PODIUM .5 SPEAKER
PRICE:$5,995 per pair
James L. Darby
First, thank you to Tommy Moore and Sam Laufer at distributor Laufer Teknik for providing these speakers for our review. Laufer distributes several very interesting brands, mostly from Europe and Scandinavia. This model has been upgraded with several small changes since the initial model was released and is the first review of such.
Think about it. The technology of speaker design has not changed much in decades. True, we have seen speaker cones being made of new materials like Kevlar and ceramic, but, they are still speaker cones that have been around for a long, long time. Horns, too. Ribbon drivers are not new either. Electrostats are generations old. Even plasma tweeters are showing wrinkles. There really has not been anything new or groundbreaking in ages.
While the Podium speakers are thin panels, they are neither electrostats nor ribbons. One single solid panel produces all the sound in each speaker.
You’ve heard it said that the best crossover is no crossover at all. The Podiums have no crossovers. Unlike electrostats, they are not difficult to drive and are very efficient. Tube friendly, in fact.
We all know that the room in which a speaker is placed has a great deal to do with how the speaker sounds. We have been told that our rooms need to be specially treated to achieve the best sound. We have also been well schooled to know that speaker placement within a given room is very critical. For the most part, all of that is true.
I spoke at length to designer Dr. Shelly Katz at a recent audio show where he explained everything I have recounted above and much more. He described how conventional speakers sound their best when they interact with the room as little as possible. Most speakers are designed and tested in anechoic chambers – an environment completely inverse to a real world room and therefore we have to move them around until they have as little interaction with our rooms as possible. “The Podiums are completely the opposite. They are designed to have as much room interaction as possible.” He told me to move the speakers around until they sound best (something that is very easy to do since they are so light).
We have also been told that our speakers need to be precisely aligned in order to hear them at their best, or to hear a stereo image at all. “That’s not the case with the Podiums”, he smiled. I was seated in a standard sized room at the Rocky Mountain AudioFest with music playing on the slim panels that were in a standard stereo configuration facing me. “Close your eyes for minute”, Katz told me. After I obliged, I heard the sound change a little, mostly a phase shift momentarily, but then the stereo image snapped back into focus. “Open your eyes”, he said. Shelly had moved the panels. One had been turned so that it angled to the left, the other angled to the right in a completely random position. With normal speakers, I would not be hearing any stereo image at all. I was amazed.
If you own electrostatic panels, you know that their worst quality is a very narrow sweet spot. Move your head a few inches in either direction and all you hear is the left or right channel depending on which way you moved. Obviously, that is not the case with these speakers. Curiouser and curiouser.
KATZ OUT OF THE BAG
I believe who and what he is plays a large role in the philosophy behind the speakers. After the demo, Shelley and began to talk about music in general and I discovered that we had a couple of things in common. In addition to our passion for music and love of things that reproduce it in our homes, at age two, both of discovered that we had a natural talent for playing the piano. He is Montreal and I in Ohio. We were both prodigies. We both auditioned for and were granted scholarships at Julliard. There we took different turns. He ended up there for 5 years and I went elsewhere. Even with the scholarship, Julliard and living in New York City were well out of reach financially for me and my family.
After Julliard, Shelley traveled to England where he intended to pursue his Doctorate, but he couldn’t decide which discipline appealed to him most - music, math or psychology. Poor guy. What a decision. It turns out he couldn’t choose among them so he studied all three!
Naturally, I had to ask him how he went from there to designing speakers. His answer was one I’ve heard countless times from speaker makers all over the world; “I was just not happy with any speaker I’d heard, so I decided to build my own”. But he took another step – a giant leap – that most others did not. Rather than just take the existing technology and shape it into something he could accept, he opted to throw convention in the dumpster and start with a blank page.
So he did something he had done all his life – he studied. He researched. He listened. He concluded that the binaural sound produced by panels was the closest thing to how live acoustic music was naturally produced – a single body such as a piano or violin resonating in free space. Then he studied what actually made things vibrate and produce sound waves. After years of such endeavors, he told me “At this point, I can make anything reproduce music with my technique. A rock, a chair – anything. It may not sound all that good, but it will play music. The trick was to find what materials and structure would sound best and now I think I’ve done that”.
