Note: Measurements taken in the anechoic chamber at Canada's National Research Council can be found through this link.
It’s probably not the most politically correct thing to say, but I’m a fan of stereotypes. No, they frequently don’t hold up to scrutiny. Yes, it can be offensive when one incorrectly assumes that a stereotype holds true for an individual case. But when it’s more likely than not that a stereotype holds true, I think it’s fair game for its judicious use as a generality. For instance, I once asked out a girl I met at a Starbucks. She was a tall, pretty blonde who spoke a Germanic-sounding language. I assumed she was Swedish (she was), liked IKEA (she did), and was superdirect about everything (total understatement). A summer fling ensued, followed by an ill-advised breakup via facial literature. I should have known it wasn’t meant to be; in her native, meatball-loving Swedish, her name means “she-wolf.”
Which brings me, circuitously, to Amphion. The Finnish company makes loudspeakers with a distinctly Northern European, avant-garde appearance. Many of their models have rounded, minimalist shapes and are finished in a clean matte white. Founder Anssi Hyvönen suggested that I give an extended listen to his diminutive Ion+ speaker, which is available in white or black, with 11 grille colors to choose from. White was the obvious choice for the speakers, and I said that I’d love the blue grilles, if a pair were available. To which Anssi replied, “We make them. Of course we have them.” I inferred, perhaps wrongly, that his statement was followed by an unspoken “You idiot.” So, like the Swedes, Finns can be pretty direct. I suspected the Ion+ would have a similar demeanor.
The Amphion Ion+ ($1395 USD per pair) is a svelte little guy measuring 10.5”H x 5.2”W x 8.6”D and weighing around 13.2 pounds. It’s a rear-ported, two-way design with a 1” dome tweeter and a 4.5” aluminum midrange-woofer. The midrange-woofer is made to Amphion’s specs by SEAS of Norway, while the tweeter’s titanium dome was designed by a Switzerland native, is made in France, and assembled in India. (The tweeter is also used in Amphion’s much larger and more expensive Argon7L.) The two drivers are crossed over to each other at 1600Hz. The Ion+ has a predictably lowish claimed sensitivity of 86dB but an impedance of 8 ohms, making amplifier-matching an easier task. Amphion recommends 25-120Wpc.
Unlike many manufacturers whose “budget” products are made in China, the Ion+ and more than 80% of its components are made in Finland. Its MDF cabinet is made some 28 miles from Amphion’s factory in Kuopio, which is about 240 miles from the nation’s capital, Helsinki. The matte-white cabinets of my review pair felt very dense, and noticeably more inert than many other speakers at or near this price. Due to the thickness of the cabinet walls and the Ion+’s small size, no internal bracing is needed. I can attest to the Ion+’s solidity -- in a moment of utter incompetence, I inadvertently knocked one of them off its stand. When it hit the exposed concrete floor of my apartment, a wound at least 1” long was slashed into its rounded top rear. Remarkably, that was the only injury, and it seemed to have no effect on the speaker’s sound -- the Finns build their speakers sturdy. Anssi, I owe you a pint. Or three. Please don’t be cross.
The distinctive feature of the Ion+ is the waveguide that surrounds its tweeter. The keen-eyed will have noticed that this waveguide is the same diameter as the midrange-woofer. This is done so that the dispersion characteristics of the two drivers will be roughly the same. The recessed tweeter’s voice-coil is on the same vertical axis as the midrange-woofer below it, allowing for good time-domain behavior between the two drivers’ outputs. This is also used in a technology that Amphion calls Uniformly Directive Diffusion (U/D/D), used to make the speaker’s off- and on-axis frequency responses as similar as possible. In other words, the sound reflected off the room boundaries should be similar in character to the sound communicated directly from the drivers to the listener’s ears, with the claimed benefits of a wider sweet spot and a greater choice of speaker positions.
While bookshelf speaker is usually a misnomer in the high end -- how many people actually put their speakers on bookshelves? -- the Ion+ is small enough to fit any standard bookshelf. After several weeks of listening to them sitting on 24”-high stands, 3’ from the front wall and over 7’ apart, it struck me that they’d be good minimonitors for home-based recording studios. I soon discovered that the genesis of the model was as a sample evaluation kit for Amphion’s microphone partner. Others were impressed with what they heard and requested a pair.
