James L. Darby
I have a lot of respect for Vienna Acoustics speakers. I have heard their larger designs at various audio show and have always come away impressed. VA is distributed in the US by Sumiko, one of the top distributors in all of distributordom. Sonus Faber is another of their lines and we all know how good they are. Sumiko and VA have chosen to parcel out the lower, entry level line to Magnolia which is now incorporated into your local Best Buy chain store. Stereomojo has made arrangements with the local BB to audition and return certain products within their usual 30 day in-home trial period. We could have gone the surreptitious route and just take advantage of the policy, but we did not. We got permission. Our thanks to Best Buy for their agreement.
The Vienna Acoustics Hadyn Grand is the cheapest and smallest main speaker they make, though its price at $1,295 is not all that cheap.
The Haydn is a two-way bass reflex design stand-mount monitor with a nominal 4 Ohm impedance. The tweeter is a 1” fluid cooled silk dome and the woofer is a 6 incher with a novel see-through cone. I can’t tell you what the material is, because nobody at Best Buy knew. VA calls it X3P, but it must be some type of thermo plastic. I had also asked about the sensitivity spec buy nobody knew what that was; not the number, the spec itself. It’s claimed to be 89 dB, but me thinks it is probably a little lower than that.
The tweeter has a trick up its sleeve as well as it is mounted on a bridge in the woofer port. The light gray area is the bridge and the darker gray is foam, but the whole circle makes up the reflex port. It helps make the cabinet smaller at only 14” high.
The back holds no surprises unless you consider the lack of bi-amping or bi-wiring ability a surprise. I know several speakers in this range that provide 4 posts, but if you don’t want or need ‘em, you are all set.
I am not going to spend a lot of time on the details, for reasons you will see shortly, but if you are dying to know more now, here’s the VA link. Warning: Be prepared for a very slooooow flash presentation, even if you have a fast connection. http://www.vienna-acoustics.com/popup.html By the way, one of the advantages of an online publication like Stereomojo is the ability send you to important places right away instead of having to copy URLs down and traipsing to your computer to type them in. We also save a lot of trees.
Technology, cabinet finishes (the Haydn offers a few) and other peripheral factors are significant, but the most vital feature is how the thing sounds, right?
Lets go there.
THE HADYN’S REPERTOIRE
The sound of the Vienna Acoustics Hadyn Grand can be summed up in two words:
Soft and Loud.
Simply put, the top end sounds soft and bottom end sounds loud. This is not good.
I first gave the Hadyns over 100 hours of burn-in as the manual specifies. I then set them up in Room B or the small room, well away from the back and spies walls and in an equilateral triangle position with the listener. 20” stands were used to prop them up. I connected them to the awesome LSA Mk3 Reference integrated I reviewed here via Ray Kimber’s excellent Select cables. These are heavy monsters which the 20 pound Hadyns barely withstood being tipped back. I used a Music Hall CD 25.2 to play my Stereomojo reviewing disk. The first cut shows me the size, position and detail of the soundstage. There are heavy footsteps on a cement floor starting at the left rear and walking across to the right rear amidst a background of outdoor nature sounds like birds and wind. Then you hear a Coke bottle role back across the stage again. The man also whistles a tune as he prepares to get in his car, further illuminating the stage. I should tell you
I very much like the fact that small speakers are capable of throwing a huge image that reaches the ceiling and well beyond the speaker boundaries on either side. They also have a way of disappearing with which larger speakers can struggle. I also am a very visual listener; I listen in the dark with my eyes open. What I “saw” was at once a surprise and disappointment. The stage was only moderately big and much smaller than I am used to with practically any other speaker this size. The image did not extend beyond the edges of the speakers and was not at all tall. There was depth ok and the effects were stable and vivid, but the scratchy footsteps and rolling Coke bottle were both rather rolled off on the top end and something funny was afoot in the midrange. Hmm.
I tried toeing in, towing out, wider, closer, farther. The sound changed, but the bottom end, the top end and the soundstage remained less than what is deemed acceptable today.
The next cut is from Flim and the BBs. When I play this at shows people always recognize it and nod approvingly. This CD has some of the largest, fastest and widest dynamic hits ever recorded – in the neighborhood of 100 db. It also features piano, drums, bass and sax recorded in audiophile approved quality. With the Hadyns, the piano and drums were overpowered by the bass player. As a pianist, I hate it when that happens when playing in a group. But this time, it wasn’t the player’s fault. As I continued playing different cuts of female vocal, classic orchestral, soundtracks (Morricone), choirs, jazz and rock, one theme kept reoccurring – soft, loud – soft, loud. The bass was just something you are most likely to hear emanating from Puff Daddy’s Lexus SUV. But the more I listened, the bass emphasis was more a function of the recessed mids. Simultaneously, the top end was laid back and more fluid, but seemed more than a bit muted where air, space and high-end sound lives. No amount of speaker positioning in that room solved the problem or even reduced it much. Moving it closer to the walls only made it worse. So I moved the speakers again.
To another room.
Same speakers leads, but this time connected to the Halcro MC-20 power amp (my review) and a Triode tube pre with the wonderful Roksan Caspian Phono Pre. Now I had the TW-Acustic Raven One to play with in the system, all sitting pretty in Paul Wakeen’s terrific Stillpoints rack. Room A is a large room with a cathedral ceiling, but guess what? The Hadyns sounded pretty much exactly the same. Even sitting outside on the lanai, the primary sound heard was frequencies below, say, 1,200 or so, no matter what the genre playing.
I played several LPs, but there was just no escaping the speaker’s characteristics. The Hadyns never were engaging, musical, intriguing or even fun to listen to. So I stopped. Back to the friendly if somewhat uninformed folks at Best Buy, thank you very much.
As you will see, our own measurements by guru Danny Richie of GR Research confirms wham we and others have heard and said:
To somewhat salvage this rather bleak epistle, let me throw THIS you way:
See, here is yet another reason Stereomojo has an advantage over print mags; they could never afford this much space for something like this!
Now, before you think this was included out of purely gratuitous, sexist, prurient interests, let me introduce you to Rebekka Bakken.
Rebekka is a singer. A very good singer. And she has several recordings out including one I have been playing a lot lately. Even through the Hadyns.
This is it. It’s jazz, it’s pop, it’s rock and it’s great. Real songs with real words and melodies. It’s not available through the link on our home page for great prices on CDs & SACDS (the logo on the top far right),
but it should be. I recommend you check her out. Her music, that is.
As for the Hadyns..
Based on their overall character of soft highs, compromised midrange and uneven overall response, we cannot recommend the Haydn's for any serious music lovers in search of hi-end sound for reasonable prices. We would not even suggest that you try them free for 30 days. At its price of $1,295, there are too many other outstanding monitors and even full – range competitors that are far superior.
If you do not need the space savings of a stand mounted monitor and can spend a bit more, at $1,995 the Strata Minis from AV123 are unbeatable. See our review.
If it must be a stand mount, the LSA Monitor One at $300 less than the Hadyns are superb. I have heard hundreds of small speakers at shows and these are still at the top of my list for great sound at a great price. Someone from Absolute Sound heard them at CES and mentioned them in similar glowing terms as ours.
You can read our review here.
Others from ERA, Silverline, B&W and EPOS have impressed our reviewers and some of those cost much less than the Hadyns.
To be frank, I would rather listen to Insignia speakers from Best Buy with Danny Richie’s mods than the Hadyns.
Our review policy is to “tell the truth without being harsh or mean spirited”. I have tried to do that here.
As this review was being prepared for the web, two audio magazines from Europe arrived, both featuring reviews of the Hadyn Grands.
From Hi-Fi+, “…with a tweeter that isn’t particularly extended by the latest standards they can seem slightly on the softer side”, and, “while this is not the finest tweeter I have heard… decent response to transient input…they lack a little of that small speaker sharpness.” Chris Thomas goes on, “..a full bodied view of the music…generous and colorful tonality”. Despite those rather damning descriptions, the overall review is quite positive, ending with “What criticisms I have must be seen in their astonishing price and an appearance and performance that suggest they cost so much more”.
Paul Messenger then reviewed them for HIFI Choice. The heading under the review title says it all; “Exceptional enclosure finish distinguishes this pretty standmount”. Interestingly enough, in this case, the speakers were set up by a rep from Sumiko in Paul’s home, something that is prohibited at Stereomojo unless it is normal practice for all customers. Despite that, in the body of the review we find this: “On our measurements, the output level fell something like 5dB between 1.2 and 1.7kHz, and above that the treble stayed flat for nearly two octaves before starting to rise again above 6kHz and increasing by some 4 dB by the time it peaks at 12kHz” …. “a suckout in the presence zone”. And, “The bass and midrange was better…if uneven along the way”.
But then, toward the end we read this; “Listening past the balance, this is clearly a quality speaker…”.
Well, I will not comment on other’s assessments. They do their thing, Stereomojo does ours. You decide.
- REVIEW -
With this review, Stereomojo sets the mark not only for our future reviews, but those of other publications as well.
What you are about to read is a review by, not one or even two, but FOUR different reviewers! We believe reviews that encompass the opinions of more than one reviewer, in more than one room, with more than one system and with accompanying measurements, gives you the best and most honest, reliable information possible. Yes, it is costly and time consuming, but we believe our readers deserve the best.
It is our goal to publish the most comprehensive reviews such as this in as many future reviews as possible.
Thank you for supporting us!
James L. Darby - Publisher
INITIAL BUILT QUALITY & SET-UP
The Strata Mini is well built for its asking price – and beyond. For example, the cabinet edges are nicely rounded without any hint of roughness in the finish. Subjectively speaking, these speakers are aesthetically pleasing.
I set the speakers 8 feet apart, center-to-center while the listening position was approximately 10 feet away from the front plane (ear-to-speaker). Room dimensions are 23 feet by 15 feet by 8.5 feet (LxWxH).
John Mayer's Continuum was the first spin. I went right to my favorite track, "I'm Gonna Find Another You." Mayer's voice in this bluesy song was clear and had a strong sense of presence. To me, the Mini's midrange is clearly one of its strengths. Immediately apparent to me during the first listening session was the sound stage presented by the Mini - it is quite expansive, with very reasonable imaging.
The Mini's ability to portray good imaging was further confirmed by track #10, "Eric's Song," from Vienna Teng's Waking Hour. Ms Teng's voice was clearly center-stage, with her piano located just to my right. This portrayal is similar to that of my personal system.
Although the Mini is quite capable of producing a convincing midrange, to me, the higher frequencies did not seem quite as extended. Ms Teng's voice in "Gravity" sounded a bit subdued; this was evident during the phrasing of "hey love I am a constant satellite of your blazing suns my love."
After a bit of break, I decided to move to a different genre. I threw in one of my favorite orchestral pieces, Rimsky-Korsakov's Scheherazade with Jose Serebrier and LPO. The intro of the first movement, "The Sea and Sinbad's Ship," immediately showed the Mini's ability to produce palpable bass, which is undoubtedly delivered by the powered, built-in subwoofers. Unfortunately, the Mini's inability to produce an extend high was once again confirmed by the violin around the 1:23 mark of the same song. Nonetheless, the combination of throwing a wide soundstage and producing a nice mid came to fore during the inter-play of violins and brass around the 6:45 mark.
The Mini's powered subwoofers definitely displayed their capability in the fourth movement of Scheherazade. They weighed in mightily around the 7:25 mark, when the percussive instruments joined the ensemble; however, again, the cymbals could have been a bit more shimmering. Irrespective of the cymbals, the overall sound was quite nice, indeed. Throughout my listening of the Scheherazade piece, the Mini's ability to deliver an expansive, and a reasonably deep, soundstage was clearly in abundance.
After a few days off, I returned for more listening. I thought some break from the Mini would give me a fresher perspective. Using the piano as the centerpiece of a presentation has always been a personal favorite, especially when Sergei Rachmaninoff composes the work. The Mini's performed admirably at holding those piano notes and delivering the resonance. Once again, a bit more extension on the high end would have brought those notes more desired shimmering. This was definitely noticeable around the 2:25 mark in the second movement, Adagio Sostenuto, when the piano is playing a virtual solo.
The speakers' ability to resolve a relatively complex movement was also good. In the “Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini,” the Mini's had no problem keeping the pace. Scheherazade’s 4th movement further confirmed this again.
The Mini's planar magnetic drivers provide ample detail. As an owner of a pair of Ambience 1800 SuperSlims (Australian made 6-ft tall hybrids), I have always been a fan of planar drivers' ability to reproduce nuances within the music, and the Mini’s certainly deliver in that regard.
Notwithstanding their perceived inability to provide an extended high, in my opinion, the sound of violin from Scheherazade certainly provided a very palpable feel. The violin reproduction gave a good sense of "body." Perhaps, the smooth sounding natures of planar drivers just don’t quite yield that dynamic feel on the high frequency. In this case, I think it really is a "toss-up" choice to the listener.
The integration of Mini's built-in subwoofers is very good. The subwoofer controls gave me plenty of adjustment combinations to tune-out most of any meaningful room resonance. And, they gave the Minis very dynamic mid and low capabilities. This was definitely evident in the fourth movement of Scheherazade.
Overall, I thought the Mini's tone was pretty accurate. The percussive instruments from John Mayer’s “Waiting On The World To Change” were impressive, but not overpowering. Again, this is where Mini's subwoofers really shined.
Given the sound radiation pattern of planar drivers, speaker placement is relatively important; however, as Mini’s design is not of a true dipole, the speaker placement is not likely to be as sensitive. In my set-up, I had approximately 6 feet from the speaker baffle to the front wall; this breathing room ensured the speaker’s mid/lows are not over emphasized. In most rooms, I think a minimum front-wall-to-speaker of 3 feet would be preferred.
In short, the Mini is a very nice speaker. Notwithstanding the less-than-ideal high extension, the speakers provided a very smooth presentation. Again, the stage width and depth were impressive.
The Strata Mini has no meaningful or apparent shortfalls in this reviewer’s opinion. The overall sound characteristics are wonderful. And, combined with the reasonable price point, the Mini gives the audio world a pair of wonderful speakers at a tremendous value. Considering the sound quality with the built quality, and then factoring its asking price, I think the Mini is a winner.
Review Number Two
The AV123 corporation recently released the interestingly designed Mini Strata loudspeaker. Its introductory cost is $1995 in a regular finish or $2295 for the High Gloss Piano Rosewood or Piano Black finish. - Piano finishes are limited production models, available only as long as supply lasts - publisher
The Mini Strata loudspeakers are shipped in two separate double-boxed enclosures. A very soft white cotton sock that encases speakers while it is being transported further protects them. White cotton gloves are also included to help move the speakers without getting handprints on the finish. Very nice touch! Brass spikes are provided that can be used for carpeted surfaces, but you’d be wise to screw them in after you’ve found the proper placement in your room to ease moving these rather tall, heavy beasts.
Each Mini Strata measures 47 inches high by 11.5 inches wide by 17.5 half inches deep and weighs 94 pounds. I was able to lift and move each of the speakers without undue difficulty. Just make sure to watch for the sharp fins on the plate amplifier located on the back of the unit.
The Mini Strata has a plate amplifier built into each loudspeaker you ask? Yes it does, to power the 8 inch woofer. “Power” is the right word, too, as each amp supplies the woofer, which resides in its own sealed enclosure, with 350 watts of class A/B juice. Yes, with each pair comes 700 watts of stereo amplification. Price a 700 watt stereo amp by itself and see what you come up with!
The driver complement in this 4 way design includes a 1 inch ring ribbon tweeter, an 8 inch long rectangular planar magnetic midrange, a 5 and one quarter inch mid-bass, and the aforementioned 8 inch powered woofer. The woofer is located beneath the plate amplifier on the back of the loudspeaker. The other three drivers are located on the front baffle of the speaker in a vertical configuration with the ribbon tweeter near the top of the speaker, the planar magnetic driver located underneath the tweeter, and the mid-bass driver underneath the other two.
The Mini Strata has a somewhat unique profile in that the lower portion of the speaker looks like a regular speaker, but about halfway up towards the top of the speaker the side profile narrows from the initial 17.5 inches deep to about 2.5 - 3 inches deep creating a more slender looking upper speaker half. The front portion of the speaker remains 11.5 inches wide to maintain speaker continuity when viewed from the front of the loudspeaker. The side profile helps to make the Mini Strata more lithe in appearance. Enough of the technical details, how does it sound?
SOUND THAT’S MORE STRATA THAN MINI
Before you power on the loudspeakers, be sure to read the included manual so that you wire the speaker to fit your sound needs. One of the greatest strengths of the Mini Strata lies in its versatility. Too much bass in your room and Bass Traps aren’t an option? Run the woofer without the plate amp turned on. Need a little bit of bass? Adjust the crossover point and gain on the powered on plate amplifier to suit your room and your tastes. Want to use the loudspeakers to play at party levels? Move the signal gain upward and jam away with sub-level bass that will be the envy or annoyance of your neighbors. Perhaps even another block!
