Altec Lansing Bias 550 active loudspeaker system Page 2
First, 2dB steps are too gross. Second, it is worse than unnecessary to have this kind of flexibility remote-controllable (presumably to equalize the system for each recording): it is positively a burden to try to make everything sound okay on a record-by-record basis. Far more useful would have been in-room, potentiometer-controlled overall setup to be performed by a dealer or factory technicianmuch as Dave Wilson does with his WAMMscombined with a remote-controlled Quad-like tilt control, and perhaps a bass boost or cut. That would be easy to use, and not burdensome.
The remote control also misses a bet in the way it handles volume and balance. Balance is only controllable through raising or lowering the volume of one channel at a time, which in turn requires a total of three button pushes (each button's label is only dimly visibleinvisible in reduced room lighting such as is typical for a relaxed late-night listening session). It is also possible when raising and lowering overall volume to throw off the system volume balance if the remote is not aimed precisely between the speakers (more than 10° off may affect only one channel). Another user-unfriendly touch is that you have to turn the speakers off with the remote if you want to be able to turn them on again with the remote. Yet many situations arise where it's easier to turn them off as you leave the room (using a logically situated switch on the back of the speakers), then turn them on when you sit down to play some music again. In frustration I ended up leaving them on continuously, which, I rationalized, would at least yield the best sound from their amplifiers (though in truth I could claim no observation of sound improvement from this move).
If those weren't enough strikes against Altec's remote, the receiving circuitry has some kind of logic which causes a delay in execution of the given command. For those used to the instant results from TV remotes, the immediate interpretation is that the remote isn't aimed correctly, which leads to frantic remote waving. Once you realize it's simply a delay, there's a similarly frustrating period where it seems the logic is out to trick you! If you hold down the relevant button until a change is registered, it keeps going beyond where you want (and with 2dB steps, this is not trivial); then, when you attempt to correct, it goes all the way back to where you started, or farther.
The redoubtable JGH, here for our "Recommended Components" writers' conference in February, was given the job of making the speaker sound good while we were sitting around talking. After ten minutes of cursing and swearing he gave up and set everything flatat which setting, by the way, the speaker was unlistenable. This is a man who believes in equalizers!
I've probably pummeled the remote too much. It's just frustrating, because I love remote controls, and would love this one if it gave me easy control over things I could usefully change (mute, volume, balance, tilt, polarity inversion, on/off). It doesn't.
Given the captive nature of the electronics, I had no way of evaluating their quality independent of the speaker system. Suffice it to say that I never detected clipping, even at very high volume levels, and that their current specs (48 amps/channel peak, total) would appear to be more than adequate.
The cone drivers all employ woven carbon fiber, for which no particular claims are made by Altec (at least in the "Preliminary Information" they provided to me), other than remarkably low distortion and the ability to play loud (eg, subwoofer distortion of 0.8% from 30500Hz at 90dB, which is remarkable). The dome tweeters are polyamide (a plastic), on which is deposited a thin layer of diamond. A similar procedure is carried out by Audax on some of their tweeters, with aluminum deposited instead, but Audax's chief speaker designer confided to me that it was basically a marketing move since the aluminum-coated dome behaved pretty much the same as the non-coated domeexcept that it was heavier, of course. Whether this is true in the case of the Altec's tweeter I do not know; none of their explanatory literature contained testimony as to the efficacy of diamond-coating.
It would appear that most attention has been focused on the cabinet. This actually consists of three cabinets housed within the 71"-tall overall enclosure. At the top and bottom of the loudspeaker are identical subwoofer cabinets containing 10" long-throw woofers. These cabinets are made of 1" particle board and isolated from the outer cabinet using "mechanical sponge rubber," to "virtually eliminate cabinet resonance." This, of course, it cannot do, since "virtually" all cabinets resonate. The overall level of transmitted sound was remarkably low, though I was interested to note that, in hands-on vibration sensing during a swept sinewave, the outer enclosure vibrated somewhat more than the front of the subwoofer cabinet itself. Apparently the sponge rubber works better at damping the interior cabinet than at preventing sound transfer to the outer enclosure. Still, it was an impressively vibration-free cabinet, especially considering how well it does when you play this speaker really loud (105dB and up).
The third cabinet in each speaker is very much like a conventional 4-way box loudspeaker, except that the midrange driver is moved from its "normal" position between bass and upper-midrange drivers to a position at the top of the array. The drivers are all rabetted, the front of the baffle presenting a smooth, diffraction-free surface (until the edge, which is sharp). Unfortunately, as pointed out above, the interior frame of the grille presents a sharp discontinuity (virtually a right angle) with the baffle front. The slight flare added to this frame member looks like a diffractive afterthought. Compare this to the $1100 Thiel CS1.2 I reviewed in January (as well as many other high-end speakers), where significant design and manufacturing attention is paid to a specific grille shape and thickness.
This center enclosure is mounted in the middle of the outer enclosure on a "specially designed" shaft which allows approximately ±15° of rotation. This is claimed by Altec to offer control over "imaging" (their quotes, not mine); it also significantly alters the diffractive behavior of the enclosure, at least if the grilles are off, as the edge of the internal cabinet intersects the edge of the outer cabinet at quite a different angle depending on the angle of rotation. Though the point is not keenly relevant, the center cabinet, in its rotated-inward position, makes the already cumbersome-looking speaker appear a bit more odd.
