Revel Salon Ultima 2 Loudspeaker (Hi-Fi+)

Revel Ultima Salon2
Revel Salon Ultima 2 Loudspeaker (Hi-Fi+)

Ah…me and my big mouth. I have recently made no secret of the fact that I sometimes experience the odd nagging doubt regarding the direction in which loudspeaker technology has moved in the last few years; technically superior but more musical and enjoyable? I’m not always convinced. Doubts cast while revisiting some classic products from thirty or so years ago were brought to a head during my time with the Spendor SP100Rs, a great (and thoroughly enjoyable) loudspeaker that has the core of its design rooted firmly in the seventies. Meanwhile, much noise had been emanating from a room not too far from the house where a new pair of Revel Salons have been clocking up the hours, running in prior to residence in the listening room. The irony here is that if there’s any loudspeaker that can claim to represent the cutting edge of technology when it comes to moving-coil designs, the Salon would undoubtedly come pretty near the top of the list.

To put this into perspective, the Salon 2 is the flagship in the Ultima 2 series of loudspeakers from Revel, a company formed in 1995 by US consumer giant Harman International with the sole intention of competing in the high-end speaker market. To that end, the combination of generous financial resources together with extensive development and manufacturing facilities courtesy of JBL was enough to attract Kevin Voecks, already something of a leading light in high-end loudspeaker design, into the fold. Under his expert guidance, and with pretty much a free hand to indulge himself, the existing state of the art measurement facility was augmented by an advanced and exhaustive psycho - acoustic listening procedure, designed with the help of Dr. Floyd Toole from the Canadian National Research Council.

The ensuing products were impressive and the original Salon certainly left its mark some seven years ago as one of the best all round loudspeakers I have ever used. More tellingly, they found universal acclaim from the wide range of people who got to listen to them; a highly unusual occurrence considering the diverse tastes of rock and roll engineers when compared to classical musicians. Apart from the visual similarity of some of the drive units, there is not much to connect the revised Salon to the original version in terms of their appearance. Gone is the striking, idiosyncratic ugliness that separated Revel from the crowd, to be replaced by a more conventional aesthetic that is no doubt more acceptable in terms of what some have come to expect from large loudspeakers; tall, slim and extremely heavy. The review pair was finished in a high gloss black lacquer; I confess that this was a rare occasion when I might actually have preferred the mahogany finish, as with an enclosure this large the result of such a massive expanse of dark gloss was a little overbearing in my room. Immediately apparent is the highly contoured front baffle, machined from 2.5 inch MDF, the curves carefully engineered to reduce diffraction across a broad spectrum of frequencies. The remainder of the cabinet takes the form of a radius, constructed from nine bonded layers of composite, pressed into the required shape and considerably more rigid than the equivalent conventional enclosure. A deeply recessed panel at the back has two sets of high quality five way binding posts accompanied by two controls, one for tweeter level (±1dB in 0.5dB steps) the other to subtlety adjust bass balance for use near room boundaries. A Plexiglas door with a small cutaway for cable entry covers the panel to present a neat appearance – so long as you can actually close it. In practice, using chunky cables with 4mm plugs presented a bit of a problem unless inserted into the side of the binding posts, which is possible but not ideal. Of course, the US tends to favour spades over banana plugs; worst case scenario is that the door can be removed.

The base is threaded in the usual manner to allow levelling with the spikes (or if reversed small plastic feet) and is just slightly larger than the outline of the cabinet; this supports the structure via four pillars to allow space in which the downward firing port can breathe. The grille consists of an open steel cage covered by the cloth which should offer minimal interference if required. This sits over the front panel and is neatly held in place by a series of small magnets. The general finish of the loudspeaker was to the high standard you would expect, but I harbour reservations over the size of the bolts securing the bass units; not so much the bolts but the head, which takes the same size allen key as the small bolts used for mounting phono cartridges. Unless there is some engineered decoupling, as is the case with the larger bolts on the mid range unit, there is no chance of really tightening the bass units into the baffle, the effect of which can often be just as dramatic as adding spikes. However, this could be a moot point; did I ever feel that the bass lacked definition? Not really.

