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November 2015
Enjoy the Music.com Review Magazine
One Listener, Two Ears, Many Systems?
Roger Skoff writes about doing the whole thing right.

Article By Roger Skoff

 

  I love my Stax Lambda Pro headphones. Tonality; attack and decay; clarity; detail; they seem to do a great many things right. Except imaging and soundstaging: Everything and everybody that I hear on them seems to be performing right smack in the middle of my head, instead of placed or arrayed in front of me in a room or an open space, as they ought to be.  My Stax Sigmas were an attempt to correct this common headphone failing, but they and the AKG K1000 ― another famous try from another famous manufacturer ― both, at least for me, didn't do the trick and, instead, simply produced some kind of a weird quasi-spatial listening experience all their own.

 

One Listener, Two Ears, Many Systems?

 

The very best imaging and soundstaging I ever heard was from a pair of tiny Harbeth mini-monitors at a Show in Hong Kong. They were simply superb, and Stax, once again, came close with a pair of what I will guess were a about 16" (40.6cm) diagonal rectangular electrostatic panels that Mike Detmer (then
President of Stax-Kogyo USA) brought over to my house and set up on the step of my living-room fireplace. We listened to opera on them and, although the imaging and the proscenium it was played against were tiny, they were magnificent and perfect ― sort of like a chorus of trained mice performing Shakespeare or Puccini on a minuscule stage just for your personal enjoyment.

Wonderful. But not sufficient in itself.

 

Martin-Logan Statements

 

The fact of it is that, while it is certainly pleasurable to occasionally assume the position of god-on-high and have performers "strut and fret" for you on a personal stage, there are other times when you (or at least I) want the exact opposite we want to be dwarfed by or lost in the music and swept up and along with it to some overpowering glory...  and that's not about to happen with mini-monitors or tiny electrostats.  To be overwhelmed by the music, we need not only overwhelming music, but to hear it on an overwhelming system:  The infinity IRS, for example or its successor, the Genesis Model One, or Dunlavy Sovereigns, or the Martin-Logan Statements (pictured), or the JM Labs Grand Utopias or some other such certainly overwhelming speakers, driven by equally overwhelming electronics, all at undoubtedly overwhelming prices.

The problem is that even they can have a problem:  Huge speakers like those can require a huge room to perform properly, and, even then, you can wind-up with the voice of the girl singer coming off sounding like her head is eight feet wide! Big speakers tend to make a big sound, which is great when that's what you want, but there are times when you want to listen to Mstislav Rostropovich or Yo-Yo-Ma play a cello solo or Nathan Milstein or Zino Francescatti do the same on the violin, and you just want the instrument to be the size it is in real life, surrounded by a realistic presentation of the actual room it's being played in, and for that, giant speakers can be at a disadvantage.

It's not just imaging and soundstaging that are affected, either: Dynamics, too, will change drastically, depending on the system you play your music on.  For kick-drum sound, for example, that feels like it's you, and not just the drum that's being kicked, or for a cymbal crash that will leave your head ringing for possibly even longer than the Zildjians, horns are the perfect speakers. Many different models are available from many different manufacturers in the United States and abroad, but if you want the iconic full-range horn systems, the Klipschorn is still in production after 69 years (it was first introduced in 1946), and can be bought for just $12,000 a pair ($6,000 each, if you want to use multiples for home theater), which, by the standards of modern expensive speakers, is a tremendous bargain!

A problem with any horns, though especially modern conical horns like those from Avantgarde Acoustic and others is that imaging and soundstaging are not usually among their strong points and conical horns, because they disperse their sound equally in the vertical and horizontal planes, are more likely to have problems of interaction with the floor and ceiling of the listening room and can be difficult to properly place. Because of their typically very high sensitivity, though (a speaker's sensitivity is how loudly it will play per Watt of input power), using horn speakers can allow you to use very low output amplifiers  and still get satisfactory levels of volume. This is a good thing because a great many people like the tonal balance, harmonic richness, and detail characteristics of low-output tube amplifiers (many of which are based on tubes first designed or even built [NOS] back in the days when horns had to be used to get high enough volume levels for theater, PA, or other large or loud-venue applications) and find solid-state electronics not musically satisfying.

Tube amps, however, whatever their output level, aren't famous for their dynamics that crown typically best fits some of the better, often very high output, solid-state amplifiers, so for anything other than horns, if you are a "Dynamics Crazy", and get your jollies from head-crushing volume potential and gut-crushing rise times, solid state is likely your best bet. Tubes, solid state, horns, giant room-filler speaker systems, mini-monitors, and headphones all do good things, and most even have one or two things that they do better than anything else. Even so, in all my half-dozen decades of experience as a hard-core-dyed-in-the-wool Hi-Fi Crazy; as an audio writer and reviewer; and as a high-end audio designer and manufacturer (other than the XLO cables that I designed and may therefore  be a little biased toward), I HAVE NEVER FOUND ANY ONE THING OR ANY ONE SYSTEM THAT DOES EVERYTHING BEST OR THAT I COULD BE ENTIRELY SATISFIED WITH AS MY ONLY SYSTEM.

 

That's why I own horns, and electrostatics (three pairs [count 'em, and be jealous] of Acoustat 1+1s), and "box" speakers (two or three popular brands, plus some very impressive new-technology prototype units, plus the very latest "Seraphim"s from ACA [now you can really be jealous!]), and tube electronics and solid-state electronics, for playing music from both analog and digital sources. I don't know what's best for you, but for me, even though I'm only one person, with just two ears, having multiple systems each brilliantly providing one or a combination of things that the others can't, and each comprised of components specifically selected to work with each other to provide the very best of what I want, for each kind and genre of music that I listen to, is the very best way for me to...

 

Enjoy the music.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

     
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