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Audyssey XT32 vs. Dirac Live Comparison


Introduction

Last year HTS published a review of a the miniDSP DDRC-22D, a two-channel Dirac Live Digital Room Correction (DRC) product. The review included a comparison to Audyssey XT. A number of readers requested a comparison of Dirac Live with Audyssey XT32. That comparison was recently completed at a Home Theater Shack Audio Evaluation Weekend at Sonnie Parker's Cedar Creek Cinema in rural Alabama. This report provides the results of that comparison.


Test Approach, Equipment, and Environment; Abbreviations

Measurement Methods

Test Approach
  • Audyssey, Dirac Research, and miniDSP executives were contacted for input on our test methods. All were very helpful, and although our final test was almost certainly not conducted the way they would have done it, their advice was key in our finding an approach that we could be confident led to a fair comparison.
  • Calibration Microphones used were those normally provided with and recommended for the individual DRC products. The Denon calibration mic was supplied with the AVR-X5200. The miniDSP UMIK-1 is normally supplied with the nanoAVR DL. The one used belonged to Sonnie Parker and was calibrated by Cross Spectrum Labs. It was used in the vertical orientation with the 90-degree calibration file supplied by Cross Spectrum Labs.
  • The nanoAVR DL was chosen as the Dirac Live platform because it would be processor and memory bound, as is Audyssey XT32 in any AVR. Specific processor and memory capability comparisons are difficult and involve proprietary information, so that choice was the best we could do to level the playing field. Had we used a PC-based Dirac Live platform, it would have had a clear advantage in processing and memory support over an XT32 implementation. The Dirac Live setup utility was run on a Windows 7 laptop.
Test Equipment
  • Oppo BDP-105D Blu-ray Player.
  • miniDSP nanoAVR DL HDMI Audio processor with 7.1 Dirac Live Room Correction, provided by miniDSP, a Home Theater Shack sponsor.
  • Denon AVR-X5200 Network A/V Receiver with Audyssey XT32 Room Correction. The Audysse Pro Kit was not available.
  • Parasound HALO A31 Power Amplifier.
  • MartinLogan ESL Hybrid Elecrostatic Loudspeakers.
  • Asus G74SX Laptop, Intel I7-2670QM @ 2.2 GHz, 16 GB DDR3 Memory, Windows 7 64-bit, Room EQ Wizard, foobar2000, Reaper DAW.
  • Bosch DLR130 Laser Distance Measurer.
Test Environment
  • Cedar Creek Cinema is a treated home cinema room generously provided by Sonnie Parker.
  • Other activities of the weekend had led to room treatment changes that gave us very good imaging and soundstage characteristics before the application of XT32 or Dirac Live.
Abbreviations
  • AVR = Audio/Video Receiver
  • DRC = Digital Room Correction (used generically, not referring to the freeware software product that goes by the same name)
  • FR = Frequency Response
  • LP = Listening Position, in our case the Main or Primary Listening Position
  • SS&I = Soundstage and Imaging, or Soundstage and Image Clarity


Difficult Decisions: What To Compare and How

The most important decisions about making a product or technology comparison are determining just what you are actually comparing and exactly how to make a fair apples-to-apples comparison. It is not always as easy as you might think it should be. I am convinced that most casual comparisons made between products are fraught with unaccounted-for variables, and are therefore flawed.

These were not easy decisions for the Dirac Live / XT32 comparison. In the end, we opted to complete a comparison that was very limited in scope but gave clear and meaningful answers as opposed to one that gave broad but vague results. Some readers will be disappointed in this choice, but in retrospect I stand by it as the right one, for the reasons which follow.

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When I was writing the HTS Audyssey MultEQ FAQ and Setup Guide two years ago, it quickly became apparent that, as a somewhat particular two-channel listener, the results achieved by following the conventional guidelines for setup gave consistently unusable results for music and for movies. The soundstage was vague and image clarity was soft to nonexistent. Frequency response was not that great either.

With a little experimentation it became clear that the technology was very capable of creating great sound stage and imaging, but the emphasis was entirely upon trying to improve frequency response (FR) over a broad area with little regard for Soundstage and Imaging (SS&I).

The only logical conclusion I could draw from this was that most listeners had never had a really great SS&I experience, and therefore did not recognize how immersive and completely engaging it could be. Since then I've become more and more convinced that this is true, even among serious and experienced listeners.

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Why put more emphasis on SS&I versus FR, and why is this not done already?

Let's start with the second question.

  • Good quality SS&I are not as easy to achieve as good FR. It may be considered unachievable to the novice, and therefore automatic low priority.
  • SS&I are not directly measurable. There are those who will argue that because of this fact they do not exist, and therefore are not worth pursuing. It is clearly describable, however, and there is a common response for all who listen to the same SS&I setup.
  • But the biggest factor, I believe, is that most listeners have not experienced it. While not universally true, most audio lovers with whom I have talked who put enough priority on good sound to even bother with good FR are completely blown away when they hear great SS&I, and quickly prioritize it above other audio qualities. Sonny Parker spent a year as a SS&I missionary of sorts while working for a prominent speaker manufacturer as a customer service representative. Almost without exception, once he convinced a customer to "just try it" - take a few steps to prioritize SS&I in their speaker setups - he and customer service and company leadership received glowing letters and semails of thanks, that they were getting the best sound they had ever heard.
Now back to the other question. Why put more emphasis on it on SS&I?

  • In finer terms, human hearing is relatively insensitive to FR. We do not have a good internal reference system for flat FR. Our hearing response curve varies with sound pressure level, and is constantly adapting by accepting the status quo profile as normal and tuning it out, staying sensitive to change. This is an instinctive response. Tune out the sound of the waving grass so you might hear the footsteps of the stalking tiger. FR IS probably the most obvious quality to be noticed in a speaker or system, and often feeds our first impressions strongly, but it is far from being the defining "ultimate" quality.

    You will never hear me argue against good FR. Horrible FR is very easy to perceive, and to be annoyed by. But we are talking about refinements here, not gross qualities. Our ability to gauge flat response without help is rather poor, and our tolerance for variations is fairly high, and even when it can be achieved, personal preference reigns supreme. Some like extra bass, some like less treble. Perhaps it is not the best listening quality to put at the top of the priority list.
  • Beyond that, SS&I engage us with three sensory systems instead of one: the auditory, the visual, and the kinesthetic. With SS&I, we can see where an instrument or vocalist sits, can gauge how far away and how large the source appears to be. Is that voice the size of a basketball? a golf ball? A pea? How big is the room the drums are being played in? What is that voice doing way over there? All three of the sensory systems with which we navigate our life experience are engaged in the interpretation and enjoyment of a music or movie experience. Audio becomes more than the series of sounds and can even convince the psycho-acoustical brain that instruments and people are right there in the room with us, challenging what we know to be real. As one HTS member put it, "It messes with your head." Flat FR, while nice, does not have that effect.
  • Here is where some will argue that great SS&I are qualities that occur at only one spot in the room, so why put such emphasis on qualities that only one person in the room can appreciate at a time? The answer? Cases where there are more than one person in a listening room or home theater at a time who really care about the audio quality are about as rare as the muon neutrino. And when that does occur, they are not interested in pretty-good sound across two or three seats, they are far more excited about taking turns in the one seat where the sound is truly phenomenal.

    It is a simple acoustical fact that averaging FR over an area, as advanced DRC products are designed to do, can only make FR at any one position worse. (To the reader who feels compelled to make a fuss about Schroder's work, hold on, we'll get to that.) The one person who cares gets mediocre sound quality so the other listeners, who probably care very little, can have mediocre sound as well. It is a totally fair auditory compromise and is pretty much a waste of time and effort.
  • The final reason for emphasizing SS&I is that the DRC setup process is actually easier, and can in fact be extremely easy. And, as it turns out - after all that discussion minimizing the importance of FR - Dirac Live and Audyssey MultEQ and other DRC technologies can help us get great SS&I AND flat FR at the same time.

The Setup Mic Pattern

The work of Schroeder and Toole and others can be used to argue that above a certain frequency, EQ is pointless because the speaker's response predominates in the sound achieved. The key word is predominates, and FR variations of 6 dB and more are easily possible at closely-spaced points. THAT is enough to matter. So, within a certain area, there tends to be a "room sound" which can be corrected by DRC to enhance the listening experience.

The intent of the averaging process employed by advanced DRC products like Audyssey XT32 and Dirac Live is to determine that "room sound" over a certain area and correct the sound for all who sit in that area. Using widely-spread mic calibration mic patterns, these products try to make as much of the room sound good as possible. It is a nice idea.

But the result, regardless of your views on room or area FR characteristics and averaging techniques, is a compromise. Even with fuzzy logic throwing out or minimizing the importance of the worst data points (seating positions), the result will still be a compromise, making all positions sound equally mediocre and allowing none to sound really good.

All of this effort to please listeners who simply do not care. A nice democratic idea, but it kinda makes you wonder who got us going in this direction, and how differently these products might have been structured and marketed if the right people had only been exposed to a transcendent soundstage with precise image clarity in their formative years. I jest, of course. These are superbly engineered products by innovative, industry-leading companies. We simply see their best use from a different perspective, all due respect.

It is our good fortune that using these products we can attain both great SS&I AND great FR together. Which brings us, via the long route, to the listener's primary means of influencing the behavior of a DRC product like Audyssey XT32 or Dirac Live, and our decided emphasis for this product comparison: the setup mic pattern.

I wrote The Odyssey setup guide recommending setup mic patterns that emphasized SS&I at the main LP and gave great FR there at the same time. There were those who argued and those who tried the recommendations. Those who tried the recommended tightly-spaced mic setup patterns said that it sounded better. There was, however, one mic pattern that I did not include in the published guide, because I knew the amount of arguing against it would be immense. That is the single-point setup.

Here is why it works, and why it was ideal for our comparison:
  • As discussed, the main LP is the only one that matters 99.9% of the time.
  • At the main LP, the chair predominates in FR influences. Typically, a reflection and cancellation between the chair back and the ears causes a 10 to 15 dB FR dip above 1 kHz. This is not seen anywhere else in the room.
  • The listener's ears sit equidistant from the chair back, so any measurement point along the ear-to-ear line close to the center of the chair will measure the influence of the chair. Centered, the mic will measure speaker-to-ear timings in a way that reinforces SS&I performance and gives good FR performance at the same time.
  • And it fills a vital need for this exercise that was mentioned earlier: elimination of variables. With multiple mic points, how many uncontrolled variables are added? What pattern do you use? A favorite? A recommended one? Symmetrical or random? Use the same pattern for both products? How precisely can it be repeated? How do you accomplish that precision? How many times do you repeat the process to be able to trust that your result is repeatable. And how do you measure the result effectively? So many questions. With one mic point we eliminated those questions.
The Setup Process

Attaining the best soundstage and imaging with good FR is basically a two-step process:
  • Position the speakers for best SS&I without regard for FR (details beyond the scope of this article). The best SS&I at this point usually involves some off-axis listening angle, so high-frequency response will usually be down somewhat. But it will usually match fairly well between L and R channels (or else the Image Clarity would be poor), and will be improved by the second step.
  • Use DRC to equalize the system, correcting the FR and improving the SS&I further.
The Oppo HDMI output was run to the nanoAVR DL, which was run to the AVR's HDMI input. This series setup was used throughout testing, and either XT32 or Dirac Live or neither could be active at any one time. As a side note, at one point early on, Dirac Live was accidentally set up with XT32 active and some preliminary listening was done with both processors active. The resulting soundstage seemed very unnatural and fragmented. There may have been other variables involved, too, so this piece of data is offered as information with limited value.

It took us awhile to get everything working properly and to reach the point where a valid comparison was possible. Some of that detail is included to show how difficult it can be to accomplish such a comparison as we hoped to.

The first difficulties were with interfacing with the Denon AVR, choosing a configuration without disturbing that which Sonnie already had in use.

The ripple-upstream method was used to get HDMI configuration data to all the right places in the system, starting with the AVR, then attaching it to the nanoAVR DL and powering it on, then attaching that to the laptop used for Dirac Live configuration. It took a number of attempts to get all this to configure property, including windows 7 device settings. Then an accidental configuration change in the AVR might ripple back through the system and disrupt the configuration, not resetting to normal as as it should with the setting corrected, so the whole setup process would have to be repeated. This is not the fault of any individual product, just the way things go with digital audio sometimes.

