Note: Measurements taken in the anechoic chamber at Canada's National Research Council can be found through this link.
My house is a ten-minute walk from the Ottawa River, which forms the border between the provinces of Ontario and Quebec -- and, essentially, divides English- from French-speaking Canada. Although Quebec is part of the same country, once you cross that border, you realize that the French -- even Canada’s French -- go about things quite a bit differently from those on my side. It can be a bit of a culture shock -- a good one, particularly when it comes to things like food, fun, and women.
But for an even greater shock, a seven-hour plane ride from my place lands you smack dab in a country known for doing things differently. That nation, France, is where Grand Cru Audio’s Essentiel loudspeaker was designed. As you’ll read below, the Essentiel is, visually, technically, and sonically, unlike any other two-way minimonitor I’ve reviewed to date. Given its origins, should that be a surprise?
The Essentiel is a pricey two-way bookshelf speaker costing $8200 USD per pair, in Black or Walnut finish. Still, it’s not the most expensive two-way with a ribbon tweeter that I’ve reviewed; that distinction goes to the Volent Paragon VL-2 SE, which cost $8500/pair when I reviewed it in November 2011. Not all ribbon designs are expensive. Philip Beaudette recently reviewed Monitor Audio’s GX100 ($2195/pair), and priced somewhere in the middle is Monitor’s PL100, which retailed for $4800/pair ($5500 with matching stands) when I reviewed it in 2008.
My review samples of the Essentiel were finished in the same textured, matte Black (it’s more a very dark gray) on the side, rear, and front panels. The finish looks like Nextel, but is supposedly a high-end, custom-made Italian paint used in interior decorating. Essentiels finished in Walnut have the same matte-black front baffle; the wood veneer is on the sides and rear. In both instances, a gold-colored metal badge engraved with the company name and “Designed in France” adorns each side -- a nice, unique touch. To me, it’s a toss-up whether Black or Walnut looks better; anyway, they cost the same.
The cabinet, purportedly made in Italy, measures 16”H x 8.5”W x 11.5”D -- slightly larger than many two-ways, but nowhere near the biggest I’ve seen. Made of MDF, inside it’s strategically braced to eliminate resonances. The box has mostly sharp edges, except for the baffle, which has two opposing corners beveled at a slight angle, giving the Essentiel a distinctive appearance when viewed from the front. The baffle also has an intricately carved surface, into which the magnetically attached grille fits securely. In fact, the grille slots in so well, forming an ideally flat baffle surface seemingly devoid of jutting edges, that I was sure the speakers’ sound would be better with the grilles left on. But the company reps said no, and they were right, in terms of both our measurements and my listening impressions -- the grilles brought down the highs just a touch, which isn’t necessarily desirable with the Essentiel (see below). I did my listening with the grilles off.
The Essentiel felt sturdy and is fairly heavy at about 25 pounds -- there’s substance there, but I wouldn’t consider its build quality extraordinary for the price. The Volent Paragon VL-2 SE is larger, heavier, and more elaborately constructed, with more cosmetic embellishments. The Monitor GX100, which Philip reviewed, wasn’t nearly as large as the Essentiel, but its cabinet was built just as well, and for a lot less money. Still, the Essentiel’s construction is very good, and its styling is unique; I doubt that anyone who falls in love with its sound will quibble about its build or appearance.
I’ve never seen a driver arrangement quite like the Essentiel’s: a deeply recessed, horn-loaded, 2.5” ribbon tweeter offset to one side, and below it a midrange-woofer that measures 7” across (frame edge to frame edge). Below the midrange-woofer is a port, offset to the opposite side of the tweeter. The speakers come in mirror-imaged pairs: the tweeters and ports of each pair are on opposite sides of the speakers. I found it better to place the speakers with the ribbons on the inside and the ports outside, but was told by Jim Ricketts of TMH Audio, Grand Cru’s North American distributor, that having the tweeters to the outside might be better, depending on the setup and the room.
Marrying a ribbon tweeter to a cone midrange-woofer is not for the faint of heart -- some compromises need to be made in the crossover design. One thing is dispersion. Ideally, the ribbon’s output should extend low enough in frequency to blend with the upper end of the midrange-woofer’s range, which, with a normal-sized midrange-woofer, usually means that the drivers are crossed over to each other at 2kHz or so. The problem: the distortion all the ribbon tweeters we’ve measured rises dramatically below 3kHz. As a result, ribbon-tweetered speakers with this low a crossover frequency usually play reasonably well at average listening levels, but sound hard and gritty when pushed to play too loud, because the tweeter then distorts.
