SMR logoACI Sapphire Review

, a fan of the ACI Quake and Titan sub-woofers joins Alan Maier in comprehensively reviewing the ACI Sapphire III.  Will Alan and John agree?  Are the Sapphire's really that good?  Yes, it seems they are!

Many thanks go to Mr. Mike Dzurko for his help and for providing the review sample.

ACI Sapphire III Specifications:

Two-way aperiodic loaded system with sloped baffle.
Woofer: 7" Kevlar layered cone, dual voice coil with rubber surround.
Tweeter: 1.1" hand-damped textile dome, ferro-fluid cooled.
Frequency response: 64Hz 20kHz +/- 3db anechoic.
Sensitivity: 90dB @1 watt/1 meter.
Impedance: 6 ohms nominal.
Size: 16" high, 10" wide, and 10" deep at bottom.
Finish: Lacquered natural cherry, natural or black oak. Black fabric grill.
Weight: 55 pounds/pair.
Price: $999/pr. factory-direct from manufacturer.
Shielded version also available singly for use as a center channel for home theater.

(All specifications as per manufacturer)

 

ACI SapphireI was absolutely not prepared for what I heard when I fired up the Audio Concepts Inc. (ACI) Sapphire IIIs.  Even after the huge surprise I got when I reviewed their "Titan" subwoofer, I had still not an inkling of what Mr. Dzurko of ACI had been selling factory direct all these years.  Oh, Id read the reviews, most of them outright raves, but for some reason, I had not prepared myself (who listens to reviewers?).  Anyway, as the speakers are a serious design, I think they deserve a serious amount of effort expended on their description.  Particularly since they are not sold through a dealer network, I have to try to communicate what it is about these speakers that will either blow your skirt up, or convince you to move on in your search as you are just not ready for a speaker of this kind of quality!

Ahh! But here is my problem!  How to describe them!   Do I sit here and throw out audiophile approved words and phrases like "correctness of timbre", "neutrality", "musicality" "rhythmic" and "value"?  While they all apply in spades, its not as though youve never read those words before!  I could use them all right, but would I convey what it is that I find so special about these speakers??

Well, sadly enough, those are all the tools I have, so here we go.

 

"Correctness of timbre"

The Audio Concepts Sapphire III is an amazing speaker in that it just sounds right.  It produces instruments that sound exactly as I expect them to.  These speakers are so "anti-HIFI" they knock my socks off.   By "HIFI", I refer to the fact that some speakers impress you with different kinds of pyrotechnics, overwhelming bass, clean, clear crystalline (sometimes exaggerated) treble that overlays a layer of detail and sheen on everything.  While exciting, there is never any doubt that you are listening to reproduced music.  The Sapphires are sooo the opposite.  There is no single aspect of their performance that reaches out and outshines the rest of its performance or calls attention to themselves as a mechanical transducer.  All you hear is the music.   Its almost as if you are not listening to your hi-fi at all.  I did say almost, we are not quite there yet!  The other extreme is that of a "sterile" presentation.  Some speakers are so clean, so detailed, so uncolored, that you get almost a picture perfect representation of the sheet music that is almost without feeling and passion.  The Sapphires avoid this mistake too.   While I would be hard pressed to identify any colorations, they are still a warm and smooth speaker that conveys every mood and nuance of the recording.

 

'Braveheart' soundtrack"Neutrality"

The Sapphire IIIs are the most neutral speaker Ive ever used in my home.  Im so tempted to tell you that they have no sound, but objectively, I know that they must have some sound, every speaker imparts its signature on the sound.  Ill just tell you that I cant tell you what they sound like.   To me, they sound exactly like the music you put on.  They give you exactly what is on the disc and nothing less.  The speakers only omission is that of deep bass and thats what is left out of the listening experience.  They cant give you deep, earth moving bass, they dont even try.  Thankfully, they dont pump up the upper bass/lower midrange in an effort to trick you into thinking that they have real deep bass.  The bass that they have is enough to provide a pretty good foundation under the music and it rolls off very gracefully around 40Hz or so in my room.  Those of you used to looking at subwoofer specs which dive into the 20Hz range will be surprised at how low a speaker that extends to only 40Hz can sound.  Most real music doesnt have that much energy below that.  While the Sapphires dont possess much weight and authority, they do not leave you suspended with no feeling of support from the bass registers either.

