Like a brace of the monoliths in 2001, a pair of Apogee Scintillas stands in my listening room, framing whatever system I’m using at the time. They will never leave that room, unless I win the Lottery and find myself in possession of the music chamber they deserve. Somehow, confining them into a space measuring 12x18ft is not unlike owning a Ferrari in London: you’re never out of second gear.
They remain my most cherished components – inherited after the company folded – and not just because I maintain that the Apogee Scintilla is still the greatest loudspeaker ever made, nearly a decade after the company’s demise. They have a special place in my heart because of the collective soul of the people who made them. The late Jason Bloom and his father-in-law, Leo Spiegel, formed a team like no other I can recall. Their yin/yang relationship resulted in products that combined both pure science and audiophilic insanity in a way I’ve never seen matched.
Jason and Leo complemented each other so thoroughly, and in every way, that the blend of their talents couldn’t help but produce a masterpiece: Leo’s cool, clear thinking and Jason’s fevered, emotional response to everything, Leo the scientist, Jason the aesthete – music to art to wine to cars to clothing. Guys, we’re talking Lennon and McCartney, Lerner and Loewe, Rolls and Royce.
They burst upon the hi-fi scene in 1982 with no previous industry experience. Jason was a hard-core audiophile and vinyl junkie, but his career prior to Apogee was as a dealer in fine art. Leo Spiegel was an engineer recently retired from Northrop, who spent his life in the aerospace industry – for real, as opposed to many in audio who claim to have done so. In fact, Leo was a recipient of the Tony Janus Award for significant contributions to the aviation industry, and had worked with high precision engineering projects such as the inertial navigation system for the B52 and devices for the calibration of Sidewinder missiles.
What came in handy, particularly in speaker design, was Leo’s experience with high intensity magnetic circuits. Along with a friend, Gary Walker, who parted from Apogee early on, they embarked on their audio adventure designing speakers. It was Leo who suggested working with true ribbons.
Their first design was called the Full-Range, a wall of a speaker as impractical as it was wonderful. It certainly was successful enough to attract the notice of the audio community, with most high-end manufacturers, including the then-equally-virginal Krell, deeming them of reference calibre. Krell, in fact, would play no small role in the Apogee saga, for the two companies were virtually inseparable during their early years and used each other’s wares at shows. It was an alliance that was truly mutually beneficial because of an Apogee quirk: Apogees ran at obscenely low impedances, and Krells looked at such loads with disdain.
A three-way design loudspeaker using true direct-radiating ribbons for the midrange and treble and a ‘quasi-ribbon’ for the bass, the Full-Range stood close to 7ft tall and consisted of two panels: the trapezoidal woofer section and the mid/treble enclosure. The woofer and the 80in ribbon tweeter could be directly driven thanks to a high-enough impedance, but the 0.1ohm, 2in wide midrange ribbon had to be matched via a transformer.
It was the second Apogee product, the Scintilla, that put the brand on the map because it was smaller and less-expensive than the Full-Range. Crucially, it bore no transformer. As history won’t let us forget, it was also the speaker that marked Apogee with the single-ohm curse. ‘Amp killers’ they would be called, and so they were, but it was a red flag before the bull that is audio. The Scintilla set a near-impossible performance parameter that amplifier manufacturers are still trying to achieve, even though it applied to very few speakers other than the Scintilla. That genuine 1 ohm impedance has become the litmus test for every amp purporting to be the King of the Hill.
Selling for a heady �4950 in the UK 20 years ago, the Scintilla used a smaller version of the Full-Range’s woofer and a five-ribbon array for frequencies above 500Hz, in a panel 3.5in thick top-to-bottom. Far more manageable than the Full-Range at 4ft 10in tall by 2ft 9in wide at the bottom, tapering to 2ft 5in at the top, the Scintilla sat on its own rectangular aluminium base-plate measuring 15.5x19in. Although spikes were provided, the 10-stone weight rendered the need for the floor-coupling spikes as ‘…purely academic,’ according to Martin Colloms. The base-plate also tilted the speaker back by around 5 degrees, courtesy of two strong metal struts.
