Review: Fern & Roby Raven III

Take one look at the Fern & Roby Raven III floorstanding speakers and a few things should become evident.

First and foremost, there’s an obvious love of materials that speak to age-old craft in the walnut cabinets, new-age sustainable ingenuity in the near-black Richlite (resin-infused paper) front baffles, and chunky Cardas copper binding posts. Hidden from site is internal wiring from Black Cat Cable. Pay special attention to color, texture, and finish as the interplay of these elements speak to a quiet yet carefully artful eye. The Raven III have a casual-looking backward lean thanks to a piece of walnut screwed into the front bottom of each cabinet and they exude, to my eyes, a mid-century modern aesthetic.

The Raven III are a single-driver design, and the single-driver employed is made by Norway’s SEAS to Fern & Roby’s specifications. The frequency response of the driver itself, sans cabinet, is rated at 30 Hz to 20 kHz, while Fern & Roby claim their front ported implementation in the Raven III reaches below 40 Hz in room. Efficiency is rated at an amp-friendly 94dB with an 8 Ohm impedance. As you likely noticed, a whizzer cone is employed, and speaker-building 101 tells us that a whizzer cone attaches directly to the voice coil, a connection it shares with the cone, so it acts as a mechanical crossover sending upper frequencies through the whizzer, which can improve HF dispersion and extension, at least in theory. There are upsides and downsides to whizzer cones, which is the case with nearly every choice in loudspeaker construction.

I’ve spent my fair share of time reviewing and living with single driver speakers. The list includes the Cain & Cain Abby, Horn Shoppe Horns, RL Acoustique Lamhorns 1.8, and Auditorium 23 SoloVox which I lived with for a number of years. If we add in the single driver speakers I searched out back in my 6moons Road Tour days, we’re looking at a whole bunch more. All to say I know my way around a single driver speaker and have heard a few decade’s worth of arguments for and against the approach. This experience has taught me that different single driver speakers can sound different, and the best way to understand a specific pair is to listen through them. Shocking!

Every conventional speaker demands careful setup and single drivers are no different. In my experience, single driver speakers can be even more finicky about placement compared to your basic multi-driver and the Raven III’s reward careful attention, especially to toe-in. Because of the Barn’s size (overall volume is 16,800 cubic ft./listening area is 7600 cubic ft.), speakers sit about 6′ from the front wall, more than 3’ from the side walls, and 27’ or so to the back wall so there’s plenty of room to play, and a lot of space to fill. My general speaker setup routine is to place new speakers where other speakers work well, and then adjust accordingly. The Raven III’s ended up about 6′ from the front wall and a hair over 3’ from the side walls, so about the same position as most speakers I’ve had here. I found that I preferred the Raven’s with a healthy amount of toe-in, where I could see a small slice of the inner side of each speaker. More toe-in made the sound image close in and sound somewhat stifled, while too much toe-out softened things up past my preferences for a solid center image.

I paired the Raven III with three integrated amplifiers — the Audio Hungary Qualiton X200 (review), Constellation Inspiration Integrated 1.0 (review), and the Ayre EX-8 Integrated Hub (review). My favorite partners for the Ravens were the Qualiton X200 for its beefy brawny sound, which gave the Raven III’s a nice chunky, fat feel and the Ayre EX-8, which is one helluva hifi bargain, because its lovely silky refined yet muscular sound paired nicely with the Raven’s strengths. The Constellation Integrated was a bit too unforgiving, especially on music that was less well recorded, making music a bit too hard and lean for my tastes.

While I love (love) Snail Mail’s recent album Valentine, it is not the best sounding record — it can sound a bit hard and harsh. These qualities come through loud and clear with the Raven III’s, to the point where I’d call them fairly unforgiving with less than well recorded music. This was the case with the Ayre EX-8 and to a slightly lessor extent with the Qualiton X200 which leads me to believe, based on experience and audio chef aspirations, that a lower powered single ended triode amplifier or a nice EL84-based amp would make for a less aggressive flavor with records that fall on the harder and harsher side of the spectrum. It’s worth noting that I used the totaldac d1-tube DAC/Streamer and the Ayre EX-8’s internal DAC with the Raven’s, and I’ve never found either to be hard or harsh sounding. If anything the totaldac has a smooth forgiving nature.

