When the bass that Bassnectar is known for finally kicked in, it was so taut and grounded that its impact went from being palpable to actual. I should point out that, during this test, I left my subwoofers off and must say that I didn't really miss them. Upon returning them to the mix, they were noticeable, in the sense that there was an extra quarter- to half-octave present, but I'd hesitate to call them mandatory, unless you have a really big listening space and/or like a lot of bass. Still, the blend between speaker and subwoofer was seamless and among the smoothest I've heard to date. The midrange in this track is heavily affected, so to call it natural would be a mistake. However, it still possessed strong body, solid footing and definition within the soundstage. Speaking of soundstage, the Pendragon's is exceptional, spreading itself out equally in all directions, with depth, width and height. The height is the most surprising of these, as all too often, loudspeakers paint a sonic picture that is largely in line with their midrange driver or tweeter. Not so with the Pendragon. The Pendragon's vertical scale is reminiscent of a large planar, but instead of the performance being consistent at any height along the vertical plane, the Pendragon's performance most definitely stops at the height appropriate to the performer. This means no six-foot-tall guitars or ten-foot-tall vocalists here. This is a very good thing, as I found out in my next demo.
I cued up Dave Matthews and Tim Reynolds Live at Luther College (RCA) and skipped ahead to the track "Little Thing." Dave and Tim have been doing their little two-man show for over ten years now. I've been fortunate enough to catch the show live a few times and one thing that is consistent about every show that I've seen is that Dave sits and Tim stands. The reason I bring this up is because via the Pendragon, this slight difference in height is very noticeable, thanks to the speaker's unique driver array and further recreates the sense that you're there. "Little Thing" opens with a sort of monologue by Dave, which was free of any and all colorations and sounded nothing if not convincingly real. When the song kicks into gear, the front of my room was transformed into the performance space, giving me a front row seat. For such large speakers, I was taken aback by just how well they disappeared aurally, not to mention their ability to sound absolutely delicate, even at high volumes, in spite of their girth. Despite having only two performers, the soundstage definition and delineation were superb. To make another comparison to planar or ribbon speakers, the Pendragon's midrange was uncolored and open, yet possessed more natural body and heft than what you'll find in a full-range panel or ribbon speaker. The tweeters' ability to resolve the subtlest of details and present it in a wholly convincing and natural way floored me when I was able to hear and understand conversations within the audience. Via the Pendragon, the conversations went from being murmurs and rumblings on a CD to intelligible comments and even requests being discussed from the live audience - and no, I'm not talking about the random jerk shouting "Hey" or "Woo" throughout many of the album's tracks.
Wanting to give the Pendragon a bit more of a workout, I fired up Michael Jackson's album Dangerous (Sony) and the track "In The Closet." Up until this point in my critical evaluation, the Pendragon had been allowed to flex a bit of its micro-dynamic muscle. With "Closet," it showcased what it could do when given free rein. I've used words like "explosive," "immediate" and "captivating" when attempting to describe a loudspeaker's dynamic prowess, but I'm not sure I've ever heard anything quite as good or as convincing at a natural level as the Pendragon. The build, attack and subsequent decay were all dealt with in a completely lifelike way, and with the speed and precision of the real event, despite the violent hits themselves being nothing more than digital creations. The high frequencies sparkled with the same vigor you'd expect from some of today's more esoteric tweeters possessing materials such as Diamond or Beryllium. However, the Pendragon's tweeters carried none of that metallic edge you get when driving such aforementioned tweeters hard, making them a brilliant blend of both worlds. Again, the bass sounded very organic, with real punch, and plunged deep enough to negate the need for a subwoofer in many instances. The Pendragon's lower mid-bass was as defined and as textured as I've encountered, another reason why I chose to cross my JL subs over so much lower than what I've customarily done in the past. The soundstage itself was incredible, again using the front, sides and even rear of my room to its fullest in order to transport me to the recorded space.
