Audio Artistry Beethoven loudspeaker system Page 3

This perennial problem is a little like peeling an artichoke. As you strip away successive layers of coloration and distortion, the taste becomes increasingly subtle and succulent, yet there always seems to be another layer to remove. I've no doubt that the same analogy will apply to future refinements in the art of speaker design, yet the amalgam of attributes resulting from the many choices embodied in the Beethoven constitute much more than an incremental step forward. Indeed, the overall results are so compelling that one can be forgiven for mistaking a wonderful late-night symphony heard through these speakers for the true heart of the vegetable!

I'll spare you a recitation of the list of virtues one should rightfully expect from any "statement" speaker worthy of the name. Rest assured that the Beethoven is extremely well balanced, from its awesome bass and superbly natural midrange to its extended, delicately transparent treble. Instead, I'll highlight those areas of sonic performance alluded to earlier, in which the Beethoven exceeds that of every other system I'm familiar with, in some instances by a wide margin.

A study in contrast: In addition to the many qualities carried over from the Dvorak, perhaps the most stunning hallmark of the Beethoven's sonic prowess was the complete effortlessness with which it conveyed the subtlest nuances, even in the midst of intensely dynamic, complex musical passages. Specifically, the timbral characteristics of and spatial relationships between instruments and/or voices were fully delineated, conveyed with often startling exuberance. Perceptions like the shimmering decay of a triangle were plainly evident, simultaneous with the climax of mass strings, brass, and timpani, all of which were, themselves, distinctly defined as individual instruments tying the many disparate threads of the music into a complete tapestry.

Above all, the discrete dynamic contrast of each instrument was clearly resolved, instead of the homogenizing effect commonly heard through otherwise excellent speakers when playing back complex music at high volumes. What often happens is that the masking effect of room interactions combines with extra tones generated by nonlinear distortion to "fill in" the transitions between expression and silence that give music so much of its life. Such compression of dynamic shading is, without doubt, one of the principal differences distinguishing typical playback from the real thing.

Most top-shelf speakers I've heard can, when played at moderate levels, convey wonderful resolution of detail and contrast so long as the music's ranges of dynamics and frequency are not too great. Put on some hard-driving rock or large-scale classical works with complex bass-rich content, however, and the perspective often collapses, becoming more congealed and indistinct from the midrange on down during dynamic peaks, even as the upper midrange and treble remain consistent. This striking difference between the relatively clear and well-proportioned presentation during less challenging passages, and the congestion of the music's very foundation during a climax, tends to truncate the full expression of a performance. It's a stark reminder that you're listening to a mere stereo.

The Beethoven didn't do this. Instead, its remarkable and concurrent reproduction of each instrument's unique dynamic range often conferred a profound musical experience. The essential character of the sound was maintained from top to bottom throughout dramatic changes in dynamics, regardless of the musical style. In the Doobie Brothers' recent live CD, Rockin' Down the Highway (Columbia/Legacy J2K 64996), such faint nuances as the mechanical sounds from the drummer's hi-hat pedal, and the delicate harmonic extension of the driving bass line, were as clear as a bell, even when the average volume level was raised to well over 103dB! For your hearing's sake, I caution against listening to any music at such sustained levels, but the Beethovens never seemed the least bit fazed while doing so. I'm sure it will come as a surprise to dipole fans that the Beethovens proved to be awesome rock'n'roll speakers. In a related effect, when I listened to cleanly recorded music at very high levels, the volume seemed almost normal, the texture remaining delicate and refined. After spending some time with this speaker, it became apparent that what frequently determines the perception of loudness and often passes for "slam" or "dynamic range" in more traditional designs is, in part, the limitations imposed by that system's inherent distortions.

Any well-made live recording demonstrated the Beethoven's synergy of superb contrast, natural tonal balance, and rhythmic drive. In Peter McGrath's new recording of the first Cello and Piano Concertos of Shostakovich (Audiofon CD-72060), the interplay between Valentina Lisitsa's vibrant piano and the tactile sensation of real trumpets and brass toward the end of the piano concerto was a total mind-bender through the Beethoven. The piano's tonal character and complex harmonic richness were spot-on down through its lowest registers, while, at the same time, the trumpet's pure, smooth tonality exploded into the bite and blare of that instrument in full voice.

Human vocals provided another excellent example of this speaker's resolution of subtle inflections amid larger dynamics. The swell of many voices heard in choral music will often generate loads of intermodulation distortion in a speaker, making it sound like one large sea of barely distinguishable singers. Playing one of Keith Johnson's excellent choral recordings of the Turtle Creek Chorale on Reference Recordings was a revelation through the Beethovens. From the most delicate passages to full-tilt crescendos with organ and orchestra, the characters of individual singers never lost focus or distinctness. Now that I can fully appreciate such expansive emotional swing from the sublime to the exalted, better choral recordings have become some of my favorite music.

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Audio Artistry
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Apex, NC 27502
(919) 319-1375
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