The Waveform Loudspeaker Thomas J. Norton's Follow-up
Moving never seems to come at a convenient time. I was originally slated to write about the Waveform loudspeaker reviewed by Larry Archibald in November 1989 and had the review pair in my home for several weeks. My listening time with them was limited, however. After the Waveforms were delivered, and briefly auditioned during and after a visit by company honcho John Ötvös, they had to be wrestled out of the way to permit completion of follow-ups on the ZSE loudspeakers and Grado cartridges. (My auditions of the initial samples of the Grado MCZ and TLZ had been performed through the B&W 801 Matrix Series 2s, and to maintain consistency I wanted to use the same loudspeakers for the rewrite).
All this took place while my house was on the market; when it finally sold, just about the time I was getting back to the Waveforms, the new buyers wanted in within a month. Telling them to buzz off—that I had things to finish and would wait for more flexible buyers— somehow didn't seem like a smart move. During that final month my auditioning time was further restricted by the need to prepare nearly five tons of "stuff" for the mover's gentle touch. The available time didn't seem enough to do justice to such a complex and expensive product. Nevertheless, I formed some definite impressions.
I agree with LA in some respects and disagree with him in others. And I believe I have a plausible explanation for the differences in our reactions. Let me say right off that my initial impression of the Waveforms was a favorable one. John Ötvös spent a Saturday afternoon and evening setting up the loudspeakers in my room, listening to them, and generally satisfying himself that all was copacetic. The only way in which I would have deviated from his setup was in placement: he chose a position very near to the back wall. A Levinson No.23 was used on the top end, an Adcom GFA-555 on the bass (footnote 1). The Waveforms proved to be punchy and dynamic, leaning toward the aggressive but in a positive way, never going over the edge. And they did play loud. Given the fact that LA played them even louder, in a room about double the size of mine, I would judge that no one is likely to be dissatisfied with the ultimate spl capability of these loudspeakers in any domestic application. (Interestingly, Ötvös downplayed their output-level capabilities during his visit with me, although we didn't exactly listen at background-music level.) And their bass capabilities were prodigious—you won't need a subwoofer or even be tempted into thinking about one.
I did get the opportunity to experiment a bit with positioning in my later auditioning—not an easy project with a pair of 180-pound cabinets (footnote 2). In my favored location—a position several feet from the rear wall, where most box-type loudspeakers perform (in my room) at their best—the Waveforms thinned out noticeably. I ended up moving them back to the rear-wall location. This restored the balance to the midbass, but didn't result in excessive warmth, as so often happens with other loudspeakers.
The Waveforms are very neutral and low in coloration right up to the mid-treble. My primary departure from LA's observations lies in the area of soundstaging. My listening notes refer to it as "good," occasionally "very good." Never "excellent" or "striking," but effective nonetheless. Still, I noted that it was less precise than that of the B&W 801s, not to mention the even better soundstaging which is almost invariably the province of far smaller loudspeakers. The width of the Waveforms' soundstage seemed better developed than the depth, which was somewhat foreshortened. But I never found the overall soundstage of the Waveforms uninvolving or off-putting.
Why the difference between LA's opinion and my own? I never heard the Waveforms in his listening room, but my guess is that their soundstage was compromised by the listening distance he found it necessary to use in order to optimize their other characteristics in his environment. He is apparently accustomed to listening in the nearfield and ended up listening instead in the reverberant field—where room characteristics more strongly influence what is heard. I have never found sitting at such distances to be conducive to the development of a convincing sense of imaging and depth. My own listening was done 10–12' from the loudspeakers, and in my room this resulted in a respectable soundstage. But, again, not an exceptional one.
On the other hand, I have to agree with LA and JA concerning the high-frequency response. While I never found the top end of the Waveforms to be unlistenable (as JA did), I became increasingly irritated by a dry, frizzy quality in the upper octave. Though well above the brightness region—the Waveforms are not in any way bright or edgy sounding—this dryness was not immediately obvious to me (probably because of a fortunate initial choice of program material), but it became increasingly clear that this was one quality which had to be addressed before the Waveforms could compete in their price category. And while I was never troubled by the interference pattern JA measured between the tweeter and supertweeter, the wide spacing between the two is very possibly responsible for any sonic incoherence noted by others.
