Category Archives: Musings
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.
Dumbed down audio
It’s interesting to me that when you look at what’s behind the accusation (often heard on certain partisan news networks) that people are in any way “dumbing down”, what they usually mean is that the people accused don’t know or aren’t interested in what the accuser thinks they should be interested in.
In the meantime, people are busy learning what THEY think is important. Most people really are not dumb, they are smart enough to know what skills the society REALLY wants, which it indicates through how it rewards people who acquire them. Business, Sports, Politics, Entertainment and Financials are where the rewards pretty much are. Science and Mathematics are mostly for the “nerds”, who rarely get paid (I say rarely because there is the intersection between Finance/Business and mathematics where the nerds do manage to get paid. But those are the exceptions). One pundit (me) observed that if we paid Teachers and Scientists even five percent of what we pay athletes, actors, bankers and politicians, we would be scientifically unstoppable. But when the rubber meets the road, we just don’t do it.
Subjective testing of audio gear is often cited as dumbed down audio. But really, you don’t have to understand graphs and mathematics to listen to audio equipment and decide which of it you think more evocative of real, live music. The technically inclined may think one is going about it from a position of ignorance, but the non-technically inclined think they are doing just fine, Jack. And they are. You don’t need to study meteorology to know it’s cold in the winter so bring a coat, or to check out the Weather Channel for the forecast. But knowing how Twitter and Facebook work and how to text on your iPhone can lead to “enriching social interaction”, so that’s technology worth knowing…
Now, understand that I am not saying there is no value in the charts and graphs. I work in a technical field and understand them fairly well and like to see them as a checkup of sorts on what I hear. But if, ultimately, what matters in music is the emotional/intellectual state it induces in the listener, then what better test than listening to see if a particular piece of equipment does that job?
It’s kind of hubris that some people think people should buy what is determined “objectively” best rather than what they think is best through their own aural evidence. To paraphrase Chico Marx, “Well, who you gonna believe, me or your own ears?” I could argue that charts and graphs are most interesting out of intellectual curiosity (at least to those not actively engaged in the actual design of components, speakers, etc.).
All this does put a premium on the listening/evaluation process. I am always suspicious (keeping in mind I can only conjecture about other people’s actual abilities) of someone who listens to a piece of equipment for ten minutes and has definite, unshakable opinions. Personally, I can tell something I probably won’t like fairly quickly, but once it has passed that test of being at least adequate, it takes me a while to formulate a useful opinion.
In fact, in some ways, the most useful information comes in those “ah ha” moments of just listening for pleasure when it hits you how good (or not) a particular piece of music sounds through the equipment in use. In combination with your familiarity with live music and the time you spend listening analytically to recordings you know, this gives you the best chance I know of to make a sound (ahem) evaluation.
ProArte Rachmaninoff Symphonic Dances and “calibrating for the reviewer”
It’s always interesting to get other perspectives on audio and the recordings we listen to for our pleasure. I ordered the ProArte recording of Rachmaninoff’s Symphonic Dances (Mata/Dallas) recently as result of a recommendation on the “REG on Audio” Yahoo Group. TAS reviewer Robert Greene (REG) considers this to be a sonically better recording than the more generally acknowledged “audiophile” recordings of this work. What follows is the results of listening to this CD on my system including Magnepan MG 3.7 speakers.
ProArte is a bit of a mystery label, as far as I can tell. Some classical and a lot of oddball and novelty type CD’s, much of them look like “licensed” material. I am really not sure if the label instigated and recorded this on their own using their own personnel. As I recall, they were an “off price” label back in the day, but that’s about all I remember about ProArte. As far as technical info for the recording under review, the mystery continues.
ProArte bills this as an “Audio+ Direct to Digital” recording and infer it’s something of an audiophile release. They even provide some recording info, but it’s all pretty vague. For example, they list K&K, Shure and AKG mics, but give no model numbers. K&K appears to be a company that specializes in pickup mic’s designed for acoustic instruments, so that doesn’t help much and Shure
and AKG made everything from exotic to prosaic instruments, so who knows? All we can do is listen…
This is a recording that sounds as if it were recorded with a rear-hall sound in mind. At first, it may seem dull and the sound field a bit vague, but really it’s a pretty credible example of the sound balance one would hear at that distance from the orchestra in a typical hall. There does seem to be a bit of opaqueness as though the mics were not absolutely first-rate, but overall, one would have to consider this a successful recording with much beauty to be heard from its calm balance.
