As it is with most high-end audio shops across the country, CES brought a plethora of 'new' offerings from the major manufacturers. A couple of my local high-end shops brought in either new products or major updates to their existing lines.
Best Sound in St Louis carries several nice audiophile lines. Audio Research, Classé, Magnum Dynalab and B&W speakers just to name a few of their offerings. After reading some of the show reports online and in the print mags, I thought I'd venture down and see my friend Tim, sales manager at Best Sound to see what he brought back from the 'Big Show.'
It just so happens that Tim had sitting on his floor, a brand spankin' new pair of Nautilus B&W 802 Diamonds. If you haven't read about these, B&W has made some significant upgrades to their 800 series speakers. The largest stride forward was the introduction of their Diamond tweeter and they are now implementing a simple first order crossover between the midrange and tweeter.
According to B&W, the process for making this revolutionary tweeter is called 'chemical vapour deposition' or CVD for short. Apparently, the process involves heating carbon to nearly 11,000 degrees Fahrenheit at which point the carbon vaporizes and begins to form on the mounds surface as diamond crystals. Somehow, the process ensures a uniform thickness of the newly formed diamond dome.
As part of the introduction of the diamond tweeter line, B&W has also retooled their production line to handle the precision adhesion required to mount these new domes properly to the tweeter housings. Automation has allowed a consistent amount of adhesive to be applied to the backs of the domes. This reduces the potential added mass to the dome and also ensures precise alignment of the entire tweeter assembly.
Gone is the complicated, high order crossover. The engineers at B&W now employ the simpler first order crossovers between the midrange driver and the tweeter (thank goodness). In the process of revising the crossover, the engineers physically moved the tweeter forward on the midrange head. This brought helped (in part) to bring the tweeter back in phase with the midrange.
The biggest problem I see with the raw speaker driver market today is that many of the drivers made go into heavy cone breakup (heavy, narrow resonant peaks) when they get out of their effective frequency range. This (in many cases) is why speaker manufacturers keep designing steep filters. They push the drivers to their mechanical limits then subject them to this complicated electrical filter to (effectively) notch down the peaks when it goes into breakup mode.
My question here is... why? Why not design speakers around drivers that have a smooth breakup and roll off evenly at -6dB per octave? That way you are assured a smooth handoff between the drivers. Trouble is, many of the monkey coffin builders out there don't produce their own drivers. They are either using an existing line (Seas, Vifa, or whomever) or having a major driver manufacturer make some minor mods to an existing driver already in production (and in turn naming it their own). Consequently, those speaker manufacturers are forced (many times) to develop and use these high order crossovers.
This works in some cases, in others it doesn't. To my ears, I personally don't care for high order crossovers. Every pair of speakers I've designed and built over the years (and there have been dozens), I've carefully picked the drivers to insure smooth cone breakup and I also used first order crossovers exclusively. They just sound better. They are more 'open', easier to drive (from an amplifier's point of view) and are more transparent than any higher order crossover.
In the end, this is just me and my preference, though many are on the same bandwagon as I am.
Back To Our Regularly Scheduled Program
The FST driver now sports a new basket and magnet assembly. Out is the old thick basket that partially blocked the back wave from the driver and in is a new sleeker, equally strong basket. Also gone is the physically large magnet in favor of a new smaller, stronger neodymium magnet. The whole principle (one would assume) is to keep the reflected sound (back through the cone) from the old magnet and basket structure to a minimum. Good engineering practice tells me what the engineers have done is a good thing.
The woofers have undergone a transformation too. B&W is now manufacturing the driver cones and dust caps from a material called Rohacell. I am told this is the same material that Velodyne uses in their 1812 subwoofer. This material is a composite that has a hard foam core that is sandwiched between two carbon fiber skins. This combination of materials makes the cone extremely rigid yet very light. Just what you want in a woofer. If it's heavy, it takes too much energy to start and is even tougher to stop which creates a completely separate set of problems. If cone itself is flexible, it physically distorts when it's in motion leading to all kinds of weird harmonics and distortion (what most consider coloration). In what I experienced with the new Nautilus 802 D's, the bass sounded greatly improved than the old model.