As I stated above, the speakers are the antithesis of "HIFI".  Listen to the violin section on a piece of classical music.   There is no unnatural "sheen" over the music, to me, they sound like real violins with the perfect amount of texture.  They sound clean and lush, but not waxed!  If they give up anything to the competition, they give up the last ounce of detail here.  Thats fine with me though.  Who really needs to hear the rosin as it hits the strings anyway??  The amount of detail present is perfectly in keeping with the perspective the Sapphires give you on the performance.  Voices are completely natural and the whole of the midrange is sooo smooth if perhaps, a little laid back (compared to most of the competition, that is).  Cymbals and spoken sibilants have no added emphasis.  Completely, 100% missing in action is any kind of glare, and this is one of the things that turned me on most about the Sapphires.  Its also refreshing to me when I come upon a speaker that doesnt dump the show in my lap.   I like a bit of breathing room, thank you.  Speakers with a forward midrange and treble do just that.  Oh, they sound marvelous in the showroom, they sound "detailed" as all-get-out!  But, often, these speakers wear thin very quickly in the home.  The "in your face" presentation gets old fast and you discover that the added brightness doesnt add anything to the listening experience but fatigue.  On the contrary, the Sapphire IIIs are exhilarating in their natural presentation, in the fact that the listener is able to forget that he/she is listening to speakers at all.

 

ACI Sapphire"Musicality"

If I havent made it clear yet, these are extremely musical speakers.  There is an across the board richness and smoothness to the speaker that is transfixing.  Nothing syrupy, nothing one would call "euphonic", just a balance that is rare to find.  When you clear away all the artificial artifacts, what else is there besides music?

 

"Rhythmic"

There is no secret here.  Most small speakers that dont get bogged down in ill balanced bass have a tendency toward good rhythm.   They are fleet of foot and are natural born toe tappers.  These are no different.  Its one of the reasons I like stand mounted speakers so much.

 

"Holographic"

OK, so holographic wasnt in my original list of audiophile approved words.  So sue me!  The fact is that this is also among the Sapphire IIIs considerable strengths.  First, as I said before, the laid back presentation takes the performance out of your lap.  It starts a couple feet behind the speakers and continues on back from there (of course, speaker placement has a lot to do with just how much depth you get, a pair placed against the wall will tend to "pancake" the presentation and foreshorten the depth of image).  When properly set up, the sound stage extends way beyond the boundaries imposed by the speakers physical location.  I started out with a placement that was as far apart as I could get them while maintaining a good centralized image.  The sound stage was so wide, it was like standing at the edge of the stage.  A guitar way off to the right, a piano way off to the left, it was dramatic, but unrealistic.   I wound up closing in the distance between the speakers, increasing the solidity of the center image and maintaining the "beyond the speakers boundaries" sound stage I was getting, albeit with a more believable image width.  Specificity was not quite up to the standards of some minis out there on complex orchestral passages, but it was still as good and better than most and this was more than fine by me.   Imaging was every bit as specific as one gets in the real world of live performances.

 

U2's 'Achtung Baby'"Value"

Maybe I should have gone into this first, as the ACIs are an incredible value.  $999/pr is just cheap for this kind of performance.   No, cheap doesnt cut it.  They are cheaper than cheap.  They are an amazing value.  After putting them side by side with my twice the price Sonus Faber Concertos (which were my refinement for the buck reference), the only thing I felt I lost was the aforementioned tiny bit of midrange detail.  What I got in return was a speaker that was about 3dB more efficient, a speaker that had a kinder impedance curve making it kinder and less selective of amps, a speaker that was more dynamic and could be used in much larger rooms than the Concerto could, and a speaker that was just this much closer to my ideal in tonal balance (in fact, I would call them about perfect in this regard).  Oh, and a speaker that my wife thinks is much better looking (that should count for something, no?).  And lest you think that these are just words, my Concertos are already gone, Ill be keeping the Sapphires.

Recording specific listening notes was difficult.   More than most speakers, these made it difficult to concentrate.   Concentration in this context means listening for specific things that the speakers did very well or very poorly to the music.  I consistently found myself just forgetting about the dissection process and enjoying the music.  But this morning I listened to James Horners "Braveheart" CD (London 448 295-2).  I already knew well the limitations of the bass, so I wasnt shocked that the huge drum whacks placed throughout the disc would not make my pant legs flap in the breeze.   But after that, I was just immersed in a huge sound field of beautiful melodies or the violent symphonic portrayal of battle.  Sound staging was wide, airy, deep, and fairly tall, actually, it was very tall for a small stand mounted speaker!  Track #3, "Wallace Courts Murron" provided the first successful completion of the "goose bump test".

