Apogee Scintilla Loudspeakers Reviewed

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Martin's observations were part of something nearly unique in the magazine's history, though more common now when something monumental hits the market, e.g. the arrival of a new format. In September 1985, so excited were we about the Scintilla that HFN/RR published an epic review written by not one but three of us: then-editor John Atkinson, Martin and myself. As JA stated in his introduction, upon first hearing the Scintilla, 'I vowed then that, when the Scintilla reached the UK, it would get the full review treatment, afforded in the past to a handful of products...that have blazed new trails.' Among those John cited were the Quad ELS, Decca and Koetsu cartridges, Spendor BC1, Linn Sondek, Quad ESL-66 and the Krell KSA-50 - tough acts to follow.

John set the tone: 'I knew that not only was this loudspeaker unconventional in concept, it was also out of the ordinary regarding its sound quality. To put it mildly, I had never heard such a breathtakingly natural reproduction of orchestral sound and image in the adverse circumstances of an hotel room in my life.'

Of course, British audiophiles were not unfamiliar with ribbons, Stanley Kelly having produced a delightful and still-loved ribbon tweeter for Decca. JA admired the purity: 'It is nothing more than a practical realisation of Fleming's Left Hand Rule: a conductor loosely hangs between the poles of a magnet. When a DC voltage passes down the conductor it moves one way; when the current passes up, it moves the other. Apply an AC voltage and the ribbon oscillates, moving the air and producing sound.'

Of course, there was a downside in going beyond the ribbon-as-tweeter, which had been used by numerous companies before and after Decca and Kelly. Such ambition invited greater size, the need for more powerful magnets, and - in Apogee's case - a vicious impedance accompanied by a hunger for power. But JA also pointed out that a full-range ribbon, '...offers advantages in having inherently low levels of resonant coloration and, with attention paid to the magnetic circuitry, low distortion. Additionally, as the driver has a very large surface area and is a very good conductor of heat, its power handling capability can be very high indeed.'

Everything about the Apogee, with the exception of the Monster-supplied terminals and internal wiring, and components in the crossover, was made in-house: you didn't call up an OEM manufacturer and simply order drive units off the shelf. (Note that this was in the early days of bi-wiring, and the Monster terminals were the only ones up to the job; Apogee supplied a special tightening tool as well. But whatever controversy raged then about single-vs-bi-wiring, the Scintilla seemed to work well only when bi-wired.) Apogee filled a massive factory with their own unique tools, jigs, and such items as precision foil corrugators and a half-million ampere-turn magnetiser for fashioning the screamingly complex magnet structures - major investments.

But the results staggered all three of us. I had actually experienced the Full-Range two years earlier, so I was waiting for the Scintilla, realising even then that - especially for the UK market - a more practical sibling was required. But we were well-prepared for what to expect, the bulk of our experiences involving amp selection.

Bill Beard provided me with a special pair of mono P100s good for 200W and able to drive 1 ohm, while Martin reckoned that, 'the Krell KSA-100 was the minimum safe bet.' True, you could with some effort, re-wire your Scintillas at home for 4 ohm operation, but with a 6dB loss in voltage-rated sensitivity. At 1 ohm, MC estimated the sensitivity to be 73dB/1W, noting that, 'Consideration also needs to be given to the peak current demand of the Scintilla at 1ohm. Taking an average impedance of 0.9ohms, a Krell KMA-200 on full song will provide up to 60V peak. Assuming minimal cable losses, the Scintillas will draw peak currents of over 60amps. Now you can see why blockbuster amplifiers of Krell current capacity are required for 1ohm working.'

Somehow, we all got them singing. JA was driven to write, 'It is the finest speaker I have ever heard to reproduce human voice....the voice just soars over its whole range of pitch and dynamics. Piano, too, has an effortless quality to reproduction, and percussion of all kinds reproduced with a uniqueness to each sound that I have rarely heard. The speaker allowed me to become an aficionado of recorded drum sound; it imparted so little of its own character on the sound that the formant structure of each instrument was allowed to stand alone.'

For me, they became the reference that I have never heard bettered, and the only reason I don't use them constantly for reviewing is this: because it's out of production, the Scintilla is irrelevant. Reviewers must assess components in systems that readers can approximate in shops. Actually, there's another reason: even 20 years later, there are still precious few amplifiers that can drive the Scintillas properly.

Call it a freak, an aberration in audio history. The Scintilla influenced nothing beyond a few of the Apogee models that would follow. Other manufacturers simply looked at what it took to make a full-range ribbon and went back to lighter, easier, more conventional technologies. Apogee's fortunes suffered because of legal matters, certain elements of the US press inaugurated a psychotic vendetta, and - I suspect - Jason lost interest. The company disappeared into the recesses of a conglomerate, while the name lives on in a brand making, I believe, small digital amplifiers. But for those of us who heard the Scintillas, used them, lived with them, well, nothing else even comes close.

Note: Owners of Apogee speakers should visit www.perigee.com.au and www.apogeespeakers.com for information on servicing and acquiring second-hand pairs

Tony Shuman Remembers the Scintilla
Tony Shuman worked for Apogee throughout its history, and became, in a way, the keeper of the flame. He generously offered to contribute to this article:

'I do not know the exact total number of Scintillas sold. It went through four iterations. The first 40 pairs were made with 4 ohm transformers. It was a disaster and we took back all of them. At the time, we were using a formed plastic cover which we glued on and had no idea how to remove it. It was not a fun time. I believe that the next 300 pairs were strictly 1ohm. At that point, we changed to the 1 ohm/4 ohm combination which remained until the end. I think that we produced somewhere between 1500 2000 pairs in total.

'The 4 ohm change came from the Duetta design. I will never forget calling Leo one night with "my strange design concept that would increase the resistance." I felt that it should solve the problem but could not back it with facts. Leo looked at my chicken scratches and could not say that it would not work. At the time, there was another partner (an MIT graduate) who I knew would laugh at it, so I quietly went ahead and built a speaker and let the results speak for themselves.

'It certainly was a heady time for all involved. I have always hoped that someone with more money and ego than brains would pick up the fallen sword and bring Apogee speakers back to life. However, I have come to believe that it is wishful thinking and meant to be a relic of the past.'

Additional Resources
• Read more floorstanding loudspeaker reviews from HomeTheaterReview.com.
• Find an audiophile grade amplifier to pair with the Scintilla.
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