a wide excursion with an audible plunk, but there was no sign that they actually bottomed out. Finally, I removed the precautionary preamp and drove both systems directly from the DAX as in normal use. There was no increase in the distress level, as the DAX was again disconnected from the line. Incidentally, for this test I used the Hafler 9500 to drive the subwoofers—I didn't want to press my luck. While this result does not mean that there'll be no risk in your system (there may be DAXes with stronger turnoff pulses than mine), it does make me breathe easier.

The present glut on the market of good, powered subwoofers means that Stage owners thinking about enhancing that loudspeaker's bass performance now have several real options. But some caution should be exercised. While mating a separate, generic subwoofer with a panel loudspeaker is not, in my opinion, quite the hair-tearing exercise it's been painted as, it can still be a tricky proposition. It can work if carefully done and if the room is right, but the blend is not always seamless. A separate subwoofer does, however, give you more placement options with which to optimize the bass without sacrificing the soundstage integrity of the upper-range loudspeakers.

One combination which I haven't yet had the opportunity to try (but hope to) is the Muse Eighteen, for which there is a "personality card" designed for the Stage. For those unfamiliar with the Muse, the "personality card" is a plug-in card which helps to optimize the high-pass or upper-range crossover to the full-range loudspeaker selected for covering the upper ranges. Since the Muse is powered, this would be a less expensive alternative overall than Apogee's own Mini-Grand. And in my experience, the Muse has a greater dynamic range than the Mini-Grand's subs. Also, the use of a single Muse will, of course, give you a mono subwoofer, in contrast to the stereo subs of the Mini-Grand. There are advantages to stereo subs, though in my opinion the advantage has more to do with the placement of two subs in different parts of the listening room—thus smoothing the bass—than with the use of stereo subs per se.

On the other hand, there's an undeniable sense of unity, both physical and sonic, to the Mini-Grand's totally integrated design. I found its overall performance stunning. I'd recommend the Stages themselves, which cover most of the frequency range, without a second thought—not surprising if you've read what I've written about them here and elsewhere. I must qualify my recommendation of the Mini-Grand subwoofers in that I suggest a moderate-sized listening room and careful matching of driving amplifiers. But when used with intelligence and careful selection of driving components, the total Mini-Grand system is an exceptional performer.—Thomas J. Norton



Sidebar 2: 1994 Measurements

On the test bench, the dedicated active crossover (DAX) had a gain of 3.4dB ±0.05dB in the unbalanced mode for either channel on both the high- and low-pass legs (taken at 1kHz and 40Hz, respectively). Its gain in the balanced mode was virtually the same (about 0.1dB higher). The balanced and unbalanced output impedance also measured the same: 50-51 ohms. The input impedance measured just under 7.4k ohms, unbalanced, and between 8k ohms and 8.2k ohms, balanced, for either channel, high- or low-pass. The latter is moderately low, but should only be a problem with those few preamps (generally tube designs, but not all tube designs) that have high output impedances.

The high- and low-pass level controls on the DAX altered the gain the specified amounts (±3dB in 1dB increments) with a variation of no more than 0.02dB.

Fig.1 shows the frequency response of both the high- and low-pass sections of the DAX, with the low-pass reference level adjusted so that the curves cross at the specified 80Hz crossover frequency. Note that the low-pass section provides a boost to the extreme bottom end of the range. This is an accepted technique for one particular type of ported woofer alignment (a so-called sixth-order alignment), but it's normally accompanied by some sort of infrasonic filtration. Here the boost continues well below 20Hz, reaching a maximum somewhere below our test equipment's 10Hz lower limit. This would explain the overload problems I encountered, particularly with the extremely powerful Krell amplifier. It should be noted that a level boost of 6dB, which does not appear extreme, requires four times the power. The Krell can accommodate this requirement.

Fig.1 Apogee DAX crossover, high- and low-pass output responses (right channel dashed, 5dB/vertical div.).

