Bound for Sound Review of Skiff

 

 

 

 

The Skiff Loudspeaker from Role Audio
by Marc Yun


"...the Skiff's full-range driver truly shines."


Bound for Sound Issue #154
http://www.boundforsound.com

 


Single-way compact loudspeaker. 3.5" magnetically shielded paper cone full-range driver.
Rated frequency response: 125Hz - 20kHz (-6dB). Impedance: 8 Ohms nominal (min. 6.5 Ohm). 
Efficiency: 88dB 1 watt/m. 
6" x 4" x 5", 3.51bs each. $495/pair in black satin finish; $595 in red birch.
 

 


Excerpts from review


"...placed on top of my TSM's one could have easily confused which speaker was playing."

"It has a strong sonic personality that imparts a lithe, sprightly quality on the music, yet all things considered it's surprisingly neutral and capable with a variety of music."

"The transparent character of the speakers draws the listener's ear into the sweetness and purity of the sounds in a way that can be captivating."

"In the critical midrange to lower treble area, the Skiff's full-range driver truly shines. It is crisply delineated yet silky smooth, with excellent articulation and resolution."

"As good as the Windjammer was with woodwind instruments like oboe, flute, or clarinet, the Skiff may just edge it out in sheer beauty of woodwind sound. I'm not sure it's necessarily a more accurate transducer in this respect than my reference Merlin TSM..."

"Holst planets (Montreal Symphony/Dutoit, London/Decca CD) showcased the Skiff's ability to hold it all together, even with demanding orchestral material ... In fact the Skiff always sounded ready to tackle the Holst, never sounding as if it was about to break into pieces as many small speakers do when taxed with such material."

"Overall I'd rate soundstaging and imaging abilities as similar to the Windjammer, and a little short of the TSM."

"I also found the Skiffs to be an excellent transducer to appreciate the strengths of the SACD format. Perhaps it's the lack of crossover and the attendant phase coherence in the midrange and treble, or the speaker's tolerance of out-of -band HF noise, or the benign and

predictable load the one-way design presents of simply the slightly forgiving tonal balance - whatever it is, SACD recordings sounded exceptionally good on the Skiffs."

"Mandelssohn's "Italian" Symphony on Sony Classical (Cleveland Orchestra/Szell) was one such recording that truly came alive. The plucky, joyous opening of the "Italian" was communicated with great color and energy; the second movement had wonderful sweetness and lyricism; and the speaker's articulation and sense of pace preserved the inexorable drama of the thrilling last movement. Upper frequencies, which can sometimes come across as thin or strident in these old Cleveland/Szell remasters were as smooth and beautiful as I've ever heard them. Violins were near-perfect tonally while woodwinds had a gorgeous roundness reminiscent of real live instruments. And while dynamics of the orchestra are a bit compressed in absolute terms, the Skiff still managed to convey the essence of dynamic contrasts, from pianissimo to fortissimo and everywhere in between. Rarely have I gotten so much musical satisfaction out of a recording as this one played on the Skiffs."

"Saint-Saens Cello Concerto performed by Peter Wispelwey (Channel Classics) was another SACD recording that sounded superb... The sound of the bow strokes against the strings, the sheen of the cello's A string, the beauty of Wispelwey's melodic passages are all vividly portrayed. And the woodwind sound...oooooh, oboe solos in the orchestral accompaniment have never been sweeter."

"Smooth low-frequency roll-off, with no noticeable response burps below the speaker's operating range, also means you can integrate it with a subwoofer without any sort of high-pass crossover - only a low-pass for the subwoofer is required."

"...placed on top of my TSM's one could have easily confused which speaker was playing."

"... treble is plenty crisp and clean, cymbals and triangles have a lovely shimmer and clarity that shames many metal dome tweeters I have heard."

"much like the Windjammers, I found the Skiffs to be a real joy at low listening levels, drawing the listener into a performance rather than shoving it in the listener's face."

"...I was impressed with the degree to which instruments timbres and spatial relationships were preserved and complex orchestrations were untangled."

"The Skiffs charm lies in its ability to communicate the essence of the music while drawing attention away from its limitations."

