EXTENDED REVIEW: The shift from hi-fi to high-end audio has been accompanied by a number of other evolutions. The audio system has plummeted down the list of household priority purchases. It has stopped being the center of social attention, all too often relegated to the role of aural wallpaper. It has (for the most part) become smaller, more discrete and far more convenience-orientated. At the same time, genuine bandwidth seems to have become the exclusive preserve of seriously expensive systems, with relatively few remotely affordable speakers (and even fewer mainstream ones) sporting anything close to an 8" bass driver. Instead, the fashion for tall, slim enclosures sporting multiple sub-5" drivers produced a generation of loudspeakers as short on bass authority as they are on visual impact.
How priorities have changed! Back in the day, budget speakers were virtually all 8" two-ways -- like the Acoustic Research AR-18 or KEF Coda II, Mission 700 or Heybrook HB1 -- all scattered around the £100/pair price point. Just above them rested products like the Acoustic Research AR-48, a 10" three-way at around £250 a pair, while the £380/pair Heybrook HB3 sported a similar but rather more refined driver lineup. Step up to the £500/pair price point and there were some seriously heavy-duty options on offer.
Now, don’t misunderstand me. I’m well aware that too much bass can be a whole lot worse than too little and that the inexorable drift toward smaller and better-behaved cabinets has produced better-behaved speaker systems. But look at the highly regarded budget speakers out there these days and its clear that, as refined as they very definitely are, under the paired pressures of price and technology, bandwidth has pretty much dropped off of their agenda. Which brings me to the nub of the problem: for all their poise and manners, detail and refinement, it’s hard to ignore the fact that somehow budget systems simply aren’t as much fun as they used to be -- and that has a lot to do with bass quality and quantity.
Another result of the move toward smaller drivers is a general reduction in volume levels and power handling -- a double-edged sword, meaning that if you crank up the volume looking for that missing excitement, then your speakers will let you know all about their discomfort (if you are lucky) or simply let go (if you aren’t). Such accidents can be viewed as audio rites of passage, but the trouble these days is that the small-is-beautiful fashion isn’t restricted to entry-level components and speakers. There are some seriously pricey products out there that you really wouldn’t want to let the kids loose with, even if they aren’t having a party.
And that’s kind of the problem. Too much audio equipment and as a result too many audio systems have lost the va-va-voom factor. When your friend, neighbor or father-in-law gasps "How much?" with that look of undisguised incredulity, you really do want to be able to respond, "Yeah, well get a load of this!" as you advance the volume control well beyond the sound barrier. Because, just as you don’t need to explain the physical impact of sub-five-second 0-60 performance, bigger, louder and cleaner than you’ve ever heard before tells its own story. And as much as I love the KEF LS50, that’s one place it’s simply not going.
Thankfully, the times they are a-changin’ and there are signs thatbig may once more become beautiful, as manufacturers realize that an increasingly niche clientele actually do rank performance over looks and domestic impact. I could point to speakers from Monitor Audio and the KEF R series as cases in point, but instead I’m going to move further up the price range to embrace a speaker that is as singular as it is schizophrenic. When it comes to the Ubiq Audio Model One, I simply can’t decide whether it’s obdurately retro or right on the cutting edge of fashion, a domestic speaker on steroids or a PA speaker with a few social graces. What it definitely isis big, loud and proud.
At first glance, the Model One seems to fit right into the current crop of loudspeaker trends. Its price pitches it right alongside the Focal Sopra 2, the Wilson Sabrina and the Vienna Acoustics Liszt -- prime contenders in what is fast becoming the hottest price point in the speaker market. Upright and bluff with a curved grille and boat back giving it an almost triangular footprint, the Model One stands close to four feet tall. It is 16 1/2" wide and 14 1/2" deep, the baffle built from solid Okoume wood, with the one-piece, curved-wall enclosure cold-molded from four sheets of the same sustainable hardwood. The top and bottom faces are laminated with aluminum plates, the whole cabinet standing on a spaced plinth that also embodies the three Soundcare Super Spikes that act as the speaker’s feet. These captive cup-and-cone devices are used in place of conventional spikes, providing flat, floor-safe footers but eliminating the ability to level the speaker. The baffle is wrapped in black fabric, which along with the elasticized "string" grille does a great job of hiding the drivers from view -- which is an interesting design decision, because that’s where the Ubiq Model One is distinctly different.