Sound QualitySpectral Balance
Here I must, as noted above, review two loudspeakers, though unfortunately the differences between them were not as great as I had hoped. The speakers, as delivered, displayed the grossest bass-heaviness I have ever heard outside of a CES. Were it not for the built-in availability of frequency alteration, a review would have been written on the spot, but with only a half-hour of listening since more could not be borne.
As it was, I struggled for several days to make the speaker sound right, immediately bottoming out the bass and subwoofer controls (6dB on each). This did not cure the bass-heaviness, leading JA to suggest that it wasn't a frequency-response problem but just a case of a too-high Q LF alignment resulting in too much driver hangover. It turned out that my mistake was too much reticence with the remote. For some reason, I was reluctant to both drop the lows and boost the midrange and highs. (For one thing, the picture of spectral imbalance given by the LEDs on the front control panel of each speaker was too disconcerting.) Once I'd gotten the midrange a full 12dB above the bass and subwoofers, it became possible to listen.
Even with this readjustment, I found no way to feel at ease with the 550s. To some extent this was due to an as-yet uncategorized anxiety: "fear of bass." Whether the cause was in the recording, the record player, or the CD player itself, anything with a tendency toward heaviness, or even convincing weightiness, became unpleasant. But that wasn't the only problem. In my equalizing frenzies I had found it necessary to drop the "mid-hi" and "hi" levels to 3 and 6dB (with respect to the midrangethey were still way above the bass and subwoofer levels), respectively. Still, no solution was entirely satisfactory. If the record sounded harsh, dropping these ranges could make the record sound dull, but not right. Only vocal presence and clarity came out well.
To say that this was a disappointing result from a $12,000 speaker systemparticularly one whose advertisements quoted our own JGH as saying "Awesome low end, extraordinarily smooth middles and highs, and remarkably good depth"would be an understatement. I was appalled; prepared to write it up as such, but appalled.
To make sure there wasn't something grossly wrong with my mood, source material, or general conditions, though, I went to an extreme: I measured the speaker. Gasp. It turned out that, on pink noise, my by-ear adjustment approach had yielded very nearly the flattest measured in-room sound possible. With the subwoofer and bass amplifiers 12dB below the midrange, pink noise showed about a 3dB lift below 80Hz, and a mild dip between 80 and 300Hz. With the system set flat, there was no way to get the entire frequency spectrum registering all at once on the magazine's AudioControl Industrial spectrum analyzer.
Right around this time I called Tommy Freadman, the 550's designer, to see if he could provide some background on the whys and wherefores that led Altec to make this product. As we chatted, he asked my opinion of the speaker, and I told himalong with the measurements. He immediately announced that there must be some mistake, and offered to stop in Santa Fe on his way to the 1989 WCES to see if the speakers were behaving correctly.
Normally we accommodate manufacturers who spontaneously wish to submit additional samples during the review process, but we don't encourage such "tweak to the reviewer's preference" behavior. In this case, though, there was room for exception. First, the speakers were so far out of any reasonable spec that some mistake in production was likely, though how it got out the door without even a rudimentary frequency-response check is beyond me. If Boston Acoustics can check every single pair of A40s, why can't Altec check a pair of $12,000 babies before shipping them all the way across the country?
Second, and a surprise to me since it isn't mentioned in the literature, any Bias 550 purchaser who experiences "listening room anomalies" is entitled to on-site factory technician adjustment of the speakers until he's happy! Not only that, if the 550s break any time during their 5-year warranty period, Altec will fly out a technician to fix them in your home. I'd like to see every $12,000 speaker offer that kind of service.
Mr. Freadman found that the review pair was a very early production-run sample, one of the first ten pairs produced. Whether due to their earliness, or to Mr. Freadman's absence from the factory when they were made, the person in charge of setting amplifier input sensitivities had completely botched the job. Not only were the subwoofer and bass amps off, so were all the others.
There is a way for a home user to make the input sensitivity adjustment, by removing the remote-control circuitry box at the front of the loudspeaker and diddling some potentiometers, but the speaker assemblers frustrated my efforts at doing this by covering the screws holding this box in with a very hard glue. As the screws were accessible only from inside the cabinet after removing the bass driver, and I was unwilling to exercise my auto mechanic's "get a bigger hammer" instinct on this $12,000 product, it was necessary for Mr. Freadman to make the trip.
One additional benefit was that now we would be sure that the speakers were absolutely factory-correct. An afternoon's work was all it took, and pink-noise measurements demonstrated an impressively flat response with only 2dB of rolloff to both subwoofer and tweeter amps.
The Second Pair
It didn't take too much listening to reveal that the Bias 550s couldn't be left at their flattest pink-noise settings. The same general problems existed, as noted above for the optimally adjusted "first" pair, but to a lesser degree. The difference was that now I had much more range to my adjustments, though I was a bit reluctant to use them, knowing how un-flat any measurements would come out. Still, I was determined to actually spend time listening to this product, and it was impossible without significant alteration from "flat."
After much experimentation, the least objectionable settings gave a 8dB difference between subwoofer and midrange, 2dB for bass, 2dB for mid-hi, and 4dB for hi. These latter two varied depending on the recording: departures from well-recorded classical material required greater treble cut, though at the expense of a certain vocal deadness. I tried to use more subwoofer, but again encountered Fear of Bass. (If I needed 8dB in the corrected version, you can imagine what the as-delivered pair sounded like flat with their inherent +12dB boost. 20dB of extra bass below 80Hz is something else!)