Waveform Research Mach 17 loudspeaker Page 2

The three pairs of speaker terminals mounted at the rear of the woofer cabinet are heavy gold on solid brass. My review samples had received Waveform's standard finish: architectural-grade American steamed black walnut veneer, with black laminate at the cabinet's top and bottom. Other available finishes include quilted Makore and pommele mahogany. It is an understatement to say that the fit'n'finish of this cabinetwork is the finest I've encountered.

Setup is greatly enhanced by the Mach 17's modular design—the system can be unpacked, set up, moved, placed, and assembled by one mere mortal. The packaging of the system parts is also topnotch: Foam surrounds are used for all delicate parts, and the midrange-tweeter "egg" comes with foam surrounds that mount inside the speaker grille for shipping stability. Each carton comes with both unpacking and repacking instructions.

John Ötvös refined shipping procedures even further before the review samples were shipped from my home to JA's test lab in Santa Fe for testing. New instructions were given about removing screws from the base of the egg's mounting, and adding cardboard buffers to protect the woofer cabinet's corners from being dinged. Waveform also uses Shockwatch packing tape, which leaves a telltale red trace in the tape if the carton is dropped during shipment. The whimsical owner's manual contains useful setup instructions for achieving optimal bass response through room placement, information on the history of the company, a biography of John Ötvös, and dispersion frequency-response plots from the NRC tests.

The Mach 17 had a much higher sensitivity than other loudspeakers I've had in my listening room. This required a lower volume setting on the Krell KBL preamplifier (matched during comparison tests, of course) to play the Waveforms than when playing the Snell Reference A system. Waveform doesn't recommend a lengthy break-in for the Mach 17, as they've found that speakers requiring break-in tend to have drivers whose surrounds change during use (not a feature of the Mach 17). For this reason, I skipped my standard seven-day, low-volume FM music break-in period.

Setting up the Mach 17s involved connecting eight pairs of balanced interconnect cables and three pairs of speaker cables. This could have been a nightmare had it not been for the crossover's mute switches, which were used to isolate each driver section for checking channel operation and phasing. For this purpose, I played track two of Stereophile's Test CD 2, featuring Richard Lehnert's speaking voice and JA's Fender bass. The Mach 17 created the most central image of JA's bass when I reversed both sets of woofer speaker cables (at the loudspeaker terminals) relative to the midrange and tweeter cables.

I then followed Waveform's recommendations for obtaining optimal low-bass/midbass response, using the crossover's level controls, a RadioShack spl meter, Stereophile's Test CD 2, and a Heathkit sinewave generator. The level controls on the crossover enabled me to match the 40Hz output of the woofer section to the 1kHz output of the midrange. This kind of fine-tuning is just not possible with most "passive" loudspeaker systems. After these level adjustments, I placed the speakers 8' apart, 2' from the rear wall, and 3' from the side walls.

I listened from a variety of positions. First, I played pink noise and performed the sit-down/stand-up/walk-around test. This confirmed that the Mach 17 had good vertical dispersion characteristics when I stood above tweeter level. However, I heard some dulling if I moved my head much below the tweeter-midrange axis—probably due to interference from the head module's transition molding—so I tilted each speaker's egg down slightly. With this adjustment, I could move around in my listening chair and hear no notch in the pink-noise response. The tweeter was thus aimed directly at my seated position.

I prefer to listen to most speakers while sitting in the farfield, depending on the late-arriving sounds to smooth any midrange roughness. Not so with the Mach 17s—after listening in both the nearfield (about 10' back from the speakers) and the farfield (about 18' back), I realized that they sounded better to me from the nearfield.

With the all-Bryston amplifier setup, the Mach 17 displayed a smooth and powerful bass response down to 35Hz, rolling off to –3dB at 30Hz. This response pattern was not changed by switching to the Mark Levinson/Bryston 7B-ST amplifier pairing, which I preferred for long-term listening. But the room response tells only part of the story of the Mach 17's bass performance.

