3 Square Audio Ayal loudspeakers
These 3 Square Audio Ayal loudspeakers should not do what they do. There. I’ve said it. I first heard and saw these diminutive Darth Vader-esque speakers at a recent audio show. I kept looking for… a larger speaker, a subwoofer, anything, but all I could find was this small, beautifully-finished, slightly unconventional-looking loudspeaker on a fairly solid-looking stand. I sat. I listened. I listened some more. Then I went away, heard some other stuff, came back and sat and listened some more.
It is very rare indeed that on a first hearing a new (to me) piece of kit has this kind of effect. Longer listening usually reveals something which gives the key to what caught my ear, but here, apparently, was the real deal, almost the audiophile’s dream of a fantastic-sounding speaker that doesn’t dominate the room.
On the face of it the 3 Square Audio Ayal is a conventionally-designed ported two-way loudspeaker. The cabinet feels dense and inert, with a super-smooth low-gloss black finish. It has symmetrical angular facets on the front face, but is otherwise a regular box. On the back are two sets of speaker terminals together with a rear-firing port. They come with connecting links already fitted, so single-wiring works easily. If you want to bi-wire / bi-amp simply remove the links and connect as you please.
Being something of a pragmatic luddite (I’ve been practising for many years) I simply connected up a single pair of cables, sat the Ayals on top of a fairly substantial pair of stands and tweaked their positioning for a while until it sounded pretty ok. Basic things were in order – tweeters were at ear-height, speaker axes crossed a couple of feet in front of me. There was about a foot of space between the rear of the speakers and the rear wall.
Boy; these speakers sound good
My listening tests always include something in a cavernous space – usually choral or a capella in a cathedral or similar. This gives a feel for the micro-details as the echo fades away, and also the level of low-frequency clarity and weight. Yes, there’s a lot of very low stuff going on in large spaces, and cathedrals in particular tend to be quiet so reveal this low-frequency artefact quite clearly. If a loudspeaker can do the same then we’re certainly heading in the right direction.
The upper-end mustn’t be forgotten either: clarity at the top end is a prerequisite for giving that illusion of how big the space is, and ultimately allows the listener, to locate the performer(s) within that recording space. That holds good whether it’s a small studio, salon or huge auditorium. The first thing that struck me about the 3 Square Audio Ayals, on that fateful day at the Show was how deep, how low, and how authoritative they are at the bottom end. So back at home I thought I’d start to put that to the test.
Despite the work it was being asked to do playing some nice organ music (Christopher Herrick Organ Fireworks CDA66121), the Whitlock Four Extemporisations and Brewer’s Marche Heroique totally failed to upset the applecart. The focus remained rock-solid. The depth and weight of the Westminster Abbey organ came across with rather alarming believability, and the soaring heights of the upper treble pipes was revealed in all their shrill (and softer) tones. The first-order crossover appeared to do nothing to upset the presentation; it really was seamless from top to bottom.
But perhaps the nicest thing about this was that even though there was a lot going on in the performances, as a listener you could still see the organ in this huge space. You have more than just a blurred impression of how big the Abbey is, how powerful the organ is and how the one fares in the context of the other. This was a large instrument in its own special environment and the 3 Square Audio Ayals were totally able to present this to the listener as a fait accompli. There was no argument about it.
Low end theory
I suppose I should insert a caveat at this point. Many who have read my musings over the years will know that in some situations a subwoofer (ideally two for stereo) is a valuable addition to the replay armoury as long as it’s set up properly. On top of that, common sense and years of experience also confirm the need for a relatively large driver in order to reproduce very low frequencies at any sensible volume with any authority. Some manufacturers manage to fudge the low end by utilising carefully-chosen cabinet resonances. Somehow the 3 Square Audio Ayals manage to do the low bottom end with authority, and with a small five inch driver but without any obvious cabinet resonances at play. OK; so there must be some, but they’re not obvious, and the transition between the tweeter and the mid/bass driver is seamless. There’s also no hint of port chuffing – something I found surprising given the significant oomph the driver was able to give to the lower registers.
Anyway, moving on; large scale complex music is always an interesting field for experimentation with a loudspeaker design. How well can it stay coherent with masses of stuff going on? How well will it maintain its focus and still reveal the inner workings of complex musical happenings? Delius’ Mass of Life (EMI SLS958) is a huge work, almost gargantuan. It’s scored for full orchestra and double choir. The range of dynamic contrasts is vast, and the antiphonal elements with Delius almost pitting one choir against the other make for a very complicated aural soundscape. If anything was going to make the Ayals flounder, surely this was it.
Nope. Not on your nelly. The 3 Square Audio Ayals managed to maintain and present a remarkably coherent and focussed soundstage. The breadth and depth of the singers in the choirs was quite clearly laid bare and their relationship to the orchestra was also very sharply defined. Orchestral tutti and forte passages were extremely well handled, and the gentle and subtle nuances and colour changes in quieter passages were very easy to hear. Not only that, but there was no loss of perspective when the going got tough, and yet the whole remained together and within the ambience of the recording space.
The four soloists were also very well placed in the aural picture, and they were clearly apart from the choral voices, set towards the centre and in front of the choirs just as you’d expect and with a believable perspective in terms of volume and presence when compared with the might of the choral forces Delius employed.
