ProAc Response 1S loudspeaker

994ProAcR1S.jpgHere's the deal: If you're the kind of listener who must listen to your stereo at levels that change the barometric pressure of your listening room, or if you can't enjoy reggae concerts because they don't have enough bass, then the ProAc Response 1S (revised) is definitely not the speaker for you. Read no further. Move on. Scoot.

Anybody left? Good. Now we can talk about a very special little speaker. In a way, I didn't even want to review the 1S. I mentioned to John Atkinson that I'd heard them at my buddy Ruben's house and enjoyed them immensely, but I'd been using a pair of $13,000 speakers to review an exotic amplifier and had, sad to say, become quite spoiled: bass down to 28Hz, 93dB sensitivity, and some of the most accurate soundstaging I'd ever heard—we're talking about some serious suffering for my art, here.

So when the ProAcs arrived at my house, I thought it unfair: unfair to me (I was gonna miss them big dogs), and unfair to the Response 1S. After all, does anyone remember who played after the Beatles on the Ed Sullivan Show?

I should have stood by my first impression. After an evening spent filling speaker stands with sand, playing with room placement, and generally succumbing to Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (the clinical designation that encompasses acute Audiophilia nervosa), I settled down to listen to some Bach Trio Sonatas when my wife came home.

"Hey, these are great!" she enthused.

"Because they're little and cute and have beautifully finished exotic cabinets?" I asked.

She favored me with that pitying expression that women reserve for other mothers' stupid, ugly children—or their own husbands—and replied, "Actually, I was referring to the fact that this really sounds like music. Those other things had really great sound."

"And what's wrong with that?"

"I don't listen to sound. The only reason I ever had a stereo before I met you was that sometimes I like to listen to music."

"That's the only reason I listen to this stuff."

"If that's your story, then, by all means, stick to it. But I know better." And she swept out of the room.

The maddening thing is that she was right. As much as I admired their predecessors, I loved the ProAcs (footnote 1). I blew up my TV. I stopped reading. My record cabinets disappeared behind mounds of unfiled LPs. The cats had to negotiate piles of CD cases that had mildew growing on every flat surface. I went to bed late ("Just one more record, dear"), and shamelessly used the speakers as an excuse for shirking housework ("I'd love to, dear, but I've got a deadline"). Is this a great job, or what?

Modern audio: what is it?
The first thing you'll notice about the Response 1S is that it's tiny. It barely covers the 6" by 9" top plate of the (necessary) 24"-high Target stands, and seems to be an extension of them—a handsome effect. The cabinets come in a variety of exotic wood veneers—ProAc's fit'n'finish standard is always exceptional. (Richard Gerberg, the importer (footnote 2), stresses that the wood is "responsibly farmed," which appears to mean that it's taken from plantations that replenish the trees, not strip-mined from rainforests.) Speaker connections are made via bi-wired pairs of five-way binding posts. Both the posts and the knurled tightening nuts are solid rhodium. The well-spaced binding posts accept even giganto spade lugs, with (almost) enough room for even my large hands to power down the nuts. Rhodium-plated jumper bars link the binding posts, permitting a single set of cables to drive the speakers. ProAc recommends bi-wiring, however, and I agree.

The 1S is a two-way design with a ¾" cloth-dome tweeter and a woofer with a startlingly clear 5" polypropylene cone (footnote 3) in a ported enclosure. Stewart Tyler has never been terribly forthcoming about technical details, such as crossover points—or even particulars, such as what type of crossover is employed. The spec sheet simply states that this speaker contains the "highest quality components as used on other Response models." Nothing in my audition contradicted this claim.

Now a word on placement: The location of these speakers in your room will challenge your priorities, and force a tradeoff between openness and bottom. You can reinforce the bass response by placing the 1S near a boundary, but the speaker will sound thicker and slower for it. I put mine 5' into the room (measured from the rear of the cabinet), slightly toed-in. For those among us who care about this sort of thing, the backs are fully finished. Stands are not optional—not sonically. Don't be cavalier about support with this speaker. Every change is audible—whether the stands are filled (damped) or unfilled, stable or rocking, leveled or not. Be anal about it.

Don't let the posey fool ya
The Response 1S may look small, but the sound is open and full—it didn't seem to be coming from those tiny boxes. I was listening at Ruben's house one day, and we both burst out laughing—the apparent "body" of the theorbo we were listening to was so preposterously at a variance with the size of these transducers. We were being a bit silly, yes, but I believe we audiophiles are often wisest in our silliness. (Unfortunately, the reverse is also true: We're often silliest in our "wisdom.")

I'm telling you nothing new—small speakers are known for their phenomenal imaging capabilities. What distinguishes the ProAc Response 1S, however, is the apparent physicality of that image. I'm not speaking here of the two-dimensional, photograph-like image we frequently accept as "real" in hi-fi. Rather, I'm referring to the sense that objects (singers, instruments) have bodies—a physical presence greater than just a series of tones. We can talk all we want about the reproduction of music as though music is some abstract idea—as well we should, for in one sense it is. But in listening to an LP or CD, we're not experiencing music as a concept; we're listening to a performance of music—a re-creation of an event that took place in time, which inhabits space, and which was produced by people or objects having a physical dimension (footnote 4). I think that we frequently confuse the map for the territory, concentrating exclusively on music as an abstract concept or, in contrast, focusing solely on its physical/spatial attributes.