One of the things that I noticed about the Pendragon's performance was that it was completely scalable - if you turned the volume down, the performance remained just as invigorating, merely shrinking proportionately. Turning it up enlarged the performance, but it didn't necessarily bring out anything that wasn't already present. I've referred to this phenomenon in the past as a loudspeaker's "butter zone" or "performance envelope," the point at which the speaker is most happy and you're able to glean the best performance from it. For many speakers, this window can be very small but extremely rewarding once you're in it. For the Pendragon, however, this window seems to be as vast as the speaker is large, for it manages to sound as convincing playing at below ambient levels as it does at levels in excess of 110dB. Speaking of high volumes, the Pendragon can and will happily play back your favorite music or movies at reference levels all day long without so much as a complaint. What's more surprising is that it can achieve these levels and be completely non-fatiguing.
Switching gears to movies, I cued up the latest installment of the Mission: Impossible franchise, Mission: Impossible - Ghost Protocol (Paramount) on Blu-ray, and chaptered ahead to the scenes in Dubai where Ethan Hunt, played by Tom Cruise, must climb the tallest building in the world while a sandstorm rolls down on him. At THX reference levels (82dB on my Integra), the Pendragon puts the theater back in home theater, for I've never experienced such transformative scale in a home system before. I've heard loud, even real loud, but nothing that managed to stretch floor to ceiling, wall to wall with the precision of a fine two-channel or, dare I say, audiophile-like performance.
Truthfully, the performance had more in common with what I've witnessed and heard in mastering sessions using large Meyer Sound speakers than what I've heard in any home system. The downside to this is that, when attempting to carry out the demo with the visuals relegated to my 50-inch Panasonic plasma, the scale simply didn't jibe. This had never happened before. Again, most speakers live on a plane of existence that lacks a great deal of true vertical dispersion, so when viewing content via an HDTV, things still fall roughly in line. Bringing the volume down a notch (or twelve) made it so the audio seated nicely with the visuals on my Panasonic. However, once you've experienced the dark side, you don't want to put Baby back in the corner. So I dropped my 100-inch Dragonfly screen, which suited the Pendragon's abilities just fine. I'm not saying that if you're thinking of purchasing the Pendragon, you must first get yourself a front projection setup. You don't need to do this, but then again, I wouldn't mate them to a 42-inch anything, either.
As for the dialogue, just as with song vocals, it was crystal clear, natural and free of any colorations or boundaries. Remember, in this particular test, I didn't run a center channel, so the dialogue duties fell solely to the Pendragons. Dynamics were again superb and, thanks to the Pendragon's higher than usual efficiency, had reflexes that surpassed jungle cats. There was an underlying violence to the Pendragon's dynamic prowess that was unleashed when the sandstorm took control of the screen, for seemingly every grain of orange sand had a voice and it was pissed. Please don't mistake my description for harsh or fatiguing, it's just that the Pendragon doesn't editorialize or attempt to put its own stamp upon the performance the way some speakers do. Low and mid-bass performance was as articulate and defined as the midrange, and like the midrange, it was as uncolored, neutral and transparent as the sound of the mix feeding it.
This really is the best way to sum up the mighty Pendragons, for as large and as imposing as they are visually, they're practically transparent to the source. They don't seem altogether concerned with the genre, quality or mix of music or film, nor are they very critical of associated equipment. They simply get on with the business of recreating your favorite music and movies in a wholly new and completely convincing way, which I feel many will have a hard time reconciling at first - I know it was difficult for me. For a speaker comprised largely of pro audio parts, designed and assembled by hand in America and sold direct via the Internet at a price that begs belief, the Pendragon is nothing short of a revelation and a breath of fresh air. I say fresh air, because the Pendragon makes no apologies about what it's attempting to do, and that is provide the listener with the very best audio performance possible - not within its price bracket or makeup, but overall, which means it and its designer aren't afraid to go toe-to-toe with the biggest names in the business. The Pendragon isn't concerned with classification, type or budget; it is not an entry point, upgrade, final stop or aspirational loudspeaker, but rather is the total package, a complete loudspeaker from top to bottom, requiring no disclaimers or apologies. I absolutely love it.
Despite my personal feelings towards the Pendragon, no speaker is perfect and the Pendragon isn't without its flaws. Among its biggest is its size. The Pendragon is on the large side and, because of its girth, it simply isn't going to physically fit in a lot of homes, which is a shame. On the flip side, for such a large speaker, I'm amazed at how small it can sound when this is appropriate, so don't think that just because it is big means that it's going to blast you out of your listening space.