An open-backed bipolar bass radiator, the woofer consisted of a single sheet of aluminium foil 12�m thick, hand-slit, that occupied the outer section, while the narrow inner aperture contained the five vertical ribbons. Slightly pleated horizontally, the slots provided the conductor pattern. The rear of diaphragm over the slots was sealed with Kapton tape of high temperature stability as well as good mechanical properties, and it could move up to �6mm down to a limit of 20Hz. According to Jason, each Scintilla enjoyed a radiating roughly surface equal to eight 12in woofers.
Above 500Hz came the true ribbon mid/treble section, made up of five ribbons: four 0.5in wide and one 1.9in wide. The latter, centrally-located ribbon rolled off above 3.5kHz, while the 05in. ribbons, two at the front and two at the back, covered the area above that. Martin observed that, ‘An interesting twist occurs here since the central mid element naturally operates as a dipole, with “in theory” the rear radiation is out of phase with the front. However, while the front flanking treble ribbons are run in-phase with the main ribbon, as one might expect, the rear-facing treble ribbons are wired in reverse. In effect, the HF range is unipolar, representing a pulsating cylinder mounted in the 2.25in wide vertical slot in the baffle. In the overlap region between the mid and upper treble ribbons, the sound is reinforced to the front but decayed to the rear, forcing a cardioid-type response in this range.’
Martin’s observations were part of something nearly unique in the magazine’s history, though more common now when something monumental hits the market, e.g. the arrival of a new format. In September 1985, so excited were we about the Scintilla that HFN/RR published an epic review written by not one but three of us: then-editor John Atkinson, Martin and myself. As JA stated in his introduction, upon first hearing the Scintilla, ‘I vowed then that, when the Scintilla reached the UK, it would get the full review treatment, afforded in the past to a handful of products…that have blazed new trails.’ Among those John cited were the Quad ELS, Decca and Koetsu cartridges, Spendor BC1, Linn Sondek, Quad ESL-66 and the Krell KSA-50 – tough acts to follow.
John set the tone: ‘I knew that not only was this loudspeaker unconventional in concept, it was also out of the ordinary regarding its sound quality. To put it mildly, I had never heard such a breathtakingly natural reproduction of orchestral sound and image in the adverse circumstances of an hotel room in my life.’
Of course, British audiophiles were not unfamiliar with ribbons, Stanley Kelly having produced a delightful and still-loved ribbon tweeter for Decca. JA admired the purity: ‘It is nothing more than a practical realisation of Fleming’s Left Hand Rule: a conductor loosely hangs between the poles of a magnet. When a DC voltage passes down the conductor it moves one way; when the current passes up, it moves the other. Apply an AC voltage and the ribbon oscillates, moving the air and producing sound.’
Of course, there was a downside in going beyond the ribbon-as-tweeter, which had been used by numerous companies before and after Decca and Kelly. Such ambition invited greater size, the need for more powerful magnets, and – in Apogee’s case – a vicious impedance accompanied by a hunger for power. But JA also pointed out that a full-range ribbon, ‘…offers advantages in having inherently low levels of resonant coloration and, with attention paid to the magnetic circuitry, low distortion. Additionally, as the driver has a very large surface area and is a very good conductor of heat, its power handling capability can be very high indeed.’
Everything about the Apogee, with the exception of the Monster-supplied terminals and internal wiring, and components in the crossover, was made in-house: you didn’t call up an OEM manufacturer and simply order drive units off the shelf. (Note that this was in the early days of bi-wiring, and the Monster terminals were the only ones up to the job; Apogee supplied a special tightening tool as well. But whatever controversy raged then about single-vs-bi-wiring, the Scintilla seemed to work well only when bi-wired.) Apogee filled a massive factory with their own unique tools, jigs, and such items as precision foil corrugators and a half-million ampere-turn magnetiser for fashioning the screamingly complex magnet structures – major investments.
