Cessaro's Alpha One horn speakers - An Audiophile's Journey's End !

First and foremost, I wish to express my gratitude to Ralph of Cessaro and Yamada-san of Zanden Audio for visiting me last week to help me install the large horn speakers in my listening room and to offer me specific advice so that I can optimise the potential of my treasured audio system.

Ever since I started this hobby seriously since 1973, I moved to high end components fairly quickly in 1977 with a Linn LP12 and Naim pre & power amps. Finding the best speaker(s) proved to be problematic as my first super speakers were a pair of the legendary bronze coloured Quad electrostatics with superb transparency, imaging & vocal but being a young audiophile, I listened to rock, so I gave them up & traded in for a pair of latest Linn passive Isobarik speakers which had one of the best dynamics in the market (even by today's standard), however, what you gained you'd lose in the world of hi-fi, let's call it compromise - transparency and soundstage were its major weakness.

Many years had passed, I moved in circles, the planar speakers gave me thrills with its life-like vocals and timbre on certain acoustic instruments but eventually, I stuck to box speakers as many new designs flooded the high end market in the eighties and nineties. This 'circle game' revolved every 2-3 years when I changed from one brand to another, gaining on certain aspects I liked at the time but missing the bits I loved from previous models, I was happy for a while but was never satisfied. If you remember reading one of my previous articles on 4th March in this forum, choosing the RIGHT speakers is the most important part in high-end audio as ultimately it is the sound vibrating from the cones of these musical transducers you are listening to, not your source, electronics and cables as you can't and won't be able to recognise the sound of these individual units.

Since the start of the millennium year, my musical taste had changed to classical music especially orchestral symphony type as well as violin & piano concertos, the many frequent visits to classical concerts (every 2 months) had enabled my ears to discern the tonality & texture of real acoustic instruments performing live and those from recorded medium. I was growing ever more dissatisfied with the majority of conventional as well as unconventional designs in the market and have come to the disturbing conclusion that there is no perfect loudspeakers out there - this is the truth which still stands in my opinion until now. Having said that, once you have a very decent pair of transducers in your room, after painstaking efforts to treat your room acoustics right, then you are very close to your own hi-fi nirvana but ultimately, you are still unable to reach there cos you know, deep in your heart, you are not quite there yet or this journey is still very far, therefore, you continue to live in a state of denial and play the type of music which suits your speakers best and avoid playing other types which reveal its weaknesses .

Without getting too long-winded on what I want to say, the arrival of the Cessaros last week has forever changed the way I perceive hi-fi reproduction in the domestic environment. Well, frankly speaking, the first day was not plain sailing to everyone, Ralph was not happy with the Zanden 9600 (845 tube based designs) amps as his previous very brief encounter at AE's showroom was negative because of its lack of delicacy & highs ( it was later discovered the pair had developed some kind of malfunctioning). This time, Ralph had to turn the tweeter up by 1 dB, output of the amps down and he also adjusted the tweeter to give more highs. Anyway, when the dust settled later that day, I listened to a couple of tracks and immediately had to adjust my sugar cubes (they were set up for the Horning Eufrodites earlier) in order to get the tonality & texture I was familiar with. After these quick tweaks were done with, we all sat down and played more tracks, intentionally, I played the 1st track of a Chinese percussion music – Marco Polo’s HDCD Poem of Chinese Drum (Burmester had also picked this one on one of its reference CDs), everyone including myself was left jaded after hearing this track, the tremendous dynamics & power of these horns had been unleashed in my room without any compression, my hundreds of hours of room acoustic treatment really paid off, this room is perfect for playing all kinds of music, very loud or very soft.

On the 2nd day, I said to Ralph I could hear the distance of these 2 speakers to my hot seat position was not exact, he told me he didn't have the measuring tape on the setup day and he only used his ears. However, after using the tape to check distance, the difference was a mere 10 mm (1 cm) !!! So after aligning the left speaker, the sound image was rock solid and more 3-dimensional. We proceeded with more listening and Ralph was very pleased with the result so far.

On Saturday afternoon, intuitively, I felt the speakers should sound better than what I had heard in last 2 days and to cut the long story short, I discovered the speaker cables had been inadvertently connected to the 4 ohm terminals of the Zanden power amps (both Avalon & Hornings are 4 ohms) and Cessaros are 8 ohms, according to Ralph, he designed it to be more tube friendly. Very quickly, I changed the cables to 8 ohm position and played the previous CD, lo & behold, the sound was instantly 30% better in terms of transparency, dynamics and the entire frequency spectrum. Both Ralph & I jumped with excitement, after listening to several familiar CDs, Ralph changed the tweeter setting back to zero gain and then adjusted the tweeter to its normal position. Sound further improved and I asked him to remove the damping foam from the bass compartment, wow, the bass went deeper and more transparent. Afterwards, I spinned 3 LPs - Belafonte's Live at Carnegie Hall, Rossini's William Tell and Carmina Burana, he was more than happy with the sound he heard and his final comment was " there is no need to change the amps " after all !

