The Fifth Element #35 Page 2
The other different-drummer design approach McCaughan consistently has used in his designs is to place a second, side-firing tweeter in the middle of the outer side panel of each speaker, wired out of phase to and about 9dB lower in level than the front-panel tweeter. I surmise that this is intended to compensate for the main tweeter's being off-axis to the listening position. The dual binding posts are pure copper; McCaughan expects the Concert Grand to be biwired, and so provides no jumper facilities.
The current version, the SI, incorporates enough significant engineering changes that it's fair to call it a complete redesign, even though its essential sound bears a strong family resemblance to the previous incarnation. The biggest changes are that the Concert Grand SI now employs isobaric loading for the woofers and compound loading for the midrange drivers, which fairly doubles the driver count and expense. Importer Mike Verretto told me that the raw drivers for a pair of Concert Grand SIs cost about $5000. Seeing as one pair has eight bass drivers, eight midranges, and four tweeters, all top-shelf models from the best European manufacturers, I find this quite believable.
Also, isobaric loading calls for a much more complicated, expensive, and heavy cabinet structure, with separate sealed subchambers for each isobaric woofer pair and venting for the compound midranges. Each Concert Grand SI weighs about 330 lbs. By industry norms and in comparison with their competition, the Concert Grand SI's construction specifics do line up with its list price of $40,000/pair.
However, if there are people who buy speakers based on parts cost, bulk, or any factor other than how they play the music one actually listens to, they have not taken my advice in previous columns to heart. To best tell you how the Concert Grand sounds, I want to tell you how one of the 20th century's greatest jazz musicians gave the speaker's impressive musical naturalness an unwitting endorsement.
At Stereophile's 1996 High-End Hi-Fi Show, at the Waldorf=Astoria in New York City, in order to promote new releases on my label John Marks Records, I arranged with ESP to hold a demonstration and press reception in their exhibit room on the show's Press Day. Arturo Delmoni was to play, live, one solo part of J.S. Bach's Concerto for Two Violins. The other solo part (Arturo again) and the continuo reduction, having previously been recorded by Jerry Bruck, were to be played back via Nagra and Conrad-Johnson electronics, the ESP Concert Grands, etc. The plan was to present a "Music Minus One" live demonstration for invited members of the press, then pour some champagne and socialize.
Earlier in the day, Stereophile writer Lonnie Brownell had asked me whether he could bring to the event a couple of nonjournalist friends he was showing around the Show. I imagine my eyes grew quite a bit larger when Lonnie's friends turned out to be drummer Max Roach and pianist Tommy Flanagan.
Trumpeter Clifford Brown has always been a near-mythic figure for me. (I wanted to name our son Clifford, but that was vetoed.) To shake hands with someone who, apart from his own achievements, had worked with Brown, was a very special moment. Since that time, I have learned that Roach's impulsive gesture of stuffing a couple of hundred-dollar bills into the pocket of a strung-out Miles Davis was the spur that shamed Davis into getting clean, with all the resultant music we have to be grateful for.
Roach and Flanagan were on time, which for this kind of thing means early, so I sat them in the front row, then felt like a totally inadequate idiot as I tried to make small talk. The room eventually filled and the demo began. Arturo worked his customary magic, and time stood still.
All too soon, the music was over. We poured champagne, and it was my pleasure to bring glasses to Roach and Flanagan, who looked quite pleased with the proceedings. They then wandered into another room in the suite, as did most people.
Jerry Bruck and I also had with us a master-tape clone of cellist Nathaniel Rosen's not-yet-released CD Reverie. We put that on the Nagra and began playing Richard Strauss's "Morgen," sung by soprano Kaaren Erickson. Moments later, Max Roach walked back into the demo room, looked around in surprise, chuckled, and said a bit sheepishly that he had come back in "to hear the young lady sing." He thought a live soprano was next on the program. A priceless memory.
So, music lovers, there you have it. The previous version of ESP's Concert Grand fooled Max Roach into thinking a live soprano was in the next room. The new speaker is, according to its designer, better in nearly every way. How much more can I say?
Nuts and bolts and pucks
The ESP Concert Grand SIs were to be the most ambitious speakers I had yet had in my rather oddly shaped listening room, and I wanted to ensure that they got a fair shake. The first step was to ask Richard Rives Bird, of Rives Audio, if he could take a look at the speaker positions of my proposed room setup. I had made a modest number of acoustical improvements over the years, primarily RPG Skylines on the ceiling, and homemade and improvised absorbers in a problem corner and on a large flat wall. Bird is apparently incapable of doing things by half-measures, and he responded with the room plan reproduced elsewhere in this article.
I was gratified to see that Bird's suggested speaker positions were within a couple of inches left to right, and within 6" front to back, of where I'd placed the SIs. ESP distributor Mike Verretto flew in to check the room setup, and (I think it's fair to say) whether my fave-rave darTZeel NHB-108 Model One power amp could drive the moderately demanding Concert Grands (90dB sensitivity, 6 ohms nominal impedance). In the event, the darTZeel favorably impressed him; he asked only that the listening couch be moved about 16" closer to the speakers (footnote 4). This verged on nearfield listening and seemed counterintuitive to me, but it did tighten up the stereo imaging, which John Atkinson, during his visit, praised as "rock-solid."
