Gradient 1.4 Speakers: Downsizing, Simplifying, and Changing

tmallin

WBF Technical Expert
May 19, 2010
412
46
175
67
Chicagoland
#1
Bottom Line at the Top

I'm now the proud owner of a pair of the Gradient 1.4 speakers in the all-white finish. I've had them in my listening room for a few weeks now. My bottom line so far is that, for my tastes, these are the best speakers I've yet owned, on balance as sonically pleasing and realistic as the Harbeth Monitor 40.2, while being much less expensive, physically a lot easier to manage, and even better for near-field listening in a small listening room like mine.

Why Would I Do This!?

Audiophilia

Yes, I admit it. I'm an audiophile first and a music lover second. So shoot me.

That's why I find fault with audio equipment so quickly and easily and seemingly change equipment almost as frequently as some people change socks. And it's not like equipment manufacturers or a magazine or website is paying me to do this. No, sir-ee, I spend my own hard-earned cash on this stuff. Yes, I sell what I move on from, but rarely recoup more than about half of what I originally spent since I'm more interested in quick sales to other audiophiles than in recouping that last 10 or 20 percent which I could by waiting a lot longer for that perfectly primed buyer to come along.

Sometimes, as has been the case recently, "the grass is always greener" syndrome gets so strong that I change things even when I don't hear any problems. A year and a half ago I wrote that "[t]he Harbeth Monitor 40.2 speakers are, for me, at least, end-game speakers. With these I can sail happily through my Golden Years. They have the sound of music as I've always dreamed it would sound at home."

To my ears, they still do. Then why did I move on? If there is any reasonableness to that decision at all, it goes something like this.

The Master Plan

Time to Declutter & Simplify

I love my wife dearly. Perhaps because of that it has taken me a few years to realize that she, unlike me but like most of her six siblings and father, likes to accumulate things (which she freely admits) and likes a high density of "stuff" in the house. I've recently realized that, perhaps in reaction to her default propensity, I've become increasingly concerned with decluttering and passing along things in the parts of the house over which I have the most control: my computer desk and audio room.

For my audio room, this translates to additional goals besides excellent reproduced sound quality. Despite the room's small size, I'm increasingly concerned that the equipment not dominate the room and that the room feel as open and spacious as possible. I'm also more concerned that I be able to easily move the equipment around a bit to experiment with other room set ups.

Further, I'm increasingly looking ahead to a time when, in a decade or so, we decide to move to another house, one with a single level, the type that older folks often need to continue to be able to navigate their home. While I'd still hope to have a dedicated audio room in any new home, finding the "right" space can be hit or miss, so it would be good to have speakers which can easily be made to sound excellent in most any room, even without the necessity of electronic equalization.

Time to Downsize My System

Yes, my Harbeth M40.2 speakers were still sounding as wonderful as ever. But I knew I needed to fix their ever-loosening binding posts. See this post in my M40.2 thread. The anticipation—much less the experience—of getting those large heavy speakers off their stands, turned upside down, opened up repaired and remounted on their stands, with the attendant need to then redo the fine details of the set up seemed daunting.

It occurred to me that with my new-found appreciation of headphone sound, I really just don't care enough about speaker-based audio at this advanced stage of my audio life to cope with, much less relish, such physical challenges. What I need are either lightweight stand-mounted speakers, or light-weight or at least easily movable, floor standers, something which I can move and adjust without fear of herniating myself or worse.

In a larger room, I suppose full-range electrostatic or planar magnetic panel speakers would be a possibility since such are usually quite light despite their size and are usually easy to move around. But in a small room, near-field listening is a necessity. Getting the sound from panels to cohere at short range is not always easy (or even possible with many such models) and coping with the back wave of panels is not fun either.

Making the Room Seem Larger

My listening room, at about 13' x 11' x 8.5', is rather small and while my big Harbeths, even without electronic equalization work extraordinarily well in the near-field way I listen to them in that room—better than most could ever imagine unless they've tried the M40 series from up close like that—they do seem a bit like gigantic headphones so positioned. It is easy to get a bit claustrophobic when continually exposed to a close encounter with such large speakers. Their large baffles' presence at 55 inches from my ears makes the room feel yet smaller than it actually is.

Room Brightening & Nightime Illumination Control

Despite the room being on the second floor and getting good light, it seemed a bit on the visually dark side with the rich blue paint, blue patterned oriental-style carpet, and numerous charcoal grey acoustic absorbers and diffusors. And then at night, I've had trouble getting the room lighting to be just a soft glow without visually distracting hot spots. Unlike in my prior basement room, for some reason in this room I haven't been able to get the two 4-watt night lights I use for semi-dark listening to be properly hidden to avoid bright spots.

To lighten/brighten the room, I could change all my acoustic treatment from charcoal gray to white. This would also allow the Gradient 1.4 speakers to better blend into the background. You see, the color version my wife REALLY liked the look of is the all-white version of the 1.4.

I really have liked the sound quality produced by the P.I. Audio AQD diffusers, which are quite inexpensive as such things go, very lightweight, and can stand on their own without being attached to the wall behind them, even when stacked one atop another to create an eight-foot tall wall of diffusers. I was using only one set of four charcoal gray AQD diffusers, combined with Sonex acoustical foam of the same color to treat the room acoustics. For my room, I could substitute six sets of four 2' x 4' AQD diffusers in white. That many diffusers would totally treat the speaker end of the room plus put an eight-foot by 4-foot array along the wall behind the listening position. As it turns out, the delivered price of those diffusers is only $1,320. If the room proved too live with no foam absorbers, white foam absorbers are available and I planned to replace the charcoal gray ones I have near the ceiling with white ones and would have six extra 2' x 2' white foam panels left from a minimum order of eight-to-a-box anyway.

Reducing Heat and Shortening the Equipment Rack

The electronics produce too much heat, both for the room and for their own good. This room tends to be the warmest in the house even without the audio equipment running. I want to keep the center-mounted five-shelf equipment rack low and thus down out of the way so as to minimally interfere with center imaging. But that meant putting a minimal amount of space between shelves. Those tight shelving arrangements make the equipment hard to get to—especially in back where most connections are—and keeps the equipment, which I leave turned on all the time for maximally stable and best sonics, running pretty hot.

The Harbeths, for very best sound, need some electronic equalization in this room, especially in the midbass. The best sounding/easiest to use EQ I've found is the DSPeaker Anti-Mode X4, but its internal processing limits the digital signal output to 96/24. It will not accept DSD input and won't output 24/192. I might be missing the last word in digital fidelity from some high-res files on Qobuz or other hi-res sources by running my sources through the X4. Now, most speakers need some such EQ to sound their very best in any room.

[Continued below]
 

tmallin

WBF Technical Expert
May 19, 2010
412
46
175
67
Chicagoland
#2
But What If?

But what if I had speakers that sounded fine in this room, i.e., had no obvious problems, without EQ? If I didn't need an EQ box, I would need one less equipment rack shelf and eliminate some heat. Or, if EQ proved desirable again, I could always apply EQ at the software level through Roon or perhaps a streamer. My prior Auralic Aries G2 streamer already has parametric EQ built in and I'm hoping that Lumin has such functionality in the works for its Lumin App that I'm now using as well.

I really don't need my Oppo UDP-205 optical disc player anymore since the music on my CDs and HRx discs, converted to WAV files and run from my network's desktop computer via Minim Server and the Lumin App through my Lumin U1 Mini streaming transport sounds just as fine and is a lot easier to access that way than changing physical CDs in a player. Eliminating the CD player would eliminate the need for another rack shelf and eliminate more heat.

I really like the Lumin App. (Roon is flashier and yet more informative, but not quite as sonically excellent.) If I traded my Lumin U1 Mini + Sbooster Power Supply for a full-blown Lumin player with built-in ES9038Pro Sabre DACs, I could eliminate my Benchmark DAC3 HGC, losing more heat and gaining full MQA decoding from the Lumin. What the heck, I'd choose the top-of-the-line Lumin X1 as the replacement for my U1 Mini + Sbooster power supply. Adding the Lumin X1 would also give me a full-blown MQA decoding DAC, which might be beneficial for Tidal's growing MQA library.

If it turned out that I really missed the sound of the Benchmark DAC3 HGC, I could replace the DAC3 HGC with the DAC3 B (I use a DAC3 B already in my electrostatic headphone system at my computer desk), which is all I need these days since the volume is controlled by the relay-based analog volume controls of my Benchmark HPA4 line/headphone amp. Such a replacement would still fit on a three-shelf rack, alongside the HPA4, instead of the five-shelves I was using.

A three-shelf Salamander Archetype equipment stand could be only 20 inches tall instead of the 28-inch height of the five-shelf Archetype I was using. Even at only 20 inches tall, this would allow greater spacing between shelves, reducing heat build up in the equipment. The 20-inch high top shelf would get the equipment even further down out of the way of center imaging from the speakers—especially important since the Gradient 1.4s, are only 34 inches tall, much shorter than the Harbeth M40.2s on Ton Trager stands, which stood 10 inches taller at 44 inches.

