Podium One

podium-1-loudspeakerLaunched in the UK in 2006, this was the brainchild of Shelley Katz – an accomplished classical musician who began his studies at the Conservatoire de Musique in Montreal, and went on to the Julliard School in New York. As a soloist, chamber musician and accompanist, he played under Bernstein, Solti, Oszawa and was the pianist for New York Contemporary Ensemble under Skrowaczewski. He then spent eight years based in Germany, recording with some of the great international singers including Nicolai Gedda, Dame Gwyneth Jones and Jochen Kowalski. A PhD at Cambridge in psychoacoustics followed, which lead him to develop the speaker you see here.

The £6,895 (in 2006) Podium One is not like most loudspeakers. It’s a panel design, like electrostatics, ribbons and NXT SurfaceSound designs, but is emphatically different to all three. A flat horn, floating tapered line array dipole, using a novel application of compliant surround loudspeaker technology, it shares some things in common with NXT panels, such as the exciters. Katz explained to me that NXT speakers are constrained panels; their outer edges are held rigid by the frames of the speaker – in a sense akin to the way that an infinite baffle has its moving coil drivers constrained by the air on the box, which can’t get in or out. The Podium works on precisely the opposite principle; the panels are able to ‘float’ in air like woofers in bass reflex speaker boxes. The speakers energise the room, just as a concert grand ‘drives’ a hall.

Being panels gives them some tremendous advantages, as there is effectively no cabinet to interfere with the proceedings. No matter what loudspeaker manufacturers say about how inert their boxes are, they are always there – the devil in the room whose name they dare not speak. Instead, the Podiums have frames, and unlike the Quad 989s which I have used as a long standing reference, these are not wobbly structures. Rather, the 72x24x0.66” affairs are made of the finest English birch, rigid and beautifully finished as per the very best marine applications – or kitchens for that matter!

Running down the centre rears of the Podiums is a tapered spine containing the five ‘drivers’, which are coupled to the vast metal honeycomb panels. The drivers are linked in such a way that the panels with move a centimetre or two forwards or backwards (if you push them, or the drivers excite them). The drivers are wired with fine grade silver wire, running down to a single pair of binding posts at the bottom. The stands are Sheffield stainless steel shafts, which insert into a recess at the base, and provide a stable resting place for the each 15.6kg speaker. Despite being of Canadian extraction, Shelley is emphatically proud to say that, ‘drivers’ aside, the Podiums are entirely made in England – even down to the fine quality front grille cloth (available in black or white).

These loudspeakers are unlike anything I’ve ever heard – which is to pass absolutely no judgement, merely a statement of fact. Logically, this could only be the case, because they are a unique design – like Quad’s ESL-57 or Apogee’s Scintilla, they do things in a very different way to the moving coil driver and box brigade. So they are highly distinctive, but I warn you now – if you like big behemoths which assault you with a vast, fat, sumptuous sound, then you’ll be left wanting. Podium Ones are even less fulsome than Quad 989 electrostatics for example, meaning that the 99% of hi-fi folk who’ve never heard loudspeakers without boxes will find them odd at first.

The situation is made stranger by their sensitivity to placement – in short, they’re bloody fussy to position. Shelley Katz told me they’d work almost anywhere, but I have to disagree. In my room at least, they were unusually – almost unprecedentedly  – room-sensitive. Yes, they’ll make a noise anywhere, but to extract from them the performance they’re capable of, don’t think you can just plonk them either side of your chimney breast and forget them. I actually got my review pair singing when they were at either end of my listening room, some ten metres apart, toed in at nearly 45 degrees and pulled out by about 30cm from the rear walls. Furthermore, I found they really don’t like cool rooms; they need at least twenty degrees centigrade to really sing.

Next on the list of caveats is the fact that they are unusually music dependent, really shining with classical, electronic or acoustic material, but being less convincing with rock and reggae. Once again, this is often the case with high end loudspeakers, and the same observation can be made of Quad 989 electrostatics, for example. Likewise, not even JBL would pretend that their K2 S9800 is as clean across the midband on classical as a Quad. At this price, you pays your (not inconsiderable sum of money) and takes your choice…

When positioned properly, the Podium Ones imaged better than any loudspeaker I had then heard. Their ability to fill a room with sound, and place images in space, was peerless at the time. Rather like placing a grand piano in your front room, they simply take over and turn your whole space into part of the performance. Much has been writing about the ability of Quad electrostatics, for example, to disappear into space, but you’ve got to hear these to know what it really means – they’re in a gang of one in the way they melt into the room. ELO’s Living Thing on LP assumed massive physical proportions, effortlessly pouring out all around my very ears.

This brings me onto their next striking characteristic – transient speed. Again, my reference Quad 989s were left sounding ponderous and ever-so-slightly ‘wrong footed’ when asked to reproduce Kraftwerk’s Techno Pop from their 1986 opus Electric Café. The Podiums are startlingly fast in they way they can catch the first milliseconds of a transient, making them – in their own unique way – great for heavily syncopated music. They’re able to eke their way into the most complex of mixes, and ‘unwrap’ everything so you can hear right into the music. I found myself hearing rhythms in the song’s bass sequencing that I hadn’t previously come across.

With this in mind, you might imagine that the Podium Ones were brilliant with rock music, but here I found them less convincing. Again, Quad’s 989 is no rock loudspeaker, but their intrinsic warmth makes them reasonably listenable, if you ignore their lack of HF extension. Here, the Podiums sounded a little more lightweight, lacking the massive thwack that my reference Yamaha NS1000Ms leant to the song. The Podiums’ bass is nicely deep and even, but can never be considered generous. Despite the fine extension, they didn’t seem muscular enough to give a truly moving account of this song. The Quads displayed the same characteristic, but they were a tad more fulsome all the same.

This speaker is about delicacy and dimensionality, which is what classical music demands more than anything else. For example, my classic Philips LP pressing of Debussy’s Submerged Cathedral was mesmeric. The piano tone was quite sublime, the Podiums seeming to penetrate the very insides of the instrument, and convey its every inflection. The midband of these loudspeakers is extremely revealing, allowing the tonality of an instrument in a recording to be ruthlessly revealed. Whereas the Quad 989s sit on the warm side of the fence, the Podiums err towards the opposite, with a ‘brightly lit’ upper mid that casts a penetrating light on every aspect of the recording. It makes for startling clarity, in some senses, and also means you’ll do well to ensure they’re partnered with smooth – as opposed to hard – sounding ancillaries.

One of the most ‘focused’ loudspeakers I’ve heard this side of a Tannoy Dual Concentric, some will love the Podium Ones and others will struggle with them. If you sit on the ‘electrostatic’ side of the fence, and demand the absolute minimum in colouration and the maximum detail retrieval, you will doubtless love them. Others who crave cream in their coffee, so to speak, will seek more beguiling and ultimately less incisive designs elsewhere. Rather like a pair of Stax Electrostatic Earspeakers, this is the sort of product that polarises opinion, so those wanting a general, do-it-all quite well sort of speaker will find them unforgiving, reggae and bassheads won’t like them at all, whilst classical music aficionados will regard them as highly capable. Well worth a listen, if you can find a pair.

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