My room is a strange Victorian combination of turret at one end and open-plan at the other. I have never really had any problems with bass stackup or hangover. Even so, Richard Rives Bird wanted me to add bass trapping, so Ethan Winer of RealTraps not only sent eight Mondo Traps (four plain, four on stands), he also drove over from Connecticut to tweak the setup. The Mondo Trap is a great, fully thought-out product made to a very high standard, and the Ivory color choice is as close to Benjamin Moore's "Linen White" wall paint as one could ask for.
I was reluctant to install the rather huge brass spikes which accompany each 300-lb Concert Grand—after all, it is my landlord and not I who owns the antique parquet floor underneath. Furthermore, the best sound was obtained by rotating the area rug about 90° and getting it out from under the speakers and electronics. Peter Bizlewicz of Symposium Acoustics sent two Ultra Shelves and two sets of Rollerblock Juniors, and they solved the coupling problem. These products worked precisely as advertised in preventing the surrounding floor from feeding energy back to the speakers (discernible by placing one hand on the floor and the other on the Symposium Shelf).
Sean McCaughan much prefers a poured concrete slab to a suspended floor, believing that the latter robs the bass of energy. But here in New England, full basements are the rule. Between not having a concrete floor, not using the supplied spikes, having the speakers farther into the room than was ideal for best bass response, and having a large opening into the next room, I'm sure the bass response I obtained was not the deepest the Concert Grand SI was capable of. But the positive side was that the bass was full, tight, and tuneful, with no hangover or tubbiness. Judging by one of my own organ recordings, the Concert Grand SIs, in my particular room, and with a 100Wpc amplifier, began rolling off in the bass at around 37Hz. I believe this reflects a conscious design choice of bass quality over bass quantity, and I not only respect it, I agree with it.
The Concert Grand's glory was its arrestingly coherent midrange, seductive and beguiling in its tonal richness. Time and again I would return to well-recorded vocal and choral tracks, especially JA's recording of Cantus singing Morten Lauridsen's O Magnum Mysterium, from Comfort and Joy: Volume One. There was a full measure of detail—the SI's powers of resolution were extraordinary—but zero listener fatigue. Mike Verretto and I listened for about seven hours and felt none the worse for wear.
The Concert Grand's treble was on the sweetly refined rather than assertive side—I never heard the auxiliary tweeters as such. A subtle rolloff in the top octave had the effect of flattering some recordings that are overbright in the treble, such as the Japanese Mastersound CD edition of Miles Davis and Gil Evans' Porgy and Bess. I'm probably more sensitive to artificially sharp treble than I am to euphonically tailored treble, and this is one area where I imagine opinions will diverge most about the Concert Grand SI. But no sane person will spend $40,000 on a pair of loudspeakers without paying adequate attention to room acoustics, right?
The digital front end was EMM Labs' extraordinary combination of CDSD CD transport and DCC2 DAC-linestage. Interconnects and speaker cables were by Concert Fidelity (of Japan), a line also handled by ESP distributor Mike Verretto. A Custom Power Cord Company power block and AC cords performed their usual magic in lowering the noise floor and enhancing definition. In addition to the darTZeel NHB-108 Model One amplifier, I had the use of Plinius SA-Reference and Manley 250 monoblocks.
Each amplifier demonstrated a different cardinal audio virtue or two. The Plinius offered razor-sharp images and the deepest bass. The Manley excelled at timbral lusciousness and layered soundstage depth. The darTZeel was the most tonally true, and had the lowest noise floor. All of these amps are essentially at the same very high level of quality; a preference for one is likely to be just that, taking into account room acoustics and system synergy.
The darTZeel amp, EMM digital, Concert Fidelity cables, and ESP Concert Grands made up perhaps the most timbrally true large system I have ever heard, including at mastering facilities. Remastering maven Steve Hoffman, whose DCC 24-kt gold CD remastering of Joni Mitchell's Court and Spark deserves some sort of "Silk Purse" award, uses the Concert Grand's smaller sibling, the Bodhran SE ($16,000/pair), in his reference system. If the Concert Grand SI is out of your budget range (it surely is out of mine), perhaps the Bodhran SE can meet your needs.
To sum up my thoughts about the ESP Concert Grand SI: Pros: seductive coherence and addictive musicality made for fatigue-free, eminently rewarding listening. Cons: pricey, with worthy competition in the same price tier; lacking lowest bass; setup is critical. Conclusion: a classic and a keeper that belongs in Stereophile's "Recommended Components," under "Class A: Restricted Extreme LF."
Footnote 4: I'm usually reluctant to let manufacturers or distributors get that involved in the review process, out of conviction that reviewers should not get any setup treatment that the everyday customer wouldn't, and out of concern that a disgruntled sort might be tempted to talk such trash as "Worst room I've ever been in." However, the $40,000 price of a pair of Concert Grand SIs does include designer-builder Sean McCaughan's flying in from Europe to set them up and give advice about room treatment and associated equipment, anywhere in the world.