My first encounter with Ascendo took place at this year's North German HiFi Days in Hamburg. And, this encounter emerged itself as a huge surprise. At first, there was this visually inconspicuous setup, but then the demonstrator browsed through his vinyl collection and pulled out the record "Polizisten (Policemen)" from the German band Extrabreit. A German New Wave song of the 80s spinning on an audiophile system? Inwardly, I almost dismissed this demo as wasted time ... until the first notes reached my ears. Immediately, my previously restrained prejudice got revised. What the setup here in play rendered in terms of dynamics and control, simply knocked me off my feet. A sound that literally pressed me into a comfortable sofa, just generating pure fun. Throwing a glance over my shoulder made me aware of other slightly grinning faces, obviously my fellow listeners were experiencing the same.
Dark, darker ... and yet comfortable
My trip to the Ascendo Immersive Audio headquarters to visit the company’s demo cinema had been characterized by great anticipation. Not only because of the experience gained at Ascendo’s presentation at the Hamburg hi-fi show, but also because of my former life: Some years ago, my main job was about reporting on private home theaters. Having arrived in Ansbach, I found my way straight into the approximately 50 square meters big demo cinema, which appears quite friendly and inviting despite its predominantly dark colours. Nevertheless, black is the determining colour here: Primary black walls, black ceiling, black carpet, black traverses, black sofas and black armchairs. The loudspeakers, which are also kept in black, are hardly noticeable and can only be seen in their entirety upon closer inspection.
Big, bigger, gigantic
Two things stand out immediately: Firstly, there is the acoustically transparent and 4.70 meter wide screen in 21:9 format by Screen Research, behind which three Ascendo Black Swan Single or three alternatively usable Ascendo CCRM12 are hidden. For those who are strange to the designation "Black Swan Single": These are fully active transducers with a 65 centimeter wide coaxial horn and a 15-inch midwoofer (38 centimeters!), each driven to peak performance by a 1,000 watts (2,000 watts impulse) built-in amplifier unit, and intended to unleash a promising maximum level of 132 decibels. This is more than enough power to easily lift even a live band in a 300-square-meter space to concert levels. The second striking feature are the three large Infrasonic subwoofers, which are taken into operation only one by one. On the right side there is to be found a 32 inch subwoofer, on which a "small" colleague with a diameter of 24 inches is stacked. OK, that's already more than impressive. But it gets even better: Left of the screen there is a much larger model, which I initially suspected as a decorative object. Upon my comment "Having such a subwoofer in reality, that would be awesome," Ascendo’s CEO Stefan Köpf replied: "This one’s for real, and we’re going to listen to it right away.” What I didn’t know was the fact, that this model is Ascendo’s legendary SMSG50. So here you get the key features: More than 400 kilos of weight, a 50-inch driver (127 centimeters in diameter), 6,000 watts of amplifier power, 140 decibels of maximum level, as well as AIA’s Speaker Management Technology – but more later on. After shooting the mandatory selfies with the giant, we start our next discovery trip:
On a large, large scale
And that trip gets anything but boring. First, the side speakers catch my eye. Here Ascendo relies on three active CCRM6 per side. Just 10 centimeters deep, the CCRM6 occupy only little space and can be placed directly on the wall. Although ultra-flat, each of them features a 15-centimeter coaxial driver, with its two-ways powered by separate amplifier units rated 500 watts (woofer/midrange) and 150 watts (tweeter). In this context, perhaps a brief reference to the brand name would be helpful: "AIA" stands for Ascendo Immersive Audio. If one comes across the word "immersive", one immediately thinks of an impressive 360-degree sound experience. And this is exactly what the lineup promises: Two identical back surround speakers, six ceiling speakers plus three CCRM12 completing the front arrangement for the Auro format. In other words: In this cinema a total of 23 active speakers, which are arranged around the listening positions, do their service - the subwoofer excepted.
Speaking of subwoofers: In addition to the three aforementioned “big boys”, six "smaller" SMSG15 and two SMS15 join the low-frequent forces - all of them placed on the side walls. As with all other models, the number in the model designation indicates the diameter of the driver in inches. So in total there happen to be eight low-enders with 38-centimeter drivers, each of them powered by a 1,000-watt amplifier. And ultimately remains the question what kind of device keeps the installed armada of speakers under control. Here, too, Ascendo sticks to their large-scale concept and hands this tricky task over to a Trinnov 32-channel preamp/processor named Altitude32. Wow, a better home theater control center is currently hard to find. In order to ensure its operation in the highest possible quality, IsoTek's world's first multiple power generator EVO3 Genesis with corresponding high-quality mains cabling is used for supplying cleanly generated electricity. As we all know, the devil is in the details ...
