Dynaudio Confidence C1 loudspeaker Jim Austin, August 2008
Love is a lot to expect from a new relationship, especially when it's with a partner made of wood and rubber. But, jokes about "big racks" and Elliot Spitzer aside, true love is what most of us are seeking when we lay down our money for something expensive and potentially gratifyinglike a new pair of speakers. I'm a happily married and a dad, but on the audio side, I'm on the prowl and looking for love.
I have found that in audio, as in other aspects of life, love is hard to come by.
Highfalutin audio dealers are notorious for playing hard to get, which makes their products pretty inaccessible. Unless you dress like money, or they remember you from the good times you've shared, some dealers won't give you the time of day, let alone let you have a smooch. Even harder is finding a dealer who'll let you take his expensive merchandise home for a free trial, packed in the back of a '96 Jetta with a leaky trunk. In a human relationship, you can try before you buy. That's not so easy in audio.
"But you're a Stereophile reviewer!" I hear some of you saying, or imagine I do. "You can listen to anything you like."
Not so. In contrast, apparently, to some other magazines, editor John Atkinson doesn't allow his writers to use their positions to collect expensive gear via long-term "trials." With few exceptions, if you want to give something a spin, you have to put in the work of reviewing it. And believe me, it's work. Capt. JA's tight ship inspires admiration in his crewand it should inspire loyalty from Stereophile's readers, in my opinionbut, like most types of discipline, this one can be annoying. What fun is being a Stereophile contributor if you can't play with lots of expensive audiophile toys whenever you want to?
There's an obvious, if imperfect, solution, one that's not available to most audiophiles: If I want to hear a piece of equipment at home, I agree to review it. It's not a perfect solutionit's hard work, as I've saidbut I get to have the experience, and it pays a little. "And," as Ishmael says in "Loomings," that amazing first chapter of Melville's Moby-Dick, "there is all the difference in the world between paying and being paid." (If you've never read Moby-Dick, just read Chapter I, then continue only if you want to.)
Time to audition my first potential mateor pair of mates (twins!): Dynaudio's Confidence C1 loudspeaker, which Wes Phillips reviewed in full in the November 2007 Stereophile (Vol.30 No.11, footnote 1).
The C1 is an odd bird in some ways. At $7000/pair (with stands or with a premium finish), it isn't the most expensive smallish stand-mount speaker on the market by a stretch, but that's still a lot to pay for a "bookshelf" modelespecially one that's rear-ported, and whose odd shape won't fit on many bookshelves. In a world of +100-lb speakers, the 24 lb C1 does poorly on the price-per-pound test. Keeping with the analogy I began this article with, a slim figure is not necessarily a bad thing. But since mass often is equated with cabinet rigidity, it's a little surprising that such an expensive speaker weighs so little.
But how does it sound?
If you were feeling generous, you might say that my reviewing methodology is still evolving. My current approach: I install a new component (ideally in a well-known system, but see below), sit between the speakers, and listen hard. If I'm reviewing speakers, I play with their positions. I do this for days, maybe weeks, and learn little.
Then, I'll be in the kitchen of our open-plan condo, which is adjacent to the listening space (it's not a bad listening position), slicing garlic and half listening, when I hear something important. With the C1, the moment came during Geirr Tveitt's A Hundred Hardanger Tunes, Op.151, Suites 1 and 4, with the Royal Scottish National Orchestra conducted by Bjarte Engeset (CD, Naxos 8.555078). Sometime during track 3 (modestly dubbed, in Finnish, Fagrate viso pao Jor, or The Most Beautiful Song on Earth). At that moment I learned two things about the C1: That it was capable of startlingly realistic portrayals of complex orchestral passagesthe orchestra really sounded realand that, in my room, its treble was a little suppressed.
Once I'd heard it, this last characteristic was apparent from a better listening position. Adjusting the speaker positions and toe-ins and listening in the nearfield mitigated the effect. If, as many of us do, you listen to a lot of overbright pop recordings, this could be a virtue. And if you listen mostly in the nearfield, you'll experience a frequency balance that's very close to natural.
