What have English audio products had in common for decades? That they are all different, quirky and special in a certain way. In doing so, following the approach of delighting people with beautiful music reproduction instead of mere technology. The three products of this test also fully follow this course and exude the atmosphere of no-nonsense music pleasure from all their imaginary pores. Add to that the noble British standards and audio values, a pleasant dose of retro and all the modern pleasures and possibilities that a person needs in 2022. In short, products to enjoy and full bull’s eye for listeners who are looking for musical experience, feeling, enjoyment and substantive emotions.
That Graham Audio is not a loudspeaker manufacturer that just ever dived into the retro craze, becomes clear when I dive into the background of this globally very popular brand. It turns out to be a genuine British family business based in Newton Abbot, a small market town in the southwest of England. The company’s roots and passion lie in classic BBC loudspeaker designs which the designers say offer levels of neutrality, transparency and realism that are hard to find elsewhere today. A fact that is partly caused by the so-called ‘thin wall’ principle of the cabinet. Because where most other loudspeaker manufacturers make their housings as heavy and solid as possible, the BBC and also the newer Graham designs, still consciously opted for thin cabinet walls. As a result, the internal energy does not linger undesirably anywhere (too) long and a lively, naturally ‘colourful’ and ‘fast’ reproduction is created. Another facet of this type of housing is that, with the necessary knowledge and skills, the cabinet can also be fine-tuned to the intended display. Especially in 2022, the charm and character of the original designs have been preserved with the help of modern components and production techniques, while at the same time the performance has been improved.
Although based on BBC ideas, the new Chartwell LS6 is one of Graham’s very own designs. Especially in the most expensive real wood veneer ‘Ebony’ (ebony) version, they prove to be real eye-catchers due to their angular ‘retro’ shape and very attractive modal dimensions (37 cm high, 24 cm wide and 26 cm deep). The big difference is that with this new design, unlike the BBC models, no screws are visible anymore. Also, the front and rear panel are no longer recessed, but are now exactly flush with the side panels. Correspondingly, the cloth-covered grill of the new generation is also attached to the baffle with invisible magnets and is no longer clamped ‘old-fashioned’ between the raised edges. The other data is a weight of only 9,
20 kHz within 2 dB and an efficiency of 87 dB. In terms of loudspeaker occupation, this is a 2-way bass reflex design with the opening (fortunately) located at the rear. I say “fortunately” because it’s been my experience that a bass port on the rear tends to perform better audibly. The layer can ‘settle’ better with this configuration and forms more of a whole with the rest of the spectrum. However, it becomes more important not to place the speakers too close to the rear wall. For the low-mid range, the brand has opted for a 16.5 cm woofer / center unit with a polypropylene cone, while a 19 mm textile soft dome tweeter takes care of the highs. The rear is completed by a single pair of high quality connectors from the Australian brand ETI Research. A special brand that is getting higher and higher in the international race for the best sounding connectors. Finally, a perfectly matching pair of open stands with a height of 59 cm (without spikes) is optionally available.
In the middle of the rear panel I encounter an above-average digital connection field, especially for an integrated amplifier. The group consists of two coaxial connections that support SPDIF signals up to 24 bit/192 kHz PCM data, a USB class 2 input that supports sources up to 32 bit 768 kHz in PCM and 22.4 MHz in DSD format and two optical TOSLINK inputs. The latter are used to connect a TV, CD drive, streamers and other sources that are equipped with an optical connection. After all, a ‘Comet mk2 aptX HD bluetooth’ module makes it extremely convenient to wirelessly stream your music from mobile devices in CD quality, according to the manufacturer. For the DAC chip itself, Creek uses a beautiful and now rare AK4493EQ. Rare in the sense that the Asahi Kasei Microdevices factory in Japan unfortunately went up in flames last October. Fortunately, the English company still has a large number of these DAC chips on the shelf, so that enthusiasts can still enjoy their special qualities for the time being.
High end volume control
As I get further into ‘dissecting’ both Creek devices, it becomes increasingly clear that these are not the ‘amp and cd player next door’. One of the aspects where this is made extra clear is the high-end volume control. A costly solution that you rarely encounter in this price segment. Because unlike the analog volume controls commonly used in this price range, the Voyage I20 uses a state-of-the-art electronic control circuit. In this case, gold contact relays send input signals to a resistance ladder attenuator. This in turn enables a precise control range of 80 dB in steps of 1 dB. Although the preamplifier circuit is normally set to 0 dB, it is also possible to adjust the input signal separately at each input in steps of 3 dB, up to max. 12 dB amplification. Furthermore, each input can also be set in the extended menu to bypass the preamplifier and volume control. This user selectable DIRECT mode even allows the i20 to be used as a four input power amplifier. As icing on the cake, the I20 total package is also equipped with a high-quality and remarkably current-delivering headphone amplifier. One that is powered from the preamplifier output and is capable of driving 6.3mm jack plug headphones specified from 8 to 300 ohms. The double pair of loudspeaker connections are then placed on the far right of the rear and can handle all cable configurations.
