Bye-bye Pipedreams (the speakers, not the metaphor)
I bought my first pair of speakers in college. My Dynaco A25s fit my dorm room as neatly as did my John Coltrane and Grateful Dead posters. Although in general, many of my past speakers went by rather quickly, many of them stayed with me for years; the original Advents, Magneplanars (1U and 1C), Martin Logan CLS’s and a personal favorite, a concoction that I made from deconstructed direct-drive Acoustat panels , EMIT tweeters and Entec subwoofers with a homemade crossover. That last one probably exposed me to enough ozone to cause a brain tumor, although one has yet one to appear despite my wife’s occasional insistence that there must be one. As many regular readers of WTF will also recall, my last transducers were a lovely pair of 7' tall, Pipedream 18/36 Hemispheres that I have had for nearly 15 years. These were partnered with a DSP TacT-based system crossing over to a pair of JL Audio Gotham subs for eight of those years after failing to seamlessly integrate the Pipedream Towers with a variety of subs without DSP prior to the arrival of the TacT.
More recently, the final incarnation of this system employed a JL Audio CR-1 crossover with Gotham v2’s which allowed me to return to an all analog-based system whose benefits were many, but they did not come without some liabilities.
The most damning aspect of installing the JL CR-1 is that I no longer had the luxury of being able to precisely control the frequency response of the system. Despite every trick I knew, I was unfortunately at the mercy of the Pipedreams when it came to their frequency response in the midrange region. Despite some valiant efforts and try as I did, I simply could not contain a 5-7 dB peak in the region of 500K Hz that was due to a comb filter effect of the Pipedream midrange drivers. This imparted an upper midrange brightness that was unfortunately, just not sonically pleasing.
Fig 1. FR of Pipes/Gothams in my room
The TacT 2.2XP allowed me to flatten this anomaly almost perfectly, but now that I am TacT-less, and despite some efforts at acoustic damping of two select midrange drivers, plus adjusting toe-in, I just could not lick this nagging problem.
As Yogi Berra once said, when you come to a fork in the road, take it. Thus it was with great sadness that I realized that the only solution amenable to me if I did not want to go back to DSP, was to part with my Pipedreams. Fortunately, due to the uniqueness of the Burl wood finish, I managed to sell them on Audiogon in one day to another audiophile who, much to my shock, had 2 other identical pair! He plans to use all 6 towers and 6 “depth-charge” subs in a 7.1 surround system. All I can think of here is simply to say, thank god for deranged audiophiles. I have thus provided the background to this thread which I apologize in advance is far longer than I initially intended.
There is at once a great excitement when one realizes that a major audio purchase is on the horizon, but in this case there is also a great sobriety in realizing that this will likely be the last pair of loudspeakers I will ever buy. Even if I am fortunate to enjoy continued good hearing, demographics suggest that at 65, most of my audiophile hobby endeavors are behind me and not in front of me. Even if 65 is the new 45 (if I say it often enough perhaps it must be true) I realize that I am on the back nine. However I am truly blessed that at this stage of my life, I have the resources to buy a fine pair of loudspeakers with which to ride off into the audio sunset. The following are the trials and tribulations that have accompanied this search, which has been on-going for many weeks.
As every audiophile knows the first thing any audiophile has to come to terms with for any purchase is a budget. In my experience, there are 3 kinds of audiophile budgets; the actual cost, the cost he tells his wife, and the cost he tells his friends. In my case, I have the good fortune to be in a situation where the first two are identical. That does not mean that this comes without some sort of quid pro quo. You can bet your ass that it does. Now, as far as the cost you share with your friends, that is determined by what kind of friends you are referring to. To the friends that come to the house and see some big fancy speakers and electronics that glow nicely in the dark, I always tell them that no matter what piece of gear they point to, the cost is about thousand dollars, tops. Hey, we have to live with these people and that figure doesn’t bend them out of shape very much. Moreover, it computes well with them as they nod quietly and realize it’s more than they spent on their Bose system so it all makes sense, even if they think we’re crazy. (If they only knew!). However, to fellow audiophiles and folks who read blogs such as WTF, there is no need to disclose the cost- you already know it. But still, there has to be a budget. A real number budget. For this exercise, it was about 50-60K. So let’s get to work.
