Legacy Audio Whisper loudspeaker Page 2
Playing "Deeper Well," from Emmylou Harris' Spyboy (CD, Eminent 25001-2), at a convincing level showed the Whisper's abilities down low. Daryl Johnson's rumbling bass pedals and five-string bass guitar had impressive physical presence. On Stanley Clarke's "I'm Home Africa," from East River Drive (CD, Epic EK 47489), the kick drum and James Earl's wall-rattling five-string bass, which I've heard smear into each other through some speakers, remained wholly distinct and clearly separate in space at all times. The punch and polyrhythmic drive of "Lady," from Hugh Masekela's Hope (CD, Triloka 85215-2), was a delight, with nary a detail of the complexity obscured.
No two ways about it, the Whisper did not play as deeply or quite as powerfully as does the MAXX 2—and neither does any other speaker I've heard. But in terms of overall bass quality, things were a lot closer. Both speakers offered bass with exceptionally precise pitch definition, transient response, and timbral resolution. Both had exceptional authority and command in the upper bass and midbass, and laid impeccably solid foundations for the sonic edifices they were capable of raising.
The Whisper's midrange presentation consistently struck me as one of the most even and balanced I've heard. It presented voices with a genuine humanness stripped of any hint of electromechanical character. k.d. lang's impossibly gorgeous voice on "Constant Craving," from Ingènue (German LP, Sire 26840-1), has always raised the hair on the back of my neck—you can't learn how to sing like that, you're either born with the gift or you're not—and the Whisper did everything but transport her into my listening room. The sense of presence and reality of David Bowie's voice on "Putting Out Fires (Theme from Cat People)" (UK 12" single, Backstreet/MCA MCAT770) was quite extraordinary. Sia Furler and Sophie Barker's ravishingly sexy harmonies on Zero Seven's "Destiny," from Simple Things (CD, Quango/Palm QMG 5007-2), floated deliciously out into my room, silky and inviting. The Legacy did plush and smoochy notably well on "Wicked Game," from Chris Isaak's Heart Shaped World (LP, Reprise 25837-1), but performed with just as much panache on the spiky and angular "Ballet" from Yellow Magic Orchestra's BGM (LP, A&M SP-4853).
The big Legacy also excelled with the natural timbres of unamplified music. The legendarily luscious-sounding Clair de Lune, a collection of especially scrumptious bonbons performed by Raymond Agoult and the London Proms Orchestra (LP, RCA Living Stereo/Classic LSC-2326), fully lived up to expectations. The solo violin in Massenet's Meditation from Thaïs was presented elegantly and sweetly, and the woodwinds prominent in Elgar's Dream Children, from the same LP, were fully developed in their harmonics and timbral individuality. Massed strings had a gorgeous sheen together with an excellent balance of wood and rosin. This was particularly manifest on Rudolf Werthen and I Fiamminghi's recording of Alan Hovhaness' Symphony 6, Celestial Gate (CD, Telarc CD-80392), which is very much an exercise in musical beauty for its own sake. (It doesn't hurt that it was recorded by Jack Renner and Tony Faulkner.) Pizzicato strings had an uncommonly lifelike quality. The Whisper's midrange was about as good as it gets.
The Whisper's treble balance fell somewhere between those of the slightly mellow Wilson MAXX 2 and the flat-to-infinity extension of the Focal-JMlab Nova Utopia Be. It was fast and detailed, with air and extension in full measures, as one might expect from a ribbon. The top octave was slightly more forward than the mids and lower treble, but the effect was hardly excessive, especially when the speakers were toed in so that the axes of the ribbons crossed in front of the listening position. Even treble-heavy music, such as George Malcolm's performance on harpsichord of Bach's Chromatic Fantasia and Fugue, had a fine balance and never sounded harsh or steely. Bad recordings were never made more unpleasant than necessary; the good and the great sounded as they should. The speaker's treble had one odd but pleasant trait: When optimally set up, the Whisper placed the background noise of LPs to the farthest lateral fringes of the soundstage.
