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Speakers of the House

“The reproduction of music is a marvelous gift, a great idea developed by Edison,” insists loudspeaker designer Patrick McGinty. “Think about it. I can spend a couple thousand bucks on a stereo system, sit in a darkened room and put Louis Armstrong in there.”

McGinty, whose Meadowlark Audio speakers are lauded around the globe for their stunning ability to create a truly musical experience, is one of a growing number of audio designers who understand that music has an emotional content and who work hard to maintain that emotional content even through the complex medium of that marvelous gift, the sound system.

“Musicality is the essence,” McGinty proclaims, “you can build a speaker that meets all the requirements on the designer’s checklist-soundstage, accurate reproduction of rimshots, whatever, it can do it all-but nevertheless, you fall asleep listening to it, it doesn’t engage you emotionally. When you find a speaker that grabs you emotionally, you’ll forget about the speaker and just enjoy the music. Our job, really, is to sell you the thrills and not the technology,” he summarizes.

But choosing speakers from the hundreds and hundreds available can be difficult when it seems that most of what is marketed is the technology and not the music. So understanding some of the techno babble just might help to cut through the crap and get to the good stuff.

At a recent audio show I heard $35,000 super-hyped speakers that could not hold my attention, but spent long, pleasurable hours hypnotized by understated models costing a grand or less. According to the marketing, I should have loved those monsters; instead they left me cold. There was no emotional connection, none of those thrills. I returned home thinking about the puzzling mysteries inside those different boxes, wondering how designers decide what to put in and what to leave out.

So I called McGinty, whose new $1,000 Swift speakers were a revelation, and asked him to explain what a speaker does and what a designer should try to achieve.

When posed these questions, McGinty took a deep breath and dove in: “A loudspeaker is a device that converts an electrical signal from the amplifier into an acoustical signal which we hear as music in our living rooms. Ideally it will exactly recreate the original musical event, reversing what went on in the recording studio. When an artist plays an instrument, air is set in motion in the form of a transverse wave, the compression and rarefaction of the air, which, when it enters the microphone, is converted into an electronic signal analogous to the form of the acoustic signal. What happens when the signal reaches the loudspeaker is the reverse process. The speaker’s job is to convert the electrical signal back into an acoustic wave, a replication of what happened in front of the microphone.

“In a conventional speaker, the signal runs through a voice coil generating a variable magnetic field which moves against the static field of that big magnet on the back of the speaker itself. You might recall your elementary school science class where you felt the attracting and repelling of two magnets depending on how the various poles were oriented. This interaction of two magnetic forces moves the diaphragm, the cone in this case, which in turn moves the air. It’s a simple concept, really, deduced by Alexander Graham Bell, who discovered you could convert acoustic energy into electrical energy and vice versa. What we are doing with a dynamic loudspeaker is not that different from what Bell did well over 100 years ago,” McGinty concludes.

McGinty goes on to list the areas his company examines to achieve a speaker that interprets those electrical impulses as faithfully as possible into sheets of Coltrane, tinkles of Monk, bursts of Dolphy, and allows the listener to connect with the music. “For us, there are two main points to consider. Is the speaker dynamically accurate? If you double the input, does it double the output at all frequencies? If it compresses the sound at any frequency, it will sound like a speaker. Realistic dynamics are at the top of the list. Secondly, we make sure that all the frequencies arrive at the listener coherently and at the same time by addressing a variety of issues including cone materials, driver alignment, crossover design and enclosure design. But coherency of the sound is key. Frankly, speakers that are not coherent drive me up the wall.”

Manufacturers like Thiel, Vandersteen, Dunlavy and a handful of others address these same issues, albeit in different ways, and have likewise been noted for their successful designs. Yet other designers opt for different criteria and arrive at speakers that can likewise get your heart going. Hell, sometimes cheap car radio speakers can rip your guts out, especially cruising at 80 on a wide-open interstate.