Amphion also sees the Ion+ as an ideal desktop speaker when partnered with something like NuForce’s DDA-100, a 50Wpc, class-D, digital-switching amplifier and digital-to-analog converter. NuForce kindly sent me a DDA-100 to use with the Ion+s in just such a setup. Amphion sees such systems becoming more common in the future. While many active speakers are excellent performers, and some now come with built-in DACs, Amphion believes that amplifier and DAC design, as well as recorded-music formats, will change enough in the next decade or two that they decided not to build a powered version of the Ion+.
But I mostly used the little Amphions as traditional speakers, perched atop stands. Despite their modest size, for a long time I happily listened to them without the aid of a subwoofer. I hooked them up to Arcam’s A19 integrated amplifier, Rogue Audio’s Sphinx integrated amplifier, and my reference Hegel H300 integrated amplifier-DAC. External DACs were Arcam’s rLink and Benchmark’s DAC1 USB, while a loom of Nordost Frey cables wired everything together. I also used DH Labs Silver Sonic and Nordost Blue Heaven USB cables.
A model of acuity
Many minimonitors excel at the “disappearing act” in which a pair of speakers produces a convincing sound without seeming to be the actual sources of that sound. This is more difficult for larger speakers to do -- their own size gets in the way. My reference KEF R900s, for example, are lovely for what they do, but in my somewhat small room I can definitely hear that they are where the sounds are coming from; as a result, the illusion of “the real” is somewhat lessened.
The Ion+ is smaller than most bookshelf speakers, and the pair of them predictably did a terrific job of opening a clear window on my music. While they didn’t cast the widest soundstage -- everything seemed to be kept firmly between the speakers’ baffles -- the Ion+s did reproduce great depth. Certainly, placing them several feet into my listening room contributed to this, but I felt confident that I could hear pretty deeply into a recording. Transparency was present in abundance.
But it was more than that. The Ion+’s defining characteristic was its articulation. $1395 is a goodly amount of money for a two-way minimonitor, but the clarity with which the Amphions spoke was surprising. A speaker from GoldenEar Technology, say, with its folded-ribbon tweeter, presents a warm midrange and an extended but seriously smooth top end. As a result, it is in some ways generous to recordings, making everything sound a bit “better” than it actually is. The tiny Amphion took no prisoners; unlike the GoldenEar, it was content to be an arbiter of accuracy. It wouldn’t surprise me if the Amphion’s claimed frequency response of 50Hz-25kHz, +/-3dB, measured nearly flat -- if, perhaps, flat to a fault.
David Bowie’s recording of Eden Ahbez’s standard “Nature Boy” introduces Baz Luhrmann’s 2001 film, Moulin Rouge! (16-bit/44.1kHz AIFF, Interscope). Bowie’s voice, central in the mix, was outlined with the utmost accuracy, and hung in a very convincing stereo image between the Ion+s. Furthermore, there was nothing amorphous about the size, weight, or position of that voice -- meticulous stuff, this. Nor did the Amphions sound thin in the way that some two-ways can, making the heartiness of some voices go conspicuously missing. But the Ion+’s power of articulation meant that everything was rendered in this superconcise manner, even when the recording didn’t call for it. It sounded not so much bright as slightly hard. This left Bowie’s voice lacking a certain organic quality. It was precisely reproduced, to be sure, but not imbued with tangibility; hyperaccurate, but not actively pulling at my heartstrings.
While missing that je ne sais quoi with voices, I found the Ion+’s personality worked well with large-scale instrumental works. I don’t like to hear an orchestra turned into a syrupy mess -- I want grand, sweepingly clean sound. Take Hans Zimmer’s epic score for the film Gladiator (16/44.1 ALAC, Decca). “Am I Not Merciful” has a brooding opening, and crescendos to a grand-slam finale replete with raucous brass and strings and a rich male chorus. The Ion+s unraveled it all remarkably well, even at a decent volume level. Though there are undoubtedly limits to how loudly so small a speaker can play, I was thoroughly surprised by the Ion+’s bass. So many speaker designers bump up the midbass to make their speakers sound as if they can go lower than they actually do, invariably leading to reviewers to proclaim that their bass is “surprisingly” deep. Through the Ion+s the bass went modestly deep, offering a strong suggestion of the bass power in this track. But it stayed clean, tight, and composed even as the volume rose. I laud Amphion for being so honest in their design philosophy.
