altair

Rockport Altair Review

ROCKPORT TECHNOLOGIES ALTAIR LOUDSPEAKER

Robert Harley

High-end-audio loudspeaker designers are an elite group. From the thousands of engineers around the world, they have risen to the top through raw talent, a single-minded pursuit of perfection, and decades of dedication to the art. Within this select group is an even smaller sub-set of designers who have pushed beyond the standards of the high-end to create truly transcendental products.

Among this handful of the world’s most innovative loudspeaker designers is Rockport Technologies’ Andy Payor. He’s been at the forefront of heroic enclosure construction and radical driver development for decades. But Payor’s public profile isn’t commensurate with his products’ performance. Rather than engage in self-promotion, he seems content to let audiophiles discover his products on their own. Payor takes a very low-key approach to marketing that’s in sharp contrast with that of many of his peers, perhaps because he’s 100{538ef4ef8c239f9f336b243d4c86cb13dc7516093f0e76e3bd53b4459e751194} engineering nerd and 0{538ef4ef8c239f9f336b243d4c86cb13dc7516093f0e76e3bd53b4459e751194} marketer. Moreover, Rockport loudspeakers are made in very limited quantities, with each pair tested, hand-calibrated, and auditioned by Payor himself. Consequently, very few music lovers have heard one of the world’s great loudspeaker lines.

Design Overview
The $97,500 Rockport Altair is a formidable loudspeaker, weighing in at 515 pounds out of the crate. Seen from the listening position, the Altair doesn’t look all that big. But step around to the side and the speaker’s volume becomes apparent. The relatively narrow baffle provides an ideal wave-launch platform for the front-firing drivers, and the depth provides the enclosure volume as well as a baffle for the side-firing 15″ woofer.

The Altair is the second model down in Rockport’s seven-product line. (The entry-level is the $6300 Mira Monitor; the top is the $225,000 Arrakis.) In addition to that 15″ side-firing woofer, the driver complement includes a front-firing 9″ mid/bass, 5¼” midrange, and a 1″ beryllium dome tweeter. The three cone drivers, custom built for Rockport, feature diaphragms of carbon-fiber skins on either side of a Rohacell core. Payor designs and builds the diaphragms, and then sends them to Audiotechnology in Denmark for assembly with custom motors. The 15″ side-firing woofer is ported in the rear through a huge flaired-duct, machined from aluminum. Input is via a single pair of binding posts. The loudspeaker rests on four machined aluminum feet with rounded bottoms that screw into threaded holes in the base.

Unlike most loudspeaker enclosures that are made from panels joined together, the Altair’s composite enclosure is laminated as a single unit (actually, in three sections—baffle, base, and main enclosure). This molded monocoque approach reportedly not only results in a stronger enclosure, but also allows compound curvatures that would be impossible with panel construction. The finish is available in any automotive color; my review samples were painted in a gorgeous Porsche Atlas Grey Pearl. The smoothness of the finish and luster of the paint were stunning.

The crossover is built from custom inductors and capacitors, with parts matched to 1{538ef4ef8c239f9f336b243d4c86cb13dc7516093f0e76e3bd53b4459e751194} tolerance. Each network is then hand-tuned to the particular set of drive units with which it will be mated. Crossover components are connected with point-to-point wiring rather than a printed-circuit board, and then encapsulated in a potted module. All internal wiring is made by Transparent Audio. (See my accompanying interview with Andy Payor for more on the Altair’s design and construction.)

Listening
Setting up the Altair was relatively straightforward after they were out of the crates. The speaker is shipped lying on its back, and is best removed from the crate in your listening room. With the crate disassembled around the speaker, you screw the four large threaded feet into the base and then tilt the speaker up onto four furniture sliders, one beneath each foot. Once standing upright, one person can slide the speaker into position. Small changes are easily made while the speaker is on the sliders, which are removed after finding the optimal placement. The rounded feet serve as the final foundation; no spikes are necessary.

The Altair’s bass was different from other loudspeakers I’ve reviewed in two respects. First, the 15″ side-firing woofer seemed to couple to the listening room’s air in a way that fostered a sense of great solidity. I’m not describing just bass heft, weight, dynamics, or extension (all of which the Altair has in spades), but a different phenomenon that gave the entire bottom end an “anchored” feeling. Bass-rich instruments—bowed or plucked doublebass, bass guitar, timpani, and the left-hand lines on some piano recordings—just seemed more “there” and tangible than I’ve heard from any other loudspeaker. The bass had a visceral grip that rendered a palpability of bass-rich instruments like I’ve never before heard in reproduced music. The woofer seemed to “lock” to the listening room’s air volume. I don’t mean that I heard the “locking” phenomenon directly, but rather that the Altair produced the impression that there was no woofer moving back and forth to create the sound. Rather, bass-rich instruments just seemed to exist, fully formed and fleshed out, right in my listening room.