One can contrast this to the Johanos/Dallas/Turnabout recording of this piece. This has a definite front of the hall perspective and exhibits a very spatially distinct, vivid and detailed sound. Unfortunately, this also results in a recording somewhat lacking in hall ambience, which robs the sound of some of its potential beauty.
The Reference Recordings Oue/Minnesota recording may be the most sonically successful, to me. It also has a somewhat close-up sound, but sounds as if some discreet accent mics were blended in to add some hall ambience and back off things a bit. This results in a front hall, but still ambient, sound.
Recordings being compromises in first principle, I would say these recordings all present viable perspectives on an orchestra in a
concert hall. Which one you will like best will depend on what kind of concert hall you prefer and where you prefer to sit in the hall. Personally, I am glad to have these quite different sonic perspectives available and find much to enjoy in all three, but would have to say the Reference Recordings has the “best” sound based on my tastes.
That said, the reviewers sonic preferences should be an important factor in your assessing the reviews of recordings and equipment you may read or hear. I will refer to this as “calibrating for the reviewer”. As you read any reviewers work, they will tend to betray their inevitable biases and likes in their reviews. In my mind, the better reviewers will give you enough straight reportage of the sound to allow their descriptions to be relevent to you once you figure in the calibration factor between you and the reviewer.
Across the pond for an audio show, the UK National Audio Show 2012
I just got back from the UK where I attended the National Audio Show sponsored by The Chester Group as part of a week-long vacation. While I was in London, I caught a concert at the Cadogan Hall, Enrique Bátiz conducted the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra in Wagner’s Overture to The Flying Dutchman, Sibelius’ Violin Concerto (soloist Jack Liebeck), and Tchaikovsky’s Fourth Symphony. I had literally front row center tickets, and what a powerful (as opposed to just loud) sound you hear in those seats!
As good as our stereo equipment is, it’s still a fair ways from live music. But to be able to hear the great music and performers of the world play at your command makes whatever fidelity loss we experience tolerable. Nothing at the audio show rivaled the concert, but there was some excellent sound (judged by the standard of home audio) to be heard. Here are a few of the products that caught my interest.
HART D&W was showing the “Aural Pleasure” loudspeaker which amusingly looked liked little bronze Buddhas squatting in the corners. But if you saw THIS Buddha in the road, killing it would be quite a feat. The knuckle test on the cabinet results merely in sore knuckles. They provided a powerful sound but with limited bass, the corner placement meant to make the most of the bass from what is, after all, a small speaker.
ORIGIN LIVE was displaying their well crafted tonearms and turntables with Mark Baker doing the honors in the room. This company started with Rega arm upgrades, but has progressed to bespoke arms, turntables and now electronics and Astute 8 speakers, the speakers hanging rather than rigidly fastened down. A very interesting company for sure.
ICON AUDIO designer David Shaw loves the sound of vintage tube amps and was showing an extensive (to say the least) line of tube amps, everything from push-pull to SE amps with just about any audio tube you can imagine as outputs. He seems to bring a lot of passion to his craft and I enjoyed very much talking a bit of shop with him.
TOWNSHEND AUDIO’s Max Townshend has seemingly been around British Audio forever and his latest products look very interesting. His new passive preamps and CD/SACD player were displayed along with his well-regarded Rock Turntable and Maximum Supertweeters.
HI END CABLE is a UK retailer displaying the new revision of the Raidho monitor, the C 1.1 along with Bel Canto electronics and getting quite a good sound. This is a small monitor I am much curious about, expensive but with some real technology in play. The shy Dave Jackson didn’t want to speak about the system much at first, but once started sounded like a senior BBC presenter!
