Pawel/Ensemble PA-1 & Reference loudspeakers Page 3

Most of my listening sessions incorporated the Air Tight ATM-2 power amp. At 80Wpc, the ATM-2 provided an ideal power rating. But, even more important, it allowed the full spatial-resolution capabilities of the PA-1s to bloom. Lately, I've gotten in the habit of feeding the output of my Theta Pro Basic digital processor directly into the ATM-2's front inputs. These inputs are provided with volume pots so that a line-level signal maybe fed into the amp—bypassing the preamp's line stage. With the Ensembles, it was readily obvious just how much signal degradation an additional gain stage, additional connections, and cable introduce. The direct feed was reproduced with greater transparency and clarity, and more low-level detail was apparent.

Listening impressions
Even after a quick listen, it was obvious that the evolution of the Ensemble has progressed to the point where it was now competing for best-sounding minimonitor—cost no object! The one striking aspect of its performance that immediately endeared it to me was its full-bodied tonal balance. It seems that the older I get, the more important tonal balance becomes to me. There was a time when tonal balance was pretty low on my list of priorities, and other audiophiles seemed to feel pretty much the same way. Witness audiophilia's almost universal infatuation with the ProAc Tablette.

That's why I had a hard time understanding J. Gordon Holt's emphatic endorsement of tonal balance as a primary criterion for judging reproduced sound quality. He thought I had "gone off the deep end" for endorsing the ProAcs. "Violins sound like toy violins," he complained at the time. JGH yearns for a natural balance without upper-octave emphasis and an authoritative midrange. Loosely translated, that means a concert-hall type of balance with a full-bodied lower midrange. More precisely, it is the range from about 200Hz–500Hz that has to be reproduced with full authority. It is this region where orchestral music packs most of its punch, body, and weight. The ability of a speaker to reproduce the gutsy "blat" of a tuba or the body of a cello became critical parameters for Gordon. And they sometimes led him to endorse speakers that were severely deficient in other areas—just because they excelled in reproducing the heft and power of an orchestra.

Remember the ESB 7/06? Lars does. Sam Tellig's Swedish connection bought a pair following JGH's recommendation in Vol.8 No.6. I heard them first in Gordon's basement. With a big grin, he asked me to listen to that wonderful balance. But all I could hear was gobs of crud and grain through the upper registers. I was horrified that Gordon was about to recommend these uncultured "Italian JBLs." But no, he wouldn't listen to me. He patiently pointed out for the hundredth time that, either for a music lover or for a non-audiophile, etched highs, artificial detail, and pinpoint imaging would not be high on the list of priorities. What really mattered was the ability to portray an orchestra with concert-hall timbral authenticity and power. His personal yardstick for gauging emotional reaction to reproduced music—goosebumps—were not likely to manifest themselves with an anemic reproducer.

Well, the PA-1 is one minimonitor that even JGH might fall in love with. A cello sounds like a cello through it. Try Offenbach's Suites Pour Deux Violoncelles (Harmonia Mundi HM-901043). Roland Pidoux and Etienne Peclard are positioned left and right within the soundstage with a believable sense of space around each of the instruments. Both the spatial size and the body of the instruments were so realistically portrayed by the PA-1 that, had my eyes been closed, I would never have seriously considered the possibility that I was listening to a minimonitor. Of course, there wasn't much in the way of deep bass, but the midbass, upper bass, and lower midrange were well integrated and full-bodied.

Male voice was also handled with enviable authority. No hormonal deficiencies here either. Eric Bibb's robust voice on the "Anneli" track of River Road (Opus 3, CD-8017) came through unscathed—without any perceptible attenuation of his tonal colors. In fact, after prolonged listening, I convinced myself that the lower mids of the PA-1 (but not the Reference) were, if anything, a bit too hefty. Upon critical re-listening, Bibb's voice was found to take on an exaggerated chestiness. A similar emphasis was noticed with the Lesley Test. My wife Lesley's lower registers were thickened at times with an "ooh" sort of coloration. This pointed the finger at a narrow band resonance in the lower mids. And, sure enough, a frequency sweep of the PA-1 revealed a buzz centered around 300Hz. It sounded like a driver rather than a panel resonance, and would account for the subjective enhancement of certain vowel sounds.

