Pt.2- HIGH-END SOUND: Sweet&Refined-or-Raw&Natural
(Part 2 of 4) by WAJ; on audio
Indeed, in the High-End community there seems to be differences in opinion as to what type of sound best represents reality (dry, clinical and analytical, or, warm, natural and smooth) and this is reflected in the choices of equipment including turn-tables, cartridges, and amps, etc. Similarly, even if less blatantly apparent, a minimum of two camps seem to exist regarding the sound of speakers – call them; the ‘new-camp’ and the ‘old-school’. At risk of being even more controversial, I’ll explain below:
The ‘new-camp’: (This group represents the vast majority of high-end speakers available today). The sound of these is epitomized, in my opinion, by the likes of B+W, Infinity and Spendor. I would characterize their sound as pleasant, detailed, refined, sweet, and even pretty. However, they just don’t sound real, to me, in their reproduction of music. That’s because they also sound, small, thin, processed, false, and dynamically constipated. Unfortunately, these criticisms, more or less, apply to all modern middle-echelon high-end speakers I’ve encountered, and where many examples from the top echelon are just larger versions of the same, I’m sure it goes for them too.
The ‘old-school’: (This minority group represents warm-toned/high-efficiency – as in full-bodied/dynamic - designs from a bygone era, and a few modern equivalents.). In my opinion, the sound of these is epitomized by examples from Tannoy, Bozak, and Kilpsch(horn). I would characterize the sound of these as raw, un-refined and natural. Raw and un-refined denote a state of being un-processed, so I guess it all amounts to one thing – ‘NATURAL’. They also sound big (when the music requires), dynamic (especially the Klipsch), and fully filled-out – not thin. I believe these, and their modern equivalents – such as Avantgarde, Magico Ultimate, and even Cain+Cain’s 'Ben' (with sub-woofer) to name a few, from what I’ve gleaned – take us closer to the goal of realistically lifelike reproduction than the more popular aspirants from the ‘new-camp’.
Regarding the Tannoy et al from ‘the old-school’, I believe the secret of their superiority lies in the three factors we identified earlier; ie dynamic-capability, lower mid-range body, and (to a lesser extent) low-level detail retrieval. I do believe most modern (‘new-camp’) small-coned speakers have better low-level-detail retrieval ability, but that their sub-par abilities in the two more important areas account for their ineptitude at replicating reality.
SWEET & REFINED
I recently responded to an ad for a state-of-the-art, all tube, high-end ‘dream system’, as it was described by the seller. This system boasted; $12k B+W 802D speakers, two exquisitely sculpted mahogany pedestals each bearing a mega mono-bloc KT88 tube 75w power-amp custom built by an extremely reputable (and expensive) local builder, a CD player (the name of which I can’t recall) with tubed output-stage, and an Audio Research SP8 pre-amp.
Though I’d already put together my current system, including an Audio Research LS3 pre-amp, I was very interested in the SP8 as this was the pre-amp I’d lusted after since my youth. So I wanted to compare the sound of both, with a view to purchasing the SP8 if it was better. In addition to the LS3, I had also taken my EAR 834 phono pre-amp, and Linn Sondek turn-table along.
With the Linn hooked-up to the SP8, I listened to my own records – and was thoroughly disappointed. The records on the Linn sounded nothing like they did at home on my own system. Sure, the sound was sweet, very sweet, maybe too sweet, but that sound was also thin, without real body, instruments and singers sounded like miniature replicas of themselves, and dynamics were considerably constricted compared to the same music at home – but the sound was sweet, very sweet. The treble on that system was sublime; pristine, smooth, delicate, sweeter than that of my own system, but perhaps a little too prominent (how that prominence could have been achieved with a Grado Sonata cartridge’s slightly restrained high end is a mystery to me) – but the sound was sweet, very sweet. All through the demo, my host kept nodding his head and commenting on the Linn’s sound-quality as compared to his CD player. I barely noticed, all I could think was – man, that sound was sweet, very sweet.
I never bothered to have the LS3 hooked up, comparisons would have been meaningless in this system. (I subsequently learned from another owner of both an SP8 and a LS3 that the latter is better in her, yes, her opinion – similar in most respects, but significantly more neutral).
However, I honestly believe that the system was basically a good one, let down by the speakers. That my host was obviously happy with it is perhaps testament to the wide acceptance of this type of sound. I, for one, refuse to be too intimately reacquainted with it. It reminds me too much of those bitter/sweet times spent with my Spendor. That Spendor BC1 sounded slightly better, bye-the-way, if my memory serves me correctly - just as 'sweet' but slightly more full in the mids. And so too did a pair of Heybrooks, years ago, in a system which included the very Linn I now own (That system later moved on to Apogees which I was also not inclined to purchase when they became available, btw). But though they all sounded “good”, perhaps “excellent” as some would say, that “excellence” does not include the ability to replicate the sound of real, live music to the degree that others can.
