Part One: A Sneak Preview
What I was not expecting when these rather formidable looking speakers of Lars Hansen arrived was for them to be decisively better than either the Burmester B-100s or the Marten Coltrane, although not at a price approaching that of the Nola Grand References, with which they have more than a few characteristics in common. That is, they will set you back 60 grand for the pair and have been designed with the emerging audio “luxury” market in mind (that same market, I might add, now so dominated by Wilson loudspeakers). And I am not quite sure, given my populist upbringing in the mountains of North Carolina how I feel about the more general “luxury” market, that dominated by Bentleys, Rolexes, and other examples of what Thorstein Veblen would call “conspicuous consumption.”
And, after intensive listening sessions, compressed into less time than I’d have liked, I am convinced that THE KINGs (such a modest and humble name) are the superior of (the Nolas excluded) virtually every enclosure-type speaker with which I’ve had experience. I cannot directly compare these with the Nolas because I have positioned, against the designer’s true wish, THE KINGs in Room 2, which is far smaller than Room 3, but which has been the happy host of some quite large speakers from the multi-paneled Magneplanars to a series of Infinity IRS systems.
Hansen, who did an initial positioning of the speakers—which I changed as soon as he left— said they were only doing two-thirds or so what they could have done in a larger room, like 3.
He specifically thought one could achieve a more impressive soundstage, with far better depth, and true extension of the speaker into the bottom octave (which I define as being that below 32Hz).
As it came to pass, with exquisitely careful adjustments in Room 2 (whose acoustic strengths and one major node I know oh-so-well), and the just right combination of associated equipment, we were able to achieve dramatic results, and with a superb soundstage and soundfield and considerable strength audibly flat down to 32Hz. It did not plumb the depths, e.g., the 16Hz pedal point on Reference Recordings Felix Hill organ recital—to be specific, it happens on the Rheinberger “Abendfriede” cut—but THE KINGs did move a great deal of air, and with such definition—articulation—that you’d never think anything at all was missing.
I want to backtrack a bit. We first used in the Room 2 setup, the EAR Acute CD player with the Burmester 04 preamplifier and 911 Mk III monoblocks (actually stereo amps wired for mono operation). We switched from a motley arrangement of interconnects and cables to an all Nordost Valhalla system, complete with the company’s superb Thor power-distribution device and listened that way. In the next phrase, we inserted an ASR amplifier. We did not bypass the Burmester preamp, as we could have with the ASR’s battery-operated input stage, feeding the EAR directly in. When we did try a bypass, without the 04 in the system, the ASR, surprisingly, didn’t sound quite right, and, at the point of this writing, we still hadn’t isolated whatever gremlin was causing the eccentricity of the sound.
Then, in the next phase, we warmed up the Conrad-Johnson Premier 350 solid-state amp and inserted it in the system. Around this time, we made final modifications to the speakers’ placement in the room, returning actually to what I’d called the “classic” position, one that obeyed what I jokingly call the Pearson Rule of Thirds (which is not how the speakers were first placed, nor where they were “re”-placed by Hansen himself) but this time farther out into the room, one-third of the way actually, and moved the speakers closer together until both were positioned at the one-third points of the side walls. In a good room, which 2 is, the Rule of Thirds should always be your starting point in setting up a system. (See diagram.) By this time, I knew we were getting extraordinary results from THE KINGs, and decided to go one step further. Out went the EAR player and in came the Lab 47 Pi/Tracer, to my way of thinking, the very best CD playback system I’ve yet heard. And the increase in resolution, clarity, and scarcity of distortion was nothing short of revelatory. But this did not work to the Premier’s advantage, since the new setup revealed its rather soft and slow response in the 30 to 50Hz region, manifest as a lack of articulation there, and a subtle but gentle veiling throughout the frequency range, and a slightly colored sound that will be familiar to anyone who knows the Conrad-Johnson’s family “character,” that is, a mellow almost goldish glow.
So out went the C-J, and back came the Burmester 911s and the system came “alive” in a way that belied its less than grandiose dimensions (at least compared with the Nolas and other monsters).
So back in went the Burmester amps into the system now dominated by the Lab 47 player and repositioned speakers, and the results — not quite literally, but almost—took my breath away.
Because of the intensity of the sessions, I used fewer CDs than I normally would, and no LPs, since there is no operating turntable in Room 2, nor has there been in many a moon. But the CDs I did use are those I always begin my sessions with, CDs whose sound allows me to get a fix and reference on the other gear I am testing. This means I used the quite stunning XRCD transfer of Zubin Mehta’s reading of The Planets (especially Mercury, Saturn and Uranus), the second cut of Hearts of Space’s The Lost World (a mind-boggler of a sonic storm), the Mercury recording of The Composer and His Orchestra (the first section), Mercury and Fennell’s reading of Grainger’s Lincolnshire Posy (cuts 1 and 6), Holly Cole’s version of “I Can See Clearly Now,” and the two-channel layer of the SACD I produced for Telarc Records (the two cuts from Carmina Burana). If you know these discs, or some of them, you can appreciate that they will test the mettle of any gear, from the amplifier to the speakers. (The Premier 350, to my surprise, actually sounded stressed on some of the most massive peaks on a few of these recordings. Lest it seem I am picking on this amp, which was one of my Editor’s Choices in Issue 165, keep in mind that it is reasonably priced at circa $7000 and more than a bargain, given its many strengths. The Burmester combo comes out at $44,000, roughly six times the price, and certainly not a “measurable” six times the better.)
