Music in the Round #29

For years, I have espoused the use of the same speakers (except subwoofer) in all positions for multichannel music. To have no speaker in the system contributing a different voice to the choir seems as intuitive as having the room acoustics not color the sound. Of course, this still doesn't guarantee perfect timbral match—positioning and room acoustics usually impose some unique characteristics under all but the most perfect and symmetrical conditions. You can hear tonal imbalances even between the left and right speakers of most two-channel systems simply by switching pink noise between them. On the other hand, there's no reason to superimpose on these unavoidable differences the additional imbalances inevitable with using different speakers in a multichannel array.

But, like most of you, I have real-world constraints that work against my using five full- full-range floorstanders in either of my surround systems. My compromise is to use three matched floorstanders across the front and a pair of closely matched smaller speakers as surrounds. (Okay, the B&W 804S isn't that small, but there's no way I can squeeze two more B&W 802Ds into my room!) So when Peter McGrath, of Wilson Audio Specialties, approached me about auditioning five Duettes, I was pretty stoked—not only about finally achieving my ideal, but also at getting a chance to hear some Wilsons in my own system. For a number of purely mechanical issues, this didn't come to pass (I'd still love to do it), but the basic idea was still in my mind when I went to the CEDIA Expo in September 2007.

Canton Vento Reference 9 DC loudspeaker
One of the speakers that appealed to me at the Expo was the newest and smallest in Canton's Vento Reference line, the 9 DC bookshelf ($4000/pair), the littlest brother of the Reference 1 DC, which so impressed Wes Phillips in the November 2006 Stereophile (Vol.29 No.11). Looking like the upper 16" of the 1 DC, the 9 DC uses the same tweeter, crossed over at 3kHz to a single 7" mid-woofer in a ported enclosure; mounted on its sturdy 2' stand, it would just clear the plasma display in my Connecticut system. I shook hands with Canton's head of R&D, Frank Göbl, and twisted the arms of Gordon Sell and Raney Nelson, of Canton's PR firm, Gordon Sell and Associates; they would be driving to my house in Connecticut to deliver (and, later, pick up) the speakers.

A few weeks later, Nelson drove up with a carload of boxes containing five shiny Vento Reference 9 DCs and three stands. Three piano-black 9 DCs went up front, supported by Canton's sleek black-and-aluminum stands. Two silver-lacquer 9 DCs went in the rear on my resident StandDesign stands, which usually support my Paradigm Studio/20s. This array occupied as much space as when I had the floorstanding Paradigm Studio/60s up front, but I figured that now there would be no doubts about a timbral match all around.

Sure. I switched on the pink noise and immediately realized the futility of my quest for perfect timbral matching in-room. No two 9 DCs sounded exactly alike, but the front left and center were very close, and the right front was pretty close to both of those. The two rear speakers sounded different from each other and from any of the front three. This is no indictment of the Cantons—even with the acoustical asymmetries created by their positions in the room, the 9 DCs sounded more alike than any other set of speakers I've used in that room so far. Through the Cantons, the little girl who announces each channel on the test tracks of Telarc's disc did indeed sound like the same little girl each time, rather than the kindergarten roll call I hear through the Paradigms without EQ. This was progress.

Balanced for level and distance, the Cantons sounded even more uniform. With the imposition of the Audyssey MultEQxt room correction I have written about in past columns, they did something uncanny: They all sounded the same with pink noise, and at a wide range of volume levels. At first I ran them full-range from the Integra DTC-9.8 7.1-channel preamplifier-processor and Bryston 9B-STT 5-channel power amplifier, with the Paradigm Reference Servo-15 subwoofer handling only the low-frequency effects (LFE) channel, where present. They were impressively well balanced from the extreme treble down to the bass, and exhibited fine articulation of voices, percussion, and especially brass. The crossover was undetectable, and the imaging, with stereo or multichannel sources, was stable. And with acoustic music, the 9 DCs were just delightful.

At first, I felt insulted when my wife noted that the sound effects that accompany the intro graphics on CBS's Numbers TV show seemed to have much less weight and impact than before. (Yes, she does speak that way. Must come from living with an audiophile.) I responded that perhaps this was the way they should sound, but hey, how do I know?

