Listening #115 Page 2

And there were differences in bass extension. The vintage Snells were satisfying, even if notes below 55Hz or so weren't given full weight, and played bass lines with excellent clarity of tempo, pitch, and timbre. In the parlance of their day, the Snells played tunes—in utter defiance of the Flat-Earthers who told us that bass-reflex loudspeakers "lack merit" (footnote 3).

I could nitpick other aspects of the Snells' performance, I suppose, including a peculiarly narrow midrange suckout that might have been due to woofer surrounds in need of running-in, and a pervasive graininess in comparison with most modern speakers. (It simply can't be denied that some aspects of conventional audio design—dynamic woofers and tweeters, CD transports, solid-state amplifiers, and so forth—have improved in recent decades, whether or not those conventional products were themselves a wrong turn.) But the fact remains that those nearly-30-year-old speakers got the job done: They communicated the spirit and the musical essence of some of my favorite recordings, and sounded surprisingly good while doing so. They were fun.

I remember spending lots of time in the early to mid-1980s listening to Marshall Crenshaw's eponymous debut album (LP, Warner Bros. RSK 3673), which was also the one album that could reliably turn a party into a dance (like the Clash's London Calling, a couple years earlier). I couldn't resist giving it a spin through the borrowed Snells—and I wasn't at all disappointed. The Js were explicit without being clinical, and allowed Chris Donato's echo-soaked bass to both drive the song and serve as its melodic foundation, over which Crenshaw's shimmering guitar chords provided lots of color. The collection Glassworks (CD, Sony Classical 500617)—my introductions to the music of Philip Glass, and to Michael Riesman and the Philip Glass Ensemble—was also released around the time I bought my own Snell Js. It, too, sounded wonderful, if just a bit too trebly, through the vintage speakers. The opening number (appropriately titled Opening) works by layering a slightly irregular rhythm of eighth notes over a steadily repeated two-note phrase, spinning out in a hypnotic fashion but at the same time creating rhythmic accents or "pulses" as the two lines intersect. In 2012 as in 1984, the Snell Js laid bare these details while still managing to sound human and compelling.

The last time I devoted this space to a vintage product—the March issue, wherein I wrote about the Marantz 8B amplifier—I was far more equivocal. The Snell Type J loudspeaker is no less vulnerable to criticisms that its design and component parts have been surpassed by those of more modern products, but there's an important distinction: In the same sense that a 1964 candy-apple-red Fender Jaguar is a collectible but not universally useful guitar, a 1964 Marantz 8B is a collectible but not universally useful amplifier. I thoroughly understand why someone might want to have one, and if that someone has a buttload of money . . . well, there you go. But the great thing about the Snell Type J is that it doesn't cost a buttload of money. Not only that, replacement parts and repair kits for the thing are readily available. Not only that, it works brilliantly well with low-power amplifiers and, like some repeat offenders, is happy to sing when it's up against the wall. Perhaps best of all, Snell Acoustics made—and sold—a lot of these things. One hopes their sheer numbers might keep their used-market prices from being driven too high, once more hobbyists discover how great these speakers are.

By the way, although the vintage Snell Type J/II sounded wonderful in my system, I'm sorry to say that wasn't true of the usually estimable Snell Type A, an oft-revised flagship product that shared the J's wide-baffle design and need for room-boundary installation, but that differed in most other ways. The separate bass and midrange/treble portions of the floorstanding Type A were both sealed enclosures, and the crossover networks were somewhat more complex than those of Snell's bookshelf speakers. In this case, at least, the specs tell the tale: 86dB sensitivity and a nominal 4 ohm load.

In an act of even greater generosity, Bill Henk loaned me his own pair of Snell Type A/II loudspeakers, which he purchased new in 1982—and which also remain in extraordinarily good shape, right down to their original cartons. I tried using them against both the short and long walls of my 12' by 19' listening room, but, dash it all, I didn't have enough amplifier power to drive them: Neither my Shindo Corton-Charlemagnes (25Wpc) nor my Shindo Haut-Brion (20Wpc) nor, especially, my Fi 421A (4Wpc) could cut the mustard. That said, listening to small-scale fare—the Brahms Clarinet Quintet, Op.115 (LP, Decca/Speakers Corner SXL-2297); the Schubert String Quartet in d, D.810 (LP, RCA Living Presence LSC-2378); and Dylan's The Times They Are A-Changin' come to mind—through the Snell A/IIs, I caught a glimpse of something with wonderfully realistic scale and near-perfect overall timbral balance. And I adore the way they look: no other word for it.

That said, insult joined his friend injury for a road trip to hell on the winter's day when Bill and Walter Swanbon, also of Fidelis AV, came to retrieve the Snells: The van they'd rented for the purpose was two-wheel drive, my quarter-mile-long driveway was icy, the snow on the margins of that driveway was deep, and . . . well, as Mark Twain once said, let's draw the curtain of Charity on that scene.