I may be the only one, other than the designers, who has heard the Waveforms sans supertweeters. Just before packing the loudspeakers off to Santa Fe, I decided to make some measurements. My measurement tools are not nearly as sophisticated as JA's, but I wanted to have some quantitative data on hand. And I, too, was searching for clues to that HF problem. Do you remember my mentioning in a previous review that I couldn't recall ever having blown a tweeter? I no longer have bragging rights. To make a long story short, I inadvertently fed a high-level 16 or 18kHz tone into the Waveforms (footnote 3). Both supertweeters went, literally, in a flash.
It wasn't particularly amusing at the time—I feel a definite responsibility to return review samples in good condition, and generally do—but it was quite spectacular in retrospect. The diaphragms on the ribbon supertweeters (footnote 4) are visible from the front, and their immolation scene could be witnessed from the listening position. LA asked me in a later telephone conversation if the Waveforms had sounded better without the supertweeter (new ones were fitted in Santa Fe prior to the auditioning there). Yes and no. The HF peaking was gone, but so was most of the openness and air. That's not surprising; the dome tweeter has its own low-pass filter in the (passive) crossover network.
I should also point out that, in my setup, I encountered a low-level buzzing through the loudspeakers (largely masked by program material) which I could not eliminate; it appeared to be some type of ground interaction with the electronic crossover. And I, too, had problems with plug-to-chassis clearance using audiophile-grade interconnects with fat plugs.
How did the Waveforms compare with my reference loudspeakers, the B&W 801 Matrix Series 2s? The Waveforms were more dynamic, with more punch and sheer drive than the 801s. And I have no doubt that the Canadian loudspeakers will play louder, though I did not conduct a crank-'em-up as part of my auditioning. Beyond that, however, the 801s came out ahead. Their soundstage presentation—both in imaging and depth—was superior. And there was no real contest in the high end—the B&Ws were far more natural. At the low end my conclusions remain tentative—the B&Ws did, however, definitely hold their own with the Waveforms. Not, perhaps, in sheer air-moving ability, but in all other respects, including extension.
Let me just say that I felt more detailed comparisons were called for when the clock ran out; I had not yet been convinced that the low-frequency response of the Waveforms was "better," overall, than that of the 801s. It was very definitely in the running, but is that enough at nearly twice the price? I'm a little more optimistic than LA concerning the possibility of a major upgrade to the sound of the Waveforms without a complete redesign. Addressing the high-frequency balance would help considerably. Redesign of the electronic crossover using the latest ICs (or better, discrete components) could well pay dividends. But beyond those changes, I would recommend that the principals put their considerable design talents to work in reducing the cost of this loudspeaker. Or in designing a far less expensive baby brother with the HF problem solved, improved soundstaging, and 90% of the current model's LF and SPL capability.
Because although I ultimately did enjoy the time I spent with the Waveforms, as matters stand at present there are considerably less expensive loudspeakers that I would, in good conscience, have to recommend ahead of them.—Thomas J. Norton
Footnote 1: The PS Audio 200CX was used with the woofer in later auditions.—Thomas J. Norton
Footnote 2: The shipping cartons (wood) weigh an additional 60 pounds or so each. Thought you'd like to know.—Thomas J. Norton
Footnote 3: I know better than to do this deliberately, as should you. If you own the Hi-Fi News & Record Review test CD, exercise extreme caution. The test tones are recorded at 0dB, not the more commonly encountered –20dB. I had no intention of playing the HF test tones (my interest was in the pink-noise bands and the LF tones), but somehow the wrong band got played.—Thomas J. Norton
Footnote 4: More precisely, leaf supertweeters. The small ribbon-type tweeters used by several companies (I do not include the long ribbon tweeters of, primarily, Apogee and Magnepan in this) are different in design from (and less expensive than) the small ribbons at one time manufactured by Decca in the UK, Pioneer in Japan, and Sequerra in the US. I'll reiterate my explanation from an earlier review (the VMPS Tower II/R): The "ribbon" tweeter of the Waveform falls into the same category as Infinity's EMITs. "It is not a true ribbon, but rather a thin-film, flat diaphragm with a conductive strip attached to it and an array of powerful magnets providing the required magnetic field. A true ribbon has a thin, conductive foil diaphragm suspended between the poles of a powerful magnet and is usually loaded by a short horn to provide the necessary sensitivity, along with a transformer in the smaller versions for the needed impedance match." There are advantages and disadvantages to both designs.—Thomas J. Norton