After wiring the speakers, I first began by listening to music using my Kinergetics Research C-200 amplifier (105 wpc), Dodd Audio entry level tube preamp, California Audio Labs Delta transport, and a GR-Research modified LiteOn DAC 72. During my initial listening session I deliberately left the plate amps in the off position to gain an initial impression of the speaker without the extra bass reinforcement that the amps provided. I began with the Sarah McLaughlin CD, Surfacing, and the Nancy Griffith CD, Other Voices Other Rooms.
At first, I did not care for the sound of the Mini Strata very much. I found the ribbon tweeter glaring and the overall sound muddled. So, I let the speakers break in for 11 hours a day for eight days while I was at work. Then the Mini Strata sounded much, much better. Where there was glare, it was replaced by a clarity that I have rarely heard on a loudspeaker at this price point. The muddled sound gave way to an ease of presentation that was hard to ignore.
I listened again with the plate amps off and found the Mini Stratas to have good vocal presentation with a rather good top end. I raised the rear spikes on the speakers to remove some of the rearward slant of the cabinets, which improved the sound to my ears. Overall, the speakers produced a rather cohesive sound that I found to be a more “unified whole” of music reproduction than most of the 4 way speakers I have heard. Sarah McLaughlin had a nice sparkle to her voice and her piano also showed the same trait. About a minute and a half into “Sweet Surrender” listen for a high-pitched drone in the recording that I had never noticed reproduced before in any loudspeaker to which I have listened.
Nancy Griffith’s Other Voices Other Rooms is an acoustic album featuring Griffith singing Folk songs with appearances by eight other legendary Folk singers such as John Prine, Emmylou Harrison and Odetta on eight of the tracks. Griffith’s voice had a wonderful plaintive quality and was reproduced very well by the Mini Stratas. I found the vocals to be slightly quieter or recessed than I am accustomed to hearing through other speakers (mainly with women’s singing voices) with a tiny drop of the extreme high end output . Then came the fun part.
I turned on the plate amps. Now we’re cooking with gasoline (my apologies to those not from the Southeastern United States)! I dialed in the plate amps by listening to AC/DC’s Hells Bells, which has a large church or school bell sounding with a fade that presents unmistakable harmonics that can be heard after the initial strike begins to fade. Also, the track has a very good kick drum with solid thumps.
So, do the Strata Minis rock? Well, “Hell’s Bells” yes!
Once I had the settings on the plate amps set to my satisfaction, I put away the hard went back to the Sarah McLaughlin CD, this time with the 700 watts of power dialed in. I now noticed that the entire musical presentation had a deeper soundstage. The width of the soundstage did not expand much more than the non-amped listening. For some reason, probably having something to do with psycho-acoustics, after the Mini Strata’s amps were on, the treble sounded even better than after the break-in period. Vocals were still slightly recessed, but were easier to follow as was the extreme top end of the sound range. Nancy Griffith’s acoustic guitar now had more body to it, making her songs sound more like a performance than a recording.
I also listened to the Statler Brothers’ The Definitive Collection CD and thoroughly enjoyed the presentation of the quartet, at least their older, less polished sounding works. Their newer recordings seem to have a little too much sound booth or mastering enhancements, which makes the sound slicker and more sterile. The banjo of “Flowers on the Wall” shown through in the beginning of the song and was easy to keep follow during the rest of the song.
Dipping back into the hard rock pool, I listened to The Cult’s High Octane (a greatest hits collection of their work) and found the sound of “Wild Flower” to have almost all of the right moves. Ian Astbury’s vocals sounded, well, like Ian Astbury. All of the instruments sounded spot on. The only problem I noticed was the hardening of the top end sound when the ribbon tweeter was asked to play high intensity crash cymbals. This occurred only when noise levels were in the party mode. This was not a problem when the Mini Stratas were played at more sane levels. I also listened to Miles Davis’ Kind Of Blue which also had a rather convincing sound reproduction through the Mini Stratas. The other musical genres to which I listened were all reproduced well.
I found the Mini Stratas to be handsome and pleasingly designed. The fit, finish, and packaging all were excellent and showed the extra care that you get when purchasing the Mini Stratas from AV123. The sound reproduction was accurate with a slight recess in the vocal region for women’s voices and the high end of the human sound spectrum. The tweeter would harden and show some glare when pushed to loud sound pressure levels.
If you do not listen to hard rock or heavy metal at loud levels with a lot of crash cymbals, these speakers would be a very good choice. The Mini Stratas would be an excellent choice at their price point. If you don’t have young ones in your house, I would definitely recommend the Piano finishes even considering their extra cost if you can get them. The piano finishes are very limited production and at press time their status is uncertain, but they tell me that if enough people want them, it might influence whether they produce more or not. I am not a photographer but perhaps a lot of completely indirect lighting might allow for a realistic picture to be taken so that you might not have to take a reviewer‘s word. A very nice loudspeaker to review and enjoy.
Chris, you are absolutely correct that the Minis need a substantial break-in period and sound pretty rough right out of the box. In fact, the 88 hours you employed means that they will still get better, especially in the areas that concerned you. And they definitely DO rock! – publisher
Equipment used in the evaluation of the Mini’s: Onix H6550 Tube Integrated, XCD-99 used as transport, Perpetual Technology’s P-3A w/Modwright level II (DAC), Panamax 5300 power center, Onix SP-300 speaker cable, Onix interconnects. Emotiva MPS-1/DMC-1.
Music used in the Mini’s evaluation included the “Carousel” cut from the Off Broadway show Jacques Brel, “Way Down Deep” cuts from “The Hunter” by Jennifer Warne’s, “The Long Day Is Over” cut from “Come Away With Me” by Norah Jones, and “A Living Prayer” cut from “Lonely Runs Both Ways” by Alison Krauss and Union Station, various cuts from Broadway’s show “Miss Saigon” and the movie “The Matrix”.
SOUND OF THE MINI
One of the attributes that the Mini’s possess is the ability to resolve complex pieces of music without them sounding congested. An example is from the cut “Carousel” from the Off Broadway show “Jacques Brel”. Toward the later part of the song the tempo and volume picks up along with multiple voices and instruments. Every speaker I have heard at anywhere near this price range has been difficult to listen to on this song due to the congestion and I typically skip over this track as a result.
The Mini’s resolved this piece music with ease. Every voice and instrument was reproduced with no significant congestion or merging of the sounds.
The resolution of the Mini’s also came through clearly in the soundtrack from Broadway’s “Miss Saigon”. Orchestral and vocals were distinctly separate with plenty of air and black background. The soundstage was excellent. The strings hung in the air to the left of center, the brass emanated behind the strings, the vocals moved to specific points on the stage where they are supposed to be located. Very impressive!
To evaluate the low frequency response of the speakers, I listened to “Way Down Deep” from Jennifer Warne’s “The Hunter”. The song begins with a very LF beat that shakes my windows noticeably when I utilize my subwoofers. I wasn’t expecting to hear or should I say feel the magnitude of the bass resonating through the room - so much so that it was overpowering and distracting. With the Mini’s, the problem was an easy fix as a result of a control center mounted on the rear of each of the speakers, complete with amplitude adjustment controls. Once adjusted (took me several corrections to get it just right), the bass blended seamlessly into the rest of the presentation.
One of the first artists I chose to listen to on the Mini’s was Norah Jones. I found “The Long Day Is Over” track off of “Come Away With Me” interesting in that I could hear Norah’s nasal tone as I hadn’t heard on my previous speakers. I could actually hear her voice cut in and out very slightly at times. She sounded like she was sitting 10’ in front of me. The soundstage was wide and deep and her voice floated like a feather in at the front of the soundstage.
At one point I lost track of the evaluation and got lost in the music.
I also listened to the cut “A Living Prayer” from Alison Krauss and Union Station’s “Lonely Runs Both Ways” for signs of sibilance. Alison’s voice is strong and quite forward in several places in the song. Her voice sounded natural through all the high notes and never felt overpowering or uncomfortable to the ears. These speakers have a way of sneaking up and seducing you with their sound before you realize it. Silky smooth and balanced would be the two words that come to my mind when I listen to them.
The Mini’s excel with music and at their current price point I don’t think that there is another speaker around today that can touch them.
Mark Shifter, the force behind AV123.com, gave us the honor of the very first pair of these for review. I spent about 200 hours with them, half of which were spent breaking them in, the rest listening to every kind of music I could throw at them.
There is truly nothing “mini” about the Strata Mini. At four feet in height, it is a rather tall floorstander.
As you can see, our pair came in a beautiful rosewood veneer with a curved front. Other finishes, including piano lacquers, are available in very limited numbers. The three visible drivers are a tweeter up top, a planar midrange and a 5 ¼” lower mid cone which is enclosed in its own specially damped chamber. A planar magnetic mid, used in costlier speakers for enhanced midrange, is very rare at the Mini’s astonishing price of only $1,995 per pair. Yes, per pair! If the Mini were to stop there, it would still be a killer deal, but it goes way beyond that. In back, you will notice a large black enclosure that houses the real surprise – an 8” subwoofer with an integrated 350 watt-per-channel dedicated amp!
Those two subs take the bass response all the way down to 27Hz. Think about that a moment. How much would it cost you to buy a single, good 350-watt powered subwoofer? $800 maybe? Here you get not one, but TWO of them - $1,600 right there. So the rest of the pair is thrown in for $400?
They certainly do not look like $1,995 per pair. Linda, much experienced in assessing prices, thought they probably retailed for closer to $10k, just by appearance. She thought they looked “sexy”. There is a black grill that covers the three front drivers in case you need them, but the gently tilted back fascias are very attractive without them. Four spikes are included for the bottoms that make them very stable on carpets.
A full compliment of adjustments for crossover point, phase and volume of the sub grace the back as pictured. The package includes a very robust jumper cable (the blue one) to interface the sub with the rest of the drivers. High quality WBT style connectors accept any type cable. I used Ray Kimber’s outstanding Select for mine.
The crossover network, custom designed by our own guru Technical Editor, Danny Richie, includes air core inductors, polypropylene capacitors and non-inductive wire wound resistors. 4th order acoustic slopes on the upper end and 2nd order slopes on the bottom end.
FIRST SOUND IMPRESSIONS
The Minis take a good 75 – 100 hours of break-in. They sounded pretty rough right out of the large wooden crates, so don’t be alarmed. Drivers and amps are being conditioned simultaneously, so that is to be expected. Several amps were employed during the preview: the Halcro MC-20 400 wpc power amp (review pending) driven by its pre-amp mate and also the Triode tube pre, the marvelously massive LSA Reference MKIII 150 wpc tube hybrid integrated (reviewed here), the Triode TRV-35SE tube integrated (review in progress) and even an Onix 60 wpc solid-state. Because the powered subs take much of the most power hungry low freqs, all of the amps had no problem driving the Minis to 100 dB+ peaks.
Speaking of peaks, the Minis are very dynamic. I actually spent time listening to them without the subs in play to isolate the critical mids and uppers. Snare drums snapped and popped appropriately and guitar plucks were accurately rendered. Fast. The planars imparted a sense of speed on leading edges and transients that were exciting and involving, yet gave vocals the smoothness and liquidity that only a planar can render. Danny did a superlative job with the difficult task of seamlessly crossing the flat panels over to the cones and domes. Cascading test tones, always a joy to endure – especially by our resident Shelties – revealed no detrimental gaps, dips or change in tonality as the frequencies were handed off from one driver to the other. Very coherent for a hybrid configuration of this type and price.
While still impressive, the high end might have been the least imposing feature. It took some jockeying around, mostly moving back, of room placement because the tweeter seemed to be firing a bit too high. Standing up a little brought the highs and imagining into proper perspective. A phone call to Danny revealed that the cause may be a slight polarity problem in very early samples that was quickly fixed in production models.
AV123, for good reason, has a very strong following. In fact, several hundred pairs of the Minis were sold before the first one was ever built. Buyers forked over their cash based completely on the Mini’s on-paper description and their experience with many other products from the brilliant mind of president Mark Schifter. (If that name sounds familiar, Mark was also the founder of Audio Alchemy, which earlier set the audio world ablaze with bargain priced, quality DACs and other components. He is still at with AV123) The interim fix was easy though. I simply tilted the speakers forward about an inch and viola, a very nice high end.
A four foot tall speaker is not easy to make disappear, but dematerialize they did. The soundstage was nicely deep and wide with individual instruments firmly ensconced where the recordings placed them originally. CDs, run through the Halcro’s state-of-the-art DAC, were vivid. Vinyl, as rendered by the equally astonishing TW Acustic Raven One with a Dynavector DV-XX2MkII cartridge (exclusive review upcoming), was glorious. Transparency, while not the equal of more expensive competitors and even some restricted range monitors under $2k, was very satisfying.
At this point in the listening tests, I would have to say the AV123 Stata Mini is a remarkable achievement.
Then I turned on the subwoofers.
Flipping two little switches turned the Minis into Maxes and immediately transformed them into audio giants. The 350-watt class AB amps took hold of the 8” paper cones with an iron grip and good bass became “Good-god-amighty ” bass. Things got even mightier as I dialed in the proper phase, crossover and gain. Clean and tight as the heads of the timpani that now thundered in Copland’s “Fanfare for the Common Man”, it became clear why an 8” woofer was used as initial fundamentals as well as percussive transients were launched at speed equal to the planars.
I pulled out Munch’s “Living Stereo” Saint Saens Third, the “Organ Symphony”, both my first-stamper vinyl version and the SACD.
It was all there. Dean Peer, Stanley Clarke and other subterranean recordings followed. Nothing boomed or bloomed, just a muscular, natural sense of weight and authority appeared that is not often heard under $5,000 and never at $2,000. And, since CES took place while I had these, I tried to find something there among the hundreds of speakers that might compare.
If you want to know if I would recommend these speakers, well, I already have. Friends of 20 years asked Linda and me over last night. They are looking for new speakers and asked for my advice. Guess what I told them.
-Update; the gentleman did buy them. I helped him set them up in his very large, lively room. He and his wife love them. They even bought a turntable on which to play their nice collection of original Motown vinyl. They are driving the Mini’s with a 30 wpc Linn Majik integrated. They report that they have been spending nights just listening to music - for the first time ever.- publisher
One thing to bear in mind is that you DO have to plug both of them them in to an AC outlet in order to supply current to the internal amps.. They come with their own generic but replaceable power chords as well as the jumper cables necessary to interface with the powered woofers.
Incidentally, while Stereomojo does not “do” surround sound or home theater, if you or someone you know is contemplating a movie system, consider these. They would do music and special effects equally well without the need of separate subs.
AV123 offers a 30-day in home trial, but trust me, if you let these jewels in your room, they will never leave.
Warranty is a generous 3 years.
THE AV123 STRATA MINI
- MEASUREMENTS -
OVERALL FREQUENCY RESPONSE
The frequency response was taken on tweeter axis and at 1 meter with a 1 watt input signal. A 4ms gated time window was used.
This close range measurement and limited time window will not accurately measure ranges below 200Hz so it is not included in the graph.
This sample pair sent for review measured to with +/-2.3db from end to end.
Previous measurements of the rear-firing sub showed a tuning frequency of 28Hz.
With its own built in plate amps and the flexibility that this offers, the speakers should easily hit -3db down points in the 28Hz range without room gain.
In some rooms they could easily cover mid 20's.
HORIZONTAL OFF AXIS RESPONSES
The horizontal off axis responses were also taken at one meter.
Red is again the on axis response with each additional measurement made by moving 10 degrees off axis. This speaker has a very even off axis response in the horizontal range with the highs dropping out very smoothly and consistently.
VERTICAL OFF AXIS RESPONSES
The vertical off axis responses were also measured with 1 watt at 1 meter with the Red line being the on axis response.
Each additional measurement was made by moving the microphone up 4" per measurement going from Orange to Yellow to Green.
The Green line shows the response at 12" above the tweeter axis. The measured responses confirm the very even response in the vertical plane.
These speakers were designed in such a way that the drivers are kept acoustically in phase over a wide vertical range.
This allows the off axis response in the vertical range to be very close to the on axis response. So whether you are seated or standing these speakers should sound very much the same.
However if one's listening position is such that the listener is below the tweeter axis then it might benefit the listener to tilt the speaker forward slightly using the adjustable floor spikes to maintain the neutral response.
CUMULATIVE SPECTRAL DECAY
The cumulative spectral decay measures how fast the speaker dissipates stored energy and inertia.
In this regard the Mini Strata really excels. The speed of the planar magnetic drivers are really tough to beat as the decay rate is very fast.
The impedance response shows an average low in the 8 ohm range. This will allow them to be easily driven by any amplifier.
