Swans Speaker Systems Baton

666swans.100.jpgAs a privileged reviewer-type person, I was sent the souped-up, all-rosewood, bi-wirable version that sells for $2905/pair. They're quite handsome and very solidly built, weighing in at a respectable 50 lbs each. At $2275–$2905/pair, the Baton is Swans' most affordable speaker, and reportedly employs many of the technical refinements of their larger, more costly models.

The Baton uses the tried-and-true two-way dynamic design, with a 7" coated-paper woofer and a 1" fabric-dome tweeter. The tweeter comes with a little Marigo dot stuck to its center to shape its response. It's not a physically easy task for a woofer to reproduce (well) all the frequencies from about 60Hz up to about 2 or 3kHz. One that succeeds is a nice find, though, because the sound has a nice coherence to it when most of the music is coming from the same driver. But don't take my word for it—just look how many zillions of two-way speakers there are out there.

The cabinets of these speakers are quite dead, meaning they shouldn't add too much garbage to the sound coming from the drivers. The walls are 1" thick and braced on the inside, and the edges of the cabinet are rounded to reduce detrimental diffraction effects. In a nice touch, Swans puts the crossover inside a sub-compartment to isolate the components from internal sound waves. The drivers are sonically matched in pairs at the factory prior to assembly, after which the speakers are submitted to lengthy break-in calisthenics. After break-in, the speakers are tested again. Then they're shipped out, and you get to test 'em.

Sound
When I set up the Batons in the "minimized room modes" position that worked well with my B&W 804s, their bass was a little boomy. I realized that, since these speakers are rear-ported, I'd have to check all the wall distances to the ports, as well as to the woofers. This meant twice as much work and trickier problem-solving than was required by the Thiel CS1.5 and Unity Audio Signature Mk.3 speakers that I also review this month, whose woofers, ports, and passive units were lined up more or less vertically. Not to worry, though—an inch this way, a couple inches that way, and all the numbers worked out oh-taay.

I found the Batons sounded best tilted way back. It didn't sound like there was driver time coherence until I got my eyes on the axis of the lower grille anchors, below the woofer. (Be careful: if you tilt them back much more than this, they might fall over.) With the amount I used, though, they still seemed to have enough stability. The threaded spikes (included) are nice and large, and have no nuts attached. These spikes were easy to adjust, looked plenty strong enough, and gave lots of maneuvering height to reach a good tilt angle. I wish more speakers had spikes like these.

After a bit more listening it became apparent that the Batons should be toed-in so that they point directly at the listening position. This configuration gave the most detail, and the Batons needed all the detail they could get. The sound was less involving if they were angled away from me at all. Also, I preferred listening with the little grilles removed. (I've found that grilles in general interfere too much with the top octave.)

666swans.250.jpgSteve Tibbetts' recent masterpiece The Fall of Us All (ECM 1527), is a wonderfully weird album with one of the most diverse collections of instruments I've heard: rock'n'roll guitars, New Age-y synthesizers, and ethnic Asian instruments and drums. Tibbetts' gift for composition really turns me on, and his creative and masterful use of his analog studio doesn't hurt, either. Through the Swans, I heard less detail than with my reference B&Ws. The Swans seemed to give everything a warm, wooden quality, which helped the hand drums to sound quite realistic, but metallic instruments came out sounding a bit muffled. The lower-midrange detail was actually fairly good, and the bass was fairly tight, but there appeared to be information missing from the upper mids on up.

The Batons' bass sounded less extended than that of the Thiels or B&Ws. They went down almost as low, but their midbass was a bit recessed. With Dorian Records' Sampler II (DOR-90002), I had the impression that the bass was slightly too lightweight. Though in general the Batons' bass had good speed, with little overhang, their upper bass somewhat obscured the midbass, making the bass viols and organ pedals difficult to pick out. The bass coloration overall is not that large; I'm just pointing out minor flaws.

I noticed some colorations in the midrange. Some of these were admittedly due to the room, but others were present regardless of where I placed the speakers. I'm not going to try to name particular frequencies; I'll just say there were peaks and dips slightly bigger than expected in speakers of this price. These colorations, in addition to the lack of detail overall, made me want to stop listening to classical music on the Batons. The instrumental timbres were changed enough to detract from the level of realism that normally excites me with well-recorded acoustic music. I reached for rock'n'roll instead.

