The most widely read Ultra Audio "Opinion" to date might also be the most controversial. Titled "Comparisons on Paper: B&W 803 Diamond vs. Tidal Contriva Diacera SE," the piece elicited responses that ranged from continued outrage at the prices that the high-end industry as a whole charges for products, to outright disappointment that more people don’t seem to get what the high end is all about. The point of the article was simple: On paper -- specs, driver configuration, cabinet size, etc. -- not much separated the B&W speaker from the Tidal. But the Tidal costs almost six times as much. The question was simple: What gives?
That article generated an e-mail from Tidal’s Jörn Janczak, who politely and graciously explained to me why his speaker is so much more expensive than the B&W, then offered to let me hear a pair in my home. In effect, he was game for a genuine shoot-out with the overachieving -- at least on paper -- B&W. We sat down together at the 2011 Consumer Electronics Show (see "Tidal Wave") and arranged the review.
After speaking with Janczak and perusing the Tidal models, I asked for the Piano Cera because I thought -- and he agreed -- that it might offer the best value in the Tidal line. At $23,990 USD per pair, it was still about two and half times as expensive as the B&W 803 Diamond, but it also occupies a very popular price point for high-end loudspeakers. In fact, $20k-$40k for a pair of speakers is perhaps the most hotly contested price range in all of the high end.
MDF boxes and off-the-shelf drivers?
On the surface, there’s not much to distinguish the Piano Cera in the marketplace -- especially at its price. The cabinet is made of MDF, a material often dismissed by manufacturers who use more exotic substances. The drivers, sourced from Accuton (Thiel & Partner in Germany, where they’re made), though well respected in the industry, are not Tidal-engineered-and-manufactured designs. Accutons show up in competing products all over the world.
If those two things -- drivers and cabinet -- were the only aspects of the Piano Cera’s design that you examined, you’d likely conclude that there’s not much special about them. But you have to dive deeper into the Tidal philosophy to learn just what has made their speakers increasingly popular over the past few years. First, it’s not voodoo, or secret sauce, or voicing from the master. It’s smart engineering, plain and simple.
The first thing you’ll notice about the Piano Cera and that MDF cabinet is that, for its rather slight dimensions of 46"H x 9.4"W x 14"D, it weighs a stout 117 pounds. The walls are 1.5" thick and locked together with tongue-and-groove joins to ensure strong seams. The cabinet interior is heavily braced in a manner reminiscent of, ironically, B&W’s Matrix system. In fact, it appears from CAD drawings that there is almost more bracing than air space inside the Piano Cera. Add to that interior walls lined with damping material, and this is a dense, dead cabinet -- not quite as dead as the most inert enclosures my knuckles have rapped, but more thud-like in character than 80% of the speakers I get in for review.
The Piano Cera’s Accuton drivers are made specifically for Tidal. Appearance-wise, you’ll notice that the two 7" ceramic drive-units are anodized black. But the real differences between these and Accuton’s standard fare, I’m told, is that the Tidal drivers have been reworked to have greater excursion while remaining linear in travel. (If you look closely, you’ll see that the metal grilles that cover the drivers have a greater standoff distance from the surrounds so that the drivers can move farther out.) The 1.2" tweeter is ceramic as well, but this version is coated with graphite, which accounts for its gray color.
Tidal's Piano Cera is a three-driver, 2.5-way bass-reflex design (there are two rear-firing ports). The upper 7" unit handles the midrange and extends down fully into the bass. The lower 7" driver augments only the bass (the exact cutoff frequency isn’t specified, but I’d guess that its low-pass is around 100Hz). This 2.5-way has a twist, however. Tidal’s Variogain technology allows for some flexibility in fine-tuning when taking into consideration room size and listener taste. The Piano Cera can be configured for: two-way operation (for small rooms), in which the lower 7" woofer is disconnected altogether; linear 2.5-way operation (for medium-sized rooms), in which the speaker runs flat, which is likely how it will be run in most of the rooms it’s purchased for; and 2.5-way operation with Gain A, for bigger rooms, or listeners who prefer more bass output. Gain A gives the Piano Cera more output between 25 and 35Hz -- the extreme low end. These configurations are easily accomplished by the user by moving, or removing altogether, a solid-copper jumper between three binding posts on the lower portion of the Piano Cera’s terminal block. In my 23’ x 20’ room, I found that I got the most extension, with no audible or measurable tradeoff, with Gain A configured for the deepest bass. I did most of my listening with this setting.
The Tidal Piano Cera's crossover during assembly.
Then there’s the crossover, made with premium components from Mundorf and Dueland (both close partners of Tidal's, I'm told). Like most speaker companies, Tidal wants a fairly flat on-axis frequency response. Done deal, according to Janczak. I’ve examined the graphs he sent me and saw nothing to note -- the speaker does appear to measure linearly (though we haven’t measured the Piano Cera in the National Research Council’s anechoic chamber to independently verify this).
