Role Audio Sampan FTL Speakers

Role Audio Sampan FTL Speakers

August 3, in Hi-Fi Systems Reviews



  • Single, crossover-less driver per speaker
  • 3.5-inch cast frame transducer
  • (MLSSA matched)
  • Cast-aluminum frame with neodymium magnet
  • Magnetically shielded
  • Frequency Response: 40-20,000 Hz ±3db (-6dB reference to 1 kHz @ 35 Hz) Sensitivity: 87 dB 1 watt/m
  • Rated Impedance: 8 ohms Minimum impedance: 7 ohms Nominal impedance: 9 ohms Recommended Power: 2 – 100 watts Binding Posts: five-way terminals
  • Dimensions: 8” x 4” x 9.5” (H x W x D) Actual Weight: 4 pounds per speaker Shipping Weight: 9 pounds per pair 10 year limited warranty
  • Price per pair: $895 (satin black), $995 (creamy white or white birch)

Earlier this year I had the opportunity to hear a pair of Role Audio’s Sampan FTL speakers at the ’07 AudioKarma Fest. I was mightily impressed by the big, full sound these tiny bantamweights generated during my brief encounter (see the April ‘07 issue of Affordable$$Audio). They seemed to be the ideal speaker for such a venue and, given their size, a perfect travel companion. But how would they perform in a real listening space instead of a small hotel room?

Role Audio sells the Sampan FTL in matched pairs as a bookshelf alternative to their floor-standing Sampan speakers. At first glance, you may wonder why it costs the lion’s share of a grand. In a world where speaker weight typically increases with price, I expected something much heavier when instructed at AudioKarma Fest to lift one of the FTLs off their stand and I nearly tossed it through the ceiling. Additionally, there are no exotic veneers. No custom-milled binding posts. And of course, no esoteric crossover components since the FTL is a single-driver design. But the real beauty is hidden deep inside and becomes immediately apparent upon the first listening. As Erol Ricketts of Role Audio explained:

The exotic woodworking and “crossover” are on the inside of the cabinet. Given the complexity of the internal design and the need to keep the speaker small and lightweight there is no desire to dress-up the outside of the cabinet.

Role Audio Sampan review

FTL = Folded Transmission Line

A transmission line speaker incorporates a long tunnel or pipe that is stuffed with wadding to absorb the rear wave of the speaker driver. In theory, this prevents damping of the speaker cone and distortion due to sound wave reflections, such as occurs in a sealed acoustic suspension design. Furthermore, the sound generated by a transmission line speaker comes primarily from the driver itself, as opposed to bass reflex designs in which the port output is tuned to reinforce and augment the driver’s output.

Properly implemented, transmission lines are purported to deliver remarkably extended and smooth bass response without any excess reverberation or boom along with excellent imaging abilities due to the lack of distortion causing interior reflections. These are all qualities immediately apparent in the Sampan FTL, in which a nearly three-foot transmission line length is cleverly folded into the diminutive cabinets. And that’s where the magic lies.

With regard to R&D this speaker took 4 years to make. The design goal for the speaker was to shrink the performance and design of the Sampan into the smallest possible cabinet. The speaker appears simple and lightweight because that was the intention. Most of the weight of a small speaker comes from the magnet structure of the driver. The driver in the FTL uses a neodymium magnet. The cabinet is made of 3/4, 3/8, and 3/16-inch panels (which we have to custom order) to keep the weight low. The rigidity of the cabinet is realized by the design of the tunnel. The big cost factor is manufacture and assembly of the cabinet. There is no room for error because once the speaker is assembled errors cannot be corrected. The central section of the cabinet is assembled and finished then stuffed. The front baffle consists of the driver and port (PVC mated to MDF) covered with cloth prior to assembly. The trick is to snake the wire from the front to the back, attach it to the driver, glue the front baffle assembly to the central part of the cabinet, seal the area where the port travels through the front part of the tunnel so that there is no sound leakage, connect the wire to the terminals and glue the back panel to the assembly without making any errors and keeping the cabinet airtight. Keep in mind that we are working with a very small cabinet, can’t get glue on the cloth, and can’t make any errors. This is the expense of the speaker.

Warming Up

Right out of the box, the Sampan FTLs sounded quite good with a very open, expansive presentation. I initially thought they sounded a bit thin on the bottom end and somewhat too recessed and laid back overall. I took the manufacturer’s advice and allowed them a few weeks of playing before doing any critical listening, which concluded with a trip to the Bonnaroo Music Festival as part of a portable system including an iPod and Sonic Impact T-Amp. Role Audio also recommends allowing the speakers to play for about an hour before listening to warm-up the drivers (this is common with electronics but I had never considered this for speakers).

