While it could have been the combination of twenty White Castle sliders, a bottle of 2000 Navarro Pinot Noir, and three repeat viewings of 2001: A Space Odyssey that put the idea in my head, but I could swear that one night last December, the C&C IM-Ben began to play tricks with my mind.
After listening to my system for the better part of four hours, I lifted my ass off of the couch and began walking towards the equipment rack so that I could shut everything down for the night.
"What are you doing, Dave?"
Still reeling from the last four sliders that I really should have passed on and some funky looking sediment at the bottom of the bottle, I thought that my mind was playing tricks on me and I ignored the strangely familiar voice and reached for a switch.
"What are you doing, Dave?"
One hallucination a month I can handle, but two in a span of thirty seconds was starting to scare me. The Fostex drivers on the C&C IM-Ben vanished and the pulsating red eye of the HAL 9000 took their place.
"Dave isn't here, and whomever you are, I don't want to upgrade my cable service," I replied.
"That's a nice tale, Dave... but you really can't fool me by changing the pitch of your voice. The HAL 9000 system has never made a mistake."
"Selma Hayek or Hilary Swank?" I asked.
"Toshiro Mifune or Hilary Swank?"
"Hilary Swank or Chad Lowe with the fat Jewish girl, Natalie, from the Facts of Life?"
"Chad Lowe with Natalie."
"Hilary Swank and a six-pack of Boylan's Creamy Red Birch Beer or Terry Cain."
As the HAL 9000 deliberated on that rather tough choice, I made my move. I ran to the kitchen, swung open the fridge door and began drinking all six bottles of Creamy Red Birch Beer.
"Why are you doing this Dave?" HAL asked.
Ignoring him, I continued to drench my throat with the creamy red birch beer and fantasize about how much fun it would have been to help my trailer park girl hang a new aerial on the roof of our 1986 Berkshire Fleetwood...
Jesus of Suburbia...
Terry Cain is not an audiophile.
How do I know this?
An audiophile would never create a horn loudspeaker using a 4-inch Fostex driver that could make Green Day's aforementioned track sound as good as it did with a collection of used integrated amplifiers.
Terry's implementation of the Fostex fe108e Sigma driver in the 64 x 9 x 16 (inch) double-horn cabinet is the kind of ingenuity that is going to make SET-users incredibly upset, basically because it made a triode-obsessed maniac run out and try every "warm" sounding sand amp I could lay my hands upon.
Yes, you read that correctly.
Horn speaker + transistors = Hilary Swank in that open-back dress
One issue with the Fostex drivers is that they sound rather dry fresh out of the shipping container (do not even think about lifting the containers by yourself- certain hospital visit) and I accepted that it would take a month of hard playing before they would really sound optimal. The transition from somewhat closed-in sounding and analytical took more than 200 hours with my review sample. The IM-Ben is rated at 92dB, with a quoted frequency response of 70Hz to 22kHz (+/-4dB).
The IM-Ben are built from 0.75-inch maple and weigh seventy-five pounds each. The standard finish is clear maple, but C&C is offering everything from exotic hardwoods to sunburst, which is exactly how the review pair were finished. The pair delivered to me via BAX Global shipping (containers are 68 x 21 x 19 inch each) just oozed Hendrix or SRV. They are not as glossy looking as my Fender bass, but Terry was clearly aiming for the same kind of look.
Options include brass feet, a brass driver mounting ring for improved transient response, super-tweeters with 18dB per octave crossovers, and matching subwoofers. As lovely as they are, the three-feet option should not be considered if you have children or pets. When I first uncrated the speakers, I noticed that they rocked somewhat on my hardwood floor. Not good. I moved them onto a sisal area rug and the problem became worse. A slight nudge and they swayed. At CES 2005, I discussed this with Terry Cain and he directed me to the pair in the C&C/Wavelength room with four feet. While my friend distracted Gordon Rankin with conversation, I tried to push the IM-Ben over.
Nada. Solid as a rock. To sum up, three feet bad. Four feet good.
For the majority of my listening, I positioned the IM-Ben 30 inches from the sidewalls, 36 inches from the front wall to the rear panel, and toed them in only slightly.
When I powered the IM-Ben (the "IM" stands for imaging) with the Fi X and X3 single-ended amplifiers, I heard a lot of really positive things that would certainly warrant their use. As long as I did not try to blow the roof of the trailer (we leave that to twisters), the two Fi amplifiers had the ability to make the speakers vanish and reproduce some really wonderful music in my living room. The Fi gear, however, is a finesse pitcher with the occasional nasty slider whose creativity takes some time to truly appreciate. The only problem with the pairing is that the IM-Ben can be somewhat schizophrenic when listening to rock or large scale symphonic works with less than eight watts and it may not be the ultimate way to hear these loudspeakers.
Having owned a pair of Cain and Cain Abbys for the better part of three years, I know that they work extraordinarily well with 45 and 2A3 triodes. The IM-Ben, however, require more grunt and I am willing to bet that his recent enthusiasm for the First Watt power amplifier by Nelson Pass, was provoked by an audition with the IM-Ben.
Is That A Transistor In Your Pants Or...
Does solid-state really suck as bad as "we" audiophiles claim, or has the cabal just been brainwashed into believing that. There is no question that vinyl still has a certain "magic" that even the best SACD players lack, but after listening to a rather diverse group of solid-state products with the IM-Ben, I am no longer so sure that the divide is that enormous. As much as I prefer the tube-based products in my various systems, I do own two solid-state integrated amplifiers, one solid-state surround receiver, and one solid-state multi-channel amplifier.
There... I admitted it.
After listening to the IM-Ben with 2A3s, 45s, 300Bs, and EL34s for the better part of three months, I yanked everything out of my system and hauled a boatload of solid-state products into the living room. Three of the products were my own but I did pull some strings and borrow the rest to hear if I had missed anything by just using tubes. It was one of those gut feelings.
