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Check out the pipe organ accompaniment on "Danny Boy" by Johnny Cash and his American IV: The Man Comes Around [440077083-0 American] for some surprising weight and clarity in the bass as the song swells into the deep recesses of the room. The XLs remain remarkably linear through the mid to upper bass. Cash's rich (if aged) voice is distinctive and powerful and as low as his voice goes, the XLs at no time infuse any artificial bloom or girth. The XLs show the recording to be spotty. It has its high and low points but the high points are very good and Cash's guitars ring with bell-like clarity and superb balance. Check out the almost eerie yet accurate clarity of the Cash/Nick Cave duet that is "I'm so Lonely I could cry". Equally authentic were the shimmering guitars on "Tear Stained Letter".

Not at all surprising was the way the Sapphire XLs image and conjure up a soundstage. This is to say that they performed superbly in this regard, just as one would expect of a speaker of such diminutive size. Pulling off a disappearing act seemed Job #1 and they performed it well, leaving behind a tall, wide and deep soundstage when permitted by the recording. Joe Jackson's "Loisaida" appeared on a stage that was positively huge yet completely natural in the relationships between the instruments that hung logically in space and were neither vague nor supernaturally etched. The instruments were spaced with lots of room between them and I could see the rear of the soundstage.

The XL excels in the treble when compared to most if not all speakers in its class. Jackson's "The Verdict" has cymbal work that caught my attention both for its clarity, presence and detail as well as for its extension, surpassing that of even the Krell Resolution 3s, which had just vacated the room. The Sapphire XLs certainly had an airier way about them, highlighting the upper registers without making them too prominent or creating brightness issues. Transition between mid-woofer and tweeter appeared flawless. If I had to pick one nit, it would nevertheless be with the treble. The opening dueling hi-hats on "Heart Of Ice" just didn't remain as distinct from each other as I've heard on other speakers. While clearly present, the hi-hats sounded more alike because their different signatures weren't kept as distinctly separate as some other speakers do. Of course my references there are speakers costing 2 to 4 times that of the XLs and this error was clearly of the omission type. The tweeter never became biting, spitty or edgy and the mid-to-treble balance was absolutely superb and without any spotlighting whatsoever. Overall treble performance was excellent for a speaker in this class.

Supporting the treble is a midrange that is exemplary in just about every way, defying my habitual reviewer tendency to look for nits. Through the midrange, the XLs are open, illuminated, nicely detailed and unfailingly musical. If there are any frequency aberrations, I couldn't detect them. Extremely neutral and surprisingly linear, the vocal range is more than competitive with speakers at multiples of its price. Jackson's voice was absolutely dead-on uncolored and as naturally presented as I've ever heard it. On "Not Here Not Now",
transparency was so high that I could clearly hear the effect of the large and open recording venue on his voice, which didn't emerge from a sea of blackness but from a space with an identifiable reverberation characteristic. In this regard, the XLs offered performance very close to the best I've heard.

I guess I'm not a true David Bowie fan as my favorite release is the one he denounces as his most blatant prostituting for the almighty dollar. But I've always enjoyed Let's Dance [Mobile Fidelity Sound Lab MFSL 1-083] more than any other Bowie effort. From the opening cut, this lightweight recording let me wanting for some weight in the bottom. On "Modern Love", I missed some of the beep bass drum weight found in other recordings but once the bass line kicked in, the presentation was balanced again. The next thing that struck me -- and not for the first time -- was how fleet-footed the XLs are. They are surprisingly microdynamic for such a small speaker. An easy accomplishment for any small-woofer/bass-challenged speaker you say? Get a listen to a pair and see if you still call them bass-challenged. While deep bass is fairly obviously missing (though you'll be surprised by what remains) the speaker's mid and upper bass is astoundingly full and well balanced.

Getting back to Bowie, this is a - shall we say brisk recording. It won't usually make your ears bleed unless combined with a bright and edgy speaker, but it's hardly warm and fuzzy either. On this day it did seem slightly more listenable, however. I heard absolutely no evidence that the XLs were shaving anything from the upper-midrange or treble, so that wasn't it. I can only speculate that the speakers are unusually linear through this region without the peaks that some other speakers have which will make the worst out of a just passable situation. The ACIs will neither exacerbate nor drastically improve any shortcomings in your recordings. Through the mids, Bowie's voice was as cleanly produced and as expressive of his moods as I've heard. Stevie Ray Vaughn's guitar riffs hung in mid-air like a biting apparition. The drum kit came through with excellent transient snap and soundstaging was fairly constricted and flat just as it usually is, demonstrating the XL's innate honesty.

