Even in the best of times emotion plays a major part in five-figure buying decisions; in today’s economy passion ultimately has to rule. If you are a genuine audiophile, you buy because what you buy strikes an emotional chord that resonates far more deeply than any combination of status, technology, reviews, and dealer recommendations.
A Passion for Speakers
Passion, however, goes beyond the buyer. No rational businessperson remains a high-end-audio dealer because of a narrow focus on cost effectiveness, and the same is true of manufacturers. Even in boom times, the high end is a high-risk business, with uncertain volumes, margins, and fashions. I occasionally review business models for friends, and my advice always has to be the same. As a reviewer and audiophile, invest. As an investor, walk away. If you don’t have a real passion for the high end, it does not make sense as a business—dealer, manufacturer, or, for that matter, magazine owner. And yet, to plagiarize a phrase in praise of poets, it is a “fine madness.” Civilizations are often measured by their aesthetic extremes, and the best of the high end is definitely one of ours.
The Loiminchay line of speakers is a case in point. Why should a pen manufacturer like Patrick Chu get into the speaker business? It is obvious that only an obsessed audiophile would take a successful company into another high-risk luxury field. Even then, why build your own if you can afford any other product on the market? Why, for a parallel example, did a perfectly good tractor company like Lamborghini get into the sports car business?
Patrick Chu states his motives this way: “I’m a passionate guy, totally into whatever I do. I love bringing fine old techniques and lost arts to bear on modern products. Loiminchay pens put me in touch with master lacquering techniques from Japan, built up one painstaking layer at a time, just like you’ll find on our speakers. I work with rare woods, precious metals, jade. (Loiminchay was the Official Pen of the Beijing Olympics!) I make pens I’d like to own, and it’s exactly the same with my speakers! Plus I didn’t like anyone else’s speakers! Artists express their own rationale in their work. They are challenged, of course, as I expect to be, but that’s okay. I blend art and science with my work. We begin with careful measurement, but end with listening tests to extract the fragrance of sound in motion. Measurements are very important, but here’s a great irony: Many reviewers use classical music in their reviews, and that may include original instruments, in the best case, let’s say a Stradivarius. No one was around to ‘test’ that violin when it was made, but everyone knows it sounds just right! It’s all about sight and touch, sight and sound, senses and passion!”
That same philosophy extends to all of the company’s activities. If you log on to Loiminchay.com, you are going to find a series of miniature art works. The two-pen Kama Sutra set, for example, is a production run of exactly 18 sets of gold pens. I suppose they write as well as serve as art, but the advertising doesn’t mention that fact. They are advertised to help teach “the enjoyment of appropriate objects by the five senses of hearing, feeling, seeing, tasting, and smelling, assisted by the mind together with the soul. The ingredient in this is a peculiar contact between the organ of the senses and the consciousness of pleasure that arises from that contact.”
For inexplicable reasons, Robert Harley left this statement out of his otherwise excellent book on high-end audio, but it could apply to why you should buy any serious piece of high-end gear—and especially speakers. With the possible exception of a phono cartridge, no other piece of audio equipment offers so many trade-offs in sound quality or requires more personal involvement in making a selection.
The Price of Passion
Passion, as noted, is also an issue for the audiophile as well as the manufacturer, particularly at the prices of today’s top speakers. A pair of Loiminchay Chagall speakers is a case in point: The price varies from $35,000 to $65,000 a pair, depending on your choice of finish and whether you want the regular or the diamond tweeter. If you are wealthy enough in today’s economy that these prices don’t make you blink, please send me your e-mail address. I may have to hit you for a grant to keep updating my reference system.
I don’t know the exact price point where you have to love a speaker to own it, but it certainly is far lower than the cost of the particular configuration of the Chagall that I’m reviewing. It has the diamond tweeter and a multiclear lacquer finish and sells for $48,500 (and this is the less expensive finish—cherry, piano black, and custom finishes sell for thousands more) Passion is the only excuse for possessing it.