Put the things together
I was on the phone with my friend Jeff O'Connor, a weekly conversation that always wraps up with: "What records are you listening to these days?"

But I was tired. And I was driving. And I was headed for one of central New York's cellular dead zones—so I knew that, when Jeff asked me who Lee Feldman is, I had to make it quick. This is when critics are at their most honest: when they're talking to their best friends and they're pressed for time. So I gave him a quick-and-dirty answer.

Imagine if, instead of getting worse and more mainstream throughout the course of his career, Randy Newman had got better and more eccentric. That's Lee Feldman. (Feel free to imagine you could also strip Newman's singing voice of its affectations, surround him with better musicians than those L.A. hacks, and replace his cynicism with kindness and a childlike sense of wonder.)

Like all quick-and-dirty answers, that one contained a bit of truth, yet nonetheless fell short of the mark (footnote 4). Lee Feldman's colorful, heartfelt, and enduringly moving songs are as hard to categorize as they are to forget; his newest collection—Album No.4: Trying to Put the Things Together that Never Been Together Before—continues and even enhances that reputation.

The album opens with its title song: an eerie waltz in which a comically repeated phrase alternates with a wild, chromatic eight-bar melody, the whole of it bookended with music from a scratchy 78rpm record. From there, Feldman switches gears for the up-tempo "Halo": an ostensibly happy song, but one with an indefinable tinge of melancholy. (Feldman achieves the same effect throughout the album, most notably in "The Party's Over": "The ship is sinking / But the fish are friendly.") "Halo" is also the first of several songs on the album whose lyrics make reference to "the forest" or "the woods," with suggestions that the narrator is often looking toward a rather more complex future than he expected. That notion finds its apex on the album's centerpiece, "I Remember the Night," in which a child is drawn from his bedroom and given the news of his parents' impending divorce, only to retreat to his room and, poignantly, shut the door.

Like his last album, 2006's indispensable I've Forgotten Everything, Lee Feldman's newest collection presents a rich variety of sounds and moods. These are art songs, but they're also, unapologetically, pop songs: never arch, never pretentious, and sufficiently complex to reward any number of listenings. Album No.4 is the work of a unique American songwriting voice: a small masterpiece, and a delight from beginning to end.

Footnote 3: An axiom that ceased to be parroted after Linn began making bass-reflex designs, of course—the same as with CD players, subwoofers, fancy cables, et cetera ad nauseam . . .

Footnote 4: Can anyone pinpoint the exact moment when pop-music criticism descended to its current level, where new artists can't be described without silly strings of references to other artists or styles? Danged if I know, although I'm reasonably sure its first victims were the Verve Pipe.

cheesecake's picture

got a big grin from the Milo & Otis allusion.

tao's picture

It's funny but 3-4 years later I bought very similar gear, Snell J/III's, and a NAD 3400 intergrated. Still use them to today. The Snells are on 12" high tilted 3/4" metal box tubing stands, on either side of my TV. I use them in the "ghost" center mode for movies. For regular music playback the old Awia tapedeck, Parasound turntable and Phillips CD player have been retired in favor of a Oppo BDP-83 blue ray (universal player) and a Sim Audio moon DAC for bypassing TV sound into amp and for ipod play.

I've listened and listened as I've been looking to change over to full 5.1 sound for the TV, but nothing in my price range comes close to those 24 year old J/III's. They just sound better than most of what I've heard out there today. And except for one scratch (caused during a move 17 years ago) atop one of the speakers they are perfect, including the black grills.

Keep reviewing that vintage stuff, people don't know what there missing, ok maybe you shouldn't tell them, more for us. wink

BarrysConspiracyWorld's picture

The worst stereo I've ever heard used EPI speakers and a cheap receiver.  The owner was a fan of EPIs.  It boggles my mind.  Others thought the PA system at 7-11 sounded better.  Snells on the other hand were very nice back in the day.

DetroitVinylRob's picture

Those look like old Linn Sara stands under your lent Snells Art... A few years after I bought my Sondek Lp12 with ittok LVII arm, and Asak, instead of a pair of Snells which I liked quite well, my local dealer The Absolute Sound on Woodward Ave. sold me a pair of teak enclosed Saras w/stands (like in your picture) which I liked even more. Efficiency, well hardly but, with Naim or Linn SS they would wake up very nicely.   They still sound great and look lovely to this day and reside in a bedroom, I think we could say they were a bargain.

Happy Listener! ;^)>

ken mac's picture

purchase a pair of these to play around with, Will report back.

Thanks for a hearty thumbs up, Art.