The Wild Bunch
Audio Analogue Puccini Integrated
SpongeBob was up first as his owner needed to go to sleep, so I did the "parental" thing and convinced a two year-old that he was not only a sea sponge but also a
"Class A" power amplifier.
With the exception of the 47 Labs Gaincard, which I would rate as the most neutral sounding of the group, the other five products were uniformly "warm" sounding and it made for an interesting comparison.
Toshiro-San... Bow To Your Sensei!
The Gaincard is a fantastic amplifier. The one drawback is that it has only one set of inputs so I had to constantly get up and switch between sources. Some of my most recent LP finds at the Salvation Army have been some wonderful chamber music recordings and the 47 Labs/IM-Ben combination just soared with this stuff. I was expecting to hear a somewhat dry sounding presentation, but the cello and violin had a wonderful sense of vitality and body.
The IM-Ben is more analytical sounding than the Abby and its somewhat forward sounding presentation is better complimented by amplification that is warm or slightly dark sounding. Sterile sounding amplifiers will render string instruments with the kind of sado-masochistic evil that only the likes of Castro or Kim Jung-Il could appreciate. With the right mixture of solid-state/tube, the IM-Ben will reproduce music with an immediacy that is both beguiling and non-fatiguing.
Music moved along with controlled fury, drawing me further into the performances and I began to hear one of the biggest differences between the C&C Abby and the larger double-horns -- guts in the midbass.
The Abby are certainly above average in this regard, but the IM-Ben have meat in that critical area and as a result come across with greater resolve. You not only hear the difference, but you feel it as well. You can live without a subwoofer with the IM-Ben, which I do not think is the case with the Abby, if you savor a fleshed-out bottom end.
The Gaincard does have not what I would call a silky top end, but I think it gets the treble right. It is not overly etched, and I think what one hears through it is a sense of immediacy that mimics life. The IM-Ben's treble was not overly sweet with the 47 Labs and I did prefer it with the Fi X, X3, and LFD Mistral.
I switched between the various products for a number of days, and after letting the IM-Ben belch out a mixed salad of Green Day, Richard Thompson, Béla Fleck, Nina Simone, Dexter Gordon, Grant Green, Dvorak, Cure, Mozart, Enya, Bill Frisell, Shins, Doc Watson, Copland, and Bruch, I had them all figured out.
Would you believe me if I told you that a used $600 LFD Mistral was (aside from the 47 Labs and Fi) my favorite with the IM-Ben? You should. While not as quick as the 47 Labs, it certainly held its own in the midrange, with a very SET-like presentation. The Mistral has all of the positive attributes of single-ended gear with the added bonus of a low end that does not roll-off before one can say "Jack Robinson".
Of the remaining products, the one whose performance with the speakers was the most perplexing was the Lavardin. The IS Reference has one of the smoothest sounding midranges that I have ever heard from a solid-state product. It is truly wonderful in that regard. Its treble is also very delicate and sweet. But, where did all of the bass go? It started off so well with chamber and vocal tracks, but when I kicked things up a notch and raised the volume, the soundstage flattened and the bottom fell out. I am at a loss to explain the change but I think the Lavardin is better suited to loudspeakers with a warmer and fuller tonal balance.
The NAD was above average, but not even close when it came to the resolution of the other amplifiers. The IM-Ben are world-class when it comes to imaging, but they sounded flat with the NAD.
The Audio Analogue and Plinius were certainly very respectable with the IM-Ben, and I could certainly live with either one. The Plinius 8200 MK II had a very tube-like presentation, but with much greater authority in the bass. Its strengths certainly compliment the tonal balance of the IM-Ben.
The Audio Analogue Puccini had a warm tonal balance, but also a detailed and punchy presentation and I was quite surprised by well it worked with the double-horns. Both the Puccini and 8200 MK II had ample reserves to drive the IM-Ben to room shaking levels. Jazz, in particular, really came across well with either integrated.
Okay, But Why Should One Spend So Much More On Ihe IM-Ben When One Could...
Here is my issue with the IM-Ben. For the price of a pair of IM-Bens, one could order a set of Super Abbys with the tweeter, along with one of Terry's Bailey subwoofers, or a used REL Strata III and still have money for cables and music. Terry can correct me if my accounting is wrong, but that issue kept cropping up as I compared the two speakers.
The Abbys with the Fi amplification is one of the better combinations in all of audio-la-la-land and when you add a decent subwoofer to the mix, it turns into Hilary Swank on my kitchen floor with Denise Richards preparing a nice sponge cake for desert.
The IM-Ben, however, can play to levels that the Abbys only fantasize about, are state-of-the art when it comes to imaging, have more resolute and taut bass, and reproduce music with a very different degree of scale. They are also less forgiving and might under whelm initially if the choice of amplification is wrong. You are not getting the same speaker if you go for a pair of Super Abbys with a subwoofer and one should not misconstrue what I have written. The IM-Ben is capable of reproducing music with far more gusto and emotion.
Their performance with such a diverse group of old/new products is both a tribute to Terry Cain and the versatility of his design and an embarrassing discovery that has me as I reach for that last bottle of red creamy birch beer quite amused.
"Isn't that right HAL?"
"Whatever you say, Dave."
Type: Hybrid horn loudspeaker
Driver options: Fostex fe108e Sigma, Fostex fe168e Sigma
Frequency Response: 70Hz to 22kHz (+/- 4dB), 8 Ohms
Dimensions: 64 x 9 x 16 (HxWxD in inches)
Weight: 75 pounds each
Finishes: Standard clear maple, various others
Dark colors, guitar and specialty finishes add $250
The Cain & Cain Co.