Nowadays, it's hard to find a loudspeaker under $1,500 that isn't made in China. That in and of itself isn't a bad thing, as the quality of Chinese products has improved by leaps and bounds since the first Chinese-made audio components began appearing 15 years ago. But for audiophiles who would prefer to buy a U.S.-made speaker, Role Audio has quite a few options, from its diminutive single-driver Skiff ($395 per pair) to its floor-standing Enterprise ($3,295 per pair). One of Role Audio's newest designs is the Canoe ($1,495 per pair in birch, $1,695 in Spanish cedar). The Canoe is unique because it was designed specifically for desktop and nearfield use. If you are searching for a true high-resolution monitor speaker for close-up listening, the Role Audio Canoe could be the ideal playback vessel.
The Canoe has a one-inch-diameter soft dome tweeter and a four-inch woven carbon fiber midrange/woofer. Unlike most small monitors, which need some form of speaker stand to place the drivers at a proper height or angle so there is no attenuation of upper frequencies when placed on a desktop, the Canoe was designed so that, when it's used for nearfield desktop listening, the drivers are at the ideal height vis-a-vis your ears. On my 28-inch-high desktop, the Canoe's tweeter was one inch below my ear height without any stands or elevation devices.
The Canoe's crossover employs a film foil capacitor, metal oxide resistor, and a laminated perfect lay coil. Hand-wired and soldered with DH Labs silver-plated copper wire to the tweeter and oxygen-free multi-strand copper wire to the woofer, the Canoe uses one set of Superior insulated five-way binding posts mounted on a terminal cup to facilitate wall or near-wall placement. Bi-wiring is not available.
For audiophiles who are concerned with ecological or personal health issues, the Canoe is made using certified green birch plywood and CARB2 MDF, which has no urea formaldehyde to off-gas into your environment. Also, Role employs non-toxic glues and paints throughout its manufacturing process. The Canoe comes with a black fabric grille that's held in place with magnets rather than push-in attachments. This makes for a much cleaner look when the grilles are removed. Most of my listening time was spent sans grilles.
Installing the Canoe speakers in my desktop system was simple. The most time-consuming part was removing the GoldenEar Aon 2 speakers, along with the Ultimate Support speaker stands and high-density foam risers beneath them. After the desktop was vacated, I merely placed the Canoes at equidistant positions on either side of my NEC 26-inch monitor and then angled them in so that, from my listening position, I couldn't see their sidewalls. To make sure that both speakers were angled identically, I used the free iPhone/iPad app from Genelec speakers called "SpeakerAngle". After initial setup, I found that extremely small changes in the speakers' physical locations could result in big differences in soundstage presentation. Even a cat brushing the speakers as it walked across my desk could move the speakers enough that they required repositioning.
Once the speakers were set up, I ran some frequency sweeps with AudioTest and determined that a 55Hz crossover point provided the smoothest transition between the Canoes and my Velodyne DD+ 10-inch subwoofer.
The overall build quality of the Canoe was excellent, but it is a very traditionally finished speaker without swoopy curved sides or super-glossy exotic veneer finishes. The satin finish of the birch review pair wasn't book-matched, but the tone and grain of each panel was similar enough. Unlike many new speakers that have finish so thick and shiny that you can't tell for sure whether the stuff under the finish is real wood or some ersatz substance, it's immediately obvious that the Canoes' veneer is real wood.
The best description of the Role Canoe speaker is "high-definition monitor." Unlike many small speakers, which try to add something to the mix to get a bigger and more luxurious sound, the Canoe is a "straight up, no chaser" speaker that delivers a more truthful and less "voiced" sound. If you want a lusher, more euphonic harmonic presentation or wish that your favorite recordings had slightly larger soundstages, the Role Canoe will not serve as a sonic solution. What goes in is what comes out.
