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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!

Quad Vadis?

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.

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.

The Celestion SL-600, first of the luxury compact monitors

Earlier, I wrote about the ProAc Tablette mini-monitor. This was a tiny speaker that used generally tried and true technology to produce a fine miniature loudspeaker. A bit later, Celestion came up with a completely different approach to the small monitor, the SL-600. The difference was the technology that was brought to bear. The acquisition of Laser Interferometry equipment allowed Celestion’s designers to examine the action of drivers and what was discovered was that most speaker drivers operated in “break-up mode” through significant parts of their ranges where different parts of the diaphragm were moving independently rather the ideal of “pistonic action”, that is, the driver moving as one piece.

This resulted in development of all new drivers for the SL-600 (and its little brother, the SL-6). The woofer looked fairly conventional, but it did benefit from the new measurement technology. But the really obvious thing was the tweeter. It sported a copper (!) dome and did indeed act much more pistonic than typical domes of the day, at least up to about 19 Khz, where its fundamental resonance resulted in a large peak. In practice, a notch filter was introduced into the crossover to remove this. The copper dome also had another effect. Since it was relatively heavy, it lowered the sensitivity of the tweeter. Enough that, had the woofer sensitivity been lowered to match, the system would have been almost impractically inefficient. So what was finally accepted was a tweeter that was around 2 db down from the level of the woofer. Keep this in mind for later.

For the premium SL-600, there were more tricks up Celestion’s sleeve, mainly involving the cabinet. It was always known that resonances in speaker cabinets had an effect on the sound, but around this time speaker designers started to seriously attack this problem. Within a few years, the Wilson WATT would come out which used methacrylic material to deaden the cabinets and cabinets generally became thicker, heavier and better braced.

Well, Celestion took a different tack. Unlike the SL-6, which employed a more normal MDF cabinet, they decided to design a LIGHTER yet still stiff cabinet using a metal honeycomb material called Aerolam, commonly used in airplanes. The idea was that the material would not store and re-release energy and what resonance they had would be high enough in frequency to be out of the most critical range. They also employed mounting plates to attach the drivers to the front baffle, further stiffening the cabinet. These plates were serrated vertically with small channels to break up sound diffusion off their surface. All in all, it must be said that they started this design off with a clean sheet of paper. So how does this speaker sound today and how successful was its design in retrospect?

One thing the SL-600 was always celebrated for was its disappearing act and disappear it does. The image is vertically challenged as are most small speakers (though not as much as the original ProAc Tablettes), but, beyond that, the images are quite holographic. Mainly, I suspect, because the boxes radiate almost no sound from themselves to confuse the imaging issue. These cabinets also do not have serious resonances that color the sound of the drivers in tonal terms, either. And this results in a clarity through the midrange that is good even by current standards.

But there is another factor, controversial at the time, less so today, that factors into the sound of this speaker. That speakers should not measure dead flat in the treble is a commonly held view today, but back in the ’80’s this was not so much the case. Remember the less sensitive tweeter we talked about earlier? Well this resulted in a response tilted down somewhat from the mids into the treble. So you had a speaker that sounded less bright and more velvety than the norm of the day due to this tilt (and truthfully, by the lack of break-up artifacts in the Celestion tweeter that most tweeters added that contributed spurious treble energy to most conventional speakers). Many listeners of the day rejected the SL-600 for this characteristic, feeling they were slow and dark. Ironically, that “problem” with the tweeter resulted in a speaker more in keeping (in my view) with a natural tonal balance on the largest variety of recordings.

Of course, there are problems here, the worst of which involves the bass/midbass. It’s extended enough for the cabinet size, but sounds a bit vague, as though the woofer runs out of low-distortion steam as you go into the mid-bass. This has the effect of making a discontinuity in the sound, instruments whose fundamentals are higher sound very clear while the lower voiced instruments can sound less so. This is not a world-shattering effect, but it’s there and the louder you play the SL-600, the more this effect can be noted.

Due to the small size of the drivers and the cabinet, dynamics are good rather than great. Here it’s hard to single out the SL-600, most small speakers suffer from this. But some newer designs its size do somewhat better in this area. There is also a bit of a sense of hollowness to the sound, I suspect from the residual cabinet resonances. This is not a severe effect, fortunately. And there is not quite the silken beauty of the best of today’s drivers here.

The intent of the SL-600 at the time was a no-holds-barred assault on the ideal small monitor. It retailed for a high price for its time, but, especially in the context of the mid ’80’s, it was pretty much a successful design. And if you aren’t too troubled by its modest failings, this is still excellent performance in many ways for a small monitor speaker even by today’s standards. Of course, if you are willing to go for the throat, you can certainly outdo the SL-600, but not for near their price on the current used market…

The littlest Pro Ac, the original Tablette or how much bass is enough?

