Introduction - what is the Kudos and Exposure Active System?
The Kudos and Exposure active system is a collaborative venture between the two aforementioned brands to produce an active system that links their products together in a specific way. If everything goes according to plan, you should be reading this in the Christmas week - although at the time of writing, I have no way of knowing if anything so festive will actually take place. This timing is for a few reasons. Even within the wide remit I’m given to cover material for AVForums, this is a bit of an outlier. It will take more time than usual to explain and cover and even though it is the output of two different companies, it really needs to be considered as a single entity. It is also, as I am sure a few of you have already clocked, not inconsequentially expensive too which lends it a bit of an ‘end of the year' feel.
As such, here is a Christmas long form spectacular, where I use the pleasing ability of reviews on AVForums to be as long as they need to be to try and cover what this system is, how it works and how it sounds. Think of it as my Christmas present to you… and, realistically me too. There is much to be discussed, so I had best get cracking.
Specification and Design
First things first, we need to cover off why this ‘active speaker system’ looks different to any other set of active or powered speakers that we’ve covered on the site before. This is down to ‘active speaker’ meaning one specific thing but being taken to mean a number of other things by dint of how this detail is incorporated. An active speaker is a transducer where the crossover is powered and placed in front of the amplification that drives it; that’s the only qualification that it has to fulfil. Over time, we have come to view active speakers as being self contained devices where this powered crossover and the amps they act upon are contained within the chassis of the speaker itself because this is how most active speakers are constructed.
The system you see here is no less active than the single chassis designs we’ve grown accustomed to but it takes a different path to achieving it. For starters the Kudos Titan 606 contains no amplifiers. This is the bigger brother of our Editor’s Choice winning Titan 505 and, if you want it to, it will function in exactly the same way. There are a pair of 180mm doped paper drivers arranged in a back to back isobaric arrangement that gives the 606 a hefty radiating area in a smaller form factor. This is joined by a 29mm soft dome tweeter and there is a conventional crossover inside them; one that isn’t some sort of stop gap or convenience feature but one designed by Kudos to be as good as it can possibly make it as befits a member of the flagship range.
What there also is on the rear panel is a set of extra terminals. These bypass the internal crossover and directly access the mid bass driver and tweeter (there are input and output connections with removable horseshoe links in them because the outputs are the break point in the signal from the crossover if it is being used). Remove the links and you bypass the internal crossover which allows a different crossover to be used. Effectively, the 606 is a passive speaker that can bypass this passive section should you wish. All members of the Titan range and Super range of Kudos speakers are so equipped.
This means that an external crossover can be substituted for the passive one. In theory, this could be no more than the same passive unit as is inside the speaker being placed in a separate chassis; a few companies do this because it reduces the amount of interference that the components are subjected to. What Kudos has in mind though is that the crossover that replaces the internal one is powered and therefore active. It receives an audio signal, breaks it down into the feed for each drive unit and sends that off to be amplified.
As Kudos is not an electronics manufacturer though, this means co-operating with other companies to create this hardware. The first company to produce a solution was Linn who added Kudos to their Exakt system. Next came Devialet with their SAM equipment and Naim with their longstanding Snaxo active crossovers. All of these systems existed beforehand and have been tweaked to welcome Kudos into their supporting hardware. The fourth and final option has come into being after Kudos began fitting its direct inputs and it is, at the time of writing (November 2020), only available for Kudos speakers.
Exposure as a company needs little introduction. One of the longer running British Hi-Fi brands, it is fairly unusual in that it hasn’t really deviated from its principle occupation of making amplifiers (this is not to say they haven’t made some very nice pieces of source equipment, because they have and still do, but they’ve always been the supporting act to their amplifiers). We’ve looked at one of their current offerings in the XM5 but what you see here is the ultimate expression of the company’s design philosophy.
The most important part of this system is the most visually discrete. Key to how this system functions is the VXN. What the VXN does is sit between the preamp and power amplifiers. The preamp still selects inputs and gain as before but the stereo preout is connected to the VXN. This splits that signal into information for each specific driver - with gain information left intact - to power amplifiers. This crossover unit is in one of the XM half width chassis that housed the XM5. The VXN is available in two way and three way versions and is configured before sale for the specific type of Titan it is driving (that is to say, this one set for a 606 cannot be used with the superficially similar 505).
In order to maximise performance, the VXN is simply the crossover itself. The power supply is external and placed in another half width chassis that connects via a pair of umbilical cables. This avoids the crossover having the advantage of not being within the speaker but instantly losing that advantage by jamming the board next to a power supply instead. It’s important to stress that the VXN isn’t Exposure’s ‘take’ on a Titan 606 crossover. It has the same slopes and characteristics as the one in the 606 and doesn’t alter any aspect of the performance. It simply allows for power amps to be coupled directly to the drivers.
