Author Archives: k3ox
OK, confession time. I really fell in love with the Raidho C 1.1 when I heard it at a recent RMAF, but I couldn’t justify the $17k required to make it mine. But I came upon the Vivid V1.5 at a show (I actually can’t remember which one) and ended up really admiring it, in fact it struck me as a “poor man’s Raidho”. The V1.5 sells for around $8000 and doesn’t require expensive stands, so it struck me as the next best thing at a price I decided I COULD spring for. And so, decision made, the deal was done.
They arrived in shipping crates so substantial that it would not have been easy for them to sustain damage and none was noted. Mine are in the “Graphite” finish, quite expertly applied. So far, strictly class act, which gives a great first impression. Would they make me forget the Raidho’s?
Vivid Audio is a speaker company based in South Africa with its roots firmly in the UK, specifically with B & W, one of the most respected speaker companies in the world. B & W needs no introduction, but Laurence Dickie might. He was the man responsible in large part for B & W’s ambitious Nautilus loudspeaker (among others) and the Vivid audio range is his latest thoughts on home monitor loudspeakers. Vivid Audio manufactures two basic lines, the larger, more elaborate and expensive GIYA series and the Oval series. The V1.5 is the least expensive in the Oval series, but despite that shares a fair amount of the companies characteristic technology. Their speakers are almost all floor standing, either full-sized or smaller with what are basically integrated stands. The cabinets are made of loaded carbon fibre filled polymer and are smoothly rounded and nicely finished, giving a luxurious, yet somewhat esoteric appearance. The Vivid line will not be to everyone’s esthetic tastes, I suspect, but I like them.
The cabinets are not the only unique part of the Vivid line. The drivers are also of high-tech modern design and incidentally, built in-house at Vivid. The V1.5 employs a 26mm dome tweeter featuring an anodised aluminium diaphragm and an integrated “Tapered Tube” device, designed to optimally load the driver. The woofer is a 158 mm unit also with an anodised aluminium alloy cone on a die-cast aluminium chassis. To minimise the restriction of the rear wave off the back of the diaphragm, the radially polarised magnet assembly is mounted on a series of narrow struts. The woofer is also is mounted on silicone O-rings, ensuring chassis vibration is minimally coupled to the cabinet. All in all, a lot of technology is brought to bear here.
And so on to a few specs from the manufacturer. The sensitivity is rated at 89dB/1w @1m with an 8 ohm Nominal Impedance. The frequency range is specified as 40 hz to 42,000 hz at their 6dB points and the frequency response is rated at 42 hz to 39,000 hz +/- 2dB on their reference axis. Harmonic distortion is 0.5% over their frequency range. The crossover frequency between to woofer and tweeter is set at 3000 hz.
So OK, how does it sound? In a word, impressive. Not in a “grab your ear in a demo” way (though it can do that with the right recordings), but in a natural, musically consonant way. The drivers do not betray much of their metal diaphragm material, an impressive feat considering that there is also seemingly little contribution to the sound due to cabinet resonances (which can sometimes cover up the sins of less capable drive units). The previously reviewed KEF LS-50 also took pains to employ a low-coloration cabinet and like the Vivid, the excellently designed driver was an essential part of the success of the system. A low-coloration cabinet with poor or modest drivers would not be a worthwhile exercise, in my view.
What hit me first about the Vivid’s sound was their subjectively low distortion, good resolution and fine soundstage. These were also hallmarks of my take on the Raidho C 1.1 sound, so that was a good first impression. It is true that sometimes the impression of detail can be somewhat a matter of treble resonances or excess treble level, but that did not seem to be the case here. While there is indeed full measure of treble, it never struck me as excessive and never seemed to stick out from the body of the sound but integrate nicely in to the overall presentation. It must be said that many speakers have a somewhat subdued treble from what is on offer here, a strategy to “civilize” some of the more aggressive recordings out there. There is something to be said for this, but I can’t hold it against the V1.5 designers that they choose not to compromise to accommodate dicey recordings. It should however be said that the V1.5 does not do it’s best to make the worst of lesser recordings. It pretty much lays out what the recording sound like, so overbright recordings will still seem overbright, but they do not exacerbate the tendency to make these recordings seem worse than they are like speakers with peaky or resonant tweeters or tweeters in break-up mode can do.
The midrange is, in my view quite good, smooth in response and well balanced with low perceived distortion and coloration. This, with the excellent left to right soundstage spread and good soundstage depth, allows one to listen into the music for subtle details if one desires without overwhelming the listener. There is a sense of clean and pure sound without crossing the line into sterility. In my room (about 14′ by 20′) they played as loud as I would desire (I do not generally listen at the earsplitting levels some do) with a good dynamic sense.