From the opening groove on Mobile Fidelity's Aimee Mann: Lost In Space LP [MFSL 1-278] the XLs transformed the perspective on the music. A much warmer and fuller recording, the XLs seemed to have suddenly developed a pair -- of woofers that is -- and throughout the XLs' sphere of influence, I couldn't have wished for any more weight or energy. The MFSL pressing is much smoother and freer of grain than the commercial CD and the Sapphire XLs told me all about it. Like all vocalists that preceded her, the XLs presented her splendidly. This disc has been in heavy rotation over the last few months and I can't say that the XLs provided me with any new revelations. But neither did they leave me wanting in any way. That's intended to be pretty high praise when you consider that my own reference speakers cost many times the asking price of the Sapphire XLs and given the stiff competition that's made its way through the review process over the last several months.

As the review period drew to an end, I knew there was one question I had yet to answer: How would these speakers react to deep and powerful bass? Would they remain composed, putting their best foot forward or scamper away, tail between their trembling legs? There was only one way to find out. Out came the 2001 Telarc DSD recording of Tchaikovsky's 1812 Overture [SACD-60541]. I'm pleased to report that not only did the Sapphire's not shrink when pushed hard but the danged things pushed right back - and pushed hard! Before I got to the cannons, I was once again struck by the bell-like clarity and transparency of both the recording and the XL. Bells and triangles again testified to the smooth and extended treble. But when the bass drums and cannons commenced to doing their thing, I had to laugh at the sight that was behind the left speaker.

Behind it was placed a ficus tree, which was really being blown around in the turbulence of the XL's rear-firing bass port. It was fairly comical. In front, the little woofers looked almost equally comical as they seemed to about jump right out of their baffles. But there was no denying that the speakers were holding it together with amazing aplomb. Even the cannon explosions couldn't overdrive the XLs while the room's floor came alive in syncopating tremors. When the cut was over, not only was I pleased that I hadn't destroyed these little speakers, I had gained a new-found respect for both their dynamic capabilities and their proficiency at handling deep bass. But the fun wasn't over. About nine minutes into Capriccio Italien, Op. 45, the fun stated all over again. By now I was comfortable with allowing the XLs to stretch their legs and was astounded at how these speakers were reproducing the bass-enriched drama - so much so that I had to call a couple of buddies over for a listen. For the rest of the afternoon, it wouldn't be unfair to say that we abused the little XLs with some demanding content. At the end of the afternoon, all three of us were majorly impressed.

The Sapphire XLs' overall personality places them somewhere between two of my favorite monitors, the $4,000 Krell Resolution 3 and the $3,000 Thiel PCS even if its price is a fraction of the other two. While the XLs can't quite replicate the low-end power and responsiveness of the 8" two-way that is the Krell, it slightly exceeded that of the Thiel PCS. Midrange performance of all three speakers is excellent, with both the XL and the Thiel sounding just a little more open and transparent than the Krell, which was a little richer and more harmonically intense. Through the treble, the XL stands solidly between the other two. It's as open and extended as the Thiel but not quite as incisively detailed. On the other hand, it comes much closer to the Krell in terms of detail and finesse but is more open and airy. As one would expect, all three speakers are imaging champs,
with the Krells' amazing abilities at creating soundstage height resulting in images just a bit taller than the Thiel and the XL do - and most other speakers for that matter. No matter how you cut it, this is superb performance for the $1500 XLs when compared to some of the better speakers I know in an exalted class of monitors.

Companies that sell factory-direct have a tough row to hoe. It's darned difficult to get most audiophiles to take a chance and order a pair of speakers without hearing them first, no matter the guarantee. Their surprisingly limited advertising indicates that for the bulk of their sales, ACI primarily relies on repeat customers, word of mouth and the demonstrations which current owners afford their friends. Mike Dzurko confided to me once that he actually wished he had a higher percentage of returns on his sales than he does. He thought it would indicate a greater number of audiophiles taking a chance sight-unseen on his speakers. That's all he asks for - a chance. He's confident that his speakers can close the deal. I am too.

Prior to the Sapphire XL, I've had the pleasure of reviewing four ACI speakers: their Opal, Sapphire III, Emerald and Jaguar 2000. To be very honest, I find myself seduced by the new between ACI reviews and tend to take their quality for granted. However, with each new review submission for ACI, I find myself reminded of what a consistently excellent job they're doing. I think the Sapphire XL may be the best ACI speaker I've ever used. It's certainly better than the Sapphire IIIs that I purchased after my 1998 review and continued to loyally use for three to four years after that.

The ACI Sapphire XL's most salient attributes boil down to its big, open, neutral and color-free presentation. Its smoothly extended and grain-free treble and overall coherence lends a smooth sophistication that is rare in this price class. Nothing about it stands out except its across-the-board evenhandedness. No, it won't plumb the depths of deep deep bass but it digs low enough to satisfy with most kinds of music. Within the context of its size, I had to work pretty hard to find anything to be critical of but within its price class, it defies serious criticism. As a matter off fact, when judged against pricier competition, the Sapphire XL offers a strong argument for saving the money and putting it toward one of their excellent subwoofers. Did I forget to mention that ACI makes some terrific subwoofers?
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