Listening #124 Page 2

The thing is: There are a lot of bass-reflex loudspeakers out there, but not a whole lot of musical instruments that propagate soundwaves by pumping away at the air with such extreme excursions that the naked eye can follow them. The other thing is: There are a whole lot of musical instruments out there that propagate soundwaves by means of large resonating surfaces and very minute excitations, but not a whole lot of loudspeakers that mimic those same qualities.

Is it just me, or is there some sort of disconnect here?

They all compress and rarify but they don't all suck
Looking back, I see that I've been just as good a self-deluder as anyone else when it comes to bass quality in reproduced music—probably because it was so late in my audiophile life that I realized the thing could be done well at all.

That realization came just nine years ago, at Primedia's New York Home Entertainment Show, where retailer Damoka Audio drove an enormous pair of Siemens Klangfilm horns with Lamm Industries' single-ended ML2.1 amplifiers. Musical tones below 80Hz had extraordinary presence, scale, color, weight, and sheer rightness, yet there was no phony sense of force: just a very human, natural sense of touch and feel. The system exuded music with uncanny similarity to the manner in which real instruments exude music.


The experience was lovely. It was also depressing: If that's what it takes for a domestic playback system to make believable bass, I thought, I'll never have any such thing. My listening room is a moderate 12' by 19', and although my 21' by 27' living room might accommodate such a thing, there are a dozen good reasons why my main playback system can't take up residency there, including incompatibility with pets, incompatibility with my piano, incompatibility with the fireplace (our main heat source for that end of the house), and incompatibility with my wife's ideas of where furnishings should and should not go. Eldorado.

Then there's Problem No.2: I don't have the many tens of thousands of dollars, minimum, that such a loudspeaker system would cost, and almost certainly never will. If I were the sort of person who had that sort of money, I would probably have a second home, and thus the solution to Problem No.2 would also take care of Problem No.1.

Fortunately, I've lived a little during the ensuing nine years, and I have a slightly better idea of what can and can't be done.

First, it appears that some bass-reflex loudspeakers are a little better than others at producing believable bass. Audio Note's E-series speakers, including my longtime reference, the AN-E/SPe HE ($9600/pair), are surely among the best of this group. The bass from my Audio Notes isn't nearly as taut or tactile as from the best, most tightly suspended vintage (or vintage-inspired) drivers I've heard, but it's far less rubbery and relentless than average—a quality that may have less to do with the model's woofer design than with its unique voicing and installation requirements. Because the E is intended for corner placement, it loads the room in a manner different from other reflex-loaded speakers, its nearest room boundaries contributing a slight horn effect that contributes to its sense of low-frequency scale and prevents its surprisingly generous low-frequency range from calling too much attention to itself.

Some of you may remember another exceptional bass-reflex loudspeaker: the ProAc Response Two ($3000/pair in 1990), in which the backwave of a 6.5" woofer was loaded with a resistive port, said resistance supplied by a bundle of paper drinking straws, painted black. Though perhaps I'm viewing the world through rose-tinted rearview mirrors, I remember the Response Two—which was also far easier to drive than its middle-of-the-road sensitivity spec might lead one to expect—as having the most taut, tuneful, and altogether musical bass I've ever heard from a ported enclosure. It was a beauty.

And I'm sure that a major portion of my fondness for DeVore Fidelity's recent Orangutan O/96 speaker ($12,000/pair, reviewed in December 2012), review samples of which are back in-house for a brief victory lap, has to do with its low-frequency performance, whereby a 10" woofer, loaded by a pair of rear-mounted reflex ports, sounds a little more taut than the driver's very flexible surround would predict. No seasoned listener would mistake the character of the O/96's bass range for that of, say, the Klipsch Heresy III ($1700/pair; see "Listening," November 2012), but the DeVore communicates more tension and touch than most other reflex-loaded loudspeakers, while dipping deeper in the bass than the Heresys—or the Line Magnetic 755 I speakers, or any number of vintage models.

And that's what it comes down to: bass character. Measurements show little more than how low the thing can go; apart from that, as far as very-low-frequency performance is concerned, measurements end up telling us more about our rooms than about the things we buy to put in them. Believable bass must be heard before it can be declared as such; while we've been busy not doing that, unbelievable bass has moved in and taken over.

And what of the aforementioned Klipsch loudspeakers? Prompted by the pleas of some Heresy III owners who wrote to express polite and perhaps understandable dismay with my own review findings, and enabled by the fact that the review pair is still in my home, I decided to give them another whirl before returning them in the next thaw (footnote 1). The Heresy III's bass character is remarkably good: It makes kick drums sound different from floor toms, bass drums sound different from kettledrums, and Fender basses different from Rickenbackers (or Gibsons, or Ampegs). The Klipsch doesn't extend quite low enough to give full measure to string basses, but it says enough about playing technique and intonation and vibrato that you may forgive it. It has impact and tautness and color; it's explicit and engaging and fun. I endure in thinking that its mid and treble ranges, which remain coarse, are outclassed by its superb bass. But at $1700/pair the Klipsch Heresy III is reasonably priced, a quality that may—and perhaps should—attract some clever tinkerers, in any event.

Incidentally, I recently bought a mint pair of Altec 846A Valencia speakers that appear to have been manufactured in 1966. (I got them from the family of the record collector who bought them brand-new in 1967.) The Valencia, which is more or less the domestic equivalent of Altec's A7-8 Voice of the Theater, uses a 15" Altec woofer and a horn-loaded Altec 806A compression driver in a vented enclosure . . . but that's a story for another day.

