Scientific Fidelity Tesla loudspeaker Page 2

The two bass-midrange drivers are mounted to the extended front fascia with what Sci-Fi calls "RIDS," for Resonance Isolation and Damping System. Mike explains that there are two ways to reduce driver basket resonances: mass-loading and decoupling. Mass-loading involves tightly securing the drivers to a heavy, inert cabinet; a good example of this is the deader–than–Andy Gibb Wilson WATT. However, this approach tends to be very expensive, so Mike has opted for the latter method; the woofer baskets on the Tesla are decoupled with two soft-foam gaskets, one between the driver basket and the cabinet, the other between the basket and a metal "compression ring" that fits over the driver and through which the mounting screws are sunk. Mike claims to achieve most of the benefits of mass-coupling with this arrangement.

The general consensus among most designers I've spoken with, however, is that decoupling a driver's basket from the cabinet creates as many problems as it solves. B&W, for example, got rid of the rubber driver-decoupling grommets it fitted to the original 801 once they could obtain enough self-control in their drivers to rigidly mount them to the cabinet; in the opinion of a great many listeners, this made for a much clearer-sounding speaker. However, Mike rightly points out that proper mass-loading is usually very expensive; clearly, a $2k speaker must strain to absorb the added expense of proper mass-loading.

One more thing: the grille cloths on the Teslas are oval "socks" with an elastic band to keep them secured around the front fascia. Although it's tempting to leave the socks off because putting these things back on is a bitch without patience/practice, don't. The tonal balance is much better with them in place.

Fab gear
For reasons I'll go into later, this review took much longer than the norm; as a result, I used a lot more gear than usual with these speakers. The basic system consisted of a digital front-end of the JVC XL-Z1050 CD player used as a transport, linked with Theta's coax digital cable to their DS Pro Basic processor; Sonographe SD-22 CD player; the Well-Tempered Record Player, fitted with Sumiko's Blue Point cartridge and Analog Survival Kit (footnote 3); Aunt Corey's Homemade Buffered Passive Preamp; VTL Compact 160 and Deluxe 225, Dynaco Stereo 70, Scientific Fidelity Trillium, and Forté Model 4 amplifiers; and Straight Wire Maestro and AudioQuest Lapis interconnects and speaker cable.

Other speakers used for comparison included my usual Spica Angeluses and a pair of ProAc Response Twos. The Muse Model 18 subwoofer I usually use with the Spicas was disconnected from the system, except for a very brief period which I'll explain later. All line-level gear was plugged into the Audio Express NoiseTrapper Plus AC line conditioner, the amps into the Audio Express NoiseTrapper 2000. A numbered, limited-edition print of the surrealist Elvis painting Cut Me And I Bleed hangs above the Target racks in mute solitude.

Stee-riiiike One!
The first Teslas Mike Maloney sent me were an early demo pair that had been around the block quite a few times; Mike stressed that these didn't represent current production, but were close enough to use for placement experimentation in my listening room. He sent these along a month or so before he was to fly to Austin with the review pair, so I set them up in what has proven to be the optimum position for many speakers I've used, well away from the rear and side walls and toed-in to the listening position, and fired up the VTL Compact 160s.

Five seconds into the first song, I leapt up and turned down the volume; these were some of the brightest, hardest speakers I'd ever heard! To be fair, Mike had warned me that these were NOT for review, just to play around with to find the best placement. Still, these speakers had been to dealers; at some point, they had been considered a finished design, and coupled with Stereophile's policy that anything sent by a manufacturer should be considered a review sample and generate words, I felt I should report how the first pair sounded. To be honest, I listened to this first pair for a total of about 45 minutes before boxing 'em up again. It was time enough to note that the bass exhibited a large, uncontrolled hump, the mids and highs were hard to the point of painful, and soundstaging was very narrow, much more so than with the Angeluses in the very same location. I could understand why Mike had gone back and reworked the design; these were pretty raw.

