Monitor Audio R952MD loudspeaker Page 2
Listening to the R952MDs finally started to make clear what Harry Pearson means by "transparency." In an essay in Volume 8 of The Audiophile Society Journal—love that magazine cover, Hy—Tom Miiller equates the term with "clarity" and argues that to complicate subjective terminology leads to confusion. Well, clarity comes into transparency, but is not all of it, something made clear by these Monitor Audios. The '952s present a wealth of detail in a manner akin to the Martin-Logan CLS electrostatics. Their window on the soundstage is one of the finest I have heard from a moving-coil loudspeaker, ranking with the Celestion SL700 and Wilson WATTs (when I have heard them at shows, though I have yet to hear either in my home). Clarity they have in spades. But that clarity is not achieved by thrusting that detail under the listener's nose. Rather, it is musically integrated into the body of the sound so that, as with real-life experience, you can turn your attention to whichever part interests you most at any one time. You gain the ability to focus on the minutiae of the sound without losing the holistic experience of the music.
Many hi-fi components gain an apparent clarity by the equivalent of shining a brighter light on the sound sources but without cleaning the window between the listener and the stage. The '952s are transparent in that they render the window more clean, allowing you to luxuriate in that detail without it being spotlit. A component that is truly "transparent" allows you to see the wood and the trees; clarity is only concerned with trees.
Take Weather Report's classic Heavy Weather album from 1977 (CBS 34418), musically one of the finest examples of what Fusion hardly ever achieved: the seamless adjoining of the musical complexity of jazz to the raw energy of rock. Heavy Weather is also a superb demonstration of how producers of taste, in this case Weather Report's keyboardist Joe Zawinul, tenorist Wayne Shorter, and bass player Jaco Pastorius (footnote 1), can use different degrees of artificial reverberation to introduce layers of depth into what would otherwise be a totally synthetic, one-dimensional soundstage. The '952s allowed every layer in the depth to stand like flats on a stage set—one could become an aficionado of different types of reverb! But this is more than clarity, for the music is not sacrificed at the altar of detail: you are drawn into the soundstage, your foot taps, ultimately you have no recourse but to dance.
One of my favorite vocal recordings also dates from 1977: Swingle II performing French and English songs (RCA RL 25112). Closely miked, obviously a rock production of classical music, nevertheless these for me are definitive performances, especially of Stanford's "The Bluebird," where soprano Catherine Bott effortlessly soars away, her voice as exquisite as a cleanly struck bell. Again, the Monitor Audios allow the artificial layering of the soundstage to stand revealed, but again at the service of the music. In the puckish second part of Britten's Hymn to St Cecilia—"I cannot grow; I have no shadow to run away from"—the unison male voices tolling away behind the scampering vocal line are both clearly delineated and blended together on the '952s, a dichotomy that is always apparent in real life yet blurs on most loudspeakers into a generic "male voice." It is also rare for a pair of speakers to reproduce voices with the right size; too often, the image bloats at one or more frequencies. This was not a problem here.
Those with the HFN/RR Test CD are probably aware that at the end of Mike Skeet's solo drumkit recording, a pair of sparrows in the rafters at the rear of the hall burst into excited chatter as the echoes of the final cymbal crash die away. This has long been a favorite test track for image depth and definition. (It is best when Hi-Fi Test Tracks don't feature music, as it stops your emotional response getting in the way of your powers of analysis. Which is why Sheffield Lab's rock recordings are so valuable.) Well, with these Monitor Audios, I could tell that the bird on the left was the female!
The bass, even in the near-wall positioning, was lightweight, extension having been compromised to keep the sensitivity high. Nevertheless, the transparent nature of the upper bass and lower midrange meant that the edges of bass instrument sound were beautifully defined. Male spoken voice, which nearly always acquires a "hooom" quality, as though the speaker's chest cavity had become larger, particularly with reflex designs, was accurately reproduced.
This not to say that these speakers are perfect. That elevated presence region is not kind to recordings already hyped in that region. Take that Weather Report album: Wayne Shorter must have upset the engineers, as it is one of the worst tenor-sax sounds captured on disc. That, or he was using a reed of hitherto unknown hardness. The additional slight boost in the mid-treble given to this sound by the '952s was not welcome. In addition, a slight nasality, perhaps due to the still-lively cabinet despite the cross-bracing, occasionally intruded.
I must straight away admit that the Monitor Audio R952MD will not be for everybody. Stereophile's correspondence column reveals that many listeners need that last octave of low-frequency extension sacrificed by the R952MD in favor of lower-midrange accuracy and sensitivity. In addition, their tonal balance will not match well with typical "solid-state" sound, where the high frequencies tend to be over-etched. But if, like me, you favor transparency and music over sheer quantity of sound, when used with neutral solid-state or tube amplification, these speakers can be highly recommended, even with their Transatlantic price premium.
One final thought strikes me. As the R952MD's bass is well-damped and reasonably extended, this speaker should mate well with a subwoofer, crossed over around 50Hz to avoid adverse effects on the stereo imaging. Dick Olsher is at present working on a subwoofer survey for Stereophile; I shall borrow one of the better contenders from him and experiment.—John Atkinson
Footnote 1: Pastorius's tragic death last Fall was yet another example of a musician favored by the gods being taken away before he could attain full artistic development.—John Atkinson