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Thread: Finally upgraded S1 NrTs to S2s

  1. #1
    Join Date
    Apr 2010
    Just outside Pearland, TX

    Default Finally upgraded S1 NrTs to S2s

    Iíve now had enough time on the Sierra-2s to have something (hopefully) coherent to say.

    Iíll first note that when I upgraded from regular Sierra-1s to the NrT version, I had a very specific goal in mind: I wanted more overall crispness on the high end, and the NrT upgrade delivered that. I was super happy with them and still think the Sierra-1 NrT is a fantastic speaker for the money. As far as Iím concerned, the Sierra-1 NrT is the secret weapon of the Sierra line. Thereís no hype or description or measurements or anything on the main Ascend site (unless you dig into the forums), just a checkbox that says ďNrT UpgradeĒ on the Sierra-1 pageópure stealth. I love these speakers. So the bar is pretty high, but I took the plunge anyway.

    I managed to have the house to myself for a few hours since I did the upgrade so I could turn them up and really let them shine, but also have had them in the frankly much more frequent constant run at more moderate volume while I work.

    So, what are the differences between the two? I hear three primary differences:

    1) Transients
    2) Detail recovery
    3) Imaging/soundstaging

    Each one in turn:

    The single most impressive thing about the S2s is how quiet they are. Not in the sense of not being loud, but in the sense that thereís just no decay time on anything. When a note stops, it stops. Feels instantaneous. Itís sort of like having blacker blacks on a TVóyou donít notice how important it is to really have nothing when youíre supposed to have nothing, until you see what true black actually looks like. This is what really good transient response does for you. The snap on these speakers is just excellent.Crunchy guitars are even crunchier. Well-recorded cymbals (especially Paiste cymbals), in particular, are amazing; the attack is so fast, but thereís no carryover from anything else going on.

    A related strength of these speakers is that detail recovery is outstanding. The NrTs are very good at this, but the S2s are just in another class. No matter how close things are in time, thereís never any ďsmearingĒ of one sound into another. Iíve heard things Iíve never heard before in recordings Iíve listened to many times over. I donít find the difference between the two speakers nearly as big for solo music, but for quartets or other music with a relatively small instrument count the ability to really separate the details of each instrument from one another is quite impressive. When Iím really listening, I like to listen with my eyes closed and Iíve never heard a speaker that made me visualize the performers quite like these. The detail recovery is so good that in my mindís eye I see the bowstring sliding across the violin. Iíve never heard speakers in this price range that make a recording of a violin sound more like being in a room with an actual violin. I donít just hear the violin, I hear the violin being played, if that makes any sense at all. I donít just hear cymbals, I hear a cymbal being struckóI hear the stick.

    Overall, the effect is somewhat less impressive for full orchestras because the goal there isnít usually to pick up individual instruments anyway. Really well-mastered rock is also terrific, but I will admit I now want to have conversations with a few recording engineers to figure out what on earth they were doing and why. The S2s donít really punish bad recordings, but they bring out good recordings in a way that makes me wish more recordings were better. If you listen to a lot of well-recorded and well-mastered quartet or chamber music, you want speakers like these. More of my music is rock or something sonically similar, which doesnít quite take as good advantage of this as classical music, but no question that everything still sounds great.

    The third place where the S2s beat the NrTs is imaging/soundstaging. This isnít really a surprise, since the off-axis FR graphs for the S2s vs. the S1s shows appreciably better off-axis response above 10 kHz for the S2s (my guess is the NrTs are in between the two here, but thatís a guess since Iíve not seen an off-axis graph for the NrTs). This shows up in the sonic image projected by the two. The S2 has a much wider presentation with instruments located even more precisely in that space. I think the audio reviewer term of at here is ďairĒ; it just sounds like thereís more air in between the instruments. When I donít have them cranked up and just kind of on in the background this is the thing I notice most relative to the NrTs.

    Another place where theyíre just a little bit different, without it being worse or better, is that the S2s seem to me a little less forward than the NrTs. The NrTs are a bit more forward than the base S1s, and Iíd put the S2s somewhere in between the two, which is kind of a hair-splitting exerciseóitís only rarely a noticeable difference, depending on the music.