The bass they have is clean and provides a good foundation for the rest of the aural spectrum but is, of course, somewhat limited in deep bass extension as they employ, after all, effectively a bookshelf speaker sized enclosure. But there is enough there, in my view, to reasonably underpin the music in most cases. And, in common with most smaller speakers, they have a “vertically challenged” soundstage presentation. The effect of a taller soundstage may well be an artifact of larger speakers, planars and line sources and not be something literally captured by the microphones, but it must be said that this sense of vertical height does add a little to the “reality” of the reproduced sound as compared to live concert hall sound.
I do not maintain that there is any one absolute sonic presentation that is “right” while all others are “wrong”. This concert hall works like this, different areas in the hall produce different balance and soundstaging characteristics but ultimately can all be said to be characteristic of the hall’s “live sound”. And so, logically, in my mind this is also true of reproduced sound. Something like my Spendor S-100 loudspeakers provide a more laid-back sound with a more generalized sense of instrument location which is characteristic of a seat in the hall further from the orchestra than the more front hall sound of the Vivid’s. Both of these presentations are valid, which you would prefer depends on your personal preference. Personally, I can admire speakers that honor concert hall sound of whatever perspective they provide.
So no, I haven’t forgot about Raidho, and I do wonder how they would compare in my system. But I also really admire the V1.5 on its own merits. The Vivid’s have always made music that I enjoy listening to and I have not become tired of them even after two years of ownership. They are not cheap but, in my view, provide excellent performance for their price and I can recommend you give them a listen. Any speaker that can cool you jets about a design costing double the price is doing something right!
It’s been an exciting time for portable audio or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and wear headphones in public.
Back in the day, portable audio was a wild and wooly world of portable cassette players (some with built in analog FM tuners), and later, portable CD players, spent batteries and small, discrete (and sonically mediocre) headphones. And after all that, you had to plan what music you thought you might want to hear that day and schlep the attendant physical media based recordings with you. Still, being able to listen to music on the train or when walking through the park, etc. was enjoyable enough to make it worth while, at least for me.
The status of portable audio stayed pretty much quo until the first Ipod hit the market late in 2001. It may have not been the best sounding thing and it’s storage capacity was initially limited, but really, how many cassettes or CD’s could you carry in your pocket? You could carry an Ipod with a lot of music and a pair of the supplied earphones in that pocket easily. And to me that was a revelation.
The market place in general and young folks in particular thought so too and soon portable audio was a major player in consumer electronics. A proliferation of playback formats, digital players and IEM’s (as they became to be known) followed and the whole thing became a social phenomenon complete with “Beats” headphones becoming a must-have accessory for the hip youth culture and the emergence of the detached teen in his world of Itunes fodder for many first and second rate comedians. Mainstream? It was a torrent…
That audiophiles would join in was just an inevitability. The early Ipod MP3 sound was far from the best and the earphones and headsets available at first tended to be somewhat cheap and cheerful. But a world of more sonically sophisticated players and IEM’s, some of the custom fit style (adapted from live music performance and broadcast requirements), became all the rage in our little segment of the consumer audio world. And as more and more Avant-Garde young bohemians, wannabe gangsters and hipsters started wearing their over-ear Beats in public (I had a ringside seat to this traveling the NYC subway system), it gradually became acceptable to wear over-ears in public even for us old, repressed and self-conscious middle Americans to join in. So I did indeed stop worrying.
Now, people seem to be willing to just let their headphone freak-flag fly. I have seen all kinds of phones in the street and on the train, including upscale Audio-Technics, Sennheisers (including HD-600’s), lots of different Sony’s (including quite a few of the recording studio standby MDR-7506), JBL’s and even more than a few Grado’s. I have done my part in this, wearing at times a pair of HD-800, my FAD Pandora’s and even a pair of retro (and decidedly retro-looking) Beyer DT-48’s that date back to the Woodstock era whose almost identical forbearers first hit the market in the late days of the Great Depression!
And so audiophile digital players have evolved too. Many of us never bought into the ITunes concept and ripped our CD’s on to our computers to transfer to our (audiophile) players in their native format (eg. WAV) or somewhat compressed so-called lossless formats (such as FLAC or ALAC). And, moving forward, with the increased availability of Hi-Rez files originally initially intended for the home music server market, it would be inevitable there would be demand for portable players capable of Hi-Rez playback.
To the audiophile, the availability and the public acceptability of better on-ear phones made the ability to play back the better sounding file formats even more desirable. There are now many Hi-Rez audiophile players, some with more-or-less serious attention paid to the D-A conversion and analog output stages, available. Initially, the availability was in the high priced audiophile market, but in the last few years this has trickled down to more modestly priced units. The concurrent availability of smaller and higher data capacity storage devices (both internal and external), finally made the resulting larger HI-Rez files fully practical.
