Monday, May 26, 2014

A hidden gem

Once in a blue moon comes a product that sets a new height in price per performance, and I can't help not writing about it. Indeed, I applaud these products because they drive competition. And competition brings advancement. Especially in audio, we need to bend the law of diminishing value a bit for audio price has steadily escalated over the years. It may seem audio is slowing becoming a luxury hobby, pushing entry price to RM50k.

Boutique components may contribute good sound but a well-engineered, circuited, calculated product convinces me more. A good circuit is let down by poor connectors, that's sad? Many have make that mistake. Putting money at the right place requires unparalleled electronic insight.

Front view
Side view
A little story about XLS, they were based on 2009 award winning DIY speaker designing competition by Part Express, US, correct me if I'm wrong. Given a tight budget, you do not expect premium components, drivers in lowly priced speakers or anything but a solid design. The man behind XLS is Danny Ritchie, he sells his kits online, a great guy to talk to.

I cut the chase. The review pair have clocked 600 hours, just ripe for our listening assessment. They do not look exceptional nor feel premium, and definitely not in any way related to the mighty Wilson Audio XLF, one of the high end spokesmen despite the similarity in pronunciation. You and I know that XLF raises eyebrow, it changes how people look at you, that's the prerogative of high end audio. O man! That's how the audio community works. Spend big bucks, the news travel so fast you become somebody overnight.

And when XLS is made available locally for a price approximately RM1400 plus shipping, I told KF to jump at it. For that little amount of money, skimping on the aesthetic is inevitable. Crazy KF went ahead and bought the speakers and my job is to make them sing or KF would grill and eat me alive. Me and my big mouth.


The speakers arrived at door step within three weeks. XLS is a simple two way bookshelf speaker, employing one inch fabric dome tweeter and a six and a half inch treated pulp paper driver. Housed in a 8.5 inch (W) x 13.5 inch (H) x 12.125 inch (D) ported MDF box in matt black finishing, they weight 7 kg per piece. Curve Acoustics from Kuching gets the kits from GR-Research and box them up locally. I got to say Curve Acoustics did a good cabinetry job. Fit and finishing is more than acceptable, no DIY sharp corner there. Only matt black finish is offered. The spec states 55Hz- 20 KHz, I found them to be honest.

Before moving XLS in, KF needs a room makeover. The towering resonators, the carpets, the metal stands, the side cabinet, all need to be cleared. Total overhaul. I will not bore you with the details but suffice to say his room has proved to be a difficult one to work with, the midrange boom could drive you crazy. They kill listening desire. The room received only ten hours of treatment, there is still a slight midrange boom, not serious enough to make you leave the room if you want to nitpick.


Nice and neat room is eye pleasing. Driven via 80W class A solid state amp, front end is the trusty Marantz CD63 KI LE as transport, Audio GD WM8741 based dac and pre amp is a clone Audio Note M10 with expensive driver tubes. Twenty seven inch off the floor, XLS responds to the slightest movement which makes tuning a breeze. The final speaker placement is a little more than six feet apart, a little more than four feet from the front wall and eight feet from the listening position. The speaker grilles were off, very slight toe in, I began listening.

Listening impression

Tonal wise, XLS is pretty neutral among its peers. It goes loud readily. Eva Cassidy's Live at Blue Alley is a good test of harmonic and overtones. A couple of things XLS strike me, first and foremost, I was impressed with how smooth XLS across the frequency spectrum. There is a sense of "lightness" never heard of at this price point. Get up and go, no lazy ass. Be it pianissimo nor fortissimo, XLS swings effortlessly. XLS spews abundance of overtone, putting a smile on my face. I am nuance chaser and I love simple arranged music because they allow me to enjoy overtones. How the plucking of guitar strings slowly vanish into the soundfield gives me butterfly in my stomach.

Refinement is another noteworthy virtue, rendering finesse. The tonal body is full, giving vocal a solid sculpture. No blurring edge, no abrasive and hairy note, and no midrange glare. XLS made me a spellbound audience.

