Acoustic Preference Gracioso 1.0 Monitor Speakers
European Walnut: 7,600 Euros/pair
American Walnut: 8,200 Euros/pair
Stands: 1,080 Euros/pair
The Gracioso 1.0 speaker is a two-way stand mount speaker from Acoustic Preference based in Slovejina EU. That’s right – Slovenia! Acoustic Preference started in 2001 as a manufacturing company and has since created what they say is a top quality speaker that will satisfy the highest demands. According to General Manager Marjan Tancer, "The goal behind the company is, to create acoustic components that combine natural sound and offer great delight when listening to music on every occasion. Acoustic Preference wants to present their clients with durability and a feeling of prestige and excellence.
They started by attempting to create an acoustically inert enclosure through high end materials that are both highly functional and aesthetically pleasing. An enclosure that lacks coloration has consistently been a common theme among great sounding speakers. Merlin speakers use special brass braces, Aerial Acoustics uses heavy internal bracing, Green Mountain Audio uses cast marble, and Wilson Audio uses their X material just to name a few.
About 15 years ago, my fiancé came to visit me in my apartment. She opens the door to find me stirring cement in a 5 gallon bucket with a big stick in the middle of the living room carpet. After some hesitation in the doorway she quips, “What are you doing?”. I look up with the optimistic enthusiasm of a child; “I'm making Speakers!”. She turned and left only coming back after my task was somewhat finished. Even though one of the forms started to lose integrity and slant while curing, the speakers sounded excellent. I have since been a believer in acoustically inert cabinets. When moving to a house, the speakers were too heavy to move and were gutted for their parts even though the lesson lives on.
In order to achieve an acoustically inert cabinet, Acoustic Preference uses many thick pieces of Walnut cut in such a way that the grains criss-cross. They could have used some of the materials above but they wanted to achieve their goals with something natural and beautiful. The multiple walnut segments are preliminary measured, controlled, and assembled for optimal self cancellation of resonances. They are sanded extremely smooth and finished with wax. Additionally, they are able to shape the front with a very large roundover in order to reduce baffle diffraction and enhance imaging.
The cabinets are shaped for the best sonics. The large roundover on the front combined with the sides that taper to the rear look like a teardrop from above. The shape is meant to control internal standing waves and resonances. It also happens to look great. The wood blocks that comprise the sides are perfectly beveled giving them a bit of a nautical look. The materials and workmanship are heirloom quality with a natural sheen that shuns the super shiny speakers we see so often today. Pictures do not do the exquisite craftsmanship of these cabinets justice.
The Gracioso line from Acoustic Preference has optional matching stands that were also delivered for the review. They use the same quality materials and put the tweeter at about 38” high; just right for my listening position.
The stands come with three built in decoupling spikes for the speaker and three more for the base of the stand. The spikes are built such that nothing pointy touches the floor or the speaker; a lucky side effect as the spikes were said to have been chosen for their acoustic properties. Even without real carpet spikes, the stands stood firm and stable on my questionable and problematic listening room carpeting.
Given the high quality cabinet design, they chose to use very high end drivers from Morel. The 6” woofer and matched 28mm silk dome tweeter both come from Morel's Elite series. The large hexatech aluminum voice coils are said to both raise power handling as well as increase the attack of the drivers. Having heard speakers using these drivers and also built some of my own using them, I understand the benefits and characteristics of the drivers and why the cost is so high.
The smooth drivers and high power handling capabilities allowed the Gracioso line to use a simple 12db/octave Linqwitz Riley crossover. The crossovers are comprised of Mundorf air foil coils, and Mundorf high end audio MKP capacitors matched to a very close 0.5% tolerance. These qualities are hallmarks of a very high-end speaker since the parts are top rate and the critical, careful matching takes much time and effort.
The crossover board is treated to be non-resonant and is wired to bi-wire capable WBT connectors through solid teflon insulated silver wire from Homegrownaudio in the USA. How many speakers do you know that employ real silver wires!
Taking the quest for non-resonance further, the circuit boards use extra thick 2x 2,4mm/70 Cu/ Silver reinforced and extra rigid FR-4 board material, additionally dampened with proprietary 10mm thick layer of rubber on the copper side. The crossover components are carefully bolted and glued to the PCB which is then bolted to the enclosure making it virtually a part of the non-resonant enclosure.
The attractive grills are held on with tiny strong magnets but it was clear that listening should be done without the grills. With the grills on, a game of “pin the tail on the tweeter” was all too easy as the speakers no longer disappeared.
