Acarian Alón IV loudspeaker Page 2
The speakers' "open" quality, which had impressed me in my initial WCES auditioning, was very much in evidence in my listening room; in this respect, the Alón IV reminded me of the better panel speakers. The dipole midrange is undoubtedly a contributor to this effect. Unlike most speakers that give you a high-definition soundstage, the Alón IVs didn't require the listener to sit in a head-in-a-vise position; in fact, a good semblance of a soundstage was evident off-center. Also, the Alón IVs didn't discriminate against the short or the tall; soundstage and tonal balance were preserved over a considerable vertical angle. (My usual listening position places my ears at a height of 38", well off the tweeter and midrange axes.)
Oh, yes, the tonal balance. JGH is right, of course. (Why else is he the one in whose ears we trust?) No speaker can be considered a high-fidelity device if its tonal balance is off. The Alón IV happens to be nearly neutral in this respect. First of all, it's a genuine full-range reproducer, with bass extension bettered only by some expensive dedicated subwoofers and by behemoths several times its size. In my room—which, remember, is only 14' by 16' by 71/2'—the 31.5Hz track of the second Stereophile Test CD was reproduced cleanly and, according to my trusty Radio Shack SPL meter, hardly down in level from the midrange; the 25Hz was there but down about 6dB (that's assuming that the meter is accurate in this part of the range); the 20Hz track was faint but still detectable.
Just for the fun of it, I dug out my old LP of Emerson, Lake, & Palmer (Cotillion SD 9040). "Tank" features a percussion solo culminating in a couple of bass notes apparently intended to send wimpy woofers to dusty death. The Alón IVs handled these with aplomb, shaking the room in the process. In fact, both the extension and the quality of the low end are among the Alón IV's strengths. Bass drum, timpani, string bass, and bass guitar had proper weight, without the slow, plodding quality that leads rhythm-and-pace fans to give up bass extension for bass quality. The Alón IV's bass was definitely not in the lean'n'mean Hales/Avalon tradition, nor was it over-rich or bloated, like...well, you know who you are.
I've always thought that my Quad/Cizek setup was among the better combinations involving subwoofers, but in its bass extension, tightness, and integration with the midbass, the Alón IV proved clearly superior. The transition from bass to midrange is difficult for any speaker to manage; many have a boost here, which gives over-prominence to instruments like string bass and makes baritones sound more like basses. Alternatively, a speaker may have a suckout in this area, leading to a lack of "fullness" in orchestral textures and making basses sound more like baritones. The Alón IV managed to avoid both of these errors. Playing the opening scene of La Bohème through these speakers, I could hear clearly that when Nicolai Ghiaurov and Rolando Panerai sing the same notes, one is a bass, the other a baritone. Characteristic timbres were maintained, giving me the sense that I was hearing a real singer rather than a synthesized one (footnote 3).
If the Alón IV had a weakness, it was in the area of the upper midrange/lower treble. It certainly wasn't bright in the usual sense (the extreme highs were extended but not overemphasized), and there was nothing annoying enough to be called hardness, aggressiveness, or glare. At times, however, voices and massed strings took on a somewhat "etched" quality, with sibilants more intrusive than ideal. Being used to the sound of original Quads driven by a zero-feedback tube amp, a combination that's extremely laid-back in this region, I had a difficult time deciding whether the Alón IV was: a) simply reproducing more accurately what was on the recordings, b) reproducing tendencies inherent in associated equipment, or c) exacerbating problems in source material and in associated equipment. Having lived with the speakers for a couple of months, and having sifted through the many variables that could be responsible for this effect, I've come to the conclusion that the answer is mostly, if not entirely, a) and b).
With state-of-the-art recordings, like the recent jazz releases from ViTaL (eg, Karen, ViTaL 009), there was little to criticize. With early digital and some less-than-pristine CD transfers (like, unfortunately, many of the original Broadway cast recordings I'm fond of), the results could be a bit relentless. Certainly, like any high-end audio device, the Alón IVs benefit from a careful choice of associated components. The PS UltraLink, which performed so well in the Quad-based system, proved less than ideally matched to the Alón IVs, the processor's forward tendency noted by RH (Vol.15 No.6) and acknowledged in my "Follow-Up" (Vol.15 No.9) more in evidence.
