Audio journalists tend to wander the corridors of a CES in a minor state of shell-shock. There are no carnival-barkers outside the rooms enticing one to enter (not yet, at any rate), but the sounds and reputations oozing from the open doorways yield little to the “hurry, hurry, hurry” crowd. The Signet room has always, it seems, been one of the quieter oases, often eschewing sound altogether while contentedly displaying their phono cartridges, cables, and various accessories. On a recent CES hunt, I was therefore intrigued to find them demonstrating two new loudspeakers, of all things, to the milling throngs.
Well, they weren’t really throngs. The loudspeakers in question were not exactly the sort that draws a crowd. Simple, two-way designs in nicely finished, but apparently conventional, wood cabinets. Stand-mounted. Very much like the endless parade of econoboxes, many of them British, that come and go. Ho hum. Don’t ask me why I stayed to listen. But I’m glad I did. The setup did not guarantee that the Signets would sound their best, but what I did hear convinced me somehow that these were products worthy of attention. Two words graced my copy of Signet’s literature: “Must Review.”
As in many such instances, the best of intentions got lost in the rush of multiple moves and more complex, glamorous products competing for attention. But when I ran across the Signet again at Stereophile‘s 1990 New York High End Hi-Fi Show, I promised myself that their SL280 would be one of the first products I’d evaluate when I got settled in from my move to Santa Fe from Los Angeles.
The eventual arrival and unpacking of the Signets proved uneventful, including the accompanying visit of Gary Post and M. Andrew Lewis of Signet. Andy Lewis, formerly with AR, is the designer of the Signet loudspeakers and the Manager of Loudspeaker Development for the company. He had brought along a few spare drivers just in case, but they weren’t needed.
There’s really not a lot to discuss here. The Signet SL280 is, on the surface, a straightforward design. Both the 1″ dome tweeter and the 8″ polypropylene-coned woofer appear to be sourced from SEAS. The cabinet is rigidly bracedone internal brace located above the woofer, another below. The bracing is said to be asymmetrical to spread out the frequencies at which the cabinet panels vibrate, minimizing resonances. The philosophy at work here is the minimization of energy storage and its rapid dissipation. A knuckle-rap test revealed a well-damped sound, but not one as dead as in those cabinets which emphasize maximum densitya technique which, according to Signet’s literature, increases energy storage and dissipates it slowly, causing time-based smearing of the sound (footnote 1). Internal reflections are controlled by a section of U-shaped acoustical foam behind the woofer.
The drivers are mounted on the baffle in close proximity to each other; the woofer basket actually overlaps the tweeter flangewhich is apparently the reason that the woofer frame is not rebated into the baffle. Acoustic foam having a unique daisy-petal-shaped cutout (to spread out, in time, the inevitable, remaining diffraction (footnote 2), surrounds the tweeter. The latter has its aluminum dome mounted in a soft polyamide surround. The magnesium-framed, rubber-surround woofer incorporates a feature called “Dynamic Damping.” The latter consists of a shorted turn on each end of the voice-coil, said to improve low-bass transient behavior, acting as electromagnetic “shock-absorbers” to prevent the voice-coil from bottoming under heavy stress. Woofer loading is third-order, with a rear-mounted port. (The description in Signet’s literature would seem to indicate a Quasi Third-Order Butterworth alignment, since both the woofer’s natural resonance and the vent resonance are below the system’s 3dB point.)
The crossover network has been designed using the latest computer optimization techniques, followed up by measurement and extensive listening. Air-core inductors and polypropylene capacitors are used, along with oxygen-free copper internal wiring. Two pairs of gold-plated binding posts are provided configured for bi-wiring (jumpers permit the use of one pair of cables, if desired). These binding posts provided my only source of frustration with the SL280safter only a few cycles of connecting and disconnecting, several of them stripped at a point just short of permitting tight fastening of spade-lug connectors. They cinched tight enough to provide uninterrupted contact, but short of the point of a solid, reassuring grip. The layout of the bi-wire terminals was also, as is all too common, a bit too closely spaced to permit ease of use with heavy speaker cables, though I was able to connect AudioQuest LiveWire Clear with only minor difficulty.