Janczak puts even more value on a speaker’s step response. From the step-response measurement you can derive the behavior of a speaker’s drivers in the time domain. Essentially, the speaker is fed a voltage pulse, and what comes out is captured by a microphone; this is called an impulse response. The arrival of each driver’s output at the microphone’s diaphragm is plotted, in milliseconds, on a graph’s x axis. From these data you can derive one of several pieces of information. First, in a time-coincident design you’ll see on the graph a single right-triangle shape, meaning that all three drive-units’ outputs arrived at the microphone at the same time, then trailed off. (More than one spike, all positive-going in nature, would indicate that the design is not time coincident; more than one spike, with one or more negative-going in nature, would indicate that one or more drivers is connected in inverted acoustic polarity and are also not time coincident.)
While Tidal is by no means the first company to promote the advantages of time-coincident speakers -- Thiel and Vandersteen come to mind -- it is the only one I know of to attempt this feat using higher-order crossover slopes. Typically, first-order slopes are used for time-coincident designs so that minimal phase shift (time shift) is realized through the crossover region, though this is at the expense of greater overlap between drivers and the subsequent higher distortion that can cause. Higher-order slopes, conversely, are used to lessen driver overlap, and therefore enable the drivers to be used within a narrower passband -- but at the expense of greater phase shift in the crossover. From what Jörn Janczak has told me, the Tidal speakers seem to have higher-order crossover slopes and almost time-coincident arrival of the drive-units’ outputs. Is this unique in the loudspeaker world? I can’t say, although I can say that the Piano Cera is the first speaker I’ve seen for which both of these design ideals are attempted.
I’ve eaten up a lot of space explaining the general design of the Tidal Piano Cera, but it’s important to know what sets these speakers apart technically -- that information will, I hope, allow you to interpret my comments about their sound within a greater context.
A few quick notes: The Piano Black lacquer on my review samples was as finely finished as I’ve ever seen on a speaker: no waves, no ripples, no orange peel, no haze. Just beautiful. You can also buy your Tidals in a number of wood finishes, some for standard upcharges (see Tidal’s website), some bespoke for even more (I’d say just get the black).
The attention to detail in the build, finish, and packing is just what you’d hope for in a speaker at this price: Each Tidal is shipped in a flight case for transport, and four feet are included for each speaker. Each foot comprises a steel ball bearing in the footer base, itself encased by an aluminum housing that screws onto the threaded speaker base plate -- all to decouple the Piano Cera from the floor. The speaker can be only single-wired; its excellent-quality binding posts also accept banana plugs.
Reviewers are as prone to preconception as any listener. When, before the review samples arrived, I tried to imagine what the Tidal Piano Cera might sound like, I thought it would have a lightweight balance -- perhaps a slightly "whitish" nature in the top end -- but be very holographic with respect to imaging and soundstaging.
Once the Piano Ceras were in my room, the first thing that struck me about them was the biggest surprise. I remember being worried that a smallish 2.5-way speaker wouldn’t be able to move enough air in the mid- and low bass to be musically satisfying with much of the music I enjoy listening to -- which is why my reference speakers are always rather large floorstanders. I guess I’m somewhat addicted to great bass.
So here’s the surprise: The Piano Ceras produced satisfying weight and slam from 100Hz down to about 30Hz in my room. There was very little boom or bloat throughout this region, nor was the bass so overdamped as to become constricted. It bloomed just a touch, but remained relatively tight and even visceral when the music called for it. This produced a nice sonic balance. For instance, I could listen to "Bring It On," from Roger Smith’s Both Sides (16/44.1 AIFF, Miramar), and could hear in my room both the weight and presence of the bass guitar -- even as I simultaneously felt the drum strokes in my chest. As I turned the volume up to peak sound-pressure levels of about 93dB, the sound remained composed and clean, with no audible compression or distortion. The midbass was solid and quick, and transitioned into a lower bass range that was weighty and substantial. Although the Tidals didn’t give me bass all the way down to 20Hz in my room -- surely my preference -- subjectively I didn’t feel I was missing anything important with most of music I played. All this from a two-and-a-half-way design! Don’t you just love it when preconceptions get blown to smithereens?
The Tidal Piano Ceras had a wonderfully natural and airy top end. I listened to a lot of acoustic music through them, both to get a handle on their sound and just because it was plain enjoyable. "Stairway to Heaven," from Rodrigo y Gabriela’s self-titled album (16/44.1 AIFF, Sony Music), was crisply rendered, with just enough air around the notes to make them sound dimensional and nicely carved out in space. Transients were quick, even explosive when they needed to be, with an appropriately sharp leading edge that made the guitar playing edge-of-the-seat exciting. Although the Piano Ceras might look polite and polished, they could cut loose and get down when the music called for it.
Frequency response in Jeff Fritz's Music Vault listening room (smoothed to 1/6th octave).
"Peaceful Valley Boulevard," from Neil Young’s Le Noise (16/44.1 AIFF, Reprise), sounded heavy and serious, weighty and dimensional, just as it’s supposed to. The soundstage spread from the outer side panel of each speaker toward my room’s sidewalls. Young’s effects-ridden voice in this track floated holographically between the speakers, with a level of transparency that made me wince when his voice cracked, as it does in several places during this track. If you’re a fanatic for soundstaging and imaging, the Piano Cera should thrill you. What it did so well in this regard was to lay out a soundstage that was equally wide and deep. When a speaker does one dimension better than the other, it seems to make my brain push back against what I’m hearing, completely obliterating the suspension of disbelief that the best speakers can begin to support. The Tidals kept the soundstage correct in all dimensions and proportional on all axes. The net effect was that I wanted to listen more often, and during long listening sessions never got fatigued.