That driver lineup is what gives the Model One its quasi-pro feel. A 1 1/2" compression driver is horn-loaded and mated to an 8" paper-cone midrange driver. This 8" unit is sourced from Italy, uses a pleated-fabric surround and a coating derived from the lacquers used in the production of musical instruments. It also enjoys its own separate internal volume: a truncated pyramid braced against the rear spine of the main enclosure. More unusually still, the 12" paper-cone bass unit is positioned near the bottom of the sealed enclosure, way farther from the midrange driver than you’d normally expect. That and the overall system sensitivity -- a low-ish 88dB, especially given the size of the cabinet -- are what give the game away. The Ubiq Model One is all about bandwidth. Throw in the compression tweeter, large-diameter paper drivers and 200-watt continuous power rating and it’s a fair bet that overall level and dynamic range are not far behind. This is a speaker that makes no bones about being big (even if it is really rather pretty), goes deep and simply begs to be played loud. Ubiq claim -- and experience certainly suggests -- an in-room response that reaches down to a -3dB point at (or below) 30Hz, which is particularly impressive at the €12,500/pair asking price.
Look a little deeper into the ingredients that go to make up the Model Ones and the surprises come thick and fast. Keeping one eye on the price tag and the other on the bandwidth, closer examination makes you realize that Ubiq Audio aren’t just offering a new performance paradigm but remarkable material value for the money. It’s not just that the cold-molded cabinet (although that’s a technology normally restricted to the likes of major manufacturers such as B&W), the internal complexity, fit, finish, design and parts quality are all first-rate, from the use of an established industrial designer (Janez Mesaric) and a highly respected speaker engineer (Miro Krajnc of Soul Sonic Speakers) to the combination of Jantzen capacitors and Mundorf inductors in the hardwired crossover and carefully selected WBT binding posts on the back. The grilles, consisting of cast endplates and elastic strings that peg securely into the baffle, are very Sonus faber, another of Igor’s long-term associations. The end result is elegant and beautifully finished, avoiding many of the audio industry’s stylistic clichés for a fresh, pleasing appearance. The choice of natural wood, black or white piano-lacquer finishes offers dramatically different visual vocabularies -- one traditional, the others clean and modern.
The end result is a speaker that looks and sounds unapologetically big and bold, with a real sense of presence, natural scale and acoustic perspective. Harmonics are neither rich nor bloated but impressively subtle and correct, allowing voices and instruments both tonal individuality and readily identifiable characters. This combination of natural body and weight in turn translates into a convincing sense of musical shape, momentum and involvement, this last being perhaps the key ingredient, the goal for the whole design. If that’s the case, then it has succeeded handsomely.
But the real question remains: is this speaker both loud and capable of making its owner proud? As always, the backstory here lies in the details of the setup. Give the Model Ones enough power (I used the Audio Research Reference 150 SE, the Naim NAP-300DR and the Arcam FMJ A49 amps, all to excellent effect) and they’ll go loud and stay loud with a wonderful lack of strain or compression. Indeed, like a lot of sub-90dB-sensitivity designs, they actually need to cross a certain threshold before they really wake up. If late-night, low-level listening sessions are your thing, then there are other speakers that I’d look at. It’s not that the Ubiqs won’t play quietly; it’s more that while playing quietly they don’t deliver, and you don’t engage with, their full range of musical strengths.
