Retail price: $5495 per pair
Expectations were particularly low going into this review. Why? The Tanto’s were pitched as a small speaker with bass that extends well down into the sub-bass 20Hz territory with enough force to “rattle the room – all from a 6.5” woofer”. Uh-huh. The secret that “defies the laws of physics” was the super-duper “Vflex Technology” which produced a “never heard of acoustic performance” from an “unrivaled loudspeaker”. This from a brand new two-man Canadian company named Gemme Audio manned by designer Robert Gaboury and Vice President in charge of Sales and everything else, Jean- Pierre Boudreau. Both of these gentleman are just that – gentlemen, but their gushing over their new Vflex speakers was giving Niagara Falls (the Canadian side, of course) a run for its money. Audio reviewers live in a world of outlandish claims and hype. Every new speaker, according to the designer and/or the distributor, is some kind of breakthrough and god’s gift to the audiophile. We are pretty much used to it, but even by those standards, what Robert and Jean-Pierre were saying seemed a bit over the top.
I expected a speaker that would have a big, boomy, artificial bass and probably a hot treble to compensate for it. It would most likely be so fatiguing that extended listening for more than ten minutes would be excruciating. Honestly, that is pretty much what I expected. So why, you might ask, would we agree to review it in the first place?
One of Stereomojo’s missions is to review those products that for one reason or another are ignored by other audio print magazines and web ‘zines as well. We don’t discriminate among manufacturers and we do not play politics. But that means we sometimes find really outstanding products as well as some that are not so good. We think you deserve to know about both kinds and in so doing, Stereomojo cuts through all the hyperbole and performance claims. Make sense?
An email arrived in July saying the Tanto’s were on their way - but it included a dire sounding warning to make sure that all loose objects were secured because the Tanto’s prodigious bass would cause them to rattle. If the 5 hurricanes we have been through here in the last few years didn’t rattle anything, I really was not worried. But would we really be ready for Hurricane Tanto?
Sometimes one can tell a lot about a company and its products by how the company packages their goods for shipping. Halcro’s packaging is an engineering marvel, so it is no surprise that their products are as well. Gemme (pronounced “gem”) Audio’s packaging is outstanding, employing more expensive Memory Foam rather than usual static Styrofoam. It was easy to see much thought, care and detail had gone into the design. Impressive.
Almost everyone has been in a fine furniture store at one time or another. Do you remember what it smelled like when you opened the doors to the showroom? I didn’t either until I opened the container. Right away I was transported back to those trips with Linda to very expensive designer expos (she was an interior designer for a top firm). It is really a unique aroma of exotic, finely crafted wood. That was the first Tanto “wow” I can remember.
Some assembly is required. A very heavy, polished stainless steel outrigger-type footer attaches to the bottom with supplied Allen screws. The metal is chrome plated and coated with clear lacquer with two sharp spikes at the extremes. There is another single spike toward the front. There are then three “toes” that constitute the very secure base. Two of the toes are adjustable. A tall, slim speaker can cause a danger for people with small children or frisky pets. I found the cabinets to be very secure on carpeting, but use your best judgment if children or pets are present. Again, impressive quality of materials and implementation.
The speakers are two-way with the aforementioned 6.5” woofer whose cone is comprised of paper and WOOL. I’ll attempt no baaaaaad jokes, but I did ask designer Robert Gaboury about the use of wool; “It seems that most driver manufacturers are constantly looking for "new and improved" cone material. A few years back it was polypropylene, then kevlar, followed by aluminium, titanium, carbon fiber, etc. These materials have nothing to do with sound and a cone should not have a sound of its own. An ultra light and rigid cone means nothing if it rings like a bell at 3kHz –thus needing a notch filter in addition to a steep filter to tame the unmusical character of the hi-tech material. - one famous and oft-used tweeter is noted for this – publisher.
“For the Tanto cone, I chose paper pulp pressed with 100% wool fibers. Not very ‘hi-tech’. Not even "new and improved", but so well-behaved in the upper register, that no crossover was used in the bass-mid section. With the exception of a single capacitor (to protect tweeter from low freq. content), every single aspect of the Tanto is entirely designed and controlled using acoustics and geometry alone”.