For their encore performance, I asked the tiny Amphions to try “Perpetual,” from VNV Nation’s Matter + Form (16/44.1 AIFF, Metropolis). Ronan Harris’s signature gravelly voice, married to wave after wave of expansive synthesizers, met their match with the Amphions. Digital music sounded sublime through the Ion+s, as if the synths were incised into the recording with an X-Acto knife. Harris’s voice sounds cutting through almost any loudspeaker, but it sounded particularly so through the Amphions. Not that this was a downside. Industrial music is intended to be überclean and raw, and the Ion+s were happy to oblige.
While all of the above listening was done with the Ion+s sitting on 24”-high stands 3’ from my room’s front wall, I also used the Amphions with NuForce’s tiny DDA-100 amplifier-DAC, all three sitting on a desktop, to compare them with KEF’s X300A powered computer speakers ($799/pair). The KEF is roughly based on the British company’s Q100 bookshelf model; it has the Q100’s 5.25” Uni-Q driver, but adds to each cabinet two class-AB amplifiers and one DAC. The left and right speakers are linked with a USB cable, ensuring an all-digital signal path between them. The heavy, gunmetal-gray KEFs have a single mini-USB digital input and a single stereo mini-plug analog input. Given that Amphion markets the Ion+ as a stellar bookshelf or desktop speaker, and that KEF is known for making overachieving products, the comparison struck me as a good one.
Right out of the box, the KEFs worked easily and well. Their 5.25” drivers produced deeper, richer bass than the Amphions, though KEF seems to have boosted the X300A’s midbass by a few dB. The X300A’s sound was clean and clear, and not dramatically inferior to the Ion+’s -- in fact, it was slightly smoother. I suspect that the X300A would be the ideal desktop speaker for casual listeners who don’t need or want a separate amplifier, but who do want more bass and character.
On my desk, as on my stands, the Amphions shone in terms of accuracy and retrieval of fine detail. They were noticeably more focused, with better overall clarity. Though the NuForce amp-DAC seemed to further accentuate the Ion+s’ exactitude, this quality didn’t prove objectionable, and hearing this much resolution from a desktop system was a revelation. The Ion+s furthered the argument for costing almost twice as much as the KEFs by having decidedly higher style, and proving to be the more articulate speaker in this comparison. With high-quality recordings, there was no question that the Amphion was the better speaker, short of the lowest octave’s worth of bass. But the difference in cost is not insubstantial. The Ion+s with NuForce DDA-100 cost just shy of $2000, which could buy two pairs of X300As with a few hundred bucks in change. But in the smorgasbord of gourmet passive minimonitors (none of which, unfortunately, I had on hand), the Ion+ is appropriately priced.
Amphion’s Ion+ is a precision instrument. Its hallmark of accuracy makes it a compelling proposition, and its size and Northern European style make it an attractive one as well. Its incisive, linear sound means that listeners will not go hungry for low-level detail, and its sound remains taut and composed even at reasonably high volumes.
It’s true that the Ion+’s lack of midrange bloom and its ever-so-slightly hard character will mean that it’s not for everyone. What was telling was that, even with far larger and more expensive loudspeakers lying around, I never once had a desire to remove the Amphions from my system. That’s not something I can say about most speakers, and for that reason, Amphion’s Ion+ is an easy recommendation.
. . . Hans Wetzel
- Speakers -- KEF X300A, Vivid Audio Oval V1.5
- Integrated amplifiers -- Arcam A19, Hegel Music Systems H300, Rogue Audio Sphinx
- Sources -- Apple MacBook Pro running Songbird and iTunes, Arcam rLink, Benchmark DAC1 USB, Hegel Music Systems H300
- Speaker cables -- Nordost Frey 2
- Interconnects -- Nordost Frey 2
- USB cables -- DH Labs Silversonic, Nordost Blue Heaven LS
- Power cables -- Nordost Frey 2
Amphion Ion+ Loudspeakers
Price: $1395 USD per pair.
Warranty: Five years parts and labor.
Amphion Loudspeakers Ltd.
PO Box 6
Phone: +358 17-2882-100
Fax: +358 17-2882-111