The rise in the bottom end is from a 6db high pass filter that pulls the lowest ranges away from the small, front firing, Atohm woofer.
At $1,995, the AV123 Strata Mini is an extraordinary buy in a full-range speaker. It can be driven by modestly powered amplifiers and still deliver quality low bass in the 20Hz region rarely seen at this price point. Positioned correctly (you may need to tilt them forward a little from their default tilted back posture), the Mini's will reproduce music of all genres with a high degree of listener satisfaction.
Featuring literally "outside the box" thinking and design, the Strata Mini is as handsome as it is musical. Recommended only for medium to large rooms of at least 16'.
AV123 also excels in customer service. We ar as confident in the company as we are the product.
For its outstanding value and performance, we award the
AV123 STRATA MINI
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Have you ever heard of the Benchmark DAC? How about the Alesis Masterlink? Or maybe the Behringer DEQ2496 rings a bell? All of these products started out as Pro Audio items, meaning they were intended mainly for use in commercial recording studios or live concert venues. They were not sold in home audio stores or advertised in Stereophile or TAS. However, somewhere along the line, each of these products were discovered by audio reviewers and written up in the high-end audio press. They became hot topics on audio boards and blogs, all resulting in many thousands of sales to audiophiles worldwide. And for good reason; they are excellent products selling for prices that make them attractive to home audio enthusiasts.
The fact is, there is a whole world of such products sitting in guitar stores right now;
speakers, amplifiers, cables, isolation devices, DACs – you name it. The question is, how good are they in comparison to components designed for and marketed to the home audio segment? We at Stereomojo believe this question is worth investigating and perhaps barbecuing a sacred cow or two along the way.
HOW MUCH WOULD YOU PAY…
…for a pair of very good, rather large (say 17" x 11" x 13.5"), very well constructed 2-way stand-mount monitors featuring not a 6 or 7 inch woofer, but a big Kevlar eight-incher? Plus a 1” silk dome tweeter? Then add that they are very accurate – flat from 50 -20,000 with only a +/- 1.5dB variance? Most expensive speakers do well to accomplish that within a +/- 3dB range. The specs say they are within 3dB all the way down to 39hz. The flatter the response the better, right?
What would you think so far? Maybe $1,000 a piece? There are plenty of much more costly monitors that cannot boast those specs. But wait a minute. Each of these boxes includes two amplifiers! An 80-watt amp just to drive the 8” woofer and another 40 watter dedicated just to the tweeter. Therefore, a pair of these speakers includes four separate amplifiers. Very clean amplifiers. 120 watts per side? That’s not all that much. But what if they could output a clean 113 db at 1 meter before clipping and built to sustain that 24/7 in a recording studio environment?
What class of amps are they? AB? D? I asked Alesis. Several times. They would not say, claiming that information is “proprietary”. I was also not permitted to talk to anyone in the engineering department. Since there are large heat sinks in the rear, class D is unlikely, and we know there are no tubes in there. Probably AB.
How much are we talking now, particularly since you save a bundle on expensive interconnects you would not need? You might want to invest in some good XLR ICs since these speakers are fully balanced. Balanced speakers? Yup. Three or four grand for the pair maybe? But wait, there’s more.
THE DSP FACTOR
You probably know DSP stands for Digital Signal Processing. In this case, the DSP is a digital crossover with 24bit resolution. If you are worried about digititus, there was no evidence of the malady anywhere to be heard.
With the Alesis 820DSP, here is what that means to you. Imagine, if you can, sitting in your room right in the sweet spot with your trusty laptop. A standard 9-pin serial cable (provided) runs from your laptop to the left speaker. Another included cable connects to the left speaker to the right speaker. On your laptop screen is a four-band parametric EQ. When you make adjustments from your listening position to one speaker or both simultaneously, you hear the changes in real time from the speakers. When you have achieved your optimum voicing of the speakers to your room, just click “save” and the parameters are saved – in the speakers - for you to recall or change at your whim via buttons on the front panel – complete with an LED readout of whatever you named it.
Up to eight user settings are storable, but in case that is not enough, there are another 8 factory presets. #1 is flat, #2 is Hifi based on the Fletcher Munson curve. What if you prefer a British sound? Use #7 named the BBC Dip which gives you a slight dip in the 1 to 3kHz range for a more distant (mid hall) and relaxed sound. #6 will even emulate an 80’s boom box for your teenager. They speakers are magnetically shielded
A professional, high quality EQ can set you back $1,000 or more, plus the ICs you would need to connect it and you still would not have the convenience of adjusting it from your sweet spot.
THE LED FACTOR
The front of each speaker sports a greenish multifunction LED and six small buttons.
Depending on which buttons are used, the LED will tell you:
THE BREAKING IN FACTOR
There are those that believe that speakers do not need break-in, that what the listener is experiencing is a psychoacoustic effect which is actually their hearing and their mind adjusting to the sound of the speaker, not the sound of the speaker changing over time. It’s all in their head.
If there was ever a speaker to blow that theory out of the water, it is this one. When I first installed the 820s, they sounded very constricted and tight. Mediocre dynamics. The low end especially was MIA. However, most notably, they did not play very loud and clipped rather easily. How did I know they were clipping? It was obvious to hear, but I could also see it. The greenish-yellow LED was flashing red, signaling that clipping was indeed occurring even at moderate levels.
After several hours, the bass opened up, as did the rest of the frequency response. They played louder and the dynamic range expanded drastically. Moreover, the LED no longer flashed red even at ear shattering levels.
Besides, the manual states, “Nearly all new speakers require a few hours of bass-heavy material at fairly loud volume to break them in. What this does is loosen up the driver suspensions and smooth out the response”. No psycho babble now, please. Case closed.
HOW DO THEY SOUND?
How do they sound? I will let my wife Linda answer that first. She came home late from our office while I was listening in the dark to the newly set up 820s. She stuck her head in the listening rooms and said “Did you get new speakers in for review today? The sound makes me think of you sitting at a mixing board! What are they?” This from the sound she heard from outside the room.
Backing up a bit, as I listened to them after a few hours of break-in I had the very same thought, but I thought it was a since I knew these were recording studio monitors. But she did not. I kept trying to shake the feeling, forget they were pro audio and evaluate like I would any speaker, but still they evoked such strong memories of long sessions in various studios it was impossible to dispel. Linda confirmed what I was hearing was not a psychological predisposition, but an actual characteristic.
What is this characteristic? First, the sound is incredibly dynamic. Listening to Flim & the BBs Tricycle, the powerful snare drum did not just snap, it was a small detonation.Same with the kick drum. Maximum Mojo. The piano was clean, very neutral and again, the notes just leapt from the speakers. Electric bass was deep and tuneful. It took no effort to follow exactly what the bassist was doing and equally easy to differentiate him from the drummer’s bass kicks.
Wide dynamic splashes indicate there is a low noise floor. If a sound initiates from a high noise floor, there is not as far for it to expand. Anything percussive through the Alesis’ was explosive compared to most home audio speakers which tend to favor either a dry, detailed and restrained personality, or the opposite warm, smooth, romantic style. Bach or Rachmaninov. These are not euphonic in any sense. Critics who write that a certain speaker imparts no coloration need to compare them to a good pair of pro studio monitors. They might reconsider their remarks.
When listening to rock or pop studio recordings, I enjoy listening for what the producer
and engineer did in the mix. That is every bit as much art and science as what the musicians are playing. The 820s allowed me to hear that clearly; so much so that I began to pull out Alan Parsons, 10cc, ELO, Steely Dan, Sir George Martin and, of course, Pink Floyd. Their mixing artistry shown through gloriously. These speakers love rock and rock loves them. Same with Boz Scaggs, Chicago and the remarkable new Beauty Room – a mix of The Dan and CSN&Y if you imagine that. Go check it out.
Recording studio monitors are designed to give such people a canvas with which to paint their aural masterpieces. The Alesis Prolinear 820DSPs did not place Miles and his friends on Kind of Blue in my room, they placed them live on the other side of the glass in the studio.
The soundstage is presented differently as well. In classical recordings such as Reference Recordings excellent “Tutti” CD or the Mercury vinyl version of Hanson’s “Composer and His Orchestra”, the images of instruments were very stable and easy to isolate, but they were not rendered in the 3D holographic tableau so characteristic of the better high-end home products. Classical vinyl sounds a bit sterile and more CDish. The size of the stage was rather moderate and not as dramatic as the Vienna Acoustics Haydn or the even larger sounding LSA 1 Reference. The ambient field was not as thick and palpable. Classical is not this speaker’s strong suit. Perhaps that is why many classical recording and mixing studios do not use commercial studio monitors and lean more towards B&Ws and the like.
SO HOW MUCH DO THEY COST?
This was deliberately saved ‘til last. The Alesis Prolinear 820DPS retails for $529 each.
Google showed prices as low as $399. Remember, you are replacing your speakers and your stereo amp.
Recommended only for those who may enjoy the unique dynamic, clean, powerful sound of studio monitors and their accompanying unsexy appearance. Recommended for lovers of rock, funk, modern jazz, and any top 100 contemporary type music. Not recommended for classical aficionados. Ultra low price and superb reliability are big factors. Caution: Can easily play loud enough to cause ear damage. There are several competitive alternatives by Mackie, Event, KRK, Yamaha and others - with and without the DSP features - all worth exploring.
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THE LSA 1 REFERENCE MONITOR & LSA 2 REFERENCE FLOORSTANDING SPEAKERS
By James L. Darby
As the model numbers of these speakers suggest, LSA is a relatively new company. The company is named for and headed by Larry Staples, a musician who formerly owned an audio store and also was the former director of sales for Thiel Audio. LSA is appropriately headquartered in Music City, USA - Nashville, Tennessee. They have about 85 dealers in North America and 12 other countries.
Larry is not the only musician and music lover at LSA. In fact, just about everybody plays an instrument and has professional experience, much like the staff members of Stereomojo. It is good to know that the people behind the product are not just corporate stuffed suits and bean counters. Many designers say they do not listen to their competitor’s speakers, but that is not the case with LSA. “We’ve listened to 90% of the speakers we compete with, mostly the more costly ones. Our goal is to outperform all of them at a lower price. We believe we have achieved that”, said Larry.
As is our process, I spent many hours talking to or corresponding with the main players at LSA. The impression is that they are all very dedicated, knowledgeable people who are extremely passionate about music and their products. Good people. In this business, that counts for something.
They warranty their speakers for 5 years.
Thirty days were spent with these speakers with various length listening sessions every single day and/or night. Estimated listening time approximately 80 hours.
The LSA 1 REFERENCE MONITORS
The LSA1 is a 2-way stand mounted monitor with custom drivers designed in house that consist of a 1” silk dome tweeter and a 6.5“ woofer.
There is a small port in the rear that made itself known in a rather interesting way. The first selection played was Tricycle by Flim & the BBs which is a jazz track that features ultra wide sudden dynamic swings of 100db. As I walked around the back of the speaker, it felt as if someone had fired a rather cool, invisible paint ball at my butt and scored a direct hit. Being alone in the room, I thought for a second the life-size cardboard standup of Elvira which graces my closet had come to life and was in a frisky mood. No such luck, because it happened again and it coincided with one of the 100db hits in the music. That’s when it was discovered that the spirit was actually a column of air blasting from the small port - not Elvira. The port, much like the cardboard Mistress of the Dark, is very well designed and totally silent.
Also on the back are four very high quality posts, rendering the speaker bi-wire/amp ready.The cabinets are meticulously finished in rosewood, tapering from front to back to reduce cabinet resonance as do many far more costly speakers from Magico, Dali, and B&W to name a few. “They’re pretty!” my wife says. “They should fit in any décor”. Score 100% on the WAF.
These are not toys. You would know that the moment you pick them up. Solid and heavy for their size - like they are carved from a single block of rosewood. They easily pass the knuckle wrap test, sounding as solid as they feel. These speakers have “hi-end” and “expensive” written all over them. They even come with black veltvet custom-made covers with “LSA” embroidered on the front. Classy. Very classy. Both are available in the rosewood you see here, or a black ash. Same price for both.From their looks, quality of construction and finish, the speakers belie the fact that they sell for only $1,000 per pair.
I auditioned the LSA1s first in Room 1, the smaller dedicated listening room, and then in Room 2 - the large family room. Amplification was provided by the incredible DK Designs Reference mk III which is a massive 77 lb tube integrated. Also inserted was the Halcro MC20 – 400 wpc of Class D and the Triode TRV-45s tube preamplfier. Kimber 4PR and Kimber Select BiFocal X (both bi-wires) connected to the speakers. ICs were also Kimber Selects and Heroes.
Placed several feet from room boundaries in both settings, they were given lots of room to breathe. LSA strongly recommends operating all their speakers in bi-wire mode, since they were designed towards that purpose. All tests were conducted in that configuration.
The LSA1s passed the “Tricycle” dynamic test easily. There was no dynamic compression or congestion as is often the case with small speakers. The 100 db sudden staccato “hits” consist of piano, electric bass, hi-hat, snare and kick drum all thwacked simultaneously. The test is not only to see if the speaker can play them at high volume without distorting or going up in smoke, but to determine if they reproduce a very wide range of frequencies so that the listener can easily identify each instrument – especially the kick and bass guitar – in their own space. They just took whatever the system fed them with no sense of strain whatsoever – a pretty remarkable feat for any $1k/pair speaker, much less a diminuitive monitor.
As impressive as that was, they are also extraordinarily capable of producing micro dynamics. They sounded wonderfully detailed and musical at background music volumes on weekend mornings while we read the paper and enjoyed some coffee. It may be that this factor was more notable than the loud stuff. It is difficult to design and manufacture any kind of product that can be very powerful when needed and yet delicate when called upon to do so. In other words, the LSA1s sounded as musical and involving playing background baroque harpsichord as they did blasting “Black Dog” or “Highway to Hell”.
The only speaker I have heard that was more dynamic at medium to loud levels is the Alesis Prolinear 820 studio monitor (review pending) – a speaker designed for the rigors of pro recording studios – but they have nowhere near the refinement or other qualities of LSAs, and they were no match at low volume levels.
NOW YOU SEE THEM…
A quality that is paramount for any speaker is their ability to disappear, but particularly for stand mounters. The LSA1s were as invisible as that column of air mentioned earlier. Uncannily so. It was impossible to locate an instrument that sounded as if it were being produced by a speaker.
What did appear was a huge soundstage that filled the front of the room. Listening to “Tutti!” , several full orchestras captured by Reference Recordings and Prof. Johnson in 24bit HDCD , the first violin section extended about four feet beyond the left speaker while the second violins and violas did the same on the right. The other sections were rendered in beautiful layers extending to the wall six feet behind. Most amazing was the sense of height. The brass and percussion were elevated well above the cabinets in perfect scale as they would be on stage. The LSA1s made it seem perfectly plausible that the Minnesota Orchestra or the Czech State Philharmonic were performing a private concert just for me. That sense of height was even more apparent on the Turtle Creek Chorale recording on the same label. The men were standing on risers with the top row voices about ten feet high. The long reverb was rendered without grain or leanness.
The LSA1s do not magnifiy the stage as do some smaller speakers, they only report the size and scope of what is on the source, exemplified by my own recordings, both acoustic analog and electronic digital. The grand piano in auditoriums and my own living room were faithfully reproduced and the completely “fake” representation of perfectly dry 24-bit samples, enhanced by computer generated reverb, simply repeated what was added – no more or no less.
Just for fun, I pulled out a pair of speakers lauded to this day by Harry Pearson for having a magical midrange and superlative imaging – the Sound Dynamics 300ti. This is a much larger speaker that truly is remarkable, though not to the degree hyped by HP. Other than a more extended low end, the LSA1 was superior in every regard. It wasn’t even close.
The very fine Vienna Acoustics Haydn (review upcoming) was stronger competition. While the Haydn costs about 30% more, the 1s were more convincing and lifelike, especially in the low bass and upper frequencies. Both have a exemplary midrange.
THE REAL LOWDOWN
I like bass. Having studied pipe organ for years and having performed on many such instruments in the US and Europe, I know firsthand the power and majesty of thirty-two foot pipes. In the case of the incredible Wanamaker organ in what is now Lord & Taylor in Philadelphia, sixty-four foot pipes. Those monsters are large enough to house a VW bug. You don’t hear them but you sure as heck feel them.
I have always cringed a bit when I read reviews that stated, “I really didn’t miss the bass” when describing speakers with restricted low frequencies. In the case of these speakers, since they go all the way down to about 37 Hz, there is not much bass to miss. That frequency will capture every standard instrument in the orchestra and all but the lowest 6 notes on a piano. But trust me, pianists very rarely roam that low and then mostly in piano solos, but never in a jazz or rock setting because he would be stepping all over the bass player’s space. The bass player would then step all over the pianist’s face in the alley between sets.