The Salon employs six drivers in a four-way configuration, three 200mm bass units, a 165mm upper-mid, 100mm mid and a 25mm tweeter. (See side panel) The choice of high order (24dB per octave) crossover slopes allows each driver to work effectively within its designated bandwidth, and well away from break up modes where cones behaviour becomes unpredictable. The crossover itself is separated into sections that are sited in different locations within the cabinet to minimise any interaction. Internal wiring is not specified but looks to be average gauge stranded copper, and high quality capacitors and air cored inductors are mounted to boards that are hard wired rather than relying on printed circuit track.

As I have already intimated, the first generation Revel loudspeakers made a considerable impression, so expectations were running high for the Salon 2. With an ample break-in period behind them and the challenging task of shifting hundred kilo loudspeakers into my listening room accomplished, I arrogantly assumed that, based on my experience with the mark one, getting a good result with the Salon 2 should be pretty straightforward. Which of course, wasn’t the case. Positioning the speakers for an even bass response was relatively easy with the aid of some low-frequency sweeps, and much like their predecessors demonstrated that if the alignment of the speaker is well engineered it is perfectly possible for a large loudspeaker to provide even and extended bass in my room. However finding a position that delivered a strong, central image and balanced soundstage proved more difficult and required incremental movements and some shifting of the furniture.

First impressions using the SP10/ Bryston combination were frankly disappointing. While there was no doubt that the Salon’s were impressively fullrange, they sounded rather coarse and mechanical, almost as if they were cold and hadn’t been run in. It was when RG suggested that I try the Goldmund Telos power amps that I began to get the picture. The Bryston 14B SST that had proved so successful with the Mark 1s definitely had the grunt to drive the latest Salons to impressive levels, but lacked a degree of refinement and sophistication, not something that I would have previously criticised it for. (To be fair, it is a quarter of the price of the Salon’s; the 28B’s I suspect might be a different case.) Likewise the ebullient if slightly rough around the edges performance of the old Audio Research SP10 came across as course and ill-defined, a really rather unhappy combination. What was becoming apparent was not so much that the new Revel’s were unnecessarily demanding, although they do need an amplifier that has plenty of really genuine power delivery, but that they were much, much more revealing of the signal with which they were being fed. Despite some pretty refined CD playback in the form of the EMM labs CDSA and the ARC Ref 7, there seemed a larger gulf than I am used to between digital and analogue replay via the relatively modest Linn set up, the latter sounding surprisingly good. This was a factor that was going to become a recurring theme throughout the review period; the Salon’s proving time and time again to be frighteningly capable of exposing the nature and the quality of the signal that they received.

And the music? With the sublime Ayre K-1xe feeding the Goldmund power amps the Salon’s began to fade into the background and became less obtrusive, providing an open door on whatever material you were listening to. To put it another way, there just seemed to be less loudspeaker between you and the performers, at which point I realised just how good the Salon could be. If I talk about cleanliness, the tendency is to immediately assume clinical, dry or lacking in warmth, but in many ways the Revel transcends such descriptions, as there is simply less crap coming from the loudspeakers in the way of coloration and distortion compared to most other designs I have heard, with the possible exception of electrostatics. What you hear is an incredible amount of detail and resolution, but not in a forced or unnatural way, just simply more obvious as there is little in the way of grunge or fuzziness smearing the result. The spatial characteristics of instruments also benefit from this articulation. Solo piano, for example, where the initial strike sat solidly between the speakers while the reverberation of the space in which it was recorded decayed away to effectively define where the boundaries were, while the speakers would ‘disappear’ in a way that usually only small precision boxes achieve.

