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Review: Role Audio Sampan FTL

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by Robert Learner on April 25 '07

Sampanftl 3

At the start of my monitor quest, I assumed I wanted all the qualities of my VMPS RM40 behemoths, things such as extreme transparency, unlimited dynamics, the ability to really energize the air with sound -- but in a smaller package (see my bio for elaboration of my tastes). Well, I still do. However, the 22K Magico notwithstanding, there are tradeoffs to going small. After listening to a ton of monitors over the last year, what’s been reinforced is what I knew at that seminal moment I became an audiophile, this over twenty years ago -- the bottom line is engagement. Like the first minute of a first date, you know it immediately...

THE DESIGN: The Role Audio Sampan FTLs ($895) are essentially the reverse art and engineering of my monster rig’s multi-driver VMPS RM40s. The major challenge for the designer of the 40s is to integrate the seven drivers into a coherent whole. Above all else, Brian Cheney is a fantastic crossover engineer. The Sampan’s, however, are a single driver design meaning there is no crossover. The designer’s task here is to help one driver sound good across the entire frequency range, and in the Sampan’s case, fulfill the stated goal of satisfying bass from a box about the size of a historical epic in hardcover. If you or your spouse require something smaller or less obtrusive, you’ll need to go to in-walls or just forget the idea of high quality full range sound.

The Sampan FTL employs a single 3.5 inch driver in a transmission line enclosure. As noted, there is no crossover per se, only a circuit that linearizes the output of the driver. A transmission line is a tunnel that folds maze-like through the speaker cabinet and ends as an open port under the driver. That the FTL manages to fit a nearly three foot line in a box about a fifth of a cubic foot in volume is indicative of high quality cabinet design and construction.

Why a transmission line? In short and one way or another, box speakers need to dissipate the acoustic energy emanating from the rear of the driver, the backwave, so that it doesn’t color the output from the front of the driver which reaches our ears. The transmission line gives this energy a path to travel away from the driver thus relieving pressure behind it, and is tuned to dissipate the backwave with a minimum of distorting resonance. It can further be tuned to augment the bass of the speaker. A transmission line then is a synergistic interaction of driver and cabinet that has many possible rewards, and such designs have a reputation for quick, clean bass.

I used the Sampan FTLs in two systems: a) on stands in a large room with my Meridian front end, driven by a Llano 200wpc tube/solid state hybrid amp, and b) on wall mounts in my 11x15’ bedroom, with a Red Wine Audio modded Squeezebox (Apple Lossless for all tracks) feeding a Nuforce IA-7 integrated amp.

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THE SOUND: Both surprising and not. Not in that music is coherent and flows organically, something common to the single driver speakers I’ve heard. This should be the case, a single driver should present no phase and time discontinuities between drivers -- the entire frequency range emanates from a single source. Ironically where I’m most struck by the superb timing of such designs as the Sampan FTL, is when it’s slightly off. Drummers aren’t drum machines, and the time between string plucks isn’t always uniform, When I hear a speaker like the Sampan FTL, I’m reminded of how most speakers, even ones I really like, subtly homogenize timing and drain some life from the music. The note to note and beat to beat unpredictability is part of what keeps music alive.

Surprise #1 was the amount of detail the FTL threw at me. In my admittedly limited experience with single driver speakers, I’ve come to expect the spot-on timing, but with resolution generally inferior to multi-driver designs. The coherence is seductive, but the textures are soft. Not the case here, you get timing and texture -- this is a potent combo. Speakers like these put to rest the wrongheaded notion that too much detail is ‘analytical’ or not tuneful somehow. The female backing singers on ‘A Thousand Kisses Deep’ on Ten New Songs subtly track Leonard Cohen’s voice in the background. They’re easy to miss on a lot of speakers or you really have to listen for them.