Of the new wave of Hi-Rez portable playback devices, I am mostly familiar with the Fiio X-3 and the Ibasso DX-50 as I own both. However, I have mostly used the DX-50 because of the OTG (On the Go) connector which allows external storage to be connected to augment the internal memory and internal microSD card. Unfortunately, the OTG port in the Fiio only allows you to input digital streams for playback on the Fiio’s D-A converter. This may be useful to some, but really what’s the point of being able to play back Hi-rez files with their large file sizes without expandable memory to store them? But I digress…
Connecting, say, a thumb drive to the DX-50 requires a somewhat unusual “USB OTG micro USB Male to USB A female” cable, available on-line through the usual sources. But I found that Micro Center had them in stock which allowed the instant gratification of driving to the store and picking one up to expedite the project, decidedly old school! So I bought that and a PNY 128Gb USB thumb drive for around $70. Presto, along with my 64Gb micro SD card I now had 192 Gb total storage. A good start.
I now have the 64Gb microSD card and three external 128 Gb thumb drives filled with music (Hi-Rez and not) set up for my DX-50. So I have around 448 Gb of storage available portably, not too bad, even for Hi-Rez files. And BTW, what’s the point of Hi-rez players without expandable memory? But I digress…
All my music files are now resident on a 1Tb hard drive. When I can find a 2.5 inch hard drive external enclosure with internal battery I will be able to carry around all my Hi-rez files for when I go on vacation and the like. You gotta love it!
So how does the DX-50 sound? Well, it sounds OK. It can sound a bit threadbare and artificial at times and to be sure even one of the small external amplifiers (in this case a Ray Samuels Audio Emmeline P-51 Mustang) helps things out a bit. But the DX-50 is reasonable for portable applications driving even decent headphones directly, good enough to enliven dull daily stuff like my commute for work with enjoyable music and that’s nothing to sneeze at. The Operating System is good enough for me (I don’t engage in stuff like complicated search features, playlists or other fripperies, I just pick an album or song a play it) and it has been reliable. I found a case that I could easily modify to carry and protect it at a “Five Below” store and the supposed-to-be belt clip holds two of my thumb drives. But how I wish the PONO had the ability to handle external storage…
To me, it’s a far cry from yesterdays cassettes and walkman…
Final Audio Design (hereafter called “FAD”) is an interesting and in some ways, bizarre, company. They have had their hands in many aspects of audio over the years, but are probably best known today for their headphone/IEM products. FAD seems often to make little concession to practicality, marketability or even many folks concept of what “proper” sound should be in many of their products. Calling some of their gear an acquired taste is probably an understatement. They have described some of their kit as a intention to replicate the sounds characteristic of low power tube amp/horn systems, which it must be said is a unique niche for a portable audio company to cater to.
It was with some trepidation that a few years ago I bought their 1601SS IEM. Somehow, the talk about it made me want to check it out for myself. It turned out to be a heavy chunk of chromium-shiny metal that had to be shoved tightly in the ear and that what it did wrong sonically was immediately and blatantly obvious. I suspect that most folks would have given this a quick listen and bowed out and I this I can understand. But…
There are certain things the FAD did that were unusual in my experience for IEM’s. There were plenty of problems, no deep bass, an upper midrange hole, a rolled off treble with a bit of low treble peak sting. But, an articulate midrange, great dynamics (for IEM’s) and a spacious soundstage, uniquely so in my experience at the time (again, for IEM’s) were some compensation. To get what tonal accuracy they were capable of required a particular set of tips (the white ones with the slots, in my case) and careful insertion but when everything swung their way, it could be a really compelling listen, in my view.
So the 1601SS was a guilty pleasure, perhaps. But it turns out they could also make more “conventional” sounding IEM’s that also brought something interesting to the table, such as the FI-BA-SS. They made products at the costly side of things but made others that were relatively cheap, it seems like nothing is off the table or too avant-garde for them.
So, out of curiosity, I bought a pair of their Pandora VI headphones, their first over-ears since the ill-fated Muramasa XIII (which they seem to like to make believe never happened). I have been listening to them for a while now and the odd thing is there isn’t all that much odd about them! Not to say they have no colorations or peculiarities, just to say that they generally sound like a somewhat “normal” headphone, just a tad further out than the Sennheiser HD-650, for example. The Pandora’s sell in the $700/$800 range, pricey but not ridiculous.
Compared to the HD-650’s, the Pandora’s are a bit brighter and sound a bit more out of the head. The mids on the Senns may be a bit more tonally accurate, but the FAD’s sound more present and kind of “creamier” (funny, FAD products tend to produce more emotional response and more, ahem, colorful descriptions when reviewing). I liked the bass better on the FAD, the Senns tend to a slightly “fuzzier” presentation. All in all, I think the Pandora is a better and more beautiful sounding headphone (at around half again the cost, it should be said) than the admittedly fine HD-650’s. To me, it’s a bit telling that I handed the Pandora’s to a reviewer friend (no agenda, just because they were handy at the time) to do some stuff on his computer and he mentioned, unsolicited, how good they sounded.
