The Waveform Loudspeaker Page 3

And this is not a subtle lack. On the records (and a few CDs) I own which provide fabulous ambient information—where, sitting with a glass of wine and the latest Stereophile in hand late at night, you feel you're actually there—the Waveforms were able to only suggest a bit of hall, with moderately believable images. I must be the only audiophile on earth who isn't tired of Jazz at the Pawnshop, but I actually just listened to it for the first time in the last three weeks. Honest! On the IRS Betas, you can locate the patrons of the Pawnshop—you could go over and take their drink orders, music playing or not. On the Waveforms, the patrons only appeared during breaks in the music—phantom jazz fans who somehow disappeared while the music played! Meanwhile, recordings with suggested ambience on the Waveforms simply dry up—you're aware of the instruments or voices themselves, but nothing more.

Other characteristics of the speaker don't give me a hint as to how the Waveforms "disappear" the ambience. I suspect it has to do with crossover design, and possibly also with running a 15" woofer up to 150Hz (though the crossover's low-pass rollout is steep). More responsibility, though, should probably be given the design goal of a speaker that works best in the corners, and which has to be listened to at a great distance. By the time the sound reaches you it's been affected so much by your own acoustic that the original can no longer be discerned. Or maybe it's just that I'm spoiled by constantly listening to the efforts of engineers who finalize their designs over a period of years—and then constantly search to better them through little tweaks and improvements.

This, unfortunately, only addresses the issue of what the Waveform omits. In terms of long-term listenability, the more serious problem is the speaker's upper-octave performance. Check JA's measurements accompanying this review for a technical flaw that wouldn't get past Boston Acoustics, much less Thiel, Vandersteen, or Magnepan. An average 6–8dB hump between 10 and 16kHz is audible. Normally Stereophile reviewers only become aware of measurements after the listening is concluded, but in this case initial measurements were taken with John Ötvös on site, so he would be aware of the results ahead of time—in case there was anything awry. Surprisingly, Mr. Ötvös wasn't aware that his speakers had this treble peak, even though his own measurements, as supplied in the owner's manual, show exactly the same shape of frequency response (though the absolute level of treble peak we found was greater than Waveform's own measurements show).

So I was aware that I might hear an excess of treble, and hear it I did—night after night after night. This treble boost, even with the VTL 500s in the system, was noticeable. On extremely well-recorded music, with well-behaved microphones and no digititis (on CDs), about all I noticed was an additional emphasis on the leading edge of transients, a bit of extra sheen to cymbals—they were more there than is normal. (Interestingly, just as I'm writing this, I found that my sensitivity to this treble edge is drug-sensitive. I've had a headache for the last three days—JA said that's what I get for listening to a speaker with a 15kHz peak!—and was prescribed some Darvon for it. The edge became much more noticeable, rather than less.) Well-recorded trumpets had a bit more spitty edge, record ticks were more pronounced, had more character.

That's the not-so-bad part. The really bad sounds came from any records that were less than superbly recorded. This happens to include 95% of the music I like to listen to. I'm as willing to listen to superbly recorded great performances as the next audiophile—something like Reiner's rendering of the Rossini Overtures on RCA (LSC-2318)—but there aren't nearly enough records like this to satisfy my appetites, particularly the dreck I find at garage sales. Yet, for me, hi-fi is about enjoying the music you like to listen to, not grimacing at it. I found that the Waveforms' treble peak simply exercised a veto on any musical adventurousness; you pay if you put on a record that's even a trifle less than clean.

The treble peak also puts great strain on your associated equipment. I didn't find a solid-state amp that could be put on the top part of the speakers—this review would have come out much worse (and much shorter) if the VTLs hadn't shown up. Moving-coil cartridges with a rising high end?—Forget it! I was using the AudioQuest 7000, which is a wonderfully smooth, well-balanced cartridge. And don't forget that CD was coming to me through that most forgiving of players, the CAL Tempest II. Don't talk Sony CD sound through the Waveforms.

Musical dynamics deserve some attention, as it's the area in which the Waveforms perform best. As you might have guessed from my experience with the Dorian CD of Pictures at an Exhibition, the Waveforms will play loud. I thought that I had hit a peak with the Altec Bias 550s [reviewed in April 1989] in this respect, but the Waveforms seem to both play louder in an absolute sense, and play loud with much greater ease. In addition, they retain their general sense of coherence and sound character even at very loud levels, something few speakers can manage. (The IRS Betas do the same thing, but to lesser levels.)

This is an area where high-end products are routinely poor. Polite music can be played at realistic overall levels (though rarely with realistic internal dynamics), but orchestral works, rock music, organ, and loud choral music are always reminding you not only that it's reproduced, but that the speaker might actually break! (In seven years I've seen probably 30 or 40 drivers broken by excessive volume level, almost never by peaks above 100dB.) This is not an area where you will ever, if you value your hearing at all, need worry with the Waveforms. They can play anything you throw at them at full frequency range, and at any volume level where you won't need hearing protection (and at many levels where you should have it). Subjectively, this gives you a freedom you just don't have with other, more modest (and more accurate, involving) products.

On the downside, I didn't find the Waveforms tempting me to turn down the level, as I did with the Mirage M-1s (footnote 4), where the sound was so involving that there didn't seem any need to play particularly loud. In fact, in order to offset the lack of involvement referred to above, I ended up playing the Waveforms at significantly higher volume levels than usual. The only exception was material with lots of upper-treble content, where the sound had to be turned down—or off—for reasons cited above.

It will come as no surprise that I didn't find the Waveforms "the most accurate, the best, forward-firing loudspeaker in the world." Nor, with their current sonic characteristics, could I recommend you buy them for $9800. By no means do I think they should be dismissed, though, as I did the Altec 550s. The Waveforms are a serious attempt by a serious man.

I question the product development process currently employed by Waveform. Work on these speakers was begun in 1985 and completed in 1987; the speaker has remained unchanged since then. Now, as pleasant as it is to see a product with real stability, it simply isn't possible to produce a landmark high-end speaker once and for all. Infinity, who've made tens of thousands (maybe hundreds of thousands) of speakers, can't do it, Vandersteen can't do it, Thiel can't do it, Magnepan can't do it (though they try). What makes John Ötvös think he can do it with the first product his company has made?

Perhaps, in addition to further research and testing at the NRC, Waveform could pay attention to extensive testing in the field, customer and dealer response (which surely would have shown up the horribly errant supertweeter level), research and experimentation with new materials and drivers, and just plain designer thought—on an ongoing basis, like other high-end speaker companies. Though I don't think that a Bandaid approach to correcting the current speaker's problems would yield something recommendable in the $9800 range, it's certainly possible that a major redesign, focused on the problems I've brought up as well as others that may lurk beneath them, could. The Waveform does some things extremely well, particularly in the area of coherent dynamics, and I'd hate to see those performance capabilities disappear from the home loudspeaker scene.

Footnote 4: Most live music is heard at levels substantially below what we listen to at home. The better a system preserves low-level detail, the less distortion, noise, and discomfort the system produces, the lower the level it is possible to employ while still feeling involved with the music. So far, only the Mirage M-1s have really impressed me in this regard; I'm sure there are others, but they are few.
Waveform Research
Brighton, Ontario, Canada
No longer in existence (2006)