PBN Montana SP loudspeaker Page 4

They also excelled at conveying the proper sense of threat, an essential ingredient in so much current music: The Cranberries' droning guitars in "Zombie" on No Need to Argue (Island 314-525 050-2), Radiohead's delightfully disturbing "Creep" on Pablo Honey (Capitol CDP 7 81409 2), "The Unforgiven" from Metallica's self-titled "black album" (Elektra 61113-2), and the title cut from Kool Moe Dee's Knowledge is King (Jive JS-1182-2-J). Now a bit long in the tooth, "Knowledge is King" is perhaps the best-ever rap song—an uplifting, enlightening, empowering message forcefully delivered, with bass and drum dynamics that will challenge even the most robust audio system. If you think "good rap" is an oxymoron, KMD's best effort might make you reconsider.

The SPs comported themselves admirably on more traditional fare as well: Sarah Chang's stunning performance of Paganini's Violin Concerto 1 (EMI CDC 5 55026 2)—one of the few recordings I have bought instantly upon hearing it. Hard to believe she was only 16 when this was recorded. I don't remember Viktoria Mullova's passionate treatment of Vivaldi's The Four Seasons (Philips 420 216-2) ever sounding so immediate or intense. The power of the flamboyant Virgil Fox's rollicking interpretation of Bach's Toccata and Fugue in d, on Virgil Fox (LaserLight 15 313—the same performance originally appeared on a limited-edition, direct-to-disc Crystal Clear disc) stood in stark contrast to Anne Queffélec's meditative take on Eric Satie's Six Gnossiennes, from Eric Satie/Anne Queffélec/Piano (Virgin Classics VC 7 90754 2). There wasn't any kind of music these speakers didn't like, and there wasn't any I didn't like through them.

Incidentally, the SP's high sensitivity means it can play at a satisfying level with a low-powered amplifier. It proved to be an easily driven, amplifier-friendly loudspeaker. My little 20Wpc NAD receiver was more than adequate: tube-lovers will find the SPs quite compatible with their favorite moderately powered amps. (None of PBN's loudspeakers are at all power-hungry: while I was visiting his showroom, Peter drove his big XPs with a single-ended Cary Audio 300SEI.) In fact, I think the warmth of a tube amp might be the perfect complement to the SP's slightly cool tonal characteristic.

As John Atkinson pointed out in his reviews of the Totem Acoustic Mani-2 and Joseph Audio RM7si (February 1996), a full-range floorstanding loudspeaker may not image as well as a small minimonitor, even though it occupies the same floor space. The floorstanding model may offer better bass, but in a small room the bass may be bloated, boomy, and overwhelming, as the SPs' bass initially was in mine.

Although I eventually succeeded, I had trouble integrating the Montana SP into my small, admittedly unorthodox listening space. This speaker is probably not the best choice for a small room, and shouldn't be shoehorned into one. It needs a minimum of 300 square feet of open-floor area. In smaller spaces, without a lot of work and room treatment, you won't begin to exploit its full potential unless you can pull it out from the rear wall the way the designer intended. When you do, the bass response smooths out. With that in mind, I asked Peter Noerbaek why he hadn't ported the speaker in the front rather than the rear; such an arrangement would have allowed it to be placed closer to the rear wall. He replied that the slight noise from the port would detract from the SP's musicality. I'll buy that.

Also, as was mentioned in Jack English's review of the Epos ES 25 loudspeaker (also in February '96), there's a lot of competition in the SP's price range. As Jack said about the Epos, at this price I have a bit of a problem with the SP's lack of true deep bass: its bottom octave was more implied than present. But that's a very small problem, and the only serious criticism I have of this model. (Generally, there's a lot of power in music's bottom octave, but not much actual music.) The SP's performance in all other areas—detail, imaging, dynamics, power handling, midrange and treble clarity, and ability to perform convincingly with a wide variety of music—was first-rate. Its tonal balance, just a shade on the cool side of neutral, shifted a bit as I went from a standing to a sitting position—the focus didn't "lock in" unless I was seated.

The SP's taut dynamics may not be your cup of tea; revealing details in your recordings and characteristics of your electronics that you'd rather not hear—like low-level noise that less sensitive speakers might ignore. If you favor a warmer, fatter, more "romantic" sound, this is not the loudspeaker for you.

Reality check
When it comes to all things audio, I value the opinions of ordinary music lovers as much as and possibly more than I value the opinions of jaded audiophiles. During the Montanas' extended visit I gathered a few such comments:

Mystery writer Sue Steiner: "A little piece of heaven."

Interior designer Elizabeth Tighe: "I can't go home and listen to my stereo now."

San Francisco fireman and guitarist George Kouremetis: "What's it take to get this kind of sound in my place? I'll pay."

Actress Robyn Wiley: "Writers are all whores, but this system sounds fantastic." (Robyn, really.)

I dig upbeat, rhythmically complex music, the kind that makes it impossible not to get up and dance—like "Selva" on Strunz & Farah's Americas (Mesa R2 79041), an album that's been on my heavy-rotation list since I first heard it two years ago, and like all the recordings of the Gipsy Kings. With their effortless, detailed responsiveness, the Montana loudspeakers are perfect for this kind of music. They handled dense, complex material with ease. Even at very loud levels, they never sounded strained or congested.

The Montana SPs are capable of very well-focused imaging. They are compatible with a wide variety of electronics, and are nonfatiguing in the extreme—there were days when I listened for hours without tiring. For the few months I had them, I felt the kind of satisfaction a football coach must feel when he has a team with the intelligence, power, speed, and agility to execute his plays exactly as he envisioned them. For that reason, I held on to them longer than I should have. Can you blame me?

Every bit of music I fed them, whether morsel or meal, was fed back to me with an emotional authenticity that made each listening session an absolute joy: whether the program material was big and bombastic or lightweight and delicate, these loudspeakers offered it up clearly, cleanly, and without editorializing. I like that in audio equipment. I want to feel that I'm hearing what the musicians want me to hear, rather than some equipment designer's interpretation. The sensation was always of looking through an open window rather than through a filter—the Montanas always got out of the way and let the music shine. My only regret is that I didn't try them with a subwoofer and electronic crossover. Not that a sub is really needed, but their midrange is so good and so musical that I wanted to hear it freed from the effort of trying to play bass at all.

My biggest "problem" with the SPs was that they made working at home very difficult. The sound was always so seductive that I found myself repeatedly drawn away from my desk and into my listening chair. "Background music" was impossible (and it oughta be): I couldn't just cue up some tunes and settle down to work. It took an enormous exertion of will to shut off the system and pretend it wasn't there. If that's the only problem I have, I'm leading a charmed life indeed. I can't offer any better praise, and I can't wait to see what other magic Peter Noerbaek has up his sleeve. Highly recommended.

1015 La Mesa Avenue
Spring Valley, CA 91977
(619) 465-6450