Retail price: $4,000/pr
This is the second Gemme Audio speaker review we have published from the new Canadian company. The first was of their two-way tower speaker named the Tanto. It easily won our hard to earn Stereomojo Maximum Mojo Award and went on to be named our Best New Speaker of the Year Award for 2007. Since then, Gemme has garnered many awards from all over the world with their very innovative V-FLEX Technology which allows small drivers to achieve incredible deep, solid and real low bass. In the case of the Tanto, the driver was a 6.5” driver made of pressed wood pulp that produced real sub-bass down in the 20Hz region. Pretty amazing stuff.
This time however, the task is even more challenging since the Vivace uses only one single cone that is less than 3 inches in diameter, yet Jean-Pierre Boudreau and Robert Gaboury, the two principles at Gemme claim nearly the same low-end response as the Tanto – and many other speakers with huge 15" woofers. Can they pull it off this time? Let’s take a look and listen.
“Vivace” is a musical term that composers use to signify how a particular section of their composition is to be played. Therefore, when a conductor or musician sees “Vivace”, he knows it is to be played “in a lively and brisk manner”. Was that what the designer was after in this speaker? I asked JP Boudreau how the Vivace compares to the Tanto; “The Tanto is a more conventional (in the good sense) sounding speaker. Fuller, more liquid mids, more precise highs, more ample bass. Extreme, holographic soundstage. It is also meant to be able to handle any kind of power you can feed it and can fill an auditorium with sound. The Vivace is more like a horn speaker. More edgy. A bit less perfect. But it brings what people love in a horn, and adds bass. Some of its magical touch. In the dark, with a good glass of wine, at low to normal levels, listening to a small jazz ensemble in concert, you can sometimes get that magical feeling of being there and that makes you chill (hair raising on your arms). This is not perfect frequency response, this is not perfect impedance curve, but this is something a single driver gives that no other design can bring. Extreme coherence and vitality. On the other hand, this speaker will please a certain kind of audiophile. It does not have as large an audience as the very popular Tanto. We knew it at first, since we chose to build a horn speaker as our first project”.
It is important to remember as you read this review, that JP said that this Vivace is not like the Tanto, even though both cabinets are roughly the same size, with respect to the amount of power the Vivace will take (less) and the amount of sound it puts out – also less. One thing I have observed from both JP and Robert Gaboury is that they are very honest when it comes to describing their speakers. How many speaker designers will come right out and say, “This is not perfect frequency response, this is not perfect impedance curve…” ?
JP continues, “The Vivace was the first VFlex model (before the Tanto). Our intention was to bring full range capabilities to small single driver speakers. In fact, as you know James, our very first model was a horn model, called the Concerti 108. It used the same Fostex driver as the Vivace. The Concerti had a wonderful sound, but no real bass and a problem in the low mids. With the VIVACE, we started from the horn-loaded principles and created VFlex. We then created a mid sized tower, using a single driver that was almost full range, and that kept the qualities of the Concerti, but none of its limitations. We chose the Fostex 108E Sigma at first because it had excellent sound, with great tonal qualities. (I, personally, also like the look...). This small driver (less than 3" cone...) is also efficient. It does not handle much power, but our idea was to offer delicate, transparent sound to play in smaller room. The Vivace is mostly for jazz lovers and intimate listening, but it can also rock the house. The Fostex was a very good choice for that. We prefer it to the FE126E. We think the FE108 is more refined and better shows the textures of the instruments, when used correctly. Last but not least, its parameters (T&S - Thiele and Small) were just what the doctor ordered for our VFlex architecture.
Robert Gaboury added this about the overall design; “Designing a speaker starts with the mid frequencies. If the mids are not right, no amount of bass or sizzling highs will make for a great product. We chose to work with the FE108EZ because it is a superb driver. As you know, Fostex doesn't supply the OEM market. They couldn't care less, do not discount products and can't even supply any real volume. Still, it is a fascinating driver. It is fragile and light, almost like a butterfly, and is truly music-driven.”