Back in my main listening room (18.5’x16’x8.5’), I first tried the Sampan FTLs positioned on top of my low 8’-wide equipment rack along the short wall to test their bookshelf performance. I didn’t expect much so close to the wall, but was surprised at just how good they performed. The soundstage was surprising wide and deep, imaging quite good though not up to my regular speakers, with a full, warm-bodied sound that filled the room quite nicely. I can see how these would make great bookshelf speakers if such is required, but I ultimately preferred their performance on stands.

Setting the Sampans out into my main listening room proved to be a bit problematic, as I didn’t have stands tall enough for their small size. Concrete blocks helped remedy the situation and proved to be a very solid foundation, though not an aesthetically acceptable solution in the long term. Because of the FTL’s lightweight, you have to be bit careful about the speaker cables as excessively stiff or heavy designs can lift or pull them right off the stands (my DH Labs Q-10 cables proved to work just fine). Also, if you have pets or children roaming the room, beware as they can easily topple the speakers over.

After getting them on stands, I initially detected a slight softening of the higher frequency details. The details were all there, but just didn’t seem as incisive or as sharp as my Magnepan 1.6s. However, I was able to remedy this by adjusting the toe-in so that they were pointed more directly at my listening position than with other speakers (though directly on I could localize the speakers and with too little the sound softened excessively). Though I did not feel they matched the top-end extension and sparkle of the Maggie’s quasiribbon tweeter, there is no evidence of the top-end roll-off that can occur with some single-driver speakers and I found they required somewhat less toe-in when moved to a smaller room with a closer listening position.

Sometimes … Size Doesn’t Matter

speakers in bag

The first thing that struck me was the Sampan FTL’s fantastic soundstage, in particular front to back layering. Starting right in front of you (even going behind on some recordings), the depth seems to go on forever and extends far off into the distance beyond the front wall. I kept coming back to this quality, repeatedly shocked and impressed by their ability to completely envelope me with a holographic presentation. This was irrespective of what type of music I threw at them: instruments appeared properly placed within the orchestra in Saint-Saens’ “Danse Macabre” (Jean Fournet, Tokyo Metropolitan Orchestra), the artificial landscapes of William Orbit’s Strange Cargo series had a remarkable sense of solidity and realism, and I could easily locate each member of The California Guitar Trio as they strummed their complex arrangements.

Role Audio Speaker

The amount of detail that the Sampan FTL delivers is equally impressive, but not in a way that calls attention to it or makes you sit up and notice. You suddenly realize that you can follow every instrument or voice and place them in the recording space. This detail never seemed forward or excessive, always remaining in proper proportion. Overdubs and edits on more heavily mixed and processed recordings are clearly apparent, though not such that it ever became objectionable. For example, I could clearly make out the multiple vocal tracks used throughout Wilco’s Yankee Hotel Foxtrot album as well as the subtle background voice on Tori Amos’ “Past the Mission” (Under the Pink).

The combined effect of this holographic soundstage and extensive yet relaxed presentation of detail is that it allows you to look into and experience the recording, rather than just view the performance from afar. I found it easy to perceive the sense of each recording venue, in many cases more so than even through my Magnepans which surprised me. I would have thought this to be quite subtle on recordings like Tuck Andress’ close mic guitar work on Reckless Precision or the wonderful “a cappella” solo of female vocalist Constanze Friend on Friend n’ Fellow’s “This Love” (Home). But the Sampan’s folded transmission line faithfully reproduced the ambience of the rooms, allowing the reverberations to be properly presented and distinct which can otherwise tend to become vague if the bass is overly boomy or bloated.

After getting past the initial astonishment of just how open and expansive the tiny Sampans can be, I found that my listening notes turned to the natural, flowing and warm sound they produced. This makes them absolutely incredible with vocals and stringed instruments as the aforementioned Tuck Andress and Constanze Friend come to mind again. They have a delicacy and smoothness across the sound spectrum combined with incredible pace and rhythm that is addictive, rendering Friend’s voice with realism that was startling. Rather than jumping between tracks, I often found myself drawn in by the musicality of the Sampan FTLs and ended up listening to entire albums.

