Note: Measurements taken in the anechoic chamber at Canada's National Research Council can be found through this link.
Markaudio-Sota is a recent collaboration between Sota Acoustics Ltd. and Markaudio Loudspeakers Ltd. Sota Acoustics was founded in 2014 by Steven Cheng, an electronics engineer who loves audio. As executive director of Telefield, a large electronics manufacturing company based in Hong Kong, Cheng has his own facilities to build loudspeakers, giving him a close hand in production. He assembled the Markaudio-Sota (M-S) team.
Markaudio was founded over a decade ago by British mechanical design engineer Mark Fenlon. Based in Hong Kong since 1999, Fenlon got his start making OEM parts for various audio companies, primarily in China and Japan. Eventually he progressed to building his own drivers, governed by the principle that each driver’s output should be as full-range as possible and the crossover as minimal as possible, a point I’ll return to shortly. At Markaudio-Sota, Fenlon oversees product development and technical application and assists with marketing.
Part of what makes this collaboration interesting is the fact that M-S doesn’t just design their own speakers; they also make most of the parts in-house. Drivers and cabinets are built to their standards, rather than having to rely on third-party manufacturers whose quality control might not be as good. Before writing this review, I knew nothing about M-S; eager to hear something from this relative newcomer, I was pleased when they sent me review samples of the largest loudspeakers they make: the floorstanding Cesti T ($3495 USD per pair).
In addition to their only floorstander, the Cesti T, Markaudio-Sota makes the Viotti One, a large stand-mounted design, and four bookshelf models: the two-way Cesti B and the Cesti MB, Tozzi One, and Tozzi Two, the last three having only a single driver each. All Cesti models are available in high-gloss finishes of white, red, or black. I was impressed with the excellent quality of the review samples’ red lacquer -- something you don’t typically expect at this price point. My guess is that it would be difficult to produce them in North America without charging more. One visitor told me how much he liked the Cesti’s appearance -- that vibrant red finish made them focal points of my room.
Each Cesti T measures 35.4”H x 9.1”W x 11”D and weighs 44.1 pounds. In an effort to minimize cabinet resonances, the Cesti T’s enclosure is made of high-density fiberboard (HDF). The 2” (50mm) tweeter is isolated in its own sealed subchamber, while the two 4.4” (110mm) midrange-woofers are allowed to “breathe” inside the bottom of the cabinet. Ports at front and rear help augment the bass output; foam port plugs are included, if you want to experiment with tuning the speakers to your room, as well as magnetically attached grilles. I think magnetically mounted grilles should be mandatory for high-end speakers -- the result is a heck of a lot cleaner looking than drilled holes, which tend to clutter the baffle’s appearance. I was pleased to see this feature on the Markaudios; unless their use is specified by the manufacturer, I usually don’t use speaker grilles.
I didn’t care for the fixed rubber feet on the bottom of each Cesti T. Their height can’t be adjusted -- unless your floor is perfectly flat, the speaker will wobble. There are also four holes drilled into the bottom of each cabinet, but no other feet came with the review samples, and I could find nothing in the manual to indicate that adjustable spikes or feet should have been included. Perhaps M-S just forgot them; but if they aren’t available, this is a considerable omission for speakers costing $3495/pair.
Mark Fenlon carved out his niche in high-end audio by designing drivers for other speaker makers, which makes one of the most interesting aspects of the Cesti T the drivers themselves. Fenlon believes that drivers should operate full range or as close to it as possible, and together, the Cesti T’s tweeter and midrange-woofers can reproduce frequencies in the bass and above the range of human hearing (see below). The 2” tweeter, a Sota 5, is crossed over to the two Sota 11 4.4” midrange-woofers at 1.9kHz via a second-order slope. The drivers, each made of an unspecified alloy, have shallow cones made according to Markaudio’s Symmetrical Sound Field approach, in which their dispersion patterns are matched and combined by a minimal crossover. M-S claims that the integration of the drivers’ outputs is thus seamless. The drivers are set within shallow waveguides CNC-machined into the baffle. Waveguides are pretty common in today’s speakers; what makes these interesting is that they’re asymmetrical: they’re bigger, extending all the way to each cabinet’s inner edge. The speakers are sold in mirror-imaged pairs, and labeled Right and Left to ensure that the user sets them up to take full advantage of the waveguides. A single pair of binding posts on the backside of the speaker accepts spades, banana plugs, and bare wire.
The crossover’s second-order slope produces a more gradual rolloff in output as one driver is handed off to the next, to better utilize the drivers’ wide bandwidths. The crossover, isolated in its own subenclosure to improve the performance, is made of as few components as possible, to minimize electrical losses and thus make the Cesti T easier to drive. With a claimed sensitivity of 88.5dB/W/m and a nominal impedance of 6 ohms, the Cesti T appears, at least on paper, to have achieved that objective.