The crosstalk of the DAX's high-pass section is shown in fig.2. The unbalanced mode is good, the balanced mode excellent, with only the slightest increase at the highest frequencies. The THD+noise percentage for the high-pass section (fig.3) is very low in either mode, even at the 2V input used for the measurements. This level was chosen after I plotted out the THD+noise vs level at 1kHz (high-pass) and 50Hz (low-pass). This result (not shown) indicates an extremely low distortion up to 12V output on both sections (below 0.02% at 0.1V, below 0.003% at 1V, and below 0.002% at 12V). Distortion increases rapidly after 12V, but no amplifier I know of requires much more than 2V for its maximum output.

Fig.2 Apogee DAX crossover, crosstalk in unbalanced mode (top) and balanced mode (bottom) (10dB/vertical div.).

Fig.3 Apogee DAX crossover, high-pass THD+noise vs frequency at 2V input level in unbalanced and balanced modes (right channel dashed).

John Atkinson measured the Apogee Mini-Grand—the Stage and subwoofer—after I completed my listening. The B-weighted sensitivity of the Stage measured approximately 81dB/W/m, using the 82.5dB/W/m sensitivity of the LS3/5A as a reference point. While the Stage's sensitivity is quite low, it's important to note that with its low impedance, it actually draws more than 2W at the standard input used for sensitivity measurements (2.828V), rather than the 1W normally drawn by a hypothetical, standard 8 ohm impedance.

These measurements also indicated, interestingly, that doubling the distance from the Stage resulted in an spl drop of 5.3dB. Normally, the expected drop for a line source would be 3dB—see the Audiostatic ES-100 review in this issue—6dB for a point source. Despite its use of a ribbon, the Stage appears to behave more like a conventional speaker.

The impedance of the Stage (fig.4) is very uniform, and also very low—the minimum magnitude is 2.9 ohms. Some care should be taken in selecting an appropriate amplifier—it should be one comfortable driving a 3 ohm load. The small ripples at 37Hz and 44Hz indicate the fundamental woofer panel resonances. The electrical crossover between the woofer-midrange panel and the tweeter ribbon is reflected in the increase in impedance magnitude centered at 350Hz. The impedance changes caused by the "Normal" and "High" tweeter-level switch positions, which are centered at about 10kHz, are quite small.

Fig.4 Apogee Stage, electrical impedance (solid) and phase (dashed) with HF switch set to "Normal" (top at 10kHz) and "High" (2 ohms/vertical div.).

The subwoofer impedance (fig.5) shows a very low port tuning frequency—the "saddle" at 23.5Hz between the two spikes at about 13Hz and 37Hz—and a minimum magnitude of 2.8 ohms. A small ripple at 350Hz indicates a resonance—either in the port or the enclosure—but it's well above the crossover frequency in normal operation when the DAX is in use, and should be of no audible significance.

Fig.5 Apogee Stereo Subwoofer, electrical impedance (solid) and phase (dashed) (2 ohms/vertical div.).

Fig.6 shows the nearfield responses of the Stage subwoofer drivers and port, driven without the DAX in-circuit. Despite the low port tuning, the actual maximum acoustic output of the port and minimum output of the woofers occur about an octave apart—at 33Hz and 17Hz, respectively. The output of the port peaks again at about 540Hz (corresponding to a dip in the driver response)—likely due to a resonance of some kind. This should be audibly innocuous when the DAX is used. Fig.7, which shows the subwoofer drive-unit and port outputs with the DAX in the circuit, illustrates that this is so. The boost in LF output provided by the DAX at the lowest frequencies is evident when comparing figs.6 and 7.

Fig.6 Apogee Stereo Subwoofer, nearfield response of woofer and port without DAX low-pass filter.

Fig.7 Apogee Stereo Subwoofer, nearfield response of woofer and port with DAX low-pass filter.

To the left of fig.8 is shown the vector sum of the responses of the DAX-equalized subwoofer drivers and port (weighted in the proportion of the square roots of their areas). The center curve shows the response of the Stage's woofer-midrange panel with the DAX engaged, the right curve shows the response of the ribbon tweeter. (The subwoofer curve is a nearfield measurement; the Stage measurements are both a combination of a nearfield measurement for the lower frequencies and the response 45" from the vertical midpoint of the tweeter, directly on the tweeter axis.) The LF response holds up well to below 20Hz; normal room reinforcement should enhance the bottom-end response even further.