The second way in which the Altair’s bass distinguished itself was the tremendous sense of bass power, particularly in the mid- and upper-bass region. The range from about 80Hz to 200Hz had tremendous timbral warmth and even more stunning dynamic impact. I hate to use the word “warmth” because of the negative connotation of a tonal imbalance; perhaps “densely textured” is a more accurate description. In fact, the Altair was anything but colored. This “warmth” wasn’t manifested as an excess of energy, but rather as a forcefulness of presentation that’s related to the “visceral grip” and sense of solidity described in the preceding paragraph. Frankly, the Altair makes many other loudspeakers sound slightly anemic in this range. The deeply tuned tom-toms that open “Sing, Sang, Sung” from Swinging for the Fences by Gordon Goodwin’s Big Phat Band produced a sense of physical impact that was startling. Or listen to the thundering left-hand lines on Nojima Plays Liszt and try not to be shaken to your core. The Altair easily filled and pressurized the considerable volume of air in my listening room. Although substantial in size, the Altair delivered a far bigger sound—in bass weight and dynamics—than you’d think.

Bass extension was also outstanding. Although physically smaller than many loudspeakers that aspire to be full-range, reference-quality transducers, the Altair gave up nothing in the bottom octave. Organ pedal points pressurized the room convincingly, with I might add, no chuffing from the port, doubling-distortion from the woofer, or other artifacts.

Despite the sheer amount of bass and midbass energy, the Altair sounded like a featherweight in its portrayal of bass detail and micro-dynamic shadings. The Altair’s bottom end had a lithe, agile quality that was at odds with its iron-fisted impact. The delicacy of timbre, resolution of pitch, clarity of instrumental lines, and stunning rendering of even the slightest dynamic nuances elevated the Altair to a league of its own. Moreover, the Altair had no hint of thickness, congestion, or confusion, even at high listening levels. These qualities, when coupled with the solidity and sheer output in the bass, produced many listening experiences that I’ll never forget. The massive timpani rolls in “Dream of a Witches’ Sabbath” from Symphonie Fantastique [Reference Recordings] exemplify everything I’ve been saying about the Altair’s bass. The timpani had the frightening, thundering power of a freight train, yet within this barrage I could hear the individual strokes on the heads, the heads’ vibration decaying, and the resonant body of the timpani. I’ve never heard this combination of bass power and delicacy; it’s one I’m going to find difficult to live without.

Interestingly, the bass performance changed with the amount of toe-in because of the side-firing woofer. Even small changes in toe-in affected how the woofers drove the room, but experimentation paid off when Andy Payor, who visited for the fine-tuning, found the spot where the bass locked in.

But spectacular bass performance was only the beginning of the Altair’s greatness. This loudspeaker is vanishingly low in tonal coloration, from top to bottom. I consistently had the impression that the Altair was a transparent window on musical timbres, imposing so little of itself on the presentation. Instrumental textures were stunningly vivid and alive, yet not in a Technicolor way that could become fatiguing. This vividness came from revealing the natural timbres of instruments and voices themselves rather than from some editorial interpretation. By vivid I mean palpable, present, and realistic, not overly forward. The realism of timbre was a result, I believe, of extremely low driver coloration, very fast transient ability, integration between the drivers, and zero contribution from the cabinet. Tone colors were rich, dense, detailed, and saturated, with extraordinary resolution of the finest inner detail of instrumental timbre. In addition, the Altair had a top-to-bottom coherence, tonally, spatially, and dynamically, that made it speak with one voice. The integration between the drivers was outstanding, with absolutely no change of tone color or density with an instrument’s register. I had a sense that an instrument’s harmonics were fully integrated with fundamentals, not a separate component riding on top. Moreover, the Altair’s character didn’t change with volume, sounding just as pure and clean during the most demanding musical peaks as in quiet passages. This all added up to an impression not of listening to a pair of loudspeakers, but of hearing spontaneous music-making.

The Altair’s overall tonal balance was extremely flat and neutral, but sources, electronics, and cables with a smooth treble balance were the best match with this loudspeaker. The Altair is highly revealing of everything upstream of it, and isn’t forgiving of treble brightness or a forward balance in amplification or sources. The BAlabo preamplifier and power amplifier, for example, were a perfect match for the Altair—so much so that this combination could be the paradigm of system synergy.