Playing music, the Mach 17 used the 500Wpc of the 7B-ST's available bass power to superb advantage. (Needing high solid-state power for woofer control, I was able to substitute my now-discontinued Krell KSA-250 for the bass amplifier, with equally excellent results.) The resulting low notes sounded solid, powerful, strikingly tight and defined, very dynamic, and—best of all—did not muddy or compress the rest of the musical spectrum. James Horner's "Main Title" music from his Clear and Present Danger soundtrack (Milan 35679-2) features powerful, extreme-deep-bass synthesizer notes; they shook the room. At the same time, the Mach 17s created a room-filling orchestral sound—with brass, chimes, violins, and harp—that spread from wall to wall and was fully detailed

The bass-drum notes at the beginning of Williams and Curnow's Liberty Fanfare, from Winds of War and Peace (Wilson WCD-8823), were rendered with an explosive, tight, well-defined whack, even while the speaker reproduced the woodwind section with exact timbre and reed resonance. I went on to listen to more orchestral fireworks, including the startling bass drum and chimes from the opening of H. Owen Reed's La Fiesta Mexicana, from the Keith Johnson recording Fiesta! (Reference Recordings RR-38CD). The plucked bass on "The Silence of a Candle," from Oregon's Beyond Words (Chesky JD130), is very tight and clean, and shows great pitch definition, with all the detail of the resonances of the instrument's wood and strings. There is a sense of air around each instrument, including Ralph Towner's acoustic guitar and piano—as if each were recorded in its own space.

Besides this ability to deliver explosive bass transients, the Mach 17's sustained bass notes were very realistic. Bone-chilling, sinister, growling, rumbling synthesizer chords offset by drumbeats were heard during "Assault on Ryan's House," from James Horner's Patriot Games soundtrack (RCA 66051-2). Similarly, I heard the eerie reverberation and the sinister growling synthesizer in the beginning of "Monkey Mayhem," from Horner's soundtrack for Jumanji (Epic Soundtrax EK 67424).

Transient response was also superb, and responsible for much of the Mach 17's immediacy and impact. The Mach 17 is one of the few loudspeakers that can reproduce the power and suddenness of the Synclavier II digital synthesizer crescendo in the opening of Terry Dorsey's "Ascent," from Time Warp (Telarc CD-80106). The opening chord hit like a sledgehammer when played on this loudspeaker, with no ringing, distortion, or overhang. In contrast, the Snell Type A Reference was much more "polite." The explosive tom-tom strokes on Flim & the BB's Tricycle (DMP CD-443) jumped out of the quieter musical background, startling me and giving the piece raw energy and drive. This transient capacity contributed to the Mach 17's ability to capture bass power while preserving the concert ambience of the instrumental opening of "Hotel California," from the Eagles' Hell Freezes Over (Geffen GEFD 24725-2). The dense, thunderous conga-drum beat explodes just before the first notes of the main melody, and continues to play clearly through the crowd's thunderous applause and foot-stomping. Similarly, the tom-tom strokes and subterranean synthesizer chords on David Bowie's "Putting Out Fire," from the Cat People soundtrack (MCA MCAD-1498), were reproduced with drive and propulsive force. The sudden, dramatic plucked bass and synthesizer notes in the opening of "Something's Wrong," from the soundtrack to My Cousin Vinny (Var;gese Sarabande VSD-5364), conveyed tremendous pace and impact.

While the Mach 17's bass was solid, quick, and deep, its midrange could be best described by what effects were absent. Missing were the cabinet colorations, distortions, grain, and compression that commonly afflict loudspeakers; what was left was a midrange that was immediate and clear. This type of response made it very easy to hear differences between amplifiers, so I used the Mark Levinson No.331 to power the midrange section. The resulting timbre and naturalness of male vocals was startling, reminiscent of Spendor S-100s or original Quad ESLs. For example, Harry Connick, Jr.'s voice on "I Don't Get Around Much Anymore," from the When Harry Met Sally... soundtrack (Columbia CK 45319), was so real and timbrally correct that Connick seemed to be standing next to me in the room. The lead clarinet on La Fiesta Mexicana, from Fiesta!, was unusually lovely, sweet, and captivating. This was also true of the clarinet in "The Lord is My Light and My Salvation," from the HDCD-encoded recording of John Rutter's Requiem (Reference Recordings RR-58CD).

The Mach 17's treble was open, airy, and extended, and greatly aided by the loudspeaker's ability to reproduce low-level detail. I was able to discern individual voices in the soprano chorus on the Requiem album, or in the chorus behind José Carreras, spread across the soundstage in the opening Kyrie of Misa Criolla (Philips 420 955-2). The decay of the flute-stop of the pipe-organ rendition of Bach's Prelude and Fugue in D, from James Johnson Plays Bach (Titanic TI-162, engineered by the late Peter W. Mitchell) made it possible to hear the reverberation in the hall, and sense the acoustic space. The Mach 17's upper-midrange and treble responses made it possible to hear (for the first time) how the drummer on Flim & the BB's Tricycle plays up and down on the closed hi-hat cymbal.

