TAD Compact Reference CR1 loudspeaker Page 2
As well as Blues Dream, December's "Recording of the Month," All We Are Saying (CD, Savoy Jazz SVY17836), Frisell's collection of John Lennon arrangements, was in heavy rotation while I had the TADs. This album is notable for Kenny Wollesen's natural-sounding drums, the depth of Tony Scherr's double bass, and the telepathic interplay between Frisell's guitar and Greg Leisz's pedal steel guitar. The sense of musical flow in "Revolution" was superb for a ported design, there not being the sense you get with underdamped designs that the bass is chasing the higher regions, trying to keep up. In this respect, the low-frequency behavior of the CR1 was reminiscent of a good sealed-box speaker. But this was with sufficient low-frequency extension that when Scherr slides down to a low subdominant in "Mother," his instrument retained its weight without losing its definition.
I also very belatedly picked up a copy of 11 Tracks of Whack, Walter Becker's 1994 solo album (CD, Giant 24579-2). This has a beautifully even bass guitar throughout, especially in "Down in the Bottom"; the bottom octave was presented in full measure by the TAD monitors, but without any upper-bass boom to obscure the instrument's definition. Another recent acquisition, Busoni's virtuosic transcription for piano of J.S. Bach's Chaconne for solo violin, performed by Wolf Harden (CD, Naxos 8.555699), was similarly reproduced with an excellent sense of weight to the piano's lower register. Again, the instrument's low notes spoke evenly and cleanly. This recording also revealed how clean and uncolored the CR1's midrange was: though this is a complex, densely scored arrangement, there was no sense of congestion in the sound of the piano, or the feeling that some notes were being unnaturally projected forward.
This is not to imply that the TAD was reticent or mellowfar from it. While the CR1 was not bright as such, it was far from being reticent in the highs, which means that it worked best with amplifiers that are themselves neutrally balanced. The MBL Reference 9007 monoblocks, for example, are superb amplifiers, but with the TADs, the sound was just too forward in the mid-treble. The Classé CTM-600s worked their usual magic with the CR1s, but with overcooked modern recordings, such as Adele's 21 (CD, XL 446899-2), even a speaker this clean can't do anything about the relentlessly forward vocal balance. (I know this album is not aimed at sensitive listeners like me, but does it really have to be this loud?) However, "Take It All," which reduces the mix to just singer and piano, again revealed the excellent combination of low-frequency weight and definition to the piano's left-hand register when Neil Cowley plays the "Take it all, with my love" hook in the chorus.
The TAD Compact Reference did have its delicate side. Since I heard Eric Whitacre conduct one of his compositions at Carnegie Hall in 2010, I have been buying as many recordings of his work as I can find, and recently have been enjoying an album of his choral pieces by Noel Edison and the Elora Festival Singers (CD, Naxos American Classics 8.559677). As one by one the voices layered the phrase "my son" in When David Heard to create a tonal cluster that steadily crescendos to a climax, they created a transcendent dome of sound between and behind the plane of the TADs, with no sense that the sounds were emanating from the physical positions of the speakers. Instead, the CR1s stood back out of the way to let the music speak without hindrance, coloration, or blurring of fine detail.
In one sense, the Compact Reference's retrieval of fine recorded detail bordered on the fetishistic, but that detail was not thrust forward at me. Instead, it was just there, as it would be with live sound. I could clearly distinguish the individual brushstrokes on the ride cymbal at the start of "The Mooche," from the Jerome Harris Quartet's Rendezvous (CD, Stereophile STPH013-2). The subtle illumination of the church acoustic of Blue Heaven Studios by the tom toms was clear, as was the superbly stable stereo imaging, with Steve Nelson's vibes hanging between the left speaker position and the center of the stage, and Billy Drummond's Gretsch drum kit extending solidly from stage center to the far right, as both instruments had done at the sessions.
When I recorded Rendezvous, I used stereo miking on the drums and vibes so that the recorded soundstage would bear a close relation to the original reality. But even with totally artificial recordings, the CR1s worked their soundstaging mojo. The effective but idiosyncratic mix of close-miked double bass and distantly miked drums in "Ascension Day," from Talk Talk's Laughing Stock (CD, Polydor 847 717-2), hung in the air between and behind the speakers, and were tangible in their presence. This album was engineered by Phill Brown, who specializes in capturing a real sense of space and true dynamics in his recordings.
I followed this classic Talk Talk track with Steve Winwood's solo album from 1977 (Apple Lossless, ripped from CD, Island 842 774-2), which Brown also engineered. According to the Pure Music meters, this album has as much dynamic range as a good classical recording. Winwood uses a vast array of guitars and keyboards on this album, but sparingly, to create spatial contrasts, in the way that Gustav Mahler, for much of the time in his symphonies, used huge orchestral forces to produce delicate traceries of sound. The way in which the individual objects in the soundstage on the Winwood album retained their separateness as sounds but blended in the higher-order mental construct representing the music when this album was played through the CR1s was, again, almost fetishistic.
This combination of honesty and transparency is what I feel should be implied by the use of the word monitor to describe a loudspeaker. In that sense the CR1 deserves the appellation, so it was with trepidation that I loaded Peter Gabriel's new New Blood (CD, Real World 84108 00038) into the Ayre Acoustics DX-5 player. I am in love with Gabriel's musical visionhis Scratch My Back was one of my 2011 "Records To Die For"but this new album consists of reimaginings of many of his songs for voice and orchestra, which with many rock artists has proved a formula for disappointment. Would the TAD's honesty and transparency unmask pretention?
Fortunately, it didn't. While in songs such as "In Your Eyes" and "Don't Give Up" the deep, clear view into the recorded stage and the rich low frequencies offered by the TADs did reveal the incongruously large size of Gabriel's bent baritone when presented against the dome of orchestral sound in Air Lyndhurst, the speakers also lovingly laid bare the fact that this is music for grown-ups performed by grown-ups and reproduced by appropriately grown-up speakers. Oh my!
All loudspeakers editorialize. It is an inevitable result of the design principle. Use of appropriate technology can reduce that editorial influence, but what is really required is a talented designer who can make use of that technology to balance the departures from absolute accuracy so that the music is as little disturbed as possible. That is the case with the TAD Compact Reference CR1. It lacks the very lowest octave and is balanced a tad forward, but in all other respects it represents the state of the art of loudspeaker design and sound. Yes, at $40,600/pair with its essential stands it is extremely expensive, but that goes with the territory. Doesn't it? TAD's Compact Reference is hardly compact, but it is a reference. Oh my!