That Tveitt-induced epiphany was not the end of my listening. In subsequent weeks I learned that, for a relatively small stand-mount speaker whose woofer measures only 6.6", the C1 could go down low: I got what sounded like near-full-range performance. To test this, I made some in-room measurements using SMUGSoftware's FuzzMeasure 2.0 program, my Apple MacBook, a Shure measurement mike, and a FireWire audio interface. In a couple of the listening positions I prefer in my room (about 3' from the back wall; about 3' toward the back wall from the room's center point), the C1s were down 3dB at 24Hz. That's remarkable bass performance from a modest-sized driver in a small box (footnote 2).
These measurementsand most of my listeningwere done with the speakers driven by Halcro's Logic MC20 switching amplifier, which Art Dudley reviewed in the April 2006 issue (footnote 3). But I was reluctant to base my review of the C1 on its performance with a new, unfamiliar, high-tech amp. So, having nothing else in the house, and having failed to borrow anything through Stereophile channels, I turned to Bryan, a friend and one of only a handful of audiophiles I know of who are based in Portland, Maine.5 Knowing that he was going to be away for a while, Bryan loaned me his two very different sets of monoblocks, each a classic in its own way.
First was a pair of modified Audio Research VTM120SE monoblocks, his babies, with Black Gate capacitors, and who knows what else, running KT88 tubes. These amps have been tweaked to suit the tastes of an audiophile who favors warmth and liquidity over high-end sparkle, so it's not surprising that they exaggerated the sense of a rolled-off high end that I'd first noticed with the Halcros. At the same time, transients were softened, and female vocalsI'm thinking of Patricia Barber's Companion (CD, Premonition/Blue Note 5 22963)took on an exaggerated harmonic edge. Despite the obvious colorations, the combination sounded great.
Brian also loaned me what might be the original "kilowatt" audio amps, the Eagle 400i (high-current edition) from Electron Kinetics (footnote 4). The Eagles offered plenty of slam, as you'd expect, but an even more polite top end. Of the three amps I tried, the Halcro switching amps I began with matched up best with the Dynaudios.
The verdict? They're moving out, but please don't hold it against them. The Dynaudio Confidence C1 has many virtues and few vices. It's an outstanding speaker, and in some ways remarkable. I could live with the pair of them forever. Perhaps I could even learn to love them. But I'm not inclined to try. There's no accounting for love, or its absence, but I'll make an attempt.
Doing this review helped me realize what I want in a loudspeaker, and the Confidence C1 just isn't it. I want my string quartets presented immaculately, with pristine puritybut I also want my speakers to get seriously raunchy if I feed 'em right. I want deep groaning and screeching and passionate abandon. A speaker that can do that can move some serious airbut the C1, with its modest driver complement and small size, never had a chance. That's the great thing about living together: no long-term commitments.
Got an idea for a speaker that might better meet my needs? Drop me a line at TheOtherJA@gmail.com and I'll see if I can arrange an audition.Jim Austin
Footnote 1: According to the measurements, the bass went a little deeper in my room than it did in Wes's. Otherwise, my in-room measurements closely resembled in his. Like the measurements made in Wes's room, mine showed that the treble shelved down above the crossover frequency of 1800Hz, though in my room the effect was less pronounced. In my room as in Wes's, the in-room response fell off quickly above 10kHz.
Footnote 2: Art's review is worth reading for the clearest explanation I've ever seen of how a switching amp operates.
Footnote 3: Despite Portland's being the home to Bob Ludwig's Gateway Mastering Studios and, reportedly, the birthplace of Ken Kessler, it's a hi-fi desert up here.
Footnote 4: J. Gordon Holt had a similar pair for a while in the mid-1980s and seemed to enjoy them, though I'm not sure I ever saw a review where there wasn't another amp he liked better.