A different tack has been taken with the Essentiel. The folks at Grand Cru aren’t all that forthcoming about their crossover technology, other than saying that it’s “potted in resin and decoupled from [the] cabinet,” has 21 elements of the “highest quality,” and was designed to “[ensure] perfect phase and time coherence.” That’s all fine and dandy, but it didn’t tell me everything I wanted to know. Still, after some additional researching and listening, I gathered that the crossover frequency seemed to be around 3kHz, which, combined with the horn loading of the tweeter (which increases its output), would certainly help keep the distortion in check, or at least lower.
But if the crossover point is indeed that high, what about dispersion? A good question. The shape of the horn would certainly affect how well the ribbon and midrange-woofer outputs blend; the designers may have found a way to use the horn’s shape to compensate for what appears to be a higher-than-average crossover point. But I think that, in the worst case, whoever designed the Essentiel might have traded off even dispersion through the crossover region for lower distortion, which isn’t such a bad compromise -- dispersion can be overcome with careful setup, but distortion can’t be undone by moving the speakers around. Still, this is just a guess; as I said, Grand Cru didn’t offer many details about the crossover design.
The rear of the speaker isn’t as interesting as its front -- a large silver plate that takes up about half the rear panel holds a single pair of Eichmann binding posts. The crossover is attached to the other side of that plate.
Grand Cru’s claims for the Essentiel’s performance include: a sensitivity of 90dB (presumably 2.83V/m), a bandwidth of 45Hz-30kHz (no +/- deviation noted), and an impedance of a “stable and easy to drive” 4 ohms. From this you can glean that this is a reasonably easy speaker to drive, but little else; for any more, you need to listen.
Grand Cru Audio recommends choosing an amplifier based on sound quality alone, not sheer power output and/or current capability. I primarily used the Essentiels with the Anthem Statement M1 monos ($7000/pair), which offer unbelievably high power -- each delivers at least 1000W into 8 ohms. More important in this instance were these qualities: vanishingly low distortion in the midrange and the bass, superb driver control due to a very low output impedance, and a super-low noise floor. Feeding the Anthems were my Sony Vaio laptop connected via USB to a Meitner MA-1 DAC, in turn connected to an EMM Labs PRE2-SE preamplifier. The USB cable was an AudioQuest Carbon, the balanced interconnects from DAC to pre and from pre to power were Nordost Valhalla, and the speaker cables were Siltech’s Classic Anniversary 330L. The Essentiels were placed atop my 24"-high Foundation stands, which put their tweeters at about my ear height when I’m sitting down.
One of the first recordings I listened to through the Essentiels was of Respighi’s Adagio con Variazioni, with cellist Mischa Maisky, Semyon Bychkov, and the Orchestre de Paris (16-bit/44.1kHz FLAC, Decca). I focused on the orchestral strings, which I’ve noticed can sound strident at moderately high volumes through most ribbon two-ways, likely because of the distortion problem that I mentioned. With the Statement M1s driving the Essentiels, there was none of that. The first word that came to mind was clean. The next word was seamless. After that came coherent. The sound was extremely smooth and clear throughout the audioband, with no obvious indicators of where the midrange-woofer passed off to the tweeter.
Ribbons seem to have no trouble with the topmost frequencies; in fact, many designers like using ribbons because their output can extend way past 20kHz without incident -- unlike, say, typical aluminum-dome tweeters, many of which ring like a bell just shy of 20kHz, resulting in extreme highs that don’t sound refined. This is why beryllium is now so popular a material for domes -- it breaks up at a much higher frequency. The sky-high extension that ribbons are capable of tempts some designers to raise the level of the top end a bit: because the sound remains so clean, an increase in HF output, provided it’s not so much as to sound bright, results in a bit more air and sparkle, which can make the speaker sound a little more exciting.
The Volent Paragon VL-2 SE’s extreme highs were pushed up some in this way, which did add sparkle and air, but while the Essentiel’s highest highs didn’t sound elevated in any way, they were still as exciting to listen to as the Volent’s, if for different reasons. Listening directly on the tweeter axes, my preferred way to listen to them, the Essentiels sounded pretty neutral and natural right up through the top. If anything, they teetered ever so slightly toward the polite, yet also sounded as sweet as the best soft-dome tweeters I’ve heard, and as airy and fast as the top metal domes, including those used in my reference speaker, the Revel Salon2 (approx. $22,000/pair), and the Paradigm Inspiration (approx. $2600/pair), which I recently reviewed, and both of which have beryllium-dome tweeters.