PULLING KATZ OUT OF THE HAT
The trick he uses is small resonators attached to a honeycombed panel that make the entire panel vibrate. The resonators (four of ‘em in this model) work like small conventional cone speakers but without the cone structure. Instead of exciting a cone or a dome, they excite the panel. The panel is very light (easy to drive and thus very efficient) and very rigid.
“Where and how I place the resonators on the material determines the sound quality,” he revealed. And how did he determine where and how to place them? “By ear. Completely by ear. I just experimented – a lot – until it sounded like real music naturally produced”.
He also experimented with how to mount the panel in a frame. He discovered that English maple had the best qualities necessary to hold the panel and the thin cloth that covers them in place with enough rigidity and sound quality (the frame vibrates, too).
How to make the panels stand and stay upright in a home? His solution was simple and elegant. There are two brass cone-shaped footers on the bottom of frame form to points of support. A single aluminum rod slips into a hole in the bottom and rear of the frame and extends back to a point where gravity and balance creates a perfect three-point base. The Podiums are solidly supported.
If there was one word to describe the sound of the .5’s, it would most certainly be different. That difference manifests itself it two distinct ways. First, they do not sound like any other speaker I have heard. Second, more than any other speaker, their sound changes significantly depending on their room environment. These speakers are bipolar in more ways than one; they radiate sound from the rear as much as the front. That’s bipolar in the audio world. In the medical world, bipolar is the new name for manic depression. The bipolar person is one whose personality in terms of ups and downs is extreme. They can feel ecstatic one day and so depressed they can’t get out of bed the next. The Podium’s sonic personality changes the same way depending on the room. They can sound phenomenal in one and not so good in another. When you design a speaker to fully interact with the room, that’s what you get.
Let’s examine why they do not sound like any other type of speaker.
They do not sound like conventional “cones in a box” speakers in that their sound is more diffuse. That does not mean that they are out of focus or blurred – just different. While there is plenty of detail, it is not spotlit and pinpointed the way conventional speakers can be. Individual instruments and voices in large ensembles are not sharply delineated, but neither are they smeared. They just don’t pop out at you. With some speakers, it seems you can tell whether the timpanist in the last row is wearing boxers or briefs. Not so here, but you will be able to hear the timpani sound much the way it actually sounds in a real symphony in a real symphony hall.
I often wonder how many audiophiles have ever attended a real symphonic concert. I am fortunate to have two performing arts halls within thirty minutes of my home and Linda and I attend as much as possible. I confess that I usually don’t sit there and evaluate what I’m hearing in audiophile terms during concerts, but the Podiums made me do exactly that during a performance of “Symphonie Fantastique”. Berlioz must have been an audiophile because this piece is a stereophonic feast with themes ping ponging from left to right and front to back among the different sections and soloists, often at a frantic pace. One can suffer whiplash trying to visually follow the orchestration. He must have also been an equal opportunity arranger because each section and many soloists have their time to shine. For example, in the 5th movement, there is even a chime solo. In the fourth moment at about five minutes, the orchestra in full tutti roar comes to a crashing halt for a short clarinet solo. Fantasitique!
Speaking of timpani, the fourth starts out with a kettle drum solo. One of the timpanists that night was a female and no matter how hard I tried, I could not tell from the sound whether she was wearing French cut panties (which would have been appropriate for Berlioz) or a thong. Or any at all for that matter. But I digress. (Well, the composition’s name in English is “Fantasy Symphony”…”)
What I could perceive is that the timpani were in the rear, just to the right of center and elevated above the rest of the orchestra. All of those cues are there in the Podiums as well. However, there was not some invisible column of air surrounding them as if they were recorded in an isolation booth the way most speakers present them. And I could not tell what density of felt was on her beaters. Double entendre not intentional. Focus now…
The detail you hear with the Podiums can be at odds with what we as audiophiles are used to. They offer a much different perception and point of view. Some could call it a style. Is it more “real”? Depends on what “real” is to you.
The Podiums also do not sound like electrostats, even though they share their bipolar radiation and tall, thin panel construction. Like ‘stats however, the .5’s are very fast and responsive and can be very dynamic. They also don’t need to be plugged in and do not attract dust like the magnets electrostats are. They are also capable of playing quite loud unlike something like, say, the Quads. As mentioned earlier, the Podium’s are also quite efficient and present a rather easy load to an amp as opposed to the ultra wide impedances of most ‘stats.