Okay, wool it is then, but it was the last part of that quote that caught my attention the most; “…every single aspect of the Tanto is entirely designed and controlled using acoustics and geometry alone”. This may sound like another overstatement, but as time was spent with these speakers, it became apparent just how accurate this statement is.
The tweeter is a ring radiator. However, the tweeter (which crosses over at an equally unusual 5,000 Hz) is placed below the woofer – opposite the normal practice. When I asked Mr. Gaboury about this apparent anomaly he replied, “By using the tweeter below the woofer, the null points are far away from the listening window, and within a + or - 10 degree location, output is perfectly summed. Also, keeping phase relationship in mind, we wanted the waves launching points to be on the same plane (meaning the dustcap of the woofer and the tweeter ring surface). This is usually done with a sloping baffle, or having the tweeter mounted behind the baffle. We reached the goal by putting the tweeter below woofer, just a bit below the ear’s normal listening position”. He went on the illustrate, “Suppose you run two imaginary strings from your ear, the first string to the woofer dustcap center and the second string to the surface of the tweeter ring, both strings will be of the same length (or sufficiently close),and any difference in length will be much shorter than the wavelength at 5kHz (2.3 in). So by putting the tweeter below the woofer, we reached two goals It should not be assumed that cymbals will appear to come from a point below the kick drum! At the overlap frequencies, the woofer is more directive than the tweeter, so the soundstage won't sound like it's upside down, quite the opposite: the perfect tweeter position was found after a great deal of listening, as it's almost impossible to derive the right position from calculations alone. So different prototypes were made, and listening impressions were confirmed in the lab. Et voilà!”.
The hardware employed in the Tanto is first rate by any standards:
Connectors: Cardas, solid brass, nickel and gold plated.
Wiring: DH Labs Silver Sonics, 14awg, silver plated OFC strands, teflon insulation.
Capacitor (the only passive component): Solen Chateauroux, 250v, Metallized Polypropylene Fast capacitor.
Tweeter: Peerless (formerly Vifa) XT19 ring radiator, ferrite magnet, 14000 gauss, aluminum former.
Mid Woofer: SSFS 6,5 (Shanghai Silver Flute Sound), 4 ohms, pressed wool/pulp, ferrite magnet, 13000 gauss, poly-cotton spider, kapton former.
Construction: point to point, no PCB.
Are you gaining a little more respect for the Tanto’s? Me, too.
THE CASE OF THE CASE
While all of the previous specs and info are impressive, they pale in comparison to the actual Tanto enclosure. I have never seen casework as complex and intricate as this. I don’t believe there is a parallel surface to be found. The cabinets have more curves than a Victoria Secrets fashion show – and they all line up perfectly. The overall shape is curved from front to back a la Sonus Faber and other very expensive marques. That means the very high-gloss exotic wood sides are curved as well as you can see in the "overhead" shot above. My sample was the gorgeous Cherry Charcoal finish that looks as if it has 10 coats of hand-rubbed lacquer. The list of available (no additional cost) finishes reads like a menu at a Godiva Chocolate shop:
Cherry Warm Red
Zebrano (15% gloss)
Golden Oak (15% gloss)
Every single external part has beautiful bevels and cambers, flutes and sound shaping architecture down to the smallest detail. It appears every step has been taken to reduce resonance and control that which cannot be eliminated (the laws of physics cannot be broken after all). The Tanto is the most unboxy box I have ever inspected. The intricacy of the design is amazing.
Look at the picture directly left. How many curves, slants, bevels and angles can you count?
That is just one corner.
The front baffle, also curved and slanting, is 2” thick. Special formaldehyde free materials are used exclusively. “Materials that are risk free for the environment, your own health and that of our workers”. Formaldehydefree MDF is more expensive, but safer for you and your family.
Your ears are pretty safe here, too. All of the construction design detail is to fight off a speaker's worst enemy - resonance. The idea is that the only resonances you should hear are those on the recording, not from a vibrating enclosure. Even at very high volumes (they are capable of handling peaks well in excess of 100 db), the Tantos are stoic and still. The will boogie, but they won't shimmy.
THE WIFEY FACTOR
Even though there are no speaker grills so the cones are left in view, the Gemme’s look like true gems. They are very attractive with a very high “wife acceptance” factor. The naked cones might again be a factor if you have little fingers in the house that love to explore, poke and prod.
