Listening #50 Page 2
My current favorite Lowthers are an old pair of PM2A drivers that not long ago were rebuilt, with new cones and fresh foam-rubber surrounds. Still, they differ interestingly from their newer cousins: For the most part, Lowther's A-series drivers use alnico magnets (C-series Lowthers have ceramic magnets, while the DX and EX series both use neodymium), but my PM2As have magnets made out of ticonal, a permanent-magnet alloy that uses the same elements as alnico—aluminum, nickel, copper, iron, and cobalt—but adds a dash of titanium for the sheer reckless fun of it. Ticonal magnets have the same outward appearance as their alnico cousins, but the Lowther cognoscenti have now begun to crochet a potholder of mystique around them, attributing the same sorts of sonic advantages to the obsolete magnet compound as some of us have recently done for...well, for alnico itself, to name just one.
And I'm not at all embarrassed to tell you: My PM2A ticonals really do sound special. Apart from the advantage conferred by the new style of whizzer cone (I've also made direct comparisons between old-style and new-style PM6A drivers), my rebuilt units sound warmer, a little less dry, and a little more organic than the regular PM2As they replaced. The ticonals are also freer from unnatural graininess, yet they're no less able to convey real, musical textures.
But there's something I haven't yet mentioned: My PM2A ticonals share another distinction from current production, in that their voice-coils have not been coated with Lowther's patented Hi-Ferric compound, a magnetically reactive paint that's said to enhance the driver's ability to electrically damp itself. Hi-Ferric is among Lowther's more recent developments, and, not surprisingly, some traditionalists have been slow to accept it. Apart from the tendency of certain hobbyists to mythologize the good, old way of doing things—which I admit to falling prey to myself, from time to time—one also wonders if the thickish magnetic coating took up just a little too much room in an already very narrow voice-coil gap.
In any event, the point is this: I know that my current PM2As sound better than the PM2As they replaced, but I have no way of knowing how much of that can be laid at the altar of ticonal, or how much has to do with the simple absence of Hi-Ferric. Humankind may never know.
If you're interested in having a pair of Lowthers made without Hi-Ferric, that's easily done: Just ask. (The Germans do it all the time, I'm told.) The Lowther factory will respond to any such request, as long as you don't insist on dropping by to watch them do it.
If you're interested in owning a pair of ticonals, your prospects are blurry but not bleak. The pair I bought had actually been loaned to me, by their importer, just so I could hear what the ticonal craze is all about. Then, during their stay here, some old-timer sent his Lowther ticonals to the factory as a trade against something else, thus making another pair available for rebuilding and reselling. The importer got the newer ones, and I bought and kept these. Just like that: la-di-da.
Teresonic Integrum loudspeaker
Not all Lowther fanatics are prissy Luddites, of course—which reminds me of a joke:
Q: How many Lowther enthusiasts does it take to change a light bulb?
A: Three: one to change the bulb, and the other two to whine about how much better the old one was.
That said, let me introduce the newest faces on the Lowther scene: the good people of Teresonic LLC, of San Jose, California. I mean faces literally. The first things that caught my attention when I visited their website were the unmistakably happy faces of people from all walks of life: young, old, male, female, Caucasian, Asian, you name it. It reminded me of the promotional materials of yet another direct-sale loudspeaker manufacturer, Aperion Audio, of Portland, Oregon. The sites of both companies are extremely well done (for perfectionist audio, you can hear me thinking), with sensational graphics, lively prose, and the downright calisthenic smiles of people who could be your sister, your kindly uncle, your babysitter, your tattoo artist—anyone but you and me.
Don't be put off: The sheer professionalism of the Teresonic website is carried over to their product line, as I discovered when CEO Mike Zivkovic sent me a review pair last summer. The company makes two Lowther-based loudspeakers, both using tapered quarter-wave pipes for loading, and the one I tried, the entry-level Integrum ($7950/pair), is among the most well-thought-out products I've had the pleasure of using. Everything about the Integrum—from its packaging to its documentation to its high levels of fit and finish—spoke of a company that intends to stay around for the long haul. If I were Lowther, I'd be flattered.
You may recall the basics of quarter-wave cabinets from my March 2006 column on the Horning Perikles loudspeaker. (See? Seasonal cycle.) In a nutshell, this loading scheme uses a long rear-wave labyrinth to do three distinct jobs: to keep the driver's resonant frequency low (as contrasted with the effect you'd have by putting the driver in a small, sealed box); to damp the driver's impedance peak at its resonant frequency; and to bring the phase of the driver's rear-wave bass output more or less in line with that of its front wave, for an additive bass-reinforcement effect.