The LSA1 will not, however, reproduce that sixty-four foot pipe with a frequency of 8.18Hz - assuming someone could even record it in the first place.Timpani were robustly replicated, as were bass and kick drum thwacks in both classical and rock music. The fundamentals and harmonics of all low-pitched instruments were formed so well – dare I say it – I didn’t really miss the lowest bass.
I kept asking myself if I could, in truth, live with these speakers with no sub. Answer? In a small to medium room, absolutely. In a large room where low frequencies have an opportunity to breathe freely, I would opt for a full range speaker, but only one that did everything else as well as these.
BUT DO THEY SING?
All of the above is great so far, but if a speaker cannot convey a male or female vocal convincingly, the rest counts for nothing.
The 1s were more than convincing, they were inspiring.
When Linda Ronstadt, Laura Fabian, Renae Fleming, Roger Waters, Robert Plant or any other vocalist took the stage, they did exactly that – they took the stage. The image was forward, recessed and neutral, depending exclusively on how the singer was recorded. The speakers did not force their own perspective. Broken hearts, lust for life (or other things), longing for love or the joy of finding new love, teenage angst – all were rendered seamlessly and gloriously. These speakers have the innate ability to bypass your ears and grasp your heart, soul or both. One does not “hear” them, one experiences the music. They pull you in and cause you to forget the office, the bills, the noise and clutter of life and transport you to wherever the artists want to take you. Choose your music carefully!
SO IT’S PERFECT, RIGHT?
Of course not. Even LSA makes a Signature version of this speaker at twice the price, so improvements can be made – at a price.
Compared to much more expensive speakers, the LSA 1s lack the that last ninth degree of transparency and air of a Sonus Fabre Cremona Auditor or their ultra liquid, creamy personality, but the two speakers have more in common than differences. They both use paper cones – “We think they just sound more natural”, stated Larry Staples, designer of the LSAs. Images in the Auditor are rounder with more “flesh” on the vocals. The highs are more extended and crystalline and some make think they look sexier – even though both cabinets have curvaceous figures. But, as all men know, curves can be expensive. Ask the dearly departed husband of . At $4,000, the Fabers will cost you four times as much for the sound and the prurient factors.
My B&W 805s exhibit a bit more midrange snap (emphasis) resulting in snare drums with a bit more pop and vocals that are a bit more forward, but not as organic. The B&Ws sound a bit more “hifi” than the 1s and overall, to me, less musical. The 805s go for about $2,000/pair.
The LSA 1s are genuine reference quality monitors for speakers anywhere near this price range. They have that indefinable quality we call “Mojo”. If I had my “druthers”, these speakers would never have left the premises. Alas, the company seemed anxious to get them back to use for other demos. Hopefully, if I beg and plead, Mr. Staples will send the LSA 1 Signatures. We may have to work our Mojo on him! Stay tuned.
THE LSA 1 IS STRONGLY RECOMMENDED FOR ANYONE WITH A SMALL OR MEDIUM SIZED ROOM WHO PRIZES ORGANIC MUSICALITY AND WHO LISTENS TO ALL GENRES SAVE ELECTRONICA OR CLUB MUSIC THAT DEMANDS ULTRA LOW BASS RESPONSE, WHICH WOULD ELIMINATE ANY STAND MOUNTED SPEAKER. LSA STRONGLY RECOMMENDS USE OF BI-WIRING WITH WHICH WE CONCUR. BECAUSE THE LSA 1s REPRESENT AN EXTRAORDINARY VALUE IN SOUND, CONSTRUCTION AND APPEARANCE, WE AWARD THEM THE STEREOMOJO “MAXIMUM MOJO AWARD”.
LSA 1 Specifications
• Sensitivity: 88db 1w/1m (An input signal of one watt of power at 1 KHz yields
approximately 88 decibels of sound pressure at one meter; in-room measurement)
• Impedance: 6 ohm nominal (benign load for virtually any amplifier)
• Power Handling/Amplifier Recommendations: 20 to 150 wpc (Depending on room
size and volume requirements, SET amplifiers may be used in some instances.)
• Size: 13.5” H x 8.5” W at widest point x 14.5” D not including binding posts
• Driver Complement: 1” dome tweeter, 6.5” midrange/bass driver
• Crossover: midrange/bass driver crosses over to the tweeter at 2000 Hz.
THE LSA 2 REFERENCE FLOORSTANDING
Same company. Same designer. Same meticulous finish. Only bigger and slightly different. Different in that they add a woofer in front, a tweeter in back and about 27" in height to 48". The retail goes up to $2,500 per pair.
“The woofer is the same size as the mid, but treated differently to better reproduce frequencies down to 27 Hz”, said Brain Warford, VP of sales. “The tweeter in back only sends frequencies above 8KHz to enhance the sense of ambience and spaciousness. There is an attenuator to adjust the volume of the tweeter so that you can tailor the sound to your individual room”, he added.
The floorstanders also come with spikes, four for each speaker, modeled here by my audiophile wife Linda. As you can see, these things are a serious piece of metal. They screw deeply and firmly into the bottoms for some resonance control on hard surfaces and stability on carpeted surfaces.
They did a good job with my carpet, but people with small children or large pets should be aware that they are tippable if enough force is applied. Not easily, mind you, but they are tall and thin with a high center of gravity.
I was hoping for and even expecting all the qualities of the 1s with just those added low frequencies – the speaker wished for above in the larger room in place of the 1s. We did not quite achieve that, but we came close.
I listened only in the large room B with this speaker. Incidentally, both pairs were well traveled and burned in before they arrived. The LSA 2s were first sampled with the rear-firing tweeter turned off to get a sense of their unenhanced personality. A the same recordings were used as with the 1s. While the speakers were obvious cut from the same cloth, the bigger brothers delivered maybe 85% in vanilla mode, but not the whole enchilada.
The soundstage was deep, wide and tall, but not quite as deep, wide and tall. While they were very transparent, they did not disappear as easily or completely. The mids to uppers were every bit as good as the 1s in frequency response, which is saying a lot, they just lacked that last bit of clarity so abundant in the 1s.
The midrange crosses over at 2kHz rather than the 4kHz of the model 1. That may account for the difference, but also the section of cabinet that houses the mids and tweeters is not quite as tight as the 1s, returning a bit more hollowness when rapped. I would speculate this effects the overall sound and image they project.
Comfortable with the naked sound of the 2s, the rear tweeter was then engaged, starting at the 12 o’clock position. Immediately, the soundstage deepened considerably and the height grew as well. The sound took on a quality best described as “wetter” or a bit less dry, even though they did not sound dry before the tweeter was dialed in. The first impression was “Nice…very nice”.
Over the next few days, the dial was turned up and down in small increments. While the sound took on grander proportions, it also tended to lose a bit of focus in the high end, kind of like Dan Rather used to look on the CBS News. If you did not know, the networks use a special electronic device that softens the video and therefore reduces factors like facial wrinkles, enhancing the visage of the anchors.
The instruments never sounded out of focus like bachelor party snapshots, just not as quite as crystalline and pure as portrayed by the smaller 1s. We are talking very small degrees here, but the more the dial was turned up, the softer the images, especially things that sparkle such as orchestral triangles and rock ride cymbals that are usually placed in the rear of the soundstage.
So here we are presented with a bit of a trade-off; ultimate clarity vs. enhanced soundstage. If you look at the dial in the picture, you will see a setting of about one o’clock, or right on the “A” in LSA. The final setting turned out to be halfway between the “L” and the “S”. This represented the most enhancement with the least amount of artifacts and I must say, the overall picture was very good.
It is very important to point out here that the results described will absolutely vary significantly in any other room. How your room reflects, absorbs or diffuses high frequencies will determine how the rear tweeter influences your sound. It is very possible that the rear projection could increase clarity and soundstage for you. That is precisely why the tweeter has very wide volume adjustment – to tailor it to your room and your tastes. It should also be pointed out that at least you have this option with the LSA 2s, something that is absent with pretty much any other speaker.
One quick caveat: When you stand and bend down to adjust the dial, your ear may come within inches of the rear tweeter. If music is playing, one could get a blast of high frequencies. Either turn down the system volume or crouch, but avoid ear level signal next to your ear.
That said, we won’t revisit the other qualities that exist in both speaker designs and jump straight to the biggest difference between the two models.
THE REAL LOW DOWN Pt. II
The 2s do indeed go lower – to 27Hz it is said. Now we have a speaker that will handle almost anything – save that 8 Hz signal produced by the Wanamaker. There was new weight and substance present, as if a new foundation had be laid or Lindsay Lohan had put on a few pounds. Bass guitar lines propelled rock and jazz more strongly and low brass and strings served up more impact. Orchestral bass drums were felt as much as heard. My own low synth laced tunes now sounded as they were supposed to and pianos, even when not playing those last 6 keys, sounded fuller and “grander”.
The only flaw which can be reported is a slight emphasis in the region below 100Hz. Songs played in the key of E or F tended to ring a bit when bass players played those notes, particularly when sustained, on the bottom strings, producing a sound that at first resembled room interaction. Since the emphasis was still there when the volume was turned down much further than what would excite a room node, that cause was eliminated. Turning the music back up and walking around the room, also eliminated standing waves since the sound was pretty consistent everywhere.
Me thinks the culprit may be the 2’s cabinet resonance in the low end. While I did not crack them open, the space below the midrange speakers sounded as if it lacked enough internal sound absorption or bracing to prevent the cabinet from vibrating excessively. It was noted that the LSA 2’s specs for the more expensive “Statement” edition includes “Upgrade acoustic treatments inside cabinet”.
LSA 2 Specifications
• Sensitivity: 88db 1w/1m (An input signal of one watt of power at 1 KHz yields
approximately 88 decibels of sound pressure at one meter; in-room measurement)
• Impedance: 6 ohm nominal (benign load for virtually any amplifier)
• Power Handling/Amplifier Recommendations: 20 to 150 wpc (Depending on room
size and volume requirements, SET amplifiers may be used in some instances.)
• Size: 40” H x 9.25” W at widest point x 16.25” D not including binding posts
• Driver Complement: 1” dome tweeter, 6.5” midrange driver, 6.5” bass driver
• Crossover: woofer crosses over to midrange at 400 Hz, midrange crosses to tweeter at
• Frequency Response: Thegraph below shows on the top lines the anechoic frequency
response curves of the LSA 2 loudspeaker and on the bottom lines the impedance curve.
The two frequency response curves show a frequency sweep analysis of the prototype
speaker (blue line) versus the final design (red line). Note the improvements in the
overall smoothness of the red line compared to the blue, producing a more natural,
organic sound from the speaker. The two impedance curves illustrate the effect of the
final tweeter selection used in the design, with the red line showing the finished product.
AT $2,500 PER PAIR, THE LSA 2 REFERENCE FLOORSTANDING IS A VERY HIGH QUALITY SPEAKER, SUITABLE FOR THOSE WITH LARGER ROOMS. THE VARIABLE REAR TWEETER IS AN ADDED BONUS THAT CAN ENHANCE THE LISTENER’S EXPERIENCE. BASED ON OUR TESTS, WE THINK IT SHOULD BE CONSIDERED WHEN SHOPPING FOR THIS TYPE, BUT WE SUGGEST YOU INCLUDE OTHERS IN YOUR QUEST.
For purchase or other information, call LSA toll free directly at
[ Intro ]
Like the 2005/06 Beyerdynamic DT880 that I previously reviewed, AKG's K701 is still very much a new headphone, as far as headphones go, since new ones aren't released very often. The K701 is AKG's new top-class performer (where the K1000 used to sit), released approximately a year ago in December 2005, but it wasn't widely available in the U.S. until around February 2006. In the time that it's been released, the K701 has proven to be extremely popular among headphiles, as the latest serial numbers now exceed 10,000. 10K units in a year is impressive indeed - and its popularity has been for good reason.
The unit I'm reviewing is one I bought in April 2006, serial #2896, which has accumulated a very large number of hours of usage - over 1,500 hours in fact. Notes were taken at several points during the first few hundred hours of its usage, allowing me to evaluate the progress of its burn-in more than a few times.
Sources: Arcam DiVA CD73, Cambridge Audio Azur 640C V2
Power cords: Black Sand Violet Z1 on Arcam, Iron-Lung Jellyfish on Cambridge
Interconnects: Signal Cable Silver Resolution Analog and Analog Two
Headphone amplifiers: Cayin HA-1A, DIY Millett Hybrid, HeadAmp GS-1, HeadAmp 2005 AE-1, Portaphile V2^2 Maxxed
Comparison Headphones: Audio-Technica ATH-AD2000, Beyerdynamic 2005/06 DT880, Grado SR225, Sennheiser HD600
Retail price of review component: $449.99
[ Test CDs ]
Alison Krauss - Now That I've Found You
Andre Rieu - Tuscany
Eva Cassidy - Songbird
Howard Shore - The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King [OST]
Jewel - Spirit
Kevin Kern - Imagination's Light
Massive Attack - Mezzanine
Orbital - Middle of Nowhere
Peter Kater - Inner Works
Porcupine Tree - Deadwing
Portishead - Portishead
Radiohead - OK Computer
Renée Fleming - Thais (Massenet, 1894)
Sarah Brightman - The Andrew Lloyd Webber Collection
Secret Garden - White Stones
Thievery Corporation - Sounds From The Verve Hi-Fi
The Crystal Method - Vegas
[ Physical Aspects ]
The most immediately noticeable aspect of the K701 is its color - it's not just white, it's a very bright, searing white. Clearly AKG designed the headphone to visually stand out from the pack. The plastic it's made of is even a bit "shiny" when directly exposed to light. Naturally, this visual design has been prone to polarized opinions of the headphones in the headphile community - some have liked its white color (since there are very few white headphones in general), but most have not, either because of its shiny look ("toilet-seat looks" some have said) or simply because it's white (since black is the most prevalent and popular color for headphones).
The earpads do help give a proper distinguished look though, with their dark grey velour nicely offsetting against the white. As expected from velour, they're extremely comfortable. Not quite as "plush" and "soft" as the velour of Beyerdynamic's DT880 though, as these have a slight firmness, but that doesn't make them any less comfortable. They're completely circumaural (unless you have particularly large ears maybe) and allow for a firm, yet pressured grip on the head. Pressure is a lot less than Sennheiser headphones such as the HD 580, 600, or 650, but for those who have a larger head, it could conceivably be uncomfortable.
The one fly in the ointment as far as comfort goes is the leather headband, which has 7 "pads" on its underside. These pads look like they were designed to ease downwards pressure (to split it across the head) but the center one ends up doing the opposite - the contact point it makes with the head can lead to a very sore feeling. The good news is that the K701 does have a physical break-in, as this pressure from the headband goes away with lots of usage. For the first couple hundred hours though, constant re-positioning may be necessary to alleviate this potential soreness.
The headband is also pivoted to the frame so it can be rolled forward or backward to accommodate where it lies on the head.
Based on my experience with a single K701 over the course of its lifetime so far, the sound has definitely changed with time. Initially, bass was very lean and the highest treble (between 12 and 16 kHz roughly) was simply too recessed - there was no treble sparkle, and the highest sounds in the audible spectrum were nearly inaudible. The one thing that has remained constant over 1,500 hours is its dominant sound signature of course, so burn-in hasn't changed anything drastic, but it definitely improved the key flaws in the sound, filling in the bass component, and bringing out its treble sparkle (as the K701 does end up having a treble sparkle).
The headphone was also quite sibilant at first - which was surprising, because the sound was not exactly bright and never has been. There was sibilance on every recording that had the potential for it - Liz Fraser on Massive Attack's "Teardrop," Jewel on "Again and Again" (from Goodbye Alice in Wonderland), various effects on Portishead's self-titled CD, treble-oriented Electronica, and cymbal crashes on film soundtracks and classical, etc. Granted it was never as bad as the sibilance that the DT880 exhibited, but it was still there, and still painful to listen to. Not until after the first hundred hours had passed did it start lessening and finally dissipate - it went completely away sometime between 300 and 500 hours, and today there's absolutely no trace that it ever existed. But the memory is still there, as I can absolutely remember its sibilance in those first couple weeks of listening.
Soundstage is typically a tricky area to discuss in relation to headphones as they don't provide a soundstage in the truest sense of the word since the ears are right next to the drivers, but if there were awards to give out for achievement of soundstage in headphones, the K701 is an instant champ - its soundstage is unparalleled even for an open headphone. It's instantly airy, spacious, and open, providing a convincing and truly soaring sense of space between you and the music. However, this is a double-edged sword - airiness isn't necessarily desirable all the time and unfortunately it's just part of the K701's sound signature. It's a very specific "talent" of the headphone, if you will. Notes tend to sound like they're floating into space, as if there's an "oblivion" part of the soundstage that the notes are being sent to, never to return. It's somewhat like the acoustics of an outdoor performance, except instead of air, the music is traveling through something more like water (as sound waves carry their intensity through water more easily than through air). Sound simply carries a much greater sense of overall projection with the K701 compared to other headphones.
