Fried R/4 loudspeaker

If anyone can be said to be the guru of the transmission line, that would have to be Irving M. "Bud" Fried. He has been promoting the design for years now, first with the made-in-England IMF designs, later with the designs of Fried Products, made right here in the US of A. He has long been convinced of the basic superiority of the design, and still uses it in his top-of-the-line systems. But true transmission lines are invariably big, heavy, hard to build, and, for all of those reasons, expensive. Essentially, they involve a long, convoluted, heavily damped tunnel behind the bass driver which channels the back wave to the outside world. The length and cross-sectional area of the tunnel are of some importance, although the technical basis for the transmission line, as applied to a loudspeaker enclosure, has never been firmly nailed down. Certainly there is no mathematical model for the transmission line as complete as that developed over the past two decades for the sealed or ported box (footnote 1).

But Bud Fried has clung to the transmission line, for all of its complexities. In order to bring at least some of its touted advantages to a lower price point, he had to come up with a variation which would work in a smaller enclosure. That variation was the "line tunnel," which, according to Fried, originated in an early-1970s Ferrograph (a British company specializing in tape recorders) monitor which was later adapted by IMF. Basically it consists of a short (compared with a transmission line) duct from the inside to the outside of the heavily damped enclosure. The duct is designed with approximately the same cross-sectional area as the loudspeaker cone.

Technically, the line tunnel is something of a hybrid, resembling the ported box in that it has a ducted port, a transmission line in that the duct to the outside is damped, and a sealed box in that it exhibits a single impedance peak in the low end instead of a ported enclosure's two peaks. Despite the transmission-line analogy, however, the line tunnel's closest antecedent appears to be as much the late-'60s Dynaco aperiodic designs as anything else. While the latter did not, to my knowledge, incorporate ducts, they did use heavily damped ports—as do many Dynaudio designs today.

The R/4 uses just such a line-tunnel design to load its 10" vented–pole-piece bass driver. The 5.5" midrange unit is also loaded into a damped duct of its own which opens to the rear of the enclosure. Fried argues that this "free-flow" line results in a significant improvement in midrange quality, preserving "time-cues" by preventing reflections from the rear of the driver from passing back through the cone. The top of the range is covered by a 1" soft-dome tweeter. The computer-designed crossover network combines second- and third-order slopes and impedance and phase compensation for each driver. A single set of five-way terminals is provided on the rear of the enclosure; bi-wiring is not an option. The R/4 is one of several loudspeakers I've come across lately plagued by defective input terminals; three of the four plastic terminal caps in my samples were stripped and could not be tightened enough to properly clamp-down the spade lugs terminating my loudspeaker cables. I made my connections using banana plugs.

The R/4's walnut-veneer cabinet sits on the floor and is tilted back at a rakish angle by its attached base. Extensions are provided for fastening to the bottom-rear of the enclosures to make the speakers a bit more stable, but they seemed in little danger of tipping over. Spikes were provided, but in my cleverness I temporarily misplaced them. I had another set which, though a bit snug, were apparently the right thread size. I screwed them in with no trouble, but removing them took the metal anchors, inserted into the wood base, out with them. Thereafter I used a combination of Tiptoes and Tonecones to spike the Frieds to the floor.

Listening Lean, crisp, articulate—such were my initial listening impressions of the Fried R/4, and they changed little over many hours of listening. There are both positives and negatives to those qualities.

On the positive side, the Fried had a tight, open, relatively transparent sound. Its low-frequency response, while not remarkably deep, completely avoided the thick, muddy, soggy qualities which plague lesser loudspeakers, especially in this price range. If you want to really dredge the bottom octaves and shake your listening chair, the R/4s won't quite do it—Fried has other, more expensive models that will. What the R/4 excelled at was sure-footedness in the lower range. Bass drum was solid and tight. The lead-off whacks on Fiesta! (Reference Recordings RR-38CD), while lacking the visceral punch experienced with a number of larger, pricier loudspeakers, nevertheless sounded like they came from a real bass drum. Double bass was open and clear; Jay Leonhart's instrumental work on Salamander Pie (DMP CD-442) was tight and free of overhang.

And organ was convincingly large and impressive. Dorian's organ-transcribed Pictures at an Exhibition "moved" the room with the R/4s in ways most $1200 loudspeakers don't even attempt. No, it didn't rattle the furniture; I know of no loudspeaker of this size which does. The laws of physics have not been repealed. But its open, clear low-end character let me follow the bass line, opening the musical textures in a way which more lead-footed reproducers cannot. While the ultimate bottom went missing, I didn't truly miss it.