Lowering the Listening Position

To get my ears low enough to be about level with the shorter Gradient 1.4s, I could just remove the seat cushion of my chair and the cutting board I have underneath it. I've done that before with the previous three Gradient speakers I've owned, so I know that works well. Sitting on the springs part of the chair seat, my ears are down at about 33.25 inches above the carpet, low enough, even at close range, to allow the images and stage to appear directly in front of my ears, not as if I'm looking down on the stage from a balcony.

I know from prior experience that sitting low makes the room you are in seem larger, partly because the ceiling is further away. Other aspects of perspective on things in the room are also at play in this impression, I'm sure. Of course there is also the very real size difference between the big Harbeths on their stands and the Gradient 1.4. The volume actually occupied by the Gradients is considerably smaller and the rounded shape makes it look smaller still compared to the squared off box of the Harbeths on their stands.

The Plan Comes Together

I decided to pull the trigger on my purchase of new Gradient 1.4 speakers in the all-white color configuration. Of course I did. I wouldn't be writing this otherwise.

In order not to go too far down the path without the ability to reverse things if the plan proved unsuccessful, I proceeded in stages.

First, I bought the Gradient 1.4s. Before changing anything else, I plopped them down fresh out of the box right in front of my Harbeths which were still mounted on their stands. I moved the speaker cables from the Harbeths to the Gradients and took a listen for a couple of days, putting my DSPeaker Anti-Mode X4 equalizer into Bypass mode so that the custom EQ applied to the Harbeths would not be applied to the Gradients—no equalization was applied to the Gradients.

Results? Excellent! Hugely open and spacious, very clear and seemingly low in distortion, as clear as Janszen Valentina Active/Harbeth M40.2, but even more sorted out sounding (as in making musical lines clearer) than the Janszens (the best I'd previously heard at that). Nice and petite, about the same size look as the Janszens, but just enough broader dispersion not to sound dull outside the sweet spot. Very nice tonal balance overall, no bass boom, no treble spikes or overbrightness, nice solid center image, probably not as ultimately deep bass extension as the Harbeths, about the same as my active Janszens were. No stands needed, and I can move them without fear of herniating myself. Less warmth and "authority" than the Harbeths, but I expected that from my previous experience with the Gradient house sound. But the bass went satisfyingly low with great detail and considerable punch. The detail was equal to that from the Revolution Actives I'd previously owned, but with better punch—that's the area where box woofers beat even heroic dipole bass speakers in my experience.

Without going further into the sonics of these as yet not optimally positioned and certainly not fully broken in speakers, let's just say that I was quite encouraged and decided to proceed a bit further with my planned changes.

Next I physically bypassed the DSPeaker Anti-Mode X4, connecting the USB output of the Lumin U1 Mini, directly to the USB input of the Benchmark DAC3 HGC. A further audible gain in focus and openness occurred, perhaps because I thereby bypassed the coaxial digital connection between the X4 and the Benchmark.

Time to choose: do I really want to move the Harbeths out of the room? Yes, I decided to proceed. Once I muscled the Harbeths off their stands and moved them and the stands into another room, I repositioned the Gradients approximately where the Harbeths had been and undertook another round of listening. The results were even better. Definitely no need for equalization and while still lacking the sense of "authority" of the big Harbeths (as most speakers do, regardless of their size) and perhaps the last few Hertz of bass extension, the 1.4s were otherwise at least fully competitive with the Harbeths' other stellar qualities.

Time to fix the binding posts, pack up the Harbeths for sale, and proceed with the rest of my plan!

[continued below]

 

tmallin

WBF Technical Expert
May 19, 2010
412
46
175
67
Chicagoland
#3
Moving Things Along

Among the items I decided to and have already moved along to other audiophiles were the:

  • Harbeth M40.2 speakers and TonTrager stands for them
  • Lumin U1 Mini with Sbooster external power supply
  • Oppo UDP-205
  • DSPeaker Anti-Mode X4
  • Salamander Archetype 3.0 rack with 2 extra shelves (28" high, 5 shelves)
  • Benchmark DAC3 HGC
  • Z-Systems rdq-1 (which was in the closet already, having been replaced by the X4)
  • Charcoal gray Sonex (many 4"-thick 2' x 4' sheets both in use and stored)
  • Charcoal gray P.I. Audio AQD sound diffuser panels (four 2' x 4' panels)
  • AV Room Service EVPs with felt tops and bottoms (20+)

New items added are:

  • Gradient 1.4 Speakers (replacing the Harbeth Monitor 40.2 speakers)
  • Lumin X1 streaming DAC (to replace the Lumin UI Mini + Sbooster and the Benchmark DAC3 HGC)
  • Salamander Designs Archetype 2.0 rack with one extra shelf (20" high, 3 shelves)
  • P.I. Audio Group AQD Sound Diffusors (white unpainted), 24 panels, each 2' x 4'
  • A/V Room Service EVPs with rubber tops and bottoms (20+; while a bit thicker, I've found these are otherwise much more practical in that I can actually work on equipment—such as pulling power cords, speaker cables, and interconnects—without the equipment moving around on the shelf and thus requiring repositioning to correct the aesthetics of the set up)
  • White acoustical foam (to treat the first reflection from the ceiling) for which I chose the Alphasorb Linear Foam, 4" thick, 2' x 2' panels; the linear ridges in this foam match well with the smaller linear ridges of the AQD diffuser panels

Why the Gradient 1.4? My Prior Gradient Experience

I may be one of the few people on earth who have owned the Gradient 1.3, 1.5, and Active Revolution (plus SW-T three-segment sub towers which I may be the only person ever to have put together). All were quite exceptional.

I would still have the Rev Active with SW-T subwoofer towers, I think, were it not for remarriage four years ago and a move to a new home. I had in mind my larger (17' x 13') downstairs music room for the Rev set up, but there really wasn't room in there for that set up plus the required biamplification and still have the room do double duty as a living room. And unlike any other audio component then or since, my new wife really did not like the look of the tall (90-inch) black subwoofer monoliths even more than she did not like the small black Rev monoliths.

My Revs WERE Darth Vader-ish in appearance, being all black wood and cloth, rather than the light wood I ordered. But after waiting more than six months for delivery, that was what the distributor delivered so that is what I kept in my old basement bunker room. Just before I moved and then knowing both my new wife's view on them as well as the need to keep that 17' x 13' room functional as a living room as well as for audio purposes, I sold them for a song, keeping the Harbeth M40.1s (which my wife really liked the look and sound of) in that room instead. Now that my wife is providing child care for four grand nieces and nephews a couple times a week, that room no longer has a stereo in it at all, my audio pursuits being confined to the smaller (13' x 11') upstairs stereo room.

In hindsight, these Gradients are all great speakers. If there were problems, they were in lacking that last little bit of evenness/resolution/extension in the mids and highs you get from some other modern speaker drivers such as those in the Harbeths. Part of it may also have been due to coaxial mounting of treble and midrange drivers in the Rev and waveguide mounting of the 1.5 tweeter. The 1.3 and 1.5 lacked bottom-octave bass extension; if you wanted that, you needed subwoofers. And, while the Rev bass extension measured very well indeed and was defined and detailed, there was never quite enough impact/punch for my tastes, despite my having huge driving power (courtesy of four Sanders Magtech Monobloc amps capable of some 1600 watts each) and eight 12-inch woofers per side in my Rev Active set up. That, I've concluded, is just the way dipole bass sounds to me and many others.

For the Rev, I had to be careful about my listening height (you must sit in the lowest chair you can find, ideally with ears no higher than about 33" – 34" above the floor) and ceiling treatment (I didn't treat it) in order to avoid a vertically squashed presentation. With the 1.5 I had to be careful that the upper parts of the opposite walls were well damped to avoid high frequency reflections becoming audible from high up on those walls since for best bass you have to toe the speakers in much more than usual so that the mid and high drivers are almost facing the opposite side wall.

The Gradients also were not very warm sounding from midbass up through lower midrange. This was more pronounced in the 1.5 and Rev, again perhaps due to the dipole bass. Harbeths and Stirlings have superior weight to the sound in this area. All the Gradients tend to lack that sense of "authority" so evident in, say, the Harbeth 40 series. If you need such warmth and authority, you may respect the Gradients but long-term find them to sound a bit small or lightweight even when augmented with the SW-T as my Active Rev set up was.

And, as everyone acknowledges, all the Gradients ignore the second venue effects of your listening room more than most other speakers. This is a blessing with recordings where the microphone technique was good and the recorded hall ambiance is thus sufficient and natural sounding. For other recordings, the sense of a fully developed spatial presentation cam be a bit or more missing, the recording people having relied on the listening room to fill in a bit or more of this upon playback. This honesty to the way in which the recording was made and therefore the sound captured on the original recording, rather than as prettified by your listening room's second-venue effects, shows up a lot of recordings for the spatial messes they are, rather than moving a wide segment of commercial recordings to the "spatially acceptable and thus enjoyable" column.