When properly set up on a desktop, the Role Canoes disappear as completely as the best two-way monitor speakers I've heard. Only a few single-driver designs, such as Audience's "The One" speakers, bettered the Canoes in this regard. When positioned within the Canoes' sweet spot, which isn't quite as encompassing as that of the GoldenEar Aon 2s, I was presented with a very accurate picture of the instruments' and vocalists' locations within the soundstage. Even when two vocalists were in close proximity to each other in the mix, the Canoe speakers preserved the separation between the two voices with no homogenization.
Unlike many small speakers that have a somewhat enhanced midbass so that they have sufficient weight and bass punch, the Canoes are far less enhanced. In comparison with the GoldenEar Aon 2 speakers, the Role Canoes initially sound somewhat lean in the midbass and I doubt that most people would be happy to use the Canoes, unlike the Aon 2s, long-term without a subwoofer to fill in the bottom octave. The best part of this lack of midbass augmentation is the absence of upper-bass and lower-midrange "sludge" that obscures detail and reduces dynamic drive.
If you're the kind of listener who prefers to listen to everything at high volumes, the Canoes may not float your boat as much as some mini-monitors. Like the Spendor SP1, the Role Canoe does possess some amount of built-in compression. While dynamic contrast during quieter passages is good, when the overall music level is high and you are playing the Canoes loudly, the differences between "loud" and "very loud" are reduced somewhat.The Canoe's top end is extended and very smooth. Sine-wave sweeps from 2kHz to 15kHz were exceedingly even, with no particular frequencies jumping out or receding during the sweeps. Upper frequencies also sounded very even and well-controlled. Instruments, such as Andy Statman's mandolin on his new release Superstring Theory, had just the right combination of air, attack and incisiveness, even during the loudest passages, and never became overly shrill or hard.
• The Canoe is designed specifically for nearfield listening.
• This speaker has superb imaging, as well as fine low-level detail retention.
• It has a small footprint and is easy to set up.
• The speakers require a subwoofer for full-range capability.
• They are not as slick looking as many small monitors.
• Dynamic peaks are slightly attenuated.
Competition and Comparison
Going from the lower-priced $800 per pair GoldenEar Aon 2 speakers (link tk) to the Role Canoes wasn't a subtle change. While the Aon 2 is a fine speaker with many outstanding traits for its price, it is not as high-resolution or neutral as the Role Canoe. One example of the Canoe's transparency is that it presents different recordings with widely varying soundstage sizes. Through the Aon 2, the soundstage differences were far less pronounced, especially on recordings with smaller, less-expansive soundstage widths. Through the GoldenEars, these narrower-width recordings were wider than through the Roles, and conversely some of my most expansive recordings' soundstages were not quite as large through the Aons as through the Canoes. The Canoes supplied a more accurate soundstage size but didn't "help" any of the recordings that had soundstages on the small side, while the Aon 2s did improve the dimensionality of many sub-par recordings.
Another aspect of the Role Audio Canoes' performance that stood in stark contrast to the Aon 2 was their ability to make it easier to listening into a dense mix. In this respect, the Canoes reminded me of a pair of headphones that recently arrived for review from Mr. Speakers, the Alpha Dog headphones. Like the Alpha Dogs, the Canoes have an uncanny ability to unravel complex passages through their rock-solid imaging and to retain very subtle locational cues.
The Role Canoes have quite a lot in common with the $2,200 per pair ProAc Anniversary Tablettes. Both excel at retaining low-level detail and make it easy to listen deep into a mix. And while the Tablette can play louder than the Canoe, up to the point where the Canoe becomes stressed, the similarities between these two transducers far outweigh their differences.
While the Canoe images and disappears as well as any two-way small monitor I've had on my desktop, it's still not quite as invisible as the Audience "The One" speaker. "The One" also manages to dredge up a smidgen more inner detail, which makes listening for the subtle inner details less fatiguing.
If you are in the market for a dedicated speaker for desktop, nearfield, or digital audio workstation listening, the Role Audio Canoe should definitely be on your audition list. It combines high resolution with very accurate image presentation, so that you can listen deep into even the subtlest and most deeply buried aspects of a mix without straining. If you are a fan of unvarnished, "truthful" speakers, you'll appreciate the Role Canoe's many virtues.