In the European musical tradition, music can be considered in two ways – as a theoretical and abstract entity, one that is related to the work itself (let the musical score be an example) and as an entity closely related to the sense of hearing and the practice of performance (then music is what we hear). For the vast majority, this latter aspect is the only available manifestation of the musical universe. This manifestation depends directly on the available apparatus, that is, the set of instruments belonging to a given culture, or, to be more precise, musical instruments. These instruments are for musicians an intermediate step between music and its audience, and without them, music would have to remain just an idea. It comes as no surprise, then, that musicians themselves attach great importance to what they play. It is not just the instrument, but what kind of instrument it is. Although to the listener a piano is just a piano, to the musician it matters whether it is a Bösendorfer or a Steinway. The same is true of every family of instruments, and the choice of the right one (the only one!) is for the musician the status quo. Perhaps that is why it is an almost universal phenomenon among musicians that they are attached to the sound of a given brand, its image and all kinds of extra-musical connotations. If we take into account only the top brands, each of them has its supporters and fans, and at the professional level also endorsers, i.e. musicians who in a way advertise a given brand.
Whereas musical instruments are an intermediate step between music as an idea and the listener, audio devices are an intermediate state between the musician-performer and the listener, who no longer has to participate directly in the performance. It is thanks to their good quality that the listener can recognise whether the pianist used a grand piano during the recording ( the distinction between brands is no longer so simple, although the sound of Yamaha and Steinway is a completely different matter), or perhaps a recently fashionable upright piano, which generates a completely different sonic ambience. It is no different with the acoustics of the recorded rooms, the proximity of the microphones or the created sound image. After all, it does matter whether a baroque violin or an electric violin is played, just as it matters whether the drummer used damped membranes in his drums, or rather cared about the resonance of the entire sound spectrum and the membranes remained undamped. These may be details, but they and their presence make listening to music an exciting process.
In the pages of Audio Idiom the relation between music and culture is emphasized more than once, and this is done to remind us that the hierarchy of culture-music-audio allows us to better understand the latter. Audio devices, although they are an intermediate stage between music, the musician and the listener, are often confronted with competitive comparisons, where high specs seems to be more important than the musicality of the presentation. Such an audio understanding, although a common practice, distances the audience from the idea of music and its direct source, and audio itself then becomes an art for art. Emphasizing the relation between culture, music and audio seems to be an antidote to this and an encouragement to further search. In this search it is worth to remain open and vigilant, but it is also worth having precise guidelines and a functioning compass. If this compass is acoustics and the sound of acoustic instruments, there is less chance that we will be led astray. It’s also worth knowing the landmarks on the audio map, so that you can stay oriented in the realities of the audio territory. For me, as a musician, one such landmark, or reference point, remained the LS3/5a loudspeakers, the Falcon Golden Budge edition of which I described here. This is one of my favorite audio products, which impresses with its musicality, although it absolutely does not knock with high specs. It is my Steinway among monitors and an absolute reference point.
What a surprise it was for me when speakers that have nothing in common with the LS3/5a joined my reference list of favourite apparatus. I heard them for the first time, or more precisely saw them (there was not much listening, but a skilled ear picked up the strengths of this design) at the Audio Show at the Sobieski Hotel in Warsaw in 2019. The eye-catching spectacular form was not behind the finish or the sonic capabilities of these speakers. I had no hope of listening to these designs at home, as the Norwegian company Ø Audio did not yet have distribution in Poland at that time. And here comes the second surprise, which I would like to share. Soon Ø Audio Icon became the flagship speaker of the Gliwice-based 4HiFi, courtesy of which I have the opportunity and undoubted pleasure to describe these speakers on the pages of Audio Idiom. A lot of credit for that goes to its president, Jan Grzybicki, whose sincerity and professionalism you can always rely on. Thank you! Meanwhile, it’s time to share my impressions, and these, which I must emphasize, remain the same from the first sight and hearing.
The intriguing shape of these loudspeakers surprises both with its simplicity and originality. Their simplicity, however, has nothing to do with the simplicity of the lines. They run at different angles, creating something like an obelisk, or a monolith, so that none of the walls remains parallel to the others. This has its acoustic reasoning, while giving the speaker a dynamic silhouette. The sculpture is completed by two speakers, whose visual character also plays an important role. A 12-inch rigid cellulose speaker is placed around an aluminum, large phase diffuser, which gives the column a distinct visual accent, with a slightly sporty character. This element is complemented by a phenomenally designed and fitted into the whole horn, and each element is refined as much as possible. The piece weighs 54 kg and reaches a meter in height, which makes these speakers not small, but also allows them to fit into most medium-sized interiors. At the bottom two bass reflex outlets are placed on one side of the speaker, which gives significant possibilities of additional sound shaping. I must admit, this modern and dynamic form makes an impressive impression on me, and at the same time does not dazzle with extras and does not try to be liked. This is particularly well visible in the veneered finish, where the grain of the walnut adds an additional three-dimensionality to this mass.
