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HE2006: After the Ball is Over: Part 3

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by JB on June 29 '06

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Part 3: How High does the High End Really Go?

(Read parts one and two)

The one question I try to remember to ask myself as I wander through Audio Toyland is, 
“Would I be happy to live with what I’ve just heard?” Almost always—under sober consideration—I figure out I wouldn’t be, however immediately thrilled I am by the sound from a room. This year I pretty much counted on being generally unreceptive to the “come hithers” of what I consider full range speakers—speakers that will produce satisfying deep bass in a reasonably large room: simply because I have been living more or less blissfully since December, after years of checking out the field, with a pair of active ATC Anniversary 50s. ATCs don’t sound a lot like most audiophile speakers. ATC is not shy about publishing their remarkably low distortion numbers, and the speakers are not shy about letting you hear just what the engineer wittingly as well as unwittingly let sneak onto a recording. But the Aniversaries offer most of the right cues I need—in tonal balance, depth, dynamics, clarity, speed and detail—to keep me coming back to my CDs and LPs. Now, I’m not about to send the ATCs off to Audiogon, but, what do you know, I did stumble into at least three rooms with extended-range speakers with which I might happily have long term flings.

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The Bluebird room was I think the second room Josh and I landed in the first day of the show. For me, this was in part something like a courtesy call. Jay Rein of Bluebird had gone out of his way in helping me figure out how to get a Chord SPM 4000 preamp in front of the ATCs for a listen, and James Gregan who sells Bluebird’s Exposure electronics—and is the Southern California ATC rep/dealer—was apt to be there as well. So I imagined that a quick visit would be: a. polite; and b. a way of making myself more comfortable with this “press” thing. I also was both curious and dubious about the Neat MF7 speakers—yes, “Neat” really is the name--that were going to be driven by some very expensive Chord electronics. I just didn’t associate Neat, in memory a well regarded Brit manufacturer of excellent moderately priced and sized loudspeakers, with the top of the line Chords. Well, I was wrong.

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After a quick, “Hi Jay,” I was down on the couch caught out a bit by how clean and natural the piano black and grey mini-towers sounded. The most surprising thing about the sound initially was the bass. From the 6.5” drivers of the two way Neat, I was hearing the kind of clean, accurately damped, and extended bass I associate with ATCs and very good sealed boxes, but have rarely, if ever, heard at a show. Now, principally since Josh and I were the only visitors, and since I had met Jay before, I was willing to ask him to play a track of a Lyle Lovett CD of mine with an agile and fairly deep bass line. Not only did the relatively unprepossessing speaker (it’s roughly 48”x8.5”x14.5”) deliver the cleanest bass at the show (not pipe organ low, mind you), but it also made you think this was very close to how the engineer intended you to hear the recording. Lovett’s voice was transposed with the texture that makes you follow a singer’s meaning, in accurate proportion to the various instrumental lines weaving through the piece, and you actually got an idea of how the arrangement worked. Really good stuff; and not a single room issue. The system was, to my taste, just slightly cool tonally, but that has been my experience of the very sophisticated Chord electronics when all played together.

Somewhere lurking in the back of my head is my “gospel music” rule. I’m willing to bet that if a speaker, or system, is up to thrilling me with some full throated, up tempo, gospel with choir—the kind that goes from just a whisper to knock you off your chair; the kind that is often also backed by drum kit, bass guitar, percussive piano, dancing organ, and sometimes electric guitar—its going to make me happy with just about everything else from chamber music to Flaming Lips. Now, I had a CD with me that concludes with a couple of pretty straightforward gospel numbers, and, like Oliver Twist, was about to ask Jay, “Please, sir, I want some more,” when the room filled up with audio insiders. The companion rule to my “gospel music” rule that I carry with me to shows is—just for me, mind you—my “when to ask an exhibitor to demo your own music” rule. I don’t ask when a room is filling up. This behavior is the simple result of recalling what floats through my head when a showgoer regales a stuffed room with, oh, audiophile polka music. No one else is in fact really dying to hear your own “hot” CD, so the smart move is to just let the poor guy exhibiting his stuff play what he feels best demonstrates his equipment to a full room. Back into the little case went the CD. But I’ve got a hunch the Neats would have zoomed through the gospel music test, and I was very interested later to hear how the little Neat Motive Twos sitting in a nook of the room sounded warmer than their big brothers with the Exposure electronics.