But that's about all that was "wrong" with any of these speakers. That's a very short list, as speakers go, for me. And that list is a composite result of three models owned over a period of several years where any flaws in the mix became ever-the-more evident and annoying. None of these limitations is at all egregious and some listeners may well view these as strengths rather than shortcomings, especially listeners who really want to hear what is on the recording rather than an idealized version of the recording. There is nothing here which "demands" fixing the way the 4 kHz excess of the PSB T3 does, for example, something which is obvious and annoying in even a short audition.

Thus I became intrigued by the new Gradient 1.4, especially in light of my newly realized audio system goals. Small: check. Lighweight and easy to move around: double check since its 33 pound weight comes apart into two sections, each small and quite lightweight, with the bass box weighing probably about 23 pounds and the spherical head unit about 10 pounds. Good sound: if past experience with the designer is an indicator of performance of future models: check. Good for near-field listening: the coaxial midrange/tweeter is ideal for that. Good for small rooms: Big Check since they are both physically small and specifically designed not to bounce a lot of sound off room surfaces above the bass and to eliminate the Allison effect and reduce the effects of room modes by using a near-to-floor-mounted woofer.


[continued below]
 

tmallin

WBF Technical Expert
May 19, 2010
412
46
175
67
Chicagoland
#4
The New Gradient 1.4

The 1.4 is unfortunately the swan-song for long-term head of the company, the now-deceased Jorma Salmi. Actually, it appears to have been jointly developed by Jorma and his son Atte, who now heads Gradient. For much more background on the company and this new model, as well as some sonic impressions, see these two reviews:

https://www.inner-magazines.com/audiophilia/defending-the-objective-approach/

and

http://highfidelity.pl/@main-843&lang=en

Unfortunately, even though the 1.4 has been officially available for a year or more, until very recently Gradient lacked USA distribution or even dealers where I could go to hear the speakers. But even without hearing it, here is what I would expect given the new design, the past versions I've heard, and the consistent approach Gradient has taken with its designs. The Gradient 1.4 looks like a refined Revolution (due to spherical cabinet) on top and a refined (deeper extension) 1.3 on the bottom due to the larger bass cabinet. On paper it goes as deep as the passive Revolution, but not as deep as the Active Revolution, but given the box rather than dipole woofer, I'd bet the extension sounds just as deep as the Active model, plus more impactful. And since the 1.4 shares the 1.3's use of a floor-firing woofer, the woofer radiates into a hemispherical space, basically eliminating the Allison effect on the bass and reducing the impact of room modes on the smoothness of the bass. As a result, the bass should be quite uniform around the room given any half-way reasonable placement of the speakers and listening position.

The 1.4 looks like a winner except that the concentric mid/high drivers will never be quite as smooth as separate mids and tweets (although Salmi claims improvement here from the Rev). It also has adjustable tilt-back of the head unit, potentially allowing the user to play off minimum floor and ceiling reflections against a bit of height illusion you can still get from concentric drivers if you tilt them back to aim a bit toward the ceiling for some splash off that surface (a la what the Rev did).

That's just my audio cowboy take on what was an as-yet-unheard speaker, informed from having owned the 1.3, 1.5, and Revolution Active over the years. I don't think anyone should doubt that the 1.4 would be anything but an excellent speaker. No, it will not be as warm sounding as BBC-derived designs, but it will be much more impervious to bad rooms and bad set ups than most other speakers, giving much more consistent sound from room to room and room position to room position.

[continued below]
 

tmallin

WBF Technical Expert
May 19, 2010
412
46
175
67
Chicagoland
#5
Sonic Impressions

Sound Without Room Treatment

Before replacing my room treatment, I first removed all the existing absorbing and diffusing room treatment bit by bit and listened to the sound from the Gradients as this was done. Yes, I could hear the differences as the acoustic treatment was subtracted, but the differences were not large, the tonal balance was basically unchanged, imaging and staging remained very fine, and there was no added "room roar" or distortion from reflections of mids and highs off the walls. The primary difference was a very mild case of slap-echo audible on the voices of studio announcers on classical music station WFMT. Such voices should sound quite dry since they are speaking in a small well-damped control room and that's the way they sound with the Gradients or Harbeths with the acoustic treatment. Without room treatment, it sounded like the room they were talking in was a fairly live room—no real echo, just the sound of a live, untreated room, as my listening room now was.

Sound With New Room Treatment

Here's a "brief" summary of my sonic impressions so far, after having the Gradient 1.4 speakers in my listening room with the new room treatment for a few weeks now. For comparison, I'll refer to the Harbeth M40.2, Janszen Valentina Active, and Stirling Broadcast LS3/6, all of which I've had in this same small 13' x 11' x 8.5' room for extended periods since 2015.

I'd say that the Harbeths are better than the Gradients in terms of that sense of "authority" on large orchestral works, but, given my prior experience of the Gradient "house sound" through my ownership of the Gradient 1.3, 1.5, and Revolution Active, I expected that. Few speakers match the big Harbeths in that respect unless they are much bigger yet and then they really can't be used in a small room from up close.

These new Gradients, unexpectedly, match the Harbeth "midrange magic." The clarity and tonal realism of human voices is startlingly good tonally and in terms of spatial focus, definitely the best I've experienced. Male and female voices are equally well served, either solo or in chorus.

The Gradients are superior to the Harbeth M40.2 in terms of having smooth response bottom to top without equalization. They really don't need equalization in my room, placed basically where all the other speakers were. In this same configuration, the Janszen Valentina Actives also did not need equalization, while both the Harbeths and Stirlings did, I felt, primarily in the midbass area, but also in the midrange (Harbeth between 500 and 1000 Hz, Stirling between 1 kHz and 2 kHz).

Compared to the M40.2s, the Gradient 1.4s have a superior sense of coherence in near-field listening (about 55 inches from the speakers drivers in my set up with each of these speakers) and that is saying a lot since the Harbeths are so good at that for large speakers. But apparently you can't beat coaxial drivers for sounding like one driver from close up. Because of this, the images and stage focus uncannily well and I just relax into the presentation.

The Gradient 1.4s are even better in my room than the Janszens' in their ability to pull apart the instrumental lines and have everything displayed clearly while yet sounding like an ensemble. This was unexpected given my previous Gradient experience, but it was one of the first things I noticed about the 1.4s' presentation. The Janszens previously were the best I've ever heard at that. In fairness, I think I was pushing the coherence of the Janszens listening to them as close up as I was so that probably means I wasn't hearing them at their best in terms of coherence and high frequency smoothness. But, in my room, this is how I hear it.

I want to emphasize how strikingly clear and low in distortion the Gradient 1.4s sound. Perhaps my comments on hearing instrumental lines so clearly suggests that, but it's more than that. Individual instruments and voices are really clear and clean, strikingly so, without any added high frequency brightness or edge.

The Harbeth M40.2 bass does go 10 Hz or so deeper and is generally somewhat fuller/warmer sounding. But the new Gradients have bass superior to the active Janszens in my room. The Gradient bass is also better defined than the Harbeth bass was and yet doesn't lack for midbass or lower midrange warmth. (I equalized away excess bass warmth in the Harbeths and Stirlings, but left the midbass/lower midrange a bit warmer than what the Gradient 1.4s produce unequalized.) I hear no suck out in the power range (100 to 300 Hz). Unlike the Gradient 1.5 and Revolution (with or without the added sub-towers), the bass of the 1.4 has plenty of impact and can easily startle you on bass transients.

Imaging and staging with the Gradients varies more from recording to recording than with any speaker I've ever owned, and that was before I re-did my room treatment. You may or may not like this. As I already mentioned, this is one aspect of the Gradient sound you may respect but not love. Gradients will reveal the spatial mess of many recordings, refusing to smooth out, blur, or sugar coat this aspect of what is actually on the recording. Recordings get minimal help from your listening room's acoustics. In contrast, the Harbeth M40.2 moves most commercial recordings toward a more even spread of staging and imaging, smoothing out the microphone "pools" a bit or more and creating a more plausible spatial presentation from even mediocre recordings.

On the other hand, with excellent stereo miking, or on studio productions where the space is electronically created through phase manipulation, the 1.4s will drop your jaw and have you exclaiming "whoa!" or some such expletive. By comparison, with the Harbeths, Stirlings, and Janszens you'll just nod in appreciation.

The deep bass is somewhat similar in quality and extension to what I had with the Janszen Valentina Active in my room. If anything, the deep bass on things like electronica is more profound. Certainly it is more startling in its definition, attack, sustain, length and cleanness of decay. The Gradient bass is also a bit warmer and gives a better feeling of "authority" than did the Janszens. The M40.2s have yet more extension and weight and that satisfying and elusive "authority" quality which comes, I think, from more air movement and richer response in the 100 -300 Hz region.

But if you want real room lock from low bass pedals on pipe organs, you will "need" a sub or two or more. The LS3/6 + Swarm in this room was really good for that sort of thing on pieces like the Gnomus section of Pictures at an Exhibition on the Dorian Jean Guillou album, better even than the Harbeth 40.2.

Remember, the Gradient 1.4 IS a small speaker with modestly sized 8" woofer, aluminum, floor firing, and ported though it may be. But the bass is considerably better than that of the unassisted LS3/6 which had a similarly sized woofer. The Gradient bass extends lower, is more defined, and equals the desirable "punchy" nature of the LS3/6 bass.

