Snell Acoustics XA Reference Tower loudspeaker Page 3
Smith made minor adjustments during his visit, increasing the Lower Midbass by 2dB with the toggle switch. Later, I used pink noise to learn more about the XA's crossover adjustment switches. They produced only subtle changes, so I left the Upper Treble, Lower Treble, and Upper Midbass switches at 0dB, the Lower Midbass at +2dB, and left the rear tweeter on. I compared the bass responses of both port tubes and preferred the longer. For listening tests, I removed the XA Reference's front grilles, which improved the imaging.
The Snell XA Reference Tower arrived on the heels of a series of reviews of large, expensive loudspeakers, including the hybrid electrostatic MartinLogan Prodigy, the all-aluminum Krell LAT-1, and the Dynaudio Evidence Temptation. Their costs and sizes allowed these systems to do many things well, as revealed by the transparency of the Prodigy, the midrange clarity of the LAT-1, and the deep-bass extension of the Evidence Temptation.
The XA Reference didn't make comparisons with those speakers easy, because the Snell refused to emphasize any one segment of the audio spectrum. Its strengths were uniform; it produced tuneful, solid bass, a transparent midrange, and extended highs. It could by turns sound analytical, seductive, dry, or liquid, depending on the source material. No single sonic profile emerged.
Bass for Pipe Organ Enthusiasts: The XA Reference's bass reproduction was dynamic and quick, producing what JA called, in his review of the Sony ES SS-M9ED speaker in August 2001 (p.95), "a sharply defined edge to the onset of the bass sound, with then a literally visceral impact." This is what I heard from the Snells; it increased the emotional impact of such moments as the explosive bass-drum beats that open the Prelude and Aztec Dance from Owen Reed's La Fiesta Mexicana (CD, Reference Recordings RR-38CD). I was blown away by the throbbing synthesizer notes that underlie Randy Elman's "Something's Wrong," from the My Cousin Vinny soundtrack (CD, Varèse Sarabande VSD-5364). Rhythm and pace were accentuated by the driving kickdrum pulses heard on Emmylou Harris's "Wheels," from Spyboy (CD, Eminent EM-25001-2).
What surprised me even more, however, was that the XA Reference played deep-bass notes most clearly from CDs that I usually reserve for reviews of aftermarket subwoofers. I clearly heard the sub-30Hz synthesizer pulses that dominate "No Sign of Ghosts," from the Casper soundtrack (CD, MCA MCAD-11240), the final organ chords from Elgar's The Dream of Gerontius, Part 1 on Test CD 2 (Stereophile STPH004-2), the repetitive bass-drum beat on "Cosmos Old Friend" from the Sneakers soundtrack (CD, Columbia CK 53146), and the spine-tingling, deep-bass synthesizer chords in "Assault on Ryan's House," from the Patriot Games soundtrack (CD, RCA 66051-2). The XA Reference reproduced the eerie mix of deep earthquake rumblings, brilliant chimes, and high-pitched hissing that gives the last recording its oppressive, sinister ambience.
The deep-bass response extended an octave lower than that of most other loudspeakers I've auditioned. With the long port tubes in place, the XA Reference's bass response was pitch-perfect. I could easily discern the stairstep descent of Marcel Dupré's organ pedals in Saint-Saëns' Symphony 3 (CD, Mercury Living Presence 432 719-2). Sustained pedal notes shook the air, creating a pressure wave I've only previously heard in my room from the Revel Salons and from separate subwoofers. "Gnomus," from Jean Guillou's transcription of Mussorgsky Pictures at an Exhibition (CD, Dorian DOR-90117), produced thunderous bass. As the air in the room shuddered, I heard and felt the solidity of each 32' organ pipe. The XA Reference should make lovers of pipe-organ recordings rejoice!
Vocalists: The Snell XA Reference Towers arrived about the time I was swept away by Eva Cassidy. I had never heard a young singer with such range, power, phrasing, and slow, controlled delivery. It was easy to hear her pinpoint intonation, effortless control, and "dynamics that range from the opalescent caress of ballads to full-throated, roof-raising blues and gospel shouts" (from Joe Siegal's liner note).
But it wasn't until I took Cassidy's albums to the 2002 Consumer Electronics Show and played them over different loudspeaker systems that I realized how key a role the XA Reference had played in my conversion to wild-eyed Cassidy fan. More than a few of the Show loudspeakers flattened her dynamic range, but back in my listening room, I once again heard the difference between her feathery touch on Harburg and Arlen's "Over the Rainbow" to the powerhouse belting of Penn and Moman's "Dark End of the Street" (from The Other Side, CD, CBD Music 02253). Listening to Cassidy's super showstopper, "Bridge Over Troubled Water," from her Live at Blues Alley (CD, Blix Street G2-10046), the singer was a solid, holographic presence right there in the room, conveying the rage and sadness she must have felt at the time of the recording, knowing that she was dying.