Alta Audio is based in Huntington, New York, and manufactures a growing line of loudspeakers, all of them designed by company president Michael Levy. For my review, I chose a smallish floorstander, the Alec, for several initial reasons. First, the Alec is a two-way design that weighs under 100 pounds. My current reference loudspeaker, the Sonus Faber Maxima Amator, is similar in size and form factor; like the Alec, it’s also a slim two-driver, two-way floorstander with an ambitious design brief. Having several months of listening to the SF under my belt, I knew I wanted to sample another speaker model that would compete directly with the svelte Italian. The Alta Audio Alec fit the bill perfectly.
Before the Alecs were shipped to me, I became intrigued by a number of Alta Audio’s core engineering practices. Last October, I interviewed Alta president Michael Levy for the SoundStage! YouTube channel and uncovered a wealth of information about Alta. As soon as the speakers arrived, I wrote an unboxing blog for SoundStage! Global where I discussed some interesting technical choices Levy made while designing the Alec. All that remained was to set the speakers up in my room and start listening. But first . . .
About the Alec
At $10,000 per pair (all prices USD), the Alec is hardly an inexpensive design. I quickly learned, though, that there is more than meets the eye to this unassuming loudspeaker. The Alec is 40.5″H but gets wider and deeper toward the base of the cabinet (it’s 8.5″ × 10.5″at the top and expands to 15″ × 12.5″ at the bottom). The rounded top and sloping side panels give the speaker an elegant shape that eschews the boxy construction of most similarly sized loudspeakers. I quite liked the way they looked in my room.
The drive elements are located high on the front baffle: up top is the 5.75″ ribbon tweeter and below it is an 8.75″ cone woofer with an integral phase plug. The Alec is rear ported (my sample was front ported though this is not a standard configuration, as I would come to find out), and there’s a recessed plate near the bottom with two sets of five-way binding posts mounted in it for biwiring or biamping (Alta cautions against the use of speaker cables with filter networks, e.g., MIT and Transparent). Alta claims the Alec has a very high 93dB sensitivity (2.83V/1m), and it’s reportedly a 4-ohm design. The rated frequency response is 32Hz to 47kHz, with a minimum recommended power input of 50W and a maximum of 150W.
Michael Levy is very proud of the drivers he uses in the Alec, and his choices here are a bit atypical. The 5.75″ ribbon is half an inch wide; it’s powered by a neodymium magnet, and reportedly, it has very high power handling. The 8.75″ midrange-woofer—you rarely see two-ways with woofers greater than 7″ or so—is built on a cast frame, with a cone made from Kevlar, paper, and an undisclosed type of fiber. As I mentioned, a large phase plug sits proud of the cone, and the surround is made of rubber.
The Alec’s cabinet is primarily constructed from MDF, except for the front baffle, which is made of a substance Alta calls DampHard. This is a multilayered material—I’m not sure of its makeup—and is described as “multi-density,” though Alta does not specify the thickness or thicknesses of the material or materials that go into it.
The Alec comes with 1.5″-high adjustable cone-shaped spikes that allow you to level the speaker on uneven surfaces. Metal floor-protecting cups are supplied as well. Alta recommends a minimum of 200 hours of break-in time before the Alecs reach “their full resolution,” but they will reportedly continue to improve with up to 500 hours of playing time. My review samples were well-worn demos, so this was not an issue for me. Still, once I had them set up in my room, I played background music through them for a solid week before I did any critical listening.
Alta’s main design trick is its XTL bass loading. XTL stands for Xtended Transmission Line, and according to Michael Levy, his transmission line is a bit different than those seen in other speakers. Just for background, a transmission line is a folded pathway—sometimes several feet long—within the speaker that vents the woofer to the outside world. Proponents claim this porting method allows the designer greater use of the rear wave of the woofer, which can result in deeper, more powerful bass response. The advantage of Alta’s XTL bass loading, we’re told, is that it needs little in the way of internal damping materials, thus allowing even greater use of the woofer’s rear wave for bass augmentation.
System and setting up
My system for this review was largely unchanged from what I’ve had for a while now. Drive was provided by a Boulder Amplifiers 2060 stereo power amp rated at 600Wpc into 8ohms or 1200Wpc into 4ohms. The Boulder was driven by either one of two DACs with integral volume controls: a Hegel Music Systems HD30 or an MSB Technology Discrete DAC with Premier Powerbase. My source was an Apple MacBook Air laptop loaded with Roon and Audirvana feeding tunes from the Qobuz music streaming service. Cables were from Shunyata Research: Delta IC balanced interconnects, Alpha USB link, Alpha SP speaker cables, and Venom NR-V10 power cords. The power conditioner was a Shunyata Research Hydra Alpha A12. All components except the Boulder sat on an SGR Audio Model III Symphony equipment rack.
My room is 20′ wide, with a slight bump-out to the right side of the right speaker. The room depth is 18′ 3.5″, and the ceiling height is 9′. I have polycylindrical diffusers on the front wall and absorptive panels on the side walls, and the floors are carpeted.
