'Y'gaddaseeit!' 'Y'gaddaseeit!' 'Y'gaddaseeit!' Three times is usually enough to convince me that something's afoot. Ordinarily, there's so much new and worthwhile kit at a hi-fi show that the surfeit of brilliant new products tends to overwhelm. But when a consensus forms by Day Two, then we're talking Possible Future Classic. And when a member of the press actually buys the thing on the spot...*
Admittedly, the Ruark Epilogue is a budget product; even I could afford a pair at list price. Which means that the latest UK hit is yet another entry level product. Despite hints that the British have ceased to act as if their privates are being cut off when they're told that a hi-fi component costs more than £99, the UK market is decidedly low-end. And however much a certain brand is revelling in the success of winning an award for a £600 speaker from the very magazine which perpetuates - nay,
But we can't blame Ruark (or any other British speaker builder) for continuing to pander to an audience that thinks there was a price freeze in 1979. The very same people who'll invest up to a grand in an annual two weeks' worth of communal vomiting in Spain have forced this issue. Quite simply, the British are prepared to be realistic about the prices of everything
I mean, just look at what's on offer for £239. The Epilogue is a pocket gem, measuring a tidy 290x170x220mm (HWD) - just the ticket for the myriad, underpriced 24in stands which the UK also has been forced to produce in abundance. The enclosure is rear-ported, and it's 'styled and voiced to complement both visually and sonically other Ruark systems'. And it's here that we betray a sad, sick, stomach-churning truth: we are considering this budget offering as a main speaker/full-range system.
It was demonstrated as such at the Hi-Fi Show, and it's being marketed here as a contender in the £200-£300 sector. But note the quote: '...styled and voiced to complement both visually and sonically other Ruark systems'. So now you know its actual
This creates one helluva weird back-handed compliment: Ruark's rear-channel designs are good enough to satisfy UK front-channel needs. What does that say about our expectations? Or what Ruark makes of its home market? It's the sort of thing that leads to having non-entities as both Prime Minister
OK, OK, I fell for it, too, and the horrible truth was only imparted to me after I'd formed my opinions based on treating it as I would any small, affordable two-way. It would have been different had I only used it in rear-channel mode, and I might never have learned what the Epilogue can do. Yes, it's
Epilogue is a clever, 'grown up' package, with no visible compromises. The cabinet consists of a 15mm MDF 'wrap' in a Satin Black finish, with side panels machined from 18mm MDF. A further sense of solidity and dependability greets the tyre-kicker as soon as the speaker is prised off its stand: the weight of a single Epilogue is 5kg. The £239 outlay pays for black lacquer end-cheeks while an extra £30 buys real wood veneers; it will be interesting to see how many Epilogue customers bite the bullet and plump for the deluxe finish. ('Holy cow!!! Thirty quid!!! I could buy two curry dinners and clothe my nine children for that!')
At the back of this beautifully manufactured enclosure are multi-way binding posts with bi-wiring facility, above them the 'gas flowed rear port', shaped to prevent whistling, whooshing or whatever other artefacts a poorly designed orifice might produce. Under the sturdily framed grille is a 140mm treated paper-coned mid/bass driver with high-loss rubber surround and a high-flux magnet system. The edges of the cone are cut not into a circle but into a pentagon to assist in dissipating vibrations around the cone rather than feed them back into the cone itself; this break-up typically occurs at the crucial 1k-4kHz region, so its removal ensures a smoother frequency response and lower coloration.
Handling the frequencies above 3.5kHz is a 19mm fabric dome tweeter with ferrofluid cooling and damping. Ruark tried to place it as close to the bass/mid unit as possible, stopping short of cutting a crescent out of the surround to make it even cosier. Then again, the frontal area is so small that you're guaranteed a minimal difference in the location of the 'acoustic centres' of the drivers regardless, their proximity necessary to improve driver integration and dispersion in the crossover region.
Given the size of the Epilogue, Ruark is right to suggest that it works well either in stand- or wall-mounted situations, but the rear-firing port determined a placement at least 30cm from the back wall if they're to 'breathe'. Shelf-mounting be a compromise, The review pair arrived with Partington's luscious new Super Stand, which will be available in a custom version for Ruark Epilogue owners, selling for around 199 per pair and with the upward-facing spikes and caps re-located better to suit the Epilogue's footprint. As the Partington just may be the best new mini-monitor stand design since Cliff Stone's Foundation, the 199 price tag is reasonable, but some might balk at purchasing stands which cost roughly 4/5ths that of the speakers themselves.
