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Vivid Audio V1.5 Loudspeakers

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!

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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 Pandora VI headphones

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…

Wells Audio Innamorata Amplifier

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.

The Spendor S-100, audio’s hip ol’ Granddad

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).

Spendor BC1/SP1: tonality uber alles

The Spendor BC1/SP1 were outgrowths of the BBC’s research to create monitors that could be relied upon to make reasonable judgements on the audio quality of their broadcasts. They were, in fact, pretty much identical to the BBC approved LS 3/6, themselves reissued by Sterling Audio recently with modernized drivers (and reviewed well by REG in The Absolute Sound recently).

The BC-1’s, like the original Quad ESL, were one of those brilliant designs that more or less fulfilled exactly what the designer intended. When they hit the market in the late 1960’s, they were widely considered one of the few “box” speakers able to compete with the original Quad on its own terms, that is tonal refinement and relative lack of coloration. Though like the Quads, the bass and treble were less outstanding than the midrange, while still quite serviceable (this was somewhat improved in the later SP-1).

Even today, listening tests show the BC-1 to be outstanding in the areas of its strengths. They are smooth, free of obvious tonal problems and, yes, beautiful to listen to. And, considering it’s hard to spend over $1000 for a pair on the used market, an outstanding value. So that’s it, game over, right?

Not exactly. In order to enjoy the BC-1’s (easy to do, BTW) you have to forget the literal sound presence of the concert hall. The BC-1’s give you a tonally sophisticated sound but much less of the scale, power and presence of the concert hall experience. To be fair, most relatively small box speakers do this. The scale of a concert hall just cannot be reproduced by a speaker of this type, partly because it is a speaker of this type (with a relatively point source nature) and partly that recordings (which are VERY different from reality) just don’t contain enough of this information. Unfortunately, microphone/recorder does not equal ear/ brain.

In my view, the only way to even try and approximate the scale and power of concert hall sound is to employ speakers that augment the recordings in this aspect, line sources, planars and the like. Now let’s be clear.  Speakers like this involve more of the characteristics of the listening room and of their specific radiation patterns which mix with the (limited) spatial cues present in the recording and it’s fair to say that this is not an accurate reproduction of the recording. But it results (at least to me) in a sound more accurate to the gestalt of the concert hall experience, though in a somewhat generalized way due to the leveling effect of the unchanging nature of your room acoustics.

Whether this is for better or not is a subjective decision. Some would say the recording is what it is and all we can do is to try to reproduce that limited reality as well as we can. Others would say the original sound as experienced in the hall is the only arbiter (which is BTW, the original “Absolute Sound” philosophy), whatever gives more of that impression is right even if it somewhat compromises the limited reality present in the recording. Me, I waver. Sometimes I like the let it all hang out concert hall approach and sometimes the limited but tonally truer impression of something like the BC-1. If I had to choose one, I like the idea of the concert hall impression. But I don’t have to choose, so I can have Magnepan 3.7 in one room and KEF LS-50 in the other. Hey, some people like Chocolate AND Vanilla, it’s OK, relax…

There is another issue here. The lively BC-1 speaker cabinets, though their effect is figured in and integral to the final sonic result, still produce their own sound artifacts that cloud and obscure the sound somewhat. Here the heroic efforts of the KEF LS-50 to deaden the cabinets pay dividends in terms of clarity and the concentric drivers more fully approximate a point source type of radiation pattern, resulting in a more accurate to the recording sense of the placement of images in its limited-in-scale soundstage. Though the extra warmth of the BC-1 is certainly welcome.

It must be said that the Magnepan 3.7 (reviewed earlier) planar, while not quite as tonally accurate as the BC-1, do provide a more convincing sense of scale and presence and overall convey a more realistic impression of an orchestra in a concert hall. But if tonality is all to you, the Spendor BC-1’s are hard to beat and are one of the true classics in stereo era audio.

KEF LS50 Further Thoughts

I have owned these speakers now for about a month and a half, so it’s time for some updated impressions.

I have listened in the living room on the big rig and in my bedroom system. In both cases, the speakers acquitted themselves quite well. I take the bedroom performance quite seriously, BTW (ahem). I like to listen there late at night and often leave the system playing softly as I sleep. Speakers that have significant performance shortfalls can lead, rather than to enhanced sleep, to 3AM wake-up calls to turn the damn system off! The LS50 passed this test with flying colors, making sleep time more pleasurable and more anticipated than even my old age and borderline laziness can on its own.

The speaker did well in the living room environment, filling this large-ish space well at reasonable levels of playback. The soundstage was especially notable, it did not have the height illusion that a planar or a physically large speaker can conjure, but the rest of it was quite fine, befitting the way the particular recording was made.

