Is this the Stenheim speaker for everyman (and every room)?
By Roy Gregory
Is this the Stenheim speaker that the UK has been waiting for? It would be – if only Stenheim speakers were even on the UK’s audio radar. A compact floorstander that’s both easier to accommodate and easier to afford than the incredibly impressive Alumine 5, on paper at least, this speaker could have been built for British budgets and British rooms. And that in turn makes it equally appropriate to any European-sized room – whether that’s in Germany, Japan or an American apartment. At two-thirds of the size and two-thirds of the price (€34,000) it looks almost like a perfect scale model of its bigger brother. The question is, does the 3 manage to match the 5 when it comes to musical communication and engagement, power and impact or have the corners cut robbed it of vitality?
The thing that really sets the Stenheim speakers apart is their unusual combination of beautifully executed aluminium cabinets and traditional, high-efficiency drivers. The 3s retain the company DNA, with the precisely machined panels and clever damping pads employed in Stenheim’s other speakers. In these days of ubiquitous CNC machining, constructing a cabinet from aluminium isn’t that unusual. As bitter experience has taught me, constructing one that you can actually take apart and put back together is quite another matter. Stenheim’s cabinets are machined in Switzerland and that country’s hard-earned reputation for precision engineering is clearly evident here – and if you can’t see it on the outside, simply try removing the back-panel to look inside. As always, removal is a cinch; it’s when you try to replace it that the fun usually starts. Except that the A3’s panels go back just as easily as they came off. That’s not always the case and past experience with other aluminium cabinets has underlined just how darned difficult they can be to get apart – and downright impossible to reassemble. It’s an object lesson in the difference between claims of manufacturing precision and the reality. Like I said, reassemble the Stenheims and there’s no need to faff around with part tightened bolts, or bolts that won’t tighten at all, inserting them in a specific order or getting a bigger hammer (I kid you not!). The Stenheims go back together with a welcome – and what could be described as typically Swiss – lack of drama. It’s a reassuring sign…
The A3 uses twin bass drivers, just like its bigger brother, but whereas the A5 employs a pair of 250mm bass drivers each housed in its own enclosure and with its own slot port, the A3 uses a single port, located at the foot of the cabinet to load both its 200mm units. That might not seem particularly significant until you look a little closer at the drivers and realize that they are actually different – although not quite as different as they first appear. The challenge with higher-efficiency bass-units is finding drivers with a low enough fundamental resonance to generate proper bass extension. Not a problem for the 10” units in the A5, which will reach down to a -3dB point at 28Hz. But shrink those drivers to 8” and you start to struggle. Likewise, use totally different drivers and timing and integration at low-frequencies will start to suffer. The Stenheim solution is typically pragmatic, employing the same motor and cone, but with a different, rolled rubber surround to produce a lower fundamental resonance than the other bass driver, which shares its pleated fabric surround with the 130mm midrange unit. The result is a system that maintains decent continuity between adjacent driver types while reaching down to 32Hz at a still generous 93dB sensitivity.