Never one to mince words, Apogee's Jason Bloom said quite categorically that manufacturers who ignore the affordable products for the glory-making flagships need their heads examined. 'Who wants another #40,000 speaker?' he asked, eyes raised skyward. Studying the world economy and the contraction of the hi-fi market, he decided that the next Apogee model would come in at the bottom of the range. At the 1989 Chicago CES, the company unveiled the diminutive Stage, and I swear I heard sighs of relief from the retailers in attendance.
The Stage isn't my 'truly proletarian' Apogee, which is something which would sell for below four figures; I'd like to see it if only to keep the anti-high-enders among you off my case. That
speaker is still on the drawing board. The Stage, meanwhile, is still costly at #2350 but not quite so unattainable, so the down-pricing policy (following Duetta, then Caliper) is continuing as planned. But there are two other features of the Stage which make it more appealing to a wider UK audience than its dearer siblings.
The most obvious of these features is the size, the Stage being even smaller than the Quad ESL 63. I mention that speaker specifically because it is the UK's premier panel speaker, it
sells in great numbers in this home market of allegedly tiny rooms and nobody ¬ever¬ bitches about its size. The Stage measures a mere 37 1/2in tall by 26in (at its widest point), the panel
itself being a couple of inches thick. Yes, it takes up more space than certain box-type systems because it must be placed a few feet into the room, but a pox on those who wheel out the old
analogy about the monolith in ¬2001¬. This speaker is nothing short of 'cute', and all that the word implies. [Note: to those who have never heard American as she is spoke: 'Cute' can also mean 'cheeky', but 'cheeky' doesn't have the aesthetic implications of 'cute', as in 'the Andrex Puppies'.]
The other feature, one which saves money, is the amplifier matching requirement. No longer must you consider an amplifier capable of arc welding. The Stage was conceived as a product to mate with 'a good 50-watter' (read: an amp that costs less than the speaker itself) and I've confirmed this by running the Stages with the Aragon 4004, my venerable Beard P100s (valves into an Apogee!!!!), the Solen Tiger and others. Reports from the field suggest wonderful pairings with the Counterpoint SA-12 and its recent replacement, and I'd expect that myriad affordable power amps from the likes of Musical Fidelity, Naim, Exposure, Hafler, Adcom, B&K, Muse and others would serve as nicely.
What this means is that the Stage needn't be approached as in the manner of the earlier Apogees, in that you had to double the price tag to include the amplifiers. You're still looking at
#2350 plus a minimum of another #500 for an amp, but that's a far cry from, say, a Caliper plus the least costly Krell. In addition to greater sensitivity, the Stage has a virtually flat impedance of 3 ohms or better, so Apogee's legendary amplifier-eating propensities are not present in the latest family member.
The method of squeezing a quart out of a pint pot – we're talking genuine, sub-40Hz low-end response from a tiny panel – and making the speaker easy to drive involves some canny thinking on the part of the Stage's designers. The magnets are much more powerful than those in the previous models, allowing for a more compactly array as well as an increase in sensitivity. Slightly heavier driver material, now featuring sandwich construction with the conductor on both sides of a plastics-based 'filling', and smaller drivers raise the impedance to a kinder level while lowering the coloration in the bottom octaves. This is accomplished by virtue of the sandwich construction's greater continuity, discernable when feeding the speaker with a sine wave for visible confirmation. The company spent over a year just in researching the material and the construction methods for this new technology, and it's paid off by making the ribbons no more adversarial than a good cone system.
These details aside, the Stage looks exactly like what it is: a miniature Apogee, right down to its trapezoidal woofer, long strip mid/tweeter and glass-fibre shell. The review pair, in anthracite with mahogany trim, looked like someone had cut off the top half of a Diva and placed it on the floor. That's what I mean about 'cute'. For those who wish to depart from the standard finishes of anthracite or taupe with wooden trim in mahogany or basswood, the company also offers silver trim, or all-white or all-black lacquer.
