Rockport Technologies Merak II loudspeaker & Sheritan II subwoofer Page 2

The two-way experience: Rockport Merak II
In many ways, though not all, the relatively small Merak IIs repeated the Antares' stunning performance. Their sonic picture was startlingly big, seamless, and well-proportioned, the inert cabinets "hiding" the locations of the speakers better than any other design (the Antares excepted) I've auditioned—though the WATT/Puppy 7s come close. The front baffles were simply not in the equation, the three-dimensional soundfield never landing on or hovering near those two black boxes.

My listening sessions with Rockport Antares were my first experience of a speaker that was essentially free of cabinet resonances, and in my review of them, I gushed. Forgive me if I can't quite get it up a second time, but believe me: The Merak II was equally impressive in that regard. Read that August 2002 review and you'll get the picture; just keep in mind that the Merak II lacks the Antares' bottom octave or so.

Like the Antares, the Merak IIs' lateral image delineation had eerie pinpoint accuracy. One of my favorite test tracks for this is the finale from The Newport Folk Festival 1963, Volume 3 (LP, Japanese Vanguard SH 114). Bob Dylan, Joan Baez, Peter, Paul and Mary, and other familiar voices are spread across a wide outdoor stage; through an accomplished system, each voice can be easily and precisely located. This track demonstrated that the Merak IIs' imaging and soundstaging were first-rate, even somewhat more convincing than my reference speakers, the WATT/Puppy 7s. Each voice was easy to identify and position, in both the lateral and depth dimensions (not that I was in that 1963 audience).

Images had convincing solidity, natural focus, and appropriate weight, and floated with unforced ease in the virtually infinite three-dimensional space of the great outdoors—the only limit was a clear sensation of the stage's roof. In my room, at least, the Merak IIs produced about as natural a sonic picture as can probably be created by this record.

Because of their limitations in low-frequency response, a pair of Merak IIs couldn't convincingly transport me into a large indoor venue such as Carnegie Hall as well as full-range speakers can, but they went low enough to suggest the appropriate spatial context. I was never left not knowing where I was, whether concert hall, nightclub, or recording studio. More important, I was never left gazing through a pair of windows through which music flowed from someplace else. The stand-mounted Merak IIs created a picture that rose from the floor and extended upward to an appropriate height well above the speakers. When I played monaural recordings, such as Cisco Music's reissue of June Christy's Something Cool (LP, Capitol T516), a compact, tightly focused, holographic image appeared between the Merak IIs—but it was also firmly grounded on the floor, which made the solo picture more believable.

I expect a pair of well-designed two-way speakers to image well, and the Merak IIs did so about as well as any I've heard. What I didn't expect was the speaker's almost unlimited dynamic presentation and high sound-pressure levels (SPLs). Although there was nothing wimpy about the Merak II's dynamic expression, the Antares' ability to delineate small dynamic gradations was noticeably superior, as I remember it. Still, the Merak II could handle lots of power and play very loud without strain or dynamic compression. This two-way sounded as easy and open when pushed as it did when played softly, though it sounded far more animated at moderate to high SPLs.

The biggest advantages of a two-way speaker are that you're not crossing over at or near the critical midrange area, and that two drivers placed relatively close together come closer than do more complex driver arrays to an ideal "point source," in which all of the sound emanates from a single location. Of course, all things being equal—including, especially, a properly executed crossover—three-way designs have the advantage.

The disadvantage of two-ways is that the woofer is usually asked to handle not only very low frequencies and a great deal of power, but relatively high frequencies as well. A large-diameter driver handling higher frequencies will tend to "beam" them, causing aberrations in frequency response and imaging.

The Esotar tweeter's robust motor can handle a lot of power, which allows it to be crossed over at a relatively low frequency, thus relieving the midbass driver of having to handle high frequencies that it would no doubt end up "beaming." However, there's little a designer can do about the problems associated with asking a two-way's midrange/woofer to handle deep bass. While the Merak II did manage to get down to around 40Hz with relative ease, and delivered a full, surprisingly robust bottom end that will be enough for many listeners, the lower-octave definition, articulation, and "punch" were somewhat soft and ill-defined—but only when compared to properly designed three-way systems.

Overall, the Merak II's frequency balance was seamless, if on the somewhat warm and relaxed side of the tonal divide—but that's how Andy Payor likes it. Compared to my reference WATT/Puppy 7, which some find has a narrowband treble emphasis, the Merak II sounded rich and somewhat subdued on top, but not at all dull.

