Audience ClairAudient 2+2 loudspeaker Page 2
Per Audience's instructions, I positioned the ClairAudient 2+2s in my shoebox-shaped room (23' 4" L by 10' 3" W by 9' 8" H). This put the speakers 64.5" from the front wall, 34.1" from the sidewalls, and toed in to point directly at the listening position, which was (again, per Audience) 64.5" from the wall behind it. Audience supplied a set of sturdy, sand-filled stands that put the center of each speaker 36" above the floorabout the height of my ears when I sit in my listening chair. (The stands were generic loaners, not custom-made or designed to mate with the 2+2s.) These positions were good starting points, but after a bit of experimentation I was able to achieve significantly better focus and imaging by moving the speakers another 6" away from the front wall. The bass radiators faced toward each other and I mostly auditioned the ClairAudients with the grilles in place.
Listening 1: Is it just me, or is something weird going on?
My first response to the ClairAudient 2+2 was a phrase that popped into my head, and was expressed aloud by a visiting, non-audiophile friend: Where did the rest of the music go? Admittedly, the speakers the 2+2s replaced in my system were the Wilson Sophia 2shonest-to-god full-range speakers that not only cost three times as much as the Audiences, but are some of the best speakers made at any price. But even setting that aside, there was something going on with the Audiences; they sounded fundamentally different from most speakers I've heard in my system, in a way that was, well, weird.
Beginning with the obvious: The 2+2 didn't have the Sophia 2's extension and powerno surprise there. In my room, I'd guess the 2+2s were pretty flat from 8090Hz up to about 1012kHz. Compared to the Wilson, the Audience sounded a bit warmer and more forwardagain, without the former's high-end air and deep-bass impactbut there was nothing about the 2+2's tonal balance that drew undue attention to it, and nothing weird about it. On the contrary, the 2+2 did a good job of balancing its high- and low-frequency rolloffs: the speaker sounded tonally correct, not bass-heavy or bright.
I also quickly compared the ClairAudients and the pair of Castle Severns I use in a smaller system. The Severn is a small, British-made, two-way floorstander that retailed for about $1500/pair a decade ago, and does a pretty good job of balancing all the critical sonic attributes. At this point I'd been listening to the ClairAudients for a while and had downgradedor maybe upgradedmy impression of them from "weird" to "just different," and this comparison helped me zero in on their unique character. The two models' tonal balances were similar, but the 2+2 sounded slightly warmer, with better extension and impact at the bottom end. The biggest difference between the Severn and ClairAudient, however, was in the inherent character of the sound between the frequency extremes, from the upper bass to the lower treble
The Audience's sound had a lazy feel that at first sounded flat and dull, but that I grew to think of as natural and unforced. In comparison, the Castle Severn felt busy, as if it had lot more going on. And with the Castles, it at first seemed as if images were smaller and more sharply bounded, and were more obviously layered from front to back of the soundstage. The Severn at first sounded quicker and more powerful, but it wasn'tit seemed to be working a lot harder to produce what was there. I often jotted down phrases like "more energy" when listening to the Castle Severns early on, but as time went on, the mental image conjured by the Severns was increasingly one of churning eddy currentsthe speakers seemed to be producing a lot of "sound and fury" to do what the ClairAudients did with a yawn.
I also compared the ClairAudient 2+2 with Harbeth's P3ESR minimonitor, which had so impressed John Atkinson in the August 2010 Stereophile. The two models were well balanced and sounded pretty similar in regard to vocal and instrumental timbres. With a lot of recordings, however, the Harbeth seemed to have a little more high-frequency energy and air. The ClairAudient, in contrast, seemed to go a bit lower, and sounded warmer and more harmonically rich throughout the midrange. I noted, for example, that David Qualey's guitar in his Soliloquy (CD, Windham Hill WHS C-1011) sounded bigger and more resonant with the 2+2s, brighter and crisper with the Harbeths. As with the Castles, however, the little Harbeths seemed to be working a lot harder than the 2+2s. Switching from the 2+2s to the Harbeths did several good things, but it always created a slight sense of tension and stress.
The conclusion I eventually reached was that the tension I felt with speakers other than the ClairAudient 2+2 arose from subtle distortions caused by the crossovers and dissimilar drivers. This shouldn't have been a huge revelation for me; after all, eliminating these distortions was Goal No.1 for the Audience design teamas well as Goals No.2 and No.3but it's significant for several reasons. Distortions created by a crossover and dissimilar drivers may be subtle, but they're insidious; we've gotten so used to hearing and accepting them that they now seem part of the music. When they're goneas they were with the ClairAudient 2+2sour first reaction is that something sounds weird. Switching from the 2+2s to the Harbeths evoked in me that mild but unmistakable feeling of stress, and that there was a level of churning within the music that wasn't there before. However, after only a few minutes of listening to the Harbeth P3ESRs, that churning would disappear into the music as (I suspect) my brain learned to listen around and through it. And at that point, the little P3ESR did exactly what JA said it did: It got out of the way of the music. (See my "Follow-Up" elsewhere in this issue.)
Listening 2: Maybe not so weird after all
Once I'd gotten used to the ClairAudient 2+2s' unusually relaxed presentation, I was quite taken with them. It was like taking off my glasses after reading a few pages, realizing that they're smudged, and cleaning them. I was hearing organic details in and being swept along by the music in an addictive way.