Bound for Sound
ROLE AUDIO WINDJAMMER
by Marc Yun
"The Windjammers ... are my speakers to beat at the price point."
"In the highest treble, cymbals and triangles have lovely shimmer without splasshiness... very nice indeed. Integration from top to bottom is exceptional--the sound is woven of a single fabric."
"The sound is full, natural, and seamless."
"The carbon-fiber woofer is a gem, and the tweeter struck me as being almost the equal of the vaunted Morel unit in the Merlin."
"The Windjammers ... are my speakers to beat at the price point.... the Windjammers even give the mighty TSM's a run for their money in terms of articulation. The TSM picks up more air and fine detail ...Yet the Windjammers often have incredible texturing, as if the upper midrange were just that much quicker and more resolving... it draws the listener into the beauty of the individual sounds."
"The 'Jammers' alluring combination of articulation and tonal completeness ...can enchant the listener."
"Imaging and soundstaging are first rate in the tradition of the best mini-monitors."
"The Windjammers ... are my speakers to beat at the price point."
Role Audio, PO 13396, Research Triangle Park NC 27709-3396; 919-399-0477; http://www.roleaudio.com; 2-way, floor-standing transmission line speakers. 4.5" carbon fiber woofer, 1" soft down tweeter,first order order crossover. All drivers magnetically shielded. Rated frequency response: 35Hz - 20kHz (-6dB). Impedance 8 ohms (min. 9 ohm). Efficiency 86dB 1 watt/m. Dimensions: 37" x 5.5" x 6", 22 1bs. each. [$1395/pair] in black satin, optional finishes extra.
The idea of compact floor-standing speakers has always appealed to me - fuller frequency response than a mini-monitor, no stand to futz with, similar footprint. But finding a floor-stander for around a grand that didn't stink sonically has always been a challenge. Some exceptions over the years that come to mind are the Unity Audio CLA-3 and Meadowlark Kestrel (recently replaced by the Swift). But for the most part, mini-monitors have been the undisputed king of the affordable speaker arena. What this world needs is a really good $1,000 floor standing loudspeaker.
NSM Audio became known in the early '90s for their tiny mini-monitors, the Model 5 and Model 10. Marty reviewed the Model 10 favorably way back in '93, and the top-of-the-line 10S has earned a reputation for excellent sound over the years. In 1998, NSM head Erol Ricketts spun off a new company called Role Audio. Sporting the slogan "For The Rhythms of Life," Role's product line is clearly descended from the original NSM family but with some new design touches. The Windjammers a slim little floor-stander, second in the Role Audio line to the larger Enterprise. Though it's a transmission line, there is no folded cavity inside; the height of the cabinet makes up the total length of the line. ln combination with a short port, the result is quarter wavelength tuning around the 4.5" woofer's resonant frequency. My pair came in basic black satin and fit tidily into my cramped NYC apartment. Could this be the self-standing savior that I sought?
Love at First Listen, or Maybe Not
Connected to the ME 550 amp, the Windjammers initially struck me as being voiced very much like an old pair of NSM 10S's l have, a pleasant speaker that didn't quite have the edge and bite to get my juices flowing. After my Merlin TSM - ACI Titan LE subwoofer rig, the 'Jammers were on the soft and mellow side while lacking some life. Bass had reasonable body for a small speaker but not much power or extension. In general, the sound was nice, but not a match for the up-front vividness of the TSM. With time though, bass extension and impact improved markedly, and switching from the ME amp to Blue Circle Music Pumps gave a welcome boost in openness and upper midrange energy. After a couple hundred hours of playing time, things really started to click.
This is More like it...
Once broken in, the sound is full, natural, and seamless. The close placement of woofer and tweeter does a good job of approximating a point source-dispersion and coherence are excellent.The 'Jammers' imaging benefits from sitting in the sweet spot, but the tonally quality changes little if you stand up, walk around, or go to another room even. l liked that I could space the speakers quite widely and not lose center fill much. Toe-in was also very flexible, allowing for plenty of playing around without mucking things up. In keeping with the "lifestyle" theme of Role Audio, the 'Jammers are a breeze to set up. What a relief from the usually twitchy placement most neurotic 'philes have to contend with.
This is not to say these are muzak speakers. The 'Jammers are relaxed and warm to the casual observer, but articulate and focused upon closer inspection. The warmth sometimes comes with some lower-midrange congestion, making them sound a little closed-in (a trait exposed by some recordings more than others), but not excessively so. And the smoothness doesn't come at the cost of musical detail. . . things just aren't being thrown in your face. The Merlin TSM will air out an instrument's textures and timbre with greater resolution, but the 'Jammers never sound slow or veiled -there's just a little more emphasis on the fundamentals than the harmonics.