Overall, the Essentiel had some of the most exquisite highs I’d heard in a long, long time -- the sound of the cymbals 2:51 into Lou Reed’s “Sweet Jane,” from the Cowboy Junkies’ The Trinity Session (16/44.1 FLAC, RCA), sounded extraordinarily clean and extremely realistic. It really sounded like metal being struck. But that was on the tweeter axes. Off axis 15-20 degrees, the Essentiels still sounded sweet and fast, but not as airy, which indicates that the ribbons’ outputs trailed off quite quickly to the sides. And when I sat 30-45 degrees off axis, the Essentiels sounded dull. Unless you’re especially sensitive to highs or have a very reflective room that emphasizes the HF, you’ll want to toe in the Essentiels to point pretty much straight at your ears to get the most natural-sounding top end.
The Essentiels reproduced with terrific clarity Seu Jorge’s very close-miked voice and guitar in “Changes” (yes, the Bowie song), from The Life Aquatic Studio Sessions (16/44.1 FLAC, Hollywood). I’ve heard this track sound quite hard and edgy in the upper midrange, not only with ribbons crossed over low (the Volent VL-2Es, for example, sounded pretty hard with this track), but also with speakers that produce upper-midrange distortion. Through the Essentiels, however, there was only a very smooth sound that had plenty of presence, but never veered toward sounding hard or edgy at any reasonable listening level. And even when I ordered the M1s to drive the Essentiels to levels beyond what I’d consider appropriate for a moderate-size speaker with this kind of driver complement, they didn’t sound nasty and distorted; instead, the dynamics simply began to compress -- a signal to me that the drivers were hitting their limits and it was time to turn it down.
What was also impressive was how the meat of Jorge’s voice was handled -- very rich, highly textured, and superbly detailed, but not at all chesty or resonant, as it can sound through speakers that have serious cabinet resonances or too much emphasis around 400Hz. I also heard quite a bit more space around Jorge’s voice than I’m accustomed to, as well as more-than-impressive soundstage depth. These indicated that the Essentiels’ ability to reproduce spatial cues was high, which is crucial to the re-creation of a credible soundstage.
To be doubly sure of what I was hearing in the lower midrange, I played “Amen,” from Leonard Cohen’s Old Ideas (16/44.1 FLAC,Columbia). Cohen’s close-miked baritone can definitely sound chesty if the speakers aren’t well behaved in the lower mids, but, like Jorge’s voice, Cohen’s was astoundingly clean and clear. The soundstaging and imaging were, again, superb, with awesome left-to-right and front-to-back spreads, and superb separation of Cohen’s voice, at center stage, from those of the female backing singers behind him. On the downside, Jorge’s and Cohen’s voices didn’t sound quite as immediate or incisive as I’ve heard through my references, the Revel Ultima Salon2 and Vivid Audio Giya G2s -- though the latter cost $50,000/pair and are the best speakers I’ve ever heard in my room. Given the disparity in the prices, that’s not that much of a slight.
Cohen’s Old Ideas was also quite revealing of the Essentiel’s bass: more-than-decent output to around 40Hz, if not a touch lower. With “Sweet Jane,” I didn’t hear the ultradeep whoomp, whoomp that I hear through a full-range floorstander that can reach down to 20Hz -- to be fair, I haven’t heard that through any stand-mounted speaker -- but I did get a sense of some energy in that region, which leads me to believe that the Essentiel’s rolloff in the low end is reasonably slow, and doesn’t drop off a cliff at a certain frequency, as it does with most stand-mounted designs. As a result, the Essentiels sounded remarkably fleshed out for their modest size. I can’t imagine any music lover who uses these speakers in an appropriately sized room wanting a subwoofer.
But the bass wasn’t perfect. Despite the depths they could reach, the Essentiels lacked some punch with kick drums, even with the Anthem M1s thrusting visceral power into them. As a result, rock recordings didn’t have as much impact as I’ve heard with other small speakers, including the Paradigm Inspirations. Usually this punch, or lack of it, has to do with the amount of energy produced in the upper bass. Many small speakers have some boost built into their responses from 80 to 120Hz to provide that punch, and to give the impression that the speaker delivers deeper bass than it actually does. The Inspirations have a bit of that boost, as do the diminutive KEF LS50s ($1499/pair), which I’ve just reviewed. I suspect that the Essentiel wasn’t emphasizing the upper bass at all -- its designers seem to have striven for a very balanced, neutral, even-handed sound through the audioband, with no emphasis of any particular region. If you listen mostly to rock, you might be disappointed with the Essentiels’ bass thrust. But with every other kind of music I played through the Grand Crus, the bass depths they could capably plumb carried the day. The modestly sized, stand-mounted Essentiel sounded complete.
