When I asked to review a properly expensive pair of loudspeakers and was offered a pair from France, my trepidation ran high. Damn. I’d been pining for some example of traditionally designed, overbuilt awesomeness to be ushered into my listening room for what would be my first foray into Ultra Audio territory. Instead, a pair of Cabasse Pacific 3s was sent from across the pond in what could only be an unorthodox fashion -- hot-air balloon, perhaps? Cabasse makes some pretty wonky stuff, the pinnacle of which is La Sphère, a spherical (of course) four-way coaxial loudspeaker that retails starting at $175,900 USD per pair. Cabasse it is, then.
The three-way, floorstanding Pacific 3 ($16,000/pair) is 51.6”H x 11.4”W x 23.2”D and weigh 124 pounds each. My strong recommendation would be to enlist some help to marshal the large Pacifics into place. The Pacific 3 is distinctive in appearance. The eye is first drawn to the white-ringed coaxial tweeter/midrange drivers. A friend took one look at them and said, “Nice speakers, bro, but what’s with the alien eyes?” The BC17 driver doesn’t quite fit in with the rest of the Pacific 3’s looks, but don’t be fooled into thinking that it’s a gimmick or merely for show. The tweeter is on the large size at 1.35”, and made of Kaladex, an alien-sounding plastic from DuPont. Cabasse decided to forgo a metal diaphragm because, though the first breakup mode of a well-designed aluminum tweeter can be pushed just past the range of human hearing (which tops out at around 20kHz), when breakup does occur, the Q factor (a parameter that enjoys an inverse relationship with damping) rises sharply, with an amplitude potentially reaching 15dB. In other words, the driver rings like hell. The reason that many high-end speakers now make tweeters of beryllium is that they don’t tend to break up until around 35kHz. Kaladex was chosen for its considerable rigidity, but it also has good internal damping, which prevents, or at least ameliorates, high-frequency breakup modes. The plastic’s ratio of high rigidity to density also yields high efficiency and low distortion. The Kaladex tweeter’s upper-frequency limit is specified as 20kHz.
The tweeter is set approximately 1” deep in a waveguide of dense plastic. Flaring back from the waveguide to the cabinet is a 6.3” midrange driver of Duocell, a material derived from a Rohacell formulation used in the aerospace industry. The closed-cell foam of Duocell has a very low density, which makes possible a high efficiency. Cabasse developed a manufacturing process that modified Duocell’s mechanical characteristics to achieve a higher damping factor without compromising the material’s inherent rigidity. This also obviated the need for any mechanical support that would increase the driver’s moving mass and thus decrease efficiency. When I asked Cabasse why they’d made the unorthodox choice of an inverted midrange dome for the Pacific 3, I was told that this geometry minimizes diffraction problems, and pushes the dome’s first breakup mode up past 2kHz, which is at least 200Hz past 1.8kHz, the frequency at which the midrange is crossed over to the tweeter. At the lower end of its operating range, the midrange unit hands off at 423Hz to a pair of 8.25” ND34 woofers, one above and one below the coaxial driver. The woofers are made of glass fiber, with a substantial butyl surround, and operate in tandem down to a claimed 41Hz. No ±3dB response is listed, but I suspect the claimed frequency response of 41Hz-20kHz reflects anechoic rather than in-room performance. The crossover is fourth-order, 24dB/octave, and therefore pretty steep when compared to those of many other loudspeakers.
All drivers are designed and engineered by Cabasse at their research facility in Brest, in Brittany, at almost the westernmost tip of France’s Atlantic coastline. (Their assembly factory is 150 miles away.) About 50% of Cabasse’s employees are involved in the engineering and research and development. Within the R&D team, no fewer than four members have PhDs, in the fields of acoustics, physics, or electronics. That reflects serious knowledge of the field; very few speaker makers can boast such staff. There may be readers out there who are parishioners in the church of one of any number of speaker gurus out there -- individuals who’ve built followings around themselves that are as sizable as the products they peddle. And many may build quite competent loudspeakers. But odds are that a speaker company founded in 1950, building products predicated on a tremendous amount of knowledge and experience, and tested in their very own anechoic chamber, can produce something just as good. Maybe better . . .
