Hong Kong-based MarkAudio-SOTA is a collaborative effort between a relative newcomer to the industry, SOTA Acoustics, and a well-established, albeit small, brand that specializes in full-range drivers, MarkAudio Loudspeakers. Even though the company entered the U.S. market fairly recently (2015), this isn't the first time MarkAudio-SOTA has appeared on HomeTheaterReview.com. We reviewed the Viotti One bookshelf speaker back in January.
At first glimpse, the Cesti T ($3,495/pair) looks to be a fairly conventional tower speaker. The cabinet is rectangular, and the driver arrangement looks like a standard three-way layout. It's actually a two-way design, though, that uses a two-inch full-range driver for higher frequencies and two 4.4-inch full-range drivers to cover the remaining lower frequencies. The company claims that this array of full-range drivers, with their identical cone profiles, combined with a minimalist crossover, gives the Cesti T the ability to reproduce "extremely realistic body and depth" that other loudspeakers struggle to reproduce. I can only assume, considering MarkAudio's specialization in full-range drivers, that the engineering team wanted to preserve the positive aspects of a single full-range driver loudspeaker while eliminating or at least mitigating the negative aspects, such as limited dynamic range and power handling.
The Cesti T's cabinet is constructed of high-density fiberboard (HDF), a pretty rare and somewhat expensive upgrade from the medium-density fiberboard (MDF) that is the industry standard. Also, the top two-inch driver is housed in its own internal chamber, while the two 4.4-inch drivers are housed in the remaining ported enclosure. This is the first time I've ever seen a speaker that is ported in the front and the rear, a fantastically convenient addition that lessens the problem of room placement in that it allows the user to take advantage of room gain by plugging the front port with the supplied plug and keeping the rear vented (or vice versa). As if that weren't enough, MarkAudio-SOTA also engineered very shallow biased waveguides into the front baffle for each driver that gently direct dispersion. This means that, in a stereo setup, there will be a left and right speaker, with each waveguide either pointing inward or away from the listener, based on preference.
I have to admit, I initially (and somewhat jadedly) took MarkAudio-SOTA's slogan "Hear Our Difference" as a challenge of sorts. To my surprise, the Cesti T was not only significantly different from any other loudspeaker I've had in my listening room, but I also found that it renewed my faith in an industry that can be very cut-and-paste.
The first thing I noticed upon receiving the Cesti T speakers was that they were the easiest speakers in the world to unbox. It would be a crime to not mention the speakers' clever tapeless packaging. Unboxing took all of 45 seconds and required zero cleanup afterward. This is worth mentioning given that certain loudspeaker manufacturers leave my living room looking like a Styrofoam mail-bomb has gone off after the unboxing process. So, with great enthusiasm, I thank you, MarkAudio-SOTA.
I was shocked at the Cesti T's downright petite dimensions. At approximately 35 inches tall and 44 pounds each, these are more like really tall stand-mount speakers than towers. For some reason, after viewing many images, I had imagined them to be at least 50 percent larger than they really are.
The Cesti T has large, high-quality binding posts on the back, with a V-shaped divider that prevents the positive and negative ends of the speaker wire from touching--a very nice touch. The speakers also come with magnetic grilles, which should be standard for a speaker in this price range. Oddly, even though they come with holes that are drilled and (appear to be) threaded for floor spikes, no floor spikes were included with my review samples--only sticky rubber semi-circular feet (although it appears that MarkAudio-SOTA has made some changes in this department; more on that deeper in the review).
Positioning the Cesti T was a unique experience. Since the drivers have identical radiating profiles, the amount of toe-in and the distance between the speakers relative to the listener will dramatically change how the speakers sound. This made experimenting with their placement much easier than usual because the effects of toeing in or widening the listening distance produced consistently predictable results. I found that they sounded their best in a relatively nearfield setup with approximately five feet between them, with slight toe-in. An unusual aberration I discovered was that, once I got up and walked around the room, the treble response was drastically reduced, similar to leaving the sweet spot when listening to electrostatic speakers--but not as severe.
