Is it really over when Morel’s brand-new $32k flagship speakers, The Fat Ladies, sing?
That’s the bold promise of this wittily named arabesque of a three-way, four-driver floorstander from Israel and Great Britain (by way of British speaker designer Russell Kauffman), but before I even start to answer the Big Question I have to point out that Morel is certainly pulling a fast one in another regard: The Fat Lady ain’t fat. In fact, she’s a surprisingly demure (13" x 50" x 17"), strikingly attractive, sensuously curvaceous bit of modern sculpture, molded out of fiberglass, epoxy resin, and carbon fiber, without a single straight line in her body.
Morel says she was modeled to look like a musical instrument—and with her modernesque, slimmed-down-doublebass-like profile, she does. Like a musical instrument, she also has no internal damping. Instead, her high-tech chassis was specifically designed to “sing along” with the drivers in a “controlled” fashion—and, thanks to the superior damping properties of the materials it’s made of, to stop singing as soon as the drivers stop. The drivers, in turn, were specifically designed, developed, and fine-tuned to the cabinet.
Like Focal, Morel has a leg up on most other speaker-manufacturers in that it not only builds speakers but also builds and markets very high-tech drivers, and The Fat Lady uses bespoke ones: Two 9" cabon-fiber/Rohacell composite cones for the bass (with integral one-piece domes and double-magnet hybrid neodymium/ferrite motors, 3" long-throw aluminum voice coils mounted externally, copper-insulated center pole pieces, and diecast aluminum baskets); a 6" cabon-fiber/Rohacell composite cone for the midrange (with integral one-piece dome, hybrid neodymium/ferrite motor, 3" long-throw underhung aluminum voice coil mounted externally, copper-insulated center pole pieces, and a diecast aluminum basket); and 1.1" hand-coated soft dome for the treble (with pancake Neodymium magnet motor and underhung aluminum voice coil). Frequency response is claimed to go from 20Hz to 22kHz and to measure an impressive +/-1.5dB from 40Hz to 18kHz (I will validate this claim in a few paragraphs). I assume the speaker’s distortion numbers must be commensurately impressive, though none are specified. Sensitivity is rated at 88dB. With a nominal 4-ohm speaker like The Fat Lady this usually means that sensitivity is actually 3dB lower than its rating. Not here, however. If anything The Fat Lady seems a bit higher in sensitivity than its specification, as I could drive it (without distortion) to very loud levels with a lot less gain than I’m used to from Magico M5s. Like the Nola Baby Grands, these speakers will rock the house with considerable ease (indeed, Morel claims that The Fat Lady can handle peak power of 1000W, which would result in SPLs that would drive me not just out of the room but out of the neighborhood).
Without a doubt, the Morel drivers, both in The Fat Ladies and also those modified for use in other ultra-high-end speakers, are exceptional. In talking to Morel’s Russell Kauffman—who is an extremely interesting, intelligent, experienced, and quite obviously gifted speaker-designer (and also a just plain nice man)—I learned a good deal about the Morel drivers and the way he is using them. For one thing, Morel’s midrange and tweeter drivers are not designed to behave in an entirely pistonic fashion; instead, they have been deliberately engineered to allow for a certain amount of controlled flexibility at various points in their diaphragms, so that their “break-up” modes, though potentially more audible in the passband, will in actuality be “self-cancelling.” What this means—if I have it right—is that when one part of the driver’s diaphragm “breaks up” by going out of phase and linearity at a certain frequency another part of the diaphragm simultaneously counteracts this phase/linearity shift by “breaking up” in the opposite phase-direction and to the same degree of non-linearity at the same frequency (or frequencies); thus, the sound of break-up is said to be instantaneously cancelled out.
(To understand why “break-up modes” are important, you might want to take a look at my Magico Mini II review in Issue 179 and my Magico M5 review in Issue 196. In a nutshell, when a midrange driver, for example, is crossed over to a tweeter, the midrange cone doesn’t stop playing immediately, no matter how steep the crossover slope. In fact, it continues to play—albeit at a much reduced level—well out of its passband into the treble frequencies where it starts to behave non-pistonically or non-linearly and distorts. The very low-level distortion of this midrange’s “break-up”—which is what this non-linear out-of-passband behavior is called—gets added to the sound of the tweeter it is crossing over to, subtly roughening up the sound in the treble. Breakup modes may appear to be esoteric, but I’m here to tell you that the difference between the sound of speakers in which the break-up modes of the drivers have been optimized and the sound of speakers in which they haven’t is quite audible.)