Changing tack completely, Tanzmusik from the time of Praetorius (Archiv 198166) hit the player next. This is a relatively early recording of early music – and in this instance done exceptionally well. The recording quality is absolutely superb, and the orchestration and pressing are very fine indeed. Somehow Archiv has managed to capture all the very individual facets of these ancient instruments in a magical way. The recording places each instrument almost right in the room with you, and lays bare its capabilities in all their colour, grandeur, pathos and limitation. The recording itself is very immediate and there is a very real feeling of being in with the performers.
Spaces in between
Because everything is laid so bare there are some aspects which are a good test of a loudspeaker – and of a replay system as a whole. The first is the system’s ability to recreate the spaces between the instruments. At this 3 Square Audio Ayals excelled, giving very believable air and space to the sounds presented. It was not at all difficult to identify and locate each one within the context of the ensemble as a whole.
Then there was the issue of the rawness of the presentation. This is a warts and all recording. No, there’s nothing bad about it, but some of the sounds of ancient and early instruments are very raw and earthy, and this recording shows these facets off to perfection. The rasp of a viol, the bleating shrillness of a piccolo or a soprano blockflöte (recorder) all contrast vividly with the softer sounds of a lute or a contrabassegambe (double bass). If you’ve never experienced early music, this disc is a real treat (I think it’s been reissued a few times, and maybe on CD too).
However, sticking to classical music will never give a loudspeaker a chance to show off all its capabilities. So the next disc on the player was Philadelphia Jerry Ricks and his Empty Bottle Blues. Released in 1987 this is a surprisingly well recorded disc and captures Ricks’ voice in all its gravelly and gritty glory. The guitar playing is of a very high standard, but the recording manages to capture those intimate details which help to bring Ricks into your listening room, right there in front of you. The slight squeak of the finger on string, the occasional little buzz of string on fret, the creak of the neck against the body – all these details the 3 Square Audio Ayals portrayed with an ease which was frankly disarming. Close your eyes, and there, in front of you was an almost real spectre of Ricks, playing and singing (I think it was singing) just for you.
Again the 3 Square Audio Ayals excelled at putting singer and instrument into a believable performance space. They provided a route to engagement which meant that the performance taking place meant something, and drew you in, captivated you and took you on a journey. Lastly, Kylie, whatever you think of her music, it’s mostly fun, boppy, makes you move and is quite catchy, sometimes annoyingly so.
I didn’t let the 3 Square Audio Ayals know I was putting Kylie on (streamed in this instance) in case they took fright, but I needn’t have worried. The fast plunky bass of I Should Be So Lucky drove the Minogue-wagon along at a blistering pace, supporting all the bubblegum stuff going on atop, and providing enough support for her voice to shine through. Yes, I’m being slightly unkind in a tongue-in-cheek sort of way, but the reality was that Minogue’s material really let the 3 Square Audio Ayals shine too, or rather they let Minogue’s music shine through them. At the end of the day I have no idea what potential purchasers of a pair of Ayals will listen to, I can only guess. But for me to stick to what I love would not be giving them a fair crack of the whip.
Dog day delusions
The 3 Square Audio Ayals play pop. They play jazz too (the more-than-a-dozen discs that I tried). And bluegrass, and heavy metal etc. The reality – and here I end up where I began – is that these relatively diminutive speakers perform as if they are much larger, have much bigger drivers, have bigger cabinets. They’re a Chihuahua with delusions of being Rottweilers – except that they’re not delusions.
When I first heard the 3 Square Audio Ayals I could not believe what I was hearing; they performed far beyond what their size would suggest. So the review pair arrived, and I prepared myself for disappointment. After all, small loudspeakers don’t do this. Except that I’ve now heard a pair that do. They are a large speaker hiding away in a very small package, and that package works.
For those who need to know, a 50-watt solid state amp will drive these worryingly loud with consummate ease. A 15-watt valve amplifier will also go worryingly loud. A 2.5-watt amplifier will still go pretty damn loud, so they’re quite easy to drive.
They’re not light, but they’re not overly heavy either. A good solid stand is a prerequisite. Perching them on opposite ends of the TV stand didn’t work well at all, and putting them on the floor, even angling the tweeter upwards towards the listener didn’t work much better. Get the 3 Square Audio Ayals at ear height and on good stands, though, and they really start to sing. In my listening room the optimum width apart was around the six to seven feet mark (listening at around seven feet away), and about a foot or so from the rear wall. Bottom-end performance was markedly better once the speaker was firmly mounted and stable – but that’s true of most bookshelf speaker.
I did try adding a sub – or two – but apart from the little extra weight at the very bottom end, and perhaps a smidge of easing in the presentation stakes (relieving the mid/bass driver of some of the really low end stuff) the sub(s) really weren’t needed. The 3 Square Audio Ayals are perfectly capable on their own.
3 Square Audio Ayal verdict
I’m sure you can guess that my conclusion is a hearty recommendation. They are open, articulate, seamless from top to bottom, image well, handle wide dynamic contrasts, are focussed, present musical material with a disarming ease and allow you, the listener to become totally immersed in the material being played.
No, they don’t make everything sound good. Yes, they do show up difference between recordings very clearly. And that’s what it’s all about. Real life is full of differences. So is recorded music. As I said above, expect the unexpected’.