Loudspeaker shipping crates come in all shapes and forms, but more often than not they are bulky and strapped to large pallets in order to accommodate the precious cargo. When the Fern And Roby Raven II speakers arrived on the doorstep for review, the box was a bit understated, modest even. Not under-protected mind you, but the right size for a pair of hifi bookshelves eager and waiting to leave their impression on the world.
The Fern & Roby Raven II Bookshelf – A Little Background
What was unusual was the weight-to-size ratio. At a hundred pounds for the box containing both single-driver, full-range speakers, it appeared that Fern and Roby hadn’t skimped on the material choices for their debut pair of space-friendly music-makers. As with any new introduction some questions abound, so reaching out to designer and founder Christopher Hildebrand for a little Q/A before running though the usual tests seemed like reasonable step. His facilities in Richmond, Virginia house sizable manufacturing for both F&R and his industrial design firm Tektonics Design Group. The’ve also recently added a in-house showroom and hosting space for a full 360 degree audiophile funhouse.
Q & A with Christopher Hildebrand of Fern & Roby
AH: Give us the scoop on Fern and Roby, how did the company form, what made you want to turn your talents towards audio?
CJH: Fern & Roby started as a side project for me and eventually spun off to become a client of my Industrial Design & Manufacturing firm Tektonics Design Group where we help our clients with Product Development, Design, Prototyping, & Manufacturing. I have been helping my clients implement their visions for the past 17 years and back in 2010 I felt like I needed my own space to explore what was exciting to me. That is the essence of what Fern & Roby is all about, making things that make living life better. I think music makes life better so I felt that great audio products were an exciting thing to tackle and I haven’t looked back!
AH: What specifically drew you to create a single-driver, bookshelf loudspeaker?
CJH: I’ve always enjoyed single drivers conceptually and heard some amazing examples. There is a simplicity and purity to the design that is intriguing to me. I also enjoy the challenge of shaping the speaker design around a single driver because you are asking so much more from a high efficiency, single driver. The flip side of this is that when choosing a two or three way design approach, you are purchasing two or three drivers and the necessary crossover parts. This requires you to split the same budget between more parts and adding the labor to put it all together.
Both approaches are valid and interesting to me but for a bookshelf speaker that can inherently only go down only so low in frequency response, a great single driver like ours can do the job exceptionally well, especially when the cabinet design is resolved well. So, in this design, I chose to put the money into elevating the quality of the driver, and to elevate the cabinet design, selecting the best materials for the job.
AH: The Raven II is a heavy loudspeaker! What makes the material choices in this department special?
CJH: I am glad you noticed that! Density & rigidity are crucial in a cabinet design, but I believe, even more so, in single driver designs. We are asking so much more of the single driver to handle and deliver nuance at all ends of the spectrum. If the cabinet is vibrating, & resonating while it is supporting the driver, it makes the job the single driver has to do impossible to do well. Putting a great single driver into a flimsy cabinet would be like driving a world class race car during an earthquake.
AH: A closed box (non-ported or vented) is a very specific design element, what advantages do you see with this option?
CJH: As you know, I have two versions of this speaker one is ported & much larger (The Ravens), the the other is sealed & much smaller (The Raven II). Because we wanted to make a speaker that fit into more homes, and in a wider range of set-ups, we needed the Raven II to be smaller. The design problem then comes down to fidelity. I find many small cabinets with ports that are shooting for low frequency response to sound spongy, muffled, and rife with phase problems. This ultimately undercuts some of the most important places to deliver the nuance and dynamics that are essential to a big, realistic sound.
The bass registers are just as nuanced & dynamic as everywhere else, or another way to put it is that there is the same infinite range of sounds between the notes in the bass register as in the rest of the spectrum. If you cheat and simulate bass in the design you are getting a facsimile of bass that tricks your brain into thinking you are hearing full range. The horrible compromise is the removal of the dynamic range below 100 Hz and the delivery of problems up into the upper registers as well. For me, the sealed box solved these challenges enabling a natural & easy roll-off starting at 67 Hz that easily gets down into the low 50s on its own.
The Raven II is designed to dovetail with corner-loading, and wall reinforcement (bookshelf speaker…), but it also is great on the floor on stands, and pairs beautifully with a good sub with its own amp and high pass filter.
AH: What can you tell us about the full range driver?
CJH: There are some great single drivers to choose from these days, but we want to work with a company that had deep experience in manufacturing their own products in-house and a mature corporate history to back it up like Seas does. These days, lots of people claim to be manufacturers, but outsource much of the labor, not wanting to deal with the headache of managing a big team of qualified and costly people, but this is exactly what is important to us. Simply put, we believe that it is the people making the products that make products great, and you have to know them and have a relationship with them to guarantee that you are getting what you want.
I had a fantastic visit to the Seas factory in Norway when I was designing the Ravens so I could learn about how they work and meet their team. They are a perfect fit for us and manufacture world class products. The standard offering with our Ravens is the 94 dB (8ohm) “Seas Exotic” driver because it performs excellently with most amps on the market including output transformer designs. The more esoteric 96 dB (4 ohm) driver requires amplification that can handle heavier and wider impedance swings like the LTA amps we offer and other great lower power Class A, solid state designs like those made by Pass Labs.
AH: Do you have any amp preferences for the speaker? What amplification do you usually utilize for your testing purposes?
CJH: As you know, we have a special relationship with LTA because they approached us several years ago to be a part of their product development team. We design & manufacture their chassis in our shop at Tektonics Design Group and sell their products in our showroom. One of the great things about designing speakers around a product line like LTA’s is that they make great tube amps that perform with the accuracy and detail of solid state. This makes voicing the speakers for a wider range of amps much easier.
I also try a wide range of amps that are actively on the market and some vintage examples because I think it is important to look at what people may do with your products when developing them. I have tried everything from cheap $100 Class D amps, my old H.H. Scott Tube amps, & classic, class A designs like my Sumo Nine, customized by Mike Bettinger. The products made by active companies that we work with regularly are made by LTA, ModWright Instruments, and Concert Fidelity.
Further Explorations Into Fidelity
As you can see from some of the house photos, the Raven II and its closed design is intended for actual bookshelf use. While many will notice that this flies in the face of typical audiophile convention for smaller speaker placement, the notion here is still an intriguing one. Also worthy of note is the wizzer-cone equipped Seas Exotic transducer. Much like efforts from Zu audio and others, the full-range option of course limits the low-end extremities. But Hildebrand’s point there is also well taken, what are the expectations for bass response given the size? A complementary sub is almost standard issue for those who long for a little more thump to accompany a smaller physical footprint.
Ultimately F&R did open up amplifier options quite a bit with the 94db and 8 ohm driver specs. Tubular affinities will find solace in the impressionable throughput, and Hildebrand offers some well thought out turntable options from the brand as well. The entire line makes good on modern industrial looks, something quite a few attempt but less seem to be able to achieve with any significant measure of success. We will dive into the finer talking point on the casework in part 2 of the review, but initial show-and-tell speaks well for validating the hifi pricetag associated with this arena of the hobby.
We will poke, prod and play the Raven IIs with a variety of front ends, including the LTA Z10 integrated that Fern & Roby packages their HiFi #01 all-in-one system with. If you would like to hear more on Christopher’s design philosophy, approach and background you can find an in-depth interview on the subject on PartTimeAudiophile’s The Occasional Podcast.
Build, sonics and final thoughts coming soon in part two!