“I love the way they look. They are slim and unimposing and the real wood sides are gorgeous”, reports Linda. “I think most women would like them or at least find them not that objectionable”.
THE VFLEX FACTOR
“LETS GET LOADED”
Designations such as “Vflex” are often just marketing terms for a rehash of some long established design principle. In this case, perhaps not, though finding out what the “Vflex Technology” actually is, was not that easy. You won’t find much about it on the Gemme website. Without revealing too much secret information, Vflex is a twist on the ‘ole bass reflex design. While the tweeter is sealed, the rest of the tower is a ported design, but the bass is loaded in a rather different way.
Mr. Gaboury is careful not to reveal all his secrets, but I managed to extract this from him; “In a reflex enclosure, the air inside the enclosure doesn't move much, and the cone acts on the trapped air mass, and that mass releases its energy through the vent, like a spring or sling shot, and the tuning or loading is typically calculated to match the resonance of the system, which is the point where little energy is needed to create movement. It's really a matter of mass because the cone is loaded on a narrow band. In the Vflex, we add to the mass a force factor. The air mass is put in movement through acceleration and deceleration, generating force along the chain, where each link is a spring, accumulating and releasing energy on yet another spring. This succession of springs moves the air inside the enclosure with high torque. Each high pressure zone is balanced with a low pressure zone somewhere else in the system, and pressure is always moving from one end to the other, in perfect synch with the loaded cone, and the springs system keeps the woofer loaded on three octaves, while a reflex system is loaded on less than one octave. The cone doesn't move yet the driver works like crazy against a high moving mass!
Another way to look at it would be a 15 in. driver with an efficiency rating of 98dB. On paper, a good candidate for SET power. In real life, the amplifier still has to move the cone mass (and the air it pushes) which would probably be around 100 grams. On a broad spectrum, the SET amp would have no problem, but if low bass is to be achieved with some definition, the driver would still need current either from the amp or from a field coil (that's another topic)".
THE TANTO SOUND
“HYPE OR NO HYPE?”
The speakers were set up in the large room in an 11 foot triangle. They were not close to any boundary and just slightly toed in. Break-in time is substantial at 300 hours. Most of the break-in is done by around 200 hours, but there is improvement to a lesser extent up to the 300 hours recommended by the designer, though I must say they did not sound at all bad right our of the box. My reference Halcro MC20 400 wpc power amp did the duty with various bass heavy CDs and SACDs played via my Stereo Dave’s modded Pioneer DV46.
Since the low end was the focus of the original hype, let’s examine it first. With 300 hours in the bank, I stuck in a Reference Recording CD of pipe organist Virgil Fox live in concert in Anurans. (The Bach Gamut RR-107). I studied classical pipe organ for years and have been fortunate enough to play some of the world’s biggest and finest, so I not only know how a real pipe organ sounds, I know it feels. Remember those low expectations and conjecture that the Tanto's might have a drastically over-emphasized, boomy, sloppy bass with a sucked out midrange and probably a sizzling hot top end to help compensate for the artificial bass? I am thrilled to report that I could not have been more wrong. The bass is taught, accurate and extends fairly deeply into the substrata. Is it flat to 20Hz and below? No. Is it the most prodigious bass I’ve ever heard? No. BUT…is the low end musical and useful? Does it convey the feeling and emotion of a large pipe organ? Absolutely! There was no hint of bloat, sloppiness or even boominess. And there was certainly no sense that something down south was missing.
Out came one pipe organ recording after another – including some of my own. Many on vinyl. The best way to describe the bass is that it was just there. It did not call attention to itself and inspire you to exclaim, “Gee….listen to the BASS!”. No, but the Tanto's did inspire me to want to listen to their MUSIC. Make no mistake – the Tanto is a full range speaker with a musical and realistic low end that belies their small 10” footprint and 36” height. But friends, the show does not end there.
To tell you the truth, as impressive as was the bass, the Tanto’s other characteristics were even more impressive.
Linearity. The sound spectrum was completely seamless from low to high.
Speed. Very fast. Transients and leading edges of plucked and struck instruments showed no latency.
