My experience with ArteLuthe speakers began when I reviewed the Vivace Mini, a combined effort between Robert Gaboury of Arteluthe and Frank Ng of Triode Labs and Finale Audio. The Vivace Mini is a single driver horn-loaded speaker that defied my expectations of what could be accomplished with a tiny high efficiency driver. My review of that speaker is available here. I also had an opportunity to listen to Gaboury’s Cadenza speakers, which combine the elegance of a horn tweeter and a large woofer in quite spectacular fashion. But both of these speakers are very efficient and designed to work with flea-powered tube amplifiers. I have a soft spot for SET amplification, so I was not quite sure how to handle this review of La Piccola, a monitor speaker with a sensitivity of 86dB. I mean, 90dB seems low for me, so I was a little out of my depth and knew instantly that I would have to run some alternative amplifier configurations.
In preparation for the arrival of these speakers, I secured a few options. Frank Ng kindly lent me a Finale Audio FFX-666 power amp (this model is a one-off using a quad of KT-66s) that produces 25 watts per channel which, when compared to my usual 3.5 watt Triode Lab monoblocs, are monsters of power. I spoke to Robert about using this amp prior to the speaker’s arrival and he suggested that I might also like to try them with more power. Luckily, a friend of mine had a Linn Classick Integrated CD player (Stereophile review) on hand that I could borrow indefinitely, which put out 75 watts into 4 ohms. I hoped that this would be more than enough to make La Piccolas sing.
When the pair of La Piccolas arrived at my place, I was deeply impressed with the packaging. In an ingeniously designed wooden clamshell package with compressed foam inside, the speakers were wrapped in elegant soft fabric bags. The branding and information on the wood packaging had been laser-engraved and looked quite elegant. Once I had the speakers out of the box, I excitedly denuded them of their protective bags. As a brief aside, when Robert told me that I was receiving bookshelf monitors, I had imagined a smaller speaker than what emerged.
La Piccola is a two-way design that has a significant double flared bass port and a sophisticated double-walled enclosure. The 29mm ferrofluid damped, silk tweeter is decoupled from the front plate to ensure high frequency resolution. The driver that covers both bass and mids is an ultra-low compression, open frame design basket, hand coated, paper diaphragm with rubber suspension, which at first glance had me concerned about bass reproduction. You see, I am used to 12 or 15” drivers that can move a lot of air and reasonably large cabinets, so I didn’t know whether this driver would provide enough bass. The crossover in these speakers works through serial topology to create phase correct reproduction with a strong emphasis on correct transient tones.
Robert Gaboury had given me another couple of caveats about the speakers. He had indicated that the cross-over would need between 15 and 20 minutes of warm-up time before it started to sound good. He also encouraged me to listen to the stand-mounted speakers in as close to a near-field configuration as possible in my listening room. Well, my house has two kids who run around in it, so this request necessitated moving the speakers back and forth every night. Without tipping my hand too much, I can say that after the first couple of nights, I began to look forward to setting the speakers up for the listening session.
Okay, a few final specifications before moving into my impressions of the speakers. The speakers have a frequency response of 42 Hz to 23 000 Hz. And the suggested amplifier input is between 40 and 200 watts. The speakers weigh 10 kg each, so they are reasonably heavy for their size. The dimensions are 14 ¼” in height, 7 ¾” in width, and 10 ¾” in depth. The speakers are also extraordinarily beautiful with elegantly constructed lines and finish. They come in a white lacquer with the choice of either black leather or Alcatara on the baffle. I received a pair with grey Alcantara on the front and rear baffles that was both nice looking, but also had a wonderful feeling to the fabric. The name of the speaker is displayed on a silver nameplate below the larger driver. I’m not going to lie, these are very sophisticated looking speakers. And, even more importantly, my wife loved how they looked.
For listening purposes, I’ll give a brief description of my sources. All vinyl was played on a 30th anniversary VPI Classic turntable with a Charisma Audio MC-1 cartridge that played through the phono stage in my Triode Lab Au Pre Grande preamplifier. Digital sources were played via a Squeezebox Classic 3 Server and a Grant Fidelity TubeDac 11 into either the Finale Audio amp or the Linn Classick integrated. The speakers were connected via Anti-Cable Level 2 speaker wires.
For the near-field configuration, the speakers were placed approximately five feet from my seated listening position and approximately five feet apart. So, even though I was very eager to hear the speakers, I turned on the Finale Audio amp and began playing some music and walked away to set a timer for 20 minutes. This aspect of anticipation was actually an intriguing psychological component of the listening sessions. My appetite was being whetted for the music. So when my timer finally rang, I eagerly rushed in to see what these speakers could do.
My initial sense of the sonic signature of these speakers was very favourable. I played a number of different types of music from jazz to classical, blues to folk, electronic to rock, and throughout I was impressed with the incredible imaging; the depth, range, and consistency of sonic accuracy (instruments sounded real); and, most of all, the ability of the speakers to reproduce sound across the spectrum of frequencies. The bass was clear, resonant, and, above all, deep. The mids were rich and lifelike (especially with the human voice), while the treble range was clear, crisp, and resonant. Over the course of my listening session, as I relaxed into the broad soundstage and incredible imaging that the speakers created, I realized that this was a formidable pair of speakers that would require further investigation. Needless to say, things were off to a really good start.
