Vienna Acoustics Beethoven Concert Grand loudspeaker Page 2

Recordings of solo piano demonstrated that the Beethoven was capable of handling that most difficult instrument without muting or softening it, though the accent was more on the piano's felt and wood than on its strings. One disc in a treasure trove of classical LPs I was recently given is a 1981 Chandos Super-Analog recording of pianist Lydia Artymiw playing Schumann's Davidsbündlertänze and the Humoreske in B-flat Major (Chandos ABR 1029), recorded direct to Studer A80 at 30ips without noise reduction or compression. It's a wonderfully spacious, well-focused recording of a solo piano, though the Rosslyn Hill Chapel, in Hampstead, England, sounds somewhat hard and reflective. The Beethovens produced an impressively large acoustic—not in the same league as the Wilson Audio Specialties MAXX2s, but big enough to suggest a large space—and reproduced the piano's transients and the hall's reflective character with sufficient speed and detail to make this a compelling listening experience.

Next I played the great Johnny Hartman's Once in Every Life (LP, Beehive BH7012), recorded in 1980 and impeccably engineered by Ben Rizzi, who today runs the Astoria Sound recording complex in Long Island City. Past his singing prime and sometimes forgetting the words, the deep-voiced Hartman still manages to turn in a superb performance, backed by Count Basie tenor-sax man Frank Wess, pianist Billy Taylor, and an ensemble of lesser-known but equally talented sidemen. Because Hartman's deep baritone can produce bloat and congestion, it's a tough test of a speaker's (and a room's) midbass–midrange clarity. The Beethoven Concert Grand delivered Hartman's rich voice with admirable clarity and appropriate warmth. I'm used to a bit more percussive edge to Taylor's piano in "Easy Living," but the Beethoven expressed Joe Wilder's flugelhorn with exceptionally rich, wet, Technicolor-like textures. The refined yet detailed-sounding Beethoven completely aced this test of midbass clarity and freedom from midbass coloration.

Okay, so the Beethoven Concert Grand could handle solo and small-ensemble jazz and classical recordings exceptionally well. How about rock and large-scale symphonic music? I returned from a visit to Classic Records, where I'd witnessed the remastering of the Who's Tommy, with test lacquers of "Underture" and "Pinball Wizard." These weren't the final versions—when I played them through the big Wilson MAXX2s, they sounded slightly brittle on top and had a midrange suckout—but they were dynamically astounding, with startling clarity and resolution of inner detail.

I didn't expect the Beethoven to be able to express the Wilson's dynamic range, and it wasn't, but neither was it noticeably limited macrodynamically—at least until I cranked it up to high SPLs. That's when I discovered the speaker's most serious limitation: It didn't like to be pushed hard or played extremely loud. When it was, its pleasingly smooth tonal demeanor turned a bit hard and occasionally downright nasty, and dynamic compression set in. The good news is that I'm talking about playback levels that will approach the excessive in rooms of small to medium size—SPLs you'll hear at a live rock concert but are unlikely to experience in a concert hall or jazz club. In other words, the Beethoven Concert Grand shouldn't be cranked way up in a big room.

When I turned the volume down to less than ear-splitting levels for the Tommy lacquers, I found the Beethoven more than capable of rocking, with very good bass extension and weight on the nimble-fingered John Entwistle's bass parts and a nice thwack to Keith Moon's tom-toms and kick drum.

Long-term listening pleasure
For well over a month, the Beethoven Concert Grand provided me with exceptionally well-balanced, nearly full-range listening pleasure. On top, the speaker was silky smooth, airy, open, and neither overly aggressive (unless pushed) nor frustratingly polite and soft. Bass extension—down to the 30Hz area—was on the full, rich, supple side, but never sloppy or thick. The midrange was equally expressive and vivid, but not to where it was cloying or sounded like a coloration. The speaker's rhythmic agility was well matched to its transient performance: not the fastest and cleanest, but pleasing and natural to the point where I felt the best-sounding recordings I own were worth a spin, while the shriller, less listenable ones became more pleasing. That strikes me as an excellent real-world balance. Wine analogy: less Cabernet than Merlot.

While the Beethoven could rock and deliver large-scale symphonic thrills at reasonable listening levels, it excelled at putting me in the room with small acoustic ensembles—especially those recorded live. Then, its airy, smooth, somewhat laid-back, enriched harmonic presentation offered a sufficiently well-developed illusion of reality to keep me coming back night after night, never feeling as if I were missing anything, and keeping me guessing the speaker's price.

Conclusions
I didn't learn the price of Vienna Acoustics' Beethoven Concert Grand until just before sitting down to write this review. It came as a bit of a shock.

This speaker is meticulously built, from the cabinet, to the 10 coats of lacquer applied to the natural veneers, to the custom drivers and crossover and speaker terminals, and it offers a pleasingly detailed, harmonically rich sound complete with the unlimited spatial vistas usually offered by narrow-baffled speakers.

The only clues to the Beethoven's low price were how it reacted to being pushed hard to perform at ultrahigh SPLs, and its restricted dynamic presentation when compared to more expensive systems. So while I hoped that the price tag would be well under $10,000/pair, my guess of $6000/pair was still too high by 25%. I like when that happens. No, $4500 isn't pocket change, but for what you get, the Beethoven Concert Grand is an outstanding value. How many audiophile products can you say that about, other than a $90,000 turntable?

The Vienna Acoustics Beethoven Concert Grand is an excellent value, both for its high build quality and for its carefully and pleasingly balanced set of sonic attributes, and its limitations in dynamics and output won't be issues for most listeners. Designer Peter Gansterer has nipped and tucked with surgical precision to produce an outstandingly musical loudspeaker for a very reasonable price.

I spent more than a month listening with complete satisfaction to every kind of music, only occasionally wishing for that Maxell Moment that only bigger, more powerful—and more powerfully priced—speakers can provide. I'll take Gansterer's carefully crafted compromises over a speaker that can play louder and perhaps faster, but fails to deliver the near-full-range tonal and harmonic satisfaction consistently served up by the Beethoven Concert Grand.

While no speaker will please everyone, and some listeners will be drawn to a brighter, more forward sound, many of you will still be happy to come home to the Vienna Acoustics Beethoven Concert Grands long after you've written your check for $4500. And that will be true whether you're an audiophile, a music lover, or both.

Company Info
Vienna Acoustics
US distributor: Sumiko Audio
2431 Fifth Street
Berkeley, CA 94710
(510) 843-4500
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