Products: Opera/Consonance M15
Manufacturer: Opera Audio - China
Cost, approx: 8000 Euro (YMMV)
Reviewer: Geoff Husband - TNT France
Reviewed: December, 2008
Regular readers will be aware that I've taken quite a shine to high-end products produced by Opera Audio in China, in fact I now own their LP 5.0 turntable, and amplifier duties in my main review system are taken by their 300b PSE monoblocks and Cyber 222 preamp. You can read why I bought these in the reviews I undertook, but to summarise they are stunning to look at, beautifully built and most importantly offer a level of performance at least equal with other high-end equipment I've used and at a reasonable cost.So with that background you can imagine that when I discovered that Opera had struck out and produced two new, high-end speakers, the M12 and M15 specifically designed to match my valve amps you can see why I said "send the biggest ones over".
The snag was that they were 60 kgs each and shipped to a nearby port where I was to collect them. In fact the boat ended up at a port a 5-hour drive away and what with undertaking unarmed combat with the customs, waiting for the warehouse to unload them, and then having to take off and throw away all packaging before I could cram them into my Zafira car, I ended up doing an 18 hour day...
Was it worth it?
Standing on a windswept container-port dockside, claw hammer by my side is hardly the best place to gain first impressions of a new speaker worth more than the car it was being loaded into! But as each box was opened and slabs of immaculate veneer exposed I was already thinking that it was worth the effort.
So wind on to the next morning and the speakers, with the aid of a muscular friend, were unloaded into my new music room.
Over the last 10 years I've reviewed many speakers including some high class Cabasse jobs - acknowledged masters of the art of veneering, and my own gorgeous Loth-x horns, but I have never, ever seen veneering as good as on the M15's. Not only is it flawless, but it covers some quite complex curves, and even on the front corners where a curved plane meets two flat planes, the jointing is absolutely beyond criticism, reasonable or otherwise. Opera stuff has gained a reputation for being well built but this was something else.
The speaker consists of two completely separate parts. The base houses a 15" driver in a ported box. The high frequencies being handled by a beautiful, classic flared horn, driven by a compression driver. I've researched these things and there are 'artists' out there who will make such a wooden horn for your own DIY project, and I can tell you that they are very expensive and none will be better made than the M15. This horn sits on top of the main box, just placed on some discs, but putting it there nearly broke my back. The horn/compression driver is incredibly heavy and the sheer mass of the driver makes it very rear biased - I nearly dropped it! If you look at that compression driver you'll see that it's a 3" monster - mixed aluminium/copper voice coil, titanium diaphragm, massive magnets etc. I searched for the best part of a day to find who made this and came up blank - Opera say that the diaphragm and coil is UK made but beyond that keep 'mum' over the details. Once again, looking at quality 3" compression drivers you get the impression that they are generally aimed at the high-end professional market rather than the home user - the drivers looking remotely similar to the M15 compression drivers kicking off at the $1000 level and rising from there.
(Edit March 2009 - B&C stands for Barque and Consonance which are Opera's own brands - however there is no connection at all with the well known Italian company of B&C which makes professional drivers. I've continued my research and thanks to one of our readers discovered that the compression driver appears to be a Chinese 'Ande' driver, though whether it is modified or contains British components I cannot confirm)"
What I'm trying to say is that thought the M15's are expensive, the parts cost alone in the treble section go a long way to justifying the outlay...
The lower box is more conventional being made of MDF, but its complex curved/trapezoid shape can't be easy to make, and certainly not to finish. This makes the panels stiff, and the speakers are wide - accommodating a 15" driver is always going to require a bit of space. That said the baffle curves beautifully away from the driver so reducing diffraction effects. The driver itself is far more run-of-the-mill than the compression driver, being a high-quality paper coned affair complete with big magnet assembly and quality cast frame. Again I couldn't identify it, but similar drivers are to be found in the catalogues of the better professional driver suppliers like JBL and Celestion. This is loaded by a large port - more like a hole in the box really:-)
The crossover, as you can see, is a minimalist high-quality affair hard wired by hand and sits on the back panel of the speaker. The horn crosses over at about 1000 Hz which means that most of the music, especially voices, are handled by just the one driver. Quality binding posts are supplied as are link wires from the main box to the horn section. With a claimed efficiency of 98 dbl and an impedence that sticks resolutely over 7 ohms until you reach high frequencies they should be pretty valve friendly - we'll see.
Looking at these squat monsters in my room I was reminded strongly of serious professional monitors like the 'Voice-of-the-theatre' from the 50's, and the combination of 15" bass and big compression horn is something of a classic line-up for such speakers. But whilst such speakers sound amazing and have a fanatical following, they also look horrible - the M15's just look like gorgeous pieces of furniture.
Sadly although they look as though they should fit perfectly in a corner (like a corner horn) they in fact need a metre or so behind them, though the shape means that they naturally angle into the room and in reality they take up no more space than a compact speaker on a stand. Impossible to knock over, with a cover on the 15" driver and that long horn flare they are also essentially childproof, an asset that shouldn't be underestimated, and not the norm for high-end hi-fi.
Although the styling of the Opera gear is wonderful, there is also a lovely retro feel about it, and sitting down in front of the full top-of-the-range Opera system I couldn't help feeling that most of the technology I was listening to was essentially unchanged from that of 50 years ago. There are many audiophiles who believe that that was the golden age of audio and search out old components, and if the M15's are anything to go by I can see the appeal.
