Component Reviews, Part 3 of 3
Published on September 1, 2004
Role Audio “The Enterprise” Tower Speakers
SRP: $2,395 per pair
Research Triangle Park, NC 27709-3398
2 -way transmission line design
2 3.5-inch woofers surrounding 1-inch fabric-cone tweeter
D’Apollito driver configuration
Double transmission lines
Full plinth (14” x 12” x 1”) for stability
Built-in spikes on plinth
Full-length grill snaps off
Integral vents for low wind noise and clean bass
Full value film-foil capacitors in xovers
Oxygen-free air core inductors
Frequency response: 35Hz to 20kHz
Five-way binding posts; Bi-wireable
Dimensions: 5.5” W x 43” H x 10.4” D
Weight: 50 lbs. each
Woods: black & birch; oak & birch; or black & cherry for $100 extra
Role Audio is the higher-end line of NSM Audio, which has been building good inexpensive speakers in North Carolina for some years now. Their line of speakers has flexibility in both performance and price. A need arose for a new line of speakers at a higher price point, but still in the more modest under-$2500 a pair price point area. The Role Audio line was the result, and The Enterprise is the very top of the Role lineup, designed to offer concert hall performance in larger rooms in an elegant design that is fairly compact compared to some speakers in this class. Designer and CEO Erol Ricketts says it is intended to provide the power of a large floor stander with the finesse of a minimonitor.
The Enterprises arrived in excellent shape. Both large plinths were shipped together separately in a third package. I was impressed by the high quality fit and finish of the black lacquer and birch cabinets of the speakers. Sophisticated lock-miter construction is used and corners are rounded throughout. The two-tone design is very striking and makes the thin towers appear even thinner. Also, if you choose to run them with the grills off, as most of us do, the black drivers blend into the black lacquer portion of the cabinets much better than if that portion was wood grained.
Transmission line design has become one of the most-praised options in enclosures for higher-end dynamic drivers today. It combines advantages of both bass reflex and sealed cabinets plus freedom from disadvantages of both design routes. In a tower design it can offer the possibility of achieving deep enough bass extension that for many it will serve as a full range speaker without need for a subwoofer. My L & R front speakers for years have been minimonitors with matching subwoofers, so I looked forward to making a comparison since the idea of full range speakers all around appeals to me. (Although it will probably not work out due to the lack of room loading; my 30 ft.-length listening area is very open with a 20 ft. peaked ceiling, stairway to an open balcony above and dining area open to the right with no doors between.)
The Enterprises, like most speakers, require a good length of break in. I used both a rock FM station and FM interstation hiss whenever I was away from the house for some hours (my two cats just had to go hide). I would say I ran about 60 hours all told. I used both my reference Nordost speaker cable and some six-gauge homemade cable from Lowes as recommended by Bound for Sound – which I was also breaking in. Amps were two 220w channels of my Parasound 2205A five-channel power amp. Just out of the box the speakers were extremely hooded and boxy-sounding.
Even though timbre suffered before break in of The Enterprises, I was astonished by what a big sound came from these rather compact towers – like a much larger and taller speaker with more drivers – at least a true three-way design. I used the two Roles for a week or so as my surround channels. I soon noticed a much richer and more bass-extended surround field than my minimonitors (without rear subwoofer) had been providing. The Roles may not be completely flat to 35Hz but they certainly have more bottom end than my Celestions which roll off below about 70Hz.
After break in much of the hooded sound on the Roles was alleviated. I auditioned a variety of music and speech on the speakers before doing comparisons with my reference speakers. One thing I quickly noticed was the excellent imaging with the Roles – just as good as my reference minimonitors. My reference system minimonitors are all highly tweaked Celestion SL-600is plus a pair of Celestion System 6000 subwoofers. The front speakers have been modified with felt rings around the tweeters, two pairs of TeknaSonics vibration absorbers on each speaker plus another for the subs under them, and Jack Bybee external analog filters in the speaker lines. The speakers are also all bi-wired with Nordost SPM cables. I placed the Roles right next to the L & R front Celestions.
