Each loudspeaker I hear introduces me to a new experience with music I know well, which in turn often leads me into entirely new music with refreshed, reeducated ears. In today’s high end, you can find many speakers that are worthy of your attention, even ones that fit a modest budget, and as you move up in price, you move into new realms of reproduced sound. This is because every speaker is different, marked by the tastes, concepts, abilities, and budget of its maker. But even when cost is no object to the designer, each speaker compromises with perfection. Some designers will express their gifts most eloquently in the bass, some in the midrange; a few will give you highs to die for. Today, soundstaging seems excellent across the board (this wasn’t true even ten years ago), but detail retrieval varies, often sharply. A few brilliant designs seem to spread their compromises equally across the parameters of speaker elements, creating an extraordinarily seamless performance that makes for deep satisfaction. These rare speakers you hang on to, because they will go on satisfying you for a long time.
The Tyler Linbrook System II comes close to that rare level of balanced performance. It misses, but it has a jewel in its forehead that makes the miss almost not matter.
Tyler Acoustics is the brainchild of Tyler Lashbrook, who lavishes attention on internal parts and external beauties of gorgeous wood veneers. Most of his speakers are based on Norwegian SEAS drivers, of which I am quite fond, and he uses high-end-audio-designed internal parts. He sells his wares directly, via his Web site, so you should (and do) get good quality for your money (the speakers list for $4800 the pair, and sells for $3600 factory-direct). If you want to hear them before you buy (always a good idea), you may live near one of Lashbrook’s customers who have agreed to give demos of their home systems. There is a list of them on his Web site. Tyler also offers a 20-day home trial, but you must pay shipping and a 10% restock fee.
The Linbrook System II is a three-way design, which, since the crossover achieves a smooth transition, gives it a bit of an edge over the two-and-a-half-way designs so popular today. They are easy to set up—about eight feet apart, twoand- a-half feet away from the walls, toed in slightly, with the listening seat making a roughly equilateral triangle with the speaker faces. This is my usual first step in setup, and this time it was the last.
Even at first listen, I got some of that longed-for “new information.” But the upper midrange was a bit harsh, and the harshness increased with volume, and highs were a touch “ringy.” The Linbrooks need, I was told, about 100 hours of break-in, so I settled in for some out-of-the-corner-of-my-ears listening. Sure enough, two weeks of playing smoothed away the harshness and banished the ringing.
Now, the jewel these speakers offer us has to do with upper-midrange and treble detail. These speakers delineate subtleties in this range with a mesmerizing purity. On Lou Harrison’s Gamelan Music [MusicMasters Classics], you will hear the inner voices of the gamelan orchestra in entirely new ways. Soft sounds, upper harmonics, fingers touching metal as if, ever so lightly, the surface of still water. There are doublestrikes in swift passages on some of the softer percussive instruments that I had never heard before. Now they were clear, and their origin was unmistakably metallic, at times, reminiscent of metal ribbons blowing in a light wind—tingting. These tiny ripples created a new presence for this fascinating music. The gamelan is more beehive than bee— there is no one voice. It is a whole palpably greater than its parts; yet, like the bee, each part is alive and feeds the hive of sound. With the Linbrooks, you hear the whole and the parts at once.
To my surprise, this characteristic held true for orchestral music (the most difficult to reproduce satisfyingly with anything short of a mega-system). The whole meaning of complex music is accentuated by little touches in the upper midrange, high harmonics, and small instrumental tones. You hear this in good concert seats, but at home, most of us don’t. In the Dorati/London Symphony CD of Bartók’s Miraculous Mandarin [Mercury], there are shimmering touches in woodwinds and plucked cellos, tremolos from muted violins, all reminding you of the East and of the mystery of this disturbing ballet of eroticism, murder, and the persistence of spirit—and moving a cold finger slowly down your spine. With the Linbrooks, you hear it all: the crude murderers, the seductive girl, the unearthly Mandarin. And all of Bartók’s power to move us to the rhythms of fear and horror.
The bass reproduction is wonderful, full and rich, yet controlled and tuneful— with the Linbrooks, low instruments make music as well as drama. I had a moment of shock and pleasure in Fauré’s Requiem [COLCD] when a single organ note accented a musical line—it came, swelled an instant, and was gone. Perfect. And I had never noticed it before. Oh, it has been there. An organ note isn’t a nuance to get swallowed in even a loud tutti. But it was not felt.
Incidentally, I discovered in long listening that the break-in, which I was listening for in the upper registers, takes place in the lows as well. The earth drum in Mickey Hart’s Planet Drum [Ryko] grew in power over the two weeks. I don’t understand this, but I heard it. At no time did I use a subwoofer; I didn’t need it. The sound is truly full-range, with bass reaching down to the low 30Hz region. And the speakers play well at volumes that go far beyond my tolerance.
Moment after moment of music the Linbrooks revealed to me in this way, until one day I smote my forehead and rushed for the CD The Singing Life of Birds [Houghton Mifflin], which comes with the book of the same title, by ornithologist Donald Kroodsma. Most bird sounds fall in the wonder-range of the Linbrooks, and I used them to learn to differentiate individual singers of the same species— not an easy task if you can’t hear small treble sounds extremely clearly. Well, of course, now I could, and did.
So the treble and the upper and middle midrange of the Tyler Linbrook System II are superb. The bass is excellent. Transients are glorious. Dynamics dynamic. What, then, keeps this $3600 speaker (bought direct) from quite the overall level of performance the Spendor S8e achieves? The answer lies in a slightly compromised lower middle range and midbass. These, to my ears, do not quite match that magical resolution of the upper mids and treble.
Do I care? The Linbrook magic is powerful, so, no I wouldn’t care for perhaps a long while. The speaker’s glory lies in a plane where there is much in music to explore. But I would eventually go back, perhaps with a sigh, to the Spendors, which do everything extremely well, but do not have this slice of brilliance.
More to the point: Would you care? Well, I’ll risk it and bet not, or not for a long time. Not if you deeply love music where such high delights reign— singers, jazz ensembles, complex instrumental interplay. Not if you love rock and drama, because you’ll get that. And all music systems, remember, are a dance with compromise. So—I predict that you won’t care, but you will know.
Well, maybe this is the very reason we are for years quite happy and satisfied, until one day the thought pops up from nowhere: “Upgrade time!”
Be warned, though: It will take money for the other frequency ranges to take that tiny step into the Tyler Linbrook high heaven. We may be talking mega-systems before you reach it. Something to dream on, perhaps. Meanwhile, just listen.