First off is that they are effortlessly, immensely BIG. My listening room is a little unusual being 5 x 6 metres but with the height going up to the point of the roof some 8 m up. It's a big space for a speaker to breath and even quite big speakers tend to get lost. The M15's just seemed to vibrate every molecule in the room, even at quite low levels. This room-filling ability is a huge plus because it's what real acoustic instruments manage (the room doubles as a practice room) so you get the feeling of listening to a live performance.
Now it would be easy to assume that this was down to a massive deep bass performance, but that isn't really the case. The M15's roll off below 40 hz, they don't sound bass light, but neither do they rearrange your internal organs. No the 'Bigness' comes from effortless dynamics and a completely uncompressed performance from the top to the bottom. That 15" driver will obviously shift a hell of a lot of air, and do it very quickly, getting close to my Loth-x horns in that respect (but going much lower), but the horn tweeter matches it punch-for-punch beyond threshold-of-pain. This is impressive as often the match between drivers becomes a little disjointed at high volumes where one of the other compresses or distorts - not here. This remember in a big room volume, and being powered by less than 20 watts. The impression is that of a monstrous V8 just ticking over, dismissing transients and climaxes with ease. The M15's have more headroom than a ten-gallon-hat...
This is exactly what you'd expect from a speaker based on priciples used in professional applications, and though here we don't mention the h*me c*n**a on TNT you should have heard the soundtrack to "Cars" on it:-)
So if you are into the 1812 overture, or Massive Attack then they are just dandy, but what about when you actually want to relax in the room.
Here we expose the main character of the speaker, despite the power and the glory, their overriding impression is of a smooth, warm unfatiguing sound that you could sit in front of for hours. I don't mean warm and woolly because the dynamics allow even gentle music to breath. For example the old Opus 3 test record uses an unamplified acoustic guitar as a test of dynamics, the difference between the quiet and loud noted being so great and the transition so fast. This the M15 handles with great aplomb, never sounding edgy and giving a full impression of those strikes on the strings.
Vocals, as you'd expect from a speaker that lacks a crossover in the middle of the vocal range, are clear and undistorted, giving the feel of a human voice without pushing the sound of smacking lips etc to the fore as some do.
What else do they do well? Well the bass is just brilliant:-) As I mentioned above that 15" driver pumps very fast with minimal help from the port, and you can feel a wavefront hit your chest with the right disc - Prince's "Reaperman" made me think I'd grown another heart... But with the leading edge comes real definition and great tunes - my son is learning the bass guitar and it was significant that he used the M15 system rather than my Loth-x + REL sub system to pick out bass lines because they were so easy to pitch.
So now the compromises. Very big speakers tend not to give the kind of pin-point imaging that a small stand mount is capable of, there's just too much air being moved from such a big area. But in some ways, and to some listeners this is actually an advantage because the soundstage is simply huge - but a bit mixed and amorphous. To me this is exactly what real music (as opposed to hi-fi) sounds like. Listen to a big jazz band or an orchestra live and you will never get the kind of 3d imaging audiophiles go on about, but you will get scale, and no speaker I've heard does scale better. Having said that, such scale needs a big room otherwise the whole thing becomes wallowing and overblown. The M15 sounds underdamped and boomy in the wrong room, but then in such a room you wouldn't be looking at coffin sized speakers.
Compared to the very best, my Loth-x Polaris for example, the M15's do swallow ultra-fine details and lack some of the air beloved of some hi-fi fans, but if that's the price for Technicolor wall-of-sound presentation, and a listen-all-night presentation then so be it.
Often when reviewing I'm faced with a product that, for all its many attributes, isn't really what I like in hi-fi. As this is always a hugely personal opinion it's certainly not ground for criticism. I then find myself searching in an almost analytical way for the positive and negative aspects of a design and trying to pigeonhole the component in terms of potential buyers. The simple fact being that there are many very worthy designs out there that I wouldn't actually have in my house, but to condemn them for not being to my personal taste is hardly fair. For example I know of audiophiles who will put a 3d image, air and detail above all else and who am I to say that is wrong. I find such attributes very impressive, and can see how others would love them.
Sometimes though, I find myself with a component in front of me that I just want to listen to, and often that makes the review more difficult because when something is "right" for me it's often tricky to pin down exactly why. The M15's are firmly in the latter camp. Having lived with the effortless dynamics of big horns for over 5 years I find that everything else sounds compressed and just plain wrong to me, and this self-imposed bias is something the M15's pandered to. On one memorable evening I found myself listening to some Led Zeppelin well into the night, and at the end, as I switched off everything, I found my ears ringing from the sheer volume I'd cranked the M15's to. Though not something to be recommended, it showed just how easy the M15s were to listen to, I had no idea the volume was that high and had just got lost in the music.
The M15's are expensive, however look at speakers offering similar levels of performance and suddenly they make sense. Altec's 'voice-of-the-theatre' cost a similar amount but have the WAF factor of a 40 ton truck, Klipshorns are more expensive, and again not as beautiful. If you like their effortless and yet unfatiguing nature then they take some beating at any price plus of course their simplicity and build quality gives me great confidence that they'll outlast the rest of the system.
Once again Opera seem to have reached into the history books of hi-fi, put their own interpretation on it and produced something relevant to the 21st century. Anyone looking for big-sounding and valve-friendly speakers that has that kind of money to spend and a suitable room should definitely give them an audition.
© Copyright 2008 Geoff Husband - www.tnt-audio.com