Canon S-35 loudspeaker
What was surprising was the appearance of the Canon speakers. Resembling something designed with the Sharper Image catalog in mind, the original Canon S-50 and its smaller sibling, the S-30, look more like hi-tech table lamps than loudspeakers. Styled by the noted industrial designer Allen Boothroyd (for many years Bob Stuart's partner at Meridian), a matte-black, mushroom-like top piece sits on a gloss-black, curved pyramidal base. One or more drive-units are mounted on the bottom surface of the dome-shaped top enclosure, and fire downward at a curved conical diffusor/reflector.
Speakers using reflectors to widen the dispersion are not new. I remember my bass-playing friend Gordon Goodwin making such a speaker in the late '60s, mounting an 8" Wharfedale driver in the top of a pipe so that it fired upward at a straight-sided conical reflector to produce a somewhat omnidirectional horizontal radiation pattern. With the Canon design, however, a considerable amount of design attention has gone into the shape of the reflector. Hiro Negishi's idea is that, while the speaker will still have a forward dominance to its dispersion pattern, the output off-axis to the sides will have more of a full-frequency-range character. In this way, listeners seated to the sides of the traditional sweet spot will still hear something of a stereo image. Canon calls this concept "Wide-Imaging Stereo."
The S-35 ($399/pair) is based on Canon's earlier S-30 design, but adds a 0.75" dome tweeter and crossover to the '30's single 5.25" drive-unit. The tweeter has a magnet no bigger than the dome itself, and is small enough to be mounted in front of the woofer dustcap, offset slightly to one side. Both drive-unit magnets are shielded by attaching a second, flux-canceling magnet to the back. The woofer is reflex-loaded by a pair of small rectangular-section ports on the rear panel, each contoured to minimize wind noise. Electrical connection is via a pair of 4mm binding posts on the curved rear panel between the reflex ports.
The crossover includes automatic overload protection and is mounted on a small printed circuit board attached to the rear of the terminal panels. Three ferrite-cored inductors and three non-polarized electrolytic capacitors are used to implement second-order high- and low-pass feeds to the tweeter and woofer, with an electrical crossover point between 6kHz and 8kHz. The tweeter is therefore only really used to fill the S-35's response in the top two audio octaves. The woofer drive is modified by a parallel LCR filter to give a notch in the 1kHz region; this also gently slopes down the drive-unit's response through the midrange.
Manufactured in the UK, the S-35 makes extensive use of plastic moldings to keep the unit cost down, though the internal structure is based on a rigid L-shaped zinc die-casting to which the woofer and rear panel are securely bolted. The enclosure is filled with acrylic-fiber wadding.
Though the wide dispersion would seem to imply the speakers should not be toed-in, Canon recommends they be angled toward the listening position. I tried both ways but didn't find the speaker that critical in this respect—at least for a centrally placed listener. For off-axis listeners, the toe-in and speaker dispersion pattern should ensure that the farther speaker's loudness will to some extent compensate for the precedence effect. (If two speakers carry the same signal, the ear will localize the sound at the closest speaker.) Canon also recommends that the optimal sound quality be obtained with the speakers positioned below head height. I found them to sound too mellow like this. Accordingly, I increased the speakers' height from the floor by using large Tiptoes between the stand top-plates and the speaker bases.
With the S-35s out in the room where free-space designs, such as my usual B&W Silver Signatures, work well, the sound was a little fruity in the upper bass but lacked extension and slam. Moving the speakers so that they were just 6" from the faces of the LP cabinets behind them gave a surprising amount of midbass punch. While it would be unrealistic to expect party levels from a pair of woofers each with a radiating diameter of just 4", kickdrum—the electronic-sounding instrument on Robert Palmer's Riptide (Island 7 90471-2), for example—now kicked some almost-serious butt, with spls in the high 80s possible. All the subsequent auditioning took place with the S-35s benefiting from this boundary reinforcement.
I'll get the bad news over with quickly: If you only listen to classical music, then these cute Canons are really not for you. No matter how I set them up, a nasal coloration was noticeable in the upper midrange. To some extent, my ears accommodated to this signature in the long term, but it still changed instrumental tone colors too much for suspension of disbelief: the oboe sounded more like an oboe d'amore; cello sounded too woody, like a big viola; and the Steinway piano on Stereophile's recent Concert CD (STPH 005-2) sounded too boxy. The lower the loudspeakers were placed, the worse this last character became. Your ears should be approximately level with the "lip" of the S-35's hemispherical woofer enclosure to get the least-colored presentation.