The treble is another area where the new 1.4 has bested prior Gradients. For whatever reason, the treble now seems fully competitive with the likes of the M40.2, Janszen, and Stirling. I hear no roughness or top-octave roll off. High strings on well-recorded material seem just right, as do struck cymbals. The treble is incredibly open, nice and airy, and sounds extremely low in distortion. There is no excess in the mid-treble (the 4 kHz area), as there can be with many speakers.

Since the Gradient 1.4, like the other Gradients is a relatively short speaker, you should be prepared to set low. As with the others, I accomplish this by removing the seat cushion of my Drexel chair, sitting on the box spring directly. With the seat cushion removed, my ears are down around 33.25 inches above the carpet. That is about right for this 34-inch tall speaker. At this listening height, I tilt the head unit just a bit up to aim straight at my ears. I'm extremely picky about where the stage and images on it appear to be in front of my eyes. I don't want to look up or down on the images/stage. With this configuration, the images/stage seem to be straight ahead, which is the presentation I like. I had no problem with this aspect of the sound of the Harbeths and Stirlings, but the Janszens' stage was difficult to arrange to be high enough for my taste when listened to from such close range.

There is no problem with the vertical size of images, either. The Gradient Revolution Active could be difficult in this respect and the Janszens even more so. Especially with my new room treatment, the 1.4 images are at the right vertical size, not too short (certainly not too tall as they can be with large dipole panel speakers) and the hall ambience goes way up and around for a very nice feeling of envelopment.

There is one other aspect of the presentation which may take longer with the speakers to get a better vocabulary to express. But for now I'll just call it involvement. Even when the imaging is "wrong" because of poor recording miking, the presentation is so darn interesting that it still draws you in and has you smiling in appreciation. There is also the moment-to-moment changes in dynamic and tonal detail, the startlingly clean suddenness of transients (even of bows on strings), the interplay of instrumental lines in an ensemble so clear yet so intertwined. Yes, these pull me into recordings in a way previous speakers have not.

[continued below]
 

tmallin

WBF Technical Expert
May 19, 2010
412
46
175
67
Chicagoland
#6
Set Up

So much for the sound quality per se. Here are a my comments on set up of the speakers and the rest of the system.

Small Room Considerations

In small rooms acoustically similar to mine you probably will need electronic equalization to bring the midbass level down a bit with BBC-type speakers like the Stirling LS3/6 or larger Harbeths. Such speakers have a very full sounding midbass and lower midrange. This is much better than thin sounding in this range, and it makes many recordings sound more realistic in terms of concert hall balance. Pulling down bass peaks is easy with electronic equalization, whereas filling in bass dips is inherently problematic. If you listen primarily to music where clarity of a moving bass line is relatively unimportant—such as classical orchestral—you may find such bass balance to be just fine. But if your listening habits include a lot of music with moving bass lines (e.g., jazz), you will probably need to smooth the midbass and bring it down in level a bit.

Another problem is near-field listening. For near-field listening I did not find the LS3/6 the best choice. Most speakers really aren't meant to sound coherent at listening distances substantially less than eight feet away. Of course, even in a small room, you don't have to listen all that close to speakers, but if you want to keep your ears several feet away from room boundaries (which is usually desirable for best sonics) in a small room you may be "forced" into listening fairly near field.

The specs of many speakers specify a minimum listening distance, and that is usually no closer than about eight feet. Even when the specs don't say it, assume it's so unless your ears or the speaker design indicate otherwise.

The Harbeths (all of them) as well as these new Gradients are superb in the near-field. For the Harbeths, just listen with your ears no higher than the tweeter axis; I prefer an inch or two below that, both for best tonal balance and for best inter-driver coherence.

For whatever reason, the Stirling LS3/6 was not as coherent sounding from quite close up, even when I got my ears right on the axis with the lower tweeter, which, on the recommended stands, is no more than about 33 inches above the floor. That means either a really low chair (like I have now) or angling them back a bit as I did when I had them in this room.

A third problem with small room listening is that the walls are necessarily fairly close to the speakers. With most speakers you will need to acoustically treat the walls in order to avoid upper midrange and high frequency reflections which can add nastiness and coloration to the sound you hear at the listening position. A few speakers, such as the Janszen and Gradient models, have controlled enough dispersion not to create too much such wall splash. In fact, the Janszens are so narrow in dispersion that they sound dull outside the listening position without using the optional air layer side-firing tweeter, but the highs have such a laser-like focus that they strongly reflect off the wall high up behind the listener and thus you must still absorb that splash by placing absorbers high up on the wall behind the listener.

The Gradient models, including the 1.4, limit dispersion enough to allow the speakers to sound fine in small rooms where the walls behind and beside the speakers are necessarily pretty close, while not limiting dispersion so much as to sound overly dull outside the sweet spot. The Gradients also do not beam the highs in so laser-like a fashion that they produce a very strong splash on the wall high up behind the listening position. Dispersion treatments work fine back there with the Gradients.

Room Treatment

As noted above, the dispersion of the Gradient 1.4s in the mids and highs seems quite ideal for a small room. There is enough breadth not to sound overly dull outside the sweet spot, but not so much as to produce a lot of strong mid/high-frequency reflections which need to be killed—that is, absorbed—because of the close proximity of walls. Thus, for these Gradients, I reasoned that dispersive room treatment without much added absorption should be fine. What I didn't need was to deaden the room sound any more than the inherently limited dispersion of the Gradients was doing on its own.

This educated guess proved accurate. With the new room treatment, the imaging and staging with the 1.4s is routinely quite spectacular, even more spectacular on good recordings. I've eliminated the Sonex acoustical foam batts. The only absorbing foam I'm currently using are two two-foot by two-foot pieces of four-inch-thick AlphaSorb Linear Foam from Acoustical Solutions which I use to treat the ceiling first reflection areas as viewed from the listening position. I will eventually also try diffusers up there as well.

For the rest of my room treatment I'm using diffusion in the form of 24 two-foot by four-foot P.I. Audio Group AQD sound diffusors. At the suggestion of David Janszen, I added four of those diffusers at the first reflection points off the walls behind and beside the Janszen speakers and they worked very well with the Harbeths as well. Now I've removed the prior charcoal gray diffusers (which had been painted to match my charcoal gray Sonex) and have treated the entire speaker end of the room floor to ceiling with these panels, as well as a 4-foot wide by 8-foot high area of the wall behind the listening seat. These 24 diffusers are white, like the speakers, so the white speakers visually and sonically better disappear against the white wall background. The overall effect is visually striking during the day. At night, when the room is lit only by two 4-watt night lights behind the panels at the speaker end of the room, the slight translucence of the panels lights the room with an ideal uniformly soft glow without any visual hot spots (I turn off or cover with black electrical tape the equipment panel lights). For eyes-open listeners like me, the soft lighting and lack of actual visual distractions helps my eyes and ears to focus on the virtual sonic images and stage created by the sound.

I use one pattern of the diffusers for the walls behind the speakers and the listening position. I use the other, mirror-imaged pattern on the side walls. (The two patterns nest to form solid rectangular blocks when in the shipping box.)

[continued below]
 

tmallin

WBF Technical Expert
May 19, 2010
412
46
175
67
Chicagoland
#7
General System Architecture, Set Up, and Tweaks

Links in the following list are either to manufacturer's information or my WBF discussion of the items mentioned.

Main Components: Gradient 1.4 speakers, pair of Benchmark AHB2 amps used in bridged mono mode, remote controlled Benchmark HCA4 line/headphone amp with relayed-controlled analog volume control, Lumin X1 streaming DAC for all digital sources.

Server: MinimServer running on Dell XPS 7760 computer (Touch 4K Ultra HD All-in-One Desktop - Intel Core i7-7700K 7th Gen Quad-Core up to 4.5 GHz, 64GB DDR4 Memory, 4TB (2TB x 2) Solid State Drive, 8GB AMD Radeon RX 570, Windows 10 Pro). For much more on the computer and network setup, see my Lumin U1 Mini Digital Transport + Sbooster Power Supply thread.

Equipment support: Salamander Designs Archetype 2.0 stand with one extra solid cherry shelf (20" tall), and/or 2-inch rubber LD or MD (depending on component weight) A/V Room service Equipment Vibration Protectors (EVPs)

Electronics Chassis Damping: flat, paperback magazines, catalogs, or books strategically placed atop the chassis to produce minimal ringing and resonance when tapped with my finger

Electrical Power: Two dedicated 20-amp circuits, one used for analog equipment (amps, line/headphone amp), the other for digital equipment (streamer/DAC, wireless access point). Each circuit feeds a single quad of P.I. Audio Group customized Pass & Seymour 5362A outlets. The directly wired outlet of each dedicated circuit feeds a dedicated P.I. Audio Group UberBuss using the same customized Pass & Seymour 5362A outlets via a Triode Wire Labs Seven Plus power cord. Equipment power cords are the Triode Wire Labs Digital American (streamer, line/headphone amp), High Power Digital American (amps), or the 9-volt version of the iPower (Wi-Fi access point).

