Cabasse Baltic Evolution (£9000)

Eyeball to eyeball - these optional pedestal mount satellite speakers from Brittany can really sing when coupled to Cabasse's Santorin 30 subwoofer

Recently acquired by the Canon organisation, Cabasse of France has begun a concerted effort to have its speakers available for sale in the UK through a small network of specialist dealers. Coherent Audio Systems near Tewkesbury, Glos, a dealer that also imports and distributes high-end Oracle and Belles products, was recently appointed its marketing agent.
   Readers may recall we enjoyed Cabasse’s £3400 Iroise 3 model earlier this year, which features the company’s spherical-shaped BC13 coaxial driver married to a pair of 210mm woofers in a floorstanding cabinet. The Baltic Evolution comes from Cabasse’s substantially more expensive Artis range, and features the company’s more ambitious TC23 triaxial driver, which is designed to provide a point source with an operating bandwidth from 22kHz down to around 80Hz. You can use a pair of these Baltic Evolution ‘satellites’ on their own for near-to-midfield monitoring, either integrated with their elegant floorstanding pedestals – as reviewed here – or, alternatively, located on-shelf or on-wall.
   The spherical enclosures, ported at the rear, are formed of a composite polymer reinforced with glass fibre. They are available in black pearl or an off-white pearl finish, the on-wall variant also coming in plain white and paintable to match your home decor. We’re told that for a 20% premium you can actually have the Baltic Evolutions supplied in any colour you like – which is not untypical of products coming with such exclusive price tags. The floorstanding variants come attached to elegant 4ft-tall MDF pedestals finished in real wood veneers of cherry, santos or wenge. They are substantial affairs weighing nearly 18kg, of which 7kg is the satellite speaker itself, boasting exemplary finish, right down to the supplied floor spikes finished in dark chrome. Our review samples were in white pearl with wenge veneer pedestals.

Most coincident drivers – think Tannoy’s dual-concentrics and KEF’s Uni-Qs – comprise a cone midrange or mid/woofer unit with a tweeter at its apex. But Cabasse has developed unique drivers whereby the central tweeter is surrounded by an annular domed midrange diaphragm. Consequently the tweeter is no longer loaded by a long acoustic horn that can give rise to ‘cuppy’ colorations. In its BC13 coaxial driver, a soft-dome tweeter is surrounded by a midrange ‘doughnut’ formed of P2C, a polypropylene charged with calcium carbonate (marble/chalk).
   The TC23 triaxial driver employed in these Evolutions takes the design concept a stage further, with the tweeter (which has a newly-developed polyether membrane) located within a waveguide, within the midrange, within the woofer. The annular woofer is formed of Duocell, a material that Cabasse manufactures in-house. It’s a form of Rohacell, the low-density foam used extensively in the aerospace industry and utilised by several speaker manufacturers today for making rigid, lightweight sandwich cones. Cabasse’s proprietary manufacturing process produces a diaphragm that can never delaminate because it’s not a sandwich, the company claiming it has an ‘unrivaled’ rigidity/damping/weight ratio.
   For this review the Evolution satellites were partnered with one of Cabasse’s active subwoofers, the £2700 Santorin 30. Weighing a hefty 28kg this employs a 300mm downward-firing driver powered by a 500W Class D amplifier, with on-board digital signal processing (DSP) providing extremely fine adjustment of crossover, phase and time delay to allow precise integration with the partnering satellites and the listening room. A set-up microphone and valve mic preamp are supplied as part of the package, the automatic calibration routine providing simple and accurate room setup.

As mentioned above, you could use the satellites on their own as a pair of high performance mini-monitors, but at a whopping £4500 each (including their stands) you’d likely feel short-changed. As any fan of small monitors will attest, there’s much to be said for eliminating a large cabinet, in terms of out-of-the box imaging capability and ultra-precise image placement, not to mention purity of vocal timbre and orchestral strings through the critical midband. The Baltic Evolutions proved highly capable of delivering such aural magic, a healthy blast of ZZ Top’s ‘Blue Jean Blues’ from Fandango [Warner 7599-27382-2] confirming that they’ll go mightily loud too. A sphere is inherently rigid, of course, and the rounded enclosure also reduces the problem of internal standing waves and colorations caused by diffraction from a large baffle. There’s no denying that when you listen to music on the Baltic Evolutions they do have an uncanny ability to ‘disappear’, creating a holographic three-dimensional image.
   But come on: £9000 for a pair? Even as I bathed in the delightfully pure tones of Radka Toneff singing ‘The Moon is a Harsh Mistress’ with piano accompaniment [Fairytales, Odin CD-03] there was no way I could avoid thinking that one could probably get something like 80% of the Evolution’s performance from many a small monitor costing only 10% of the price. Much will depend on individual priorities I concede, but if you’re looking for a truly ‘believable’ full-scale high fidelity sound... well, you can buy an awful lot of loudspeaker these days for £9k.
   But as with any sub/sat speaker system, once the subwoofer comes into play the sound changes beyond all recognition. When the sweet, open and airy character of the Evolutions is combined with deep, tight, subterranean bass it is not difficult to imagine one is listening to truly massive and sophisticated high-end floorstanders costing anywhere from £15–30k. During the first day or two of listening I was rather impressed. By the time I’d spent a week living with the speaker system, simply wallowing in the massive sound image, I was struggling to imagine a less costly way of getting such a full-scale and tonally refined sound.
   During the past year or more I’ve enjoyed living temporarily with a variety of luxurious floorstanders from the likes of Monitor Audio and Revel, and this Baltic Evolution/Santorin 30 satellite/subwoofer combination outperformed them significantly in terms of overall scale, image specificity and bass power. Hugh Masekela’s ravaging performance of ‘The Coal Train’ on Hope [Triloka KAT 2020-2] drew me right into the live venue as I was able to pick out myriad details in backing vocals and percussion usually unidentifiable when auditioning ‘conventional’ speakers. And a blast of Grace Jones’ Slave to the Rhythm on vinyl [ZTT/Island Grace 1] delivered a massive wall of sound comparable with that produced by Focal’s magnificent Maestro Utopias, which I was privileged to hear in my listening room [HFN Oct ’09]. And those Maestros cost a cool £30k…
   With natural recordings of musicians in an acoustic space these speakers come extremely close to making you feel you are in the presence of real, live music-making, helped by their ability to go loud with little subjective hardening or compression of the sound. Orchestral strings are sweet and airy, and the rasp of horns and rolling thunder of timpani complete a thrilling sonic picture. While the system can play loud it also satisfies at low listening levels, with good retention of detail.
   While the holographic imaging capability comes from the Satellites, the fabulous quality of Cabasse’s Santorin 30 must not be overlooked. For some trouser-flapping fun I spun up Wilson Audio’s Discovery and Music For Christmas [WCD-806/8419], and when organist James Welch’s left foot activated the largest pipes the bass went as low as I’m accustomed to from my towering Townshend Sir Galahad monoliths. The Townshends take some accommodating, dominating even the largest of living rooms. This sat/sub system does not.

Cabasse’s technology comes at a price, especially in its TC23 triaxial driver. And when you remove the grilles you might not be able to overcome the fact that they look like alien eyeballs on sticks. But the Baltic Evolutions deliver fabulous soundfield precision, and when coupled with the effortless low frequencies produced by Cabasse’s Santorin 30 subwoofer this sat/sub system really delivers.

Originally published in the December 2009 issue