We carefully determined the proper mic position with Sonnie sitting in the chair and then centered it after he stood up, further verifying equal distance from the two side walls with the laser distance meter. The Denon Audyssey setup mic was positioned pointed straight up and the UMIK-1 for nanoAVR DL setup was positioned pointed straight down, tip-to-tip. One would be swiveled out of the way, then moved back into place before the other was swung away, so the two setup processes were completed and measurements were taken with Room EQ Wizard without losing the measurement reference point. Once we accidentally did lose that reference point before we meant to, and we started the process over. XT32 setup was done first. then Dirac Live setup. This all happened numerous times (we lost track of the number of attempts) before we got everything running properly.

For both Dirac Live and XT32, we ran four repetitions of the measurement routine without moving the calibration mic. This was intended to give us better noise immunity. With Sonnie's system, we ran the calibration in 5.2 mode for XT32 and 5.1 mode for Dirac Live. Our listening tests involved only 2-channel material, and the system was set to Stereo with subwoofers active.

Twice we did the Dirac Live setup with Odyssey activated thinking we had turned it off. Several times we lost the AVR configuration completely and had to start from scratch. This happened twice just as evaluators were preparing to sit down and listen to the comparison. Once the laptop display froze up and it had to be re-booted, along with everything else. There were numerous reboots, restarts, resets, and a couple of exasperation breaks. Once we got completely through the configurations and it was not until we sat down to listen and compare that we realized we had forgotten to check AVR delay settings determined by the XT32 process, and there was a 1/2 foot difference between settings for the L and R front speakers. Needless to say SS&I were abysmal. we went through the whole process again.

This is all reported to remind the potential user of the many ways that such an effort can be thrown off track, and the many ways that a user evaluation can have something go awry in the setup process, erroneously leading them to conclude that a product is unacceptable.

At this point I have to confess that all the other evaluators were gone before we had a working comparison, and it was only Sonnie and me completing this work. I had really hoped to have those other fine sets of ears to help out with this comparison. But I am still confident in our results.


Fine Tuning and Results

We were set up to switch quickly between Dirac Live and XT32. XT32 could be activated or deactivated with about a two-second silence gap as the AVR switched modes from a single-button-push on the automated system remote. Dirac Live was turned on and off using a universal remote programmed to control the nanoAVR DL.

Here are the uncorrected and corrected FR measurements at the LP, as measured by Dirac Live.

Measured FR at LP, no correction.


Measured FR at LP, Dirac Live with Default Target Curve, XT32 Reference, and XT32 Flat.


It was immediately apparent that there were significant differences between the corrections resulting from the XT32 and Dirac Live target curves. XT32 produces correction using two target curves, named Reference and Flat. Dirac Live has a default target curve, which is infinitely customizable and can be saved and recalled at will. XT32 has a similar capability with the Audyssey Pro Kit, with AVRs that are Pro Kit capable. The Pro Kit was not available for this test. It was easy to identify each of the three resulting corrections and the no-correction state. The XT32 Flat and Dirac Live corrections were fairly similar in the high frequencies and a little harder to differentiate. Bass response for the Dirac Live correction was quite different from that of the two XT32 corrections. As seen below, the Dirac Live FR contour involved a steady rise from HF to LF, and both XT32 corrections had a small step-down in the LF range. Sonnie had dealt with numerous Audyssey users who were disappointed with initial Audyssey LF response, but there is no reason why subwoofers cannot be turned up to give hotter LF response if desired after calibration is complete.

This target curve difference might have some users picking Dirac Live over XT32 because of its higher default bass level without realizing that subwoofer bass levels can be increased to compensate. Modifying target curves is much more convenient and flexible. Again, the Audyssey Pro Kit makes this possible for XT32 with some AVRs.

We decided to modify the Dirac Live target curve to match the XT32 Flat target curve. It only took a few mouse clicks to make the Dirac Live curve mimic the LF response of the XT32 curves. Likewise, it only took a couple of clicks to roll off Dirac Live to match the top end of the XT32 Flat curve. Then the Dirac Live correction was reprocessed and loaded into one of the four nanoAVR DL program slots, all in less than a minute.

Dirac Live Corrected, Default Target Curve


Dirac Live Corrected, Subwoofer


Dirac Live Corrected, Target Curve Modified to match XT32 Flat


Finally, we had achieved an apples-to-apples comparison base. I listened through a number of familiar test tracks as Sonnie switch at will between the Dirac Live and XT32 Flat, every ten or fifteen seconds or so. Sometimes I would repeat parts of tracks, sometimes I would ask him to switch at certain points while I was listening for certain differences. The tracks included full-range rock, an orchestral piece (primarily strings), a classical piano piece, a bluegrass instrumental, and a male/female vocal track with acoustic guitar and piano backing.

The first contrast I listened for was any FR difference. Although the two target curves did not end up precise matches, they were close enough that I could not pick out any shifts in frequency content between Dirac Live and XT32 Flat. Perhaps with a track specifically chosen with content in the right frequency range, the difference might be discernible. But with the tracks chosen, I was not able to hear a FR difference.

I listened also for differences in Soundstage and Image Clarity. This is where I had expected to be able to hear a difference if there was any. I was listening for any shifts or differences in image placement or size or clarity, for any apparent differences in image definition or stability, for changes in instrument definition and detail, for changes in the overall cohesiveness and clarity of the soundstage, and for contrasts in soundstage characteristics relating to how natural and easy they were to engage with, to accept as reality.

Here is the bottom line. I could hear no differences whatsoever. Extended listening sessions might have exposed some difference, but I believe it would have been extremely subtle, if any. The resulting performance from each of the products was completely engaging, completely natural sounding, gave us pinpoint imaging and a huge, deep soundstage with decent depth acuity, and very good clarity and detail.

Sonny Parker spent time in the evaluation seat as well, and reported the same findings, that he could hear no difference.

Other points to consider:
  • HDMI audio was passing through the nanoAVR DL during all testing. With Dirac Live inactive, miniDSP informs us that only the delay blocks would be active, that all of the processing would be bypassed and effectively straight-wire. I do not know at this point if resampling takes place with Dirac Live inactive, but I believe it would. I will report on this in the upcoming nanoAVR review.
  • The Nano AVR gain was set at -12 dB throughout testing. Gain matching as we switched between XT32 and Dirac Live was important, so this value had to remain constant. Sonnie complained about the signal loss, that he would not be able to achieve the maximum volume that he sometimes likes to use. The -12 dB gain setting was chosen arbitrarily. Depending on the equalization required, this value might be set higher. With Dirac Live inactive, it is my understanding that it can safely be 0 dB. I will verify this for the upcoming nanoAVR DL review.
  • XT32 gets points for ease of use, being built into the AVR.
  • The Dirac Live configuration program gets points for flexibility. Individual measurements can be retaken at will, and the target curve can be modified at will. An infinite number of configurations can be saved and recalled and reloaded to the nanoAVR DL unit, which holds up to 4 correction programs at a time (a clear advantage over XT32). Loading a configuration into the nanoAVR DL takes under 30 seconds, much faster than loading an alternate configuration from the Audyssey Pro Kit, according to Sonnie.
Subwoofers and Bass Correction

We did not have time to focus on subwoofers and bass correction. This is an area that could take days of work on its own. We realize it is of great interest to many home theater owners.

XT32 has separate outputs for two subwoofers and corrects their delays and levels independently, then applies MultEQ correction to them together. Dirac Live has a single subwoofer control channel.

The three-curve corrected response diagram above shows us the Dirac Live FR was very flat below 100 Hz with a small amount of variation between 50 and 80 Hz. Both XT32 curves have a sizable dip between 70 and 80 Hz.

In later work Sonny was able to tame the dip with XT32 by changing delay times independently for the two subwoofers in the front left and right corners of his room. He also increased subwoofer levels and ended up with a slightly increasing bass response below 100 Hz. This was all done manually. It has been his experience that some manual variations are usually needed to get the bass response that he likes with XT32.

The Direct Live bass response, on the other hand, would have been totally acceptable to him "out of the box."

This is a small amount of data as it pertains to one room, and I am not suggesting it should be projected to form a universal statement about XT32 vs Dirac Live as it pertains to bass correction. We simply offer the data available for your consideration.


Impulse Response

Dirac Research emphasizes that their product performs impulse response correction. Audyssey XT32 certainly does some degree of phase correction to achieve the SS&I results which it does, but "impulse response correction" per se is not mentioned, for what that is worth. Looking at impulse response measurements taken with Room EQ Wizard, it is clear that Dirac Live cleans up impulse response far more effectively than XT32. What this means to the listener is not immediately obvious. I can imagine arguments in either direction, that Dirac Live gives a more perfect correction, or that XT32 does all that it needs to and nothing more. I have done some research which leads me to believe that a cleaner impulse response can yield greater clarity with dense program material at high volumes, but it is an unproven theory with little data at this point. In reality, there is no conclusive answer to this question that I am aware of.

Impulse Response Graphs



Conclusions

While I hoped to get additional expert ears involved in this comparison, I am still quite confident in our results. Given the conditions outlined above, with a two-channel listening focus, we ultimately achieved what we believe was a true apples-to-apples comparison between Dirac Live and Audyssey XT32 and concluded at both did an excellent job and that under the chosen conditions any differences in performance were not audible. Usability differences are many, and are likely to be driving factors in a product choice.

Thanks to miniDSP for supplying the nanoAVR DL hardware and software for this exercise, and thanks to the executives at Audyssey, miniDSP, and Dirac Research for their suggestions and help.
 

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[img]http://www.hometheatershack.com/gallery/file.php?n=41762&w=s[/img]

Spatial Hologram M1 Turbo Version 2 Speaker Review




M1 Turbo: $4,000 per pair


by Wayne Myers


Introduction

The Spatial Hologram M1 Turbo is an open-baffle 2-way dipole speaker. Two 15-inch drivers cover bass and lower-mid frequencies. One compression driver covers upper-mid and high frequencies. The tweeter is concentric with the upper bass/mid driver.

I was introduced to the M1 at the Rockie Mountain Audio Fest in Denver last fall. I was impressed by the transparency and unity of the sound, as well as by the depth of bass coverage and the precise image clarity and natural soundstage. I also enjoyed lively dynamic presentation.

The President of Spatial Audio, Clayton Shaw, explained how high-efficiency speakers like the M1 are able deliver such great dynamic range:
  • Speaker and crossover components are dissipating less power, and so stay cooler and work in their optimum most-linear operaing range, keeping distortion low.
  • Power amps do not have to drive them very hard and are less likely to clip.
When we were making plans for the recent Home Theater Shack 2015 High-End Amplifier Evaluation Event, I thought of the M1 as a good speaker for helping us potentially hear differences beween different power amps. A couple of emails later, Clayton generously agreed to supply the speakers for our event.


Description

Each M1 comes packed in a two-piece tight-fitting block of spray urethane foam. Once the two halves are separated, the 3-inch thick baffle plate of the M1 peace is ready to be stood up. The support post fits snugly into an indentation at the bottom rear of the baffle plate, holding the M1 at the proper angle. The compression driver for the tweeter is removed from its own little compartment in the foam, is screwed into place on to the back of the upper driver, its two leads are attached by push-release terminals, and the M1 is ready to go. I was really impressed by the simplicity of the unpacking and assembly process.

The standard Black Satin finish is very attractive and seemed durable. It was fairly resistant to fingerprints. The 3-inch thich composite baffle consists of 5 layers of aluminum and MDF. The passive crossover is integral to the lower portion of the baffle. A pair of spikes was included for each speaker, but we did not use them.