Preferring linearity and timbral coherence, valuing precision and holographicity over sonic fireworks and bass extension I have never been a fan of overscaled sound whose size detached itself from acoustic reality. I have always sought quality in acoustic adequacy rather than sonic gigantomania. This may be the reason why I have never been fully satisfied with the sound of floorstatnding speakers of large size, which often at the expense of precision and pace, emphasized momentum and seduced with the weight of sound. Whether due to musical experience or phonographic choices, I have always been closer to the monitor sound than to the best floorstanders. The choice between one and the other remained (for me) an either-or choice, and the worlds of precision and momentum remained in irreconcilable separation. After all, acknowledging the nature of the world is a sign of maturity. Meanwhile, the Ø Audio Icon denies such an acknowledged paradigm. This speaker seems to combine fire and water. It is able to play with both impetus and exceptional precision. But let us take it one step at a time.
So does the Ø Audio Icon play as unusual as it looks? Taking into account its size and applied transducers, should we expect something unusual, or rather exceptional? For a speaker of this size, the frequency range is not surprising, although if one were to consider that its capabilities are contained within the range of 27Hz to 20kHz it would be like saying nothing. The first thing that comes to mind is balanced and effortless performance. These speakers seem to have no limits and will easily play any music phenomenally! Here, the crystallinity of the transmission reaches the highest degree, without ever being artificial or obtrusive. Similarly, selectivity and resolution reach the highest level, which make Icon reproduce nuances of each recording with clockwork accuracy, behaving more like a genuine monitor than a typical floor-standing bass reflex speaker. The versatility of these speakers is surprising! They cope equally well with chamber music, symphonic playing, electronics, solo recitals or acoustic jazz, and they do it so well that you have a feeling, bordering with certainty, that they were created and dedicated to each of these styles. No matter if our musical diet is based on hard rock guitar playing or contemporary chamber music, Ø Audio Icon will extract the quintessence of style from it, and we will not even notice how and when it has happened.
The thing I personally appreciate most about these speakers is that their sound is never overscaled. Instruments have adequate size and timbre, which is not so common in designs of this size. Bass, although it goes low, is not obtrusive and appears where and when it needs to, always remaining appropriately contoured and rigid. Together with slightly darker midrange it gives this design a signature of discrete weighting, which makes us feel we are dealing with something refined. Density balances here aeration, precision dynamics, sophistication wildness, weight speed and precision. Music has no limitations here. The only limitation is the space of the listening room and the budget. These speakers like to be placed a bit wider (at my place they were placed about 2.5 meters apart) and they like when the listening point is at least the same distance as the stage width. They certainly benefit from larger rooms, where not only their beautiful appearance can be exposed, but where, first of all, proper air and acoustics adequate to their size can be provided. If space allows, it is worth experimenting with bass reflex outlets. This design feature allows for additional and non-invasive sound shaping. This is important as it allows us to obtain adequate resolution in the bass, which with less appropriate positioning may be somewhat drowned out by the presence and weight of the bass that Icon has at its disposal.
Ø Audio Icon, although it seems to be a speaker which breaks the stereotypes of appearance and construction, is a very successful proposition. It offers us the sound momentum and richness of sound, which does not focus for a single moment on impressing with excess and size. In a truly monitor-like manner, this speaker presents music without any limitations and does it in a very musical way, in a way only revealing weaknesses or strengths of the recording. Where necessary, it will show its claw and ferocity; where necessary, it will be refined – almost filigree; every now and then, it will delight us with the size of the musical stage, which it will also show in a controlled and adequate way; where necessary, it will hit with full power and do it with lightness; where it was recorded, it will show the weakness of production or the power of acoustic environment; if necessary, it will let us know what rosin was used by the cellist in the string quartet, and that’s a lot. In my absolute rankings, although with the reservation that I have not heard everything, this is a phenomenally good, outstanding speaker that allows one to enjoy the beauty of recorded music without limitations. Audio Idiom Top Recommendation.