When thinking of loudspeakers, Contrast Audio is not a name that usually comes to mind. In fact, before being assigned this review, I’d never heard of them. However, Contrast has been in existence for over a decade, making speakers in Kiev, the capital of Ukraine. Founded by a group of engineers, Contrast strongly values what it believes to be the inherent musicality of naturally occurring materials, and so makes many of its driver elements from substances such as paper, cloth, and wood. All of Contrast’s drivers are designed for their own speakers and are built entirely in-house, and they take great care to produce identical stereo pairs of speakers through careful parts selection and detailed listening tests. Contrast believes that their handcrafting of natural materials helps maintain close tolerances in the drivers and thus superior sound. Furthermore, they don’t use complex crossover circuits, preferring instead the simplicity of a single, capacitor-based crossover. This, they claim, helps their speakers achieve high levels of sensitivity and minimum distortion.
Contrast makes one floorstanding and three stand-mounted models. The subject of this review is their largest stand-mounted design, the rather awkwardly named Model One As3-Ref.
The Model One As3-Refs ($2000 USD per pair) arrived from Contrast Audio’s distributor for India, ARN Systems, packed efficiently and carefully in a single tall box. Take care while grasping the speakers to slide them out of the box -- the As3-Refs lack grilles or any other protection for their drivers, other than the enclosed Styrofoam packaging. Too much pressure could damage the drivers.
What emerged from the boxes was a pair of mid-size cabinets in an attractive gloss-black lacquer that would be at home among fine furniture. Each speaker measures 13.7”H x 7.8”W x 11.7”D and weighs 20 pounds. The drivers are attached to the baffle with Allen-head screws, and the wooden phase plug in the center of the 5.5” midrange-woofer was eye catching. The midrange-woofer’s cone is made of stiff paper, its light yellow color standing out distinctly against the shiny black of the baffle. It has a surround of corrugated rubber, and the entire assembly is surrounded by a thin strip of felt. Above the midrange-woofer is a 1” silk-dome tweeter, and below it is the Contrast logo, in an attractive silver metal finish. The entire speaker exudes expert craftsmanship and elegance. On the rear panel are a cylindrical port and a single pair of high-quality, five-way binding posts. The As3-Ref’s specifications include a frequency response of 36Hz-20kHz, +/-3dB; a sensitivity of 92dB/W/m; a high nominal impedance of 16 ohms; and a power-handling maximum of 80W. The speaker is available in red, white, or chameleon high-gloss finishes; Contrast will provide custom colors on special order.
I exchanged a few e-mails with Sapega Oleksander Mihaylovich, Contrast’s marketing director, to learn more about the speaker design. He stated that the main reason they make their drivers in-house is to ensure adherence to critical tolerances and frequency-response characteristics. They’ve designed the Model One’s midrange-woofer to have a linear frequency response that naturally rolls off at 10kHz by no less than 6dB. The crossover, which consists of a single capacitor located behind the tweeter, introduces a 45° phase shift of the tweeter at 10kHz, which corresponds to the natural rolloff of the midrange-woofer, thus helping to temporally align the drivers’ outputs. Oleksander added that the midrange-woofer’s paper-pulp cone is prepared and stiffened based on a proprietary process.
The cabinets are made of 20mm-thick MDF; when I rapped them with a knuckle, they sounded and felt reasonably inert, if not the densest I’ve encountered. Oleksander also mentioned that though the As3-Refs are sold without grilles, Contrast will provide them if desired. His advice, however, was to listen to the speakers without grilles.
Break-in and placement
Out of the box, the Model One As3-Ref’s treble sounded harsh and its bass was muddy and indistinct -- typical symptoms of fresh drivers. The minimal owner’s manual says nothing about break-in time, so I asked Oleksander about it. He suggested that I run the speakers in for at least 50 hours before doing any critical listening. I noticed that the tweeters mellowed out pleasantly after 20 hours, and the bass tightened up considerably after some 40 hours. Ten hours later, I began my critical listening.
I placed the Contrasts on a pair of 24”-high Sound Organisation stands mass-loaded with sand, which put the tweeters approximately at ear level when I'm seated. The initial speaker positions were 4’ from the front wall, 26” from the sidewalls, and 7’ from my listening seat in my 14’ x 12’ x 8.5’ room -- the same positions where I like my Harbeth Super HL5 speakers. This resulted in a steeply shelved-down bass balance, so I ended up moving them back 1’, and sideways about half a foot. The Contrasts needed a certain amount of rear/sidewall reinforcement to sound their best. I preferred them firing straight into the room without any toe-in.