Specifications and Measurements

Specifications

  • Type: Version 2 - Compact 2-way, point source, open-baffle, dynamic driver, controlled directivity
  • Chassis: 5 layer Aluminum Composite / MDF
  • Driver compliment: Two 15 inch mid/woofers, one wide bandwidth compression driver
  • Crossover: 800Hz - Passive - Hologram Network Technology
  • Frequency Response: 32Hz - 20kHz +/- 3dB
  • Sensitivity: 95dB - averaged across 200Hz to 5kHz at 1M - on axis
  • Impedance: 4O nominal, 3O minimum, low phase angle
  • Dimensions: 36T x 20W x 3D inches (plus magnet depth), 50 lbs.
  • 20 year limited warranty
  • Available in the following finishes:
    [*]Turbo Black Satin
    [*]Turbo SE Gloss Black
Frequency Response at 0.5 m, 1/6th octave and 1 octave smoothing. Numerous on-axis responses and averages were taken at various distances, this was deemed most representative.


Frequency Response at Listening Position.


Frequency Response at Listening Position.


Total Harmonic Distortion.


Frequency Response at Listening Position.


Impulse Response.


Step Response.



Setup

An advantage of the dipole speaker type is that replacement is supposedly more flexible in many rooms. While this may be true, it does not mean that setup is quick and or can be done sloppily. Dipole speakers, especially with a concentric driver design, can you give amazing imaging and sound stage performance, but setup requirements are exacting. The M1 ended up sounding best with the listener's left and right ears directly on the axis of the concentric driver. Using a laser distance measurer butted up against the surface of the baffle above the driver we had a precise aiming mechanism for both horizontal and vertical angle refinements. A microphone positioned at the center-of-head point at the listening position (LP) was our target.

The angle at which one speaker leaned back on its support post was slightly different from the other and the imaging did not gel precise until one speaker had a few layers of cardstock placed under its post to straighten it up. No doubt the spikes would have allowed enough adjustment to accomplish this as well. But even with the angles and distance precisely set, the imaging was still off.

It was not until impulse timing diagrams were used to verify precise distance distance from the listening position that we got the distance measurements set properly. A minor mystery remains in that the physical distance was almost an inch off when the acoustical distance was exactly right.

Once set up, we got a monstrous wide sound stage with pinpoint-precise imaging. We had been advised to space them widely, which we did. In fact, they were placed even more widely than I would have dared to because an existing pair of speakers in the room occupied the spot here I probably would have placed them, and those other speakers were so perfectly place that I hated to move them. I would have if necessary, but ended up not having to do so, the M1 performed so well at their super-wide spacing. Even with very extreme wide spacing, the soundstage and imaging were natural and continuous and precise.

Others at the event, commented that soundstage was wider than ideal, and therefore I had some holes in it. I thought this myself at first, but eventually ended up believing that it was so stretched that we were hearing empty areas of the soundstages that one would simply not notice with other speakers and narrower soundstages. The final test for me was the song Default by Atoms for Peace, where the entire soundstage from left to right extremes is filled with reverberation from lead vocals. I listened carefully a number of times to his track on the M1, and it the reverberating voice filled the sound field, leaving no gaps or spaces.

The wide soundstage was useful in helpig us evaluate differences between amplifiers. The stretched out soundstage revealed individual sonic details that would normally have been smashed together with other sounds and missed.


Room Treatment

The side walls of the home theater room were treated with absorptive panels. The front wall underneath the movie screen was not. This worked fine for much of the evaluation but there was one track where ran into some imaging trouble. The song House of Tom Bombadil by Nickel Creek has guitar on the right side and mandolin on the left. Both instruments were somewhat disembodied, the lower tones of each came from closer to the center of the soundstage, and the higher frequency plucking tones came from closer to the speakers. One particular solo run of the guitar starting at about 1:20 in the song starts high and works its way down to lower tones and then back up again. One could hear the position of those notes work their way toward the center of the soundstage and then back out towards the speaker again.

Some portable absorptive panels were placed underneath the movie screen against the front wall, and this took care of the drifting and the disembodiment for both instruments. Front wall reflections were responsible for action. Once they were eliminated, the imaging solidified, low and high frequencies coalesced as they should, and the images came from a spot a little further back from the front speaker than originally, seeming more naturally located in the soundstage and very stable.


Other Sonic Qualities And Obsevations

For both the amplifier evaluation exercise and for the evaluation of M1, they were left unequalized. There was a bit of unevenness in the bass and low-mid ranges from room effects. They sounded a bit tubby but remained concise and tight. The M1 could really crank out the bass when called upon. We were running without subwoofers, needing a completely passive speaker presentation for the evaluation. Their extension down to the 40 Hz range in our room was more than adequate for two-channels use, and we could really feel them move the air on deeper sounds.

Mid to high frequency clarity was excellent. The dynamic presentation and depth of detail that the m1 were able to deliver for us were very useful and enjoyable. There were a couple of occasions where, at high volume, there was a little grainy congestion on tracks with dense mid and high frequency content. I later verified with thee electrostatic speakers in the room that the same tracks could be delivered cleanly in that room.

The M1 sound was clean and open and accurate. Under other conditions, a better choice of replacement would probably have evened out the low frequencies and given us flatter bass response. The compression tweeter was impressive with its clarity and natural sound, just as I had remembered it when I first heard it 6 months before.


Conclusions

The Spatial Audio M1 Turbi versino 2 dipole speaker was a favorite at the Rocky Mountain Audio Fest show last year, and is a strong contender in their price range for me. I have become a fan of dipole speakers for the soundstage and imaging possibilities, especially if you with a concentric design like the M1. Of all the speakers I have evaluated, I have never placed speakers as widely as I did the M1 and still ended up with such a cohesive and natural soundstage with such even width and depth, and with such precise pinpoint imaging. For the soundstage and image clarity chasers out there, I present the M1 for your consideration as a high efficiency, high clarity, high performance soundstage and imaging monsters.




 

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Spatial Hologram M1 Turbo Version 2 Speaker Review




M1 Turbo: $4,000 per pair


by Wayne Myers


Introduction

The Spatial Hologram M1 Turbo is an open-baffle 2-way dipole speaker. Two 15-inch drivers cover bass and lower-mid frequencies. One compression driver covers upper-mid and high frequencies. The tweeter is concentric with the upper bass/mid driver.

I was introduced to the M1 at the Rockie Mountain Audio Fest in Denver last fall. I was impressed by the transparency and unity of the sound, as well as by the depth of bass coverage and the precise image clarity and natural soundstage. I also enjoyed lively dynamic presentation.

The President of Spatial Audio, Clayton Shaw, explained how high-efficiency speakers like the M1 are able deliver such great dynamic range:
  • Speaker and crossover components are dissipating less power, and so stay cooler and work in their optimum most-linear operating range, keeping distortion low.
  • Power amps do not have to drive them very hard and are less likely to clip.
When we were making plans for the recent Home Theater Shack 2015 High-End Amplifier Evaluation Event, I thought of the M1 as a good speaker for helping us potentially hear differences between different power amps. A couple of emails later, Clayton generously agreed to supply the speakers for our event.


Description

Each M1 comes packed in a two-piece tight-fitting block of spray urethane foam. Once the two halves are separated, the 3-inch thick baffle plate of the M1 peace is ready to be stood up. The support post fits snugly into an indentation at the bottom rear of the baffle plate, holding the M1 at the proper angle. The compression driver for the tweeter is removed from its own little compartment in the foam, is screwed into place on to the back of the upper driver, its two leads are attached by push-release terminals, and the M1 is ready to go. I was really impressed by the simplicity of the unpacking and assembly process.

The standard Black Satin finish is very attractive and seemed durable. It was fairly resistant to fingerprints. The 3-inch thick composite baffle consists of 5 layers of aluminum and MDF. The passive crossover is integral to the lower portion of the baffle. A pair of spikes was included for each speaker, but we did not use them.


Specifications and Measurements

Specifications

  • Type: Version 2 - Compact 2-way, point source, open-baffle, dynamic driver, controlled directivity
  • Chassis: 5 layer Aluminum Composite / MDF
  • Driver compliment: Two 15 inch mid/woofers, one wide bandwidth compression driver
  • Crossover: 800Hz - Passive - Hologram Network Technology
  • Frequency Response: 32Hz - 20kHz +/- 3dB
  • Sensitivity: 95dB - averaged across 200Hz to 5kHz at 1M - on axis
  • Impedance: 4O nominal, 3O minimum, low phase angle
  • Dimensions: 36T x 20W x 3D inches (plus magnet depth), 50 lbs.
  • 20 year limited warranty
  • Available in the following finishes:
    [*]Turbo Black Satin
    [*]Turbo SE Gloss Black
Frequency Response at 0.5 m, 1/6th octave and 1 octave smoothing. Numerous on-axis responses and averages were taken at various distances, this was deemed most representative.


Frequency Response at Listening Position.


Frequency Response at Listening Position.


Total Harmonic Distortion.


Frequency Response at Listening Position.


Impulse Response.


Step Response.



Setup

An advantage of the dipole speaker type is that replacement is supposedly more flexible in many rooms. While this may be true, it does not mean that setup is quick and or can be done sloppily. Dipole speakers, especially with a concentric driver design, can you give amazing imaging and sound stage performance, but setup requirements are exacting. The M1 ended up sounding best with the listener's left and right ears directly on the axis of the concentric driver. Using a laser distance measurer butted up against the surface of the baffle above the driver we had a precise aiming mechanism for both horizontal and vertical angle refinements. A microphone positioned at the center-of-head point at the listening position (LP) was our target.

The angle at which one speaker leaned back on its support post was slightly different from the other and the imaging did not gel precise until one speaker had a few layers of cardstock placed under its post to straighten it up. No doubt the spikes would have allowed enough adjustment to accomplish this as well. But even with the angles and distance precisely set, the imaging was still off.

It was not until impulse timing diagrams were used to verify precise distance distance from the listening position that we got the distance measurements set properly. A minor mystery remains in that the physical distance was almost an inch off when the acoustical distance was exactly right.

Once set up, we got a monstrous wide sound stage with pinpoint-precise imaging. We had been advised to space them widely, which we did. In fact, they were placed even more widely than I would have dared to because an existing pair of speakers in the room occupied the spot here I probably would have placed them, and those other speakers were so perfectly place that I hated to move them. I would have if necessary, but ended up not having to do so, the M1 performed so well at their super-wide spacing. Even with very extreme wide spacing, the soundstage and imaging were natural and continuous and precise.

Others at the event, commented that soundstage was wider than ideal, and therefore I had some holes in it. I thought this myself at first, but eventually ended up believing that it was so stretched that we were hearing empty areas of the soundstages that one would simply not notice with other speakers and narrower soundstages. The final test for me was the song Default by Atoms for Peace, where the entire soundstage from left to right extremes is filled with reverberation from lead vocals. I listened carefully a number of times to his track on the M1, and it the reverberating voice filled the sound field, leaving no gaps or spaces.

The wide soundstage was useful in helping us evaluate differences between amplifiers. The stretched out soundstage revealed individual sonic details that would normally have been smashed together with other sounds and missed.


Room Treatment

The side walls of the home theater room were treated with absorptive panels. The front wall underneath the movie screen was not. This worked fine for much of the evaluation but there was one track where ran into some imaging trouble. The song House of Tom Bombadil by Nickel Creek has guitar on the right side and mandolin on the left. Both instruments were somewhat disembodied, the lower tones of each came from closer to the center of the soundstage, and the higher frequency plucking tones came from closer to the speakers. One particular solo run of the guitar starting at about 1:20 in the song starts high and works its way down to lower tones and then back up again. One could hear the position of those notes work their way toward the center of the soundstage and then back out towards the speaker again.

Some portable absorptive panels were placed underneath the movie screen against the front wall, and this took care of the drifting and the disembodiment for both instruments. Front wall reflections were responsible for action. Once they were eliminated, the imaging solidified, low and high frequencies coalesced as they should, and the images came from a spot a little further back from the front speaker than originally, seeming more naturally located in the soundstage and very stable.


Other Sonic Qualities And Obsevations

For both the amplifier evaluation exercise and for the evaluation of M1, they were left unequalized. There was a bit of unevenness in the bass and low-mid ranges from room effects. They sounded a bit tubby but remained concise and tight. The M1 could really crank out the bass when called upon. We were running without subwoofers, needing a completely passive speaker presentation for the evaluation. Their extension down to the 40 Hz range in our room was more than adequate for two-channels use, and we could really feel them move the air on deeper sounds.