So, dear reader, we come to the crux of this review and the Gemme Vivace speaker; this is a 36” tall tower speaker that is designed to work in rooms that usually are only fit for stand-mount monitors with restricted LF output, usually cutting off somewhere around 40 to 50 Hz., leaving the real low end to our imaginations. But the Vivace’s published frequency response is 20-20,000 Hz.
Twenty Hz in a small room? That’s outrageous! I have two rooms for evaluating products – one large and one small. If you have been reading my reviews all along, you already know “The Small Room” is only 10x12x10 feet. It has been populated by many different speakers of all shapes and sizes. I often use it to break in review items while “The Large Room” is in session. That means the Small has hosted speakers of all sizes. As I write this, a pair of Zu’s new Presence speakers are running in along with Eastern Electric’s new tube monoblocks. The Zu’s stand over 4 feet tall and have two powered 10” drivers said to go down to 16Hz. They are a prime example of how a speaker like that is a total mismatch for a small room. In there, they are pretty much unlistenable. Even at moderate volume, the bass overloads and over-pressurizes the small room volume. Since listeners are forced to sit only about 6’ from the speakers, virtually in a near-field style, speakers of this size loose much of their soundfield and imaging capabilities. Needless to say, the Zu’s will be transferred to The Large Room for evaluation after they break in. The only speakers that have ever sounded good in that room are small, standmounted monitors. Until now.
Before we get into the listening evaluation, let’s take a look at the Vivace’s cabinets.
When Robert told me the pair I would be getting were the oak models, I cringed. In 3,000 square feet of living area, there is not a stick of oak to be found in our house. It is more of a northern-type wood that is not befitting a South Florida interior. Even when Linda and I lived north of the Mason Dixon, oak was still not on our list of furniture options. However, when the oak Vivace’s arrived, we were both taken by their beautiful appearance. The finish is rich looking with a satin, deep oil infused that looks like it had been hand rubbed for days. Offset by the equally rich black front and rear baffles, they take on a very luxurious, handsome elegance. They are also available in these finishes:
Like the Tanto’s, the cabinet structure is an engineering marvel. There simply is not a parallel, flat surface to be found. Everywhere you look are curves, grooves and slants to eliminate internal resonances, energy loss and standing waves. The fact that they accomplished all that and still managed to make the cabinets modern and very attractive is amazing. I have never seen anything quite like Gemme Audio cabinet design. The attention to even micro detail is incredible and highly admirable and every design nuance is there to make sure the sound is as pure as possible. Even though they do not offer grills, the contrast of the single white Fostex does not look the least bit industrial – they look tres cool!
I think it was about age 13 I studied and played Schubert’s Piano Sonata in B Flat Major. The third movement is entitled “Allegro Vivace con Delicatezza” which means “Cheerful, brisk and lively but with delicacy”. I think Schubert would have liked the Gemme Vivace’s, though he might have added “con brio” or “with vigor or fire”.
I first hooked up the Vivace’s to a Japanese “Triode” brand TRV-A300SE 300B integrated SET. With the supplied tubes, it makes all of 8 wpc. The sound the combo made did resemble that of a beautiful butterfly; a Japanese butterfly at that. The first thing that strikes you about the little Gemme's is their ability to utterly disappear – no small feat for a tower speaker in s small room. They were configured in only a 6’ equilateral triangle – three feet from the back wall and the same distance from sidewalls. you might think this force them into a “in your face” presentation, but that would be very wrong.
Like the Tanto’s (jeez I miss those speakers!), the Vivace’s throw a huge, transparent soundstage that is limited only by the height, depth and width of the room – far beyond the speaker’s boundaries. It’s almost spooky. On Miles’ ubiquitous “Kind of Blue”, the artists were placed in very solid and three dimensional, realistic spaces in the room with plenty of expanse between them. Davis’ trumpet was anything but in my face, even though he was project slightly in front of the speakers. Paul Chambers’ acoustic bass in the famous intro to “So What” was fully realized, deep, woody and sonorous. Each note’s difference in pitch and “pluck” was easy to discern. With the 300B, dynamics were a bit limited as was overall volume, but the delicacy and musicality was all there. I rolled in some 300B’s by KR Audio and things improved quite a bit with more dynamic range and golden thickness added to the delicacy. But I knew the Vivace’s had more to offer. For the remainder of the review, I switched in Luxman’s new to the US market L-505u integrated amplifier.
