ProAc Response 1S loudspeaker Page 2

In building a speaker, just as in performing music, countless decisions must be made concerning balance. I have, for example, eight recordings of Ravel's Piano Concerto in G—there's an ineffable melancholy in the second movement that moves me powerfully—and they're all performed well. Yet, time and again I return to two of them (footnote 5): the choices made by the artists seem right to me—they affirm my understanding of the piece. The 1S affirmed my musical values in the same way. This does not mean that others will respond similarly, any more than my appreciation of Michelangeli means that others will prefer him to Argerich.

Music is feeling, not sound
We speak of audio as sound reproduction. It is that, of course, but sound, while the medium through which music comes to us, is only one element of a musical performance. While we hear with our ears, we listen with our entire bodies. We react to music on a cellular level; it produces in us physical changes (footnote 6) and emotional responses. While we speak of music as having meaning, that meaning is not necessarily tied to our comprehension, as is the written word. Musicologist Deryck Cooke contrasted the way we process words and music by observing that "both awaken in the hearer an emotional response; the difference is that a word awakens both an emotional response and a comprehension of its meaning, whereas a note, having no meaning, awakens only an emotional response."

Our emotional palette is directly stimulated by our participation in the experience of music. When I worked as an audio salesman, my employer would present customers with a conundrum to demonstrate that there is, in music, a quality more important than merely sounding good. "Suppose you were to take a recent Julliard performance graduate and give him a recital in Carnegie Hall on a $40,000 Steinway. He's obviously accomplished. He'd be capable of playing even complex pieces skillfully. But if you had to choose between him, in a great hall, on the best piano, and Maurizio Pollini playing a console spinet in a living-room, would you even have to think about it?" Call it nuance, call it soul. I call it grace.

Why? To begin with, The Shorter O.E.D. defines "grace" as "the part in which the beauty of a thing consists"—which sounds about right. In music, grace has a few longstanding connotations that apply as well. Grace notes are notes that are indicated by the composer as having no fixed time value. It is left to the discretion of the performer to "steal" the value of the grace note from the surrounding notes. This rhythmic flexibility is a carryover from an earlier meaning of grace, in which composers indicated areas into which ornamentation was to be inserted by the performer. Grace, then, is the part of music that is not written on the page.

Grace defines the distance between the piano student and the interpretive genius—the difference between the performance that is sublime and the one that merely gets the notes right. And that difference—ie, all the difference in the world—is made up of countless ongoing decisions governing phrasing, minute dynamic and rhythmic variations, elision, texture, and emphasis.

So, too, in audio. Getting the notes right is merely the first step. There are very few products that do not do that correctly. But venture beyond that, into the realm of grace—where rhythmic flexibility and dynamic shading demand nuanced subtlety—and the ranks thin dramatically.

This is not because audio designers are incompetent. On the whole, high-end designers have done astonishingly well at an impossible task. But there are so many parameters to design to, and each of us values every one of them to varying degrees. I would willingly sacrifice extreme loudness for a design that can nimbly portray the shadings of dynamics—say, the difference between soft and softer, or even loud and just a teensy bit louder. Confronted with a choice between deep bass and the supple agility to portray the ebb and flow of rhythm within a phrase, I'd go for the latter every time. Perhaps this accounts for my regard for the 1S. Its balance of virtues and sins (the latter chiefly of omission) coincides precisely with my own ethos. Other listeners may, of course, hear things differently.

How sweet the sound
Seeking to challenge the ProAc at its métier, I played a recording that could almost serve as a primer for the qualities of rhythmic and dynamic grace: the Gershwin by Knight CD (Wilson Audio WCD-9231)—Hyperion Knight's mercurial performance of piano music by George Gershwin. Throughout the recording, Knight's control of the dynamic line is as compelling as his command of the melodic one. It complements, as well, his supple use of rhythmic inflection. The "Summertime" section of "Fantasy on Porgy and Bess" illustrates the interactions of these three elements, as well as the fact that few pieces are so simple as to have just one level of dynamic motion at a time. Throughout "Summertime," the melody is stated forcefully in the foreground, surrounded and supported by both chordal underpinning and filigree, which do not inhabit the same dynamic plane as the theme. This contrast and interplay are what elevate the interpretation to poignancy, as opposed to mere prettiness.

Rhapsody in Blue requires an abundance of grace—even in the fascinating piano reduction that Knight undertakes here—precisely because there's not much there there. Although an extended work, it doesn't really show any melodic or thematic development—at least not in the sense of possessing the inevitability of, say, a Beethoven symphony. A successful reading of Rhapsody survives on the charm with which the themes are presented—and, owing to its fragmented melodic structure, the rhythmic architecture that the performer constructs to support them. Mr. Knight forges a sustained arch of forward progression, to which he appends the many little discursive fillips that particularize this piece.

Need I mention that none of this would come across as compelling, or even interesting, if the ProAc didn't articulate every shading and nuance? Most speakers are capable of revealing the drive and athleticism of Knight's playing. Those qualities would come across on a transistor radio. But what separates him from other young pianists with chops is how delicately he wields that velocity. Many speakers would mask his chromaticism in their driver inertia or box colorations. I have, in fact, played the disc on systems that trample the lithe rhythmic line and sit on the gossamer dynamic variation. It reminded me of the time, as a boy, when I shot a bird: what had been alive and soaring lay broken and muddy at my feet. It wasn't pretty.

