Acoustic Research AR-1 loudspeaker Page 3

As the sinewave sweep indicated, the AR-1 had good bass extension. Its 15" woofer produced solid bass with good pitch definition, allowing it to provide a full room lock with the sustained organ-pedal tones in Elgar's Dream of Gerontius (Test CD 2, Stereophile STPH004-2), or to play the subterranean synthesizer chords from James Horner's "Assault on Ryan's House" from the Patriot Games soundtrack (RCA 66051-2) with drama and pace—but not the tight-as-a-nut bass impact of the Revel Ultima Salon that I reviewed in March.

The AR speaker did have very decent pace'n'rhythm, as I heard when listening to Tony Mangurian and Victor Indrizzo's turbocharged drum work on Willie Nelson's "Darkness on the Face of the Earth," from Teatro (Island 314-524-548-2, HDCD). Very few speakers, can generate the steam-pressured sense of pace from rimshots that turn Nelson's seemingly light "Everywhere I Go" on the same album into a churning, sizzling, noirish tune reminiscent of the sinister surf music that begins Pulp Fiction. Both the AR and the Revel Salon can pull off this feat. The AR-1 had good extension into the treble, with no sign of dryness, grain, or dulling, as heard in the speaker's ability to capture the wide soundstage and dreamy Wurlitzer atmospherics in the same Willie Nelson song.

The AR-1's dynamic range was impressive for a product in its price range. Yet the AR did not have the exceptional freedom from compression of the most expensive systems, such as the Revel Salon. In my large listening room, it did limit and crunch on the choral peaks of Elgar's Dream of Gerontius. However, the 15" woofer did provide a very solid bass foundation for the closing moments of that piece, with a room lock not heard on the $5399/pair Dynaudio Contour 3.0 that I reviewed in September 1998.

The AR-1's frequency balance was free of anomalies and colorations. Timbre was very natural, particularly for male vocalists. Willie Nelson's voice on "Getting Over You," also on Across the Borderline, was clear, clean, and totally free of honk or hollowness. For the first time, I was able to hear the slight amount of reverb that had been added to a recording I had always remembered as close-miked and dry. The best example of the speaker's natural timbre was the title track of the L.A. Four's Going Home (Ai Music 2JD-10043). The tonal qualities of the sax and guitar were startlingly real-sounding. The same rich but totally natural timbre can be heard in Buddy Miller's mando-guitar accompaniment to Emmylou Harris' "Prayer in Open D" on Spyboy (Eminent EM-25001-2).

Image specificity was among the best I've heard in my listening room. Soundstaging was also precisely defined, as heard with the L.A. Four's Going Home. The AR-1s seemed to disappear, leaving the jazz ensemble precisely positioned on a wide soundstage, guitar, double bass, drums, flute, and sax taking turns playing duets and solos.

Or take Willie Nelson's rendition of Bob Dylan's "What Was It You Wanted?" on Across the Borderline. I spent one Saturday demonstrating this cut to the public at a Summer CES some years back, so I thought I knew it—so well that I hadn't listened to it all the way through since. I recalled it being very dry and close-miked, intentionally closed-in and claustrophobic. Not so over the AR-1. The soundstage was very wide, with drummer Jim Keltner and percussionist Debra Dobkin off to the right rear, not squeezed into the same sound booth with Willie. The different amounts of reverb added to each in the mix were easily perceived. Even though recorded detail such as this was clearly evident, the presentation was not hard, grainy, or analytical, as is often the case in a high-resolution speaker. Hearing Natalie Merchant sing the title song from the soundtrack to One Fine Day (Columbia CK 69716) was a revelation—the speakers disappeared again, replaced by Merchant's strikingly realistic, superbly detailed, natural-sounding voice.

The AR-1's resolution also enabled me to retrieve and clearly follow female vocalists when they had loud instrumental accompaniment. Sinead O'Connor's duet with Willie Nelson on "Don't Give Up," from Across the Borderline, was heard more distinctly than on the comparison loudspeakers. Emmylou Harris' birdlike voice stood out clearly above the cauldron of sinister, throbbing, churning bass synthesizer notes in the opening to the apocalyptic "Deeper Well" on Spyboy.

The AR-1's clear, transparent mids and highs made listening to them emotionally involving. I was moved to tears by the a cappella "Calling My Children Home," from Spyboy. Harris' ethereal voice stood out separately—in location and in tonality—from Buddy Miller's sweet tenor and the voices of the rest of her band. Via the AR-1s, "Prayer in Open D" on the same album showed off Harris' voice as effortless, ethereal, clear, and translucent. The guitar work was crystalline and airy, with silken tonality.

The AR's clarity and transparency allowed Patti Austen's soft contralto on "Only You" (Hothouse, N2K 10023) to emerge from the background orchestra more clearly than through the comparison speakers. And the AR-1's transparency was so good that I heard—for the first time—the subtle sweep on the guitar in the opening of David Bowie's "Putting Out Fire," from the Cat People soundtrack.

Although most recordings came through with clarity, natural timbre, and full dynamics, the AR-1 did not equal larger, more expensive systems in all respects. For example, comparisons of soundstage depth strongly favored the $15,500/pair Revel Salon speaker. The AR-1s' imaging of the choral group on "Lord Make Me an Instrument of Your Peace," from John Rutter's Requiem (Reference Recordings RR-57CD), was presented in one plane, without the depth—the sense of being in the chorus—and differentiation of individual singers heard with the Salon. Some compression was apparent when the AR-1 was played at top volumes, changing its timbre for percussion instruments and male vocalists—on, for example, Tito Puente's timbales solo at the beginning of "Tito," on Arturo Sandoval's Hothouse (N2K 10023). Although the AR shows impressive extension at both frequency extremes, it could not equal the seamless top-to-bottom integration, total freedom from compression, rock-solid bass response, and ability to involve me in the music that I found in the Revel Salon—nor, at less than a seventh of the Revel's price, did I expect it to.

The AR-1's strong performance at its new $2495/pair price will be good news to many audiophiles. Tom Norton was correct—the AR-1 has very transparent, open, airy highs, tight bass, and an uncolored midrange, and a pair of them image very well. These qualities were just as apparent in my listening room as they were in the Las Vegas Convention Center. Furthermore, the latest model corrects a problem—setting the woofer level no longer changes the balance of the midrange and woofer drivers.

But the AR-1's crystal transparency, natural timbre, and good imaging were confounded by problems in the speaker's powered, built-in woofer. Both the P315HO and AR-1 review samples had turn-on and signal-sensing transients, and one of the AR-1 woofers malfunctioned during the sinewave tests. These problems were not evident once the speaker had been turned on and was playing during the listening sessions. My lengthy audition showed the AR-1 to be every bit as good as the P315HO had been. The AR-1's pace'n'rhythm, imaging, timbral accuracy, and transparency rival the best. I recommend this loudspeaker for a solid Class B rating, although the prospective buyer should check the speaker's powered woofer before buying.