But on rock, the nasal presentation was less bothersome. Reaching, naturally, for the first Led Zeppelin album (Atlantic 82632-2), I was surprised to hear a pretty punchy balance that complemented the music quite nicely. The Canon is not a speaker for head-bangers—turn the level up much above 87dB, and you get extra mud with John Paul Jones's powerhouse bass in "Dazed and Confused." The speaker also "barked" a little in the low treble when driven hard. But for quite an inexpensive design, it managed quite well with this demanding program material.
In the treble, cymbals generally had a nice airy sound to them, though vocal sibilants were a bit sniffy at times. And if a recording was very close-miked, sniffy turned into excessively sizzly. Moving the speakers close to the wall to bring up the bass level was essential to balance this tendency. The ostinato hi-hat on Pat Metheny's "Last Train Home," from his Still Life (Talking) (Geffen 24245-2), was also balanced more forward in the mix than I expected, and sounded more metallic than usual.
In the bass, there was useful output down to 60Hz or so. Though there was no low bass, this is hardly to be expected at this price level and from such a small speaker. The bass sounded just a little slow, the repeated bass-guitar notes on the Metheny lacking definition. But this is a hard track for even expensive speakers to pass. At its price, the LF performance of the S-35 was a pleasant surprise.
Where the S-35s consistently scored high points was in their expansive, spacious soundstaging. In absolute terms, the need to place the speakers relatively close to the wall behind them meant that the center imaging was rather diffuse, and image depth was restricted. However, on Concert, for example, the piano was easily heard to be playing in a believably lush church acoustic. And on the Pat Metheny cut, the solo electric sitar that carries the melody was set within a dome of ambience. I almost felt like reaching for something by The Orb! Instead, I put on an old favorite, "Private Investigations," from Dire Straits' Love Over Gold (Warner Bros. 23728-2). The atmospheric soundstage assembled by the engineers blossomed above, behind, and beyond the speakers in a most satisfying way.
How about the Canons' Wide-Imaging Stereo? My dedicated listening room has only two chairs: one in the sweet spot, the other way off to the side. From the off-center chair, the soundstage naturally bunched over to the nearest speaker. But there was still a good sense of space, an impression of acoustic sources extending to the farther speaker.
If I ultimately found the S-35s to be too colored with the classical music that makes up about 70% of my listening diet, when I hooked them up to my computer rig, using a Sound Blaster 16 card in my Dell 486 to supply signal to feed an antique Advent 300 receiver (footnote 2), the special qualities of the Canons' imaging added considerably to the experience.
For the last six months or so, whenever work has gotten particularly vexatious or I'm just in need of some mind-candy, I load Broderbund Software's Myst game into the CD-ROM drive (footnote 3). Myst's sound effects and ambient sonic settings are meant to be enveloping, and with the huge soundstage thrown by the Canons, it was easy to forget that I was shut in my office. Instead, I was roving the island of Myst, flipping through the pages of the charred books in the library, looking for clues, lost in an almost virtual reality where the only other living things appear to be a couple of butterflies. And, unlike most of the wimpy multimedia speakers around, the Canons have enough low frequencies to do justice to the bass sounds of Myst's electrical generators, tree elevator, and, most particularly, the "Maze-Rider" roller coaster.
Canon's S-35 loudspeaker is undoubtedly a striking-looking design. If you like its looks—and I do—the question becomes whether its sound quality justifies its use in an audiophile system. The $400/pair price point is extremely competitive. I found the S-35 to sound a little too colored for my tastes with classical, acoustic music, but then I'm spoiled by the sound of my regular $8000/pair speakers. Certainly, however, for multimedia use, a pair of Canon S-35s is all you're ever likely to need. Check this cute Canon out.
Footnote 1: Based for many years in the UK, Hiro Negishi has recently returned to Japan. He played a large part in launching a movement in the UK called the "Acoustic Renaissance for Audio" (ARA), which intends to exploit the potential for new high-density optical discs to push forward the frontiers of sound quality with higher sampling rates and word lengths and multichannel applications. Those interested in the ARA can contact Negishi-san on the Internet at negishi@Achd.canon.co.jp.—John Atkinson
Footnote 2: Resenting the available plethora of nasty little active multimedia speakers, I went the audiophile route when I set up my computer sound system. I bought the Advent—a highly regarded component in its heyday, the late '70s—for $75 secondhand in almost perfect condition.—John Atkinson
Footnote 3: Myst is the first computer game that I've heard discussed as though it were a book or a movie—or a piece of music! And unlike Doom, Mortal Kombat, and other thrash adventure games, it doesn't involve blood, chainsaws, or severed limbs. With production values and depth of detail to rival the Back to the Future movies, it's the most complete computer game I've yet played.—John Atkinson