The Piano Cera is not the perfect loudspeaker; I could imagine improvement in a few areas. First, the tweeter didn’t extend as far into the highest treble as the best I’ve heard. The best diamond or beryllium domes, for instance, and even some of the better ribbons I’ve recently heard, have greater apparent reach in the upper frequencies. (A version of the Piano Cera with a diamond tweeter is available: the Piano Diacera.) This was a sin of omission rather than commission. Although I was most impressed with the bass that the Piano Cera could reproduce -- and with the volume levels at which it could reproduce it -- the Tidal couldn’t pressurize my room the way some larger speakers have with music with significant content in the 20-35Hz range. This should come as no surprise, but it does mean that, if you’re used to some of the larger speakers available in this price range, you should pay careful attention to what the Piano Cera will and won’t do before you buy. What the Piano Cera also didn’t do was unnaturally bump up the midbass for greater impact -- it did sound linear, but at the same time solid from the midbass on down to the lower reaches of its range.
One area I could not criticize was the integration of the Piano Cera’s drivers. This speaker was super-coherent. I never once "heard" a driver or a crossover point.
A final note: Take seriously the advice in the owner’s manual to use the footers to decouple the Piano Cera from the floor. After I’d installed them, the bass was even tighter and more controlled. These footers worked as advertised!
Comparisons in the listening room: Tidal Piano Cera vs. B&W 803 Diamond
This is why you have to listen. On paper, the B&W 803 Diamond ($10,000/pair) seemed competitive with the Tidal Contriva Diacera SE ($58,990/pair), but the B&W isn’t really all that competitive with the Piano Cera ($23,990/pair). First, even though it seems counterintuitive, the Tidal has better bass: deeper by at least 5Hz, while maintaining a slightly firmer grip on the notes. The bass was also more articulate in a head-to-head match. The bongos in the opening of "North Dakota," from Lyle Lovett’s Live in Texas (16/44.1 AIFF, MCA), sounded more like, well, bongos, through the Tidals. Through the 803s the sound was more homogenous, really more like generic bongo strokes than the precise bongo strokes that define the Lovett performance. In other words, the Tidal got more realism off the recording and into my listening room.
The two speakers’ midranges were close -- both were basically neutral and full of tonal information. In terms of midrange resolution, however, I’d give the edge to the Tidal -- I could hear farther into recordings of voices. The highs were a surprise. Although I know that the B&W’s diamond tweeter extends measurably higher in the audioband than the Tidal’s ceramic unit, this didn’t tell the whole story. The Piano Cera seemed to let loose with more ease and presence in the treble, even though I couldn’t perceive the tiniest of details in, for instance, cymbal decays that I hear from the very best tweeters.
Although Tidal doesn’t specify their speakers’ sensitivities (I wish they would), the Piano Cera sounded more efficient than the B&W 803. I heard evidence of that in the greater immediacy of transient attacks, much like what I’ve heard with some of the best horn-loaded speakers. I had to push the B&W a bit higher in volume to get that same feeling of unrestrained transient attack, which was something characteristic of the Tidal at any volume level.
Lastly, whereas the B&W was evenhanded and balanced -- and I’m quite sure it could play louder than the Tidal without busting a gut -- the Piano Cera sounded more alive, more transparent to the source, and overall more involving: I could hear deeper into the recording across the entire audioband. Hands down, the Tidal was the better speaker.
The Tidal Piano Cera is one terrific-sounding loudspeaker. It’s transparent and quick, and plays with more weight and depth in the bass than you would ever suspect from a glance at its driver array. In fact, looking at this speaker either on paper or in photos will give you no hint of the performance lurking beneath its rather simple but elegant appearance. There is a ton of clever engineering inside, and that technical expertise translates into audible results. I think the Tidal Piano Cera would be a great choice for someone with a midsize room who doesn’t need a speaker that makes a "statement" -- except when it’s playing music.
. . . Jeff Fritz
The World’s Best Audio System, February 2011
- Speakers -- Bowers & Wilkins 803 Diamond
- Amplifier -- Gryphon Colosseum
- Preamplifier -- Gryphon Mirage
- Sources -- Apple MacBook running OS X Snow Leopard, iTunes, Amarra 2.1; Weiss DAC202, dCS Debussy DACs
- Cables -- Analysis Solo Crystal Oval-In, AudioQuest Wild Blue Yonder interconnects; Analysis Big Silver Oval, AudioQuest Wildwood speaker cables
Tidal Piano Cera Loudspeakers
Price: $23,990 USD per pair.
Warranty: Three years parts and labor.
Tidal Audio GmbH
Immendorfer Strasse 1
Phone: +49 (2233) 966 92 25
Fax: +49 (2233) 966 92 26
Tidal Audio Imports USA
66 Redwood Drive
La Honda, CA 94020