There are a couple other aspects of the sound delivery that affect the soundstage too - separation of the stereo channels being one, and separation of layers being the other. The stereo imaging in particular is done extremely well, as the K701 has clearly been engineered to keep signal crosstalk to an absolute minimum yet integrate both channels into a highly dimensional wall of sound. When it's first burning in, the stereo image can seem more flat than 3D (and more vertical than horizontal too), but as time takes its effect, the soundstage gradually becomes less of a "blob" and more life-like.
The layer separation helps with this too - the K701 has an almost uncanny ability to separate instruments from each other and place them in their own space, resulting in a mix that's extremely clear and discrete. It always sounds like a balanced mix too, with an equal amount of attention to the various instruments - an inconspicuous mid-bass rhythm, for example, will receive just as much clarity and distinction as the solo guitar thrumming away in the background of the left channel while there's a cello going on in the right channel - and wait, there's another guitar in the background of the right channel. Then there's the female vocalist singing away - hold it, did that left-channel guitar just start plucking? And was that just a triangle? Now there's a percussion track, and something that sounds like a synth line? And a fiddle or banjo in the corner? And to top it all off, there are hi-hats and cymbals crashing? Yes indeed, the K701 can handle that many layers and still let you hear every one of them with full clarity - and this is just scratching the surface.
The K701 can actually handle even more layers while keeping them all distinct - easily a crowning achievement, considering how difficult layer separation is for any headphone to pull off, but the K701 does it superbly and effortlessly. Incidentally, this layer separation helps contribute to widening the soundstage - what else do you expect to happen when separation can peel apart instruments and keep them spaced apart?
And another positive aspect of the soundstage is the sheer scope of field it provides - orchestral music tends to especially sound epic and soaring (but alas, not very "grounded," more on that later).
[ Detail/Resolution ]
The K701 is moderately adept at detail retrieval - it's not quite a vacuum sucker like Beyerdynamic's DT880 or upper-end Sony cans like the MDR-SA5000, but it doesn't mask much either - it certainly gets a fine level, about what can be expected for a headphone in this class, but not necessarily at its $450 SRP. In fact, a headphone that retails for $450 should probably give a higher level of detail - in my opinion, it offers an unacceptable level for a price that high, considering both the DT880 and MDR-SA5000 give quantifiably more detail and are significantly cheaper.
That said, the K701 manages a decent level that's not terribly treble-offensive either, as is the case with the DT880 and MDR-SA5000. It can be subtle enough to draw out quick leading edges (without introducing any harshness), tape hiss (from an analog recording), a change in tone or timbre (including notes that are off-key even a tiny bit), or any kind of live-performance mistakes. It's able to pick up the clicks, pops, and scratches of a typical analog recording too.
The only serious drawback is a lack of micro-detail and that last edge of definition and detailing - certain mid-bass intricacies aren't fully captured (like the texture of kick drums for example) and there's a noticeable lack of inner resonance on large drums. It can't quite resolve the difference between materials on instruments that can be refitted or swapped either, like a mallett for example (which can be swapped between wooden, plastic, or rubber), or brushes - it's easy to identify a brush sound on the K701, but there's not a convincing sense that anything is actually being brushed.
The K701 is still accomplished enough to hold all the detail together that it is able to get and not lose it no matter how complicated, congested, or layered the music gets, which is a feat very few headphones can pull off.
[Attack & Decay]
There's really nothing wrong with the K701's attack, as it's appropriately swift and allows all sounds in the music to keep pace and not seem like anything is chugging. It's a very realistic attack, as it's able to give plenty of attention to whinks, tinkles, and all the other doses of quick sounds that might be sprinkled around in a complex production.
Decay, however, is on the side of being unnaturally fast. Cymbals aren't given enough time to fully fall away, as their trailing "shhhh" sound tends to cut off too soon. Double-cymbals are affected much more though, as the empty-air "wahhhh" effect they leave hanging simply isn't heard on the K701. Suffice it to say, this ends up negatively affecting transient response, to the point where the music can sound like it's being dried up.
The K701 almost demands powerful amplification. It's deceptively rated at 62 Ohms but take that number with a grain of salt - this beast acts more like it's 200-250 Ohms. It needs almost as much power as the 250 Ohm DT880 and will certainly take advantage of all available current that's being supplied. It's both a current and voltage monster, as it works best with amps that can output 1W of power and operate in Class A. It's sensitive to voltage adjustment, as it easily scales with more and more volume, and often sounds better loud, though it does have excellent clarity & definition at lower volumes too.
Amp type is completely preferential of course, but the K701 pairs much better with tubes and hybrids than it does with solid-state designs, and not just because those amps typically provide more power. The "tube distortion" of those amp types is simply a great match for it because of its sound signature - there's a tendency for it to sound lifeless and non-exciting on its own, and tubes or hybrids can easily correct that with their unique sound coloring.
Specific tube amps that have been mentioned to have synergy with the K701 include the Musical Fidelity X-Can V3, Millett Hybrids (either DIY or professionally-designed ones like the HeadRoom Millett), Singlepower Audio PPX3 Slam and MPX3, EarMax Pro, and the Woo Audio 3. On the solid-state side, the Heed Audio CanAmp, HeadAmp Gilmore Lite and GS-1, RSA Hornet and SR-71, Larocco Audio PRII, and HeadRoom Micro and Desktop have all also been mentioned to have proven synergy with the K701, for those who prefer a solid-state type of sound. This is just a sampling of the amps that have been reported of course, as there are many more that could conceivably have excellent synergy, but the ones mentioned are widely used in the headphile community and are hard to go wrong with when picking out an amp for the K701.
As just mentioned, tube amps tend to be a better match with the K701 rather than solid-state ones, simply due to their sound coloring - the added warmth in the mids and mid-bass boost helps give the headphones some "character" as it's lacking in that respect as-is. As for source, one with a warm mid-range and meaty bass may be more desirable than anything else, as the headphones aren't very "warm" or "bassy" on their own. And finally on the subject of interconnects, copper cables may yield a more desirable result due to their inherent mid-range response - though silver cables are recommended too, for those who prefer absolute clarity and detail. Of course, use silver cables in general with caution, as not all are made equally and have the same treble response - the one I use, for example, is unique in that it doesn't give even a slight trace of harshness or edginess.
In my own setup, the K701 found synergy with the HeadAmp GS-1 (a dedicated headphone amplifier that pushes 1W and is biased into Class A), Cayin HA-1A, and a DIY Millett Hybrid. As expected, the tube amps provided a much fuller, engaging sound (with the Cayin providing more definition, clarity, and soundstage than the Millett), while the GS-1 gave a more tonally neutral, dimensional, and very finely detailed sound. In terms of the source, my personal preference lies with the Arcam CD73, but the K701 also sounded excellent with the Azur 640C V2 and picked up a tad more detail and treble energy from it.
The K701 also scales nicely along with changes in the equipment chain, which can make it that much more complicated to achieve a personal synergy with it. Swapping around components is highly encouraged. It's exactly the kind of headphone that will expose as many flaws as you choose to hear from your system, yet it can still be very enjoyable without high-end components. It's essentially the kind of headphone that will let a casual, more budget-minded listener who's just starting out enjoy it just as much as a hardcore audiophile who's listening on extreme high-end gear, along with everyone else in between.
[Sound - Treble]
Fresh out of the box, the K701 was initially on the bright side (and sibilant too), but as burn-in takes its toll, the brightness goes away and is gradually replaced by treble sparkle. The headphone has a very clean, clear response all the way up to ~16 kHz. It extends a bit beyond 16 kHz but signal strength rapidly diminishes right at that point, and seems to finally cut off just before 20 kHz, so extremely high sounds just within the upper threshold of human hearing tend be nearly inaudible. It's not very noticeable with most music, but anything that depends on harmonics and other effects can seem like it's missing something. Extremely high harp runs, for example, can seem like they're cutting off as they ascend into the nether region above 16 kHz.
Despite this lack of extension, the treble overall is very finely grained and allows the headphone to pick up as much detail as it does, without any edginess or harshness. It also ends up very nicely balanced against the mid-range and bass. However, certain instruments like violin and piano don't sound entirely realistic due to a disconnect between the treble and mid-range - those instruments tend to sound more like the treble component. Violins don't exude their inner-cavity resonance and tend to get glossed over, sounding more "sweet" and "delicate" instead. Their rawness and grittiness gets too recessed that it becomes hard to feel the emotion of a performance. Similarly for piano as well, as the delicate touch fails to give the impression that the instrument has depth and a lower register. The hallmark fleshed-out sound of a Steinway, for example, is simply missing with these headphones.
[Sound - Mid-range]
The mid-range on the K701 is fairly close to being tonally neutral, yet there's still a slight warmth to it that helps add a bit of vitality. This warmth is very slight though, as there's no fullness or lushness - the headphones instead take an analytical reference monitor approach, giving most instruments a straight-down sound rather than bringing them out and into the forefront. It's still a warmer than the DT880 though, making for a more pleasant, freeflowing sound, but can still benefit from correction via source and amplifier for those who prefer a warm mid-range.
It's hard to fault the lack of fullness and warmth of the K701, as it's simply designed that way, but this ends up taking away some of the enjoyment of most music genres - it lacks a lively "spark" and doesn't truly convey emotion and power. It's more of a detached, "cold" kind of sound than a lush, involving, exciting sound. This kind of response ends up making the K701 more suited for music that doesn't need a lively spark added to it - abstract Electronica for example, but also classical and jazz, and perhaps ethnic/world-fusion as well (and possibly blues and reggae, which I don't listen to and couldn't test it with). A better way to put it might be to state that the K701 isn't quite ideal for listening to most modern American or British music - pop/rock, rap/hip-hop, alternative/trip-hop, metal/industrial, or folk/country. It's simply not the kind of sound that synergizes with those genres, as it doesn't really "groove" or "excite" with them. That doesn't take away any of its virtues though - in fact, I'd say that enhances its abilities, as it offers a different take on those genres that isn't heard with other headphone brands, such as Grado or Sennheiser, or even lesser AKG headphones, like the K2xx series.
To put it simply, the K701 just has a holistic clean, clear sound that's akin to a vivid photograph. Delivery of the music is extremely pristine - it's simply just incredibly easy to hear everything going on. No single instrument ever seems to compete with another, and every instrument simply flows right, with a fluidity that can only be found in high-end headphones. There's also an emphasis in the range of the female voice, as has been a hallmark of previous AKG headphones. It's a very nice emphasis and allows female vocals to jump out of the soundtrack a bit, and worked wonders for every female vocalist in my test CD collection - Sarah Brightman, Eva Cassidy, Alison Krauss, Jewel, Beth Gibbons, and Elizabeth Fraser. All were brought to the forefront and sounded more powerful, sultry, and seductive in the process.
[Sound - Bass]
The K701's bass is the least dominant part of its frequency response - it's simply not a bassy headphone. Instead of letting anything loose, it holds back the entire low-frequency range - there's a very distinct feeling that it's restraining both the low bass and the mid-bass. No boom, slam, or heavy-handedness - it's more tightly wound than anything else. It very much sounds like a reference headphone in this aspect - clean, tight bass that simply exists - nothing more, nothing less.
Naturally, as might be inferred from this, the K701 has neither bass extension nor strength. It seems to start recessing very slightly around 70-80 Hz but it's not really until around 50 Hz where it really becomes noticeable. It's able to reproduce 50 Hz cleanly, though signal strength starts rapidly declining at that point, finally almost fully cutting off somewhere between 30 and 40 Hz. As a result, it's not a headphone for any kind of music that's remotely bass-oriented - industrial, metal, breakbeat electronic, techno, etc. The synthesized bass tones that those genres use (ultra-low booms, phases, rolls, sweeps, and rumble) are completely lost on the K701. It should be noted that most open dynamic headphones don't extend low enough for those bass tones though - so there's nothing really wrong with the K701's lack of bass extension, only stating this as a matter of comparison with the headphones that do have better bass extension.
It's a good thing that mid-bass response is better, being tight and swift, never straying from going out of control. Speed is very good too, as it's able to convey rhythmically insistent passages with a surprising deftness, and there's a good (but not great) punch to impact too. But for a bass signature that sounds like it's more about quality than quantity, the K701 doesn't have much in the way of quality. It doesn't capture very much texture on mid-bass instruments (certainly not as much as the cheaper Beyerdynamic DT880) and large drums lose part of their resonance. There's a lack of a sense of "grounding" to act as a foundation, as most music that maintains a mid-bass rhythm tends to sound unweighted - translating to a lack of "growling" in rock/metal music, for example, but bombastic orchestral music is also affected. The "earthquake" feel of large drums and guttural sound of double bass lose their impact to the point where it seems like their raw energy simply is not there. No earth-shaking (or head-shaking, at least) bass with this headphone, unfortunately.
Despite its few drawbacks, the K701 is a top-class headphone in the open dynamic market - but even then, the "drawbacks" I've stated here may be preferential for other people. No headphone is perfect at everything but the K701 proves to be a triple-header nevertheless with reference monitoring, critical listening, and casual listening alike. Its clean and pristine sound is simply ideal for anyone who demands a tonally accurate and neutral presentation or is seeking a headphone for use with hi-fi components. However, its new MSRP of $450 (from $300 previously) is prohibitively high and it ceases to be a value at that price - there are several headphones that do certain things better that cost less than $300 (like the Beyer DT880 and Senn HD600), and competition in the $300-$500 range is fierce as it is, not just from Sennheiser's HD650 and Sony's MDR-SA5000, but electrostatic headphones as well. It's quite possible to find them for $350 or less though, and at that point they become an attractive, versatile, great-sounding option, especially for those who like both an airy presentation and a reference monitor-like sound.
STAX SR-001 MK2 Portable Electrostatic Headphones
Hey, I have a cool idea. What if someone were to take a piece of polymer or Mylar and place it in between two metal grids and apply voltages to them? They could use the grids as the charge and the polymer as the bias. Then they could send an analog signal to this concoction and see if they can get it to make sounds.
What if someone were to take it a step further and create large and small speakers that employ this methodology, and if they really wanted to push it, that someone could use this know-how in a pair of headphones. Okay, I see the men in the white coats coming but as long as I’m already off the deep end, we’re going to up the ante by making the headphones portable for people who enjoy large voltages very close to their brain whenever possible.
It’s been done, you say? Hey, who stole my idea?
A Brief History
Electrostatic speakers became a reality in the 1920’s and were invented by two engineers who worked for Bell Telephone Labs. In 1957, Quad released the ESL-57, the world's first production electrostatic speaker. In 1969 the Magneplanar was invented and in 1970 the use of electrostatics in speakers was improved upon by two enthusiasts named Gayle Martin Sanders and Ron Logan Sutherland (hence the name Martin Logan) which set the standards that still exist today. As with all approaches to a result, there are pros and cons that may or may not have work-a-rounds.
In 1998, I was in a NYC stereo store auditioning speakers and there was a pair of Martin Logan’s with which I just fell in love. They had a rich and creamy mid range and highs that were slightly rolled off but encircled the soundstage in a seamless bubble. There were three problems that diminished my love affair into infatuation. The bass was truly lacking even though a cone woofer was used for the low end. You really can’t move air with electrostatics like you can with a dynamic driver so an independent woofer with a crossover network helps if it is incorporated properly. In this case, it wasn’t enough.
This brings up the second problem. Since you don’t have a sealed box enclosure, a good deal of the sound comes out of the back, so distancing the speakers from the back wall is imperative for creating the soundstage and eliminating any “slapping effect” issues.
The third problem is the limited sweet spot. Once you position the speakers the best way possible for your room and have found the perfect “sweet spot”, it is limited to one pair of ears. If you move three or four inches in any direction, the soundstage collapses. This is a serious problem for any application that involves more than one listener.
In 1960 Stax released their first electrostatic headphone model called the SR-01 introducing electrostatic technology into headphones. They stole my idea. I should sue. Back then they were basically two circular electrostat domes with a headband connecting them. They used a SRA4S amplifier that was designed to work with the SR-01. Flash forward to 1987 when they introduced the Signature Lambdas which are still popular today. This is when the earspeakers turned from circular to rectangular.
In 1994 they took the world by storm with the Lambda Nova Classic System which had the ampli fier included as a package and the cable became flat. The design had an open back that allowed the sound to be released through the back as do most open ended headphones. Each “earspeaker” plugs into an amp that is specifically designed to charge the metal grids or “plates” to stimulate the center material to create the correct vibrations which transpose into music or voice.
