Listening #125 Page 2
With their cabinets placed directly on the floor, the centers of the Valencias' midrange/treble horns are considerably lower than the ear level of a typical seated listener (which would be me); indeed, under those conditions, a treble level of "2" seemed to provide the right balance of bass and treble. But the quality of those trebles left much to be desired. While the Valencias' high-frequency performance wasn't as consistently harsh as that of an untreated Lowther whizzer conea characteristic with which I am richly familiarI heard an aggressive and, at the worst of times, a downright steely quality woven within the lower treble. Some records that sounded reliably sweet through my Audio Note AN-Es or my borrowed DeVore Orangutan O/96s were shorn of that quality, and a small percentage of innately bright recordings in my collection were now off-putting or, at worst, unpleasant. Yikes almighty.
A number of audio hobbyists on the Internetwhere Altec enjoys an unusually knowledgeable, helpful, and nonpugilistic followinghad suggested that this would be so. Yet just as significant were the many voices suggesting that those drawbacks could be dealt with to at least some extent, and that, in any event, the Valencias' assets far outweigh their deficits. Well, then: time to get going.
Common sense and advice from some (but not all) quarters suggested the first course of action: getting the Valencias up off the floor. Temporary placement on a variety of cockamamie supports I had on handwooden crates, short tables, and, most remarkable of all, actual speaker standssuggested that this was indeed the right thing to do, if for no other reason than the simple fact that, by having the horn at or near ear level, its output level can be reduced relative to that of the woofer while still maintaining proper balance overall.
I chose, for the time being, to build a pair of simple stands for my Altecs, with platforms of ¾"-thick birch plywood and legs cut, simply, from 3" by 3" poplar stock, the latter held in place with aliphatic resin glue and No.10 wood screws. While the glue dried, I turned my attention to the speakers themselves. I pried away the veneered-plywood skirting that normally supports each cabinet, finishing the job with a cabinet scraper: My idea was that the Valencias' chipboard bottoms and the identically sized stands I'd made for them should be in intimate contact over their entire surfaces. Including the felt pads I stuck to the bottoms of the legs (I will, in time, try other interfaces, including the dreaded spikes), these new stands raise the Altecs precisely 12" off the floor. And that has indeed made a considerable improvement, allowing me to reduce the treble level necessary for good balance from "2" to approximately "4." (I say approximately because of inconsistencies between the two crossovers and their L-pads.)
But changing the distance between a 15" woofer and its nearest room boundary, the floor, can be a game-changer in its own right, and so it was with my Altecs, whose positions in the room now needed to be rethought. Even before I'd finished building their stands, it was apparent that the Valencias sounded best when placed reasonably far from the listening areanot because they required bass-response reinforcement from the wall behind them, but because considerable distance is required for the outputs of a woofer and a midrange/treble horn to jell with one another. My experiences suggest the need for at least 12' between Valencia and listener (which would seem to contraindicate both nearfield listening and installation against the room's long wall); consequently, each Valencia now stands about 31" from its respective sidewall and 45" from the wall behind, both distances measured from the exact center of the woofer's dustcapwhich, with the speakers sitting on their newly made stands, is about 23" above the floor.
Although this doesn't relate to the Valencias' performanceat least not directlythere came a day near the end of January when I simply couldn't look at those weird wooden grilles any longer. (I'm sure such days are even sooner in coming for new owners of the Flamenco, whose ornate grillework is best appreciated while listening to The Moor's Revenge.) Hints on how to proceed appeared on the Web, but none gave the whole story. It turns out that each grille is held in place by six small finishing nails, driven in from the front: three spaced evenly along the uppermost edge, three on the bottom edge. Once I'd located the tiny nail heads, I applied to them a tool I made long ago for extracting very small screws that had been shorn of their heads: a length of brass tubing with saw teeth on one end, which I made with a tiny file. The nails exposed, I pulled them out with miniature vise-gripsGod's own toolthen spent another 20 minutes working the grille side to side within the very tight slot made for it. After that, it came out with nary a crack. But Tone Imports' Jonathan Halpern, who owns two pairs of Flamencos, warned me not to leave them uncovered for long, suggesting that the pristine quality of my driversespecially the aforementioned woofer surroundsowes its being to the drivers' having been hidden away since they left the factory.