Dynamics. Dynamics were excellent but not as outstanding as the rest of the qualities. Horn based speakers and studio monitors are more dynamic, but give the Tanto's a solid 8 out of 10 here. For example, the Alessis studio monitors I reviewed as well as the Sason Ltd's are both more dynamic, but the Alessis' have almost no soundstage and the Sason's lack the low bass of the Tanto's
Detail. A good balance. There is plenty of detail but it is not etched, spot lit or overemphasized. Again, you won’t sit down and say, “Wow! Listen to that detail!”. It’s just there. I think they tend to lean more to the "forgiving" side than the brutally honest.
Cleanness and clarity – Excellent! All of the detailed anti-resonance and anti-distortion engineering paid off.
The highest praise I can give a speaker is that they consistently convince me that I am not listening to them. In that regard, the Gemme Audio Tanto deserves my highest praise.
The Gemme's soundstage deserves its own section of this review. In the “Publisher’s Biases” article, I say “If a component makes me feel like I’m listening to it, something is amiss. If a speaker refuses to disappear, I’ll generally make it disappear from my system”. Let me state categorically that the Tanto’s completely and utterly disappear. There is no sense that the music is emanating from the speakers at all. I have heard many single horns, point sources, electrostats, ribbons, omnidirectionals, planars and every other type of transducer. I have listened to stereo systems at all price point up to $500,000. I have never heard a speaker that throws a significantly better soundstage - including Quads. Note I did not say bigger, I said better. The Tanto’s are very much in Wilson Watt/Puppy territory in this regard. If you gave me a choice between the two for free, I’d take the Wilson. If I were buying them – even at half price – I’d take the Tanto. That is very subjective and you may disagree, but the Tanto's portrayal of studio or live recordings is right up there.
I try to avoid hyperbole and audiophile approved terminology that sounds nice but whose meaning is vague and open to wide interpretation. Let me just say that listening to the Tanto's
is stressless, fulfilling and very musically satisfying. Again, in my large room, there is absolutely no sense of music being reproduced by speakers. No beaming, no congestion. Just a rich tapestry hanging there in space that reconstitutes performers and performances in a very real, life-like manner.
Listening to the diminutive gems in bright, Florida daylight is equal to listening to lesser speakers in the dark. These were delivered just as the Cain & Cain Single Horn Bens were leaving. The Tanto's soundstage is deeper, higher, wider and more vivid than the Cain & Cain's – and that is saying a mouthful. Bass was several notches better than the much larger Cain's as well. Instruments were easily separated into sections from side to side and front to back. The Tanto's do not make you work to decipher where anything is or what it is. Clarinets do not sound like English Horns, French Horns do not sound like Trombones and Stratocasters do not sound like Les Pauls. Sometimes I could swear I could tell if the Timpanist was wearing boxers or briefs! Okay, that is hyperbole, but there is a saying in audio that goes, "The best crossover is no crossover". The Tantos come very close to that ideal because the woofer is run full range and the tweeter only has a very simple passive capitor that allows matching without introducing a bunch of extra distortion producing circuits, wires and connections.
The Tanto's also exhibited a very chameleon-like presentation with respect to how they reproduced different variations in musical content and recording style. The music and recording characteristics influenced the speakers rather than the other way around. When a recording was forward, the Tanto’s were forward. When a recording sounded more mid to back-of-the-hall, the Tanto's did, too. It was almost spooky how they could adapt so completely. When the recorded soundstage was between and in back of the speakers, that’s what I heard. When Linda Ronstadt and Karen Carpenter were performing, they were standing out in front of the speakers where they belong. The little Gemmes never imposed their will on the recording – a most amazing accomplishment.
When I mentioned that the Tanto's disappear, that goes for off-axis as well. Sitting directly in front of the right speaker yields a soundstage that is still intact. The strings are still far left, the brass top right, etc. Soloists are still out front and in the center. The perspective changes as it should; it simply sounds as if you are sitting on the right side of the auditorium, so you turn your head left or sit a little more facing the center. Listening to the Tanto's off axis as Linda normally does (though we do trade places often) is every bit as immersive and satisfying as sitting dead center. Not many speakers at any price accomplish that feat. To quote Robert, "Et voilà!”. Or as I say, "Le Tanto a beaucoup de Mojo!"
Here’s a bit of a mystery. The Tanto's are rated at 91.5 sensitivity, yet they will happily take everything a 200 wpc amp will dish out. In contrast, they also played plenty (moderately) loud in my large room with Joe Fratus’ wonderful Art Audio Carissa 16wpc SET amp, yet handled the 200 wpc Lyngdorf and the Halcro 400 watter with aplomb.
