Shahinian Diapason loudspeaker system JA Takes a Listen...
Alarmed by Gordon's negative reaction to the sound of the Diapason system, before I performed any of the measurements outlined in the sidebar, I set the speakers up in my listening room, taking a quick break from the Vandersteen 3s that I reviewed in March. The associated equipment was Mark Levinson No.20.6 monoblocks, while the preamplifier was the Melos 333 linestage, with a Mod Squad Phono Drive EPS handling LP signals. These were provided by a Linn Sondek/Trampolin/Lingo/Ekos/Arkiv setup sitting on an ArchiDee table. Digital playback was via a Meitner IDAT driven by a Proceed PDT 2 transport via AudioQuest Digital Pro. Interconnects were all AudioQuest Diamond or Lapis. All components other than the power amplifiers were plugged into a Power Wedge 2.
After a phone discussion with Richard Shahinian to make sure that I understood the rather complicated array of terminals on the Diapasons and Double Eagles, the satellites were connected to the amplifiers with 6' lengths of AudioQuest Sterling, the subwoofers (each jumpered so that its two halves ran in parallel) connected in-phase with the satellites with 6' lengths of AudioQuest Clear.
My overall reaction was not much different from JGH's. Yes, the Diapasons did some things well: the bass was extended and free from distortion, while voices sounded very clean, even at roof-lifting levels. But the midrange sounded over-warm and rather boxy, the low treble was suppressed, and the mid-treble was peaky, emphasizing tape hiss and sibilance on spoken voice, and adding rather a raucous quality to pink noise. Instruments rich in lower-midrange energy, such as the cello, sounded distinctly nasal, while the higher strings were too mellow. Solo piano also sounded too colored to be acceptable in a modern speaker, in my opinion, even though the instrument's left-hand registers were appropriately deep, powerful, and clean.
Not surprisingly, when you consider the speaker's measured in-room response (fig.6 in the "Measurements" sidebar), the Diapason actually sounded a lot more musical when playing quietly. As I tap this out on the laptop, for example, I'm listening to the 1962 Klemperer Ein Deutsches Requiem from CD (EMI CDC 747238 2), which is playing pleasantly and quietly in the background. The speaker's excessive bass and treble are actually a built-in loudness contour which compensates for the ear's reduced sensitivity to bass and treble at low SPLs. However, when I turn up the volume to serious listening levels, the sound falls apart, becoming too warm, with shrieky highs.
When it came to imaging, the Diapasons were very different from anything I had previously experienced. As Gordon mentions above, they don't offer the image specificity to be expected from conventional forward-firing speakers, everything sounding pleasantly diffuse, as you might experience from Row Q in a typical shoebox concert hall. Gordon feels this acceptable because you don't experience pinpoint imaging from a real orchestra heard from a decent seat. Me, I'm more fussy. The object of stereo playback is not, in my opinion, to produce the imaging you would hear in the concert hall, but only to do so if that is what is contained in the recording. If that pleasant blurring of spatial detail occurs on every recording, no matter how it was recorded and no matter how you like it, it is a distortion.
I intended one of the tracks on the second Stereophile Test CD to illustrate this very point. We recorded Larry Archibald with a crossed, vertically coincident pair of figure-8 microphones as he mapped out the soundstage in the Santa Barbara church where our Intermezzo piano album was made. This mike technique accurately encodes the directions of soundsources for correct playback over two loudspeakers; ie, if a live soundsource was 15° left of the microphone array's center line, it will reproduce as a dimensionless point 15° left of the central point of the line joining the two speakers. Larry's voice, handclaps, and footsteps on track 10 should therefore be very well-defined in space as he moves from side to side (from beyond the speaker positions), and from the rear of the church to the microphone position.
On good minimonitors like the LS3/5As or Acoustic Energy AE1s, or via big speakers that offer similarly superb imaging ability, like the Thiel CS5s, this is what you hear. Via the Shahinians, although you hear him move from one side to the other, LA's image is always bloated. In addition, as he walks from the rear of the church to the microphone, his image doesn't actually appear to move at all. The depth dimension is very poorly presented, even though the sound seems quite reverberant overall, presumably because the strong early reflections of the speaker's treble from the room boundaries—reflections that are much stronger than with a conventional speaker because of the Diapason's omnidirectional high-frequency nature—conflict with the reflections encoded within the recording. You may like this effect—it made the Bose 901, which carries this effect to its extreme, into a bestselling speaker—but it remains, nevertheless, a distortion.
Gordon says above that he knows these speakers can sound much better than they did in his home. I'm not so sure. Despite their clean sonic quality, I think their tonal balance is idiosyncratic enough that playing around with room placement and ancillary equipment just won't make a difference large enough for them to merit a recommendation. Listen for yourself.—John Atkinson