Sunday morning, Yamada-san paid me a last visit to audition the Zanden/Cessaro system, he was extremely happy with the sound played through his CD player, however, after I spun the aforementioned 3 LP tracks to him, he was shocked by how much more life-like, transparent & dynamic my LP playback system ( including the famed Zanden 1200 phono amp with RIAA, DECCA & COLUMBIA equalization ) can do and after listening to the final LP, he stood up and gave a huge round of applause. Finally, just before I drove him to the airport, remembering the output of the power amps had been turned down by 6 attenuations on Thursday, I asked him to hear the difference of this latest setting and the previous full output setting, instantly, the sound from full output was in the order of 10-15% better, bravo. (PT's comments today to Keith was based on his impression of my horns he had listened to on Thursday - you ain't heard nothing yet !)

I spent Sunday & Monday making finer adjustments of my sugar cubes and diffusers, I also placed a diffuser atop the bass cabinet and stuck a tiny basic resonator in the central area on the back of the bass cabinet, the sound improvement after these minor tweaks was not unsubtle to put it mildly.

Well, summing up my latest impression of these speakers, which is by no means conclusive, I can confidently declare they are the best speakers I have ever heard in my last 33 years of hi-fi experience, they produce a well balanced sound with pinpoint & life-sized imaging and expand wider & probably deeper than my Sentinels (all thanks to Ralph for doing the speaker placement in just 2-3 hours on the first day) as well as allowing me to hear the spaciousness in the rear (when playing some live recordings, for instance, Belafonte, Weavers etc) better than any other speakers I have auditioned. Furthermore, its dynamic & transient power (without any audible distortion and compression) is totally unsurpassed (except by its 2 other bigger brethren models for obvious reasons). Last but not least, the most immediate strong traits of these horns are its solid & 3-dimensional sound image, the tonality & timbre are among the best out there. Well, are they the best speakers in the market ? Honestly, I don't and wouldn’t know as there is no way of telling but the fact is they are the best I have ever heard is really good enough for me and there is a saying " a bird in hand is worth 2 in the bushes ", for me, my journey in endless searching for my best speakers has come to an end, I have started to enjoy the sound of these horns and will to continue to make these birds sing better still by fine-tuning the room acoustics. By the way, Yamada-san has promised to design a very special 'double' push/pull design based on 211 tubes for me, well, with current sound sounding so good even without proper break-in, I am not too eager for the arrival of these amps yet (Yamada-san, you have 6 months to finish this project for me, thanks very much !). For the time being, the Alpha One is like Scheherazade to me – I expect them to thrill me for one thousand and one nights for if they don’t, I will go for the Beta and then Gamma models.

Please see below some photos as I'm sure all you horny guys out there would be interested to see them, my acoustic master will come to help me out later next month, so I think I can ask PT to organise a charity fund raising " Ces-Zanden day " in October. Talking about PT, I would like to take this opportunity to thank you & JLam to introduce these speakers to H.K. Although I can't speak for other audiophiles, they are truly remarkable and give everything I want, you have my heart felt appreciation and deserve many rounds of applause from me and other AE customers - please keep these exotic gears coming........

P.S. below is an excerpt of the mail I rec'd from Ralph ( a very critical listener) expressing his impression of my system :

" I am more than happy to make you happy with your new speakers. You have have a perfect Audio System and well sounding room which help a lot to support our speakers. "

Mr Zanden

Comments

  • Photos of the Alpha One
  • Photos of the Alpha One
  • Photos of the Alpha One
  • Photos of the Alpha One
  • Diffuser sitting atop the bass cabinet
  • Contrary to popular belief that horns are directional drivers which transmit sound directly at its listener, the use of room tuning device such as the sugar cubes on 3 strategic (reflective) places of the wall to deal with reflective sound pressure resulted in getting the exact tonality I wanted, see the position of these little wooden cubes, top one deals with the big horn, middle one for the super tweeter and the lower one for the massive but very fast 16 inch TAD bass driver – my deepest gratitude to Franck Tchang of Acoustic System International for teaching me how to hear sound reflection and tackle them “the way” you want them to behave as well as other room tuning techniques. The sum of these enable the Alpha One to sing its heart out in my room, I can’t imagine how these powerful beast will behave in an untreated room or room with poor acoustics.
  • Mr.Zanden,

    I could feel your excitement. I trust the Zanden amplifiers are damn good. I am also interested in the performance of this horn speaker driven by other amplifiers. Do you have a 2nd pair of amplifiers under the Zanden brand?

    Ken
  • Hi Ken,

    Being a Type C+ audiophile (pls refer to my writing on this subject in " The F.L.O.W. of Music" dated 19th Feb., my primary job is to optimise current system's sound and trust me, its is getting better everyday with fine (incremental) acoustic treatments & minor tweakings.

    I like dynamic music, so 300B is completely ruled out, I have already mentioned Yamada-san will be building a double push-pull based on 211 tubes for me because of the linearity of these tubes, so for the time being, I am very happy with the sound of my current system.

    If you are ever contemplating of buying these horns, you are welcome to audition them here, I will play you only 3 tracks and I will be very surprised if you do not write out a cheque to AE afterwards - no kidding my friend !

    Mr. Zanden


  • Mr.Zanden,

    Congratulation! you seems have a successful speaker upgrade! We are very exicting for your piece of art speaker and the special make 211. Enjoy the Music!


    Calvin