Pt. 4 - THE ROOTS of MODERN SPEAKERS' DEFICIENCIES: 'The Roots of Evil'
It is said; we need to be aware of from whence we came so that we may have a clearer understanding of where we're at (and why) and also to understand where we're headed.
Perhaps we'll look at where we're headed in high-end audio at a later date. For now I believe there's more of an imperative that we fully understand where we're at, as it regards our speaker-systems as this is the major, more urgent, source of our problems presenting an obstacle to the achievement of sonic realism. And for that understanding of where we're at, perhaps we should look at our speakers-systems' 'recent' history to see if we took a wrong turn at some point somewhere along the way. If so, then perhaps we could, collectively or individually, return to that point and correct the mistake by making the right turn into the proper direction conducive to achieving sonic realism.
I must admit I'm biased since I have strong views on the subject. But those views are based purely on simple logic, and perhaps a small measure of common-sense. This is my fourth article on this particular subject, so forgive me if I confess to being a little jaded. As a consequence, I haven't done any specific research for this piece (nor for two of the previous three, come to think of it). So then, since I'm writing off the 'top of my head', some of my dates may be off just a tad. However, in this scenario dates, or even decades, are not of vital importance, it's much more important that we recognize the trend(s), and the point(s) at which we may have taken a wrong turn, and how we've come to be where we're at. Most important are the questions: What are the things, and how important are those things, that we have sacrificed along the way in order to be where we're at today?
First we'll look at where we're at: In part 2 of this series I described the sound of a highly-rated Spendor BC1 speaker-system, I once owned, and that of a B&W 802D (among others) as sweet, refined, detailed, and even pretty. I also criticized them for being; bright in the treble, thin in the (lower) midrange, and dynamically-limited (or 'constipated'). Needless to say, they were recognized as totally incapable of sonic realism. These allegations, leveled against the vast majority of modern speakers, were inadvertently corroborated/substantiated by other writers in part 3. As was fleetingly alluded-to in part 1, the trend in high-end today is all about the resolution of minute low-level detail, and pin-point holographic stereo-imaging. And every concession has been made with a view to achieving these goals; small light-coned mid/woofers for clarity of detail, and stereo-dispersion, and slender enclosures, also for dispersion. Treble is also enhanced for un-naturally increased detail-resolution in this area, and bass is, well, not much, relatively, except in higher-priced models where the bass has also been hyped.
All too apparently, two of the major elements required for sonic realism have been ignored; efficiency/dynamism is now ancient history, and so too is accurate/complete midrange tonality and presence, given that modern speakers also suffer from an effectively recessed mid, and absolutely lack the critical lower-midrange body also necessary for realism. This is where we're at. Simply put; efficiency/dynamism, and lower-midrange body are the two major elements missing from modern speakers. It is the reason they fail at sonic realism (see parts 1, 2 & 3). Now we'll examine our speakers' history to see where these elements were discarded, when, and why!
To see where we’re coming from, we’ll leave aside the earliest days of the gramophone and such. We'll start at the 1940's to 50's as this is what I regard as the golden age of hifi so far as speakers (and amps) are concerned, at least. This is an era dominated by such names as Jensen, Altec-Lansing, Tannoy, James B. Lansing, Rudy Bozak, and Paul W. Klipsch to name just a few, for the sake of this argument. No speaker then/or now was/is ever perfect, they all had/have their faults, but all, of that era, had the major critical elements - high-efficiency/dynamism and lower-midrange body (to varying degrees) - necessary for sonic realism. And this is what the best of these excelled at - sonic realism. Some of these are still manufactured today, virtually unchanged, Tannoy and Klipsch, for example. But most remarkable is that they are also acclaimed today as being among the very best speakers money can buy. They are today widely acclaimed to be very nearly representative of the state-of-the-art in so far as sonic realism is concerned, especially in the case of the super-efficient/dynamic Klipschorn. HiFi aficionados of that era insisted upon having efficiency/dynamism and lower-midrange body (called 'good tone' then) as absolutely necessary prerequisites for sonic realism. Now we'll see what happened to these critical elements.
WRONG-TURN # 1?