"The Skiff wound up being one of those unassuming products that grows on you, until one day you realize what a satisfying performer it really is ...The upper midrange smoothness and coherence in particular is something to behold..."


    Full review

     

    While wrapping up my review of the Role Audio Windjammer back in Issue #148, Role Audio chief Erol Ricketts mentioned to me his latest work, an interesting little speaker called the Skiff. Despite its simplicity and diminutive size, he was convinced it was his most accurate design yet and was anxious for me to give it a listen. I had listened to a couple "one-way" speakers in the past and been less than impressed, but given Erol's enthusiasm and my favorable impression of his Windjammers, I was 
    compelled to give it a listen.

    Description & Setup

    After receiving large crates of equipment for some months, it was a relief to take delivery of a pair of Skiffs neatly packaged in a box barely large enough to fit a pair of shoes. There's not a whole lot to this speaker - a sealed enclosure made of MDF, a 3.5" magnetically shielded paper cone driver, non-detachable grill cloth, oxygen-free copper internal wiring, and a pair of Superior brand nylon binding posts. My set had the optional red birch wood veneer on all sides, giving them the look of solid wood blocks. As with all of Erol's speakers, fit and finish is excellent.

    Initial break-in time wasn't terribly long (having no crossover components helps), though the sound continues to open up and mature even after several month of use. What took me a while was finding the right speaker cable. At first I had gotten only decent results with my usual "audiophile" brands - JPS Labs, Audience, Analysis Plus - until one day I tried them with my old modified Rega Brio integrated amp and cheap stranded speaker cable, both normally used to fulfill rear-channel duties in my surround sound setup. To my surprise, the sound of the Skiffs was far more alive and vibrant in this modest setup than in my Big Rig. At first I attributed it to synergy with the little Rega amp, but later experimentation yielded similarly good results with the cheapo speaker cable and my main amp (the excellent ME Sound 55011). Even (*gasp!*) MonsterCable XP seemed to work better than the Chile cables, which tended to strangle the life out of the Skiff. I settled on short lengths of Carol 
    Command "Studio Grade" 16 gauge wire, a "premium" silver-plated copper zip cord sold at stores like Home Depot and Ace Hardware.

    Another aspect of setting up the Skiffs is they are very tolerant to placement. Methinks this has to do with the limited bass response which makes boundary reinforcements less consequential, and the single-driver design which acts as a point source at most frequencies and doesn't suffer from the position-dependent phase and frequency response irregularities of multi-driver systems. Imaging is still best with the speakers away from wails and positioned symmetrically about the listening position; but 
    you can still place them on bookshelves, tables, window sills, etc. and get surprisingly satisfying results. At one point I had the Skiffs positioned irregularly against the wall near the corners of my apartment and still got a pretty credible soundstage with good center fill. The only serious limitation is that the 3.5" cone will tend to beam in the top couple octaves, so for best imaging and high frequency response it's necessary to be listening on-axis; thus I kept the speakers pointed directly at the listening 
    position for critical listening. As I lacked proper-height stands for the tiny Skiffs, they wound up spending most of their time on top of my stand-mounted Merlin TSM monitors - admittedly not ideal, but it seemed to work well enough.

    Breaking Down The Sound of a One-Way

    Starting with the bass... Frequency response is rated down to only 125Hz, but the relatively slow roll-off of the acoustic suspension design means there's meaningful output for at least a half octave down (88Hz) or so. So while low frequencies are significantly attenuated, there's just enough sense of foundation to keep most music from thinning out too much. You can also reinforce the bass a bit by placing the speakers closer to a wall, making low notes slightly more audible. Still, without a subwoofer, I wouldn't recommend the Skiff for serious pop or rock listening... subtle acoustic fare is much more in its vein.

    Smooth low-frequency roll-off, with no noticeable response burps below the speaker's operating range, also means you can integrate it with a subwoofer without any sort of high-pass crossover - only a low-Pass for the subwoofer is required. The trick is getting a subwoofer that's clean enough to work with a high crossover point; in my system, my trusty ACI Titan did an admirable job as always. Setting the Titan's two crossover points around 100Hz and 140Hz resulted in smooth integration with only a hint of discontinuity in the crossover region.