I’ll begin with a list of speakers that made my initial short list. These included Raidho D4.1s, Sonus Faber Aidas and Apogee Diva’s. Regretfully, there are many superb speakers I just could not afford to consider such as the Wilson Alexx or the top of the line models from Tidal or Evolution Acoustics as well as several others. But the objective of this exercise is not to have the world's best or most expensive stereo. Rather at this stage of my life and at my age (and probably good guidance for any age), it's all about having a highly enjoyable one that provides great sound regardless of source or content and most importantly, puts a smile on your face when you listen to music. And if you can't do that on 50 grand, I suggest something is very wrong with this picture.
Basically, there are two kinds of speaker manufacturers; those that provide some sort of user-adjustable interfaces for their speakers to partly tailor the sound to a listener’s environment and those that do not. Those in the former group include a many excellent manufacturers like Vandersteen, Wilson, Evolution Acoustics, Tidal and Von Scheikert to name a few. Regarding the second group, these include manufacturers like Raidho, Magico, Rockport, and some versions of re-manufactured Apogees (more in this shortly). Now it is certainly possible that among the latter group, a particular speaker may just be the cat’s meow for you in your particular room and I can appreciate that. But in general, these speakers would not be my first choice since in my experience, tailoring a speaker to obtain the optimum room response in almost any room benefits from some real world adjustability options. This is particularly true with respect to treble level adjustment.
It is hard for me to understand what the manufacturer is thinking when he offers a speaker system where no adjustability is offered. Surely, they must know some customers have rooms containing many glass windows, where others have heavily damped rooms with drapes and rich fabrics. Yet they are basically saying, “hey, its my way or the highway. Take it or leave it”. I just do not understand this sort of approach. And when I ask a designer why they chose this solution, you often get what I believe is an answer that only an uninformed audiophile can swallow. They will typically say that they cannot provide something as basic as an adjustable resistor level switch or an adjustable potentiometer on say, the tweeter, because it would “ruin” their magnificent masterpiece of a loudspeaker. That is sheer nonsense and total bullshit. You don’t have to be an electrical engineer to know that every tweeter extant in every loudspeaker made has a series resistor connected to it somehow. And yet the “purist” designer does not wish to afford you the privilege of making so much as a small adjustment of the tweeter for your particular room by offering this tiny option with a simple switch or hard-wired option to change the resistor value they think is so dear to their design. It’s certainly not because of cost, as the speakers I’m referring to are very expensive and often cost more than the price of many cars. And I accept that any adjustment in series resistance to a tweeter may not be a perfect solution (i.e. the crossover point or slope may be altered minimally as a result. But at least give me the choice to employ such a nominally changed component value if it will yiedl better sound in my room! The worst that can happen is that I can always go back to the recommended “factory” setting, right? And so what if the alternate setting option is not “technically perfect”? If it provides a more pleasing sound for a given environment, isn’t that something the user should have the ability to determine for himself? The more rigid “one size fits all” approach is probably due to multiple reasons I do not presume to understand. In some cases, I can’t help but think it is just arrogance in the extreme on the part of the designer. And I, for one, want no part of it. But hey, that’s just me. I guess my perspective comes from years of DSP experience where I have learned that in fact I place a high premium on the single most important attribute of a loudspeaker in it listening environment which is namely, frequency response. Enough said on this point. Now, on to the speakers.
The Sonus Faber Aida’s were eliminated sooner rather than later. It’s a beautiful speaker both physically and sonically, and they did indeed have the one attribute that I considered essentially mandatory, which is their adjustability to tailor the speaker’s frequency response to one’s room via several user options on their rear surface. Kudos to them! However, although I have heard them several times, and even though they sounded quite good at many ARC booths at CES and Rocky Mountain and at a dealer in Montreal who let me play with their placement for hours, I just could not cotton up to them in two important areas; their ability to “transport me” to the hall, and some concern that they do not hold together well at higher volumes. As far as their looks, they sure are stunners, but I’m not buying speakers primarily for looks. I’m buying speakers that delivers a “Ray Charles-in-bed” effect. Huh, you ask? Well, even though Ray was in the dark, he didn’t care about his lover’s looks, but rather, only the music they made together. When I listen in the dark, I'm not looking at the speakers, but rather just trying to make music with them. Still, the Aidas were a real contenders indeed, especially now that several used pair are circulating for half their retail price.
