I recently replaced my 16-year-old ATC SCM12 studio monitors with a really interesting pair of new speakers based on classic hi-fi design principles — the Omega Compact ALNICO Monitors (CAMs). The Omega CAMs harken to the classic days of hi-fi (the 1950s and 1960s) when high-efficiency (lots of volume per watt of amplifier power), single-driver and horn-loaded speakers ruled the market. Think of the enormous classics from Klipsch, Altec Lansing and Electro-Voice. But unlike those monsters — any of which I would have if I had the space and the cash — the Omega CAMS are “bookshelf” sized and utilize a combination of old and new technologies.
The heart of any Omega speaker is it’s proprietary driver — a design that covers the entire audible frequency range without the need of a crossover network that typically would connect a separate woofer (for the bass) and tweeter (for the treble). Omitting the crossover circuit eliminates all kinds of problems, including distortion during the “transition” from the woofer to the tweeter, and the inherent “power sucking” characteristics of passive crossover designs. Crossover circuits require amplifier power to activate them, and unless you use a complex (and expensive) design that incorporates multiple active (externally amplified) crossovers, you lose a lot of performance. I’ve heard speakers from Linn and Naim that pulled off the active crossover trick with aplomb, but none has been anywhere close to being financially within reach.
The Omega CAM features a speaker driver made of hemp fiber. These lightweight, but rigid, speaker cones convey delicate musical detail, respond very quickly to changes in musical tone and tempo, and — at 95dB/watt efficiency — can operate with as little as 2 watts per channel of amplifier power.
Louis Chocos designs and fabricates each pair of Omega CAMs by hand in Norwalk, Connecticut. I met Louis about 10 years ago when his company was younger and I didn’t have a good enough audio system to take full advantage of his speakers. Louis has been in business for about 15 years at this point, and offers a 10-year warranty (following a 60-day in-home trial). The lead time for my $1495 pair of CAMs in ebony laminate was about five weeks (real wood veneers are available for a $300 upcharge).
Set-up and Break-in:
As with any loudspeaker, the Omega CAM benefits from careful setup, positioning and break-in. But unlike most speakers I’ve heard in this price range, the Omegas offer so much sensitivity, nuance and subtle musical detail that the right setup makes the difference between “very good” and “exceptional” when it comes to performance.
While awaiting the Omegas’ arrival, I damped my listening area with absorbent acoustical panels from Audimute, a pro sound company in Ohio. Their products are excellent, reasonably priced and easy to install. They made an immediate difference in the sound quality I got from my existing speakers, and also made my apartment generally more relaxing by absorbing reflected sound.
Shortly after getting my Omegas, I attended the New York Audio Show, as is my annual ritual. This year, as last, my favorite sound at the show was a system featuring the Vinnie Rossi LIO Integrated Amplifier and Volti Audio loudspeakers — last year the Vittora, and this year the new, smaller Rival. At 100 dB/watt efficient, the Rivals sounded brilliant with the LIO’s 25 watts. And while the power and finesse of this system came at way more than I could afford, the approach convinced me that I had made the right decision to go with a high-efficiency speaker.
I mounted the Omegas on an 18-inch-high pair of Skylan SKY-24D speaker stands, which I’d ordered with top plates each large enough to accommodate a pair of IsoAcoustics ISO-L8R130 studio monitor isolation stands. The Skylans use extruded PVC instead of steel for their pillars, making them both lightweight and nearly acoustically inert when filled with kitty litter (as recommended by the designer/fabricator). Adding the IsoAcoustics on top took advantage of the latter’s design that counteracts extraneous speaker cabinet resonances to allow the speaker drivers to function with maximum efficiency. Recording engineers use IsoAcoustics to isolate their monitors from their control decks, and they work wonders. I’ve used IsoAcoustics products for years. The “audiophile press” is just discovering (and raving about) them.
For break-in, Louis recommended about 80 hours of bass-heavy programming to loosen the stiff treated fabric surrounds on the Omegas’ drivers. But since I live in an apartment (and because I was impatient), I sought a faster way to condition the drivers. I stumbled upon the Tellurium Q System Enhancement CD, which has done a fantastic job of exercising the rough edges off of the Omegas’ initial sound.
