Against all odds, electrostatic loudspeakers are currently more viable, practical and affordable than they've ever been. True, the box-type, dynamic speaker will forever remain the dominant format, despite the evolution of the flat panel concept, and electrostatics will always need mains power and some sort of bass augmentation - unless you 'go large'. But the Netherlands' Final, being more of the Martin Logan school of ESL design than of the Quad or Sound Labs factions, which unashamedly make big speakers to provide for bass, might have come up with the most welcoming solution yet.
Final - like ML - offers hybrids with conventional woofers, while retaining its preference for tall and thin speakers with small footprints. It is this adherence to compact designs which has led directly to the 0.2 system. It is the culmination of a lot of lateral thinking, in order to make it a speaker which would appeal to a far wider audience than the sort of audiophiles who can afford the floorspace for bigger systems. To do this, the company had to make the main and centre speakers non-hybrids, as the addition of cone woofers ups the girth.
With these new, anorexic panels, Final has made the 0.2 package more appealing from the outset by allowing all five panels to be wall-mounted. Their depth happens to match that of a typical plasma screen - surprise, surprise. But Final has also created a true
That's not all, however, as the Final 0.2 system has one other ace up its sleeve, a development which will leave its electrostatic competition reeling. And why this hasn't happened before (unless it has and I've forgotten...) I'll never know, it's so damned clever. Final has done away with the need for up to five AC outlets and two types of cable - signal AND mains - for each speaker. The trick is a very cool box which looks like a power amp. Instead, of containing amplifiers, it houses the energisers and an audio path, and it takes its power from a single 12V wall wart.
It's this controller which then feeds both the mains for energising the panels and the audio signal down its own dedicated cables. The standard system came with so much of this dedicated cable - with captive attachment to each of the speakers - that I even had extra wire for the rears: out of the box, the rears have 15m of wire, and the three across the from have 5m lengths. If you need more, this can be specified at the point of purchase.
At the back of the unit are two sets of connectors for up to five channel operation: 3.5mm sockets to take the signal from the power amplifier, and non-standard, dedicated three-pin sockets which accept the dedicated leads from the speakers. As the Final control unit sat right next to the Marantz AV-95M multi-channel amp, I needed only 0.5m runs of speaker wire between power amp and controller.
As for the speakers themselves, the system arrived with four primary model 0.2 ESLs measuring 120x20x4cm (HWD); I used the quartet as floorstanders, on their small circular plinths. The centre channel measures only 63x20x4cm (WHD), and it has its own stand, or can be attached to a wall bracket. From there on, there is only one restriction, which will preclude the 0.2 system's use with the most basic of A/V receivers, the ones flourishing in the sub �500 sector: Final recommends 70W or 90W minimum depending on which of the conflicting catalogues you're given, while both agree that the impedance is 4 ohms and the sensitivity 87dB. On the other hand, I find that a bit pessimistic, as I was hardly cranking the Marantz - which I thought was only a 50Wx6 unit - to provide realist levels in a 14x22ft room. So they just might work with all of those budget Yamahas and Onkyos and Denons.
Naturally, panels this small are not going to rattle your teeth with their bass, so the supplied Sub10 subwoofer is mandatory, and its installation can be a bit tricky depending on how your processor or receiver deals with the 0.1 element of a 5.1 system. You need to feed it more than the lowest-frequency effects element of a 5.1 mix, so you will be playing around with both its crossover and level settings - it is recommended that you set the crossover at the maximum point of 300Hz - and you should experiment with all of your A/V processor's set-up variables, e.g. choice of speaker size, internal crossover point or any other fine-tuning options, as well as speaker distance from listener. Fortunately, the Lexicon MC-1 is comprehensively equipped for set-up, so I got a pretty good match.
Inside the Sub10 subwoofer is a 300W amplifier feeding a 10in active aluminium cone woofer and there's also a passive 10in woofer alongside the main driver. At the back are the controls for crossover and level and inputs for mains and left+right or single bass feeds. Final specifies its operation as 28-50Hz fixed and 50-300Hz variable, with a slope of 24dB/octave. The enclosure is a 30cm cube, and there's no grille to protect the aluminium cones, so make use of its size to position it out of harm's way.Read more about the Final 0.2 HTS speaker system's performance on Page 2.
What will probably do as much as size for selling this speaker to nervous ESL wannabees are the looks, which clearly address the BWFH factor. In addition to their thinness, categorically designed to complement plasma screens, as I said above, they are quite, quite handsome: a combination of satin finished aluminium frames and transparent stators protected by black mesh. Given the constraints of making ESL panels covered by mesh look different from one another, they will never be mistaken for Martin Logans. The latter are curved, often trimmed in wood, a shade wider, etc. etc. etc.
Add it all together, and you have a recipe not just for success, but a smash hit: looks, size and convenience. All that remains is the sound, and the news is almost entirely good. First and foremost, considering that we're talking about an all-ESL system which must stand comparison with literally hundreds of box-type speaker rivals for similar or less money, it sounds undeniably as ESLs should. There's an openness and transparency which, while absolutely crucial in good stereo, is even more important in surround sound if you're to enjoy seamless front-to-back transitions. Using strictly 'showcase' passages, such as the sound extravaganzas accompanying the Dolby and DTS logos on many DVDs, the Finals were able to cope with both the attacks and the dynamics of the logo music while providing clean sweeps around the room.
This was particularly promising, because the Finals were slipped into a system consisting of five Martin Logans and a REL subwoofer, the Martin Logan Ascents on their own costing more than the complete Final system. Alas, scale was not on the same par, and the Finals never recreated as big a field or image, but then the comparison is wholly invalid, like judging the new Mini against a Mercedes: horses for courses. In this case, the Final should be auditioned in the context of medium sized rooms and medium-priced hardware.
By those standards, the system doesn't merely acquit itself well: it shines. As a two-channel-only package, the performance is 'baby Quad' all the way, with the exception of bass-to-panel transition. Movie DVDs probably mask this, or aren't quite as critical, but you do notice the very high crossover point with pure music, especially grand piano and male vocals of the Barry White variety. But, as UKD points out, because the 0.2 system is very much mix'n'match, you can order it with Final's bigger speakers for the main front pair. Which I'll get to in a moment.
Listening to a mix of CDs and DVD-As from Chesky's Christy Baron to the new Telarc King-Singers-Do-The-Beatles-Again, and DVDs including Almost Famous, Kurosawa's Ran and the magnificent Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, the Final system consistently revealed one major weakness, an upper-midband sizzle which I couldn't remove. Slipping in the Theta intrepid, Rotel processor, changing DVD players - nothing minimised it, but I wouldn't rule out the benefits of valve or valve hybrid amplification like the GRAAF 535. Fortunately, it didn't exacerbate sibilance, and mainly manifested itself on frenetic brass and (in a cinema context) explosions and rainfall.
None of which will matter when you learn the price. Keep in mind that this includes a subwoofer and all of your cables: the complete 0.2 system sells for a remarkably sane 3750. Add to it one of the more serious A/V receivers from Denon or Onkyo at around a grand-and-a-bit, a decent 300- 400 DVD player and a 32in widescreen TV from Philips or Sony or Panasonic, and you have a magnificent, room-friendly multi-channel A/V package for 6000. Hate cinema? Then the 'starter kit' with just the controller, subwoofer and two speakers is only 1875. But KK's tip this month is to go for the complete 0.2 Home Theatre System, while specifying the Final 0.3 speaker instead of the 0.2 for the fronts for only 245 more. Which, conveniently, comes to 3995. A bargain? You'd better believe it.