The Waveform Loudspeaker Page 2
As mentioned before, John Ötvös hired Paul Barton of PSB to design the Waveforms. Paul is reputed to be one of Canada's best designers, and has long experience working in the NRC facilities to evaluate his designs. (The Waveforms were themselves thoroughly evaluated there, though no details were provided to me as to specifics.) Judging from the final design, I'd say that Paul's brief was to design a cost-no-object direct-firing radiator with even on-axis frequency response that went very deep in the bass and played loud with little stress. He worked on the Waveform project from 1985 through 1987.
Setup and adjustments
The system used for this review consisted of the familiar CAL Tempest II CD player, the equally familiar Well-Tempered Turntable, Kimber 4AG speaker cable, AudioQuest interconnects, a Motif MS100 amp, a pair of VTL 500s, the Krell KSA-200, and a pair of Carver Seven T-mods. Significantly new were the Conrad-Johnson Premier 7 preamp, a VTL Ultimate preamp, and the AudioQuest 7000 cartridge.
The Waveforms were set up in my 20'x35' living room by "Father" Ötvös himself. I had situated them about where I usually put speakers (10' from the back wall and 6' from the sides), but John warned me that wouldn't be the best location. This kind of took me aback—after all, this was not a di- or bipole radiator requiring specialized back-wave cancellation (or lack of it), but a direct-firing speaker, ostensibly similar to a Thiel, Spica, or Vandersteen—all of which work fine in the location I'd chosen. Well, John was right and I was wrong. In my familiar location, the Waveforms just didn't "click" at all. Sitting in my familiar position about 9' from the speaker baffles, the sound was dry and uninvolving. Moving back in the room (19–22' (!) from the baffles) made things better, but not ideal.
Still, John, trusting in my good sense, felt happy leaving the speakers in this setup. "Yup, that's what they sound like," pronounced he, after running a few test tones, moving the knobs on the crossover to where he wanted them, and playing one helluvan audiophile CD: the Dorian organ transcription of Mussorgsky's Pictures at an Exhibition (DOR-90117). That one work both demonstrated some amazing capability in the Waveforms and left us speechless enough to want to end the listening day.
I'll have to hedge this next statement because some speakers that produce prodigious levels are outside of my experience, but I'm sure that the Waveforms play this CD at more realistic levels than almost any other home loudspeakers. The only time I've experienced organ that loud is in the sounding chamber for the pipes themselves at the church I grew up in (First Congregational Church of Winchester, Mass.). John was claiming peaks of only 99dB at the back of the room, but we played the same CD later, at a slightly lower level, and JA measured peaks of 109dB 2m from the speaker. By comparison, the IRS Betas—no slouch in the low-end department—started experiencing severe lower midrange distress at peak overall levels of an estimated 100dB. That's a big difference, and the sound from the Waveforms was clean! (footnote 2) No wonder John was proud of his handiwork.
Obtaining some different amplification (initial auditions used the Carvers and the Motif) and settling into some room readjustment, I eventually got the Waveforms in more sympathetic circumstances (6' from the back wall and 5' from the side wall to the center of the speaker). Optimum amplification proved to be the newly arrived VTL 500s on the top end, combined with a Krell KSA-200 on the bottom. (Unfortunately, the Krell buzzed through the woofers at a readily audible level, undoubtedly an artifact of its interaction with the crossover. It does, however, the same thing through the Infinity IRS Beta crossover. The buzz is not evident while music is playing, except during extremely quiet passages.) The Motif was a non-starter in terms of musical involvement on these speakers, but the Carvers served well enough on the low end, though not as tight and fundamental as the Krell. For a while I used a Krell on top, but that exacerbated an upper-octave problem which I'll get to in a moment.
Putting the speakers more in the corner—almost always a no-no—livens up the sound of the Waveforms considerably. My normal near-field listening position (by which I mean a position where the direct sound of the speakers predominates), about 8' from the speaker baffle, still didn't work: the sound was too direct and in-your-face, but the Ötvös-recommended position 20–25' back from the speaker baffle did much better in terms of coherent sound. "The Waveform loudspeaker was expressly designed for room interaction which means bare side walls are best in the immediate vicinity of the speakers for early reflection interaction..."—Waveform Owner's Manual. This must be what was going on here.
Though this kind of placement does work best with the Waveforms, I must say that designing to this criterion is, in my opinion, a mistake. Among other things you may have noticed is that hardly any of you have rooms available in which it's even possible to sit 20' from the loudspeaker! I'm lucky, and to a big extent I have such a large room devoted to speaker evaluation because someone at the magazine should (particularly with speakers like the IRS Betas). In addition, anticipating a significant percentage of early-reflection sound (sitting closer to the speakers yields a much higher percentage of direct sound) simply means anticipating unknown tonal-balance colorations. My room, for instance, has a large rug on one side wall and a similarly sized bank of windows on the other. Inevitably, the reflections off one wall will sound different from those off the other—but this is true in virtually every room, which is why near-field listening gives you a better feel for the particular speaker.
More important, well-recorded ambience is immediately evident in near-field listening. By contrast, the more early room reflections you hear, the more you are adding (uniformly, from record to record) the sound of your own acoustic to the recorded one. Yes, if your room is reasonably live, this will give you greater "ambience," but it will be the same ambience every time, not unique as it is in different recording environments.
All this moving around of speakers and amplifiers required readjustment of the crossover. The factory recommendation is to set the level according to a formula, carefully detailed in the owner's manual. Doing this, with virtually all the combinations of amplifier I tried, resulted in drastically too much low end. Generally speaking, if you're aware of the low end as an identifiable entity, you've got too much. So I backed it off, still trying to stay fairly close to the factory recommendation, figuring I might be "starving" the review sample of low end. This was a mistake.
