Some years ago I reviewed a pair of diminutive speakers—The Gurus—imported into this country from Sweden. For a number of reasons, the rising value of the Euro and the rising cost of shipping among them, the U.S. importer of these great performing little speakers decided to create a domestic version for the United States. Lars Erickson of Sjöfn HiFi (www.sjofnhifi.com) and his team set out, not to copy the actual design of the Guru, but to produce an even better sounding loudspeaker in an equally small enclosure.
After a bit more than a year in development—in audio industry terms, as fast as a heap of Swedish meatballs disappears from your plate at Ikea—Erickson and crew introduced The Clue ($999/pair; includes shipping in the USA) at the 2010 Rocky Mountain Audiofest, and did so, I might add, to great critical acclaim. No, I WILL add. Stereophile and other respected mags heaped, like those meatballs at Ikea, reams of praise on The Clue’s plate. And now it’s our turn.
Erickson set me up with a review pair of The Clues and the first thing I noticed, aside from the gorgeous cherry finish, was the ultra-dense heft of these small boxes. As a cook, I’m often instructed to select certain fruits and vegetables which are “heavy for their size” and that description holds true for The Clues. Ripe little buggers, these.
For the soul of their new speakers, the Sjöfn boys contracted with Denmark’s Scan Speak to develop a proprietary woofer/midrange driver, while their tweeter comes from the always reliable Vifa folks, also in Denmark. So the provenance, better, let’s say the internal DNA, of these speakers is blue ribbon, utilizing as they do, the same first rate drivers used by many of the big guns in high performance audio. This pedigree instantly places The Clue out of the Ikea range of mass-market mediocrity and squarely into a Saab level of quality!
Speaking of quality, the “fit ‘n’ finish” of these puppies is first rate. They look great and feel great. But…what do they sound like?
First thing I noticed was a very satisfying tonal balance from top to bottom. The bottom extension was especially surprising considering the size of these boxes. Will they break your lease? Probably not in most places, but they very likely could in many big city apartments in which urban density is anything but urban legend. But that should not dissuade you from checking out these beauts. For most people, the solid, never boomy bass will plumb depths enough for any music they may pump through these boxes. In fact, the amount of bass produced will certainly surprise you…it did me. As well, I felt the mids were spot on, an assessment confirmed by their nimble handling of vocals, particularly female singers. The Vifa tweeter produces highs that are crystal clear, with nary a hint of glare or stridency, adding that all important sparkle of high frequency icing to the music.
So how do these artfully blended individual tonal qualities handle real-world music?
On Jennifer Warnes’ “Bird on a Wire” from the amazingly well-recorded Famous Blue Raincoat CD, the drums, especially the toms, have an authority which translates as very real-sounding to this aging drummer. What makes the sensation even more delicious is the way the Clues allow all the natural resonances of the drums to come through, including the all-important natural decay of every single stroke. Along with gobs of other ambient information, this sort of detail helps provide a totally convincing musical performance.
On “Famous Blue Raincoat”, the midrange of the Clue offers up Ms. Warnes’ voice in a full, solid image, dead-center, with all the liquid silkiness I know this fantastic instrument possesses. It is impossible, with these speakers, not to sit entranced, spellbound as Warnes sings Leonard Cohen’s poignant letter to a friend.
When I switched to an LP of Los Lobos’ By the Light of the Moon, I was no less enthralled by the outright musicality of the Clue. They never failed to reveal the hard driving energy of, in my never-humble opinion, America’s greatest still-existing rock band. Having just seen the band live for the umpteenth time, I have a pretty good reference in my mind’s ear of what they should sound like. The Clues did not disappoint. All the nuances of their multi-instrumental virtuosity come through in spades. David Hidalgo’s various electric Fenders sound absolutely correct with their distinctive Fender bite, and his accordion just has to be a Hohner button model. The Clues allow the several Mexican stringed folk instruments employed on the disc sound the way I’ve heard them sound live with this band. On “Prenda del Alma” I wanted to, no, I actually got up and wiggled my butt around the room in my own convoluted Mexican polka norteña interpretation, never mind that the tune is actually a vals, a waltz—the music and the speakers moved me, regardless!