The big solid state Luxman is rated at 100 wpc. It added the “con brio” to the Vivace. They now had all the power they needed to flesh out bigger and more dynamic recordings. I pulled out the Stereomojo custom Demo Disk and cued up the first cut which is a test of soundstage. Rather than me describing it once again, why not listen to it for yourself? That’s right – a Stereomojo exclusive innovation where you can download and listen to a 30 second clip of the music you are reading about! Just right click here to download.
Here is where that huge, wall-to-wall soundstage I mentioned earlier was revealed. This cut is particularly characterized by its height. When correctly played, the footsteps traverse the top of the back wall – well above the speakers. It would be an understatement to say these speakers played it “correctly”.
During this review process, Reference Recordings sent a demo of their newest release entitled “Jazz Hat” by Mike Garson, an monster pianist who has played with Freddie Hubbard, Stan Getz, Elvin Jones, Lee Konitz, Stanley Clarke, Eddie Daniels, Joe Farrell, David Bowie, Nine Inch Nails, The Smashing Pumpkins, Gwen Stefani, and Seal to name a few. I was thrilled to learn of this release because his previous Reference Recording efforts of which I own all, were out of print. I have used his “Rumble” cut as an evaluation cut for years. Want to get a taste of it? Just right click here for a 30 second sample. Please bear in mind that these samples are only MP3 quality and do not have nearly the resolution and fidelity of the originals, but you can get a flavor of to what we are listening.
The Gemme’s acquitted themselves well, wonderfully delineating each note of Garson’s Oscar Peterson type two-fisted runs and almost infinitely long phrases. Later, when the bass and drums enter, they are depicted perfectly with the drummer well in back and to the right of the right speaker.
I also studied classical pipe organ for years before I entered college and needed to concentrate on piano, so I know the earth shaking power of 32 and even 64-foot pipes. One of my most precious memories was playing the world’s largest pipe organ in, of all places, a department store in Philadelphia. The Wannamaker organ has six manuals (keyboards - pictured left), about 457 ranks, and over 28,000 pipes! One of the pedal stops is labeled “Gravissima”. Pull this stop out and you open up a rank of pipes that are 64 feet tall and big enough in circumference in which to drive a VW Beetle! Most organs have pipes that are 16 foot in length.
Cathedral organs usually have one or two 32-foot ranks. The 32-foot pipes bottom “C” is a frequency of just 16 Hertz! Can you imagine the sound of a pipe twice that big? Let me tell you, you don’t hear it – but you sure as heck feel it. It takes a long time, maybe a full second for a pipe like that to speak. Imagine how much air pressure it takes to do that. But pull that stop out, play and hold a note with your foot on a low pedal and what results surely registers on the Richter Scale. Sorry. I get excited just thinking about it.
Of course, I had to play some pipe organ recordings. Result? Almost miraculously in that small room on those diminutive floor standing speakers, the low register of pipes were there. Maybe not that 64 footer or even the 16Hz 32, but the sensation of hearing the bottom end of pipe organ pedal notes was there. The miraculous part is not only did the Vivace’s render pitches that low, but they did it in a way that did not overload the small room! They simply do not move as much air or pressurize it as bigger and multiple drivers towers such as the Zu. THAT, ladies and gentlemen, is for me, the best quality of this speaker. The Vivace’s allows you to hear and feel in a small room what was previously reserved for large speakers in a large room.
Next up was perhaps the most critical and telltale cut for this review. It’s Flim & the BB’s Tricycle – a very close mic’d jazz ensemble that, in this cut, deliberately tests the dynamic range of the CD medium. Of course, it also tests the dynamic limitations of speakers. In this case, I was able to reach the limit of the Vivace’s. At levels anyone but Ozzie Osborne would consider loud in a small room, the trim towers started to strain and compress as the volume slowly turn up, clipping (a popping sound like a stylus encountering a foreign object on an LP) at around 92 dB. Just to make sure it was the speakers and not the amp (even though the Luxman has big, beautiful, blue meters), I installed my reference integrated LSA Signature that outputs 150 watts per channel. It doesn’t have meters, but the Vivace’s clipped at about the same level. Hear this though. This track is a torture test of the highest magnitude with very extreme, very fast transient attacks with an acoustic piano, electric bass and drums all crashing as loud as they can on one, single staccato chord – BANG!!! With normal material, the Vivace's played plenty loud with no problem.