Somewhere around the 1960's, one Mr. Edgar Villcur reasoned that those highly efficient horn, bass-reflex, infinite-baffle, and transmission-line speaker enclosures were too large for domestic use. So then, he teamed-up with one Mr. Henry Kloss and came up with what was called the acoustic-suspension speaker-system, as pioneered by Acoustic-Research. Sparing the details of the design, I'll just mention that it made possible the reproduction of deep bass from a small box. But then, this was achieved at the expense of high-efficiency/dynamism as the design was/is notoriously inefficient, and woefully un-dynamic as a consequence. Even subsequent bass-reflex, transmission-line and other designs were influenced and conformed to this trend of miniaturization for the sake of convenience, at the expense of efficiency/dynamism, to this day. So that is the first turn we took, leaving efficiency/dynamism in the dust. But what about lower-midrange body ('good tone') where did that go, and when?
Even thru the 60's and 70's lower-midrange body ('good tone') was still a dominant feature in domestic speaker-systems. This was ensured by the dominance of what was then called 'the east-coast sound' in the domestic market (as opposed to the dominance of the 'west-coast sound' for the commercial/professional market). The 'east-coast sound', or 'Boston-bland" was literally defined by Henry Kloss, and 'good tone' was a feature of all his designs from (the market leaders) Acoustic-Research thru KLH to Advent (and perhaps some models of Cambridge). Kloss displayed a near manic obsession in ensuring that all his designs were capable of generating the crucial lower-midrange body because he believed, as did most others up to that time, that 'good tone' (lower-midrange body) was critical for sonic realism. [Apparently, this feature has to be designed into the driver as not many drivers display it, especially today]. So then, even though by this time (60's thru 70's) one of the crucial elements for realism - dynamism (efficiency) - was already sacrificed for the sake of convenience, at least the other crucial element still prevailed. So where did that go?
WRONG-TURN # 2? OR 'THE ROOT OF EVIL'?
Somewhere around the middle to late 1970's, the B.B.C. (British Broadcasting Corporation) designed one of the finest mini-monitors, ever built. I brand it a blessing and a curse (perhaps the 'root of all evil', so to speak). The LS3/5a utilized a 5" mid/woofer and tweeter in a small box to generate near holographic stereo imaging, and an exquisitely detailed midrange. It took the hifi world by storm, at the time, and many speaker manufacturers tried, and are still trying, to emulate its sound (whether consciously or otherwise). Inefficient mini-monitors of countless brands cropped-up all over the place, and many were even accessorized with sub-woofers operating below 160/100hz, or there about - yes, the perfect combination, or so they thought. It seems nobody noticed the lack of lower-midrange weight and articulation in the 500-200hz region (not to mention the total lack of dynamism. It's a 5" mid/woofer, after all, in a shoebox - please).
Really, a 5" mid/woofer in a small box could never properly supply realistic portions of lower-midrange sounds to speak of. And though the LS3/5a did display the uncanny ability to sound bigger in the mids than its dimunitive size would suggest, most of its clones couldn't match it. Yet, so great was the LS3/5a's INFLUENCE, and so enamored was the industry with its 'detail-rich' presentation, and imaging prowess, that most manufacturers sought to adopt its profile, and features of its sound. (Even some that avoided its profile still emulated its midrange characteristics). Most failed in this regard, but that certainly didn't dissuade them from offering an even thinner version of their mentor's sound. The realistic lower-mids of 'Boston-bland' and virtually all the 'good tone' that prevailed before were swept aside as our world was seduced by a compromised version of the beautiful British sound. This is the paradigm by which virtually all modern speakers have since come to be judged. Even many of today's so-called 'state-of-the-art' floor-to-ceiling towers are basically mini-monitors with sub-woofers, and that's the sound they supply - a mini-monitor's thin midrange, with bass and treble. We'll see, later, how that evolved.
In my view, it is with the rise of the mini-monitor 'monster' that the industry became enchanted with the falsely enhanced detail they produced. Why do I call it falsely enhanced detail? In answering that I'll offer this: It is a well known fact that if you want to highlight something you spotlight it. You focus your light-beam on the item and, at the same time, eliminate any nearby object which may serve as a distraction, or dilute the impact of the favored item. That is what spotlighting (or highlighting) does. And that is what mini-monitors also do; they eliminate the lower-midrange and concentrate the listeners' focus on all the niceties of what's left of the midrange they so eloquently portrayed. But they did this, purely, by an accident of their design since it's impossible for their little cones to produce low-mids at realistic levels, just as it's impossible for them to produce significant bass. However, this accident of fact didn't stop many from falling in love with this type of sound, as they reveled in the detail it highlighted.
