Dateline Iowa Park Texas, the Stereomojo Great Small Speaker Shootout 2007 has just concluded. “Hey James’, I announced, “Mind if I take these little Role Audio jobs home for a more formal listening session and review?”. “Please do JUST that”, replied Darby.
I was looking forward to spending some intimate time with these $695/pair micro-sized loudspeakers that jumped out at me during the shootout. Well, and they are cute. Not little white puppy dog at Christmas cute, not your daughter at her first dance recital cute – but cute like the class winning Porsche 914/6 (6th overall in the 1970 24hr LeMans). Yeah, cute like a baby wolverine.
Out of the Box, Onto the Stands
Tipping the scales at almost 7 pounds each, the Role Audio Kayak feels good taking them out of the box. Impressive for the size and you don’t have to worry about your aftermarket speaker cables pulling them off the stands just as you sit down to listen. The look is simple, straight forward. The veneer had a nice grain and depth in the finish. Corners and edges were tight and clean. All business if you will, but done with just enough finesse and detail to display in the snottiest of living rooms.
Grills are basic, but again functional. And they do make an audible difference when removed - see "Mojo Measurements" at the end of Russ' review - publisher. The binding posts left a little to be desired, they are a fairly standard issue gold plated brass. Don’t get me wrong, if you are using BFA / banana plugs – you’re set – if you’ve got spades, they may or may not fit. Bare wire users are limited to very small gauge wire or tinned ends.
The box has a dead ring to it – very little cabinet resonance. I opened one up to have a peek inside and was even more impressed to find internal bracing on such a small speaker. I would guess most manufacturers wouldn’t worry about it in such little space – but I was glad to see that Role did. The construction is as solid as any I have seen in a small speaker.
Crossover components were also nicely laid out on the back wall of the speaker. Good quality caps and a nice, large, iron core inductor on the woofer. The woofer itself features a woven carbon fiber cone and rubber surround. The tweeter is a liquid cooled fabric dome. The Kayak is far from the wooden frame, pelt covered skiff of Eskimo lore – think more along the lines of a rugged Rocky Mountain white water fighter.
The Meat ‘n Taters of it all…
Ok, so they are on the Atlantis 24 inch tall, shot filled stands in my living room reading for listening. The stands should definitely be taller, so to keep the playing field as level as possible; I brought a chair into the room that was lower. I sat at near ear level with the speakers, 9 feet away. Speakers were placed 8 feet apart, with no toe in. That’s when it happened. That’s when the magic happened. It’s funny, I hear a lot of people talking about how speakers disappeared when they started listening, and Role Audio Kayak did just that - and more. It wasn’t just the speakers that seemed to vanish, I vanished - everything seemed to vanish. There was only the music, and that friend is a real treat. I’ve experienced it before on some other speakers, but the list is fairly short and VERY distinguished.
Don’t read any further, if you don’t have an amp with balls. Role rated the Kayak at a current draining 84db 1w – 1m. These little speakers LOVE power. The more you feed them, they more they continue to consume. Almost to a fault. No, I didn’t say it was a fault, I said almost. If you’ve got a good 60 watt amp with a couple db headroom – you’re golden – if you are running a small chip amp, or flea powered tubes – back away from them slowly and steadily.
Let’s talk about bass. The big ugly four letter world that rears its ugly head in many small speaker reviews. It’s there, and it isn’t there. Is that as clear as mud? Thought so. Bass is present, but I would be amiss even attempting to qualify these speakers as full range, or anything even close. That being said, in a small room they play down low enough that one may or may not care to augment the low end with a subwoofer.
Role Audio has done the acoustic suspension design right on the Kayak. I like sealed boxes (done right). You trade off a bit in the efficiency, but the natural 6db per octave roll off on the bottom gives you ‘more’ useable bottom end. They could have ported it for a little more thump and made it a tad easier to drive – but it would lose a lot if it’s character with the typical ported ‘waterfall’ drop at the tuning point.