If there were one design that the Podium’s most resemble it might be open baffle, though most open baffle models use some sort of enclosed cones for the bottom end while the rest of frequencies are not enclosed and radiate in free air.
Rooms figure prominently in the performance of these speakers. How do I know? We auditioned them in four different rooms in two different homes.
The manual and the website state that the .5’s will sound good in a “small” room. They don’t, at least in mine. Of course, “small” is a very relative term. Ask any guy in a public shower at the gym. I would call a 10’x12’x7’ room small and the .5’s were not at all suited to it. Placed 3’ from the back wall and about 2’ from the sides, they were only about 6’ from my ears. That’s pretty much in the nearfield. The sound was “re” and “con” stricted. So was the sound stage. The reference LSA Statement hybrid integrated at 150 wpc was loafing along behind them, but even its stellar resolution could not make them sing. When I mentioned this to Tommy Moore at Laufer Teknik, he said, “Yes, the Podium’s need some space to breathe.” He is right. I won’t waste your time with further descriptions, but suffice it to say that the Podiums probably are not appropriate for rooms that confined.
When they were moved to the Large room (24’x20 with a ceiling that peaks at 14’), everything changed. One could almost hear the things breathe a sigh of relief. The soundstage, just as I had heard at two different audio shows, was spectacular. Driven by the wonderful Eastern Electric Mi156 tube monoblocks (the subjects of a previous Stereomojo review) the panels became invisible and the orchestra was laid out well behind, above and beyond the speaker boundaries which were well out into the room with several feet to the back and sides. The word “behind” is significant because the overall presentation is more to the rear than most speakers. Male and female soloists are portrayed in the same plane as the speakers rather than projected in front of them. Accompaniment is still well separated from them, just further to the back than normal. Everything else, from small ensembles to large scale bands and orchestras are also cast as if you are seated a few rows further back in the hall. There’s nothing inherently wrong with that, it’s a matter of personal taste and a factor of which you should be aware.
For my taste, the sound was initially a bit too bright, but then I did not have any of the felt dampers installed. Felt dampers? What felt dampers?! The Podiums are tunable to some degree. There are for round cutouts spaced equidistantly on the center spine behind the panels. You are provided with 8 circular inserts that are felt with a wooden backing. Those characteristics are very familiar to me. There are 88 of them on my piano, though not circular. Felt dampers are part of every piano’s action. The Podium’s disks may be used at the user’s discretion and to his taste. You can use all of them or none of them. They can be inserted in any combination on either speaker. Some experimentation is required. Unfortunately, the manual has little to say about their implementation, but where you place them and in what combination does effect their tone. In my large room, I ended up using two of them per side in the 2nd and 4th positions. As it later turned out, that is the same configuration used at Laufer Teknik’s headquarters I was told.
What the dampers will not do for the .5’s is goose up the bass. What low end there is taut, very fast and nimble, full of texture and very articulate in terms of definition and pitch. As long as that pitch is not too low. There is just not much happening below about 50 Hz, or what one might expect from a bookshelf speaker. You have to go up to the Podium Model 1 for more depth. This weakness is most prominent in close mic’d electric bass such as what one might hear in studio rock, reggae, electronica and other dance genres. In studio recordings by Vic Wooten, Stanley Clarke and the like are not well served. They are often recorded via a direct in to the mixing console. However, bass instruments that were recorded live as part of a small or large ensemble and which are placed further back in the mix fare much better.
It will come as no surprise that perhaps the recordings that benefit most from the Podium’s perspective are ones like “Friday Night Live in San Francisco” which famously captures three consummate acoustic guitarists (Paco DeLuca, Al DiMeola and John McLaughlin) on stage in front of a live audience. These guys pick more notes per second than just about any recording I can think of. “Blazing speed” is an understatement in these jazz/flamenco style arrangements. Guitar strings, particularly when powerfully played like this, demand extreme speed in amps, cables and speakers. The Podiums deliver as well as anything I have heard. Add to that their uncanny propensity to portray a perfectly spaced and properly scaled venue and you have a stunning musical experience in your room.
Another favorite is James Taylor’s 1993 “Live”. JT, his band and backup singers are captured wondrously on this two-CD set and again the .5’s bring the musical essence home.