This is also about the time (or not long there-after) manufacturers slightly enhanced response in the treble region for even more of that falsely enhanced 'detail' and 'air'. (Though this may have corrected the subdued treble of the 'Boston-bland' era, they over-did it in going for too much of a good thing. Moreover, a very slightly subdued treble, in electronic reproduction, has been proven to have its merits in facilitating the perception of realism, but that's another story). Even when they added woofers/sub-woofers they still ignored low-mid as this would dilute the focus on the detail in the rest of the midrange. It would also put them at a disadvantage because this thin midrange was now the standard by which all were judged. This is the midrange many of our scribes now describe as 'neutral'.
Those rare speakers which display a fair amount of lower-midrange body (or 'good tone' as previously recognized) are now seen as villains, with their sound now described as 'warm' a term basically conceived, and perceived, to depict a coloration. (Of course a speaker's midrange sound can be too 'warm', but we don't need to go there).
'THE ROOT OF EVIL' - EXPANDED?
Some time during the early 1980's B&W released its model 801 speaker-system. This was basically an LS3/5a type mini-monitor attached to a bass-bin carrying a 12" woofer - the most cleverly expanded derivative of the little 'devil', at the time. This was also a very good design, and was used by many classical recording studios as monitors as its sound was very analytical and perfect for monitoring purposes. For listening purposes though, some felt it wasn't that great as many complained that it was TOO analytical, and not conducive to prolonged listening pleasure. Those were in the minority, however, as most were bowled-over by its clinically detailed sound, and by its near holographic, mini-monitor-style imaging. The majority ruled and, just as with the LS3/5a, clones of the 801 cropped all over the place, and this is the concept which dominates high-end today. Indeed, the speaker-system widely regarded, today, as the 'standard-bearer' in high-end audio is the Wilson Audio WATT mini-monitor complemented by the 'Puppy' woofer-system. The Watt/Puppy is, in basic concept, a virtual twin of the 801. Even many of the most expensive 'state-of-the-art' wannabees are basically two 801 clones constructed, one inverted atop the other (or sometimes otherwise configured) to supply even more of that mini-monitor sound with lots of treble, and varying proportions of bass – from the inadequate to the excessive.
The seemingly recessed midrange alluded to previously is a consequence of the bright treble combined with the lack of lower-mids. This is a situation exacerbated when excessive, or even realistically proportioned, bass is added to the mix as the thin midrange is seemingly over-powered by the frequency extremes. And though the enhanced treble does draw attention to itself, and away from the previously favored anorexic mid, this is seen as 'progress' since the listener is now 'rewarded' with additional 'detail' and 'air' in this area. And, of course, this is what today's thrust is all about; the resolution of detail, detail, and more detail, regardless of false-prominence or any other consequence. The addition of hyped-up bass to this combo results in a refined and spectacular sound replete with generous portions of boom and sizzle, with a paraplegic middle. The sound is utterly fantastic, remarkably impressive - and totally false. This is the 'state-of-the-art', they tell us (but a sorry state, I'd say, if you asked me). The fact that oodles of information/detail is also being missed in the lower-midrange is irrelevant, this region of the spectrum is not currently in vogue, it's out of style, and soo 1950's. ‘Midrange-presence’, therefore, has also long joined 'correct-tonality' and 'dynamism' as relics of the ancient past.
So then, along with most others, the 801 copied the LS3/5a, but also attached a bass-bin. And now, to this day, most others are copying the 801 with, sometimes, variations on the theme. Since a small mid/woofer was better able to supply near holographic stereo imaging, and detail in the midrange, this is the road our industry took. Dynamism had already been thrown thru the window for the sake of convenience (with the advent of the inefficient acoustic-suspension speaker). And now correct tonality was given the boot as well - sacrificed on the altar of the almighty Detail/Imaging devil.
Sadly, this is how we've come to be where we're at today.
Nobody, or very few, sought to combine the virtues of that small cone with the abilities of a larger-coned, purpose-designed driver imbued with the capability of restoring the missing lower midrange, not even most of those that offer larger-coned woofers/sub-woofers. (The brave few that do, we may look at subsequently). Obviously most prefer to be in alignment with the status-quo and have their products described as 'neutral'. They certainly don't want their speakers to be described as 'warm' in the midrange. 'Warm' is not the fashion these days.
But the truth is that what is now described as neutral is certainly not NATURAL. A 'warm' midrange now is seen as colored. If so then I submit; 'warm' is the 'color' of nature! And, do remember, nature is infinitely dynamic. WAJ on AUDIO.