There's nothing theoretical, however, about the ProAc's ability to present music in its physical dimension. You'll revel in it, glory in it, get right down and wallow in it. Leon Redbone's Up a Lazy River CD (Private Music 01005-82095-2) is exceptionally well-recorded—chock-full of spatial cues and brimming with exactly the sort of earthy "body" that I'm talking about. "Gotta Shake that Thing," a delicious piece of hokum constructed around Vince Giordano's salacious-sounding bass sax, begins with two startlingly deep, juicy-sounding blats from Giordano. "Sounds stopped to me," Redbone comments. "You better take it out and shake it." "Shake that thing!," chants the band, and they're off rollicking through a "hot jazz" romp. The soundstage was full—string bass, dobro, piano, drums, and a horn section all clearly delineated around Redbone as he sang the double-entendre–filled verses.

When I say that the soundstage was full, I don't just mean that the sound was spread from speaker to speaker. I mean that, as each instrument came in, it seemed to inhabit a location upon that stage—as in actually occupying an area commensurate with the volume of the sound. Bass sax, piano, and string bass were big, the singer and dobro less so, while the trumpet and clarinet were wimpy little thangs. I'm not claiming that this physical presence was life-sized. It was scaled-down—the way performers seem to be when you see them from the rear of the hall. While we see them as smaller, we don't think of them as less real. This analogy is inherently inaccurate, however, in that the 1S didn't distance me from the music. It presented an immediate, detailed simulacrum of the musical event.

This level of precision will not always appear a blessing. On multi-tracked recordings, there were times when two instruments appeared to inhabit the same position, thus destroying any illusion of reality. The Holly Cole Trio's Don't Smoke in Bed CD (Manhattan CDP 81198 2), which I find tonally and dynamically exciting, has been recorded in such a way that Cole's voice seems to be coming from the same place as the piano. While listening through the 1Ses, I took this to be an indication of realistic spatial imaging as I assumed that Cole was playing the piano while singing. After buying my own copy of the CD, I discovered that Aaron Davis was accompanying her; now the effect detracts—as a minor annoyance—from my enjoyment of the disc.

While I found the Response 1S exemplary in its re-creation of the volume of musical instruments, it did not subvert the laws of physics. It couldn't handle deep bass, and, I must confess, some of the midbass was also beyond it. The bodily kick that distinguishes truly large instruments is, of course, constrained by the nature of a 5" woofer in a small, ported enclosure. Big revelation. These guys will never satisfy you if you insist on having the visceral impact of an uncompromised bottom end. Sad to say, this is the coin of compromise that has been paid for neutrality elsewhere, but it's a price that many of us are willing to pay for that neutrality.

Sporting a rare degree of uncolored coherence, the 1S makes virtues of the very factors that compromise its extreme low-end performance. Its small size and stout construction result in a very rigid cabinet. Cabinet resonance is one of the big aural signifiers that make canned music sound canned. The Response's box resonance is—by dint of size and bracing—moved up in frequency to the point where it no longer screams "box." The resonance is still there somewhere, of course, but seemingly at a point where our ears are less sensitive to it. This is one of its secrets in sounding open—it doesn't sound like a speaker.

Many small monitors that have sacrificed low-frequency reproduction to favor other areas of response tend to sound tonally unbalanced. In a sense they are, since they lack live music's inherent equilibrium. But the greater problem is that most hi-fi speakers generate too damn much high-frequency information in the first place—or, rather, the quality of that information is not the same as that across the rest of the spectrum. This is so pervasive that tipped-up sound has become our reference. We even go so far as to praise this coloration as increased detail, and then go on to seek out even more of it. As Jack Sumner of Transparent Audio says, "Hi-fi has become its own standard." If this goes on long enough, Fido will get more out of our systems than we do.

This is another area in which ProAc's design choices will be seen by some as justified and by others as wrongheaded. I hear the 1S as open, detailed, and balanced. It doesn't have that etched hi-fi sound, but instead seems relaxed and natural. To those who have come to relish "detail," however, I imagine that it will sound dark and shut-down. I can't hear it for you, I can only describe how it sounds to me. Naturally, my conclusions are only valid if you subscribe to my value set, so take care. Like the bass question, the speaker's treble is a characteristic that you either accept or categorically reject. Is the top end more accurate than that of a "detailed" speaker? JA's charts will show you how it measures, but the charts can't hear it for you, either.

Footnote 1: As do others. I noticed Sony Classical using a pair of ProAc Response 1Ses for nearfield monitoring when I visited their studios in New York last fall. Out of curiosity, at the 1994 Summer CES I asked Modern Audio Consultants' Richard Gerberg if any other studios were using ProAc speakers for monitoring. The list is impressive: in addition to Sony Classical, 14 other well-known studios use ProAcs for monitoring, including Masterdisk, Electric Lady, Paisley Park, and Sterling Sound.—John Atkinson

Footnote 2: Richard Gerberg passed away in March 2016.—John Atkinson

Footnote 3: This woofer, along with some changes in the crossover, is what distinguishes the 1S (revised) from its predecessor. Richard Gerberg explained that the driver is constructed of a polymer that mimics crystalline structure, making it unusually rigid without sacrificing the advantage of low mass.—Wes Phillips

Footnote 4: I'm ignoring those recording forms, such as Space Music, for which none of this is true. I tend to do that a lot. It's on purpose.—Wes Phillips

US Distributor: The Sound Organisation
159 Leslie Street
Dallas, TX 75207

funambulistic's picture

I first heard these little gems in '98 or so. My impression was that they were more of a musical instrument than transducer and everything I threw at them sounded lovely. I am sure they were not the most "accurate" speakers around (otherwise, most of the music I demoed would have sounded terrible). Unfortunately, at the time, the price was too dear... Ruark was another speaker company that had that "instrument" sound. RIP Wes!