I ended up listening to both the Finale Audio FFX-666 and the Linn Classick. Although I enjoyed the Linn Classick and sensed that the power it provided was a good match for La Piccolas, I still enjoyed the Finale Audio amp paired with these speakers a lot more. I’ve always enjoyed what tube amplification does and I felt more at home listening to La Piccolas with the Finale amp. That said, I am certain that with high quality solid state amplification, the speakers could also sing with precision and deftness.
One of the songs I played that really demonstrated what the Arteluthe speakers could accomplish was by Cuban born pianist Alfredo Rodriguez. From the album The Little Dream, I was entranced by the opening song, “Dawn.” The song opens with a frenetically paced melodic piano line that is accompanied by drums and a chorus of vocals. It begins with a both joyful and upbeat atmosphere. La Piccolas made the pulse of the pianos and the quick percussive beats on the drum precisely present, while the choral vocals surrounding them appeared jubilantly. Rodriguez’s piano playing blends both traditional Cuban music, classical training, and jazz. As the song develops and the piano breaks into more straight bop and bebop lines, the speakers capture the more angular piano lines with clarity and precision. It is also worth mentioning that Munir Hossn’s bass and guitar lines in this song are extraordinary for the staccato blasts with which they punctuate the rhythm. La Piccolas were more than quick enough to deliver these sonic melees with tonal accuracy, but did so in a way that allowed me to hear the strings being plucked or muted percussively. The instrument was in the room. The band was in the room. I was being transported by the speakers into a realm of deep musical verisimilitude.
Next up was a beautiful tune from Patty Griffin’s eponymous album released this year. I believe this is one of her most exquisite records both in terms of composition and production. “What Now” provided the speakers with an opportunity to produce the human voice at its most beguiling. And the spell that the speakers cast through Griffin’s song was entrancing and beautiful. Griffin’s vocals are kept front and centre while rhythmic guitar patterns interplay in the right and left channels. At a certain point, the song reaches a crescendo where Griffin is no longer singing words, but murmuring and humming in a reverential tone. The Arteluthe speakers created a swirling breeze of voices that washed over and surrounded me. The shifting placement of the vocal blend created an unbelievable sense of being afloat on a sea of song. The speakers could handle the delicate emotional tones of the human voice with an equally capable sense of clarity and diffusion as the recording demanded. The speakers excelled at creating an atmosphere of immersive ambience.
I decided to try a different path for the speakers on the next track. I’ve always enjoyed Van Morrison’s lesser-known album Veedon Fleece. Released in 1974, this album is influenced by a trip he had taken to Ireland shortly after divorcing from his first wife. The song “Streets of Arklow” begins with rambling rhythm guitar and piano parts that are reminiscent of Neil Young (if he had been an Irish bluesman). Morrison’s voice is clear and insistent, while a recorder trills in the background. The beauty of this song spreads across the soundstage when played by La Piccolas. The range of the vocals, recorder, and percussive sounds builds into a frenzy as strings enter the soundstage. At this point, the speakers created such a deep and immersive soundstage that with my eyes closed I felt as if I was at a concert. Or perhaps, even more accurately, that Van Morrison and Co. were in the room. Whenever a speaker can create this sense of dynamic range, holistic realism, and tonal correctness, I know I am in the presence of a very special piece of equipment.
I listened to these speakers for many nights. Moving them in for an evening of listening and, night after night, just falling into one piece of music after another, before moving them back for safety’s sake. Although they are beyond magical in a near field configuration, I would be remiss if I did not mention that they almost as good from a more traditional stereo listening situation. They are truly great at creating a convincing and realistic portrayal of music in its many permutations and possibilities. Now, as to my concerns about bass reproduction, I have to say that these were completely unfounded. The speakers’ bass reproduction belied the size of the speakers (and drivers) and made it very easy for me to conceive of them as fully functional without an added subwoofer.
When I first started listening to these speakers, I had been given a price point $X against which to evaluate them. At that $X price point, I thought they were an extraordinary speaker, especially for those who are confined to a monitor because of size constraints of their listening space or condo living. Then, after I had done my critical listening and written my impressions of the speakers down, I received a message from Robert that the speakers were going to retail for $2499 through a direct sale model. Effectively, this meant that the speakers were going to be available for less than 50% of what I had originally been thinking as I developed my original sense of their value.
So, given this shift in cost, I had to re-evaluate what I already thought was an extraordinary value. I cannot say much more than that La Piccolas are the best monitor speaker I have heard at this price point and are an unequivocal phenomenal value. I can, without any hesitation, state that La Piccolas deserve a Gold Star Award from Wall of Sound. If you are looking for a stand-mounted monitor in this price range, La Piccolas deliver on every level. They faithfully reproduce sound across a wide range of frequencies, have exquisite balance in dynamics, create a vast and holographic soundstage, and make music sound like art. I can, without any hesitation, state that La Piccolas have achieved a Gold Star Award from Wall of Sound.
Price: $2499 CAD per pair