Snell Acoustics XA Reference Tower loudspeaker Page 4

Cassidy and other vocalists maintained good vocal timbre and image size when played over the Snells. Despite the Towers' height, the voices were rendered life-size and three-dimensional, with none of the Wizard-of-Oz image inflation I'd heard from other flagship speakers, such as the now-unavailable Mark Levinson HQD system. Blues singer Chris Smither's warm, soothing voice and liquid guitar playing remained intimate on his Live As I'll Ever Be (CD, Hightone HCD8120-2).

Male vocalists were conveyed with exceptional emotional power. Take The Blind Boys of Alabama (Real World 8 50918 2) singing "Amazing Grace": Rather than a Judy Collins lament, these blues artists belt out a rousing march, and their stomping beat and emotional intensity were rendered beautifully by the XA References. José Carreras' clear tenor voice remained pure during the Kyrie of Ariel Ramirez's Misa Criolla (CD, Philips 420 955-2). Harry Connick, Jr.'s "Don't Get Around Much Anymore," from the When Harry Met Sally... soundtrack (CD, Columbia CK 45319), was transparent and clear, whether unaccompanied or mixed with a full orchestral fortissimo.

Instruments and voices retained their distinctness, even during crescendos. Maggie Boyle's soprano, the accompanying flute, and the 35Hz bass synthesizer chords did not blur together in the "Main Title" music of Patriot Games. Richard Thompson's voice kept its distinct timbre on "Why Must I Plead," from his Rumor and Sigh (CD, Capitol CDP 7 95713 2), and was not altered by the relentless pounding of the kickdrum.

Large Sweet Spot, Palpable Imaging, Transparent Treble: The XA References' imaging was enhanced by their large sweet spot. Sitting in the nearfield, I didn't have to move my head to find the sweet spot, as I've done with other flagship systems—the image was always there, even when I moved back to my farfield listening position. This ensured my enjoyment of Suzanne Vega's "Tom's Diner," from her Solitude Standing (CD, A&M CD5136). Vega's voice sounded palpable and three-dimensional. On his Across the Borderline (CD, Columbia CK 52752), I was able to determine that Willie Nelson was sitting slightly above and to the right of Bonnie Raitt in their duet, "Getting Over You." Such was the Towers' ability to image.

Their soundstage width was outstanding. I particularly enjoyed hearing the Jerome Harris Quintet's version of Duke Ellington's "The Mooche," from Rendezvous (CD, Stereophile STPH013-2). The XA References followed JA's liner notes faithfully, placing the vibes stage left, the trombone just right of center, the sax far right, the bass guitar and kickdrum center, and the drum kit across the width of the stage. On "Lord Make Me an Instrument of Your Peace," from Requiem (CD, Reference Recordings RR-57CD), the XA References spread the Turtle Creek Chorale across a deep, wide stage and permitted the clarinet, organ, harp, and male and female choirs to be discerned and followed. I was moved in closer to the chorus than I'd been with other loudspeakers, and could easily discern individual singers. I had a clear sense of the concert hall's perspective listening to Leopold Stokowski conduct the Chicago Symphony in Shostakovitch's Symphony 6 (CD, RCA LSC-3133). This same resolution of sonic layers in the soundtrack of Glory (LP, Virgin 90531) spread the choir's voices from wall to wall; many distinct voices were discernible, even through crescendos.

Transparency and effortlessness were key components of the XA Reference's sound. An adjective such as "majestic" describes these systems playing an orchestral fortissimo, and has more to do with the speaker's neutrality, transparency, and dynamics than with its ability to play loud.

Orchestral timbre and spatial definition were rendered exceptionally well playing FM music. This was evident when our local classical music station, WQXR, broadcast a live recording from New Year's Eve 1999, of Kurt Masur conducting Beethoven's Symphony 9. I was struck by the exceptional tone and power of the tenor, who stood stage center, the huge chorus spread out behind him deep in the soundstage. The massed strings were sweet, the woodwind resonances warm. There was ample air around the instruments. The trumpet coming from stage left had a rough, brassy quality, while a timpani playing low notes sounded far back on the stage to the right. This was FM stereo at its best!

The treble response was also clear and extended. The XA Reference delivered open, effortless highs. It conveyed treble detailing of Joe Beck's vibes on "Unspoken Words" (CD, The Journey, DMP CD-481), allowing me to hear its harmonic overtones. These speakers made me more aware of the instrumental clarity of bells, cymbals, and treble piano notes. I particularly noticed the sound of the struck cymbal fading away in the "Chorus Line" overture of Frederick Fennell and the Dallas Wind Symphony's Beachcombers (HDCD, Reference Recordings RR-62CD).

With a price of $30,000/pair as reviewed, the Snell XA Reference Tower is an expensive loudspeaker. Whether its many strengths—unusually smooth vertical dispersion, wide sweet spot, superb imaging, first-class bass response—justify the price is a decision each audiophile will have to make. Although its cabinetry and fit'n'finish were exceptional, the XA Reference Tower remains a physically imposing, massive loudspeaker best suited to large listening rooms, an owner with considerable upper-body strength, a patient, helpful dealer who will install the speakers and store their shipping crates, and an understanding spouse.

Despite these caveats, the XA Reference Tower proved to be an outstanding loudspeaker. Its deep, powerful bass, transparency, imaging, and large sweet spot define what I want in a flagship speaker design. Despite a conventional exterior, the XA Reference incorporates forward-thinking engineering in its eXpanding Array for control of vertical dispersion, its multiple reflex-aligned woofers, and its ability to be tuned for the room. I'm sure if I could arrange a séance with the late Peter Snell, he would second my strong vote for the newest flagship from the company that bears his name.

Snell Acoustics
143 Essex Street
Haverhill, MA 01832
(978) 373-6114