Turning to my orchestral stand-bys (the Dallas/Mata/Rachmaninoff Symphonic Dances, the Water Lily recordings), I found the recordings to be revealed in startlingly realistic detail. The inner complexities of scores, who was playing what, were laid bare in a way highly reminiscent of live orchestral sound. In the live experience, even when everyone is playing at once, one can still sort out all the sonics effortlessly and automatically. The famous cartoon of the frantic audiophile with the caption, “Crisis: the second oboe is too weak,” is a good joke. But in fact, in real life, one can hear the second oboe in correct balance and resolution. Many speakers jack up the top in an effort to get this sense of resolution. But the ALS has it by nature, without flinging any extra treble at you. Low intermodulation is the key, I think. In any case, the effect is very real. But the tonal character of familiar recordings was sometimes odd unless one had done some work to correct it.
Spatially, things were larger than usual. And one was also more enveloped in the sound, hearing more of the effect, so desired in concert hall design, of being immersed in the soundfield. These effects are a deliberate goal of the speaker design, as is having the image a little above ear level (which also happens). Whether you want these effects depends on your viewpoint. If you think of a stereo recording as an attempt to record information about space that will turn into the perception of space upon playback, then I think you’d have to count the ALS as enormously successful. If you think of stereo as aspiring to the condition of more or less anechoic playback with no time differentials introduced except those directly on the recording, then I suppose you had better look elsewhere. The ALS is different by design.
As noted, the position of centered solo instruments and voices was well focused. (Jim Smoak’s “Poor Man” from Arhoolie was very convincing, for one.) The time-delayed reflections and time differentials from the drivers on either side of the columns did not prevent the formation of stable center images, though the focus was not quite so precise as with more beamy speakers when you sit close to them. Whether this disturbs you or not is up to you. Spatially different the ALSs are—again by design.
Incidentally, during the rather long time I have had these speakers, a considerable number of people came by who liked music but were not audiophiles as such. Without exception, they really liked the ALSs and thought they sounded unusually natural. Most of my friends have heard a lot of stuff over the years coming by for visits. Audiophiles they are not, but experienced listeners they definitely are. The ALSs were a hit.
Usually at this point in my reviews, after describing all the good parts, I always start into the “and yet, and yet” nitpicking. But the case of the Carver ALS is different because this transducer seems to me to be an almost entirely successful realization of the designer’s vision. Moreover, they dodge completely many of the difficulties that arise in other line-source speakers. For example, because the driver arrangement, while unusual, is symmetric around the main (tweeter) axis, the problem of having to listen at one particular axis where mids and tweeters are correctly related does not arise. (This configuration problem is found in many line sources with a columns of tweeters and a single column of woofers.)
Still, there are some limitations that may also cause reservations. One obvious limitation might be the need for sufficient distance to each sidewall, an important factor because a great deal of sound is aimed at the sidewalls. Though Carver himself declared satisfaction with what he was hearing at my place, I wished that I had another foot or two on either side. (The room I was using is fairly large in total area, 27 feet long, but not wide, a little short of 14 feet.) This limited width almost certainly was behind the energy bulge at around 300Hz and the dip above (both could be adjusted out); these would have been much reduced or even nonexistent in a wider room. All speakers, of course, have response that depends on placement, but on the whole I think these speakers will give their absolute best in rooms at least 14 feet wide, preferably even wider. (Carver tells me that in future versions he intends to add a control to adjust the speaker for different room dimensions.)
Second, some people are going to worry about the adjustments and about the crossover boxes, but I think this concern is entirely unnecessary and misguided. All speakers with more than one driver per channel do signal processing and dividing. Just because you can see the devices doing it on the ALS, you should remember that it is always happening. In a lot of dynamic speakers, “the man behind the curtain” is inside the box. But the crossover functions are still going on. Moreover, anyone who tells you that some speaker will work perfectly in your room with no adjustments at all is almost surely, well, if not lying, exaggerating. Adjustments are a good thing! Really a good thing. That high-end audio has to some extent forgotten this is one of its greatest errors and weaknesses. (Recently, the tide seems to be turning with DSP adjustments. But analog adjustments, as in the ALS, have been useful all along. Don’t be like General Jack D. Ripper in Dr. Strangelove, obsessed with purity of essence, or in this case, purity of signal. He was, after all, crazy.)