Now that the hard facts are clarified, we get along to the most pleasant part of our visit: the practical test. After being served cool drinks, we finally sit down in the comfortable sofas and let Stefan Köpf guide us through the demo program. And that, so much is in front betrayed, has really nothing left to be desired. A first impression of what the setup is capable of, we get in the first short demo of the Oscar-winning blockbuster "Bohemian Rhapsody".
The year is 1985: Queen enters the Live Aid stage at London's Wembley Stadium. The tracking shot over the fully packed interior of the stadium already impresses by itself. We slip over the cheering crowd, which immediately fills the room acoustically. Freddie enters the stage, and straightens the piano bench. Finally, the charismatic frontman takes place, plays the first notes, and interrupts his play. Dead silence in the stadium and also in the Ascendo cinema. You can literally hear the famous pin drop. The atmosphere is intense - also with the other band members. When Freddie finally continues his play, the crowd bursts out cheering. Shortly thereafter, the band sets in, the audience joins the singing and the stadium atmosphere spills one-to-one into the listening room. What a performance, the system hasn’t even played a minute and goose bumps are already creeping over me! However, someone who has watched this scene on his flatscreen-TV without external sound support will probably not have experienced this kind of intensity and may not understand my reaction at all. But what I experience here is the perfect symbiosis of big picture and impressive sound – coming from the front, from the top, from the sides and from behind. I'm actually in the midst of a perfectly tuned surround scenery. These are exactly those moments that thoroughly define the hobby “home cinema”, and distinguish good from excellent home theater installations. Brilliant!
Ascendo and Lady Gaga = black and white
After some more goosebump attacks, it’s Lady Gaga who takes over, or to be more precise, with the Grammy Award interpretation of the Carole King song "A Friend In Me". Instead of appearing in a shrill outfit, the US-American performer is dressed all-white and sits at a white grand piano on a white stage in the middle of the audience. White smoke covers the floor and the spectators wait spellbound for the first notes to fill the air. The contrast could hardly be greater in this dull-black demo cinema. So, while the visual aspect is very much taken care of, the acoustics happen to be just as good. But my gosh, the sound really tops all expectations! From the first second the room again is flooded with music. The first piano notes are followed by the soft voice of the New Yorker artist. Sonically calm but already impressively intense - also because the audience is acoustically catched in a stunning realistic way. From the first moment, everything sounds phenomenally homogeneous, transparent and clear. And in such a credibility that makes the listening room seem to be acoustically floodlighted down to the very last corner. The spatial image snaps in to the point. But what impresses even more are the meanwhile more agile passages, giving the song now full dynamics and expression. And all of that in such a kind of vehemence, that bestows the next goose bump attack. This is a quality in sound that I certainly did not expect in this scope of manifestation. To be honest, up to this day I've always thought of Lady Gaga as an exchangeable pop star. It seems that I have been totally wrong with my assumption, since this performance bears witness of an extremely wide vocal repertoire and an unimagined richness of facets - always assuming it is played on a better audio chain. And this, undoubtedly, is the case here.
The fact that the Ascendo setup is able to perform both detailed and intensive at the same time, I now have learned in an impressive manner. Up to this point, it’s hard to imagine that this can go even better. With "Heart of Steel" coming up next, things will move even more stalwart. Who is familiar with this movie, knows exactly what is coming now: The fight of the US-American Sherman Division against the ambushing Tiger tank means for the involved acoustic department nothing less than "sleeves up". At first, everything starts rather quietly. The four tanks pass an abandoned field path. Engine sounds fill the demo cinema, chains plow through the mud. Again, the Ascendo setup projects the scenery acoustically perfect into the room, albeit doing that a little unspectacular. In the moment the last tank of the convoy is unexpectedly hit by a projectile and the rotating tower hits the ground, the sonic image immediately changes. Suddenly the signs point to storms. The bustling around, the panicking in the voices of the soldiers and the fear among the Americans is transmitted in fractions of a second.