At the other end of the spectrum, the very top of the treble range was self-effacing. Adjectives like "silky," "airy," and "spacious" didn't come readily to mind, but that may not be an entirely bad thing. Because other qualities—closed-in and veiled, tizzy or zippy—don't apply either. The very top of the R/4's range sounded smooth and extended. It didn't shout "hi-fi" at me, but neither did it fall into the opposite trap of excessive politeness. Sibilants were clean, instrumental overtones clearly in their proper proportions.

I'd like to be able to say the same about the remainder of the frequency range, but I was concerned with aberrations in the low treble and, to a much lesser degree, the midrange. Beginning with the positives, the speaker's sound generally built on the low end's openness and free-breathing quality. While the R/4 was relatively low in coloration, I noted a degree of "cupped-handedness," especially on male vocals. On Kenny Rankin's Because of You (Chesky JD63) I also noted an occasional smearing and flattening of vowel sounds—a quality not heard in this recording on other loudspeakers. On a more positive note, however, the midrange was notably free of the type of obscuration common in the two-way systems which overrun this price range: the mushy blur and congestion which results on complex material when a designer pushes the design crossover too far into the upper range of the typical bass/mid driver. The R/4 cannot be cited for a lack of midrange clarity.

But there can be too much of a good thing. My main concern with the R/4 centered around what appeared to be the upper midrange/lower treble region. There was a definite brightness to the sound—not enough to drive me screaming from the room, but certainly enough to detract from the R/4's otherwise good sound. This problem was, to some extent, dependent on both level and program, but appeared often enough to point to the loudspeaker as the cause. I noted it the first time I listened to the R/4s in my listening room, and subsequently was conscious of it in Fried's demo room at the 1992 Winter CES. Back in my own listening room, it continued to intrude, and with a number of amplifiers.

The effect of this brightness on Women of the Heart (AudioQuest AQ-CD1003) was fairly typical. Normally this recording sounds very sweet and open. Indeed, my first reaction to it over the Frieds was to continue listening well beyond the time I intended—it demonstrated most of the R/4's positive qualities. But a clearly evident degree of brightness, which varied with program level, intruded. At its worst—during peaks in the program material—it added a glassy brightness or shiny patina to female vocals. Particular notes in the flute accompaniment would jump out at me—a quality also noted later in closely miked piano recordings. At modest listening levels the brightness was only an occasional irritant; increase the level to room-filling but not unreasonable levels, however, and it became an unwelcome intrusion. With the above-mentioned Pictures recording, level selection became a balancing act between pushing the R/4s hard enough to generate the exciting low end of which the loudspeakers were capable—an exercise encouraged by the seeming refusal of the Fried's midbass to muddy the proceedings at such levels—and moderating the level to prevent that lower treble from biting back.

The problem was perhaps doubly frustrating because the somewhat juicy lower treble, while lending a slight yet noticeable "rawness" to the overall sound, may actually have contributed subjectively to the R/4's clarity through much of the rest of its range. That clarity extended to a tight, well-focused soundstage, both in depth and width. The loudspeakers actually did quite a good disappearing act. There was a real feeling of instruments and voices cushioned on air at specific points in space. I've heard better soundstaging, but not at this price.

"At this price" is the crux of the matter. If the R/4's one flaw could be cured, this loudspeaker could embarrass a lot of competitors.

Conclusions In a final attempt to tame the top end of the Fried R/4s, I listened to the loudspeakers with the Audio Research Classic 120 monoblocks. While it did help—providing a degree of previously missing sweetness, though at the expense of some image softening—the treble of the Frieds loudspeakers remained a bit problematical. It was decidedly less musical than that in either the Paradigm Studio Monitors or my reference B&W 804s.

I have to say that I was very favorably impressed by the Frieds' overall value. The Frieds do too much too well, at a reasonable price, to be dismissed. By all means, listen to them if you're shopping in this price range, but don't discount the possibility that a future, not-too-extensive design tweak or two will tame their one notable flaw and turn them into a real bargain.

Footnote 1: The transmission line was finally modeled mathematically in a paper presented by Finnish engineer Juha Backman at the 92nd AES Convention in Vienna in March: "A Computational Model of Transmission Line Loudspeakers," Preprint 3326.—John Atkinson
Fried Audio
40 West Howard St, Suite 204
Pontiac, MI 48342
(248) 342-7109