The speakers and stands arrived in larger, heftier boxes than expected. A few quick turns and the so called spikes were installed on the stands. The speakers were placed facing each other connected out of phase for initial breaking in. Further break in occurred in an auxiliary system that serves mostly for background music for another week. The speakers were finally placed in the listening room after about 100 hours of play time but continued to break in throughout the review period.
Getting new speakers to sound right when first placed in a room can sometimes be daunting. That wasn't the case with the Gracioso speakers. They were easy to place as long as I towed them in to avoid sound reflections off the side walls in my small listening room. Out of curiosity, I moved one around, then the other, etc, and each time a constant stable image was still there. The only tweak was getting the distance to the rear and side walls for the best bass and imaging but the best sound in my room was with them nearly four feet out from the back wall and nearly an equilateral triangle with the listening position. The speakers were slightly closer together than they were from the best listening spot. The rear port actually helped augment the bass as the best imaging was found where the best bass was found; just over three feet out from the rear wall.
During this process it was clear that rounding the front baffle to control diffraction of the sound off the face was helping. I could move my head around, bop it side to side, etc, and the sound and image was stable. This is good news as a speaker whose sound changes abruptly as I move my head is a pet peeve of mine. One of my criteria for a good speaker is being able to bob your head around without abrupt changes in the sound.
Most of the listening was using my Hephaestus monoblocks fed by the preamp of a Bryston B100, a Lite Audio DAC AM modified by Pacific Valve, and a Pioneer Elite DV47a CD transport.
So How Do They Sound?
Sitting down to listen immediately reminded me of the Merlin TSM speakers. There was just something about them that was similar enough that the Merlin speakers popped into my mind. They both share a sense of energy and attack combined with a smooth frequency response balance in addition to properly tuned neutral bass.
Further investigation revealed that the drivers all come from the same company, have similar crossover points and topologies, and both have rather inert cabinets. The Gracioso 1.0 speakers likely have an edge here with a more rounded front baffle and use the Elite series Morel drivers which is theoretically a step up.
The Gracioso's do not wow the listener at first, but continually captivate the listener garnering more favor as time passes. Several veteran audiophile friends came over during the review period and each was quiet until after about three or so songs - very unusual behavior. Usually they will offer and opinion or comment right away, but these speakers have a way of captivating you and drawing you in, but not because of gimmicky, hyper-audiophile qualities. There is no initial "wow" factor like the first time you see the Las Vegas strip. They are exceedingly smooth, have surprisingly good bass for a 6.5” woofer, and have a very open and natural sound. The music is able to come through in a clean powerful moving manner. This is the kind of speaker that one could own and listen to for a long time.
Just a tip, if a speakers “wows” you right away, do not purchase it until you have had a chance to listen for extended periods, perhaps as long as your longest listening session is likely to be. More often than not, a speaker that gives you that wow factor will become fatiguing after 30 minutes or so. You ears won’t feel tired and your eyes might not be dripping blood, but you will just feel like you don’t want to listen anymore and go do something else. That’s ear fatigue. You should be able to listen for hours without the feeling that you’d rather be walking the dog or mowing the lawn…
The Acoustic Preference Gracioso 1.0 speakers image fabulously, likely their strongest area of many very strong areas of performance. I am a sucker for speakers that can present a realistic soundstage and take me into the performance. If a speaker cannot do this, I will dismiss it.
Instruments are easily placed within the soundfield as well as off stage. This review overlapped with a review of my Hephas (Hephaestus Audio class D monoblocks) as well as an upcoming review of the a Xindak tube preamp. The difference in soundstage depth between the Bryston 2B SST and the Hephas was very easy to hear. This is an indicator that the speakers will likely not be the limiting factor for imaging. Furthermore, the difference between the preamp section of the Bryston B100 SST and the Xindak tube preamp was also quite clear. I will leave most differences for the review but one preamp would flatten the soundstage to the point where one could not hear the true abilities of the speakers. This emphasizes the concept that people should start with the best speakers possible that work with their room and only then find electronics that match them well. It also illustrates how revealing the Gracioso's are.
This is a quote from my review of the Hephas but since it was also playing through the Gracioso speakers, it fits here too. Melody Gardot's, “Worrisome Heart” sounded impressive. The air and sense of space from the recording was rendered beautifully. The vibrato in her voice was more noticeable than I have noticed as well as the breaths she took in between the verses. In “All That I Need Is Love” on the same album, the notes in her voice rise up and down with lots of emotion. Through the Hephas, the speedy rise in her voice is captured perfectly preserving the feeling of the recording. One could easily make out the drums being hit with brushes and the cymbals sounded just right. Melody Gardot was placed up front and center with the instruments and drums clearly giving her the stage. When I came back to listen and double check my notes, I found myself just sitting and listening through half the album when I should have been joining my family for dinner. It took a three foot tall person with a big smile to come in and pull me away from it. Just the opposite of the “wow” factor above.