Unlike a dynamic headphone and dedicated headphone amp, an electrostat setup needs a certain amount of time to charge the stators to the proper voltage. I find thirty minutes is adequate for a critical listening session. Care needs to be taken not to touch the grids or allow dust to fall on them (the charge onto the dust or dirt can short the headphones) and obviously these shouldn’t be worn in the pool or shower or else you’d probably weld your cavities together.
In 1998 Stax moved up a notch to the Omega II’s which are circular, expensive and are still their top of the line offering. The phones include either a solid state amp labeled the 717t or a tubed version named the 007t for approximately $3800. I’ve owned a pair for a couple of years with the 007t tubed amp and it is one of my all time favorite headphones.
Today – The SRM-001 Mk2
Finally we get to the headphones under review in this article. The SRM-001 Mk2 is a package consisting of a driver unit called an “energizer” which can be run on two AA batteries for 4-5 hours or AC for home use. The energizer weighs 140 grams with the batteries and fits in a shirt pocket.
If you’d like you can remove the earpieces from the headband and use them as “buds” because they attach to your ear canal using small oval silicone rubber pads which also help to block out a small amount of external noise. Even though the package provides you with two different size pads, the devices would not stay in my ears without the headband. Your mileage may vary.
If you are not used to portables, you may find that after initial use, the buds may leave your ears a bit tender. But as with me, most people report that their ears adjust rather quickly and the tenderness goes away. Even though the pads are inserted and cover your whole ear canal, they do not block out many dB’s of ambient noise due to the open back design.
If you are a lover of electrostatic sound and you like it in your headphones, and you would like it in a doggy bag to go, then the SM-001 Mk2 system is unquestionably the choice for you. Or, if you have never experienced what an electrostat can do for music, you should give these a try.
First, let’s start out with the price. This system can be purchased for $239.00. That’s two tanks of gas to fill an Escalade. Second, let’s point out convenience. If you can lift a toothbrush with tooth paste on it, then you can carry this unit around with you. 4-5 hours of battery life is not something to shout off the rooftops about, but carry an extra set of 2 rechargeable AA’s with you on long trips and you can travel from NYC to North Carolina in electrostat heaven. This system weighs less than six ounces..
If you hold them up to the light you can see right through the screens
and yet the bass that is produced by these is something that has
to be heard to be believed There isn’t anything in there to push air,
but as long as you position the silicone pads correctly the bass is solid
and without muddle or boom. There is a slight mid-bass hump
and the treble is rolled off slightly, but these are small sacrifices
to make when it comes to being able to walk through the streets
with electrostatic speaker technology on your ears.
I used two different types of music to evaluate these. Harmonic male vocals from Ladysmith Black Mambazo and a Big Band tribute of Jaco Pastorius songs. I used the vinyl format on my VPI HRX.
You might remember Ladysmith Black Mambazo from Paul Simon’s Graceland. “Diamonds on the Souls of Her Shoes” was the radio hit. They do their own version of this on their album ” Long Walk to Freedom” and it is stellar. This performance comprises of eight men doing multiple harmonies from bass to soprano and it is a journey through vocal sound heaven. Melissa Etheridge joins them on this cut and she blends right in as an equal part.
Can you say midrange? This album was made for headphones. This album was made for electrostats. I have listened to it many times in 5.1 surround sound and if you want to hear everything that this recording has to offer, the Stax SM-001Mk2 system is the way to go.
However, to really put these headphones through the wringer, I decided to broaden the range. I knew listening to “Word of Mouth Revisited” would make or break these. This recording invites some of the world’s best bass players to play on each track revisiting Jaco’s music during his short but impressive bass playing career.
The bass was nowhere near what is portrayed on my speaker system, but you would be hard pressed to find any system that includes amp and headphones under $300 to create bass that is as clean and true although not visceral.
The horns and cymbals don’t find their way to the highest highs, but the soundstage that is produced by these headphones and the bargain price wins hands down as one of the finest portable setups that you could possibly own.
Remember those three problems I mentioned earlier? In these headphones, the ultimate bass is not achieved, but it is much better than early room speakers. The second problem of speaker placement within a room is eliminated because the speakers are placed in your ear. There’s not much room for music to bounce around in there unless you are Mickey Mouse. There is nothing Mickey Mouse about eliminating the narrow sweet spot. The sweet spot with these is your cerebral cortex.
Recommended for lovers of jazz, classical, male and female vocal, alternative, blues and country. If you listen mainly to Urban, Hip Hop or other genres that are driven by ultra low, ultra loud, throbbing bass lines where soundstage and midrange transparency is not as great an prerequisite, you should probably stick with a dynamic-type head phone. Remember, the Stax SM-001Mk2 is a system – it includes the amplifier.
Driver unit for exclusive use with the S-001MK2 earspeaker. All-Stage semiconductors, Class A operation, Portable earspeaker driver unit.
:5 to 20,000Hz
High Frequency Distortion
:Max. 0.01% (with 1kHz, 100V r.m.s. output)
:1 (1/8in. stereo mini jack)
Rated Input Level
:100mV (with 50V output)
Max. Output Voltage
:240V r.m.s. (1kHz)
Standard Bias Voltage
:580V (with use of AC adapter)
:0.8W with batteries, 1.3W with AC adapter
:2.4 (W) x 0.9 (H) x 4.7 (D) in
:3.6oz / 4.9oz with 2 AA standard batteries
Beyerdynamic 2005/06 DT880
By Stephen Ham
High-end headphones aren't the kind of products that typically get updated every year - usually, more like every couple years. So when Beyerdynamic updated its line of high-end headphones for the 2006 calendar year, the "headphile" community took notice. The DT770, DT880, and DT990 all got cosmetic face-lifts with a more modern, stylish look and rounded earcups. It's been said that these headphones were also tweaked in the sound department, for an improvement of the 2003 original. I haven't listened to that model, so I can't say what improvements there might be, but if Beyerdynamic tweaked it, that must mean the DT880 got closer to perfection, right? Well, we'll explore that in this review. Officially, Beyerdynamic calls this model the 2005 DT880, but there was another 2005 DT880 before this one (used a coiled cord) so for the sake of differentiating between the two, I'll designate this one the 2005/06 DT880.
Sources: Arcam DiVA CD73, CEC CD3300
Power cords: Iron-Lung Jellyfish (Quail, hospital-grade) on Arcam, 18 AWG standard IEC on CEC
Interconnects: Signal Cable Silver Resolution Analog and Analog Two
Headphone amplifiers: Cayin HA-1A, DIY Millett Hybrid, RudiStor NKK-01, HeadAmp 2005 AE-1, Xin SuperMini-III (w/ AD8397), Little-Tube Little Dot Micro+
Comparison Headphones: AKG K701, Audio-Technica ATH-AD2000, Grado SR225, Sennheiser HD600
Retail price of review component: $299.99
The headphones had more than 700 hours of use on them (consisting of both on-head and unattended time) at the time of this review.
[ Test CDs ]
Andre Rieu - Tuscany
Howard Shore - The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King [OST]
James Newton Howard - The Village [OST]
Jewel - Goodbye Alice in Wonderland
Kevin Kern - Imagination's Light
Massive Attack - Mezzanine
Orbital - Middle of Nowhere
Peter Kater - Inner Works
Portishead - Portishead
Radiohead - OK Computer
Secret Garden - White Stones
Thievery Corporation - Sounds From The Verve Hi-Fi
The Crystal Method - Vegas
The Prodigy - Fat of the Land
The new DT880 retains the original's basic design - a headshape-contouring leather headband and soft grey velour earpads. It's extremely comfortable and can easily be worn for hours at a time. The leather headband is Beyerdynamic's basic trademark design and easily adapts to the contours of any head shape and size. It has some flexibility, though not a whole lot - it's somewhat resistant to extreme stretching, so very large heads may have a hard time fitting into it. The earpads are fully circumaural and allow for plenty of breathing room around the ears, yet fit securely enough to form a "seal" against the head, without a noticeable clamping force. It's a "wear it and forget it" headphone, and it's also light enough that it doesn't feel like a weight on the head.
Unlike the most recent version of the DT880, this one does not use a coiled cable, and instead uses a straight cable. It's 10' long so it can accommodate long runs and is terminated to a 3.5mm mini plug. A screw-on 1/4" adapter is included in the package. There are also Braille extrusions on the left and right sides, just above the earcups, so the sides can be easily discerned for the visually impaired.
Also of note here is the soft foam-padded, black leatherette-bound case that the headphone is packed in. This case is part of the package, a small part of it is in fact exposed by the retail box so it can be previewed when sitting on a shelf. It has a handle on top so it can be easily used as a transport for the headphones and indeed, it functions nicely as a carrying case, as the internal foam padding provides plenty of protection.
Ahhh, burn-in. A controversial topic among audiophiles - many say it doesn't exist (placebo), while just as many insist it does. A skeptic myself to both sides' opinions so consider me on the fence - I don't believe in either outright, but do acknowledge that the two sides both have valid arguments. That said, frequency response absolutely changes with time on the DT880. Out of the box, bass was very lean and treble very emphatic. Sibilance was very harsh - very painful, almost on the scale of trademark Sony headphones such as the MDR-V6 and MDR-CD3000. The sibilance on Liz Fraser's voice on Massive Attack's "Teardrop" made the song painful to listen to, and it was difficult to listen to any music that used cymbal sounds. Not until after about 100 hours did the sibilance start lessening and around 300 hours did it start getting tame enough to listen to "Teardrop." Also around 300 hours was the onset of much more bass quantity, to a level that provided for a much better balance, yet not a complete balance - it's settled in as a treble-oriented headphone with merely a fair amount of bass compensation. A trace of sibilance remains as well - with the wrong components it could easily be exacerbated to a distracting level. Even at over 700 hours, both male vocal parts on Massive Attack's "Karmacoma" border on being sibilant.
Soundstage on the new DT880 is nice and open, though not very "wide." It's airy too, certainly not as much as AKG's K701, but in comparison to other open dynamic headphones, it's definitely ahead of the pack. There's a depth to the sound that allows you to hear the room acoustics of a recording, but it's not very well-defined, lacking the edges that provide a sense of sound hitting the walls. That said, while it does give an open soundstage, it conveys more of an intimate presentation, as it tends to gravitate towards the performers in non-classical & non-electronic genres. There's no obvious emphasis on the human vocal range that creates a forward sound, but the elimination of distance tends to make vocalists sound like they're singing right into the ear.
For classical, there's a nice 3D placement on the instrumental sections, with the violins and cello usually sounding like they're coming from the front rather than right from the side, as will usually occur on forward-sounding headphones. There's not too much of a virtual distance from the orchestra though, as it sounds mostly like a front-row and center seating rather than a mid-row seating.
Detail retrieval on the DT880 is excellent, it will pick up nearly every sound on a recording, including background hiss if it's there. It is 250 Ohms so it shouldn't pick up any noise from components in the equipment chain (for any components that don't have a black background), but if a recording has tape hiss, it will easily get that. Clicks, pops, and scratches on analog recordings are fully revealed, even ones introduced from the mixing/mastering process - naturally, poorly mastered discs will suffer as a result, but high-quality recordings will sound that much better. Classical music especially benefits from this, with all the pieces of the recording intact - string bow movements (individual players making any mistakes too), tiny screeches, breath noise, chair rocking, creaking, tapping, coughing, mic noise, etc.
If this sounds over-detailed, it is - detail is so extreme it can feel unnatural how much is heard, as if you're hearing sounds that aren't supposed to be there. A hyper-real level of detail, if you will. This, combined with the treble-oriented response (more on that below), makes the headphones sound very analytic. Micro-detail on the details is very good, but it gets to a point where it can feel like the headphone is taking attention away from conveying the music and trying to analyze it instead. In this way, there's both a musical and non-musical sense to the DT880, in that it paints a complete picture of the music but sounds like it's working at getting it, instead of taking a laidback approach.
Attack & Decay
Attack is generally too slow on the DT880. The leading and trailing edges of notes aren't quite sharply defined, as it seems to have some difficulty latching onto notes as they enter and exit the airspace. There's simply no bite or energy to give music a needed sense of swiftness and speed. It's more noticeable on upper frequencies than lower ones, but even the higher end of the mid-bass lacks crystal definition on impacts. There's simply a lack of blackness between notes in extremely fast runs, as the next note often sounds like a continuation of the previous, rather than clear, separate, and discrete. Also, if these fast notes lie in the high part of the treble, there's a slight tendency for them to turn to mush. This effect was most noticeable on Orbital's "Way Out" and "Spare Parts Express," where the series of high-pitched clinks and effects forms a harmonic layer. These clinks are lost on most headphones simply because they lack the necessary treble emphasis and extension - the DT880 does not and can indeed get these, only it doesn't give them the energy they should have so they can jump out from the soundtrack. An excellent treble extension should be paired with a fast attack for best results, but alas, that's not the case here. Do note though that the attack isn't too slow that it's a serious detriment to enjoying the music, it's just that in comparison to most other headphones, the DT880's attack stands out on a critical listen.
As alluded to, decay is also slow, slow enough that the trails on longer sounds will and often do run into the next sound, contributing to creating a slurring effect. It tends to be more noticeable on cymbals (and similar sounds that leave an empty-air aftereffect) and other sounds that are in the lower highs. As might be expected, this can ruin the cymbals on a classical recording, or the carefully timed percussion in other genres. As an example, the opening guitar notes on Radiohead's "No Surprises" have a slight slur into each other, instead of closing neatly with a defined decay. Granted, while the DT880's decay does sound a bit slow, it also sounds much more naturalistic and realistic than the decays of other headphones, which have a tendency to sound too fast, so that's a flip side of the issue as well - those who find fast decays unnatural may prefer the DT880's slower decay.
To be fair, the slow attack and decay aren't so noticeable that either is a dealbreaker. And someone who's heard only the DT880 would probably never notice - it's only after hearing other headphone brands (AKG and Grado models specifically) that this trait of the DT880 became obvious.
The DT880 is rated at 250 Ohms and requires a comparatively large amount of current, so a high-powered amp is almost a necessity. The high output power of most tube amps works well for it, and in fact the DT880 seems to pair better with tubes rather than with solid-state designs. Indeed, the coloration that tube amps provide is a nice complement for the DT880, as the increased mid-range warmth and mid-bass impact helps balance out the frequency response. Some tube amps, particularly higher-end ones, may help it control layers and soundstage.
For solid-state amplifiers, op-amps that give a colored sound tend to be a better match for it than ones that are flat across the board. The AD8397 for example, which has a punchy, forward sound, serves to give it some character, whereas neutral op-amps might exacerbate certain aspects of the frequency response, depending on preference of course. Also, since the DT880's bass extension isn't the best, the op-amp doesn't need to extend too low either. However, due to the DT880's response in the treble (more on that below), an op-amp that holds back treble sparkle and controls it, preventing it from becoming too splashy, edgy, or grating, may be desired.
Either way, both solid-state and tube amps are equally well-suited for driving the DT880. Amp type is preferential of course, but a hybrid or tube design is highly recommended to alleviate its frequency response in the mid-range.
A source with a warm, rich mid-range and extended highs will probably be desirable - bass response should be considered secondary, since the headphone doesn't extend very low. Cable type will depend on preference - the cable types responded as expected with the copper one giving more mid-range presence and the silver giving more detail and treble edge. In fact, it seemed surprisingly sensitive to the two cable types, much more than other headphones I've heard. Finally, all three types of amps work with it well, as long as enough current can be supplied and there's enough headroom left from the potentiometer to achieve volume.
And the headphones scale extremely well with upgrades in the equipment chain, so it's a great headphone for both upgraders and tweakers alike. Tweakers will probably find it worth experimenting with to achieve the ideal synergy between source, amp, and cables.
Sound - Treble
Although it's not outright bright (like most Sony headphones), the overall frequency response of the DT880 very much tilts towards the treble. Fresh out of the box it was especially noticeable - burn-in tamed it quite a bit, but there's still a general gravitation towards the treble than any other part of the frequency spectrum. Depending on the recording and/or associated equipment, this may very well result in a grating, screechy, nails-on-the-chalkboard type sound that may be painful, and certainly detrimental for people with ears sensitive to tinnitus. Component matching will be necessary to alleviate this, of course.
Extension here is excellent, as it easily goes past 16 kHz with no obvious roll-off until almost 20 kHz. Sounds in this range are easily heard but not attacked very well (as already mentioned above).
On classical, string instruments sound especially realistic, though resonance (from the wooden chamber) is a tad recessed compared to the higher treble component - there's not too much of a sense of the raw power behind an exceptionally crafted violin, for example. It's still easy to hear differences between violin makes, however. There is a tiny amount of sheen on top that adds a quintessential "treble sparkle" so violins really sing out, even if they're not particularly "full." It does an excellent job separating the violin sections as well, so they sound like multiple violins rather a single huge violin collective. There's really just an excellent attention to delicacy when it comes to violin, either solo or sectional. Sequences of high-pitched notes are especially reproduced well, thanks to an almost featherweight lightness - there's almost a sense of the headphones "dancing" across the top end with ease to accurately portray such light sounds.