Remember when Rod Stewart was a blues-based rocker, circa 1968-72? Well, with a pair of The Clue speakers, he still is that soulful, expressive performer as proven by a spin of the still fantastic LP First Step by the Faces. Ron Wood, who was about to be thrown into the maelstrom as a Rolling Stone when this disc was recorded, and Rod, on the verge of superstardom, push this 1970 outing to the limit of edgy, soulful rock. As heard through the Clue, “Three Button Hand Me Down” is as exciting as it was when I heard this band live shortly after this LP’s release. Wood’s guitar and Stewart’s voice command the stage, and the Clues do them both justice, plenty of acoustic space around each, plenty of jab to the guitar (bet this instrument is a Gibson) and plenty of presence to the voice to enforce believability. These speakers don’t need stereophonic railroad trains racing across the soundstage or primitive drum thwacks to impress.
Getting a clue now as to how this review will end up???
Turning to a slightly different musical genre, the classic Mose Allison LP I’ve Been Doin’ Some Thinkin’ is a treasure trove of Allison classics including, among others, the title tune, “If You’re Goin’ to the City”, and “Your Molecular Structure”. I absolutely love this album, and The Clues did nothing to spoil my elation every time I listened to Mose doing his thinkin’ via these speakers. They allow his piano to sound like a stupendous grand piano—it’s important to state this because some speakers I’ve reviewed actually make acoustic pianos sound like they are electric instruments, steely, harsh and very unappealing. Not so here. The piano has a natural sound I’d easily interpret as being real and in the room, presenting the sharp, precise attack of every key, and plenty of natural decay of those notes, just as a piano should. I often use piano reproduction as a severe test for a speaker and it’s surprising how many well-regarded boxes fail this test. The Clues give more than a clue to Mose’s piano sound, while actually revealing much about his personal playing style, offering precise differentiation of every note, even within those tight tonal clusters, chords, if you will, which Mose incorporates into his solo runs. Oh, and his voice is served up with all those distinctive nuances that make Mose Mose, and so enjoyable to listen to. Nice.
Now, mind you, all this Grade A performance heard during this review was powered by the modest 15 watts delivered by an ancient, but classic, Scott 222C integrated amplifier. This is in total disregard of Sjöfn’s recommendation for utilizing lots more power, preferably silicon-generated. So, if you are in possession of a heftier amp, then your results are likely to be even more pleasing—I get the feeling these babies like oodles of juice, and will amply (no pun, etc.) reward owners who feed them more generously than I have.
One important note, these speakers are capable of creating an enormous soundstage with astonishing imaging characteristics. But to maximize this performance, one must pay close attention to certain set-up suggestions. Most importantly, to achieve the best bass, they need to be positioned very close to the rear wall, very close means about two inches. And they should be placed on high-quality stands about 20 inches off the floor. They should also be toed-in 22.5 degrees which creates the proper “blending” of left and right when the next parameter is followed. That is, the listening position should be equal to the distance between the two speakers PLUS twenty percent. So, if the distance of separation is fifty inches, the listening position would ideally be 60 inches from the front plane of the speakers themselves. Make sense?
This may all seem a bit fussy, but in my experience speaker placement is all-important. A great speaker can sound awful, maybe hitting a mere fifty to sixty percent of its inherent stride if poorly positioned. But when properly setup, well, you will hear the benefits with each and every LP and CD you spin.
Erickson has assembled a growing list of cities where the speakers can be auditioned—presently they can be heard in Seattle, San Francisco, L.A., Denver, Idaho Falls, Chicago, Milwaukee, Cincinnati, Lexington (KY), Louisville, Nashville, NYC metro, and Montreal. But if you live further than fifty miles from any of these locales, you can take advantage of Sjöfn’s 30-day money-back in-home audition purchase plan. Buy ’em, if you don’t like ’em, send them back within 30 days and get your money back…simple as that. I have a feeling they are not getting any of these suckers returned. I know I certainly don’t want to send the review pair back. Lars, just try to come fetch them! We’ll alert a pack of hounds if you even try!
So, in sum, The Clue is an excellent performer, delivering far beyond their relatively modest cost would imply. If you have the need for a mini-monitor owing to space limitations, or perhaps for budgetary considerations, The Clue may just be your baby. I’ve heard far more expensive speakers that are far less pleasing.
These Clues are no puzzle. No red herrings. They can easily and affordably solve many folks’ quest for the ideal speaker. Their cost-versus-performance quotient is a no-brainer, no need to be Sherlock Holmes to figure this out, even after a brief audition. The Clue goes highly recommended.