Another first for this Apogee is installation without the need to enlist the help of the local stevedores. The Stages weigh 60lb each, not a lot when you consider that Geoff Capes can schlep a London bus for a few hundred feet. Assembly, outlined comprehensively in the illustrated manual, involves only the fixing of the four feet with three screws each.
The set-up itself is absolutely straightforward, the Stage presenting only two options to the user. The first is the choice of single or bi-wiring (or, if your pre-amp has two sets of outputs, bi-amping; there will be no external crossover like the DAX for this model). The second is the use of a toggle switch above the speaker terminals to add a 2dB boost to the mid/treble region for room or system matching. One thing this mini does not require is a bass boost, as you'll see. As for the positioning, it's all outlined in the manual, with a thoroughness reminiscent
of the instructions for the Wilson WATT.
In essence, Apogee has taken the mystery out of speaker positioning with this model. The manual guides you according to room size and the distance of the listener from the speakers. An adjustable spike at the back of each 'foot' is used to fix the speaker closer to or away from a vertical position. The nearer you sit to the Stages, the more nearly vertical they should be.
Apogee even supplies a plumb bob to be used in conjunction with a chart in the manual. Hang the line from the rear upper edge of the speaker and measure the distance between the bottom of the speaker and the point where the plumb bob touches the floor (anywhere between 4 1/2 and 6 inches). You'd have to be right on top of the Stages to need them in a fully vertical stance; most will require a slight backward slope. This affects imaging, dimensionality, arrival times and treble quality, but the instructions are dependable so please don't start quaking with audiophobia.
Read more about the Apogee Stage on Page 2.
Toe-in is not required due to a carefully determined dispersion pattern; the most that Apogee suggests is a mere 3/8in. As far as positioning near the walls is concerned a minimum of 36in from the back and 8in from the sides will suffice, but they do benefit from being as far into the room as you can place them. The only other requirement is a minimum of six feet between the Stages; I could find no upper limit (in a room with a 25ft wall), with even a 15 foot separation not creating a hole in the middle.
A word, though, about the bass from these babies; skip this paragraph if you have a room which allows you to site the Stages at least three feet from each wall. Some listeners have found that the Stages can sound a bit rich or bottom-heavy. Some tweaking was applied to the lower registers, a mild lift to augment the sound of a system which one can assume was designed for small rooms. For those who don't luxuriate in listening rooms measured by the hectare, here's a free tip from the Apogee underground and useful with a number of other dipoles: If you want to tame the bass and don't want to cover your rear walls with Sonex or glass-fibre or Tube Traps, take two small squares of felt, say 8x10in, and attach them to the rear of each speaker, behind the bass drivers. For under a quid, you have a crude but perfectly effective bass equalizer.
Anyway, I didn't have to do anything other than follow the instructions to the letter, any further tampering on my part resulting in butchery of the sound. And, oh!, what a sound! Considering that I almost didn't get to review these in time for my deadline (you try dealing with HM Customs on December 22nd), I must mention my relief at the way the Stages preclude the need for a run-in period or experimenting with positioning. And let me assure you that the initial frisson of ecstasy has been sustained after a concentrated 40 hours of listening.
The first ear-opener, the single greatest act performed by the Stages to win you over, is the portrayal of scale, and in all directions. All of the most memorable hi-fi components have one
or two tricks which defy their specifications, like amplifiers which drive far more than they should. With the Stage, it's the ability to provide height up to the top of a Diva, or six feet. I tested this with my opening volley, Willy DeVille's 'Assassin of Love', expecting the Stages to sound, well, small , but they rose to the occasion. But note that this is only possible when you've dialled in the right amount of slope relative to your listening position. Soundstage width extended just beyond the edges of the speakers, but this is not a width-limiting property; as I said before, the you can place them as far apart as you like in any normal domestic setting without tearing out the middle.