Lastly, I think it's worth mentioning that I accidentally set the speakers up with the waveguides facing outward during my back-and-forth comparisons with my JBL Studio 590s, and I only noticed because the speakers started sounding annoyingly normal. In my room, the waveguides facing inward added a character to the presentation that I enjoyed. Some may disagree, but the way I see it, more options in positioning is always better.
I evaluated the Cesti T in my finished basement (roughly 18 by 23 feet), which is heavily acoustically treated with GIK Acoustics corner and wall treatments. I positioned the Cesti Ts about five feet away from the rear wall and each sidewall. I utilized my Denon PMA-A100 integrated amp (80 watts at eight ohms, 150 watts at four ohms) and the matching Denon DCD-A100 CD/SACD player for all listening. With the Cesti T's nominal impedance of six ohms, a sensitivity of 87 dB (one watt at one meter), and a recommended input power between 50 to 100 watts, the Denon gear was an ideal choice for a simple, high-performing two-channel setup.
Click over to Page Two for Performance, The Downside, Comparison & Competition, and Conclusion...
I decided that the fastest way to get a grasp of the Cesti T's character was to just play some music with which I'm intimately familiar. The gloss white Cesti Ts staring me in the face inspired me to baptize them by fire with an album from a band that, much like the designers of the Cesti T, do whatever the hell they want. De-Loused in the Comatorium (Universal) is The Mars Volta's first and arguably most digestible album. It may not be a particularly fantastic-sounding audiophile recording, but "Cicatriz Esp" is twelve and a half minutes of psychedelic progressive rock that makes for an ideal test for how a speaker handles "busy" music.
The first thing I noticed during the opening waves of music was how well this speaker images. Every single thing that happens within the soundstage has a distinct point-source. Cedric Bixler Zavala's vocals were hanging dead center. The rest of the band wrapped around, extending outward about a foot past the outer edge of the speakers. Even with very aggressive passages, each element was readily delineated within the soundstage. This is a feat that should not be understated. Many speakers' soundstages turn a bit mushy during violent rock passages. At around the six-minute mark, the song winds down into a long psychedelic lull that really showed off just how well these speakers image. Omar Rodriguez Lopez's creepy "wah wah" guitar sounds lurked around the soundstage in a way that makes you visualize those noises actually taking shape in space right in front of you.
But there is a small downside ... literally. The limited stature of the speaker causes the soundstage height to be unusually short. This caused me to either recline my listening chair or slouch down to get my ears at the right height to maximize the illusion. This won't be an issue if you happen to have some modern-styled seating that sits a few inches lower than normal.
The tonal balance is slightly midrange-heavy in an enjoyable way. Vocals and instruments carry more weight than I'm used to hearing. This midrange-centric sound gave the guitars on this track a stronger presence and caused the vocals to sound slightly recessed at times.
With the Cesti Ts being so far out into the room, I didn't expect much bass out of the two 4.4-inch drivers handling the low-end sound. I was wrong. While there is a distinct absence of lower sub-bass below 50 Hz, I was astounded by the punch these little speakers put out. Not only was the bass muscular, but it was precise. I could easily distinguish between various drums and the bass guitar, and I could feel them resonating in my listening chair. I have strong doubts as to whether this speaker measures flat, but I don't consider that a drawback. The bass in most speakers is usually limited to descriptions of either "tight and clean" or "powerful and deep." This speaker does the unusual trick of producing well-extended, punchy bass while never sounding loose or over-boosted.
The Cesti T's fleshy, full sound combined with its athletic bass make it immediately likable. What these speakers do differently, once you arrange them to produce a personal soundfield, is coherence. There is something about the sound that makes the word "organic" continuously pop into my mind. The Cesti T really does sound like a single source. I have a feeling this style of sound is what brands like KEF and ELAC are chasing with their coaxial drivers, and MarkAudio-SOTA really nails it in this regard. Although there were a few passages in "Cicatriz Esp" that I considered bright, it was at a level that was almost not worth mentioning. Treble brightness at this degree almost certainly falls within the realm of personal preference and tone controls.