Mid to high frequency clarity was excellent. The dynamic presentation and depth of detail that the m1 were able to deliver for us were very useful and enjoyable. There were a couple of occasions where, at high volume, there was a little grainy congestion on tracks with dense mid and high frequency content. I later verified with thee electrostatic speakers in the room that the same tracks could be delivered cleanly in that room.

The M1 sound was clean and open and accurate. Under other conditions, a better choice of replacement would probably have evened out the low frequencies and given us flatter bass response. The compression tweeter was impressive with its clarity and natural sound, just as I had remembered it when I first heard it 6 months before.


Conclusions

The Spatial Audio M1 Turbo version 2 dipole speaker was a favorite at the Rocky Mountain Audio Fest show last year, and is a strong contender in their price range for me. I have become a fan of dipole speakers for the soundstage and imaging possibilities, especially if you with a concentric design like the M1. Of all the speakers I have evaluated, I have never placed speakers as widely as I did the M1 and still ended up with such a cohesive and natural soundstage with such even width and depth, and with such precise pinpoint imaging. For the soundstage and image clarity chasers out there, I present the M1 for your consideration as a high efficiency, high clarity, high performance soundstage and imaging monsters.




 

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Vapor Audio Perfect Storm Speaker Review



Vapor Audio Perfect Storm: $27,000 per pair



by Wayne Myers


Introduction

The Perfect Storm is the new flagship speaker from Vapor Audio, introduced in April at AXPONA in Chicago. I immediately liked the Perfect Storm and felt it deserved a thorough review. Weighing in at almost 400 pounds per channel, it would not be practical to ship them anywhere for this to happen, so I contacted Ryan Scott, owner of Vapor Audio, and proposed a trip to home base in St. Louis for that purpose. Along the lines of full disclosure, we agreed it would be reasonable for him to cover gas and lodging for the trip in lieu of having to ship the speakers for a review.


Description

The $27,000 per pair Perfect Storm is a 4-way design. The 15-inch Audio Technology woofer is separately housed in a cabinet loaded with a 10:1 tapered line, delivering flat response down to 20 Hz with extremely low distortion. The driver's natural response is flat up to 2 kHz, one indicator of a potentially very fast design, and it is crossed over at 200 Hz. The extensively-braced bass cabinet houses the Perfect Storm crossover in a separate chamber, and weighs 260 pounds.

Lower midrange up to 1 kHz is handled by a custom Accuton C220 8.5-inch driver with an all-ceramic cone. Upper midrange to 2.3 kHz is handed off to the new Accuton Cell C51 2-inch driver.

The RAAL 140-15D Amorphous Core tweeter handles the frequencies above 2.3 kHz with extension to nearly 40 kHz.

Extensively-braced is a term that applies to all of Vapor Audio's cabinet designs. I saw cabinet parts for a number of different models, and each appeared to be an extreme statement of sturdy wood-construction loudspeaker design, with elimination of uncontrolled vibrations a top priority.

Versions of the RAAL tweeter appear in most Vapor Audio speakers, and have been in almost every model I have heard at the different audio shows over the last couple of years. They deliver what I think of as a "liquid smooth" top end that is characteristic of the Vapor Audio sound.


Vapor Audio Website.


Specifications

Specifications
  • Drivers:
    • Tweeter: RAAL 140-15D Amorphous Core Tweeter
    • Upper Midrange: 2" Accuton Cell C51 Upper Midrange
    • Lower Midrange: 8.5" Accuton Custom Vapor Audio Exclusive Lower Midrange
    • Woofer: 15" Sandwich Cone Audio Technology 15F Woofer
  • Cabinet Tuning: 10:1 Tapering Transmission Line, slot ported, 20hz tune
  • Freq Response: 16 – 38,500hz +/-3db, 24 – 26,000 hz +/- 1.5db
  • Nominal Impedance: 8 ohms
  • Sensitivity: 94 db
  • Recommended Power: 8-500 watts via Tube Amp, 15-500 watts via Solid State Amp
  • Dimensions: 64" Height x 32" Deep x 20" Max Width
  • Weight: 370 Pounds (260 lb bass section, 110 lb top section)
  • Crossover Details: Asymmetric slopes with crossover points of 300hz, 1000hz, and 2300hz
Associated Review Equipment
Measurement Methods
  • VH Audio Plasmatron Power Conditioner
  • Antipodes DS Music Server
  • BMC DAC1 DAC / Preamp
  • Salis Audio Chip Power Amp - prototype - 15 W/channel
  • Clayton Audio M300 Balanced Class A Power Amp - 300 W/channel
  • SET Tube Amp - custom - 9 W/channel
  • Cables - custom
Setup

The Perfect Storm stand tall and will need a large room to sound their best. It was not surprising that it took a little work to get them placed properly for best sound stage and imaging (SS&I). The Vapor Audio listening room is a well-treated room that the Perfect Storm seem very comfortable in, but they still needed some tweaking to get them sounding ready for serious review sessions.

It was not until we elevated the listening chair several inches, moved it forward a few feet, experimented with toe-in a little, and moved a pair of free-standing absorptive panels located behind them several times, that we finally hit upon the combination that immediately delivered the kind of SS&I I was looking for, very sharp and concise, very cohesive and natural.

Ear height was about 41 inches, with 124 inches from midrange driver to ear, and with the drivers spaced 94 inches apart. Toe-in amount was small, about 15 degrees, and the inside surface of each of the bass units was just visible from the listening position (LP), that line crossing the listener just inside the shoulders.


Listening Tests - Salis Audio Chip Power Amp

We started out with the Salis Audio Chip Amp. A fairly efficient speaker, the Perfect Storm seemed very comfortable driven by the 15 W/channel prototype power amplifier. I listened with this amplifier for several hours, getting familiar with the ins and outs of the Perfect Storm delivery.

My first listening track was Ain't It A Shame by the B-52s. I was not satisfied with placement until the SS&I on this song gelled and tightened. Even so, the harmonica at beginning and end of the song wandered a little on each note, a sign that SS&I could be better. Every speaker/room combination has its own set of codes to decipher, with little correlation between ease of setup and level of thrill at the ultimate performance level.

At their best in the Vapor Audio listening room, the Perfect Storm were very impressive, and Ryan will attest that I was extremely picky about getting SS&I to the point where I was very comfortable with them, as I am distracted if they are not near-perfect. I about wore out my welcome during a later listening session when a variable added to the room disrupted the SS&I enough to throw me off. Bottom line, while there was slight room for improvement, SS&I were excellent from the Perfect Storm throughout the listening sessions.

B-52s, Roam, cranked up to a nice loud level, I liked the crack of the snare drum on this track. One of the first things I had noticed about the Perfect Storm was the marvelous sense of unity about every drum beat, every percussive sound. I also absolutely loved the sound of cymbals from the Perfect Storm, at AXPONA probably one of the best speakers that I heard in that regard.

Mids and highs from the Perfect Storm were very balanced, very even, and I felt their voicing was just about perfect. There was almost a silkiness to female vocals in a couple of places, but not quite. If there had been a tiny bit more of that quality, it would have been too much. Almost too much, but not quite. I noticed things like that about the sonics of different sounds, voices, and instruments from the Perfect Storm several times. Almost too much, but not quite, some characteristic of the sonic balance pushed to the edge of being almost too much, and then held just this side of the danger zone... This seemed to be a design mantra that characterized the mid and upper range of the Perfect Storm. And that suited my listening sensibilities perfectly.

B-52s, The World's Green Laughter, we got some really deep bass out of the Perfect Storm on this track. One deep, booming drum sound (boominess in the recording, not from the speakers) almost felt three dimensional in the room. The 15-inch woofer had no problem moving air, and was very tightly controlled. I cannot imagine someone wanting to pair a subwoofer with the Perfect Storm. Every little tinkle, rattle, and beat of drum had a clarity that seemed spatially true, tonally true, and temporally true in time and attack, this seemed one of the Perfect Storm finest characteristics, their way of delivering percussive sounds as truthfully as they could possibly be portrayed.

At another point I noted the beautiful, almost luscious delivery of cymbal tones. From the first tang of attack of a cymbal hit, through the crescendo to vibration of the full surface area, to the way the harmonics and complex tones developed and changed through the life of that particular strike, unique from every other one, all delivered with essential accuracy and clarity by the Perfect Storm.

Buckethead, We Are One, the high frequencies on this track are simply recorded too hot during parts of Buckethead's guitar solos, making it an interesting test track. With the Perfect Storm, those passages were still too hot in the high frequency range, but were extremely even, with nothing sticking out at all. The double bass also was very succinct.

Crash Test Dummies, Keep A Lid On Things, the snare drum crack at the end of the chorus is followed by a complete absence of sound. When the Perfect Storm stop, the sound really stops, almost as though the Perfect Storm soak up the extra energy from the room to complete that very sudden onset of silence in the recording.

Fast, low-mass drivers with proper enclosure tuning produce a fast system response, and this was obviously a top design priority for the Perfect Storm. Percussion sounds, both natural and synthesized, across the frequency spectrum were delivered with apparently instant on and off times, especially when driven by the solid state amps with their high damping factors. Many speakers reveal their resonances with system peaks, but there were none that I could hear with the Perfect Storm, and they got a great percussive workout during our listening sessions.

China Girl, David Bowie, the crack of the snare drum reminded me of the sound of several snare drums on different tracks where there was almost, but not quite, a little too much of a certain sound at a certain frequency, again, that aspect of the Perfect Storm tonality held just out of the danger zone, right where I liked it.

My Own Summer, Deftones, a track that really sizzles, but delivery was smooth. I noted the same on vocal tones on several tracks, kept just out of the danger zone.

Devin Townsend, Disruptr, this track gets very crunchy, and was held so extremely even by the Perfect Storm, even when it got quite aggressive. The same applied to Sunshine The Werewolf, Dillinger Escape Plan.

The Perfect Storm were equally comfortable with strings, woodwinds, and horns. They were fully comfortable with classical piano, acoustical instruments on bluegrass tracks, and heavy rock and roll. They can scream as easily as they can lull you to sleep.

Things The Grandchildren Should Know, Eels, I made a list of all the things the Perfect Storm were doing so right: tight, succinct, even, open, easy, smooth.

Olivier Messiaen, Louange à l'Éternité de Jésus, cello and piano. The Perfect Storm gave a very emotional, very engaging delivery of this track. I was really quite transported.


Listening Tests - Clayton Audio M300 Balanced Class A Power Amp

Coming back to the Perfect Storm after a good break, we change to the Clayton amplifiers, 300 watts of balanced class A power per speaker. Starting with Devin Townsend, Gato, the first thing I noticed was the deep pockets of clean power that were available. With the 15-Watt Salis Audio chip amp, although I never heard it out-and-out clipping, there was a point where you simply felt you wanted to hold back from pushing it further to keep it clean and comfortable. It was almost as though you were driving with a governor and you wanted to push the speed to the point right before the governor kicked in. There was plenty of clean power for the Perfect Storm driving that way.

With the Clayton amps there was no such governor. There was simply a huge reservoir of available power and the Perfect Storm showed no sign of ever running out of the ability to take on that power and convert it into sonic energy with no rough edges or impurity added. It was an awesome experience, almost a little frightening. I sensed that the only factor in the listening experience limiting the amount of clean volume that could be pushed through the system and into my brain was the vulnerability of my own hearing to permanent damage if I was not careful. I consciously pushed at and ultimately held back on the volume level with this in mind, wanting to enjoy the clean power and wanting to remain sensible about it at the same time. It was a delicious sensation, like hovering just this side of the edge of destruction.

Devin Townsend, Hyperdrive, again a sense of effortless power.

One thing I noted it immediately with the Clayton amps was a feel that there was more mid-bass. Ryan said he had noticed that, too, and had taken measurements that showed no change in frequency response. It was a bit of a mystery.

The same sensation was there even with quieter tracks, like Things The Grandchildren Should Know.

Midlake, Roscoe, with many voices and guitars evenly spaced in the mix, and the Perfect Storm kept them all sonically separate. Layers of midrange detail were well-defined and never became fatiguing. In fact the Perfect Storm is one of the least-fatiguing speakers I have spent significant time with. I noted this while remembering to be careful with the volume level and all those clean reserves of available SPL.