The Product Passion Buys
There are reasons, however, why you may develop such feelings about the Chagalls. The visual aesthetic is striking, which means it is not an anonymous box and you actually have to think about its visual impact. I would note, however, that it looks better in your room than in the photos, and the photos are striking. [AHC is correct that photos don’t do justice to this loudspeaker. I was quite taken by the Chagall’s beauty and exquisite finish when I first saw it for myself. —RH]
What a photo will not show you is that the Chagalls have a more modest visual profile than most speakers in their price range: 14" wide by 51" high by 18" deep. They are very heavy for their size: 150 pounds each. This weight reflects the fact that the wood parts of the “voluptuously-shaped” enclosure are made of exceptionally strong and resonance-resistant 30mm birch multi-ply, that the box has extremely good internal bracing, that the woofer plinth is made out of concrete, and that the speaker has a solid aluminum base.
The speaker is said to be hand-built in China. Loiminchay says: “The enclosures are bored out then finished inside and out with fully sixteen coats of the finest hand-polished lacquer for a lustrous cabinet so finely sealed that no air bubbles remain to leak internal pressurized air. Loiminchay employs three people just to route the interior and driver holes, and even the baffles are hand-shaped in the laminate during fabrication. We go a few steps beyond with luxurious hand-built, hand-lacquered cabinets and really high-quality drivers. We buy wood by the batch and store it in a temperature and humidity-controlled warehouse. One lot makes five pairs of speakers, so they’re all perfectly consistent, all hand-sanded and polished between their sixteen coats.”
You can see some aspects of this quality simply by looking at the Chagalls and touching them. No one does this kind of woodwork and assembly any other way. Patrick Chu also claims that this kind of work affects the speakers’ sound. “Measurements are very important but only part of the story,” he explains. “Everything makes a difference in the sound: the choice of drivers, the shape and density of the cabinet, how well it’s braced, the quality and quantity of the lamb’s wool stuffing, and especially how the sound waves flow around the cabinet’s exterior surfaces, and even which lacquer finish you choose! That’s right, the Chagall in high gloss black piano-lacquer sounds slightly different than one in multi-clear lacquer. That’s why every pair’s crossover is optimized for the best possible overall sound.”
The cost and sound quality of the Chagalls is shaped by a lot more than their enclosures. While a given design choice is ultimately only justified by how the speaker sounds, not by what goes into it, it is important to know what the design intention is behind a given speaker and the reasons for its cost.
The diamond tweeter in my review pair of the Chagalls is clearly a key feature shaping their sound quality. It also sharply raises their price. The driver manufacturer sells a custom version of this tweeter to Loiminchay for $7000, and Loiminchay makes the following case for using it:
- Diamond is the hardest natural substance on the planet. It’s at the top of the Mohs scale of mineral hardness at 10. That’s about 5 times harder than Accuton’s extremely hard ceramic membrane, which in fact consists of corundum, i.e., opalescent sapphire, number 9 on the Mohs scale.
- The internal sound velocity of diamond is faster than in any other natural substance, one of the main features that makes a diamond membrane so desirable for audio transducers.
- Diamond conducts heat better than any other material in the world, five times better than silver, which is the second best. It’s the best conceivable sink for the typical heat generated by a voice coil. The result is the voice coil always operates under the same stable conditions without variation.
- The carbon atoms in a diamond lattice are packed closer together than any other atoms or molecules in any other material. This makes material bonding stronger than anything else and yields unsurpassed transient response.
- Diamond resists wear and has the highest melting point of all natural substances.
The Chagall is available with a ceramic tweeter, at lower cost, but the diamond tweeter increases the upper limits of the response from 28kHz to a measured response in my room that was well above 35kHz. Obviously, no one can hear frequencies this high and the ability to sense them in ways that are relevant to musical listening is extremely debatable. What you can hear is an extremely smooth, resonance-and-peak-free treble, with no roughness or hardness at audible frequencies, but excellent detail, low-and-high-level dynamics, life, and air.