Of course, no small speaker will produce prodigious bass and that is true here. But it passes the bass “Mendoza Line” test handily. (Mario Mendoza was a major league ballplayer who was (in)famous for hitting around .200 year after year with his main contributions on defense. So .200 became the “Mendoza Line”, MLB jargon for barely adequate. The ProAc Tablettes bass is at the Mendoza Line, for example. Ironically, Mendoza finished his career above the Mendoza Line…)

So with the obligatory bass disclaimer out of the way, we can look at what this speaker excels at. There is an overall sense of transparency, as though you can hear through the speakers to the essence of the recorded performance. This comes from a number of attributes. The tonal balance is quite good, the limited bass extension is balanced by a less than insistent treble and a generally flat midrange. I say generally because there is not quite the midrange smoothness and neutrality of something like the Harbeth P3ESR, for example, but the competition is close. Where the KEF trumps the Harbeth is in the lack of “cabinet fog”, which allows a clarity and detail the Harbeth can’t quite muster.

The other contributor to the sense of transparency is the soundfield the KEF manifests, which is a result of the concentric driver and the lack of sonic contribution of the cabinet due to its relative lack of resonance and its carefully radiused shape that discourages secondary radiation from the cabinet borders.

The cabinet quality here really can’t be overemphasized. This is actually quite a thing to hear; to realize that some of what we are used to hearing in speakers is an artifact of cabinet radiation and diffraction. Of course, in general, small speakers tend to have a certain clarity, their small size steers what resonances there are to frequencies where they can do less harm relative to a larger cabinet and provide a smaller surface to radiate the result of the resonances into the room, but the KEF shows what more can be done even in the context of a small speaker.

And kudos for the KEF UniQ driver, too. Making a generally flat driver is not easy and making a flat concentric driver is even more difficult, but the UniQ is a quite good driver as these things go. It could be argued that a heroic cabinet that allows the driver to do most of the speaking is good only if the driver is worth listening to. Here we have a driver that is worth listening to. Not perfect, as mentioned above, but competitive to even separate high quality woofers and tweeters while bringing the advantages of the concentric format to the table.

Overall, the KEF strikes me as an excellent product and something of a minor classic. It brings many strengths to the table and few weaknesses not directly related to its small size. It would seem the UniQ driver has come to maturity, the limited opportunities I have had to listen to the flagship Blade show similar levels of performance in a more full range context. As of now, the LS50 is my favorite small speaker in the moderate price range, its $1500 pair price being at the lower end of that range for a high quality mini.  I suspect the next significant step up for a small speaker application would be the Magico or Raidho which are both into five figures. Hats off to KEF for a fine accomplishment.

KEF LS50 loudspeakers, a bow to the past and a nod to the future (part 1)

Any company in any field that can claim 50 years in business is doing something right. But the UK’s KEF has a vibrant history both in terms of their own finished speakers and the products that the fruits of their research made possible. The drivers that KEF designed back in the day were classic and many of the speakers that employed them are enjoyed in homes to this day. BBC researchers, who designed monitors without commercial intentions but only to provide as faithful as possible monitoring of their transmitted signals, used KEF’s drivers liberally, most notably in the LS3/5A.

If all the KEF drivers inspired were the legendary LS3/5A, they would hold an honored position in audio history. But many other classics used the B-110 and T-27 and the other KEF designs. In addition to numerous KEF designs, the Linn Kan and Isobarik, JR- 149, various IMF’s and TDL’s, various Celef’s, various Tangent’s, early Meridian, ProAc and Monitor Audio’s, employed KEF drivers.

Now 50 years later we have the LS50 where the “LS” is a nod to KEF’s BBC legacy. But that’s pretty much where the similarity ends. While they do still employ KEF designed drivers, the drivers are nothing like the Bextrene coned units of yesteryear. KEF calls the new drivers “Uni-Q”, and they are a concentric design with the tweeter mounted in the middle of the driver where the dustcap would be in normal drivers. The concept of a concentric driver actually goes way back to the old Tannoy drive units from the late ’40’s, but KEF started their investigation into their technology in the mid ’80’s with the benefit of modern technology and materials. The first KEF speaker to employ the Uni-Q was introduced in 1988 and the driver has evolved quite a bit since then.