The impression of weight and power was reinforced by the PA-1's remarkably dynamic behavior through the power range of a symphonic orchestra: 100–300Hz. While the foundation of the orchestra was missing below, say, 70Hz, the sense of excitement that a large-scale work can generate was in no way diminished by the PA-1. The music expanded linearly without congestion or any sign of compression. Percussion presented the PA-1 with not so much a challenge as an opportunity to show off its dynamic capability. Water Lily Acoustics' CD release of Mountains and the Sea represents, in my opinion, one of the finest CDs money can buy. The astonishing textural liquidity of the LP comes right through. Track 8 features some percussion work that I'm sure most other minimonitors would choke on. Through the PA-1, these bass transients were reproduced with quick attack, tight decay, weight, and power; a potent combination one does not expect from such a diminutive package.

In general, pitch definition in the bass equalled that of the Celestion SL600. But the really remarkable thing was the Ensemble's ability to match the tightness and quickness of the best minimonitors—without sacrificing an authoritative tonal balance.

Other areas where the Ensemble's technology paid off were midrange detail and transparency. The articulation of this speaker was so good that I had no difficulty at all in placing myself inside the space of the recording. With a lesser speaker, you'd have to concentrate in order to pick up hall reverb, so the illusion of space and the projection of that space into the listening room becomes less believable. Here, the mids are so well behaved in the time domain that transients and low-level detail were never smeared or obscured with fuzz. The veiling that we take for granted with so many other box speakers is almost completely absent; no nuance goes unnoticed through the PA-1's resolving eye.

Low-level detail is generally lost during playback through a process called masking. This is an interference effect whereby a "masker," resonances either in drivers and cabinets or transient ringing, obscures detail that is of lower volume. The effectiveness of the masker depends on its volume and spectral proximity to the masked detail. An analogy would be two voices speaking simultaneously. There would be some loss of intelligibility, with the louder voice being easier to decipher. Also, two sopranos would mask each other more effectively than a soprano and a bass. The PA-1 clearly "spoke" with a single voice.

Most box speakers mess up in the lower mids, where much hall information is present. Not so with the PA-1. Fragile hall decay was not truncated prematurely, but instead was reproduced completely—down to the noise floor of the recording. Delicate pizzicato and other textural details were exquisitely intact. Rossini's Overture to L'Italiana in Algeri (Philips 6500 878) features a beautiful oboe solo, lush string tone, and nested detail—all of which was effortlessly unraveled by the PA-1. A sterner test was offered by Belshazzar's Feast (Previn/LSO). No problem. The articulation of the chorus in full voice was nothing less than amazing. Resolution of massed voices in general was excellent, and without upper-midrange emphasis or etching of treble transients. The detail flowed naturally, not forced or coerced by emphasizing the upper registers. The speakers never beat me over the head with all of this detail. The presentation was never analytical or hi-fi-ish. The Ensemble PA-1 simply proved to be a minimalist to the extent that it offered a greater slice of reality with less attendant grundge and garbage than most box speakers.

Having come this far, you should not be surprised to find out that the PA-1s image extremely well. First of all, small lateral head movements did not produce image shifts or timbral changes. To say that the placement of instruments within the soundstage was precise does not really tell the whole story. Of course, it was easy to point a finger at image outlines. The spatial coordinates of a particular instrument and its spatial relationship to others within the soundstage were stable. That's old hat for most minimonitors. The PA-1 went beyond all that in its ability to flesh out a soundstage with almost palpable realism. In this respect, the Ensemble speaker and Air Tight amp formed a synergistic partnership. The width and depth of the soundstage and the size of the instruments were portrayed with the utmost solidity. With the PA-1 in the chain, it is more appropriate to talk about the expression rather than the impression of the recorded soundstage. Impression implies a mere sketch of the original space with rough outlines of size. The Ensemble can be so convincing in its ability to sculpt spatial relationships that it strikes me as the next best thing to being there. At times I was tempted to move to the side so I could look around an instrument or even stand up so that I could look over a soloist.

The best illusion of space was afforded by true stereo recordings using coincident or nearly coincident miking techniques. The Opus 3 label is one example, most Pierre Verany releases another. Pedro Aledo singing old and new Spanish folk songs (Pierre Verany PV 12793) intermingles male voice, lute, and guitar. The lute and guitar textures are difficult to resolve, but beyond that, when all else is just right, the soundstage should blossom into a 3-D entity. Instruments should pop out from 2-D outlines and flesh out before your eyes. The PA-1 really facilitated this transformation.