Maybe I'd have been better off being told that the Epilogue is a rear-channel speaker in front-channel clothing; the specs provide no suggestion of the limitations nor compromises which are quite acceptable in most rear-channel applications, Dolby Digital and DTS not included. The impedance is a straight 8 ohms, which could apply to main or rear speakers, but the sensitivity isn't particularly geared for amplification of the sort which inhabits most A/V receivers. I mean, would you feel comfortable feeding 20W (and a hyped 20W at that) into a speaker with 87dB/1W sensitivity? Ruark even goes so far as to suggest amplifiers rated at between 20W and 100W, which kinda rules out a bunch of rear-channel amplification stages as found in the budget A/V sector.
Also amusing is the optimistic frequency response, stated as 45Hz-20KHz +/-3dB in free space conditions - more than enough to handle anything likely to be derived from the back end of a ProLogic source. But this is no heavyweight, and it sure don't sound like 45Hz to me. What it sounds like is a small two-way which delivers way more than its tariff suggests. But it is no substitute for something packing a couple of 10-inchers...
Since this is no pseudo-horn, high-efficiency design, I stuck with amplification a bit more substantial than what comes out of a surround-sound decoder/receiver. Alas, the Musical Fidelity X-A50s had gone back to their maker, but I still had a Roksan Caspian integrated to hand, plus Bill Beard's 30/60 valve integrated amp (30W/ch) and - to see how the Epilogue fared with a silky signal - Unison Research's Simply 845. Sources included the Krell KAV-300CD at one extreme and the Marantz CD-63SE at the other, and I try them briefly as rear-channel speakers. But forget the latter: the Epilogue is simply too good for that role unless you're using Dolby Digital, DTS or some other full-range surround system.
Let's cut to the weaknesses: there are debilitating characteristics beyond the compromises one would anticipate in a speaker this small. I mean, you weren't really expecting me to tell you that the Epilogue delivers enough bass to crack walnuts/loosen plaster/emulate a T. Rex's belch...did you? The Epilogue only delivers the requisite punch when the levels are on the high side of normal. At my preferred setting, which wouldn't upset a neighbour if I lived sandwiched between two flats, the sound is lightweight enough to remind you that you are not in the presence of woofers the same diameter as a bicycle tyre rim.
The only other repeatable betrayal involved image and soundstage size. While the Epilogue created a wide and fairly deep arena, image height was restricted and there was never a totally convincing sense of the speakers doing a disappearing act. With eyes closed, you had a pretty good idea where the speakers were, save for how far apart they were positioned. So, coupled to the adequate rather than awesome bass, you that the Epilogue is a mini-monitor.
But the sound! If ever a product reminded me of how much we allow spatial and dimensional concerns to distract us from the , the Epilogue is it. Not a week before, I was the guest speaker at a retailer's 'musical evening', and I made a point of including a number of mono recordings in my demonstration, especially 1950s Capitol recordings from Dean Martin. The point was to show that, by using mono recordings when we're assessing products, we can focus on the sound of the instruments rather than their positioning. And if you have to ask which is more important, then you're obviously the sort of pathetic wretch who finds nouvelle cuisine more satisfying than real food.
Epilogue's midband is clear and detailed, with hints of warmth that might be used to tame aggressive solid-state amps of the budget variety. The upper frequencies share the same traits, imparting a delicious sense of coherence, the join between the mid/bass driver and tweeter impossible to detect. The bass, too, demonstrates a mix of clarity and warmth, and the damping is just right, its control not as overly taut as that of a sealed enclosure, but not as 'floppy' as in some ported speakers.
Probably the most outstanding characteristics, the qualities which makes this speaker a stand-out in the budget sector, are its transparency, a lack of distracting coloration and the ability never to sound like its being overworked. By the latter, I don't mean that you can hammer the hell out of it in the SPL department and expect it not to crack. Rather, I mean that it never sounds like it's trying - and then failing - to act like a speaker the size of a long-case clock.
Most small speakers juggle such compromises as nasality or 'honk' with a lack of bass, or the suffer exaggerated highs due to the impression created by truncated bass. The Ruark deals with its challenged lower octaves much in the way a Wilson WATT does: it never attempts to reproduce what it cannot, never straining to deliver thunderous bottom octaves. And so it sounds relaxed, 'in touch with its mini-monitor self', as the politically correct might put it. This, in turn, suggests a refined, confident, capable system which listeners with tough standards will only fault in non-essential areas. It is a speaker which joins the ranks of the Tannoy Mercury 2 and the LS3/5A, a substitute for neither but an alternative to both.
This, of course, presupposes that your priorities place tonal balance above dimensional concerns, midband quality above bass extension, neutrality above impact. If so, then get your butt down to a Ruark dealer, armed with your most detailed and textured rather than dynamic test tracks. Ask the dealer to use an amp a cut above the 300, 50W/ch integrated norm. Sit back. Think 'dram' rather than 'gallon', quality over quantity, persuasion over force.
Then get out your credit card.