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Speakers Now, Or Forever Hold Your Peace of Mind

Buying speakers is sort of like buying a car: just about any will get you where you want to go, but some are more fun, some more expensive, some more glitzy, some more practical, some bigger and more complicated than they need to be, some are just not pleasant, some delight, some are fast. Like automobiles, speakers come in an endless variety of sizes, shapes, designs and colors. There must be more than 1,000 different speaker models to choose from, emanating from at least 100 manufacturers, and the sheer number of choices and the mysteries under the hood of each one can add to the dilemma of finding the right one. Trying to choose the right speaker is further complicated by a dealer’s showroom, where a number of variables can alter the basic sound of a box.

Last month I tried to uncover what makes speakers speak and what makes good speakers communicate some of music’s deeper content rather than just going through the motions. Briefly, Meadowlark Audio’s Pat McGinty said that the genuine article is a loudspeaker that reaches the listener somehow on an emotional plane, which grabs you, which gets you tapping your feet, which sends chills up your spine. He also said that an acoustic piano, because all its sound is right up front, is a good test for a speaker. Can’t handle piano? Chuck it. Do voices you’ve become familiar with through years of listening sound right? If not, look elsewhere. He also warned of speakers that sound too real, with exaggerated highs or lows, presenting something more like a caricature of a drum set or singer.

Meadowlark’s No Lemon

McGinty’s Meadowlark addresses the problems inherent in speaker design in a number of ways, including fine tuning the physical array of drivers (tweeter, midrange and woofer, for example) to ensure that sound waves covering the entire frequency spectrum arrive at your ears at the same time-even if they arrive a split second late, tardy bass waves can smear the coherency of the image presented. Vandersteen, Thiel and others address this issue in their designs as well. Meadowlark also utilizes simplified electronic crossovers (the gizmos that direct highs to the tweeters and lows to the woofers), which do not add more unneeded confusion. Another source of distortion is the significant “rear wave,” which fires from the rear of the woofer to the inside of the cabinet. As this wave careens around the walls of the enclosure, it has the potential to return to the woofer’s cone and cause interference in its in-and-out motion, which can cause very audible distortion. All designers must deal with this issue, whether with a sealed box, a vented port or whatever; some are just more successful than others. Meadowlark has adopted the “transmission line” enclosure, which effectively builds a wooden labyrinth inside the box to allow the rear-firing, troublesome bass wave to dissipate over its reasonably long, convoluted path. Not 100% effective, but, given the alternatives, it’s pretty darn good. Other companies use this same theory, but it’s expensive to manufacture the complex cabinetry so very few choose this route. McGinty’s background in woodworking allows him to pull it off, even with his least expensive models.

So, enter the Swift ($995/pair), Meadowlark’s newest hatchling. McGinty has tinkered with the transmission line idea and developed a revolutionary new way of absorbing that noisome, unwanted bass reflection. He calls it Impedance Coupled Bass, and, rather than try to explain it in simple language, something not even McGinty can do, let’s just say it’s amazing that a 5.5-inch woofer can reproduce low frequencies the way this sucker does. It is fast, tight and very punchy without a trace of artificiality or steroid-induced funny business (think of the sound of those obnoxious, subwoofer-loaded cars that wake you up at 3 a.m.-well, that ain’t the Swift). Instead you get convincing gut-grabbing plucks from Ron Carter’s acoustic, driving, speed-demon whacks from Tony Williams’ bass drum and precise low-register vamping from Herbie Hancock’s Steinway, all laying a solid foundation for the searing, cutting staccatos from the trumpet of Master Miles and the lyrically soothing counter statements from Wayne Shorter’s tenor. The Swift gets all these things right and the results do, indeed, sound like music-so convincing and pleasurable that you just don’t want the record to end. You just wanna hit repeat and do it again.

The standard reaction from Swift newbies as they try to determine where the deep, rich sound is coming from is, “Where’s the subwoofer?” I heard that question countless times as I auditioned these admittedly diminutive boxes at a recent audio show. (See the sidebar for more reports from that extravaganza.) All this and a lovely handcrafted solid-wood cabinet (not the usual veneer-covered composite) for under a grand for the pair. Meadowlark promises to incorporate its new concept into larger models later this year and, I for one, am eager to hear what those can do-the promise of bigger is better will undoubtedly hold true here.