Fig.8 Apogee Mini-Grand, summed nearfield responses of Stereo Subwoofer woofers and port, with individual responses of Stage LF and HF ribbons on-axis midway up panel at 45", corrected for microphone response, with nearfield LF and HF ribbon responses plotted below 300Hz and 600Hz, respectively.

The two panel resonances of the Stage woofer-midrange at 37Hz and 44Hz, noted from the impedance plot, are visible. Note that the subwoofer begins reinforcing the response of the Stage's woofer ribbon at almost exactly the point where the latter drops off like a rock. The response ripple in the Stage's woofer-mid panel, visible in its top-end rolloff from about 2-3kHz, appears to be an acoustical anomaly—likely due to interference—rather than a resonance (it does not affect the impedance plot, for example). The acoustical crossover for the Stage itself lies just above 600Hz. The tweeter response, taken with the "High" setting of the tweeter-level control, shows some irregularity and moderate peaks in the low to mid-treble, reaching a maximum at 10kHz.

The overall response of the Stage alone, with the tweeter setting on "High" and the DAX out of the circuit, is shown in fig.9. Without the moderating effect of the DAX's high-pass rolloff, the Stage's rise below 50Hz is more pronounced. Some of the gradual downtilt in the overall response with increasing frequency is due to the proximity effect; when measuring a large panel, the microphone distance is not much larger than the overall driver dimensions, which adds a slight clockwise tilt to the measured response.

Fig.9 Apogee Stage, anechoic response on-axis midway up panel at 45", corrected for microphone response, with nearfield LF ribbon response below 300Hz.

Fig.10 shows the effect of the tweeter-level control in its Normal setting on the overall response. (The curve shows only the changes due to the control.) Note that the control is actually a contour control, not just a simple level control. The response is very close to the inverse of the low-mid treble peaks seen in the previous curves, effectively compensating for them (though, of course, it cannot smooth the response completely). Note that I did most of my listening in this Normal mode, and while I still noted some brightness, it was clearly less obvious than in the High setting, which I felt to be too "hot." The added brightness in the High setting might, however, be of help in a very dead listening room.

Fig.10 Apogee Stage, effect of HF control set to "Normal," normalized to response with it set to "High" (5dB/vertical div.).

The lateral response plot in fig.11 was taken toward the tweeter side of the Stage. That is, it shows the change in response as the listener moves off-axis toward center "stage" in a normal stereo setup. Remember, Apogee recommends, at maximum, a very small toe-in; the listener in this configuration will always be displaced slightly inward of the direct axis. The HF response rolls off as we move off-axis in this direction, but the rolloff is generally smooth up to and somewhat beyond 30 degrees (though with a small peak cropping up above 15kHz). Note the progressively deeper dip at 800Hz at greater off-axis angles—the result of lateral interference between the woofer-midrange panel and the tweeter. The vertical-response family of curves is not shown, but indicates what is obvious from listening: The Mini-Grand, like the Stage itself, is a "sit-down" loudspeaker. Above the top of the ribbon, the high-frequency response drops drastically in level.

Fig.11 Apogee Stage, horizontal response family at 45", normalized to response on-axis midway up panel, from back to front: reference response; differences 5 degrees through 90 degrees off-axis.

The impulse response of the Stage in fig.12 is quite clean, with a fast rise-time and little ringing. The step response calculated from the impulse response (fig.13) shows the initial rise of the tweeter, positive in polarity, followed by the negative-going response of the woofer-midrange panel. The latter is connected out-of-phase with the tweeter—the only way (without using digital signal processing) to obtain a relatively flat frequency response in the crossover region with even-order filters.

Fig.12 Apogee Stage, impulse response on-axis midway up panel at 45" (5ms time window, 30kHz bandwidth).

Fig.13 Apogee Stage, step response on-axis midway up panel at 45" (5ms time window, 30kHz bandwidth).