In a similar vein, the 'Jammers are more forgiving of upstream components and recording quality than the TSM; the more laid-back tonal balance should make it a good match for lower priced solid state gear.That said, I wouldn't hesitate to throw an $8k amp/preamp combo in front of it either- its resolution is good enough to benefit.
Actually, it was the little Music Pump amps that could really steal my heart with this speaker, particularly with smaller-scale music. The otherwise excellent ME 550 amp didn't quite have the organic micro-dynamic contrasts of the Pumps, making it sound a bit flat by comparison. Anyway, methinks an amp on the forward-sounding side best balances out this speaker.
The speaker doesn't sound big, but it's not the slightest bit weak or tinny sounding. It's not particularly efficient and doesn't move a lot of air so it's best suited to small rooms, but it plays cleanly right up to its limits and overloads very gracefully without sounding like it's about to break to pieces. Macro dynamics are restrained in absolute terms, but the speaker does the job of suggesting the dynamics to you, if not actually playing them outright.
Even with the transmission line, the bass from the 'Jammer' isn't going to make you throw your subwoofer away. What it does is give the speaker just enough fullness and extension to support a flat frequency response through the treble, without sounding thin or tilted-up or resorting to some boomy resonance that passes for "bass." It's quite deceptive, as it never calls attention to itself, except when the music demands sound surprisingly deep and vibrant. While the body of a cello is not fully represented (a 4.5"woofer can only do so much), it still has a rightness of tone that captures much of the nuance of the instrument. French horns have a pleasing bloom that never goes overboard, while trumpets have near-perfect balance of edge and body. In the highest treble, cymbals and triangles have lovely shimmer without splashiness... very nice indeed. Integration from top to bottom is exceptional -the sound is woven of a single fabric.
Imaging and soundstaging are first-rate in the tradition of the best mini-monitors. It doesn't scale and air out the stage as well as the TSM, but it's consistent in depth from left to right and can stretch beyond the lateral bounds of the speakers. Focus in front center is superb; toward the rear it is just slightly hazy, but there is always a meaty, palpable feel to instruments in the back of an orchestra.
Female vocals are spot-on - beautiful articulation and clarity, almost indistinguishable in quality from the TSM. Male voices have a bit of "chestiness," but only in comparison to the super-clean Merlins. Did I say female vocals sound incredible? Nora Jones in "Come Away With Me" was captivating, while "Ella and Louis" on SACD had goose bumps crawling up my back a minute or two into Moonlight in Vermont. Okay, so it's hard not to get goose bumps when listening to Ella, but the volume level was very moderate and I was listening very casually. The 'Jammers' alluring combination of articulation and tonal completeness, particularly at lower volume levels, can enchant the listener.
At times, the Windjammers even give the mighty TSMs a run for their money in terms of articulation. The TSM picks up more air and fine detail, particularly with regards to untangling bunches of voices and instruments. Yet the Windjammer often has incredible texturing, as if the upper midrange were just that much quicker and more resolving . . . it draws the listener into the beauty of the individual sounds. It could be the little carbon fiber woofer really tracing out the waveforms in the critical 2-3kHz range, where the larger woofer of the TSM is approaching its upper frequency limits. In Tuba Mirum from Mozart's Requiem, the 'Jammer beautifully captures the breathy texture of both the solo tuba and tenor voice. Where the TSM is clearly superior is with dense orchestrations or choirs, where the 'Jammer sounds a little congested by comparison; the TSM moves more air and renders large scale better.
What's not to like? There's some slight cabinet resonance in the lower midrange/upper bass that seems responsible for the slightly chesty and closed-in quality sometimes heard. I do get the sensation that notes around middle C tend to toot a little more strongly than those above and below, adding a slight general congestion to the sound. I found I was able to adjust myself to the mellower nature of the speaker, but it will probably be too subdued for some ears and musical tastes. The speaker's plank needs to be enlarged slightly, as it isn't quite wide enough to give stable footing even with the supplied spikes. I also didn't like the thick metal binding posts in the back, and the full-length fabric grill did not fit on my speakers. (Erol informed me both these issues were fixed in later production units). Fit and finish are otherwise excellent.
Perhaps the strongest case I can make for the Windjammer is that after listening to my reference Merlin/ACI monitor/sub combo I never felt that the Windjammers were a significant downgrade musically. Sure, in absolute terms the Merlin/ ACI system is superior, but when operated within their limits the 'Jammers often seemed just as musically satisfying. When you consider that the Windjammer was operating without the benefit of a subwoofer and doesn't require stands, it starts to look like an even bigger value.
As good as the old NSM 10S was, I think Erol has hit the jackpot with this speaker. He certainly has done his homework picking the drivers -the carbon-fiber woofer is a gem, and the tweeter struck me as being almost the equal of the vaunted Morel unit in the Merlin. The Windjammers are a welcome alternative to the similarly priced mini-monitors out there, and are my speakers to beat at the price point.