- Category: Full-Length Reviews
- Created on Sunday, 15 April 2012 00:00
- Written by Tim Shea
Way back when, I was a teenager looking to buy my first set of "serious" speakers with the hard-earned money I made on my paper route, and went looking for the biggest suckers I could find per dollar spent. Sound quality was a consideration, but I’m embarrassed to say that looks and woofer size were at least as important as the quality of sound the speakers could produce. I ended up with a pair of Pioneer HPM100s. I still have them today . . . though I can’t remember the last time a signal passed through them.
Since those blissfully ignorant wonder years, more time has passed than I like to admit. Fortunately, I’ve actually learned some things since then. Of the few I can remember, one is that it’s often not the size of the package that counts, and that’s certainly true of speakers. It took me a while to accept this, but accept it I have, to the point where my next pair of speakers may be minimonitors. Never woulda seen that coming not so long ago.
So when the relatively smallish Fontaine Signatures arrived from EgglestonWorks, along with their not-small price tag of $8500 USD per pair, I wasn’t nearly as concerned as I’d have been back in the day. That said, knowing what else is out there at that price had me thinking that they’d better pack a bunch of sound per square inch.
Description and setup
The Fontaine Signatures were shipped in hefty boxes on pallets (in my experience, this is very rare with speakers this size), wrapped in cellophane, and, under the wrap, in soft cloth covers. I’ve found that the quality of packaging frequently reflects the amounts of care, quality, and overall thoughtfulness a company takes with the manufacture and shipping of its products. This was a good first impression.
As I wrested the speakers from their shipping coffins, it was obvious at first glance that the fit’n’finish of these middleweight contenders was top-notch. My review pair was painted in an attractive gray metallic paint that would not look out of place on a German luxury automobile -- I see why EgglestonWorks didn’t skimp on the packaging. (I later learned that the paint used is actually a Porsche color modified to work on speakers.) Each speaker gets three coats of color and four of clear coat, and looks it. Also included were magnetically attached grilles (I never used them) and some hefty floor spikes. The fairly brief manual contains the necessary information, along with some helpful tips on placement (more on this later).
Each Fontaine Signature weighs 70 pounds (felt more like 90 to me) and measures 41"H x 8.5"W x 12"D. The top panel angles toward the back, to complement the interesting industrial look established by the front baffle’s large, silver, rectangular aluminum plate with rounded ends, under which the drivers sit. While I found the Fontaine’s overall shape appealing, I was less enamored of that silver plate, though I’m sure it’s there for a good reason. My wife didn’t take to the Fontaines’ looks, information she was happy to offer unsolicited (my mom concurred). Suffice it to say that the Fontaine’s look can be polarizing; it’s probably not for those who want a traditional look that will blend with fine furniture.
I’m more concerned with what’s inside and what comes out of a speaker. And while I’m sure the Fontaine’s paint job ain’t cheap either, a closer inspection began to reveal where Eggleston spent their money, and why they’re asking you to spend so much of yours. In designing the Fontaine Signature, which is based on the Fontaine II, Eggleston not only upgraded the drivers, but also upped the parts quality of the crossovers with Mundorf capacitors. When I received the Fontaines, they were still listed at $7900/pair; the price was raised to $8500 in large part due to the increased cost of its expensive drivers. At the top is a Dynaudio Esotar 1" fabric-dome tweeter, which is crossed over at 3kHz, via a second-order slope, to the two 6" carbon-fiber Morel midrange-woofers below it. Both midrange-woofers cover the same frequencies; this is strictly a two-way design.
All these costly bits are enclosed in a cabinet whose walls consist of two panels of 5/8"-thick MDF glued together, for a total thickness of 1.25". Given how heavy these guys feel, that didn’t surprise me, but while the cabinet is fairly inert, it wasn’t the deadest I’ve rapped with a knuckle, that test producing more of a hollow thunk than the solid thud I expected. ’Round back is only one pair of solid binding posts -- Eggleston maintains that, given the design of the crossover, adding a second pair of posts for biwiring doesn’t yield significant improvements in sound. Above the binding posts are two small ports, one above the other. An interesting design element is that, inside the speaker, there’s a shelf between the two ports, with a third, vertical port in the shelf itself. This is said to help get the most out of those expensive midrange-woofers.
