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Dick Olsher Nibbles
"Recommended Components" Under The Microscope.

Senior Editors Viewpoint
By Dick Olsher
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  Over the past decade, Stereophile Magazine's Recommended Components (RC) feature has probably become the most influential marketing force in all of high-end audio. It has been reported that audiophiles have walked into dealers, Stereophile in hand, and demanded to purchase a particular component listing without even so much as an audition. Manufacturers have coveted these listings because they do sell product. Unfortunately, from the consumer's standpoint, this and other similar listings are fraught with danger and often lead to disappointing results and costly mistakes.

To be sure, RC represents a useful resource, a concise summary of  "hot" products that should be worthy of further research. The basic problem is the underlying implication that optimizing a home audio system can be boiled down to selecting amplifiers, speakers, and front-end components from various columns. The "Chinese Menu" method of assembling a home system just doesn't work because it ignores the systems nature of home audio. Such an approach would be about as logical as expecting the consumer to successfully assemble a jet plane starting from a list of parts. The acoustics of your listening room, domestic constraints in speaker location and listening seat selection, your musical tastes, and components interactions (in particular the speaker-amplifier interface), are the essential system factors that conspire to make system optimization a significant challenge. In my experience, it is quite possible to obtain "Class A" sound using individual Class B or C components. The most memorable systems I've heard over the years were not necessarily the most expensive money could buy. In fact, some of these systems were quite modest in terms of overall cost, but were carefully assembled to provide a synergism that sparked considerable sonic magic. On the other hand, some of the worst systems I've heard to date have been in the category of the most expensive money can buy.

If you're passionate about music and are looking for a system to enjoy music in the home, you've probably already skimmed through several audio magazines and are wondering by now as to why there aren't any system recommendations to be found. As far as the eye can see, there appears to be a veritable sea of components being hyped all over the place. There are lots of choices but no clear guidance on system integration. And if you're working for a living, you can't afford to make big purchasing mistakes. Your best defense against making poor choices is a clear understanding of the conceptual faults inherent in any RC list.

 

The Reviewers
Audio reviewers, as is the case with other critics, don't require a license to practice their craft. The minimum standard in terms of experience and technical knowledge is often set by the magazine's chief editor. And in many cases the standard is further diluted because a particular writer is deemed to be sufficiently entertaining so as to enhance magazine sales. When we read a hobbyist publication about cars or photography, most of us expect its writers to command either authoritative knowledge or at least substantial experience in these fields. It's quite reasonable to expect subject matter experts to be writing about and elucidating technical subjects. In audio, that very often does not appear to be the case.

It's likely that the audiophile reviewer passing judgment on a particular component has little audio experience and his enthusiasm may be unbridled just because his listening base is pretty limited.  Raving about product A, without having auditioned any serious competition is equivalent to declaring the Toyota Camry to be the definitive car of the decade after comparing it with a Chevy Cavalier. Since the individual recommendations that make up RC are filtered from the reviewing experience of a great many reviewers, the listings in a particular category and class may not at all be equivalent sonically.

 

The Process
The following scenario plays itself out over and over again. A reviewer covets a particular piece of gear. He convinces his Editor to approve the project and obtains a sample from the manufacturer. The product then gets inserted/substituted into the reviewer's system for an extended audition. The reviewer writes a detailed account of the product's background and technology, its functionality, and what it sounds like. Bingo! We have an audio review. It shouldn't be difficult to appreciate the Russian roulette nature of this process. Let's consider that a power amplifier is the product under test. By being "thrown" into an established system that has presumably already been tweaked for good sound, the review sample is being asked to sink or swim with a specific speaker model. The interaction of the amp's output impedance with the speaker's impedance magnitude may very well bring about significant tonal balance changes. Musical textures may also be affected by the amp's speed and reproduction of micro detail. The real question being answered by the reviewer is: how well is the new amp working with my speakers and how well is it complementing the rest of my system. If the reviewer happens to like the changes introduced by the amp, don't be surprised to read about how great this amp is and how well it does this or that. On the other hand, if the reviewer doesn't like the changes, then the amp is berated as a poor performer. In both cases, the reviewer is quite honest about his findings, but the sonic impressions are often generalized from a very narrow experiment to praise or condemn the product. Had the reviewer tried the amp with several speakers, he may have found some pairings that work well and others that don't. The bottom line would have been quite different had the reviewer done more extensive testing.