Le Sound François

“We are from France” was a regular line in the Coneheads’ Saturday Night Live litany, and though many audiophiles insist there is an obvious “French sound” to most French-manufactured speakers, I don’t hear it. The sound of Triangle, one of France’s most respected loudspeaker companies, is simply one of pure joy-French-induced, perhaps, but all I hear is music without an accent, and no overt proclamation of their French origins. Large quantities of potato chips and beer might be in order, though, when settling into a lengthy listening session with the Triangles.

The Triangle Zerius ($1,095/pair) grabbed me, held me and convinced me that you don’t have to spend a large sum of cash to achieve bliss from a hi-fi system. As with the Swifts, I found it difficult to walk away from the Zerius without longing to return immediately to bathe myself just a bit more in the highly musical quality of these unimposing speakers. They are rich and lush where they should be, crisp and taut when necessary, but with no trace of artificiality, sluggishness, brittleness or exaggeration-in other words they are accurate to the music they are asked to reproduce. And they go that all-important extra step of conveying the emotional content of the music, transmitted to me in spades. I listened to a new recording by Brazilian 7-string guitar wiz Yamandú Costa that is full of life and energy owing to his tremendous talent and youthful exuberance; hearing it through these Zerius marvels was truly captivating. The deep resonant tones of the added bass string came through with authority and finesse, while his rapid fingering in upper registers was revealed with a detail and openness I had not noticed before, placing Costa directly in front of me in the room. Not many speakers can so convincingly reproduce those amorphous qualities that create the illusion of a live musical performance. However, another Triangle speaker, the Celius ($1,995/pair) behaves just like its smaller sibling, only more so. The overall spaciousness and fullness is greater than in the Zerius, the bass goes a bit lower and with more oomph, while the resolution wipes out one more layer of obfuscation of the musical event. These are speakers I want to take home with me.

Soliloquy Speaks Loudly

Phil Jones, whom I interviewed in the May 2001 column on speakers, is an English jazz musician turned speaker designer who now lives in China, but has speakers coming out of North Carolina. The main thing to remember is, when a musician designs a speaker, the references are just a bit more true than when one is designed by a guy sweating it out at a drafting table. Music begets music, so to speak, and if you don’t experientially know what the real thing sounds like, how can you ever get it right? If you judge by his products for American Acoustic Development and Soliloquy, among others, Jones knows what he’s doing. While the AAD offers a range of models to fit every budget, Soliloquy concentrates a bit more on the area of high-performance speakers (read: more costly).

The top of the Jones-designed heap is the Soliloquy 6.5s ($6,399/pair), which, after hearing them briefly in Las Vegas last January, I had to audition further at home-my ears fell in love, after all. After a few weeks of courting, Soliloquy shipped me a pair and, with the help of the delivery man, I managed to heave these 130-pound monsters into my living room. Now, when a speaker weighs in at that level, it better be good-the sheer bulk ought to count for something. Well, my love affair with the 6.5s has not ended, even after nearly two months of daily aural trysting. At nearly four-and-a-half feet high, they dominate my smallish living room, but the benefits are legion. I have never experienced bass that goes down so low (the specs say they reach down to 22 Hz with their three 6.5-inch woofers), that fills the room with its enormous force, yet reveals a point of origin so focused that you know exactly where on the aural stage it is coming from. And the extremely revealing midrange and highs fill out the sonic portrait with such grace and aplomb that you can practically see the string vibrating on the stand-up or the head flexing on the front of a silver Slingerland bass drum. And does it get the piano right? Walter Davis Jr.’s fantastic tribute to Monk, In Walked Thelonious (Mapleshade), came to life in my living room. Now this is a must-have CD for any Monk fan, thanks to Davis’ talent of capturing Monk spot-on and the fact that Mapleshade can record a piano as well as or better than anyone. And thanks to the Soliloquy 6.5s, the piano eased out of the speakers and took form in my room. The spell was cast and Davis was channeling Monk just as the Soliloquies were channeling Davis. Quite a feat.

On vocals the same magic comes into play. I love the mostly overlooked vocal stylings of Bob Dorough, taking great delight in his word play, Texas twang and sophisticated phrasing. On “I Get the Neck of the Chicken,” from his Right on My Way Home CD (Blue Note), the growing raspiness of his voice comes through almost too well. Sometimes you really don’t want to have such detail thrown in your face when it reminds you that one of your favorites is getting older. But nonetheless, the Soliloquies project a pleasing, full and rounded portrait of Dorough and his sidemen, including Christian McBride’s 3-D bass and Billy Hart’s always-fascinating drum work.

