Kvart-Bolge is a relatively new company that fashioned their Sommeliers speakers from the building blocks of DIY’er frustrations.
After decades of pouting by speaker enthusiasts, famed Bjorn Johannesen (a popular designer and pioneer of modern Quarter Wave architecture) answered their pleas for help and co-founded Kvart-Bolge.
The Sommeliers were born soon after and joyous cries haven’t stopped reverberating around the audiophile world since.
My Speaker Story
A few months ago, a buddy of mine informed me of a shop in my city that happened to be selling a relatively new set of speakers.
He’d said that I would most likely enjoy them and proceeded to give me the address of this place I’ve never been to before. After some coaxing by my friend, I’d found myself wandering aimlessly around the downtown area of Cleveland for the location of a certain low-end electronics shop.
True, it is a bit of a destitute area compared to what I normally sleuth around for deals on audio equipment…I thought for sure I’d end up getting stabbed or mugged at the very least. But, that is the life of an audio journalist and it isn’t much you can do about it. We go where the deals are.
I stepped into the seediest shop I’ve ever come across in my life and took notice of a set of speakers in the back and behind the main counter. Apparently, they were being repaired by the shop manager who by the looks of the rest of the innards of that place, he had a serious affinity for audio gear.
Interesting vintage gear lined the entire rear counter area and he’d had a slew of visually awesome vinyl players, very old (but low value) headphones, and even some off-brand Asian USB DAC’s and amps.
I’d asked the manager what he was working on and was told it was a set of slightly damage Kvart speakers. Upset now, as my friend didn’t tell me they were damaged, I’d bellowed a hefty sigh and texted my friend a flurry of filthy comments that would make pirates weep in disgust.
I’d asked the shop manager if he could turn them on and let me hear the speakers first hand. He’d been repairing a cracked base on one of the Sommeliers towers, so he didn’t have any problem in letting me test it out briefly.
He’d hooked them up to some banana cables that were fed into a speaker amplifier that I also was not familiar with, but one that looked quite damaged and unsafe to even look at the wrong way. I’d asked him if I could connect my portable DX90 DAP as the source and he agreed with a smile.
The music cued up and to say the very least, I contacted Kvart-Bolge just a few days later for a Sommeliers sample. Arved Deecke (super nice fella) at Kvart-Bolge responded soon after and agreed to sell a unit to me for review.
Prior to my foray into headphones, I’d been a speakerphile. I’ve heard and tested more speakers in my life than headphones, so I feel comfortable in saying the Sommeliers are very good for the price and are one of few speakers I’ve ever messed with that I flat out purchased myself from the company direct.
If you think I am harsh with headphones, or even a headphone snob, you’ve seen nothing. My snobbishness with speakers trumps that sentiment with headphones a hundred times over.
The Design and Materials
Kvart-Bolge offers a few versions of exterior finishes that include Zebrawood, Matte black, and Wenge wood stock options.
The company also provides a few other designs as well as a custom option where you can submit images or textures to be applied to the exterior of the towers, or even your pick of any color you can dream up
Pretty neat if you ask me and I’ve seen a few really nice designs out there on the Google Image search! I’ve opted for the Zebra option, due to my love and affinity for that specific type of wood.
The speakers aren’t very tall, standing at just under 3 feet upright. I’ve heard tales of these speakers flopping over too easily or too often, but I’ve personally not experienced such things.
My cat got intimidated by them once and tried to duel it to the death, but ultimately the Sommeliers won the battle…many lives were lost that day. The speakers are bottom-heavy, like my x-girlfriend, but that isn’t at all a negative quality or even worth griping about in a serious manner.
Sure, I would prefer something more stable and if you’ve pets and little kids running around your listening area. I don’t think you should purchase these speakers unless you keep them placed right up against a wall, or in a corner in a safe place if there is heavy traffic in the area. Otherwise, odds are good your little tykes will knock them over often.