The other drivers include a 6.8” ceramic driver and 8.6” ceramic woofer. This woofer is small for a speaker in this price category, but it seems to be an excellent driver for its size and is mounted on a one-inch-thick concrete plinth, which Loiminchay says is “wrapped with high-quality leather for a remarkably nonresonant driver platform with response down to a Stygian 28Hz.”
Once again, these drivers are unconventional in design and, while I have no way to validate Loiminchay’s claims, are chosen to have a major impact on sound quality. Their ceramic membranes are exceptionally hard and rigid, “enhancing speed and delivering an accurate impulse response.” They have a stiffness/weight ratio which is only surpassed by diamond materials, and they have very high “internal sound velocity,” important in pushing up the breakup frequency and extending the driver’s linear range.
The drivers also have a concave shape designed to yield a wide and uniform energy distribution, which the driver manufacturer feels is far more important than high on-axis sound pressure levels. The small “ears” on the tweeter and midrange drivers—costly to make—are intended to damp driver resonances. The front plate is heavy acoustically inert zinc, rather than plastic or aluminum.
The speaker is designed to be bi-wired and has silver internal wiring. Overall response is stated to be 28Hz–35kHz with a nominal impedance of 8 ohms and sensitivity of 89dB. (My guess is that it is less sensitive than this, but a high-current amp with power levels of 100 watts or more should be adequate to produce loudness levels that will drive sane audiophiles out of any reasonably sized listening room.) The crossover uses Mundorf capacitors from Germany, Clarity capacitors from North Wales in the U.K., and custom-specified vdH silver conductors. The crossover frequencies are 700Hz for the woofer, and 2.5kHz for the midrange, which should ensure that none of the drivers is strained by trying to overextend its frequency range.
Two other key features are separate rear controls that allow the user to adjust midrange and bass response. These controls change the drivers’ output from -2dB to +2dB (in 1dB steps) for a tonal balance that best suits the room and listening position. I would strongly recommend you pay attention to their setting if you audition the Chagalls, and get the dealer to demonstrate what they can do. The ability to compensate for room/speaker interaction is critical. Having the dealer demonstrate them will be even more important if you buy the speakers. Loiminchay provides some of the best, real-world speaker placement instructions I’ve seen. The speaker instruction manual, however, is barebones to the point of being useless. It does not even mention these controls.
The Sound of Passion
Now we come to the sound, and I should begin with a mild confession. I did not know whether to take this speaker seriously before I actually listened to it. An exotic pen manufacturer makes speakers? A manufacturer ego trip? This is a price tag commensurate with that of Wilson, Magico, and Hansen. I thought I might have an opportunity to go back to the halcyon days of reviewing when it was possible to honestly and objectively trash a product because so many components were so eccentric and set such uncertain standards.
There is a lot of excellent competition at lower prices, and superb competition at the price of the Chagalls. The fact is, however, that the Chagalls are good enough to be taken very seriously. They provide a unique mix of sound qualities at a time when the normal bias in speaker design tends towards the lean and detailed. If you want the natural warmth of music—to feel its soul rather than analyze its parts—all of my previous comments about passion may well become more relevant.
The Chagalls provide an excellent mix of midrange and treble detail and resolution with a slightly warm lower midrange and high levels of bass energy. The emphasis is on “slight.” This is not a “colored” speaker and its timbre depends on room placement and how you set its controls. To the extent it has a coloration, it is like listening to music mid-hall in an older and warmer room (at a time when far too many speakers have a coloration that tilts towards a forward sound in a bright hall that emphasizes the upper octaves).
With good recordings, the Chagalls produce an exceptional illusion that you are listening to a live performance. You do not have the feeling that the sound is colored, but you know where you are and what your listening position is. In short, if you like audio “detail,” close-in listening, and lots of treble energy, this is not the speaker for you. If you care about timbre, musical coherence and “smoothness,” and lower midrange warmth, but you want them without sacrificing natural musical detail and energy from the middle of the midrange up, the Chagalls do very well indeed.
