A SEARCH FOR THE ULTIMATE SPEAKER
ANTHONY H. CORDESMAN
Let's suppose - just for a moment-that when you were a kid some editor called
and offered to fly you to New York to spend a few days at F.A.O. Schwarz and
write up a review on the world's best toys. Well, that never quite happened to
me when I was a kid, but Audio's Editor recently asked me to do something even
better: To come to New York and spend several days at two top high-end dealers
and review some of the world's best speakers. It isn't often that an editor is
foolish enough to give this kind of assignment, and I suspect that some day I'll
have to pay my debt to society with a comparative listening test of receivers
under $200. In the interim, however, I am pleased to report that I had one hell
of a lot of fun.
A great speaker integrates its virtues while disguising its inevitable compromises and minor weaknesses.
To get a bit more serious, I also enjoyed this assignment because much of the fun in audio begins with understanding what speakers can and cannot do, and just how important they are to getting a great stereo system. Every hi-fi component is important, but no other component normally has quite so many compromises.
Take bass, for example. After reviewing several hundred speakers, I can still count on my fingers the number that offer deep, realistic, and powerful bass. Most speakers only hint at the bass information present on records and CDs; they can't deliver either the power or the extension. Further, few speakers can make a realistic transition through the mid-bass and into the lower midrange. This is an immensely important area in making reproduced music sound believable and giving a musical performance emotional impact, but most speakers either smear it or depress it. The end result is that everything, from the cello to baritone voice, suffers irreparable damage.
The midrange presents equal problems. No one who only listens to lo-fi or mid-fi speakers can have any idea how lifelike and musical the midrange of a truly great speaker can sound if it is connected to the right electronics. No speaker can equal a live performance, but a great speaker can be amazingly convincing, producing a realistic illusion of being at a live performance. A great speaker can reproduce the kind of midrange that will reinforce your memory of performances by musicians you have heard live, often to the extent of reproducing some of the characteristic sound of the performance hall. Further, it can educate you to most of the performance nuances of musicians you have not hear live. This is particularly true of those few speakers which deliver a detailed and transparent upper midrange fully in balance with the rest of the midrange, rather than rolled of at the top or emphasized to the point of being analytic or hard.
Tweeters long ago advanced to the point where a cheap or mid-fi unit would reproduce frequencies above the rang of human hearing. Few speakers, however, deliver upper highs in a musically natural and balanced form, though many speakers can deliver the top octaves in a way only test instrument can enjoy. Great speakers give you the upper octaves in a musically convincing form fully integrated with the deep and mid-bass.
Most speakers make you acutely conscious of the fact that everything you hear is clearly coming from two boxes or panels with a fixed location, and this consciousness of listening to two fixed points in space imposes itself on everything you hear. The music seems to cluster around each box or panel rather than presenting the illusion of realistic sound stage, with natural width and depth, an realistic placement of voice and instruments. Even if you know nothing about speaker technology, you always know there is something strange going on. Great speakers virtually disappear when you close your eyes, leaving the illusion you really are seated in a listening position that could actually occur in a live performance.
This might be why you will never really understand most of the writing about high-end audio, or how rewarding the difference between a true high-end system and a good mid-fi one is, until you take the time to seriously listen to one of the top speakers with a really good stereo system and a great recording. You also will never know how much you are missing if you rely on the kind of speaker that only exists for mass-marketing purposes. Far too many of the "price-point pet coffins" that pass for speakers really do tend to make all electronics and CD players sound alike. Many low-cost speakers are so colored that nothing which passes through them can avoid sounding like them.
A great speaker clearly and immediately reveals the fact that hi-fi components really do sound different, and that blending these differences into a musically convincing system is what audio is all about. A great speaker integrates all its virtues and disguises its inevitable compromises and minor weaknesses. Like a great wine, you can enjoy its character rather than regret it. With a great speaker, your system is measured by its ability to reproduce music, not by its number of knobs and lights.
INFINITY IRS SERIES V
Virtually every serious audiophile has heard about the Infinity IRS. At least in the U.S., it has been widely accepted as the reference speaker-the speaker which defines the limits of what any design team can accomplish. Its only potential rival has been the Wilson Audio Music Monitor - a virtually hand-built speaker system now in transition to a Mark V version and not currently available for audition.
