Review: The Dali Phantom S-80
The Dali Phantom S-80 installation loudspeakers are – as you can see from the price – intended for those who want extremely high quality sound in a package which doesn’t impose on a room. Stephen Dawson reports.
Dali stands for Danish Audiophile Loudspeaker Industries. And indeed, the Phantom S-80 speakers are actually made in Denmark.
The Dali Phantom range consists of three models, of which the S-80 is the entry level. All are based around an interesting tweeter ‘module’ and a 203mm wood fibre cone woofer. These are mounted in a very solid, sealed enclosure. The next model up – the S-180 – has the same drivers but a larger enclosure and a 250mm passive radiator to extend the bass down 10Hz more from the S-80’s specification. The Phantom S-280 adds a second woofer and a second passive radiator and, consequently, deeper bass.
All have a mounting depth of 104mm and a rectangular face. They come with metal grilles, held in place magnetically. The holes vary in size across the width of the grille to give them a very stylish appearance.
The speakers can be secured from the front, with eight hefty swing-out tabs locking them in place within the panel opening. These are tightened and loosened using hexagonal-headed bolts. The appropriate Allen key is included.
Wiring is via two spring clip terminals, capable of holding 3mm thick speaker cable. These are on the side and so fairly accessible.
Now, what was this about a tweeter ‘module’? Well, each speaker has two tweeters. At the notional top is a 28mm soft dome tweeter, while below it is a vertically orientated 17mm by 45mm ribbon tweeter.
I’d normally carry on for a while about just how unusual it is to see a ribbon tweeter used in a loudspeaker, especially an installation model, except that in the last issue of Connected I carried on for a while about precisely that matter, since I was writing about another installation speaker with a ribbon tweeter.
To recap briefly, ribbon tweeters have a coil wound in a plane, rather than around a cylinder. This is attached to the back of the diaphragm, which is usually rectangular. It’s placed in an extremely strong magnetic field, and so you have traditional motor action established in response to the signal fed through the coil. The whole thing can usually be lighter than a regular dome tweeter, and directivity shaped by the shape of the diaphragm.
Dali’s implementation is interesting in that the ribbon tweeter seems to be performing very limited duty. According to the specifications, the crossover frequency to it is 15,000Hz. The frequencies below that, from 2,800Hz and up, are handled by a 28mm soft dome tweeter.
Ribbon tweeters normally feature a wide horizontal dispersion because of their shape, and a relatively limited vertical dispersion. To the extent that they cover the same frequency bands, the ribbon and dome tweeters are likely to emphasise these characteristics, thanks to their stacked nature.
As delivered, it’s clear that the default installation has the woofer at the top with the tweeter module below it, which suggests that it should be mounted high enough on the wall for the tweeters to be firing at ear level. That’s how I mounted them – flat against the wall, not properly installed into it – for my listening.
But they are installation speakers so you can flip them if you like, or mount them horizontally. This last is especially the case if you’re using one as a centre speaker (the pricing above is per unit, not per pair).
That would, of course, lead to all manner of problems with high frequency dispersion. So Dali has made it possible to rotate the module. You just remove the four screws securing the module, pull it out, rotate it 90º, put it back in and screw it down.
Perhaps I missed it, but I couldn’t spot a recommendation in the manual as to which way around the two tweeters should be. Of course they must be vertical, but should the ribbon be at the top or the bottom? As I said, out of the box the dome is at the top and the ribbon is at the bottom, and having it that way has the writing on the module the right way around. That’s also the way the S-80 and S-180 are illustrated in the manual’s installation diagram, at least when mounted vertically. But the illustrations of the S-280 and the horizontally mounted S-80 had the dome at the bottom and the ribbon at the top.
For listening I went with the writing, but perhaps it doesn’t matter.
I did essentially three kinds of listening using these loudspeakers. First, surround sound with movies using my usual VAF Research loudspeakers for surround, and two-way Jamo ceiling speakers for Atmos. Second, stereo music using the speakers in ‘Direct Pure’ mode, which means no subwoofer and no EQ. Third, stereo music in stereo mode, which used the Audyssey EQ provided by a home theatre receiver, and with the deeper bass being handled by a rather nice Bowers and Wilkins subwoofer. I switched a lot between the two modes for the stereo music.
In both the surround and regular stereo modes the bass crossover was set by the receiver’s Audyssey calibration routine, which chose a bass crossover of 90Hz. A bit high perhaps, and normally I’d tweak that down a little, putting more of the bass into the main speakers. But since I was listening to them pure as well, I figured I’d let Audyssey exercise its best judgement with the subwoofer. (Tip: Audyssey has explicitly stated that it calculates full range EQ corrections, so you’re free to change the crossover frequency and any extension of coverage will still be properly equalised.)
I returned to one of my favourites, the surprisingly good Tom Cruise science fiction thriller Edge of Tomorrow, which features a first class surround track, and excellent impact during the (very many) batt le scenes. The dispersion of the treble delivered a surprisingly wide sweet spot (despite me cheating on the Audyssey setup and using only one microphone position). All three seats on my main listening couch received pretty much perfect surround location on all the elements of the sound.
That prompted me to play the street battle in Michael Mann’s Heat, turning up the volume to levels reaching around 105dB at peak according to my SPL meter, and a thoroughly pounding performance. The speakers took the power and provided the volume without apparent compression or distortion.
For movie surround sound of a different kind, I moved to the extremely well developed, yet subtle, soundscape created for the 2007 movie Atonement. Especially the opening sections with Briony as a child, the ambient environment produced by these speakers in conjunction with the others in the system was superb.
For stereo music, I started with the track We’ll Let You Know from King Crimson’s Starless and Bible Black. The opening cymbals, delicately danced over by Bill Bruford, sounded like they were being delivered by truly high-end speakers, with enormous precision in location, despite the undoubted impediment of being placed hard up against a wall, rather than in narrow, standalone cabinets. Pure or with EQ and subwoofer, the opening was touch brighter in the former mode.
But as the drums and instruments, filled out section by section, piece by piece, as the music is developed, it became apparent that the impact was greatest with the subwoofer in play, thanks to the fairly limited bass extension in the speakers. They were first class in clarity either way, but a solid foundation from the sub made things better. Initially I thought that they may have been brighter without EQ, and they probably were, but that was more to do with the highs not being balanced by strong bass.
While flipping through the ‘Ks’ in the DLNA controller soft ware, I stumbled across the one-hit-wonder group The Knack on an album called, not surprisingly, One Hit Wonders. My Sharona, the said single hit, was startling in a number of ways. Of course, it is an excellent rocker, but within that, played on these speakers, there was a level of detail that you forget can be captured in a pop recording. Especially one that’s a raw band in front of microphones, rather than the multi layered creation of a producer.
Then I realised that I’d actually been in Pure mode, sans sub, and hadn’t really noticed its absence. Replaying in Stereo mode, with the subwoofer adding real heft to the kick drum, just picked up things to a new level, while retaining the mentioned virtues.
‘Ks’ still. The Kodály Quartet playing, 20 years ago, Debussy’s G Minor String Quartet. The ability to pick out the four elements was first class, and the strings were all gorgeously smooth and silky.
In the Phantom S-80, Dali has produced a truly superb installation loudspeaker. They run clean to extremely high volumes and provide true audiophile sound.