Sharp-Looking Buttkicker For Under $1K/Pair
Review By Wayne Donnelly
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A terrific floorstanding loudspeaker from Meadowlark for $995 per pair? It's deja vu all over again! At the end of 1996, Art Dudley, Editor of the late, lamented Listener magazine, waxed rhapsodic over the musical qualities of the $995/pair Kestrels from a new company called Meadowlark Audio. Art's closing comment was that the Kestrels "might actually be the greatest bargain in American hi-fi today." Numerous other reviewers have added to that praise in the ensuing years, while Meadowlark founder and designer Pat McGinty continued to refine those excellent little two-ways. Last year, this writer enthusiastically reviewed the culmination of McGinty's efforts on the Kestrels -- the Hot Rod version. I also bought a pair for my second system, although the Hot Rods were really more loudspeaker than I needed for a bedroom setup.
But today, rising costs have driven the retail price of the standard Kestrels to
$1,395, and $1,695 for the Hot Rod version -- still real bargains in the context of today's marketplace, but proportionately pretty big increases from that original $995 price tag. So the unveiling of the Swift at the
Primedia (Stereophile) Home Entertainment Show in New York last June created a considerable buzz that resulted in waiting lines outside the Meadowlark room -- to hear a $995 loudspeaker!
The Swift represents major developments for Meadowlark in terms of both appearance and engineering. McGinty credits the woodworking and precision manufacturing capabilities on his new factory in Watertown, New York for enabling the production of the Swift. The familiar Meadowlark characteristics are there -- slanted-baffle driver alignment and simple first-order crossover for time coherence, transmission-line bass alignment, compact footprint and attractive wood finish -- but the Swift differs significantly, outside and in, from its predecessors.
Let's start with the outside. The familiar Meadowlark form factor -- a rectangular footprint with the upper front of the enclosure a decoupled slanted baffle for the drivers -- is replaced by a sporty design that features a front slanted from bottom to top, with the well finished transmission-line port located near the bottom. The wide selection of veneers has given way to solid Ash wood. The Swifts are
available in light, dark or black Ash. A single set of gold-plated speaker binding posts is located on the back panel. There are some minor concessions to cost, visible in the seams where the front, sides and top of the enclosure are joined, and in the black-painted rear panel (the company a few months ago began veneering all four sides of its larger enclosures). What has not changed is the inertness of the enclosure. The "knuckle test" is more likely to produce sore knuckles than the sound of cabinet ringing. A nifty little black-painted three-toed stand protects against tipping over -- a good precaution considering the Swift's very compact footprint is -- and it looks cool too.
The engineering change is a newly conceived transmission-line implementation that McGinty has dubbed "BASS-IC" (for Impedance-Coupled Bass). McGinty is understandably reluctant to explain this innovation in detail. As I understand the concept, this new alignment provides better control of woofer motion below F3 (the frequency at which bass output reaches 3dB below linear). The result is a claimed bass response to 35 Hz from the Swift's 5.5-inch(!) woofer, as well as the ability to play far louder than would be expected from such a small driver. The Swift's impedance is 8 ohms -- a departure from the 4-ohm impedance of most Meadowlark loudspeakers -- and its rated sensitivity is 89 dB; it is designed to be an extremely easy load even for low-powered tube amplifiers.
All cards on the table time. This is the third Meadowlark review I have written in the last year and a half. Besides reviewing the aforementioned Hot Rod Kestrels, I also selected the $8800/pair Blue Herons for a
2002 Enjoy the Music.com™ Best of the Year
award. And in another three or four months I'll be writing about Meadowlark's brand-new Osprey, a
$3,000/pair three-way design based on the same design principles as the Swift. Why so many Meadowlarks? I'm not related to, tight with or on the pad from Pat
McGinty. In fact, we've met just once, about four years ago. The reason is simple: every Meadowlark loudspeaker I have lived with has been emotionally involving, taking me into the music rather than leaving me in the realm of hi-fi. If I should ever come across one that fails to do that, I'll let you know. For now, Meadowlark is three for three.
Fun with the Swifts began with the unpacking. The new slanted front baffles allow a pair to be packed in a single box -- also saving on shipping costs for the company. Setting up the Swifts could hardly be easier. Screw holes for the stands are predrilled, so attaching them and screwing in the spikes takes about 10 minutes. These 35 lb. loudspeakers are easy to move around to find the best positioning.