As the VXN is simply equipped with RCA inputs and outputs, it can be used with any pre and power amp that is so equipped but this system is all matching. The 50 Series is the flagship range of Exposure components and the ultimate expression of their design language. The 5010 preamp is, as standard, an entirely analogue design. It has five line inputs, a tape loop and a pair of preouts, one of which is doubled up on an XLR connection. It is a rare beast in 2020 in that it is the, almost ‘old school’, combination of RCA inputs governed by a conventional volume pot. You can augment the functionality with either a moving magnet or moving coil phono stage or a compact DAC board, the latter of which is fitted to this review sample.
This outputs via the VXN to four 5010 mono power amps. This is Exposure’s flagship amp but it is important to note that there three ranges of Exposure mono amplifiers, starting with the half width XM9. Why is this important? It takes a positive attribute of this active system design and augments it. Because the powered crossover is able to divide frequencies up with pretty much no ‘bleed’ of information from one speaker channel to another, crosstalk is negligible. When this information is then sent to an entirely discrete amplifier that shares neither power supply or chassis with any other amp in the system, you can pretty much guarantee that each driver is receiving only the information intended for it.
There’s unlikely to be any shortage of headroom either. Each 5010 disposes of 200 watts of power into 8 ohms and 370 watts into 4. This means that each driver has this power at its disposal (and your friendly reminder that none of that power is being sapped by the crossover network either). In the reality of the space I use for testing, the 80 watt XM9 would be quite sufficient but nothing succeeds like excess.
Now, it’s only fair to point out that there are some side effects to this approach that warrant discussion. As supplied, this stereo amplifier comes in seven separate chassis and needs six mains sockets (the crossover, taking power from the PSU, has no socket of its own). It requires a significant amount of cabling simply to function and wiring it up, while completely logical, is not something you’d undertake lightly. Furthermore, it is basically only equipped to work together. It would technically be possible to choose another member of the Titan family to move to but that is your lot. Sometimes, when we publish a review with a… significant… price tag, we can say you can build up to it over time. This little lot is basically a one time purchase.
It is perhaps as well that it has some charms of its own even before you listen to it. Exposure doesn’t ‘do’ showy. At the £2,200 for the preamp and £5,000 per pair (noting of course, that this system has two pairs) of the power amps, you can buy more visually dramatic devices but the way that these devices look and feel is something that has appealed more and more in the time they’ve been here. They are solid, utterly logical to use and, while it might not be first on the list of lifestyle systems, a big stack of identically branded devices, including one which is a genuine ‘mystery box’ in the classic Hi-Fi tradition, possessing as it does no controls, only a single red LED, has a certain appeal.
The 606 is also subtle but rather elegant with it. Like the 505, the use of the veneered cheeks and the angled top and bottom edges, gives it a distinctive but handsome look. Again, you can look at them and know that they won’t be cheap but there’s nothing overtly showy about the manner in which they sit in a room. They are, ironically, shorter than the 505 when the latter is placed on the Kudos stand and, thanks to the same carefully integrated bass port, no less unfussy about placement. Should you be considering them in a passive setup, the 84dB/w sensitivity will require a little driving but here, with 400 watts a side, we should be OK.
As supplied, this stereo amplifier comes in seven separate chassis and needs six mains sockets. It requires a significant amount of cabling simply to function and wiring it up, while completely logical, is not something you’d undertake lightly
How was the active system tested?
As you may surmise, no chopping and changing took place here. The power amps were connected directly to the speakers with bass amps connected to the high voltage sockets of an IsoTek Evo3 Sigmas and treble to the same on an an Evo3 Aquarius with the preamp and crossover also being connected here. A set of Vertere interconnects and Kudos speaker cable was supplied for wiring. Source equipment was the resident Chord Electronics Hugo TT2 and Mscaler taking a feed from an SOtM SMS-200 Neo running as a Roon enpoint from a Roon Nucleus and an optical connection from an LG 55B7 OLED. A Michell GyroDec with Vertere SG-1 arm and Van den Hul DDT-II cartridge, running into a Cyrus Phono Signature phono stage was used for analogue. Material used has been FLAC, AIFF, DSD, Tidal and Qobuz, on demand TV services and vinyl.
With connections all made and double and triple checked (Kudos is insistent that sending the mid bass signal to the tweeter isn’t terminal but I don’t want to be the mug that tests that), simply switching this lot on is weirdly satisfying. Six identical power buttons, all with a thoroughly agreeable travel and resistance need to be pressed (even before you consider source equipment). It’s like arming a superweapon or getting a multi engine aircraft going. I’ve seen the argument that some of the appeal of high end audio is the ritual that comes with it and this is a fine example.
The first ten minutes of listening to this system is mildly disorientating. It took this long to work out what the difference between it and a ‘normal’ system is and I’ll save you the bother of trying to work out what is happening for yourself. The physical manifestation of having neither crosstalk nor any blurring of information between the drivers is genuinely something that takes a moment to get used to. Even the tiny amounts that a competent stereo amp and a good passive crossover introduces is something that the ear picks up on and acclimatises to. For it suddenly to be stripped out means that the acclimatisation begins again.