This accounts for the frequent lack of consensus among reviewers and audiophiles about a particular product. How many times has somebody given you a tip along the lines of "wow, such and such is a terrific amp" or stay away from that dog amplifier?" And it turns out that these opinions are based solely on an audition of the amp in a particular system context. What's good for my speakers, in my room with my music may not translate very well to another system. A speaker-amp interface is like a marriage. The partners need to complement each other. The amp's output impedance, current drive, and transient capability should satisfy the appetite and expectations of the speaker. My first thought in considering a power amp purchase is: what is it good for? What speakers might work best with it?

The situation is even worse with regard to loudspeaker reviews. It is well known that loudspeaker placement in a room is crucial to listening satisfaction. Floyd Toole, formerly with the National Research Council of Canada and presently with Harman International, has found that speaker placement often plays a bigger role in listening test results than does the particular model being tested. Just how much experimentation was involved during the review process? Or was the speaker simply placed in the most convenient spot? Was there an effort to determine power amp compatibility? All of these questions are germane to the validity of the evaluation. In truth, almost any good audio product can be made to sound wretched by a botched set up. Although I don't think that audio reviewing should be a science project, professional experience and care in set up are critical to ensuring meaningful results.

 

The Absolute Standard
A popular audiophile dogma states that the sound of live music is the ultimate yardstick by which to judge reproduced music. Unfortunately, judging from the sound of numerous rooms at audio shows and the sound of far too many audiophile systems, very few folks actually seem to be familiar with or are able to recall the sound of the real thing. What usually attracts the most attention is what I call the hi-fi experience; sound that is either bigger or more impressive that that of live music. Speakers with a weird or exciting tonal balance often stimulate and excite the audiophile and unwary reviewer. The Lowther sound is a case in point. These drivers (e.g., the model PM2A) exhibit severe break up resonances in the presence region (around 5 kHz). Since the ear is most sensitive around a frequency of 4 kHz, these colorations can be easily heard by anyone alive. The initial impact is one of enhanced projection and brilliance. Someone made the comment that after hearing the Lowther speaker, everything else sounded like it was muffled by a pillow. On that basis, I suppose that one would be forced to conclude that there's nothing more exciting than the Lowther on this planet.

The same corruption of the absolute standard extends to the music used to evaluate audio gear. Highly processed recordings of female voice seem to be favorite evaluation tools. If one starts with a highly EQ'd, non-flat recording as source material, how can anyone possibly make intelligent judgments regarding the tonal balance of the equipment under test? The best that you can hope to do with that sort of protocol is find out which gear makes your favorite recording sound its best. If most of your recording are pretty hot sounding, a speaker with a rolled off treble range might sound much better than a neutral design. This is a good example of how choice of music can impact a reviewer's opinion. Tonal balance preference is another factor. Some listeners seem to prefer a brighter balance and downgrade speakers or systems that are more natural sounding. Brightness appears to be an attribute of closely-mic'ed recordings. During play back, most two-way speakers exacerbate the perceived brightness of such recordings because they can't generate a realistic upper bass range. An in-room tonal balance that is deficient upper bass perforce emphasizes the upper registers. The bottom line is that it's difficult to make definitive sonic assessments when one is unfamiliar with the integrity of the source material used for listening tests.

Even if you find a reviewer whose musical tastes and tonal balance preference seem to run parallel to yours, and even if this individual is totally meticulous in evaluating a piece of gear, his finding are still valid only in the context of his own system. Unless you duplicate his system and room acoustics, a piece of gear he may have raved about, may leave you cold. The more experience that is accumulated about a particular product, by different reviewers and in different rooms, the more accurate a picture we can form of this product's capabilities.

 

Five-Star Recommended Systems
Let me go boldly where few reviewers have dared go before. The systems frontier is where it's at in audio. Make no mistake about it. Components will in the end drive you crazy, as you'll forever be tinkering with different product mixes to get the sort of sound you want in your room. This is also an expensive process and may discourage a lot of music lovers away from high-end audio. With this issue, I'm inaugurating the Editor's Five-Star system recommendations. Expect these recommendations to grow in number and scope over time. For now, I'll contend myself with several amp-speaker combinations that have withstood the test of time. These are products that have been reviewed extensively, and that I have personally experienced in a variety of contexts. As such, they qualify not only as classic gear but also as exceptional musical reproduction systems.

 

(1)   The old QUAD Electrostatic loudspeaker (aka as the QUAD-57) driven by a modified Dynaco Stereo 70, a Radford STA-25 series III, or a low-powered Futtterman OTL tube amp.

