Apogee Centaur Electronstatic Loudspeakers Reviewed

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Feeling a bit like the boy who cried 'Wolf!', I still can't help but regard this new range from Apogee as 'ribbons for the masses'. But unlike the last models which inspired this sort of reaction -- Stages and Calipers -- the new Centaurs really do make Apogees accessible to a wide range of consumers. And not only by virtue of cost.

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• Find a receiver to pair with the Centaur.

The name, credited to Brian Rivas of Pinewood Audio, is the neatest yet to denote 'hybrid'; I'm surprised it hasn't been used before. And as the Centaurs are hybrids, with traditional Apogee ribbons mated to dynamic woofers, the company has chosen to regard the series as a truly separate model range. As you'll learn, some of the practical concerns and the behavioural characteristics of the Centaurs differ drastically from the full-range Apogees, so there's no real problem with the two series -- full-range and hybrid -- overlapping in price. The dearest Centaur is quite unlike the least expensive full-range model, so retailers and consumers are spared any confusion.

It's all down to the cross-breeding. The Centaurs will invite into the fold a number of hi-fi enthusiasts who were tempted by the full-range models but wouldn't give up their existing amplifiers or make room for speakers craving whole square metres of lebensraum. The Centaurs, unlike their all-ribbon siblings, rewrite the rules of Apogee ownership as follows:

1) High sensitivity and a 6 ohm impedance make them suitable for use with 'real world' amplifiers. I've heard them work beautifully with a 50W/channel NAD.

2) The Centaurs give up little 'air' even when placed within 12 inches of the back wall. Hell, they sound pretty swell when shoved right up against the wall because the physical shape of a Centaur keeps the ribbon at least eight inches away from it due to depth of the woofer enclosure.

3) They work with valve amplifiers, including tiny ones. (I'm not kidding.)

4) They offer the decades-old familiarity of cone-sourced bass.

So, you can now consider Apogees without having to (1) budget for a Krell or Levinson or Threshold, (2) abandon tubes for solid-state, (3) knock out a wall in your listening room or (4) re-educate your ears for non-cone bass. I could rattle off a list of little budget amplifiers which made the Centaurs, especially the Minor, sing beautifully, but I don't want to suggest that they can't justify the good stuff. Believe me, you'll know the difference between a Centaur powered by some monster amp and a Centaur running off a wee Rotel or Pioneer integrated gem. It's just that it's so nice to be able to talk about ribbons without having to qualify every remark with 200-watts' worth of Class-A amplification.

The range consists of three models; this review deals with the Centaurus Minor (#1,149) at the bottom of the range and the Centaurus Major (#4,200) at the top. (Inbetween is the Centaur at #1,645.) So, while we're still waiting for an Apogee on the right side of four figures, the tariff -- courtesy of the Minor at least -- has dropped considerably.

What's common to all Centaurs is the basic topology, reminiscent of the Acoustat hybrids and other marriages of a dipole with dynamic driver underpinning. From the front, the speakers look like traditional Apogees which have been squared off and had their bass ribbons covered by black grilles instead of the familiar see-through mesh. But now the grilles cover large baffles containing dynamic woofers rather than planar-shaped bass drivers.

At the back, you see the enclosures dedicated to the woofers, which conveniently provide each Centaur with cross-sections that preclude the need for the 'legs' which support the 'all-panel' models. Apogee provides screw-in spikes, and they're not just for coupling the speakers to the floor. The spikes allow you to dial in some tilt, as important here as it is with the Stages if you wish to recreate some semblance of 3-D with any accuracy.

In case you were hoping that these populist models did away with finicky installation, think again. They're revealing enough to keep you awake at night contemplating new speaker leads, while the toe-in and tilt requirements make up for the relatively uncritical spacing vis a vis the back wall. And easy though they are to drive, they'll show up weaknesses which amplifiers have in areas other than power delivery. One amp I tried which bordered on the magical at medium levels fell apart when asked to drive them with brio. Although it could produce the SPLs, the sound turned coarse and lumpy. And yet the very same amplifier would allow the more ornery Celestion SL700s to bellow with finesse, so don't be misled by the comfy impedance. Then again, all HFN/RR readers know that complementary amplifier/speaker specifications don't always ensure a proper match.

The 26in dipole ribbon in the Centaurus Minor works from 800Hz up, with a 6.5in woofer working crossing over at that point in 12dB/octave steps. In the Major the crossover point for the 40in dipole ribbon is 450Hz, with the bottom octaves handled by a 10in woofer. The ribbons are the familiar Kapton-backed Apogee types, using high-energy strontium ferrite ceramic magnets.

Note that the Major can be bi-wired or bi-amplified, while the Minor cannot. This is due to both cost-savings and the belief that speakers this inexpensive (in their home-market) are unlikely to be purchased by consumers with a pair of stereo or four mono amps. Given that the Major revealed the worth of bi-wiring in a most emphatic manner, I can only dream of what this enhancement would do for the Minor. But I was informed by Apogee that dealers in the home market were emphatic about simplified connections for the Minor, while pricing is so critical at this point (at least it is Stateside) that the extra few bucks for splitting the crossover and fitting more five-way binding posts would push it into the next bracket. Perhaps the company can be persuaded to offer a bi-wireable export version for the more sophisticated European market.

Continue reading about Apogee's Centaur on Page 2.

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