Review: Fritz Heiler’s Carrera BE Bookshelf Speakers 10/5/20 by David Hildebrand, Denver, CO.
This is a review of John “Fritz” Heiler’s wonderful Carrera BE speakers ($3250, shipping included, 30 day home trial). A few months ago, after a call from him, I wrote about Fritz’s Carbon 7 SE Mk 2 speakers. He called again and asked if I’d like to try the Carreras; I said sure. I own neither pair of speakers. I am a hobbyist and amateur, not in the audio industry in any way, shape, or form. I am a relative newcomer to high quality audio, though interest in audio goes way back to the 1980’s (Acoustic Research speakers, Thorens turntable, Nakamichi tape decks, Yamaha and Adcom amplification). After spending 5 weeks with the Carreras, I’m ready to convey my experience.
EQUIPMENT AND SETUP
As relayed on his website, the Carrera BE speakers are a 2-way vented stand mounted monitor; they have a frequency response of 36Hz-40Khz +/- 3 db, an impedance of 8 Ohms nominal, and a sensitivity of 87 db. Drivers include, first, a 7" paper cone Scan Speak Revelator and an SB Acoustics Satori Beryllium dome Tweeter. The speakers’ backs have nice quality binding posts and a large horn-like bass port. Further details about the drivers and wood grains can be found on Fritz’s website. The speakers implement an Acoustic Reality Serial Crossover without any resistors or capacitors in the circuit with the dome tweeter. I’m not versed in these technicalities, so I cannot speak to how ingenious or ordinary this design is; what I do know from conversations with Fritz is that he puts a lot of careful trial and error into his speaker designs in order to make the frequency handoff between drivers as seamless as possible. To my ear, Fritz’s speakers accomplish this brilliantly; there is a musician behind the design, clearly.
The Carrera speakers are the same dimensions as another pair I discussed, the Carbon 7 SE Mk 2; in inches, they are 16H x 9W x 12D, and these are two pounds lighter, at 30 lbs (each). The recommended power runs from 8 - 200 Watts RMS, without clipping. Oh, and in case you’re wondering -- the recommended power does not include a typo. I talked with Fritz, and he told me that these speakers really can perform quite well with 8 watts on a 300 B amp. This is due to Fritz’s series crossover, which is quite simple and efficient. I’ve not tried this for myself, but I’ve seen videos from shows about this, and rebbi at Audiogon documented this with the Carbon 7 models, which deploy a similar approach. (One 10 Audio review of the Carrera mentions that the Dennis Had “Hot Rod” Inspire Fire Bottle amps (10 wpc or 12wpc) was a good match for these speakers did a good job with them, too.)
I used three different amplifier setups to try out the speakers -- all tube gear, all solid state, and a hybrid of the two. Tube gear included the Quicksilver Line Stage and the Quicksilver Mono 60’s (60 wpc) amplifier, all with NOS tubes. Solid state gear was an Atoll INT200 integrated amplifier (120 wpc into 8 ohms). I tried a hybrid of these two by combining the QS preamp in through the “bypass” input on the Atoll amp. The speakers achieved the results below with all three setups. Any particular advantages or disadvantages from variations with amplification were minor, but will be mentioned below.
Source components included the Cambridge CXC transport and a BlueSound Node 2i streamer, both fed into an MHDT Orchid DAC. (The DAC on the streamer was bypassed.) Music resolution was CD/redbook quality and/or high resolution (“Ultra HD” in Amazon’s lingo) via Amazon Music.
The room is a basement rectangle with a small hallway lead-in. It has concrete floors with thin wall-to-wall carpeting and a Turkish rug in front of a couch. Main listening area dimensions are 27’ x 14’ and the ceilings are 6’5” high. Total listening area is about 400 square feet. There are no sidewall first reflection points close enough to interfere with the initial sound from the speakers.
After some experiments with placement, I realized that these speakers sounded better at slightly different positions than the Carbons. They could get a little closer to the front wall and a little closer to one another for optimal effect. This meant speakers were 2’ 6” from the front wall (the long wall, brick), about 8’ 2” feet apart from one another, slightly toed in, and about 8’2” feet to my listening position on a couch (mid point between tweeters to ear). The speakers sat upon sturdy MDF stands about 25” high. Behind the listening position and lining the entire opposite long wall are bookshelves, floor to ceiling, filled with an irregular array of books.
LISTENING Complex Passages
Intricately layered pop music is one way I like to test speakers handling of complex passages; I chose “Babylon Sisters” by Steely Dan. Many layers of background vocals were evident with the Carreras, and right/left/center separation was subtle. Shimmering, diaphanous voices could be heard, both blending and yet with perceptible air around them (“Babylon sisters, shake it!/Tell me I’m the only one”). Horns and trumpets were all cleanly located, even in passages where many things were going on at once. The jazz tune “Limehouse Blues,” featuring Arne Domnérus’ group, also becomes more complex towards the end, with multiple instruments jamming. The speakers conveyed a startlingly good depiction of the venue; audience and assorted instruments were locatable in the soundstage even during busier passages. Finally, Mahler’s “Symphony No. 6” with Michael Tilson Thomas and the San Francisco orchestra further proved the speakers’ ability to separate instrument parts and arrange them in space; here depth was especially noticeable, with horns clearly midway back, center, and with timpani roiling in the further distance.