Off topic but BTW, it’s interesting how I acquired my HD-650’s. I went on a vacation trip to a favorite place, Nice in the south of France, a couple of years ago and when I arrived I realized that I had my HD portable music player and a pair of decent IEM’s, but forgot to bring a conventional over-ear headphone. As I was walking through Le Vieux Nice (the old section of town where small shops, narrow sidewalks and restaurants proliferate), I came across what was basically a thrift store/pawn shop. I can never resist these kind of places, so in I went and in the used audio area, besides the usual junque, I found both a pair of Grado SR-325 and the HD-650’s! Some classy folks pawning stuff there in Nice. So I bought the 650’s (at a quite reasonable price) and was reacquainted with their classic sound while giving my ears a rest from the IEMs.
Well, back to the Pandora’s. Of course, being FAD, there has to be some idiosyncrasies here. When you reach in the box to take them out, you encounter…FUR! I best leave this alone at this point. They phones are a bit heavy (but float in space compared to the massive aforementioned Muramasa XIII, apparently) and the headband interface is kind of free-floating rather than stiff or click-stopped (though they somehow seem to stay in place on the head). To me, they are fairly comfortable, but YMMV. The construction is kind of chrome and black plastic chic, but not unattractive. One interesting technical feature is that these are, in a sense, “two way” headphones. In addition to the dynamic driver, a balanced armature driver such as used in many IEM designs is employed as a tweeter (!!!). Okay, so maybe they are more than a bit idiosyncratic…
Recently, I had the opportunity to hear an power amplifier by a fairly new company, Wells Audio of Campbell, Calif., called the Innamorata. Jeff Wells is the company’s owner and the man responsible for putting together the design team and lending his experienced hearing during the design phase. What he has produced here physically is a fairly typical 19 by 6 by 17 in size and weighs a manageable 58 lbs in basic black. Although it looks pleasant enough, the only real concession to styling is the way-cool old-timey meter on the front panel whose main function is to let you know that the amp is on! In fairness though, it does also let you know if your house voltage is in spec. This is the mid-point in their amp lineup, there is an Inamorata Signature that I have not heard and apparently other designs on the way.
Electrically, it is rated at 150 watts into 8 ohms and 220 watts into 4 ohms. The amp has a detachable power cord, unbalanced inputs, one set of stereo binding posts and no balanced input, so simplicity is a key here. The retail price for the Innamorata is $7000. The basic design is solid state heavily biased into class “A” and is said to employ very little feedback. One of the things that the manufacturer prominently features in this amplifier is the use of Bybee Quantum Purifier technology, specifically Bybee Music Rails. They go into some detail about these on their website, but suffice it to say they help lower the noise level coming from the DC power supply into the actual audio circuitry. This sounds like a good thing and I say, Hey, it couldn’t hoit!
The amplifier was installed in my system of the moment consisting of the Pioneer PD-9D SACD/CD player, a Vintage Garrard 401 turntable with Fidelity Research FR-54 tonearm and Victor X-1 Mk2 cartridge, the Motif MC-8 preamplifier and my Vivid V-1.5 loudspeakers. The sample I auditioned had been previously used and so had been broken in prior to my auditioning.
The first thing I noticed was a very clear and beautiful sound. Not euphonically beautiful, but naturally so with the familiar tonal colors suggestive of live music. A wonderful start for any amplifier, but especially for a solid state amplifier upon first audition. Time just reinforced this impression. Whether Vintage Vinyl or modern SACD’s, classical music had that “live at the hall” sense. Other types of music were equally well served according to my experience with the particular recording I was listening to. The sense of space was quite fine and dimensionality was about the best I have heard from my speakers. This was enhanced by the sense of the music coming, not out of a black background, but out of just plain clear, empty space as you would want. Maybe the Music Rails are at work here.
The bass was as good as the Vivid 1.5 speakers will allow, seeing as they are not true “full range” designs. This may be expected for a modern, moderately priced amplifier, but what you may not expect is the overall sense of ease and lack of grain that often is just accepted as part of the usual solid state trade-off. This is why tube amplifiers have kept such a following through the years. Despite their particular trade-offs, you generally didn’t have to worry about roughness, grain or other unrealistic nasties with tubes. Well, you pretty much don’t have to worry about them here, either.
Dynamics are fine and detail is quite good, both being at levels that only the super (and super expensive) amps significantly exceed. The Vivid’s have metal cone woofers and metal dome tweeters and in general strive for detailed and brilliant (but not over bright) sound. They can be driven over the top by the wrong amplifier, but nothing untoward was noted in terms of ringing or artifacts in the mids or treble. Really, I always enjoyed listening to the system with the Wells in place.
To examine the Wells amp from another angle, I also used the amp to drive my semi-vintage pair of Spendor S-100 loudspeakers. The S-100 is the predecessor to the current SP-100R2 design and is a large three-way box speaker. The smooth, warm and inviting BBC legacy sound was there as well as I have heard it, but the bonus is that the sometimes overly resonant bass was brought under better control. Maybe a bit more beautiful than transparently real (as is the Spendors wont), but I won’t begrudge them that. All in all, it didn’t transform either speaker into something it isn’t (as an amplifier striving for a neutral sound shouldn’t), but it allowed the speakers basic sound to be heard to good effect.