And so, how did THE KINGs really sound?
For the answer to this, you’ll have to read Part II, next time out.
I know, such a tease.
Part Two: HP’s LOG—The Perils of Reviewing
I guess you might call this a blog, without the “b” and without the word cyberspace. But I’d rather call it my personal log, at least for now and the time being.
I felt compelled to write these nearly random notes to bring you up to date on some of the workings behind the scenes here.
One of the projects I had planned to do over a six-month period, thus six issues of the magazine, was to review a half-dozen large, fairly ambitious speaker systems.
And I began this survey with the provocative new Burmester B-100 three-way system, whose crowning glory was an updated modified version of the legendary Heil tweeter, which was/is capable of quite high playback levels and wide dynamic swings, with exceptionally low coloration and distortion. The system had a remarkable integration of its drivers, although the side-firing woofer setup could be tricky to place, since one would run the risk of a spatial discontinuity. I wanted more time with these, especially to use them with components other than Burmester’s most impressive new electronics (the latest version of the 04 preamp and the 911 Mk III amplifier) but found, to my consternation, that Burmester had already promised the B-100s to Sound By Singer of Manhattan—already sold, I was told—and that it wouldn’t be until October that another pair would find its way to my doorstep.
Next in line were the Marten Coltranes, which I made mention of in Issue 165, and which I found bewitching once they were finetuned with a vengeance (in terms of placement). Since then, I have found even more to like in the Coltranes, and was looking forward to an in-depth shot at them. Why? Because, there was something about their “sweetness” that made me wonder if the ceramic drivers might not be adding a particularly glorious and musically consonant coloration to the sound. Then, there was that diamond tweeter, which struck me as some kind of breakthrough, in terms of purity and a seeming absence of an all-too-common high-frequency resonance in the audible range.
The next speaker on the schedule was the top-of-the-line Usher from Taiwan a beautifully crafted and luxurious looking three-speaker system for an extravagantly reasonable price (just over $16k.) Turns out, the designer had decided to “tune” the speakers for the American market, which, in this case, meant a tweeter level that sounded audibly louder in volume than the other drivers in the cabinet, and this, to these ears, meant these were not quite ready for primetime. I suspected a simple level adjustment would cure the problem and so returned the speakers for an update. This threw my schedule into a spin, since that left a hole that would not be filled until just after Labor Day with the top-of-the-line Hansen speakers, THE KINGs, from Canada.
I toyed with the notion of a quick listen to the new “statement” speaker from Coincident Technology (also from Canada), but decided to wait for the Hansens, and further down the line, take up the Ushers again and then the Coincident. (Of course, that could be the opposite of how things happen.)
I had a backup in mind—you have to in this business—all along, fingers crossed, of course. It seemed likely that the delivery date of the Nova Physics Memory Player was close at hand, and with a little luck, I could probably get a sneak preview (at the very least) into this issue. Alas, that was not to be. If all had gone well, we would have had first dibs on what just might be a promising solution to certain seemingly intractable problems in CD playback, those caused by information dropouts. But that unit was not quite ready for primetime, either; it needed some minor adjustments. And so did this writer after encountering its (Dell) computer-controlled processor. It is no simple matter to master its operation. So I pushed the review date back or ahead (depending on whether you’re a futurist or an antediluvian) to the next issue.
If the claims made for the Memory Player check out, it could, as I suspect from what I understand of the operating principle, elicit an unparalleled degree of fidelity from the compact disc. A few words to whet your appetite: “it is nearly impossible,” the literature says, “for a CD drive to read 100% of the data on a CD on a single pass…” and this, they say, is true of all CD drives. Furthermore, “When the CD drive misses a bit, it ‘fills the hole’ with a synthetic bit of data called ECC (error correction codes). This is done to prevent the listener from hearing gaps of silence…since the ECC has no actual information on it, the result is a congestion and harsh odd (order) harmonics borne [sic] of a synthetic tone, inserted to ‘hide’ the silences of a misread CD.” One further thought, and again I quote from Nova Physics literature, “The Memory Player reads your inserted CD and stores the state on banks of memory. When its laser misses any data, it returns to read it again until it reaches 100%. It will re-read a CD up to 99 times, to capture all the information and store it on banks of solid-state memory.” Hmm. The company also claims the finished work is indistinguishable from the digital master tape.