PALMER AUDIO’s Jon Palmer started shy and stayed so throughout! But no denying the wonderful sound his Palmer 2.5 12 was making driving the suave Harbeth Compact 7 ES3 loudspeakers. Quite a striking looking table to boot.
AUDIO NOTE was at the show, playing vinyl to excellent effect. The presentation was low-key, no talk, just music.
DELTEC AUDIO is a name from the past back in the game with some new interesting products. The “Little Bit” was a fine D to A converter back in the day and their new designs include more compact units that looked quite interesting.
LORICRAFT AUDIO was displaying their record cleaners, turntables and Garrard restoration services. Terry O’Sullivan was holding forth with some quite interesting stories to go along with their interesting products and services.
VTL and VIVID AUDIO provided some mighty convincing sounds from their Giya G1 loudspeakers driven by VTL Siegfried Mk 2 amplifiers. To me, this was one of the best sounds of the show.
DECENT AUDIO (modestly named, ‘eh…) reminded us of just how good even the entry-level Magnepan designs can sound, displaying the MG12’s and the new Magnepan Mini (not heard).
Unfortunately, I was not able to attend both days of the show, so my impressions were a bit limited. But it was a fun show and it was very cool to see what the hi-fi world looks like across the pond up close and personal. Next up, RMAF 2012!
HP resigns from The Absolute Sound
Per TAS website:
On August 31, 2012, TAS founder Harry Pearson officially resigned from the staff of The Absolute Sound. As some of you may know, HP has had very serious health issues this year, which is the reason why you haven’t seen his contributions in our pages over the past seven or eight issues. He has now decided to pursue his own personal projects rather than return to the monthly grind of TAS.
Truly the end of an era. For many audiophiles, especially during the height of HP’s editorship, The Absolute Sound was eagerly anticipated from issue to issue. Not just for the equipment reviews, but for the music reviews and coverage such as interviews with the conductors, performers and recording engineers and for the many “thought pieces” on anything to do with reproduced sound. It seemed HP wanted to create not just a great audio magazine, but a great magazine by any measure, and he largely succeeded.
Back in the day, he also expected the same high standards of his writers and was not afraid to let that be known in print. I’m sure that some of them didn’t like it, but I suspect that many of their writing skills improved because of his criticism.
Since HP was replaced as Editor at TAS, the magazine has evolved somewhat away from its direction when Harry ran things, for better or worse. But this is not the place to mourn whatever was lost, but to wish Harry the best in the future. I selfishly hope that someday we will be able to read more from the man who is, in my view, the best to ever write about hi-end audio.
London…is a little bit of all right
In a few hours, I will be getting on a flight to London UK for a week’s vacation. This is one of my favorite places to go, as an audiophile I can hear live music at the concert halls there, shop for records (especially Decca’s) and just drink in the atmosphere where the music of my early teens was produced.
I have two must-shop record stores there. The first is the Classical Music exchange on Notting Hill Gate. This is a quiet, somewhat studious place with a deep stock of records. There are unsorted bargain records for 1 pound or less downstairs (in varying condition) and more expensive stock sorted in Composer order upstairs. There is also a section of “collectables” priced as such and usually a couple of rows of new arrivals. One interesting feature is that non-collectable stock that doesn’t sell at its original price will eventually be marked down until it does sell, sometimes you can find a bargain this way. Of course, a lot of these records are old hat to the British collector, but from across the pond these look most alluring! Down the street are affiliated stores for Rock, Soundtracks and the like if you are so inclined.
The other is sometimes less productive, but always more fun! That’s Gramex, near Waterloo Station on Lower Marsh. Roger, the owner, is a great guy. An eccentric, but knowledgable guy in his 80’s, who seems more interested in talking to you about whatever comes up than selling product. I have been to his store about 6 times and he always seems genuinely happy to see you. These days, the store leans more to used CD’s but there is usually a nice stock of records in the basement area. Classical, Opera and Jazz can be found here. As I type this, I am thinking how cool it will be to see Roger again…
There is Harold Moores on Great Marlborough Street, but I usually don’t waste my time. At least when I have been there, high prices on even common LP’s. Maybe a bit better on CD’s.
