Listening #31 Page 2
Most important of all was how I consistently enjoyed the way the Cox speakers played solo-piano recordings. On my favorite such LPs and CDs—including Jorge Bolet's early-1980s recording of the Sonata in B Minor and other Liszt works (CD, London 444 851-2)—I never heard anything that suggested gross colorations. And although the SM-081's upper frequencies did get a little harsh when pushed to very unrealistic volume levels, they remained smooth during normal use. Its bass response was good down to an honest 40Hz in my room, and while that's less than I can get from my own Quad ESL-989s, I didn't consider the Coxes to be thin or lacking in weight. The very expressive and downright athletic side of Bolet's playing came across well, and I was impressed to hear a speaker that stands only 42" tall deliver such a good sense of scale.
You've surely noticed that it's easy to hear the difference between a real piano and a recording when you walk past an open window and hear music from inside a house: It has nothing to do with bass extension—and even less to do with the kind of spatial effects that multichannel enthusiasts dote on, but that's a rant for another time—but unless an audio system is very, very good, you can always tell that the real instrument sounds bigger than the hi-fi. I won't lie and say the SM-081s bridged that gap in one stroke, but when I strolled outside the open window of my listening room to hear what I could hear, I was impressed by how much more convincing they were than a great many other speakers.
A note about efficiency: The Cox Audio website says that the SM-081 has a sensitivity of 94dB/W/m and a nominal impedance of 8 ohms. Be that as it may, my Audio Note Kit One SET amplifier, which maxes out at 7Wpc, was barely up to the task of driving the Coxes in my medium-small listening room, and sounded a little hard and wiry on uncompressed voices and percussion. On the other hand, the 15Wpc Quad II Classic monoblocks (review next month) had no trouble at all.
So again: Here I am looking at these unprepossessing speakers, wondering why they perform so much better than so many others, low-tech and high-tech alike. Why don't their evidently humble drivers hold them back? How can a speaker whose cabinet is neither massive nor cleverly sculpted disappear so convincingly? Could it be those mistakes aren't mistakes at all—that there's more to the crafting of good speakers than all of our pet theories, taken together, could ever amount to? It's starting to look that way.
I was about to say there isn't anything in Steve Cox's background to suggest why he's so good at this sort of thing—but maybe there is after all. In his 45 years, Cox has been both a soldier and a missionary, and around the time he began to devote significant time to speaker building, he also started doing volunteer work for a number of different nonprofit organizations. I've always thought that charitable acts were the most effective tweaks, inasmuch as the person who does them usually gains a deeper appreciation for the art of music in the bargain. The story of Steve Cox and his SM-081 may be a part of my proof.
I'm not saying you should drop everything and buy a pair of Cox Audio speakers right now—although I suppose that might not hurt. More to the point, the SM-081 reminds me how much is left to learn about reproducing music, and how much more fun there is to be had getting there. Which is to say, there's hope.
Rhymes with high class
God knows I've committed my share of blunders during the two and a half years I've written this column. But I outdid myself in the May 2005 issue, where I managed to soil myself not once but twice in a single paragraph. And while neither would qualify as my biggest mistake ever (that would have to be my assumption that all of Stereophile's readers were smart enough to know that my dismissal of condom reviewing, in the April issue, was in fact a joke), taken together, they're big enough that I feel downright sorry.
Mistake No.1: Toward the end of my May "Listening" column, in the part about S&M Records' reissue of the Kentucky Colonels' Appalachian Swing! album, I wrote the following: "The majority of hardcore bluegrass fans—and virtually all bluegrass guitar players—know this 1964 recording inside and out. Appalachian Swing! is the 'Rocket 88' of bluegrass guitar, because it's among the first bluegrass recordings in which a solo guitarist earned equal prominence with the mandolin and banjo players."
It recently dawned on me that an intelligent reader could think I invoked "Rocket 88" out of a misguided belief that it was the first song in its genre to feature a prominent guitar solo. After all, that's what I wrote.
But that's not what I meant. What I meant was simply that the importance of Appalachian Swing! was on a par with that of Ike Turner's brilliant song for a more general reason: They're both pivotal. They both altered the course of popular music by influencing the people who play that music.
That was bad enough. But later in the same paragraph, I wrote "Unless I'm mistaken, there isn't a single recorded guitar solo in the entire catalog of Monroe and the Blue Grass Boys."
What a dumb thing to say—not just because I haven't heard every Bill Monroe recording in existence (has anyone?), but because in making such a sweeping statement, I set myself up to be corrected, maybe nicely, maybe not so nicely, by any one of 80,000 strangers.
Besides, I was just plain wrong: A mere four weeks after I submitted that column, I was given a bootleg recording of a Bill Monroe concert from 1963, in which the guitar player takes a full eight-measure solo on the fiddle tune "Panhandle Country." Granted, the solo consists of little more than repeating a variation on a standard bluegrass G-run, modulated in key to fit the chord changes. Nonetheless, it's a guitar solo.
In any event, no matter how you slice it, that whole damn paragraph sucked, and I apologize. Obviously some penance is called for, so here's an offer: Be the first person to correctly identify the guitar player in question, and I'll send you my personal copy of the test pressing of Cisco Music's dandy-sounding LP reissue of Southbound, by Doc and Merle Watson (Vanguard VSD-79213). I'll even give you a hint: The penultimate note in each one of those G-runs is a flatted seventh.
Speaking of God's own music, I close with a reminder: July and August are prime bluegrass months in many parts of the US, and I can think of no better way to refresh your music-loving soul, recharge your audio-loving ears, and commune with nature, your fellow man, and cute hippy chicks in clingy batik skirts, than by attending one of the fine outdoor music festivals taking part in our great nation over the coming weeks.
If you live near Atlanta, try the North Georgia Bluegrass Festival in Cleveland, Georgia (July 8–10). Folks in Lyons, Colorado might want to take in this year's star-studded Rockygrass lineup (July 29–31). There's Summergrass in Vista, California (August 26–28), Bluegrass in the Gardens in Arcola, Illinois (August 20–21), the Northern Kentucky Bluegrass Festival in Alexandria, Kentucky (July 7–9), Bluegrass in the Blueridge in Luray, Virginia (August 4–6), and the Santa Fe Bluegrass and Old-Time Festival in Santa Fe, New Mexico (also August 26–28).
Then, of course, there's my favorite of them all, the Grey Fox Bluegrass Festival in Ancramdale, New York, this year featuring David Grisman, Peter Rowan, Tim O'Brien, Laurie Lewis, the Gibson Brothers, the always-recommendable Dry Branch Fire Squad, and America's finest touring group, the Del McCoury Band (July 14–17). Scoot, skedaddle, or high-tail it to the festival nearest you, and soak it in while the soaking's good.
Postcript: the following letter appeared in September (Vol.28 No.9):
Editor: The bluegrass guitarist mentioned in Art Dudley's July 2005 "Listening" column (p.45), who took a eight-measure solo on the fiddle tune "Panhandle Country" in the 1963 Bill Monroe concert, is Del McCoury.—Chris Foray, firstname.lastname@example.org
Yes! Del McCoury is correct! [Other suggestions from readers included Ed Mayfield, Clarence White, Lester Flatt, and Peter Rowan.—Ed.] Chris, please send me your physical address so that I can send you the Doc Watson LP for being the first to correctly identify the guitarist. Thanks for reading my column.—Art Dudley