Reviewing policies
A few final notes, with regard to three interrelated issues that have come to a head in recent months:

One: After nearly 30 years as a reviewer, I continue to allow suppliers of review samples to visit my home and to install their products therein. But the day is surely coming when I'll have to cease doing so. Sadly, more than one designer has taken this as a foot in the (literal) door, assuming I'll cooperate by offering a steady supply of helpful comments while they try their product—which, all too often and unbeknownst to me, turns out to be a prototype—with my own gear. Others may feel differently, but I think it's a terrible idea for a professional reviewer to be involved, wittingly or unwittingly, in the development of a commercial product. Moreover, I simply don't have the time or the inclination to spend multiple days setting up a single product.

So here is my present-day policy, which I presume will last me until the end of manufacturer visits: If, by the end of an eight-hour working day, a visitor can't get his product to sound good, then it is either ill suited to my room—no shame in that, necessarily—or poorly designed, or broken. In any such case, it will return home with its bringer before sunfall. Period.

Two: I am not responsible for unsolicited review samples. I say that not out of greed—unlike some reviewers, I have no interest in selling your product and pocketing the money, cutting your product in two and pocketing twice the money, or giving your product to young people whom I wish to impress—but out of frustration with my own middle-agedness: It's all I can do to keep track of review samples that I do expect to arrive. And I endure in refusing to attempt to simultaneously review two products that are both unfamiliar to me. That's just stupid.

If you're interested in sending me a review sample, you should first refer to the "Associated Equipment" list that accompanies every review of mine published in Stereophile. If there are elements of my system that you believe will not suit your product, then by all means please don't ask me to review it: I will not change my reference just to suit your variable. Note also that unsolicited accessories in particular may be discarded, at my discretion and at no personal responsibility to myself, my family, or my publisher.

Three: Because I do not consult—either for free or fee—I am interested in writing only about products from real companies. In my playbook, a real company is one that has manufactured at least five (footnote 2) consistently identical samples of the product they want me to hear; has written and published an owner's manual for the thing; doesn't invent, from whole cloth, bullshit explanations for how the thing works; and, perhaps most important, has designed/commissioned for their product a professional-quality carton and packing. If someone doesn't have that much faith in the viability of their product, then neither do I.

Footnote 1: I swear, some day I will borrow a video recorder so I can make and post a short film about the treacheries of my driveway in winter (it's January as I write this), which prevent UPS and FedEx pickups and deliveries from taking place between Christmas and Easter

Footnote 2: For products to qualify for a full review, the magazine requires that, unless a company's products are sold direct, they must be available from at least five US dealers.—Ed.

acawaigmail's picture

I’m surprised Art didn’t mention planar speakers (unless the comment about being “happy to have any bass at all” was a dig at his QUADs). The Magnepan MMG, for instance, has almost 700 sq. in. of radiating area, costs less than one third of the least expensive speakers mentioned in the column, and would fit well in a 12x19 room. Not much bass quantity, perhaps, but that’s why bigger (and more expensive) planars exist. Thanks for the Rosen quote.

dalethorn's picture

Some years back I read an article, perhaps in Audio magazine, describing a tiny loudspeaker that pumped out 1/4 acoustic watt of power at 30 hz or thereabouts. I sat down and wrote (before email) a letter to Paul Klipsch asking whether his Klipschorns could match that. I must have committed a heresy of my own, because he wrote back (handwritten) a letter explaining what real bass is and how the Klipschorn makes it happen, and that I shouldn't concern myself with juvenile fantasies of big bass in little speakers. And I did hear a Klipschorn in Cleveland after that, which sounded pretty neutral tonally. But no big scary bass.

prerich45's picture

You guys may get me to renew my subscription yet!!!!  This was one great article!!!! Bravo Zulu!

Freako's picture

Hi Art,

I love reading your column, even though sometimes it's about some things, of which I really haven't got a clue. But what the heck, you can always try to learn, right?

Other times I discover little golden nuggets in your column, and although you and I obviously don't agree on everything on this planet (which would in fact be weird), I surely respect your opinions. Why? Because they are built on facts, or at least on educated guesses. I also like your old fashioned (no pun intended) view on many things, especially audio, probably because I clearly remember the wonderful sound of 1950'es and 1960'es hifi equipment.

From the time when I wore diapers (1952-53), I was treated with a daily dose of Harry Belafonte, Nina & Frederik, plus a lot of other music that I don't remember quite as clearly, but I have had countless wonderful experiences with good music and decent equipment for decades. And at least I can still enjoy some of the sound of the above mentioned artists, as I still have recordings with them from that period. Hifi of that age sounded absolutely wonderful.

But now to the point:

Some years ago I worked with a bunch of students in the Danish State Archives, and one day some of them decided to go to a rock concert with the Danish (grunge?) band Kashmir. I decided to go with them, and be young with the young, just for a night. So, off we went to Little Vega...

Geez, that was a scary experience! The foremost half of the audience constantly jumped around like they were on drugs, which they may well have been, and the music (although it may have been okay if I'd been able to hear it) was completely drowned in a wall of bass, so loud and uncomfortable, that my ears sang for two days straight afterwards. There was simply no way of hearing the lead guitar or any vocals at all. A bit of drum forced its way through the wall of bass at times, but that didn't make the experience the least bit better.

Later I came to thinking that their sound engineer must have had his hearing severely damaged, since he was able to totally destroy whatever message a otherwise great band had in mind for us. Perhaps the band members and half the audience was deaf as well, I really don't know, but for me, another concert with Kashmir is out of the question.