Good stands, the concomitant reduction of horn-output level, and careful placement have made my Altec Valencia experience considerably more pleasant than when I first heaved them into my listening room. These 47-year-old loudspeakers have better, faster, and utterly more believable bass performance than anything else I've owned. More important, they play music with such a believable sense of touch and force that they've transformed the manner in which I approach almost every recording I've played through them. The tactile qualities of virtually every instrument are revealed as never before: When string sections within an orchestra switch from bowing to plucking, the effect is thrilling. Drumsat least those recorded with minimal compressionhave greater presence and a far more lifelike sound than I'm used to hearing from domestic playback gear. Solo fingerstyle guitar recordings become little symphonies in themselves, with the sorts of dynamic contrasts and tactile distinctions that I take for granted in live settings (and whose absence from the playback experience I all too seldom have the wits to mourn). Again, the word that describes the Altec Valencias at their best is thrilling.
They've also transformed my listening in the sense that they reward even lower volume levels than those to which I'm accustomed. That's due in part to the Altecs' dynamic strengths, as described above, but there's another, more pernicious reason: With some recordings, especially during loud passages with significant high-frequency content, there remains a faint lattice of exaggeration in the upper-mid and treble ranges, which imparts to some instruments an aggressive quality. Among other things, the Altec Valencias dislike vigorously struck cymbals, and overlook few opportunities to remind me of the fact.
Part of that may be due to shortcomings in the parts or design of the crossover network, the likes of which I'll address in the months to come. That L-pad, especially, is on my personal no-fly list: It's probably crap, and I suspect that, when the time comes, I'll determine the inline and shunt values required for my installation and simply hardwire some decent resistors into the circuit.
But the Altec 811 horn, efficient and beautiful and green though it may be, is imperfect. And while I abhor this sort of observation in most audio reportingas in those gunslinger-style show reports that bubble to the surface every now and thenthis is indeed a case in which to click a fingernail against almost any part of the metal horn is to say, "Yup: That's what I'm hearing."
Ideas? I had a few. Most took shape as efforts to apply very light clamping force to those parts of the horn where resonant modes seemed most pronounced. (I remain adamant that modeling clay, like finger paints and colored pipe-cleaners, belongs in the primary-grade classroom, not in one's playback system.) I tried lightweight wooden cam-clamps, applied to both the horn's throat (from inside the enclosure) and mouth (from outside). I acquired some very slender fiberglass go-barsa clamping technology that enjoys considerable popularity in contemporary lutherieand tried using them, under pressure between the horn and the cabinet's inner surfaces, in an attempt at "spot-damping." I made a series of small softwood wedges, which I inserted between each Valencia's plywood baffle and the mouth of its horn, to hold the latter still.
Those efforts lessened the aggressiveness of the horn to various extents. So, for that matter, did sitting on the floor in front of the loudspeaker, putting my hand about halfway inside the throat of the horn, and pressing my fingers firmly against its upper and lower surfaces. Each of those things made an audible improvement, and each worsened some other aspect of the speaker's sound in a far more grievous way. Every one of them. Yes, the horns ring, and yes, it's pretty easy to stop them from ringingbut it's also pretty easy to hear the sound get smaller, or less impactful, or to simply make less sense as music. And, again, the deficits were always greater than the gains.
I think I'm in a holding pattern for now.
Notwithstanding their flaws, I'm enjoying the Altec Valencias immensely, all the while learning how to get the most out of them. Perhaps the greatest lesson I've learned so far is to resist the temptation to play them too loudly. When it comes to selecting the right loudness level for each record, here's the Valencia rule: If it seems, from the noise of lowering the stylus into the groove, that the volume level is just right, it is in fact just a little too loud; back it off a few degrees and it'll be just right. And if you have friends over whom you wish to try and impress,don't. (Do have your friends over; just don't make your Altecs do tricks for them.) Bear in mind that, when you play your music system at unrealistically high levels, women in particular will think you're an imbecile.
And let me not miss this opportunity to preach: The Altec Valencia and the Quad ESL are polar opposites. The former is all about touch and impact and drama and the ability to present sonic detail in a musically convincing manner. The latter is about timbre and transparency and spatial relationships and presenting musical detail in a sonically convincing manner. Neither is terribly good at what the other does well. Both are superb, both are listenable, both are fun. Both are valid: I have nothing but respect for the person who chooses either, because either speaker is a window that looks out on at least half of what's going on. And that's more than you can say of most loudspeakers.