Moreover, several hundred hours of listening to jazz, classics, and occasional rock/country never revealed a problem with hardness in the strings, upper-register piano, upper-register woodwinds, female voice, or percussion that wasn’t on the recording. I don’t know if this really is a product of the diamond tweeter.
I have mixed feelings about the exotic tweeter-materials craze. Far too often, diamond and beryllium tweeters are spotlighted in ways that provide upper-octave energy that does not occur in live music and push the treble and upper midrange of borderline recordings to a point that actually becomes irritating. The Chagalls don’t do this. Some audiophiles may find their overall balance a bit warm, but their upper octaves provide the kind of life, air, and energy I hear in live performances and the rear controls allow a lot of fine-tuning of the speaker’s overall balance and timbre to get things right in a given room and system.
Most important, the upper octaves are properly integrated with the midrange and bass in ways that bring out the true character of instruments and types of voice. Most of my listening is to acoustic classical music, and much of it to recordings that use the original instruments or instruments whose individual character is carefully chosen by the musician and is important to the performance. I am all too conscious of any departure from realistic recordings of solo piano, strings, and woodwinds. These departures are common with grand piano, clarinet, and violin. It is hard to get the lower midrange right and still preserve the upper midrange and treble. Most speakers are either a touch too warm and lacking detail, air, and life, or—more commonly in recent years—have too much upper-midrange energy and sound a bit bright or hard. The Chagalls have character but they produce a consistently realistic illusion of live music in timbre, detail, transient response, and the ability to make acoustic music seem real. They may depart from measured accuracy in timbre, but if you want the illusion of live music, they err on the side of realism.
I worked my way through a wide range of CDs, SACDs, and LPs in auditioning the Chagalls, including a number where I have heard the same performers in the same venues and know the genesis of the recording. I also listened to some test CDs of solo instruments that friends made of their own performances while I was present. No one recording is revealed truth, and there are reasons that we rely on sound engineers rather than rolling our own, but the Chagalls got things right time after time. The same was true of voice, with particularly good baritone voice reproduction and a natural lack of hardness in soprano voice—even with some close-miked tracks on older Judy Collins CDs.
Let me give you a few examples. I won’t describe the David Russel recording Art of the Guitar as a guilty pleasure [Telarc SACD]. He is too good a musician, the music is well chosen, and the recording is exceptional. The Chagalls, however, can make this compulsive listening when you want to really enjoy the guitar or simply step back from the pressures of life. The Kuijken String Quartet has done a superb chamber music version of Mozart’s Requiem [Challenge]. The warmth and full range of the cello and viola are extremely natural and the violin is sweet and musical without losing treble energy and detail. Sharon Bezaly’s recording of the Mozart Flute Concertos [BIS SACD] has the slightly too bright character of a number of otherwise good BIS recordings, and the solo flute can sound hard in a number of passages if the speaker is too bright. It is very realistic with the Chagalls.
The Chagalls also perform well at the frequency extremes. The upper treble extends smoothly to the point where you can just detect a presence without really hearing a tone and does so without any evident peaks in reproducing both music and high-frequency test tones. The deep bass is very good for a speaker this size, and fortunately you can forget the advertising. The bass it is not “Stygian,” but very realistic within the limits imposed by the driver and cabinet size.
The Chagalls can’t defy the laws of physics. The woofer is a moderately sized driver in a moderately sized enclosure. At the same time, I was more than a little surprised when I tried out three bass spectaculars. I have always regarded the “big drum” track (Track 2) from the Kodo drum CD [Sheffield] as a good test of both percussion energy and detail. As music, it comes close to sounding like a Spike Jones attempt at revenge for Pearl Harbor. As a test, it is extremely demanding, particularly if you push peak listening levels above 100dB. The Chagalls were outstanding not only in handling truly loud bass peaks, but also in preserving midrange percussion detail and transient information.
