The Fifth Element #45 Page 2

The wood these cabinets are made from is about 150 years old. The trees were at least 100 years old when they were felled to make large whisky barrels. I was unable to find out how large the barrels were, but judging from the Japanese website, they may be 125 gallons or more. Nor could I discover any prices for barrels of that size, but a new European oak wine barrel half that size costs about $600. Each retired barrel is said to make one pair of speakers. (I think, though, that something has been lost in translation; Pioneer apparently also makes a larger Pure Malt Speaker, not sold in the US. I'd think that there should be more wood to be salvaged from one whisky barrel than would be needed for a pair of these speakers.)

After being made into barrels, the 100-year-old oak did three 15-year stints aging Japanese whisky before the whisky was bottled. In order to increase the uptake of oak tannins into the whisky (which, when distilled, is clear), the interiors of oak barrels are "fired," or charred. (The same is done for some wine barrels, but usually not to the same extent.)

To use the oak in speaker cabinets, the barrels were disassembled, and the wood soaked in hot water and pressed to reduce the curvature of the staves. The staves were then planed to remove the charred inner surface and to true the sides and edges. The result is a very dense, finely grained speaker cabinet. The finish is in a light rather than natural oak shade, and has a very fine feel. The rear panel carries what appears to be a burned-in "brand" mark.

I still had on hand the lovely Filarmona integrated amplifier from Ars-Sonum, and used that for all my listening with the Pure Malts, which broke in for more than 50 hours before I did any serious listening. Just to be sadistic, for some of the break-in period I used the Repeat button to play Winfried Bˆnig's wonderfully varied recital on the fabulous Orgelbau Klais organs at Kˆln Cathedral (Motette CD 12191), which feature a resultant 64' "Voice of the Whale" stop, the low C of which is pitched at about 16Hz, with a wavelength of about 70'. The Pure Malt's 4" "woofer" tried its best, I'm sure. Snort.

Which brings up the fundamental limitation of this charming little speaker. It can make very pleasant, engaging sounds with pop music, most rock, and some jazz. But because the Pure Malt is even more limited in the bass than the LS3/5a and its descendants, it just didn't cut it for classical music with lots of dynamics or deep bass. Your options are therefore to live within its limitations or add a subwoofer.

Apart from that, I thought the Pure Malts sounded just fine. Their excellent imaging was a strong point. Directly compared to the five-times-more-expensive Verity Audio Rienzi Monitors, the Pure Malts were a tad veiled through the midrange and treble, and not as smooth in the upper treble. No surprises there.

But I don't really see the Pure Malt as the center of someone's sole serious stereo, anyway. Anyone whose speaker budget is under $1000 will be better off buying something with a less fascinating story to tell but bigger woofers, such as the Usher V-601 ($700/pair). The V-601's 7" woofer has 306% more frontal displacement than the Pure Malt's nominal 4". That will make a substantial difference in bass extension—though not, I hasten to point out, a 300% difference. Given the logarithmic nature of musical frequencies, it's probably something more like half an octave: four whole notes.

The other side of the coin is that I can imagine people for whom these speakers will be gotta-haves. When you consider the work that went into the solid-wood cabinets, the surprise isn't that the Pure Malts cost $600/pair, but that they don't cost more. The cabinets are obviously superior in design and construction to some sonically more ambitious but more utilitarian-looking speakers costing twice as much and more.

The Pure Malts would look great in a bedroom, office, study, den, kitchen, or vacation home. Buy a well-preserved, blue-dial Marantz receiver on eBay and an inexpensive universal disc player, and you're in business for probably under $1000. If Pioneer would only make a two-way speaker from Chardonnay or Ch‚teauneuf-du-Pape barrels, and with a 6.5" woofer, I'd sign up.

To sum up: Pros: fascinating story; looks; handcraftsmanship; exclusivity; agreeable sound. Cons: expensive for driver complement and cabinet size; limited bass extension. Conclusion: If the definition of a good gift is something the recipient would not buy for him- or herself, the Pioneer Pure Malt Speakers are probably a great gift for a certain someone.

Anna Netrebko's Russian Album
A friend gave me a CDR of a legal download of Anna Netrebko's Russian Album (Deutsche Grammophon 815 302), and I was hooked. Her radiant voice, to my ears, is less that of a Grande Dame and more that of the girl next door who happens to be a world-class opera singer. And what a life story: She cleaned floors at the Mariinsky Theater before she ever sang there. Her website (www.annanetrebko.com) has lots of photos; I particularly love the ones in which she's wearing a Russian Special Forces parka and is fooling around first with a machine pistol, then a grenade launcher on an AK-47. My kinda girl.

The repertoire of songs and arias by Russian composers from Glinka to Prokofiev fits Netrebko like a glove. The high note she softly floats in Rachmaninoff's song "Zdes' khoroso" (How Beautiful It Is Here) makes you want to capture it in a jar. A great gift, even for people who don't usually listen to opera or lieder. If my endorsement isn't enough to persuade you, there are sound clips and a making-of video on www.deutschegrammophon.com.

Holy Music, Batman!
Compline (pronounced COM-plin) is the last of the "hours" of the ancient monastic day of Western Christianity. The Compline liturgy is quiet, contemplative, and introspective, as befits prayer at the transition between day and night and before sleep. Outside of monastic communities, the tradition lives on, somewhat modified, in Anglican Evensong.

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