There is nothing whatsoever ‘compact’ about the Compact Reference loudspeaker. OK, so it’s a standmount loudspeaker and next to the full-on TAD Reference One monitor, the CR1 is compact, in the same way a Range Rover is more compact than an Abrams tank. At a meaty 46kg (plus a further 16kg for the stand), close to a metre and a quarter high, nearly half a metre wide and more than half a metre deep, ‘compact’ is not the first word that springs to mind. That it needs to be physically deep into the room to spring to life, thereby necessitating a bigger room than most standmount loudspeakers mitigates the size of the speaker somewhat, but even in a barn, these are not small loudspeakers.
For those who missed the back-story, TAD (Technical Audio Devices) Laboratories is a Japanese company, owned by Pioneer. The parent company has had an on-again, off-again working relationship with good audio (anyone who remembers the performance of the Pioneer A-400 amplifier will know just how seriously the company can take the task of making good audio) but where Pioneer also has to develop in-car and home cinema systems, TAD has a single goal – making the best possible audio components.
This is achieved in part by hiring the best designers for the task, in TAD’s case Andrew Jones, formerly of KEF and Infinity; both very strongly research-driven companies, companies that understand both the importance of drive unit and of solid cabinet design. Those elements clearly rubbed off on Andrew Jones, because you could argue the TAD CR1 is an expression of those design briefs, writ large. When you delve a little deeper – Jones was involved in the Uni-Q development project for KEF – things snap into focus.
At the heart of the CR1 is its 16cm CST (Coherent Source Transducer) drive unit. This comprises a 3.5mm beryllium dome tweeter in the acoustic centre of a 16cm beryllium cone mid/woofer. Let’s park the review there a while. TAD isn’t the only game in town when it comes to beryllium, but it is the only company that goes the distance and makes the tweeter and the mid/bass unit out of this hard to work with material. Not only does that give TAD huge brownie points among industrial chemists and metallurgists (the conversation normally goes something like, “You vapour deposit beryllium over a 16cm cone? Is that even possible? When did you arrive from the 23rd Century and can I see your time machine?”), but it gives the loudspeaker a fundamental consistency of dynamic envelope and tonal colour that is almost impossible to replicate using different materials for treble and mid/bass. As one is sitting in the middle of the other, this becomes a highly significant factor in the overall design. While the loudspeaker is also designed to be near-as-makes-no-odds indestructible in normal usage, the downside is all that beryllium doesn’t come cheap.
Back to the CR1 itself; the tweeter rolls off at around 2kHz and the mid/woofer at 250Hz. Bringing up the bass is a (slightly) more conventional 200mm bass cone, featuring TAD’s clever short throw/long gap voice coil system and a triple-laminated aramid (synthetic fibre, more commonly used in cars and protective clothing) cone.
Drivers – no matter how sophisticated – do not a good loudspeaker make. The cabinet is a key player in bringing those drive units to life. Yes, the drivers play a significant role in this (especially the CST unit, with its ‘ISO’ isolation system that blocks vibration from being put into the loudspeaker cabinet), but the deadness of the cabinet, and the limiting of internal standing waves in the process makes the difference between good sound and ‘good grief!’ TAD played its last acronym joker by giving the ported cabinet the SILENT treatment, which stands for ‘Structurally Inert Laminated Enclosure Technology’. Unfortunately, while it’s good sport to scoff at acronyms, this one works well, because it describes both what it is (layers of machined birch ply, more layers of pressed MDF and a 27.5mm aluminium base) and what it does (makes the cabinet deader than Elvis, driving with Amy Winehouse in James Dean’s Porsche over to Julius Caesar’s house). The boat-backed body helps minimise standing waves and internal resonances, and the whole cabinet is finished in a rich high gloss sapele veneer with contrasting satin black curved baffle and top plate. The net result is a loudspeaker that stretches from around mid 30s (TAD claims 32Hz) to the upper bat (TAD claims 100kHz). The speaker is also a moderately efficient 86dB/W/m and with a nominal impedance of four ohms, but at this price point, such statistics are almost irrelevant, because the partnering electronics should be more than able to cope (polite direction to the range of TAD electronics aside I’ve heard TAD loudspeakers sound extremely fine on the end of Ayre and Belles electronics and I’ve no reason to expect the loudspeaker to place unfeasible demands on the partnering electronics).
Given Andrew Jones history, it would be easy to think the CR1 as the best speaker KEF never made, dismissing the CST unit as a UniQ driver made from beryllium in the process. And you’d be what we in the audio business call “an idiot” for doing so. That the CR1 shares common ancestry with designs like the KEF Blade makes the two speakers about as alike as a horse and a rhino. The loudspeakers sound very different, behave very differently and even demand a different installation. In the case of the TAD CR1, the loudspeaker needs to be further from the rear and side walls and also needs slightly more of a toe-in than most coaxial transducer designs (such as Tannoy dual concentrics, KEF UniQs).