This is the sound that turned my audio conceptions upside down. The naturalness of the midrange and the QUAD's top to bottom cohesiveness left a lasting impression on me since the day I first heard such a system. It is Peter Walker's gift to music lovers. Some 65,000 original QUADs have been sold since its introduction in 1957. I am surprised that in the past 30 years there's has been no attempt to imitate the QUAD's three-way driver topology, although QUAD is about to release its series 98 this fall. The new models 988 and 989 are said to be a reworking of the model 63 but use multiple bass and midrange panels; only time will tell. Of course, the original QUAD is no longer in production, as is the case with the vintage tube amps that make these speakers sing. However, used and refurbished QUADs are readily available on the used market.

The QUAD works best in a small room because of its limited ultimate sound pressure level. There isn't much deep bass extension and power handling and the treble does beam, so that the listening sweet spot is pretty limited. There's midrange clarity and naturalness in abundance providing that you stick with one of the recommended power amps. With small-scale music, and especially the human voice, such a system has been defining the musical experience for over a generation.

 

(2)   The Magneplanar MG-20 loudspeaker bi-amplified with the Bryston 7B-ST power amplifiers.

I first heard this system at Peter McGrath's home some 15 years ago. Peter, who at the time owned Sound Components in Coral Gables, Florida, was a Wilson Audio as well as a Magnepan dealer. He found out that it was pretty tough to sell large planar speakers. But for his own listening pleasure, the MG-20s with a stack of Bryston 7B amps was the ticket. Listening to some of his master tapes of piano recordings, it was clear to me that I'd never heard a piano reproduced with more dynamic realism and tonal accuracy.

I also had the pleasure of living with the MG-20 for several months while I was reviewing them up for Stereophile Magazine a few years ago. But undoubtedly, the most awesome demonstration I have witnessed of the power and majesty of this system occurred last year during a visit with Magnepan's designer Jim Winey. In his own home system, the dynamics of a symphonic orchestra as well as the size of each instrument within the tapestry of the music were projected with amazing fidelity.

This is a three-way system using a true ribbon for reproduction of the upper octaves. Check out the speaker specs at www.magnepan.com. Information on  the Bryston 7B-ST amplifier is available at www.bryston.ca.

Planar speakers in general are capable or projecting realistic image sizes for instruments such as piano that project a large amount of acoustic power over a large surface area. Planar speakers can synthesize the proper surface loudness density for such instruments and generate the correct sound wave launch. In contrast, conventional box speakers with say a 10-inch woofer are inherently incapable of doing this correctly.

This system requires a large room to sound its best. I would recommend a minimum volume of 18x 20x 9 cubic feet. Allow on the order of 3-feet of breathing space behind the speakers. As with are dipole speakers, proper room diffusion is more important that absorption. In fact, too much absorption can significantly interfere with the evenness of the tonal balance at the listening seat. The MG-20s demand a large current drive, which the Bryston 7B-ST amps provide. But beyond that there's a synergism here in terms of upper midrange harmonic fidelity that I don't experience with other even more expensive solid-state power amps.

 

(3)   The Sound Lab A-1 Electrostatic Loudspeaker driven by the Air Tight ATM-2 Mono Block Tube Amplifiers, with Tip Toes and the SALLIE back wave attenuator.

 

"The A-1 is about elevating reproduced music to the level of the live experience... That they succeed to this extent is a miracle that every audiophile should experience at least once in his or her lifetime... they've got me excited about music like never before. The A-1 was capable of sketching the outlines of a piano or chorus with lifelike dimensions that had me hooked like never before... I was captivated by the sensation of having my favorite singers standing before me as if in the flesh. The realism of the height perspective made me want to run right up to these phantoms and hug them out of sheer joy."

Dick Olsher
Stereophile - Vol 15 No. 11,
Nov. 1992, Issue No. 154
See also review in Fi Magazine - Vol 1 Issue 2

 

I have by now lived with the Sound lab A-1 for over five years and am convinced that this is the one... designer Roger West's masterpiece. Check out Sound Lab's design philosophy and product specifications at www.soundlab-speakers.com.

The A-1 requires a large room for optimum performance and generally likes to be positioned about a third of the way into the room from the rear wall. It is essential to use the SALLIE  "foam towers" in order to break up the back wave. The stock castors should be replaced with the optional Tip Toe feet. The A-1 is notoriously difficult to drive. The load it presents to a power amp is essentially that of a capacitor with an impedance magnitude that ranges from over 30 ohms in the bass to under one ohm in the treble. There are very few amps that do these speakers justice. No solid-state amps in my experience has worked well with the A-1, and only a handful of high-power tube amps have gotten the job done. The current absolute best amp to use with the A-1 is Air Tight's ATM-2 mono block tube amplifier.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

     
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