Drivers with self-cancelling break-up modes are nothing new. (I am told that Focal and B&W, at least in their midrange drivers, do the same thing.) The expertise comes in limiting the “bad” behavior of the diaphragm. In the case of Morel tweeters, for instance, a compound is applied at the factory directly onto the fabric dome that behaves in the same way as a shock absorer does on a car’s suspension. With the midrange (and woofer) driver, the cone’s tri-laminate construction of carbon fiber skins sandwiching a thin layer of Rohacell does this same damping trick. Thus the amplitude of the self-cancelling break-up modes is more artfully controlled.
This is Morel’s contention at least—and though it goes a bit counter to that of certain other speaker manufacturers—I can honestly say that in the listening you do not hear The Fat Lady’s tweeter being very slightly roughed up by the midrange driver as you did with, say, the original Magico Mini (and to a much lesser degree with that of the Mini II). Indeed, The Fat Lady has virtually the same seemingly seamless blend between midrange and tweeter as the Magico M5’s (although The Fat Ladies’ treble response is not as extended nor as near-perfectly flat as that of the M5).
You may wonder, as I did, why Kauffman removed all the stuffing from The Fat Lady’s curvaceous enclosure. He has what I consider to be a very interesting answer to that question—which makes a curious but undeniable kind of common sense and is, in the case of The Fat Ladies, substantiated by listening. In Russell’s view, the damping material inside a speaker cabinet doesn’t just “damp” the energy of the backwave, it muffles and distorts it, stores it, and then releases some of this muffled, distorted, and stored energy back out through the enclosure and the diaphragm of the driver after a delay in time, messing up the clarity and speed of the signal.? ?
To further explain what he meant, Russell used what I thought was a brilliant analogy. “Imagine,” said he as we sat across a restaurant table from each other, “that you and I were simultaneously counting down the numbers from five to one. Together our voices would make a certain timbre at a certain intensity that would be different than just the sound of one of our voices; nonetheless, our voices would sound clear and what we were saying would be fully intelligible. Now imagine that the sound of our two voices was being augmented by a third voice that was slightly delayed in time—the sound of both of our voices muffled by damping materials and reflecting off the bitumen-coated surfaces of a small chamber. Whereas the sound of our two voices in tandem would be clear, the sound of the “three” voices (the two of us counting down simultaneously and that third “voice” which combines ours but muffles the combination via batting and roughs it up a bit via bitumen and then feeds it back to us not instantly but gradually over time) would be considerably more smeared and less intelligible. While the sound of our two voices—which stands in for the sound of music being played directly through the driver and the sound of the undamped cabinet ‘playing along’ with the music—can be compensated for by treating driver and enclosure as an undamped system and designing for the additional energy that the system will be generating and releasing, the sound of a heavily damped enclosure—and the muffling, losses of intelligibility, energy-storage, and time-delays it will cause—is much more difficult to compensate for.”? ?
I’m not endorsing Russell’s logic, as I’ve heard many traditionally damped enclosures that sounded quite wonderfully clear and realistic, but I’ve also heard a certain—well, I wouldn’t call it “muffling,” exactly, but, for lack of a better word, a kind of hesitance or resistance to the free flow of musical energy that seems to make some speakers sound as if it were taking a bit of extra effort and, perhaps, a little added time to get the musical energy out of the box and into the room (and also adding a smidgeon of graininess to the presentation in the process). This hesitance or resistance can make the sound a bit “over-controlled” (or overdamped, when it comes down to it). It is a presentation that I do not hear with dipoles or Radialstrahlers (which, of course, have neither boxes nor damping) and hear less of with the smaller enclosures of two-ways. Like I said, I’m not endorsing Russell’s argument, I am merely noting that I have heard an effect like that which he is describing with some damped enclosures (without realizing that that was what I was hearing), and hear less of it with the Fat Lady’s box, although, as I will explain, The Fat Lady’s cabinet may have a subtle signature of its own.
That the Morel’s undamped box doesn’t seem to be adding resonance to the soundfield is, I confess, a surprising turn-of-events, given that the counter-argument to Kauffman’s—that an undamped box will ring like an undamped bell—makes just as much common sense. Nonetheless, physically, The Fat Lady does an excellent job of disappearing as a sound source. Though you can easily feel the enclosure transmitting sonic energy when the speaker plays just by putting a hand to its supple chassis, The Fat Lady never sounds aggressive, poorly focused, and confused, even at loud levels. Indeed, it is a model of clarity and resolution (save for the reproduction of certain very-low-level transient and imaging cues that I will come to). It also does an excellent job of sounding like one relatively seamless thing, thanks to a change that was made in its crossover.
