HE2006: After the Ball is Over: Part 2

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by JB on June 25 '06


Part Two: Exotic Speakers and Wily Rooms
(Read Part One)

Once you’ve been to one of these extravaganzas, you figure out that they are inevitably about the sound of speakers in rooms. It’s a pretty shaky stretch to try to pull in much of the other gear into the equation. It takes a braver soul than I—with diamond ears, I suppose—to confidently parse out the contributions of CDPs, preamps, and amps to the sound: with turntables adding the interesting complication of separating out the sounds of cartridges, tonearms, and tables. And how about those wires? This little problem, I’ve already realized, isn’t going to stop me from taking a few wild guesses along the way. Just wanted everyone forewarned.

But I’m invariably writing about speakers and rooms. The Wilsons were as a group pleasant and listenable: though I believe, for quite a few at the show, priced past their demonstrated performance. The Von Schweikert VR-5SE is a Watt/Puppy look-alike that carves $10k off the Wilson Watt/Puppy price, and sounded a bit more alive—and musically a bit more convincing—to me than the W/Ps when I heard it demonstrated.

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This is still in the land of large money, and the price goes up when you want a full Mercedes-like paint shop finish. But one of my impressions of the show, and in truth a story from every single show to which I’ve been, is that I thought there was sound from a number of relatively modestly fitted and priced rooms that was better than the sound from the highest dollar rooms—well, with one exception, but I write that off to a singular weakness that Josh and I share. And I don’t mean that in most cases the big dollar stuff sounded less than good—although I sympathize with all who wish this were the case. Most of the Emperors were still wearing at least their skivvies.

The $35k Verity Sarastros (with Nagra) sounded, I thought, excellent through most of their range—clean, no obvious tonal aberrations, lots of detail, and some substantial life (well, hurrah); although the speakers suffered from one note bass on the material I heard played. Almost certainly, this was a result of speakers battling a peculiarly configured—but ample—room, and coming out with—at best—a draw. (The Stereophile show blog gives the nod to the speakers: not with the music I heard.) Did Josh mention that the veneering was gorgeous? What would make me a trifle nervous about pulling the trigger on a pair, were I to sell one of my family, is the rear-firing woofer, which I would guess was a contributor to the problems the speakers had with the room. I wonder how far these lovely things need to be pulled out into a real world living room—say, like mine, at 24’x16’x9—before there aren’t room issues?

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The $46k ESP Concert Grand that Stereophile’s John Marks admires (I find Mr. Marks, through his writings, a good, sensible soul) sounded lovely pulled out halfway into a room. So forget living in the room. Elliot Millwood of LA’s Acoustic Image—which (sign of the times) once was a store just down the street from Universal Studios, but is now run out of his house—created a virtual “Temple of Speaker.” These are speakers apparently for a very dedicated listening room. However, were I to get away somehow with claiming such a room in our house for myself, in truth the ESPs wouldn’t likely live there. As lovely as they sounded, they also were fairly lazy. I suppose this could have been the aural progeny of a mating with the Wavestream Kinetic amps driving them; but, obviously, there was no way to tell. On the basis of the demonstration, I imagine for some these are audio dreamland, while there’s a chance they’ll put others to sleep.

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The $100k Eben X-5 was the big dog at the show. Huge speakers, huge convention room that should have been manageable, top of the line VTL electronics, and top of the top price tag.

These sounded pretty good: what huge speakers in huge rooms can sound like at shows the rare times they are actually passing music along instead of impressive sound. And I think that is a significant accomplishment, because I believe that adding more size and more drivers makes finding better sound much harder, not easier. The Ebens were neither bright nor thick. Bass was articulate and most of the time integrated with the rest of the sound. The presentation seemed neither too forward nor too recessed, and the soundstage was relatively natural for the recordings I heard. But my experience has been that enormous size paired with multi-drivers offers no more assurance of the illusion of music than do exotic tweeters. (Did I mention that the Ebens happen to have an exotic planar tweeter?)

As enormous as the Ebens were, and as widely spaced as they were, the sheer size of the room reminded always that one was listening to reproduced sound: and reproduced sound that was not nearly as clear and detailed as that available in some of the much more reasonably sized and priced systems at the show. I hope the message that most show goers take home from listening to speakers like the Ebens is that they are really no better than, and in some ways not nearly as satisfying as, a host of listenable speakers that actually might live in a house most of us could, at least someday, own. Josh tells me that over at the side of the room was, in fact, a display of less extravagantly priced and sized Ebens. Maybe these offer more satisfaction than their buffed up sibling.

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Other high dollar speakers displayed included the Dynaudio Confidence C4s, which when I heard them sounded coherent, tonally neutral, but spatially and dynamically compressed. Having heard these before, and knowing they really can open up more, I’m guessing they, like the Verities, were not as happy with the room as Dynaudio folk would have liked them to be.

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Other speakers in the plus 40k range included the Acapella and Nola. Neither really did much for me. I was very interested in hearing the Acapella, since a new found friend and pen pal, who is also an obsessive club and concertgoer, recommended them to me. Let’s guess . . . the room. Early in the first day of the show, a female singer on a cut that was played did indeed sound to me as if she were singing through a frozen orange juice can. I wanted to go back later in the show, but ran out of time. Reports were the sound was much better by show’s end. And of course that happens. At this show, there was at least one interesting example of that I’ll write about later.

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As for the Nolas, they too go into the file of speakers that for me were pleasant, but uninspiring as demonstrated. In fact, on the day Josh and I heard them, an orchestral piece seemed to have toy horns in the horn section. When you hear that, you know you’re hearing things, or someone is playing a novelty recording, or amps and speakers aren’t a happy pairing, or you’re listening to a room do some mighty strange things to the sound. I’m not sure which the case was. But even trying to allow for the room, there was something in the Nola sound that seemed to me like a signature of quite a bit of the Show’s high end—and perhaps something that has become a part of the DNA of many high end loudspeakers: a politeness that is not consonant with my experience of live music. I should add that this politeness is not really particularly related to tonal balance. Leaner Accuton based speakers, like the JAS on display, can be brighter and whiter, but not necessarily more alive to the music.

My impression of all but one of the very expensive speaker/amp combinations at the show is that—unless mucked up by the rooms—they were capable of producing sound that might well appeal to various tastes, and expectations of recorded sound: just not exactly to mine. But the other overriding, and I feel most important, impressions are that the same problems that had to be wrestled with in the hotel rooms—which in the rooms above, excepting Acapella’s, were generally not cramped—would need to wrestled with even in pretty impressive houses; and, most importantly, that there were a number of relatively less expensive options of generally more reasonably sized full range speakers that were, as demonstrated, more—often much more—satisfying at producing an involving sound. And these made me a whole lot less sympathetic to stories of flexing walls and sagging power supplies, since other rooms proved capable of producing sound that in some cases was both able to blow the roof off and also to “roar you as gently as any sucking dove.”

(Coming Up in Part Three: The Best of the Best)


Thanks, Danny -- good stuff. As for the Verity, I believe the bass cabinet is designed to work either as a rear-firing or forward, dependent on the installation.
Actually, JB, not Danny, wrote this article. I did not know that about the bass cabinets. That would be interesting.
Oops, sorry Josh. A writer who can't get a byline right speaks volumes about why newspapers won't hire me anymore.
I really enjoy reading JB's articles. At last, an honest and knowledgeable reporter with no conflict of interest covering an industry show, albeit anonymously. I wonder if JB is afraid of the long arm of the Wilson Organization. :)