The Infinity IRS Series V is impressive in terms of appearance, technology, and price. This system is housed in four beautifully styled cabinets with enough high-grade Brazilian rosewood to panel an executive suite. There is a complex electronic crossover unit with numerous adjustments. Each woofer channel has a separate column with built-in servo, amplifiers and twelve 12-inch woofers with graphite cones; the amplifiers are capable of delivering 2,000 watts into a 0.6-ohm load. One woofer in each tower has an internal accelerometer connected to a servo circuit in its amplifier to detect and eliminate low-frequency acoustic distortion before it is reproduced through the system. The high-frequency response of the woofer tower's amplifiers extends to almost 1kHz, but the electronic crossover is limited to a 15 to 70Hz band to ensure full bass power without the listener being conscious of the woofer columns as separate sound sources.
The other unit in each channel has screens of midrange and treble drivers, which are arranged in vertical columns to produce a line source. The wing-like curved pieces on each side reduce diffraction and are filled with sand to reduce resonance. The drivers include 12 electromagnetic induction midrange (EMIM) units and 36 electromagnetic induction treble (EMIT) drivers, 12 of which fire to the rear. The treble drivers use a new magnetic material which strikingly improves their performance over previous versions of the IRS. You use the amplifier of your choice for the midrange and treble signals, which are adjustable in level. The crossover frequency for the midrange is 70Hz, and the crossover for the treble is 6kHz.
From a musical point of view, the IRS Series V is a brilliant success; it does all the obvious things superbly.
This combination weighs a total of over 1,500 pounds and costs $45,000. Given the quality involved, and the need to create a dedicated listening room with sufficient room treatment to allow a true full-range speaker to perform at its best, the Infinity IRS Series V will be used in systems that cost $100,000 to $150,000.
Given its size and placement needs, the IRS Series V is obviously designed for private and professional perfectionists. It is not in any conventional sense a status symbol: it can't be parked outside the house or displayed casually at cocktail parties. While audiophiles may envy the owner, casual business acquaintances are more likely to question the owner's sanity. In short, the real issue is music-and how good a speaker can get-and not appearance, technology, and price.
From a musical point of view, the IRS Series V is a brilliant success and does all the obvious things superbly. The bass is awesome in terms of power, extension, and definition. It is a cliché that most records have only limited deep bass. It is also a cliché that is wrong. Records and CDs have a great deal of deep bass; most speakers do not. Speakers usually can't reach low enough to make you feel it, they don't have enough power to reproduce music at live listening levels, and they can't reproduce the entire bass naturally. Therefore, you tend to hear only part of the bass and miss its true musical impact.
The IRS has none of these faults. It delivers the full range of the organ, the full impact of percussion, and every bit of the bass in piano, woodwinds, and strings. Only a few top subwoofers approach the bass performance of the IRS Series V, and I have never heard the bass of these subwoofers integrated even approximately as well into an overall speaker system.
More importantly, the IRS Series V delivers the entire bass without any coloration or power loss in the mid-bass and the upper bass/lower midrange. Only comparative listening can really tell an audiophile how important this kind of performance is and how badly virtually every speaker on the market fails short in this area. With an IRS Series V, a baritone voice sounds like a live baritone voice. A Bösendorfer is a Bösendorfer. A cello's upper notes are fully balanced by its richness in the bass. A bass guitar is more than a single-note rhythm line. Bass percussion is not an exercise in overemphasis in one aspect of its frequency response and subtraction in another.
I could cite all the usual bass spectaculars, but they are more impressive for their unlistenability as music than for their bass. What really counts is listening to "ordinary" music, such as Stephen Kates' performance of Rachmaninoff's "Sonata for Cello and Piano in G Minor, Op. 19" (Sonic Arts Series 26). The cello's deeper notes float naturally in full integration with the rest of the instrument. The close miking of the piano is completely realistic, and the sound board is reproduced with great emotional impact, not simply the initial attack. Alternatively, take the guitar work on Charlie Byrd's performance of the "House of the Rising Sun" from The Artistry of Charlie Byrd (Nimbus/Riverside RLP-9451). This recording is scarcely ideal, but with the Infinity IRS Series V, you hear the limitations of the recording and not those of the speaker. Thus, the musical impact is far more impressive.