Beating against the bars of the cage of form
In order for grace to exist, there must be a structure for it to play against. This can be something as simple as a sequence of notes or as complex as the sonata allegro form. Beecham once cautioned an orchestra against observing each measure as a unit unto itself: "Remember that the bars are only the boxes in which the music is packed."

One of grace's divine paradoxes is the infinite variety that it can invest in a form as tightly constrained as the blues. The standard blues form is AAB—ie, a rhymed couplet in which the first line is repeated. Its standard rhythmic-harmonic structure is just as rigid: a 12-bar progression (I-I-I-I-IV-IV-I-I-V-IV-I-I) (footnote 7) tied to the three-line couplet in three four-bar phrases. Nothing would seem more inimical to sublimity than a verse form one step away from doggerel, or a musical structure so tightly defined that to change any element in it is tantamount to changing its form. Yet the blues has produced a body of literature as linguistically and emotionally rich as Shakespeare or Twain, and a pantheon of artists capable of expressing the human condition in ways that transcend language or culture. Go figure.

Since the poetic and musical constraints are so tight, true artistry in the blues comes from the tension between its form and its expression. The finest performers anticipate—or lag behind—the phrase beginnings and endings. They treat the beat—the bar, even—as fluid: cramming more or fewer icti into each measure than anticipated, essentially expanding or compressing the unit itself. Each violation of the form validates its power. The genre derives its tension (and release) from this conflict within the form. Legions of performers have used these tools to forge art from experience. None, for me, have surpassed the artistry of Muddy Waters.

The very qualities that distinguish Waters from an ordinary musician are the ones that so frequently get lost in musical reproduction. Like Billie Holiday, his vocal range is quite limited, yet his voice—through insinuatingly nuanced inflection and a playful rhythmic suppleness—is supremely expressive. Resolving this apparent contradiction taxes even the finest stereo components. Played through the 1S, Muddy Waters' Folk Singer (Mobile Fidelity UDCD 593, CD, and MFSL 1 201, LP) is a mitzvah (blessings on you, Mobile Fidelity!). Far and away, it's the best best-sounding CD that I've ever heard. It's also one of Waters' most subtle and evocative works.

"Country Boy," a relaxed 12-bar blues, simply crackles with tension as the band tries to force open the box the music's packed in. Willie Dixon, on bass, nails down the bottom as he and drummer Clifton James define the measures. Buddy Guy's guitar rushes the beat ever so slightly, while Muddy's vocals lag behind. Waters' querulous slide seems to comment on the sung verses—sometimes answering, sometimes recapitulating them. But it's not disjointed; it hangs together—if only by its fingernails—because the structure holds. The interrelatedness of the parts—their organic connection—is not incidental. It's profound, yet subtle. Lose that subtlety, and you're left with banality. The Response 1S recovers all of the magic without (I can't help myself) muddying Muddy.

Say amen, somebody!
If I seem to have spent more time discussing music than describing the ProAc Response 1S, then it's an accurate reflection of the time I spent listening to this very special speaker. Except during the initial break-in period (which took a long time), the ProAc did not draw attention to itself in any way. It was articulate—capable of distinguishing vanishingly small increments of metrical and dynamic variation. This also means that it was cruelly revealing of the character of the system feeding it, and must be carefully integrated into a system equally devoid of coloration.

I hasten to add, however, that I do not hold the 1S in such high esteem merely because it does so little wrong. I do respect that, but am far more impressed by its seeming desire—if I can indulge myself—to do right by the music. I have chosen to call this quality "grace" because, like the theological definition of grace (ie, it is unearned), it is a gift.

Given its small footprint, the ProAc possesses a remarkably satisfying bottom end, but I must be careful to stress that "given." Profound bass is beyond it, no matter how satisfying its balance may be. If you can live without the deeper tones and with reduced rump-rumble, then you should listen to this speaker very carefully. If not, you won't be happy—no matter how much you like the rest of its capabilities.

Barring that cavil, there's little to fault in ProAc's Response 1S. At its price point, it faces some stiff competition from Thiel (the CS1.2) and MartinLogan (the Sequel), to name only the most obvious contenders. When you're spending this kind of money, there should be a variety of great speakers. Undoubtedly, a determined shopper will find other worthy designs to consider; naturally, I would advise you to listen carefully before committing to any of them. But whatever you decide to buy, you're going to have an extremely difficult choice to make. Doesn't that make you want to say grace?

Footnote 5: The Michelangeli/Gracis/Philharmonia LP (Angel S-35567) and the Katchen/Kertész/LSO LP (Linn Recut REC 01).—Wes Phillips

Footnote 6: Among them are muscular responses (which resemble closely the ones involved in emotional states), dilation of pupils, and an increase in endorphin levels. Interestingly, Naxolene—an endorphin blocker—inhibits musical enjoyment.—Wes Phillips

Footnote 7: This diagram, no matter how informative and correct, does not tell you how the blues sound. Just like specs.—Wes Phillips

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funambulistic's picture

I first heard these little gems in '98 or so. My impression was that they were more of a musical instrument than transducer and everything I threw at them sounded lovely. I am sure they were not the most "accurate" speakers around (otherwise, most of the music I demoed would have sounded terrible). Unfortunately, at the time, the price was too dear... Ruark was another speaker company that had that "instrument" sound. RIP Wes!