Cabasse Alcyone Home Theater Speaker System

Who or what is Alcyone? I would have accepted the following answers: 1) In Greek mythology, the daughter of Aeolus. 2) The brightest star in the Pleiades cluster.

I would also have accepted: 3) A compact home theater system with speakers that look like softballs.

More specifically, the Alcyone system is made by Cabasse, a French company whose innovative orb-like speakers have been hailed by critics for their sound quality. But the Alcyones mark new territory: At just $995 for a complete 5.1-channel setup, they're by far the smallest and least expensive speakers the firm has ever offered. Given their budget pricing and Cabasse's reputation, I was curious to take these spheres for a spin.

The Short Form
Price $995 / / 877-588-0075
This uniquely designed speaker offers fresh styling as well as surprisingly good sound for a compact system.
•Unique spherical form factor •Diverse mounting options •Good compact-system sound quality
•Small, one-driver satellites have limited response •Small, low-power sub delivers something less than chest massage
Key Features
Alcyone Satellite •3-in full-range cone driver; 4.5 in high on stand or offset from wall; 1.5 lb Santorin 17 •6.5-in woofer; 200-watt RMS amplifier; 11.75 x 11.75 x 11.75 in; 22 lb
Test Bench
The Alcyone satellite's very uniform directivity means that all listeners receive basically identical sound at different listening positions. However, it has very limited low-frequency capability, with response falling fairly rapidly below 1.7 kHz (about 3 dB per octave). There's also a 2-to-3-dB depression from 4 kHz to 8.6 kHz. Likewise, the compact Santorin 17 subwoofer has limited dynamic capability, hitting 90 dB at its 32-Hz bass limit and 99 dB max SPL at 50 Hz. But, to its credit, the sub's output is fairly uniform across its range, even if static frequency response slopes downward either side of 50 Hz. - Tom Nousaine Full Lab Results

Setup Each Alcyone satellite measures about 4 inches in diameter, with the only deviation from its roundness being a length of speaker cable sticking out that gives it the more sinister impression of a bomb and fuse. Closer examination (the whole thing comes apart by loosening a 2.5-mm Allen bolt) shows that the housing is a thick metal cup with damping inside. Also tucked away are a crossover and a single 3-inch driver, firing through a metal grille faced with cloth. My system was delivered in white, but the Alcyone is offered in black as well.

Of course, spheres tend to roll, so the speaker is immobilized with a small plastic base. A built-in magnet neatly grabs the metal housing, and it also allows swiveling and thus unlimited firing angles. You can place the base on a flat surface, and a small hole in it allows wall mounting. The only untidy part is the speaker cable, which must be routed outside the stand and then back under it, where the wires are connected to spring-loaded terminals that accept supplied speaker cables.

The matching Santorin 17 subwoofer, alas, doesn't look like a volleyball. It's conventionally cubical, with a hint of curved wood trim. The cabinet houses a 6.5-inch downward-firing driver (with two ports alongside) and a 200-watt amplifier. Its back panel offers the usual: variable level and crossover (marked 50-250 Hz) controls, phase (0 and 180°) and auto-on switches, a single RCA jack for line in, and terminals for high-level stereo input and output.

Compared with the 20-pounders that I usually lug around my listening room, it was a pleasure to loft five of the 24-ounce Alcyon satellites into place. Cabasse optionally provides stylishly spindly speaker stands ($350 a pair), but I went with my usual, unglamorous stands. Tweaking the placement was a snap, given the speakers' shape: It was easy to swivel them in their sockets until I had perfect horizontal and vertical alignment with my sweet spot. The diminutive wire terminals were too small to accept the beefy cables I prefer to run, so I unbraided a bit of wire and made do. I placed the subwoofer in my usual, sacred bass spot (along the front wall, to the left of the TV screen), set my receiver's speaker settings to "small," and turned the sub's crossover knob to an initial marked setting of 200 Hz.