While timbral realism is necessary in a statement-level speaker system, it does not, by itself, feed the bulldog. Once cost rises into the multiple tens of thousands, a speaker must be able to play large-scale music with authority and without strain. The Whisper did the job with distinction. "Stimela," from Hugh Masekela's Hope, is a classic demonstration piece at audio shows for a reason: it has whipcrack, extremely broad dynamic contrasts across the entire audible range. The Whisper was able to track these like a bloodhound, never sounding the least bit ruffled. Even the "annihilation mix" of Frankie Goes to Hollywood's "Two Tribes" (UK 12" single, ZTT 12 ZTAS 3), which is more dynamically extreme than the Masekela track, didn't faze the big Legacy (footnote 1).
Part of this is simple physics: With eight drive-units in each cabinet operating below 3kHz, no single unit is being asked to work very hard to move large amounts of air. This led to an enhanced and inviting sense of ease. When I'd perform the occasional random check of sound-pressure level with my trusty old RadioShack meter, I was always surprised by how loudly the speakers were actually playing. The Whisper coasted along easily at peaks of 94–100dB with no sense of coming anywhere near its limits. Whatever those limits are, they're well beyond my tolerance.
Nor did the Whisper lose the little things that make music jump to life. Mark Knopfler's concluding guitar solo in "Sultans of Swing," from Dire Straits' eponymous debut album (Japanese LP, Vertigo RJ-7541), packs more dynamic shading, variety of attack, and tiny details into less space than exists in many entire songs. The Whisper made it all sing, catching every nuance. Minor variations in the way cymbals were struck were consistently audible, always snugly knit into the whole of the music. Whether bombastic or refined and restrained, the Legacy consistently brought the music home easily and smoothly.
Resolution is also a part of the brief for a statement-level product. Hall sounds on the Massenet and Elgar pieces, and on Vernon Handley and the Royal Philharmonic's recording of Bantock's sublime Celtic Symphony (CD, Hyperion CDA66450), were present in the proper measure for a speaker of this stature. The Whisper consistently reached deeply and easily into recordings to expose and elucidate low-level details. In the gentle first section of King Crimson's mighty "Starless," from Red (CD, Editions EG EGKC 8), Bill Bruford's understated percussion punctuations were fully fleshed out and very clear. Art Zoyd's soundtrack for Nosferatu (German CD, Atonal ACD 3008) has endless layers of complexity and drama. It sounds like something cowritten by Edgard Varèse, J.S. Bach, and Frank Zappa while they were all zonked to the gills on enough psychoactives to levitate the late Hunter S. Thompson. The barely controlled chaos of "L' uf du Serpent" and "L'Agent Renfield" was there in all its seriously screwed-up and frightening glory, and that is tough material to get right.
The Legacys had a slightly laid-back presentation, especially when contrasted with the ultrapresent sound of the MAXX 2s. The front edge of the Whispers' stage was at or slightly behind the plane of the speakers, while the Wilsons extended the recorded stage out into the room. This was noticeable on orchestral music, but especially conspicuous with one of the best-sounding rock recordings I know of: Streetnoise, by Julie Driscoll with Brian Auger and the Trinity (LP, Atco SD 2-701). Other than a touch of reverb, there is no audible processing on "Light My Fire" and "When I Was a Young Girl." The superb, live-in-the-studio sound is matched by Driscoll's magnificent, supremely soulful singing. Via the Wilson MAXX 2s, Driscoll was in the room with me; with the Whispers, she was on stage in a small club as I sat in the second row of tables. Neither presentation was right or wrong; it was a difference, nothing more. Some will prefer one, some the other.