It must be said that solid state amplifiers in the 5 figure plus price range addressed the issues that the Wells addresses so well a while ago. Soulution, AVM, Constellation Audio, D’Agostino Audio and the like have been there, done that. But companies like Wells Audio are now bringing tube like advantage down to somewhat more affordable designs without the heat and tube wear issues that dampen some folks enthusiasm for tube amps. For many people, the days when you would have to consider whether to look into tubes at all may be over unless you are terminally addicted to their somewhat euphonic but sweet and smooth presentation. And some may miss that last bit of 3-D imaging that some tube amps can exhibit, this is my only real criticism of the Innamorata. To be sure, some tube designs may still beat even the best solid state designs in the areas that tubes excel. But that gap seems to be ever closing.
So what we have here is a well built and well-designed amplifier that never disappointed me in my auditioning. Right now, I have to say that the Wells is the best overall solid state amplifier I have heard in my own system on the Vivid’s which really benefit from the sense of power and control on tap here. I would say that some of the heavy hitters in the solid state world are it’s better, but they are generally not as affordable. Not to say that $7000 is cheap, but it is at least aspirable for many committed audiophiles. I can’t imagine anyone not being at least pleased with the sound of this amplifier and due to its high damping factor design, it should be at home with any speaker system that doesn’t require more than its rated power. The bottom line for me is that the Wells Innamorata amplifier must be given a high recommendation as an audition in its price range.
With the ascendance of personal audio, headphones have become a bit of a hot commodity in the audio world and with that has come the proliferation of sites devoted to the subject. These sites are populated by everyone from industry professionals to serious students of the art to rank newcomers. And with this comes people of all levels of expertise sharing their experiences, often vociferously. And sometimes with intemperate hype. So let’s look at the birth, death and resurrection of a headphone as may be found on an audio site near you. Any resemblance to an actual headphone is strictly coincidental…
1) Headco announces their new headphone, the somewhat expensive HP-6SJ7GT, with 4 paragraphs, a handful of specs and one picture. One week later, first HP-6SJ7GT information thread is posted along with the first conjecture-reviews. Two weeks later online retailers post availability information. The new phone will be available in 1 month, preorders taken.
2) (3 months later) Online retailers post a few new pictures and that the first shipment will be in in one month, more preorders taken. Natives on information thread getting restless.
3) (2 months later) Online retailers post that first shipment has been received, but rather than the amount ordered, 5 arrive at each of the five on-line retailers. Much angst on information thread.
4) (1 week later) First phones delivered to lucky few. First reviews appear proclaiming the HP-6SJ7GT as the best phone ever made in the most immoderate terms. Others on preorder list eat their heart out.
5) (2 weeks later) Rumors that the manufacturer will make a few “improvements” before full production starts. The early owners either have units a) soon to be superseded or b) that are the “good ones before Headco screwed ’em up”. One month later, the phones ship in earnest.
6) (2 weeks later) Three new threads appear, “HP-6SJ7GT appreciation” thread, the “HP-6SJ7GT; why do they suck so bad” thread and the “HP-6SJ7GT. Overpriced?” thread. Everyone on the “HP-6SJ7GT appreciation” thread loves them (except a few posts by the most Alpha personality members of the “HP-6SJ7GT; why do they suck so bad” thread), everyone on the “HP-6SJ7GT; why do they suck so bad” thread hates them (except a few posts by the most Alpha personality members of the “HP-6SJ7GT appreciation” thread). The “HP-6SJ7GT. Overpriced?” thread basically could have been cut and pasted from every other “overpriced” thread. 90% of the posts on all three threads are by people who haven’t heard them or heard them for 5 minutes at a meet/store/friend’s house/in their imagination/in a dream.
7) (6 months later) Backorders satisfied, you can call the dealer and order out of stock, but few are interested anymore. People are awaiting the release of Phonemagic’s new “Excelsior 7” (see step 1). Headco threads drift down the boards.
8. (1 year later) Headco announces the discontinuance of the HP-6SJ7GT, Amazon blows out the last remaining units.
9) (5 years later) Famous reviewer makes a comparison to the HP-6SJ7GT in a review of a new mega-expensive state-of-the-art phone and mentions how great and overlooked the HP-6SJ7GT was. People put wanted-to-buy ads on head-fi, prices go up, new threads start including the HP-6SJ7GT owners thread complete with owners serial numbers. Arguments start about which S/N were the best and which ones were bass light and which ones were bass heavy. The first run of 25 is rumored to be the absolute best.