The strengths of Grand Cru Audio’s Essential include: a seamless-sounding integration of the ribbon and midrange-woofer outputs; smoothness and clarity through the upper midrange, the likes of which I haven’t heard from other ribbon-based designs; and very deep bass, given the modest sizes of the speaker’s cabinet and midrange-woofer. I was taken aback by the Essentiels’ topflight soundstaging and imaging, as well as by their high resolution, particularly their ability to convey spatial cues. And Grand Cru has created an attractive, distinctive, uniquely finished design -- things that don’t hurt in setting this speaker apart from its competition. The Essentiel’s drawbacks are comparatively small: a quality of cabinet construction that’s good overall, if not quite commensurate with the high price; a slight lack of punch in the upper bass; and a smidgen less incisiveness and immediacy in the mids than the best reference-class designs.
Of the ribbon speakers I’ve heard in my room over the years, the Grand Cru Essentiel is one of the highest priced. It’s also the best sounding, for the reasons just listed, and proof that the propensity of the French to do things differently can pay off when the result is something like this -- a speaker that’s not just unique, but a cut or two above the rest.
. . . Doug Schneider
- Loudspeakers -- Revel Ultima Salon2, Paradigm Reference Inspiration, KEF LS50
- Amplifiers -- Anthem Statement M1s (mono)
- Preamplifier -- EMM Labs PRE2-SE
- Digital-to-analog converter -- Meitner Audio MA-1
- Computer -- Sony Vaio laptop running Windows Vista and JRiver Media Center 17
- Digital interconnect -- AudioQuest Carbon
- Analog interconnects -- Nordost Valhalla
- Speaker cables -- Siltech Classic Anniversary 330L
Grand Cru Audio Essentiel Loudspeakers
Price: $8200 USD per pair.
Warranty: Five years parts and labor.
Grand Cru Audio
c/o Daniel Bendeck
23 Rue Kempff
Phone: (937) 439-2667
Grand Cru responds:
On behalf of the Grand Cru Audio team, headed by Daniel Bendeck and chief designer Jefferson Torno, I would like to thank Doug for his insightful review of the GCA Essentiel monitor -- truly a reference-level design.
We are pleased that Doug quickly discovered the Essentiel’s “clean,” “seamless,” and “clear” sound, its high resolution, and its tonal accuracy, with voices and instruments staying “neutral and natural right up through the top” -- the mark of a true accurate monitor. The soundstaging accuracy also impressed Doug, as did the mating of a very high-performance ribbon and 7” midbass driver -- both modified further by GCA.
All of this is the result of years of crossover research by the chief designer of the crossover -- Jefferson Torno.
Jefferson used multiple custom software programs to finalize a crossover design that provides perfect linear “acoustic phase,” which allows the brain to naturally receive the signals with minimal processing. If one superimposes the time and phase curves, one can see how they match, leading to a linear acoustic phase and the seamless crossover, for ultimate sonic and musical purity.
I must also mention the drivers -- the ribbon is based on a design of a ribbon “guru” and modified by GCA. It provides extraordinary performance without limitations, as noted by Doug. The midbass is also modified by GCA, and, as Doug described, provides subjective extension to below 40Hz. Of more importance is the bass extension: accurate and linear, without the false bump used in lesser designs. Kudos to Doug for that observation, as well as for his comment that the midrange is a “smidgen” less than that of his $50k reference.
The cabinet, reinforced in all three axes, is very quiet, as noted by Doug, and finished with a contemporary finish using a custom Black or White Italian paint with “embedded flakes,” or in a stunning walnut finish for a more traditional aesthetic. The façade is beautifully sculpted, and offers ultra-low-diffraction distortion for that precise soundstaging. Magnetic grilles without pins or holes complete the clean design.
We are most honored to have such an accurate review -- the first in the North American market -- and appreciate the professionalism of the SoundStage! Network team in the review process. Also of note is Doug’s use of a real anechoic chamber for accurate measurements, which adds to that professionalism.
Grand Cru Audio & Jim Ricketts/tmh audio
US distributor for Grand Cru Audio