At the other end of the spectrum, the challenge is to bring coherence and integration together with impressive levels and dynamics. That’s down to positioning: you’ll need to work with the distance to the front and side walls if you want all of the available bottom end -- and want it to keep up with the quick dynamic agility of the midband. You’ll also need to be really careful with toe-in (a taped center line on the top of the speaker will help here) if you want to avoid cuppy, hollow colorations in the upper mids and treble. Given the three flat feet and manageable 93-pound weight of each speaker, that’s all surprisingly straightforward.
What is less easy is achieving the correct rake angle (baffle tilt). For all the Model One's prodigious bandwidth, scale and presence, no matter how I tried I couldn’t get the sound to come alive, to step away from the speakers and start to breath convincingly. That is, until I started to play with the tilt of the speaker, something that required the trial-and-error insertion of shims of different depth below the plinth. I ended up with a 12mm "up stand" behind the rear of the speaker, resulting in a significant forward tilt of 2 1/2 degrees. Wham! Suddenly the sound stepped away from the speakers, the dynamic range and impact freed up and the music started to drive the room, rather than sounding sat on and contained.
Why the difference? Partly down to integration of the drivers and the distance to and height of the listening seat -- which will vary in each room -- and partly down to that rapidly emerging but as yet unexplained phenomenon: the benefits of shifting the bass axis away from parallel with the floor. It’s a result that brings me to my single biggest practical criticism of the Model One: its failure to allow for angular adjustment and tuning of the speaker. Fortunately it’s an easy fix -- but it’s one that Ubiq Audio needs to implement urgently. Discussing this with the manufacturer, they assure me that not only do they have a solution in preparation but that it will be retrofittable to existing speakers. There is also an enforced change to the critical capacitor feeding the tweeter; however, as is often the way, the newly minted replacement has proved superior and again can be easily retrofitted to current speakers. (BOTH UPGRADES STANDARD ON SPEAKERS NOW)
The Model Ones might hint at PA technology and thinking, but there’s nothing (maximum sustainable SPLs aside) PA about their sound. In fact, they are remarkably audio PC, at least in terms of integration and linearity. They have the rich, vibrant tonality that so often comes with paper drivers and they’re not short of rhythmic and dynamic finesse either. There are few speakers at this price that delineate the bass, cellos and timps on the Manfred Honeck/Pittsburgh SO performance of Beethoven’s Seventh Symphony SACD [Reference Recordings/Fresh FR-718] with such ease, a separation based on pitch and texture as well as the natural clarity of the stereo perspective that brooks none of the confusion that might stem from the split-violins/basses-right orchestral layout. Old war-horses like Tracy Chapman’s eponymous debut LP [Elektra 960 774-1] have all the immediacy, presence and communicative qualities that remind you just why it became a hi-fi standard, while it’s just as easy to separate the newbie singer-songwriter wheat (Birdy) from the chaff (pretty much all the rest).
Listening to the large, effortless sound generated by the Model Ones, it’s easy to remember just what made those systems (and records) we all recall from our misspent youth so captivating. But if the roots of the Ubiq approach are based firmly in the past, there’s no mistaking the Model Ones for a product of anything other than the here and now. For starters, while they might not possess the transparency and detail retrieval of current ultra-definition high-end darlings, their resolution, low coloration levels and the evenness of their top-to-bottom balance are worlds away from those spiritual forebears. What they do retain is the sense of body, purpose and, in a very real sense, musical power that came from those older designs. But here it’s coupled to up-to-the-minute sensibilities when it comes to neutrality and musical insight.
Perhaps the most surprising aspect of all is that once you get that rake angle right, the compression driver and its horn loading integrate seamlessly, not just tonally but in terms of dynamics and energy too. Yet, that’s really the key to this speaker: coherent output of musical energy. It’s an agenda that starts to make perfect sense once you realize that Igor Kante, the driving force behind Ubiq Audio, is the longtime Slovenian distributor for Avantgarde Acoustics. Spend enough time listening to Trios and Basshorns and you’ll find most speakers, let alone most affordable speakers, lacking in bandwidth, dynamic range and musical energy. The Model One is a response to that conundrum, a speaker that aims for the bandwidth, high-SPL capabilities and lack of thermal compression that are so appealing in a system like the Trio, but in a package that is easier to accommodate and considerably easier to afford. Making that mixture work might have involved taking a leaf out of the history books, with more than a nod to the inspiration of speakers like the AR-9, but that nod is more in terms of recognizing their balance of virtues than any technological carryover.