Next, I wanted to test the Cesti T with some material that was more challenging in the nether regions. Many modern albums have egregiously over-cooked bass that dominates the recordings. Radiohead frontman Thom Yorke's first solo album, The Eraser (XL Recordings), is certainly guilty here. While it's a well-recorded album, The Eraser flirts with excess bass that sounds good on a factory car stereo but can sound rotund through a stereo system with true full-range sound. With all of that in mind, any floorstanding speaker that can't reproduce bass-heavy electronic music loudly while still behaving itself will never receive passing marks from me. So, I cued up my favorite track on the album, "Harrowdown Hill."
Thankfully, the Cesti T performed quite well. Once again, the lower bass response goes down to a certain point and falls off a cliff, but what bass there is sounds excellent. Thom Yorke's voice imaged dead-center, as expected. The electronic textures that pop in and out at the extreme width of the soundstage were dazzling. Again, the combination of this speaker's imaging ability, tight-fisted bass, and coherence made this track extremely enjoyable. I found the Cesti T's treble to be most well-behaved here, providing excellent detail and edge without adding any wince-inducing glare.
As happy as I was with the sound, I got the feeling that anything upwards of 100 decibels with bass-heavy passages like those in "Harrowdown Hill" would cause the Cesti T to lose its composure. Considering the caution-inducing recommendations from the manufacturer on the power ratings, my feelings are warranted, but I was never able to get the Cesti T to misbehave from loudness because my ears quit before the speaker would.
For my last music choice, I decided to disregard Jerry Del Colliano's insistence that I quit being a creepy audiophile that sits alone in the dark and launched a real test for the Cesti Ts. Robben Ford's "If" from his 1999 release Supernatural (Universal Classics & Jazz). This is an excellent proving-ground track because it presents the speaker with the difficult proposition of realistically reproducing a variety of acoustic instruments and vocals while delivering powerful, clean bass and precise soundstage imagery.
Starting off, Robben's voice was, again, densely represented dead-center between the speakers. The trumpet and stringed instruments appeared on the left and right boundaries, floating in space, with startlingly authentic weight and substance. The low-end from the bass and drums was quite powerful, but appropriately so.
While listening to "If," I found I was able to dispense with the incessant questioning of speaker positioning and tonal balance because my brain had passively identified an alignment of "rightness" that allowed me to simply take in the song. Once again, this is something that doesn't happen often, and I feel the need to emphasize that these speakers re-create acoustic instruments and vocals so well that they unshackle my mind from the burden of monitoring the music and instead just let me experience it. There wasn't a single sonic element (other than the soundstage height that I mentioned earlier) during this quite loud listening session that I wasn't entirely pleased with. Music of this sort is unquestionably the Cesti T's strong suit.
Interested to hear how the unusual characteristics of the Cesti T translated into watching movies, I loaded a film that is a personal favorite and one I am, once again, very familiar with: The Professional. The scene in which Gary Oldman's character Norman Stansfield decides to murder a mostly innocent family in retaliation for his drug holder diluting his cocaine was particularly enjoyable--sonically speaking, that is.
The first thing I noticed was that I still didn't miss my subwoofers. The consistently muscular mid to upper bass on the Cesti T gave satisfying weight to the film's score and great impact to special effects. This was actually contrary to my expectations, even after experiencing all that they offered with music, because films tend to rely more on the lower-bass frequencies that the Cesti T simply cannot reproduce. But, I could feel violent events reverberating in my listening chair, and gunshots especially pounded my chest; notably, when the drug holder's wife meets her aquatic doom in the form of a shotgun blast through her bubble bath.
Despite their admirable bass performance, a truly visceral cinematic experience hinges on thundering sub-bass in the action and scores of most films, so the Cesti T probably shouldn't be at the top of your list of home theater speakers unless you're planning on augmenting the bottom end with one or preferably two subwoofers. Still, the imaging of voices and other sound effects was great. Dialogue carried a lot of weight without sounding fat, and intelligibility was nice. At no point did I notice any frequency aberrations that drew my attention to the loudspeaker.