Nickel Creek, Ode To A Butterfly, with the volume pushed up, the acoustical instruments seemed almost to have inflated body sizes. That woofer can really push the air at the low frequencies, especially for the stand-up bass. All those instruments were so transparent with the Perfect Storm.

Introduction To Also Sprach Zarathustra, and Star Trek, Cincinnati Pops Orchestra, the Perfect Storm is a fairly efficient speaker with lots of dynamic range; I found no tracks or type of music where that broad dynamic range seemed anywhere close to running out of reserve.

Mindy Smith, My Holiday, it felt like you could reach right into the detail of her voice.

B-52s, Vision Of A Kiss, the seemingly lifted mid-bass was particularly fun on rock tracks, lending a little extra punchiness to the sound. I noted again how focused the imaging and natural the soundstage were. They filled the entire end of the room, extending well past the speakers side-to-side, which almost disappeared on some tracks and completely disappeared on others. The disappearing act also I felt would become complete with more TLC in placement and treatment.

Bass and midbass performance were exceptionally tight. Kick drums and low percussion never felt tired or flabby, the power amps were always able to easily stay on top of the well-behaved driver motion.

Midrange detail was so clear that on heavy tracks with multiple distorted guitar sounds, it was easy to tell the instruments apart, even differentiate the types of guitar distortion in use.

Sleepytime Guerrilla Museum, Sleep Is Wrong, the Perfect Storm span the line between forgettable and exciting. One minute you almost forget you are listening to speakers, and then a track will come along were they reach out and grab you, give you a shake, almost excited, saying, "Hey, listen to this!"


Listening Tests - Custom SET Tube Amp

I listened to many of the same tracks with the 9 W/channel tube amps. Of course, the sense of limited power was there if pushed, although they never sounded distorted, simply held you back at a sensible level as with the chip amp. The Perfect Storm were easily driven to very nice listening levels by them, and a tube lover could be more than satisfied with this combination.

The perception of mid-bass boost noticed with the Clayton amps was gone, and with the lower damping factor from the SET amps it was clear that the bass quickness was just a little soft. That softer presentation was very addictive in its own way, more mellow and laid back with no sacrifice in clarity or transparency.


Comments On The Vapor Audio Arcus and Cirrus Models

During the visit to Vapor Audio, I also had the chance to hear two other models which were on hand. The Arcus, starting at $6,495 per pair, is a two-way with a 10-inch bass-midrange driver and a large, horn-loaded folded-motion tweeter. The Arcus can handle lots of power and cleanly deliver high continuous volume levels, which I witnessed.

The Arcus did not have quite the refinement of the big brother Perfect Storm. With no objectionable qualities whatsoever to report on, I was aware of just a few spots where sonic rough edges had not been sanded down quite as smoothly as with a Perfect Storm. Without the direct comparison in the same room, those differences might not have been apparent at all; they were very subtle. Voicing was very similar, quite smooth through the mids and high-frequency ranges.

The Arcus had to be placed carefully to get their SS&I working properly, but this was accomplished with a couple of quick adjustments. Then they completely disappeared in the room, with a sharp imaging and their wonderfully open and natural sound stage.

Much like the Perfect Storm, the Arcus with the Clayton power amps could seemingly be pushed until the ears bled and deliver only clean, clear, beautiful sound.

But the really fun surprise of the trip was the $4,995 per pair Cirrus Black, a two-way monitor, one of Ryan's first designs for Vapor Audio. As Ryan was setting them up, I noticed there was a tape measure right next to him. I expected him to make some physical measurements so the distance and symmetry would be as needed. But he ignored the tape measure and set them up very quickly only by "eyeballing." It annoyed me a little that he seemed to be careless about something so important.

I was both delighted and a little further annoyed when he started them up, and I was presented with razor-sharp imaging and a gorgeous, humongous, open, natural, cohesive soundstage which extended well beyond the boundaries of the room. I jokingly expressed my annoyance at how he had ignored the tape measure and at how easy they were to set up, and Ryan said he had found the Cirrus pretty much set themselves up with minimal placement care.

Ryan told how he spent a year perfecting the enclosure design for the Cirrus, insisting on nothing short of a perfect result. The Cirrus became and remain the Vapor Audio standard by which all their other model designs are graded and considered finished and worthy of the Vapor Audio name.

Without a doubt, the Cirrus were the closest to perfection of any of the speakers I heard that week, or have heard in a long time. Absolutely everything that needed to be there was there in just the right amount, and absolutely nothing extra or annoying or off-putting or questionable of any kind was present in their sonic delivery. I and another visiting listener whose ears I highly respect both agreed that the 2-way with 6.5-inch woofer and RAAL tweeter was the best 2-way speaker we remembered ever hearing, and for me the hour spent with the Cirrus was among a handful of top listening experiences ever, period, absolutely delightful and extremely difficult to pull myself away from. The Cirrus easily leapt to near the top of my list of "gotta have" speakers, regardless of price.

Compared to the Perfect Storm, the little Cirrus do not have the output capability or depth of bass extension, as one would expect. But for a smaller room and moderate listening levels, along with reasonable bass response expectations (-3 dB at 37 Hz, -1.5 dB at 45 Hz, typical in-room response with room gain), the Cirrus is definitely the master of its domain.


Final Listening Session

At this point we returned to the Perfect Storm, and I made a nuisance of myself, insisting that the other speakers we had auditioned be removed from the back of the room. I was convinced they were disrupting the soundstage ever so slightly. Ryan complied, no doubt noting in my file that I could be "difficult," and with all variables returned to their previous satisfactory state, one final session with the Perfect Storm was in order.

We finished as we had started, the speakers easily driven by the modest output from the Salis chip amp, and all previous impressions were confirmed. Repeating a number of tracks, the wide, natural soundstage with tight imaging, the almost-live accuracy of percussive instruments, the reach-down-their-throat immediacy of vocal detail, all aplenty but never too much, all re-asserted themselves as I made my final notes before departure.


Conclusions

If I were granted three wishes for the Perfect Storm, I would need only one, the time and resources to tweak and play with placement and treatment so I could squeeze the last few drops of soundstage and imaging and disappearing-act magic from the speakers. That final few percent of SS&I finish-tuning can take many hours of experimenting, and will be part of the process of some fortunate owner-to-be making them his own in his listening room. Based on everything I heard from them, I am confident in their ability to achieve SS&I perfection.

No speaker is perfect, but perfection is a goal that is approached in fine degrees of attention to detail. It almost seems like you have to sneak up on it so that you don't frighten it away. Shave off a micron too much of one quality and you find you have gone too far and have to back off again and approach the goal from a different angle. Ryan and co-designer Pete Schumacher have done an admirable job shaving away the imperfections in the design of the Perfect Storm. Priced at $27,000 per pair, they easily stand up against any other speakers I have heard in the price range, and many I have heard at two and three times the price. I readily admit that the Vapor Audio design sensibilities are a good match for my own listening preferences, and all their models I have heard have been easy to like, if not fall for just a bit. I would consider the Vapor Audio Perfect Storm to be a model very worthy of auditioning by anyone thinking of spending $50,000 or under for a pair of 2-channel speakers, and would not be in the least surprised to hear of them being preferred over models costing significantly more. My experience with them was delightful and unforgettable.


Go to the Vapor Audio Perfect Storm Speaker Review Discussion Thread


Perfect Storm

















Cirrus







Arcus









Salis Audio Chip Power Amp



Antipodes DS Music Server (top shelf), BMC DAC1 DAC / Preamp (middle shelf), Custom SET Tube Amps (bottom shelf), Clayton Audio M300 Balanced Class A Power Amps (black, on floor), VH Audio Plasmatron Power Conditioner (behind, on floor).





Wayne (seated), Ryan
 

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AudiocRavings, by Wayne Myers:
Can't Tell an MP3 from a FLAC? You Probably Need A Better Tweeter



It's Easy - Under The Right Conditions

Recently I was at Dennis Young's place - Tesseract - listening to various tunes via Tidal Streaming over his Vapor Audio Sundog (Black) speakers, with their gloriously clean high end, courtesy of RAAL tweeters. The Sundogs were delivering such a pristine, crystal-clear treble, that was the first thing I noticed when I sat down, even though I was seated off to the side, several feet from the prime Listening Position (LP).

While we were listening, out of curiosity we switched among the three grades of audio available: Normal, High, and HIFI - you have to stop and restart playback to get the audio grade to switch after changing your selection, and we did this each time.


Hybrid Electrostatic Speaker, a two-way design, all high-frequency (HF) content
is handled by the electrostatic panel. Very low mass, very low distortion.





Ribbon Tweeter. Very low mass, low distortion, smooth HF response.



The Normal and High settings were certainly not bad sounding, but the high frequencies were simply not as clean as with the HIFI setting, which is lossless (FLAC). With the two lossy sound grades, the highs sounded slightly messy, or hashy, compared to the HIFI, which was completely free of such effects. I could hear the difference very clearly. I will let Dennis give you his own impressions. With cymbals, bells, and sharp percussive sounds with lots of high frequencies, it was easy to hear the difference. And on a saxophone track, I could readily hear the difference in the highest harmonics of that instrument's rich tones.


Here is a view of part of Tidal's streaming service GUI,
showing the lossless HIFI option is active.




Good, Better, Best Tweeter Types

There are those who claim that you cannot hear the difference, or cannot hear it easily, or that the difference is so small that it does not really matter - there are many possible ways to put it. I suggest that if you can not hear the difference easily, that you just might need speakers with better tweeters. Here are a few impressions about tweeters in general. These are roughly listed from Good (bottom of the list) to Better to Best (top of the list).
  • Plasma - Best, and - you guessed it - VERY expensive
  • Electrostatic - Best
  • Planar Magnetic - Best
  • Ribbon (including Horn-Loaded) - Best
  • Folded-Motion (including Horn-Loaded) - Better
  • Horn-Loaded Compression - Better
  • Cone - Good
  • Silk Dome - Good
  • Metal Dome - Good
Note that there are exceptions to the order of this list. I have heard Metal Dome tweeters that sounded fantastically transparent, for instance. But as a rule, these impressions hold true probably 80% to 90% of the time.


The Transparent Tweeter

I believe that the main tweeter design detractors from transparency are (in no particular order):
  • Distortion
  • Stored Energy
  • Rough Frequency Response
Dispersion and Crossover Integration can also be factors. There can be numerous contributors beyond the tweeter type itself, so they are outside the bounds of this discussion.

...and in general, the better tweeter types avoid these types of problems by way of:
  • Bigger Surface area - less motion, lower distortion
  • Lower Mass - faster response, less stored energy, lower distortion
  • Higher Efficiency - less motion, lower distortion

Next Time You Buy Speakers

My advice: When you are deciding on a new speaker, make the tweeter type a high priority on your list of selection criteria. Then when there is a discussion about subtle effects like the difference between FLACs and MP3s, or between lossless and lossy tracks, you might just be able to chime in with, "I can sure hear the difference." Your ears will love you for it.

Welcome to AudiocRavings, my blog of audio-related thoughts, musings, ideas, discoveries, suggestions, rants, and ramblings. With luck, a portion will be somewhat useful to someone somewhere somehow.

Wayne Myers
 

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AudiocRavings, by Wayne Myers:
Another Dirac Live Success Story



Distracted and Confused

Visiting Dennis Young - Tesseract - a few weeks ago, he was demonstrating his first Dirac Live calibration using his new Emotiva XSP-1 Gen 2 Differential Reference Preamp. I sat down and listened, switching back and forth a number of times between the Dirac Live setting and the two user-protrammable settings, one of which was unmodified.

And I got confused. Blame it on lack of sleep. Blame it on the loads of always-interesting, always-distracting, always-fun conversation Dennis and I always have when we get together - I am embarrassed to admit the number of turns we have missed while traveling to audio shows together because my navigation efforts were distracted by great conversation. Blame it on... who knows why, I just got confused. I could not keep it straight in my head which was the Dirac Live setting.

So, a few days ago, I went back for another listen. After a short listen and about three repeat explanations of which setting was which, I finally got it straight. And at that point, I also understood why I had been so confused.