The IRS handles the difficult bass lines of Jazz at the Pawn Shop (Proprius CID7778/9) which are recessed or lost on many speakers. It can fully discriminate all the voices and complexities of organ music. At the same time, it can honestly portray the full impact of deep bass in rock and jazz. Cat Stevens and Pink Floyd fans can rediscover virtually their entire record collection, and the deep bass on Dave Grusin's "The Fratelli Chase" (Cinemagic, GRIP Records GRIP 9547) sounds like musical deep bass and not some sort of sound effect.
What is important about the bass of the Infinity IRS Series V is not that you can hear every organ fundamental in "Thus Spake Zarathustra," but rather its ability to create a convincing illusion of live music-and to do so with virtually any kind of music.
This virtue emerges even more clearly in the midrange of the IRS Series V than in the bass. There is no exaggeration in any aspect of its frequency response. The transparency and resolution at every listening level are the state of the art, and this is presented in a musically convincing sound stage.
The near perfection of the midrange shows up electronically in this system's amazing ability to reveal differences in its drive electronics and in cartridges, CD players, preamplifiers, and amplifiers. For example, earlier versions of the Infinity IRS tended to be a bit bright in the upper midrange and to favor the more romantic tube amplifiers. You now can use virtually any top-quality amplifier, and the full virtues of a Mark Levinson No. 20, a Krell Reference amplifier, or an Audio Research M300 will be as clear as those of a Conrad Johnson Premier Five.
Musically, you hear strings as you should hear them, separated to the extent a given recording allows and with their proper mix of bite and sweetness. An oboe is an oboe, not a new woodwind invented by a particular speaker. In fact, it was fascinating to have so many suspicions about the impact of speakers in coloring jazz and chamber music confirmed. In case after case, you could still hear the general recording technique and all its attendant colorations, but instruments emerged as natural in overall timbre in difficult passages where other speakers failed to do something right.
Male voice sounds like male voice, Anyone who really wants to evaluate the music history of an operatic baritone or tenor should listen to this speaker. At a slightly less esoteric level, anyone who has not discovered the quality of the recording and production on Willie Nelson's Stardust (Columbia CK-35305) should listen to "Georgia." No one can call this a difficult piece of music-it is simply a good classic pop recording which sounds good on virtually any system. Nevertheless. the IRS reveals more detail in a more convincing way than any other speaker I've heard to date.
As for female voice, Joan Baez and Judy Collins fans will be greatly impressed by what the IRS can do with a soloist on cleanly recorded pop music. These are voices that have become progressively more difficult to reproduce as the ladies get older, particularly with the more natural recording techniques. The IRS Series V presents the slight edge and occasional sibilance in these singers' voices with all their impact-and without any harshness or exaggeration of the upper midrange.
Classical fans with an interest in voice should listen to Kathleen Battle's superb rendition of Villa-Lobos on Pleasures of Their Company (Angel CDC-47196) and judge for themselves. Even Kate Bush fans will find that her voice has survived the recording process to a degree they may never have previously hoped for, and Madonna's fans can hear the cartoon-like character of America's leading boy toy in all her glory.
Perhaps the most impressive aspect of the IRS Series V's performance is its ability to handle choral music. Massed strings, grand opera, and complex symphonic music are difficult enough; most speakers lose a tremendous amount of the detail with such music. Choral music, regrettably, often degenerates to the point where it is actively unpleasant. There is no interplay of voices, just one large voice which lacks character and is often unintelligible. The IRS Series V not only has the ability to distinguish voices and preserve them to the extent a given recording allows, it floats them in three dimensions as a natural mix of well defined voices. It is particularly impressive with liturgical music where the recording has been done in a cathedral and with full organ or symphonic accompaniment.
No speaker can make up for the fact that such music is impossible to record with full realism. The IRS Series V is, however, the only speaker I have heard which allows you to approach the illusion of sitting in a cathedral and hearing music played in that kind of space rather than from two point sources. In fact, the IRS disappears into such music, and its sound quality makes it far less "visible" than much smaller boxes whose sonic shortcomings make them a constant focus of attention. If you don't believe this, try two tests. First, listen for an hour and see which speaker system you pay more attention to. Second, turn out the lights and listen to a really good recording. See which speaker seems to be replaced by the illusion of a live performance.