Though the impulse response for the subwoofer is not shown, it indicates that, as observed in the listening tests, the subwoofer is acoustically out of phase with the Stage woofer-midrange panel when hooked up as specified. This may well be intentional. Note that, in fig.8, the maximum output of the subwoofer falls near the region where the Stage's woofer-midrange panel has its resonance peaks. Because the Stage's response drops off very rapidly below this, an acoustically out-of-phase hookup with the subwoofer might help cancel out this peak, at little apparent sacrifice to the extreme bottom end of the Mini-Grand as a whole.

Note that when I connected the subwoofers in inverse electrical polarity in my listening tests—resulting in their being acoustically in-phase with the Stages—my rudimentary acoustical measurements at the listening position did indicate a peak at about 50Hz. And while I ultimately felt that the overall bass response was best in my room using this hookup, the elevated 50Hz response I encountered might be more of a problem in a smaller room, making Apogee's recommended connection more appropriate. Experimentation here is mandatory—each room will respond differently.

The waterfall plot in fig.14 shows a clean decay, with only a minor HF resonance at about 6.6kHz. There's notably less hash here in the decay of the tweeter response than we've often seen in other planar loudspeakers, both electrostatic and electromagnetic.

Fig.14 Apogee Stage, cumulative spectral-decay plot at 45".

Panel loudspeakers are generally difficult to measure, and the results sometimes differ from listening impressions. This is less true of the Mini-Grand—and, by implication, of the Stage, which is a major part of the system. In many respects the system measures better than a number of pricier panels we've seen here in the past. The subwoofer, Stage woofer-midrange panel, and Stage ribbon tweeter—with the possible exception of the sometimes problematical extreme low-frequency boost applied by the DAX to the subwoofer—integrate effectively into a coherent whole.—Thomas J. Norton



Sidebar 3: Specifications

Apogee Stage: Two-way dipole speaker system with a 12" by 26", electromagnetic film-diaphragm woofer and a 0.7" by 26" ribbon midrange/tweeter. Crossover frequency: 600Hz. Crossover slope: 6dB/octave gradually increasing to 12dB/octave. Frequency range: 30Hz-20kHz (no tolerance specified). Sensitivity: not specified. Nominal impedance: 3 ohms. Recommended minimum amplifier power: 100W.
Dimensions: 37" H by 26" W by 2" D (without stands) Weight: 60 lbs each..
Finish: optional parchment, anthracite, or black sand, with or without mahogany or basswood trim.
Serial numbers of units tested: Not noted (1990); 003639/003584 (1994).
Price: $1995/pair (1990); from $2995/pair (1994); no longer available (2003).

Mini-Grand Stereo Subwoofer: Drive-units: two reflex-loaded 8" cone woofers per side. Crossover frequency: 80Hz (provided by outboard, DAX crossover network). Frequency range: 24Hz-80Hz (no tolerance specified). Sensitivity: not specified, designed to match Stages. Impedance: 3 ohms nominal. Recommended amplifier power: 75W minimum, 200W maximum.
Dimensions: 11" H by 27.5" W by 18.75" D. Weight: 55 lbs each.
Finish: black sand.
Serial numbers of units tested: none shown.
Price: $2595/pair (includes DAX crossover, below); no longer available (2003).

DAX Crossover: Input/Output: balanced or unbalanced. Crossover frequency: 80Hz. Crossover slope: 6dB/octave gradually increasing to 12dB/octave. S/N: 100dB (A-weighted). THD: 0.003%. Nominal input level: 1V. Level controls: ±3dB in 1dB increments for both Stages and subwoofers.

Approximate number of dealers: 100.
Manufacturer: Apogee Acoustics Inc., 35 York Ave., Randolph, MA 02368 (1990-1995). Apogee Technology Inc., 129 Morgan Drive, Norwood, MA 02062. Tel: (781) 551-9450. Fax: (781) 440-9528—no longer manufacturing loudspeakers (2003). Web: Since Apogee no longer makes or services their speakers, readers can try .