Even by Neil Young’s prolific standards, the period of 1968 to 1972 was remarkable for not just the quantity but the sheer quality of his output. Four albums, including After the Gold Rush and Harvest,set the foundations for much of his subsequent career, making the first four-CD box in the budget-priced Official Release Series [Reprise 9362-494975] a huge bargain. Not only does it have excellent sound quality -- way superior to the original CD issues -- but it should only cost a little over $10! Listening to the set through the Model Ones, the system cleaves so directly to the sense and shape of each track and album that it becomes even easier to trace the developmental steps and phases, from the emerging, post-Buffalo Springfield solo voice on Neil Young, through the electric infused Everybody Knows This is Nowhere to the acoustic immediacy of After the Gold Rush and the tumultuous collision of all three (with the LSO thrown in for good measure) on Harvest.
What’s really impressive about the speakers’ performance is not just their ability to scale the huge range of different musical densities here, but to step seamlessly into the different rhythmic demands, Young’s often-measured tempi never being allowed to drag. So, when you reach Harvest, the steady beat of the opening drum figure is anchored, not ponderous; solid, not earthbound. The same instrument picks up the pace to drive the familiar and irresistible tempo that’s so crucial to "Heart of Gold." The solo acoustic recording of "The Needle and the Damage Done" captures the live event and venue with a spooky intimacy, while the burgeoning scale and complexity of "A Man Needs a Maid" and the fuzz licks of "Alabama" are sorted, deciphered and incorporated with disarming ease. It’s a musical tour de force that perfectly demonstrates just how the Model Ones serve the music and respect the recording, allowing it the space and substance to impress or seduce, be big or small (and transit effortlessly between the two) as required.
On that note, there’s arguably no better (or at least, no more familiar) example of the demands imposed by shifts in musical density than the Reference Recordings Rutter Requiem LP [Reference Recordings RR-57]. It’s a record that should be familiar from countless demonstrations, generally on the sort of huge systems that feature massive speakers that command six-figure price tags. Throwing the Ubiqs into that sort of company, especially driven by relatively modest electronics (at least in comparison), is instructive. No, they can’t match the reach-out-and-touch intimacy and all-enveloping acoustic space that the best of those systems create -- a soundstage that reaches forward and wraps around you. They could also use a little extra air and height, although I’d be loath to sacrifice their excellent articulation and integration to achieve it. But -- and it’s a very big but given the price difference -- what they do deliver is the sense of effortless body, coherent space and sheer scale that produce the majesty and beauty in this music. They do it without strain or hardening, harshness or congestion; the choir doesn’t take any sudden steps forward, the soloists aren’t spot-lit. Given the size of this speaker, it’s an incredibly impressive performance; given the price, it’s genuinely remarkable.
You want big and you want powerful, you want musical and subtle, you want solid and muscular, but you also want articulate and intimate. For so long these goals have been contradictory, but the Ubiq Model One takes a huge step sideways from current developmental thinking and instigates a dramatic shortcut along the way. The designers would argue that it rewrites the rules. I’d put it differently, suggesting instead that it acts to remind us of what’s really important and maybe, what we’re missing in a lot of modern speaker systems. This is a speaker that performs for you rather than at you, that engages rather than interrogates, that rewrites the accepted balance of performance virtues, refusing to sacrifice everything to the god of resolution. Treading a carefully judged line between musical coherence, tonal neutrality, dynamic range and bandwidth, the Ubiq Model Ones have an uncanny ability to re-create the shape and sense of the recorded event, refocusing attention on the music itself rather than its reproduction. Seeing into the musical performance is all well and good, but what these speakers point out in no uncertain terms is that first you need the performance itself