When you are listening to the IRS, the climax of Beethoven's Ninth ceases to be a shouting contest, and the sheer mass of Mahler's Eighth almost becomes forgivable (if anyone can forgive the 19th century's rival to Nero for making such a musical spectacle of himself!). What I find truly stunning is the mix of voice and instrument in music such as Byrd's "Missa in Tempore Paschali" (Harmonia Mundi HM 90-5182). This is a beautiful piece of music by any standard, but most speakers veil and homogenize it to some degree, and virtually all spotlight some aspects of the vocal work at the expense of others. One of the iron rules in judging the treble of a speaker is that you should never be conscious of either the upper midrange or treble notes - or ever struck by their absence. The upper octaves should add life, air, speed, and complexity to music without - making you think about their presence. This combination of. information and- invisibility is true of any live performance of music in any halfway decent hall. It is almost unheard of, however, in audio.
The IRS Series V's sound stage is convincing in a way that no other point-source loudspeaker I have ever heard can equal.
Errors in the recording, front-end, and electronics add their share of sins to the sound, but it is the speaker that is truly guilty if it either rolls the upper octaves off and softens them to make them forgiving or if it provides too much apparent treble. In fact, one of the greatest single sins of high-end audio is an overemphasized, almost "etched" upper midrange and treble that bears no resemblance to live music. It is the great virtue of the IRS Series V that its upper octaves sound like music and not like "stereo."
The limits of the sound stage must remain problematic. Lyric Hi-Fi has specially engineered and treated listening rooms, but I suspect only a listening room designed solely for the IRS could fully explore the limits of its sound-stage reproduction. Good as the listening conditions were at Lyric Hi-Fi, I would have liked to hear the IRS Series V in an even larger room or in one whose acoustic characteristics had been tailored to the speaker. I can say, however, that the IRS is amazingly three-dimensional if you listen to the right music. Those few recordings which use simple and natural miking techniques, such as those on the Accent, Opus, Proprius, Reference Recordings, and Wilson labels, can produce an amazingly realistic sound stage-as can some of the classic RCA and Columbia recordings.
"Three-dimensional" does not necessarily mean accurate. I have never listened to earphones at a recording console in a hall during a live performance and heard the sound stage I hear when I step back and listen to the actual performance. I have never heard any recording where I could do more than recognize the hall where it was performed. I will argue, however, that the sound stage the IRS presents is realistic and convincing in a way no other line- or point-source speaker I have ever heard can equal.
Even the best point-source speakers are always slightly two-dimensional and lacking in depth. They favor simple music or music by a limited number of players. All the other line-source speakers I have heard have presented a sound stage with a slight hole in the middle and/or a slight smear of sonic detail. Most have failed to match the apparent size of the sound stage in the treble and midrange with sufficient bass energy and power to balance the sound stage at the low-frequency extreme. They have either added artificial width to voice and percussion at the expense of other instruments, or have had a relatively narrow listening area in which comparatively small movements of the head or body could change the sound stage. The IRS Series V has a relatively stable sound field in both the near field and the far field. It is a speaker you can listen to with several friends and they will hear what you hear.
As for shortcomings, well, even the best speaker is still far from the ultimate. I would like to be able to vary the amount of mid-bass and the upper midrange energy to suit a given recording. The electronic crossover and adjustments in the rear of the speaker provide far more latitude in establishing "permanent" settings than most systems, but this is a "cost no-object" design, so I'd like a remote control with programmable memory to boot.
I'd also like just a bit more elevation in the upper midrange than the present adjustments allow. The IRS is how just slightly too forgiving. For all the strengths in the soundstage, the IRS also has some weaknesses in this area. It is a bit larger than life with small orchestral and jazz groups; there were times when I would have preferred more of the focus one gets from a point-source speaker.
Most of all, I would like an infinity IRS Series V I didn't have to visit. My main objections to this speaker at this point are the fact that it requires a room that is fully engineered to allow it to perform at its best, and that as wealthy an institution as Audio will not buy sets for each of its reviewers. (Editor's Note: But Tony, you got to listen to it; I didn't. - E.P.)
I can, however, offer hope. There are rumors of a son of IRS several years down the way at a price of only (only!) $15,000. More importantly, Infinity has two smaller descendants of the IRS which should be appearing at high-end dealers about the time you read this review, the four-piece IRS Beta system for around $10,000 and the IRS Gamma at $6,500 per pair. I heard an early version of the Beta at the Summer CES; if the production version is as good, it may well be the IRS for the rest of us.
