When I attended Britain's Heathrow Penta hi-fi show in September 1987, I had hoped to come back with big news about some breakthrough cartridge or preamp or loudspeaker system. I didn't. No, the talk of the Penta show was something called the "Belt Phenomenon," which may possibly be a breakthrough of some kind, but then again, it may not.
The Magnep1anar Tympani I that is the subject of this report is already an obsolete model, having been superseded by the Tympanis IA, II, and III that were unveiled at the CE Show in Chicago this past June. Since many of our readers already own Tympani Is, and dealer stocks of them are being sold at a substantial price reduction, the report should still be of interest. We will publish follow-up reports on the newer models as soon as they become available for testing.
Before launching into Stereophile's first-ever report on a Mark Levinson product, an important point needs to be clarified. Although Mark Levinson products were originally made by Mark Levinson, they are no longer. Au contraire, Mark Levinson products are now being made by Madrigal, Ltd., which bought Mark Levinson Audio Systems' assets and trademark two years ago. Mark Levinson's products, as distinguished from Mark Levinson products, are now being manufactured by a company called Cello. But the subject of this report, the Mark Levinson ML-7A preamplifier, is a product of Madrigal, Ltd., not of Cello. Now that I've made that all perfectly clear, we may proceed.
Most Stereophile readers are aware by now of why the full-range electrostatic should, in theory, be the ideal transducer. (If you aren't aware, see the accompanying sidebar.) Acoustat was the first manufacturer to design a full-range electrostatic that was so indestructible it came with a lifetime warranty. (MartinLogan is now offering a three-year warranty on their speakers, and is considering going to a lifetime warranty). But Acoustat was never able to solve another problem that has plagued all flat-panel speakers: treble beaming.
Now that audio technology seems to be on the verge of being able to do anything asked of it, it seems only fitting to wonder about what we should be asking it to do. We probably all agree that high fidelity should yield a felicitous reproduction of music, but felicitous to what? Should a system give an accurate replica of what is on the disc, or of the original musical sounds?
Well, it was inevitable. Prior to the MCD, every CD player had been a product of a major Japanese or European manufacturer, and we all know what kind of audio electronics "major" manufacturers usually design: adequate, but rarely much better. The MCD is the first player from a small, perfectionist-oriented firm, and an English one at that (Boothroyd-Stuart).
For a subjective equipment reviewer, whose writings are based as much on impressions as on observations, it is very important to approach a product without personal bias. Of course, all of us lay claim to this ideal, and some of us even manage to maintain the appearance of impartiality most of the time. But just under the reviewer's veneer of urbane professionalism and deliberative restraint lies a darker force—a leering hobgoblin of anarchy and mischief which scoops usually forbidden adjectives from a well of calumny and offers them for the writer's consideration as the perfect word to describe what he is trying to express. It's an ever-present temptation to accept the suggestion, because every critic harbors a secret urge to be another Dorothy Parker, trashing mankind's most earnest endeavors with devastating bon mots that will endure long after the writer has ceased to. Most of the time, the reviewer is able to resist the temptation to broadside a product, but some products, and the people they represent, make this very difficult. In fact, sometimes it is impossible.
I was so impressed by the Nelson-Reed 8-04/B loudspeaker's low-end range that I seriously doubted the add-on subwoofers could add enough of significance to be cost-effective.
I was wrong.
Two of the subwoofers were provided, along with the necessary electronic crossover unit. Each 1204 unit contains four 12" woofers in a very solid sealed enclosure, with two facing to the front and two facing the rear. The electronic crossover has three controls, besides the AC power switch: a hardwire (footnote 1) bypass switch, a stereo/mono switch, and a subwoofer level control. In the stereo mode, the low frequencies are kept separate, left from right; in mono mode, they are blended together for feeding to a single subwoofer. I will not resurrect the question of whether or not it is important to maintain stereo separation into the LF range, except to echo N-R's observation that there is no LF separation on analog discs to begin with; the lows are mixed together, to limit vertical excursions of the cutting stylus that could cause it to rise above the disc surface or, worse, dig into the aluminum base of the master disc.
According to designer Bill Reed, the Nelson-Reed 8-04/B was not originally intended to be an audiophile speaker system, but was instead designed as a high-quality monitor for the critical recording engineer who wanted to be able to walk from the studio into the control room and hear the same thing from his speakers that he heard "live." The fact that modern studio mike technique ensures that this could never happen is probably beside the point. The point is that reproducing the original power and dynamic range of live music is a formidable challenge, which practically no audiophile speakers have met successfully. On the other hand, so-called studio monitors, which can do that routinely, have tended to be highly colored and otherwise generally lousy in all areas of fidelity except output capability. The 8-04/B was an attempt to combine the strengths of both kinds of speaker, while avoiding their usual weaknesses.