Sound - Mid-range
There's a very slight warmth to the mid-range, but it's barely noticeable, particularly because of the treble response. It's largely flat and uncolored, and devoid of character. Noticeably silk-smooth and refined, almost to a fault. It can even seem a bit recessed compared to the bass and treble due to the way it's smoothed out, but it's really not recessed at all, just relatively neutral. Naturally, some coloring may be desirable in the source or amplifier stage - in fact, it's very much recommended.
Most instruments that lie in this range don't really sound full or immersive. They do however have an excellent overall clarity, making it easy to discern the intricacies of their sound. However, layer separation could be improved upon, as the more complex a mix gets, the more that instruments can sound like they're competing with each other for space and to be heard. The image has a tendency to lose marginally more and more clarity as the number of layers increases, resulting in a congested sound. There's not much of an attempt to diffuse the layers, as it often sounds like the DT880 is letting the layers pile on instead of trying to separate them.
Vocals aren't completely realistic on the DT880. The lower portion of the human vocal range (the part that that comes from the proverbial "gut") is recessed to a point where it sounds like vocalists are missing part of their lungs, so to speak. Almost like there's a loss of raw power coming from within the vocalist. It's not really distracting, but it's noticeable, more so on male vocalists than it is on female vocalists. As a result, the DT880 tends to sound better with female vocals.
Sound - Bass
Bass extends down to approximately within 35-40 Hz, so it's a decent extension for a headphone, but not quite low enough to work well for genres like electronica, industrial, and metal. As bass-heads know, 35-40 Hz is just above the range of sweeps, rolls, phases, and low passes that are frequently used in those genres. So the DT880 isn't exactly ideal for those genres as it simply doesn't extend low enough. Deep bass lines are out of its scope, like the ones on Massive Attack's "Angel" and The Crystal Method's "Trip Like I Do" and "Keep Hope Alive." Expecting a headphone to reproduce bass that low might be overcritical, as a lot of headphones don't actually extend that low, but seeing as there are a handful that do, it's only fair to mention. Not that the DT880 has severely deficient bass extension though, as there are plenty of headphones that extend less - it's simply about on level with what can be typically expected for a headphone in this price range.
The lower end of the bass isn't very boomy, like its sibling the DT770, but it doesn't have the lean, tightly-wound characteristic of the K701 either. It falls somewhere in between those two, with a weighty, plush kind of feel to it. Never flabby or uncontrolled, yet it has a surprising amount of quantity. Low-frequency rhythms are given a nice amount of focused power. Electronic music that uses a lot of 303 or 909 analog synth sounds benefits quite a bit from this, as those particularly feel like they have a solid, weighty base to anchor down the rhythm. It's also quite easy to tell the difference between bass-type instruments with the DT880 such as these analog synth effects, as it provides a high amount of texture that's very palpable. It's also very good at making bass sound tactile but ends up sucking the power out of the mid-bass a bit. Impacts are served with a slam that has just enough punch to keep the beat moving but not much else - not truly alive or energetic or exciting. In fact, it's somewhat on the dull side. It can move with tempo well enough for most intents and purposes, but it simply doesn't convey insistent rhythms with a correspondingly driving, insistent feel.
Indeed, the low-frequency response of the DT880 is much more geared towards texture and weight than booms, slams, and raw power. Not that it can't boom, it's just distinctly non-exciting in that aspect, so it's an excellent kind of response for those looking for bass definition. It simply doesn’t compare to headphones that are certifiably “bassy.” Clearly its forte is giving a clear definition and texture to the instruments that reside in this region, which include kick drums (particularly noticeable on Massive Attack's "Teardrop"), bass guitars, acoustic/electric bass, double-bass, bowed bass - nearly any kind of bass instrument. Drums too - it's actually the kind of bass response that works really well for electronic drum 'n bass, as it gives an excellent heavy-handed weight to the simultaneous drum patterns and bass lines, making sure the former sounds cavernous and the latter throbbing and pulsating. In fact, it does a great rendition of Massive Attack's "Inertia Creeps" that has to be heard to be believed.
Overall, the 2005/06 DT880 is a fine performer. It's more of a specialist headphone than a jack of all trades and should please those who crave detail, texture, soundstage and a neutral midrange. Particularly if you have a tube or hybrid amp. It's a good value at $300 (and can easily found for much less – ed.) and makes for a strong competitor. Other headphones in its range may beat it in certain aspects of sound quality such as bass extension, mid-bass slam, mid-range liveliness, soundstage, or transient response, but its treble response and level of detail is simply unmatched at this price.
RECORD CLEANING SOLUTIONS
Record Research Labs vs. L 'Art du Son
Let me say this off the top: Both products were purchased at full retail. No freebies or discounts here.
Since there is no reliable methodology to follow, we will have to rely on personal experience. In that case, I’ll need to break one of our primary protocols and talk about me for a moment. I’ve been a record collector for over 40 years. Check that – it would be more accurate to say I have been a music collector for over 40 years, the distinction being that I do not collect records for owning records sake, I buy and keep only those that I think are worth keeping. At one time that amounted to about 10,000 LPs, but several years ago about 8,000 of those were lost in a hurricane. I now maintain about 3,000 very select LPs. I shop thrifts, garage and estate sales. I occasionally buy new. When I acquire something that I think might inspire me to listen to it again sometime in the future, I keep it, but that usually means something else has to go. I’ve given away, sold, but mostly donated thousands upon thousands of the black disks, which means I’ve also cleaned thousands upon thousands since nothing hits my table before it is cleaned.
From the early “anti-static dust cloths”, various brushes, fluids, sprays, the Orbitrac, Diskwasher, (I must have worn out about a dozen of those) and who knows how many others, to a Nitty Gritty up to the current VPI 16.5, I have used many different products and methods. I used the Disk Doctor products for years until the fine folks in the Vinyl Asylum persuaded me to try the Record Research Labs (RRL) product. One of them even sent me a sample to try. I agree with the consensus there that the RLL is superior to the Disk Doctor system which is why it was excluded from this shootout.
Bottom line, I have cleaned 1,654 LPs with RLL and 643 with L ‘Art du son (LDS).
How do I know? Years ago I built a database that includes a field that indicates what LP was cleaned with which product. That is how I know. And I put a sticky note inside the cover protector that lets me know various facts about the LP, too, including an “R” for RRL or “L” for LDS.
THE COST OF CLEANLINESS
The RLL comes in a 32 oz bottle and is applied undiluted. It’s also available by the gallon, but we will concentrate on the 32 oz version which sells for $25.
Speaking of concentrate, the LDS comes in a small bottle and costs $45, but it makes up to a gallon or 5 liters of cleaner. Five liters is actually significantly more than 1 gallon, but we will round down.
Donning my green eyeshade and abacus, I calculated that RLL costs $25 per quart and LDS costs $11.25 per the same measure. The LDS requires a gallon of distilled water, so add the cost of that. Still, the cost per quart edge goes to LDS.
THOSE OTHER CONSIDERATIONS
Things observed about the L’Art du Son:
It never beads up. It disperses on the record surface far better and more consistently than the RLL. The RLL can and frequently does bead up on some LPs. To me, that means the first time the brush touches the surface during that first revolution, parts of the surface may be dry. It also means that since it covers more surface, one can use less of the LDS per LP, adding to its economical edge.
The RLL is very capable of leaving a record full of static, especially if you happen to let the drying revolutions go just a bit too long. Sometimes it removes static, but not always. I never determined why it de-stats some LPs but not others, even though the same number of turns of the platter was used. On the other hand, the LDS always removed static and never added static under normal use. Once I used an old LP to see if I could induce static build up and I did, but only after twice as many revolutions as was necessary – the record being stone dry for about 3 turns.
I think these are two very important factors. I feel more confident using the LDS and less worried about static or going that one revolution too many. There is a little more security knowing there are no microscopic scratches being gouged, too. When you are cleaning a $200 Decca, security and confidence is a good thing.
Which one actually cleans better? The results here are much less obvious. I believe the LDS leaves surfaces a bit quieter, though I won’t swear by it. Removing difficult blobs
and other bio hazards is a toss up. No clear advantage. Let ‘em soak and try again.
Are there any disadvantages to the LDS? Yes. You have to mix it. Once. They also recommend that you shake it before using each time. I find if I put on some Tower of Power while holding the bottle, that small nuisance takes care of itself.
As to which one sounds better - meaning wider stage, more dynamics, greater transparency, deeper bass and so forth, there is no night and day difference. All I can say is this: when an LP comes into the house, it gets cleaned now with L’Art du son. When I play a record that has not yet been L’Arted, it goes in the stack by the VPI to be re-cleaned before it is put back.
Based mainly on observable differences and the perception of confidence it inspires,
the L’Art du Son is declared the winner of this shootout. If you use a record cleaning machine and are wetting with RLL, we recommend you give LDS a spin.
Are we declaring L’Art du Son the best cleaner available? No. We haven’t tried them all.
I’m sure there are those products of which we are not even aware. So, if you dear reader, have tried LDS and are sure you have found something better, please write us and let us know. Even if you have not tried LDS and think what you use is superior, let us know that, too. We would love to do another shootout.
Finite Elemente Pagode Signature Equipment Rack
High end audio has always been about the gear – amps, preamps, turntables, cables. The lowly equipment rack was often an afterthought. Eventually audiophiles and audio companies began experimenting with different materials and supports, and found that the stand or rack that houses the gear can be just as important as the gear itself. Vibration, whether transmitted through the structure of your home, or generated by the equipment, is the enemy of resolution. The effects of vibration on the sound of your system can range from subtle to profound, which means that the amount of vibration reduction offered by an equipment rack can similarly affect what you hear from your system.
Building the Best Rack: Big and Heavy, or Light and Rigid?
There have traditionally been two divergent schools of thought for equipment rack design. The oldest and most utilized has been the “big and heavy” method of vibration control. Using time-honored techniques and solid (pun intended) engineering principles, big and heavy racks attempt to minimize vibration through sheer mass. This type of rack is characterized by sturdy, inflexible supports made of strong materials such as steel, compressed wood products like MDF (Medium Density Fiberboard), or even heavy stone. The heavy rack is coupled to the floor, usually through spiked feet, so that the floor becomes part of the structure too. The theory is that vibration will be transmitted into the mass of the structure instead of into the components.
This approach works pretty well for dealing with structure-borne vibration, such as a slightly wobbly floor, or rumble from passing traffic, an HVAC system, construction, etc. It also deals well with vibration caused by sound waves impinging on the equipment and rack, as the mass does not want to move. It doesn’t deal quite as well with vibration that is generated by the equipment itself. Sources with moving parts, such as turntables, disc players, and tape machines, can generate their own vibrations, which, depending on the equipment and the level of vibration control implemented in the design, can range from almost unnoticeable to severe. Vibration from a source component can be transmitted into the rack, and thus to other components. Even if the rack is massive enough to prevent vibration from one component from affecting other components, the big and heavy racks don’t have a good answer for controlling vibration within the problem component.
Enter the “light and rigid” school of thought. The idea here is that instead of coupling everything together and using mass to damp vibrations, we’ll use a lightweight rack with compliant shelving and feet to decouple the equipment from the rack and building structure. These racks are often built with modern composite materials such as acrylic or carbon fiber, lightweight metals such as aluminum or titanium, and synthetic damping materials such as sorbothane. Vibration is damped in the rack, or even in the individual shelf, instead of using mass transmission.
The “light and rigid” approach works well with lightweight components, but not so well with the bulky and heavy components often found in high end audio. Suspending a heavyweight component in a light and rigid rack will often defeat the decoupling system, thus eliminating all the benefits of decoupling.
The Best of Both Worlds?
There have been many attempts to deal with the shortcomings of the two mainstream design philosophies, with limited success. The most popular approach seems to be to add some decoupling capability to a big and heavy rack. An example would be a massive steel rack with shelves individually resting on upward-pointing spikes, instead of the shelves being directly attached to the frame. Another approach is to install a shelf that utilizes constrained-layer damping construction into a massive rack. Manufacturers of light and rigid racks have attempted to increase the weight-bearing capability of their racks, and even added elements of the big and heavy racks, such as the ability to add damping material like sand or lead shot into cavities within the frame.
Enter Finite Elemente
One manufacturer decided to take a fresh look, and combine the two approaches in an interesting way. Finite Elemente is a German company, located in the town of Bestwig in the Sauerland region of western Germany. Finite Elemente implemented their unique design in a family of component support structures called the Pagode. There are two Pagode lines – the Master Reference, and the Signature. The Master Reference line is Finite Elemente’s “statement” line. The products contain numerous innovative features, and are very expensive. As is typical for “statement” products, the Master Reference line has received quite a bit of coverage from the audio press.
The Pagode design approach uses elements of the big and heavy school by utilizing heavy-duty shelving made of Canadian Maple, a dense, dimensionally stable wood. The shelving structure consists of a wooden frame that supports a wooden shelf that is mounted using four spikes. The light and rigid school of thought is demonstrated by the unusual method of suspending these shelves – lightweight aluminum I-beams act as the rack frame, and the shelves are suspended from it using side spikes (more on this later).
The Pagode Master Reference line uses four I-beams (two on each side), and adds stainless steel “resonators” into each shelf, which are designed to damp resonance at specific frequencies. The resonators are tuned to individual frequencies, and distributed based on a mathematical model developed by Finite Elemente. The resonators are one of the reasons why the Master Reference line is so expensive ($6195 for a four-shelf model).
For those of us who aren’t independently wealthy, or who can’t envision spending mega-bucks on an equipment rack, Finite Elemente has a less exalted solution, the Pagode Signature line. The four-shelf Pagode Signature lists for $2095. The Signature achieves a lower price point by only using two I-beams for support, and dispensing with the resonator technology. It still uses the massive maple shelves and side-spike attachment method. Finite Elemente’s US distributor, Immedia, is now reselling the Signature line through popular retailers/e-tailers Acoustic Sounds and Music Direct, bringing awareness of these products to audiophiles who get catalogs from one or both of these sources. I chose to test this more “real world” Signature rack system to see if the melding of big and heavy and light and rigid really works.
Make Up Your Mind!
There are numerous options and choices for number of shelves, rack height, colors, and finishes in the Signature line. Standard configurations are anywhere from single-shelf amp stands, or two to five shelf racks (more can be added), with different I-Beam lengths available. Standard I-Beam lengths are 600mm (23.6in), 850mm (33.46in), 935mm (36.8in), 1100mm (43.3in), and a towering 1400mm (55.1in). The aluminum I-Beams can be had in a dull anodized finish, or in a shiny polished finish.
Standard colors for the Canadian Maple shelves are a lacquered natural finish, or a pearlescent black. Various other stained-wood finishes (cherry, rosewood, etc.) are available via special order. The shelves are 660mm wide by 540mm deep (25.9in x 21.3in), which means they will accommodate most audio components on the market from a dimensional standpoint.
The bottom shelf of the rack is the most heavy-duty, clearly designed for a power amplifier. It is rated to hold components weighing up to 50kg (110 lbs.), providing support for all but the heaviest solid-state amplifiers. Each of the other shelves are rated at up to 25 kg (55 lbs.), which again should accommodate most audio components on the market.
One of the most appealing factors of the Pagode racks is that the middle shelves are height-adjustable. If you own a typical rack with fixed spacing between shelves, there is nothing more frustrating than finding that you either have too much clearance for a slim component, or (more likely) you don’t have sufficient clearance to properly ventilate tube gear or install a top-loading CD player. If you have a Pagode rack, you no longer have this problem. Middle shelves are adjustable in 30mm (1.2in) increments along the length of the I-Beams, freeing you from the tyranny of fixed shelf spacing.
The workmanship is impeccable, and the finish on both the aluminum and the wood is exquisite. I could find no flaws or tool marks in the aluminum, and no blemishes in the wood finish.
Putting it All Together
The Signature rack came neatly packed, with lots and lots of parts. The shelves are pre-assembled, but that’s it. The bulk of the assembly is done by the purchaser. In the interest of science I chose to put the rack together myself, but take it from me – it will be a whole lot easier and quicker if you have a helper. Assembly itself is pretty straightforward, even though the English-language instructions aren’t as clear as they could be.
The bottom shelf is installed first. You screw the floor spikes into the shelf, and then loosely attach each I-Beam to the frame of the bottom shelf. A crossbar brace is installed near the top of the I-Beams.
