Gershman Acoustics Opera Sauvage loudspeaker
Driven by Tenor Audio tube amplification, the sound in that hotel room was lush and smooth, with a large, well-defined soundstage. And the speakers, given their rather bulky proportions, nicely disappeared, at least in acoustic terms.
The Opera Sauvage is the top model in Canadian manufacturer Gershman Acoustics' line. Looking much like a dinghy stood on end, the 52"-tall, 210 lb speaker's cabinet is based on a heroic attempt by its designer, Eli Gershman, to minimize panel resonances. Eighteen vertical ovoid sections are machined from 1" MDF sheets and then glued together front-to-back to form the basic shell. The 2"-thick front baffle and rear panel then close the enclosure, and the whole is veneered (in the case of the review samples, in an attractive dark mahogany). The bulky grille consists of black cloth stretched over a wood frame and secured by three plastic fasteners. I discarded it for my auditioning.
The four drive-units are mounted vertically in-line on the baffle, with the twin 10" woofers at the bottom. These drivers, made in Canada to Eli Gershman's specifications, use doped paper cones with inverted dustcaps, rubber half-roll surrounds, and pressed-steel baskets. The two sets of connections, suggesting a dual voice-coil, are wired in series.
The polypropylene-cone midrange unit is also made in Canada to Gershman's requirements. Branded "Hiais," from The Real Speaker Company, it has rather a large radiating diameter of 5" and is mounted in its own irregular-shaped chamber at the prow of the "boat," and reflex-loaded with a 2"-deep, 2"-diameter port at the top of the rear panel. The tweeter is Dynaudio's popular D28/2 Esotec ferrofluid-cooled soft-dome unit, mounted below the midrange unit in its own sealed chamber. (At this price level, I would have expected to see Dynaudio's high-performance Esotar tweeter.)
The crossover is carried on two boards, one fixed to the speaker's base behind the large 5.2"-square port on the rear panel, the other on a vertical board attached to an integral horizontal cross brace behind the lower woofer. Electrical connection is via two pairs of brass binding posts with hex heads mounted to the panel above the port. A switch, enigmatically labeled On/Off, is below the terminals. Internal wiring uses a 14-gauge Monster-type cable labeled Megacable and is rather untidy, some splices insulated with electrical tape.
Unusually at this price level, connection to the drive-units is via press-on clips rather than solder joints The drive-units are fastened to the front baffle with wood screws, and while the baffle is rabbeted to accommodate the drivers, the four chassis are not quite flush with the baffle surface. Gershman informed me that these samples of the Opera Sauvage were prototypes; I hope that the fit and finish of production samples are closer to what is appropriate for a speaker at this price level.
The first recording I played on the Opera Sauvages was a CD I bought after hearing it in Paul Bolin's system when I visited him to measure the awesome Focal-JMlab Nova Utopia Be, which he reviewed last month: Vernon Handley's 1990 performance of Bantock's A Celtic Symphony with the Royal Philharmonic (Hyperion CDA66450). Engineered by Tony Faulkner, with whom I recently worked on a project to record the Mozart Clarinet Concerto for release on SACD and LP, this is perhaps the most natural-sounding recording of a string orchestra I have heard (footnote 1). Through the Gershmans it sounded smooth, clean, and mellow, with impressive bass extension and an awesome dome of ambience above and behind the orchestra.
But even though the symphony starts quietly, it didn't develop dynamically with quite the loudness I was expecting from my earlier audition of this CD with the Sonus Faber Cremonas I reviewed in the March issue. I turned up the volume control, but the speakers still didn't seem to want to "give," even though the peaks were definitely loud. I experimented quite a lot with speaker positions in the room, and things improved somewhat, but there was still a residual lack of lower-midrange power.
With classical orchestral music, this character could be adapted to. (Much of what audiophiles refer to as "break-in" is, I am sure, them learning to tune out a tonal imbalance in much the same way that you learn to see what appear to be accurate colors through tinted glasses.) An SACD that has spent a lot of time in my system (footnote 2) recently is Michael Tilson Thomas' Mahler 3 with the San Francisco Symphony, on that orchestra's own label (821936 0003-2). "Oh man," I muttered, as mezzo Michelle DeYoung softly intoned "O Mensch!" to spine-chilling effect at the start of the symphony's fourth movement.
Though scored for massive forces, Mahler's music depends on the tonal contrast between different, small instrumental voicings being made clear. The start of this movement is scored for muted cellos and basses, but with a harp emphasizing what would otherwise be a subdued starting transient. The Opera Sauvage allowed the two disparate instruments' characters to be perceived, without blending them into a mule possessing the starting transient of a harp but the body tones of a double bass. And the speaker's extended low frequencies allowed the long pedal fifth—A above D—held by the basses to clearly sound out while the composer moved the rocking melodic figure above it from horns to woodwind and back between the vocal passages, all made deliciously, almost fetishistically clear by the Gershman's uncolored upper midrange and low treble.
"Mellow" was the word I used to describe my first impression of the Opera Sauvage's balance, and nothing I experienced throughout my auditioning persuaded me that that impression was mistaken. The Opera Sauvage just didn't have enough top-octave energy. This might not be a problem for many listeners, given the current obsession of so many recording engineers for overcooking the highs and crunching the dynamics of their productions. But when the engineer has paid the appropriate respect to the real sounds of instruments, as in the Mahler and Bantock recordings mentioned earlier, I don't want those sounds bowdlerized by the speaker.
Footnote 1: I e-mailed Tony to ask how it was recorded: "I am 95% sure the main mikes were Neumann M49s (ex-Bob Auger). The location was All Hallows, Gospel Oak, a massive barn of a church close to Hampstead Heath. A wonderful, bighearted orchestra (RPO); a wonderful conductor (Tod Handley). No rehearsals, no concert of the music before the recording sessions. Extraordinary music."—John Atkinson
Footnote 2: My thanks to Philip O'Hanlon of Halcro distributor On A Higher Note for the loan of his Philips/Meitner SACD player.—John Atkinson