Altec Lansing Bias 550 active loudspeaker system Page 3

What do we get with the speaker thus optimized? On the positive side, I can say that voices, particularly male voices, had astonishing clarity and in-the-room presence, especially at high volume levels. You're not quite aware when listening to other speakers just how anemically a robust male voice is usually presented. At the same time, the male voice does not tread greatly into this speaker's danger area, the below–80Hz range, so there was little excess chestiness.

Female voice, whether classical or popular, was presented with almost as much power, but less grace. The volume levels necessary to get voice to "pop out" and be in the room with you also seemed to exacerbate a problem in the upper midrange which lent a mildly ragged quality to female voice.

That's about it on the positive side of the ledger, particularly if you consider the price and the space you give up to this product. Full orchestra was invariably heavy, bordering on muddiness. Chamber orchestras sounded better, but lacked life. With popular music in general you were made too aware of the hot mikes or equalization used in making the record. These recording faults are not the fault of the speaker, but speakers vary considerably in the degree to which they make these problems unbearable. A speaker very clean in the treble frequencies will let you know the mikes or recordings are bad, but let you hear the music. The Altec 550s made me simply want to put on a different record.

Some favorite evaluation discs, like Sheffield's Drum Record, proved almost unlistenable. In this case, it was not only the heavy bass—the drums on this record are meant to sound heavy—but the incorrect reproduction of drum timbre. The weight was in the wrong place; drums didn't sound like drums.

Most damning, the Altecs managed to kill the life in most of the music I played. Whether it was bass heaviness or upper midrange harshness, my most spontaneous response was simply to leave the system off, except as I had to be thorough in this review. No speaker can do worse.

Tommy Freadman revealed that, at the time of our conversation, 60 pairs of Bias 550s had been sold, a figure surprising even to him. Given the content of this review, you can surmise that my reaction borders on outright disbelief. Still, even were it 10 pairs, there must be something that draws people to these speakers. According to Freadman, that something is the ability to play loud. I mean loud. He asserts that many of their owners regularly play the 550s at peaks as loud as 120dB.

I have to agree, that's loud; it's also louder than any speaker I've ever reviewed, almost louder than any speaker I've ever heard. (John Meyer makes PA systems demonstrated at a CES at 130dB; the critical reception from the underground press was deafeningly negative, but I liked them, except for 20Hz at that volume level, which made me ill.)

I must also agree that the Altecs play loud well; they actually sound better at quite high volume levels, something rare in a home product. In fact, they almost have to be played loud; soft, they in no way come alive. In itself, I would regard this as a defect, partially because I don't enjoy listening at these volume levels, partially because it indicates a kind of low-level masking which is overcome by the higher volume.

Nevertheless, high, clean volume is impressive, and typical audiophile speakers just don't do it. The IRS Betas, for instance, will play quite loud; in the listening I did at JGH's, I would say we occasionally hit 105dB peaks, with little strain. Still, I don't believe the Betas will do much better than 108dB peaks. That's really not in the same ballpark as 115dB, much less 120.

The Altecs play loud better than any home speaker I've ever heard (not counting the John Meyers, which I couldn't evaluate critically and which are only rarely used in homes). The only one which comes close is perhaps the Klipschorn. No offense intended, but the K-horn, which costs a third as much (without amplifiers—but you only need about 25W), is a much more colored product, and much less forgiving in the lower treble.

Nor does this capability ever come cheap. Good PA systems, the only other place you get this kind of volume, cost much more, and are themselves inherently more colored.

If you need 120dB, can stand a bit of bass heaviness (perhaps your pair will be better than mine), and have the space, I can recommend the Bias 550s.

Soundstaging and Image Coherence
I'm afraid Altec gave away the story ending by enclosing "imaging" in quotes throughout their product literature. I thought, "What is this—they think imaging is in our imaginations?"

Not surprisingly, the Altecs image less well than products like the Thiels or Celestions, for whom imaging is a raison d'ëtre rather than a subject for quotation marks. On all the records I have, the image stayed resolutely confined to the space between the Altecs; the speakers were the boundary of the image. Within this somewhat shrunken soundstage, images were firmly anchored but not overly specific. Never was I deceived into thinking that somehow these speakers had disappeared (a phenomenon to some degree augmented by their large physical presence), that I was at the performance.

At the same time, their performance was far from abysmal. The extraordinary anomalies that regularly occur in studio popular recordings were laid bare with ease—but this is not an achievement that gives me pleasure. With all recordings, there was a clear presentation of where the instrument or voice was supposed to be coming from; it just didn't forward the realism of the experience.

Most disappointing was the inability to render hall space, an ability I have come to expect from speakers that reach to the depths of recorded sound. This may have been affected by my need to roll off the bottom end, but, unrolled-off, the low frequencies were too much of a mush to reveal details of hall space.

The Bias 550 is clearly Altec's flagship product; this function was clarified at the recent CES, where they introduced an entire line at least superficially patterned after the 550. As stated at the beginning, they put everything they had into it. Unfortunately, I have to conclude that this product development methodology is mistaken.

Although it's not generally talked about, the opportunity to make dreadful mistakes in speaker design goes up in direct proportion to price (once you've gotten above a $400–500 minimum). For this reason, companies like Thiel, Vandersteen, Spica, and Celestion have started small and worked up, refining their abilities to "scale the heights" as they go. Altec instead tried to go for it all at once.

No one who's read this far will be surprised to learn that I don't find the Altecs worth their asking price of $12,000. Perhaps more important, I couldn't recommend buying them at $500. One thing—playing loud—they do very well. This is not, however, important to me once past 105dB peaks, particularly if the product is relatively unrevealing at lower levels. I suspect it isn't of overriding importance to you, either. In some other respects the Altecs are poor enough to warrant rejection at even low price levels; in many other respects they are simply unremarkable. Although I welcome the innovation inherent in their inclusion of remote control, I feel they worked it out poorly: the result was frustrating rather than liberating.

The Bias 550s' biggest problem is a failure to draw the listener into the music, a lack of intimacy. In addition, they have a tremendous sensitivity to the mere presence of low frequencies, as well as complete intolerance of anything wrong in the source material in that region. My response was to listen as little as possible, the worst effect any component can have.

As I said at the beginning, the Bias 550s must have been designed entirely with someone else in mind. But who? Not the wealthy person, rich enough to buy them and with a big enough living room to house them, but whose audio enthusiasm is muted. Much preferable would be a B&O or McIntosh, about whom I might have similarly severe sonic criticisms, but whose appearance is so much more appealing. Certainly not the devoted reader of Stereophile, who has been known to spend this much on just a pair of amplifiers, but who wants to see into the music, to be carried off by sheer realism.

They must have been designed for wealthy people with big rooms who need high SPLs and are not put off by these speakers' looks. A limited market, I would have thought. For myself, I will be glad to no longer confront their immensity. My toy "dina-sours" will have to find new perches.

Altec Lansing Technologies
Route 6 & 209
Milford, PA 18337
(570) 296-4434