Reviewing my notes, I realize how important soundstage is to me; comparing my three amplification setups, the all-tubes setup gave the most spacious, deep, and articulate sound stage, but the hybrid setup was a close second. In both cases, it was easy to get imaging across the field, including behind the speakers. Solid state gear did fine with right/left definition, but depth was significantly shallower. Soundstage reports below are based on the two better setups.
Jennifer Warnes’ and Rob Wasserman’s “Ballad of the Runaway Horse” is my speaker setup reference tune, and I cannot tell you how sick I am of that song. Still, it displayed a rich soundstage with Warnes front and center, the bass a bit behind her to the left, and all kinds of percussion, cellos, and other atmospherics twinkling and darting around. “Limehouse Blues,” mentioned above, is a landmark recording. Every time I listen to it, I startle as if someone just barged into my listening room; the xylophone solo sparkles and dances like Christmas ornaments; left to right, you can almost see the mallets. Another live jazz piece, “Stella by Starlight” by John Abercrombie, Marc Johnson, and Peter Erskine, felt intimate and exciting, too; Erskine’s drum solo was a highlight as each piece of his kit could be distinctly heard. The Mahler piece, mentioned above, also envelops one in its field. While some tower speakers I’ve auditioned (e.g., the Focal 936) made this symphony more dramatically expansive, the Carreras did a great job with depth, especially, and I didn’t feel that a somewhat smaller presentation to be a significant drawback. Not bad for a two-way bookshelf as compared with a hulking, 5-driver, 2-port tower!
Two songs really helped me listen for the Carreras dynamic response. Josef Colom’s rendition of Beethoven’s Sonata no. 30 and the Mahler Symphony no. 6. In both cases, dynamic surges came quickly and effortlessly, even to the point where I needed to quickly trim the volume because people were on Zoom calls in the house! Colom plays with a percussive dynamism, and reminds you the piano really is a percussion instrument; his touch came through marvelously.
In cases where the dynamic changes were not that important but the speakers needed to rock out, these speakers rocked out! Led Zeppelin’s “Good Times, Bad Times” and the The Who’s “Young Man Blues” (live) were barn burners, and for these, I waited until everyone was out of the house. No one should have to witness a middle aged guy playing air drums or guitar or yelling “Hell yeah!” at the top of his lungs; it may not be illegal, but it’s still a crime against nature. One point of order about those songs, however: while the tube and hybrid setups did a good job with them, maximum fist-pumping was evoked when the all solid state gear did the heavy lifting. Drums were more pronounced, electric guitar, tarter. For classic rock, there’s no substitute for cooking with gas. Boom!
While the speakers clearly do well at higher volumes, it’s worth mentioning that they also sound even and musical at lower volumes. I’d say they really sang for me at about 80 db, but they were quite engaging at 65 db as well.
As with my earlier Carbons review, the Carreras’ bass was tested by Warnes/Wasserman’s “The Ballad of the Runaway Horse.” As before, the bass had weight and body without bloat. The clarity of the pluck and the timbre were fully in evidence; the same was true on Jacintha’s recording “And the Angels Sing” where the string bass’s opening had a woody grip without any problematic boominess. Electric bass on Shelby Lynne’s “Little Bit of Lovin’” and on Dire Straits’ “Follow Me Home” were both good in these ways, though here I found that the solid state brought out more clarity (fretting more evident) than the tube gear. Especially good, too, were the drums’ bass and mid-bass -- they had a “kick” and exciting presence. (In “Little Bit of Lovin’,” the initial drum kick “thumps” so well that it resonates around the room; the snare drum’s reverb is obvious just after it receives a cracking blow.)
One last thought about the Carrera’s bass. I only tried the speakers with modestly powered amplifiers, and I suspect that there was more the speakers could do. I heard a bit of that when I cranked them up. I’d be excited to try them with a more powerful amp, as I suspect that I only got a taste of their potential for bass extension and solidity.
As with the Carbons, the word “honest” was especially apropos for the Carreras. Instruments always sound like themselves, vocals sound intimate and full of humanity. A person is present, in the room, singing, in any well-made recording. To list some examples, Warnes’ (“Runaway Horse”) is right there, intimate and crisp but not sibilant. Shelby Lynne has an interesting set of vocal tactics; sometimes, there’s some artful coarseness in her timbre, while at other times there are these little lilts (upward bends) at the end of phrases. Her southern drawl adds to the lyrics. Jacintha is a siren; her café crooning is warm and cozy and just on the verge of sibilant. (On other speakers I tried out, such as the Martin Logan ML 60’s and the Focal 936’s, the sibilance on this Jacintha recording was almost unbearable. I blame this on my low ceilings, but since I was looking for a speaker that I could live with, this was important. YMMV.) James Taylor’s “Something in the Way She Moves” showcases a voice both delicate yet with an earthy chesty quality, too. Saxophones and clarinets are also good tests for midrange, and the Carreras were never off-point. Arne Domnérus’s clarinet was sweet and nasally while Teddy Edwards’ tenor saxophone solo (“And the Angels”) was breathy but full.
