For those of you who are into having your gear ‘modded', Response Audio needs no introduction. Bill Baker, chief cook and bottle washer of Response has been modifying the stock audio gear he sells for quite some time now. In fact, back in 2003 I wrote about one of Bill's early-modified Jolida units, the JoLida 301 integrated that was released as the RAM 301 in conjunction with Dan Wright of ModWright. It was an extremely nice sounding little hybrid integrated.
Response Audio is also a full line dealer who carries a variety of different manufacturers. Over the years, various lines have come and gone but their mainstays have been the JoLida, Antique Sound Labs and the ModWright lines.
In the time since I reviewed that little RAM 301 the Response Audio line of gear and mods has grown and changed substantially. Bill is now offering mods to pieces like the behemoth 200wpc Antique Sound Labs Hurricane's. Essentially what he does is strip the chassis down leaving only the transformers and tube sockets and completely rebuilds them with absolute, top-notch parts. By top notch, think Teflon V-Caps, Sonicap Platinum caps Elna Cerafine capacitors, Bybee Quantum Purifiers, Mills and Vishay resistors, WBT binding posts and you will start to get the picture.
Response hasn't stopped with just mods to amps, Bill has taken things one step further. Response has worked out an arrangement with SP Technologies to offer modified speakers. All of his modified gear falls under what Bill calls his Bella EXtreme line. In turn, Bill has named his speakers the Musica Bella or Beautiful Music. For the Bella line of speakers, Response has chosen the now retired SP Technology Essence as the basis for the design.
Bill also does something quite interesting, he measures and matches each pair of tweeters and then modifies the crossover and filtering circuit to compensate for the tweeters individual characteristics. I've not seen this before from a manufacturer. Sure, they may spot check a certain percentage (or maybe all) of drivers to insure they are within ‘spec', but I've never known of a manufacturer making alterations in component part values to take into account the way an individual driver measures and reacts in a circuit. So is that just marketing hype? I can't say for sure but it sure does tell you the lengths Response Audio is going to, insuring they get the sound they are looking for from each speaker.
Here's just a little about the base design of the Musica Bella's. These speakers are about twice the size of your typical mini-monitors measuring just under 22" tall, 12.5" wide and almost 16" deep. These are rather heavy too at 65 pounds each. This means you need to take into consideration the height and girth of your speaker stands if you decide to give these speakers a whirl. In my case, I had a pair of 12" stands and a pair of 24" stands. Unfortunately, neither was the right height. A quick trip to Wally World (WalMart) solved that problem. I found a pair of 18" tall solid wood "spools". The top and bottom are round and measure right at 14" in diameter and the stanchion is about 8" in diameter. They are heavy, dead sonically and dirt cheap. Add a few rubber feet to the top and bottom and they are perfect for speaker stands.
The Bella speaker cabinets are made from 0.75" HDF with the exception of the front baffle. It is constructed of several layers of HDF that near 2" in thickness so that the wave guide can be machined directly into the cabinet structure. As you saw in the picture above, the Musica Bella's have a wrap around grille and variety of hardwood tops and bottoms. All of Response Audio's wood finishing work is done in house.
The cabinet design is sealed on the AV-1's. This is (usually) good news to us tube freaks because that generally means the overall impedance load from speaker presented to our amps will be relatively low and benign. On occasion, sealed speakers don't interact well with tube amps but fortunately, more and more speaker manufacturers are paying attention to the (now) huge segment of the audiophile population that are using tubes for amplification. Hip Hip Hooray! Now if they'd really pay attention and start designing more high efficient speakers (over 95dB) that work well with single ended triodes we (the audio fringe) would finally succeed in taking over the audio world.
The speakers used in the Musica Bella's are the same drivers that SP Technology uses. The bass driver is an 8" custom Nomex composite fiber cone and the tweeter is a 1" Ferro-fluid cooled, soft dome. The custom crossover has a second order filter on both the woofer and tweeter. Melded into the crossover design is also a baffle step filter to help flatten the response. The Musica Bella's also utilize the patented SP Technology Wave Guide. If you are interested in reading about their wave-guide philosophy, the SP Technology website is filled with information. On the backside of this pair of speakers is a very nice pair of Eichmann Cablepod biwire binding posts. Internally, the Musica Bella's are wired with high quality OFC cable.
Overall, these are a very nice looking pair of speakers. Just like any other piece of gear you order from Response, it is completely customizable. If you'd rather have WBT binding post's rather than the Eichmann's, no problem. Want Sonic-Caps rather than V-Caps, Bill can do that too. The same goes for the veneering and all of the exotic woods available.
The Systems And Rooms
In all cases I used the Bolder modified Squeezebox 3 with my el-cheapo Lexmark (printer) power supply. The SB was feeding the MHDT Labs Constantine DAC. My second source was the Audio Note TT-1 Turntable with the IQ1 cartridge. My phonostage is the new Graham Slee Reflex Era Gold in for review. Clean power was being provided from my ever-faithful DeZorel LFA-1 line filter.
When it comes to my rooms, this was a toss of a coin. I played with the Musica Bella's in the larger two of my three rooms. While I found my main room (38x15) quite nice and a bit more even sounding top to bottom, I really enjoyed the Bella's in my middle room (17x12). Here I got a bit more bass reinforcement and I was able to literally rock my brains out. With 25 watts of push pull EL84 power, these over 90dB efficient loudspeakers were reaching into the 100dB plus sound pressure level territory. This is more than enough to satisfy the rock and roller in all of us. If you are interested in my rooms layouts and acoustic treatments, a quick click to my bio will tell you more.