So the next morning, I started playing with bass management. Canton's specs claim that the 9 DC goes down to 25Hz, and that is undoubtedly true. With most recordings, whether two-channel or more, the 9 DCs sounded fully balanced and extended into the low bass. However, if I put the pedal to the metal with Blue Man Group or Polyphonic Spree or Saint-Saëns' Symphony 3 ("Organ"), something in the way of pure visceral excitation went missing. If you listen only to music, I guess the 9 DCs will let you get away without a sub. But if, as I do, you use a single system for music and movies, you no doubt already have a subwoofer. Why not use it?

After a bit of experimentation, aided by the displays of the TrueRTA spectral analysis program and Velodyne's SMS-1, I settled on the Integra DTC-9.8's 60Hz crossover to the sub for all channels, even though the Audyssey setup qualified the 9 DC as "full range" (as it tends to do with any speaker possessing any significant output below 80Hz). Now there was absolutely nothing to quibble about in any portion of the audioband, or at any volume short of ear-bleed level.

In fact, the integration with my usual speakers of my Paradigm Servo-15 sub, which sits to the left of my listening couch, has been variable; I've often had problems with it in that position. One thing I've tried has been to use the front speakers full-range and to bass-manage only the rears, but that solution is imperfect—often, there was a left/right imbalance with LFE signals. Magically, all that disappeared with the Vento Reference 9 DCs—all bass signals, managed or LFE, came from the appropriate directions.

The front soundstage of the 9 DCs was wide and deep, but with a new distinction between the front and surround presentations. That's not a criticism—with onstage or in-the-ensemble mixes, the effect was satisfyingly immersive and continuous. Reproducing more conventional mixes—ie, performers up front, a definable acoustic ambience all around—the 9 DCs never drew my attention to the ambience. I had to make a conscious effort to hear it, but when I did, it was there, just as at a real event. I suspect that this was a consequence of the 9 DCs' exquisite timbral matching and high resolution. My only criticism is minor: The 9 DCs sounded their best only when I was seated; they were less tolerant of standing listeners than the Paradigm Studio/60s.

Overall, the Canton Vento Reference 9 DCs raised my system's quality of performance and my satisfaction by more than a few notches. The speakers' midrange and treble transparency were simply superior, their soundstaging seamless. Considering that, at $4000/pair, the Vento 9 DCs are by far the most expensive speakers ever to play in this system, their superiority may not be surprising—but they're also the smallest speakers ever to play in this system as a group. No concession to their size is necessary. With good bass management, the 9 DC can compete with any of the big boxes, few of which will audibly "disappear" as discrete sound sources as well as the Vento References do. Now, shall I try for some of the 9 DC's bigger brothers, or should I just keep quiet and see how long I can hang on to these...?

Esoteric DV-60 universal player
I've been enjoying the Esoteric DV-60 universal player for some time now, beginning way back before Michael Fremer's report in October 2007 on its fraternal twin, the SA-60 audio-only universal player. Way, way back in August 2003, Paul Bolin had reviewed its predecessor, the DV-50. Both reviews were decidedly positive, so it stands to reason that the DV-60 is a first-rate disc spinner. It differs from the DV-50 by including an option for converting PCM sources to DSD, HDMI output for all sources except SACD, and DVD-Video upsampling to 720p, 1080i, or 1080p. It differs from the SA-60 by permitting DVD playback, video upsampling, and HDMI output.

The front panel and controls of the DV-60 ($5500) are pretty much the same as those of the SA-60 (the only difference I saw was the inclusion of an indicator for Video Off), but the rear panel adds inputs for Trigger, RS-232C, and Remote Control, as well as outputs for component, composite, S-video, and HDM6. There's also an unfamiliar video output, labeled D1/D2, that, according to Esoteric, is not used in all countries. For some reason, my DV-60 lacked the iLink port that MF had on his sample of the SA-60. Overall, I refer you to MF's detailed report for the full rundown of the player's operation, with one big exception: If you buy this video version of Esoteric's potent one-box player, your system will almost certainly already include a video display to make all the setup and adjustment even easier than without.