    Is there anything the S2s do worse? I kind of expected there to be, as audio is usually a world of tradeoffs. So Iím kind of surprised (in a good way) to report that no, there really isnít. I turned off the subwoofer for most of this and the overall bass extension of the S2 is a smidge worse than the NrTs (though the S2s are slightly cleaner-sounding in the lows before the response falls off). Again, this is pretty clear in the specs and it is audible but itís not a big difference. Because I normally run with a small sub to kind of fill in the bottom of the low end anyway, when the sub is on the difference is immaterial.

    Oh, and aestheticsóthatís one place where I think the traditional Sierra-1 (including the NrT) is superior. I prefer having the grilles off with the NrTs, but I might put them back on with the S2s. I frankly find the RAAL tweeter kind of ugly (I think itís the sawtooth on the sides of the ribbon area) and the material in the Curv woofer is shiny and variegated in a not particularly aesthetic way. Iím sure some people like the look of the S2s better but itís not for me. Obviously with the grilles on thereís no difference.

    So, the $64,000 question (for you youngsters, that means ďthe big final questionĒ): are they worth it? As noted, outside of grilles-off appearance, the S2s are better in pretty much every way. For a lot of people in audio, thatís itóbetter speakers cost more, and thatís the price of admission. If youíre thinking about buying a pair of NrTs vs. a pair of S2s, yes, Iíd say the S2s are clearly worth the price differenceóunless youíre using a sub. Then in all honesty unless youíre in a big room Iíd actually probably get a pair of Sierra Lunas for about the same as the regular price on the NrTs. (Plus the Lunas are front-ported and so less finicky about placement.) Make sure your sub does transients well or smooth integration might be an issue (I now have a little of this problem; probably time to buy another Rythmik). But for 2.0 work I do think the S2s justify the price difference relative to the NrTs.

    What about the cost of an upgrade? If you own base S1s (not NrTs) then this is easily a justifiable upgrade, and of course the math works out pretty close anyway (that is, S1s not on sale are about $800 + $800 for the upgrade is not that much more than just buying S2s outright)ósuper nice it works out like that.

    Now, if you already own a pair of NrTs, are the S2s $840 better? Thatís a harder one. For current NrT owners itís a close call and probably depends on what you listen to and how much you care about getting more detail and the soundstage. It works out for me because the S2 upgrade means I now have spare NrT parts I can use to upgrade the base S1s I have at work, so I get a double upgrade out of itóthatís easily worth it, but I donít think many are in that boat. It just depends on what you care about and how price-sensitive you are, which is utterly generic and applies pretty widely in the audio world, but itís true in many places and here as well.

    OK, this is a long post so unless you really want the minutiae, you should stop here. These last two sections are only for people who want a deep diveÖ

    Engineering Speculation
    I was originally trained as an engineer and while Iím not one now (nor was my training in speakers or acoustics), I do enjoy a bit of wild speculating from an engineering perspective. Iíll be the fist to admit Iím not really qualified here, but when has that ever stopped anyone on the internet?

    First, while the RAAL tweeter is what gets all the attention, the woofer on the S2s has to be one of the hardest-working drivers Iíve ever heard. It has to cover a much wider frequency range than the S1 woofer and does so with tremendous speed and control. Itís brilliant and I bet Dave had to spend a monstrous amount of effort to get it right.

    Based on this, I now grok why the Sierra Luna is a thing, which I admit is a product that kind of puzzled me until now. It has to be a great deal easier to engineer a woofer that goes with the RAAL but isnít also trying to go sub-65Hz. Now the Luna makes perfect sense to me.

    The RAAL really comes across as a tweeter thatíd be easier to work with in a 3-way design if youíre trying for more full-range performance, and the fact that Dave managed a woofer than pairs with it in a 2-way design is just super impressive.