Eventually, JA came over with his spectrum analyzer and we adjusted the Waveforms for most even measured balance between bass and midrange. The result is fully 7.9dB lower than the factory recommendation. My advice would be to always use a third-octave spectrum analyzer to make this adjustment. Not only will you be sure of the correct bass level, you can assess the effect of the Coupling control to make sure you're not getting excessive low bass.
And, although the effect of small amounts of rotation on this knob are not readily noticeable, the overall effect of getting the balance right is substantial, as you would guess. Not only do you become less aware of bass—a good sign—but instruments actually appear to have more body, I suppose because there is a better "fit." In addition, because recorded ambience is more believable, the recording sites come alive to a greater degree, a characteristic most needed with this speaker.
This section of the review has been the most difficult to write, as it frequently is when the overall judgment is not terribly positive. I make it a practice to listen to the speaker in question while I finish the review, pounding away at my NEC Multispeed (footnote 3), and it has only confirmed my feeling, as I sit here, that I frankly haven't enjoyed listening to the Waveforms during most of the review period. Certainly not compared to my most recent reference, the Mirage M-1, nor even compared to more modest speakers such as the Thiel CS1.2 or the Spica Angelus.
When writing a review, though, my personal response takes, to some degree, second place to the product's actual performance. How will you, the prospective consumer, like the product in your home? Separating these two areas of evaluation is the hardest part of reviewing.
The adjustments described above were crucial to getting the Waveforms even into the "listen for more than one day" category. As delivered, there was just no involvement from records that normally have me wrapped up. Everything was important: the positioning, the particular amplifiers (especially the VTLs on top), the crossover adjustments, my sitting position, plus a certain amount of settling in.
Even so, for me, the Waveforms are excessively flat. Not flat in frequency response—though they are notably that, before you get to the top octave—but flat in musical presentation. On only a few records, and with one combination of associated equipment, did I begin to be caught up in the musical performances being presented by the Waveforms. Dick Olsher said it best, during his audition of the Waveforms: "These are pretty average-sounding speakers."
This should not be interpreted to mean that the Waveforms are average speakers. There are ways in which they're extraordinary—see how they handled the Mussorgsky organ transcription, above. And, compared to most of what's out there, they sound coherent, well-balanced, and will play astonishingly loud, well.
Compared to the elite—which, at $9800, is where they undoubtedly place themselves—though, they're average-sounding. They don't pull you in, make you tap your feet, make you want to dance, or cry. It's not easy for me to assign responsibility for this averageness. The bass is impressively deep, tight, and, within the limits of my listening room (which, despite its size, has significant room modes), smooth. This bass goes notably lower than the Mirage M-1s, and will play notably louder than even the Infinity IRS Betas. (Truth be told, the loudness limitation of the Betas is in their lower midrange panels, with energy in the 100–200Hz range, but a limitation it still is.) In the initial Waveform setup, with the speakers out from the back wall and driven by Carver Seven T-mods and the Motif 100, there was an upper-bass coloration that seemed to subtract power from male bass voice and give it a kind of hollowness. Either I got used to this, however, or it went away with different speaker positioning and amplifier selection and crossover adjustment. (JA tells me that the measurements of the woofer showed up a relatively high-Q resonance in the upper bass, which may have been what I heard.)
If you're a fan of very loud, bass-heavy music (such as the Dorian CD), the Waveforms have to be heard to be believed. They energize the whole house, and do so with no feeling of danger—to the speaker, that is (both your ears and the house may be in some danger). Not only that, the midrange and treble ranges maintain their integrity while all this bass is going on (though this was somewhat difficult for me to evaluate since my ears were so far into overload).
Midrange and lower treble frequencies were presented with evenness and lack of undue emphasis on any particular instrument or voice characteristic. Nevertheless, I never felt drawn into the music—the Waveforms met neither the desideratum of bringing the orchestra into the room nor that of bringing me to the orchestral hall (see JGH's superb definition of the goal of a hi-fi system in his review of the Denon anechoic recording, Vol.12 No.9).
There was some problem with a mildly withdrawn midrange at first—the kind that, dissatisfied, makes you want to keep turning up the volume. Use of both the VTL 500 amplifiers and the VTL Ultimate preamp more or less cured this, though I know those components can perform much better with speakers like the IRS Betas. The primary problem here seemed to be inadequate definition—re-creation—of the soundstage, and I honestly don't know why. To some degree, I was warned of this possibility by John Ötvös during his visit, though he didn't realize that's what he was doing. He told me that his speakers didn't add any false ambience like the bipolar Mirages; instead, he preferred the honest presentation of soundstage that forward-firing-only speakers offer. Unfortunately, the Waveforms don't create the soundstage that even modest forward-firing speakers like the Thiel 1.2 provides, nor what you can get from the Spica Angelus. In fact, the "false" ambience provided by the Mirages is much closer to what I judge is really on the records (as auditioned through numerous other speakers, and compared to the sound of real acoustic spaces) than is the very minimal soundstage provided by the Waveforms.
Footnote 2: JA, while impressed with the Waveforms' output capabilities, heard significant bass distortion at the +100dB levels we were generating. Either the music is too off-putting for me—that CD is the ultimate audiophile test CD, which makes it automatically anathema in my book—or I'm simply not sensitive to bass distortion, a conclusion I've reached on other occasions where people were hearing bass distortion that I missed. (Peter Mitchell is particularly sensitive to it.) Or maybe it was that, during much of the audition, I was outside the house, where the sound was still really loud.
Footnote 3: Heavier than JA's preferred Toshiba 1200, and with much shorter battery life, but it has a standard, comfortable keyboard and a readable screen—the only two characteristics of a computer I care about.