The middle suspended shelves are held in place using Finite Elemente’s side spike technology. There are shallow holes drilled every 30mm on the inside surface of each of the I-Beams. Each shelf is equipped with two spikes that stick out of the left and right sides of the frame. You place the shelf at the height you want, line up the tips of the spikes with the drilled holes, and then unscrew the spikes until the points mate with the holes. The goal is to try to get each spike equidistantly threaded out from the shelf frame, and then adjust the tension so that the spikes are snug enough in the holes to hold the shelf in place, but loose enough to allow any vibration in the component to be drained away through the spikes and into the I-Beams.
Other than an admonition to check the tightness of the bolts after a week or so, the instructions give no clue or hints as to how tight you should make everything, so you’re on your own. Too loose and your gear will flop around; too tight and you’ll get vibration, thus defeating the whole idea.
As I mentioned before, the adjustability of the shelves is a boon to those who have gear of differing sizes or ventilation needs. The strength of the system and the weight ratings of the individual shelves should be reassuring, but I did find a shortcoming in the design that is endemic to the light and rigid school, and was not overcome by the hybrid features of the Pagode Signature.
The issue is this: the Pagode Signature works quite well with relatively lightweight equipment, as is typical of a light and rigid rack. It also works well with heavier gear, but only if the heavy component’s weight is evenly distributed. This is not always the case. Tube gear often has heavy transformers in the front or rear of the component. If the weight is biased toward the front or rear, the design of the tensioned shelf, which by necessity has loose tolerances, and is held in place by four small points, will allow the shelf to tip.
I have two tube components – a large preamplifier, and a tubed phonostage. The weight is biased toward the front of each of these components. This uneven weight distribution doesn’t cause any noticeable effect on my older Zoethecus rack, but it’s clear what happens with the Pagode Signature. Each of these components causes the shelf on which it sits to pivot slightly on the side spikes, tipping the gear forward. If the I-Beams are even slightly loose, the entire structure (except the bottom shelf) will tip forward. This is not likely to be a big issue with all-electronic components, but electro-mechanical components such as a turntable or disc player are not going to like it, as they will not sit level.
I suspect that this issue is not as big of a problem with the Pagode Signature’s more expensive companion, the Pagode Master Reference. The Master Reference uses four I-Beams instead of two, and has four side-spikes on each shelf, instead of two. Even so, I wonder if a heavy component with a substantial front weight bias, like my all-tube phono stage, could cause the shelf to sag forward, even though it might not be as much as with the Pagode Signature.
With mostly lightweight components the rack is just fine, although I would hesitate to put all but the lightest turntable on the top shelf. In fact, I did not put my turntable on the Pagode Signature at all after seeing the shelf tilt produced by my heavy tube gear.
Used and Abused
In many ways the Pagode Signature is very easy to live with. The open structure means that there’s plenty of air flow, and things are very easy to get to. Getting behind a component to plug or unplug a cable or power cord is extremely simple. Making adjustments on a shelf is also very straightforward, because the side spikes are easy to get to. I did have to tighten up the bolts a couple of times during the first few weeks, but then the rack seemed to settle down and everything stayed where it was.
If a Rack Vibrates, Does it Make a Sound?
Does this expensive rack change the sound? Does the vibration damping technology really work like it’s supposed to? In order to find out, I compared the Pagode Signature to my Zoethecus Reference Superstructure rack. The Zoethecus falls into the big and heavy category, but uses semi-suspended constrained layer damping shelves. I use a combination of Zoethecus-made Z-Slab aluminum-topped constrained layer shelves, and custom constrained layer shelves from Neuance Audio. I swapped components back and forth to see what effect the new rack had on the sound.
Let’s get this out of the way right now. There definitely were differences in the sound. They weren’t huge differences, though. Audiophiles often tend to describe changes in “night and day” terms, or use worn-out clichés like “jaw-dropping.” There were no changes even remotely close to this kind of magnitude. Differences were much more subtle, and took a lot of time and equipment swapping to become definable.
The two things that stood out when I moved gear from the Zoethecus to the Pagode Signature were a slight increase in treble and midrange clarity, and a slight decrease in bass weight. The Zoethecus gave a more “weighty” sounding presentation, at the cost of being slightly closed-in sounding, whereas the Pagode Signature seemed to sharpen the attack and put more focus on the pace of the music. Tube components really seemed to benefit from the design of the Pagode Signature (even when tipped forward slightly). I had mixed emotions about digital source components on the Pagode Signature. My Lexicon multi-channel universal player seemed to like the Pagode Signature – it presented a more lively and lifelike sound on complex orchestral music. My Ayre C-5xe stereo universal player was not quite happy on the Pagode Signature – suddenly the pace seemed a bit rushed and forced. Putting it back on its Nuance shelf in the Zoethecus returned everything to normal.
Again, none of these differences were earthshaking – they were all quite subtle, in fact. It took a lot of listening to hear the differences, but they were there.
The Envelope, Please
The design of the Pagode Signature is quite interesting. My wife, who has a Master’s degree in Mechanical Engineering, was fascinated by it, and pronounced it “well-engineered.” The fit and finish are above reproach – it is a fine piece of furniture that you can proudly display.
If you have relatively lightweight components, or heavier components with even weight distribution, the Pagode Signature will work well. If you have an ear for clarity and pace, the Pagode Signature will bring those attributes forward. If your setup uses digital sources, or a lightweight turntable, you should be satisfied with the Pagode Signature. If you own hi-end gear but do not have a component stand or rack that addresses issues of vibration, you should by all means try one out – they can make a significant improvement to your system.
INSIGNIA REVIEW, TESTS & 4 SPEAKER SHOOTOUT!
INSIGNIA vs. GR Mod vs. B&W 600 ser. II vs. LSA REFERENCE MONITOR
By James L. Darby
The Insignia speaker, a store brand sold only at Best Buys, has easily been the most discussed, hyped, dissed and queried product on the audio internet this year. The speaker sells for about $49 per pair, so you can see why it has caused such a commotion. With Best Buy’s frequent coupons and sales, it can be had for even less. Many have claimed it is the world’s greatest giant killer while others are equally convinced it is just another crappy product from overseas. While this type of product is expressly what Stereomojo doesn’t review (low and mid-fi mass market products), we are also dedicated to the inhabitants Audio Asylum, Agon, Audio Circle and all the DIYers our there. Our staff is asked to keep their eyes and ears open for “buzz” items on the boards, so in this case the Insignia more than qualifies.
OKAY, WHAT IS THIS INSIGNIA THING?
The Insignia is a 2-way speaker built around a 6 1/2” carbon fiber woofer with a small soft-dome tweeter in its center, giving it a coaxial type design. It has a port also making it a bass reflex. It features a curved, black ash cabinet and a pair of very upscale appearing binding posts. With a glossy black fascia and equally glossy black woven type woofer, appearance may be the product’s strongest suit. Freq response is listed at 50 – 20,000, but no +/- db figure is disclosed, so that number is worthless. At roughly 18” tall and a foot wide, it can easily pass for a much more expensive speaker. However, it feels like a definite lightweight, but is it also a lightweight in sound reproduction or the Rocky Balboa in the speaker ring? Let’s duke it out.
THE INSIGNIA SOUND
Out of the box, the sound was congested, distorted, restricted and pretty awful. After 100 hours of burn in using Jim Hagerman’s excellent FryBaby, the sound improved noticeably, thank heavens. The stage opened up, dynamics expanded, the low end, um, appeared and it started sound like something resembling music.
Two different amps were used; The Super T amp – itself a buzz generator at $139 – and the wonderful 150 wpc DK Designs Reference Mk III tube hybrid integrated, which should be creating even more buzz.
Compared to the LSA Reference Monitor (see review), a Stereomojo Maximum Mojo Award winner at $1,000/pair, there was still lots of distortion, a lumpy midrange, fizzy highs and very restricted bass. The one aspect that was notable was the very nice soundstage that was splashed to the sides, back and front. Instruments appeared in definable spaces with a good degree of stability and some semblance of layers. The image was very noisy and grainy with the spaces a medium gray instead of the reference medium black. Nevertheless, do not try to push them as they become raggedy quickly. Much of that has to do with a very resonant cabinet. Why in the world did they go to the expense of producing a curved cabinet – usually employed to reduced resonance – and leave the enclosure so loosey – goosey? Probably the same reason they went with a glossy look in front – appearance.
Switching from the Super T to the Mk III, things did not improve much – and they should have, which indicates the stock Insignia tops out in its performance window very fast.
So why all the hype over the Insignia? It is better than much smaller (and cheaper looking) speakers you can buy at big box stores, which cost a lot more. The soundstage cast by the point source configuration gives the impression of a higher end product and when mated with a less expensive mid-fi amp or even the very good Super T, you get much better sound illusion than the CIAR (components in a rack) or HTIB (home theater in a box). These are great for dollar challenged dorm rooms, kids rooms, married couples bedrooms (not enough bass for the Bolero or Isaac Hayes single-guy Pompitous of Love seduction technique), or the garage/computer/home office background music/talk radio application. Big sound, good looks, cheaper than dirt.
DANNY RICHIE TO THE RESCUE
To most audiophiles, Danny is probably perceived as some DIYer playing around with caps and wires in a garage somewhere. Au Contraire, mates. Danny Richie is very well known and highly respected in the hi-end audio industry. He has designed and tested drivers, cabinets and crossovers for many speakers ranging in price from the hundreds to $20,000 plus. He is also the founder and owner of GR Research. He is a no-nonsense type guy who is passionate about music and audio. He has ears and expertise that some of the “big names” in the audio press can only dream. He is no amateur.
That is why Danny was recently asked and agreed to be Stereomojo’s John Atkinson – the guy who is responsible for official measurements of select review components and all things technical for us. Other than JA himself, I cannot think of anyone we would rather have in that capacity. Especially at his salary, which is $0. I told you he was passionate about music and audio. And honest. We are honored to have him. Even though I would trust his integrity completely, Danny does not do reviews for us because of perceived potential conflicts of interest.
He also sells a very limited amount of stuff on his website. SM has absolutely no connection in any way to any of his sales. None. There is no way Danny or SM would participate in this shootout without fully disclosing all relationships to you. If you think that automatically introduces bias into this shootout, just read on. You be the judge. Write me and let me know.
Danny likes to tinker, improve and perfect. When he heard about this upstart Insignias, he could not resist.
The details of Danny’s work can be found here, so we won’t duplicate the details, but note should be taken of the time he took to not only improve the sound, but do it in a way that kept cost low. Yeah, Danny is a value-oriented guy. That’s why we like him so much.
I was intrigued by things he said such as, “There is a higher DCR small gauge (maybe 20 gauge) air core inductor that is a .30mH value. This can be easily removed from the old network and reused. Adjusting the stock inductor to the correctly needed .22mH value involved de-winding it by 23 turns”. 23 turns.
Not 22 or 24. Twenty-three. How did he determine that? Mathematical calculation or did he actually try turns 1 – 25? Probably a little of both. – Danny later told me he did take measurements after each turn.
Then there is, “Then the No Rez damping material was cut and applied to the side walls. This made a huge difference. The walls now had a solid and well-dampened thud to them instead of the ringing sound of a thin piece of wood. No Rez comes in a 24" by 27" sheet. It cost $38 a sheet. The cost of one sheet of it will blow the budget for the upgrade, but it is an absolute necessity. So I decided to do something that I don't normally do. I am going to sell a partial sheet of No Rez. It requires about 1/3 of a sheet. I am going to slice off 1/3 of a sheet of No Rez and add in only $13 to the cost of the kit. It is pre-cut in one direction. You only have to slice off pieces in one direction leaving no waste. In the end there was one small piece left over that was cut in half and added to the front edge of the top of the enclosure.”
C’mon Danny, for $95 shouldn’t you just travel to everyone’s house and do the mod for them?!
But that’s Danny. Details, bending over backwards to get it right and at the best possible price for his fellow audio lovers. He even went to the trouble of inserting a link to No Rez so you can check it out yourself.
HOW DOES IT SOUND?
Better. Much better. Much of that distortion and graininess is gone, but the presentation is still not grain free or inky black. Vocals lose a gob of the edginess and some nasality. The size of the soundstage does not increase, but the images are more solid and defined. Ambience and reverb are thicker. The bass does not go any lower, but is significantly more solid and tuneful. Still no Pompitous factor, but go get yourself a cheapy little JBL sub or the like and the Mojo aspect goes way up.
Perhaps the biggest improvement is just that the Insignias are now much easier on the ear and less fatiguing. A much more enjoyable listen.
THE MOD vs. THE B&W 601 Series 2
The 601s were acquired because they are one of the biggest selling bookshelves ever. The thinking was, if big numbers of people own these, they would be a good reference because we could compare other speakers to one with which many people are familiar and actually own. They cost about $400.
Though the woofers appear very similar to the woven texture of the Insignias, they are touted to be Kevlar while the Insignias are carbon fiber. Kevlar is a DuPont trade name. Is there a difference? The DM 601 S2 measures 14x8x9.6 inches and13.4 lb, so they are actually smaller in size than the ‘Sigs and do not sport the curved cabinet. Like the Insignias, it uses two drivers, a 6.5-inch mid/bass driver and a 1” tweet.
The B&Ws crossover at 4 kHz instead of the ‘Sigs 2kHz. Danny’s measurements show why – the Insignia woofer gets “ragged” at anything above 2kHz indicating the B&W is much more able to handle frequency ranges. Of course, the B&W is a standard (not coaxial) bass reflex configuration with the tweeter above the woofer and not in its center. Response is quoted to be 70Hz-20kHz +/- 3dB compared to the mysterious low of 50Hz claimed by the Sigs. Harmonic distortion is said to below 1% 88-20.000 Hz at 90dB SPL at 1m. There is no such comparison in the ‘Sigs specs.
The 601s sound better than Danny’s mod, with one exception. The perceived bass is firmer and more defined in the 601s and even a bit louder, but neither speaker goes very low very well. The midrange is smoother and clearer without the degree of edginess still discernable in the modded version. There is still a fair amount of smearing. They also are capable of greater sound pressure levels without losing their cool. In other words, they can rock. They also absorb the extreme dynamics of jazz and classical with more grace and aplomb. Not perfectly, to be sure, but better. The soundstage is better illuminated with instruments and voices enjoying a bit more clean air around them, but an environmentalist would still object to the level of sonic pollution in the 601s.
The B&W are rigged for bi-wire, but the tests were conducted with them in standard mode. The Insignias do not offer that option.
It is the perceived size of the Insignia soundstage the bests the B&W. It is wider, deeper and higher, assuming they are place our in the room away from boundaries. As men know, bigger is not always better - or so Linda tells me. Referring to speakers and sound, of course. Really. I swear.
THE LAST ROUND
Comparing any of these speakers to the $1,000/pr LSA 1 Reference Monitors would be an exercise in futility. The LSAs are far superior in every possible way, including the size and quality of the soundstage. Even at their price they are a bargain for those looking for this type of speaker. Presumably, the person who is excited by a $50/pr speaker may not be so enthused about a pair costing 20 times as much.
For a full description and review of the LSA 1, please read this.
The Stock Insignia: If all you need is something to fill up a room with sound better than the speakers that came with your Best Buy type boom box, executive office system or maybe even your Home Theater in a Box, your garage kid’s dorm room, these are a steal. Not recommended for serious “sit down and listen for extended periods” listening. They are better than the speakers in your computer, but be aware that these are not shielded. I am not a computer gamer, but I suspect these would be good for a gaming surround system with the addition of a small sub. Taking my own advice, for Christmas I bought a pair of these for my beloved neice Terri who is just about to receive her PHd from Purdue
The GR Mod: If you enjoy modifying stereo equipment, this is a worthwhile upgrade. The speakers sound more like music, though calling them “musical” would be a stretch when compared to those speakers that are. For $95, you get hours and hours of Danny’s expert research, experimentation, craftsmanship and money saving ideas. If your DIYness has not extended into speakers, this would be an ideal way to start.
If you have never delved into the world of DIY, I cannot think of a better first project. Danny has provided step-by-step expert guidance with hi-rez color pictures to go with it. It would take some real effort to botch it and it may just give you the confidence to try something a little more challenging. I promise that you will learn something about sound reproduction and you might just catch the DIY fever, which is exploding all over the US. There is something very satisfying and American about doing your own work and then sitting down to enjoy the fruits of your labors. In this case, you get a listenable speaker for about $150/pair.
The Alternatives: Personally, if you want more than just pleasant background music and are serious about listening to real sounding music and partaking in the joys of recorded music reproduction, save up a little and buy something better. Even Danny, being the honest guy that he is, says on his website that there are better speakers available for a little more. Be advised that you do not always get what you pay for, especially in speakers. That is why Stereomojo exists – to help you avoid making big mistakes.
I would start here (AV123) for some of the best “bang for the buck” gear of which I am aware.
Danny makes speakers and speaker kits here, but I have not heard them so I cannot comment on them. I can say that I would have a great amount of confidence in any product with which Danny Richie is associated.
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