I'm usually not one to covet a pair of loudspeakers I've never heard simply for the fact that someone else uses them. However, when reading that record mastering legend Bob Ludwig uses a pair of EgglestonWorks speakers in his mastering suite, that's all it took. Sure, not only does Mr. Ludwig's listening room and ancillary gear – which includes a pair of top-of-the-line EgglestonWorks monitors – put his system in a sonic universe that does not approach anything close to my current reality, I still thought if I could audition a pair of EgglestonWorks speakers I could experience a hint of what this expert was hearing. After spending quite a while with the two-way floorstanding Isabel Signature I still might not have an idea what Bob Ludwig hears in his studio, but I have at least a pretty good idea of why he chose EgglestonWorks speakers to occupy his studio.
The Isabel Signature is newest speaker in the EgglestonWorks line. EgglestonWorks claims that rather than relying on measurements and computer models, they put as much or more emphasis on listening tests to design and voice their speakers. According to EgglestonWorks, understanding how sound is created by live musical instruments can be used as a tool in the critical stages of loudspeaker design. They go on to say that building a speaker takes more than just creating one that only does full justice to parameters such as imaging, soundstage, separation and definition. These are just secondary issues that are derived from the ability to "precisely capture the basic elements of music: timbre, intensity, and pitch." Their approach to loudspeaker manufacturing has obviously proved successful as their humming factory complex located right outside of Memphis that has been operating for two generations will attest.
The great-looking Isabel Signature is EgglestonWorks smallest floor-standing speaker. It is very modern looking, most likely because it eschews the wood grain or piano black finish that is so prevalent in other floor-standing speakers. I guess if one wants a speaker to "blend in" with the surrounding décor, wood grain would be a good option. But the glossy gray finish of the Isabel Signature gives it a stateliness that is missing from many other manufacture's models. The EgglestonWorks applies a finish on their speakers that I was told uses almost the same process as in the automotive industry in that it uses paint and clear coat. Where it differs is that there are different preparation stages since they are not painting metal. The first step is a very time consuming application of laminate over the entire surface of the speaker. After that the seams are addressed with a fiberglass resin material, the resin is sanded smooth, and then the speaker is sprayed with polyester that they say helps prevent any movement of the outer surface. From there the process is almost identical to painting a car – primer coat, sanding, two color coats, three clear coats, wet sanding, and then polishing. In my opinion paying so much attention to the finish really pays off.
Not surprisingly, what is under this finish is
more important. The cabinet of the Isabel Signature is constructed from two
sheets of 0.625" Medium Density Fiberboard (MDF) that are laminated together
making a total thickness of 1.25". EgglestonWorks uses two sheets rather than
the standard one layer of MDF is because MDF naturally varies in density due to
the manufacture process. A cross-section of MDF will show denser material on the
surfaces and less density in its middle sections, and is one of the reasons why
MDF is a good material for speaker cabinets because this variation in density
naturally helps to deaden resonances. But by using two sheets of MDF
EgglestonWorks increases the natural effect by doubling the denser outside, the
less dense inside, and then adding the lamination layer.
The Isabel Signature uses two drivers in the
upper portion of its cabinet – a one-inch dome tweeter that was custom built
to their specifications from Dynaudio, which starts out as an Esotar model. The
carbon-fiber midrange/bass driver is again, made to EgglestonWorks
specifications, but sourced from Morel. EgglestonWorks claims that the crossover
of the Isabel Signature is rather simple: It is a 2nd order design
with the tweeter crossed-over at 2500 Hz. All of this company's crossovers are
point-to-point wired in-house. As you will read in my description of the sound
of the Isabel Signature, there is quite a bit of quality bass coming from its
relatively small mid/bass driver. To accomplish this, the Isabel Signature uses
a variation of a bass reflex design. The rear ports are located internally. The
tweeter is in its own compartment which is basically the angled section at the
top. The six-inch mid/bass driver is in compartment from the tweeter shelf at
the top to another horizontal shelf that is between the two rear ports to create
two compartments that are connected with a vertical port internally.