ACI SapphireAs it happens, I did have ACIs "Quake" sub-woofer on hand for a separate review [here].   I could have inserted my Titan, and would have been slightly better off by doing so, but as I am reviewing the Quake, I thought I would just slum it a bit (very big grin!).  So I inserted it into the system.  After considerable adjusting, the sub blended in marvelously with the Sapphires (see separate review!). In my smallish listening room, I can tell you that it just doesnt get much better than this unless you are willing to part with some serious bucks and Im talking about the kind of bucks where, if you have to ask, you just cant afford it or the neighbors will think youre nuts for even considering it.  Even then, you are smacked right in the kisser by that demon of audio often referred to as "diminishing returns".  You may find the additional price just too hard to justify.

At this point, I left the sub in the system.  While the speakers do an admirable job with bass on their own, I would highly suggest that, one day, you add a good subwoofer.  They deserve it.

After Braveheart, I put on Cindi Laupers "True Colors" (RK 40313), once again- goose bumps.  Her voice was as immediate and intimate as Ive ever heard it.  Although I tried listening to it with the sub turned off, the disc was just more fun with the sub turned on.  While the speaker measured down to a pretty solid 40Hz, the more "techno" bass lines enjoyed the added measure of authority served up by the sub.  Imaging was terrific, lots of depth and space with instruments neatly laid out across a stage.  It sounded wonderful.   I even noticed a simple guitar line in "Change of Heart" that I had never noticed after all this time!

Then, onto U2s "Actung Baby" (Island 314-510-347-2).  I have mixed emotions when I report that there was no miracle here.   The Sapphires are a totally honest speaker and could not make this CD listenable!   Will U2 ever come out with a well recorded CD??

On to The Wallflowers "Bringing Down The Horse" (INTD-90055).  While I love the music, this recording too could do with a bit of cleaning up and the Sapphires let me know it.  But the music was visceral in its bass, and as exciting and involving as Ive ever heard it.  Imaging, again, was holographic (I could really use a synonym for that word right about now!).   The only time the slight lack if image specificity I mentioned earlier was in evidence was on full scale classical music.  Most Pop, Jazz and Rock imaged superbly and had a palpable presence.  The Sapphires can really bounce with the best of them too, the speaker/sub combo exhibited excellent rhythm and pace.

Last up was Dave Grusin and guests "West Side Story" (N2K-10021).  Track 4, "Maria" in particular sounded beautiful.   Starting with solo voice backed by piano, it was enchanting.  When the full orchestra kicks in the Sapphires move you with their portrayal of stirring emotion.   Again, goose bumps.  With the sub in the system, the piano was now in perfect balance from one end of the keyboard to the other.  Fantabulous!

 

The Wallflowers' 'Bringing Down The Horse'Summation and a word of warning!

Let me start summing things up with a word of strong warning.  Although the owners manual suggests (as do most) that you listen to the Sapphire IIIs with the grills removed, rather than such a mild mannered suggestion, there should be a big red flag warning you just how important it is to remove the grills for serious listening.  The effect of removing them is NOT subtle and needs to be viewed as mandatory.  For background listening, they sound fine with the grills in place, but upper midrange detail is lost and strings in particular loose that "lushness" that the speakers can otherwise provide.  Detail is also severally blurred and sound staging clues are confused.  On visitor in my home couldnt believe the difference this made.

I think by now I should have made myself rather clear in that I think the ACI Sapphire III speakers are a serious piece of work.  They are not just an excellent buy at $999, they are an excellent speaker, period.  Just today I got my Stereophile issue of recommended components.  It just so happens that two of their "Class B" speakers are either here or just went out my door.  Yep, the Concertos got a Class B recommendation and I just got in a pair of $2,549 PSB Stratus Golds which have been resting comfortably in Class B for some years now.  When mated with the Titan sub-woofer, the ACIs dont suffer in comparison one little bit.   Many would like the $1,800 ACI combination better (not that the PSBs dont do some interesting things too!).  Given that the average price for a Class B speaker is now $5,348, the $1,800 for the combo has to be seen as a heck of a deal.

In my book, for real world musical enjoyment and value, the Sapphire III is on my "A" list.

 

Good luck and listening,

1998.

 


More information about ACI products can be found at the Official ACI Web Site.

Audio Concepts Incorporated
901 South 4th Street
P.O. Box 212
La Crosse, WI 54601
Voice : 608-784-4570
Fax : 609-784-6367
E-mail:


Text John R. Potis Jr.; HTML SMR Home Theatre and Images SMR Home Theatre & ACI cannot be reproduced without permission.

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Last updated 02 June, 1998


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