With the interior of the Pacific 3’s cabinet covered, attention can be focused -- lavished, even -- on the exterior. It’s gorgeous. A copious amount of MDF is used to mold these things, and not just a little. While I’ve rapped my knuckles on cabinets that are more inert, they’re almost always made of aluminum or some kind of composite, so the Pacifics certainly hold their own. Gloss Black and High Gloss Cherry finishes are also available, but I opted for High Gloss Mahogany. Gloss Black is built up with nine layers of lacquer, while the two wood finishes have a minimum of five layers of varnish polished to a 90% gloss. The result is much more impressive in person than in photos. While the Mahogany looks bright red in Cabasse’s promotional materials, it’s significantly darker in normal lighting, and left a more sophisticated and complex impression than I expected. And the 90% gloss level means that it’s difficult to even see the finish from more than a few feet away -- it’s close to mirror-like. Fabric gloves and cleaning cloths are included to help in the veneer’s handling and maintenance, respectively.
The Pacific 3 is tall, and deceptively deep at just shy of 24”. The bass-reflex design has a port that fires downward through the built-in pedestal, which also sports a mirrored finish, along with a hole at each corner through which, using a hex key, the height of the floor spikes can be adjusted. The spikes can be set on custom-made, coin-like plates to protect all manner of floor. Key, spikes, and plates are included -- thoughtful. On the rear of the cabinet is a brushed-silver panel with a single set of five-way binding posts. A single domed grille for the coaxial driver, and a thin, flexible, magnetically attached grille for the rest of the front baffle are included, but I had no interest in shrouding the Pacific 3s’ faces.
Setup . . .
. . . was challenging, if due only to the size of the Pacific 3s. Get help.
I placed them about 8’ apart, 2.5’ from my front wall, and about 8.5’ from my listening seat. Both their appearance and sound make these decidedly “big room” speakers -- the more room you can give them, the better they’ll sound. I was limited by the space available in my city apartment, but I’ll bet you could safely pull the Pacifics a few feet farther out into a bigger room.
I partnered the Pacifics with some pretty overachieving gear. Hegel Music System’s H300 integrated amplifier-DAC, a 250Wpc dual-mono design that comfortably exceeds Cabasse’s recommended nominal amplification of 150W for the 88dB-efficient Pacific 3. It also had enough current to satisfy the Pacific’s nominal impedance of 8 ohms, which dips to a minimum of 3.7 ohms. Nor did this prove troublesome for Rogue Audio’s Sphinx, a 100Wpc hybrid integrated amplifier. When I used the Rogue, Arcam’s D33 D/A converter served as my digital source.
Most of my cables were from Dynamique Audio: Celestial speaker cables, Zenith analog interconnects, Infinite power cords, and a Firelight USB cable -- all solid-core, pure-silver designs. I also made sparing use of a DH Labs Silversonic USB cable and Nordost’s Frey 2 speaker cables.
I ran my 16-bit/44.1kHz collection from iTunes via the Firelight USB cable to the Hegel and Arcam. I ran in the Pacific 3s for a couple of weeks before giving them a proper listen, so I can’t say how much burn-in they require, but once I gave them my undivided attention, they were consistent.
Though it may look a bit daft, the Pacific 3’s coaxial driver is an absolute peach. Getting a coax to work correctly is a devilish art, what with one driver physically placed inside another, each vibrating at different frequencies and causing hell for the other. Then, for the tweeter, there’s the issue of diffraction. Unlike KEF’s Uni-Q coaxial driver, however, or anything else I know of, the tweeter in the Cabasse is physically separated from the ring-shaped midrange by a waveguide of hard, curved plastic. With this, Cabasse contrives to have the two drivers operate seamlessly as a single unit.
