Snell Illusion loudspeaker Page 3

The Illusions communicated the dynamics, power, and pace of percussion instruments: the slowly building kickdrum on David Bowie's "Putting Out Fire," from the Cat People soundtrack (CD, MCA MCAD-1498); the subtle but eerily clear bass beat backing up "She Misunderstood," from Richard Thompson's Rumor and Sigh (CD, Capitol CDP 7 95713 2); Jeff Beck's guitar on "Behind the Veil," from his Guitar Shop (CD, Epic EK 44313); the pulsing conga drums that open the Eagles' "Hotel California," from Hell Freezes Over; in Esa-Pekka Salonen and the LA Philharmonic's recording of Stravinsky's Le Sacre du Printemps (SACD, Deutsche Grammophon 00289 477 6198-2), the fortissimo bass-drum strokes in the second movement that burst into my listening room with cleanly defined leading edges; and the stunning mix of high-pitched synthesizer hisses, cymbals, and chimes that tighten the suspense of "Assault on Ryan's House," from James Horner's score for Patriot Games (CD, RCA 66051-2). In addition to communicating orchestral bombast and cinematic drama at loud volumes, the Illusion also produced subtle detail and shadings at moderate volumes in the nearfield. This is rare among large speakers, which can sound bland when played softly.

The Illusion had one of the finest midrange responses I've heard. At volumes low or high, it realistically reproduced tones and timbres of voices, acoustic piano, and percussion. Keith Jarrett's piano in "True Blues," from his The Carnegie Hall Concert (CD, ECM 1989/90), was clean and translucent, with normal emphasis in the presence range and no sodden overtones when he used the sostenuto pedal. Suzanne Vega's a cappella "Tom's Diner," from Solitude Standing (CD, A&M CD5136), formed a chillingly realistic, three-dimensional image of Vega's voice centered between the speakers. Similarly, the Illusion transmitted more of the timbres and harmonics of male singers' voices, with no midbass tubbiness. "Who's Loving You," from Cantus's eponymous album (CD, Cantus CTS-1207), revealed each voice in the harmony, while the voice of tenor soloist Albert Jordan was buttery-smooth and stunningly realistic. Willie Nelson's "Getting Over You," from his Across the Borderline (CD, Columbia CK 52752), captured his smoky baritone, while José Carreras's light, lyrical tenor remained pure during the Kyrie of Ariel Ramirez's Misa Criolla (CD, Philips 420 955-2). Harry Connick Jr.'s vocal on "Don't Get Around Much Anymore," from the When Harry Met Sally... soundtrack (CD, Columbia CK 45319), was transparent and clear, with no overblown warmth or extra resonance.

The Illusion's upper midrange and treble were similarly equal to those of the best electrostatic loudspeakers, including my Quad ESL-989s. The harmonic overtones of the vibes on "Unspoken Words," from Joe Beck's The Journey (CD, DMP 211), were strikingly natural. Cymbals were particularly translucent and sweet, whether tapped gently with a stick, as in "Noxus," from Patricia Barber's Café Blue (SACD, Premonition/Blue Note/Mobile Fidelity Sound Lab UDSACD 2002), or stoked softly with wire brushes, as in "Fruit Forward," from Attention Screen's Live at Merkin Hall. The subtle dynamic shadings during the decays of clashed cymbals were readily discernible during the overture from A Chorus Line, on Fredrick Fennell and the Dallas Wind Symphony's Beachcombers (CD, Reference RR-62CD).

The Illusion's bass both delighted and vexed me. It delivered tuneful, dynamic, punchy, powerful midbass and lower bass with excellent pitch definition, but seemed to weaken on the lowest bass notes. It captured the power and presence of Jean Guillou's organ-pedal chords in Gnomus, from his transcription of Mussorgsky's Pictures at an Exhibition (CD, Dorian DOR-90117), but didn't cause the air in my room to pulse or objects to rattle. Instead of extension, the Snell's strengths in the low bass were pitch definition and power, which made it possible for me to hear many things: the telltale sound of a fabric-covered stick striking a large bass drum in H. Owen Reed's La Fiesta Mexicana, from Howard Dunn and the Dallas Wind Symphony's Fiesta! (CD, Reference RR-38CD); the plosive synth-bass pulses that drive the rhythmic power of "Something's Wrong," from Randy Edelman's soundtrack music for My Cousin Vinny (CD, Varèse Sarabande VSD-5364); and Jerome Harris's careful bass work weaving in and out of "The Mooche," from Rendezvous (CD, Stereophile STPH013-2).

Although the Illusion captured the pitch and power of pipe-organ bass, I didn't feel the room "lock"—a level of deep bass sufficient to be felt as a pressure wave—from the 32Hz pedal note that ends James Busby's performance of Herbert Howells' Master Tallis's Testament, from the Pipes Rhode Island collection (CD, Riago 101). The sustained low G played by the double basses in the introduction to Strauss's Also sprach Zarathustra, from Erich Kunzel and the Cincinnati Pops' Time Warp (CD, Telarc CD-80106), was more indistinct than I expected, with evidence of doubling. Bass notes slightly higher in frequency, such as the synthesizer in the beginning of Jerry Goldsmith's "Star Trek: Main Theme" from the same album, played with good definition and even produced room lock.

Listening to the Snell's cabinet sidewall level with the tweeter through a stethoscope while playing the chromatic half-step sinewaves on track 19 of Editor's Choice, I was able to hear a resonance excited by the toneburst at 261Hz. I also heard an emphasis at 125Hz, and felt a slight buzz when I rested my hand on the cabinet. This sensation was particularly evident when Attention Screen's Chris Jones played his fretless bass at high levels on "Blizzard Limbs," from Live at Merkin Hall (CD, Stereophile STPH018-2).

The Snell Illusion is a flagship loudspeaker in terms of price, iconic enclosure design, the deep luster of its automotive black finish, and its stunningly realistic midrange and treble dynamics. The setup requires time and patience to extract the Snell's best imaging, and the widest sweet spot necessary for optimal listening, but then the speaker's bass response, at least down to 30Hz, is extremely well defined, coherent, tuneful, powerful, and satisfying. The Illusion's dynamic capabilities are almost without equal. Its reproduction of orchestral music has a startling, dynamic, almost Technicolor quality that rapidly became addicting. Over the years, I've auditioned many Snell flagship systems; the Illusion is the most listenable, exciting, and satisfying Type A I've heard to date.

My son-in-law may never have to face the dilemma of how to spend his lottery winnings. I, on the other hand, having met the Illusion's setup challenge, wouldn't hesitate. For me, the Snell Illusion is what the High End is all about: exceptional performance at an exceptionally high price; iconic design; and a flaw or two. (Despite its size, the big Snell didn't reproduce the very deepest bass notes, and there was that audible resonance in the upper bass.) This makes any purchase decision more complicated, and perhaps more interesting. With these caveats in mind, I recommend the Illusion from Snell Acoustics—it's one of the best floorstanding loudspeakers I've heard.

Snell Acoustics
PO Box 3717, 300 Jubilee Drive
Peabody, MA 01961-3717
(978) 538-6262