Other Times … Size Does Matter

There’s no getting around physics and a 3.5” driver is still a 3.5” driver. Compared to my Magnepans, there is a difference of around 860 sq. in. of radiating area per speaker pair. The most notable limitation this enforces on the Sampan FTLs is a reduced max output. Turn them up a bit too much and they will cry out. Unfortunately I found myself often wanting for more output. While Tuck Andress’ guitar sounded full-bodied and rich, it never seemed to really energize the room the way it can through the Maggies, particularly in the mid to upper bass.

The same was true of more deep-bass heavy albums like Laurie Anderson’s Strange Angels and Tori Amos’ Strange Little Girl, on which the bass was present and reasonably impressive for such small speakers, thought it couldn’t really be felt in my main listening room. As a portable system in an open environment like our campsite at Bonnaroo, the Sampan FTLs could not generate a truly full sound without the added reinforcement you have inside a room. They were very enjoyable nonetheless, though I don’t think too many people are going to be camping with these speakers.

Another limitation I perceived as resulting from the small size of the Sampan FTLs is a reduction of the image size, particularly in height. However, this may be more a function of the fact that I am accustomed to the huge image thrown by the Magnepans. And although I found the stage width of the Sampans to be impressive, I didn’t feel they quite matched my Maggies, though they performed much better once I moved the Sampan’s to a smaller room. Of course, when it comes soundstage depth, the Sampan’s extend at least as far back as the Maggies and are every bit as holographic.

Perhaps a more appropriate consideration of whether or not size matters is to view the room as a component of your system, and determine whether or not it is too big for the speakers (though it is obviously easier to change speakers rather than rooms). In a smaller room, I found the Sampan FTL’s supposed limitations quickly fell away or were at least greatly ameliorated. They are fantastic when placed in a listening environment appropriate to their design and can be every bit as enjoyable (if not more so) as a large speaker in a large room.

The most noticeable improvement in a smaller room was the bass, which surprised me with its added impact and depth. If you plan on using the FTLs on a bookshelf or up against a wall, I doubt you’ll be wanting except for the very bottom octaves. A smaller room also means that your listening position will be closer to the speakers for higher volume levels without cranking them up into the danger zone. I also briefly tried the Sampan’s in the nearfield, moving them within about five feet of my listening position. This created an almost headphone-like imaging experience, though without the in-your-head syndrome. There was a loss to some of the soundstage depth and openness, though the more intimate and lively sound was quite engaging.

I also performed some brief listening with an old Pioneer SX-780 receiver and, surprisingly, felt this was a better match than my stock Sonic Impact T-amp (which admittedly has a somewhat anemic low-end and dry mid-bass without modifications). The Pioneer was able to hang some extra meat on the low end of the Sampans and gave them more mid-bass prominence, both welcome additions. Even with this nearly 30-year-old receiver, the soundstage was huge and deep, yet another demonstration of the Sampan’s remarkable versatility.


The biggest complement I can pay the Sampan FTL speakers is the fact that I found myself pulling out many recordings I haven’t listened to in some time, not just my reference favorites. They seem to excel with female vocals and stringed instruments, two types of recordings I am continually drawn to, but are very enjoyable across a wide range of genres as can be seen by the varied list of recordings I used in their evaluation. Regardless of what you throw at them, the music just flows and draws you in, and before you know it another evening is gone.

Role Audio Sampan FTL

Do the Sampan FTLs have limitations? As with any design, of course, though how these figure into the price-to-performance ratio is dependent upon your situation and listening preferences. In a large listening room they may not be able to produce the decibel levels and impact you desire, some will want a more palpable low-end and others may desire a larger image with greater presence. That’s what makes loudspeakers such a subjective buying endeavor, more so than any other component in my opinion.

In the end, there is no need for Role Audio to make apologies for the Sampan FTL. They are absolute champs when it comes to soundstage portrayal, tonal accuracy, and coherence from top-to-bottom and musicality. I even found myself reconsidering my own listening preferences and questioning the performance of my Magnepans in several areas when compared to the Sampan FTL (in particular overall musicality, soundstage depth and micro detail). Consider it strong praise indeed for these little overachievers.

Main System

  • Magnepan 1.6QR speakers
  • PS Audio GCC-100 integrated amp
  • Cary 306/200 CDP/DAC
  • Squeezebox 3 digital music streamer
  • Music Hall MMF-5 Turntable
  • Monolithic Sound PS-1 phonostage and HC-1 high-current supply
  • Portable System
  • iPod Mini (running the RockBox operating system) or iPod Nano
  • Sonic Impact T-Amp (stock via 12v battery or linear supply)
  • Vintage Equipment
  • Pioneer SX-780 receiver or SA-6500II integrated amp

from affordableaudio, By Craig Johnson

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