Music Performance After breaking in the speakers, I started my critical listening with simple 2.1-channel playback. While cycling last weekend, I found myself racing past 461 Ocean Boulevard. So, I thought I should revisit the classic Eric Clapton album of the same designation (he was living on Ocean while recording at nearby Criteria Studios). "Motherless Children" raises your hopes that the album will be a guitarfest; it's not, but the slide guitar is wonderfully mean. The Alcyones' reproduction here was quite good. The wall of guitar distortion has a uniquely analog character, and some speakers color it in unusual ways. These little orbs provided a mainly transparent midrange that let the guitars sing - a little forward in the mix, and a little lean-sounding, but not bad. The cleanly recorded vocals were nicely detailed and enunciated, with all the clarity of the original tracks. Likewise, the rollicking keyboards had good, attacking dynamics.

The hard-driving percussion was well reproduced, and I was surprised that the kick drum was relatively robust, given such a small subwoofer. However, the floor toms, caught in a gap between satellites and sub, just didn't punch like they should - despite my trying various crossover permutations to extract better dynamics. Also, the hi-hat and cymbals sounded a bit too relaxed; the high end lacked the full extension needed to deliver all of their crispy sound.

My eye caught another album nearby on my CD shelf, so I pulled down Cream's Disraeli Gears (100 rock & roll bonus points if you know the origins of that title). "Sunshine of Your Love," with a beat that's been described as Native American tribal, confirmed my earlier impressions of the Alcyone system. The all-important midrange was very clean; vocals and the melody instruments that live there sounded just right, and the vocals in the chorus ("I've been waiting so long . . .") really rang out with that classic sound achieved by engineer Tom Dowd at Atlantic Studios. The subwoofer was energetic for its size, pumping out enough drums to drive the song. However, the "grunt" sound of the famous bass line didn't have the kind of snarl that it deserves - again, an obvious limitation caused by the gap between satellites and sub.

Turning my attention to spatial fidelity, I swung back around to 461 Ocean Boulevard, this time on a DTS 5.1 CD. I'm a big fan of using matched satellites all around, and this system fielded that advantage. On "Mainline Florida," with vocals, instruments, and percussion spread across the front trio and with backing instruments and percussion in the rear, the sound field was nicely distributed throughout the satellites. With the sub's relatively high crossover frequency (and, therefore, its reproduction of higher frequencies), it tended to be more localized than usual, but nothing I couldn't live with.

Movie Performance I started a double feature with Men in Black II, a sequel that, in my opinion, is almost as good as the original. First and foremost, I was completely happy with the center channel; who would guess that a softball could have such good dialogue intelligibility? The fronts also handled Danny Elfman's characteristically excellent score with a lively and spacious orchestral sound. This movie has more effects in the surrounds than most movies have in all of their channels. The matching speakers let the surrounds dovetail tonally with the fronts, creating good immersion (check out the "Sorry you made the trip for nothing" line). The satellites were a little "hot" at times, tending to localize some sounds, but this wasn't really bothersome.

For my second movie, I went deep with U-571. I was primarily interested in the subwoofer's performance, and whether it had sufficient guts to withstand a depth-charge attack. The verdict: You can't expect the tiny Santorin to generate the same loud and powerful deep bass as a 10- or 12-incher. But it did provide moderately loud sound-pressure levels and enough bass extension to enjoy a movie like this that demands a strong (pun alert!) sub.

Bottom Line With 60 years of speaker-manufacturing experience, Cabasse brings weighty know-how to the essential transducer problem, and it shows. Despite the Alcyone satellite's cuteness, this isn't just another pretty speaker system. Instead, the unique design brings style and sonics to a compact product category that is too often lacking in both. Given satellites that are smaller than many desktop PC speakers, this system won't blow the roof off your house or drive a large listening room to concert-hall levels. But at modest volume, the Alcyone provides good, honest fidelity for smaller rooms while offering an unobtrusive, stylish solution over a traditional box speaker. With its limitations, it won't be for everybody. In the right setting, though, the Alcyone could be a bright star indeed.

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