10) (1 year later) HP-6SJ7GT’s now go for three times the original price and are gobbled up in hours when they appear for sale. Much angst from those who can’t find a pair, more from people who had a pair and sold them. The word “legendary” always appears before HP-6SJ7GT when they are written of. They are venerated when someone shows up at a meet with a pair. In fact, advertising that they will be there ensures your events success. Threads appear wishing Headco would bring the HP-6SJ7GT back into production. The naysayers say why bother, they sucked anyway and warn everyone of the lack of parts availability. Which is caused by DIY guys who bought up all the repair parts to build various “frankenphones”.
Oh well, to quote Talking Heads, “same as it ever was”. People are so suggestible. It is to laugh! BTW, anyone know where I can find a pair of Excelsior 7’s? I hear a rumor that Tyll Hertsens mentioned them in a review on Inner Fidelity recently…
If you go back to the mid 1950’s, it’s was said that many of the major British loudspeaker companies made quiet plans to get into new endeavors. Why? They heard the Quad Electrostatic loudspeaker (now called the ELS57 or old Quad). Their fear was that the new, revolutionary speaker was so good that old style dynamic speakers would fade into the sunset! Of course, this didn’t happen, but it’s not hard to see why they could have come to that conclusion.
That the Quad electrostats were advanced for their time is obvious, there may be more words spilt over the Quads than any other high end credible speaker. So finding something new and illuminating to say is not easy. But how can you talk about the historical aspects of our aural journey without at least acknowledging their effect? It’s also been said that, for many years, rival loudspeaker manufacturers secretly (and not so secretly) had pairs of Quads in the back room, used to assess the evolving quality of their designs. Many cite the Spendor BC-1 (reviewed elsewhere on this site) as the point where dynamic speakers at least started to become truly able to run with the Quads in their areas of excellence. The Quads were designed in the mid ’50’s and the BC-1 matured around 1970, so they were unrivaled for at least 15 years, quite a feat! And I think there is little doubt that the presence of the ELS57 spurred improvement in loudspeakers in general to try and catch up with Peter Walker’s handiwork.
None of this is to say that the Quads were everyone’s favorites at the time. There were things like Tannoys, Altec (and other Theatre) horns, Klipschorns, early Acoustic Research, JBL’s and the like that excelled in certain areas, especially in the ability to play loud and deeper in the bass, both relative weaknesses of the Quads. But in the areas of their strengths, the Quads reigned supreme. Some would say they still do. They are still treasured by their owners and sound excellent even by modern standards. It’s quite a tribute that Walker’s design has stood the test of 60 years and still is relevant here in 2014 for their midrange purity and low distortion above their bass range. It was interesting to see a pair of these at an audio show with their anachronistic looks amazing new generations of audio enthusiasts with their performance. There has even developed a small industry dedicated to the care and repair of this classic design.
Walker struck again with the ESL63 which hit the market in the early ’80’s. This was perhaps even more innovative than the ELS57 employing concentric ring radiators coupled by delay lines to simulate the theoretical ideal of a point source radiator. But, as good as it was and as much as it at least started to address some of the limitations of the older Quad, it never gained the traction of that design. I suspect that one reason for this was how far speaker design came in the interval between the old and new. Another reason, in my view, was the audacity of loudspeaker designers in designing all out assaults on the summit without respect to practicality like the legendary Infinity IRS. Walker designed speakers with an eye to size and room compatibility (a bigger issue in the UK than the US) and, I suspect, his personal esthetic that mega volume levels and flat to 20 Hz bass extension were not characteristics desired by true music lovers.
But I suspect that the biggest reason was the very triumph that the ELS57 was. After the leap that it represented, a speaker that could revolutionize the market like the ’57 was just not possible. Still, it seems every “most influential loudspeaker article” that hits the audiophile press has the ELS57 at or near the top. Which is as it should be.
When the era of Audio recording began, it changed the face of music. Just the fact that one can hear the great music of mankind’s creation when and (especially nowadays) wherever we want is miraculous, whatever the playback quality.
But, for many of us, getting the sound as good as we can is a most worthy objective. It’s why I am typing this and why you are reading. What can be frustrating to folks like us is that there is seemingly no end to the trail, even as sound keeps getting better it seems the goal keeps moving away from us. Sometimes, it can even seem doubtful that progress is even being made as listening to vintage gear that can sometimes seem in certain ways closer to the goal can show. The crux of the problem, as I see it, is that even in principle, perfect reproduction is not possible. Facsimile reproduction would be the end of the line, but it’s nowhere near.
I liken home audio to a blind man in a shooting gallery firing at a moving target. It seems every steps of even the recording/playback process has it’s shortcomings. Start even before the hardware, with recording techniques. So which combination of recording and playback techniques are “best”? Well, we all can have our own personal takes but really, even among professional recording engineers, there seems to not be any kind of true, absolute consensus, no perfect way to record. Where there is no perfect technique, there can only be differing compromises. Over time, some have ben employed and largely discarded, at least sonically. For example, you just don’t see many Classical extreme multi-track recordings any more, though it must be said that the best recording engineers that employed that technique could sometimes produce quite credible recordings. On the other hand, you don’t see many completely purist 2 mic recordings or indeed, even true Blumlein recordings (despite their oft-touted technical desirability). The reasons? Some are economic. The fewer the mics used in a recording, the harder it is to find their optimum placement. This placement requires expensive orchestra time to attain, so having a few more mics allows you to cover your bases better.