Bass from a 6.5” Woofer?
Once correctly set up in the room, the speakers provided surprisingly strong and accurate bass for a 6.5” woofer.
Here’s a Dirty Little Secret you may or may not have heard before, but many who produce monitors with limited bass have a tendency to boost the bass a bit just before the speaker stops reproducing the deeper bass. They attempt to fool the ear into believing the bass goes lower than it really does. My own DIY reference monitors do that. The Gracioso's do not engage in foolery and had a more neutral bass characteristic that would subtly go much deeper than expected.
During this review period, I saw John McLaughlin with Chick Corea and Christian McBride at the Berkley performance center. I picked up the CD of an earlier recording of the same performance from “Five Peace Band”. The song “Raju” brought me right back to the performance. This song has a larger amount of nicely recorded bass that is seemingly boosted but is actually how it was played live.
When listening to Raju over the Gracioso's I kept catching myself thinking “where's the subwoofer?” as they reproduced surprisingly deep and powerful bass. Additionally, I was more surprised by how accurate the bass was and found this the most impressive part of it's bass performance. The recording itself has the prodigious bass and the speakers were able to reproduce it accurately. If this were a speaker that boosted the lower bass slightly like others do, the effect may have come across boomy but the neutrality of the Gracioso was a pleasant and welcome characteristic.
We at Stereomojo do not measure speakers until after listening and final impressions are done. The measurements later showed what I was hearing. The bass starts to roll off around 60Hz but actually only rolls off very slowly and they still have usable bass all the way down at 40Hz, after which it drops like a rock. There are many tower speakers with bigger woofers that do not go much if any lower than 40Hz and most not as accurately. The 6.5 incher behaved like a much larger woofer in a sealed enclosure. I thought “aha!” and actually re-tuned my own reference monitors in an effort to mimic the Acoustic Preference bass tuning.
Can They Rock?
While listening to the aforementioned “Five Peace Band” recording I noticed that both of my reference speakers would start to compress at the high levels I would play this release at. The monitors use a 5” SEAS metal cone woofer and a SEAS 27TDFC tweeter with a second order crossover and notch filter. The full range speakers are an open baffle three way speaker using GR Research woofers and a B&G planar ribbon tweeter. The Gracioso 1.0 speakers were more free from compression in the treble than either of these speakers and the Gracioso's Elite series Morel woofer outperformed the smaller SEAS metal cone woofer which would start to bottom a little earlier.
The last time I heard the Merlin speakers, Bobby Palkovic played “Postcards From Paraguay” from Mark Knopfler's Shangri La on CD. I remember how accurate his VSM's were and how well it reproduced Mark Knopfler's vibrato when he sang “From Paraguay” later in the song. Remembering how the Gracioso's reminded me of the TSM's, I had to listen to this CD and it was reproduced as good if not better albeit less deep. It was both very accurate and very enjoyable. Later I found my wife listening to this CD when I got home from work and she commented on how well the air was reproduced and how well “Boom, Like That” rocked with a sense of power and funk.
I've been enjoying another CD lately that seems to cross the borders between jazz and rock. “Catching Takes” from Jamie Cullum on CD straddles the lines between audiophile music and fun music to which the rest of us listen. It's relatively well recorded with good bass and seemingly uncompressed, but the highs are always a little edgy. Either way, the music is entertaining.
Once I was listening to this CD and decided to shower before my wife and kids got home. The listening room is on a different floor so I left the music playing at a moderately high level. I still couldn't hear it over the shower and forgot that it was playing. While I was in the shower there were all sorts of bumps and thumps as if my family had come home and my young boys were rough-housing inside the house. I hurried my shower in an effort to put a stop to the wrestling. When I got out, I realized I was still alone and it was hard-hitting, accurate bass from the Gracioso's and Jamie Cullum.
The Acoustic Preference Gracioso's are very much at home playing classical music. Many speakers are not designed well enough to be able to do such divergent genres as rock and classical equally as adroitly. These image great placing instruments where they should be but also have a huge sense of detail without being in your face or annoying. The excellent midrange will be a plus to those who want to clearly hear the difference between a violin and a viola for example. Hmm. Earlier I said that imaging may be the Gracioso's strongest quality, but perhaps it's the midrange. I think I have to say this is the best midrange I have had the privilege of hearing in my home. Again, this speaker's qualities sneak up on you and seduce you. There's an addictive quality that's almost spooky. I actually found myself thinking about them at work and looking forward to spending time with them later that night.