The Model One As3-Ref’s specs indicate that it should present an amplifier with an undemanding load. I first tried a Line Magnetic Mini 218IA integrated amplifier, rated at 3Wpc. While this diminutive amp acceptably powered the As3-Refs, ratifying the speaker’s flea-watt friendliness, the bass seemed insubstantial and the dynamics restricted. I then tried Line Magnetic's 211IA, which generates 15Wpc in triode or 32Wpc in ultralinear mode. The 211IA synergized splendidly with the Contrasts, the 15Wpc triode mode propelling the speakers to significant SPLs, churning out copious bass and dynamic range. It didn’t do as well in ultralinear mode. I stayed with triode mode.
Generally, small two-way loudspeakers are well known for seeming to “disappear” from the room as the sources of sound, and the Model One As3-Ref was easily among the best I’ve heard at convincingly creating this illusion. Music emanating from the Model Ones was suspended in free space, with very little relation to the physical locations of the drivers. The notes of Jonathan Batiste’s piano in “Lover Come Back to Me,” from Cassandra Wilson’s Silver Pony (16-bit/44.1kHz FLAC, Blue Note/Qobuz), floated at the right rear of the stage, clearly illuminating the soundfield as they panned subtly from right to left and back again.
With “Misguided Angel,” from the Cowboy Junkies’ Trinity Revisited (CD, Cooking Vinyl 74834 2), the Contrasts carved a credible sculptural portrait of the distinctive voice of guest vocalist Natalie Merchant, slightly to the left of the voice of the group’s lead singer, Margo Timmins. The remarkably seamless integration of the drivers’ outputs was undoubtedly helped by the high crossover frequency, which aids the midrange-woofer in functioning as a single driver for the bulk of the audioband and minimizes crossover-related anomalies, especially in critical frequency ranges. From my listening seat 8’ away, I perceived the speaker drivers almost as a point source, which enabled the speakers to image superbly. The Model Ones were able to create a reasonable facsimile of the large recording venue, Toronto’s Church of the Holy Trinity. The wide soundstage easily transcended the speaker positions, and the depth was satisfactory, with adequate layering of sounds between the speakers’ front baffles and the wall behind them; however, the height of the soundstage seemed slightly more constricted than I’m used to, extending no more than a couple of feet above the speakers.
Female voices sounded spontaneous, expressive, and smooth, without annoying sibilance or shrillness. Adele’s close-miked voice in “Lovesong,” from her 21 (16/44.1 FLAC, XL/Qobuz/Columbia), was brilliantly rendered, drenched in all the emotion and soul that Adele can express. Male voices were equally well presented. Mark Knopfler’s baritone in “Kingdom of Gold,” from Privateering (CD, Mercury 602537043217), was free from any chestiness, sounding rich and sonorous.
In “The Dark Eyes of Martha Hirsch,” from Tomasz Stanko’s Dark Eyes (16/44.1 FLAC, ECM/HDtracks), Stanko’s trumpet sounded raspy, with the appropriate amount of bite, but without disintegrating into harshness when he coaxed his horn to soaring highs. The initial brooding melody of this tune was conveyed with a tangible sense of somberness, until gears changed midway to a more vigorous pace, accompanied by a scorching trumpet solo. Continuing with trumpeters, John Faddis’s performance on his Teranga (CD, Koch KOC-CD-9969) was rendered fluently, never sounding coarse or grating, as it has through some other speakers. I’m particularly sensitive to a tipped-up treble balance, but in long listening sessions I experienced no listening fatigue, despite the As3-Refs’ very revealing tweeters -- with recordings with lots of high-frequency distortion, or when paired with bright electronics, they sounded quite lively. System matching should be done with care.
Tsuyoshi Yamamoto’s piano prowess in the title track of Midnight Sugar (XRCD, TBM XR0023) was strikingly well presented by the Contrasts, with breathtaking articulation of details and dynamics, especially in the piano’s upper octaves. The timbre of the piano was harmonically intact and tonally lush.
But what about the bass? Typically, speakers with small drivers can’t move much air and consequently sound anemic in the nether regions. Sheffield Labs’ Drum and Track Disc (CD, FIM 4892843002152) is a torture test for speakers, specifically the free improvisations by drummers Ron Tutt and Jim Keltner, which really exercise the woofers. The Model Ones acquitted themselves quite acceptably with “Drum Improvisation 1.” The kick-drum impact was fairly visceral, the overall pace and timing were preserved, and the bass was fast and taut, with no overhang. Nonetheless, low-frequency grunt is an area in which these speakers tended to be deficient -- a 5.5” driver can’t really do justice to deep bass. But with that caveat, unless you favor pipe-organ music or synth bass, the sound was sufficiently pleasing.
