Meadowlark Swift loudspeaker The Review

Meadowlark Audio Swift: $1195/pair

You look at something like the Meadowlark Swift and you think, How can they sell this for only $1195/pair?

As I lifted them out of their carton and stripped off the packing, I had to laugh: The Swifts are made—and packaged—to absurdly high levels for this kind of money. Before I'd even hooked them up, these speakers already seemed to exude competence, craftsmanship, and professionalism; to see them was to assume that the company has been in business for decades, carefully refining what they do year after year. The truth is, Meadowlark is only about nine years old, and just recently moved their factory to upstate New York. (They're in Watertown, which is about 100 miles from where I live—although I haven't visited them yet.)

Meadowlark's first-ever product was the Kestrel, a speaker noted for a sensitivity and efficiency slightly higher than average—it combined a 90dB sensitivity with a sensibly high and flat impedance curve—along with a very reasonable price of just $1250/pair in healthy 1995 dollars. Although it was never marketed as a SET-happy speaker as such, the Kestrel happened to've been introduced when lots of hobbyists were looking for just that, and before long Meadowlark...well, took wing.

Meadowlark Audio's new entry-level speaker, the Swift, seems cut from the same cloth: a smallish, floorstanding two-way with a minimalist, first-order crossover, and with specs that suggest at least a fair match with low-power tube amps. (When I told Meadowlark founder and chief designer Patrick McGinty about my review premise and requested a sample pair of Swifts, his response was cautious: He still doesn't go out of his way to promote this or other Meadowlarks as being especially SET-friendly, their efficiency being a simple result of what he considers good design practices.)

As in all other Meadowlark speakers, the rear wave of the Swift's low-frequency driver plays into a folded transmission line: a long and typically well-damped labyrinth whose purpose has more to do with lowering the driver's resonant frequency than with asking the rear wave to contribute much in the way of sound output. (There's some debate surrounding this topic, of course—when isn't there?—but a few obscure old-timers suggest that a "true" transmission line is sealed, and thus makes no contribution to the sound.)

The Swift's drivers are a 1" impregnated fabric-dome tweeter and a 4.5" bass/midrange unit with a plastic-coated pulp cone and dustcap, both drivers made by Vifa. Each is held in place with Torx-headed wood screws, driven right into a tapped baffle that's CNC-milled out of solid, kiln-dried ash (which is what they make Fender Telecasters out of). A simple crossover lives behind a Plexiglas cover on the other side of the cabinet: one inductor, one custom-made capacitor (I can tell because it has a picture of a bird on it), and one expensive little Caddock resistor, the latter mounted in its own heatsink. Again, I have to keep telling myself: This is a budget speaker, this is a budget speaker...

The enclosures measure 36" tall and 7" wide, with sloping front baffles for physical time alignment: a graceful look. The slender Meadowlarks would be tippy if not for their separate wooden bases: rocket-shaped things that screw to the Swifts' underbellies and widen their footprints, as well as provide threaded inserts for pointed feet of the usual sort.

As with all the speakers in this survey, I decided to first make some cursory measurements with the AudioControl Industrial SA-3050 spectrum analyzer, both to help optimize their position in the room and because the sonic changes occasioned by loudspeaker break-in generally aren't coarse enough to affect such readings. As usual with a smallish speaker, I assumed that the Swifts would deliver their best bass performance near the rear wall, so that's where I started. The results weren't terribly shocking one way or the other: With the cabinets almost touching the wall behind them, placed about 32" from each side wall, the best-case frequency curve observed from the listening seat was flat to 80Hz and about 4dB down at 50Hz, and still had some slightly useful output at 40Hz. At the other end, with the speakers aimed straight ahead and not toed-in toward the microphone, the response curve began a very gentle rolloff at 8kHz. The most severe glitch in the curve was an upper-bass dip of 4-6dB, centered at 125Hz. Toeing the cabinets in toward the listening seat resulted in a more extended top-end response—but, curiously, made the upper-bass dip considerably worse.