That ‘slightly more toe-in’ is in fact telling, because it seems TAD has resolved (or at least, practically overcome) the diffraction and intermodulation issues inherent to coaxial designs. Instead, what you get from the CR1 is something close to a true point source sound, only one that has all the scale and drama of a really meaty conventional cone and dome dynamic box loudspeaker. That’s been a secret desire of most loudspeaker designers for the longest time, but a partially achievable one until very recently. The TAD design knocks that one out of the park.
How this sounds in reality is like a near complete absence of cabinet coloration, drive unit interaction and all the things we have come to expect from loudspeakers that are not electrostatics, but also with all the things we know electrostatics cannot deliver. Like bass.
I’ve used informative and detailed loudspeakers before, but nothing like this. There are loudspeaker terror recordings, the things you rarely hear in demonstrations because they pull apart a system like an angry chimpanzee. Piano, for example, or early music and all its polyphonic voices; these test the coherence of the system, its real-world dynamics (playing close mic’d drum kits tells you a lot about how impressive the system sounds, but a solo piano says more about how it will sound in day to day operation) and more. And in both cases, it was like being in the control room when the recording happened. The firm hand of Brendel was in the room and the Talis Scholars were behind double glazed glass. You could hear into the recording with all the precision one might need to drive a mixing desk – and any gain-riding or accidental mic distortions are clearly annotated. Which is to say, the overall sound is very slightly forward; not bright in any manner, just direct and so unbelievable articulate in the presence and brilliance regions, all that insight comes across as a forward presentation.
This is actually one of the hardest loudspeakers to describe in sonic terms, because you end up thinking about things in terms of what other loudspeakers do wrong. When it comes to describing what this does right, it pretty much does all of it right. There isn’t a genre that falls down through the CR1s – if the idea of playing some dirty dubstep through a £37,000 loudspeaker appeals, it will sound fantastic through these loudspeakers. If instead, your jollies are more cerebral and you dream of re-animating Miles Davis in your listening room, the CR1s get damn close to perfection in the current loudspeaker market. I could spend page after page examining every aspect of the CR1’s performance in detail, but what’s the point. It’s good at all of that loudspeakery stuff, and a few seconds in front of these loudspeakers will demonstrate exactly what I mean.
There is one aspect of the performance that is worthy of note though; the bass. The CR1’s bass is remarkable, both in terms of depth from a standmount (it goes toe-to-toe with the Magico Q1 on this) and how it handles its last octave. What marks out a full-range loudspeaker from its rolled-off peers is generally an underpinning of solidity. You don’t just get to hear the music, you don’t even just get to hear the space in which the music was played, you get to understand the location itself. Your spatial cues are reinforced by that sub-30Hz region and this helps tell you the difference between recordings made in their own acoustic space and the use of echo and pan on the mixing desk. Loudspeakers that roll off in the low 30s can’t retrieve that information, and that atavistic sense of ‘thereness’ is lost. Except, for some inexplicable reason, the CR1 does supply more of this information that it should. There is no smoke and mirrors here, no weird science, no sense of faking out the bass. The speaker rolls off perfectly, never once upsetting the status quo as it fades away in the bass… but somehow it preserves that sense of ‘in the room’ that normally only comes with full-range loudspeakers. But it’s this that sets the CR1 apart from the majority of its standmount peers.
A few years ago, audio freed itself from the shackles of having to work to the limitations of price. The downside to that is those prices shot up across the board, but the upside is we are now getting some of the best products in history. And the TAD CR1 perfectly fits that description. I firmly believe that the best standmount loudspeakers the world has ever seen are gracing the stores right now. But even in such lauded company, the TAD CR1 still has the power to wow. Ultimately, it’s hard to pick a winner in the ‘cost no object’ standmount loudspeaker race, because different loudspeakers will appeal to different listeners. But I can’t help feeling that the CR1 will end up appealing to more of those listeners than its rivals, simply because it sounds so very, very right.
Three-way bass reflex compact speaker
Drive units: Midrange/Tweeter: concentric 160mm cone/35mm dome Bass: 200mm driver
Frequency response: 32Hz to 100kHz
Crossover frequencies: 250Hz and 2kHz
Appropriate amplifier power: 50W to 200W
Sensitivity: 86dB (2.83V @ 1m free space)
Nominal impedance: 4Ω
Dimensions (loudspeaker, WxDxH): 34.1x44.4x62.8cm
Dimensions (stand, WxDxH): 40.7x52.5x53.2cm
Weight (loudspeaker): 46kg
Weight (stand): 16kg
Price (including stands): £36,999 per pair
Manufactured by: TAD
Distributed by: Nu Nu Distribution
Tel: +44(0)2034 442338