The Cesti T’s claimed anechoic frequency response is quite wide for a not terribly large speaker: 40Hz-25kHz. Given its good sensitivity and 6-ohm impedance, it shouldn’t require too many watts to come to life. Markaudio recommends 50-100Wpc for a class-A/B amplifier, which meant that the 135Wpc Bryston B135 SST2 integrated amplifier I used for this review was more than ample. With class-A amplification, Markaudio recommends 12-25Wpc; with class-D, 30-60Wpc.
I hooked up the Cesti Ts to the Bryston integrated with AudioQuest Comet speaker cables terminated in banana plugs. Digital content was provided by a Panasonic DMP-BDT210 BD player used as a transport to send data to a Bryston BDA-2 DAC via an AMX Optimum optical cable. An Apple MacBook computer running Audirvana software also fed the Bryston DAC, via an AudioQuest Forest USB cable. The BDA-2 was linked to the B135 with Kimber Kable Tonik interconnects (RCA). All electronics were plugged into an ExactPower EP15A power conditioner-regenerator. Revel Performa3 F206 speakers were on hand for comparison.
For Cesti Ts new out of the box, M-S suggests up to 100 hours of break-in at lower volumes, to let the driver suspensions achieve their normal tolerance. But I was spared this -- the review samples sent to me had just finished a stint with another reviewer. I began listening right away, putting the Cesti Ts through their paces with a fairly large selection of music from various genres.
Before beginning to write this review I read through my listening notes, and it quickly became apparent that those notes were dominated by a few recurring characteristics: the Cesti Ts’ strong imaging, good detail retrieval, and fine midrange reproduction, the last particularly notable with voices.
Perhaps the Cesti Ts’ greatest strength was their ability to resolve a detailed soundstage with large-scale orchestral music. Mahler’s Symphony No.5, in a concert recording by Yuri Temirkanov and the Saint Petersburg Philharmonic Orchestra (SACD/CD, Water Lily Acoustics WLA-WS-76 SACD), offered an excellent example of this. Through the Cesti Ts, the orchestra was spread out in front of the room across a superbly wide and deep stage. Recorded with only a single pair of microphones and produced without noise reduction, equalization, or compression, this CD is one of the most lifelike- and natural-sounding discs I own. The music was well served by the Cesti Ts, making it easy for me to close my eyes and visualize the performance unfolding in front of me. Even the occasional cough picked up by the mikes and clearly reproduced by the speakers served only to enhance the intimacy of my listening experience and increase the sense of authenticity.
With “Cymbeline,” from Loreena McKennitt’s Live in Paris and Toronto (CD, Quinlan Road Limited VE 15045), the Cesti Ts did a nice job of re-creating the space of Toronto’s Massey Hall. The speakers were adept in their ability to reproduce McKennitt’s voice with good detail and clarity, as well as the callouts from the audience and her interaction with them. This helped transport me to the legendary Toronto venue, and almost gave me the feeling of being at the show.
Listening to the cover of Neil Young’s “Down by the River” on Low and Dirty Three’s In the Fishtank 7 (CD, Konkurrent LC6110), I heard a big acoustic space that, unlike with the McKennitt album, was produced in a studio. The combination of slow, brooding tempo and cavernous, reverb-laden sound is itself a metaphor for the dark nature of this song, and the Cesti Ts did a commendable job of portraying it as such. One thing I like about this recording is that, through good speakers, its vast space can seem to extend far behind them, emphasizing the depth of the stage. The Cesti Ts did this well -- the wall before me seemed to dissolve as the music extended far beyond it.
I was so enjoying the Cesti Ts’ soundstaging abilities that I played another favorite, Jeff Buckley’s Live at Sin-é (CD, Columbia/Legacy C2K 89202). In the first track, “Be Your Husband,” Buckley’s voice was lucid and detailed, and gave a clear sense of the room in which he performed. The intimacy of this small café, and the sounds of the audience, were palpable -- once again, the Markaudio speakers proved themselves capable of creating a formidable illusion of a soundstage.
The Cesti T, which is specified to have usable output down to 40Hz, sounded quite full in the bass. At 4.4” in diameter, the two midrange-woofers of each speaker are smaller than the 5.25” and 6.5” drivers typical of the speakers I review. However, the combination of cabinet volume and front and rear ports certainly help to augment their output. Unless deep bass is critical for you, I think that, at least for music, the Cesti T won’t require a subwoofer.
I think this because, through the Cesti Ts, I felt the heft of the percussion in Eiji Oue and the Minnesota Orchestra’s recording of War Dance, from Respighi’s Belkis, Queen of Sheba: Suite (CD, Reference RR95CD). The pounding of the massive bass drum before the solo flute enters was substantial, and did a nice job of underpinning the flute, which seemed to dance above that rhythm. War Dance is powerful, almost fierce in its assault on the listener, and the Markaudio-Sotas superbly communicated this by producing a coherent, well-defined soundstage from which emerged excellent clarity and explosive dynamics.