The McCormack Signature CD player proved a more favorable match, perhaps giving up the nth degree of detail, but producing an overall more relaxed sound. Similarly, the TARA Labs RSC speaker cable (you know, the one He uses), so wonderful with the Quads, sounded less so with the Alón IVs, lending a degree of emphasis to the upper midrange. Carl Marchisotto's set of tri-wire van den Hul MCD300 worked better, and I had very good results with the AudioQuest Sterling/Sterling 2/Midnight combo. Both the VTL Super Deluxe and Conrad-Johnson EV20 were a good match, the EV20 (review forthcoming) particularly effective in communicating the sense of space. Similarly, the speakers were well-driven by the VTL Deluxe 225s or the Bryston 7Bs; the VTLs had a little more midrange liquidity, but overall I have to give the nod to the Bryston 7Bs, used in the parallel (current) mode, for their extended and well-controlled bass, clean but not clinical upper frequencies, and precise focus. Costing nearly $10,000, the EV20/VTL 225 or the EV20/Bryston 7B are not typical of the equipment the Alón IV is likely to be combined with in the real world, but the speaker is certainly good enough to benefit from this level of associated equipment.
As a check on compatibility with somewhat less stellar electronics, I also used a Conrad-Johnson PV11/Aragon 4004 Mk.II pairing, which comes in at well under $4000. This proved to be quite a synergistic combination, giving up some ultimate transparency to their more expensive brethren, but sounded much more than just listenable. I also obtained good results driving the Aragon 4004 Mk.II directly from the variable outputs of the McCormack Signature CD player.
I've left for last discussion of one of the Alón IV's strong suits: dynamics. In audiophile circles, this term has taken on two meanings. First, there's dynamics in the sense of "dynamic range," or "How loud will it play?" (For cars, the analogous question would be "How fast does it go?") Well, with an amplifier that has enough juice (a criterion amply fulfilled by the amps I used), the Alón IV went very fast—er, loud, with little apparent strain. This is certainly no polite "audiophile" speaker; my ears gave out before the speakers did.
The second meaning of "dynamics" refers to a component's ability to follow the music's rapid moment-to-moment loudness variations, a characteristic akin to a car's responsiveness to variations in pressure on the gas pedal. Some speakers come alive only at high spls, just as some cars perform well only at highway speeds, feeling sluggish around town. Like my Acura Legend (it's a recent purchase, so you'll have to excuse the protracted automotive analogy), the Alón IV had plenty of torque throughout the range, sounding as dynamic at late-night-listening-with-the-lights-out levels as it did at headbanger levels. At low levels, the original Quads have a quickness that I haven't heard equaled by any non-electrostatic speaker, including the Alón IV, but, of course, electrostatics have limitations of their own—like expiring if asked to reproduce levels that wouldn't cause the Alón IV to work up a sweat.
To reach the top ranks in tennis, it's not enough to have a competent all-court game; the player must also have a "weapon"—a sizzling serve, powerful forehand, or lightning-quick volley. Similarly, to succeed in the competitive world of high-end audio, a speaker must not merely be competent in all the areas that audiophiles value; it must have a sonic weapon.
The Alón IV, in addition to well-balanced performance in all the traditional audiophile categories, has at least three such weapons. First, it's able to present a wide and deep soundstage, with individual images well-defined within the soundstage. Second, the speaker's ability to communicate the music's dynamics is first-rate, at high levels or low. Finally, bass response, the sonic attribute that's probably the most expensive to engineer into a loudspeaker, is as deep as it is tight.
Although analyzing a speaker's performance according to various specific criteria is useful, I believe that this approach must be supplemented by a more global, Gestalt evaluation. Never mind the tonal balance, bass extension, soundstaging, imaging, etc.—what overall impression does the speaker make?
To come up with this sort of holistic judgment, you have to almost deliberately put aside the attitude of critical analysis, allowing yourself to be affected by the music alone. When you go into a room where the speaker is playing, do you hear sounds obviously produced by an electro-mechanical device, or does it sound much like music played and sung by people (footnote 4)? Sometimes it even helps to be outside the listening room proper (see sidebar), to see how easily you can convince yourself that someone is playing music in the next room.
Whatever their departure from perfection—and I continue to suspect that the upper midrange/lower treble is an area where improvement is possible—I was repeatedly struck by the Alón IVs' essential "rightness." It was easy to imagine that Dick Hyman, or at least his computerized alter-ego, was playing Fats Waller on a Bösendorfer Reproducing Piano in my listening room. It need hardly be said—but I'll say it anyway—that, at $3400/pair, the Alón IV represents excellent value. Strongly recommended.
Footnote 3: More than once, I've had the experience of listening to a system playing a record I was familiar with, except that the singers didn't sound like themselves, Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau's distinctive voice sounding like a generic baritone.
Footnote 4: It's because of the inability to assess the degree of artificiality of the reproduced sound that I feel music produced by a synthesizer is not a good source for listening tests. Besides, I hate the sound of those things.