But generally speaking, it is the end result and not the means that really matters. McGinty has some tips for deciding what to buy. “There’s a wrongheaded idea that speakers are on a continuum from good to better to best and that’s not really true. Just like with wine, women and song, different people like different things,” he says.

“Buying a speaker is like buying wine, you can pick from many types and you should get what you like. But there are some areas that are helpful when it comes to selecting a speaker that will do your music justice. Go to a good dealer and have them demo speakers for you, but take along music you love, then get started. A speaker should offer excellent voice reproduction. If it can’t do that, I walk away. Do voices on recordings I have known for years sound the way they should? That’s the first test I suggest. Another difficult test to pass is reproducing a piano, because in a piano, there is no place to hide-if you have loud ringing notes, a hardness or steeliness or flabby bass-they all show up. If a piano sounds like a piano you’ve got a good speaker. Shoppers should also play something to test for brightness like a massed horn section. The sound should be liquid, but sometimes the horns sound edgy and horrible.”

McGinty also warns against speakers that sound too real. “Avoid hyped presentation like hot treble or flashy bass that will drive you crazy in two weeks. Look for a speaker that is dynamic, but also smooth and natural. If you listen to drums, you might be impressed that the high hat sounds so present and so real, but if you stop and realize that it sounds like it is ten feet in front of the rest of the drums, maybe alongside the singer, then you know the treble is too loud.

“But the bottom line is, are you enjoying the music? Can you forget about the technical things and get into the sound? Does Armstrong appear in the room? If so, you’ve found a speaker to consider. A good dealer should let you close the door to the listening room, dim the lights and listen to CD after CD. If you put in your favorite song and halfway through you’re wishing it were over, you should look elsewhere. You should have the desire to stay there listening well into the night,” McGinty suggests.

Well, so where to start? One family of speakers I have heard over the last couple of years that has impressed me greatly, regardless of price, is from Audio Physic. Unifying characteristics throughout the line include a pristine clarity of sound, a laserlike focus of images and the ability of the speakers to completely disappear in an uncanny way-I have had to look around the room on occasion when listening to these to make sure something wasn’t going on because the music seemed to come from the Invisible Man and Friends playing in the room! There was no indication that the speakers were the source of the music. The Audio Physic Spark ($2,499) vanished, not unexpectedly, as I listened recently to Keith Jarrett’s “Bouncing With Bud” from Whisper Not. These trim, attractive, floor-standing boxes just got everything right, from Jarrett’s piano, to the clean attack of Gary Peacock’s bass to the clear brassy, warm tones of Jack DeJohnette’s driving Sabian cymbals. This is a speaker deserving of wider recognition that will not disappoint those who make the effort to find a pair to audition.

Athena Technologies, part of the Canadian clan that includes Mirage and Energy, has come up with a modular approach to speaker purchasing which they call Create Your Sound. It allows you to select a powered subwoofer base that suits your room, and to that base you add a midrange/tweeter unit that also best fits your needs. The top unit locks onto the sub unit via a unique rail system that also completes the proper electrical connection between the two-talk about fool proof! Prices range from $825 for a pair of P1 subs and S1 speakers to $1,800 for a pair of the top-of-the-line S3 speakers mounted on P3 powered subs; quite an impressive tower. Mix and match to create the system that works best for you, and the speakers can be used without the subs either as traditional full-range front speakers, or as surround speakers in an integrated multichannel system.

RBH is a Utah firm that has been producing high-quality speakers for over 25 years, but is just now starting to gain recognition. The company’s Signature Series features some impressive products including towers, surrounds, subs and so on. I had a chance to try the 641-SE ($1,799 in hardwood veneer, $1,499 in black oak wood grain), which I found to be an admirable performer. These nicely finished boxes contained two 6.5-inch woofers in addition to the 4-inch midrange and 1-inch tweeter. I was impressed by the resolution, but more so by the low end handled by the pair of fast aluminum woofers. Joey Baron’s bass drum on John Abercrombie’s recent Cat ‘n’ Mouse CD had an authority and openness that repeatedly grabbed my attention. Plus the speakers’ ability to handle Abercrombie’s captivating hunt-and-peck solos earned it high marks from me. I know my neighbors were glad when I sent these babies back! They had low-end to spare and great, natural punch on top.