DUNTECH SOVEREIGN 2001
The Duntech Sovereign 2001 is a more conventional speaker than the Infinity IRS Series V, but only in the sense that it uses more common dome and cone drivers and has but one box per channel. There is nothing conventional about the quality of the engineering involved, and the Duntech provides an excellent demonstration of the fact that cone speakers are still valid rivals of ribbon, electrostatic, and magnetic planar speakers for the title of state of the art.
There also is nothing modest or small about the Sovereign 2001. This is. a speaker system which costs $12,950 to $15,000, depending on one's choice of cabinet finish; it is 74 inches high, 14 inches wide, and 32 inches deep. Its emphasis on depth over width and superb woodwork make it look smaller than it is, but it is big. Each speaker weighs 375 pounds, and the enclosure walls are 1½ inches thick, braced with iron, and divided into separate sealed chambers for the bass and low-bass drivers.
The seven drivers in each speaker are configured to produce a phase-coherent point source. There is a 20-mm dome tweeter in the center, flanked on the top and bottom by 54-mm midrange domes. These, in turn, are flanked by the 177-mm mid-bass drivers, and finally there are two 305-mm woofers at the top and bottom. Each of the drivers is capable of taking peak power levels of 1,000 watts for 10mS. The crossovers use top-quality components, and the crossover frequencies are 300Hz and 2 and 6kHz.
No review can do full justice to the level of detail Duntech provides regarding technical specifications. The back of a Duntech brochure is filled with photographs of test results, of the kind that could tempt an engineer to sell his home computer, and the inside provides a useful list of specifications which is a model for the industry. Even if you have no hope of buying this speaker, the brochure is still a useful introduction to the features to look for in dynamic speaker systems.
It is the music, however, that is the focus of my search for the ultimate speaker, and I found the Duntech to be a fascinating contrast to the Infinity IRS Series V. Like the IRS, the Sovereign produces deep bass that you can physically feel, and it is awesome in terms of power, extension, and definition over the full lower bass range of the organ and percussion instruments.
Power, extension, and definition in the Sovereign 2001 Is bass are awesome, while its midrange can create the proper illusion of live music and stage.
The Duntech does, however, have one slight flaw in the bass. It is not without any coloration or power loss in the mid-bass and the upper bass/lower midrange. This slightly dries out the sound of baritone voice, the piano, and the cello. Both bass guitar and deep bass percussion produce impact, but not all the richness and naturalness of sound you get with the IRS.
I do not mean for a moment that the Duntech does not provide very good overall bass performance, but I had the chance to do a great deal of comparative listening at Lyric, and the slight lack of mid-bass and lower midrange energy came through on a very wide range of source material. This included the Stephen Kates performance cited earlier, Charlie Byrd's performance of the "House of the Rising Sun," and the bass lines of Jazz at the Pawn Shop. It was particularly apparent with the bass on Dave Grusin's "The Fratelli Chase."
The midrange of the Duntech Sovereign 2001 has the same overall ability to create a convincing illusion of live music as the Infinity IRS. The Duntech, like every speaker, has its own unique mix of transparency and resolution at every listening level, but there is no question that this is a state-of-the-art speaker system. There is, however, a significant difference between the Duntech and the Infinity IRS in the balance of the upper midrange energy. You may or may not like one or the other.
The Sovereign 2001 has considerably more apparent upper midrange energy than the Infinity IRS Series V. The Duntech's balance is not unusual, and many audiophiles prefer it. Most British speakers have a similar balance, and so do some excellent U.S. speakers from Martin-Logan, Thiel, and Snell. I did find, however, that this made the Duntech sound better with one of the sweeter power amplifiers. I'd suggest amps from Conrad-Johnson or Spectral, although a member of the staff at Lyric strongly recommended the Mark Levinson No. 20.
I also suspect that the Duntech has a slight flaw in the smoothness of the upper midrange. I kept hearing an emphasis of sibilance on female voice, and the natural bowing sound was reduced relative to an emphasis of the breathing of the musicians in the opening of the Orlando Quartet's performance of Haydn's "String Quartet in B Flat, Sunrise" (Philips 410053-2).