Well Enough With The Propaganda,
As I sat in the comfy chair in Best Sounds two channel demo room and pushed the Play bottom, I have to say I was damned impressed. These didn't sound like the B&W 802's of yore. In fact, Tim had the old pair that I was used to listening to sitting in the corner of the room. As nice as those sounded, the new Diamonds simply cleaned their clock (and not by a little margin either). The new model line has brought a new level of clarity, detail and more importantly, finesse to the B&W flagship line.
Even though the tweeters were still not fully run in yet, you could immediately tell (if you are familiar with the old Nautilus 800 series sound) how much more open they sounded. The treble was as clean as I've heard without a hint of splash or sizzle. The little bit of midrange congestion that was there before (I suspect it was because of the high order crossover) is now gone. And the bass… another significant improvement. At times (on certain recordings) the bass on the old 800 series could sound just a tad slow. No longer. The bass is significantly better than the previous model.
Needless to say, I was damned impressed. As well I should be considering this is one of their top offerings. At $12,000 I wouldn't consider these a bargain by any stretch but I am here to tell you they are one of the finest speakers I've had the pleasure of listening to. If this were a proper review, you'd see 4.5's and 5's up and down the ratings chart (and that's really hard to get from me).
B&W didn't just stop with their Diamond tweeter offering, they also implemented many of the same improvements in the rest of the 800 series speakers. Simple first order crossovers, forward mounted tweeters (using their original aluminum dome), midrange and bass driver revisions have found their way into the rest of the line.
A few Saturdays ago Tim invited me into the store early so we could listen to the more affordable 800 series side by side, new to old. I was really curious about how the new crossovers sounded.
When I came into the store, Tim had two pairs of standard 804's sitting side by side, new (on the left) and old. Driving them was the new Classé system, the CDP-100, CP-500 pre, and CA-2100 amp all in balanced mode. Tim had this fed through a set of Audio Quest Pike's Peak speaker cables and AQ interconnects.
As I wandered around the speakers looking at the physical changes, I noticed a few things. First was the tweeter I had mentioned earlier. They had moved the tweeter forward and there is no longer a depression in the top of the 804 cabinet. As the company had stated they have separated the mid and tweeter a bit further to compensate for the first order crossover slope.
The next thing I noticed was that the midrange driver no longer protruded from the cabinet. Previously, as you can see by the picture, the driver came forward from the cabinet about 0.25-inch or so. Now the driver is flush. After those two physical changes, the two speakers look identical.
I first started with some classical music, Adagio's Oboe Concerto in C Minor by Marchello. This particular arraignment is the Jean-Francois Paillard Chamber Orchestra, the RCA Red Seal version. I picked this particular piece because of the Oboe player. If you are familiar with this piece, the oboe player is (essentially) close mic'ed and you pick up tons of detail, everything from the valves slapping shut to the mechanical clicks of the valve linkage to finally his rapid breath's between notes.
I still wasn't quite sure so I popped on something with some vocals. Of all pieces, I grabbed Goldfrapp Felt Mountain. Not your typical piece of reference music you would expect a reviewer to use but I know it well and it's fairly well recorded. I hit play and listened to the first track. "Lovely Head" starts with Alison Goldfrapp whistling. I immediately heard the same thing I did previously on the old version of the 804's. It was slight disconnect in the music of some sort in the mid to treble region.
