It was only a matter of time before Ruark added an entry-level model to its flagship series. I'm completely puzzled as to why this brand needs as many ranges as it has, but, hey, I'm just a reviewer. What the Sterling Reference line has succeeded in doing - for me at least - is become the range and the look that I first think of when someone says 'Ruark'. Which is as it should be: this is the most distinctive sub-sector in the company's catalogue, and it's only fitting that one pictures the best on offer before recalling the entry-level.
In the six years since the stand-mounted two-way Equinox launched the line-up, it has been joined by the Solstice and Excalibur floor-standing behemoths. Solus is the newbie which completes the series, though Sterling Reference will eventually include a centre channel speaker and a subwoofer for obvious home theatre applications. This is of paramount importance in understanding the full potential of Solus, because - while it's good enough by any standard to serve as a main speaker - it's also small enough to act as rear or side speakers in systems where Equinox or Solstice (if not necessarily Excalibur) act as the primaries.
By now, you know the look: sculpted side panels, a black 30mm thick Boothroydian grooved, black slate-textured top, baffle and rear panel - very sandwich, very Italian. And very inert. The combination of intricate internal bracing and acoustic deadening material, do achieve what Ruark wanted it to accomplish, resulting in a box which passes the thump test; it's almost completely inert and, as the sound attests, free from the effects of coloration. Its slightly inclined front baffle provides time delay, protected by a removable grille, but I didn't find it intrusive enough to feel compelled to remove it. Taking no chances, the Solus is available with its side panels in natural oak, black oak and natural cherry, with yew, natural beech, rosewood or black piano lacquer as options.
Solus also revives a practice almost entirely abandoned by manufacturers who reject it because it adds a step or two to the manufacturing process: offset drivers. It adds to the cost because it requires the manufacture of mirror-imaged pairs, unless the baffle is the same on both surfaces and can simply be flip-flopped to create the left and right versions. What it allegedly offers are better integration, dispersion and room flexibility.
A gas-flowed rear port is situated at the top of the rear baffle to allow this small box to deliver 'excellent subjective bass extension'. According to Ruark, reflex loading was required to maximise the performance of Solus' low Q bass driver, relative to the volume of the enclosure. The latter was determined by 'pseudo anechoic measurements', along with auditioning in several different rooms, with fine-tuning to extract the maximum bass extension. Solus' largish port also maintains the performance at high volumes because small ports cannot move enough air at high SPLs. As a result, the Solus avoids compression and is nearly as capable as a small ATC in achieving rock-lover volume without sounding like it's about to explode.
Solus sports a Scanspeak-made, 28mm silk dome tweeter using a doped open weave fabric. The dome is fitted to an aluminium former and voice-coil, immersed into a low viscosity ferro-fluid. The latter contributes in no small part to the high power handling, its low viscosity having 'minimal drag' to endow the tweeter with speed - evident in listening sessions via some of the fastest transients I've heard; cynics will notes that speed of this high a calibre is normally the virtue of metal drivers...probably the
But the star of the Solus is a newly-designed 150mm woofer, heard here in its first real-world application. The company devised a unique damping method applied to the long fibre, profiled paper cone, which was selected initially for its intrinsic internal damping. Slits were cut into the cone in an outward spiral at different angles from the dust cap to the pure rubber surround, the latter a material with minimal hysteresis and energy storage; the pattern reminded me of the lozenge-shaped pits on some Linn speaker baffles. The slits are filled with a 'secret' damping compound, then treated to a final coating of dope on the cone surface.
Ruark believes that this process 'effectively dissipates and controls vibrations around the cone instead of reflecting them straight back to the centre'. Their chosen illustration of this phenomenon is the path of ripples when you throw a stone into a small pool. The absence of any damping of the waves created by the stone means that the ripples will reach the bank and then be reflected back into the pool. Apply this to sound and it means coloration. Better control of cone behaviour should result in smoother response and lowers colouration up through the midband.
Another detail of the new woofer assembly is its precision die-cast chassis, conceived to deal with how sound waves were dispersed at the rear of the chassis, along with the loading effect of air on the unit's long throw coil and suspension. Its struts, which hold the driver's magnet are - I kid you not - 'aerodynamically shaped to present minimal resistance to internal sound waves'. The design approximates the suspension working in free space, rather than in a chamber. Another aspect of the suspension is its ability to provide linear movement under 'normal working conditions', turning 'progressive' at the extreme. This also adds to the Solus' ability to be hammered by headbanging morons before the arrival of compression at obscenely high volume levels.Read more about the Solus on Page 2.