The Sovereign 2001's treble had the advantage of placing instruments and soloists slightly more firmly than the IRS Series V, but this came at the expense of my being more conscious of listening to a loudspeaker. It was an interesting contest to compare the Duntech and the Infinity, with my choice of the winner varying according to the piece of music. The Duntech tended to win with small musical groups and soloists in those cases where the apparent size of the instrument or voice was critical to musical believability. It lost in those cases where it was important to have the sound stage extend widely across the room and avoid any tendency to divide around the speaker.
I preferred the IRS Series V's performance with choral music, massed strings, grand opera, and complex symphonic music. The Sovereign 2001 had less ability to distinguish voices and float them in three dimensions. If it is more realistic in placing instruments, it is less able to disappear into the music.
The Sovereign 2001 was also a bit two-dimensional. This may be because it does not have any bipolar radiation, or a rear or upward firing driver designed to disperse the sound and add reflected energy. I will immediately concede that speakers which have such features to provide a more three-dimensional sound do so at some cost. Many top audio engineers feel strongly that bipolar radiation and/or additional reflected energy comes at the cost of smearing the details of the original sound. There also is no question that such radiation makes a dipole speaker harder to place and that it can create conflicts between getting the right balance of reflected treble and midrange sound and the smoothest bass. All I can say in reply is that I prefer the added depth and feeling of life in the sound stage to any loss of detail. I have never liked any fully omni directional speaker or one that emphasized reflected over direct energy, but I personally prefer more illusion of space and depth.
As for dynamics, I do not intend to sit through a competition between the Infinity and the Duntech to see which can play the loudest. I am sure that my ears would turn from shining gold to reddened brass long before either speaker revealed audible distortion. In fact, one of the things I like about the Duntech is that you can play rock, jazz, and full symphonic music at their live listening levels without having to boost volume to compensate for shortfalls in the deep bass or without having to reduce volume because the speaker couldn't handle high levels. This is a superbly natural speaker in terms of musical dynamics, and it requires none of the compromises that are inevitable in virtually all the competition.
Regarding possible compromises in the search for the ultimate Duntech at a less than ultimate price, I would actually choose the Sovereign's cheaper heir, the PCL 1000 Crown Prince, over ruling royalty. The Crown Prince costs a mere $5,985 per pair but has more mid-bass and lower midrange, a smoother upper midrange, and a bit more depth. I found it to be preferable with most classical music because of its tonal accuracy and neutrality. The Crown Prince is a considerably smaller speaker, and it sacrifices some of the Sovereign's low bass and dynamic range. The trade-off between the systems is also highly personal. My daughter, for example, plays bass guitar and loves rock listening levels; she would definitely vote for the Sovereign. Given the fact that she is British on her mother's side, she may well know more about royalty than I do.
If I have Lyric Hi-Fi to thank for allowing me to audition the Infinity and Duntech systems, I have Sound By Singer to thank for my audition of the Apogee Divas. These are the new top-of-the-line Apogee speakers, three-way ribbon systems with dipole radiation. Their rated bandwidth is 30Hz to 25kHz, and they have a 6dB/octave "phase-coherent" crossover for each driver which is housed in an external electronics box. There are adjustment switches for bass, midrange, upper midrange, and tweeter level. Styled more as modern sculpture than as a conventional speaker, the Diva's enclosure is 31 inches wide by 73 inches high by 3 inches deep. This speaker is relatively light by reference speaker standards and weighs "only" 150 pounds each.
Taking musical complexity in stride, the Apogee Diva is as believable as the source material and drive electronics permit.
Moving from one dealer to another may have deprived me of the theoretical merits of listening to three speaker systems in the same room and with the same electronics. On the other hand, the move from Lyric to Sound By Singer did allow me to listen to each speaker with electronics tailored to show it at its best and set up in the best possible place in the room. In fact, my trip reminded me that one of a dealer's prime responsibilities is to assemble systems so that each component is associated with other components that allow it to perform at its best. The most a reviewer can do is highlight the virtues of individual components or a few possible system combinations. A dealer ultimately has to be judged by his ability to create good systems at a given price level, and this is a key reason I enjoy visiting really competent dealers anywhere in the U.S. or Europe. No one person can examine all the possible combinations of components that might make up a great system, and virtually every good high-end dealer comes up with new combinations and new insights into sound.