I still remember that B+W though – man, that sound was sweet, very sweet!
RAW & NATURAL (and OH SO DYNAMIC)
I remember, for years, even through-out ownership of my own ‘top-notch’ (Spendor) system, I would seize every opportunity to listen to another system using Klipschorn speakers. Sure they were flawed; the treble was nothing to write home about, but especially, those mid-range horns occasionally displayed a coloration that could be irritating, at times. But despite that, and most importantly, those Klipschs were by far the most realistic reproducers of music I had ever encountered. They made music sound real, and live. I kept asking myself; Why can’t my system sound like that?
I can still recall the sound of a marching band reproduced on that system, the sound of the drums literally jumped out at you, the bass drum was tight and thunderous with visceral impact, the blast of trumpets was startling in its sudden intensity, the ability of the system to portray sounds from near silence to a deafening crescendo in an instant was mind-boggling. At times it seemed difficult to believe the band wasn’t actually somewhere near-by.
[For those interested in what REALISTIC reproduction really sounds like, be advised that Klipschorns provide the awesome sound in many cinemas around the world. Anywhere in the world they’re available, check them out in a movie with lots of music like, ‘Ray’, ‘Dreamgirls, or ‘This Is It’. This is very near the state-of-the-art in sound reproduction – trust me. Even if you still prefer another type of sound, at least you’ll be aware of what top-quality audio-reproduction is like. Be aware, though, that THX movies are played with reduced treble.]
Perhaps I should stress, in case the point is missed, that the Spendor BC1 is still acclaimed today as one of the very best speakers ever made, and I agree (so is the Klipsch btw). The BC1 is still better in some ways than many that would want to claim to be state-of-the-art today. In fact, it’s also better than the Klipsch in several ways. And apart from deeper bass, and perhaps more lower mid-range body, the only real advantage in the Klipsch’s favor is its massive DYNAMIC CAPABILITY (due to its high efficiency). But that one advantage makes it so much more REALISTIC and LIFELIKE that comparisons in this regard would be ridiculous to the point of being embarrassing. I can’t make the point much clearer than that.
If the aim of high-end is REALISTIC reproduction, then why has the industry been pushing inefficient (90db/1w or less) designs which can’t achieve it? Could it be so as to also push expensive high-powered amplifiers? Are audiophiles being shafted, and have we been for a very long time?
Arguments that efficient designs are large and expensive are not entirely valid. The Cain + Cain mentioned above is about the size of the B+W also mentioned. And it is less than half the cost at a mere $5500. Legacy, Coincident, and Audio-Note, among others, also make high-efficiency models. Whether their tonality is as realistic as that of a Tannoy, for instance, I’m not sure. But at least they’re a step in the right direction.
In the early days of hi-fi (I’m told) all speakers had to be efficient because of the low power of tube-amps available at the time. (The old-timers also insisted on realistic lower mid-range performance, which they called ‘good tone’, btw). When smaller inefficient acoustic-suspension speakers became available around the time cheaper solid-state amps arrived to drive them, the industry took a wrong turn in totally ignoring the better speaker and amp principles that preceded them. The pioneers laid the ground-work and left a rich legacy. Latter generations squandered it seeking pies in the sky.
However, today, we seem to be coming full-circle: Evidenced by several ‘Best Sound At Show’ awards, and their glowing reviews recognizing their status as representatives of the 'new' state-of-the-art, the absolute very best and most realistic sound is now produced by modern speakers - such as Avantgarde & Magico Ultimate - built on those ancient principles of high-efficiency and ‘good-tone’. (So too, as far as tone is concerned, are the low-powered S.E.T. tube-amps used to drive them). They are also excellent at low-level detail resolution, but so too are most high-end speakers.
Their greatest advantage over all popular speakers is simply due to their excellent DYNAMIC CAPABILITY (due to their high-efficiency), and, perhaps to a lesser degree in these cases, LOWER MID-RANGE BODY. These are the factors that account for their vast superiority at reproducing the REALISM of a LIVE performance. It is as simple as that!
My former Spendor BC1 'state-of-the-art' system, along with the B&W 802D, etc., epitomize the sweet, detailed, thin midranged, undynamic and unrealistic sound of most popular high-end speakers today. The 'full-bodied', dynamic sound of the afore-mentioned Klipschorn, along with the stellar dynamics of the more recent Magico-Ultimate and Avantgarde examples, serve to substantiate the arguments posited (in part 1, 'From HiFi to High-End...') regarding THE most important factors for REALISTIC reproduction of the sounds of music.
The evidence is clear, and there for all to hear. Listen with care!
(Please continue to part 3 for rare instances of 'corroboration', on the subject, by elements of the mainstream press). WAJ on AUDIO.