Dunlavy Athena honored

May 30, 2011
Extra: Kari Nevalainen

This review comes a way too late. Dunlavy's gone, Athena is no more in production. Haven't been for ten years. But the 4 ohm 90 dB sensitive speaker deserves much attention. It's by far one of the most competent loudspeakers I know. And even though it's not quite what I'd choose for myself, I have the highest respect for it.

Hard to estimate how many loudspeakers I've auditioned over the years having the Athena as the reference point (in the room and with equiment I know well). Two three hundred. Quite likely more. Official tests. From stand-mount monitors to floorstanders of the Athena's size, cheap, expensive, and what have you. The reason why the Athena still deserves attention after all these years is that time after another it sends practically all other speakers to the corner where they can think twice their sins.

Which sins? Typically the sin does not lie in the reproduction of the highest frequencies. The Athena's tweeter performance isn't unique. It's not incorrect either, but there are speakers with tweeters that audiophiles would consider more tempting with more nuance and texture and sophistication. But that hasn't saved those speakers from the sentence sent by the Athenas.

The sin - the big one - is the flawed midbass to low midrange performance. What happens again and again when I compare the Athenas with other speakers (often with a AB switch, not blind, the SPLs levelled to account for different sensitivity) is that I end up in shaking my head in dispare: the difference in tonal balance from the midrange downwards is blatant and gross, as if the speakers were not from the same world! The difference is so systematic and so persistent that I've started to to doubt whether there's something fundamentally wrong with the Athenas.

But there isn't anyhing wrong with them, not in audiophilic terms anyway. It is the other speakers that should imitate the Athena's brilliantly executed tonal balance, not the other way round. It's easy to hear that the Athenas can do bass notes from the lowest octave, maybe not down to 20Hz but still. The low bass is there but the speaker doesn't sound bassy at all. Climbing frequency ladders up something strange happens: where practically all other speakers start to add extra energy to the midbass and upper bass - even the more qualifid speakers - the Athenas stay super cool and stick to their clean cut strategy. And where other speakers continue to promote and color the lower midrange, the rast of the warmth region, the Athenas drain away every groundless decibel there is, leaving that frequency band naked but not bony. What a relief!

What a relief when the whole midrange sings open and clear producing so much more information (eg. echoes and other spacial clues) that is lost with other speakers. Imagine someone who tries to read a book in a weak light, then another person comes and turns on the reading lamp: such is the effect of the Athenas in majority of the comparisons. Truly revelatory.

Why is it that practically all other speakers sound rounded and coated and unimpressive, especially in the upper bass lower mids, when compared to the Athenas? I don't have a wise answer. Probably because the designers fear that people don't buy their speakers if the sound is cleaned up in the same way. Despite its tonal balance the Athena does not sound cold or analytical but can sound slighly midrangy, and maybe people (including many audiophiles) do not like such purism. The standmount Jamo Reference 8, which had somewhat similar lower midrange, and which I also liked a lot, did have a tendency to sound a bit frigid.

Another clear difference between the Athena and other speakers that relative to the Athenas have an excessive upper bass and lower midrange is that the latter throw the sound forward contributing to listening fatique often already in the short run. With the Athenas the sound stops at the line connecting the speakers and the burden is no more on the shoulders of the listener. The sound is ovr there not over the listener, and yet the soundstage remains fully three-dimensional. A fantastic loudspeaker in many ways.

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