Acoustic Research AR 303 loudspeaker Page 2
One of the advantages of a sealed-box woofer loading compared with reflex is the slower rate of rolloff below the system resonance: 12dB/octave compared with 24dB/octave. With the response in a small room typically rising at 4dB or so per octave in the bottom two octaves due to boundary effects, a sealed-box speaker can have impressive bass extension for its size. The big-bottomed 303 does low bass better than any other $1200/pair loudspeaker I've heard. Whether it was classical pipe organ or the synth bass on Annie Lennox's new Medusa CD (Arista 25717-2)—check out the awesomely deep sub-bass sounds on her version of Neil Young's "Don't Let It Bring You Down"—there was a weight to the sound of bass lines that underpinned the music in a most satisfying manner. The combination of a relatively large enclosure—"bookshelf"? Yeah, right; maybe for André the Giant!—and a good 12" woofer is hard to beat. The warble tones on Stereophile's Test CD 3 descended to 32Hz at what seemed like full level, though with rather an exaggerated character through the mid- and upper bass.
And this was after quite a lot of experimentation with room placement to find the optimal balance between low-bass extension and upper-bass clarity. AR recommends putting the 303s near room boundaries, but I found that to exaggerate the already full bass balance to the point of unacceptability. Either AR expects its customers to be bass-heads or designer Ken Kantor is one. I ended up with the speakers about 1.5m from the wall behind them and well away from the side walls.
I noticed a lack of articulation in the 303's lower mids, however. In Blue Nile's "Downtown Lights," from the Annie Lennox album, is a nice harmonic twist in the verse after the first bridge: the bass drops to the relative minor at a cadence instead of the expected tonic. This song depends heavily on the bass line to define its harmonic progression, as the accompanying chords are based almost entirely on suspensions. Though this bass note's fundamental was reproduced at full level, the harmonics that help the ear determine pitch seemed obscured via the 303s compared, for example, with B&W Silver Signatures. This meant that, anticipating the usual tonic note, I didn't notice anything different about this verse from the others on the first couple of playings. Only when I went back to the B&Ws did I get this little harmonic nicety.
Higher in frequency, the AR 303 offered a smooth but mellow tonal balance—reflecting its "East-Coast" heritage, I guess. While not quite sounding too dull, the speaker's top octaves definitely sounded reticent. Although this usefully tamed the rather aggressive highs on the Annie Lennox CD, the already-rolled-off cymbals on Neil Young's new HDCD-encoded Mirror Ball CD (Reprise 45934-2) lost too much of their sparkle.
The 303's rich, warm balance was a definite plus with much classical orchestral music, however, a newly acquired 1974 quadraphonic LP of Copland conducting his own Appalachian Spring (Columbia Masterworks MQ 32736—just love those garage sales) benefiting greatly.
With the Conrad-Johnson tube amp, the highs were further plateau'd down, while with the single-ended Cary with its 4 ohm output impedance, there wasn't quite enough treble left to preserve the music's sense of life, as sweet, musical, and expansive as the midrange undoubtedly sounded. This suggests that the ARs are intended to be used with inexpensive solid-state electronics, which are generally far from reticent in the treble!
Other than the mellow balance and thickened upper bass and lower mids, the 303 seemed relatively uncolored. I wasn't made aware of any specific vowel-type colorations in the midrange, for example. And the treble was very clean—no noticeable grain or sibilance emphasis, and with good presentation of recorded detail.
Regarding soundstaging, the 303s didn't throw much image depth, even on recordings where this aspect seems otherwise quite immune from the slings and arrows of outrageous speaker fortune—the twittering-birds introduction to Andreas Vollenweider's Behind the Gardens—Behind the Wall—Under the Tree... CD (CBS MK 37793), for example. They did offer pretty tight lateral imaging precision, which was unexpected given the wide baffle.
The AR has good dynamics, going loud without any sense of strain. It definitely sounds a little slow, however—most probably a consequence of its low-frequency balance. The bass lines from the electric harp on the Vollenweider disc had a nice fat purr to their sound, but lagged a little in the get-up-'n'-boogie department.
I like old things. (Heck, at 47 I sometimes feel I am an old thing.) I generally like tube amps; I wear a 1939 analog watch; I play a 1964 Fender P-Bass; I drive a 1971 Mercedes-Benz sedan, designed around the same time as the AR-3a. As much as I love the vehicle—my wife calls it the "Titanic"—whenever I rent a modern car, the things my oldster lacks are thrown into sharp relief. Despite its superficial resemblance to the vintage AR-3a, however, the AR 303 is undoubtedly a modern speaker, with no subjective or objective failings that could be laid at the feet of its heritage—other than its dulled tonal balance.
I must admit that the 303's balance is not particularly to my taste, as I will always sacrifice 10 or 20Hz of bass extension to max out on low-frequency articulation. I also like more image depth and a less reticent HF. But I did enjoy my time with the AR 303, and for those bass-heads in love with the bottom octaves, the AR 303, at $1200/pair, offers the best bang for the buck. Be prepared to experiment with room position and stand height, however, if you want to get the best performance balance.
So, Ken Kantor—are you going to resurrect the MGC-1 next?