All sides of the SL280 are covered in oak veneer, save the front, which is a matte black. The optional stands were wood with integral spikes; I filled the hollow pedestals during the course of the review with clean, dry sand. The stands were reasonably sturdythough not quite as flex-free as good metal supports. They were better-looking than your typical steel-framed stand, although the grain (and stain) on the pedestal did not match that on the loudspeakers. Signet indicated to me that the stand may be changed to an all-black finish in the near future. Wire clips are provided on the rear of the stands to dress the loudspeaker cables, although they were too small to be of use with audiophile-grade garden hoses.
If I state right off that the musical enjoyment I have received from listening to the SL280s has been a delightful surprise, I risk straining your credulity. After all, this is only a simple, two-way box loudspeaker. It is, by high-end standards, modestly priced. And it comes from Signet, a respected name in phono cartridges, but one with no track record in loudspeaker design. Unless one counts the SL-100 of a few years back: an odd, three-way design using two tweeters firing backwards into some sort of a reflective lens. Signet distributed some interesting technical information about this loudspeaker at the time of its introduction, but to my knowledge the design was less than a raging success in the marketplace. No, Signet has not been, to this point, a name to conjure with in the loudspeaker business.
But designer Andy Lewis’s brainchild is nothing less than the most pleasant surprise that this reviewer has come across in a loudspeaker since the Epos ES-14. Now don’t get me wrong. Since moving to Santa Fe I’ve listened to a number of high-end loudspeaker systemsApogee Stages, Avalon Eclipses, Ensemble References, and others still waiting their turn in the reviewing line. Many of them can easily outpoint the Signets in certain areasthe majestic authority of the Stages or the precise midrange inner detailing of the Ensembles, to name but two. But they all cost considerably more than the SL280. What the latter does, and does convincingly for this reviewer, is skillfully juggle the inevitable compromises required in a fairly small, moderately priced two-way loudspeaker to come up with a resulting mix which is musically satisfying on a wide range of program material ranging from the most subtle, small-scaled works to the grandeur and impact of full-blown orchestra and chorus.
Before I tell you what the Signets will do, however, a few words on what I feel they will not do. Or, rather, those areas where you may find their performance less than captivating. The list is short. First, the lowest octave or so of bass is not there. No surprise, really. The first designer who comes up with a loudspeaker of this size or smaller which has substantially flat outputat real-world listening levelsfrom 16Hz to 40Hz can place his or her order for that Lamborghini Diablo. And throw in a little beachfront spread in Malibu. Second, the midrange of the Signet appears to be a bit “slow” compared with the mids of, say, a good three-way or a top-class (and decidedly more expensive) minimonitor. Just a slight degree of homogenizationor a thin haze and less than you-are-there transparency, if you willgently reminds you that you’re listening to a pair of loudspeakers. A degree of subjective forwardness or “shout” to the response in the same regionparticularly evident on program material itself not entirely neutral in this areacontributes to the proceedings. These midrange limitations become more evident as the sound pressure levels increase and the program material becomes more complex.
But the Signet’s low-end limitations are not severe. This is definitely not an entry in the “lean and mean” sweepstakes. Nor do the midrange qualities lack redeeming features. Coloration was very low; I was able to pin down no consistent pattern of obvious boxiness, nasality, or other midband nasties. And with a careful match of amplification (about which more anon), the midrange displayed a life and clarity, particularly at low and moderate listening levels, which provided a more than convincing illusion of reality. This clarity was in no way hurt by the SL280’s impressive dynamic capability throughout the audio band.
Footnote 1: Makers of such systems will, of course, disagree, and the whole subject is considerably more complex than can be dealt with here.
Footnote 2: The only place I have seen a similar technique used is in the Duntech loudspeakerswhere the damping material is, I believe, felt.