When I originally got The Fat Lady, she was still a work in progress—particularly in the bass. Kauffmann had been fiddling with the bass crossover for some months, trying to find a happy medium between too lean (as the speaker sounded at last year’s CES) and too full, which is the way she sounded when she came to me. When I say “too full,” I don’t mean in the way that ported speakers sound “full” or “authoritative” or “powerful” due to a strong resonant peak somewhere in the 40–60Hz range (usually followed by a precipitous drop-off in the low bass). Though The Fat Lady is a ported design (I’ll give you a compass and five minutes to find that port, which is very cleverly concealed), its bass never sounded “peaky.” Instead, it sounded “plateaued,” as if the entire bass range from 150Hz down to close to a legitimate 20Hz was uniformly elevated some ten or twelve dB (which, in fact, it was—by measurement). Since she was also admirably flat above 150Hz and all the way out to the treble, listening to the first incarnation of The Fat Lady wasn’t unpleasant. The ample-for-a-regiment bass was just a little distracting, like listening to a very well-behaved satellite coupled to a very well-behaved sub whose output had been turned up too much.
That plateau certainly provided great “foundation” for bass-range instruments. Bass drum, bottom-octave piano, Fender bass, kickdrum, doublebass, toms, bassoons, tubas had incredible power, impact, and clarity, enough to wow several of the rubes on my so-called listening panel into thinking that the fat lady had, indeed, sung. Which just goes to show you (or show some) that “big bass” that isn’t peaky or confused-sounding can be very attractive even to experienced listeners, and because The Fat Lady’s bass was flat as a mesa, albeit a mesa 10-12dB higher than the Big Valley below it, there was no peakiness or confusion (though there was audible discontinuity).
In a way I am glad that I had the experience of hearing the elevated bass of the first iteration of The Fat Ladies—even though it was fundamentally wrong (and fundamentally unrealistic). Here’s why: If that undamped box was going to ring or resonate, injecting four times as much bass energy into it as you were midrange and treble energy should’ve had that enclosure doing grand jetés across my listening room floor—and setting every node of my room to dancing along with it. The fact that none of this occurred indicates to me that The Fat Lady’s shapely, undamped enclosure and its cleverly concealed port aren’t screwing up the sound (as some predicted they would) in the obvious ways. It also indicates that, while that enclosure might have been singing along with the drivers, it also stopped singing pretty abruptly (though I will have a bone to pick—or, at least, a question to raise—in this regard).
Soon after I complained about the elevated bass, Russell returned to my home to install the “final” crossover (which is the only one installed in production models of The Fat Lady). It was immediately obvious that the superabundance of bass had been reduced and that, as a result, the speaker now sounded virtually seamless in octave-to-octave balance and exceptionally natural in timbre from top to bottom.
To demonstrate just how seamless and natural, let me show you two RTAs of The Ladies, taken in my listening room from near the listening seat. In the first plot (which is third-octave-smoothed), the X-axis is 5dB divisions, which is the scale I have generally used with RTAs. (I know, I know. According to some on this magazine, you can hear a difference of 0.1dB, making the far-rougher granularity of my RTAs virtually meaningless. All I can tell you—and I can tell you this for an easily demonstrable fact—is that the general contours and relative flatness of the plots I take invariably reflect the way speakers sound in my room. I can also tell you that I only take these measurements after long listening—in this case, five months—and then primarily to reassure myself that I’m not making some kind of idiotic mistake.)
Folks, this is exceptionally smooth, near-Magico-M5-level frequency response. Indeed, outside of the slight 1–3dB droop in the topmost treble (which is audible as a very slight softening and sweetening and dampening of the overtones and energy of very-high-pitched instruments), it is exemplary.
To show you just how exemplary I’m going to print a second RTA, in which the divisions of the X-axis are 2dB/octave.
I wouldn’t have printed both of these RTAs if the speaker didn’t sound as exceptionally smooth and natural in timbre as the plots indicate. Indeed, in tone color, (the top treble notwithstanding) this is one very lifelike transducer. From contrabassoon to piccolo, from a piano’s C1 (32.7Hz) to its C8 (4.2kHz), The Fat Ladies make instruments sound as much like themselves as any speakers I’ve tested. (Which is perhaps the chief reason why my listening panel of primarily classical music lovers fell head-over-heels in love with them.)
