Prana – the life force of music
A couple of years ago at RMAF I lucked into a room on the quieter Sunday morning session where a Kuzma table caught my eye. The sonics were excellent, the music interesting, and the vibe relaxed, a confluence that warrants comment in the context of most audio show experiences. It soon became clear to me that this was not, in fact, a Kuzma demo but the room of PranaFidelity, a name that was then new to me. The main products on demo were two pairs of their loudspeakers, a floorstander and, what really caught my ears, a large stand mounted monitor. What I heard there was good enough to keep me listening for way beyond the allotted time, but I made a note of the company, thanked the main chap in the room and moved on, somewhat perturbed by the experience. How could I have not heard of these speakers before?
Subsequent RMAF visits are never complete for me without a chance to catch up with the PranaFidelity room, where host and designer Steven Norber provides an always engaging and warm environment for music appreciation. The best rooms at shows can do this, mixing relaxation with information, and encouraging you to stay and learn more about the music and the gear. The PranaFidelity room is one of the best for this. Each year, I remind myself how good his speakers sound and wonder to myself how come so few people seem to mention PranaFidelity when discussing the shows or referencing good sounding rooms. Well I wanted to put that right and for the last few years asked Steven to send me a pair for review. It took awhile but after this year’s RMAF he offered me a pair and I jumped at the chance to spend some serious listening time with these speakers.
Setting them up
The somewhat oddly named Fifty90s are described as ‘symmetrical 2-ways’, with dual 15cm woofers north and south of a 30mm tweeter and small front port slightly off-centered. The elegantly curved cabinets have considerable heft and the pair I received for review were in an attractive and very shiny piano black gloss finish which, in combination with their shape, made handling an act necessitating particular care. The grilles attach magnetically and accurately with ease, and I spent time with them both on and off, without significant shift in sonics although I slightly preferred them off. In combination, the weight, fit and finish of the PranaFidelity speakers conveyed the impression of a very well-made, visually attractive product as you’d expect (but don’t always get) at this price point.
Unpacking and set-up is simple enough. Of course, stands are required, so talk of simplicity should factor in the assured nuisance of dealing with spiked metal feet. I have a solid set of QED tristands which I employed, using small supplied pieces of BluTak between speaker base and stand. While I am sure you can spend more on stands, Steven himself recommended an affordable pair from Parts Express as more than adequate if you need them, so the extra cost should not be a major deterrent to potential purchasers.
These are a speaker that give you much of their quality from the get-go. Tweaking of placement helps, of course, but does not seem to radically alter the sound quality – a boon to normal people who don’t want to spend days making tiny adjustments. That said, of late, I’ve been using the Nordost speaker set-up disk to good effect. Its selection of test tones, especially the moving arch of sound pulses, are particularly helpful in finding spots in the room where the soundstage blossoms into 3-D. In my large main listening room, I ended up with the Fifty90s a little over 8 ft apart and some 42” between cabinet and front wall, with a slight toe-in. I redid this test again in a second system in a smaller room, ending up with them slightly closer together and with about 30” from the front wall. In both cases they sounded full and airy, with a palpable sense of soundstaging that is really pleasing.
You do have a choice of positioning the Fifty90s with the tweeters to the inside or outside. Steven recommends the tweeters to the outside but admits some folks report good results the other way round. I tried both, several times, in two different rooms and concur, good results in both cases meant this was not a critical adjustment in either room or system where I tried them. I think I liked the recommended layout better, but this could just be the power of suggestion and the imagined wider envelopment that seems to come from this positioning.
More interestingly, the rear of the cabinet contains a couple of switches. According to the manual, these tweak crossover settings to address high frequency extension and the midrange character. The default position for both is down, but the various settings allow for a flat or a slight roll-off of upper frequencies, or more warmth in the midrange. I used to own pair of Legacy speakers with similar options and my current references, the Von Schweikert VR5 Anni IIs, have a rear ambiance dial. Tweaking the sonics with rear controls is not new but it’s certainly not typical of audiophile speakers. Fear not, there really is no right or wrong here, unless you believe you must run everything as flat as possible else worry about the effects of ‘coloration’ that might otherwise be introduced. For me, it was fun to test the switching but the effects were very, very subtle, the speakers retaining their essential sonic quality at all settings in my rooms, so after a while, I forgot that these were even there, though I am sure some folks might want to change the switches for different recordings. Knock yourself out, I’ve learned to relax a little in my middle age, to trust my ears and stop worrying when I hear something I like. And with the Fifty90s, there is plenty to like.