You could say that using the “best” mics (whichever ones that might be) with “proper” placement (wherever in the hall (hell?) that might be) and employing the proper recording technique (Blumlein?) would result in as good a recording as is possible to produce. Maybe that’s true. But if at least if one technique (whatever it was) had been settled upon at the beginning, one could arrange their playback system as a compliment to whatever had been chosen. But the reality is that recordings are wildly different, so we have a problem in reproduction right off the top.
Moreover, whatever the sonic truth of the original recording technique, complete faithfulness to that is not, even in principle, (at least with today’s technology) attainable. Mics are far from perfect. Our digital recording systems are quite good these days (not so much earlier on) and the old reel to reel master tapes, if in good shape, are pretty credible, too. But Records are imperfect, CD’s are variable and limited technically in their ways, SACD’s can be good but are limited in availability and depth of catalogue and downloads of less that lossless formats mediocre (true hi-rez files are probably the best we have). And there’s nothing to say that a particular format will be “transferred” well from the masters.
Then we get to Turntables, Cartridges, Tonearms, CD players, SACD players, D/A converters, Preamps, Amplifiers, Speakers and our listening rooms. All have at least potential problems. It seems like all hope is lost. But…
Let’s go back to the opening paragraph; “Just the fact that one can hear the great music of mankind’s creation when and (especially nowadays) wherever we want is miraculous, whatever the playback quality.” This is why we try and slog through all this and what’s amazing is that somehow, with all that is working against us at times the sound is good enough to take us virtually to (pre “renovation”) Symphony Hall or Carnegie Hall, Royal Albert Hall or any of the (scandalously) now gone venerated rock venues or Abbey Road studios or wherever.
And that’s why we keep typing and reading and listening.
In a previous log entry, I talked about the Spendor BC-1/SP-1 loudspeaker. The BC-1 first hit the market back in the late 1960’s and was designed by Spencer Hughes of the BBC to be a high quality monitor, good enough that a Radio network famous (back in those days) world-wide could reasonably judge the sound quality of their broadcasts (back when people cared about such things). The BC-1 was a large bookshelf and used high quality (though a bit fragile) drivers. In order to provide for more extended bass and higher sound levels, Spendor designed and built a physically larger model intended to keep the quality of the BC-1 and they named it, rather unimaginatively, the BC-3. This model has evolved into today’s SP-100R2. The S-100, subject of today’s evaluation, was the first evolution of the original BC-3 and hit the scene in the late ’80’s.
The SP-1 and the S-100 both employ 3 drivers, but this is a bit misleading. The SP-1 was really a two-way consisting of a woofer and two tweeters (done originally, believe it or not, as a tax dodge!) while the S-100 is a standard woofer/midrange/tweeter design. Interestingly, the original BC-3 employed the twin tweeter design of the BC-1 (making for four drivers), but this did not make the transition when the S-100 came into being. The new design replaced the Coles/Celestion tweeters with a single Scan-speak model. It’s also interesting to note that when the SP-1/2 lost its Coles/Celestion tweeters they stayed with the twin tweeter concept (again by Scan-speak). Go figure…
So we have here a resolutely old-school looking speaker of a type rarely seen these days, a large stand mount. It measures 27.5″ H by 14.5″ W by 17″ D and weighs about 80 pounds. Not exactly the definition of SAF, ’tis true. But it was nicely veneered and to me has a bit of stately elegance. Form follows function indeed. To me, it looks like a REAL SPEAKER, pre the “Virginia Slims” era that holds forth to this day. And there is something to be said for full frontal speakers in a technical sense, though either can be made to work well. But let’s be honest here, speakers these days are slim mostly because they are perceived as more attractive that way. Me thinks there is a bit of anthropomorphism happening here not unlike the aforementioned cigs…
One of the chief tenets of speaker design back then was the idea of primacy of tonality and frequency response. And here the Spendor does quite well. Measured response was pretty flat from the midrange up with a bit of roll-off in the extreme treble and a peak in the upper mid-bass designed to counteract the floor bounce that can thin out the response in this area in-room, all in all, a pretty sensible design. And it sounds well-balanced in action. Not perfect, of course. The room and placement within has a significant effect on the mid-bass and it should be said that in most rooms (especially smaller rooms), it will err a bit on the midbass generous side. Personally, I think this is preferable to the often thinned out mid and upper bass of many “modern” speakers with (if they are large enough to reproduce low bass) the low bass booming away below without proper mid-bass support (though I guess this is a matter of taste). The imaging is good, but doesn’t do “tricks” like large planars (an effect I actually like) or have the small but pinpoint image of a point source (the KEF LS50 scores highly here). And, while modern drivers have can have other problems, it must be said that they often resolve somewhat better than the polyproplyne midrange/fabric dome tweeter in the Spendor.