At 86dB/1W, the Solus isn't going to attract the S.E.T. hardcore, but the carefully-designed eight-element crossover, operating at 3.6kHz, allows it to show a relatively easy if inefficient load: 8 ohms with no nasties. In standard Ruark practice, all polypropylene capacitors and inductors are custom-made, the caps wound with a thicker film than is the norm. This allows the capacitors to be wound tighter to reduce internal ringing and distortion. The coils are air-cored and wound with high purity copper, the high-precision are ceramic. As with other Sterling models, the internal wiring consists of 19 strands of high-purity copper, silver plated cables, sheathed in PTFE. Ruark eschewed PCBs, the crossover hard-wired and soldered directly to the bi-wireable, gilded WBT connectors on the rear in a recess below the port.
Almost instinctive is the need to position the Solus in free space on rigid stands of the 22-24in variety; I used single-pillar Partingtons, as the dedicated Solus stand was not ready in time for the review. So essential is substantial space behind the port that I would heartily advise against shelf- or wall-mounting the Solus, unlike a few rear-ported designs which can get away with close proximity to the back wall. Sound quality, especially openness and imaging, suffer audibly if the speaker is less than 0.5m from the side and back walls; optimum listening sessions had the Solus placed around 0.7m from the sides in a room 4m wide. As for distance from the back wall, it was determined by two factors which had far less effect on the distance from the sides: amount of toe-in and the distance from the listening position. With a room around 5.5m deep and the hot seat 3.5m from the line of the speakers, 1m from the back was the minimum.
Its 1200 price tag suggested partner amplification in the 600- 2000 range, which I instinctively ignored. Instead, I used amplification costing double that - Nu-Vista pre/power - as well as two channels of the Rotel RSX965 A/V receiver. For more likely partners, I used the Roksan Caspian with matching CD player, the limited edition of the Musical Fidelity A1, Radford MA15s (thanks, Malcolm) and Quad IIs. Other sources included a complete Linn LP12 front end, the Musical Fidelity X-RAY, Pioneer's DV414 (Region 1) and a brief spurt of the Bow Wizard CD player.
So who switched on the time machine? It was a deliciously curious mix of modern refinement and pre-Birt, classic BBC/British box speaker sound. The main difference, though, is that the Solus accomplishes with 206x330x330mm (WDH) what would two decades ago require double that. But certain rules haven't been broken by the passage of time: getting this much bass out of a small enclosure still means low sensitivity, the positioning is still crucial, the dispersion still approaching true point source behaviour if the optimum positioning is achieved. If an experienced anachrophile heard these blindfolded, he or she would be driven to schizophrenia: tight, modern, fast bass, with sweet, kind treble. The latter is far more common in older designs, because modern listeners are too brain-dead, too accustomed to artifice to recognise natural vs artificial.
To put this in perspective, to help you decide whether or not this is the way you should spend 1200 (and assuming you need something compact), the Solus is - despite its wide dynamic range, hey-I-behave-like-a-big'un-when-it-comes-to-soundstage image recreation and admirable speed - the sort of speaker which favours vocals, acoustic instruments and 'woody' sounds: clarinet, piano and the like. Over the weeks I had them, I fed Solus everything from Lenny Kravitz to Ol' Blue Eyes, Eva Cassidy to Aretha, Sousa to Gershwin. And it was like a sine wave: thumbs up for Capitol-era Dino or early Sheryl Crow, mild ennui with XTC.
Solus emerged as too refined for the masses. This is a speaker for
close listening, not partying, despite its capacity for loudness. Its
three-dimensionalty is audiophile-grade; you know the drill, eg
listening through a studio recording to hear the air-conditioners. And
yet...you can hear how it will do well when joined by the forthcoming
centre and subwoofer because it can recreate the scale of a cinematic
event. This speaker could end up being too good for its market niche, because it does so many things so well. It could end up misunderstood if not demonstrated by one who understands its capabilities. It is, quite simply, another contender for the titles held by the dear, departed LS3/5A.
With a proviso: however good its bass - fast and extended - it will benefit from a subwoofer, which will free it up to better exploit its midband and treble. I learned this when I tried Solus with the just-released Ruark powered sub, the Log-Rhythm, which is solid and desirable despite its utterly cretinous name. Which reminds me: Ruark needs someone with taste and intelligence when it comes to product names. And given their stylistic obsession with one of this speaker's main rivals, why didn't they just succumb to hero worship and call it Solus Faber?
Ruark, 59 Tailors Court, Temple Farm Industrial Estate, Southend-On-Sea, Essex SS2 5TH. Tel 01702 601410.Sidebar: Log-Rhythm Subwoofer