As of the date of this post, I’ve had my Omega CAMs for 30 days, and I feel comfortable that they’ve broken in enough for me to offer definitive comments about their performance. As Louis advised, and as other reviewers of Omega speakers have commented, the break-in period was both lengthy and “uneven.” The speakers sounded good immediately (and I began taking notes for this review), but there were seemingly random milestone moments where suddenly the speakers either sounded a lot better or frustratingly worse. But now, after probably 100 hours of break-in (I’ve lost count) and the careful positioning noted above, the Omega CAMs sound simply fantastic.
Over the last month, I’ve thrown almost every type of music at these speakers (playlist below), and they have continued to surprise me with levels of inner detail and articulation that I often have not heard even with headphones. The two major areas that require substantial break-in are a treble that can sound compressed and shrill, and a bass response that while always tuneful seems initially to have had a very steep drop off below about 50 hertz. Now broken in, the high frequencies are wonderfully fluid (provided the treble has been well recorded in the program material), and the bass is deep (nearly 40 hertz deep), tuneful, articulate and impactful.
Center fill is outstanding, and the CAMs portray a musical image that extends a good bit beyond their edges. The soundstage is wide and coherent, although a slight tilt-back using the adjustable IsoAcoustics made for a notable improvement in both the height and width of the soundstage. Response to musical changes is lightening quick — among the chief artifacts of a crossover-less design. The CAMs sound as coherent, as quick and almost as large as the similarly priced Magnaplanar .7 panel speakers, but with better bass, great sound at low volume (a must for late-night listening in an apartment), a smaller footprint and a vastly smaller power requirement.
The Omega CAMs are enabling me to hear how good the rest of my system is, and how beautifully recorded and performed the best music is. They are not overly harsh to poorly recorded material, but you can immediately hear the narrowness, flatness and lack of dynamic contrast in sub-standard recordings. I mostly play music through a first-generation Bluesound Node streamer, and can adjust bass and treble by up to 6 dB in both directions through Bluesound’s iPad control app. Although audiophiles typically look down their noses at “tone controls,” being able to tame bad recordings played through extremely revealing speakers is a godsend. There. I said it.
I’ll have more comments after I’ve spent more time with the Omegas, but I’m hooked!
ATC SCM12 monitors: Made in the UK, these are the speakers the Omegas have replaced. Dating from about 2000 (I bought them used), the SCM12s are the consumer version of ATC’s professional recording studio monitor. Superb in their day, they are still better than almost anything out there at anywhere near the price. But the ATCs require 100 watts per channel minimum (they max out at 300 watts per channel), and really don’t start to come alive until played at moderate to high volumes. If I had a big house, I’d probably still be using the ATCs. But playing them at low volumes in an apartment is unsatisfying.
DeVore gibbon 3XL: I heard these a few years ago, and they really stuck with me because although they use separate bass and treble units with a crossover, they sound like a single-driver loudspeaker. They’re also quite beautiful. But they have no meaningful bass response (even though they’re rated to 45 hertz), and their price — with the matching, required stands — makes them a real “New York City” product. Brooklyn-based John DeVore designs his speakers for New York apartment dwellers, and prices them (says I) based on (probably accurate) assumptions about their disposable incomes. DeVore’s speakers are too expensive for me, but they are quite fine.
KEF LS50: Highly regarded by the audiophile press in their native UK and in the U.S. (rated “Class A” by Stereophile), on paper the KEF LS50 was the loudspeaker to beat. But a good listen through a high-quality system (McIntosh electronics) revealed the KEFs to be power hungry on one hand, but unable to accommodate large bursts of power on the other hand. I saw these as a lateral move from the ATCs.
Magneplanar .7: Magnapan has come a long way since I owned a mid-level pair (driven by a McIntosh power amplifier) in the 1990s. In fact, today’s .7 is everything my old 1.6 model was not — much more articulate and coherent, with much more satisfying bass. I’m told the new Maggies also require less power than in the days of yore, but every time I heard one on demo, the dealer was using at least 150 watts per channel, and sometimes twice that. Plus, big panels are just too visually imposing in a small apartment, and because they radiate sound both front and back, they need to be positioned at least three to four feet out into the room. No dice.