Fleetwood Mac is not an easy feat
On high octane music like Fleetwood Mac, it is more a test of the amp capability rather than the speaker. It is largely unfair to blame the speaker if the amp is not up to the task. XLS proved to be an easy load for the amp despite its 86db/W/m. I have no doubt even a 30W tube amp would drive XLS crazy. Cranking it up volume to 930, the bass started to growl. Nope, it did not remind me of West Coast sound, JBL alike, no, XLS is more civil. Within its limit, XLS sounded quite linear. Bass retained its definition, I heard no obvious peaks or valleys which itself is a compliment.

The dynamic is very good regardless of price. Choking cymbal? Sluggish drum beat? Lazy double bass? Wobbling images? Not evidenced. XLS always remained composure! This is a sign of well-designed speaker. These are what realism about, injecting the essential excitements. Human ears are sensitive to rhythm and glitches. I feel awkward if a half second late cutting into the music. If I am going nitpicked, I would prefer a lit more sparkle at the top if you know where I am coming from.

Bass is bookshelf speaker's Achilles heel, as if limbs have been amputated. A sub is a common solution, however they are not without problems. XLS claims to 55hz is about right, I hear strong bass energies at 40hz, with some useful bass augmented by the room of course. I am not missing the bass much. Truth to be told, XLS is still unmistakably a bookshelf speaker, not quite as imposing as the floorstanding speaker in terms of bass magnitude, robustness and control. Lacking the visceral bass whack and the tightness of the more expensive floorstanding speakers, XLS does not embarrass. But then again, how much bass is enough? I find many high end systems still thirsting for more and more bass.

Room size is the limit of soundstage. XLS is no sloth in this department either, throwing a high, deep, wide soundstage, the natural forte of bookshelf speaker.  Neither the best in this regard, not nearly microscopic nor analytical like some able to zoom in like Leica. I am more concern with image size and image palpability, miniature images are not my cup of tea. This alone is a bonus.


As with all speakers, careful matching of cables will bring the best out of the speaker. Upgrade is tempting and Danny Ritchie is quick to reply email. I urged KF to buy the upgrade kits that consist of better capacitors and resistors. This upgrade would further enhance separation and detail, without a doubt will propel XLS to the next league. XLS is a nice all-rounder, it does not do one area particularly well to vow buyers but the more you live with it, the more you will find its charm pleasing. Be it classical, pop, jazz and rock, XLS takes all comers. XLS is rather sin of omission, what more do you want? You all on tight budget should make Danny Ritchie's XLS Encore into your shortlist, end of story. Enthusiastically recommended.

Reply from Curve Acoustics

Hi there, I was told by my engineer that you have written a article about xls encore. I have read it and I it was a well written and unbiased writeup, to be honest. However, there are a few misinformation there. I am written to you to give sufficient information so that the article is not confusing.

1. XLS Encore from us is not built from kits which is sold by GR-Research. All the drivers are freshly built from peerless factory, India. The woofers come with copper t-cup. The kit sold at GR is left over when AV123 closed down. We acquired the license to build from former chairman of AV123 and each pair we sold we pay loyalty to the designers. Our cabinet are built in through CNC with Grade A MDF, where they built cabinet for ADAM, and other European high end brands as well. They are assemble in Malaysia.

2. The first version of Encore, known as ONIX XLS, is designed by Danny Ritchie and Mark for AV123 based in Colorado USA. It was never a product of part express competitions or so. The 2nd version, XLS Encore, comes with better tweeter and tuned box for the same woofer. It is also build for AV123. These xls encore was never been sold as a kit until av123 closed down where Danny wants to help Santiago to get his money back.

3. We made a few enhancement to the speaker. Our encore has MDF based port vs plastics port, which can tuned down some amount of resonance in the box. The damping material is 3kg/m3 fiber glass, versus felt in original version.

4. We are using all copper terminal cup to improve conductivity.

5. The crossovers are built with better components that the kits. We use high quality cap and inductors.

Thank you.


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