The Sampan FTLs present these voices clearly and with perfect balance to Leonard Cohen’s front-and-center baritone. Throughout my notes are comments on how well they render background detail. Pointing the finger at resolution as getting in the way of the musical soul and message is shooting the messenger. The issues lie elsewhere, the problem is a flat presentation, and the culprit in my experience is a design that doesn’t respect phase/time relationships.

In my audiophilic journey, I’ve come to understand the portrayal of depth as an essential component of engagement. Speakers that operate in three dimensions present music that breathes with an appealing palpability -- they sound right. Timing, resolution and depth -- the Sampan FTLs are immediately involving.

Surprise #2 is how deep these tiny boxes go. Role claims flat to 40hz. I lack the facility to measure the claim, but unlike most boxes that advertise bass belying their size, the Sampan FTLs subjectively deliver, and music across the frequency spectrum has appropriate body. While the bass is more heard than felt -- a 3.5 inch driver has limitations -- I’d have no problem running these on a computer/office or bedroom system without a sub.

Surprise #3 is the other end of the frequency spectrum. The rolled off highs I often experience with single driver designs is MIA here. The FTLs sound reasonably extended, and notably neutral throughout the entire frequency range.

My gripes are subtle and small. I noticed a slight chesty coloration, a furriness on voices ranging from Leonard Cohen to Kelly Flint’s (Dave’s True Story -- look ‘em up and buy!) soprano. I doubt these are cabinet induced -- having worked for a speaker manufacturer and built transmission line cabinets years ago, I know how TL boxes, particularly small ones, are innately well braced. Perhaps it’s the nature of single driver speakers; I’ve yet to hear one match the transparency of a multi-driver speaker.

I also found large scale dynamics to be a bit lightweight. I was aware of the speaker slightly softening dynamic contrasts, but given their size, the FTLs performance in this regard is wholly adequate. They do, however, require quite a bit of power -- I felt my 50 watt/channel Nuforce IA-7 integrated was the minimum to fill a smallish bedroom with sound.

VERSUS: It’s instructive to compare the previously reviewed Amphion Ion to the FTL. For 50 percent more money, you get a larger speaker that is still quite small, but has very different strengths.
The Amphion goes as deep as the FTL, is a bit more resolved down there and simply sounds more powerful. It’s more efficient and can play louder. It is also subtly more transparent than the Role. And though it images well, it doesn’t present the depth and holography of the FTL. Nor is it as coherent and immediately engaging. The Ion has it’s own strengths and appeal. but doesn’t possess the addictive coherency and flow, the magic of the FTL.

CONCLUSION: I embarked on my monitor quest to find a bookshelf-sized speaker for my living room and an even smaller speaker for my bedroom. What I’ve come to realize is that different rooms and their attendant uses favor different strengths, and that different design types can get you there. I never thought that I’d end up with an active speaker in one room and a single driver speaker in another, but that’s where the crossroads of application and engagement has led.

I don’t need a speaker with extreme loudness capability in our bedroom. Similarly, the ability to portray huge dynamic swings is of diminished importance there. I’ve come to define my needs as a very small, discreet (spouse acceptable) speaker that brings music fully to life at low and medium volumes, and can do so close to the wall, which is the likely positioning in most bedrooms. The Sampan FTL excels in this application, and sounds even better out on stands. It’s size also makes it an ideal computer speaker, and in either application you can make it without a sub. And at four pounds apiece, I’m considering bringing a pair along on our next family vacation. Hooking them to the tiny T-Amp and an iPod should be a killer portable system.

This is great application of the single driver concept. I haven’t heard such a design that can energize a room like a multiple driver speaker, but in a bedroom, an office or sitting on a desktop, this isn’t what you’re looking for. How about something roughly the size of a thick hardcover, that plays reasonably full range and is utterly engaging? That’d be the thing.

Role Audio Sampan FTL $895
8h x 4w x 9.5d, 4 lbs. available in black, white or silver. current production run has accommodation for Omnimount 10.0 brackets for wall mounting.
www.roleaudio.com

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