Switching gears, I listened to “General Patton,” from Big Boi’s Sir Lucious Left Foot: The Son of Chico Dusty (CD, Def Jam B001437702), to hear how the Cesti Ts would handle an album with some truly fleshed-out low end. They were able to play fairly loudly with ease, though it would have been interesting to hear them play this track in a larger room. I live in an apartment -- in addition to space constraints, there are also limits to how loudly I can play music, particularly late at night. The bass on this album is really fat at times, almost belching out of larger speakers to flood the room. The Cesti Ts didn’t need a subwoofer, but if you want a fat bottom end, these speakers might not be the speakers for you. Still, I admired how they handled “General Patton” -- they played reasonably deep within their limits before hitting a wall, after which the bass rapidly attenuated. While some speakers might push the envelope and play more deeply, they could do so at the cost of clarity. The Cesti Ts always remained tight and tuneful.
I listened to the Markaudio-Sota Cesti Ts alongside Revel’s Performa3 F206 floorstanders. When introduced, in 2012, the F206 cost $3500/pair, almost precisely the same as the Cesti T. Each F206 has a 1” aluminum-dome tweeter, a 3.5” midrange, and two 6.5” woofers.
In a recital of Beethoven lieder accompanied by pianist Roger Vignoles, the voice of baritone Stephan Genz was cleanly reproduced by the Cesti Ts, showcasing the speakers’ clear midrange (CD, Hyperion GAW21055). The dynamics were well served, the Markaudios delivering a good sense of the power of Genz’s voice. Through the Revels the dynamic range was even wider, the F206es managing to go from quiet to loud with even greater ease. I think that this is due at least in part to the Revel’s exceptional transparency, which presents wide shifts in dynamics against “blacker” backgrounds, thus making those shifts sound more pronounced.
The Revel’s greater clarity was also evident with “Inertia Creeps,” from Massive Attack’s Mezzanine (CD, Virgin 8 45599 2). As the track begins, the Markaudios delivered taut, punchy bass in the driving rhythm that energizes this tune. The Cesti T’s midrange clarity meant that it cleanly reproduced voices, and again I was impressed by the width of the soundstage, which extended comfortably beyond the speakers’ outer boundaries. However, the Revels did all of this while raising the transparency bar even higher. I’ve heard no other tower speaker costing less than $5000/pair that has the transparency of the Performa3 F206 -- though the Cesti T was good, it couldn’t match the Revel’s pristine clarity.
I listened through the Cesti Ts to a track I routinely use to evaluate audio gear. Jerry Garcia’s acoustic guitar in “Louis Collins,” from his and David Grisman’s Shady Grove (CD, Acoustic Disc ACD-21), sounded warmer than I’m used to hearing. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing with acoustic music -- it makes the sound fuller, with a weightier bottom end. When I then listened to “Louis Collins” through the Performa3 F206es, the resonance of the guitar’s wooden body was more clearly audible, giving it a tighter, crisper sound.
Some people might favor the appearance of the Markaudio-Sotas, but when it came to sound quality, I preferred the Revels’ combination of lucidity and a gorgeous midrange.
Markaudio-Sota is a relatively new brand that, based on what they’ve accomplished in the Cesti T floorstanding speaker, seems to be on the right track. The company clearly has the design expertise and manufacturing capability to produce high-quality products that are fairly priced in a very competitive market. They perform well in a number of areas, and reveal their limitations only alongside other highly accomplished speakers. I look forward to hearing what Markaudio-Sota does next.
. . . Philip Beaudette
- Speakers -- Amphion Argon3L, Revel Performa3 F206
- Integrated amplifier -- Bryston B135 SST2
- Digital sources -- Apple MacBook computer running Audirvana, Bryston BDA-2 DAC, NAD C 565BEE CD player, Panasonic DMP-BDT210 BD player
- Speaker cables -- AudioQuest Comet
- Interconnects -- Kimber Kable Tonik
- Digital links -- AudioQuest Forest USB, i2Digital X-60 coaxial
- Power conditioner -- ExactPower EP15A
Markaudio-Sota Cesti T Loudspeakers
Price: $3495 USD per pair.
Warranty: Two years parts and labor (with free shipping in North America and 30-day money-back guarantee).
Sota Acoustics Limited
Unit 609-610, 6/F., Bio-Informatics Centre
No.2 Science Park West Avenue
Hong Kong Science Park, N.T.
Phone: (852) 2605-2811
North American distributor:
Tadashi Sales & Marketing
4915 SW Griffith Drive, Suite 302
Beaverton, OR 97005
Phone: (844) 202-4278