    Moving on to the upper bass and lower midrange, resolution and body fall short of the Merlin TSM or Role Windjammer, both of which convey a greater sense of texture and weight. Yet there is surprising fullness to instruments such as cello, French horn, and trombone - tonally they are basically right, even if their body and scale is a bit shrunken, and I had no problem making out the distinct timbre of lower string and brass instruments. I did sense a bit of lower-midrange nasality, and a timpani note or cello pluck here and there will elicit a "thud" from the speaker (probably some cabinet/driver resonance in the 150Hz area), but it's reasonably well-controlled and doesn't intrude on the music excessively. All in all, performance in this regard was far better than I was expecting from such a small driver and enclosure.

    In the critical midrange to lower treble area, the Skiff's full-range driver truly shines. It is crisply delineated yet silky smooth, with excellent articulation and resolution. As good as the Windjammer was with woodwind instruments like oboe, flute, or clarinet, the Skiff may just edge it out in sheer beauty of woodwind sound. I'm not sure it's necessarily a more accurate transducer in this respect than my reference Merlin TSM - the TSM is clearly more resolving overall - but it could be a case of complementary colorations creating a more "realistic" final product, at least in my system. Tones are pure and pristine, with just a bit of emphasis on the fundamental over the delicate harmonics above. I sensed some tilting-down of the upper midrange/lower treble which is bit forgiving of things like tape hiss and sibilance (not to mention bright upstream components), and may also reduce air and ambience a tad, but concomitant loss of musical detail is minimal.

    In the last couple octaves (5-20kHz), the paper cone can't trace waveforms as quickly as a low-mass tweeter such as the soft domes in the TSM or Windjammer. Resolution drops off gradually above 5 kHz, with some loss of air and energy in the highest reaches. Nevertheless, treble is still plenty crisp and clean, cymbals and triangles having lovely shimmer and Clarity that shames many metal dome tweeters I've heard. What it lacks in ultimate resolution and extension it makes up for with its 
    near-perfect integration with the rest of the frequency spectrum - with no crossover to muck things up, it's smooth sailing from the midrange on up. Break-up modes can be a problem with a full-range cone, but I had a hard time hearing significant ill effects at normal to moderate volume levels. Pushed hard enough though, some hardness and congestion in the upper midrange will kick in... thus the speaker is better suited to moderate volume levels in average-size to smallish rooms.

    The Skiff's soundstaging perspective reminded me of the Windjammer- mid-hall, perhaps a tad laid back, with stage dimensions slightly on the compact side. It does a great job of disappearing sonically in the room, no doubt due to its compact dimensions and excellent dispersion at most frequencies - placed on top of my TSM's one could have easily confused which speaker was playing. Beaming of the full-range driver at high frequencies does tend to make the soundstage close up off-axis however. Stage width is very good, but there is some reduction in air and ambience which compromises perceived stage depth and placement precision. In that regard it's not quite up to the standards of the laser-like TSM, which is better able to resolve sounds as well as silences on a deeper stage. The Skiff sounds more congested, but images are nevertheless well-focused, with a good sense of the relative placement of instruments and voices. Overall I'd rate soundstaging and imaging abilities as similar to the Windjammer, and a little short of the TSM.

    Musical Impressions

    The Skiff's charm lies in its ability to communicate the essence of the music while drawing attention away from its limitations. It has a strong sonic personality that imparts a lithe, sprightly quality on the music, yet all things considered it's surprisingly neutral and capable with a variety of music. The transparent character of the speaker draws the listener's ear into the sweetness and purity of the sounds in a way that can be captivating. And much like the sibling Windjammers, I found the Skiffs to be a real joy at low listening levels, drawing the listener into a performance rather than shoving it in the listener's face.

    Hoist Planets (Montreal Symphony/Dutoit, London/ Decca CD) showcased the Skiff's ability to hold it all together, even with demanding orchestral material. While overall presentation was a tad more congested than with the larger Windjammers or Merlin TSMs, I was impressed with the degree to which instrument timbres and spatial relationships were preserved and complex orchestrations were untangled. In particular the open quality of the upper midrange gave the music a sparkling clarity 
    that distracts the ear from the fact that the bottom few octaves are MIA. In fact the Skiff always sounded ready and able to tackle the Holst, never sounding as if it was about to break into pieces as many small speakers do when taxed with such material.

