Kvart & Bolge Sound Sommeliers Speaker Review

01
of 05

A Radically Affordable Audiophile Speaker

kvart2.jpg
Kvart & Bolge

My friend Steve Guttenberg doesn't call me often, so when he calls I know it's always for a good reason. Last time, it was to tell me he'd kind of changed sides in the "Loudness War" -- and to tell me around a remarkable new budget speaker he'd found. The speaker is Sound Sommeliers by Kvart & Bølge.

Steve raved about the speakers. He was so taken by the sound that he thought I should hear them, and do a more in-depth technical analysis that might reveal something about why they sound the way they do.

When I went to the Kvart & Bølge website during our conversation, I thought the speaker design was pretty cool, and I was intrigued by its quarter-wavelength bass loading, a technology embraced by many do-it-yourself speaker builders and also used in transmission-line speakers. There aren't a lot of transmission line models out there, but the ones I've heard I generally loved. The theory is (to put it simply), by making the cabinet's acoustical space as long as one-quarter of the wavelength of the deepest note you want to reproduce, the sound waves coming off the back of the speaker are absorbed and do not interfere in any way with the sound waves coming off the front of the speaker.

But even if you want your speaker to go down to just 40 Hz, that's a 7-foot-long tube. Most transmission-line speakers fold the tube, but still, that results in a pretty big and usually expensive speaker. Kvart & Bølge's innovation is not to go for deep bass extension, but instead make a quarter-wavelength speaker that would be small enough to suit normal rooms.

What really shocked me, though, was when Steve told me the price. I was thinking such an exotic product might cost in the high three figures, but no: it's a lot cheaper. You can get it with a variety of looks: wood finishes, different colors, even artist-designed wraps.

Even though Steve and I have completely different approaches to audio -- his entirely subjective, mine more like half-subjective, half-technical -- I usually find myself agreeing with his assessments. I also admire his fiercely independent thinking, something way too rare among audio writers. So I just had to hear -- and measure -- what this speaker could do.

02
of 05

Kvart & Bolge Sound Sommeliers: Features and Specs

kvart.jpg
Kvart & Bolge

• 3-inch full-range driver
• banana-jack speaker connection
• 32.9 x 3.9 x 5.7 in / 836 x 99 x 145mm
• 10.1 lbs / 4.6 kg each

The Sound Sommeliers are just a hair under 33 inches high, and a hair less than 4 inches wide. They use a single 3-inch driver to reproduce the whole spectrum of sound -- so you won't get deep bass, but you avoid having to include a crossover circuit.

I received a pair that had been decorated for an art event. Each one is made from a thin aluminum extrusion, with a plastic cap affixed to the top. A cast metal base on the bottom gives the skinny little towers some stability.

A couple of interesting limitations here. First, you can use only speaker cables terminated with banana plugs, although you can easily get banana plugs that attach to bare wire. Second, the speaker is rated to take only 25 watts of power, and its rated sensitivity is relatively low at 84 dB. Thus, your maximum output is going to be somewhere around 98 dB -- which is reasonably loud, but a good 5 to 7 dB less than most good mini speakers can play.

I used the Sound Sommeliers mostly with my 12-watt Mengyue Mini tube amp. I also tried them with my Denon AVR-2809CI A/V receiver, with the volume turned down to a moderate level. 'Cause you know, with a given set of speakers, played at a given level, the power output is the same from a 12-watt amp as it is from a 100-watt amp, as long as the level doesn't exceed either amps' capacity. Even with just the 12-watt amp, though, I got enough output to where I could do focused listening.

03
of 05

Kvart & Bolge Sound Sommeliers: Performance

KB_banana.jpg
Kvart & Bolge

The first thing I really loved about the Sound Sommeliers is what I expected to love: the clarity and neutrality of the bass. No, the bass doesn't have much extension or power, but it has a nice, clean sound with none of the resonant boom that most speakers, even the best ones, produce to some degree. It reminds me of some of the big open-back speakers I've heard.

Band of Skulls' pop-metal tune "Nightmares" probably isn't the first thing you'd think of playing through the Sound Sommeliers -- but that's as good a reason to play it as any. I was quite surprised to hear how big this tune sounded through these skinny speakers. The soundstage was wide and the imaging between the speakers was precisely focused. Steve was right that these speakers really do disappear sonically to a remarkable degree; all I seemed to hear was the voices and instruments imaging between the speakers and the ambiance wrapping around the room. The voices did sound a little tizzy in the treble -- a common issue with full-range drivers -- but otherwise, the balance was surprisingly neutral. The bass sounded even, although not powerful or punchy, but I did get the sense I was hearing some vibration or resonance from the enclosures.