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On the basis of the show, the MF7s seemed like reasonably sized, elegant looking, speakers that would actually work spectacularly well in real world rooms. I’m not sure where the room size limits their effectiveness, but it sure seemed they effortlessly would drive my listening space. The price is $15k, but they were one of three speakers that absolutely would have prevented me from spending more for relatively full range sound: allowing for one irrational attachment to an over $40k speaker I haven’t yet addressed.

The other two speakers that for me defined the best full range sound offered were from GamuT and from—yes, Josh has warned you—Pioneer. Both of these rooms, as it happens, preempted my “gospel music” test: not with gospel specifically, but with a range of various recordings that was a pretty convincing demonstration of how strikingly the speakers in each room could manage just about anything that could be played through them.

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I ended up visiting the GamuT room on three separate occasions, brought back at first by my initial response to the quality of the sound. (I more or less wanted to come back and see if it was as good as the first listen suggested.) Later, I returned piqued by curiosity in the electronics; for GamuT was one of the few rooms—MBL and Usher come to mind—that was playing a one brand system. Now, this is no longer quite as odd as it once was in the High End; and British brands Naim, Meridian, and Linn have been enormously successful in developing various high end systems for their customers. The GamuT room was surprising to me primarily because, if only from lack of familiarity with the manufacturer, it seemed to be offering a system introducing itself to the US high end as good as, or better than, the most expensive equipment available. And the GamuT system was both available at understandable, if still expensive, prices, and promised to work in rooms you are more apt to find in houses than in convention centers.

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I ended up listening to a wealth of different music through the $15k L-7 speakers. Things weren’t perfect. There was a room node that was excited by some, but certainly not all, music (and curiously it seemed like it was excited by only one of the speakers.) But the GamuTs were more successful than the Verity Sarastros in managing an oddly shaped room, and I was repeatedly engaged by the music. They were even more dynamic than the Neat MF7s, although the bass was both a little rounder, and not quite as effectively damped. But they offered a combination of warmth, detail, and depth that was rare at the show. Like the Neat, and the Pioneer, they gave the impression of speed and agility; and promised excitement as well as beauty. And they delivered, at least to my taste, external beauty. Under the show lights, the veneering was in the ball park with the beautiful Sarastros, and the shape elegant enough to justify the speakers as furniture in a normal person’s house. Together, the system, with integrated amp and CD player, ran about $31k. I know, I know, those are significant dollars. But this is a system a successful soul might actually aspire to in the future without sacrificing sanity, the family, or even significant floor space. The distributor also indicated that a lower priced integrated, and, I believe, CD player are in the pipeline. As a last thought, the next speaker model down in the line, the L-5s, looks like it might deliver comparable sound quality more amenable to more moderately sized listening rooms.

Nothing at the show was more impressive—in almost every positive way I can think of—than the Pioneer/Bel Canto system set up bang next door to the Wilson Watt/Puppy 8s. This is a system that was tonally pure, nearly as clean as anything I’ve heard, able to be both delicate and to intimidate with its dynamics, and seemed to allow you into each recording played. The size of the room gave the speakers some room to breathe, and there were, as far as I could tell over the course of three visits and numerous demo pieces, absolutely no room issues. In fact, the bass—played at a much louder level—was just as clean as that of the Neat’s: though slightly more full. This system, and particularly this speaker, was the “elephant in the room” at the show. Certainly, it didn’t receive the traffic on Saturday that the Wilson room did with the closed door demos; but the Pioneer speaker seemed to me to be of a much higher order of both performance and engineering than its companion next door. And even the demos were the best run of the show, as Pioneer designer Andrew Jones ran a casual patter—able on the fly to account for new visitors—that included both a primer on the engineering of the speaker and an insider’s perspective on some of the unique CDs with which he demonstrated his design.