    I also found the Skiffs to be an excellent transducer to appreciate the strengths of the SACD format. Perhaps it's the lack of crossover and the attendant phase coherence in the midrange and treble, or the speaker's tolerance of out-of-band HF noise, or the benign and predictable load the one-way design presents, or simply the slightly forgiving tonal balance - whatever it is, SACD recordings sounded exceptionally good on the Skiffs. Mendelssohn's "Italian" Symphony on Sony Classical (Cleveland 
    Orchestra/Szell) was one such recording that truly came alive. The plucky, joyous opening of the "Italian" was communicated with great color and energy; the second movement had wonderful sweetness and Iyricism; and the speaker's articulation and sense of pace preserved the inexorable drama of the thrilling last movement. Upper frequencies, which can sometimes come across as thin or strident in these old Cleveland/ Szell remasters, were as smooth and beautiful as I've ever heard them. Violins were near-perfect tonally while woodwinds had a gorgeous roundness reminiscent of the real live instruments. And while dynamics of the orchestra are a bit compressed in absolute terms, the Skiff still managed to convey the essence of dynamic contrasts, from pianissimo to fortissimo and everywhere in between. Rarely have I gotten so much musical satisfaction out of a recording as this one played on the Skiffs.

    Saint-Saens Cello Concerto performed by Pieter Wispelwey (Channel Classics) was another SACD recording that sounded superb. Though the growl of the cello's lowest registers come across a little weakly on the Skiffs, once your ear has adjusted to the lighter tonal balance, the deficiency never really bothers you. It's the harmonic completeness and tonal rightness of the instrument, not any lack of bass, which grabs your attention. The sound of the bow strokes against the strings, the sheen of the cello's A string, the beauty of Wispelwey's melodic passages are all vividly portrayed. And that woodwind sound... oooooh, oboe solos in the orchestral accompaniment have never been sweeter.

    Switching gears to jazz and pop vocals, the depth of Ella Fitzgerald's voice in Ella and Louis (Verve SACD) was thinned out just a tad, but her upper registers were sublime in their silky warmth. Louis Armstrong's trumpet didn't lose a bit of bite or edge. New Zealand pop singer Bic Runga's voice didn't quite have the same in-your-face, "live mic feed" quality as on the TSM, but it was transparent and pure with a little more body and less sibilance. Male vocals fared less well, baritone and bass 
    ranges sounding a little wooden and closed-in. It's clearly a weak point in the speaker's design... with a simple speaker like this you have to pick your poisons. Erol chose a smallish driver that would be capable at high frequencies, and I believe the trade-off he made was a worthy one.

    Conclusion

    The Skiff wound up being one of those unassuming products that grows on you, until one day you realize what a satisfying performer it really is. I initially thought $500 seemed a little steep for a single-driver mini speaker, but I can't think of many speakers anywhere near its price or size that can rival (much less best) it in certain areas of reproduction. The upper midrange smoothness and coherence in particular is something to behold, and in the context of the right system, music, and listener, the speaker's strengths well outweigh its weaknesses. It also integrates well with a quality subwoofer like the ACI Titan, yielding a full-range system with considerably more body, weight, and dynamics. Depending on your listening tastes, you may find a subwoofer to be either a nicety or necessity.

    Even if the Skiff's limitations rule it out as a "Big Rig" speaker for you, it's at least worthy of consideration in a second system, perhaps for a bedroom, office, or video/ computer setup. The small size, magnetic shielding, easy interfacing requirements (amp/cable), and flexibility of placement make it a dream for the audiophile with "lifestyle"-type applications. Wall-mounted, ceiling-mounted, in a bookshelf disguised as bookends - I could even see five of these little guys plus a good subwoofer making a quality compact multi-channel system that would positively embarrass those satellite/subwoofer "home theater" systems from the mass-fi manufacturers. The Skiff is one versatile, and fine little speaker that I highly recommend giving a listen.

     


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