Interconnects: Benchmark Audio Studio&Stage Starquad XLR Cable for Analog Audio

Speaker Cables: Benchmark Speaker Cable – NL2 to Banana – 2 Pole (SpeakON connectors at amp end and locking banana plugs at speaker end)

Electrical Connection Treatment: JENA Technologies Electrical Contact Enhancement Fluid is used on all non-soldered electrical connections I can easily reach.

RFI/EMI Protection for Equipment Jacks: All unused RCA, XLR, and USB connectors are capped with Cardas, Audioquest or similar protectors.

Lighting: Daytime, ambient light from window. Nighttime, soft generalized glow produced by two four-watt incandescent night lights plugged into outlets not supplied by the two dedicated audio circuits and hidden behind black vinyl sheets behind transluscent white diffuser panels. All equipment lights are turned off or masked with black electrical tape.


[continued below]

 

tmallin

WBF Technical Expert
May 19, 2010
412
46
175
67
Chicagoland
#8
Speaker Placement and Set Up

Before placing the Gradients, I attached the three feet to the bottom of the bass cabinets. The feet have captured bolts which screw into threaded metal sockets in the bass. The feet are 1" to 2" tall and have a felt covering on the bottom. I also made sure all the woofer mounting screws were reasonably tight (they were not, as received, a common problem with speakers, I've found). Then I treated the binding post connections with my standard electrical connection enhancement fluid from JENA Technologies. See picture here.

The Gradient 1.4s are very unpicky about placement, as I expected from my prior Gradient experience. I just plopped them down roughly between the impressions in my carpet which the stands from the Harbeths had made and voila--I got basically the sound I've described above. Yes, the sound got yet better with some break in, the new room treatment, and with a dialed-in set up, but it was great right out of the box.

As with other speakers I've used in this room, given this room's size and shape, I have found that the listener and speaker positions computed by the Rule of Thirds 29% Version tool to work very well so that is what I've started with using the Gradient 1.4s. With the room's 132" Main Wall width and 161" Side Wall length, that puts the center of the Gradient emblem on the top of the bass cabinet (which itself is approximately aligned with the midrange driver position when the head unit is aligned so as to center the drivers above that emblem) 38 9/32" from the side walls and 46 11/16" from the wall behind the speakers. The listening position is 94 11/16 from the Main Wall behind the speakers, or 48" from the plane of the speakers. The speakers and listener form an equilateral triangle of about 55 7/16" on a side, from ear to drivers. This is near-field listening as I and most others define it. It keeps my head more than five feet away from the wall behind the listening position, which is important, in my experience, for the best spatial presentation. With other speakers, this positioning of speakers and listener yields the best spatial presentation I've heard in this room.

Getting the positioning just so proved relatively simple despite the lack of straight or flat edges on the unconventional cabinet. For the bass unit. I just put a piece of masking tape over the Gradient logo near the front edge of the top of the base unit--that logo is roughly under the cone of the midrange/tweeter when the head unit is mounted. I put a dot on the tape over the center of that logo and measured to the walls from that dot. I used an on-edge CD jewel box aligned with the logo and the XLR jack (that line bisects the bass unit) to judge when the bass unit of each speaker was "aimed" at its respective ear. See picture here.

I adjusted the toe-in of the left bass box so that the CD jewel box appeared to be edge on when viewed from the listening position with my head pointed straight forward and looking left only out of my left eye. For the right speaker with my head pointed straight forward, I look to the right at the right speaker with just my right eye and adjust toe in until the CD jewel box appeared edge on.

The trick to the positioning, and what takes awhile to accomplish, is to get three parameters—toe in, distance from side wall, and distance from the wall behind the speakers—all dialed in as closely as possible by moving the bass box just so. Compared to heavy stand-mounted speakers, however, this process with the lightweight Gradient bass box is a piece of cake.

The spherical head unit has two identical magnetically attached metal grills. One covers the drivers and the other covers the rear ported area. See pictures here and here. The head unit electrically attaches to the bass bin through a short captured XLR cable which is part of the spherical head unit. The cable exits the head unit underneath the ported rear area of the head unit. The head unit's XLR cable is mated to the bass bin's XLR jack. I used the same JENA fluid to treat the XLR connections before mating them. In use, at least from the listening position, this black XLR connection is hidden from sight behind the white speaker. See picture here.

The head unit does not solidly attach to the bass bin. Instead, it merely rests atop a triangle of rubber bumpers at the edge of the hollowed out top of the bass cabinet. This creates stability of positioning of the head unit and eliminates any possibility of the two parts of the speaker rattling together when music is playing. But this arrangement also allows extremely easy fine control of the positioning of the head unit with respect to the bass bin without any possibility of disturbing the positioning of the bass cabinet when changing the head unit's orientation with respect to the bass cabinet.

Once I attached the head unit I visually aligned the tweeter of each speaker vertically with the logo to get the toe-in of the sphere aimed at my ear. Again I did this sitting in the listening position with my head pointed straight forward and looking left with only my left eye for the left speaker and looking right with only my right ey for the right speakers. For vertical angle of the head unit, I then visually judged in the same manner when the tweeter seemed centered within the circle made by the larger dark midrange.

Once that was done, the imaging and staging were super fine, the best of any speaker I've ever heard and with the least phasiness when moving my head left and right, back and forth, and up and down.

Other System Changes

As mentioned, replacing the room treatment just after getting the new Gradients is not the only other change to my system. No, I'm afraid there's much more. To the extent that all these other changes invalidate my comparison of the new Gradients with other speakers in this room, so be it, but I'll list the other changes so you can better judge how much weight to give my sonic comments about the Gradients versus other speakers I've had recently in this room, particularly the immediately preceding Harbeth M40.2s:

  • I also replaced my Salamander Archetype rack with a yet-shorter one (the Gradients are much shorter and I wanted the top components of the rack to still be below the mid/treble part of the speakers for best central imaging).
  • As already mentioned, I lowered my listening height because the 1.4s are much shorter than the Harbeths on their stands were.
  • I eliminated the DSPeaker Anti-Mode X4 EQ, the Oppo UDP-205 disc player, and the Benchmark DAC3 HGC.
  • I replaced my Lumin U1 Mini + Sbooster power supply streaming transport with the top Lumin X1 streaming DAC. (I no longer listen from CDs, the speakers don't need EQ, and the DAC in the Lumin is just fine.)
[continued below]
 
Last edited:

tmallin

WBF Technical Expert
May 19, 2010
412
46
175
67
Chicagoland
#9
System Simplicity

CDs are sonically fine and certainly will be playable for many years into the future. I'm sure that CD players will be around for many more years than I have left on earth. I've kept my CDs against the day of internet collapse. I still buy CDs, many times the ones folks on REG's Audio Forum recommend. I've also subscribed to the BBC Music magazine for years and have kept all those CDs but listen to them only from files these days. These days I just play CDs once to rip them to files and then store the CDs.

A streaming DAC like the Lumin X1 I now have plays all your CD files, any high-res PCM or DSD files you may have, plus plays any internet streaming service you care to tune in or subscribe to--from tens of thousands of internet radio stations, to millions of CD-quality files on Tidal, Qobuz, Apple, Amazon and ever more streaming services, to tens of thousands of high-resolution MQA and PCM files on Tidal and Qobuz. Via the Lumin App, all of this is available in any order you want, with all the liner notes and other on-line commentary, at the touch of my iPad screen right from my listening chair. The ultimate couch-potato music listening scheme.

As mentioned, I really do like the idea of decreasing the number of audio boxes in the room. It makes this small room look larger. My Lumin X1 streaming DAC and its outboard power supply sit on the top shelf of my three-shelf rack. In the middle I have the Benchmark HPA4 line/headphone amp to control the volume and listen via headphones. On the bottom are my two Benchmark AHB2 amps, run as monoblocks. Then there are the speakers. My iPad sits on a small stand against a side wall when not in use or next to my chair when I'm listening.

I could do away with the middle rack shelf, too, since since most of my headphone listening nowadays is done at my computer desk elsewhere, where I have my Stax headphones and compatible electrostatic headphone amp. The Lumin streamer has its own volume control I could use. However, when I tried bypassing the Benchmark HPA4, I preferred the better gain structuring and superior audio quality that the Benchmark HPA4 with its relay-controlled analog volume control brought to the table compared to the Lumin's digital volume control. Thus, I'll stick with three shelves and keep the HPA4.

The only other audio boxes in the listening room are two P.I. Audio Group UberBuss power filters on the floor behind the speakers and a small wireless TP-Link router to feed a wired ethernet signal to the streamer (Lumin streamers don't have internal wireless internet reception). None of these three boxes is really necessary. Two just take the place of wall outlets. However, as I discuss in "My Clean Power Adventures" thread, I find the UberBusses to be quite beneficial to the sonics, so they will stay. The router would be unnecessary if I paid an electrician to run ethernet cable from my main router downstairs through the walls into my stereo room. I may eventually do that.

