Twenty years ago, Ruark gave the world loudspeakers named after ancient armaments: the Broadsword and the Sabre. The latter morphed into 'MkII' form in the late 1980s, then ten years back it quietly went out of production. Happily, the Sabre is now back in MkIII form and looking rather different to its predecessor.
For a start, it's about two-thirds of the size of the original, which was conceived in the days when beefy standmounts were still domestically acceptable. Just as fundamental is that the newcomer is a reflex-ported design rather than its infinite baffle forebear.
Both drive units have changed; the main bass/mid driver is an inch smaller in diameter, with a 95mm pulp cone in a 150mm chassis, and the tweeter that was once polyamide has become a 27mm textile dome. So, while the name may be the same there is very little in common between Sabres II and III.
Apart, that is, from Ruark's high-quality finish, the company using real wood veneers - natural oak or rich walnut as standard, with yew or rosewood available at extra cost - and shiny gold plated fixings to produce a satisfying impression of quality that's more than skin deep. But it's not easy to see why this speaker is as good as it undoubtedly is.
There are no hi-tech drivers, fancy materials or silver-plated terminals for retailers to point out, just down to earth, proven technologies and a high standard of finish. This, however, could well be the key to its success. Many speaker designers pick on something to 'big up', something that they can describe as new and able to solve all the ills of what's gone before.
But when you go back to what actually went before, those problems don't seem so horrendous - in fact, if they hadn't been highlighted you'd hardly notice them. Simple solutions often out-perform the latest whizz-bang technologies if they're well executed.
Ruark puts it down to a number of factors. The voicing, for instance, is done almost entirely by ear; Ruark uses measurements to make sure that things don't go too awry, but the balance that the company chooses is a subjective one. The treble is lifted, apparently, which Ruark can get away with thanks to the quality of the SEAS tweeter - a new design with a larger than average dome and no ferrofluid.
This allows the dome to be quicker and more agile than fluid-damped designs but also means that power handling is limited. The bass unit has a vented spider and a very open cast frame, which should improve speed. Its paper cone may not be very different but it's a material that has proved itself hard to beat, thanks to good internal damping and a high stiffness to weight ratio.
The crossover is a damped, second-order network that uses air-cored inductors. Again, nothing too clever - just proven audio technology. A small cabinet is intrinsically stiff and the quality of finish is exemplary, so it's an attractive and inert little speaker. The finishing touches are good, too - we particularly like the small silver medallion set into the rear panel that denotes the company's craftsmanship credentials.
Bi-wire terminals remain in place for those with two runs of speaker cable. The voicing that Ruark has chosen is very strong on communication. It does err on the revealing side in the treble but the tweeter is up to the job and there is no sense of brightness. Instead you get openness, speed and dynamic expression.
Next to the stronger elements of competition at this price point, there is a shortfall in power handling and scale, but the Sabre III has more charm than most and you soon forget about its lightweight balance. In fact, if you put on something heavy, the bass weight seems sufficient, especially when combined with the good image depth, power and timing that are served up alongside it.
All the while, the treble exposure tends to deliver more texture and decay than usual. The key to this speaker's appeal does not lie in the tonal domain but in the more critical timing one. We are naturally able to filter out or hear through variations in tonal balance, but have no capacity to make up for deficiencies in a system's timing capabilities.
The Sabre III is particularly strong here, delivering a sense of rightness about the tempo that puts it above the crowd. Voices work extremely well, possibly as a result of the balance but also because the midrange is articulate and revealing. You hear much of the character that is on the recording and nearly all of the subtlety, which is no mean feat.
This is not a particularly dynamic speaker, yet one gets the impression of good dynamic range. Given the average power handling, the noise floor must be good and low. And as speakers don't have an intrinsic noise floor, this means that there is very little overhang; notes stop and start quickly, so they don't blur those that follow.
This quality, when fed with an emotionally powerful piece of music, can make for lump-in-the-throat inducing experiences. Gillian Welch's 14th of April is just such a song, but it doesn't always have the power that the Ruark was able to elicit. A moving experience, no less.
At the asking price, there are alternatives that deliver more bass power and volume level potential, but you won't find one that betters the timing and communication skills on offer from the Sabre III. It's qualities like these that keep you listening because they bring out the emotionally engaging elements in the music.
While the power and energy of music is important, it is nothing without the intrinsic message and that's what the Sabre III specialises in. In the context of the standmount competition at this price, this Ruark has a small but significant advantage in nearly all musical respects. If you're more interested in music than fire-power, you really should hear a pair.