Ascend Acoustics CBM-170 SE Bookshelf Speaker ReviewMarch 26, 2014
Looking for big sound on a budget? The Ascend Acoustics CBM-170 SE bookshelf speaker is sure to please.
There’s no gimmicky marketing claims accompanying them. There's no exotic woods or high-priced finishes. Their chunky, simple stature isn’t especially flattering. But damn these babies sing. Whether you’re a beginner audiophile or a hi-fi veteran, the CBM-170 SE is easily a benchmark bookshelf speaker.
Ascend Acoustics had a few goals in mind when they set out to engineer the CBM-170 SE loudspeaker: Build a compact high-end bookshelf speaker that accurately produces true, natural sounding vocals. Create a loudspeaker with an ultra-linear frequency response and extremely low distortion. Create the highest quality and most affordable loudspeaker available that could bring a high-end audio experience into the listening rooms and home theaters of most consumers. They Succeeded.
After nearly two years of tweaking the original model, the CBM-170 SE (special edition) features a 27mm high-definition soft dome tweeter that utilizes a double-chambered neodymium magnet, ferrofluid cooled voice coil and wide dispersion faceplate custom built by SEAS of Norway. The woofer is a 6.5” proprietary design made of an exclusive composite polygel cone, phase plug and rubber surround that offers high excursion and minimal distortion.
Continuing their mission to deliver ultra-low distortion and sonic clarity, Ascend Acoustics designed an advanced computer-optimized double layer crossover that isolates the woofer's filter section from the tweeter's and uses high-quality polyester-film bypass capacitors, air-core inductors and gold plated binding posts that deliver a seamless blend of precise highs and punchy lows from the drivers. Ascend Acoustics makes the bold guarantee that you won’t find a more advanced crossover in any competing loudspeaker at even twice the price of the CBM-170 SE. In fact, you’re getting all of this, and more, at a price almost any audiophile can afford: $348 (that's per pair). In The Spirited Uncle M’s words, they’re “CHEAP, CHEAP, CHEAP”, but in a good way this time. Also noteworthy for my fellow American readers, these are designed, hand assembled and tested out of their San Clemente, California, USA headquarters.
So you’re probably wondering how they sound. In short, pretty killer. Right out of the box I was struck by how refined every note was, and it has only gotten better with time. Coming from the Axiom M3v3 bookshelf speaker, I found these to ooze details that I swear I never heard. The tweeter is crisp and precise, but never harsh or grainy. There are no screeching peaks or mucky valleys, but that shouldn’t be surprising based on Ascend’s in-house and third-party measurements that show an unsmoothed and impressively linear frequency response across the entire dynamic range.
Really, the CBM-170 SE produces a very balanced sound from top to bottom. The mids are full-bodied and driving, while the lows are tight, quick and surprisingly punchy considering these only dip down to an anechoic 58Hz (Anechoic Frequency Response: 58Hz - 22KhZ +/- 3db). If you’re accustomed to the typical mid-bass hump most speakers in this price range thrive on, you may be disappointed by the bass performance at first, but give it some time for the drivers to break in and your ears to adjust to the enhanced details and you’ll realize that what you’re hearing is the true recording and not an artificial boost that muddies the soundstage. An external subwoofer may still be desirable for those looking for a meaty low-end rumble, however, especially for a home theater set-up.
But for those demanding tight, accurate and detailed sound reproduction, make no mistake, the internally braced and rear-ported cabinets that resemble mini subwoofers radiate accurate and efficient bass—so just sit back and enjoy the show.
Chances are, if you close your eyes, you’ll think you’re at a live venue. The first album I listened to through these was John Mayer’s Continuum. I kid you not, I could have sworn he was singing from atop my equipment rack. The imaging and soundstage depth is impressive to say the least. Miles Davis’ Kind of Blue… yeah, it gave me chills and had the hair on the back of my neck bristling with every horn blast. Live Ben Howard recordings put you in the front row, center stage. Like another reviewer said, these are simply “very honest speakers.”
Ascend Acoustics says the CBM-170 SE is “setting new performance standards for accurate sound reproduction for two channel stereo reproduction and multi-channel home theater.” With the spot-on vocals reproduction, excellent separation of instruments, and clarity you'd only expect from a far more expensive speaker, it’s hard to disagree, and it’s even harder not repeat what’s already been said by so many happy CBM-170 SE owners before:
"THE CBM-170'S DO MORE THAN JUST OUTLINE THE NOTE, THEY FILL IN THE COLOR. THEY GIVE YOU THE JUICE, NOT JUST THE SKIN OF THE FRUIT.... AND THEY IMAGE LIKE MAGIC." -Jeff M
"CRISP, DETAILED HIGHS AND CLEAR MIDS WITH OUTSTANDING IMAGING! WHAT ELSE COULD YOU ASK FOR?" -Ed Z
The bottom line: Sure, there are better speakers out there (see Ascend Acoustics Sierra 1 and new Sierra 2), but you're simply going to have to pay a whole lot more to better these. The CBM-170 SE is a speaker that will set the standard for all others you’ll cross in your hunt for Audio Nirvana.
A note on customer service:
Ascend Acoustics is a small shop, producing high-end loudspeakers for direct sale to their customers without all the snake-oil sales pitches, esoteric marketing campaigns and flashy websites. Meaning, they know how important it is to develop products that speak for themselves and to offer the best customer service they can. What sells their products more than anything else, I assume, is word of mouth from happy customers.
Before ordering, I contacted them with some questions. Not only did I get a rapid response, it came directly from Dave Fabrikant, president and head designer at Ascend Acoustics. I placed my order for the CBM-170 SE two days before Thanksgiving, and they still got them shipped out before taking time off for the holiday, which I found impressive considering they assemble and test each pair as they’re ordered. The speakers arrived bagged, surrounded by foam and double-boxed. Unfortunately, the UPS man must have cartwheeled the box at some point because one speaker arrived DOA with something clunking around on the inside (btw, I no longer recommend ordering speakers for delivery from across the country in sub-zero temperatures). When I contacted Ascend Acoustics about the problem, Dina went out of her way to follow up with me at all hours of the day and got a second matched pair of CBM-170 SEs shipped out to me promptly. They also included a return shipping label so there was no added expense or delays in getting the damaged pair out of my way. Fast, friendly service is simply what Ascend Acoustics delivers.
As a testament to their quality, Ascend Acoustics also has a vibrant forum community where loyal customers chat with each other and company representatives about everything audio and even future product designs. All-in-all, I couldn’t be happier with my experience dealing with Ascend Acoustics, and I have all intentions of trying their other offerings in the future.