Beyond that, the towers themselves feel of a solid quality enough to justify the price. Woodies are always nice and something I am very fond of.
The placement of these speakers inside my listening area looks and feels like they belong right where they are and as I usually say when it comes to wooden products: when the morning sunlight shines through my windows and onto the surface of these Sommeliers, I just can’t help but to stare at them for a short whileand gawk at their beauty.
They are very sleek, very simplistically designed, and elegant all at the same time. From a purely aesthetic point of view, the Kvart-Bolge Sommeliers dish out beauty and class in droves.
I’ve placed them in my media room often when family or friends drop by and I’ve yet to not hold a gathering where the invitees fail to mention how nice those speakers appear, what they are called, or where they can get them.
Interestingly enough, they only have banana plug inputs on the rear of both speakers. At this price and in 2016, I am not sure I am okay with that.
A lot of speakers out there generally have at least RCA and maybe even a 3.5mm input, but I can understand that the input option selection made by the designers are all intended to be the most cost-effective. My wallet is happy about that, but I’d prefer at least 2 input options.
Is it a big deal? Nah, not at all. But, know that you will be forced to use banana plug terminated speaker cables. I’ve actually not had to do this for myself in many years and enjoyed the crafting of my own speaker cables from start to finish.
It was very fun and makes me proud of myself, especially so when considering that I’ve actually never used the type of banana plugs that require the cable wire tips to the fray over the lips of the plug. Normally, I solder my leads and use the type of banana plug that screw locks in place.
However, this time I mistakenly purchased the banana plug types that require the actual internal wiring to be spliced and split, then bent over and out of the center ring of the plug. Very cool! Makes me feel like a professional speaker installer…
Yes, there is a weak link in the chain and I feel a bit odd starting off with the frailest feature of the product. The low end of the Sommelier is relatively bass-light and leaves me wanting more of it. At moderate to normal listening levels, the entire low end lacks oomph and deepness.
I think that is a relative given when considering the type of speaker we have here. As a former owner of Magnepan and a few Audio Engine models out there, I am used to this type of bass experience. Most other Hifi speaker owners will understand this and odds are great that headphone enthusiasts making the jump to mid-fi speakers will just not get this in the slightest.
Bass on mid-fi speakers, in general, is usually specifically tailored to respond well from a frequency aspect of it all, but not in a rich, deep-reaching physical quantity aspect. You’ll lose that quantity factor that bass enthusiasts might want and you’ll be making a sacrifice no matter what route you take.
I’ve found that most speakers in this price range will either be bass monsters with a horrid midrange or will have an excellent midrange with a bass-light low end that is intended to never bleed into any other areas of the experience.
Thankfully, the Sommeliers are the latter of those two types of experiences. Of course, clarity is very nice inside the Sommeliers for the price! However, don’t expect amazing quantity or responsiveness to sudden low-end cues in various bassy tracks. The speakers are plenty pure on the low end but know full well that you won’t be receiving a speaker that can shake your media room.
The company was gracious enough to send me their optional 40-watt power amp that comes in a wired or BT enabled version, both are the same internally and are roughly the size of a wallet.
It is kind of adorable to say the very least and it has been years since I’ve seen a 40-watt amplifier this tiny. The amp costs around $119 and it performs very well as a started amplifier and will likely exist as your primary amplifier for the speakers for a while.
Truthfully, the amp does a good job, but I’ve found that the Sommeliers benefit on the low end from more power. Only 40-50 watts is an okay start and I’d recommend at least double that if you want to use the speakers for anything outside of general media usage.
If you are a serious listener, feed the beast a bit more power and you’ll find that the added juice gives the entire bass region more quantity. With that in mind, the end result of proper amplification adds up to a very nice, well-rounded experience from top to bottom. Without it, odds are good you’ll feel unsatisfied with bass quantity.