But the results staggered all three of us. I had actually experienced the Full-Range two years earlier, so I was waiting for the Scintilla, realising even then that – especially for the UK market – a more practical sibling was required. But we were well-prepared for what to expect, the bulk of our experiences involving amp selection.
Bill Beard provided me with a special pair of mono P100s good for 200W and able to drive 1 ohm, while Martin reckoned that, ‘the Krell KSA-100 was the minimum safe bet.’ True, you could with some effort, re-wire your Scintillas at home for 4 ohm operation, but with a 6dB loss in voltage-rated sensitivity. At 1 ohm, MC estimated the sensitivity to be 73dB/1W, noting that, ‘Consideration also needs to be given to the peak current demand of the Scintilla at 1ohm. Taking an average impedance of 0.9ohms, a Krell KMA-200 on full song will provide up to 60V peak. Assuming minimal cable losses, the Scintillas will draw peak currents of over 60amps. Now you can see why blockbuster amplifiers of Krell current capacity are required for 1ohm working.’
Somehow, we all got them singing. JA was driven to write, ‘It is the finest speaker I have ever heard to reproduce human voice….the voice just soars over its whole range of pitch and dynamics. Piano, too, has an effortless quality to reproduction, and percussion of all kinds reproduced with a uniqueness to each sound that I have rarely heard. The speaker allowed me to become an aficionado of recorded drum sound; it imparted so little of its own character on the sound that the formant structure of each instrument was allowed to stand alone.’
For me, they became the reference that I have never heard bettered, and the only reason I don’t use them constantly for reviewing is this: because it’s out of production, the Scintilla is irrelevant. Reviewers must assess components in systems that readers can approximate in shops. Actually, there’s another reason: even 20 years later, there are still precious few amplifiers that can drive the Scintillas properly.
Call it a freak, an aberration in audio history. The Scintilla influenced nothing beyond a few of the Apogee models that would follow. Other manufacturers simply looked at what it took to make a full-range ribbon and went back to lighter, easier, more conventional technologies. Apogee’s fortunes suffered because of legal matters, certain elements of the US press inaugurated a psychotic vendetta, and – I suspect – Jason lost interest. The company disappeared into the recesses of a conglomerate, while the name lives on in a brand making, I believe, small digital amplifiers. But for those of us who heard the Scintillas, used them, lived with them, well, nothing else even comes close.
Note: Owners of Apogee speakers should visit www.perigee.com.au and www.apogeespeakers.com for information on servicing and acquiring second-hand pairs
Tony Shuman Remembers the Scintilla
Tony Shuman worked for Apogee throughout its history, and became, in a way, the keeper of the flame. He generously offered to contribute to this article:
‘I do not know the exact total number of Scintillas sold. It went through four iterations. The first 40 pairs were made with 4 ohm transformers. It was a disaster and we took back all of them. At the time, we were using a formed plastic cover which we glued on and had no idea how to remove it. It was not a fun time. I believe that the next 300 pairs were strictly 1ohm. At that point, we changed to the 1 ohm/4 ohm combination which remained until the end. I think that we produced somewhere between 1500 2000 pairs in total.
‘The 4 ohm change came from the Duetta design. I will never forget calling Leo one night with “my strange design concept that would increase the resistance.” I felt that it should solve the problem but could not back it with facts. Leo looked at my chicken scratches and could not say that it would not work. At the time, there was another partner (an MIT graduate) who I knew would laugh at it, so I quietly went ahead and built a speaker and let the results speak for themselves.’It certainly was a heady time for all involved. I have always hoped that someone with more money and ego than brains would pick up the fallen sword and bring Apogee speakers back to life. However, I have come to believe that it is wishful thinking and meant to be a relic of the past.’