All of this results in a claimed frequency response of 38Hz-24kHz, -3dB, a sensitivity of 88dB, and a minimum impedance of 5.6 ohms (8 ohms nominal). EgglestonWorks recommends a minimum amplification of 50W, but in the real world they prefer 80W to get the job done. My reference amp puts out a conservative 100Wpc; I never had a problem driving the Fontaines, even at fairly ridiculous listening levels. I didn’t have to turn the volume knob any farther than usual, and since my Soliloquy 6.2 reference speakers aren’t a heavy load, I’d say the Fontaine Signatures are pretty user-friendly in this regard. Still, low-powered tube amps need not apply.
In perusing the EgglestonWorks website, I couldn’t help noticing how similar the Fontaine Signature looks to the top section of one of its stablemates, the lauded Andra III ($23,500/pair); I wondered if they were similar inside as well. When I asked the company about this, they said I was basically correct in terms of the parts used, although, given the Andra’s additional bass drivers and larger cabinet volume, they tweak the crossovers a little differently. In fact, the drivers used in the Fontaine are the same as those in their second-from-the-top model, the Savoy Signature. I like when companies trickle down their best work to lesser models. The cheapskate in me wondered if pairing a couple of good-quality subwoofers with the Fontaine Signatures could get me close to the Andra IIIs’ performance, but at a nice discount. Hmm.
The manual says that the Fontaine Signatures are designed to be set up closer to the front walls than are many speakers, and farther apart to increase soundstage width. I found this to be the case; the review samples ended up about 1’ farther back and 1’ farther apart than I usually place speakers in my room. Pushing the speakers still farther back yielded deeper, more impactful bass without overdoing it, but began to compromise elements of soundstage depth that weren’t worth it to me. Overall, I found the Fontaine Signatures unfussy about positioning in my room, and while they appreciated being nudged an inch or so in the right direction here and there, their sound never collapsed or was significantly compromised, no matter where I put them.
Right out of the box, the Fontaine Signatures sounded very good, and better than many fresh-off-the-line speakers I hear. EgglestonWorks says in the manual that they do some running-in at the factory (this doesn’t exceed 100 hours), and I have to think that had a lot to do with what I heard. That’s not to say there was no benefit to further run-in, which mainly involved a tightening and better integration of bass frequencies and increased midrange transparency. The company says that the speakers will start to hit their stride after some 200 hours of run-in; however, not knowing exactly how long they’d been run in at the factory, I gave them another +200 hours of quality playing time before sitting down to do any serious listening.
The first thing that hit me about the Fontaine Signature was that it was very even-keeled -- no part of the frequency range stood out, or sounded out of whack or wrong in any way. Right after that, I noticed that the midrange was very resolved, but with lots of expressiveness, which sometimes come at odds with each other, in my experience. Another obvious strength was the bass, which was extremely tight and tuneful, and fast. In fact, within its limits, and as a whole, I’ve not experienced better bass in my room -- a stark reminder that it’s not the size of the package that counts.
Those were my first impressions. The real test would be how the speakers played music as a whole. Short answer? The Fontaine Signatures conveyed music as, well, music. Listening through them, I went beyond dissecting the music and focused more on its meaning -- the playing styles and little inflections that make it sound real. I’ve heard some impressive and expensive speakers that can slice and dice a soundstage into the finest gradations with otherworldly pinpoint accuracy, but I end up noticing that more than the music that’s supposed to be emerging from that impressive soundstage. Such products are audiophile speakers for audiophiles, and they have their place. On the other end of the spectrum are those overly romantic or "forgiving" speakers that can make cut-glass recordings sound like the musical equivalent of a feather pillow. Although such speakers are easy and fun to listen to, such ease usually comes at the expense of hearing those subtleties that clue you into the recording space, or the microdetails that convey meaningful information such as individual playing techniques or transient snap. I mention all this because, more than any other speaker I’ve had in my room, the Fontaine Signature could equally please the audiophile, the musician, and the music aficionado. This speaker is the proverbial long, straight shot down the middle of the audio fairway.