Joshua Bell's “Violin Favourites & Virtuoso Showpieces” gets a lot of play in our home. It's mostly violin accompanied by a piano in the background and highlights involving music from Kreisler, Brahms, Paganini, Sarasate, and Wieniawski. The music was faithfully reproduced and quite enjoyable through the Gracioso's I was listening to “Liebesfreud” and “Liebesleid” from the second CD in the set and noticed something I had never heard before; somebody taking deep breaths here and there in the recording. I had never heard that before but once I did, it wasn't all that subtle.
Hearing new things in a recording can mean either good or bad things. In this case it was a good thing as it was just a function of the high resolution nature of the speakers. In some cases, people hear new things because the frequency in that range is emphasized and unnatural but these speakers are smooth enough to not be the case here.
I've been enjoying the Delos recordings a lot the past few years. It's a great way to find new music that you may like and they usually sound great. I plopped “Second Stage”, “The Symphonic Sound Stage, Vol 2” into my transport for both enjoyment and testing purposes.
One of the songs I always have to pay attention through is “Fireworks” by Stravinsky. The sense of space and placement of instruments was first rate as was the attack when the music would burst into energy from near silence. These speaker was able to reproduce the full scale orchestra even catching much of the bottom end of the spectrum. It wasn't the same as a true full range speaker and lacked the ultimate authority that a huge speaker or a subwoofer would provide yet it did a surprisingly good job considering it's size. I can't think of a speaker this size that could outperform these in terms of bass.
Input From Others
Arturo loves to come by and hear what's new. He has a great ear and picks up on things quickly. I am paraphrasing here from memory as I did not get a written form of his listening impressions.
“These speakers seemed hum-drum at first but after just a few songs I really liked them”
“I find the look a little forced and over the top”
“These are really good speakers. I could listen to them all day.”
“They image so amazingly well”
“The best sound I have ever heard in your listening room”
As if to add credence to the addictive powers I alluded to before, Arturo told me several days later, "I can't stop thinking about those speakers. I absolutely loved them!"
I met John at a DIY speaker event years ago and found that he also picks up on things very quickly. His main strength is picking up subtleties in the midrange and bass. He is frugal like myself but is also very picky. Here are direct quotes from him:
“My first impression of them was that they were a "man" design. Very solid and rugged looking with a dark walnut finish.
My first sound impression was "Good transients! Nice imaging! I could listening to these all day."
I respected them, but I couldn't buy them for $11K.”
I should note here that he guessed that the price of these speakers was $6,000 US dollars but the current value of the dollar pushes them to just over $10,000. This will change and fluctuate as their price is based on the Euro. But then John was not aware of all the intricate, detailed work that went into the elimination of resonances and close tolerance matching of the internal components among other things that are not cheap.
All measurements were taken in a semi treated room using a Smith and Larson Audio WooferTester Pro. The speakers were 1 meter away and on the tweeter axis for the frequency response, impulse, and CSD plots. They measured much better without the grills which was in line with what we heard so all measurements were done with the grills off. A protractor and laser level were used to ensure the measurement angles were precise. The response plots were performed on a 10db scale in order to be in line with what is typically done in the industry.
In Summary, the speakers measured fairly well. There were no obvious frequency response issues other than the limited low end bass and a small dip around 4.5Khz. One thing to note is that I also do a test where I just move the microphone around and watch the response for major fluctuations. The Gracioso's performed very well here with the on and off axis response smoothly changing with no abrupt aberrations. I found that speakers that perform this way tend to have a more natural sense to them, image better, and are easier to place.
The on axis frequency response and phase show a relatively neutral speaker. The dip around 100Hz is a function of the room. I later took the speakers outside to measure and the dip was gone. I wanted to be sure. There was one small flaw here that nobody picked up on which is a dip around 4.5Khz. Note how the phase has a little glitch around that same spot. This could be improved with some better woofer to tweeter integration yet it may be part of why people found them so easy to listen to. The phase is pretty linear and looks typical of a second order system.
At 15 degrees off axis, the response is nearly identical with only minor variations and a slight drop off starting around 5Khz. Off axis is in yellow.
At 30 degrees off axis, the shape of the response is relatively in tact with just a larger drop off on the top end starting around 5Khz and a tiny blip around 2Khz. The on and off axis response matching so closely is one of the reasons these speakers image so well.