Punchy sound and clean bass
Once again, I am fully in the thick of the action and claw myself into the armrest of the black sofa. Engine sounds and chain noises fill the room. The ensuing shots from the Shermans fizzle out, while another pojectile from the Tiger hits the middle of the second US tank in full vigour, letting itself burn out. The next shot is even more effective, dashing down the rotating tower of the next Sherman tank. Slamming metal, the burning tank, in between the panic voices and the flying slush - everything gets acoustically absolutely precise and explicitly segmented down to the smallest detail, perfectly projected into the room. The incredible speed with which the bass emerges and decays is more than impressive. In addition to that the fundamental frequency range is of highest impulse power and the surround field is of acoustically gapless homogenity. All of this gets into my blood quickly. I'm simply fascinated. As I said, I have visited many cinemas around, but I never have experienced an acoustically immersive ambience like this before.
Intense, but not excessive
That was more than impressive and is literally screaming to be continued in a similar way. But, CEO Stefan Köpf has somewhat extra up his sleeves. After a short break, we continue with the legendary plane bombing in "Unbroken". Again, the filmmakers put back on an intense element of surprise. And the Ascendo setup manages to handle it perfectly again: Initially, it starts quite unspectacular, but still increasingly intense, as the flight squadron approaches its destination. Engine noise, wind, voices, minor details - even now the acoustics fill the room quickly and largely. I almost feel aboard an aeroplane. The spatial imaging gets so intense that any other cinema setup would have carried me away into a clear stage of enthusiasm. But here, I already got spoiled. The analytical accuracy and spatial rendering of information, including all those small details, seem almost a matter of course. The AIA world of sound seems to have "messed me up". And just when I am about to lean back, things really start to kick off. Initially the squadron sees itself exposed to ground fire only, but the first aggressors quickly appear in the air. While the adverse MGs punch a hail of bullets into the outer skin of the bomber, I get the impression that the Ascendo demo cinema is under attack. Shots howl through the room and smash acoustically into the back and side walls. Once again, I am fully in the thick of the action and claw myself into the armrest of the black sofa. And again, the fundamental range of the frequency band continues to manifest itself in big style.
More dynamics is hardly realizable
But also the lows act with impressive ardor: The dust-dry explosions of the projectiles, which detonate around the bombers, eat their way directly into the body. The tonal balance seems perfect. Not any annoying rumble, not any sharp tones. Instead, everything is extremely busy and finegrained, with utmost attention to detail in an all-around perfect surround field. A few seconds ago, I might have only been involved to almost 100 percent, but now I'm literally in the midst of the war. Especially the bass performance, to which I am exposed now, catapults my enthusiasm beyond any border. Just a thing to remember: All listening sessions held here are hosted by the massive 50-inch subwoofer model (in addition to the eight regular 15-inch subwoofers). That this one really digs down to the lowest lows, was to be expected. But, the brutal punch and the striking accuracy with which the SMSG50 sets the scene destroys any doubts at birth. This showpiece of a sub plays tough and by the way keeps everything under control. And, incidentally, this by any means isn’t meant as a mere display of strength. Above all, the superior control, the balance, as well as the speed with which the bass backs out are highly impressive. Although I'm pretty sure that limiters and compressors were used in the course of the production of the present soundtrack, the bass here sounds miles away from any compression. All in all, this merges in a low-frequent experience that literally creeps under your skin. Anyone who thinks that huge subwoofers cannot be controlled in a proper way, will certainly have to revise their opinion after having paid the Ascendo cinema a visit!
Movies get their life out of big pictures and the corresponding sound. The greatest art, however, is to melt both worlds perfectly together and to get the best out of any existing soundtrack. Aeroplanes thundering over your heads from back to front or collapsing buildings making your sofa quake, all that without masking any small, but important detail. Sensitivity, accuracy and attention to detail are just as important here as pure bass power and maximum dynamics. Once given the case, the mere watching of a movie turns into an impressive cinema experience, which even big Cineplex cinemas can only offer in the rarest of cases. But this, I experienced in the Ascendo cinema to the highest state of perfection.
Text: Roman Maier
Photos: Philipp Thielen
Screen Research (4,70 meter wide, THX certified)
3x Ascendo Black Swan Single
- Oppo BDP-205
Mains power supply:
1x IsoTek EVO3 Genesis
approx. 50 square meters