Another trait that I have tended to associate with good panel loudspeakers is coherence, and multi-drive unit designs generally seem to fall behind in this area. While it took me a little while to put my finger on it, I realised that the Salon’s were exceptional when it came to reproducing the sense of the whole audio bandwidth with everything arriving at the same time. A well-recorded string quartet gave you an added dimension of the empathy between the players which I have rarely encountered, while the relationship that (hopefully) exists between drummer and bass player with good, non synthetic rock music was at times exhilarating, providing the rhythm and timing that moved the music along at a pace set by the players, not the system. It does of course help that the Salon’s are capable of particularly fast, taught and visceral bottom-end that you feel as well as hear, with genuine extension that effortlessly fills the room. The only thing missing was an occasional lack of bite in the midrange with certain electric guitar solos, but it’s quite possible that what was missing was the distortion that I am used to hearing, as it was the only time I felt a little disappointed. But for me, one of the most interesting things about the Salon 2s, one that I really came to appreciate over time, was the consistency of their performance across a wide range of listening levels. You won’t be surprised to learn that the Salon’s do ‘loud’ exceptionally well, with fearsome dynamics and no hint of hardening or compression; and because of the sheer clarity in their reproduction it is not until you hear something (or don’t) that puts things in perspective that you realise just how loud you have been playing them. On several occasions, alone in the house, I spent an evening listening to those tracks that ‘need’ to be played loud and grinning like an idiot at the sheer power and drama that flowed effortlessly forth from the Salons, leaving the room with that contented feeling you get after a really good concert. But turn the volume down – right down, and the Revel’s continued to deliver music with exactly the right proportions, with all the attack and dynamics beautifully intact, and losing little of the excitement and emotion that makes listening enjoyable. I guess you can tell that I have been pretty impressed by the Salon 2s. While pushing forward the boundaries of moving-coil loudspeakers, particularly in terms of minimizing coloration and distortion, they have managed to do this in such a way as to enhance the musical experience rather than render it an academic and unemotional event. However, the refinement comes at a price, as the Revel’s are both demanding of genuine load tolerant power, and ruthlessly revealing of its quality. But at the end of the day, they have restored my faith in modern loudspeaker technology, and as with all truly great products, have left me wanting more.

Nuts and Bolts…

Speaking with Kevin Voecks revealed that much of the initial research for the new range of loudspeakers revolved around the continued development of new and more sensitive test procedures, necessary in order for the team to measure and evaluate the reduced levels of distortion that they were hoping to achieve. To suggest that the Mark 2 Salon is a revision or makeover of the original would be misleading, and ultimately wrong, as despite some similarities in the appearance of the drivers, it is essentially a completely new design from the ground up. The result of four years of intensive research by the Revel team, backed by the full weight of Harman’s extensive facilities, little or no restriction was placed on the development process. As a result, the second generation Salon uses completely new drive units that have a number of interesting features. A dual Neodymium magnet assembly concentrates a more uniform field into the gap while presenting less surface area to interfere with linear movement. Improvements to the spider, surround composition and shape have resulted in a considerable reduction in distortion over a wider bandwidth, alongside improved thermal characteristics that reduce dynamic compression. While the large, edge wound voice coils and Titanium cones have been retained, the radical new tweeter has seen a change to Beryllium for the diaphragm material, resulting in greater efficiency and dramatically increased extension. This goes part of the way towards explaining the absence of the small, rear-firing HF unit that was a consistent factor in many of Kevin’s earlier designs, including the first generation Salon, where it seemed to add extra space and sparkle at the top end. As he put it, “we found that we just didn’t need it anymore.” The simple enough looking front plate is in fact a waveguide that serves to shape the tweeters dispersion at the crossover point, allowing better integration with the mid unit. It also increases sensitivity (and thus power handling) by more efficiently coupling the diaphragm with the surrounding air, along the same lines as horn loading. The port loading arrangement has also seen considerable revision, and is now hyperbolic in shape giving better efficiency with lower distortion and compression.

Associated Equipment

The Salon is a large and demanding widebandwidth speaker, with genuinely high-end performance. That makes it extremely demanding of partnering equipment, as the accompanying list demonstrates. Don’t be fooled by their comparative affordability (at least compared to the competition); this is one speaker with which you can’t cut corners.

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