Let’s move on and talk about Raidho. I’ve been intrigued by Raidho’s for a long time. To begin, I like their footprint as it reminded me of my Pipedream Towers. But rather than a line source, they offer a modified D’Appolito configuration that I felt offered great appeal. Despite rave reviews from reviewers such as Jon Valin, the biggest problem I had was that I have never heard a pair set-up well in a good sounding room. Even though I never heard them, an intense blog review on many forums revealed that surprisingly few people appeared to have attained long term enjoyment of this brand regardless of model. That legion of Raidho zealots appeared for all intent and purposes to be few and far between. Hmmm. Since I like playing audio Sherlock Holmes I tried to get to the bottom of this mystery.
My first effort was to take a quick day trip from New Jersey to Boston to hear a pair of D5’s. Now, let me get this out right away. I had no interest in purchasing the D5’s. They were clearly beyond my reach. However there was a pair of C4.1’s on the used market that might have tempted me at the right price. I assumed the sound would be similar among family members, particularly with regard to its famed tweeter. In addition, there was “word” is that their new D4.1’s offered not only most of the benefits of the latest and greatest D5.1’s (not D5’s) but at a more attractive price. In fact, I was offered a great deal on a demo pair, but as we shall see, it as not the price that was the ultimate deterrent. So off I went to Boston to hear a dealer pair of D5’s.
Tim and his wife Ronnie and Blink High End could not have been better hosts. They picked me up and returned me to Logan as they realized I was a serious buyer. Although their studio was sonically challenged (by a heavy dose of brick walls), I was able to appreciate at least one quality of the Raidhos that are not in dispute. They really are imaging champs and are truly spectacular in that regard. However they revealed themselves to have three significant liabilities. One, and mentioned repeatedly in almost every review of these loudspeakers, is a prominent mid-bass hump centered around 80Hz that I simply could not live with. Tim suggested it was a combination of room placement and listening position that accounted for this, but with all due respect, I just have to disagree. And again this has been noted by almost every review of the speaker, including that from the venerable Jon Valin. Second and equally disturbing, was the fact that I could not help notice that the tweeter was calling attention to itself, and in my opinion, was simply set a level that I wish could have been attenuated with a simple level control just a bit. My research suggested this too had been reported by several users. In fact, one prominent audiophile in the Philippines went so far as to solder in-line resistors to his tweeters to trim them back to a more acceptable level. So at this point, I’m thinking, do I really want to go down that road? And even if I did, what was I going to do about that damn mid-bass hump?
That’s where the D4.1’s come in. Supposedly, these speakers are devoid of the famed Raidho mid-bass hump due to a new configuration of woofer-porting that is very different from the D5 and D5.1. But now I have an issue of credibility with the company. They are famous in saying that their designer Michael Borrenson does not voice his loudspeaker by measurements, but rather by ear based on psychoacoustic principles. OK, I get that. But now tell me, am I to believe that he thinks a mid-bass hump is “correct” for one model but not the other” Hmmm. Sorry, but this ain’t my first rodeo. Sounds like marketing hype to me.
In addition, the D5’s also seemed devoid of the deepest bass. I thought that since I have my Gotham V2’s to supplement the bottom end, this would not be a show stopper for me. Nevertheless, because I was genuinely convinced that despite two sonic flaws (one of which may have been corrected in the D4.1s), I should really hear these speakers again in another setting to validate my perceptions before I ruled these speakers out. Tim therefore arranged to have me hear another pair of D5s and when he told where they were located I nearly flipped out. They were in town next to mine in New Jersey, 10 minutes from my damn house! How I wish he would have told me this before I spent big bucks to travel to Boston for a day. (But I can’t fault him for that. He offered this opportunity properly as a “reserve” tool, and I was appreciative that he did.)
I therefore soon visited the home of Dan Secula, who is not only an avid experienced audiophile, but a reviewer for the Stereotimes. Dan has a wonderful home and was a fabulous host, and as every good audiophile does, began by telling me he’d like to play a few selections and then offered me the opportunity to play some material that I bought along. So I sat down and listened to his D5’s. Almost immediately my head did it’s usual tilt signifying that something was indeed different than the pair of D5s I heard in Boston. Dan’s system sounded good, and in fact, damn good. Gone was the mid bass hump caused by the ported woofers and gone was the noticeably exaggerated top end. Then Dan told me what comprised his system and wouldn’t you know it, it was a DSP’d system using a 75K German Behold Preamp (and equally expensive Amp) that was EQ’d and set- get this- over the internet by the factory in Germany on one end, and Dan and a microphone in New Jersey at the other end!