Voyage CD – CD player + DAC
Although the Voyage CD player with DAC shows just as mature and complete as the accompanying integrated amplifier, the philosophy followed by Creek seems a lot less clear and logical at first. Because despite the fact that the device is equipped with a CD80 slot drive supplied by manufacturer Stream Unlimited, the first impression is that it has exactly the same DAC section and digital possibilities as in the I20 integrated amplifier?! In terms of subcutaneous technology, this is certainly the case, but as I dive deeper into the possibilities, fortunately, the necessary differences appear in this once again solidly built device with dimensions of 43 cm wide, 8 cm high, 35 cm deep and 6.8 kg. hard to exist. Creek’s intention is that this device, in addition to being an ideal partner for the Voyage I20 amplifier, can also function as an ideal standalone device. Because even though the underlying digital technology is exactly the same. The possibilities appear to be a lot more extensive. For example, the Voyage CD player can immediately be described as a ‘digital preamplifier’. A device that allows the user to easily select between six digital sources and adjust the volume in the digital domain if necessary. A large OLED display shows all functions and settings, while the brightness can also be adjusted as desired or completely switched off. With six small solid aluminum push buttons, the drive functions of the CD drive on the device can be operated and the input can be changed.
Extensive choice of digital filters
Another difference is that the player can choose from six different 32-bit digital filters for the best matching personal preference. As with the I20 amplifier, the Voyage CD player also uses the beautiful AK4493EQ DAC chip. A premium device that supports PCM signals up to 32 bit 768 kHz and 22.4 MHz direct stream digital (DSD) data. After all, the analog signal is available to the user via both an unbalanced pair of RCA and balanced XLR connections. The DAC’s built-in digital volume control can be activated with a switch on the rear panel. This allows adjustments of the audio output level in 1 dB steps, so it can be connected directly to a power amp or of course the Voyage i20 integrated amp with the direct power amp mode selected. The same multifunctional remote control as with the I20 amplifier completes this wolf in sheep’s clothing.
So here we have a complete English trio in which the old proud values of yesteryear have been retained and supplemented with technological solutions and operating comfort in 2022. Special and especially useful is the small switch next to the tweeter with which the high can be set 1 or 2 dB louder. An option that can be useful in certain situations when the speakers are turned in less strongly and the home acoustics are somewhat more muted. As it should be, I place this compact but fortunately not too small monitor on the accompanying Graham stands. Uprights that have a height of 60 cm without the supplied spikes and a few centimeters with spikes. Although I have of course played a lot with the Creek components, my Zanden 6000 amp reference was also used to determine the maximum limits. At the other end of the spectrum, I used a Rotel A11 and CD11, while a similarly priced Naim Supernait 3 to the Creek Voyage I20 served as the comparative proverbial last resort. Well, how does such a modern oriented ‘vintage’ loudspeaker ultimately sound? Actually remarkably good from the very first moment. Of course, the reproduction is immediately different from the Master Contemporary C speakers that I play more on a daily basis. But the Chartwell LS6 also proves to be wonderfully capable of writing music with a capital ‘M’ from the very first moment. Well, how does such a modern oriented ‘vintage’ loudspeaker ultimately sound? Actually remarkably good from the very first moment. Of course, the reproduction is immediately different from the Master Contemporary C speakers that I play more on a daily basis. But the Chartwell LS6 also proves to be wonderfully capable of writing music with a capital ‘M’ from the very first moment. Well, how does such a modern oriented ‘vintage’ loudspeaker ultimately sound? Actually remarkably good from the very first moment. Of course, the reproduction is immediately different from the Master Contemporary C speakers that I play more on a daily basis. But the Chartwell LS6 also proves to be wonderfully capable of writing music with a capital ‘M’ from the very first moment.