We take for granted the number and variety of small monitors available in the hi-end market today, but it was not always so. Back in “The Day”, small speakers also had to be cheap (who would pay big bucks for a small speaker, the logic went), so you generally didn’t get well-built cabinets or premium drivers and the speakers weren’t usually very good. Unless…

You looked into the pro market at the BBC-designed LS3/5A, which was designed to be, as the Brits’ would say, a “high quality miniature loudspeaker”. It was also designed for what we would now call near field monitoring, but worked OK as a home speaker and increasingly found favor in the hi-end home audio market.

Eventually, the home audio oriented speaker companies noticed this emerging market and started to develop products to cater to it. The ProAc Tablette came along at the right time (early ’80’s) and happened to catch the eye (ear?) of The Absolute Sound magazine and its legendary editor Harry Pearson. Harry gave it a quite complimentary review and ProAc, which previously had only a minimal presence in the US market, was off and running.

After the reviews came out, I made it my business to hear them for myself. I worked in NYC at the time and took the train to the nearest ProAc dealer, a now long gone store in New Brunswick, N.J. Sure enough, quite a nice sound came out of those diminutive boxes. I wanted a pair, but never bought them for reasons lost in the mists of time. A few years ago, a pair of the originals showed up on Audiogon for a reasonable price so I righted that wrong from long ago.

The reason to talk about this speaker (besides its good sound) is its status as one of the first and best of these early mini-monitors (as they came to be called). It can be fairly said that the BBC monitor and the Tablette opened up this market to the mainstream. The premise was that they offered competitively hi-end sound for relatively low-end dollars, assuming you were willing to give up bass and high output levels.

Today, like back in 1981, it’s still amazing to hear what comes out of such small boxes, especially in terms of dynamics and loudness in a reasonably sized room. Obviously, they will not out do larger speakers in some ways, but to me they play just loud enough and have just enough bass to be fairly satisfying on these fronts.

The glory here, as you would hope, is the midrange. Even now, it does a fine job, better than many modestly priced speakers on the market today. As with most small monitors, the imaging is fairly precise, but limited in size and height. The treble is a bit accentuated, but not so much as to scream, at least when played at reasonable playback levels. The drivers show their age a bit, being a bit more rough and ready than the better drivers today. But you don’t get that quality of drivers in modestly priced speakers and you can pick up a pair of used Tablettes for around $300. This math looks good to me.

With mini monitors, bass is always the elephant in the room. Here is where their enclosure size works against the Tabs. Listening to the Decca/Fruhbeck de Burgos Albeniz Suite Espanola, the music is accented by tympani strikes. On a larger speaker (or live music) the tymp powerfully cuts through the orchestra, on the ProAc it sits back as just a component of the orchestra. But it’s there at least, and you can understand the composer’s intent. The lowest open string on the Bass is around 40 Hz and the lowest on the Cello is around 60 Hz, so the ProAc’s in a sympathetic room can at least begin to reproduce these instruments (without really capturing them in full). But it must be said that, bottom line, their approximately 1/3 cubic foot enclosure is just not large enough to get convincingly to the lowest string of the Bass.

A speaker with an enclosure volume of  around 1 cubic foot (3 times as much) is large enough to reasonably get down to that magic 40 Hz figure in room. Again, not to say that response even lower than 40 Hz wouldn’t be desirable, but it’s less of a limitation since that’s mostly the province of the last handful of pipe organ pedals, synthesized electronic music and movie soundtrack effects and the like that are not generally of major musical significance, for classical music especially.

But then again, having the frequencies below 40 Hz also helps bring out concert hall room ambience (which certainly does help create the illusion of a live music venue) and can add to the sense of power on rock music, so they can’t be ignored completely. The problem is, as you descend below 40hz, reproducing this deep bass well becomes expensive, requiring large speakers, large rooms and powerful amplifiers. Sometimes I ask myself if it isn’t more trouble than it’s payoff. But I used to own Infinity IRS V’s, so I guess my arm can be twisted on this point.

Oh well, enough bass theorizing, back to the Tablettes. You can hear why they made waves, both positive and not so positive all those years ago. I do believe that the original Tablette sounds better than the sum of its parts, an example of the magic a wily speaker designer can conjure up.

So I still like them, and with their tiny size it’s no problem to store them when not in use. I guess, truth be told, as my only speaker their limitations would be just too, errr… limiting. Even ProAc eventually increased the size of the Tablettes in their later iterations. Perhaps a comparison between the original and the current Tablette will be possible at some point.

At the end of the day, there are many larger speakers I prefer less despite their low-frequency advantages. It turns out that what the original Tabs do well is not such an easy act to follow.

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.

The Magnepan 3.7 and aspects of reality

It’s almost embarrassing to talk about the basic concepts of the Magnepan line. They have been around for so long (early ’70’s) and have stayed so true to their original concept that it seems almost impossible that anyone remotely interested in Quality Audio isn’t already aware of the company and their products. In fact, if you saw a picture of their original MG-3’s and then pictures of the succeeding models, you would suspect that more has stayed the same than has changed, and there is some truth to that.