EgglestonWorks says that the size of the box obviously helps with bass response,
but in testing it seemed that they were not getting the transient response they
were looking for. So, by adding the shelf and splitting the ports they were able
to control the bass response and have something that sounded more real and not
subject to dreaded one-note response. They were successful.
I like to call the system in which I auditioned the Isabel Signatures my "second system", only because I call the other my "main" system, where not only the music server is located, but in the same room in which I store my physical media collection. The system in which the EgglestonWorks speakers were used relies on this music server as the source of its main diet of music as FLAC files fed through the home network. There is also an Oppo BDP-83 Special Edition universal player for SACDs (and the occasional CD), but usually I listen via a Logitech Squeezebox Touch connected to either a Benchmark digital-to-analog converter or a CEntrance DACmini DAC. The preamplifier is a tubed Balanced Audio Technologies (BAT) VK-3iX or an Edge G2 linestage. Power is from a pair of tubed PrimaLuna DiaLogue 6 monoblock amps, and everything but the amps (and of course the speakers) sit atop Metro Commercial shelving. The entire speaker, interconnect, power, and digital cabling is by DH Labs, and every power cord in the system is connected to a Panamax M5510-Pro power conditioner. This room is in a house built in 1894 with plaster walls and a wood floor so solid that I could jump a few feet in the air in front of the system, and not a single component would move.
It is really quite spectacular really, when you think of it: Here is a speaker using conventional drivers, and small ones at that, in a cabinet with such a small footprint that it doesn't take up much more room than many stand-mounted speakers, reproducing instruments in such a natural way that the suspension of disbelief was such a regular occurrence that I sometimes took it for granted.
Recently I received as a gift a Japanese single-layer SACD of the Rolling Stones Beggars Banquet. Yes, as I've always considered the ABKCO release on dual-layer SACD/CD the "definitive" version of this album I was taken aback when I spun this disc for the first time. Whether it is a different tape that was used as a source, or just the time and care that the Japanese put into this release, I don't think these reasons alone could fully explain why the Japanese version is preferable. I also don't think that either of these could objectively be called better than the other. But there is no doubt in my mind that I sometimes feel that the bass of the Japanese SACD seems more clean and powerful, and the instruments that contain a healthy amount of mid and treble that were recorded by simply placing a microphone in front of them (including the vocals) sometimes seem more natural sounding, that is, less processed. And there is no question that both versions of this album revealed some major positive traits of these speakers. Even though there is much song-to-song sound quality variation throughout the album (some of the tracks were recorded on a portable cassette recorder) there are often times when there are no electric instruments other than bass.
The separation of sounds and instruments through the Isabel Signatures is fantastic. "Street Fighting Man", which has tracks that Keith Richards confirmed were originally recorded on cassette, along with many overdubs recorded throughout their time in the studio, comes off as the best I've ever heard it. On this very dense track are vocals by both Mick Jagger and Keef, Brian Jones playing sitar and tamboura (another sitar-like instrument), Charlie Watt's drum kit, Nicky Hopkins on piano, and Dave Mason on an Indian wind called a Shenhai. Back in the day it was tough to hear what was going on instrumentally, but these days we've finally been able to separate all the commotion. But the Isabel Signature takes things one step further by not only putting a human touch on each and every instrument by revealing the original intentions of the artists, as well as being able to separate all the instruments and place them perfectly within the huge soundstage. And on songs such as "Prodigal Son" we're privileged to hear the band as if they are in the same room with each other, with their acoustic guitars along with a simple drum kit while they are singing along. And through the Isabel Signatures it seems as if one not only can imagine through one's mind's ear the actual instruments and voices perhaps not in the room with you, but being able to peer into the recording session, and if I closed my eyes while playing this and let myself be totally enveloped by the music (which the Isabel Signature made quite easy) I swore I could smell the remnants of the cigarettes and wine that were consumed that night.