I set up the Alecs using a combination of acoustic measurements and listening. I took the measurements with a Behringer ECM8000 condenser microphone placed at my seated ear height at nine spots on a 20″ radius at and around the listening position (these measurements were then averaged). The ECM8000 was used with an MXL Mic Mate XLR-to-USB microphone adapter plugged into my Apple MacBook Pro laptop, which was running the FuzzMeasure acoustic measurement software. The final resting places for the Alecs produced the frequency-response graph (20Hz to 40kHz, 1/12th-octave smoothing) displayed below.
The Alecs were situated with a tweeter-to-tweeter distance of 9′ and a distance of 11′ 6″ from front baffles to the listening position. Alta recommends in their owner’s manual that the “sweetest spot is between and in front of the speakers from a distance equal to 1 1/2 times the distance between the speakers.” At 9′ apart, this would mean my seated listening position would be 13′ 6″ away. This would either jam me up against the wall behind me or necessitate moving the speakers much closer to the front wall and/or much closer together. I briefly experimented with these arrangements and the sound suffered both times. In their final locations, the tweeter-to-sidewall distance was 28″ and the rear of each speaker was 38″ from the wall behind it. I toed the speakers in so that their tweeter axes crossed about two feet behind my head when seated in the listening position.
During the two-and-a-half decades that I’ve been reviewing audio gear, I’ve probably assessed more speakers than any other component type. One reason for this is, in my experience, there tends to be greater sonic variety among the different speaker models than there is within any other product genre. So I find loudspeakers more interesting to review than, say, source components. And although the process of setting up a pair of speakers takes longer than, for instance, an amplifier, speakers are usually easier to write about than other products—at least for me—because each pair has such a distinct sound fingerprint. It was therefore a bit perplexing that, even after about a week of casual listening to the Alta Audio Alecs, I didn’t feel I had even a partial measure of their sound.
So once I began serious listening, I did what any decent reviewer would do. I cued up my most well-worn test tracks—songs I know by heart, through and through—and dove in deeper. I started with London Grammar’s “Rooting for You” from Truth is a Beautiful Thing (24-bit/44.1kHz FLAC, Ministry of Sound Recordings/Qobuz). I didn’t play this track looking for any particular sonic trait; I felt like I just wanted to get a handle on the overall sonic character of the Alecs, and this is a song I know inside and out. Hannah Reid’s vocals were centered perfectly on the soundstage, and tonally, I didn’t hear anything amiss—Reid sounded like Reid, a good sign for sure. The sound was a touch dry in the very highest frequencies, with less in the way of air and atmosphere than I’m used to hearing. At the end of the track, there’s a deep bass rumbling, and this was startlingly well produced by the Alecs—quite a surprise given their size. This had me thinking, OK, so there is something to this XTL bass loading after all. Hmm . . .
Those last few seconds of “Rooting for You” inspired my next sonic challenge, Random Access Memories (24/88.2 FLAC, Columbia/Qobuz), and more specifically, “Get Lucky”—yeah, that one—from Daft Punk. I cranked up the volume control to see just what I could hear from the Alecs with a bit more drive behind them. The sound was pretty good—vocals came through with good clarity, and the Alecs could play plenty loud without strain. About that last part: I would come to discover that the Alecs could play loudly—and without audible distress—better than almost any speakers of their size that I’m familiar with. All was not well, though: the midbass on “Get Lucky” was indistinct, lacking definition and clarity. By comparison, on the same cut, the Sonus Faber Maxima Amators ($15,000 per pair) had cleaner transients, crisper impact in the upper bass, and a more articulate sound overall.
For a test of deeper bass, I cued up “Norbu,” from Bruno Coulais’s soundtrack for the film Himalaya (16/44.1 FLAC, Virgin Records/Qobuz). I’ve played this track on every pair of speakers I’ve listened to in-house—this house or my previous one—for the past 20 years (it was released in 1999). Now we’re talking! The Alecs sounded terrific on this track. I heard impressive authority in the low bass as the huge drum whacks rolled from the front of my room to the back and decayed out of existence. This is what Levy was talking about: the Alecs definitely played larger than their dimensions would imply: bass was deep—easily reaching just below 30Hz in my room—and the Alecs could sustain the notes, smoothly meeting their decay with each strike.
I wanted to go back to the midbass, though, still not convinced I had the full measure of the Alecs in this area. So I pulled out another old standby: “Say Goodbye” from the Dave Mathews Band (Crash, 16/44.1 FLAC, RCA/Qobuz). Again, the Alecs played with verve, easily hitting 90dB peaks in my room and with a great sense of ease. That midbass though . . . the drum solo at the beginning of the track lacked articulation and texture. After exploring some other tracks that I know well, I just couldn’t get the type of definition in the upper bass and midbass that I would have liked and that I know exists on the tracks I played.
Female jazz vocals fared better, though. Diana Krall’s “I Get Along Without You Very Well,” from the audiophile classic The Look of Love (24/96 FLAC, Verve/Qobuz), sounded lovely. Krall’s vocals were clear and the image of her was appropriately large on the soundstage. On Adele’s 30 (16/44.1 FLAC, Columbia Records/Qobuz), I did note some thickening of her vocals, however. Male vocals were largely acceptable: clear and tonally appropriate—except on a couple of cuts I also noted a little extra emphasis in the lower mids.
