The Fifth Element #24

The other night I heard The Tallis Scholars—the world's foremost exponents of Renaissance polyphony—sing in the Chorus of Westerly's performance hall, in Rhode Island: an 1886-vintage former Roman Catholic church with nearly all of its original horsehair plaster intact (footnote 1). Even sitting back in the cheap seats, the sound was glorious. I have never heard a vocal ensemble sing with more finesse, pitch security, or blend of tone.

After the concert, director Peter Phillips was kind enough to chat with me, and to autograph the Scholars' CD of John Sheppard's Media Vita I had just purchased. (Before the encore, Phillips had very kindly announced that, afterward, he would be glad to sign "absolutely anything." I took that to mean that he did not want people to think they had to buy a CD to get his autograph; my wife took him to mean that he wanted a new contract.) I told him that the Tallis Scholars' recording of Heinrich Isaac's Missa de Apostolis (Gimell CDGIM 023; ) was one of my desert-island discs, and was gratified that he immediately responded that it was also one of his. He said that there were phrases in that music that had no equal anywhere else. The music is otherworldly, the singing is beyond inspired, and the recorded sound is sublime. Allow me to nudge your elbow, and quietly urge you to buy the disc! Tonight! Stop letting merely urgent matters displace the really important ones!

Shahinian Hawk loudspeaker
When John Atkinson compiled the list of Hot 100 Products for Stereophile's 40th Anniversary issue (November 2002, Vol.25 No.11), Shahinian Acoustics' Obelisk loudspeaker made the grade with a rank of 71. JA commented:

"I first heard the quasi-omnidirectional Obelisk 25 years ago, and it sounded as different then from what else was around as it does now. Richard Shahinian has always gone his own way, guided by his overwhelming passion for classical orchestral music; his speakers fall into the category of 'If you love their sound, they're the best speakers in the world for you.' However, for Dick to survive and even to prosper through the years lends his efforts a credibility that cannot be acquired in any other way."

Before founding his own company, Richard Shahinian worked as an engineer designer at Harman/Kardon. The Obelisk, released in 1976, was Shahinian Acoustics' first speaker. The Obelisk remains in production today, having undergone steady evolution to keep pace with driver-technology developments and "lessons learned" about internal cabinet bracing.

Shahinian's speaker designs have long been controversial. He attempts to actualize the theoretical ideal—of a point source propagating an expanding three-dimensional wavefront—by use of unique cabinet architecture and driver disposition. I believe that it is a misleading oversimplification to refer to his designs as "omnidirectional," in that not all frequencies are handled in the same manner. I think that "polyradial" is a more accurate description.

Shahinian's line includes designs that embody all his desiderata (Diapason, Hawk, Obelisk), as well as speakers that, for reasons of cost, represent compromises (Arc, Compass, Starter). There is even a conventional front-firing box loudspeaker, the Super Elf, which is a bit larger than the BBC LS3/5A, but has a detailed yet warmly inviting sound quite reminiscent of it.

The Obelisk, which weighs 55 lbs and measures 29" by 13" by 15", looks like a squat wooden replica of the Washington Monument. Currently priced at $4000/pair, it is the least-expensive speaker that embodies Shahinian's ideals. These include use of proprietary loading for the woofer. The 8" woofer, on the front face of the lower portion of the Obelisk's cabinet, is backed by a folded transmission line, with a stuffing of sheep's wool and polyfill. However, unlike conventional transmission lines, which terminate in free air, Shahinian's T-lines are terminated by a weighted 10" passive radiator (footnote 2).

The good news is that, even with the Obelisk's comparatively moderate cabinet size, its bass extension and volume are remarkable. Shahinian's claimed -3dB point of 28Hz for the speaker seems very credible. The Obelisks, driven by the right amplifier, could do justice to the string basses and organ pedals of Robert Shaw's recording of Brahms' Ein deutsches Requiem (Telarc CD-80092). I felt them as well as heard them. An added benefit is that the quasi-aperiodic nature of Shahinian's woofer loading means that, unlike ported designs, which depend on cabinet-cavity resonances for bass extension, there was no sense of one-note bass.

The not-so-good news is that Shahinian's bass loading places substantial (although not extreme) demands on the amplifier's current-delivery and damping-factor capabilities. It would stand to reason that once a bass note has been propagated, the weighted passive radiator will continue to move through inertia, with the resultant air pressure in the transmission line seeking to move the woofer itself, in cases even generating back-EMF up the speaker wires.

Confronting this scenario is a job for an amplifier with greater-than-ordinary current reserves and damping factor—it is precisely the wayward motion of the woofer that the amplifier is called on to "damp." Don't be alarmed—just about every dynamic speaker design (with the possible exception of drivers designed specifically for horn enclosures, and which have minimal cone excursion) requires at least some help from the amplifier in the way of damping.

Little surprise, then, that some of the more successful amplifier pairings with Shahinian speakers have long been Plinius' solid-state designs, which appear to be unusually robust in terms of damping factor and current delivery. Richard Shahinian owns a Plinius power amplifier, while Plinius' Peter Thomson owns Shahinian Hawks. Fancy that.

The rest of Shahinian's design brief includes handling the midrange and lower treble with drivers that fire both forward and rearward but are arrayed at an upward angle—and, for the highest frequencies, using tweeters or supertweeters arrayed upward and pointing north, south, east, and west. This would appear to mimic the behavior of the highest frequencies in a classically designed concert hall. Obviously, Shahinian intends that room reflections will be a major part of the sound perceived at the listening chair. Just as obviously, this will stick in some (if not many) craws (footnote 3).

Footnote 1: Up to the 1930s, horse or cattle hair was usually used as a binding agent in base-coat plaster. The surface's resultant tensile strength, and the resilience of the wooden split-lath strips the base-coat plaster was troweled over, were largely responsible (along with most halls' "shoebox" shape) for the warm yet detailed acoustics of the great concert and performance halls of the classical era. Most attempts using modern materials to reproduce the acoustical characteristics of plaster-on-lath construction have not been notable successes. During the mid-1970s renovation of New York City's Avery Fisher Hall, they added chopped-up monofilament fishing line to the wet plaster. Needless to say, that hall's problems persist. However, recently there have been some new developments; RPG Inc.'s Baswaphon wall system looks promising.—John Marks

Footnote 2: At one time, this arrangement was covered by a patent, which, I assume, expired about 10 years ago.—John Marks

Footnote 3: Another possible benefit of directing the midrange and treble at the ceiling is that the direct sound that does arrive at the listening chair will be substantially off-axis, and therefore contain fewer driver distortion products, which become increasingly directional as frequency increases. Perhaps this is why Shahinians are some of the few metal-dome speakers I warm up to.—John Marks