Scientific Fidelity Tesla loudspeaker Page 3

Some weeks later, the third and final pair of Teslas arrived, along with the Trillium amps. Mike explained that the reason for the bass hump in the original review pair was that, unbeknown to him, his padding supplier had switched from polyester to Dacron; the padding wound up with only a third the fibers of the original stuff. A switch back to the original padding, plus more of it, plus a retuning of the port, was said to have gotten rid of the hump. Additionally, the tweeter was given a series 1 ohm resistor to bring it down a bit.

Mike said to just set up these Teslas exactly where he'd left the second pair, so I did, hooking them up to the Trillium amps. I let them both cook in with Wanda Jackson's Rhino CD on infinite repeat while I went off to work in the AM. And when I got home eight hours later, I kicked off my boots, donned my Hef-style satin smoking jacket, put on Luke & The Locomotives, and sat back to listen.

And the pitch Is...
Whenever you purchase a piece of audio gear, you're basically throwing up the designer's idea of what sounds good against your own; the more similar the two perspectives, the better the gear will sound. The most successful designers are those whose value systems coincide with those of the largest groups of consumers. So how does Mike Maloney's vision of reality coincide with mine and, more importantly, yours?

For starters, the Scientific Fidelity Teslas produce the widest, most dramatic soundstage I've ever heard in my home. No matter what I played over them, they filled the room with wall2wall sound that was spectacular, arresting, and impossible to ignore. You know that guy who runs back and forth between the speakers on Pink Floyd's Dark Side of the Moon? I swear I heard him mutter, "&# Teslas!!" as he huffed and puffed the extra soundstage width for the umpteenth time. You can't spread just any speaker this far apart to get the effect; most speakers I've tried completely lose their center image, winding up with The Bagel Syndrome (hole in the middle). The Teslas, however, maintain a distinct and ample center image no matter how far apart you spread them, making for one hellacious soundstage.

But there's hellacious, and there's realistic. Because as exciting as the Teslas' soundstaging is, it is distinctly unrealistic. Purist-miked recordings, the true acid test of a pair of speakers' ability to throw up an accurate picture, are rendered through the Teslas as through a fish-eye lens; JA's piano recording on the Stereophile Test CD sounded like a stretch-limo version of a Steinway, with the basso profundos way over here and the high tinkly keys somewhere in East Jesus (footnote 4). Both the Spica Angelus and ProAc Response Twos gave a much more realistic portrayal of instrumental size with this recording, set up well away from the side walls and a bit further away from the listening seat than Mike had the Teslas. The Teslas' *stere-O-rama* effect is riveting, exciting even, but not very truthful to whatever acoustic the recording engineer tried to achieve; it lends a dramatic perspective to expressionistic recordings like Sgt. Pepper's and Electric Ladyland, but it doesn't suit recordings which aspire to sonic realism.

Highs: Compared to the second pair, the new Teslas had a moderately less-harsh top end. But compared with both the Spica Angelus and ProAc Response Two, the Teslas are just too bright, and annoyingly so. Even on vintage material like Lavern Baker's "Mama He Treats Your Daughter Mean" off the Atlantic R&B set, Lavern's pipes and the tambourines have a Technicolor vividness that, while nirvana perhaps for the legions of audiophiles who view the race for exaggerated detail as the Olympics of the high end, became very irritating very soon. The tweeter called far too much attention to itself, to the detriment of the music. Switching from my usual Straight Wire Maestro cables to the softer-sounding AudioQuest Lapis/Clear combination was mandatory for these speakers, and the even softer-sounding MIT and Monster cables might be an even better match. When he was experimenting with room placement, Mike tried both the Straight Wire and AudioQuest cables and preferred the Maestro, but I found the combination to be hard and aggressive; I definitely recommend softer-sounding cables with the Teslas. Even though vocal sibilants were still pronounced, the AudioQuest cables significantly lengthened my listening sessions before fatigue set in.

The reason for the Tesla's rising high end I feel to lie in Mike Maloney's choice of reference amplification: his own Trillium amplifiers. The Metropolesque $7500/pair Trillium sounds as old-fashioned as it looks futuristic, with a very rolled-off high end, even more so than many vintage tube amps. Both the new Dynaco Stereo 70-II reissue and my own vintage 70 have more extended high ends, and both amps proved poorer matches for the Teslas for this reason alone. Even the VTL Deluxe 225 (triode-wired with KT90s) made for a hard-sounding match with the Teslas, and I feel the VTLs to have one of the most open, easy top ends around. And trust me, you don't even want to know what the Teslas sounded like driven by the solid-state Forté Model 4, which is an impressive little amp I'll tell you more about in a future review; the combination was just too hard by any standard.

Even though the larger VTL Deluxe 225s drove the Teslas with much more authority and control in the bass, it was only when mated with Scientific Fidelity's own Trillium tube amps that the speakers had anything but an unlistenable high end; the Trillium's own rolled-off top apparently countered the rising response of the Tesla, rendering it much more listenable. Still too bright, but much more listenable.

