Sound-Lab A-3 loudspeaker Page 3

Now that I've expressed my feelings about the A-3s, I must add that they are not going to appeal equally to everyone. They do not do well on rock material, lacking both the requisite tartness and aggressiveness to do justice to rock music, and can't produce the kind of sound pressure levels demanded by most rock listeners. And, as I mentioned previously, their soundstaging breadth and depth are not as spectacular, however accurate I feel they may be, as those of some other systems. But give these a clean, honestly miked recording of acoustical instruments, and the A-3s seem to vanish, providing as transparent a window on the music as any I have ever heard, with greater naturalness and tonal accuracy than any other.

Quite unlike the sound—a bit lean and (generally) a bit slow—of such state-of-the-art planar systems as Magnepans and Apogees, the A-3s' sound is rich and extremely agile. (I have not heard the $6600 Apogee system, but I assume that it now embodies the same improvements that have been incorporated into the Duetta, Scintilla, and the new Caliper. Nor have I yet heard the latest incarnation of the MartinLogan Monolith, which was received a couple of weeks ago.)

Mind you, I don't want to give the impression that the A-3s are worth buying. Of course, I believe they are well worth the money, shortcomings notwithstanding—and more, if you consider the fact that you can pay more for less quality than these have to offer. I shouldn't say that in print, however, because if I do, the demand for Sound-Lab A-3s may mushroom, Sound-Lab will have to expand in order to meet the demand, and it will no longer be the cozy little family-and-friends company that it has been ever since its inception.

I view that prospect with very mixed feelings. On the one hand, I sympathize with Mr. West in his desire to avoid the chaos that would result from a drastically increased demand for his speakers—the angry phone calls from frustrated would-be customers, dealer cancellations because of an impossible back-order situation, the disruptive move to larger quarters, the frantic search for additional capital that could not be paid back until all dealers had paid up, and so on. And what if Stereophile were to do what TAS has been known to do: follow a rave review with a complete volte face put-down in the next issue? Sound-Lab could go the way other companies have gone as a result of such a shift in the wind: down the tube.

Then there is the fact that much of the A-3's success as a sound reproducer is due to the careful hand-tuning of its diaphragm resonances—a procedure that, to date, Mrs. West has done herself because she has been unable to train anyone else to do it right. Could Sound-Lab step up production of the A-3s without significant sacrifices in reliability and sample-to-sample consistency? (The fact that other manufacturers of dipole speakers have been able to develop instrumentation to replace individual judgment when tensioning diaphragms does not necessarily mean the same could be done with equal success for Sound-Lab speakers. But I do wonder how hard the Wests have tried—if at all—to devise such instrumentation.)

On the other hand, I am compelled to tell Stereophile readers whose sonic tastes parallel my own that a pair of A-3s may just be the last loudspeaker system they will ever feel the need to buy. I have only heard one other system that did a better job than the A-3 of reproducing the illusion of real, live, unamplified music, and that was the Wilson Audio Specialties WAMM, which sells for roughly eight times the A-3's $5750.

It's my feeling that a pair of A-3s belong in the system of anyone who enjoys the sound of a real live orchestra (or chorus or string quartet or opera or what have you) and can afford the purchase price. But in order to help Sound-Lab remain the kind of company they are now and have expressed the hope of remaining, I shall conclude by saying that the A-3 is one of the worst speakers I have heard, that it's an unconscionable ripoff at the price, and that the Wests aren't going to get the review samples back without a fight.—J. Gordon Holt