And it must be said that the S-100 can sound a bit boxy, after all it IS a box. This is a bit of a design choice. What you have here is a large box of moderate wall thickness with damping pads on the walls and other internal damping designed to damp out the relatively low resonant frequency of the large panels. The design is made to take this into account and it works, of course, but not perfectly. So you can hear the box. You don’t hear the box in the LS50 as much, but this is a small speaker with limited bass, so this is as you would suspect. It’s another matter altogether to build a physical large cabinet (to support bass) that’s construction and materials result in bringing the resonant frequency up enough to get it out of potential trouble, by the time you do you end up with a heavy and quite exotic and expensive speaker. Consider that the S-100 itself weighs in at 80 pounds…
Now I wouldn’t set up the S-100 as a perfect speaker. It’s not as good as the Harbeth Monitor 40, for one, which itself is not the ultimate loudspeaker system. These designs may be old school, but they are executed exceedingly well. One “expert” I read ragged on the Harbeth because of the cabinet resonances, the wide baffle and the general design and hyping the modern high mass, narrow baffle with hi-tech driver designs to the heavens. Well, I guess these must be even harder to get right than the old school, quite a few of them I have heard don’t sound so hot even with today’s seemingly advanced drivers and computer simulations, nowhere as good as even the S-100. But there are modern planars like the big Maggies and companies like Vivid, KEF, Wilson, YG Acoustics, TAD and Raidho to name a few that are on the right track from what I have heard and these certainly have models that better the S-100 in many ways. Not to mention Vandersteen, Sony, Focal, ATC and the like that have their feet straddling the line between tradition and hi-tech.
But there is definitely life left in the S-100, especially considering their typical price on the used market. They have that natural, free-flowing, warm sound that one would encounter in a concert hall (classical music is really well served here, to be sure). Their flaws are mostly of omission and they do not sound overly “vintage” in the pejorative sense. Don’t be afraid to rock out a bit here, either. They are middle-aged, but can still teach the kids a few things about musicality (in the non-pejorative sense).
Legendary Cellist Janos Starker died April 28, 2013, aged 88. He will be remembered as one of the greats to ever lift a Cello. Many are familiar with his recordings, especially on EMI, Mercury, Decca, Delos and RCA. He also taught and concertized extensively.
You can read Robert Greene of TAS excellent remembrance here: http://www.theabsolutesound.com/articles/janos-starker-july-5-1924april-28-2013/?utm_campaign=Newsletter&utm_medium=email&utm_source=email-115
The best of today’s MC cartridges are very fine performers, in fact probably better than has ever in the long history of the phonograph record been available. But they are also expensive, in fact way so. As a reaction to this sticker shock, it can be very tempting to look to the best cartridges of a few years back and let the original owner take the first depreciation.
This can be a great way to get excellent, if not at the very top rank performance, at a relatively keen price. Assuming, of course, that the cart is in excellent condition and working up to spec. The combination of a stylus inspection microscope and careful listening can pretty much tell the tale here. Unfortunately, not many folks have a stylus scope. I have often thought that an enterprising audiophile could obtain a scope, work out how to take pictures of the stylus, and offer a stylus inspection/evaluation at a nominal fee. The buyer and seller could work out how to handle things (say, split the inspection fee/shipping) and both be protected. Another Audiolog exclusive, a free money-making idea!
But many see the issue of potential stylus wear in another way, just replace the stylus. And that’s not a bad solution, if the rest of the cart is in good shape (clean, coils good and rubber parts up to snuff) and an equivalent stylus shape is available. Unfortunately, many of the “retippers” (recantitippers?) do not actually just replace the stylus, they replace the entire stylus/cantilever assembly and to me, this is problematical. Let’s say you want to refurbish a Koetsu Rosewood. Unless the stylus/cantilever is essentially identical to the original, in my view, you no longer have a Koetsu Rosewood. You may have something you like and you may even possibly have something better than a Koetsu Rosewood, but it’s not really a Koetsu Rosewood anymore and certainly not what Koetsu intended.
These days, it seems all the rage to “retip” with ruby stylus/cantilever assemblies, seemingly just on general principles. Unless you’re retipping a cartridge that started with a ruby cantilever, this leaves you with a frankencartridge and no possibility to get it properly retipped in the future (the original cantilever is gone). It’s a bit strange that I haven’t heard much chatter on the normal audio channels about this.
I have been looking for a particular vintage cart for a while and enquired on leads only to have the owner proudly announce it had been “retipped” with a new ruby cantilever as if that’s a selling point. I end up mumbling to myself under my breath and moving on.
I say, just say no to recantitippers…