The Carreras’ highs have a nice sparkle and definition, characteristic of these BE drivers. They’re very defined, accurate, and crisp, but without the roll off one finds on soft dome tweeters. I compared these directly with two soft-domes -- Fritz’s Carbons and also with Dynaudio Evoke 30s. The clarity and fine-grained nuance from the Carreras is really worth a lot to me. In addition, they were much less harsh/forward than the tweeters in the Focal 936’s or the Martin Logan ML 60’s. They deliver fast detail without aggressive brightness; this is what I’m looking for. Evidence of these treble virtues was easy to hear in a variety of places. Colom’s high notes in the Beethoven piano sonata sounded real and full, even in the instrument’s highest register. (Often, those top notes can sound thin or un-piano-like.) Overall, his piano sounded authentic in character and scale. Cellos in Warnes’ “Runaway Horse” had texture but weren’t harsh; cymbals in “Babylon Sisters” and “And the Angels Sing” were shimmering and cheerfully crystalline without shininess; Taylor’s guitar strings on “Something” were metallic in a good way, and flutes and oboes in the Mahler cut through the rest of the orchestra without fleeing the musical fabric. Finally, the chunky, gritty power of Townshend’s and Page’s electric guitars (in “Young Man” and “Good Times”) were forceful but not jarring.
Overall Listening Impressions
The Carreras are effortless to listen to. More than once I sat down to listen for an hour and found that two hours had gone by. I never felt fatigued, always absorbed and moved by the music — whether listening at low, medium, or higher volumes. While these are two-way “box” speakers, once they are positioned correctly (not hard) I found them adept at disappearing from the scene to create a musical field full of believable, individual events.
COMPARISONS AND CONCLUSION
Fritz sent me the Carreras to try out after I had spent a lot of time with his Carbons. I’ve noted some differences between these speakers in this review; the clearest difference between them, to my mind, is in the treble. The Carbons have a softer touch and roll off the highs just a little bit. I don’t think this is a drawback with them at all -- they’re not fuzzy at the top, just less revealing. In some cases, this is exactly what one wants, especially with some of the digital streaming tracks I played. (One example, Yello’s “Kiss in Blue” has some really harsh edges which the Carbons dealt with beautifully but the Carreras revealed a bit too well. “Babylon Sisters,” too.) The bass on both speakers is very impressive, with the Carreras a nose ahead, to my ear. Neither speaker cries out for a subwoofer, though both benefit. The speakers were not noticeably different in their difficulty to drive, and my 60 watt tube gear had no trouble bringing them up to speed. The Atoll integrated had plenty of power for these boys.
I also compared them rather closely with some Dynaudio Towers, the Evoke 30’s ($3500) and I honestly thought the Carrera bookshelves were better than the Dyns, especially in midrange intimacy and treble clarity. Soundstage was a toss up, and the bass was probably a bit better with the Dyns, but overall musicality was better in the Carreras (and the Carbons, to be honest).
One final comparison was with another U.S. based smaller maker, Salk Sound’s SS 6M’s, $3945 ($3795 for standard veneer, plus $150 for shipping). Sonically, treble was close to a toss up (same tweeter in both speakers), as was the detail and breadth of the soundstage. The Salks have a 6" Satori woofer (an inch smaller than Fritz's Carrera's 7" Scan Speak revelator), and a front slot (rather than rear cone) port. In my brief back-and-forth comparisons, the Salk’s bass and mid-bass was a bit firmer and fuller, but this was in my space and not by much. The Salks are a bit taller (by 4”) and deeper (by 2”) and also a bit harder to drive than the Carreras, at least for my tube gear. A 20" stand best for the Salks, but I’ve found choices among such stands much harder to find. Fritz's speakers work well on much more common 24" stands. The other difference between these two speakers would be the cabinet styling. The Salk’s finish includes more lacquer and beveled edges. Both are really incredible speakers, and the difference really would come down to factors like the significant price difference, styling preferences, and (possibly) the good track record Fritz’s speakers have with lower powered tube setups.
I was very glad to be able to try out the Carreras; they’re an exceptional speaker. Musical and rich, honest in tone and timbre, and a good match across a variety of genres. They play well with tube, solid state, and hybrid amplification. I don’t have any analog sources, but my guess is they’d sound great with vinyl. As with the Carbons, these high quality cabinets are faithful messengers of Fritz’s sensitive and expert tuning. Again, Fritz sells directly, so there is no dealer or distributor markup and he’s amenable to home audition, a crucially important factor given how differently speakers sound in one’s own space, with one’s own equipment. His speakers are a great value, even in a crowded field. Without a qualm or second thought, I can recommend the Carreras to anyone seeking a high quality bookshelf speaker.
Recordings mentioned in the review.