The effect was quite impressive. Voices shone through the Pacific 3s, which offered some of the best imaging I’ve ever heard, and something that even the best price-no-object, noncoaxial designs can’t match. Marcus Mumford’s lead vocals in “Ghosts That We Knew,” from Mumford & Sons’ Babel (16/44.1 ALAC, Island), had a lovely, completely coherent three-dimensionality that I found it hard not to smile at. Sure, it was detailed, dead center in the soundstage, and certainly sounded lifelike. But what struck me as so special about Cabasse’s coax was its ability to capture the weight and texture of Mumford’s voice. A great many speakers out there possess tremendous skill at resolution, and can reproduce fine detail like nobody’s business, but I often find that they make voices sound a bit threadbare, that the heart and soul of the music disappear. This is why I think audiophiles tend to like electronics that use vacuum tubes -- they infuse the signal with a distortion-induced warmth and heartiness. In the end, though, that solves one problem by potentially introducing another. Not so here. The Pacific 3s were so deliciously articulate that I must have listened through them to Mumford & Sons’ new album a dozen times, and could happily have done so another few dozen.
Wesley Schultz’s singing in “Submarines,” from the Lumineers’ eponymous first album (16/44.1 ALAC, Dualtone Music), was delivered just as convincingly. The New Jerseyan’s voice enjoyed much the same texture and outright clarity as Mumford’s had. With a slightly higher, leaner, more agile voice than his American-born, British-based counterpart, Schultz didn’t have the sometimes exaggerated character that some speakers can impose on the midrange, making voices sound overdelineated, for a sound often mistaken for hi-rez detail. Nor did Schultz sound too sweet or rich, as can happen when listened to through something like a B&W 800-series speaker, which makes everything sound just a little better than it actually is.
Soundstaging was strong with “Simple As . . . ,” from Kid Cudi’s Man on the Moon: The End of Day (16/44.1 ALAC, Motown). The Clevelander was at the center of a menagerie of sound, with backing voices emanating from either channel, and drums reverberating from much farther back. The Pacific 3s cast a broad image that extended pretty far back, but it was here that I began to notice the personality of the Cabasses’ Kaladex tweeters. Some manufacturers bump up the tweeter output a few dB to add some air and sparkle to a speaker’s sound, which tends to make the soundstage sound more expansive than perhaps it should. The Pacifics, by contrast, sounded a little on the dark side, which made me think that their tweeters were tuned a few dB down. I don’t know if this is an inherent limitation in the Kaladex design, or a conscious choice on the part of the designers. I suspect it’s the latter, because it led the Pacific 3 to have a somewhat romantic sound that, by omission, placed more of an emphasis on Kid Cudi and his various accompanists than on the recording space. This strikes me as deliciously apropos of the speaker’s French roots.
Both tweeter and midrange were very good in terms of overall detail and resolution; Ola Gjeilo’s acoustic-piano work in “Dorisk,” from the 2L-TWBAS 2012 Sampler (24/88.2 FLAC, 2L-SoundStageRecordings.com), was pretty damn compelling. This is an intimate recording, and the Pacifics again ably captured the ambiance of the piece, but I couldn’t help feeling that some low-level detail had gone missing, and that the transparency wasn’t quite the state of the art. This wasn’t dramatically so. Having heard state-of-the-art speakers made by such companies as Magico, MBL, TAD, and Vivid Audio, I’ve found that there’s often a quick, effortless, extended nature to their sound that the Pacific 3 couldn’t match. The Cabasse’s sound was a bit less delicate and artful, and Gjeilo’s piano was more fulsome and purposeful than the Pacific 3s let on. Then again, you could also expect to pay each of those manufacturers far more for a full-range speaker; I’d much prefer to pay $16,000 for the sultry Pacific 3s than upward of $25,000 for something else.