The Dirac Live setting sounded so much better than the others that it was almost hard to believe that it could be making that much difference. The imaging went from broad to sharply defined. The soundstage became distinct and detailed, cohesive and lifelike. High-frequency (HF) response was lifted and extended, with no sacrifice in clarity. Dennis's listening room presents a number of acoustical challenges, which he has been valiantly battling for some time, with great success, I might add. The room, with his Vapor Audio Sundog (Black) speakers really sounds very good with the changes he has made.


An example of Dirac Live impulse correction.



Contrast and Clarity

Nothing points out an improvement like a good old A-B switching opportunity. As good as Dennis's room sounds, the Dirac Live setting made such an improvement, with no downside, that it took me some time and effort to adjust to the idea. With that A-B switching comparison to point out the contrast, and time for it all to sink into my brain, clarity finally returned. Indeed, the Dirac Live calibration had transformed the room's sound, and the result was knockout great, perhaps the best example I have heard yet of what Dirac Live can accomplish in a room.


Don't Look Back

The experience is a testament to the power of Dirac Live (DL) to improve a system's sound. Another testament to the power of DL is the number of long-time experts and adherents to that other AVR-based room correction package who have converted. One of them said he was completely sold after his first DL calibration, and has never looked back.


Customizable target curves make
tailoring freqency response a breeze.




In Perspective

Is DL the ultimate audio room cure-all? No. Remember the following:

It is true that:
  • Getting a successful DL calibration is, relatively speaking (compared to that other technology), so easy that you almost cannot get it wrong.
  • Every first DL calibration I have heard in a room has given excellent, downright impressive, results.
  • Dirac Live and superb soundstage and imaging (SS&I) results go hand in hand. Great SS&I are what DL was designed for.
  • With its customizable target curves, DL can easily suit any listener's personal taste.
HOWEVER:
  • In every room where I have heard it, there has also been significant attention to acoustical treatment. I will never say that room treatment is unimportant. I will also never say not to give DL a try under whatever your current conditions might be. Just remember that the two complement each other, both together are probably-always better than either alone.

On-screen directions guide the calibration process
every step of the way.




Being Spoiled Is Fun

I know I have become a bit of a broken record when it comes to Dirac Live. I make no apologies for it. It works. There is little to no downside or sacrifice in applying it. Except that it is spoiling its users for easy great sound. And except for loss of pride for long-time hand-tuners. Those of us who have hand-tuned and tuned and tuned our systems for the best sound without room correction have had to swallow our pride and admit that DL is better. And easier. We are starting to get lazy. Now instead of spending hours fine-tuning our systems, we run DL and sit back and listen and laugh and enjoy.


'Nuff Said

And when we walk into another's home theater and it doesn't quite sound right to us, our first question is: "Do you have Dirac Live? Doesn't sound like it." Which is the other DL downside. Being a little annoying about it. That part does deserve a small apology. Sorry. There, 'nuff said.

Welcome to AudiocRavings, my blog of audio-related thoughts, musings, ideas, discoveries, suggestions, rants, and ramblings. With luck, a portion will be somewhat useful to someone somewhere somehow.

Wayne Myers
 

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AudiocRavings, by Wayne Myers:
Behold the Psycho Pillow!



This is not an April Fool's joke. Every word that follows is true.:rolleyesno:

If any of you were awake at 4 A.M. this morning, you might have felt a disturbance in The Force. That is the moment the Psycho Pillow was born.

Radiohead’s Amnesiac album was playing. About midway through I Might Be Wrong, thinking soundstage and imaging (SS&I) thoughts, as I have done on occasion, I wondered how much SS&I degradation was occurring at my ears from the reflections and cancellations off of my comfy recliner's high back

This is not a new problem. I have mentioned it often, usually recommending that a plush blanket over the back of a high chair or captain’s seat be used to absorb as much of those reflections as possible. A nice, soft blanket helps, but the result is far from perfection. The softest plush blanket material is still somewhat reflective at mid and high frequencies, allowing degraded SS&I performance. Short of leaning forward a foot or more - an uncomfortable listening position - or cutting off the back of the chair at shoulder level - a drastic and unsightly measure - I have long been at a loss for a better solution.


The Psycho Pillow is born. The dark flecks are from a
previous unrelated experiment involving a type of sound insulation
made from recycled denim.




An Idea Is Born

Across the room lay a pile of loose polyfill, the remains of a failed, unrelated recent experiment. It was the right kind of material, but putting it in a pillowcase or putting a cover on it simply gave it a reflective surface again.

While constructing a pair of LXmini speakers from kit recently, I had used a mesh laundry bag for the Acousta-Stuf material supplied to be stuffed into each of the two 4-inch diameter tubes that house the LF drivers, making it easy to remove if needed. A similar laundry bag was sitting with all of my headphones stuffed inside, each in its own hard-shell case, because... Well, you just never know when you are going to end up needing a bag full of audiophile headphones. The wheels in my head started to turn, and I envisioned the mesh bag filled with the loose polyfill and behind my head on the chair, absorbing all those nasty reflections. The WAF-sensitive feminine side of The Force, apparently, was not happy.


The old way. The plush blanket absorbs some, but not all, of the sound hitting
the back of the chair. Reflections cause cancellations at midrange frequencies,
disrupting soundstage and imaging (SS&I) clarity.




SS&I Nirvana

In a flash, the headphone bag was emptied and then filled with the loose polyfill. By the middle of Knives Out, I was seated again, my head comfortably supported by the new Audiophile’s Essential Psychoacoustical Soundstage and Imaging Preservation Pillow, the “Psycho Pillow,” from idea to proof of concept to full implementation in under 5 minutes. SS&I performance in my listening chair skyrocketed from respectable and enjoyable to the Zowie Zone. Imaging became crisp and precise, details became apparent that were hidden before. Only one problem, it just might be the ugliest audiophile accessory EVER! I was more than a little worried that it might not pass the dreaded WAF Test.


Properly in place on the listening chair. The fiberfill should be kept back from
bunching close to the ears. It is meant only to cover the chair back
behind the ears.




WAF Test Failure

Demonstrating the prototype for my wife this morning, she just sat shaking her head back and forth. The look on her face was not admiration. It was that other look that the wives of A-V nuts give their men once in awhile. You know the one I mean.

My plans to implement a big production line and film an infomercial are on permanent hold. So I share the idea with you all in the public domain. Materials total under $10 per “finished” piece. Assembly takes about 30 seconds. And It really works. Just do not expect to make any WAF points with it.

Welcome to AudiocRavings, my blog of audio-related thoughts, musings, ideas, discoveries, suggestions, rants, and ramblings. With luck, a portion will be somewhat useful to someone somewhere somehow.

Wayne Myers
 

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Discussion Starter #89


It is no secret that I like MartinLogan speakers. To be more specific, I like electrostatic speakers, of which MartinLogan produces some of the finest on the planet. I have published in-depth reviews of several MartinLogan L/R pairs and one Center Channel model. They never disappoint. My main reference speakers are MartinLogan’s Electromotion ESL, their entry-level hybrid electrostatic, recently replaced in the MartinLogan lineup by the newer Electromotion ESL X.

I initially asked MartinLogan to provide a pair of the new ESL X for review, but it was suggested that I move up the line a notch and evaluate the new MartinLogan Classic ESL 9, priced at $6495 per pair. Who was I to argue? Having lived with a pair of the newer Classic ESL 9 speakers for several weeks, I can report that they deliver the same effortless electrostatic sound, or lack of sound, that I have learned to appreciate from electrostatics. It is as though their effortless delivery says, “Relax, we’ll do the rest,” and for me that sound is Home!


Description

The Classic ESL 9 is a hybrid electrostatic design, meaning that each speaker is made up of components from two very different speaker technology families. The upper electrostatic panel is a dipole, a thin membrane with sound radiating from its front and rear surfaces, those wavefronts equal in strength but, as a matter of physics, out of phase. The electrostatic panel handles the frequency range from 380 Hz on up to 23 kHz +/- 3 dB in the case of the Classic ESL 9. The woofers, “two 8-inch (20.3 cm) cast basket, high excursion, rigid aluminium cone woofers with extended throw drive assembly, non-resonance asymmetrical chamber format,” cover from the 380 Hz crossover frequency down to 34 Hz +/- 3 dB.

Making the two driver types work together seamlessly as an integrated design is no small matter, and the team at MartinLogan has been refining their integration chops for many years. The Precision-Built Advanced-Topology Vojtko Crossover, the dual opposed-motion woofers, the woofer enclosure, the XStat Transducer, Curvilinear Line Source design with Generation 2 diaphragm, MicroPerf Stator, Vacuum Bonding, and Ultra-Rigid AirFrame Technology, all work together presenting a unified sound that refuses to be picked apart by any program material. With each MartinLogan model I have reviewed, it has been a priority to poke and prod for potential weakness in the area of integration, and I have not been able to discover any such flaw in any of those models. The Classic ESL 9 had some interesting surprises to offer up as I delved into this topic.

The Advanced AirFrame Design caught my interest right away as an important design advance for Soundstage and Imaging (SS&I) performance, a top priority for me personally. While the older design of my original ESL pair has always seemed more than adequate and they deliver outstanding SS&I, the super-rigid Advanced AirFrame for the Classic ESL 9 looks and feels very tough, almost industrial, yet attractive at the same time, providing an extra measure of rigidity in a critical area of the design where compromise becomes a term not to be invoked lightly, if at all.

The Dark Cherry enclosure is beautiful and boasts first-rate workmanship. Gloss Black and Walnut are other standard options. Edges and corners are sharp and might be a concern in a room where a toddler could fall and suffer a head-bonk on a furniture edge, but this can be said of many speaker and furniture designs. Overall, although different, I find the look of the current MartinLogan line very attractive, even elegant in its simplicity. Guests never call them ugly. Interesting or even beautiful are more likely descriptors.

A custom 5-way connection terminal on the rear allows for bi-wiring if desired. The spacing does not accommodate standard-spaced dual-banana connectors. The bias voltage for the two electrostatic panels comes from a pair of small 120V power supplies, each providing a low-current DC output.

The supplied hard rubber feet are adjustable for leveling and are easy on flooring. Energy Transfer Coupling (ETC) spikes are provided for use as needed to tighten Image Clarity. I did not need them or try them out with the Classic ESL 9.

Sensitivity (90 dB) is a little lower than with my ESL (91 dB), but hardly worth mentioning. While these speakers can soak up some power, I have driven my ESL pair with a humble AVR and been very satisfied, although high volumes felt strained. With the Classic ESL 9, a pair of large stereo power amps (don’t ask, their identity is being withheld pending a future study/review) in stereo mode (to keep damping factor at max, rather than bridged mode, which doubles output impedance) could drive the Classic ESL 9 to blistering volumes and make it sound like a walk in the park. I started out with just one of them in stereo mode driving the pair.

MartinLogan specifies amplifier wattages in the range of 50 to 400 W per channel into 4 ohms, and states the nominal impedance is 4 ohms, dipping down to 0.8 ohm at 20 kHz. The listener who plans on high volumes will benefit from an amplifier with drive capability that increases with lowering load impedance - down to 2 ohms - and should be aware that some Class D designs have a high frequency peak when driving a capacitive load such as an electrostatic panel.

My amps paired well with the ESL, and performed without a single hickup. From late-night-quiet to peel-the-paint-loud, the Classic ESL 9 made it all seem embarrassingly easy.