At 22” in height, the Fifty90s are not exactly small, and they are certainly not light, so it might feel odd to refer to them as monitors or bookshelves. This counts double when you sit back and listen. When people speak of the sonic trade-offs between bookshelves or floorstanders, they typically extol the imaging quality of the smaller speaker and the full-range sonics of the larger model. As a buyer, you have to make the choice. While you can spend a lot of money chasing one or other quality, let me say here and now that, with the Fifty90s, you can almost have it all.
Those who shift from monitors to floorstanders typically remark on the perceived improvements in bass, thinking perhaps that they are getting more of it, though I suspect they are really getting greater clarity, a little less congestion rather than genuinely deeper frequency reproduction (and a quick listen to most test CDs will reveal how little deep frequency reproduction you really get with most recordings or speakers in your own room, regardless of the manufacturer’s specs). All to say, if you are the type of buyer who thinks a monitor is a guaranteed compromise in the bass compared to floorstanders, you really need to hear the Fifty90s.
Just as they did when I first heard them at RMAF, these speakers make a very strong first impression on new listeners. Play some full range orchestral or rock music and you’ll believe you actually are listening to a floorstander, so full, large and solid is the presentation. And by this, I don’t mean you just get some bass down below the midrange to flesh out the sound. I mean you hear a sense of coherent, evenly presented full range sound that allows you to listen into the instrumental diversity of group or orchestral recordings.
This strength of bass gives the speakers a slightly warm character, very pleasing on the ear, never etched or rough sounding. I fell so in love with their delivery of rock that I dug deep into my collection to pull out some old rock classics. Deep Purple’s Machine Head, with the swinging rhythm section of Roger Glover and Ian Paice, bounced along gloriously on tracks such as Maybe I’m a Leo and Pictures of Home. More than a vehicle for Ritchie Blackmore and Jon Lord to showcase their dexterity, the album sounded like a real band captured in a groove and thrown at us in the here and now. Instrumental lines were so clearly delineated that I wanted to follow guitar and keyboard players across the song, and with the Fifty90s, this was easily accomplished. Start on Purple and it’s hard for me not to mine a vein of 1970s British rock, with albums from Jeff Beck, UFO, Thin Lizzy (officially Irish, yes, I know) and early Bowie getting a spin in regular rotation. Monitors don’t usually encourage this kind of listening in my home, which is what I mean when I tell you that the Fifty90s just deliver a sound that never seems like it’s reducing the sonic window.
In a completely different genre, I tend to throw some very familiar and well-recorded jazz albums at new speakers to see if I can identify their weaknesses in comparison to my references. Patricia Barber’s Modern Cool is one album that sounds good on most systems, but truly great only on set-ups that allow the music to breathe. I’ve heard it so many times that I confess to being a bit slow to cue it up these days. The recording has many fine qualities, but I really like to hear the percussion and bass in combination. Only when you listen closely with good speakers or headphones do you learn to recognize the separation between bass drum and low bass string notes that lesser systems blur together, especially when the playing speeds up. Once you do hear this however, you never want to accept less. With the Fifty90s, you don’t have to struggle to determine these differences, the speakers unravel the interplay and allow you to follow both instruments distinctly. This is a rare for me with any non-floorstander and testimony to the resolving power of this design.
There’s also a wonderful massed vocal effect on the cut ‘Love put on your faces’ from this Barber album. The choir-like vocals seem to float up and out, with a depth that is almost eerie when you listen closely. I’d largely forgotten this until the Fifty90s delivered this effect, capturing my attention and wrapping me in a sonic space that felt tangible and multilayered. Yes, this recording sounds good on most systems but there’s a distinction between good sounding and attention-grabbing realism that not all speakers can make. That the Fifty90s can puts them in pretty exclusive company.
Everything I threw at the PranaFidelity speakers sounded good. From Robben Ford and Ronnie Earl, through Schofield and the Waterboys, onto the Kronos Quartet and Reiner with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, I rarely heard a recording that had me waiting it out, yearning for my reference Von Schweikerts to come back into the mix. Yes, on full scale orchestral and some jazz-rock there is just more scale and resolution on the Vons, the Fifty90s are a bit more congested when the music gets complicated, but that’s the only time I really felt I was missing anything truly substantive. Even here, the Fifty90s reproduction of the critical midrange and upper frequency areas, combined with their soundstaging strength, allowed the CSO come through in a magical, embracing manner that never failed to please. There might be a little less upper frequency extension apparent with the Pranas which can be noticed with recordings such as the Tord Gustavsen Trio’s Being There, where the distinctive cymbal playing of Jarle Vespestad is so nuanced and complementary to the total sound that any slight loss of detail here becomes apparent, but you have to do a quick A-B comparison to hear what more money can get you. The differences are real but not obvious over longer listening periods. Without the direct and immediate comparison, I suspect many people could sit and listen to the Fifty90s for hours and wonder why they would pay more.
