Revel Ultima Gem loudspeaker & Ultima Sub-15 subwoofer Page 3
Such subtleties in soundstaging as the slightly differing distances from the listener of the lead and backing voices on bassist Rob Wasserman's 1994 collaboration with Brian and Carnie Wilson, "Fantasy is Reality," on Trios (GRP/MCA MGD-4021), due to the slightly different amounts of artificial reverberation applied to each voice in the mix, were laid bare, but without the treble glare that often accompanies such clarity. And the image specificity was among the best I have auditioned in my room. The Gems painted a broad, stable stage between and behind them, without sound sources being pulled to the sides at some frequencies—always a sign of coloration. In fact, it was hard to write about the Gem having a character; other than the particular balance characteristics I described above, it was about as coloration-free as I have experienced. Well-recorded classical piano had a believability to its presentation that is rare.
This must be partly due to the Gem's excellent dynamics, its absence of compression. Compression is almost universally used in recordings to bring up the average loudness while leaving the peak levels untouched. It is, I believe, a major reason for recorded sound being fundamentally different from live sound. Yet, like sugar, that other ubiquitous drug, it is hard for engineers and audiophiles alike to kick the compression habit. My reference B&Ws, it must be admitted, do compress dynamics—not so much as you'd notice any unmusical effects, but after I'd gotten the Gems settled in, I found that I was playing my music somewhat louder. And there was a freedom from the sound clogging up that was remarkably addictive.
Allied to that was a freedom from grain. My live Gerontius recording on Stereophile Test CD 2 (STPH004-2) features an enormous double choir, a large orchestra, and three solo singers. Not surprisingly, its dynamic range is wide, but when you set the level so the quiet passages are about right, many speakers start to clog up and get grainy when all hell and heaven break loose. Not so the Gems, which just got appropriately louder, but at the same time allowed me still to hear the small details from which the climax is/was constructed.
I was impressed by the Gem's bass, but it was time to bring in the pros from Dover, in the form of Revel's Sub-15 and LE-1 combination.
Adding the subwoofer
"If you can hear a subwoofer working, it's set too loud," goes the old maxim. The paradox is that when a sub is set up truly optimally, it does almost nothing almost all of the time with a music signal. This makes it hard to justify the purchase to someone else, and is probably why almost all systems incorporating a subwoofer that I have experienced suffer from an amusical boom.
After I had the Revel Sub-15 and LE-1 amplifier properly dialed-in, I turned off the main amps for most of a CD and, apart from the occasional grumbling and slight pedal note, there was nothing to be heard. Yet listen to the Gem satellites without the Sub-15, and that slight grumbling turns out to be truly important to the presentation both of the soundstage and the musical experience.
The downside of a full-range system, however, is that many recordings include all manner of low-frequency noises. The 1987 Alban Berg Quartet/Amadeus Ensemble live recording of the Brahms second string sextet (EMI CDC 7 49747 2), for example, which I play often, was revealed as having an intolerable Paris subway accompaniment. What I did find interesting about this encounter was that with this kind of music, without any upper-bass sounds in the satellites to provide an image anchor, the LF rumblings could be clearly located at the subwoofer position despite the conventional wisdom that bass sounds are nondirectional. (With rock and orchestral classical, the LF sounds were located at the correct positions within the soundstage, even though they were still actually coming from the subwoofer.) I would imagine that, absent masking, the corner placement's maximum excitation of room modes gives the ears the best locational clues as to where bass sounds are coming from.
But one area in which I was continually impressed by the Sub-15/LE-1 combination was how well bass notes were defined. This subwoofer really does start and stop quickly. Yes, I am aware that a low-pass-fed woofer's impulse response is dominated by its bandpass ringing, but it has to be admitted that some woofers ring longer than others.