I don’t usually listen to large-scale orchestral music, but tried a hi-rez download of the “March to the Scaffold,” from Berlioz’s Symphonie Fantastique, with Robin Ticciati conducting the Scottish Chamber Orchestra (24/192 FLAC, Linn). For the most part, dynamics were satisfactorily addressed, though the Model Ones wilted slightly and sounded strained in loud passages for brass and percussion. They were better at microdynamic nuances, specifically violin transients, than at all-out macrodynamic swings, and the orchestra seemed somewhat miniaturized. Most listeners partial to big orchestral works wouldn’t consider bookshelf speakers, and dynamic compression is a well-known limitation of small cabinets and/or drivers -- still, the As3-Refs compensated commendably, without shortchanging the music too much.
Contrast and compare
The Paradigm Reference Studio 20 v3 is a small, front-ported, two-way speaker not too dissimilar from the Contrast Model One As3-Ref. The Studio 20 v3 ($800/pair) has been discontinued, but the v5 edition is currently available ($1200/pair). The 20 v3 sounded darker and more recessed than the Contrasts’ open, lively depiction of music. The 20 v3s threw a larger soundstage, especially in height and depth, but imaging within that stage was more precisely defined by the Contrasts, whose “disappearing” act was superior. The Paradigm had substantially better bass extension -- it has a 7” woofer, as compared to the Contrast’s 5.5” cone -- but the Model One countered with faster, tighter, punchier bass. Wide shifts in volume were better executed by the Paradigms, but microdynamic subtleties were far better handled by the Contrasts. The Model Ones’ sound was more nuanced and better resolved, with an engaging toe-tapping quality that I preferred to the Paradigms, which sounded lethargic and slightly veiled in comparison.
The reference speakers in my main system, Harbeth’s Super HL5s ($6490/pair), surpassed the Contrasts’ imaging abilities -- voices and instruments had a more holographic quality. The Harbeths reproduced more air around instruments, and the sound was tonally richer. The acoustics of the original recording venues were better delineated by the SHL5s, though the Model Ones projected a wider soundstage. The As3-Refs’ depictions of instruments were slightly smaller than the Harbeths, through which images were more life-size. Bass, too, was better addressed by the SHL5s, in terms of both quality and quantity. The highs sounded smoother and more extended through the Harbeths, the midrange more sumptuous.
Ultimately, however, this comparison was unfair to the Contrast As3-Refs. The Harbeth SHL5 is quite different not only in design and the size of its drivers and cabinet, it also costs more than three times as much. Although my observations strongly favor the Harbeth SHL5, only in direct evaluation were these differences highlighted. On their own, the Contrast Model Ones were thoroughly enjoyable; during my time with them, none of these differences compromised my musical gratification.
Contrast Audio’s ad copy states that their loudspeakers sound very natural, dynamic, and realistic. At least in regard to the Model One As3-Ref, I would tend to agree, and especially in terms of this speaker’s reproduction of voices. The As3-Refs imbued singers with a sense of poise and authenticity in which nuances and emotions were conveyed with a truthfulness uncommon in speakers costing $2000/pair. Another strength was their skillful handling of midrange information. Their sound in this critical region of the audioband was warm and resolving, with the right amount of balance to engross the listener. Furthermore, the As3-Refs imaged exceptionally well while throwing an expansive soundstage. Their low power requirement and ease of drivability enhance their attractiveness, and will appeal immensely to aficionados of low-powered, tubed amplifiers. Although not the last word in low-bass authority or high-level dynamics, the Model One As3-Refs’ sound in these areas is satisfactory and does not detract from overall musical enjoyment. And Contrast Audio’s impeccable craftsmanship and topnotch finish quality will likely ensure that, quite soon, their name will be familiar to audio enthusiasts everywhere.
. . . Sid Vootla
- Sources -- Sony Vaio laptop running JRiver Media Center 17, M2Tech Evo Hiface USB-to-S/PDIF converter with battery PSU and master clock, Musical Fidelity X-RAYV3 CD player, Musical Fidelity X-DACV3 DAC and X-PSUV3, Ayon Skylla II DAC
- Amplifiers -- Line Magnetic Mini 218IA and 211IA (with Genalex Gold Lion KT77 tubes)
- Speakers -- Paradigm Reference Studio 20 v3, Harbeth Super HL5
- Cables -- Silver Resolution Reference speaker cables and analog interconnect, Nordost Moonglo II digital interconnect, Audio Art Cable Power 1 Classic and Power 1 SE power cords.
- Power conditioner -- Audire Zephyr
- Room treatment -- GIK Acoustics 244 panels (6), Echo Busters panels (2)
- Rack and stands -- Sound Foundations equipment rack, Sound Organisation speaker stands
Contrast Audio Model One As3-Ref Loudspeakers
Price: $2000 USD per pair.
Warranty: Three years parts and labor.
Radunska str. 3-A, Office 130
Phone: +38 (044)353-12-36, +38 (044)533-28-69
19593 Roanoke Road
Apple Valley, CA 92307
Phone: (760) 490-2410
Fax: (760) 242-1065