I mention this because I was struck by the fact that the Divas performed exceptionally well at Sound By Singer, and in a very different way than at the CES in Chicago. Every fullrange speaker at the CES suffered, at least in part, from room problems, and any speaker with powerful, deep bass started to excite the flimsy walls and room boundary areas. In the case of the Divas, as with the Infinity IRS Betas, the result was a lot of excess bass energy and occasional boom.
At Sound By Singer, the Apogee Divas had excellent bass power, extension, and definition. They lacked the Infinity IRS Series V's and Duntech Sovereign 2001's sheer ability to move air, but they went very low indeed and did so with remarkable speed and control. The Divas exhibited excellent bass performance at high levels down to about 25Hz. In fact, the Divas nearly matched the IRS Series V in being able to deliver the entire bass without any coloration or power loss in the mid-bass and the upper bass/lower midrange. Baritone voice, cello, piano, and bass guitar all had excellent performance-with the exception of some minor irregularities in bass response. The Diva in my home system has shown me that these irregularities are the inevitable cost of trying to place a full-range bipolar speaker in anything but very large or specially treated rooms.
The bass of the Divas had a very fast attack with excellent control. This speaker did not quite have as much power in the deep bass as the IRS or Sovereign and could not resolve individual bass frequencies quite as well as the IRS, but this would only be apparent in comparatively few recordings. What is important is that the Apogee Divas have the right balance of bass energy without overhang or exaggeration. This came through quite clearly in listening to Jazz at the Pawn Shop, Grusin's "Fratelli Chase," and a wide range of other material where natural bass is more important than sheer bass impact. With the right setup, the bass of the Apogee Divas can sound like live music at virtually every listening level short of deafening-and with virtually any kind of music material.
The reader should be aware that any full-range dipole will produce cancellation which varies in frequency according to room and distance from the rear wall. According to the designer, Leo Spiegel, the Divas are mechanically tuned in the low-frequency region to provide significant output below 25Hz. This is accomplished by adjusting the tension across the ribbon to produce a relatively low Q. About 50% of the output of the speaker is radiated to the rear, however, and the proper balance of energy can only be preserved if the speaker is placed at least 36 to 48 inches, but no more than 60 inches, from the rear wall. These distances speak to cancellations in about the 45 to 95Hz range, depending on the specific distance. Therefore, considerable experimentation will be needed to get the best overall performance.
What made the sound of the Apogee Divas really special was their performance from the lower midrange on up. Although, at $7,000 a pair, the Divas are "cheap" by the standards of the Infinity and the Duntech, their combination of speed, detail, balance, and coherence can rival even the Infinity IRS Series V. Once again, this shows up in an exceptional ability to reveal differences in drive electronics and in the associated cartridges, CD players, tuners, and tape players. Again, these are speakers which do best with powerful, high-current transistor amps from Krell, Mark Levinson, Rowland Research, et al.
It is interesting to use speakers like the Divas and listen carefully to the reproduction of given instruments. You can work your way through the strings and woodwinds and not only recognize the instrument as being musically convincing, you can also recognize the age or type of the instrument whenever the recording allows you to do so. It is equally interesting to take violin music and shift from a solo instrument to a chamber work to massed strings. With most speakers, this progression gives a steady loss of definition and realism; the Apogee Divas take musical complexity in stride.
With the Divas, instruments and voice retain all their natural quality, from the softest to the loudest passages and regardless of sudden shifts in musical dynamics. Many speakers can handle solo instrument or voice only as long as they are not required to deal with sudden shifts from very soft accompaniment to very loud passages. A number of speakers tend to highlight one voice or instrument at the expense of others. Some systems produce sudden insights into the music which not only never emerge from other speakers but never occur in live music. The Apogee Divas are as musically convincing as the source material and drive electronics permit.
The key words that I use as a subjective reviewer are "speed", "air," and "transparency." These words can make engineers wince, because it is far from clear that psychoacoustics allow anyone to perceive a ribbon speaker, for example, as being faster or better defined than those of competing technologies. Further, measurements of distortion produce mixed results. Nevertheless, I will argue that the Apogee Divas allow me to hear musical detail in an exceptionally convincing and realistic way, especially in the areas which depend on complex harmonics or overtones, resolution of detail in low-level passages, and handling very rapid, large changes in dynamics.