The Chagalls could not provide ultimate deep bass performance with the extremely deep bass on the “SoMA” track (Track 8) of the TAS recording of Hearts of Space [Hearts of Space], but they came close and, again, did well at peak levels above 100dB. This kind of bass, again, has more aesthetic value as test material than anything most audiophiles would want to listen to as music.
What was really striking from a musical viewpoint, was how well the Chagalls could cope with the “Catacombae,” “Baba Yaga,” and “Great Gate at Kiev” tracks on the Jean Gillou organ transcription of Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition [Dorian]. This is as good a test of deep bass performance in real music and of overall musical dynamics as you’ll find. Detail and transients were excellent, and with peak average levels well above 100dB. And yes, the same was true in reproducing bass guitar, power rock like Pink Floyd, and deep organ mixed with full-blown symphonic music like Saint-Saëns’ Third Symphony.
The imaging and soundstage are very good, but these are not speakers that will exaggerate soundstage width. You also need to be careful about listening distances and toe-in, and this requires experimentation. A dealer can help, but, like virtually every speaker, the Chagalls only produce the best soundstage if you really work at fine-tuning them to suit your listening room. If you want plug-and-play, get an iPod.
I would strongly recommend that you read the speaker set-up instructions that come with the Chagalls and try room placement based on the rule of thirds rather than the rule of fifths. Both setups worked well, as did my usual setup along the long wall, but the timbre and soundstage locked in best using the rule of thirds.
With good recordings and proper setup, you get a very realistic soundstage with depth matching width and a lot of natural detail (if the miking permits). This shows up even on relatively ordinary recordings. I was struck by this when listening to older LPs like the Juilliard Quartet version of the Haydn String Quartets [Columbia]. The same was true of some older Smithsonian classical recordings of Beethoven’s string quartets (now sadly discontinued), although these were CDs dating back to 1988.
As for system set-up issues, I did not find power problems with either a Pass XA160.5 or a pair of PrimaLuna 70-watt tubed amps. The Chagalls do, however, provide better bass with an amp with a lot of current and a high damping factor. I’d also use the 4-ohm tap on a vacuum tube amplifier, rather than the 8-ohm tap that might seem to be indicated. You will get better control and damping. The Chagalls are not particularly cable-sensitive, although they clearly revealed the differences between the Audioquest and Kimber interconnects and the various speaker cables I use as references.
In summary, the Loiminchay Chagalls are very serious, high-quality speakers—priced at the premium end of the scale. What counts from a reviewing viewpoint, is that is the kind of speaker that can ignite the personal passion that makes an audiophile pay such prices. It does offer a unique mix of sonic choices and trade-offs that makes recorded music sound realistic and give lasting pleasure.
SPECS & PRICING
Loiminchay Chagall loudspeaker
Driver complement: 30mm diamond tweeter; 173mm ceramic midrange, 220mm ceramic mid/bass
Frequency response: 28Hz–35kHz (diamond tweeter version)
Sensitivity: 89dB/2 meters
Impedance: 8 ohms
Dimensions: 14" x 51" x 18"
Weight: approx. 150 lbs. each
Price: $35,000–$65,000 (depending on drivers and finish; $48,500 as reviewed)
4639 Parsons Blvd.
Flushing, Queens, NY 11355
Dynavector 20X, Sumiko Celebration, and Koetsu Onyx cartridges; VPI TNT HRX turntable and JMW 12.7 tone arm; Tact 2.2X digital preamp-room correction- equalizer-D/A converter; EMM Labs SACD/CD player; Pass Xono phono preamp; Pass XP.10 stereo preamp; Pass XA160.5, X600.5; Prima Luna Pro Logue Seven power amplifiers; Vandersteen 5A speaker; Audioquest Niagara and K2, Kimber Select, and Stealth interconnects, speaker and digital cables; PS Audio Premier AC power conditioner