Shahinian Diapason loudspeaker system
Shahinian has less than two dozen dealers, does no advertising (aside from sporadic dealer newsletters), and only his first speaker system has been reviewed by a US publication (footnote 1). (An English magazine did a mild rave of one of his mid-priced systems a few months ago.) What he does do is appear at every audio show and CES, set up a demo system, settle his ample form in a chair, and proceed to play excerpts from his portable, but large, collection of symphonic CDs for the edification and delight of anyone who bothers to open the door to his room and come in.
He doesn't hold programmed demonstrations according to times specified on a cardboard clock outside his room, as do others who exhibit behind closed doors. In fact, there's nothing outside his room to attract visitors except the sign on the door that says "Shahinian". If you've heard of Shahinian or his loudspeakers, and enjoy the kind of music he chooses to play (usually large-scale symphonic—my favorite kind), you'll open the door, walk in, and be warmly greeted like a lifelong friend. If you haven't, you probably won't. And you'll miss some of the best sound to be heard at any audio show.
I've heard Dick Shahinian's demos a number of times during the past few years (before then, I was one of the many who didn't bother to open his door), and never heard anything less than spectacular realism and impact. They always sounded full, rich, and warm (but not excessively so), and had tremendous LF impact. Bass drum felt like body blows, without a trace of boom or hangover. But what really impressed me was their unfailing ability to evoke in me the uncanny conviction that I was listening to a real, live orchestra in its natural habitat. Under the circumstances, it was not surprising that their shortage of imaging specificity didn't bother me; I had heard that sound often enough in enough concert halls to know that a real orchestra heard from a decent seat doesn't give you pinpoint imaging.
When I expressed an interest in reviewing the Diapason, Dick was willing enough (enthusiastic, actually) to loan me a pair, but it seemed thereafter that I always had a backlog of other products that I was previously committed to reviewing, and I never got around to picking up the phone to say, "Okay, Dick, send 'em along." Until now.
Actually, I'd heard the Diapasons so often in so many different rooms that I was confident I could write the review without taking another listen to them. But a responsible reviewer always auditions components under familiar circumstances before committing his impressions to print. I'm glad I did so in the case of the Diapason.
A diapason is a variety of wind organ pedal pipe whose sound has a unique fluttery sound, like a leather flag flapping in the wind. Shahinian's Diapason loudspeaker module is a roof-shaped, quasi-omnidirectional, three-way 14-driver unit that spans the range above 130Hz with upward-firing drivers aimed every which way. The Diapason system that is the subject of this review is a combination of the Diapason module and Shahinian's Double Eagle subwoofer. The latter, which contains two 8" drivers, is one of the only transmission-line woofer systems currently on the market (footnote 2)—something which really surprises me when the LF transmission line's superiority over anything short of a huge horn is one of the few things practically all high-enders agree about. In this case, the lines (two per channel) are dimensioned to provide loading down to around 25Hz, and are terminated by separate passive drivers for damping.
The equipment used for my initial auditions included the Boulder 500AE power amp, Threshold FET-10P and 10L preamp and line controller, Ortofon SL-3000 cartridge, Well-Tempered arm, SOTA Star turntable (footnote 3), Revox A-77 15ips 2-track tape recorder, and a Sony CDP-X779ES CD player. Audio interconnects were Monster M-1000s, loudspeaker cables were AudioQuest Green. Program material ran the gamut, although most of the recordings used were orchestral, from Delos, Reference, Sheffield, Stereophile, and JGH.
According to Shahinian, the speakers he sent me had been given a lengthy break-in before they left the factory, and my experience with them was that, indeed, they did not change audibly during the course of my listening tests. But then, I have to say those tests didn't last very long.
When I first auditioned the Diapasons, I was appalled. They sounded—I have to say it—awful! While their bass was everything I'd expected, their high end was about as pleasant as an infected hangnail. They were tizzy at the top, but I could have coped with that: A different preamp, a different power amp, something relatively simple would have cured it. Unfortunately, they were also so steely-hard through the middle highs that all other aspects of their sound paled into insignificance. This was nothing like the warm, rich, musically realistic sound I'd heard from them countless times in the past. "What," I wondered, "is going the hell on?!"
I considered component options. Perhaps, I thought, the Diapason doesn't like my Boulder 500AE amplifier? No problem. Dick had thoughtfully also sent along a Bedini 2000—the latest model of the same power amp he's used at the last few audio shows—"just in case." Maybe I did need it. So I uncrated it, let it warm up for a day or so, and took another listen. The tizziness was gone, but that awful steeliness wasn't. Something had to be seriously the matter.
Confident that an objective measurement could not make me any feel less favorably disposed toward the Diapasons, I checked them out with my trusty little Neutrik 3201 Audiotracer. The result looked exactly like what I'd been hearing: a broad, mild dip from 800 to 4000Hz, topped off by a sizable bump-an'-a-dip-an'-a-hump-an'-a-dip centered around 8kHz. But it did nothing to explain the difference between what I'd heard from these speakers many times before and what I was hearing now.
There seemed little point in messing around with any other amps or preamps or signal sources, because what that response curve showed was something that was not likely to be "balanced out" by the clever mating of a laid-back preamp or cartridge or CD player. This looked like a "hard" problem, one that would not be materially affected by component swapping or system tweaking. At that point, I capitulated and wrote this part of the review.
So here it is and there it is. Although I know these Shahinians can sound much, much better than they do in my home, I'm obliged to give them a failing grade on the basis of what I found. Whether the Diapasons have undergone a sudden sonic metamorphosis since last I heard them, or whether they just invoked a malevolent listening-room spirit, I won't try to guess. What I am fairly confident of, though, is that this report will not be the last word about the Diapason that will appear in these pages. You will almost certainly be hearing more from me (and probably from Dick Shahinian, too) about it in upcoming issues.
Richard, the ball's in your court (footnote 4).—J. Gordon Holt
Footnote 1: The Obelisk system, reviewed by the long-defunct StereOpus. The reviewer, by the way, was someone named Thomas J. Norton.—J. Gordon Holt
Footnote 2: In fact, the only other ones I know of are made by the English TDL firm.—J. Gordon Holt
Footnote 3: Hey, JA, when am I gonna get back Stereophile's upgraded Versa Dynamics 2.3 turntable?—J. Gordon Holt
Footnote 4: Richard Shahinian never did submit a "Manufacturer's Comment" for publication.—John Atkinson