I pulled out electric bassist Dean Peer’s Think . . . It’s All Good (CD, Turtle), which I hadn’t played in a while, but remembered had lots of articulate twists and turns that would put the EggWorks speakers through their paces. The bass guitar in "Air Circus No.1" sounded particularly accurate and real. In fact, everything sounded quick and tight, with tons of detail -- not to the extent of being thrown at me, but extreme detail in service to the music and the musicians. "It’s All Good" backed this up, the Fontaine Signatures portraying a nice sense of space and the instruments within it. Instruments that were clearly at the back of the stage were there, but not far back, and not so diminished in size and tonality that they were on the other side of my front wall, somewhere in my neighbor’s house. Most impressive were the nuances of the performance that clearly came through -- the phrasings, minute plucks, and subtle volume shifts that make live music so interesting and involving were there in spades: resolution in the service of the music rather than resolution for resolution’s sake. Very nice.
One disc I’ve had mixed success with in my system is Eva Cassidy’s Live at Blues Alley (CD, Blix Street 10046). It’s a live recording; with a highly resolving system you can really get a sense of Blues Alley in your listening room, but I’ve also heard her sibilants overemphasized to the point of distraction. It’s a fine line -- systems through which Cassidy’s voice sounds full and balanced tend to gloss over the microdetails that convey the sense of space that’s recorded on this disc, which takes away from the full enjoyment of this experience. The Fontaine Signatures dug into the guts of this recording, re-creating the event in a perfectly balanced and believable way. Cassidy’s voice was tonally complete and wholly present in the room, without the etch I’ve heard other transducers produce, and the essence of Blues Alley’s acoustic was fully conveyed. It was like having a table at that evening’s concert. Between hearing the instruments on the Peer CD and the quality of reproduction of Cassidy’s voice, I found the tonality and resolution of the Fontaine’s midrange exemplary.
From the word go, the Fontaine Signatures’ Esotar tweeters sounded fabulous, and continued to impress throughout my listening. They produced the cleanest, purest, most articulate and tonally authentic highs I’ve heard in my room. The trick is that, as good as the highs were, they didn’t stand out on their own, but rather blended in, meshing with what was being produced by those Morel drivers. I’d had my doubts in this area. I’ve heard other speakers with dual midrange-woofers producing the same frequencies, and often the result was an overemphasis of the upper bass and lower midrange at the expense of balance, neutrality, and transparency. Not here. EgglestonWorks has fully and naturally integrated the Esotar tweeter’s output into the musical whole, as it has the mids and the upper bass. Credit here must go to the careful execution of the crossover; despite using drivers made by different manufacturers, the Fontaine Signature sang with a single, natural, very complete voice.
At the other end of the audioband, and as noted earlier, the bass was impressive. It wasn’t the huge bass sound of monster tower speakers; rather, what I heard was generous, but commensurate with what you’d expect from a cabinet and drivers of this size and quality. What impressed me was that the Fontaine Signature’s entire bass range was extremely tight, fast, and tuneful, to the point that I could follow pitch changes in things like low-end bass-guitar runs that other speakers gloss over or mush together. The descriptors that kept coming to mind were articulate, tight, tuneful. And very much so.
Any shortcomings? Not many, and those are more matters of degree, based on physics or personal taste. I find this speaker hard to fault. But as good as its bass was, it didn’t pack the gut-pounding punch you get with a large floorstander and/or subwoofer. I still got a good dose of what was there on the recording, but at this price, there are plenty of other speakers that outdo the Fontaine Signature on that score. And while the Fontaine Signatures soundstaged very well indeed, they didn’t go to the extreme of what some would call audiophile trickery. Rather, it was a more natural portrayal of how you’d perceive a layered soundstage at a concert. I think most people would find this a good thing, but I can also see those who like that kind of überdimensional, wall-defying, carved-with-a-scalpel imaging wanting just a little bit more. And there’s that polarizing looks thing. As I said: personal taste.