Fantastic! Actually, probably the best I’ve heard in this price tier. I’ve been cycling through my audio memory files and also have been seeking out peers that own decent mid-tier speakers to compare with…I’ve yet to come across anything that offers as crisp of a midrange as these Kvart-Bolge Sommeliers!
That term “crisp” is a very important one, as it is the best of terms I can think of when describing the sound these speakers serve up. It seems these speakers lack a lush, thick, and vivid experience and instead went the way of a more flat, detailed, and natural sound for anything related to vocals and midrange in general.
Sadly, I don’t really like this type of sound signature, but that is highly subjective and just my personal preferences poking through and into the review. Objectively, the midrange is exceptionally clean and pure sounding.
I would put these $349 Sommeliers against any other sub $500 speaker and expect it to win the battle in raw clarity and not bat an eye. I’ve not heard anything on par with it for some time and it is a real pleasure to kick back and forget about the weighted feeling that some of my higher end headphones force upon me.
In a small room, roughly 15x20ft, the Sommeliers will shine nicely. I’ve found that in much larger rooms and in cramped spaces, the Sommeliers will not shine as much as you would hope.
Truly, these are intended to offer a more intimate experience, something to be enjoyed roughly 10-20 feet away from you. Beyond that point, I can detect detail loss and requiring the volume to be raised enough to present problems for the neighbors.
Depending on the angle the speakers are set up and their distance apart from one another, you can obtain more or less value depending on your listening preferences.
If you are into a headphone-like, vividly upfront experience, then tote the speakers a little closer and make sure to follow some high-end speaker guides you can find online for how to properly space speakers. This really makes a world of difference and intimacy levels shoot through the roof in a positive manner when you find the right positioning for you!
26-degree angles really aren’t at all needed here. The reason drastic angles don’t do anything for this speaker is due to the driver tech and type: Quarter Wave.
Seriously, the center imaging capabilities of the Sommeliers are easily the best in class sub $500. You do not need to invert the angles inward or outward and doing so almost always ruins things for me. I suggest you keep them front-facing and if need be, ever so slightly turned inward by just a few degrees.
I am actually able to sit or stand almost directly between the speaker towers and still feel like the imaging is being thrown in front of me. That is a serious statement and I am baffled by a few other owners out there who mentioned you’ll need a center speaker for media usage.
I’ve never actually been angry at someone online who posted something about an audio product before, but I’d sure like to find the user who said that and proceed to beat some sense into him.
Vocals in general are moderately large and certainly not on par with the likes of my old Magnepan 1.6, but they are absolutely large enough sounding to fill my bedroom and media room at moderate volumes.
Density and physicality factors are relatively moderate as well and I find them to neither lack nor push out an overly thick sound signature. The middle ground, all around.
That seems to be the trademark slogan of what the Sommeliers offer you. I wouldn’t take that as a negative statement, as having that much good and nothing lacking at all will almost always result in a well-rounded and enjoyable experience for almost anything you want to listen to.
Thankfully, the speakers do not radiate a recessed midrange and also do not slam too much either. This is a middle of the road set of speakers that does everything well, something that was specifically designed to neither lack or be overly abundant anywhere and that perform on an upper mid-tier price range while being in the lower to middle-tier pricing areas.
Some have called the treble of the Sommeliers a bit hot and I can certainly agree with that in some cases. If the track is problematic, you’ll hear a messy upper end. If the track is nicely recorded and lacking a static haze or nastiness in general, you should enjoy the experience without wincing or even noticing any problematic treble.
I do not agree with the idea that the treble of the Sommeliers is always hot, but I do agree that it can become hot depending on the track. That isn’t enough for me to warrant issuing negative points over.
I consider it plentiful and I am a bit sensitive to treble, yet I’ve yet to even bother down toggling the EQ of the upper end for the entire duration of my experience with this speaker.
There is a fine line between harshness and plentiful treble. Once again, the Sommeliers seem intended to play ball right on that line and I don’t really have any terribly recorded tracks in my inventory to worry about.