The Rockports completely disappeared as a sound source, throwing a huge, deep, and highly precise soundstage. Image focus was razor-sharp, and the sense of space between images was as good as it gets. The overall perspective was immediate, bold, and incisive, but not to the point of being pushy or forward. This was not a relaxed-sounding loudspeaker that imposes a sense of distance and depth on every recording.

What really distinguished the Altair’s spatial reproduction was the sense of blackness behind the instruments that allowed me to hear extremely fine spatial details. This extraordinary resolution of the lowest-level signal components, such as discrete reflections and reverberation decay, greatly added to the Altair’s stunning sense of realism. Instrumental decay, as well as hall ambience, seemed to hang in space longer. Moreover, the sounds of instruments decaying and reverberation tails “held together” and sounded coherent at the very lowest levels rather than degenerating into an undifferentiated noise. The Altairs opened up a transparent window on fine spatial detail, particularly with LPs and high-resolution digital sourced from my music server. This quality was particularly apparent when driving the Altairs with the Constellation Audio Altair preamp (no relation to the Rockport Altair) and Hercules power amplifiers, which in my experience have unrivaled resolution of low-level detail that emerges from a deep blackness. I think the Altair’s heroic cabinet construction is a large contributing factor to its ability to vanish as a sound source—spatially as well as timbrally.

Dynamically, the Altair achieved the best of both worlds; it had the ability to reproduce the most demanding dynamic contrasts with tremendous authority and slam, yet it had a delicacy and grace when reproducing finely filigreed micro-transient information. The way in which notes started and stopped played a large role in delivering the sense of realism and vibrancy I mentioned earlier. Leading-edge transients were extremely fast and sharply defined, yet completely devoid of etch. Listen, for example, to Ralph Towner’s superbly recorded acoustic guitar on Oregon’s Beyond Words on the Chesky label; the dynamic envelope of each note’s attack was perfectly defined. Listen also to the way in which the notes resonated and decayed in a totally believable fashion. By reproducing such dynamic starts and stops in a way that’s closer to what I hear in life, the Altair removed just one more clue that I was listening to a loudspeaker and not to live music.

Conclusion
One way to judge an audio product is how easily it makes you forget you’re listening to an electro-mechanical reproduction of music rather than to music itself. By that criterion, the Rockport Altair was transcendental. I consistently had the impression of music-making coming alive in my room, not of listening to a hi-fi system. Not every loudspeaker that satisfies a sonic checklist of audiophile priorities—tonal balance, dynamics, soundstaging, for examples—rises to the rarified air that the Altair occupies.

Highly resolving, effortlessly dynamic, utterly transparent, and full in balance, the Altair is one of the world’s great loudspeakers. I must caution you however, that the Altair is highly revealing of any shortcomings in the signal feeding it. The Altair deserves and demands to be driven by the finest sources, electronics, and cables.

In addition to this sonic performance, the Altair’s build-and-finish quality is as good as it gets. This loudspeaker is clearly the creation of a fanatical dedication to perfection in every aspect of its design and execution.
You should audition the Altair at your own risk; once you hear its magical ability to conjure up musicians right in front of you, your standards will forever be altered. I know that mine have.

SPECS & PRICING
Configuration: Four-driver dynamic loudspeaker
Driver complement: One side-firing 15″ woofer, one 9″ mid-bass driver, one 5-1/4″ midrange cone, one 1″ beryllium dome tweeter
Sensitivity: 91dB
Impedance: 4 ohms
Weight: 515 lbs. each (net), 780 lbs. each (crated)
Price: $97,500

ROCKPORT TECHNOLOGIES
586 Spruce Head Road
South Thomaston, ME 04858
(207) 596-7151

ASSOCIATED COMPONENTS
BAlabo BC-1 Mk-II preamplifier and BP-1 Mk-II amplifier, Constellation Altair preamplifier and Hercules power amplifiers, Mark Levinson Nº53 power amplifiers;
Meridian 808.3 and Meridian Sooloos system (Ethernet connected), dCS Puccini/U-Clock, and Berkeley Audio Design Alpha DAC, custom fanless and driveless PC server with Lynx AES16 card; Basis Inspiration turntable with Basis Vector 4 tonearm, Air Tight PC-1 Supreme cartridge; Aesthetix Rhea Signature phonostage; Shunyata V-Ray V2 and Audience aR6t power conditioners; Shunyata CX-series AC cords; Transparent XL Reference interconnects; Transparent XL Reference loudspeaker cables; Billy Bags equipment racks, ASC 16” Full-Round Tube Traps.