The Fifth Element #50 Page 2

The Trio has a rotary volume knob (it's just a controller; it's not connected to a potentiometer), and a click-detented knob for source selection. I find rotary knobs far more intuitive than up/down buttons. My only beef is that the Trio's rotary volume knob is inboard of the source selector; I prefer the volume knob to be all the way to the right.

Beyond ergonomics, I preferred the Trio's design. I like a disc tray to look like a disc tray and not hide among the buttons, and I like square corners on a faceplate. Whether it was Plinius or Classé or someone else who first came out with rounded, hockey-rink–style corners, my attitude then was "Who needs it?" and now is "It's so 1950s Frigidaire." Also, the Trio has a regular ¼" socket for a set of headphones; the Solo has a 1/8" mini-jack. The Trio's speaker terminals are about what you'd expect for the price; the Solo's are better, though not the best.

As I reported in April 2008, I found that a $25 used Sony PlayStation 1 played CDs more musically than the Trio's internal CD section (footnote 1). The Trio is a nice piece of kit with fairly good if not extraordinary value for not all that much money. If $999 is all you can afford, the Trio is an option—but so are a 1970s Marantz blue-dial receiver plus one of any number of passé or orphan CD players from CAL to EAD to Rotel; such a combo (assuming honest eBay or Audiogon sellers) will cost you less than the Trio. Or, for twice the money, the Arcam Solo will give you noticeably better sound.

If all you listened to for a week was the Trio, it could give you very moving musical experiences. But once you begin swapping out and comparing, there will usually be something less veiled, more detailed, more involving. The Music Hall Trio is a valid choice for a second system (den, dorm, vacation home), but probably not for one's sole serious stereo. And that's the name of this game.

GutWire B-16 power cord
GutWire Audio Cables is based in Canada, and distributes its products in the US via May Audio Marketing. When I was in Montréal for the 2008 Festival Son & Image, May Audio supremo Nizar Akhrass asked me to take home and try GutWire's B-16 power cord—which, I assume, has nothing at all to do with Pope Benedict XVI.

I mislaid whatever it was that told me what the thing cost, and that was good. The fact that I thought the B-16 cost a lot more than $99 but still had decided to recommend it indicates that it's a great value for that price. And it's well made, with Schurter and Leviton connectors on multistranded, oxygen-free copper wire.

I didn't expect much when I swapped the B-16 for the IEC cord that came with the Arcam Solo Music CD receiver, but things immediately clicked more into audible focus, just like that moment in an eye exam when the optometrist finally swaps in the correct lens. I have used the B-16 as the default power cord for all the CD receivers encountered in this quest. Recommended, and $$$ for high value.

Fried Compact 7 loudspeaker
Fried Products Corporation's Compact 7 is a two-way, standmounted loudspeaker with a 1" ring-radiator tweeter and a 7" woven glass-fiber–coned mid-woofer in a "line tunnel" enclosure. Its cabinet is substantial and well made, with handsome real-wood veneers. The speakers come in mirror-imaged pairs, the tweeters offset toward the inside. The Compact 7 is unusual in that its mid-woofer is above its tweeter, which is likely related to the line-tunnel bass loading. Fried insists that the speakers be placed at least 28" above the floor, which dictate I followed.

I had originally not intended to write about the Compact 7, in that its price of $1795/pair is substantially more than that of the original Fried Q, ca 1976, adjusted for inflation: $1050/pair in 2008 dollars. However, the combination of my looking for a speaker that people could buy once and buy right, and the fact that Fried sent a letter suggesting that I audition the Compact 7, tipped the balance. (Since the days of the Q, Fried's trademarks and designs have changed corporate ownership at least twice. Irving "Bud" Fried, who served as Emeritus Director of the current enterprise, died in 2005.)

My first listening impressions of the Compact 7 as driven by either the April Music Aura Note or Arcam Solo Music CD receivers, were generally favorable. I immediately noted that the Compact 7's treble—as heard via the tape hiss on Julie London's "Cry Me a River," from Time for Love: The Best of Julie London (CD, Rhino R2 70737)—was not as extended as that of the Renaissance Audio MLP-403.5 that I wrote about in August. This I chalked up to the new crew's following Bud Fried's desire that a speaker that rolls off at the bottom also roll off at the top. The overall tonal impact was decidedly mellow, but not unpleasantly so. Raising the speakers above 28" helped somewhat, but didn't effect a night-and-day change.

In their favor, the Compact 7s were incisively dynamic, and created a large and well-defined center image. Tenor Brian Cheney's voice on Puccini's "Che gelida manina," from a privately made microphone-comparison recording, was notable in those regards. But there was also something that struck me as a bit off—certain parts of Cheney's range sounded a bit veiled or hollow (the singing term is covered), while others did not.

What crystallized the problem for me was listening to Attention Screen's Live at Merkin Hall. The applause at the end of "Mansour's Gift" sounded hollow, as if the audience were clapping with cupped hands. Once I'd heard a clear example of this coloration, I could hear it on other recordings. My curiosity aroused, I took the unusual step of asking JA to measure the Compact 7, and he graciously added it to his workload.

As shown in the Follow-Up in this issue, the Fried Compact 7 significantly departs from linear frequency response on axis. A huge suckout spans 1–5kHz, the deepest part of which (at 3.2kHz) is about –16dB. There is also a suckout from about 260 to 500Hz, with a trough of about –7dB. These doubtless account for the hollow coloration I heard, and compare unfavorably with Stereophile's 1990 measurements of Fried's Q4.

Fried's website states that "Loudspeaker design and performance has [sic] little to do with producing a flat frequency response." I would not go quite that far. I will say that I have enjoyed and even recommended several loudspeakers whose design goals cause them to not measure well but that sound realistic in-room (Shahinian's Obelisk is the prime example). My problem with the Fried Compact 7 is not that it measures poorly, but that I heard a coloration that was obvious enough to require further investigation, and that JA's measurements confirmed and explained. I can't recommend the Compact 7 on the grounds of either performance or price, but you may conclude otherwise after an audition.

Footnote 1: In response to reader e-mails, I tried the output from the PlayStation 1's A/V multiconnector port, and was chagrined to find that, from that connection, the insubstantial A/V multicable gave clearly better sound than a +$500 Cardas cable connected to the PS1's RCA output jacks. JA's measurements provide one clue: the A/V output does not invert polarity, whereas the RCAs do. Ah-ha. So, okay, the PS1 can sound not just pretty good, but very good. But its ergonomics and interface stink, and my used PS1 is mechanically noisy.