The latest versions of the Uni-Q were produced for the “Blade” project, which finally saw the light of day as a commercial product in 2011. The Blade is an excellent design, but sells for $30,000. I was going to say “unfortunately sells for $30,000”, but when you consider what flagship speaker designs from established (and non-established!) companies sells for these days, the $30,000 almost seems reasonable…

So when the LS50 was announced, the first thought prompted by its looks was “mini-Blade”. I am not sure it’s quite that, but it does seem apparent that it benefitted from the Blade’s research in its design. I also think it looks pretty cool, the piano black, curvaceous cabinet and Rose-Copper colored concentric driver making a nice looking modern style package, in my view (though it might not go with your Chippendale sofa and Tudor balustrades). So this looked like a likely prospect for my small speaker project.

My first move upon obtaining a pair was to deploy them in my bedroom system for break-in. In the bedroom I mostly listen to FM radio through a small Job Amplifier, itself an intriguing Swiss design that inspired some of the later Goldmund amplifier designs (unfortunately, the Job is discontinued now).

First listens were intriguing, the announcers voices on my local Classical music station (WWFM) sounded quite natural without excessive chestiness. It was interesting to me that LS50 tonality was good enough to let me guess that an unfamiliar piece of music (it turned out to be Adventures in a Perambulator by John Alden Carpenter) was a Mercury Living Presence recording and a Beethoven 7th was a Deutsche Grammophon (Carlos Kleiber). So far so good!

But the two things that struck me right away were the speakers disappearing act and the low-level of cabinet coloration. The imaging, even under the less than optimum conditions they were operating under, was quite fine. And there was this sense of purity, as though you were hearing the driver talking for itself without influence of the cabinet. Now this might be expected from a small speaker with a highly engineered cabinet, but it’s unusual to hear none the less.

Part two will give further impressions after break-in and in my main system. Stay tuned.

AudioNote AN-E/Lexus Speakers, the gateway drug?

One of the roads less traveled in quality audio is the world of vintage and vintage-based-technology equipment. Usually tube based, often very low power mated with high-efficiency loudspeaker designs, it generally makes the more mainstream audio community go right into grid current (a little tube joke for the ham operators out there).

It’s also characterized by a seeming disregard for technical measurements (by the retro-audiophiles and sometimes even the designers) and for decent, moral regard for the sacredness of accuracy and neutrality. These musically horny tarts are so depraved as to…oops, lapsed into a Monty Python bit. Sorry.

All seriousness aside, the retro-phile (as it were) prizes emotional response and musical satisfaction over the usual concerns about accuracy (to whatever one thinks playback should be accurate to, I guess). Dissecting music into pieces for analysis is anathema to them, akin to testing wines through chemical analysis. One thing I admire is their insistence on assessing audio gear without the reassuring recourse to measurements to back their opinions up. That’s a tightrope with no net and, for many audiophiles, really just to dangerous.

For the most part, this equipment is not seen that often in mainstream print audio (remember when they were called the “underground audio press”? Meet the new boss…), except for the past writings of Peter Breuninger for TAS and Stereophile and currently by Art Dudley of Stereophile, who have, I am sure, suffered slings and arrows from the establishment for their apostasy.  But it WAS championed in print by “Sound Practices” and “Positive Feedback” back in the day and in print and later on line by the late Harvey Rosenberg, who the grim-faced arbiters of audio morality loved to hate. BTW, go check out Harvey’s legacy website http://www.meta-gizmo.net/. Now THERE was a dude who loved to write, especially about his beloved audio interests. And with a sense of humor, which was a big reason why “the grim-faced arbiters of audio morality” (is it OK to quote yourself, especially in the same paragraph?) were so outraged.

But once the seeds are sown, like forbidden fruit, this subculture beckons. Is it for you? Is it for me? I certainly don’t think it’s for everyone. But you’ll never know till you dip your toe in the water and find out for yourself. One way to ease into this is with Audio Note speakers. The AN-E/Lexus is not representative of the very latest or even the very best Audio Note has to offer, but it can give a healthy bite of the AN sound. And, although it has more in common with the audio hedonists rather than the traditionalists, it’s not too scary to the uninitiated as this speaker derives from the Snell E designed back in the early 1980’s by the late Peter Snell (who was firmly in the audio mainstream).

The AN-E/Lexus is a fairly large 2 way, designed to be elevated on a short stand. It’s also a bit unique, in that it is designed with corner placement as an option. In fact, corner placement is how Audio Note shows the speakers at audio shows and really, the design appears to be more optimum for this placement, the anechoic response starts to shelve down in the midbass and the reenforcement the corner placement provides brings the bass up closer to the midrange in level.