The Gemme Audio Vivace’s revel in small ensemble jazz and classical just as JP said. But they also rock the house! In fact, because most rock music is highly compressed anyway, rock just might be the best if you want to listen at even higher levels. There was plenty of zap In Zappa, lots of lead in Led Zep and the new 200 gram Quiex reissue by Classic Records of "Aqualung" let Ian Anderson and the boys loose to “watch the pretty panties run”.
Lastly, even if a speaker does all of the above well and yet does not portray the drama and artistry of male and female vocals, for me it might as well be a bulldozer.
Over the course of several weeks, I played dozens of different recordings on every format from LP to DVD-Audio. The Gemme Vivace’s never failed to convey the musical intent of the musicians. No, perhaps they are not ruler flat and the very top end may lack a bit of the sparkle and sizzle that a two-way speaker may possess, but they never glared, beamed our shouted – a trait for which a driver such as the Fostex is notorious.
Another trait for which the Fostex is noted is the extreme amount of time they take to properly break in. Gaboury addressed this issue; “As you certainly know, the Vivace needs many, many hours to break-in. The Fostex is also renowned to improve all over the span of its life. Also the Fostex can handle a maximum of 24 watts continuous, so the Vivace is certainly not to put into the hands of head-bangers.”
Yes Robert, I do know. Expect to run the Vivace’s about 200 hours before they start to sing like they should. As he said, many believe the Fostex’s, Lowther's and the like improve even over a year or two. Some swear they never stop improving. I cannot comment on that. However, be aware that they do take some time to do their thing. In this case, I believe the wait is well worth it – and they never sound awful as some new speakers certainly do.
Do you often or even sometimes listen with the company of another person? In The Small Room, the auxiliary seating position is almost directly in front of the right speaker. Linda knows better, but every guest when seated there expects to be blown away by that one speaker and hear nothing but the sound emanating from it. It always tickles me when I tell them, “Don’t worry. When I turn out the lights, you won’t even know that speaker is there”. With the Vivace, that could not be more true. What you hear is as if you are seated slightly right side of center of the venue while still hearing perfect stereo. That bass player on the extreme left still sounds like he is playing well beyond and behind the left tower – if that’s where he is supposed to be. Depth and the layers of which it is comprised are still very visible – and I do mean visible. Linda Ronstadt is still standing smack dab in the middle as she delivers her incredible range and emotion. If your wife is one who never likes to listen with you, she just might change her mind when she gets a load of what the Vivace’s can do.
I have had the privilege of seeing and hearing many, many small scale speakers in either mini towers or stand mount monitors. I have had lots of them in The Small Room. I think I can say categorically that the Gemme Audio Vivace is THEE speaker for those who want to hear a full-range sound in a small to medium room. Their petite footprint of only 10” wide and 16” inches deep will not take up much room – ideal for space restricted applications. More importantly, you will never have to pray the “Oh God…where do I place the subwoofer?” prayer. Their just ain’t none needed. The soundstage will amaze you and you will not need Godzilla type power to drive them. If you have a small room, you know that heat can be a factor is warm weather. It is an immense factor here in the Far South of Florida. Small amp equals small heat and small electric bills. I would recommend a good forty wpc, though less will do. Remember that Robert said 24 watts “continuous”. The only sound I know that is continuous would be a test tone with “repeat” set on a CD player, so having a little extra headroom is desirable. There are tons of choices for either tube or solid-state amps for small bucks. Put your money in this speaker and you will not be tempted to upgrade for a long, long time. If upgrade fever strikes, think about cables, isolation devices, better amps or sources. If you are not satisfied with the sound, it will not be the Vivace’s fault.