Technics SB-C700: Also rated “Class A” by Stereophile (though panned in the UK), the Technics sounded really good with the right source material and amplification. In fact, I liked them so much that I almost bought them. But something held me back. For starters, they seemed only to sound good with about 75 watts per channel through them — which seemed like a lot. Second, their sound stage — while beautifully detailed — seemed very compressed from the top as it portrayed a wide, but short band to the listener. There also were colorations that in some cases made the speakers sound like a fine musical instrument (the same colorations one hears in top-line Sony loudspeakers), but in other cases made the Technics sound overly full and distorted. Bass, in particular, was either very good or horribly wrong (way too loud), with no in-between. That said, the Technics is a very good speaker — but not nearly as good as the Omega CAM, which retails for less.
Associated Equipment and Products:
First-generation Bluesound Node music streamer (discontinued; current product here); Oppo BDP-83 Universal Disc Player (discontinued; comparable replacement product here); PS Audio NuWave DSD DAC (digital-to-audio converter); Naim NAC 122x preamplifier and Naim 150x power amplifier (discontinued; replacement products here and here); TOSLINK optical and coaxial digital cables from Analysis Plus; power cables from Shunyata Research; solid core interconnects and speaker cables from DNM; speaker stands from Skylan and IsoAcoustics (as mentioned above); equipment stand from Salamander Designs; acoustical panels from Audimute and RealTraps; Tellurium Q System Enhancement CD.
Music Used for Evaluation (all streamed from TIDAL or ripped to iTunes in Apple Lossless format):
- Andres Segovia: The Art of Segovia
- Bebel Gilberto: Tanto Tempo; Tudo; Momento
- Blue Nile: Peace at Last
- Blues Company: Hot and Ready to Serve
- Bonnie Raitt: Slipstream
- Boz Scaggs: Dig
- Cal Tjader: Several Shades of Jade
- Cannonball Adderley: with Nancy Wilson; Somethin’ Else (with Miles Davis)
- Cecile McLorin Salvant: WomanChild
- Count Basie: Live at The Sands (Before Frank)
- Curtis Mayfield: Superfly soundtrack
- Daft Punk: Random Access Memories
- David Crosby: Croz; Lighthouse
- Donald Fagen: Sunken Condos
- Ella Fitzgerald: Johnny Mercer Songbook; Jerome Kern Songbook; Clap Hands, Here Comes Charlie!
- Eric Alexander: Alexander the Great
- Everything But The Girl: Walking Wounded
- Fairfield Four: Standing in the Safety Zone
- Fourplay: Fourplay; 4; Yes, Please!; Heartfelt; X
- Greg Adams: Midnight Morning; East Bay Soul (That’s Life)
- Herbie Hancock: Head Hunters; Dis Is Da Drum; River: The Joni Letters
- Janet Jackson: The Velvet Rope; Unbreakable
- Janice Ian: Breaking Silence
- Jeff Lorber: Heard That
- Jennifer Warnes: Famous Blue Raincoat; The Hunter
- Joni Mitchell: Clouds; Ladies of the Canyon; Blue
- k.d. lang & The Reclines: Absolute Torch and Twang
- Kenny Lattimore: Kenny Lattimore
- Maxwell: Urban Hang Suite; Unplugged
- Michael Hedges: Aerial Boundaries
- Nancy Wilson: With Cannonball Adderley; But Beautiful
- Patricia Barber: Cafe Blue
- Rachelle Ferrell: Individuality (Can I Be Me?)
- Sade: Soldier of Love
- Seal: Seal; Seal (1994); 7
- Shirley Horn: You Won’t Forget Me; But Beautiful (Best of….)
- Sonny Rollins: Way Out West; Alfie soundtrack
- Steely Dan: Aja; Gaucho; Two Against Nature; Everything Must Go
- Tower of Power: Back to Oakland; Souled Out; Soul Vaccination
- Traincha: The Look of Love (Burt Bacharach Songbook)
- Usher: Looking 4 Myself; Hard II Love
- Weather Report: Black Market; Heavy Weather
- Wynton Marsalis: Black Codes (From The Underground)
- Beautifully and expertly assembled by a master craftsman in the U.S.
- 60-day in-home trial; 10-year warranty
- 95dB efficiency means you can concentrate on sound quality versus wattage
- Produce a high, wide and deep soundstage, although bass falls off once you’re outside the “sweet spot” — which is sizeable
- Deliver a complete musical portrayal even at low, late-night listening volumes
- Lengthy break-in period is not for the impatient, although you will be rewarded!
- Though relatively inexpensive, this is not a speaker to play with low-quality ancillary equipment
- Jeez, that’s really it!