In a design of this sort, one other nice thing can happen. Because the rear-wave labyrinth is bent, some degree of acoustic inductance will be a part of the package, and the pipe will act as a low-pass filter. Which is to say, the mid and high frequencies won't be reinforced. Good. You don't want them to be.
The Integrum's quarter-wave pipe appears to be a little over 70" long. It's folded once, at the top of the cabinet, and the pipe fires toward the listener through a rectangular opening that measures 8.5" wide by 2" high. On the inside floor of the cabinet there's a wood cylinder, perhaps a half a foot tall and 5" in diameter, the only opening to which is a small port filled with acoustically resistive foam: a Helmholtz resonator, presumably tuned to reinforce a small range of frequencies at which the speaker's response is otherwise weak.
The inner portion of the cabinet is also fitted with a chunky wooden peg—taken together, the peg and its mounting base bear a strange resemblance to the center foot of a Quad ESL—which serves the dual purpose of bracing the inner wooden baffle and snugging up against the Lowther driver, preventing unwanted movement and consequent loss of information. Because the Integrum was designed around Lowther's DX series of neodymium-magnet drivers, and because those are the shallowest 7" Lowthers one can buy, there's little room for driver experimentation. In an effort to hear how Lowther's PM2A ticonals would perform in the Teresonic cabinets, I tried to remove the pegs by removing the four wood screws that seemed to hold each of them in place. Unfortunately, an adhesive of some sort is also used, and I decided not to carry on, for fear of causing permanent damage.
It would appear, then, that different Lowther drivers can be substituted, but only with effort; I can neither predict nor guarantee how any other pairing might sound. (The Teresonic Integrum is equipped with a Lowther DX3 driver as standard; Lowther DX4s are a $1980/pair option.)
The Teresonic Integrum contains two types of sonically absorbent fill material: polyester batting inside the tube, and thick, heavy matting—rather like the stuff underneath your carpets—attached to most of the interior surfaces. The speaker connectors are gold-plated WBT binding posts, and the wiring is Teresonic's own Clarison shielded speaker cable, the ribbed sheathing of which imparts to the cable a somewhat larval appearance. Rubber feet are bolted to threaded inserts on the bottom surface of the cabinet, which also accept threaded spikes (supplied).
Apart from its most obvious quality—the ability to be driven with just a couple of watts—the Integrum was every inch a Lowther in its tunefulness and lack of timing distortion. Lowthers are so good at those music-making essentials, and so free from pitch uncertainties and ponderous tempos, that they'd be perfectly well suited for even the flattest of audio's Flat-Earthers—if not for their lack of deep bass. (One can only imagine that Ben Sidran's Don't Let Go is even less appealing when auditioned from 100Hz up.) Make no mistake: Lowthers don't have a lot of bass. I've never heard a full-range Lowther application that was flat even to 50Hz, and the Teresonic Integrum is no exception, despite what anyone else may tell you. I bow to no man in my enthusiasm for Lowthers, but I've also never ceased to respect the line between enthusiasm and delusiasm.
But they're so dramatic—and so impactful! A softly played percussion instrument in the seventh section of Copland's Appalachian Spring, with Walter Susskind conducting the London Symphony Orchestra (SACD, Everest VSD 504), sounded so real that, the first two times I heard it, I thought it was a noise someone was making in the next room—a noise that just happened to be in time with the music. The sound of the Nibelungs' hammers in Solti's great recording of Wagner's Das Rheingold (LP, London OSA 1309) scared the bunny and the cat.
There was also something about the Integrums' stereo imaging that I really liked—a sort of spatial cleanness and clarity that made it easy to tell where the soundfield began and ended. Perhaps that was a function of the cabinet shape: The slim, curved baffle has fewer edges—indeed, less area overall—off which shorter wavelengths can reflect and possibly smear the spatial cues in well-made stereo recordings.
The Integrum is a superb product, especially for the SET-curious audiophile to whom music and sound are higher priorities than Lowtherism's hands-on, DIY aspect. Though fairly priced, the Integrum isn't cheap, and while I wouldn't mind giving up some aesthetic refinement in order to save a couple thousand dollars (how about a paint-it-yourself version done in simple white primer?), I know that there are homes in which the traditional Lowther cabinet's ungainliness is a deal-breaker. Teresonic could tip things in that man's favor.