"They don't look like they would sound that good." This statement from my wife, who knows next to nothing about audio products, sums up my feelings about this speaker concisely. Outside of the limited soundstage height, aesthetics are the Cesti T's Achilles heel. First and foremost, for this price, little rubber nubs as feet just don't cut it. This speaker needs (no, deserves!) upgraded footing. As it turns out, as we go to print with this review, we've been informed that MarkAudio-SOTA has developed a metal plinth that will be available for the Cesti T, thereby obviating my complaints about the height for future buyers.
I'd also love to see an option to select a black driver color, or even the copper driver that MarkAudio-SOTA offers for its flagship Viotti One. And while we're making wish lists, a variety of wood veneers would really elevate the Cesti T's design, but I'm aware that wood veneers can be quite expensive. Most people who saw the Cesti T in my home agreed that they simply don't look like they cost $3,500, which is a shame because they certainly sound like they do.
Comparison and Competition
Comparing the Cesti T to my reference JBL Studio 590 ($1,999/pair), I couldn't help but notice that, with a staggering 14.5-inch height difference, the JBL outperforms the Cesti T in soundstage size, and by no small margin. That said, while the JBL has excellent bass response and digs deeper than the Cesti T, I enjoy what the Cesti T does with bass more than the JBL. The Cesti T is also a winner in regards to providing realistic imaging within its narrower soundstage, but only by a hair. Both speakers have high-frequency drivers that cross over much lower than standard tweeters do, and I think this quality is what endows both with such excellent sonic characteristics. Notably, the Cesti T never punished my ears like the JBL can on occasion; on the other hand, that speedy, cutting-edge JBL sound can also be a lot of fun. Aesthetically, it's a toss-up. The Cesti T has an obviously nicer fit and finish, but the design, to my eyes, is a bit pedestrian. The JBL, on the other hand, has an unusual appearance (one that I happen to like) that is largely a function of utility, and its black ash vinyl veneer is as basic as it gets.
One direct competitor, price-wise, is the Revel Performa3 F206, at $3,500/pair. While I don't have direct experience with the F206, I am intimately familiar with the sound of its larger sibling, the $5,000/pair F208 (I owned a pair for two years), which has received nearly universal critical acclaim. You can read Brent Butterworth's review of both models here. The F208 offers a more consistent listening experience for multiple listeners, due to its broader dispersion characteristics, and it produces a larger soundstage--since it's a much taller speaker. However, the Cesti T will likely provide a more compelling solitary audio experience. The F208 offers better lower-frequency extension and treble smoothness, but it doesn't reach the aural heights of the Cesti T in regards to coherence, imaging precision, and midrange performance.
One final comparison that I can't ignore is with another MarkAudio-SOTA speaker, the Viotti One. Coming in almost $1,000 cheaper, the Viotti One answers all of my aesthetic complaints about the Cesti T and likely sounds similar. Considering the price, and how beautiful the Viotti One speakers look, you might consider buying them and a $1,000 subwoofer instead.
The MarkAudio-SOTA Cesti T is a fantastic example of how a relatively small company can make a product that competes very well with what bigger players like HARMAN and Dynaudio offer--not by copying them, but by approaching sound reproduction in a different way. Outside of the minor hurdles of speaker height and aesthetics, MarkAudio-SOTA clearly has a winning design on its hands.
The Cesti T is unmistakably a music lover's loudspeaker. Listening to its nearly peerless reproduction of acoustic instruments and human voices in my semi-nearfield setup has challenged the conclusions I've come to after owning many speakers and visiting many showrooms. As I said in the introduction, I took MarkAudio-SOTA's slogan "Hear Our Difference" as a personal challenge simply because I'm tired of being let down by hyperbolic ad copy. I certainly got what I wished for: something different. Considering how awesome these loudspeakers can sound after finding their ideal positioning, I definitely recommend that you try them out for yourself--especially since the company offers a 30-day satisfaction guarantee.�
� Visit the MarkAudio-SOTA website for more product information.
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