Now for the good news. I put on Toto's Isolation (Columbia CK 38962) and immediately started to enjoy myself. This ain't no cave, and my name ain't Bruce Wayne, so out with Bat-on, and in with Rock-On! These speakers worked wonders with this recording. Much of the overbright balance, recording artifacts, and excessive cymbals were mercifully absent. Through the "Rock-Ons," this recording sounded more natural than usual, thanks to the speaker's slightly soft treble and rolled-off top octave. This is not high fidelity. I think I'd call this Fidelity Band-Aid. I also think I like it on some recordings, even though I know better.

Moving on to Journey's Greatest Hits (Columbia CK 44493), I wrote, "Now I'm on to something here. Steve Perry's voice has a warm, natural-sounding roundness, but I've never heard this recording sound this good before. The electric guitars sound particularly good." I had never heard "Don't Stop Believin' " sound as good as it did on the Swans "Rock-Ons," and it made me wonder if the speakers the recording engineer had used had a similar balance. I was having a lot of fun with this synergistic match between recording and speaker. I hadn't known that it was possible to strap a pair of speakers on to the end of a transparent, neutral playback system, and have them systematically transform bright, gimmicked recordings into more natural-sounding music.

The main drawback left with the Journey was the speakers' tendency to reduce ambience, even though there isn't much on these recordings. What would normally sound like a medium-sized recording studio sounded a bit smaller and more heavily damped. The left/right image placement was well-defined, and the images themselves gave a fairly good illusion of being in the room with me, but they were more atmospheric than well-fleshed-out. Everything sounded a little softer than real, and the depth was foreshortened a little.

As my Zen amps have a moderately high output impedance of about 0.8 ohm, I wanted to try the Swans with a more characteristic transistor amplifier. I hooked up the NAD 2100X, which has an output impedance less than 0.1 ohm, and the treble sounded a little improved. The difference was not that large, but it was definitely a change for the better. Later, I performed the opposite experiment, connecting 2.2 ohm resistors in series with the Zen and the speakers. This simulates an amplifier impedance of 3 ohms, such that you might find in a single-ended tube design. The treble sounded worse with this setup. I definitely recommend using amplifiers with low output impedances with the Swans. I didn't use the NAD with them all the time, however, because it couldn't compete with the Zen in terms of sound quality. (It's a good amp for the money, though.)

The renamed "Rock-Ons" performed admirably in the Greenberg Memorial Loudness Test. (As Corey Greenberg doesn't write for Stereophile anymore, I figured we should name something after him.) I played some Megadeath and some Warrior Soul, and turned the volume up beyond the point where I had to put cotton balls in my ears to be comfortable. The Swans uttered nary a complaint. No woofer bottoming out. No tweeter bits on the floor. Not even any kind of strain or excessive distortion. This refusal to expire (or even perspire) is impressive for a pair of 7" two-ways, and convenient considering how loudly their preferred program material wants to be played. So bring on your poorly-recorded-yet-lots-of-fun Rap, Heavy Metal, Alternative, Industrial Dance, and Disco, and turn it up.

Conclusions
I wanted to like the Swans Baton a lot. It's so well made and looks so good, you just automatically expect great things from it. But I can't recommend the Baton for music-lovers in general. Their sound just did not offer a clear enough view into the recording—or, by extension, into the original performance—for them to be competitive at this price. Their lack of treble detail, reduced ambience, and midrange colorations take them out of contention for neutral transducer honors (footnote 1).

Nevertheless, people who have very specialized collections of nothing but over-bright, over-processed rock and pop music might want to give the Batons a listen. Why should you buy the relatively wimpy Swans as your dedicated rockin' speakers, when you could have 15" woofers? Because, silly, those monstrosities are usually crossed-over too high in frequency, so that they're dragging their slow 15" butts all over the midrange. Well, not in my midrange you don't! Kickdrum, guitars, and voices all sound way better when most of their sound comes from a single, fast woofer. And remember, swans may look pretty, but they can attack if provoked. Rock On!



Footnote 1: I think Swans gave the Baton the wrong name. Can you visualize James Levine waving one of these things as the first and second cellists move to the rear of the orchestra in the interest of saving their lives? On the other hand, I could totally see Gene Simmons swinging one around his head at a KISS concert, while he spits blood and sings "What is my charisma...is it my body or my brain?" The nice "burnt wood" patterns on the speaker would go well with Gene's dragon-face makeup, too. If you were a sly little reader, you might suspect that I had other reasons to rename this speaker. You might be right.—Muse Kastanovich
COMPANY INFO
Swans Speaker Systems
11630 Goldring Road
Arcadia, CA 91006
(626) 930-060
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