Once you do though, you get to experience a genuinely stereo presentation. On a site where Phil and Steve have done reviews of products that have a channel count in double figures, that sounds anticlimactic - like eulogising over colour TV in a world of HDR - but to hear it is to realise how much compromise is inherent to doing things the ‘normal’ way. Something with a well crafted stereo image like Dead Can Dance’s Toward the Within becomes astonishingly immersive. Sounds and effects move with millimetric precision around the soundstage with none of the ‘smear’ of them being where they shouldn’t be. I cannot use any phrase that even hints at the idea of a veil being lifted because Phil will fire me on the spot… but… to hear this is to realise that, for the most part, what we’re listening to isn’t what you truly should be.
This begins a domino effect of listening revelations. Each driver is only reproducing what it should be. The effect this has on detail retrieval is to ensure that it doesn’t matter what you choose to listen to and how well you think you know it, you will hear something in there for the first time. The control on display here is also immensely impressive. Back in civilised society, having a 200 watt, £2,500 a side amplifier to control a 29mm tweeter is overkill. It does also deliver the sort of precision and control that makes everything else seem a little half hearted though. As you might expect, the effect of direct coupling that isobaric driver array to a power amp is rather easier to get your head around. I love well sorted isobaric bass and this is the gold standard.
These technical attributes manifest themselves without affecting the things that these components already did well. As part of the reading around before writing this up, I had an illuminating conversation with Derek Gilligan who designed the Titan Series. Absolutely key to the design and voicing of all the models is the belief that any gains in absolute performance with reference recordings cannot be bought at the expense of being able to deliver the musical message of less than stellar material. This is something very close to my heart. My musical tastes have mellowed over the years but there comes a time of an evening/morning when I might still want to play Def Con One by Pop Will Eat Itself at… appreciable… volume levels. Both the Kudos and Exposures can humour this rather bipolar requirement without blinking.
What is faintly mind blowing in light of this forgiveness is that it doesn’t seem to impinge on the transparency on offer. This is a system that will tell you everything about your connected equipment and what you’re playing with it, it’s just that the negatives are expressed almost apologetically rather than in the sonic equivalent of being elbowed in the ribs. The partnership it has formed with my GyroDec in particular has been one of unbridled joy as it perfectly relays the balance of the components that it currently consists of and that represent the best I have ever had it perform. It also lets the Chord duo strut their stuff with aplomb too. The astonishing width and space that they produce as standard has never had a better foil than this one. It makes the everyday a more special occasion, taking anything you play on it and rendering it in a way that feels optimal. I didn’t watch The Mandalorian in Atmos but I don’t think there’s an extended surround system on the planet I’d chop this one in for.
This is because, when your listening isn’t ‘every day’, when you’re sitting down with a glass of whatever blows your frock up and playing what you want at the level of your choice, this system isn’t seven boxes, two speakers and several metres of cables. It’s a single utterly integrated and cohesive unit. It has the timing, drive and precision that allows any time signature to be reproduced with absolute assurance and the ability to run at any volume level you or the limitations of polite society will tolerate. Without ever hinting at anything other than technical excellence, it is fun with an F the size and font of the Hollywood logo. It is faintly mind boggling that it is the work of two companies who are based 337 miles apart because I’ve heard systems designed by the same people, under the same roof that don’t hang together like this one does. In twenty five years of personal and professional ‘chasing the dragon’ of high quality audio, I have never spent time with anything that meets my personal checklist like this one does.
When your listening isn’t ‘every day’, when you’re sitting down with a glass of whatever blows your frock up and playing what you want at the level of your choice, this system isn’t seven boxes, two speakers and several metres of cables. It’s a single utterly integrated and cohesive unit
- Effortlessly spacious, dynamic and tonally believable
- Huge fun
- Surprisingly forgiving given the resolution on offer
- Large and fairly complex
- Only really works together
- I can't afford it
Kudos and Exposure Active System Review
So, what’s the catch? Aside from knowing that when I finish this word document and click save, I will be faced with roughly an hour of careful disassembly and re-boxing, there is the knowledge that, in my absurd line of business, this system cannot be mine. Let’s assume for a moment that the price isn’t an issue (I mean, it is, but let’s leave that to one side). After this system has gone back in its boxes and been handed off to an incredulous and wholly unhappy courier, more boxes will be unpacked for testing. After that more will come and that will continue for as long as I’m able to make a living from it. In this world of chopping and changing, a system that works only as single unit, and takes up about half of my rack while it does so is never going to be practical. For as long as my Hi-Fi is my way of earning a living, something so specific, so adapted to work together cannot feature.
For most of you reading this though, with real jobs that don’t make strangers briefly adopt a facial expression like Forest Whitaker, when you try and explain it to them, this limitation doesn’t apply. For those of you in this category, you can consider that I have heard (considerably) more expensive and ornate systems than this one and that some of them having far more exotic materials and arresting specifications too. I have however, never heard anything that so absolutely delivers what I want in a two channel audio system. This is a complex and relatively bulky setup and it’s not inconsequentially expensive. It is also the ultimate expression of what a Hi-Fi should be and a benchmark that I have no idea how I might top. This is unquestionably a Best in Class.
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