Striking in their ability to provide natural detail without dryness or overemphasis, the Divas do not make you conscious of upper midrange or treble.
Once again, you don't have to rely on musical spectaculars or my words to understand what I am saying. If you want to hear some of these musical effects, go to an Apogee dealer and try "How High the Moon" and "High Life" from Jazz at the Pawnshop. Try the voice of Amanda McBroom and the instrumental back-up on Dreaming (Gecko Records, distributed through Monster Cable dealers). Try Willie Nelson's version of "Georgia" or Kathleen Battle's rendition of Villa-Lobos on Angel. Try the CD version of Cat Stevens' Tea for the Tillerman or "Always on My Mind" and "Memory" from Jazzical Class. In my view, the Compact Disc of Stevens' Tea for the Tillerman (A&M CD-4280) is considerably better than the analog LP version, and it seems that Cat Stevens is one of the few performers who ever took personal care to ensure that the sound quality of his recordings lived up to his performances. I do not think that the CD version of Jazzical Class (Perpetua PR7003) always lives up to the overall quality of the original recording or performance, but the piano work on bands 3 and 7 is a particularly demanding test of a speaker's capability. These are very diverse pieces of music, in every possible sense, but a really great speaker will make them all musically convincing. The Apogee Divas pass this test.
If you play the drums or are familiar with the sound of percussion instruments played live, listen to the rim work, skin effects, and cymbals on a really good recording. Few speakers can get through this kind of test without fairly obvious colorations. The Divas are believable. The same is true of their reproduction of the best recordings of choral music, massed strings, organ, harpsichord, or any of the other difficult tests of the ability of a speaker to make recorded music believable-as opposed to their handling of such non-music as digital cannons.
The Apogee Divas can, however, play digital cannons. They are rated at least 7dB more efficient than previous Apogee designs, and as producing 115dB SPL at 4 meters with a high-current, 100-watt amplifier in a reasonably sized listening room. If you want sonic spectaculars or are heavily into war games, you can deafen your family and neighbors almost as seriously as you can with the Infinity IRS Series V and Duntech Sovereign 2001.
You also can make major adjustments in the bass, midrange, upper midrange, and treble of the Apogee Divas without affecting their sonic coherence. I found, for example, that I preferred the tweeter and upper midrange controls set low and the other control set at normal. Almost regardless of how the Divas are set, however. they are striking in their ability to provide musically natural detail without dryness or overemphasis. You are not conscious of the upper midrange and treble, but you never miss information. The upper octaves add all the life, air, speed, and complexity to music that they should. Like the IRS Series V, the Diva has the virtue of disappearance. The music takes over and the speakers fade away.
The sound stage is a more complex issue. As with all fullrange dipole speakers, getting the best sound stage involves very careful setup and is also somewhat room dependent. With proper setup-and with the speakers at least 3 feet away from a room boundary, with a plain reflective rear wall, and with the speaker free of large absorptive surfaces other than the floor-the Apogee Divas produce a large three-dimensional sound stage with excellent imaging and a very stable and natural focus.
The Divas are completely free of the two-dimensional character of most point-source speakers, and the sound does not seem to cluster around the speaker. You may not get all the depth of the IRS Series V, but you do get a great deal of depth. The Diva also produces a relatively good listening area in both the near field and the far field. It you listen with several friends, they will hear what you hear provided you place the units reasonably close together. Some audiophiles place dipole speakers quite far apart to get a very large sound stage. The end result is always a hole in the middle and a sound stage that changes with every shift in listening position. Focus and a stable sound stage are always better than exaggeration of the size of the stage.
As for the Diva's shortcomings, there are a few. I would like still more dynamic range and deep bass power. I would like a full-range dipole speaker which could defy the laws of physics and which would lack all room sensitivity. I would like just a bit more range of adjustment in the midrange and upper midrange. I would like perfect compatibility with every amplifier. The Diva's added efficiency and relatively easy-to-drive 3-ohm impedence is a great advantage over previous Apogees, but I would like to be able to use the Diva with low-current tube amplifiers as well.
All in all, my list of shortcomings in the Diva is more a list of mere matters of convenience than of problems in sound quality. The Apogee Diva is a superb speaker system. Like the Infinity IRS Series V and Duntech Sovereign 2001, it is a demonstration that the rich really are different from you and me. They can afford one hell of a lot better speakers!
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