Vienna Acoustics Mozart loudspeaker Page 2
I don't mean to imply that the Mozart is the ideal speaker for playing rock at headbanger levels in a large room, or that its dynamic capability is equal to that of a speaker like the Dunlavy SC-IV—5.5" drivers are still 5.5" drivers, and Vienna Acoustics have not managed to repeal the laws of physics. But listen to them in a small or moderately sized room at a sensible level, and I think you'll be astonished at how close they come to the type of presentation that's normally the domain of big (and expensive!) speakers.
Having a "big" sound implies, in addition to sheer dynamic capability, realistic image size (see "Big 'Uns and Little 'Uns" Sidebar). The Mozarts excel here as well. Set up properly, they have the much-valued—and rather rare—ability to disappear as sources of sound, leaving only the music. As I'm writing this review on a computer in a room adjoining the listening room, Sonata, Robert Silverman's Liszt CD (Stereophile STPH008-2; in my opinion, artistically and technically the best that Stereophile has produced), is playing, and my attention keeps being attracted by the sound of what sounds very much like a Steinway concert grand. Somewhat tongue-in-cheek, I've called this type of listening the LIAR (Listening In Another Room) test; the Mozart passed it with flying colors.
LITSR (Listening In The Same Room), the soundstage was deep and wide, extending, with the right recording, well past the walls of the listening room. Within the soundstage, images were nicely focused, almost—but not quite—with the precision of the Dunlavy SC-IVs. Image size was realistic—no toy violins or baby guitars here, nor were they bloated beyond what you'd hear live. With the speakers tilted back slightly, image height was about 6-8" above the top of the speakers (not, as might be expected, level with the tweeters). This, too, contributed to a "big speaker" sound, although my preference would be for an image that's a little higher still. (Sumiko is planning to introduce a metal base/plinth with a greater range of tilt adjustment; this could influence image height.)
Dynamics and soundstaging are important, but it's all for nought unless the speaker is able to reproduce vocal and instrumental timbres in a manner that resembles what you'd hear live. To do this, the speaker must have an even tonal balance, maintain the harmonic structure of instruments and voices, and accurately reproduce musical transients. It's a tall order, even assuming that everything in the recording and reproduction process prior to the speaker's contribution has been perfect. (And if you buy that assumption, perhaps I can interest you in some excellent swampland.)
To judge timbral accuracy, I think the most demanding test is reproduction of the human voice. Because we hear voices live all the time—far more than we hear musical instruments—we have much greater experience to draw on. Also, the human auditory system is particularly sensitive to frequencies in the human vocal range. Add the fact that many loudspeakers have the problematic electrical crossover in the same range, and it becomes obvious that reproducing voices in a manner that sounds natural rather than "canned" is no easy matter.
The brochure from Vienna Acoustics includes an endorsement from Thomas Hampson, undoubtedly one of the top baritones on the international circuit. As it happens, Hampson was in Toronto this year, doing a concert with tenor Jerry Hadley in the acoustically superb George Weston Recital Hall. I attended that concert, which featured much of the material on the CD of duets by Hampson and Hadley (Famous Opera Duets, Teldec 73283-2). Listening to the CD through the Mozarts, I was stuck by how much the sound resembled what I'd heard in the concert hall. No, it wasn't exactly what I'd heard live—but it wasn't far-off, either. The unique timbre of each voice was communicated by the speakers (especially when driven by the Balanced Audio Technology VK-60 amplifiers), and I didn't have to engage in too much willing suspension of disbelief to convince myself that I was listening to Tom & Jerry live.
The Mozarts also did a very good job with the female voice, capturing not only the basic character of Sylvia McNair's creamy soprano, but also the way she uses different technical approaches as she sings Purcell, Puccini, and Harold Arlen (Sylvia McNair: A Portrait, Philips 454 047-2). Sibilants—a major stumbling block for speakers—were presented in a smooth, unexaggerated manner, perhaps with a bit of softening—which, given the overly close-up miking of most commercial recordings, is a good thing. Accurate vocal reproduction requires that the speaker be free of midrange coloration, and while the Mozart is not entirely free of box resonances, the speaker's way with voices suggests that these resonances are benign and low in amplitude. (footnote 3).
If a speaker does well in reproducing the human voice, this tells us a great deal about its ability to reproduce a wide variety of instrumental timbres—but it's not enough. Singing consists mostly of continuous tones, so it gives us little indication of the speaker's ability to deal with transients. One of my standard tests for the reproduction of transients is All Star Percussion Ensemble (Golden String GS CD 005), an exceptionally good-sounding recording from 1981 that has more percussion instruments than you could shake a drumstick at. The Mozart did very well on this test: The attack and decay of each instrumental transient was clearly delineated, with a good sense of ambience and "air" around each instrument.