I thought the upright bass solo that leads off saxophonist David Binney's "The Blue Whale," from Lifted Land might make the little drivers scream in agony (as often happens with the compact, all-in-one Bluetooth and WiFi speakers I often test), but no -- I didn't hear any distortion at all at the moderate listening level. I also heard something I hadn't noticed in this recording before: a solid stereo image of the bass at right, sitting about one-sixth of the way from the right speaker to the left. Normally the bass sounds more centered and less precisely imaged. Because of the limited dynamics and, I assume, ​​limited high-frequency extension of the speakers, I didn't get much sense of the sparkle of the cymbals and the snap of the snare, or the breathiness of Binney's tone, but the drums and sax imaged incredibly precisely.

The deep bass that leads off Holly Cole's great recording of "Good Time Charlie's Got the Blues" couldn't faze the Sound Sommeliers, either, even this tune is another Bluetooth speaker killer. Again, the imaging was captivating, with Cole's voice, the acoustic piano, and the upright bass precisely positioned between the speakers. The little woofers couldn't give the piano the body it needed, and there was some edginess in Cole's voice, but still, it was a lot of fun to listen to and probably one of the most compelling presentations I've heard from an affordable speaker.

Even the insistent bass line of the English Beat's "Hands Off She's Mine" couldn't faze the Sound Sommeliers; they didn't play it loud but they did keep it in balance with the voices and guitars, and the bass notes sounded pretty even. Again, the voices didn't sound smooth on top, but many speakers tend to blare on this tune and this little speaker didn't. That's saying something.

I was pretty blown away by how deep the Sound Sommeliers could play on Grant Geissman's "Cool Man Cool": They didn't seem to diminish any bass notes, and delivered a great sense of precision. And once again, I was blown away by the precision of the stereo imaging between the speakers, and impressed by the spaciousness of the sound. Yep, when the tune reached its dynamic climax, the speakers started to sound a little strained, but they didn't produce obvious distortion.

04
of 05

Kvart & Bolge Sound Sommeliers: Measurements

K-B_FR.jpg
Brent Butterworth

This chart shows the frequency response of the Sound Sommeliers on axis (blue trace) and the average of responses at 0°, ±10°, ±20°and ±30° horizontally (green trace). The flatter and more horizontal these lines look, the better the speaker usually is.

On-axis or off, this is a pretty rough response, but it's typical of a full-range driver. (So much for the audio truism that "simpler is better.") However, most of the big peaks and dips here are the result of narrow resonances and cancellations; the characteristic of this plot that's mostly likely to be audible is the broad, relatively mild midrange/lower treble boost from 1.4 to 3.8 kHz. Often when I see mild dips or peaks in the response between about 200 and 500 Hz, I assume they're artifacts of the quasi-anechoic measurement process I use (which has less resolution in this region), but the dips at 230 and 370 Hz are so deep and sharp that I expect they're a characteristic of the speaker's internal acoustics. The -3 dB bass response is 60 Hz, which is pretty good for such a short, slim tower. Off-axis response is very smooth up to 7 kHz, but pretty inconsistent at higher frequencies -- typical performance for a full-range 3-inch driver.

Impedance averages 8 ohms and dips to a low of 7.1 ohms/-7° phase at 380 Hz. That's a very mild impedance curve that any amp can handle with no problem. Anechoic sensitivity measures 81.7 dB at 1 watt/1 meter; that should be about 84 dB in-room. Thus, you're going to need 10 watts or so to get a usable volume; a Qinpu Q-2 probably wouldn't be a good choice.

I measured the Sound Sommeliers with my Clio 10 FW analyzer and MIC-01 microphone, at a distance of 1 meter atop a 1-meter stand; the measurement below 160 Hz was taken by close-miking the driver and port, scaling the port response and summing the two.

05
of 05

Kvart & Bolge Sound Sommeliers: Final Take

KB_vent.jpg
Kvart & Bolge

The Sound Sommeliers aren't a great all-around speaker everyone should run out and buy, but audiophiles who want to put together a cool system that's a complete departure from the norm will love these speakers. The sound isn't dynamic or uncolored, but it's a compelling and captivating presentation all the same. Put these together with an inexpensive little tube amp like the Mengyue Mini, or one of the ultra-affordable little amps from Parts Express, and you will have a thoroughly entertaining and musically satisfying rig.