Bass is fast and articulate, but lacks any real impact and weight. There is a decent amount of dynamic range, but adding a pair of powered subwoofers really brought the bass presentation to life. I used a pair of Polk Audio PSW111’s – and while not bottom feeders, they were fast enough to fill out the 35-70Hz range nicely once I got the gain matched, and add the impact that I was missing. Role Audio offers packages with their own custom matched subwoofers, which would probably be the best match for their speakers.
Male and Female vocals shine, and do I mean shine. There is a slight mid-bass bump, and I’ve heard this speaker has been compared to the BBC monitors of past and present (LS 3/5a). I don’t hear the signature British sound that others have, but that isn’t necessarily a bad thing. What I did hear was Mark Knopfler’s voice centered and slightly forward of the speakers in ‘Prairie Wedding’ off the Sailing to Philadelphia CD.
Fiona Apple’s ‘Criminal’ off the Tidal CD sounds like it was made to be listened to on the Kayak. Subtleties on the drum kit, the smacking of her lips as she is forming words – a very involving listening experience to say the least. The voicing is fantastic – the timber and tonal balance was very natural and real.
One of the things I’ve always like about small speakers is their ability to create a point-source type image. The soundstage had good width AND depth, and the over image was very impressive. The Kayak doesn’t sound like a small speaker, but still retains that point source persona. A great CD for soundstage, and more importantly imaging and placement within that soundstage is the undeniable greatness of Creedence Clearwater Revival – especially on limited edition K2 20Bit Super Coding. Fogerty was in the room. So was his Rickenbacker 325. I found myself hearing the tube amps – not mine, but his. There was a lot of air and very good layering.
All in all, I think the Role Audio Kayak is definitely a competitor in the small speaker market. Adding a pair of stereo subs is optional, depending on your room and listening habits – I definitely preferred them with subwoofers properly calibrated in the mix. I would openly and gladly recommend the Role offering to anyone looking for a small, neutral speaker, as long as they have an amp with some guts and headroom to drive them. The versatility of being able to make adjustments via the back panel switches to help tune the speaker to your room is a big advantage. There is alos an option biwire/biamp set of connectors for the rear if you are so inclined. The Kayak is one of the most relaxed, non fatiguing speakers I’ve ever heard.
Throughout all the rounds of the Great Small Speaker Shootout 2007, the matchup between the Role Kayak vs. the RAW HT-2 was the closest finish (the RAW won 3 to 2) and the most contentious. Here is what I wrote about the outcome:
"There was much discussion about this comparison and some uncertainty as to which speaker to favor. Everyone thought the Kayak’s virtues, other than the lack of bass and weight, were better than the HT-2’s. Some asked for guidance, but I told them to vote the way they thought best. Though the HT-2 won in a close vote, the feeling was unanimous that the Kayak with a well suited subwoofer would be a better choice. It is worth pointing out that the Kayak retails for $695 while the RAW is $999. - Publisher
As you will see below, the Kayak's measurements were one of the best in the shootout, bearing out what our panel heard.
There was a little inconsistency between the pair but not much.
his one, of the two, looked pretty good. It may have a little choppiness to it but it stays within a 2db range. This is easily better than most speakers.
The spectral decay is pretty clean but there are a few small resonances up and down the graph.
Horizontal off axis looks pretty good too.
The vertical off axis shows some cancellation going on around the crossover point. Since it is a small woofer I would guess from the measurements that it is a fairly high crossover point near the 5.5kHz range.
Dropping the mic down to the woofer axis shows minimal change. In fact the drivers might be more in phase this way than on the tweeter axis. This is one that might sound better if it were flipped over upside down because it might give you a more even room response this way.
The impedance is extremely high on the tweeter end. Different amps will handle the impedance mis-match differently and this could easily change the tonal balance on some amps. We can also see that this is a sealed box. Coupled with a small woofer it may not have much low end output or power handling.
Here is the effect of adding the grill.