Second, I don't think grilles should be optional. They should be included, even if that means raising the price the necessary $100, for even at $2,600 a pair, the Pendragons are an unmitigated steal. I say the grilles should be included because I simply want to protect those brilliant and proprietary tweeters; for when they're exposed, their unique look and arrangement only attracts attention that could result in accidental damage. I ended up making covers for mine, since my personal review pair came sans grilles; I now wish I had exercised my option to request the grilles.
The Pendragon is a full-range loudspeaker that, in most situations, probably won't require a subwoofer. However, if you are a bit of a bass-head and like a little extra thump down low, then you'll want to pair the Pendragon with a subwoofer. Take extra care when doing so, as the Pendragon's low mid-bass and bass capabilities are surprising and may just be better than what a dedicated sub can dish out. Find yourself a sub that can dig deep and hold its own where the Pendragon can't go and you'll be better for it.
If you fall more on the home theater side of the spectrum (which I imagine many reading this do), know that, at reference levels, the Pendragon's sonic canvas is large enough to overpower smaller displays. In other words, actors will sound lifelike in their physical size and weight, yet on screen may appear but a few inches tall. At lower levels, this is less of an issue, but if you're one to take things to 11, I recommend a screen of at least 60-plus inches for the home theater experience not to feel disjointed at reference-like listening levels.
Lastly, and this is purely a personal peeve of mine, I wish the Pendragon was a bit more boisterous in terms of letting you, the customer, know just what you've purchased. I don't mean a flame paint job or chrome accents or anything garish like that, but s plaque above the binding posts bearing its creator's name and a few of the key specifications I feel would go a long way in making the speakers feel that much more special because, after all, the Pendragon is in fact special. I appreciate Alexander's modesty in hesitating to use the words "art" or "masterpiece," but the Pendragon borders on being both and it deserves its creator's signature.
Competition and Comparison
There is a wide variety of loudspeakers available to consumers at or even below the Pendragon's $2,500 per pair asking price. Based solely on price, the options include, but are not limited to Aperion Audio's Grand Verus Towers ($1,798/pair), GoldenEar's Triton Two ($2,500/pair), Zu OMEN DEF ($3,100/pair), MartinLogan ElectroMotions ($2,000/pair) and Paradigm Studio 100s ($3,000/pair). All of the above-referenced items are fine speakers and, based solely on their asking price, seem like worthy competitors. However, I don't consider them to be such, not because any of the aforementioned speakers are bad - they're not - but because I feel the Pendragon's sound is one that has more in common with some of the bigger speakers.
Yes, I'll say it, I believe the Pendragon competes, and favorably, with speakers along the line of Wilson Audio's MAXX 3 ($68,000), Wisdom Audio's LS4 ($70,000), and even pro speakers such as Meyer Sound X-10s ($30,000). I've spent considerable time with all of these heavy hitters and would not make such a bold comparison if I didn't believe it to be accurate. I'm not saying that the Pendragon is better than say a pair of MAXX 3s; I'm simply stating that there are more similarities between a pair of MAXX3s and the Pendragons than there is between the Pendragons and, say, a pair of GoldenEars. These are two speakers, MAXX and Pendragon, which are cut from similar cloth. I recently went back and logged a couple of hours on a pair of MAXX 3s just to be certain. At the extremes, there are differences, but at their core, they check many of the same boxes.
A few short months ago, I was not prepared for the eye-opening experience that was the M-Lore loudspeaker from Tekton Design. As I sit here typing this, I'm still not certain I've completely wrapped my brain around what the Pendragon has now given me, both in terms of enjoyment and education. The Pendragon has completely uprooted what I thought to be possible, not only for an affordable loudspeaker design, but for loudspeakers in general. In its wake, it quite literally shattered performance envelopes and benchmarks that have been set by speakers ten times its cost and that have been cemented in my psyche for nearly a decade. Like the M-Lore before it, I simply was not prepared for what the Pendragon and its designer Eric Alexander had in store for me. Even as I wrap up this review, I still feel as if I haven't done it justice. There really is no way to put into words just how mind-bending an experience it is to listen to a speaker costing a fraction of what high-end speakers sell for as it achieves sonic feats you've only heard in speakers you wish you could afford.
There is nothing else to say or write except for the honest truth: the Pendragon, an affordable speaker from a little American company sold direct via the Internet, has become my new reference loudspeaker against which all future loudspeakers, regardless of cost, will be judged.
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