Quad ESL-989 electrostatic loudspeaker Page 4
Set up near the corners of my large listening room, the Quad ESL-989s generated lots of satisfying bass from Stravinsky's Firebird Suite (tracks 3, 5, 7) and The Rite of Spring (tracks 21-24), both from Eiji Oue's recording with the Minnesota Orchestra (CD, Reference RR-70CD). The bass whack at the end of track 7 shook the room before it shut off one of the '989s. The speaker's pitch definition and solidity of bass response was surprisingly good, though it was optimal above 30Hz in my room, where it was so solid that I had to check twice to make sure my subwoofer wasn't turned on. "Gnomus," from Jean Guillou's organ transcription of Mussorgsky's Pictures at an Exhibition (CD, Dorian DOR-90117), was reproduced with a mix of solid deep-bass notes balanced with delicate highs from the organ's flute and trumpet pipes.
I tried extending the '989's bass response deeper and increasing its output level by routing the line-level signal from the Krell preamp through the Velodyne HGS-18 subwoofer's electronic crossover. This filters all signals below 80Hz to the subwoofer and passes the remaining midrange and treble information to the Quads. After several hours of fussing with cables and matching the 30Hz output of the '989-Velodyne combination to the '989's 200Hz output, I found that the reproduction of organ-pedal chords and bass-drum whacks was tighter, better-defined, and somewhat airier than when the '989s were played full-range. While I was able to play the entire system about 5dB louder, the Quads still shut down on peaks exceeding 98dB. I further tamed the protection system by increasing the Velodyne's crossover frequency from 80Hz to 125Hz, but this fattened up the midbass response. Because of these complications, I much preferred listening to the '989s full-range—which was, after all, the point of creating a larger ESL in the first place.
The '989's midrange response was outstanding within its 94dB peak-volume limit, and characterized by an open, transparent perspective free of congestion or distortion. Sam Tellig's comment about the ESL-988's "world-class resolution" ("Sam's Space," November 2001) came to mind when listening to vocal, clarinet, and piano selections. I began with one of my favorites, Eva Cassidy's super show-stopping "Bridge Over Troubled Water," from Live at Blues Alley (CD, Blix Street G2-10046). The '989s rendered Cassidy as a solid, holographic presence right there in the room. There was an immediacy I hadn't heard before, that "palpability" that ST has referred to. Her vocal range, power, phrasing, pinpoint intonation, effortless control, and big dynamic range were all there. I also was deeply moved by Emmylou Harris' vocal blend on "Calling My Children Home," from Spyboy (CD, Eminent EM-25001-2). Her voice sounded transparent, effortless, and ethereal.
Male vocalists were superb through the '989, benefiting from its midrange transparency and immediacy. José Carreras' clear tenor was beguiling, clear, and lilting as never before during the Kyria of Ariel Ramirez's Misa Criolla (CD, Philips 420 955-2). Harry Connick, Jr.'s "Don't Get Around Much Anymore," from the soundtrack to When Harry Met Sally... (CD, Columbia CK 45319), was natural, with no sign of the muddiness and honk I sometimes hear with dynamic loudspeakers. Willie Nelson's voice on "Getting Over You" and "Don't Give Up," from Across the Borderline (CD, Columbia CK 52752), was clear, clean, and free of grain. The combination of ESL-989 and Bryston 14B-SST preserved the sweet, sad, delicate harmony of Richard and Linda Thompson's voices singing "Dimming of the Day," from the Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood soundtrack (CD, DMZ/Columbia CK 86534). The song has a sweet, sad, lovely melody; its emotional impact was the result of the singers' talents and the '989s' imaging.
Instrumental timbres were rich and involving. The palpable tonalities of the saxophone and guitar were seductive on the title cut of the L.A. Four's Going Home (Japanese CD, Ai 3 2JD 10043). Buddy Miller's mando-guitar accompaniment to Emmylou Harris' "Prayer in Open D" on Spyboy had a rich, warm, natural timbre that was thoroughly enjoyable.
The '989 reproduced the brassiness of trumpets with no irritating edginess. Listening to Eiji Oue conduct The Rite of Spring on Prof. Keith Johnson's recording, these horns had the raw, hot, passionate brassiness that this piece demands. During the opening of Alison's Krauss's "Sitting in the Window of My Room," from the Ya-Ya Sisterhood soundtrack, I could clearly discern the distinct musical characters of the delicate hammered dulcimer, the lap-steel guitar, and the tack piano.
The ESL-989s' imaging was topnotch, conveying a seamless, wall-to-wall soundstage that did not seem to emanate from the speakers themselves. They captured the soundstage depth and width of "Naris," from Patricia Barber's Blue Café (CD, Premonition/Blue Note 5 21810 2). Percussion was open, airy, fast, and transparent. José Carreras in Misa Criolla was startling, his soft tenor in the foreground, a large, muted drum playing deep and to the left of center stage, backed up by the large, distant chorus. The perspective was spacious and eerie, suggesting the desolation and emptiness of a high South American plateau. Suzanne Vega seemed to materialize between the two ESLs, close enough to touch, as she sang "Tom's Diner," from Solitude Standing (CD, A&M CD 5136).