An impedance mismatch between source and load—the sort of thing one sees when using a SET amp to drive unkind speakers—might have accounted for that anomaly, but because it changed when the cabinet positions changed, I doubted it. My suspicion that the dip was room-related seemed vindicated later that day, when I got much better overall results by having the Swifts in very different places, yet still driven by my 7Wpc Audio Note Kit One. Placed approximately 4' from the back wall, 20" or so from the side walls, and toed-in only very slightly, the Swifts remained dead flat down to 80Hz—although now the bass response fell off more drastically below that—and without a trace of that 125Hz dip.

Of course, bringing the Swifts closer to the listening seat also increased their apparent loudness—never a bad thing with a low-power amp. From there, in my relatively small room (12' by 19' with an 8' ceiling), the Swifts not only played music well, they exhibited the sort of imaging properties that, to my way of thinking, enhance rather than detract from the musical message. Image location was obvious but not fussy, and there was an enjoyable sense of solidity and wholeness, both to individual images and to the soundfield as a whole. On the newish SACD version of the Rolling Stones' "It's All Over Now" (12 x 5, ABKCO 7402), Mick Jagger sounded as if he was right there between the speakers and a goodly ways behind them, while Bill Wyman's bass remained upfront—ditto Charlie Watts' endearingly clumsy but enthusiastic drumming, reproduced through the Swifts with surprising and satisfying degrees of whap. That album and other upbeat favorites were consistently involving through the Swifts, with no evidence of soggy beats or unclear rhythms.

On good recordings of classical and folk music, the Swifts sounded neutral within their operating range: A clean, grainless, and slightly soft top end provided the right foil for their (necessarily) limited bottom end, making for a well-balanced sound overall. Elizabeth de la Porte's harpsichord, heard well on her recording of J.S. Bach's Partitas (Hyperion CDA66041), had the right attack and decay: just enough jangle, with no hint that the (appropriate) sharpness of the sound interfered with the flow of the musical lines. Piano music lacked the physical scale available with other, mostly larger speakers (although the physically smaller Horn Shoppe Horns would prove superior in this regard), but I heard no evidence of gross colorations, and the Swift's midrange was sufficiently clean that notes decayed realistically.

And while it wasn't as dramatic-sounding as the other speakers in the survey, the Swift was dynamically competent. The first real crescendo in the Pierre Monteux/LSO recording of Brahms' Symphony 2 (LP, Philips 0835 167), about two and a half minutes into the piece, was handled well: The music got louder without the instrumental sounds becoming grotesque in their spatial perspective or strained in timbre: The experience was natural—and very like real music.

Drawbacks? Although having an acceptably good sense of flow, and while faultless in the accuracy of their portrayal of pitches and rhythms, with very-low-power amps the Swift didn't have the same sense of ease, the same sense of exuding the music in a completely natural, organic way, as the more sensitive and efficient speakers. I didn't think it sounded forced or mechanical in absolute terms, but compared to my own much more expensive, much more SET-friendly Lowther horns—or even, to some extent, the Horn Shoppe Horn and the Moth Cicada—it did. Any decent speaker can make the first few minutes of Karajan's recording of Strauss's Ein Heldenleben (LP, DG SLPM 0138025) sound stirring and almost startling; it takes a really good system to maintain that incandescence over the bars that follow, and while the Swift played the piece in a musically pleasing and nonfatiguing way, the above-mentioned speakers were somewhat more involving. What I'm responding to, of course, is a particular amplifier-speaker combination, not the Meadowlark speaker in isolation; double-checked with a more powerful amp, such as my Naim 110, the already neutral and transparent Swift did sound a bit more lifelike and spontaneous.

Remember: Meadowlark Audio didn't volunteer the Swift for this project, and it's not my intention to judge it out of context. Nevertheless, the Swift's greatest strength, it seems to me, was its ability to be driven at least reasonably well by only a few watts, yet still sound as timbrally neutral and spatially convincing as certain much less efficient—and more expensive—perfectionist loudspeakers.

Viewed in that light, the Meadowlark Swift is a good all-arounder, and may in fact be an ideal choice for someone who's just getting into SETs but is leery of realizing huge efficiency gains by having to sacrifice areas of performance that are otherwise common to high-end loudspeakers. An easy, safe, sonically faultless, and musically satisfying recommendation for the average listener.

Meadowlark Audio
800 Starbuck Avenue, Suite A-103
Watertown, NY 13601
(315) 779-8875