Gain Structure

To maximize the sonic potential of an audio system, its gain structure must be optimized. Optimizing the system's gain structure reduces electronic noise and distortion you hear from the speakers. While you may believe that modern digital and analog electronics really are so quiet and distortion free that this sort of pro-audio trick should make no difference, my long-term experience, especially with the Benchmark electronics, suggests otherwise. I'm convinced that a major factor in the clarity I hear from Benchmark electronics is the ideal gain structuring which this company's electronics allows.

Basically, for proper gain structuring, the upstream components should have as high a gain as possible while avoiding overloading any downstream component's input, while the amplifier should have the lowest gain possible to allow the upstream components to drive the amplifier to just beyond its full rated output when the upstream components are playing the loudest undistorted program peaks. As a concrete example, the factory calibration (with 0 dBFS signal input) of the balanced analog outputs of the Benchmark DAC3 HGC is +24 dBu. Compare that to the consumer electronics industry standard unbalanced output level of 2 Vrms, which translates to +8.2 dBu. The balanced output of the Benchmark DAC is 15.8 dBu hotter. This allows the Benchmark AHB2 amplifier to be set to a correspondingly Low Gain, with an input sensitivity of 22 dBu (9.8 Vrms). Most consumer electronics audio amps have much higher and non-adjustable input sensitivity of 2 Vrms or less, with many tube amps rated to produce their full output with a mere 0.775 Vrms input!

Now, since I've abandoned the Benchmark DAC3 HGC in favor of the DAC in the Lumin X1, I gave up the pro-audio level possible with the Benchmark DAC. The Lumin moves in the right direction compared to most other consumer electronics, however, with a rated output of 6 Vrms from its balanced analog outputs, instead of the usual 2 to 4 Vrms output.

Since the ideal input for the Benchmark AHB2 amps is still hotter than the 6 Vrms provided by the Lumin X1, the question is how to best handle the gain structuring in my new system configuration. I could change the input sensitivity of the AHB2 amps to their Medium Gain setting which is 14.2 dBu or 4 Vrms.

However, in order to keep the amplifier in its ideal Low Gain setting, I can increase the gain of the Benchmark HPA4 through its setup menu. The HPA4 allows you to trim the gain of any chosen input over a range of plus or minus 10 dB.

Using a Vrms to dBu conversion calculator, I find that the Lumin's 6 Vrms output translates to about 17.78 dBu. This compares with the Benchmark DAC3 HGC's calibrated output of 24 dBu. The difference is about 6.22 dBu. Thus I need to increase the gain of the HPA4 by that much to allow the Lumin X1 DAC's output to match that of the Benchmark DAC3. From this calculation, the HPA4 gain for the Lumin X1's input should thus be set at +6 or +6.5 dB to make up the difference. And, in fact, this setting works well indeed in producing a highly dynamic, low noise, and low distortion from the AHB2 amps as heard through the Gradient 1.4 speakers.

Price, Availability & Practicality

The exact USA price of the Gradient 1.4 is perhaps a bit uncertain at this point. But I'm confident that it will be $6,500 the pair or less. That's less than half the cost of the non-anniversary edition of the Harbeth 40.2s, and very roughly equivalent to the cost of a pair of Stirling Broadcast LS3/6 speakers and stands.

As to availability, see the chart of worldwide dealers on the Gradient website at http://www.gradient.fi/en/stores The only USA dealer shown right now is Jeff Stake Audio of Bloomington, Indiana. Jeff is a fellow member of REG's Audio Forum and is the dealer through whom I acquired my 1.4s.

One big consideration for me in buying the 1.4s is that they are small, light in weight, and don't require stands. These qualities make them ideal for me in that my listening room is quite small and I dreaded trying to move the big Harbeths on their stands on the carpet.

The 1.4s come apart in two pieces. The top part weighs maybe a bit over 10 pounds, the bottom 20 to 23 pounds. The specs say the whole speaker weighs just 33 pounds. Believe me, these are a breeze to move around and orient any way you please, despite the lack of straight lines in the design. The design makes them look even smaller than they actually are, again really nice for up-close listening in a small room. They don't dominate the room and don't give you the claustrophobic feeling of giant headphones when listened to in a close encounter.

And they sound great to boot!


[concluded (for now) below]
 

tmallin

WBF Technical Expert
May 19, 2010
412
46
175
67
Chicagoland
#11
After all that, you still may be wondering whether the Gradient 1.4's sound would be your cup of tea. I can't blame you. Here's a little more to help you sort that out.

A number of years back Jonathan Valin voiced an observation which I've tended to agree with over the long term. Here, for example, is an excerpt from his 2011 review of the Magico Q5 speaker:

The way I see it most of us fall into one of three basic groups: what I call the “absolute sound” listeners (who prefer music played by acoustical instruments recorded in a real space, and gear that makes those instruments—no matter how well or poorly they were recorded—sound more like “the real thing”); the “fidelity to mastertapes” listeners (who want their music, acoustical or electronic, to sound exactly as good or as bad, as lifelike or as phony as the recording, engineering, and mastering allow); and the “as you like it” listeners (who care less about the absolute sound of acoustical instruments in a real space or fidelity to mastertapes and simply want their music to sound some form of “good,” which is to say exciting, beautiful, forgiving, non-fatiguing). Though I think these groupings are valid, I also think that no listener is purely one type or another, i.e., the fidelity to mastertapes listener also wants his music to sound like the real thing, when the recording allows; the absolute sound listener wants his music to sound beautiful, when the music or orchestration allows; the “as you like it” listener puts excitement and beauty ahead of fidelity to sources, but is not at all unhappy when those sources also sound like the real thing as he defines it.

This recent video from Steve Guttenberg (The Audiophiliac Daily Show) simplifies listeners into just two categories: those who want to hear the truth about what is on recordings and those who just want their music reproduction to sound "good," dispensing with Valin's "the absolute sound" listener category. The sentiment of commenters was heavily in favor of "good sound," if that matters any. I think it is just a sign of recent times that Guttenberg would dispense with "the absolute sound" category of listeners since even most of the current writers for the audio magazine with that name apparently have abandoned "the absolute sound" of unamplified acoustic instruments as heard from a good seat in a good concert hall as the benchmark for home sound reproduction.

I think your home audio reproduction quest should begin with being honest with yourself as to which of these camps you fall into as a listener, bearing in mind the hybridization of goals Valin mentioned is also legitimate. Over the years I've found myself vacillating between the "absolute sound" camp and the "fidelity to master tapes" camp. But given the still-often-wretched quality of commercial recordings, I can certainly understand how serious listeners could move toward the "as you like it" camp and in recent years have noticed some tendencies toward that camp in my own home music reproduction goals.

Perhaps, if I took my own advice seriously and picked one goal and stuck with it, I'd change speakers less often. But perhaps not; for me the joy is more in the journey than in the arrival.

I think that the Harbeth M40.2 is best appreciated by those in the "absolute sound" camp, while the Gradient 1.4s are definitely better for those in the "fidelity to mastertapes" camp. But those two speakers both do enough things "right" from each viewpoint to appeal to, or at least be respected by, many, if not most, listeners.

If you have a system which allows easy use of DSP to equalize the sound (such as the DSPeaker Anti-Mode X4 unit), you can probably have your cake and eat it too just by adjusting the parameters of the DSP according to what you think sounds "right" to you for a particular recording. Even if your original and primary goal is "fidelity to master tapes," the availability of such flexible DSP allows the listener to nudge the sound significantly in any desired direction. For example, if you favor a gutsy bass and abhore the thinness of many commercial recordings, it would be a simple matter to use a shelf filter to ramp up the bass starting down around 300 Hz to be +5 dB richer from 100 Hz on down.

I used to use a lot of absorption in my listening rooms. That phase of my room treatment life started way back when Bert Whyte wrote an article in the old Audio magazine extolling the virtues of using Sonex in a live-end/dead-end (LEDE) listening-room configuration. At one point I had all the room surfaces at the speaker end of the room plastered with Sonex. But over the years I became increasingly sensitive to the over-deadening of the listening room acoustics which overuse of broadband absorbers can produce and thus reduced the amount of Sonex in the room until, on the advice of David Janszen when I was using his Active Valentinas, I even swapped out the Sonex I had deadening the first reflection points off the nearest walls for diffusors.

I have found that, at least in a very small room like my listening room (11' x 13' x 8.5'), eliminating first reflections with absorption can easily be counterproductive. But early reflections off bare walls doesn't allow you to best hear the recording venue acoustics captured in the recording either, even with speakers like the Gradient 1.4 which control the dispersion more than most speakers. Diffusion room treatment techniques seem to be ideal for allowing such speakers to reveal the recorded acoustics without creating the sense of a "dead space" in you listening room.

I want to stress how fascinating it is to hear the Gradient 1.4s reveal the nuances of the way each recording I play was made. To an extent I've never heard before, these speakers in this room with the new heavily diffusive room treatment, reveal spatial and tonal nuances captured by the microphones during the recording. You can literally hear the "pools" of sound captured by each microphone in mixes which are less than seamlessly stitched together, which are many. But you should not get the impression that this is an ugly or even off-putting revelation when the recording is less than perfect. The speakers do this ever-so-artfully and it's enthralling to hear.