The Waveform is the best speaker to come along in years for getting subtle percussion details right, while producing much of the direct power of a drumkit when it plays loud. Low-level detail resolution also made it possible to hear the choral synchronization (many singers enunciating each syllable at the same instant) on the "O Fortuna" section of Orff's Carmina Burana (Telarc CD-80056), a characteristic Robert Shaw develops in his choruses.

The Mach 17s' imaging was commensurate with their transient response. During the instrumental finish of Richard Thompson's "Why Must I Plead," from his Rumor and Sigh (Capitol CDP 7 95713 2), the guitar's sonic image fell well to the right of the right loudspeaker. In Rutter's Gaelic Blessing on Requiem, the layering of instruments was clearly evident, with the harp well separated from the chorus and organ. The resulting sound was three-dimensional in a way I hadn't heard before.

Waveform art thou?
Reviewing the Waveform Mach 17s was an exhilarating experience. This system belongs in the small group of loudspeakers that are highly dynamic, uncolored, have great transient response, and are totally involving. The Waveforms can resolve fine-grained background detail with clarity while capturing an orchestra's full dynamic range.

The tonal balance of the Mach 17 stresses a clear, immediate treble and a midrange presentation that remains uncolored even at very high volumes. While the treble response was very smooth, extended, and airy, an electrostatic-like transparency was less evident. Of course, electrostatics like the Quad ESL-63 do not enjoy the Mach 17's dynamic range, extended treble response, or wide dispersion characteristics. While the lower midrange blends smoothly into the upper-bass region, I'm not sure I'd call the deep bass extremely extended or subterranean. The Mach 17's bass missed the 20–25Hz region in my listening room by a "handful of Hertz," to use a phrase coined by Robert Deutsch. Even so, the bass sounded quick, defined, and taut, with the excellent pitch definition needed to reproduce pipe-organ recordings. More important, the bass was smoothly integrated with the overall Mach 17 system response. This general overall performance and system pricing (see below) makes the Mach 17 a perfect candidate for the "Class A—Restricted Extreme LF" category of Stereophile's "Recommended Components."

Reviews that end in positive recommendations invite readers to listen to the products for themselves. However, until Waveform acquires more dealers, an audition will require an appointment at Posthorn Recordings in New York, or a visit to Stereophile's next Home Theater & Specialty Audio Show, due to be held at the end of May in San Francisco. Short of that, folks, you must buy them to hear them, without benefit of dealer handholding or setup. The 30-day money-back trial period makes this a less risky proposition. In fact, I'd argue that an in-home audition is far more meaningful than a cursory listen at a hi-fi show. But keep in mind that this will require following setup instructions carefully, checking phasing and connections, and buying four pairs of balanced interconnects and six channels of solid-state amplification.

I agree with John Ötvös that you'll need a solid-state stereo amp to extract the tightest bass from the ported 12" woofers, and four additional channels of equal gain to power the drivers in the egg. A pair of three-channel Bryston 5B-STs, costing around $2100 each, can be purchased from Waveform to meet the Mach 17s' amplification needs. The total price of such a full Mach 17 system, including amplification and cables, will run between $11k and $12k—a typical price for a Class A recommended loudspeaker system.

Some audiophiles may hesitate to get involved with the Mach 17 because they're not ready to commit to solid-state amplification, or the purchase of multiple amplifiers. However, if you're interested in a speaker system at this price:performance level, there are strong reasons to consider an audition of the Mach 17. Its power handling, transient speed, lack of coloration, ability to resolve low-level detail, and dynamic range are not exceeded by any other loudspeaker I've heard in my listening room. I suspect that the channel isolation afforded by the speaker's tri-amped design contributes heavily to these special sonic qualities. For these reasons, the Mach 17 compares well to other top loudspeaker systems.

Although I haven't been able to compare them directly with the Aerial 10-Ts, which seem to possess similar strengths in transient response and dynamic range, the Mach 17 comes a close second to the $21k (not including amplifiers) Snell Type A Reference. The Snell Reference has more bass extension, slightly greater soundstage depth, and a slightly bigger sonic image, but lacks the Mach 17's transient speed and ability to resolve low-level detail. If you're shopping for a top-quality, full-range dynamic loudspeaker system and don't mind owning the solid-state amplification needed to drive it, a listen to the Waveform Mach 17 is strongly recommended.

Waveform Research
R.R. #4, Brighton, Ontario
Canada K0K 1H0 (1997)
No longer in business (2006)