This same sonic effect, a flatter and harder sound, was also prevalent on Yard Act’s The Overload, especially the title track which is purposefully lo-fi. With the Raven III’s, this translated into a sound image that appeared as a relatively small flat ball of energy directly between the speakers, nearly mono with a tizzy quality. This lo-fi-ness of “The Overload” is apparent on other speakers as well, but not to the same degree as presented by the Raven III. While not a fair comparison, I just reviewed the much more expensive Perlisten R7t Tower Speakers (review), and they opened up “The Overload” and Snail Mail to a greater degree, making these lo-fi recordings sound less lo-fi.

My best guess is this flattening and slightly tizzy effect is being caused by the mechanical nature of a whizzer cone and how certain frequencies can over-excite the whizzer effect while slightly squelching frequencies that fall below the crossover point. I’ve heard other whizzer-endowed speakers, especially those that use Lowther drivers, sound in your face shouty and painfully razor sharp, which is happily not the case with the Raven III’s which reach a much happier balance between brilliance (good) and brightness (not so good). Its also worth noting that the Ravens were designed for small to medium sized rooms, they did a very nice job in the much smaller hotel room at the Capital Audiofest, so asking them to fill the Barn is a tall order.

Moving on to music that isn’t meant to sound kinda bad, the Raven III produce a nice, weighty sound image that extends well beyond the confines of the speakers themselves. “Versace Strings” from Smerz’s beguiling Believer, was wonderfully airy, with the opening strings and piano creating a vast sonic landscape to get lost within. The voices of each instrument were also nicely fleshed out creating an engaging and delightful listening experience. “Rain,” from the same album, opens with vocals and a deliberate thumping beat, with strings joining in for a slow sexy groove and the Raven’s grab hold of each element, delivering a full-bodied, nicely fluid, and punchy enticing experience. I have heard a more expansive sound image, admittedly from larger and more expensive speakers, and something like the GoldenEar Triton Reference Tower Speakers (review), which cost about $1500 more than the Raven III’s, offer a much bigger, fuller sound with their 1800-Watt DSP controlled subwoofers. No surprises there.

I also enjoy challenging music and often think that’s my best response to the inevitable question — “What kind of music do you like?” — when people ask what I do for a living. “Challenging.” The Raven III’s acquitted themselves nicely with the gnarliest of sounds from FKA Twigs, Raime, Boris, Marc Ribot’s Ceramic Dog, Show Me The Body, and Einstürzende Neubauten reaching perhaps surprisingly low and sounding big, brash, and bold as this music demands. I have heard speakers that are more capable of unraveling this kind of sonic onslaught, and one standout is the DeVore Fidelity O/93, a two-way speaker that sells for $8820/pair. I lived with the O/93 for about a year and they have a lot to offer when it comes to reproducing all manner of music. They also share the Raven III’s easy-to-drive nature, so in many ways they present a fair comparison. In general, I would say the O/93 are a more refined-sounding speaker, they deliver a more nuanced and full-range presentation, and they are not fussy about the quality of the recording you choose to play through them.

Where the Raven III’s excel is in their fluid, richly-colored sound, and the ability to present a compelling and brilliant, as in radiant, embodiment of the recorded event. Single driver speakers, in general, can have a ‘reach out and touch it’ quality to reproduction and the Raven III’s offer this kind of presentation and then some, without the shout and etch that can come with some whizzer-endowed drivers. They are, in this regard, compellingly intimate sounding speakers.

I tend to enjoy vocalists with atypical voices, the kind of voices you want to get up close and personal with to breathe in every odd nuance, quirk, and quaver. Karen Dalton, Aldous Harding, Jessica Pratt, Valerie June, Anohni, Blixa Bargeld, Nico, and William S. Burroughs are given a front and center spotlit stage well out into the room by the Raven III’s that allow for as close a connection as you care to share — a nearly kissable sound image. They are, in this sense, vividly radiant speakers and I would attribute these very positive qualities to. . .the whizzer cone.

In many ways, the Fern & Roby Raven III’s telegraph their strengths up front with a lovely mix of materials, expertly put together in a visually pleasing package. They are easy to look at, easy to live with, and they do a very good job of playing on the strengths of their design.


Fern & Roby Raven III
Price: $8500/pair

Specifications

Impedance: 8ohms
Efficiency: 94db
Width: 12-1/2″
Depth: 11-3/4″
Height: 33-1/4″
Weight: 48 lbs each

Company Website: Fern & Roby