I perused the past few years’ worth of the SoundStage! Network Buying Guide and culled the award winners in and around the EgglestonWorks Fontaine Signature’s price range. In order of ascending price per pair, its direct competitors include: Paradigm Reference Signature S6 v.3 ($5798), Anthony Gallo Acoustics Nucleus Reference 3.5 ($6000), MartinLogan Ethos ($6495), Focus Audio Prestige ($6800), Dynaudio Focus 360 ($7000), Thiel Audio CS2.4SE ($8000), MartinLogan Spire ($8495), and Focus Audio Prestige FP90 ($9495). And nipping at its heels from the minimonitor segment are such impressive characters as the Joseph Audio Pulsar ($7000) and Dynaudio C1 Signature ($8500), to name two off the top of my head. In short: At these prices, you’d better deliver.
What I do know is that, for years now, my trusty Soliloquy 6.2s ($2699/pair when available) have remained at my side while facing some serious competition. And while they’re by no means the best speakers I’ve had in my room, and were quite a bit cheaper than the EggWorks, I know the strengths and weaknesses of my references well enough to use them to ferret out the qualitative differences among much more expensive models.
Despite being a good bit larger than the Fontaine Signatures, my Soliloquy 6.2s sounded like the smaller speakers in most regards. The 6.2s’ sound is more of the airy/spacey variety, and so they do a little better job of making the walls of my room "disappear" -- but they also sound quite a bit thinner and brighter overall. The 6.2s come across as very detailed, the EggWorks as more highly resolving. Through the Fontaine Signatures, instruments had more of that "lit from within" quality that makes them sound more real, convincing, and complete. The 6.2s had a little more punch on the bottom, but the Fontaines were significantly tighter, faster, and tonally more articulate from there on up. A strength of the 6.2s is their ability to "disappear" as a sound source, especially for a decent-sized floorstander, and the EggWorks matched them in this regard. On the whole, the two models produced two very different sounds; the Soliloquys seemed a bit out of their league.
The Fontaine Signatures were more reminiscent of the very good Selah Audio Verita monitors ($2650/pair), which I reviewed in January 2011. It’s been a while since they were here, and due to some storm damage my room has changed a bit since then, so admittedly this comparison is a bit of a stretch. However, from what I recall, the Selah had the same sort of refined sound as the Fontaine Signature, with similarly impressive tonal characteristics, though I remember the Selah having a little more punch and heft down low, despite being stand-mounted. I give bass articulation and speed to the EgglestonWorks, and though both models have very nice, clean highs, the Selah’s ribbon tweeter sounded a little sweeter and more laid-back, the EggWork’s Esotar tweeter more tactile, detailed, and dynamic. The midrange of both speakers was excellent; to say more, I’d have to hear them side by side again.
If you’ve read this entire review, you know that I’ve given the EgglestonWorks Fontaine Signature the "best I’ve heard in my room" accolade in a few different areas. I’d also have to say that, overall, this is the most well-rounded and accomplished speaker I’ve heard here. Were it not for my desire to hear some of the other contenders at or near this price, I’d consider adding the pair of them to my arsenal, probably with a couple good subwoofers, in an attempt to create my own pair of mini-Andra IIIs. But even without the benefit of subs, there’s enough greatness happening from the Fontaine Signature’s bottom up to render subs optional. I’ve heard excellent speakers that would please any obsessive-compulsive audiophile, and others that make such beautiful music that they can bring grown men to tears. The EgglestonWorks Fontaine Signature is that rarity among loudspeakers: It does both, and without dominating your room while doing so. Growing up does have its advantages.
. . . Tim Shea
- Speakers -- Soliloquy 6.2, Selah Audio Verita
- Amplifier -- McCormack DNA 0.5 Rev.A
- Preamplifier -- Bryston BP 6 C-Series
- Digital sources -- Oppo DV-970HD universal A/V player (used as transport), Electronic Visionary Systems Millennium DAC 1 D/A converter
- Interconnects -- Acoustic Zen Silver Reference II, Stereovox Colibri-R
- Speaker cables -- Acoustic Zen Satori
- Digital cables -- Stereovox XV2 coaxial, Apogee Wyde-Eye
EgglestonWorks Fontaine Signature Loudspeakers
Price: $8500 USD per pair.
Warranty: Six years parts and labor (transferable).
540 Cumberland Street
Memphis, TN 38112
Phone: (901) 525-1100
Fax: (901) 525-1050