Specifications
  • System Frequency Response: 34–23,000 Hz ± 3db
  • Recommended Amplifier Power: 50–400 watts per channel at 4 Ohms
  • Dispersion:
    • Horizontal: 30 Degrees
    • Vertical: 44” (112 cm) line source
  • Sensitivity: 90 dB/2.83 volts/meter
  • Impedance: Nominal: 4 ohms, 0.8 ohms @ 20 kHz
  • Crossover Frequency: 380 Hz
  • High/Mid Frequency Driver: 44” x 9.2” (112 x 23.4 cm) CLS XStat electrostatic (405 in2/2,621 cm2)
  • Woofers: 2x 8” (20.3cm) cast basket, high excursion, rigid aluminum cone with extended throw drive assembly, non-resonance asymmetrical chamber format.
  • Components: Custom-wound audio transformer, air core coils, low DCR steel laminate coils, polyester capacitors
  • Signal Inputs: Custom 5-way bi-wire tool-less binding posts
  • Power Draw Max: 2W per channel Standby: 1W per channel
    [*]Weight: 78 lbs. each (35.4 kg)
    [*]Size (H x W x D): 59.8” × 10.4” × 25.4” (152 × 36.4 × 64.6 cm)
    [*]
    [*]
Unboxing

The Classic ESL 9 arrived in a semi with a lift gate, packaged in two tall cartons plastic-wrapped together and strapped onto a pallet. This makes for a 200-pound-range pallet delivery which must be planned for. In my case, the pallet had to be taken apart at the end of the front sidewalk, where a single step prevented the pallet jack from getting closer to the front porch, where there are three additional steps.

Straps were cut, plastic shrink-wrap was removed, and each box was carried by two muscular men, the driver and myself, to the front porch. After a break, the speakers were carried indoors - two people will be required for any significant moving around, they weigh 78 lb. each when unboxed and ready for play - and set in their intended audition spots.

The cartons, when flattened, are very large. A corner of the garage might be the best shelter they can be provided in many homes.


Setup

The Classic ESL 9 had, according to the paperwork, been burned in and tested before shipment, so they were ready for immediate service. They never made it to my downstairs laboratory, this review took place entirely in the living room. A midfield Listening Position (LP) was determined with the chair pulled forward to find the soundstage and imaging (SS&I) sweet spot without and with optional Dirac Live (DL) calibration applied by miniDSP’s DDRC-22D. I also found a more typical listening spot across the room on the couch (no DL).

The manual from MartinLogan contains a wealth of information pertinent to proper setup of their speakers. Their approach seeks to guide the listener to the finest possible SS&I with minimum sacrifice in frequency response (FR). This will put the LP at a somewhat off-axis listening angle. My own LP ended a little forward of that shown by their approach, but I applaud the documentation for being thorough and giving the kind of guidance most likely to bring sonic satisfaction in most rooms. This is unusual among speaker manufacturers, although becoming less so, I am happy to report. I usually recommend the included setup instructions be discarded forthwith for most speakers, but the MartinLogan guys know their stuff. They build a great speaker and test it and ship it to you, and they don’t want to see it again from that point forward. The best way to ensure that is to help the listener make the speaker perform at its best in his room. The supplied setup instructions will help you get there, and I recommend you trust their directions.

Having worked with numerous dipole speakers, I can say that speakers like the Classic ESL 9 are not difficult to set up for good SS&I performance. But the symmetry of dimensions and angles, when refined to ¼-inch or less precision, can yield results that are so good they “mess with your head,” to quote another listener. As the MartinLogan team state in the well-written Manual, experimentation and tweaking are usually needed to get to that kind of result.

Optimal SS&I setup generally means more HF rolloff, a result of the off-axis listening angle needed for decent SS&I performance. The HF loss was less than I expected with the Classic ESL 9, and I hardly noticed the loss. The HF-flattening boost with Dirac Live was welcome but not necessary, although depth acuity of image location was definitely enhanced with Dirac applied.


Dirac Live

Early on, I noticed two specific qualities in the music, (1) the slight spreading of the highest sibilance in the vocals, detrimental to image clarity, and (2) what sounded like a slight flabbiness in the low bass. That flabbiness especially was worse with Dirac Live applied, not better, as I expected it to be. The chosen DL target curve was found to contribute to the bass problem.

The woofers were being driven harder than normal to meet the target curve’s demanded boost at frequencies below the natural LF rolloff. A woofer that is being driven extra hard at out-of-band frequencies to meet a target gain will probably not sound tightly controlled. Low synthesized bass and kick drums were especially loose. A minor adjustment was introduced to the bass end of the DL target curve and the low bass tightened right up.

Without Dirac Live, the proximity to the front wall gave a little room-coupling bass boost, as one would expect, but without that distinct flabbiness.

At high frequencies, the image smearing settled down after these setup changes:
  • I upgraded to my best reference DAC, the Oppo HA-1, with very low ringing in the reconstruction filters, first step toward eliminating the HF smearing.
  • I added the second power amp. Initial setup had been with a single stereo amp. With two identical power amps, each amp was operating as a monoblock in normal operating mode (not bridged). So channel separation, or crosstalk, not specified by most AVR and amp makers these days, effectively became unmeasurable, and the HF smearing was tightened a little more.
  • The DL target curve at high frequencies was modified. The HF slopes of the left and right speakers did not quite match in the rolloff area of the measured speaker curves (this is getting extremely picky on my part), and the gap between them meant that the left was ever-so-slightly hotter at the frequencies in question. A minor change closed the gap.
Is Dirac Live really needed? The more careful the setup, the less it is necessary. I spent many hours on my ESL setup before calibrating the Dirac Live, and SS&I are about as good as they can get without it. Yet I always include it, because doing so is all upside, even if only a small improvement is attained. And even though the Classic ESL 9 sounded good enough in my living room for critical sessions without it, its addition gave that polish and extra bit of SS&I clarity I love to hear. Improved depth acuity cues are usually the main noticeable enhancement.


Bi-Wiring

The Classic ESL 9 is bi-wireable, with straps on the connection posts tying the two sections of the crossover together for normal use. Removing the straps and adding connections for vertical bi-wiring, according to MartinLogan instructions, I could tell no difference in the sound whatsoever. Another setup in a different room might reveal a difference, but I could not hear one with the Classic ESL 9. With a two-way speaker and crossover and passive vertical bi-wiring, it is in the region of the crossover frequency that a difference might be audible, with miniscule out-of-band signals to the wrong driver being eliminated. A slight sharpening of SS&I in that particular frequency region might be noticeable, giving an impression of enhanced integration of the drivers and an even smoother transition between the upper and lower frequency regions. In other words, an ultra-subtle difference at best,

Having the second channel of each of the two stereo power amplifiers in use allowed for the potential of a little more power output and an increase in maximum volume, but limited volume was of no concern during this testing.


Evaluation

Mutemath - Vitals
I did a fair amount of album listening while auditioning the Classic ESL 9. A recent discovery, the Vitals album by Mutemath, was played twice through. This work covers a wide textural range - big, then small, raw and anechoic, then deep with huge reverb, all in support of Paul Meany’s vocals with their own effortless clarity.

Talking Heads - Tiny Creatures, Naked
Listening through the last couple of Talking Heads studio albums, These tracks helped confirm the tightly controlled bass and the sharpened image clarity. The imaging made me thing of razor blades hanging vertically in the air, with virtually no width to speak of.

The simple, natural recording of cymbals and vocals on the Talking Heads tracks allowed further confirmation of the unforced clarity delivered by the Classic ESL 9 electrostatic panels. Their ability to preserve subtle detail, like the complex sonics of cymbal or hi-hat strikes behind heavier sounds on a track, allows one to witness the clarity possible from an electrostatic panel. The details that most tweeters turn into mushy noise are preserved with ease, and sonic realism is maintained at all volume levels.

Todd Rundgren - Liars
This album came next, and as I was focusing mostly on SS&I, the width of the panels came to mind. To have those big, wide panels delivering such razor-sharp images seems unnatural. The ear does some averaging to locate the precise source-center of those images, but only succeeds as it does with the Classic ESL 9 because of the consistency of top-to-bottom and side-to-side performance that those panels deliver. Again I envisioned individual images in the soundstage as razor blades slicing through the air. Higher frequencies, especially with the sibilance from vocals, where a portion of a syllable might smear left of right, or both, from the image center, can be very telling about a speaker and its interaction with the room. I found the Classic ESL 9 to be more immune to this distraction than my ESL pair, as one might expect.

King Crimson - Power To Believe
Those cymbals are so nicely recorded, their complex tonal nature preserved, and the Classic ESL 9 serves them up with no loss of fidelity. The soundstage is much wider than the speaker width and the Classic ESL 9 completely disappear therein.

Michael Hedges - Breakfast In The Field
The hybrid design of most electrostatic speaker models from MartinLogan is a tour de force of engineering. Integration of cone driver with electrostatic panel might worry the listener who has not spent time with a MartinLogan rig. Having not quite the focusing power of a point source speaker or small two-way, the hybrid design makes use of drivers, crossovers, and enclosures wherein every angle, component, and vibration serves a purpose and plays a part in creating a whole that is much more tightly focused than the sum-total size of its parts. Breakfast In The Field, a guitar instrumental album by Michael Hedges, is a good test album for listening closely for artifacts indicating problems in the area of integration. I have not yet heard such a problem with a MartinLogan product, and the Classic ESL 9 adds another big set of data points to the assertion that the designers have driver integration down. Especially Funky Avocado, with funky bass accompanying Michael’s guitar, gave me a chance to verify this. The bass image was even in height with the guitar. There was no impression that the deeper tones came from a lower angle.

Dynamics and impact really shine on these Windham Hill recordings. Anyone who tries to tell you that Electrostatics cannot deliver dynamics has not heard a proper pair properly set up, and properly driven with a proper test track. Given a chance, the Classic ESL 9 serve up impact like the crack of a whip. I submit the track Breakfast In The Field as proof.

These same tracks remind me of the main reason I consider MartinLogan electrostatics home. Their ease of delivery is simply second to none. When I sit to listen critically, it only takes a moment (yes, I even listened to parts of the Wall-E soundtrack) to be reminded of that ease of delivery - the result of a lot of attention to detail on the part of a lot of engineers and technicians back at the factory. It is very addicting.

Philip Glass - Koyaanisqatsi
Listening to the soundtrack album for Koyaanisqatsi, music by Philip Glass, trumpets, choir, organ, I am reminded of the twofold challenge of a MartinLogan review.
  • With practically nothing negative about them to contrast with, it can be difficult to think of much positive to say.
  • It is easy to forget what you are doing and sit enthralled by the music that pours from them. “Pour” seems like the right word, because the delivery is like music having been condensed to liquid form and poured into the express hearing port of the listener’s psychoacoustical brain.
Devin Townsend - Ki
This is another test album with wide dynamic range and crunchy volume during densely mixed tracks offering little image separation with imperfect speakers. In contrast, the MartinLogan Classic ESL 9 is a natural when it comes to keeping those images straight, an imaging curator, insisting on precise placement and separation of all of the distinct images in the mix.

Compared to my original ESL pair, the falloff due to the off-axis LP is roughly equivalent, but response is smoother and definitely extends to higher frequencies. And the depth of the bass response is impressive. The dual-opposing 8-inch aluminum woofers do a superb job of keeping those low frequencies clean.


Conclusions

I finish where I began, late at night with a third full listen-through to the Mutemath Vitals album on the Classic ESL 9, only feeling somewhat sonically enlightened. You know what they say about enlightenment. "Before enlightenment, chop wood, carry water. After enlightenment, chop wood, carry water." Your life is much the same, but you feel differently about almost all of it. Your perceptual standards for experience have been shifted and reset, and nothing feels quite like it used to.

Much of what I have heard through the MartinLogan Classic ESL 9 while getting to know them is now perceived from a shifted perspective. Clean, effortless, natural, immersive sound is what they insist upon delivering, without compromise, at any volume, every time you sit down for a listen. And you find yourself sitting down to listen more and more.

In the price range inhabited by the main MartinLogan product line - up to about $25,000 per pair - there are competing speakers of all types, shapes, configurations, and technologies. Some can claim serious bragging rights in certain categories, but I know of none that manage to put the spark in speakers like a good electrostatic, and no company that understands electrostatics and the listeners who love them better than MartinLogan. The Classic ESL 9 is a mighty addition to that line, and warrants a serious listen by the serious listener in you.


Go to the MartinLogan Classic ESL 9 Review Discussion Thread.

















 

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Discussion Starter #90
Audioengine HD3 Wireless Powered Speaker Review




-The HD3 is another typical product from Audioengine. This is a company for which I have reviewed numerous products, and I have developed an expectation level when a new product arrives from the team out of Austin, Texas. That expectation is that their products will be value-packed, fun to work with, and good-if-not-great-sounding. So when I unboxed and started working with the HD3, my early reactions were mostly along the line of - "typical" - meaning, looks like another great little product from Audioengine.