    This probably explains why Salk uses transmission line cabinets for their 2-way designs that feature a RAAL tweeteróitíd be hard to get a ported woofer to go low enough to still meet up with the higher mids needed to pair with the RAAL. This is also probably a part of why Dennis Murphyís BMR design gets such accolades from people who have heard that speaker; you need a good crossover design and the right kind of midrange driver to really get the most out of the RAAL. I remember the first time I heard real ribbons in the late 1990s (canít remember the speakers) and clearly the engineers just slapped the ribbons in for domes and didnít do much else, which left a really terrible hole in the upper mids. This is now clearly a solved problem. Yay, progress.

    One last engineering-oriented bit of commentary. The upgrade is pretty easy to do, and Ascend provides great instructions with videos and everything. Itís like these speakers were designed from the outset to be upgraded. Does anyone else but Ascend do that? Crazy. Also, nothing like being inside the speaker to remind one how these things are built. No skimping on bracing and the amount of damping material inside the cabinet is nuts. I got all this when I upgraded to NrTs, but always a nice reminder.

    Saved until the end since the post is long enough already. I first bought the Sierra-1s back in 2010 (here are my initial thoughts on those) and then upgraded them to the NrT version a little less than a year later (I did a review of that, too).

    Since I love my Sierra-1 NrTs, why do the upgrade at all? For the Mount Everest reason: because itís there. Because I have very little experience with the RAAL tweeter and I wanted to hear for myself. Because I could. Because Iím thinking about Sierra Towers as mains for my HT and I wanted to see if the difference between the NrT and the RAAL is really a big deal. Because my 50th birthday is coming up and itís my present to myself. If it sounds like Iím reaching youíre reading this correctly.

    None of these are really great reasons; I have to admit I donít really have a compelling explanation for why I took the plunge. The S2s were introduced in (I think) 2013 and it took me six years to upgrade because $840 is rather a lot when you donít have a strong reasonóyou can buy a new pair of S1s for that. Nobody tell my wife, OK?

    [Note: also posting this to AVS]
    Luna Duo LCR in HT, Sierra-2 EXs in study, S-1 NrTs in bedroom, S-1s at work, HTM-200s in kitchen. Brother owns CMT-340s and dad has a pair of CBM-170s. I also own a Rythmik L22 sub.

  2. #2
    Join Date
    Aug 2007
    S.E. La. - USA

    Thumbs up Re: Finally upgraded S1 NrTs to S2s


    Thanks for such a detailed and articulate S2 review! I fully agree with all three of your key "differences" between the S-1 NrT and the S2 and although can confirm your improvement discoveries, my room size and interactions became the deciding factor in my current choice. I've edited my response findings to more accurately and fairly represent my conclusions (found HERE), but in the end, your great S2 review "Hits the Nail On the Head"...Perfectly!!

    Sierra-2EX, Axiom EP 500, Emotiva USP-1, Emotiva UPA-2, Phillips CD880 (dedicated 2.1 listening room)!

  3. #3
    Join Date
    Mar 2004
    SouthWest of Cleveland

    Default Re: Finally upgraded S1 NrTs to S2s

    Nice summation, SB, I agree with your findings.

    To throw a shiny new wrench into the works, are you aware of the new "EX" woofer that is being used for the White Diamond tweeter version of the Sierra? Dave is currently working on pairing that with the RAAL for the proposed Sierra-2EX. That woofer is another animal and will likely bring the Sierra-2 to a new price/performance benchmark. I am keeping an eye (or 2) on the release of this as another upgrade kit.

  4. #4
    Join Date
    Apr 2010
    Just outside Pearland, TX

    Default Re: Finally upgraded S1 NrTs to S2s

    Quote Originally Posted by Mag_Neato View Post
    To throw a shiny new wrench into the works, are you aware of the new "EX" woofer that is being used for the White Diamond tweeter version of the Sierra?
    I am.

    In fact, I generously offered Dave that since I've now done the upgrade three separate times total, I can do it easily and I'd be happy to beta test if he wanted to send me a set of the woofers. He hasn't taken me up on it... yet.
    Luna Duo LCR in HT, Sierra-2 EXs in study, S-1 NrTs in bedroom, S-1s at work, HTM-200s in kitchen. Brother owns CMT-340s and dad has a pair of CBM-170s. I also own a Rythmik L22 sub.

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