Lets start this article with all of the audiophile stuff for a change. Using my usual test tracks, first up is Pink Floyd's Signs of Life from Momentary Lapse of Reason. I found the width of the soundstage pretty much on par with most speakers. The lapping water sounds on this track emanated from about three feet outside of the speaker's physical boundary. The depth of the soundstage was fairly nice also. The stage extended back behind the speakers a solid five to eight feet. The height of the presentation was good with the main focus on the performers residing solidly between the speakers. Placement was also quite good. Everything had a nice focus without presenting the hyper-detail that some speakers exude.
One of the things that Bill mentions is that these speakers aren't hyper sensitive to the tiny sweet spot that are some speaker's shortcomings. In my medium sized room I found the sweet spot to be fairly wide. I'd say a solid three to four feet in width. As I stood up and moved around the focus points did change but not too drastically. With any medium sized room, acoustics can play havoc with reproduction. When I had the Bella's in my large room, they were far less sensitive to where I decided to sit in the room. When there, the soundstage stayed fairly well focused.
Moving on to the high frequencies, the treble is just as Bill described on his website. Without being forward, the treble is delivered with more than adequate amount of detail and extension. The highs are very smooth and exhibit no signs of being harsh or grainy. I would have expected nothing less considering Response's choices in capacitors and other component parts. A little further down the octave scale, the midrange reproduction in my medium sized room is quite nice. Again, the presentation of this speaker is not the hyper-detailed audiophile(ish) sound one comes to expect from speakers these days. Here we have speakers that deliver more than adequate detail while not coming across as being fatiguing in the least.
For me and with the Bella's set up in the medium sized room, I found that they really liked to rock. Some of my favorite music is slightly bass light prog-rock of the 60's and 70's. For me, the louder the better. This is where (in this room) I found the Bella's to exceed. Mated to my little factory modified JoLida 102b, this was bliss on many, many levels. First, the bass reinforcement of a smaller room really lent itself to rock music. Second, the slightly recessed midrange made rock extremely inviting on the Musica Bella's.
When I had the AV-1's out in the big room, they were much more even handed when in came to bass. The frequency response smoothed and gave me a much more even presentation. Obviously, that room lent itself to better-recorded music such as jazz, acoustic and classical. Now, when I'd back the AV-1's against the headwall, I'd get some of that bass boost back because of the back wall gains. No big secret there.
In the two lowest octaves, I found the specs to be a bit off. They state that the Bella's are –3dB at 45Hz. While this may be true in an anechoic chamber and in larger rooms, in my modest sized middle room (16x10), I was getting more than ample bass at 30Hz and plenty usable down into the mid 20's (and honestly below). As I usually do, I whipped out my trusty Sencore SP-295 and did some quick measuring to insure that my ears weren't playing tricks on me. On my favorite test track Cathedral In A Suitcase from Secret Story by Pat Metheny, the Bella's gave me a solid 30Hz performance that was nice, tight and commanding (for tubes doing 30Hz). Then I decided to pull out the stops (pun intended) and I put on Bach's Toccata and Fugue in D Minor from Organ and Choir at the Christ Church Cathedral by Dennis Bergin. This album isn't available commercially as its cut from the original master and quite honestly, it is the single best Toccata and Fugue a good many of us have ever heard. The Bella's sailed through this speaker killing organ track without breaking a sweat. I won't try to make you believe that the solid 18Hz fundamentals that I was reading on the Sencore in my magic room were anything more than pure delusionism (trauf).
When it comes to the relative speed and control the Bella's exhibit in the bass department, they performed admirably. The little JoLida and her excellent iron proved to do a fine job keeping them under control. As you would expect, when I used the Odyssey set up, the bass got noticeably tighter due to the highly increased damping factor.
Before I get too far away for describing the bass, I'd like to talk about how it sounds (that was a weird statement). Not all bass is created equal. As most know, bass from a small 6.5" driver sounds, well, small. Bass from a 15" driver is big, dynamic, room filling and impactful. So just how do the 8" drivers used in the Musica Bella's stack up? In just a few words, much bigger than they measure. Granted, these don't have quite the impact of a 15" but in my medium sized room they have nearly all of the slam and room filling bass of my vintage 15's in my big room. That's pretty impressive from a sealed enclosure design.
After all that typing about the sound, let me say that these speakers like very clean sounding amps, front ends and sources. The way Bill has voiced them, they will provide you with plenty of detail but if you try to mate these to a somewhat less than refined amplifier, you won't experience all that these speakers have to offer. That said, Response has used their amps to voice these speakers. I know the sound of Bill's amps, and they are some of the cleanest, best sounding amps out there. Again, audio is all about balance.
As I mentioned, these speakers are very tube friendly. I drove them easily with as little as 10 watts of push pull 6V6's into very listenable sound pressure levels in the mid 90's. The Musica Bella's respond very well to higher wattage tubes and high power solid state. When I had the Odyssey Audio gear hooked up, there was some serious fun going on. I really enjoyed my time with the Response Audio Musica Bella AV-1's. I had many, many hours of musical enjoyment while they were here. If you are tired of the overly bright and hyper-detailed nature of the ‘audiophile' speakers on the market, you will want to give the AV-1's serious consideration. As Bill mentioned, they are absolutely non-fatiguing.