But then I asked Dan to do something interesting. I asked him to turn off the DSP and play the system flat, without EQ. Sure enough, when he did this, the nagging mid bass hump returned as did an exaggerated tweeter presence. To paraphrase the old TV show Paladin, Richard Boone’s calling card was “Have gun, will travel”. My version of the equivalent would probably say “Have SPL meter and pink noise, will travel”. So I took out my trusty iPhone with my Onyx 3 Analyze program and put on a pink noise track that’s part of my staple of demo CDs, and proceeded to document the raw and EQ’d response of Dan’s D5’s.
Fig 2 Dan's Raidho D5 w/o DSP
Fig 3 Dan's Raidho D5 w DSP
It should be plain as day that without EQ, the D5s have a nice 6-10 dB peak at 80 Hz, and a high frequency response that goes out to 10 KHz before rolling off. For those of you new to the subject of the “ideal” frequency response at the listening position I reiterate my preference for the B&K microphone curve discussed in these threads previously.
http://www.whatsbestforum.com/showth...o-curve/page10 see post #97
However, lo and behold (no pun intended), with the Behold’s DSP’d response, the bass hump is significantly attenuated, and the treble roll off is now gentle and smooth. Taken together, it looks far more like the B&K response than the un-EQ’d response. No wonder I liked it’s resultant sound much more!
My conclusions from this visit were quite clear. First, as good as the D5 appears to be, they are simply way too flawed sonically for my taste unless they are EQ’d very judiciously to tame their mid bass hump and treble brightness. It goes without saying that whoever EQ’d Dan’s system remotely from Germany via a remote Skype connection did one hell of a job. Dan’s was one of the finest DSP’s systems I have had the pleasure to hear. However, not wanting to repeat my TacT experience over the past 8 years as explained in another thread referenced earlier, it simply is not in my plans to go back to DSP. It may be that the D4.1’s will not have the mid bass hump of their big brother D5 or 5.1, but for cryin’ out loud, I am getting too old to start soldering resistors onto tweeter leads because some designer thinks that his version of how a speaker should be voiced is not only different than mine, but then decides to penalize me by not offering me the courtesy of a simple tweeter level control. This just rubs me the wrong way and is an approach I cannot support. Perhaps if the tweeters sounded perfectly natural and unobstrusive, I would feel differently. But they did not. At least to my ears.
I am left with one or two more take-aways from my Raidho listening experience. First, it comes as no surprise to me that the Jonathan Valin loves the Raidho tweeters. After all, he is the same guy that raved about the Magico tweeters on their Q series and other early models for years. Let’s just call it like it is. Jon is a good observer and a fine and insightful writer, but he just likes brighter tweeters than I do. Nothing wrong with that, but in my view, those early Magico tweeters were good for frying eggs on, but not much else. Musically, they were simply just too bright for my musical taste. And here again, they were offered to customers on speakers without tweeter level controls for reasons that I cannot fathom. Of course, the latest generation of Magicos (post M-Pros) have tweeters and voicing of an entirely different color and the result is, at least to these ears, a far more satisfying sound. But that’s a different story entirely and best discussed elsewhere.
Although I have heard and liked many an Apogee of yore, I was prompted to consider a restored pair by the recent reports of Ron Resnick and Ked (Bonzo 75) both of whom visited Henk van der Hoeven's shop in Denmark. Both were impressed with Henk’s Full Range (FR) Apogee restoration. Although the FR is tempting, I am just not prepared to commit to a very complex project that would involve bi-amping and all that it entails, no matter how alluring the resultant sound may be. I have gone down that road before and IMHO, there are always trade-offs with such an approach, particularly one as piece-meal as that project promises to be. Therefore, I set my sights on acquiring a pair of restored Apogee Divas. Recall that if the Divas were deficient in the slightest at the very bottom (where the FR have an apparent advantage), I was prepared to supplement them with my Gotham V2’s. Running the Divas full range with my Spectral 400s seemed like a good pairing, so I initiated communication with Henk and pursued these discussions with enthusiasm.
