TNT Review of the Kayak

TNT-Audio - Internet HiFi magazine (Italy)

Role Audio Kayak

"...the Role Audio Kayaks best the LS 3/5as quite nearly across the board. When we consider that the final version of the BBC monitor was priced at almost $1500 the amazing value of the Kayak is fully understood."

Role Kayak Loudspeakers
Product: Role Kayak Loudspeakers
Manufacturer: Role Audio - USA
Address: P.O. Box 13396 - Research Triangle Park NC 27709-3396
TelePhone: 919-244-8777 - Fax: 206-339-9034 Text: 919-244-8777
Reviewer: M.L. Gneier
Reviewed: May 2001

...Role Audio is a division of NSM Loudspeakers. The designers at Role seek to build perfectionist loudspeakers that are small, in the case of the Kayak quite small. Role believes that a loudspeaker must fit, both literally and figuratively, into a user's life. So, the products are svelte, understated yet quite elegant. The two floor standing designs, the Enterprise and the Windjammer strike and especially fine profile, looking rather like from AudioPhysic. The stand mounted Kayaks are joined by a flexible D'Appolito (MTM) design called the Discovery that is equally well suited as a front channel speaker, a center channel or a stand alone monitor. The EXP powered subwoofer rounds out Role's product offering. The entire Role line (save the EXP) employs various combinations of the same two drivers, a 4.5" woofer and a 1" tweeter. There are floor standing versions that are ported and stand mounted versions that are sealed. All benefit from very tight matching of drivers and meticulous selection of the crossover components. The smallest and most unassuming of the line is the nimble Kayak. At 8" tall by 6.5" deep and a mere 5.5" wide in can only be called a very small speaker.

For old guys like me, the similarity between the Kayak and the venerable BBC LS 3/5a is unavoidable. The Kayak is very clean in appearance. All six sides of the enclosure are well veneered in a unique birch finish. Birch is very rarely used in loudspeaker veneers and I have always wondered why. The last incarnation was from no other than Klipsch if my memory serves me. The light colored, medium grain of the Kayak contrasts nicely with the black grille to create the look of a serious if diminutive transducer.

Eight inches is not a lot of space in which to array one driver atop another. In fact, spacing is so tight that the outer edge of the Kayak's woofer overlaps with the trim ring of the tweeter. Both drivers are well mounted to the baffle and the speaker looks equally at home, if a tad less domesticated, with the grill removed. On the rear of the speaker are a single pair of the superb Superior binding posts mounted directly to the speaker. I despise those horrible little cups that lesser speakers use, and the sight of those high quality posts right out in the open warmed my heart. For those of you who may not be aware, the Superior posts are truly the finest posts available. They may lack the neoindustrial look of an all metal post, but they are better in every other respect including strength, sonics, durability and suitability of virtually every type of connector. Be aware of poor imitations, but once you use these posts you'll have a very hard time being happy with any other design. All in all, the Kayak is impressively designed, assembled & outfitted.

My only concern in setting this speaker up was finding a suitable stand. In order to get the tweeter to a reasonable listening height, something in the neighborhood of a 30" stand would be needed. I had a 20" and 25" pair on had but I ended up using a custom pair of 32" stands that I built out of cinder blocks and construction cement. They are among the most rigid, cost effective and sonically neutral stands that I have ever used. They look, however, like hell.

Though the nice folks at Role Audio said that they routinely run their speakers in at the factory, I used my own tried and true method of assuring that the drivers and crossover networks are well broken-in. The technique involves placing both speakers face to face, just as close together as possible.
Then connect the speakers out of phase. Finally, toss a heavy blanket over them. With the volume set to a moderate level the out of phase speakers can run in with very little perceived output.
The wave fronts from each speaker tend to cancel the energy from the other and the blanket takes care of the rest.

Once I got the Kayaks well broken in I turned to my latest reference recording for tonal and timbral neutrality. The record is called Krushevo (M•A Recordings M044A [cd]) and it is nothing less than the finest recording of two guitars that I have ever heard. My review of this CD will appear on this site soon, so watch for it if you're a lover of fine guitar and superb recordings. The featured guitarists are Vlatko Stefanovski and Miroslav Tadic. Track five is a haunting duet called Proseta Jovka Kumanovka. Through the Kayaks the images of the Ramirez and Sakura guitars float well clear of the speakers, their subtly different voices clearly differentiated. It is very easy to forget that one is listening to a $600 dollar speaker and become lost in the music.