As shown in the pictures in the above post, up to now I've been treating the ceiling reflection with some linear foam absorbers placed atop the ceiling fan blades (so they aren't permanently mounted to the ceiling). I should receive some additional diffusers for treating my ceiling first reflection tomorrow. Compared with using the absorbing foam to treat the ceiling reflection, having no ceiling treatment adds a bit of height to the sonic stage and warms up the midbass a bit, both of which are subjectively nice effects. With all my prior Gradients in my former home's basement room I did not treat the ceiling reflection at all. But with no ceiling absorption, with the 1.4s in this room the center fill gets a bit less solid. With absorbers up there, the stage is a bit lower but center fill is VERY solid. I'm hoping the diffusers on the ceiling will give me the best of both worlds. But even if they produce no improvement, the rooms sounds very good indeed right now, I think.

I experimented with foam absorbers (in addition to the rug and its pad) on the floor, but that was not an improvement. I also tried a trick someone suggested online for making CD racks and bookcases better diffusers by changing the orientation of every other CD or magazine. That seemed to deaden the listening end of the room a bit and that was not an improvement either. My CD racks are already better diffusers than most because each shelf is angled back (scattering reflections toward the ceiling rather than toward my ears) and the angle changes for each shelf for best viewing of the CD spines. (That's just one of the reasons why I've never seen these no-longer-made Davidson-Whitehall StoraDisc CD racks offered for sale on the used market; even pictures of such units are rare online, my own photos of my units being the only online photos I currently know of.)

 
Last edited:

tmallin

WBF Technical Expert
May 19, 2010
412
46
175
67
Chicagoland
#12
More listening tells me that, as with my prior Gradient speakers, these 1.4s sound best with the ceiling first reflection untreated. I've now tried both absorbers and diffusers up there and while the highs are smoothed a bit by both approaches, I believe the highs are actually more lifelike and accurate sounding with that room surface left untreated. And there is no doubt in my mind that leaving the ceiling untreated adds a bit of stage and image height to the presentation, making the presentation sound larger--a good and more realistic thing.

However, I will be adding more P.I. Audio Group AQD Sound Diffusers on the wall behind the listening seat, to broaden the diffusing wall coverage back there by another 20 inches floor to ceiling. Experimenting with the diffusers I had originally purchased for the ceiling treatment by putting them on the wall behind the listening seat instead showed me that further improvement of the presentation could be had in that way.
 

tmallin

WBF Technical Expert
May 19, 2010
412
46
175
67
Chicagoland
#13
Above I wrote:

I really do like the idea of decreasing the number of audio boxes in the room. It makes this small room look larger. My Lumin X1 streaming DAC and its outboard power supply sit on the top shelf of my three-shelf rack. In the middle I have the Benchmark HPA4 line/headphone amp to control the volume and listen via headphones. On the bottom are my two Benchmark AHB2 amps, run as monoblocks. Then there are the speakers. My iPad sits on a small stand against a side wall when not in use or next to my chair when I'm listening.
I could do away with the middle rack shelf, too, since since most of my headphone listening nowadays is done at my computer desk elsewhere, where I have my Stax headphones and compatible electrostatic headphone amp. The Lumin streamer has its own volume control I could use. However, when I tried bypassing the Benchmark HPA4, I preferred the better gain structuring and superior audio quality that the Benchmark HPA4 with its relay-controlled analog volume control brought to the table compared to the Lumin's digital volume control. Thus, I'll stick with three shelves and keep the HPA4.


I'm going to have to eat those words now, however. Further break in of the Lumin X1 and further listening has now convinced me that actually the sound is yet cleaner, more three dimensional, and with a substantially larger, more wrap-around stage and greater image focus when the Lumin X1 volume control is used so that the Lumin's balanced analog output directly feeds the balanced analog inputs of the Benchmark AHB2 amps. The Benchmark HPA4 was actually getting in the way of the best sonics. I would not have believed it if I hadn't heard it. It's not even a very subtle difference.

I'm keeping the third/extra/center shelf of the Salamander Designs Archetype 2.0 rack however. I just moved the X1's power supply down to that shelf, centered it on that shelf and centered the main Lumin X1 chassis on the top shelf.

More things to sell: the HPA4, Audeze LCD-4 headphones, and Mr. Speakers Ether II headphones. No need for headphone listening in this room and the Gradient 1.4 speakers sound way better anyway.
 
Last edited:

tmallin

WBF Technical Expert
May 19, 2010
412
46
175
67
Chicagoland
#14
With the volume-control of the Lumin X1 directly feeding the Benchmark AHB2 amps, the subjectively best gain structuring in this system seems to be to use the Lumin at its Normal output level (which for the X1 is nominally 6 volts max) and the Benchmark amps at their low gain setting (switches on the rear in the middle position which is specified to have a sensitivity of 9.8 volts for rated output. This setting gives the best combination of lowest apparent distortion, low level detail, and macro dynamics/jump factor with the Gradient 1.4 speakers. This setting (rather than the medium gain setting of the amps with its 4.0 volt sensitivity) usually ends up setting the Lumin app's built-in volume control in the top third of its range. While theoretically this combination of settings will not allow the X1 to drive the Benchmark AHB2 amps to their full rated power, full rated power is unneeded for these speakers. I have flip-flopped back and forth on these gain structuring settings over time and have edited this entry accordingly, but my latest clean power treatment (the P.I. Audio Group UberBUSSes plus BUSS Depot) have solidified my choice here. It is no longer even a close call.

I cannot stress enough how clean, resolving, dynamic, and three dimensional this system sounds without the HPA4 in the signal path. Details of individual instruments in an ensemble previously unheard even through top-flight planar magnetic headphones like the Audeze LCD-4 or speakers like the Janszen Valentina Actives are clearly and effortlessly revealed without any unnatural etching or brightness and while still allowing the musicians' ensemble work (i.e., their playing together) to be undiminished at the same time. I've heard nothing like it from any other system. That's the main reason I no longer need or want headphones in this system--the speakers playing in this room are more resolving than all but the best electrostatic headphones and no headphone presentation I've heard gives this kind of "out there" yet still enveloping presentation.
 
Last edited:

tmallin

WBF Technical Expert
May 19, 2010
412
46
175
67
Chicagoland
#15
Two more tweaks to my Gradient 1.4 set up:

First, I received a custom-sized set of P.I. Audio Group AQD sound diffusers in white to complete my set of diffusers for the area behind my listening seat. The normal 24"-wide version wouldn't quite fit, so I had a set of 20"-wide panels fabricated. As you can see from the attached picture, the 20" width is about all that would fit between my bookcase and the open door, when added to the existing two 24" panel widths I had previously installed.

This change, as I suspected it would, made a further improvement in the sense of envelopment in the recorded hall ambiance or sound effects, as well as further reducing any harsh high frequency reflections from the wall behind me. Well worth the extra $200 this set cost.

An unexpected effect of adding the additional panels is a bit of reduction in the SPL of the system when heard from outside the room. I used to be able to hear WFMT clearly from my computer desk about 10 feet away from the open door when the volume was set at 5 on my Lumin X1 streamer. Now with that volume setting I can hear something if I listen carefully but usually can't hear it enough to follow the music.

Second, removing the metal grills from front and back of the spherical head units of the speakers produced an unexpected further gain in focus, clarity, and three dimensionality. A bit of high frequency glare that I wasn't even aware of before has also vanished.

The grills I'm talking about are are several inches in diameter and apparently held in place by magnetic force. Whether this force comes from the magnets in the speaker drivers or other magnets I do not know. I cannot see the magnets holding the grills in place, but magnetic force is at work because you can feel the slight pull as the grill gets very close to the enclosure.

I suppose it would be possible to damage the drivers pulling off these grills, but it seems unlikely and certainly no more likely than removing the grills from the baffles of any other speakers. No tools are needed, just your fingernails, and you are never that close to the drivers, especially the delicate tweeter. But, yes, once the grills are removed, the drivers could be poked by fingers from adults or children, just as with other speakers from which the grills are removed. Thus, if you do remove the grills, you and others must be careful once the drivers are exposed.

When pulling off the Gradient grills, to avoid accidentally moving the sphere or the entire speaker, put one hand atop the sphere and press down a bit. Use your fingers and nails of your other hand to pry off the grill. If you have trouble prying it off with your fingers and nails, you can carefully use a very small diameter screwdriver inserted into the grill's steel wire mesh to pry with. Not much force should be required to pry the grill away from the sphere. The edge of the grill just rests in the narrow slot in the sphere around the edge of the midrange driver; there are no mechanical fasteners. This picture shows the rear grill and baffle plate detached from the speaker; the front grill is identical in appearance and construction.

While removing speaker grills often brings a sonic gain, I was not expecting that in this case since the metal mesh is very "open" indeed on these speakers. I'm not sure why such an open grill work should at all impede the transparency of the drivers, but that's the way I hear it.