A while back, a friend of a friend came over and, after listening to them, pronounced the WATT/Puppys "colored."

"All speakers are colored," I shot back. But I know what he didn't like about the Wilsons. He'd be much happier with the Merak IIs.

Still, the Merak II's balance made me listen into the soundstage. It wasn't a sound that projected strongly into the room and grabbed me—brash is not the word that comes to mind. While a few casual listeners who stopped by were underwhelmed, I found that, over time, my affinity for the speaker grew as I came to appreciate its coherent, full-bodied midband.

After an all-Russian evening at Avery Fisher Hall that included a dazzling performance by Yefim Bronfman and the New York Philharmonic of Rachmaninoff's Piano Concerto 4, I ran home and put on a new two-LP set of Schumann solo piano pieces performed by John Lill and superbly recorded by Tony Faulkner for his new vinyl label (Green Room Greenpro 4001/2, available from Acoustic Sounds). What was immediately reinforced in my mind was the fundamental correctness of the Merak II's midrange and the subtle honesty of its transient attack. In timbre, transient attack, and dynamic thrust, the reproduced piano in my room sounded remarkably similar to what I'd just heard from Row 20 of Avery Fisher. I have yet to play the Lill recording through the WATT/Puppy 7s, but I don't think the piano will have quite the same ideal balance or, more important, tonal coherence. On the other hand, I'm sure the WATT/Puppys will have more air and detail, and sharper transient attack.

Live acoustic music never sounds "crisp." It usually sounds rich, and when there's brashness to the brass, it "bites"—but it doesn't have a sharp edge that separates itself from the musical attack. The Merak II portrayed that brashness and "bite" without sharp edge, and with admirable honesty. Still, the Merak II's balance was somewhat on the mellow side, making the speaker far more attractive for acoustic music than for rock.

Adding the bottom octaves: the Sheritan II
For an additional $11,000/pair (or for a total of $29,500 if purchased with a pair of Merak IIs; you save $1000), you can add a pair of passively driven Sheritan II bass modules, which turn the Merak IIs into floorstanders. The Sheritan is a rear-ported, 75-liter cabinet with a relatively narrow baffle: its 13" Focal W sandwich-cone woofer (also used in JMlab's Beryllium line) is mounted on one side. Though the Sheritan II's cabinet is not made using the same heroic techniques applied to the Merak II or the Antares, it's still heavily built—each cabinet wall comprises two panels of 2¾"-thick, constrained-layer-damped MDF separated by a layer of viscoelastic material—and stiffly braced.

The mid/HF crossover built into the back of the Sheritan II has three sets of binding posts, and a Neutrik jack to connect to the Merak II. The top two sets of binding posts are linked; speaker cables connect to the center set of binding posts. Supplied jumper cables connect the top set of binding posts to the woofer posts near the bottom of the Sheritan II's cabinet. A low-pass filter built into the bottom of the Sheritan II rolls off the drive signal above a hundred hertz. The mid/high transition point remains at around 2kHz, according to Andy Payor, but the crossover architecture changes because of the high-pass filtering used for the Merak II. Payor supplies a ball of dense foam that must be stuffed into the Merak II's rear port in order to damp and restrict the (now) midrange driver's low-frequency output.

The combination of Merak II and Sheritan II puts Darth Vader on a firmer foundation and offers a sleeker visage than the stand-mounted Merak II. The combo looks far more graceful than the wide-bodied, front-woofered Antares, which hadn't delivered the amount of bass I'd expected back in 2002, and that the speaker was obviously capable of delivering. The weight and quality of bass were there, but not the quantity. As I wrote back then, "I've found that side-mounted woofers couple better to my room." Based on my initial experience with the Sheritan II, that was an understatement.

Like the Merak IIs when first fired up, the Sheritan IIs put out too much bass—only now, with extension down into the upper 20Hz region, the problem was more serious, and one I'd never had in this room. It was a luxury of sorts to move the speakers to lessen their bass output. Eventually, I found speaker locations—farther into the room than usual and somewhat closer to the side walls—that attenuated that thick, rich, overwhelming bottom end. But there was still way too much of it, and it sounded as if I'd also lost much of the high-frequency extension of the already mellow-sounding Merak II.

Rockport Technologies
229 Mill Street
Rockport, ME 04856
(207) 596-7151