I like to try speakers with different amps so as to get a better handle on what the speaker is truly providing. In this case, I went from one extreme to another. First they went into my reference rig, fed by my PS Audio PWT/PWDII and driven by a pair of monoblock class D Spectron Musician III Mk 2s, which can put out more power than you ever want to experience. Later they were partnered with the Raven Blackhawk LE 20w integrated tube amp I reviewed earlier this year and a Rotel/Parasound DAC combo. In the former, my cable rig probably cost as much or more than the speakers. In the latter, the speakers were the most expensive single component. In both cases, the full-range, rich and ear-pleasing sonics of the PranaFidelity speakers came through in a totally enjoyable manner, which convinces me that these are really an easy load for any amplifier.
In fact, truth be told, I thought the Raven amp and PranaFidelity speakers proved an exceptional combo, perhaps the best I’ve yet heard in my second room, with intimacy in resolution and coherence across the range combined with the sort of soundstaging that has you feeling the presence of real musicians in your room. I’ve been on a bit of a Mahavishnu Orchestra kick over the last few months, rediscovering (and even discovering for the first time on some tracks) just how amazing these guys were as a collective. Billy Cobham’s drums on the Lost Trident Sessions album just floor me on this set up — the speed, drive, and slam of his playing resolving magnificently through the Fifty90s. This is music of power, scale, and yes, transcendence, if you can appreciate it and your system can deliver it. Here, I found a combo that just has something special going for it in my room. I realize this would be a combined price of almost $7k without source, but you can feed this set up with any affordable digital front-end to create a beautiful and spectacular sounding rig that leaves little to be desired.
The $4k price point for speakers marks a stretch for most people. Any sane person spending this amount of money would reasonably expect superb sonics and great looks – there’s no excuse for anything else at this price, despite the emphasis in this industry for spending multiples more. The major challenge for interested folks is actually hearing high quality speakers prior to purchase. PranaFidelity do not have a lot of dealers but the company will work with you to give you a chance to hear their product, just contact them.
I cannot tell you what is the best speaker out there at this (or any) price point. What I can say is that having heard many speakers costing a small fortune, and more than a few decent speakers in my own rooms, there are particular qualities to musical reproduction that resonate deeply with me. These include timbral accuracy, coherence, and an ability to sound consistent at all volume levels. In this regard, the Fifty90s are among the most memorable pairs I’ve had the good fortune to spend unhurried listening time with in my own home.
In a somewhat crowded market place competing for your attention and money, I would put these in the same ‘must hear’ category as the Harbeth P3ESRs and the Bryston Mini T’s, two standmounts I reviewed here and that I consider sure-fire providers of long-term satisfaction. The Fifty90s give you a healthy dose of the Harbeth midrange magic, with the fuller bass sonics of the Mini Ts, while looking nicer than the Brystons. If you’re thinking of spending money near or above this price point, and you value the same qualities I find important, you need to know about these speakers.
- Dual 15cm woofers
- 30mm tweeter
- Frequency response: 39 Hz – 22 kHz
- 8 Ohm impedance
- Sensitivity, 2.83 V @ 1 meter: 89.5 dB
- Dimensions: 22″ H x (9″ front, 4.5″ rear) W x 14.8″ D
- Weight: 40 pounds
- Retail Price: $3,950
- Digital: PS Audio Perfect Wave Transport and DAC MkII, Rotel 945AX, Parasound Ultra DAC 2000
- Analog: SME 20/2 with V arm, Sumiko Pearwood Celebration II,
- Cables: High Fidelity interconnects, Blue Jean coaxial, Harmonic Technology HDMI, Elrod true biwires, and Speltz Anti-Cables for speakers
- Speakers: Von Schweikert VR5 Anniversary IIs, Prana Fidelity ninety50s,
- Amplification: Raven Blackhawk LE integrated, Spectron Musician II Mk2 monos
- Power cords: Absolute Fidelity, Wywires, and Spectron Thunderbolts
- Conditioning by Audience, PS Audio, and Audio Wedge