Soundstaging may be an artifact of the recording process, but it is vital to a speaker's ability to convince. Seldom have I heard any loudspeaker reproduce the extraordinary sense of place and space the Whispers could provide. Grandly scaled material such as Pink Floyd's "Cluster One" and the desolate "Marooned," from The Division Bell (LP, Columbia C 64200), took on almost cosmic scope, but retained a centerfill so forcefully defined it was tempting to look for the phantom middle speaker. Yes, this is music in a created environment and not a natural one, but it didn't matter to the Whispers.
Ryuichi Sakamoto's Cinemage (CD, Sony Classical SK 60780) was recorded live with orchestra in a Japanese concert hall, and the breadth and depth of the stage were majestic. Even more impressive in this respect was Bantock's Celtic Symphony. Smaller-scaled music, such as the Driscoll-Auger tracks, were very intimate and precisely reflected the scale of the venue, but on the big stuff, the Whispers' soundstaging is not surpassed by that of any other speakers that have been in my room. It's clear that minimizing room effects and early reflections were the prerequisites for the Legacy's unsurpassed ability to re-create an illusion of space from recordings.
The corollary to soundstaging is, of course, imaging. Only a speaker that can properly convey the sense of a recording space will be able to convincingly scale individual instruments and voices. The Whispers' ability to move air let them capture exceptionally well the proper size of large instruments such as piano and acoustic bass, but they never inflated the size of a solo voice or acoustic guitar. Singers, in particular, had a captivating solidity and emotionally involving tangibility, though the Whispers were consistently commendable even when compared to considerably more expensive speakers. They never failed to draw me in to the music.
I mentioned earlier that the Whispers should be positioned somewhat unconventionally. One night, on a whim, I pushed the speakers farther out toward the sidewalls and toed them in another few degrees. Their outer edges were now only 24" from the sidewalls, but their front inside and outside edges were, respectively, 47" and 61" away from the front wall. The already enormous soundstage increased in perceived size by something like 15–20%, with no loss of image solidity or centerfill. The combination of open-air woofers and external bass processing lets positioning be dictated primarily by non–bass-related considerations. That is a rare and wonderful thing—optimal soundstaging and the best bass and quality extension rarely occur at the same speaker locations in real-world rooms. With the Whisper, this issue vanishes into thin air.
An impressive legacy indeed
The Legacy Audio Whisper is a fabulously enjoyable speaker system. It can comfortably accommodate a room of nearly any size, presents fewer problems of placement than any other large speaker I have encountered, and fulfills Bill Dudleston's design goals and every performance claim Legacy has made for it. Better than that, it is a consistently wonderful component through which to enjoy music of all kinds for the sake of music, not hi-fi. The Whisper plays large-scaled works with the sort of grandeur and easy authority I have previously heard only from such speakers as the Focal-JMlab Nova Utopia Be and the Wilson Audio MAXX 2—and both of those worthies cost tens of thousands more than the already costly Whisper.
The Whisper is also extraordinarily faithful to the sounds of all types of music. While the MAXX 2 plays appreciably deeper and is, in terms of overall performance, the finest speaker I have ever heard, for 45 large it should be just that (footnote 2). It trumps the Whisper for one primary reason: its singular bass performance. From the midbass up, it is essentially a dead heat between the Whisper and the MAXX 2 in terms of getting out of the way and letting the music speak for itself. For extended periods of utterly fatigue-free listening, they are the best speaker systems I know, with the Nova Utopia Be in hot pursuit. The most salient fact is that the Whisper does not bear comparisons to high-zoot standard setters such as the MAXX 2 and Nova Utopia Be, it demands them, and solidly establishes itself as a deserving member of that elite league. A great loudspeaker.
Footnote 1: It's disturbing that this sensational slice of paranoiac doomsday fantasy from the Reagan era is once again so topical.
Footnote 2: I originally received the Legacy Whispers two years ago, but the arrival of the very-hard-to-move Wilson Audio Sophias and then the ultraheavy Wilson MAXX 2s resulted in a long delay in this review. Fortunately, that delay allowed me to evaluate the Legacy and the MAXX 2 in relation to each other—a very enlightening experience.