On Portobello road there are a few Rock shops for vinyl and you might also want to check out Oxfam’s. This is sort of like a Salvation Army type of used goods store with outlets all over the city, but only some of them have records so you will have to do some research. In past years, I found some stuff here, but recently its been a bit fallow.
I have three concerts on tap this time, so that’s exciting, two at the Barbican and one at Cadogan Hall. Other times of the year find a busier concerts schedule, if you go to London, you might want to time it for the “Proms” which is a month or so of non-stop concert activity in August (it coincided with the Olympics this year, so not for me). The Southbank Center has concert halls (including the Royal Festival Hall and the Queen Elizabeth Hall) and is also a cool place to hang out with stores and small restaurants right on the banks of the Thames. I went to the Meltdown Festival there one year (that particular year featured groups picked by Ray Davies) and saw a great concert featuring The Crazy World of Arthur Brown and the Legendary Pink Dots, one of the best concerts I have attended, so there is lots of action here. Check out http://meltdown.southbankcentre.co.uk/archives/ And don’t forget the Royal Albert Hall (of which we now know how many holes it takes to fill), Wigmore Hall etc. Lots of musical fun to be had in London.
This year, I will be in town the week of the National Audio Show, sponsored by the Chester Group, which I will be covering for http://www.avshowrooms.com/ . Looks like 40 plus room featuring UK manufacturers, distributors and retailers, so it should be fun.
But what I really like is to walk around in the evening listening to early Genesis, Pink Floyd, Jethro Tull and the like on my mp3 player on the streets that were the cradle of this music. Evocative of another era and my youth…
From the Square to the Hip on an audio trip
Generally, audiophiles exist on a smooth continuum from the Square to the Hip (meaning no disrespect to either group, as the great Huey Lewis pointed out, it’s hip to be square). Here’s how to tell them apart in the wild…
The first group is the “I only want to reproduce what’s on the recording” folks. They want that outcome no matter how bad it actually sounds. They owe their loyalty simply to the recording, anything else isn’t “high fidelity”. They firmly believe in A/B tests and sniff that anyone who doesn’t is “not being scientific”. They often claim that things they happen to think are not possible are because of “laws of physics” (whether they understand them or not). They would never buy a product without seeing frequency response curves first. They always take everything seriously.
Clothes: Suit and Tie
Favorite Music: Bach died and music went to hell
Temperament: Violently Square
Favorite speakers: B & W, KEF (till they brought out the Blade). Vintage, Quad 57’s
From there you have the “fidelity to the recording, but with some allowance made for the vagaries of recordings” types. Did you know that every recording is too bright? As are all speakers. And all cartridges. They would also never buy a product without seeing frequency response curves first, but don’t think they should necessarily be flat. They buy room correction boxes (to make the system “accurate”), then pick an arbitrary target curve. They think they are the “one true church”, but can laugh about it a bit. They only buy solid state amps.
Hair: Short, combed neat
Clothes: Shirt, tie and nice slacks
Favorite Music: Small Classical, String Quartets some Popular Oldies, Showtunes (in some neighborhoods).
Temperament: Square, but careful, they are secret swingers when no one is looking
Favorite speakers: Harbeth, Spendor. For vintage, Spendor, Harbeth.
Next the “magaziner”. Has no fixed opinion on how equipment should sound, but can quote every review from the last 5 years of TAS and Stereophile. They read the Measurements section of the Stereophile reviews, but only the part where John Atkinson explains what they really mean. Believes that the greatest thing was when Robert Harley was appointed TAS Editor, now there are TWO magazines with “Recommended Component” issues. They buy tube amps (new only) when they feel non-conformist. They love audio shows above all else.
Hair: touches the collar between haircuts
Clothes: Short sleeved button down shirt, collar open and dockers
Favorite Music: Diana Krall, say no more!
Temperament: Earnestly Square
Favorite speakers: Vandersteen, Thiel, maybe Revel. If they are monied, Magico. For vintage, none. They are not listed in “Recommended Components.”
Then you get to the “Absolute Aficionado”. Thinks that recordings are nothing like a concert, and a concert in their living room is what they so passionately desire. No image is too big, no depth too cavernous for their lusts. They would NEVER listen to a small monitor. Vinyl with MC cartridge only, please. Would never sully their system with room correction, but might buy expensive room treatments. Loves big-ass tube amps.
