I might as well start at the finish: The surprisingly compact, two-piece (main speaker and sub) Voxativ 9.87 is a great loudspeaker system that I could easily and happily live with until I’m carted out of my listening room feet first, which at my advanced age may not seem like a ringing endorsement, though it’s meant to be. The interesting part is why I think it’s such a great speaker, which I’ll try to explain in the next few paragraphs.
To begin with, above 80–150Hz, depending on where you cross over the 9.87’s dedicated, powered (by a 250W Class AB Voxativ amplifier), dipolar, dual-driver Pi-Bass woofer/subwoofer to the Pi Monitor that sits atop it in a separate enclosure, the 9.87 uses a single folded-horn-loaded transducer (either the AC-PiND neodymium, the more powerful AC-4D neodymium, or the ultimate AC-Xp field-coil) to reproduce everything that it is fed. Near-full-range, folded-horn-loaded, single-driver cone loudspeakers are relatively rare nowadays (or any days), though their distinguished progenitor—the Voight/Lowther speaker—has been around since the 1930s, is still being made, and has a surprising number of fans.
What is the advantage of using a single driver for everything above the lowest bass? Well, that should be obvious: You don’t need crossovers full of inductors, capacitors, resistors, and other electrical parts to stitch woofers, midranges, and tweeters together; in fact, you don’t need woofers, midranges, and tweeters, which because of their different material compositions, different directivity patterns, different sensitivities, different passbands, and different distortion profiles and breakup modes, not to mention the different resonant/reflective cabinets these drivers are housed in, are hard to make cohere into what sounds like a point source with a uniform sonic character from top to bottom. The old analogy, so often applied to digital components, of attempting to turn chopped beef back into beefsteak could just as easily be applied to multiway speakers, which divide the passband into different segments, sometimes handing off the fundamentals to one driver with a specific material coloration, sensitivity, distortion profile, and directional pattern, and the harmonics to an entirely different driver with a different material coloration, sensitivity, distortion profile, and directional pattern.
Now, I’ll admit that in spite of these inherent problems I’ve heard several multiway cone speakers that don’t suffer markedly from “crossover-itis” (most recently the superb Magico M3 and M6). This said, neither of the Magicos (or the three-way Maggie 30.7, or the four-way MBL 101 E MK. II, or any other speaker with crossovers and drivers of different sizes and different types, for that matter) sounds like the Voxativ 9.87. The difference isn’t a matter of linearity (where I’d be willing to bet the two Magicos far exceed the Voxativ) or of distortion (ditto). And it is not as if the two Magicos or the MBLs don’t sound “of a piece” from top to bottom. They just don’t sound as much “of a piece” as the single-driver 9.87.
Rather like a digital camera equipped with a Bayer sensor and an optical low-pass (anti-aliasing) filter, multiway cone loudspeakers with crossovers are just a little softer, fuzzier, less crisply detailed, and three-dimensionally solid than a single-driver, crossoverless speaker like the Voxativ, which, to continue the analogy, is closer in presentation to something like a Sigma Foveon camera, which has a single dedicated lens, no Bayer array, and no low-pass filter. Moreover, thanks to horn-loading, the Voxativ 9.87 (which approaches 105dB in sensitivity) has sensational dynamic range, making those clearer, crisper, more finely detailed and solidly imaged musicians spring to life, even with single-digit-power SET amplification. The sonic result, with much program material, is a blur-free “thereness” that has to be heard to be appreciated. On voices and acoustic instruments, the Voxativ 9.87s can be about as realistic as transducers—direct-radiator, planar, or omni—get.
Just put on a superior LP—say the late great David Wilson’s recording of Enescu’s Sonata No. 3 with David Abel playing a Guarnerius violin and Julie Steinberg a 9-foot Hamburg Steinway Model D concert grand—and you’ll immediately hear what I’m raving about. Through multiway speakers, both the violin and the piano will likely be set back a fair distance from the front plane of the speakers. Although this recession adds a sense of depth to the presentation, neither instrument was, in fact, set back that far from the spaced pair of Schoeps microphones (hooked up via a line-level vacuum-tube amplifier to Wilson’s highly modified Revox A77). Indeed, Wilson himself says in the liner notes: “The sonic image of the violin should originate just to the right of the inside edge of the left speaker”—and not to the rear of it. Nor should the images of these instruments “drift” even farther back with changes in pitch, as they often do with multiways. Though this drift can add a beguiling softness and sweetness to notes sounded in the upper registers (and roundedness to the bottom ones), it is not the way a violin or a piano sounds in real life. In the real world, both instruments image three-dimensionally from a single point (or in a single plane), no matter which notes they’re playing, though they can seem to move forward or back with changes in dynamics (i.e., with changes in the forcefulness with which notes are being sounded). This near-physical sense of being rooted in space is part of what makes instruments and voices seem “there” on a great recording or a great stereo, and the Voxativ 9.87 captures it as well as any speaker I’ve heard. On the Wilson LP, for instance, the violin is imaged precisely where David Wilson said it ought to be, and it stays there, with no drift.
While the Voxativ’s unwavering focus creates a presence and immediacy that help make the two instruments seem as if they’re in the room with you, that violin and piano would not seem as lifelike were their fundamentals and harmonics not also being accurately reproduced. The Voxativ has enough timbral realism (on both instruments) to maintain the illusion of “thereness,” and thanks to the speaker’s truly remarkable dynamic range and exceptional resolution to capture the way both violin and piano are being played with a fineness of expression that is only rivaled by ’stats or other horns. This superb resolution also extends to aspects of the recording setup and the recording venue. For instance, through the 9.87 you can hear, unmistakably, the way the sound of the piano is occasionally being captured by the violin’s mic in Wilson’s spaced-pair arrangement, making its top octaves sound a bit closer to the left speaker than to the right. You can also hear the slight dryness engendered by the close mic’ing and by the acoustic of the Mills College Concert Hall. This is fidelity of a very high order.
If that were the whole story, we’d all be using horn-loaded single-driver Voxativ loudspeakers. The fact that we aren’t, indeed that most of us are using one of the Voxativ’s multiway competitors, isn’t accidental. Just as is the case with a Sigma Foveon camera, the Voxativ’s blurless clarity, sensational recovery of detail, realistically solid imaging, terrific dynamic range, and remarkably lifelike presence come at a price. In the case of the 9.87 speaker, it is linearity, a touch of horn coloration, and (in spite of its virtues, which I will come to) aspects of the Pi-Bass.