Icon Parsec loudspeaker Page 3

Having satisfied myself that the speaker's low bass was excellent, in absolute terms, I felt the Parsec to have too much mid- and upper-bass energy. While this added a quite exciting degree of impact to typical rock recordings—the Stygian synth just purred in Simple Minds' "Let it all come down," from the band's The Amsterdam EP (Virgin SMXCD 6)—it was a little too good to be true. Not that I'm complaining, mind. But I should point it out, particularly as this midbass balance will make finding the optimum placement in rooms smaller than mine more difficult than usual.

It was only when I got to piano recordings that I was made aware of a significant degree of congestion in the lower midrange that both thickened and obscured the instrument's intrinsic sound. Some treble notes also jumped forward at the listener. My Chopin recording on the Stereophile Test CD reproduced with an overwarm tonality that would perhaps be thought pleasing to those unfamiliar with the sound of the Steinway heard live. This coloration also pushed the image forward in the lower mids; I suspected that the Parsec's large enclosure was contributing a little too much "cabinet talk."

It used to be said of loudspeakers—maybe it still is—that "a good big'un will always beat a good small'un." It depends on what you mean by "good," however. Yes, a large speaker will tend to be both more sensitive and have deeper, more powerful bass than a small speaker. But a major problem with large loudspeakers is that the inherent panel resonances are both harder to control and lower in frequency than with a typical minimonitor. In addition, the much larger radiating area of those panels couples that resonant behavior to the air more efficiently, imposing great demands on the designer to either minimize the panel problems—hard—or arrange for them to lie in frequency regions where they will interfere with the music to a minimal degree—perhaps even harder. A simple knuckle rap revealed the Parsec's enclosure panels to be quite live when compared with a typical small speaker like the Monitor Audio Studio 10 that I reviewed in the November issue. The Parsec's rear panel, in particular, rang with almost a musical note, as well as with a deeper underlying "hum" tone.

With music other than piano, however, the subjective effect of these enclosure problems was unpredictable. Instruments with a considerable degree of lower-midrange energy, timpani for example, acquired a hooty overhang, as occasionally did bass guitar in its upper octaves, the result being rather a congested tonality. Both Sam Tellig's and J. Gordon Holt's speaking voices on the Stereophile Test CD reproduced with too much chest tone, and Amanda McBroom's long, held "Oooh, Amanda" in her eponymous track from Growing Up in Hollywood Town (Sheffield Lab LAB 13) uncomfortably coincided with a top-panel resonance, this again adding a hooty quality and smearing the otherwise precisely maintained image of her voice.

In general, however, I was surprised at how little effect these panel resonances had on the Parsec's ability to represent the musical values within a recording. Cello, for example, which has the bulk of its energy in the Parsec's problem region, seemed little affected, and hardly any tracks on the Astrée sampler CD (E7699), most of which feature light-toned baroque-era instruments, suffered from noticeable coloration. I can only conjecture that the placement of these resonant frequencies and their Q factors are such that, with the exception of the instances mentioned above, the kind of music that tends to excite them will also mask their effect to a large extent. Not all the time, however. With complex sounds having a good deal of midrange energy, choral music for example, the Parsec's presentation was occasionally less transparent, more confused, than I would have expected.

Putting tonal aspects to one side, the Parsec's imaging performance was generally excellent. Sound sources had a good degree of palpability, though those in the center of the image were a little wider in the lower midrange than they were in the treble, presumably due to the cabinet resonances "pulling" the imaging toward the speaker positions. Depth rendition was also good, the addition of reverberant information to the direct sounds of voices and instruments unambiguously moving them further back in the soundstage. The LEDR "Up" test on the Chesky Test CD (JD37) produced a reasonable sense of image height, though again there was a degree of instability, even with the speakers well away from room boundaries and obstacles, that was presumably cabinet-related.

Dynamically, the Parsecs would play very loud before a sense both of hardness in the treble and confusion in the midrange set in. With the Levinsons, 105dB spls could easily be reached. Jump factor was also good, there generally being a good deal of slam apparent in the sounds of percussion, though as noted earlier, timpani and similarly pitched tom-toms featured a rather hooty, "wooden"-sounding overhang which reduced the speaker's otherwise quite transparent presentation. Nevertheless, upon returning to Celestion SL700s, I was struck by how undynamic they sounded by comparison with the Parsecs.

My exploration of the Parsec's panel behavior (see the "Measurements" sidebar) illustrates how easy it is for reviewers to wander away from what is important with a component. You spot something with a measurement that inspires further measurement that in turn pins down a characteristic behavior that appears to correlate with something that was heard. Case closed. Except that it is then all too easy to forget that that description is at best partial and at worst irrelevant to the subjective experience.

Such is much the case with the Icon Parsec. Early on in the review I had convinced myself that the large panels of its cabinet were too lively and must therefore contribute something to the speaker's sound. Yet record after record went on to the turntable, CD after CD on to the player, and with the exceptions noted earlier, I could hear little that indicated that the supposed panel problems were interfering with the music—even after I had established the presence of the enclosure resonances by measurement.

So much for the oft-repeated claim of "establishment" writers that "subjective reviewers only hear what they expect to hear." To confirm that I was hearing/not hearing the Parsec's measured cabinet problems, I invited Tom Norton over to take a listen (footnote 5). My experience has been that Tom has a better ear than mine when it comes detecting midrange colorations—he also has very different musical tastes—but he too felt that the Parsecs were pretty uncolored throughout this frequency region. Only on timpani, male voice, and piano did he feel that the enclosure was making its presence noticeable, and then only to a minor degree much of the time.

To sum up the Parsec's positive attributes, it is well-made, has one of the best treble balances I have experienced from a moving-coil loudspeaker, has an uncolored mid-to-upper midrange, plays loud, throws a well-defined soundstage, and has excellent low-bass extension. On the downside, its tonal balance is a little tipped up in the mid- and upper-bass, though this will not be that important to listeners who play mainly rock music unless they have a room that is rather on the small side. More important, the Parsec's lively cabinet can add a hooty coloration to male voice and piano and can be heard smearing the sound of timps and low-pitched drums. Although I felt this to have a minor, music-dependent effect on the speaker's sound quality, it did add a degree of confusion to the midrange at high playback levels and possibly contributed to my feeling that the sound lacked transparency some of the time.

But even with that, I found myself liking my music a lot via the Parsecs. In my judgment, therefore, Icon's Parsec is excellent value for money at a hair under $1500/pair, offering a balance between good, solid musical sound and coloration levels in the midrange and above more typical of a dynamic loudspeaker costing up to twice that price. If you are looking for a reasonably moderately priced dynamic speaker with a generous proportion of bass and the ability to play loudly cleanly, try the Parsec out. You have nothing to lose considering the manufacturer's 30-day, money-back guarantee, and everything to gain in the way of hearing your music played with plenty of meat on its bones.

Footnote 5: Listening to each other's systems happens a lot with Stereophile's New Mexico–based reviewers.