This speaker, more than any other, requires that the listener rethink and retune their notions of what a listening experience should be. It is not a speaker that most are likely fall I love with after thirty seconds. You really need to adjust to these.
Let me give you one last example. You have probably read reviews that state that such-and such-speaker when playing back large choral ensembles allowed the reviewer to hear “each individual voice and the air around them”. Well, let me tell you, for decades I directed a choir of 200 adults and the only time I could hear individual voices was when someone was either singing too loud, off pitch or because they missed an entrance or a cutoff. And I was standing right in front of them. One spends hours of rehearsal making sure that no one can hear individual voices unless they are singing a solo. So. Was that reviewer exaggerating? Not necessarily. I have heard the same thing in recordings by the Turtle Creek Men’s Chorus on Reference Recordings. I have also heard them live and the perspective and presentation was different than what Professor Johnson’s microphones captured. There was no sense of columns or orbs of air around each voice at the live concert. And that, dear reader, is exactly the point: which is ”correct”?
Or, perhaps the real question is, “Which do you prefer?”. In this age of Political Correctness, let us not become preoccupied with Musical Correctness as well. One can also ask which is the “correct” way to mic a choir, orchestra, drum set, piano or any other music making entity? There are many, many ways and they all sound different. The bottom line is, which final result gives you the most enjoyment? Which brings you closer to the music? Because of Dr. Katz, we all now have another golf club in our musical bags of speakers. Some people will listen to these and immediately turn their nose up and their ears off. Others will listen and declare these a revelation and just what they have always been looking for.
One last point that most would overlook; while the .5 needs space to be be effective, meaning they should be placed out into a room in general,they are so lightweight and thin that they can be move or even REmoved completely if space is needed for a party, gathering or other special event in your home. In fact, a small person, even a woman, could probably do it. Stick 'em in a closet, under the bed or just lean them against a wall. Or just move them back out of the way. Simple. That's something very unique with this speaker.
Some quotes pulled from an online opinion site concerning Podium speakers:
"I agree, they take some time to adjust to their sound and positioning. Get them right and they are a clear window on any classical or acoustic event. I have podium ones."
"Quite simply - they played acoustic instruments and voice as though they were in the room.This was not an impression of ,or approximation of the sound but the sound of real instruments.This is obviously an overused concept and of course there were subtle imperfections which gave the game away - but i can honestly say they redefined what i thought possible from reproduced music."
"I thought the 1's were seriously handicapped, with a very coloured high-end (no wonder with the weight of the panel) and very strange tonal balance.
"They did not sound like any other speaker I ever heard, which was something 'special', but I really missed any real presence, dynamic contrasts and something approaching pin-point imaging."
"I have never known a loudspeaker with such polorised views? I will have to make time to have a proper listen to them."
That pretty much sums up the Podium experience - and it is an experience. This is one speaker for which our Specific Recommendation is critical. A vague "highly recommended" that you see in most publications simply will not suffice. So let's get very specific.This speaker is NOT for the person who prefers a recording studio monitor style sound. If you are certain that you crave aggressive, upfront, crystalline, etched in stone, spotlit detail over a more relaxed, spread out and soft presentation, these are not for you. If your ideal concert is front row at Metallica show, forget these. If, however, your music collection consists of large or small orchestral instruments from symphonies to cello solos, or jazz ensembles, folk, bluegrass and choral to name a few AND you want to hear it as if you are in a live venue sitting halfway back or so, these may be your dream speakers. If you want to hear the lowest octave, adding a modest subwoofer would be a significant enhancement.
Do not overlook their practicality and their ability to be moved and even put away easily. They are also rather easy to drive and very tube friendly, something most panel speakers are not.
We should add this as well. Many people eschew LP's, thinking they all sound scratchy and noisy with no dynamic range. They probably have never heard vinyl played the way it should be. Others are solid state devotees until they get a chance to hear a good tube system. There are many people who think they prefer speakers with all the attendant audiophile approved qualities as found in traditional box speakers, but really might not at all - simply because they have never heard anything different. We say this - if your musical tastes run to those we've mentioned that these do well, you should definitely try to hear a pair of Podiums. The Podium website states, "You’ll know if our sound is the sound for you within seconds. That’s all it takes." We agree.
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