Tekton Design Ulfberht Loudspeakers
Tekton Design is perhaps best known for their $3,000 Double Impact speakers, which have gotten a lot of attention recently for being giant-killers. I haven’t had a chance to audition the Double Impacts, so I can't compare them with the $9,000 Ulfberhts, but the direct comparisons I have read are clear that the Ulfberhts represent a significant improvement.
The Ulfberhts are large floor-standing tower speakers at six feet, five inches tall and weighing over 200 pounds each. Each speaker contains twenty-one—yes, twenty-one!—drivers. This includes two 12” woofers, four 7” mid-bass drivers, one 1” soft dome tweeter, and fourteen 1” soft dome midrange drivers. They are offered in a variety of colors, with a high gloss finish available for an extra cost.
Other than their size, this speaker and other speakers in the Tekton line-up include one striking and as far as I know wholly unique innovation. Tekton uses tweeters to reproduce the midrange frequencies. The Ulfberht employs two circular arrays of seven tweeters each separated by a single tweeter that handles the high frequencies in a classic MTM driver layout. The Ulfberht thus uses fourteen tweeters to reproduce the midrange, about 3 octaves of it. This arrangement is based on the theory that, everything else being equal, the mass of a driver is in inverse proportion to the quality of reproduction. Thus, drivers with very low mass tend to sound better than drivers of higher mass, because the low mass allows them to be more responsive to the input signal. This is what gives electrostatic, planar, and ribbon panel speakers the effortless, natural midrange they are generally credited with. Ordinarily, a tweeter could never reproduce midrange frequencies with any volume without incurring immediate damage. However, when you have fourteen of them, each tweeter is only required to reproduce 1/14th of the signal so the demand on any one driver is well within its operating parameters. This is a point Paul McGowen of PS Audio has made several times about the Infinity IRS V, which is also a very large speaker with a large number of drivers.
The Ulfberhts are not cheap, but in the universe of reference speakers, which these clearly are, they are almost shockingly affordable. They were priced at $12,000 a pair until recently when Tekton lowered the price to $9,000. At $12,000 they were a great buy. At $9,000 they are a steal.
So, what exactly do the Ulfberhts sound like? I suppose the one quality that struck me immediately, and why they sound like no speakers I have ever heard, is their ability to convincingly reproduce the immediacy, grandeur, and excitement of live music. When the horn section started blasting in Simon and Garfunkel's "Keep the Customer Satisfied" on the "Bridge over Troubled Waters" album my eyes literally welled up with tears. When I played the Eagles' "Hotel California" it was like I was hearing this iconic song for the first time. The clarity, impact, and excitement was unlike any version of that classic anthem I had ever heard, though I had listened to it probably a couple of hundred times throughout the years.
What is it about the Ulfberht sound that accomplishes this? I think it is a combination of several things. First, the sheer size of the soundstage it throws is massive. Each 21-driver tower stands over six feet tall. Live music is big, and so having a really big speaker is useful in reproducing the size of a large soundstage. Second, the speaker manages to extract an amazing amount of detail from the recording. I heard multiple musical elements from familiar tracks I had never noticed before. I attribute this to the low-mass tweeters covering the midrange frequencies. Third, despite the awkward-looking pair of seven-driver midrange arrays, the center image floated in a precise space in between the speakers about four feet off the ground. Furthermore, the midrange was utterly natural and lifelike. And, finally, and I cannot emphasize this enough, the sound in general is incredibly exciting, dynamic, and seductive. These have to be the best speakers ever for rock music. At the same time they excel with intimate quiet music as well, probably because of the beautiful midrange presentation. For example, played through the Ulfberhts, Sara McLaughlin's "Angel" created a convincing illusion of being in the studio with her as she recorded this song in a way that I wouldn't have thought possible.
Any downsides? I can think of a couple. First, this speaker is truly massive. It completely takes over the room. It probably has one of the lowest WAF of any speaker recently manufactured. It ships without grills, but you can order them as a $150 option. I bought the speakers at an estate sale, so I got a really good price, but if I were paying full retail I think I would have purchased another of the Tekton Design’s speakers, the Encore. The Encore uses the same 15-driver MTM tweeter/midrange array, but it is also not quite as large and is $1,000 less expensive. To be sure the Encore is still a very large floor-standing speaker. It is just not quite the behemoth that is the Ulfberht.
Second, again because of their size and dual 12" bass drivers, the Ulfberhts are capable of reproducing an enormous amount of bass, so you have to be very careful with room placement. In particular, I found the bass unnaturally boomy until I pulled the speakers three feet out from the back wall. Needless to say, you are going to need a decent sized room for these speakers. I installed them in an 18 x 26 foot room with an 8-foot ceiling, and this seems fine.
I am I guess what you would call an audiophile, but I am also an amateur. Unlike professionals who review speakers for a living, I have not auditioned dozens of very expensive high-end speakers. I have, however, auditioned quite a few speakers in the sub-$10K range over the years. The Ulfberht is so much better than anything else I have listened to it resists comparisons. If I were shopping for a speaker in the $10,000 range I suppose I would want to audition the Revel F228Be and the Paradigm Persona 3F, both of which use beryllium drivers. (You can also obtain a version of the Ulfberht with beryllium drivers also (fifteen each) for a cool $20,000.) However, Tekton Design’s own Encore is probably the Ulfberht’s most direct competitor.
If you have the budget and the space, then I cannot imagine that the Ulfberht will not fail to impress much the same way I was impressed. I have bought my last pair of speakers.
Tekton Design Ulfberht web page: https://www.tektondesign.com/ulfberht-pmd-monitor.html