The emotional approach
What is also striking is that while many loudspeakers require a certain acclimatization time, this is hardly the case with these Grahams. When I start with the beautiful jazz album Serendipity Street by the French-Canadian singer and guitarist Chantal Chamberland, the tone is immediately set. The wonderfully languid atmosphere of this excellently recorded masterpiece immediately spreads over the entire listening room. The song Time After Time starts with a beautifully timbre-colored guitar, after which a sonorous whirring double bass and drums played with brushes are added after a few bars. In this wonderfully minimalistic song, Chantal’s attractive voice blends beautifully and above all convincingly human and human with the rest of this completely acoustic setting. In the distance, a sultry alto sax gives some extra accents to the chorus and the remarkably smooth and plastic character of the Chartwell LS6 shows strikingly different and more involved than I experience with many other modern reproducers today. Very good.
Timing and timbre
When I try to unravel what makes this reproduction so attractive and special after longer listening, it turns out to be mainly the lack of a ‘technical sound’. Nothing comes across as mechanical or unnatural here and the actual intentions of the musicians are beautifully brought to the fore. In this recording of Chantal, her breathing, the shifting of the hands on the guitar neck and the correct proportions of the instruments can also be observed in a completely natural way. If you now think that this type of ‘thin wall’ loudspeaker only excels in jazz or other acoustic music, nothing could be further from the truth. Because even with ‘power’ music, such as by the American grunge band Nirvana, these adventurous Englishmen seem to feel more than at home. The fact that their latest album MTV Unplugged in New York is actually also their best, makes it extra sad besides the death of frontman Curt Cobain in 1994. The beauty of this latest masterpiece is that it is completely stripped of all the sonic muscles that normally surrounded their music and therefore lets the essence through beautifully revealing. Once again, the Grahams hit exactly the right note, bringing this music to the fore in full 3D and complete with all musical twists. There is certainly a small downside, because compared to more conventional ‘solid’ loudspeakers, there is occasionally a subtle (pleasant) coloring. A bit of extra chest in voices and subtle enrichment in timbres. But who cares if the display otherwise looks so contagious,
Although I will of course add this also English electronics to the Graham’s at a later stage, I will first listen to it through other speakers for a while. That quickly shows a completely different playback direction than you would expect given the slim housings. Because instead of slim and fragile, the reproduction from the first moment is much more in the direction of powerful, robust, mild in the highs and remarkably neutral. Even when the music becomes more demanding and the precisely adjustable volume level increases, the reproduction remains remarkably intact. When I listen to the Creek sound further, it is striking that although both devices admit to a limited extent to subtlety and refinement, they also have a ‘nice’ and infectious sound. A signature that certainly has to do with the above-average power of the I20 amplifier. I find this amplifier most in its element with songs like Six Blade Knife from the album Dire Straits by the English band of the same name. Or also, for example, when the very energetic Oh, Lady Be Good by The Bassface Swing Trio – Plays Gershwin literally blasts out of the speakers. In the first example, it’s a busy and grunting bass guitar with loud hits on the snare drum that literally drive the song along. In the second piece, the dynamic contrasts increase in intensity, after which the music works towards a super swinging climax. When I connect the Grimm MU1 music server to the DAC built into the I20, it turns out to be of a surprisingly high quality.
With Voyage CD
When I switch from the digital part of the I20 amplifier to the same part in the Voyage CD player, the quality increases a bit further. At first this DAC seemed superfluous to me, but the (digital) possibilities are not only more extensive, also sound-wise it all goes just a bit further than the DAC part in the amplifier. Add to that the also excellent CD playback via the well-functioning lock mechanism and this is definitely one of the better devices in its price range. Even in an age of streaming, the CD medium still remains something special. The music often comes across as smoother, richer and more inspiring. Aspects through which certain music can still be an important enrichment.
All three of these products are definitely recommended within their price range. They are original in design, solidly built, have an excellent finish, plenty of possibilities for use and, above all, a wonderful individuality. When you use this trio together, the recognizable typical English signature is immediately created. So fine timing, natural timbres, good vocal range, nice and loose and powerful and a total absence of audible technique. But I also think it’s great that these three can also be used universally in their own right. So the Creek Voyage I20 also comes into its own with many more other speakers, while the Voyage CD standalone also performs remarkably well. When I look at the Graham Chartwell LS6 speakers, is it possible to both emphasize the English character and deliberately keep it more in the background using a different control system? All this while retaining all the qualities that make this design so attractive. In short, true ‘British delights’ and well deserved.
- Graham Chartwell SL6 loudspeakers from € 3,300 per pair
- Matching stands € 990 per pair
- Creek Voyage integrated amplifier/DAC € 4,950 silver or black
- Creek Voyage CD player/DAC €2,750 silver or black