For a change of pace, I cranked up the new Los Lobos Good Morning, Azatlán (Mammoth) and treated my entire neighborhood to a bit of Southwestern barrio blues-rock. I can just sit and listen to this exciting recording all day with the large-as-life dynamics offered by the Soliloquies-again, more punch and drive than any speaker I’ve had in my home previously. Did I mention that they play really, really loud if you’ve got the juice?

These are big speakers and they require a big room-unfortunately, twice the size of the room I have presently. From my experience, a room at least 20 or 25 feet long and around 15 feet wide should do the trick; bigger might even be better. With that much space to play with and breathe in, these speakers can truly come alive. If you have the real estate in your living room and the bucks, by all means, give these a spin.

Home Entertainment Show 2002:

Compared to the expanse and extravagance of the Vegas-based Consumer Electronics Show, this summer’s Home Entertainment 2002: The Hi-Fi & Home Theater Event, held in New York City, was like a small, polite tea party hosted by some neighborhood senior citizens. The entire show could have been held within the space allotted for cordless drills in Vegas, which is to say it was very sane, very manageable-and much more enjoyable. And the hosts went out of their way to make the experience enjoyable. We attendees had more opportunity to speak with designers, manufacturers, their reps, record producers and so on. I learned much and had at least one revelation.

The revelation was something everyone in high performance always says but that I can’t really believe: all that really matters is the music, and the equipment is not the end but a means to an end. I keep hearing that, but the more I am around this sort of expo, where $70,000 speakers powered by $50,000 amplifiers sound boring and lifeless, the more I realize I am hearing empty words. If I hear one more person tell me, “It’s all about the music,” and then switch on a $13,000 preamp that leaves me as cold as ice even when playing James Brown, I might have to move to the Amazon.

One of the most musical and engaging systems I heard retails for about $4,300, an amount that wouldn’t even cover the cost of speaker cables in some rooms, and it allowed me to understand that it really was about the music and not the megabuck systems. The lineup: the Cairn Fog upsampling CD player ($1,595), the Cairn 30-watt 4808 integrated amp ($1,595) and the Triangle Zerius speakers ($1,095). The external design of the Cairn electronics is radically handsome: minimalist brushed aluminum faceplates with matching centrally positioned illuminated blue windows for the display of control functions, volume and the like. But their principal attribute is the synergy they create to reproduce music in an alchemical way. I just couldn’t get enough. And when matched with the phenomenal and affordable Triangle speakers, the results will allow you to melt into your favorite discs and forget about the equipment.

I was also enchanted by the sound of the Reference 3A MM De Capo speakers ($2,500) powered by Antique Sound Labs tube amplifiers (I heard different amps on different visits). But the sound was always fun, real and very enjoyable. This was another room I found myself returning to over and over. Antique Sound Labs offers a very full line of very affordable tube amplifiers designed and assembled in China that offer simple circuits that have been proven over decades. The sound of each amplifier I heard was gutsy, open and very dynamic.

As much as I enjoyed the equipment, the main story was to be found with software: CDs, SACDs and the recording thereof.

Sony’s demo room made a very convincing argument for the SACD format, and the announcement that 22 Rolling Stones titles would be released in cleaned-up, SACD-hybrid versions was monumental from my perspective-and so was the sound. I was never a big Stones fan, but the remastered albums on a state-of-the-art SACD playback system revealed details and nuances that have never been heard by the general public-in fact, not since the original sessions has anyone likely heard what these new discs reveal.

In a panel discussion on the merits of DSD recording (sort of the input side of the SACD equation: digital sampling approaching 3 million hits per second), among a number of respected engineers reached the consensus that, after recording in the DSD format, there was no going back to other digital formats such as Pulse Code Modulation (PCM), which is the current standard method of digitalization. One engineer flatly stated that “DSD offers what is probably the best sound in the history of recorded music.” Others agreed that it is impossible to distinguish between a live feed from a studio session and the monitor signal from the DSD recorder.

From all I have heard, I feel there is truly hope for accurately documenting new music, such a relief after all the dismal sounds of the 1980s and ’90s.

Originally Published