About the highs: There was no harshness from the ribbon tweeter—in fact, it sounded very easygoing compared to many domes I’ve heard in recent years. Whether you find the Alecs’ sound appealing will come down to a matter of taste for most listeners. If you prefer highs that sizzle a bit and come alive with the right music, the Alecs probably won’t satisfy you. The ribbon tweeter in the Alec is the antithesis of a lively—sonically speaking—beryllium dome, for instance. And what comes across as laidback to some listeners, others may find dull.
Versus Sonus Faber
Typically, I don’t compare review products against anything I own. So do read this section with that disclaimer in mind. I’m making an exception here, though, because these products are so alike in so many ways. They are both smallish floorstanders of the two-way, two-driver persuasion. The Sonus Faber Maxima Amator is priced at $15,000 per pair versus the Alec’s $10k/pr., so the SF is quite a bit pricier.
In terms of build quality and finish, there really is no comparison. The Maxima Amator is one of the finest examples of high-end craftsmanship I’ve ever seen—the solid-walnut woodworking, the leather on the front baffle, the marble base, the brass inserts, the clear glass pane over the precision-assembled crossover . . . it’s all done perfectly. Although you could make the case that most speakers are crude in comparison to the SF, the Alec simply does not measure up along any parameter. For instance, there’s a binding post plate that is inset into a recess in the MDF. That recess is not exactly finished—it looks like the cut MDF was painted black and then left as is. The markings on the plate appear to be a sticker. Are these important factors? Not really, but they are noticeable. Also, the way the black finish—a laminate, it appears—is applied to the cabinet proper leaves edges that aren’t quite seamless. In contrast, anything you can see or touch on the Sonus Faber is considered a detail that the end user may interact with, and is therefore perfectly finished.
In terms of sound quality, the speakers couldn’t be more different. For instance, the midbass of the SFs was articulate, textured, and agile, with crisp punch on kick drums. The Alecs produced less-distinct midbass notes—I could not hear as deeply into the quality of bass notes as I would have liked. A positive for the Alecs was bass depth: the Altas did play lower in frequency and with more output in the very lowest registers. On a track like “Norbu,” the Alecs played with more authority and pressurized my room more fully—the big drum whacks sounded, well, bigger. I’d give the Alecs about a 5Hz advantage in terms of audible bass depth in my room.
The Maxima Amators were different in the highs as well. The super-refined DAD tweeter on the Italian speakers had more sparkle and reproduced highs with more air and atmosphere. The Alecs sounded more laidback in the highs and therefore never offended with harsh sounds, but they also failed to wow me playing tracks that I am typically enthusiastic about. Neither speaker produced listener fatigue. Both speaker models could reproduce vocals with good neutrality and proper tone—Diana Krall sounded like Diana Krall over both the SFs and the Altas. There were a few occasions where the Alecs thickened vocals, though.
Ultimately, the SF is more refined in terms of build quality, finish, and sound presentation.
Obviously, I had mixed results with the Alta Audio Alec. I wasn’t impressed with the Alec’s build quality. Sure, the pair I auditioned did seem rugged enough, and I didn’t get the impression they were going to fall apart at high volume. But they just didn’t reflect the attention to detail I’m used to seeing with brands like Sonus Faber, Magico, or Rockport Technologies. Those speakers are in a different league in terms of manufacture.
The sound was a mix of good and not so good. Yes, the Alecs could play lower than expected in the bass. In that sense, Alta Audio has fulfilled the promise they made with their XTL bass loading. If you need bigger bass from a smaller speaker, the Alec may appeal to you. The ribbon tweeter is voiced to be nonoffensive, and the midrange was generally clear—no huge problems there. The issue was the midbass: there was little in the way of definition and articulation, and I picked up this characteristic often. I have a good room and fantastic associated equipment, but there’s always a chance that something in my setup may not have been completely synergistic with the Alta Audio Alecs. So as always, your mileage may vary.
At the end of the day, though, the Alec did not float my boat.
. . . Jeff Fritz
Note: When the review was sent to Alta Audio for fact checking, designer Michael Levy stated that the review samples of the Alec loudspeakers sent to SoundStage! were defective and not representative of current production models. Alta has agreed to send a new set of loudspeakers, which will be evaluated and reported on in the next few months.
Speakers: Sonus Faber Maxima Amators.
Amplifier: Boulder Amplifiers 2060.
DAC-preamplifiers: MSB Technology Discrete, Hegel Music Systems HD30.
Source: Apple MacBook Air laptop computer running Audirvana, Roon, Qobuz.
Interconnects, speaker cables, power cords: Shunyata Research: Alpha USB link, Delta IC balanced interconnects, Alpha SP speaker cables, Venom NR-V10 power cords.
Power conditioner: Shunyata Research Hydra Alpha A12.
Rack: SGR Audio Model III Symphony.
Alta Audio Alec Loudspeakers
Price: $10,000 per pair.
Warranty: Five years with registration.
Alta Audio LLC
139 Southdown Road
Huntington, NY 11743
Phone: (631) 424-5958