There is no overdone or painful stock treble, there also isn’t a lacking sense of it unless the track calls for it, which is something I can confirm when testing certain tracks with good headphones against the Sommeliers.
While on the subjective of responsiveness, I’ve been unable to hit the -5dB mark and actually hear a significant difference. Oddly enough, a +5dB raise on the treble results in an icy sheen appearing over the entire top end of the spectrum.
Once I reach -7dB on the treble, things start to really tone down and become overly lacking, destitute, and flat sounding. I suggest never touching the EQ on the top end unless you are listening to tracks that are hissy and very painful to listen to.
Sure, clarity is just good on the Sommeliers treble end, but I wouldn’t call it amazing or grand. For the price, it seems justified and right where I would expect it to be. It is very evident the star of the show is found in the exceptional midrange and I think the experience as a whole would feel lopsided if these speakers also showcased a potent and equally vivid top end.
Stage and Imaging
As previously mentioned, the Kvart-Bolge Sommeliers pipe out an incredible center image the likes of which I’ve not heard in a damned long time. With regard to the height and width factor, expect very good staging all around.
Thankfully, things feel coherent and precise all while remaining far outside the realm of stretched or overly cavernous. I’d expect this to be the case due to the forward and natural midrange.
The reason for that being massive sound stage by comparison to other speakers with equally huge drivers would totally ruin the intimacy of a speaker like this.
If you are into headphones, the best way I can describe that for you is if the Audeze LCD3 had the vastness of the Sennheiser HD800…you’d totally lose out on the LCD3’s strongest listening quality of intimacy and forwardness if things were that large sounding.
The sad fact of the matter is that mid-fi speakers stink at soundstage and almost never extend far, yet here we have the Sommeliers that do a very good job at this as well as present an awesome center image? Jeez.
Compared to Larger Speakers
What is rocking my socks off is that I am comparing a roughly 3.5inch driver in the Sommeliers to much larger middle-tier speakers with cones and drivers that are easily double or even triple the size…yet the Sommeliers probably best most of them in raw vastness and imaging prowess in this tier.
If the incredibly detailed center image isn’t enough for you, know that such a small driver here in the Sommeliers is capable of tossing a more than acceptable imaging width and height factor when set in an average-sized bedroom or media area.
This is impressive stuff when you think about it, as I’ve really never experienced a tiny little driver like this shell out a sound stage that exceeds most of my older middle-tier speakers.
They destroy the Audio Engine A5+ in both clarity and staging by a significant margin, as well as offer a detailed center image that totally obliterates the majority of sub $400 speakers out yonder. Kvart-Bolge gets a big 10/10 for staging qualities here. Damned impressive, especially when you get to see just how small that speaker driver really is sitting inside that wooden tower.
These Sommeliers were so impressive, that I’ve decided to try to make 2016 a year of speaker re-visiting for me. I want to introduce the community to amazing speakers and experience some of the recent monstrosities created by other companies out there.
I’ve re-fallen in love with speakers and I couldn’t be happier at the moment. Sure, my condo neighbors hate me with the fury of 1000 supernovas, but who cares?! I’ve got some of the best middle tier speakers money can buy.
Not only are they drop dead gorgeous, but they also perform admirably in pretty much every facet of the word. There is no denying this is an all-star speaker, as well as one that was specifically and lovingly crafted by designers who want good deals themselves.
Kvart-Bolge has created a champion product for the price, as I’ve not heard a $350 speaker that can go toe to toe with the Sommeliers exceptional midrange or even the even more special center imaging capabilities that these speakers have to offer.
Great job, Kvart-Bolge! You’ve rekindled an old flame that I thought burnt out deep inside me some time ago and I’ll certainly be first in line to pick up any new models you might release in the future.
Dimensions: 4 x 6 x 35.2 inches (10 x 15 x 89 cm).