Rather than constantly switching speaker cables, I preferred to choose high quality mono sources and using my patch bay simply muting the output on one channel so I could power both a Celestion and Role next to one another with the same signal. But I also tried plenty of stereo material. Sitting side by side only pointed up the ungainly appearance of my Celestion minimonitors sitting on top of their squarish, bulging Celestion subs – compared to the tall, slim and striking Enterprises. My favorite modern jazz track is the MJQ’s Django, and since it’s on a brand new mono SACD reissue that became one of my test selections. The opening piano line is in the style of Bach, and quite deliberate. Things begin to swing when Milt Jackson’s vibes come in with the main theme. Connie Kay’s drum set keeps up a steady but very subtle rhythm with high cymbal sounds.
Django sounded wonderful on the Roles, but switching to the Celestions brought the piano forward, gave the string bass a more natural presence and stepped up the metallic sound of the vibes. The comparison didn’t make the Roles sound hooded any longer, just lacking in that last layer of transparency that the Celestions seemed to possess. I also tested with a new xrcd of Fritz Reiner conducting the Mephisto Waltz of Liszt. I combined the stereo outputs to mono and switched back and forth between the two speakers. The sound of the massed strings was clearly stronger and richer on the Enterprise than on the Celestion with their companion subs disabled. However, there was still more “air” around the orchestra from the British box. It was similar to comparing the CD layer on some hybrid discs with the SACD layer – a sometimes subtle but still identifiable lifting of one of those pesky veils ‘philes keep talking about.
When I was viewing the San Francisco Symphony DVD of the Tchaikovsky Fourth Symphony – which has a 5.1 surround track but only Dolby Digital – I tried both the Roles as well as the Celestions. The center and surround Celestions remained in the circuit when I switched to the Roles for the L front and R front. Even with the data-reduced lossy Dolby signal there was a slight loss of air and transparency in the orchestral sound with the Roles, although without the A/B comparison they sounded lovely and no listener would have felt anything was missing. I had to constantly adjust volume levels, so it was fortunate the Parasound amp has individual level controls on each channel. The Celestions, being sealed cabinets, are much less efficient than the Roles and need more level to match in loudness.
I was running the Roles biwired, but wondered if that made any hearable difference. I returned the hefty bridging connectors to the rear binding posts and tried just one side of the Nordost speaker cable. No audible differences. On my Celestion there is an improvement in clarity and depth with biwiring, countering some authorities who are now saying it’s a total scam. I guess it depends on the speakers and their crossover design. Next I tried one of the TeknaSonics vibration units on the side of one of the Roles. Although the minimonitor cabinets are constructed from an advanced Aerolam honeycomb material and supposedly free of resonances, the TeknaSonics made a very worthwhile improvement in resolution with the Celestions. I only was able to affix one to one of the Roles, but I heard no differences. Perhaps if I had time to experiment with different locations on the enclosure, but I didn’t.
The last tweak I tried was attaching one of the Bybee filters. This did have a salutory effect, bringing the Role closer to the Celestion in clarity and transparency, but still not quite there. According to Jack Bybee his latest filter model, which is much smaller, greatly surpasses the enhancing effect of the original. But it requires soldering in line with the drivers inside the enclosure, and naturally I wasn’t about to do that with the review speakers!
I haven’t reviewed speakers for some years now and I’ve been living with my present system all this time. It has become highly tweaked along the way. Please bear in mind that my comparison applies only to my particular mix of disc players, electronics, cables, listening room and ears. I didn’t try the Roles with any other amps because unlike a lot reviewers I don’t have any (my surrounds are also powered by a Parasound amp). Since The Enterprise is a quite efficient speaker I could imagine it responding well to a Class A amp of much less wattage or perhaps a high end integrated amp, and I could imagine it even surpassing my Celestions in transparency as a result. So take my observations only as a guide, and if you are looking for some gorgeous compact tower speakers that may not even require subs – either as a two-channel system or all around as a surround system (Role has a matching center channel speaker) – by all means arrange to hear to try out in your home either The Enterprise or perhaps its slightly more modest brother, the highly-praised Windjammer.
– John Sunier