Snell Type A loudspeaker Larry Greenhill Snell Type A/III
Although audio is obsessed with new products, it's long-term market survival that determines the real classics, especially aming speakers. Witness the staying power of such "ancient" designs speakers as the Quad ESL, the Klipschorn, the Rogers LS3/5a, and the Dahlquist DQ-10.
So it is with Peter Snell's Type A loudspeaker. This hefty, multi-driver dynamic system has been updated twice since its 1976 debut, and has continued to sell in spite of significant price increases. It has always been a high-output, low-distortion speaker that provided very even frequency response and a panoramic soundstage, though with some limitations in imaging and some difficulties in room compatibility. And a number of non-sonic attributes have added to the Type A's attractiveness: it is a strikingly attractive piece of furniture; it can be placed against a wall (footnote 1), making it easy to integrate into a living space; it can be run full range or biwired or biamplified; and Snell Acoustics has an exemplary customer service policy, evident in their quick warranty work.
The latest Type A, the A/III is a taller, bigger version of the earlier models: 4" taller, 1" deeper, 65 lbs heavier, and equipped with a rearward-firing supertweeter. It is also more expensive, the new price being almost 50% higher than that of the model it replaces, the Type A/II (footnote 2). In fact, the changes in the A/Ill make it a totally different loudspeaker, rather than a third revision as its model designation would seem to imply.
Each channel of the system is composed of two easily movable, separately packaged enclosures. The 51-lb upper section houses the midrange and tweeters, and is located by pegs to the top of the 72-lb woofer base. The front is finished in lacquered wood veneer, and the back is covered with a black matte wrinkle.
Many of the Type III's design elements have evolved from earlier Type As. To minimize midrange-tweeter interactions and cabinet diffraction, the upper enclosure uses a biconvex curved baffle and acoustical padding to absorb sound waves before they reach the cabinet edges. Relatively low crossover frequencies of 275Hz and 2.7kHz are used, and the drivers are aligned vertically, the height of the midrange-tweeter array being set at seated-ear level.
Other than dimensional changes, the addition of a rearward-firing supertweeter (which can be switched in or out) is the most obvious change from earlier models. The sonic contribution of the new tweeter was not apparent until I turned it off, at which time I became aware of the ambience it had been imparting.
The lower, 2.9 cubic foot, cabinet houses a downward-firing 12" woofer. The woofer's close-to-the-floor placement evolved from Roy Allison's early studies, which showed that that bass-canceling wall and floor reflections will be minimized if the woofer is placed very close to these surfaces. The woofer enclosure is internally divided into small compartments, with bracing in all directions. The 3dB-down point of the speaker is now 28Hz, which is a big improvement over the 38Hz delivered by the A/II. In addition, the sensitivity of the whole speaker system has been increased to 86dB.
The midrange driver and forward-firing tweeter are mounted on a biconvex baffle. The midrange driver is isolated within its own cylindrical container, which in turn is supported in the baffle by foam mounting. The midrange-tweeter baffle is heavily damped, and is isolated from the woofer cabinet by absorptive pads. The upper cabinets are provided with ¼"shims for tilting them back to equalize arrival times from the different drivers.
Earlier versions of the Type A were criticized for having mediocre imaging (wide, but not particularly deep soundstage) and a somewhat thin, hard sound in very reverberant listening rooms, like mine. The A/III generates the wide soundstage of the II, but now with adequate depth and far greater realism. Instruments and voices now have a three-dimensionality to them. With an image height that's shoulder high, the sound "picture" ieaches vertically and horizontally beyond the cabinet boundaries to the ceiling and side walls. It is the only speaker I have heard that creates the illusion of turning the rear wall into a large window for sound, but without inflating image size. The overall effect is of a grand, epic portrayal of the music; to do this and maintain realistic image size is impressive. I would go so far as to say that the A/III possesses much of the palpable realism heard on the Quad ESL-63.
At times this effect can be especially convincing. The nightclub atmosphere heard in the background of "Limehouse Blues" from the Proprius record Jazz at the Pawnshop comes through with all its subtle ambience clues, emanating from a wide area behind the instruments in the jazz ensemble.
The A/III's bass performance is close to being the best I have heard. Outside of the Wilson WAMM system and the new Infinity IRS Type III, I've never heard such low-frequency power from a speaker. Driven by a single Levinson ML-9, the loudspeaker rocked my living room and literally flapped my pant legs playing The Rite of Spring on the Telarc CD (80054). And it was a revelation to be shaken by the weight of the giant marimba's 25Hz pulses on Harry Partch's "Delusion of a Fury." The thunderous organ notes on E. Power Biggs' recording of the Saint-Saëns "Organ Symphony" (No.3 in c, Columbia MS 6469) were more clearly defined than from my RH Labs SB-i subwoofer.
The upper bass and lower midrange come forth with power and realism, but not, overemphasis. Whereas the Type A/II was thin in the mdbass and not particularly good at rendering instrumental timbres, the new Type III is excellent in these areas.
To my ear, the Type III redefines the meaning of dynamic range. Not only does it play very loud (or soft) with coherenc.e and detail; it tracks program dynamics faster and with greater ease than any dynamic loudspeaker I've heard. If you happen to own the remarkable CD from BIS, The Kroumata Percussion Ensemble (CD-232), try playing "Hierophonie V" but be careful, the crashes of the tympani errupt out of total silence! The Type IIIs rendered this percussion disc with complete naturalness. Even driven by oniy a single Levinson ML-9, the system can track orchestral climaxes up to 104dB at 10'.
Soft passages too are played with great inner' detail, making the new Snell speaker superbfor the 'dramatic nuances of chamber music. Shadings of dynamic change, as well as absolute loudness, are well portrayed.