Hair: long enough to be unfashionable
Clothes: T-shirt, Jeans
Favorite Music: Shostakovich, Mahler, Pink Floyd (especially “Meddle”)
Temperament: Frustrated ex-hippy
Favorite speakers: Magnepan, Martin Logan, Sound labs. Vintage, whatever HP had 10 to 35 years ago.
Finally, the “do your own thingers”. They believe the best sound is the sound they have in their mind’s eye (ear?). No equipment is too Avant-Garde, or too retrograde. They venerate tube equipment designers as present day saints, the more it looks “vintage”, the better. It’s invariably expensive and out of the main stream. Love having small get-togethers with those of their kind, which they call “tastings” (pretentious, moi?).
Hair: long, or bald with long sides
Clothes: whatever, man
Favorite Music: Anything obscure
Temperament: Any character from Kerouac’s “On the Road”
Favorite speakers: Large, retro, obscure. Extra credit for single-driver designs. Vintage, old horns, Quad 57’s.
Of course, over the years many of us have morphed through many of these cultures…
What’s up, Vandersteen?
Vandersteen Audio is one of the most enduring and respected speaker companies in the current scene, so a new model would tend to arouse one’s curiosity. Especially considering that they are a company that does not release new models lightly, tending towards refining its existing products.
So I decided that a visit to my friend (and Vandersteen dealer) John Rutan of Audio Connection in Verona, N.J. to give the new Treo a listen would be in order. But first, a conflict of interest alert. Years ago, I did repairs of tube audio gear for his store. That said, the real conflict is that I like John personally and enjoy hanging and listening with him. If you are one who believes that the world and everyone in it is basically corrupt, I won’t be offended if you take these musings with a massive grain of salt. And if you believe that one should only talk about gear that you have listened to under controlled conditions in your own system, I’ll point out that I am just some dude with a blog, so relax. With that said, let’s continue.
The Treo, despite the three-ness of its name, does not replace the Vandersteen 3A Signature (which continues in the line). In fact, I would say it compliments the 3A. The Trio is smaller and with its greater expanse of wood veneer, more attractive than the 3A. This happens to result in the 3A’s having deeper bass and being $1500 cheaper than the Treo. But the Treo compensates with a bit better midrange and a more exacting soundfield. I would also suspect that it would work better in rooms that the larger 3A tends to overpower.
This does not mean that the Treo is bass shy. It actually did quite well and the bass seemed well aligned, but it doesn’t have the bass depth that the 3A has. I could understand some preferring the 3A for this reason, but to me, the Treo sounds better than the 3A overall. The Treo is an intriguing speaker I hope to hear more of and another well-judged Vandersteen design.
Next up was the revision of the 1C, the 1Ci. The Vandy 1 series may be one of the more unjustly ignored speakers in audio, being overshadowed by the 2 and 3 series over the years (though it got an excellent review in TAS many years ago). It’s also Richard Vandersteen’s idea of a minimonitor! His concept is, why put a small speaker on a stand and waste all that area that could be used to add to the enclosure volume and give the customer more bass and more efficiency? Hard to argue…
I gave them a short listen and found them to be quite good. Whether you should buy a small stand mount or the 1Ci is a matter of taste, but to me they had most of the finesse of small monitors in their price range with better bass and the ability to play louder. They do not have the detail, imaging or overall precision of some of the premium priced small monitors out there, but I don’t suspect that many people are trying to decide between a pair of 1Ci’s and a pair of, oh let’s say, Magico Q1’s anyway…
Next was a trip to hear the Vandersteen 7’s in the large listening room. This room has a quite nice system with Aesthetix Atlas Signature Mono blocks and Aesthetix CD playback. The 7 is Vandersteen’s flagship and retail for $48,000. A lot of money but, in this age, not unreasonable for a major company’s flagship.