In other words, these very sophisticated, refined and elegant speakers will play LOUD!
Yeah. The Tanto's love to party, too. They are equally at home with Antonio Vivaldi as they are Steve Vai. Chopin or Chicago, Bach or Beck, Wagner or the Who. The Tanto's do not discriminate nor do they break up or distort. In fact, much like a very powerful sports car or luxury sedan, they are a bit sneaky . You’re just tooling along the Interstate in your big V12 BMW, pass a cop going the other way, look down and are shocked to see the speedo register 98 mph. A few times while Linda and I were listening, one of us would say something to the other, only to discover that the music was so loud we had to raise our voices to be heard. The music sounded powerful, it just did not sound loud.
There seems to be a special synergy with the new ultra-fast Luminance power amplifier that came in for review while the Tanto's were here. That will be some hot review!
I wish I could point out an area where Mr. Gaboury’s speakers were flawed or lacking, but I am at a loss. They do everything well – some extraordinarily so - and nothing badly.
Unless your room is very large and extremely dead, or extremely small, the Tanto's should work well. Very well.
If you are familiar with Stereomojo’s review polices, you know that we try very hard to always ask the designer, “What was your design goal for this product?", and we usually print the answer right at the beginning. But this time I deliberately left it until now.
Mr. Gaboury's answer: “For the Tanto, my goal was simple and very well defined. I grew up around large JBL speakers (scoop bins and large studio monitors, circa1974), and I wanted to bring back the memories of that "west coast" sound. Linda Ronstadt, Rod Stewart, Rolling Stones, Eagles... not audiophile stuff, but still immensely enjoyable at louder levels played back on big JBL L300 driven by a big Mac amplifier. I wanted a big sound with seemingly endless dynamics, no distortion, clean and at the same time never aggressive or tiring. Big JBL monitors of that era had very well designed drivers and crossovers – and sometimes no low pass section at all, meaning drivers with little cone break-up. They even introduced bypass capacitors in a sort of homeopathic way (a very small high quality capacitor bypassing a bigger capacitor for an added dose of detail). I wanted the Tanto to have "torque" and "power" in a decor-friendly package”.
Having worked in recording studios starting in the mid 60’s, I too am very familiar with the sound of “big JBL’s”. While they were big and powerful, they were certainly not “décor friendly”, unless you live in a recording studio. While comparing the Tanto's to a big JBL with a 3 foot horn and an 18” woofer is apples and oranges, I believe Robert has indeed captured the spirit and the overall character he was after, though no JBL ever imaged like these. The laws of physics may be “defied”, but they cannot be broken, so a massive JBL will always move more air than a 6.5” mid/bass in a 36" H x 10" W x 16" D enclosure. But, and this is important, the Tanto's outperformed the big Cain & Cain Single Horn Ben’s in the low end by a wide margin and the Ben’s have a larger driver and much bigger cabinet. So, size is not everything. It’s what you DO with it, right?
I mentioned the WAF factor earlier. Linda not only liked how the Tanto’s look, she loved the way they sound. For the very first time, when I started to pack them up, she said, “James, is there any way we can keep these?” Wouldn’t you know it. Gemme is selling all the speakers it can make right now in markets all over the world. They need this demo pair for other reviews. DANG!
If you want to check them out, Gemme Audio is distributed by Santy Oropel at Twin Audio.
At $5, 495 per pair, the Tanto's are not El Cheapos, but they are still an outstanding value. I have heard many, many bigger and much more expensive speakers that do not possess the qualities of the Tanto's I have yet to hear a less expensive speaker equal what these do, and I have certainly seen multitudes of pricey speakers that are outclassed by the Tanto’s elegant build quality and appearance. The Gemme Audio Tanto is musical and satisfying in the extreme – a gorgeous looking full range speaker in a limited-range package. Robert Gaboury has not broken the laws of Physics, be he has apparently bent them to near fracture!
The Gemme Audio Tanto speaker easily qualifies for our Max Mojo Award. This is a first class speaker from a first class company run by a couple of first class French Canadian gentlemen. Robert & JP, congratulations and welcome to the world of high-end audio.