The HD3, at $399 per pair direct from Audioengine, is small, dense with oodles of cool features to play with and figure out, sharp looking, versatile, and yes, sounds a lot better than a product deserves to sound at the price point.


Description

The HD3 drivers, a 2.75 inch kevlar woofer/midrange and a 0.75 inch silk tweeter, are custom designed for use in the HD3. No accidents here, no lucky breaks, the good sound they produce is on purpose and by design from the ground up. The box is ported by a front-panel slot, which allows more flexibility of placement by minimizing the possibility of boomy bass if placed close to a wall or boundary.

The left HD3 contains all of the active electronics for both speakers. The right is passive, connected to the left by a supplied 16-gauge 2-m cable with banana plugs pre-installed. The left unit has a power/volume control on the front panel, along with a headphone jack and a Bluetooth pairing button and indicator. Of course they can be reversed if that somehow suits your needs.

The rear panel of the left speaker contains dual RCA inputs and outputs, a screw-on Bluetooth antenna receptacle, an ⅛-inch TRS signal input jack, banana jacks for connection to the right speaker, and a power connector. The power unit is terminated with an uncommon 3-conductor connector. A switch for subwoofer use cuts off the lower bass and allows a sub to take over below 100 Hz.

The built-in PCM 5102 DAC upsamples all signals to 24-bits, achieving a higher signal-to-noise ratio and lower noise floor. The on-board triple-redundancy power source further improves conversion and filtering. Amplifiers are class A/B monolithic, can supply 15W RMS / 30W peak per channel, and have very low idle and sleep consumption levels.

The headphone output is rated with a 2-ohm output impedance, which means better control of those models that have variation in their load impedance and stronger drive capability.

At present, a promotion is in place which includes 90 days of Tidal - for new Tidal customers only - completely free. Audioengine products purchased directly from the factory are shipped by ground for free, have a 30-day audition period, and are covered by a 3-year warranty.


Specifications

General
  • Type - 2.0 powered multimedia speaker system
  • Amplifier type - Dual analog class A/B monolithic
  • Power output - 60W peak power total (15W RMS / 30W peak per channel), AES
  • Drivers - 2.75" Kevlar woofers, 3/4” silk dome tweeters
  • Inputs - 3.5mm stereo mini-jack, stereo RCA, USB, Bluetooth
  • Outputs - RCA variable line-out, 3.5mm mini-jack headphone out
  • Mains voltages - 110-240V 50/60Hz auto-switching
  • SNR - 95dB (typical A-weighted)
  • THD+N - <0.05% at all power settings
  • Crosstalk - <50dB
  • Frequency response - 65Hz-22kHz ±2.0dB
  • Freq. response w/bass reduction switch selected - 100Hz-22kHz ±2.0dB (-5dB down)
  • Input impedance - 5K ohms unbalanced
Headphone amp
  • Type - OPA2134
  • Full-scale headphone output level - 2.0V RMS
  • Output impedance - 2 ohms
  • Recommended headphone impedance range - 10 ohms to 10K ohms
USB
  • Connector type - Micro-USB
  • USB device class - USB 1.1 or above
  • Internal D/A converter - PCM 5102
  • Input bit depth - 24-bits, upsampled
  • Input data rate - 44.1KHz/48KHz
  • Protection - Output current limiting, thermal over-temperature, power on/off transient protection
  • Dimensions (each) - 7”(H) x 4.25”(W) x 5.5”(D)
  • Weight (left speaker) - 1.8Kg/4lbs
  • Weight (right speaker) - 1.5Kg/3.4lbs
  • Shipping weight - 4.5kg/10lbs per pair
  • Shipping box dimensions - 11.6 (29.5cm)H x 11.75 (30cm)L x 8.8(22.5cm)W
  • Materials and construction - 18mm thick MDF cabinets with real wood veneer
  • 3/4" (20mm) silk dome tweeters with neodymium magnets
  • 2.75" Kevlar woofers with advanced voice coils
Power Consumption
  • Idle: 10W
  • Mute: 6W
  • Sleep: 4W
Unboxing

Everything comes in a single small box, the glossy printed product box, with its fitted foam spacers for protection, including compartments for the cables and accessories. The speakers, the power supply, and the cables and antenna, are enclosed in gray plush bags. The product carton fits in a standard cardboard carton, a second layer, the whole quite strong and safe for shipping. Grille covers are given the additional protection of a layer of light foam sheet, and they snap into place on the speakers magnetically.

The hand-built cabinets are simple but very clean and solid. Those I received have a satin-black painted finish that will work anywhere in your home or office. If you want a more polished appearance, I have seen their wood-grain finishes and they are also first-rate with cherry and oak veneers available. I absolutely LOVE the signature gray velour bags that Audioengine supplies with their products for protection. I can find their products on my storage shelf (if they ever end up there, which is not often, they are almost always in use) in a snap, and the attractive gray material becomes mentally anchored in such a way that every glimpse or touch of that fabric reminds one that the gear in those bags is the good Audioengine stuff.


Setup and Variations

First I plugged into my Asus i7 Windows 7 64-bit laptop for a USB audio test. As is par for many devices of this type, no special USB drivers are needed. The HD3 is recognized by Windows and works with built-in USB drivers. This configuration keeps the signal in the digital realm until the HD3 converters turn it into music. The process is lossless, of course, and involves upsampling of all input signals to 24 bits at native bit rates up to 48 kHz. Using an expensive DAC to feed the HD3 through an analog input is always an option, but it is hard to believe that the price/performance value of the HD3 as a system could ever be approached in this way.
When I switched to Electronic Dance Music (EDM) tracks during evaluation, the low frequencies stood out with even boldness that made me think that the D3 sound way bigger than they should. Their tiny two-way face-print promises point source soundstage and imaging (SS&I) performance. When they were first hooked up, they stood side-by-side pointed at an angle nowhere near to on-axis. Once those sounds were flowing and they were spaced and aimed, the size of the soundstage was surprising, with a centered kick drum that managed to give a decent thump against the solar plexus.

At some point one has to get serious about optimal placement. As I finally did this, I found that a wider spacing with the ear just above the tweeter axis and slight negative toe-in (toe-out?) gave an excellent soundstage, the speakers quite hidden therein, locatable but not obviously so, with good imaging. It is worth noting that I was standing behind the speakers facing toward the listening position at the moment this placement was determined, and could tell from there that it was going to sound good, as though the room itself was in on the game, which it always is. A final tiny distance tweak made a big difference in the precision of the imaging, spread the soundstage even further, and allowed the little HD3 to finally completely disappear, as though they had planned to all along. Then with no thought about it at all, I leaned forward about two feet to reach my laptop for a second and - WOW - the whole soundstage just blossomed. All of this with about 10 minutes of placement effort.

I often favor near- and mid-field speaker placement, especially in odd-shaped or untreated rooms, and a fellow-reviewer likes to throw little jabs my way about speaker proximity to the LP. In the case of the HD3, the weight and footprint make them an easy choice where one is not quite sure just where they will end up. They are versatile and will reward the listener with performance way beyond their class. I wished I still had a pair of the Audioengine HD6, which I reviewed awhile back, for comparison. I almost think I ended up enjoying the HD3 even more than I did the HD6.

Running a USB signal into the HD6 and from the dual RCA analog outputs to an external pair of power amps and my reference speakers, and inserting a ⅛” plug in the headphone jack to cut off the speaker signal in the HD3, I got a good listen to the internal DAC itself. It operates as a USB 1.1 device, handling bit rates up to 48 kHz natively, and upsampling to a 24-bit depth. The high-frequency clarity lacks a little of the crisp sparkle I listen for on cymbals, high percussives, and sibilants, but when paired with the silk dome tweeters, there was a silkiness in the high treble range that was pleasant and easy to relax into. With the Bluetooth / aptX in play, the HD3 put out near-CD sound quality that I prefer over MP3 sound quality. The listener who adopts a pair of HD3 will be well rewarded by making the move to lossless tracks, if he has not yet done so.


Evaluation

Warren Zevon
Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door
The full sound strikes me as a good voicing choice by the engineers at Audioengine. There is a temptation - some manufacturers cannot resist it - to bump up the bass just above 100 Hz for the purpose of making the speakers sound bigger than they do. But a little can go a long way in speaker voicing, and the AE team has given us a sense of fullness without being untrue to their +/- 2 dB claim for frequency response over the range from 65 Hz to 22 kHz.

Deadmau5
W:/2016ALBUM/
When I started up this EDM artist’s tracks, it was a full minute in with foot/heel tapping and getting pulled right into the experience before I realized that the bass was much stronger than it should be for these little speakers. Some measurements will definitely be in order to see just how this was accomplished. In the meantime, dance, dance, dance is what the HD3 insisted upon. And so I did. There is no record of what that looked like! EDM sounds absolutely huge with these speakers, although max volume will be limited by their size, drivers, and amp power. I thoroughly enjoyed these tracks with the HD3.

But I had a hard time deciding which impressed me more, the solidness of the bass or the silky clarity of the highs. Early on, I started paying attention to tweeter performance, looking for a flaw of some kind, and I have to say, I did not find one. The synthesizer tones with their rich harmonic structures reach high and beg for smooth clarity, the proper job of any tweeter in my book. I was not expecting the HD3 to shine in this role the way they did, nor to contribute to such a seamless soundstage as they did.

The convenient front panel headphone jack, an expected feature for a desktop speaker set, sent clean power to several sets of headphones in their turn.

Mutemath
Vitals
This is a new favorite album, with strong EDM overtones and detail defined in layers that beg for a broad soundstage to let them air out properly. In two months I have listened to this album 30+ times, all but a handful of them with headphones, and know its deeper details quite intimately so playing it on speakers once in awhile puts me into a heightened state of expectation for exploring those details in a real soundstage. The HD3 do this with a confidence that almost says “not fair” to most other small speakers in the class. It is hard to get them to disappoint. On Stratosphere, especially, I was completely drawn into their performance and for a few minutes the HD3 were many times their actual size. One other aspect of this album that absolutely defies logic is the nature of Rob Meaney’s vocal recording. There is a syllable-by-syllable ultra-broad dynamic range and simultaneously a seemingly ultra-compressed quality in that none of those syllables is ever lost or covered up by other parts of the recording. A vocalized word can sound like it is being belted out and barely whispered at the same time. I still have not figured it all out. “It’s a mystery!” seems to be the only valid - although unsatisfying - explanation. The challenge for the HD3 is to keep that mystery intact via their smooth and flat frequency response through the vocal delivery range. All I can say is the HD3 did just that. Another “not fair” point for the HD3, the little monsters. On Safe If We Don’t Look Down, the background cymbal strikes sound so clear and natural through those silk tweeters that one might be tempted to look for a more expensive tweeter hidden behind the grill cloths.

Only in a few passages of the evaluation listening did I feel the HD3 upper mids were not quite as clear as they might have been. It was noticeable only on very dense tracks, and then only occasionally. About the time I would start to pay attention to it, it would be gone. With so many points in their favor, the HD3 are hard to fault for falling one or two strides short of $399 perfection.

Blotted Science
The Machination of Dementia
Ray Jarzombek’s complex instrumental guitar work is just plain fun and the little HD3 made it even more fun than usual. The HD3 manage to get you to forget about the lowest bass for most music, even performing well enough that you are pulled into the music and forget that the lowest bass is not there.

The Civil Wars
The Civil Wars
Nothing beats well-recorded centered vocals for an imaging test. The Civil Wars are often called upon for this purpose in my evaluations. These tracks showed what the HD3 could do with imaging and also showed that they could pull you into a recording’s inner detail, reminding one that stringed instruments can be very percussive and a string pluck can strike you like a drum beat.

Lady Antebellum
I Need You Now
Any solid, well recorded, song will sound good on the HD3. I sampled many little passages of different tracks from varied genres and in no case did they fall on their face or even stumble.


Conclusions

The Audioengine HD3 are a big, fun surprise in a dense package. With Audioengine’s 30-day trial policy, free ground shipping to and from Austin, applicable taxes covered, and a 3-year warranty, you simply cannot go wrong with the HD3 for an application where their size and power range are called for. The HD3 are highly recommended.


 
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