Of course, accurate timbre is not the only key to lifelike sound. In fact, it is not even the first key (although for many of you it may be the most crucial). Before we hear the timbre of an instrument, we hear its starting transient, and that starting transient is absolutely critical to distinguishing the kind of instrument that is playing (take away their starting transients and it’s tough to distinguish a flute from a Stradivarius) and where it is located in space. Happily, The Fat Lady is very very good at this, too. While not quite as crisp, speedy, freed-up, and present as a few ’stats and two or three ultra-pricey dynamics I’ve reviewed (or am about to), it is certainly no slouch when it comes to transient response, reproducing percussion strikes such as the lightning bolts on Sound the All-Clear [Innova], or staccato piano notes such as those in Richard Rodney Bennett’s “Five Studies for Piano” [Argo], or the music-box tinkle of the top-octave pizzicatos and the queasy chalkboard scrape of fingernails against lacquered wood in Attila Bozay’s “Improvisations for Zither” [Hungaraton], or the lively plucked and strummed guitar and Autoharp strings in Ian and Sylvia’s peculiarly cheery celebration of backwoods-Romeo-and-Juliet self-slaughter in “Katy Dear” [Vanguard] with considerable realism.
It is also very good at the duration and intensity of notes—not just their steady-state tone, where it excels, but also the amount of force with which they are sounded and the length with which they are sounded with that force. When I commented in my Audio Research Ref 40 review (see p. 168) on the natural authority with which this preamp reproduces powerful instruments, like the big brass choir on the right hand side of the stage in the third movement of Janacek’s Sinfonietta [Denon], I was also commenting on The Fat Ladies, which don’t just reproduce the gorgeous timbre of the brass but also the martial power of their initial utterance, their position on stage, and their lingering decay—both on tenuto and staccato notes. Ditto for the crashing bottom-octave piano sostenutos in Andre Bouccourechliev’s cacophonous (although very well recorded) Archipel IV [Philips].
This may be getting monotonous, but The Ladies’ staging is superior, as well. Thanks to that undamped enclosure’s computer-optimized shape (with no parallel surfaces), the absolutely superb blend of the drivers that enclosure houses, and the low distortion of the drivers themselves, The Girlz disappear physically as sound sources and leave behind a stage that is wide and deep as a recording allows, with lifelike (though not razor-cut or particularly bloomy) image focus.
So does the fat lady sing when The Fat Ladies sing?
Well, yes and no. Here we have an extraordinarily well-engineered, very full-range transducer with exceptionally natural timbre top-to-bottom, an excellent disappearing act, first-class staging, very very good (though not great) transient response, outstanding bass clarity and resolution (with no port-peakiness in the midbass and deep-reaching bottom-octave response), and very very good to excellent marks in all the other standard audiophile categories. On top of this, The Fat Lady will play very loud without distortion and do a very good job at low listening levels. For an ultra-high-end flagship product (that also makes a striking design statement), it is also priced reasonably at $32k. These are speakers that are endearingly easy to listen to, which is what you would expect from their list of virtues and which is why the Boyz on my listening panel finds these Girlz so easy to love.
If you’re waiting for that other shoe to drop—and dropping other shoes is part of my job—it’s not going to be dropped from a height; however, here it comes. What The Fat Ladies don’t do quite as well as, oh, the TAD CR-1s or the Magico Mini IIs (which, putting aside the Girlz’s far better extension in the bass and smoother, albeit softer and less lively treble, is the speaker they most closely resemble sonically) is make musicians and instruments sound “there.” Which is to say “present in the room with you.”
Now, there are two ways of looking at this. One would be to say that the beryllium drivers in the TAD CR-1s are inherently brighter, faster, and more forward-sounding than the carbon-Rohacell sandwich drivers in the Fat Ladies, and this may be true. It is also true that all of the drivers in The Fat Ladies are made of the same materials, while those in the TAD CR-1 are not (the woofer is a tri-laminate), giving the Girlz an admirable “sameness” of sound from top to bottom. The trouble with this line of argument is that the TAD CR-1s are only as bright or forward as whatever LP or CD they are playing back is. In other words, the TADs are highly transparent to sources.
Take, for example. the song “Long, Lonesome Road” from Ian and Sylvia’s great album Four Strong Winds on the original black-label Vanguard pressing. This is a classic, early-stereo, spaced-omni recording—very left/right, which is actually a plus in the case of this two-part-harmony duo. Typically, Ian pops up to the left of the left speaker, in the plane or a little in front of the plane of the speaker, with his guitar to his right and a little behind him, centered in or directly behind the speaker proper a little lower down than his voice. Sylvia is generally centered or a little to the right of the right speaker, in the plane or slightly in front of the plane of the speaker, with her Autoharp to the right of her, outside the right speaker, close to the right wall, and elevated above the top of the speaker. On TAD CR-1s, both singers sound astonishingly present in the room, as if they weren’t being projected by the speakers but were merely standing, singing, and playing slightly to the outside of them. It is a remarkable three-dimensional effect that—accurately, I think—reflects the simple miking technique.