Speaking of full-range, the bass performance of the Pacific 3 was nearly so. “Air,” from Hans Zimmer’s score for The Thin Red Line (16/44.1 ALAC, BMG/Sony Music), includes punishing Japanese taiko drums that dominate the first 30 seconds of the track, and the Cabasses were not lightweight in their rendition. The speaker’s claimed 41Hz lower limit must be an anechoic measurement; with room gain, I’d be shocked if they didn’t have solid output down into the low 30Hz range, possibly even the high 20s. With the volume up, the drums dominated my room in terms of both depth and authority. The twin woofers were ballsy, though I suspect Cabasse’s engineers have slightly bumped up the bass in order to achieve this effect, which tends to give the impression of deeper bass than is actually present. The taikos sounded pretty articulate, though not quite as quick and controlled as through, say, a Vivid Audio speaker. But I think the quality and character of the bass produced by the Pacific 3’s 8.25” woofers lives up to the high standard set by the BC17 coaxial driver that sits between them.
KEF’s R900 ($5000/pair) has served as my reference loudspeaker for the past six months. Like the Pacific 3, the R900 has a coaxial tweeter-midrange driver. KEF calls their coaxials Uni-Qs; this one comprises a 1” aluminum tweeter with a built-in “tangerine” (KEF’s word) waveguide set in the middle of a 5.25” aluminum midrange cone. Also like the Cabasse, the R900 has two large woofers, each measuring 8” in diameter, one above and one below the coaxial.
Before you chortle at the thought of comparing a $5000 pair of speakers with a set costing more than three times as much, it’s worth mentioning that the R900 takes advantage of technology trickled down from the British firm’s Blade speaker ($30,000/pair), and that I’m not the only SoundStage! Network writer whose reference speaker is the R900. In terms of sound quality, it punches far beyond its weight class.
The two European speakers have very similar driver arrangements but noticeably different sounds. If the Cabasses produced a broad, romantic sound marked by exceptional imaging, the KEFs are a bit more professorial, speaking with a more neutral voice. And while the R900s can’t equal the Pacific 3s’ imaging -- voices sound a bit larger and more ambiguous -- they’re slightly more nimble throughout the audioband. The two models also deal with bass differently: The KEF offers a more athletic bottom end, but at the expense of depth; the Cabasse can plumb a few hertz lower. The Cabasse is the more resolving of the two, but by only a small margin.
The Cabasse Pacific 3 is unquestionably the more visually attractive speaker; the KEF R900’s sharply squared cabinet edges, matte wood-grain finish, and more resonant chassis are more understated. The KEF’s quality of materials also falls short of the Cabasse’s. If I had the option and the cash, I’d choose the Cabasse. While it’s not the more neutral transducer, its sound is more robust, more tactile, and ultimately more immersive.
Cabasse’s Pacific 3 loudspeaker is as visually distinctive as it is sonically pleasing. It’s a unique quantity on both counts; it can reproduce the human voice with aplomb, and it offers some of the best imaging I’ve ever heard. The Pacific 3 may not be conventional, but it’s a very well-engineered loudspeaker offering a deeply involving sound. If the opportunity arises, give it a listen -- or make an opportunity.
. . . Hans Wetzel
- Speakers -- KEF R900
- Integrated amplifiers -- Hegel Music Systems H300, Rogue Audio Sphinx
- Sources -- Apple MacBook Pro running Songbird and iTunes, Arcam FMJ D33 DAC, Hegel Music Systems H300
- Speaker cables -- Dynamique Audio Celestial
- Interconnects -- Dynamique Audio Zenith
- USB cables -- DH Labs Silversonic, Dynamique Audio Firelight
- Power cables -- Dynamique Audio Infinite
Cabasse Pacific 3 Loudspeakers
Price: $16,000 USD per pair.
Warranty: Five years parts and labor.
210 rue René Descartes
Phone: +33 298-05-88-88.
Fax: +33 298-05-88-99
North American distributor:
TEAC America, Inc.
7733 Telegraph Road
Montebello, CA 90640
Phone: (323) 726-0303