Next up was the 20 bit remastering of Glenn Gould's version of the Liszt transcriptions of Beethoven's Symphony No.6 (Sony SMK52637 [cd]). The comparatively monochromatic sound of a piano lays the sound and tonality of symphony bare. The result is that the listener hears nuances of tone and melody that were likely missed in the wave of timbres that emanate from a full orchestra, at least we hope.
This is a tough test for a loudspeaker as the dynamic swings are quite severe. It is often all too easy to hear a speaker's crossover point with piano when the timbre and character of attack varies when it should not. The Kayaks hung in there very well, though obviously unable to recreate the full authority and impact of a concert grand being pounded on by the late and great G.G. Still, they never sounded raw or strained either so I must term this test a success when the price and size of the Kayaks are borne in mind. My slight reservations on this record revolved around the very slight impression that the top end might not be as extended as one might hope. My next selection offered a greater insight to the validity of this perception.

Iris DeMent's "Troublesome Waters" from her My Life CD (Warner Bros. 9 45493-2 [cd]) is an excellent test of a speaker's neutrality in the most critical (to my ears) region of the spectrum, the upper mids. The Kayaks sounded quite good on this cut, with a well balanced sense of focus on the fundamental of Iris' voice, and a nicely rounded acoustic portrayal of the rest of the musical instruments.
However, I did again sense a slight softening of the transients of her voice. While far from severe, it did tend to make the speaker sound less open than I would have liked. The latest offering from John Wesley Harding is called, The Confessions of St. Ace (Mammoth MT-65503-2 [cd]). On it, JWH does a duet with my song writing idol Steve Earle, called "Our Lady of the Highway." Though a plaintive ballad the tune is meant to be played loud, and is quite bass heavy. With Earle and Harding's widely dissimilar voices, it becomes a deceptively difficult song to unravel. The little Kayaks did amazing well with this challenging material. The low frequencies were convincingly portrayed and quite solid and the voices were shown in their own distinctive light; Earle's hard and edgy and Harding's soaring and strong.

The Kayaks showed their best on one of my favorite reference recordings, Arcangelo Corelli's "Concerto No.IV in D Major." (Harmonia Mundi HMU 907014 [cd]). I was doing some work on my computer when the sound of the Adagio-Allegro wafted down the hallway and into my office. The sound of the strings, the very music, was breathing with life. I went into my listening room and was enthralled. The Kayaks capture the spirit of the baroque instruments and the sense of space superbly, for a speaker of any price. Once again, truth of tone and timbre creates an emotionally stirring musical experience. Excellent...

As I noted before, the Role Audio Kayaks look very much like the classic LS 3/5a and since I happen to have a nice pair of Spendors I couldn't help but compare the two products. As an aside, I always found the Spendor version of this BBC spec'd classic the best and the Rogers version the weakest.
The 3/5a has sadly gone the way of the dinosaur as a result of the two KEF drivers no longer being manufactured. Anyway, the Spendors are possessed by the same mid-bass thickness that all 3/5as suffer from and present a nasty load to the partnering amp. The voicing of the 3/5as make them sound more full bodied than the Kayaks, but in fact they do not go down as deep and the 3/5as show strain on dynamic passages much earlier than the Kayaks. About the only place where the Spendors catch up with the Kayaks is in the presence range where they sound fractionally more extended than the Kayaks. In all, the Role Audio Kayaks best the LS 3/5as quite nearly across the board. When we consider that the final version of the BBC monitor was priced at almost $1500 the amazing value of the Kayak is fully understood.

The simplicity of small speakers can make their comparative weaknesses more tolerable than a larger design. In loudspeakers, size is often a cause of coloration in itself. The little Kayaks are smooth and easy to listen to for extended periods. They reward quality associated equipment, yet their self-effacing character make them accepting of less than optimally matched systems and marginal placement. The Kayaks have softened my disdain for loudspeakers and, though it may not seem like it, this is high praise indeed.
Highly recommended.