On other recordings, I was impressed with the sound of guitars reproduced through the Mozarts—the warmth and body of the instrument, as well as the transients captured in a way that kept reminding me of the real thing. It was also easy to follow the subtle ebb and flow of music (what some call "microdynamics").
In terms of overall character, the Mozart is fundamentally neutral, its sound being determined mostly by the associated equipment and the recording itself. To the extent that it deviates from 100% Pure Certified Neutrality, the deviation is in the direction of sweet/warm/laid-back/forgiving rather than hard/lean/forward/hyper-detailed. This is not to say that the Mozart obscured or glossed-over differences among recordings and associated equipment. Improvements brought about by equipment changes/modifications (like bypassing the HDCD-mandated gain-reduction in the Sonic Frontiers SFD-2 Mk.II digital processor) were immediately apparent when listening through the Mozarts. The speaker interfaced well with a variety of amplifiers, and was particularly kind to amplifiers whose own sounds tend toward solid-state hardness. This means that, unlike some otherwise fine speakers in the Mozart's price range, its qualities can be enjoyed with electronics that won't require you to take out a second mortgage. The speaker seemed easy to drive, but it's not a particularly good candidate for pairing with low-power single-ended-triodes; the sound with the Cary CAD-300SEI was a little too sweet, the bass too mushy.
Oh, yes, the bass. If one aspect of the Mozart's performance is a bit problematic, it's got to be the bass. The good news is that Mozart has real bass, not just the bumped-up midbass that small speakers typically deliver. The speaker certainly didn't have the kind of midbass heaviness that adds a too-chesty quality to male voices. Bass-drum and organ-pedal notes were reproduced in a way that made visitors to my listening room look for a subwoofer. The Mozart had no problem pumping out the 40Hz warble tone on the first Stereophile Test CD, and even the 31.5Hz warble tone had a fair amount of the fundamental present. (This was not, of course, at trouser-flapping levels.)
The problem was at around 50Hz, where, according to my RadioShack spl meter, there was a 9dB peak in response referenced to 63Hz (footnote 4). I know that my room has a problem in this region; except for the Audio Physic Tempo, every speaker I've reviewed has evinced a 50Hz peak. But in all other cases the rise has been less marked, usually 4 or 5dB. (The Tempo had a 4dB dip at 50Hz.) Fifty Hz is low enough that an emphasis here is not noticeable on most music, and in some instances (eg, the synthesizer note at the beginning of track 7 on Planet Drum, Rykodisc RCD-10206) the effect is quite impressive. However, with recordings featuring string bass or bass guitar, I found that some notes were unduly emphasized, "jumping out" of the musical phrase. Once again, this was at least partly a function of the speaker's particular interaction with my room. (JA's measurements should throw some light on the extent to which the 50Hz emphasis is a characteristic of the speaker itself.) As with any speaker, only a home audition can determine how the Mozart will interact with the acoustics of your room.
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart was undoubtedly a musical genius of the highest order. For a loudspeaker manufacturer to name a product after him takes some nerve, especially as you can be pretty sure that the composer was not consulted on the matter. Yet, if Mozart had heard the loudspeaker from Vienna Acoustics that bears his name (footnote 5), I suspect he would have been pleased. If the term "musical" is appropriate to describe the sound of an audio component—and some feel that it should be applied only to musical creation and performance rather than reproduction—then it's a word I would use to describe the performance of the Vienna Acoustics Mozart. That is, to whatever degree the sound of the speaker deviates from absolute fidelity to the source, the results are consonant with what one would hear in a live musical event.
While, ultimately, I didn't feel that the Mozart's performance reached the level of detail, transparency, and top-to-bottom accuracy of the more-than-twice-the price Dunlavy SC-IV, neither was it embarrassed by the comparison. The Mozart's dimensions and appearance allow it to fit unobtrusively into almost any room (a statement that could not be made about the SC-IV), and while it benefits from high-quality associated equipment, the choice of amplifier is not unduly critical.
People often ask me to recommend a loudspeaker. I'm usually reluctant to do so, especially if I'm not familiar with their tastes—I know of no loudspeaker that's right for everyone. But if you were to tell me that you like the sound of big speakers but not their size/price, that you've found small speakers to be deficient in the bass, and that, above all, you want a speaker that sounds musical...well, get thee to a Vienna Acoustics dealer!
Footnote 3 I placed one of the Microscan anti-resonance devices on top of each speaker, which produced a significant improvement in imaging specificity and a reduction in box coloration. Microscan is longer in business, but new versions of these devices are available from Tekna Sonic. Attaching these would spoil the Mozart's blends-into-the-finest-decor appearance, but it might be just what's needed to extract the last bit of performance.
Footnote 4: As mentioned under "Setup," plugging one of the ports with the optional foam plug tamed the bass peak, but had undesirable effects on other aspects of the Mozart's performance.
Footnote 5: Audio Artistry also has a speaker called the Mozart; I don't believe the composer was consulted about the use of his name for that one either.