When Mike called me to ask if I'd found the best placement with the first pair of Teslas, I told him I hadn't. "No biggie," he said, "We'll find it out with the review pair anyway," and with that he left for Austin, speakers already on the way via air-freight. As this was the first time a manufacturer was coming over to my house, I wanted to make a good impression. I mowed my lawn.

All along the block, my neighbors applauded.

Stee-rike Two!
Mike got in okay, the speakers got in okay, and we brought them back to my house to set them up. I told Mike that the room was his to futz around with until he was happiest with the sound. Then I sat back to watch. First, he wanted to listen to my system with the Angeluses set up where I usually have them. In Mike's opinion, the soundstage was far too narrow; after hearing him explain what his listening preferences are, I understood why he felt that way.

Remember our discussion of amateur speaker designers, and why they did what they did? Another mondo-important reason is the Sid Vicious Factor: "I DID IT MY WAY." For every speaker designer who feels that tonal balance is the most important quality of a speaker, there's another who thinks it's the speaker's ability to throw up a convincing sense of space that matters most. And etc., etc., etc. That's why so many speakers seem to be going after so many different areas of performance; it all comes down to the designer's personal preference.

Mike Maloney's groove thang is WIDE SOUNDSTAGE. His Teslas at home are apparently set up quite far apart, with the speakers and the listening chair forming an equilateral triangle. So it's no wonder he found my Spicas to possess a narrow soundstage; placed well away from the side walls, they convey what, to me, sounds like a realistic portrayal of recordings that are noted for a natural acoustic like the various Cheskys and JA's piano recording on the Stereophile Test CD. To Mike, though, the sound didn't stretch wide enough; out went the Spicas, in came the Teslas.

After trying out various placements, Mike eventually wound up with the Teslas mere inches from the side walls, which are 11.5' apart. In addition, he brought them much further forward into the room, pushing my futon-couch back several feet in the process. Satisfied that he'd found the best-sounding placement in my room, the speakers were much farther apart than the distance between the speakers and the listening seat.

But that wasn't the problem.

To Mike's dismay, the Teslas had the same out-of-control low end that I'd heard from the first pair. The bass boomed loudly, obviously, and unacceptably. He tried different placements for the better part of the afternoon, but to no avail; even though his original "best placement" had the least boom, it was still a major problem. He even tried hooking up the Muse subwoofer, with its 75Hz crossover optimized for the Spicas. With the Muse handling the bass, the sound was much better balanced; although the midbass still had a trace of overhang, the large hump was effectively nulled out by the Muse. Unfortunately, speakers under review don't get the aid of a kick-ass Class A active subwoofer, so the Muse was unhooked and several hundred Egyptian slaves pushed it out of the room.

Another area of great concern to Mike was the inordinate brightness of the second pair. I don't mean "slightly to the forward side of neutral," I mean 4th-of-July-sparklers bright. While Mike felt that, certainly, his tweeters could come down a hair, he also felt that the VTL Compact 160s were partly to blame. He pointed to my review of them in the August '91 issue, specifically JA's measurements, which showed a slight overshoot on squarewaves. "My Trillium tube amps don't have any overshoot," Mike declared. He went on to explain that the Trillium, a 50W monoblock tube amplifier, was the main amp he'd used during the design of his speakers. I asked him to send me a pair, therefore. So back to California he went, promising that once he brought the tweeter level down a bit and figured out what was causing the bass hump, he'd send me another pair of improved Teslas.

As the weeks passed, my lawn grew back to White Trash length, and the neighbors shunned me once more. I wasn't even invited to their quilting bee.

Footnote 3: Only the cool-man arm wrap, though; unfortunately, I could never get the super-skinny mat to sit still on the WTRP's acrylic platter when I removed LPs. Fortunately, most of the improvement's in the arm wrap, anyway. Also, I found that when wrapped tightly around your finger, the arm-wrap makes an excellent tourniquet for when you slice your finger open trying to "nude" your Blue Point with a razor blade.—Corey Greenberg