I tried the speaker both ways, in my den system, an approximately 12 X 14 foot room in the corners and out in the room in my main room which is larger, but has no realistic way to employ corner placement. I did prefer the corner placement as the tonal balance was indeed better this way, the midbass especially thinning out under these circumstances. But what I really liked was that, in a small room where speakers placed out in the room can seem physically (and sonically) in your face, the corner placement made the room look much less cluttered and created an expansive, if more distant than typical, soundfield. Maybe corner placement should come back into vogue a bit, for both sonic and esthetic considerations.

Overall, the tonal balance tends to the mid-centric and if your ideal is Harbeth/Spendor flatness of response, you won’t find it here. Not that it’s wildly bizarre, though. This is a sound that emphasizes a somewhat more “organic” sound at the cost of what some may consider accuracy. But in many ways, it does tend to bring an alluring sound to a great number of recordings, not requiring the best recordings for musical enjoyment and helping to ensure that relatively poor recordings are not heard at their worst, either.

To really hear all of what Audio Note can do would require exposure to their currently manufactured more costly designs which I have only heard at shows. You can spend anywhere from $6000 to $20,000 on what’s basically the same speaker with tweaks as you go up the line, the top models employ Alnico magnets, hemp cones, silver voice coils and external crossovers with higher quality components. The Audio Note show systems I have heard have sounded quite fine. I can’t tell you where the optimum cost/benefit line is, but I will say that if you don’t dig what you hear from the lower levels of this model, I doubt that going for the throat will make the difference. On the other hand, if you do like the basic design, I suspect that as you move up you do get more, Audio Note has stayed steadfast to this design over the years so they should have a pretty good idea what’s going on with it at this point.

Audio Note speakers make a persuasive argument that classic “neutrality” (whatever that really is) as aspired to by more mainstream designs may not be the only way to musical satisfaction. Certainly, this road can exist in parallel with the currently more established paradigms, I think.

Keep it quiet, but here’s the Lectron JH-50 amplifier

There are some things that it’s tempting to just keep to yourself. This is a story about one such audio product.

From about 1984 to 1999, I performed repairs on tube audio gear for various clients. There are some benefits to this beyond making a few bucks outside of your day job. One of the biggest is getting to hear equipment you otherwise wouldn’t (you have to test it out to make sure it won’t fail when you return it to the customer, after all). That’s how I first came to hear the Lectron JH-50.

It looked cool and sounded excellent, but was beyond my price range at the time. It was also not that common here in the US, being designed in France by one of the legends of the French audiophile community, Jean Hiraga. Mr. Hiraga was one of the seminal figures in the tube/triode/horn renaissance in Europe through his magazine l’Audiophile, so the amp had an excellent pedigree. I was determined to keep my eye out for one when finances allowed.

My next experience with the Lectron came at a friend’s audio store, years later. He had one of these in his personal collection and we were listening to it on a number of different speakers. We both decided that, somehow, this amp seemed to make whatever speaker we hooked up sound about as well as it could sound, it just had this uncanny ability to bring the best out of whatever it fed. My offer to buy it was rebuffed, but my determination to find one was re-energized.

Perhaps the magic of the JH-50 is in the (British) Partridge output transformers (that have always enjoyed a good sonic reputation). It employs EL-34 output tubes, always a pretty sweet sounding tube and that may help, as may the use of octal based drivers rather than the more common miniature tubes. Or maybe some synergy with the circuit design and the parts used. Whatever it is, it’s one of the best medium power (about 40 watt) tube amplifiers I have ever heard. Creamy without sounding fat, clear and beautiful, and in control.

Of course, like all tube amps, it is not completely “neutral” from a technical standpoint. But our speakers and our room are not perfectly neutral either, so how the sum of the parts of the Amp/Speaker/Room interface align is always up for question. This without questioning whether a “neutral” system is really desirable in the first place (he said provocatively).

So we fast forward to about 2004. I had finally found a JH-50 on Audiogon for a reasonable price and was waiting for it to arrive when an audiophile buddy of mine, who favors the tube/horn path, called late one afternoon. In our conversation, he lamented how hard it was for him to find an amplifier he was really happy with. In an unthinking moment, I mentioned the JH-50 and how it might be worthy of his attention. Now understand, my friend can be driven when it comes to his interests, so he went out a found a JH-50, liked what he heard, found another to have a spare and told all his friends who put on full court presses to find their own. Suddenly, the Lectron’s prices on the used market seemed to shoot up. Never content to leave well enough alone, folks started having their JH-50’s modified, which made $2000 amplifiers into $3000 amplifiers. Luckily, I already had mine.

So I am almost afraid to mention the JH-50. Not that I am so egotistical to think that just a mention on my blog is all that, but hey, it happened once before…