Lows: Used with the Trillium amps, the bass was somewhat slow and underwhelming, like many a vintage tube amp I've heard. Switching to the VTL Deluxe 225s, however, dramatically firmed up the bass, subjectively extending the response another octave and giving a much greater sense of bass dynamics. Still, even with the VTLs, the Teslas' low end remained looser than those of the Angelus, ProAc Response 2, or the Muse Model 18 subwoofer. While not as wildly out of control as the first two pairs, the current Tesla still has a bass hump; this tends to give the speaker a "Johnny One-Note" character. On Otis Redding's Try A Little Tenderness off the Stax/Volt set, Duck Dunn almost sounds like he's playing the same tonic note throughout the whole song.

The hump, like that of the Rogers LS3/5a, gives the impression of deep bass, but the bottom octave is AWOL. One shouldn't expect 20Hz extension from two ported 6.5" woofers, but the hump makes the Tesla sound like such a heavyweight in the bass that it's still surprising when real low-bass material comes up and you don't hear anything happening. On the Cowboy Junkies' Trinity Session, the ultra-low-frequency foot-tapping and the church's own ambient noise were absent, while further up a ways, the electric bass was inflated like a balloon. Additionally, the drum thwacks on Reference Recordings' Fiesta! caused the woofers to bottom out at less-than-loud levels, with a scary-sounding crack. The bass alignment of the Tesla clearly needs work; while it may sound impressive initially to some listeners, it reveals serious problems with extended listening and comparison with other speakers.

Imaging: Picture a full-color panel of the classic comic strip "The Girls In 3-G"; now press a good-sized blob of Silly Putty onto the page. Peel the flattened Silly Putty off the page and what do you see transferred as if by SATAN onto the pink putty? An exact mirror image of the three stewardess roommates, dressing and undressing and getting ready for dates and undressing some more before a bedtime discussion of either Kant or who has the smoothest legs. This is what you want from your speakers: a near-duplicate of the original event.

Now grip the Silly Putty by opposite ends and slowly pull it apart; now the image is distinctly distorted, the lithe young stewardesses now looking more like Paul Prudhomme, Dom DeLouise, and a math teacher I fondly remember as Miss Eclipse. This is the kind of imaging you get from the Teslas. While they do an amazing job of filling up the middle even when spread ridiculously far apart, the Teslas tend to widen images as they approach the center-point between them; you just don't get the pinpoint, real-life–sized imagery you get with speakers like the Spicas, Response Twos, and other respected models. The Teslas give a presentation very similar to listening with headphones.

I suspect one of the problems with the Teslas' poor imaging, besides the suggested placement, has to do with differences in response between the two speakers; listening to the Teslas reproduce the mono pink-noise track on the Stereophile Test CD, the image had a good deal of skew throughout the midrange and highs. Ideally, this track should sound like an infinitely narrow line down the center of the speaker plane; speakers designed with close attention paid to inter-speaker driver and crossover component matching always excel at this aspect of performance. The pink-noise image was considerably better-behaved and narrow with the Spicas and the ProAcs.

Dynamics: The Teslas were at their most dynamic with the VTL Deluxe 225s, so the following comments apply to these amps only, as the 50W Trilliums ran out of steam too fast for my tastes.

An interesting comparison here is with the $3000 ProAc Response Twos, a small ported two-way with a single 6.5" bass-midrange and a 1" dome tweeter; you'd think that a speaker with a ported enclosure over twice as large, stuffed with two 6.5" woofers, would decimate the little ProAcs, but you'd be wrong, with egg all over your face, a dunce cap on your head, your Sansabelts down around your ankles, and a roomful of people laughing like hyenas at your wretched plight.

While the Response Twos lacked the Teslas' pronounced midbass, they had much more freedom from congestion and compression at high levels. Bass-heavy music, in particular, limited the Teslas to moderate levels if the sense of audible stress was to be avoided; The Commitments soundtrack became thick and hard through the mids when the Teslas were pushed to party levels. I attribute this quirk to the lack of control in the bass-midranges, as phono playback gave the Teslas much more trouble than CD; with the grille-socks off, the 6.5" carbon-fiber cones could be seen nearly jumping out of the cabinet.

In addition, the Tesla's already bright upper mid to high end was very quick to harden further with increasing level, making for a very real and frustrating ceiling of operation not unlike what I experienced with the 25W VTL Tiny Triodes in the April 1991 issue. I think the blame here must lie with the crossover frequency chosen by Sci-Fi; 1kHz may be too low for the tweeter to handle comfortably. Like the Spica Angeluses run full-range without the Muse subwoofer, the Teslas have a much lower dynamic limit than their 4'-tall enclosures imply.

CG sums up
When I first heard the Scientific Fidelity Teslas at the 1991 SCES, I was impressed; driven by the Trillium amps in Sci-Fi's eerily lit demo room, they sounded very good indeed. But the old adage "Never form an opinion based on what you hear at the Show" is a true one: long-term listening in a familiar environment showed the Teslas to be decidedly unsatisfying speakers compared with their high-end competition. As they are now, the Teslas are a stunning visual statement in search of like sonics.

My review period saw the Tesla evolve slowly in the right directions; hopefully, the designer can refine these speakers further and achieve aural success to rival their cosmetics.—Corey Greenberg

Footnote 4: I made this recording with the AMS (Calrec) Soundfield microphone used as a synthesized pair of crossed figure-8s. The piano keyboard was just left of center of the stage, the Steinway chassis just reaching the righthand speaker position. If the piano sounds wider than that, then something's wrong.—John Atkinson
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