Thinking totally outside the box, Magnepan, manufacturer of Magneplanar speakers, has been a leader in high-end audio since before the term existed. Its Timpani panel speakers were legendary in the early ’70s for their resolution and natural openness; current models have carried on the tradition and have only gotten better. Looking at a Magneplanar, you would never believe an inch-thick panel could sound so good, but indeed they do.

The Magneplanar concept originated from the belief that speakers in boxes-because of distortions caused by the sheer mass of the cone, the backwave, or rear-firing reflections bouncing off the back of the box and back toward the listener, and other anomalies caused by the box-would never sound like anything but speakers in boxes. So designer Jim Winey developed a speaker with no box, a tall (some models approach six feet), thin panel consisting of a thin membrane stretched on a frame that is caused to vibrate, recreating that original acoustic wave as described by McGinty. “They are planar, meaning flat,” explains Winey, “and we pass current through a voice grid which covers the entire surface of the film diaphragm instead of a voice coil. The driving force consists of permanent magnets mounted on an acoustically transparent frame which allows the sound to go out the front and back of the speaker.” Winey continues, “As the current flows and reverses, it pushes and pulls the film diaphragm and that motion creates the sound wave. So, just as when people play a musical instrument, the sound travels in all directions. That’s one reason why our speakers sound so natural. With a box speaker, the backwave must be absorbed somehow, which, of course, rarely happens. Our speakers have an openness, a you-are-there quality and they are very good at articulating minute sounds, details in the music, because the mass of the diaphragm is very low, which allows it to start and stop very quickly. Our film is only one-half of one one-thousandth of an inch thick [0.0005] so it reacts almost instantaneously to the changing current. That is why our speakers are famous for their quick transient capabilities, especially in the mid-range where it really counts.”

Using some of McGinty’s yardstick points, this speaker is a true winner. I have never heard another speaker that projects dynamics in so real a fashion, or that gets the sound of a piano dead-on. And female vocals? I’ve had Holly Cole, Patricia Barber, Ella Fitzgerald and other divas pay me midnight visits.

I’ve owned Magneplanars in the past and probably will again someday, but recently I’ve been listening to a borrowed pair of the miraculous MMGs ($550), which are only sold factory-direct through the Magnepan Web site-an approach Winey admits is a way to more easily induce folks to try out this rather strange looking speaker. “We offer it with a 60-day, money-back guarantee of satisfaction and we are very pleased with how few ever come back. When we do hear from people again, it is usually to buy a pair of our larger speakers.” The generous upgrade offer lasts for 12 months and allows people full credit toward the purchase of another Magneplanar model.

That said, the MMG is truly an amazing value. It does not offer thumping, window-rattling bass, but the bass it does present is very, very real, in line with its extraordinary ability to transmit the sensation of live music. The SACD versions of Patricia Barber’s Nightclub (Mobile Fidelity) comes through with unexpected vitality and presence, as does the DVD-A reissue on Hi-Res of the Charlie Byrd/Laurindo Almeida chestnut Brazilian Soul. Their guitar lines have never been so easy to follow, and they communicate this fascinating music straight to the depths of my personal Brazilian soul.

Placement of planar speakers is a bit trickier than with conventional boxes because of the bi-directional nature of the speaker; locating them a minimum of two feet away from the rear wall is necessary to minimize reflection problems. But if you have the space, and particularly if you listen to more acoustic music than chest-throbbing electric, then you should certainly put this on your very short list of speakers to consider, especially if price is also a primary consideration. Of course, if you have the bucks, the larger “Maggies” are also worthy of a listen.

Originally Published