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As anyone who’s read show reports knows by now, the speaker is the progeny of Jones’ TAD Model 1. The Model 1 was made in a limited run, cost about $45k, and its exotic cabinet became ultimately too ungainly to manufacture successfully. The home TAD branded speaker is now coming back in a cabinet someone actually can put together in a reasonable amount of time, for a quasi-reasonable amount of money, with a driver reconfiguration; and will be available as a Model 2, again at about $45k.

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From what I gather, TAD Home Audio, a tiny branch of the professional TAD wing of Pioneer, is actually Andrew Jones’ design playground. And the Pioneer S-1EX speaker is a reengineering of the TAD Models 1 and 2 for parent company Pioneer at a lower price point. But this speaker isn’t much like what audio writers have in mind when they use the phrase “trickle down;” this speaker is its own beast. When Josh and I first visited the room, Andrew spoke candidly and with delight about every way in which the Pioneer differed from the TADs, and how costs were reduced. This is that unique case where as costs were reduced, new solutions were derived that provided damn near equivalent performance. The extraordinary concentric beryllium mid/upper driver from the TADs became a magnesium/beryllium driver for the Pioneers; the layers of multiple birch give way to a carefully crafted cabinet designed to (well, the usual) reduce standing waves, time align the speakers, and rigidly mount the drivers. And the list actually does go on. But the proof was in the playing and listening, and the Pioneers sounded very close to their big brothers.

Perfect? Well, not quite. But the couple of issues I had with the speakers had more to do with the presentation of sound rather than its actual quality. The speakers were spread further apart than, for instance, they could ever be in my room; and the result was a huge sound that I on the one hand absolutely loved, and on the other hand know I would want scaled back to a more believable size were the speakers to ever land in my house. Another result of the “Cinerama” presentation was that details weren’t as precise as I imagine they would be with the speakers in a more domestically friendly configuration. The GamuTs were more satisfying, as a result, in layering details and presenting them in a believable proportion. In addition, Mr. Jones is a designer who also likes to demo his speakers with the volume up, up, up, and some more up: unable to resist showing that his speakers will back down from nothing. And yes indeed, the sound never gets hard or pinched. As with ATCs, it just keeps getting louder. And this was a pretty fair recommendation for Bel Canto’s 1000 watts of IcePower dual mono amps.

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So, will the Pioneers make magic at lower listening levels? There really wasn’t a way to tell at the show. Their configuration almost precluded intimate volume levels. But they performed the near miraculous feat of both doing no wrong and exceeding expectations simultaneously. It’s a treat to stumble into real engineering with impressive results: both from Bel Canto and from TAD/Pioneer. And with closed box speaker design, Andrew Jones is the most impressive designer I’ve come across since Billy Woodman.

Here are a couple of last notes on the Pioneer room: well, first there was no preamp—transport, then DAC, then amps to speakers; and second, electronics came to about $9k, speakers list for $9k. That’s—and I know you can add—less than $20k for at least the equal of the best full range sound at the show. And while these speakers are nominally Pioneers, they are in essence entirely TADs. If sound is what’s in question, they might have a very interesting effect upon the highest end of the high end marketplace.

The story for me is that, on the basis of what was demonstrated at the show, the top of the high end speakers that will drive, and fit in, a reasonably large listening room is about at $15k. (I make an exception both for the yet to be revealed speakers about which I am shamefully helpless, and for my own speakers at home—avoiding considering too deeply how greedily they ate my savings account, but also acknowledging they are for me an excellent fit.)

(Coming up in Part Four: More of the Best of the Best—for Less)

Comments

An excellent read. Well done, JB.
An excellent read. Well done, JB.