With the TAD CR-1s (or the Magico Mini IIs) you get all of this holography. With The Fat Ladies you only get some of it. Oh, the timbres of the voices and the guitars are at least as likelife through The Girlz as through these other great loudspeakers. But their images are a little more laid-back. Textural details have a little less sparkle and immediacy, as if the transient and microdynamic energy that like laser lights spark the illusion of presence have been turned down a notch. As a result, our sense of Ian and Sylvia as living breathing human beings is subtly reduced. Though not lacking in three-dimensionality, the duo sounds just a bit less freestanding in ambient air, a bit more “recorded there” rather than “really there.”
I’m not sure why this is the case; I’m not even sure it is an unmitigated demerit. It may be that The Fat Ladies, with their ultra-flat, ultra-smooth presentation, are simply reproducing recordings without adding any of the spurious glamour or resonance of speakers that are less well-behaved in frequency response and cabinet construction.
On the other hand, it seems to me that it is at least possible that that marvelous undamped cabinet of Morel’s, as successfully implemented as it is (and it is), may have a downside—that in singing along with the drivers, its “two-part harmony” may also be dissipating, covering up, or obscuring a small amount of the transient and microdynamic energy that makes voices and instruments sound a bit more “there”—more free-standing, present, airy, and alive—through some of its pricier competition. It could also be that one of the very virtues of Morel’s carbon-fiber/fiberglass/epoxy resin enclosure—that it stops “singing” very quickly because of its self-damping quality—may also be having something of the same effect, paradoxically draining off a little of the energy, duration, and life of the signal like an overdamped box (though, to be fair, the Girlz never sound dry or stinting in tone color).
As I said, these are only guesses, and the effect (and my complaint) is definitely minor. The Fat Ladies never sound boxy or unclear in any obvious way—just the opposite, in fact. Moreover, it could be argued, just as plausibly, that the damped boxes of the TAD and the Magico are adding stored and distorted energy to the signal, making certain instruments seem more forward and present than they should sound. (And, in the case of the Magico, I’ve recently heard evidence that its stacked-birch-and-aluminum boxes are storing a bit of energy and adding a bit of grain that Magico’s new all-aluminum enclosures are not.) Still and all, if the energy that the TADs and Magicos are adding—via enclosures or drivers—is illusory, it is being added mighty selectively and, on the (great) recordings where it is “added,” it is making instruments and vocalists sound more realistically “there in the room.”
Whether they were completely right or mostly right and a little wrong in creating their high-tech undamped carbon-fiber enclosure, Morel and Mr. Kauffman have undoubtedly created a truly outstanding loudspeaker in The Fat Ladies—one that several on my listening panel like above all others I’ve yet had in my home. I know precisely why the Boyz feel this way: The Fat Ladies reproduce instruments and voices with a timbre that is uncannily like the real thing and with an overall balance and lack of coloration that is well-nigh perfect (the Ladies are neither bright nor dark nor both—anywhere); their slight droop in the top treble makes for no irritation or aggressiveness in the upper frequencies and does not rob the speaker of treble extension or resolution (or, at least, not much); their bottom end is as smooth, finely detailed, and deep-reaching as that of any ported speaker I’ve heard, without any of the peakiness that adds spurious “slam” to ported bass; their soundstaging is excellent; and they are always a pleasure to listen to.
While I’m not sure that they signal the end of the ball game when it comes to high-end transducers, they are nonetheless an impressive and innovative debut from a company not previously known for building reference-level loudspeakers and a superb and relatively economical choice for well-heeled listeners who value the sound of the real thing above all else. From me and the Boyz, they come most highly and affectionately recommended.
SPECS & PRICING
Type: Three-way, four-driver, floorstanding, ported dynamic loudspeaker
Drivers: Two 9" carbon-fiber/Rohacell sandwich woofers; one 6" carbon-fiber/Rohacell sandwich midrange; one 1.1" soft dome tweeter
Frequency response: 20Hz–22kHz (40Hz–18kHz +/-1.5dB)
Nominal impedance: 4 ohms
Nominal power handling: 300W (1000W peak power)
Dispersion: Within 1.5dB at 18kHz (horizontal over 60º, vertical over 20º)
Sensitivity: 88dB (2.82V/1m)
Dimensions: 13.375" x 50" x 17.375"
Weight: 97 lbs., each