I continued to listen for a while and got up to swap speaker cables to the new 804's. When I pushed play on "Lovely Head" again, that disconnect was gone. Knowing the changes B&W made to the 800 series, this pointed me directly to the crossover between the midrange and tweeter. What designers have done is take a giant step forward towards driver integration. The handoff between the midrange and tweeter is nearly seamless now. On the old version I could hear the crossover points because it made the tweeter stand out. Albeit slight, I could still hear it. It sounded as if there was a bit more detail, which there was but, it caused a slight timbral mismatch between midrange and tweeter due to the high order crossover slope. In turn, the tweeter called attention to itself.
Now the handoff between the drivers is smooth as babies bottom. The newly redesigned 804's are extremely nice sounding. They are far more natural in their presentation. One of Tim's customers described the old 804's as being 'more in your face'.
Bottom line, if you are in the market for some slightly more expensive speakers (that wander up to really damned expensive range) that truly impress, take a trip to your local B&W dealer. Of the 'new' tweeter technologies, the Nautilus Diamond series are something to behold. Clean, open, accurate and completely natural are the words that come to mind when I listen to them.
Do yourself a favor when you audition them, listen on tubes with vinyl as your source, or at least a good SACD player so you can experience their extension.
Lets finish up with my favorite subject... some music.
Well, Dennis Cassidy and Stan Ricker are at it again. Pure Audiophile has just released some more luscious vinyl. This time it's a 45rpm pressing. Cal Tjader's La Onda Va Bien has been immortalized by Dennis and Stan. If you aren't familiar with this recording, La Onda Va Bien was Cal Tjader's first release and the maiden voyage of the newly formed Concord Picante jazz label. Concord Picante is a well know label for Latin jazz artists such as Poncho Sanchez. It just so happens Pancho plays congas and percussion on this album.
Pancho is one of my all time favorite Latin Jazz artists. Last fall my wife and I took some friends of ours (Brad and Joanie) to the Sheldon Theatre here in St Louis to see Pancho perform. If you aren't familiar with Latin jazz, Pancho Sanchez is a great place to start. That evening was phenomenal. Pancho and the band literally had everybody up dancing in the isles to the soulful Latin rhythms.
Sorry, I got sidetracked.
If you weren't aware, Cal Tjader plays the vibes. Well, Cal doesn't just 'play the vibes', Cal is a phenomenal vibraphone player. Of all the vibe players through the years, three come to mind as being the best of the best. First, I'm sure most would bow to Lionel Hampton as the pioneer and King of the vibe. Next would be Cal himself with Gary Burton closely following suit.
Besides Cal on vibes and Pancho Sanchez on percussion, this release features Mark Levine on piano and ever distinct Fender Rhodes, Roger Glenn on flute and percussion, Vince Lateano on drums and percussion, and finally Rob Fisher on bass. This particular album is filled with everything from upbeat Salsa and Mambo numbers to lovely, flowing Latin melodies. Even if you aren't a hardcore Jazz or Latin Jazz fan, you'll find this music extremely inviting. It can be extremely laid back to the point of being considered 'easy listing' or it can get you up out of your seat and start you dancing around the room to the heavy Latin beats. It is truly a joy to listen to both sonically and musically. In addition to the songs on the original release, Dennis has included "Speak Low" and "Do Nothing Till You Hear From Me" from Cal Tjader's Heat Wave Release.
Another thing Dennis and Stan have done that is a bit different, you know the 'dead wax' at eh end of each album side? Rather than letting the tone arm run all the way in and sit there going kerrrrthump... kerrrrthump... kerrrrthump, Stan has taken and put a loop at the beginning of the dead wax rather than at the label. Consequently, if your arm (like mine) bashes against your record clamp bouncing off and back into the dead wax lead out grooves, that doesn't happen any more. No my arm stays safely near the end of the last song rather than beating itself to death if I don't get up in time. I'm not sure why nobody thought of that before but it's a great idea.
The sound reproduction on this piece of vinyl is truly jaw dropping. Pure Audiophile vinyl is available from your favorite online vinyl shops line Acoustic Sounds, Red Trumpet and others I've no doubt forgotten.
'til next time...