Still, there have been incremental improvements since the original MG-3’s, intended to address the original designs perceived weaknesses. The biggest problems were in the area of low-level resolution and detail. One had to play the MG-3’s louder than one would expect for a given level of life and detail. And due to this, dynamics tended to suffer (as did the amplifiers driven beyond their limits in the process).

As the years went by, the succeeding models diminished these problems slowly but surely (by tweaking the mass of the drivers, partly) until the 3.6 were a real improvement over the originals. But some of the problems remained and Magnepan stayed on the case.

It took a while, but the result is the new MG 3.7 which takes an even greater leap towards solving these issues by introducing a wrinkle new to the MG-3 series, the Quasi-Ribbon. This variation on the original planar driver appeared earlier in the smaller MC 1.7, proving to be a significant upgrade for that speaker and it provides similar benefits in the 3.7.

Here are some specs…

Freq. Resp. 35Hz- 40 kHz
Sensitivity 86dB/500Hz /2.83v
Impedance 4 Ohm
Dimensions 24 x 71 x 1.625 inches
Shipping Weight 125 lbs

Well, Magnepan does not exactly overwhelm you with specifications! But the manual tells you most of what you need to know to get the best out of these speakers. I suspect that most folks will use solid state amplification since tube amps with enough power and quality to get what the Maggies have to give would be expensive beyond what most would pair with an under $6000 speaker. In a moderate size room, you may be able to get away with a good 100 watt amp, but I would think a 200 watt amp would be more appropriate. I used the fine Rogue Medusa to good effect. Other equipment included a Motif MC-8 preamp, a Yamaha GT-2000 turntable with Koetsu Black phono cart, Pioneer PD-9D SACD/CD player and an Apple Mac Mini based server.

One of the glories of the Magnepan line has been their true ribbon tweeter. The deployment of the Quasi-Ribbon has brought the rest of the speaker more in line with the outstanding tweeter. Coherency top to bottom is better and the speaker sounds much better when played at lower volumes than its predecessors. And since one can listen at lower levels without losing the Maggie quality, in a backdoor way the demands on the amplifier are lessened (as are the demands of ticked off neighbors).

The presentation of the MG 3.7 is different from typical box speakers and how you react to that will go a long way to determining how you react to this speaker. The tall line-source style radiation results in taller images and the dipole figure 8 radiation interacts with the back walls of the room (though lessens the involvement of the side walls) to make larger sounding images in general. Of course, this is a bit of an artifact, the sound of your room superimposed with the sound of the hall as captured on the recording. But it can be argued that this “artifact” replaces the aspects of the original hall sound that mics just don’t capture, enhancing the sense of the Gestalt of a concert hall, if not the concert hall. This subject is worthy of a longer write-up (and will get one eventually in the Philosophy section of this log), but hopefully, you get the idea.

This presentation is tailor-made for some music. For example, The Legendary Pink Dots “The Whispering Wall” sounds as large and atmospheric as this music would seem to demand. Pink Floyd’s “Echoes” benefits similarly. Here, the sounds were engineered in the studio and there is no “original venue” to deal with, so all is well with regard to the soundfield presentation.

With acoustic music, things are less straightforward. Here there is often an original venue to deal with, and the Magnepan’s interaction with the room has a significant effect. But, to me, this does not at all disqualify the 3.7 from doing well on this music. First of all, I have never heard music live in the vast majority of venues, so I have no idea how live music sounds in them to know how severe the dual venue effect for a given recording really is. And recordings do not really capture the sound as it would have sounded for a listener at the recording session in all its aspects, so the added room sound, it can be argued, may add back some of what was lost.

Tonally, the Magnepans do pretty well. To get what they have to offer here, one has to take some care in room placement (distance from rear wall and toe-in). Treble balance can be adjusted by using a feature that allows a resistor to be inserted in the path to the ribbon tweeter. A shorting wire can be removed from the appropriate terminals mounted on the speaker wire connection plate on the lower rear of the speaker and an included 1 ohm resistor put in its place to lower the tweeter output a bit. I preferred the sound in my not overly live room with this resistor in place, deader rooms may benefit by leaving the short in place and very lively rooms may benefit from larger value resistors. A bit of experimentation is the byword here.

If you demand absolute faithfulness to the recording above all, it must be said that the Maggies play a bit fast and loose, not providing the more completely flat monitor sound that some speakers can exhibit under ideal conditions. But these other speakers arguably fall short on providing the concert hall Gestalt mentioned earlier and, as these things go, the 3.7 are still pretty good tonally providing this enhanced sense of venue without too much collateral damage.

Overall, the MG 3.7’s are a lot of speaker for a moderate price. If you have the room, and you like their general presentation, they are hard to beat. I am not the first to proclaim them a relative bargain in today’s market place, but so they are.