Sound-Lab A-3 loudspeaker Page 2

But what does the A-3 sound like when it isn't being stressed? I would liken it to a superb tubed power amplifier. Though not altogether uncolored—no loudspeaker is—its colorations have a strong personal appeal. The sound is rather warm and rich through the low end, rather rotund and gutsy through the lower middle range, and soft and sweet through the high end. Through its entire range it has the incredible transparency and delicacy that I have only, to date, heard from wide-range electrostatics. It is, in short, my kind of loudspeaker.

Because of these predispositions, it does not do well with tubed power amps, including the best I've tried: the Audio Research D-250 II Servo. With that amp, the A-3's low end is overly warm and loose, lacking in extreme bottom, and rather flabby through the midbass. And its highs, although gorgeously smooth, are a bit too sweet.

Of the power amps I have on hand—Conrad Johnson Premier Fives, the Electron Kinetics Eagle 2a, a Perreaux 5150B, an Audio Research D-250 II Servo, and a pair of Threshold SA-1s—the A-3s sound best with the Thresholds. The result is a bit short on infra-LF range and midbass impact, but is otherwise almost impossible to fault—at least on recordings of acoustical instruments. Highs with the SA-1 amplifiers are simply gorgeous: open and detailed, yet amazingly sweet, smooth and delicate—very much like what I hear at those live performances where some audiophiles bitch about lack of high end.

As longtime readers know, my priorities for judging reproduced sound are not exactly those of your average audio perfectionist. (Read JA's editorial in Vol.9 No.5 for a second opinion from another perfectionist.) I value middle-range accuracy above all else, tonal balance second, freedom from distortion third, frequency range fourth, and imaging and soundstaging last. This is why I so frequently disagree with some of my associates' equipment reports, and must remind myself periodically that, among audiophiles, I am viewed as somewhat of a heretic. The Sound-Lab A-3s, however, are the first speakers I have heard in which all such considerations seem somehow irrelevant. They seem, to me anyway, to do everything right—if not perfectly right, then at least so right that I almost feel foolish trying to find anything wrong.

How do I love these? Let me count the ways. First off, they do midrange the way Andersen does windows! Cellos have bite and a marvelously luminous glow, piano bass strings sound just like what they are—high-strung steel wires—and the large brass instruments have an authority and awesome power that I rarely hear outside of the concert hall. For this reason, the A-3 gives an illusion of dynamic range like few speakers systems I have heard. (And those few did not do other things nearly as well as the A-3s.) No instruments are favored over others: all sound very convincingly real. Massed violins are particularly good, having that exceedingly rare mix of sweetness and resinous bite that is the earmark of a truly great upper midrange and high end.

Bass range is deeper than that of most available program material, being subjectively flat to around 35Hz in my listening room, but is a little shy of delineation impact when compared with the best I have heard. The only low end I have had in my house that was clearly superior in extension, impact and detail, was that from the Infinity RS-1B's bass towers, whose overall performance above the LF range is, I feel, far less detailed, transparent, and convincingly real than that of the A-3.

But what about imaging and soundstaging, one area where the RS-1B has remained unsurpassed to date? I've heard more breadth and depth in my listening room from some other systems—the RS-1Bs, for instance—than I get from the A-3s, but I have proven to my own satisfaction, via tapes that I mastered myself, that the Infinities in their previous out-in-the-room location (footnote 2) were exaggerating both spaciousness and depth to some extent. (Since the RS-1Bs were moved closer to the rear wall, both qualities are markedly diminished but are more literally accurate. But who gives a hoot about accuracy, when inaccuracy sounds better!) The A-3s, also positioned near the rear wall, produce about the same breadth and depth as the RS-1Bs, but with much greater transparency.

Imaging from the A-3s is spectacular! With a mono source, the "image" remains tightly bunched between the speakers, with no perceptible wander either with changes of pitch or lateral changes of listening position, and this translates into almost incredible image specificity and stability from stereo sources. This is, in fact, the first electrostatic system I have heard which allows me to move from end to end of my listening sofa to the other (a distance of about two meters) without the "stage" position shifting almost entirely to one speaker and becoming, essentially, monophonic. As you might surmise, there is virtually no vertical venetian-blind effect from the Sound-Lab speakers.

The A-3s are the most perfect embodiment to date of my ideal loudspeaker system. Never in my life have I lived with a speaker that has brought, and continues to bring, as much pleasure, excitement, and satisfaction. In short, I am madly, passionately in love with their sound, and I hereby give notice to Roger West that he is going to have a hell of a hard time prying them loose from me.

Footnote 2: See Vol.9 No.4 p.37.—J. Gordon Holt