Dunlavy Audio Labs SC-I loudspeaker Page 2
While I was using the Dunlavys, I was experimenting with the Meridian remastering converter to determine the optimal treatment for our Concert recording. This takes in high-resolution digital data and redithers/noise-shapes it to preserve as much as possible of the midrange resolution in the 16-bit data words you can store on a CD or DAT. Auditioning the difference between, say, a 20-bit original piano recording truncated to 16 bits with the same original noise-shaped to 16 bits was not subtle over these speakers. Their high transparency and excellent image definition allowed me to hear quite clearly how the truncation—in effect, the bottom four bits of each digital word are just thrown away—diminished the size of the hall acoustic around the piano image and eliminated much of the "air" in the recorded sound. If more recording engineers used monitor speakers as accurate and revealing as the Dunlavy SC-Is, they wouldn't be so pedantic about bits being bits.
I was also comparing data-reduction systems during this time, for demonstrations to be included on our upcoming Test CD 3. Again, the differences between Sony's ATRAC, Philips's PASC, and the 240 kilobits/second/channel algorithm being proposed for laserdisc use by DTS were clearly audible over the SC-Is. A speaker like this is an essential reviewing tool.
The Dunlavy was very low in midrange coloration. The sounds of instruments were in general superbly naturally balanced and delightfully differentiated. Its presentation was rather forward-balanced, perhaps as a result of the lightweight low frequencies, but there were no nasal or vowel colorations added. However, when an instrument did have a good deal of treble energy in its character—the essential fizzy edge to brass instruments, the trumpets in the Mahler Symphony 1 mentioned earlier, for example—this was pushed forward in the stage to be a little in front of the rest of the instrument's tone. The sibilant edges to some voices were also slightly exaggerated, while tape hiss sounded a little whiter than I'm used to. The top two octaves, however, sounded very clean.
On the downside, the SC-I's ultimate loudness was limited by a hard edge to the upper midrange that crept in at around 95dB spl. This is actually quite loud in my listening room...but not quite loud enough for my baser desires. It also made the speaker somewhat intolerant of poor recordings.
An album that's been spending a lot of time in the No.31 recently is Sugar Blue's Blue Blazes (Alligator ALCD 4819)—check out the final track, "Out Till Dawn," for a study in controlled build-up of tension from the rhythm section. I've known a number of mouth-harp players in my time, and I just don't know how Mr. Blue, who guested on the Stones' "Miss You," does it. Blues players use diatonic instruments, one for each key, generally using an instrument a fourth higher than you'd expect to get the "blue" notes. Yet Sugar Blue's warp-speed runs, turns, glissandos, and riffs must mean he's using the staid old chromatic instrument. "How'd he do that?" asked everyone who heard the album in my system.
But I digress. The point I'm trying to make is that the sound of the harmonica on this recording is already so chromium-plated—Shure mikes are credited in the CD booklet—that you really don't need any more edge. Which means that as soon as you turn up the volume to get maximally high on the music, the SC-Is tell you to turn it down again. Okay, so the album still sounds great at the lower level—there are times when you need physical stimulation from your speakers, even from recordings that are ear-bleeders. And that the Dunlavys won't do, hitting that chrome-plated, lower-treble 95dB speed limit every time.
I had eagerly looked forward to Eric Clapton's From the Cradle "roots" album (Reprise 45735-2), only to discover that it, too, suffers from fizzed-up engineering. Why does everyone from Sugar Blue to EC himself like to sound as if they're using a cheesy, peaky-in-the-presence-region Shure Unidyne microphone? (On Cradle, EC even appears to want to use it on his guitar amp!) The residual hardness in the SC-I's sound made me want to turn down the volume on this album, though when I did so I could revel in the sense of live presence captured, and the foot-tapping sense of musical pace that the SC-Is allowed to come through unscathed. In this respect, the Dunlavys and Spica TC-60s are at almost opposite poles: though both are rather restricted in loudness, within that limitation the Spica is romantic but rather slow, the SC-I quick and clean.
One of the reasons I included the uncorrelated pink-noise track on Stereophile Test CD 2 (besides the hedonistic joy of relishing a sound that extends way beyond the speaker positions) was that it tends to throw speaker resonance problems into sharp relief. On dual-mono pink noise, the sound is well-localized midway between the speaker positions; with uncorrelated noise, the overall sound doesn't appear to come from anywhere. Speaker resonances and other anomalies, however, add a degree of apparent correlation that causes the noise to clump toward the center of the soundstage in some narrow frequency regions. With the SC-Is, there appeared to be some resonant behavior in both the upper midrange, as suspected when I was breaking the speakers in, and in the mid-treble, where a very narrow and low-level "whistle" could just be heard. I suspect that these problems, though undoubtedly minor, do tie in both with the residual hardness I noted at high playback levels, and the slight pushing forward of trumpet partials.
I suspect that the SC-I's bass balance is something that will divide its listeners into two groups. There will be those who fall in love with everything it does right, and who can live with the lightweight lower registers. Conversely, there will be those who can't live without enough low-frequency meat on the bone. Me, I'm somewhere toward the latter position. I love what the speaker does in terms of soundstaging, image palpability, and natural, uncolored balance; but I respect the Dunlavy's bass balance more than I like it. However, it does make the speaker ideal for use in a Home Theater system including a subwoofer or two to provide the music's foundation. In fact, Stereophile reviewer Robert Deutsch is using SC-Is with great success in this context.
The SC-I illustrated the danger of reviewing straight out of the box. Before break-in, its overdamped low-frequency balance sounded too lean to be acceptable. Even after 24 hours of formal break-in, its sonic character still seemed to be loosening up throughout the review process. (Perhaps DAL could institute the procedure practiced by Vandersteen and others, whereby a batch of SC-I woofers are hooked up in series to an AC wall socket and worked hard with the 60Hz sinewave before being mounted in enclosures.)
Once broken-in, the SC-Is excelled in several areas: imaging accuracy, soundstage palpability, lack of midrange coloration, and generally clean high frequencies. The speaker's intrinsically lightweight balance demands care in setup, room placement, and choice of matching ancillaries. I wouldn't, for example, want to hear these speakers driven by a typically bright-sounding cheap solid-state amplifier. But in the right circumstances and systems, the Dunlavy SC-Is will sound much better than they have any right to at the price. Before you buy expensive speakers, you owe it to yourself to audition these affordable Dunlavys. They could be just what you want.