At 45 degrees off axis, we have more of the same but with more of a roll off starting at 5Khz and the small narrow dip around 4.5Khz has actually improved so a smoother response. The decent off axis response helped add to the sense of ambiance these speakers produced in my small but relatively dead sounding listening room. It also helps explain why I had to toe them in.
At 60 degrees off axis, the response is seemingly smoother than the on axis response but still keeps much of the original frequency response characteristic.
The impulse response shows that these speakers are not wired in phase and start and stop very quickly. The blip around 3ms into the impulse response is likely a reflection off the floor. A perfect impulse response would be a line straight up and then straight back down to where it started.
The step response looks good except that for the tweeter and woofer being out of phase. A perfect step response should look like a slightly concave right rectangle triangle and can give insights into the time alignment of a speaker. Other than the tweeter being electrically out of phase, the step response looks rather nice.
The CSD plot was taken with the window just wide enough to avoid that large impulse response blip shown earlier which is likely a reflection off of the floor or ceiling. The CSD plot shows no obvious problems like driver ringing or box coloration.
The impedance of the speaker can be considered 8 ohms with only minor lows approaching 7 ohms at 45Hz and 6 ohms at 200Hz. There is a slight rise around 1Khz that might make for a more forward sounding midrange on tube amplifiers but the effect is likely to be subtle as it's only a slight rise. The published sensitivity rating is only 88 dB so low watt SET amps are probably not ideal, but the more than decent impedance curve will be a relatively easy load for any amp to push.
The Acoustic Preference Gracioso 1.0 speakers are a reference quality monitor. Every aspect of this speaker was taken to the nth degree such as their hand - built walnut cabinets, carefully crafted to control resonance and dispersion and the use of very high quality drivers and components. When one purchases these speakers, they are not just looking for good sound, but world-class sonics wrapped in heirloom quality cabinetry and hardware.
Their neutral sound characteristic, dynamic capacity, exemplary bass response, extraordinary soundstage and imagining are likely to be a big hit with music lovers.
As in most artistic endeavors, opinions are split regarding the appearance of the Gracioso's. Some think they are gorgeous while others think they are more gaudy. But then the word "gaudy" comes from the Spanish architect Antoni Gaudi famous for the cathedral in Barcelona as well as many other very ornate structures. Whichever way your tastes run, they are certainly eye catching and look like no other speaker in the world.
Consumers whose currency is based on the Euro may find these to be a great deal. While the $10,000 price point seems high for a stand mount speaker, it really is not that unusual. The Herbage M40.1 at $13,000, the Sonus Faber Guarneri at $15,000 , MBL 121 at $14,000 are just a few examples of others. There is no doubt that this offering from Slovenia is a perfectionist, no compromise assault on the monitor speaker state-of-the-art. Those that can afford it may find themselves being seduced and falling in love with a speaker that can be very addicting.
• 2-way/bass reflex system
• 12 dB/oct/LKR/2200 Hz crossover
• Nominal power, 150 W
• Impedance, 8 Ohm
• Frequency response, 50 Hz - 20 kHz
• Sensitivity, 88 dB / 1W/ 1M
• Dimensions-loudspeaker: 260 x 365 x 360 mm (W x D x H)
• Dimensions-stand: 260 (310) x 365(420) x 690 mm (W x D x H) with spikes.
• Weight: Loudspeaker=12,6 kg/piece; Stand= 18,6 kg/piece.
• 160 mm Morel High Performance bass-midrange
• One-piece DPC cone/dust cap for smooth, extended response and firm bass
• Large diameter aluminum former for efficient heat transfer
• 75 mm diameter HEXATECH voice coil for high power handling and superior dynamics
• Massive die-cast open aluminum basket for flat and smooth response
• Natural felt disc for absorption of unwanted reflections
• Morel 28 mm High Performance Elite series tweeter
• ACUFLEX hand-treated soft dome and aluminum faceplate
• HEXATECH voice coil for high power handling and superior dynamics
• Triple Ferrite magnet system
• Under hung configuration for higher performance and lower distortion
• Linear motion for high sensitivity, fast transient response and high definition
• 12 dB/oct/LKR/2200 Hz crossover
• Mundorf Air Foil Coils, 99.999% pure OFC-copper with Polypropylene insulation.
• Mundorf High-End Audio Grade MKP capacitors, matched to 0.5% tolerance.
• Exclusive custom braid - HGA Solid Silver/Teflon insulated inner wiring
• High quality Bi-wire WBT terminals
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