Henk was very forthcoming, which was refreshing. He shared with me the circuitry of the Apogee crossover design (which is available in the public domain), and was willing to build me virtually anything I desired from a parts and finish perspective. What was particular attractive about Henk’s filter design was that it offered adjustability for the woofer, the midrange and the tweeter with accessible user switches. All this sounded really great but unfortunately, we eventually ran into problems because, as they say, the devil is in the details. By this, I mean that when it got down to very specific details of the crossover design which had to be modified due to a slightly different resistance of the new Graz tweeters, we came to an impasse which could not be bridged. Henk informed me that he felt that entire crossover would have to be altered slightly based on some measurements he performed on a number of older units and I accepted that as his reasoning was solid. Moreover he told me that he would require the assistance of an engineering friend to help him design the filters. In return, I felt it was reasonable to see a simple composite frequency response to pink noise of the resultant product and it was then that he told me that was not possible. In short, he wanted me to commit financially to the project without any assurance of the outcome. Although I appreciated his needs as a custom fabricator for one-off products, and was convinced of his workmanship and abilities, I was simply not willing to make that commitment.
I therefore turned to Rich Murry, who appears to be a well-regarded restorer of Apogees based near Reno, Nevada. Rich was in many ways the opposite of Henk. He was secretive about his filter design, the components he uses, and perhaps most detrimentally, his filter box offered no adjustability whatsoever. When I asked what I would do if I wanted to make adjustments after the purchase, he asked me why I thought that would be necessary. I replied that I spoke to an owner of his Divas recently who said that upon delivery, he was not happy with the bass output relative to the mids and highs and thus had to send the filter back to Rich for modifications which, fortunately, were made successfully. However when I told Rich this was an unacceptable option, he then told me it would be easy to do in my home, and all I needed to do was to change some component values with a soldering gun in hand. My first thought was, Oh brother, here we go again. Another garage project. Just what I need.
But where Henk was unable to show me a simple FR of his speaker system, Rich was very accommodating and did exactly as I requested by applying pink noise and taking a snap shot of the result on his iPhone using the Analyze program. Unfortunately the results were less than encouraging.
Fig 4. Rich Murry's Divas in his room
I want to be clear that I am in no way willing to base my judgment of any speaker system on any strict objective measurement. On the other hand, I am not dumb enough to believe that if the frequency response shows major deviations from what I consider reasonable, that I will somehow like the speaker in spite of its poor objective frequency response performance. After all these years, I cannot escape the mantra that it’s largely about frequency response. If the FR is simply bad, no other considerations will make up for deficiencies here. Frankly, there’s not a lot of guess work involved as to how something will sound when the frequency response contains obvious deviations from something that is considered reasonably well- accepted as good-sounding at the listening position such as the B&K curve or a reasonable facsimile. In the case or Rich’s Divas, it was just very apparent to me that they would have been bass shy and thus unsatisfactory. Yes, of course the FR could in part, be due to to room placement. Therefore I asked Rich if he could play with that a bit and repeat the measurement. And if that the FR could not be improved, could his filter network be modified to accommodate the request to improve the output of the bass panels? Reasonable questions, or so I thought. Unfortunately, at this point Rich dropped off the earth and ceased communication with me. To be honest I don’t blame him. He probably thought I was just too much work, and he was probably right. And thus my search for Apogee Divas came to a screeching halt. I was 0 for 2 and succeeded in driving two respected restorers to beyond the limits of their patience with me. Oh well, it was probably for the best, although it would have been nice as either pair of Divas would have been able to be purchased at about half my budget. But alas, it was not to be.
There was one other option I considered strongly and that was the Vivid G1 loudspeaker. I have always been impressed with this speaker and found that its only signifcant potential liability was that it imaged too high for listening unless your ear height from the ground was relatively high. In fact, Philip O’Hanlon convinced me that I could lower the image height by adjusting the speaker tilt slightly forward and in fact, I was willing to accept this liability and order a pair. Were it not for the minor problem that they are virtually unobtainable without a 3 months wait, I might have actually purchased these speakers. As explained to me by a Vivid dealer, it seems as though the Vivid factory is on a perpetual Octoberfest work schedule. In the end, that much down time was just unacceptable and so I decided to move on.
So, what did I finally wind up with? I hate pull a Harry Pearson here and ask for your patience until the next installment, but I’m afraid I must. This post is already way too lengthy. It was only meant to share the thought process and path to making my final decision. In fact, the speakers I am contemplating may require some work before I can report back on whether the journey concluded successfully. So please be patient. At the minimum, it promises to be entertaining and my hope is that it will be informative as well. (To the 1 or 2 folks that already know where I’m going, please do not provide any spoilers.)