Listening #60 Jim Austin, May 2009

Jim Austin wrote about the Gibbon Nine in May 2009 (Vol.32 No.5):

Ambitious high-end audio designers face a difficult marketing challenge. On the one hand, to succeed, they have to get noticed. On the other hand, the qualities they must aspire to—in my opinion—do not attract attention. A fast, slick-looking car is easy to sell, but a really great loudspeaker is sonically retiring. Great audio gear is free of obvious sonic flaws, but the benefits of the very best, in my view, are not necessarily apparent with a brief audition. So how do you make an expensive product that sells well after only a short audition if its virtues do not put themselves forward? (A hint for dealers: The answer is not "Turn the music up really loud.")

I thought about this when I began this Follow-Up review of John DeVore's Gibbon Nine loudspeaker ($6500/pair), originally reviewed by Art Dudley in his "Listening" column in December 2007. The Gibbon Nine is a great example of an excellent product whose virtues do not jump out at you. All DeVore speakers are named after apes; so far, there are only Gibbons and gorillas (Silverbacks, to be precise). Given the ability of these lower apes to communicate music's emotional meaning, I can hardly wait to move higher up the evolutionary ladder—DeVore Humans, anyone?

It's impossible to know why one design fails while another succeeds, but there's a lot to be said for a sensible methodology. Instead of designing by oscilloscope or conducting tests in an anechoic chamber, DeVore listens to his products in real-world rooms all over New York City and beyond. He doesn't insist that every DeVore speaker will work in every room—he says the Nines are too big for his own living room, for example—but he does require that every DeVore speaker work in every room it matches with reasonably well. If a speaker isn't working in one of his test rooms, he says, he tweaks it until it sounds the way he wants it to.

Yet DeVore insists that he then tolerates no backsliding by that speaker in other rooms; an improvement in one room that makes a speaker sound worse in another room is rejected. It's a less efficient process than seeking a uniform frequency response in an anechoic chamber, but when he's done, DeVore has a speaker that sounds the way he wants it to in many different rooms. The result, in the present case, is a close approach to (subjective) neutrality and a lovely directness—an unpretentious, unaffected sound.

Sometimes, the absence of vice can be a great virtue—and that was the case with the Gibbon Nine's most obvious characteristic. While its highs were extended, there was no hint of glare or hardness or electronic haze—a consequence, perhaps, of another aspect of John DeVore's design brief: Just as he insists that his speakers integrate well with many different rooms, he also insists that they integrate well with a wide range of amplifiers.

However it's achieved, the Gibbon Nine's total absence of annoying or fatiguing qualities is a big part of what makes it special. I found it possible to listen harder and at higher volumes than I'm used to, in a more relaxed state of mind. The Nines allowed the music to stroke me with its aural and emotional textures. In his original review, AD praised the Nine's ability to deliver the music's emotional message, calling it the best he'd ever heard from such an outwardly conventional design. I've heard far fewer unconventional designs than Art has; all I can say is that the Nine's ability to deliver music's emotional essence was superior to that of any other speaker I've had in my home.

Despite its near neutrality, the Nine did have, I think, a slight coloration. It sounded "woody." Think of the sound of a well-struck wood block—this quality made strident recordings sound a touch warmer—I've even started listening to Internet radio—and accentuated the qualities I find most appealing in the kind of music I listen to. The wood and rosin of a cello, the resonance of an acoustic bass or guitar—these emerged a bit more clearly from good recordings. I've always said I love sounds at least as much as I love music; well, the Gibbon Nines revealed, or perhaps exaggerated very slightly, the sounds the music I love is made of. That's one of the keys, I think, to their ability to communicate human emotion.

And communicate emotion they did. Art Dudley got it precisely right when he spoke of the Gibbon Nine's "sheer humanity." This loudspeaker may be named for a nonhuman ape, but communicating human emotion, and the deep, human logic of great music, is what it does best.— Jim Austin