Finally, there is the question of exact tonal character. One has to do some careful adjusting and perhaps some eq to get the ALS to match the tonal character of neutral stand-mount monitors or floorstanders. If this is a truly crucial point for you, then you might find a near-field monitor speaker and a very close listening position a more direct approach to addressing the issue. But you will lose the spatial scale and sense of scope of the ALS, and I think you will miss them.
The aforementioned points are really the only concerns involved in the way the ALS’ unusual design generates space—or even reveals recorded space. The differences among recordings remain; this is not some sort of surround processor with reverb that makes everything sound like it’s happening in a stadium. Far from it. The differences among recording venues are actually presented more vividly than usual. In this sense, space is not just being generated, but revealed. Still, the ALSs are different. They are supposed to be different. I think Carver would have been bitterly disappointed if at the end the ALSs sounded like ordinary speakers.
There are people who treat audio like those ancient religions where the same rituals are performed over and over in the hopes that if they are made absolutely perfectly, the gods will be appeased and the world will magically improve. I suppose that we all want audio to be as nearly perfect as possible, but to tell the truth, one can be skeptical about the idea that improving speakers in small and subtle ways will lead to revolutionary changes. In any case, Carver surely did not adopt that approach. The ALS is very well put together and things that are optimized are things that matter, but the main point is that this is not a microscopic improvement of things as they are, but a truly new departure, a way of generating stereo sound in a room that is qualitatively different from the forward-radiating, floorstanding, dynamic-driver boxes that have become the primary kind of speaker in audio.
The Carver ALS is a superb speaker on its own terms, which are quite different from those to which people are accustomed. Whether this is the speaker you want is not for me to say. But if you are interested—and in my opinion you surely should be—in a loudspeaker one of the most inventive and capable of all audio designers came up with when he decided to rethink the whole idea of how a speaker ought to work in a room to achieve the closest approach to actual music, you owe it to yourself to listen to the ALS. And rather surprisingly, for a speaker that is capable of not only such power and scale, but also of the most delicate finesse, perhaps you can actually afford to buy them.
As must be clear by now, I was startled and intrigued by the ALS’ realism in reproducing music, from the solo voice up to the largest orchestral recordings. Once everything was adjusted ideally (as already described), then coming back to these speakers after a full orchestral rehearsal or concert, I experienced surprisingly minimal discontinuity vis-à-vis the live experience. The motto of The Absolute Sound—“the sound of real music in real space”—was served very well, indeed, if in a distinctive way. I think my old friend and our colleague, the late Harry Pearson, would really have liked these speakers. I am certain he would have found them fascinating. And I have an idea of how he would have concluded a review of them had he had the chance to write one. In words he used on other occasions for things he considered revolutionary: “This must be heard by students of the audio arts.” I think so, too.
SPECS & PRICING
Type: Tower line source
Driver complement: Each tower contains 22 high-excursion 4" drivers, 13 ribbon tweeters, one supertweeter, plus powered Sub Rosa subwoofer, electronic crossover to subwoofer, and adjustable passive crossovers for the main (tower) speakers
Frequency range: 18Hz to beyond audibility (main speakers to 80kHz)
Sensitivity (main speakers): 93dB @ 2.83 volts
Impedance (main speakers): 4 ohms
Rated max power: 1000 watts
SPL (two speakers): 118dB at 350Wpc
Minimum recommended power: 20 watts
Dimensions (exclusive of base plate): 4 5/8" x 92" x 6 7/8"
Weight: 120 lbs. per tower, including base plate
Price: $14,950 (including subwoofer)
BOB CARVER CORP.
1429 Ave D
Snohomish, WA 98290