Perhaps this has to do with the fact that the grills are not very securely attached. They are magnetically attached and can be pried off without much difficulty with my fingernail. I had occasionally noticed a bit of buzzing from the grills from certain tones at high-ish volumes. I also have noticed a bit of ringing of the metal grills when tapped with my finger while they were attached to the speakers.

Unfortunately, removing the white grills eliminates the all-white look of the speakers since the drivers and baffle parts behind the grills are black. But I'll take the better sound, especially since, from most spots in the room the rear of the spheres is not visible and since, even with the white mesh grills in place, the black color of the drivers shows through.

Even if you decide that in your set up removing the grills is not sonically beneficial or worth the loss of visual aesthetics and possible exposure of the drivers to damage after the grills are removed, you should definitely pull the grills off temporarily to make sure all the screws holding the drivers and rear baffle pieces in place are reasonably tight. In my case, a few screws needed tightening after a few weeks of use and exposure to my dry winter home environment. This could have been the cause of the slight buzzing I occasionally heard; I'm not sure if it was that or the grills rattling or ringing. I did not hear the buzzing after tightening the screws but only noticed the increased sonic transparency once the grills were removed.

With these two tweaks, the 10/10 sound I was getting from the Gradient 1.4s in my room is now nothing short of 11.



IMG_7200.jpg
 
Last edited:
Likes: dan31

tmallin

WBF Technical Expert
May 19, 2010
412
46
175
67
Chicagoland
#16
Further set-up tweaks for the Gradient 1.4 speakers:

1. Once the sphere's grills are removed, you can clearly see the drivers and the screws attaching the midrange driver to the sphere. Once you can see these details clearly, you can rotate the spheres of left and right speakers so that the screw orientations are identical. Because of the way the connecting cable exits the bottom of the sphere and must attach to the XLR jack in the top of the bass cabinet, you should orient these screws so that two are at the bottom of the sphere and two at the top, with the left and right screws all horizontally level when viewed from the front. This orientation ensures maximum slack in the connecting cable, as well as minimizing the possibility that the cable will rub against the sphere (where it might cause audible buzzing), or get caught between the sphere and bass cabinet so as to destabilize the positioning of the sphere atop the bass cabinet's three rubber bumpers the sphere sits on.

If you followed my instructions for setting up the bass bins in post #8 above, you then will want to turn the sphere so that the tweeter is directly above the Gradient logo badge at the top of the bass cabinet when viewed from directly in front of that logo. As a further check on this orientation, you will want to manipulate the sphere so that the two visible screws at the bottom of the sphere are equal distance left and right of the Gradient logo when viewed from directly in front of the logo. In other words, the Gradient logo should appear centered between the left and right screws which attach the midrange driver to the sphere.

Since the purpose of the directions in post #8 above were to orient the two bass cabinets and spheres so that they point directly at their respective ears when viewed from the listening position, the goal of this further set up tweak is to provide a more accurate way of doing this--checking your work and making any necessary adjustments, in other words, now that you can see things better. This will help image focus and soundstage layout since you will be ensuring that the midrange and tweeter drivers of both speakers are accurately pointed toward their respective ears as viewed from the listening position.

IMG-7207.jpg

2. Now that the front and back grills of the spheres are off, you have two flat surfaces on each sphere, front and rear.

IMG-7209.jpg IMG-7208.jpg

These front and back flat surfaces are parallel to each other. Since the back flat surface has no drivers, it is the safest to work with in this step. What you want to do is manipulate the spheres so that they have identical tilt-back angles. This will orient the midrange and treble beams so as to be at the proper height with respect to your two ears. While step 1 above worked on pointing the drivers toward their respective ears in the horizontal dimension, the tilt back will get the drivers pointing the same way vertically as to your left and right ears. This will further gel the imaging and soundstaging.

To do this, you can use a bubble level which can be set at a particular angle away from horizontal or vertical. These are frequently called protractor levels.The BMI Inclinat level I have is one such level and is pictured here, but if you Google protractor level you will find a wide variety of mechanical and electronic devices with this capability. Or, you can just use the level app of your smartphone. In the current iOS software, the level function is part of the Measure app.

For example, to use the iOS smartphone version, once you judge by eye that the midrange and tweeter of each speaker are aimed horizontally and vertically at their respective ears as you look at them from the listening position, just place a flat edge of your smartphone against the perforated back panel of the sphere of one speaker and read the angle from your phone's screen. Then move your smartphone to the flat back panel of the other sphere and read the angle on that speaker. If the angles match, you are done. If not, manipulate the sphere on one speaker so that its measured angle matches that of the other speaker.

A more precise method of determining the tilt-back angle is via measurements and the application of trigonometry. In my case, I know that the approximate distance of the tweeter from my ears at the listening position is 55 inches, as determined by holding a laser measuring tool at my ear canal and pointing it at the tweeter. Using a measuring tape, I've also determined that the tweeter centers are about 29.25 inches above the carpet, while my ear canal is about 33.25 inches above the carpet when I'm sitting at the listening position, a difference of about 4 inches. Thus, the tilt-back angle which points the tweeters directly at my ears forms a right triangle with the opposite leg of 4 inches and the hypotenuse of 55 inches. The sine (defined as the ratio of the opposite leg to the hypotenuse of a triangle) of this angle is 4/55 = .0727. Looking up sines of whole number angles shows that 4 degrees is the whole number angle whose sine function is closest to .0727. I thus adjusted the tilt-back angle of each speaker's spherical head to read 4 degrees when measured with my iPhone's level app. This was verified by setting my BMI Inclinat mechanical level to 4 degrees and determining that both spheres now showed the bubble within the marks when measuring the tilt-back angle.

Without this measurement technique, I find it hard to visually match the tiltback angles of the two spheres to within the accuracy provided by a protractor level or smart phone level, which is about plus or minus half a degree. Getting these angles to match does indeed further improve the already exceptionally fine imaging and staging of which the Gradient 1.4s are capable.

With these two additional tweaks, I'll call the performance 11+!
 
Last edited:

tmallin

WBF Technical Expert
May 19, 2010
412
46
175
67
Chicagoland
#17
Pushing for 12

A couple of days ago I added one of the latest creations of Dave Elledge of P.I. Audio Group to my electrical power purification arsenal. It's now called the BUSS Depot. Some discussion of it back when it was initially called the Beta BUSS is on the Audio Nervosa forum here.

It's not even broken in yet, but already there has been an obvious further increase in three dimensionality of images and staging, an increase in the overall "ease" of the presentation, a warming up of the midbass/lower midrange, greater bass extension, and a seeming strengthening and clarification of the entire bass range as though a bit of equalization had been applied. Bass lines are stronger, richer, and yet also easier to follow. High frequencies seem yet cleaner and more relaxed.

The BUSS Depot is smallish black box with a short captive cord terminated in a Furutech three-prong electrical plug. Another owner's picture of it is
here. There is also an on/off switch. Nothing plugs into the unit. According to Dave's latest thinking (contrary to some of the earlier posts in the Audio Nervosa discussion), the BUSS Depot should be plugged into an outlet which is on a "branch circuit," meaning an outlet powered by the phase of 120-volt electrical current serving your home that is NOT used by the outlets powering your audio system. That is where I have it plugged in.

I will add more comments once the BUSS Depot is fully broken in, about a week from now. But, so far, at least, this $315-delivered unit seems like a stunning bargain in terms of increased performance per dollar. And this is in the context of a system which already has fairly sophisticated power purification--see the My Clean Power Adventures thread.
 

RussellD

New Member
Oct 12, 2010
5
0
1
Victoria BC
#18
A very informative and interesting read. Thanks for the huge effort put into this, Tom. It makes me wish I had them as studio monitors, but I'd have to sell a ton of stuff to do it.
 

tmallin

WBF Technical Expert
May 19, 2010
412
46
175
67
Chicagoland
#19
The BUSS Depot seems fully broken in now. The enhancements I mentioned above remain. Added are further stability of images, roundedness of images, and blacker-yet backgrounds.

I don't know what effects this device would have on a system where the P.I. Audio Group's UberBUSSes, special outlets, and Triode Wire Labs power cords are not used. But for $315 delivered, in my system, the BUSS Depot is a bargain. It works extremely well together with the UberBUSS, clearly bettering my old MIT Z-1 Stabilizer in this respect.
 
Last edited:
Likes: Joe P

About us

  • What’s Best Forum is THE forum for high-end audio, product reviews, advice and sharing experiences on the best of everything else. A place where audiophiles and audio companies discuss existing and new audio products, music servers, music streamers and computer audio, digital to audio converters, turntables, phono stages, cartridges, reel to reel, speakers, headphones, tube amplifiers and solid state amplification. Founded in 2010 What's Best Forum invites intelligent and courteous people of all interests and backgrounds to describe and discuss the best of everything. From beginners to life-long hobbyists to industry professionals we enjoy learning about new things and meeting new people and participating in spirited debates.

Quick Navigation

User Menu

Steve Williams
Site Founder | Site Owner | Administrator
Ron Resnick
Site Co-Owner | Administrator
Julian (The Fixer)
Website Build | Marketing Managersing