This great dynamic range and powerful bass makes the Type A/IIIs a fabulous speaker for 'popular music. It's the best speaker I've found to really get into Steely Dan's Aja album (VIM 4039). Besides the strong, solid beat, the speakers put the listener directly in the atmosphere 'of the best two cuts: "Black Cow" and "Aja."
Piano music is rendered almost flawlessly: recordings of small pianos sound like a good. imitation of the real piano that sits nearby in my living room (footnote 3).
The speaker's even power radiation at high frequencies can expose an amplifier's top end mercilessly; in a highly reflective room the new Snells may even sound hard. Even so, little if any of the midrange shrillness heard with the Type IIs can be found in the IIIs.
This speaker does best with a very powerful solid-state amp, such as the Levinson ML9 (330Wpc and 700W instantaneously into 4 ohms). While the A/III sounded very open and clean with less powerful amplifiers, such as the Tandberg 3006A or the VSP-150, none came close to producing the thunderous bass power of one ML-9.
Snell encourages either bi-wiring (parallel wires from one amplifier to the bass module and the woofer/tweeter module respectively) or biamplification. The upper and lower sections of the speakers are interconnected by a banana plug jumper cable which can be removed to allow these alternate hookups. bi-amping does not require an electronic crossover: Each cabinet houses its own crossover. Since the crossovers are in parallel, the amplifier is able to deliver full current to each module. Most of the advantages of an electronic crossover are thus achieved with none of the disadvantages (cost, phase. inaccuracy, distortion and veiling). The one remaining problem, which would be solved with an electronic crossover is the tendency for the passive crossover to diminish coupling between the amplifier and the woofer (footnote 4).
I tried biamplifying with two Levinson ML-9s, a single one of which had at first seemed perfectly adequate. There was an immediate awareness of the sound opening up as. ambience information increased, the soundstage became wider, and perceived sonic detail was enhanced. A good example is the "Gates of Daâfos" cut on on Reference Recordings Dâfos. When biamplifying, I was put more in touch with the room where the recording was done. Wall reflections and ambience cues were clearer and more revealing.
Bass response, already outstanding, on the A/IIIs, was also helped. The large drum on the "Passage" cut from the same disc produces an amazingly percussive. sound, percussive in the. true sense of the word: a steep wavefront followed by a sledgehammer sensation of solidity and impact. Emerging above this, with no smearing of detail,, were the distinctive sounds and imaging placement of the full truckload of Mickey Hart's gear—the bongos, snares, cowbells, blocks, gongs, and cymbals. Dynamics (again, already very good on the A/IIIs) also got better when bi-amping. There was both greater preservation of detail and a capacity for loudness increase that was almost frightening.
Alternatively, one can try bi-wiring, which is claimed to reduce the modulation of one driver by the back electromotive force from another. bi-wiring yields significant improvements over monowiring, tightening the bass and sharpening the transients. I found bi-wiring to be essential for obtaining the greatest clarity from less powerful amplifiers, such as the 100Wpc Spectral DMA-100, or even the 200Wpc Sumo Andromeda. The favorable comments above about the Levinson ML-9 relate to using it in the bi-wired mode. Bi-wiring does not yield the same improvements as bi-amping, but it's much less expensive.
It should be obvious by now that I really like the Snell A/IIIs. In fact, they're the best speakers I've had in my house, maybe the best I've heard anywhere. But any time a critic is exposed to a component that sounds dramatically different and berer than its predecessors, his critical faculties tend to be shortcircuited. In other words, there may be problems with the A/IIIs which will show up after very extended listening. On the other hand, I've had them' for two months now, and just like them more and more! You should alSo be warned that I favor bass-rich speakers—I used to leave my Dynaco loudness control on when I listened to my KLH6s! (footnote 5)—and the Snell's powerful bass response tends to enhance the bass characteristics of all music—which means it's a speaker I would be almost certain sure to like. In further listening I found' this bass richness to be centered around 100Hz, although the impression of profound low end is not a false one it's really there. Other listeners may react differentlyto the A/Ills' bass presentation than I did.
The one area in which I find the Snells to be somewhat deficient is soundstage depth. Although the imaging has been improved over the A/II, the Snells continue to produce a shallower field than the best available, and listeners for whom this is especially crucial should carefully audition the Snells before buying.
That one criticism notwithstanding, I feel the A/III is destined to be one of the two or three outstanding loudspeakers of the 1980s, regardless of driver design or price. For many years, electrostatics and planar drivers (such as the Magnepans) have excelled as the most transparent, realistic loudspeakers. Now the Type III offers a large-signal, dynamic alternative for the audiophile interested in the best sound and able to pay for it.—Larry Greenhill
Footnote 1: Actually, the manufacturer points out that it was never intended to be placed right against a wall, but rather a few inches out. In fact, against-the-wall placement was promoted by numbers of Snell dealers.—Larry Archibald
Footnote 2: The Type A/II is actually still available on special order, at the increased price of $2950/pair.—Larry Greenhill
Footnote 3: Yes, I own a piano. While the "real thing" emphasizes the phoniness of just about every speaker I've had in the house, the Snell Type III loudspeakers do an excellent job of creating a passable imitation. Strangely, the piano shows far fewer "room-interfacing problems" than any speaker I've played in my listening room.—Larry Greenhill
Footnote 4: Since every power amplifier has some IM distortion, no matter how low, there is also an advantage in routing bass and treble through separate amplifiers; that is, using an electronic crossover.—J. Gordon Holt
Footnote 5: May the good Lord be merciful of your past transgressions.—J. Gordon Holt