As for depth, hey, this little beauty drives a wrecking ball through that back wall, throwing rear images as far back as does the Diva. This, too, can be compromised by the wrong amount of
tilt, the wrong back wall material (undamped or thinly curtained is best) or not enough distance between speaker and wall. For those of you who think I'm going to suggest something ludicrous like 12 feet into the room, relax: such glorious depth was possible with the Stages a mere 40in into the room. And Apogee isn't kidding about toe-in. More than the maximum of 3/8in squeezes the images into those matchstick men not unlike actors in a wide-screen epic (or the credits, at any rate) when shown on the telly without the right lens compensation: tall and thin as if made from putty and str-r-r-etched upward.
What's placed within this soundstage is located with absolute certainty, edges clearly defined and relative depth preserved; if you want flat, featureless Viewmaster-style 3-D, you'll have to
listen elsewhere. Again, the Willy DeVille track is a cracker for showing off this aspect of the Stage's performance, but you might also check out one of the many well-recorded King's Singers releases and the HFN/RR Test CD's garage door.
But enough of the spatial characteristics. The next thing which elicits a smile is the mid-band, which is so clear yet so-o-o seductive. A surfeit of detail often leads to synaptic overload; the way the Stages present every shred of sound is so 'in balance' that nuances like audible breaths and minor rustles do not distract the listener. They merely add to a truly coherent whole. Because the Stages are so quick and controlled, crisp sounds never turn edgy; this is another way of saying that they offer just the right amount of lushness, hence my use of the term 'seductive' two sentences back. I found this to be the case with the rear toggle in the 'normal' position; even the slight, 2dB lift available in the 'high' position is enough to upset this
balance (in my system, that is). Those of you with slightly absorbent rooms or systems which tend toward the over-rich may benefit from the boost.
As for the bass, I'm almost embarrassed to say that the Stages deliver enough weight and extension as to make a larger system seem like pure overkill. With the Sousa track on HFN/RR Test CD II, Depeche Mode's 'Personal Jesus' and a dozen other weighty performances the Stages were capable of delivering all the mass you could possibly require. Slam and attack were perfectly preserved whether the bass was generated acoustically or
synthetically, so those of you with children (or with children who are allowed to play with their parents' hi-fi) will listen to otherwise odious recordings such as rap and house with a
different appreciation. You'll probably never grow to like the stuff – lobotomies are a high price to pay for acquiring modern tastes – but you'll marvel at the way silicon chips can plumb the depths of your hearing.
For any of you reaching for your chequebooks, I must also add a caveat. The Stage, for all of its precision, low coloration, speed, spatial excellence and top-to-bottom consistency, is shown
up in one key area by both its costlier relatives and a number of high-sensitivity, high-power-handling designs using other technologies. While the dynamics of this speaker are good enough to place it in the uppermost regions of audiophilia, it can sound a touch compressed when playing material with vast swings. The extra 5 or 10 Hz at the bottom and 3 to 11dB greater headroom available from bigger Apogees will be apparent if you play, say, the Sousa first on the Stage and then on the Diva. The heavy metal I used, much Metallica and ZZ Top, didn't reveal this side of the Stage because the levels are too close to constant, while delicate material such as solo acoustic guitar, however sprightly the playing, revealed nothing but a shade more richness when heard through the Diva. But if you feed both speakers some
crack-the-pavements marching bands or well-recorded big band material, you'll find that the Stage reveals itself to be, most assuredly, the baby in the Apogee clan.
That doesn't stop me from placing it in my hi-fi hot list. I adhere to a fairly rigid price-point-based list of faves, however dissimilar the speakers may be in design and intent. The speakers for which I would shell out real money if I were in a shopping condition, range from the Celestion 3 at #99, to the LS3/5A at #330, to the Celestion 3000 at #699 and so on, up to the Diva-plus-DAX at the uppermost limits. Without question, the Stage is now my personal choice for a speaker costing above #2k but below three grand, and even then I'm not so sure I could think of anything between it and the Diva which could tempt me. And I'm writing as one who doesn't have to worry about domestic acceptability, the wee dimensions not relevant in a large, dedicated listenig room. I feel like the lucky devil who realised that the only difference between the dearest Ferrari and the bottom model is an unusable top speed, so why not save the #40,000? I have a sneaky feeling that this speaker is going to rip holes in the high-end market...and it couldn't have arrived at a better time.