Ditto for Berlioz's Symphonie fantastique, although with this piece what I think I smelled was absinthe. My favorite versions of this work are many, although those on LP tend to be from the golden era of stereo from the late 1950s through the early 1960s (think Munch with the Boston, and Monteux with the Vienna), but digital favorites are many and fall within the last two decades, most notably Pierre Boulez' account with the Cleveland Orchestra on DG from 1997. Here he makes a case for the score that is surprising for a conductor who once proclaimed in his youth that Nineteenth Century music was not to his liking, to put it mildly. As his conducting career matured so did his taste in music, and here, as in many readings he did for this label around the same time his attention to detail is second to none. At the same time somehow he seems to extract the inner substance of the composition, and ends up with a near flawless account from the musicians under his control. Of course the high drama comes during the last two movements of this five movement work, so here we get to experience the EgglestonWorks Isabel Signature's way with reproducing a concert bass drum, which again, considering the size of the drivers and the cabinet in which they are contained is very impressive. I was able to not only hear the lowest fundamentals of the drum, but during these movements the right side of the orchestra is running on all cylinders, of course this includes the double basses. Impressive enough is that the speakers were able to reproduce the low-end so faithfully, but the transient response of the both the drum and the bass fiddles were able to be discerned as separate events in a separate space. I don't mean I was able to localize the bass drum via its low pitch (as the lowest frequencies are non-directional) but by the upper pitches contained within the sounds of these instruments – the sound of the bows on the strings, and the skin of the bass drum were clearly heard above the din.
The Isabel Signatures proved again and again that they were able to reproduce these sounds with a realism that at times was downright scary. Needless to say, this piece is largely made of more than the deathly scenes during the climatic finale, and the Isabel Signature was able to take advantage of its midrange purity by reproducing the throng of strings and other sections of the orchestra with all that one could want from a speaker, as the torrent of sound that enveloped me during throughout the score. This piece is made with a huge orchestra, with the usual strings and two harps, winds (including flutes piccolo, oboes, clarinets, E-flat clarinet, bassoons), brass (horns, trumpets, cornets, trombones, and tubas), and a battery of percussion instruments (timpani, snare, cymbals, bass drum, and bells). Whew. I would close my eyes, and when I opened them the locations of the speakers were never where I thought they would be and their physical dimensions much smaller than the enormous soundstage.
I mentioned that I was often impressed by the transient response of the Isabel Signatures in certain areas. I called it decent, not first-rate. I think that this might be the only fault I could find with these otherwise magnificent speakers, as slight as this fault might be. There was a bit thickening of the midbass that occurred on some recordings that presented itself on program material with a great deal of energy in this zone. I was able to lessen this effect by using the solid-state Edge G2 linestage in place of the tubed BAT preamplifier, although I did not try the Isabel Signature with a solid-state power amp. Perhaps if I was able to pull the speakers farther out into the room away from the front wall this very slight thickening would be alleviated. Plus, this slight imperfection was probably more noticeable to me because the last speakers that occupied this system were 2.5 times more expensive stand-mounted two-way speakers that really didn't have any bass response to speak of, yet the rest of their frequency spectrum was reproduced with a proficiency that was second-to-none.
Would I consider purchasing the EgglestonWorks Isabel
Signature if I were shopping for a small floorstanding speaker within this price
range? You bet. It matched my associated gear and my room just fine, thank you
very much. But the EgglestonWorks Isabel Signature is not inexpensive. They also
occupy a price point that sometimes gets short shrift. Speakers priced a few
thousand dollars below these or a few thousand dollars more get greater
attention from the speaker buying public. But anyone shopping for a speaker who
doesn't put the Isabel Signature on their audition list is missing out on some
great, great speakers. Recommended.