Because my smaller system was in transition, the Swifts got to play with the big boys in the main system: Thor line and phono preamplifier's,
Basis/Grahamvan den Hul analog source; heavily modified Sony and Pioneer DVD/CD players; and amplifiers ranging from the 350-watt Aria
monoblocks to the 60-watt Atma-Sphere M-60 II.2 monoblocks (most of the time), to the 10 wpc. WAVAC MD-300B. The Swifts sound very good and play reasonably loudly with the latter amplifier, confirming Meadowlark's claim that they are easy to drive. But dynamics and bass extension are clearly even better with the larger amplifiers.
Right out of the box, the Swifts put a smile on my face. I was listening to a lot of Laura Nyro while putting together the retrospective discography that appeared in the September Review Magazine, and her distinctive voice sounds right through the Swifts, barely distinguishable from the excellent $6,000 loudspeakers I had been listening to just before. It was the same with other favorite ladies -- Emmylou Harris, Roseanne Cash, Chrissie
Hynde, Patti Smith. Clearly the characteristically clear mid and high frequencies were there. The dramatic bass extension and dynamic power I had heard about, however, were not. Given the Swifts' other fine qualities, the modest bass output didn't seem terribly deficient for $995 loudspeakers -- not much response below, say, 90Hz, but reasonably quick and tuneful.
No problem. Previous reviews have taught me that Meadowlark speakers take longer than most to break in. With the Blue Herons, after several weeks I began to think the bass would never develop fully... but it finally did, and the result was worth the wait. Wanting to accelerate the break-in cycle, I fed the Swifts a heavy diet of pounding rock and demanding orchestral music, including the Reference Recordings Bernstein and Respighi CDs and the Telarc SACD of the
1812 Overture. Bass and dynamics began to improve noticeably in just a couple of days, and after about 10 days I was truly astonished at how big these little speakers sound.
The fully broken in Swifts spectacularly exceed expectations with large-scale music, in terms of loudness, bass extension, dynamics and spatial resolution. Positioning them 8 feet apart and 8-9 feet from my listening seat, I experience a nice wide soundscape with good depth. Imaging is good, if not quite as three-dimensional as I hear from speakers at 6 to 10 times the price. Those qualities are even more pronounced with chamber, jazz and folk music. Their transient speed is especially notable on recordings such as the Vanguard SACD reissues of Manitas de Plata's dazzling flamenco guitar.
Adding It Up
Although the Swifts clearly perform beyond their price in audio checklist terms, the essence of the listening experience has less to do with those left-brain qualities and everything to do with enjoying the music. These jaunty little guys are musical pleasure givers, right-brain loudspeakers that take you past hi-fi and immerse you in the music. Over the years I have encountered much high-priced gear that failed to involve me in this way. It's hard to put a price on it, but I'm pretty sure that $995 is a small sum to pay for that achievement.
I began this article by mentioning deja vu. In closing, I'd like to return to that Art Dudley review of the original Meadowlark Kestrels from six years ago: "... they come from a company that's small in the good, we-love-what-we-do sense, not the obnoxious, whiny,
the-best-there-is sense. Thankfully. Recommended? You bet, I think these might actually be the greatest bargain in American hi-fi today."
Meadowlark Audio is bigger today, and Listener is gone. But Art's judgment is equally as valid today for the Swift as it was then for the Kestrel. I tip my metaphorical hat to Art Dudley for eight years of showing us how to write about audio with wit and good sense, and to Pat McGinty and his Meadowlark team for continuing to make loudspeakers that merit such praise.
Type: 2-way floorstanding loudspeaker
Bass: 5.5" Vifa woofer in front-ported "BASS-IC" transmission line alignment
Tweeter: 1" Vifa fabric-dome
Crossover: first-order (6dB/octave)
Frequency response: 35Hz to 22kHz
Impedance: 8 ohms
Dimensions: 7" x 9.5" x 36" (WxDxH)
Weight: 35 lbs.
Warranty: 5 years with return of owner registration card
Price: $995 in light ash, dark ash or black
Meadowlark Audio Inc.
800 Starbuck Avenue Suite A-103
Watertown, NY 13601
Voice: (315) 779-8875
Fax: (315) 779-8835