The sound was excellent overall. Especially noteworthy was its performance on piano which was, to me, absolutely first-rate. Right up there with a pair of Focal Utopia’s I heard at a Stereophile show years ago that fooled me into thinking a live concert was happening inside from outside the room. A speaker like the MBL Radialstrahler 101 may do more imaging “tricks” and my old pair of Bill Legall rebuilt and modded IRS Series V had more authority, but the 7, in its own way, sound to be fully competitive with the other flagship/big buck systems I have heard over the years.
So John, thanks for the “taste” of the latest from Vandersteen.
Bill L. and my AR3A’s
Two of my favorite people are Bill and Loretta Legall of MillerSound. Bill is one of the best when it comes to repairing and refoaming loudspeakers and is a knowledgeable and unassuming guy in general. One day I brought a pair of drivers for Bill to do his magic on when he excitedly told me that I had to hear a speaker he had acquired. But first, the story…
Bill and Loretta were driving around one day and cut into a neighborhood to escape some heavy traffic. In front of a house intended for the trash man was a pair of speakers. They looked rough and forlorn, but like seeing a bird with a broken wing or a wet, disheveled cat in the cold, Bill had to take them in.
Testing showed that, while the woofer foam had rotted out, the drivers were functional. But the rough cabinets were a problem, until Loretta remembered some matching veneer she had stashed away. Well, the woofers were re-foamed, the cabinets sanded and re-veneered, the crossover tested and capacitors replaced and a few other tweaks applied and it was time to listen to the new-old speaker.
“Kevin, you have to hear this, you won’t believe it”. So I entered Bill’s listening room to behold a speaker seemingly out of a time warp, a mint pair of Acoustic Research AR3A’s. And Bill wasn’t kidding, I didn’t believe it. Rich, beautiful music from a pair of speakers manufactured between 1967 and 1975 and rescued from the scrap heap. I realized immediately that this was a speaker that, like the Quad 57, Spendor BC-1, BBC LS3/5A and their ilk, ones’ knowledge of vintage speakers was incomplete without. So I asked Bill to look around for a pair for me (and I would look for myself).
A few days later, I got a call. “Hey Kevin, your AR3A’s are in” Bill had done it again, and I made arrangements to come by after work. When I got there, craftsman Bill had not only re-foamed the woofers, but refinished the cabinets and cleaned up the badges and, while they were not quite the thing of beauty that Bill’s pair are, they looked great!
Acoustic Research pioneered the use of the Acoustic Suspension loudspeaker which traded efficiency for deep bass from a small box and, in its day, the AR3 series was the biggest selling and arguably most successful speaker of its kind. The ascent of the Acoustic Suspension loudspeaker was helped by the ascent of the high power amplifier (a development necessary due to the lower efficiency of the newer design), which, depending on your point of view, led to a bright new future or consigned audio to a modern hell of inefficient speakers and high-powered solid state amplifiers. But that’s another story for another time…
So I have chosen the AR3A’s as my first speaker musing on Audiolog because a) I wanted to tell you a story about Bill and b) they are a classic and historic speaker that augured big changes in the audio marketplace in their day. There’s a pair on permanent display at the Smithsonian and not for nothing!
How do the AR3A’s stand up today? Well, certainly it’s a different kind of sound than we are used to. The treble is not exactly extended and the speakers do not have the level of detail we expect these days. The imaging doesn’t “do tricks” and there is a bit of residual roughness. You can hear the cabinets (not as bad as it sounds, they used ply rather than MDF back then). But there is plenty of bass compared to the typical bookshelf today and a generally warm, rounded sound that is simply more that the sum of its parts. You can hear what’s wrong, but the enveloping sound on classical is like a bath in warm Caribbean waters and the punchy sound on Rock and Roll gives you the feeling that this is how the musicians expected it to sound.
It feels almost wrong to pick the sound apart since it obviously wasn’t designed to cater to prevailing expectations, so I won’t. In my view, it was designed as a holistic unity and is unique to itself, I doubt anyone would design a speaker that sounds like this today and much is the pity. There is more than one way to skin the musical cat, and this is the current path less chosen.
But a music lover who is not a “hi end audiophile” could buy these, refurbish them and live happily ever after. Many did, back between 1967 and 1975…