Heroics in Maine: Rockport Technologies Lyra Loudspeaker

Heroics in Maine: Rockport Technologies Lyra Loudspeaker

The term “heroic” has been employed frequently to describe an approach to designing loudspeaker cabinets that sets out to create an enclosure for dynamic drivers that will be as inert as possible, contributing nothing unwanted to the sound produced by those drivers. It’s this goal that has resulted in many exceptional products from Wilson, Magico, YG, and others. Without a doubt, this aspect of manufacturing is a critical part of what’s responsible for the superior performance of these speakers, as well as their often eye-popping prices. Well, there’s heroic and then there’s heroic. For two days in late July, I was fortunate to be TAS’ representative at an in-depth introduction to Rockport Technologies’ new Lyra loudspeaker, presented by Andy Payor—the company’s founder, owner, and designer— at the company’s workshop/factory/office in the small town of South Thomaston, Maine. After three years of development, the lengths to which Payor has gone with this singular design yield musical results that are, in my experience, unsurpassed.

Rockport's new inner and outer cabinet housing

It’s not as if Payor has been making his speakers out of particleboard to this point—he’s been a member of the inert/massive/expensive loudspeaker cabinet club for a long time. The Rockport Altair (515 pounds per speaker; $103,500 per pair) and the Arrakis (900 pounds per speaker; $235,000 per pair) were both given glowing evaluations by Robert Harley in 2011 and 2012, respectively. The enclosures for those products are fashioned from inner and outer fiberglass shells that are bonded together with special viscoelastic polymer—a proprietary epoxy material that’s pumped into the space between the two pieces. The use of a “composite” architecture for the monocoque structure assures the optimization of both stiffness and acoustic damping—something that cannot, says Payor, be accomplished with just one material. For the Lyra, which has a price tag of $149,500, the entire enclosure is comprised of just two parts, a main outer housing and a baffle/inner housing. Both are fabricated from aluminum, which is significantly denser than either fiberglass or the carbon-fiber material used for Arrakis’s baffle. This isn’t the first time Payor has used aluminum parts in his cabinets, but the fabrication of the shells from the metal is new. Ribs, grooves, and braces that are cast into the two hefty parts further improve the mechanical/acoustic properties of the enclosure, and a new formulation of the polymer core material (the result of a lot of experimentation with the ratio of the urethane resin to various sorts of filler) is employed, around 11 gallons of the stuff, which contributes over 150 pounds to the weight of the loudspeaker. The enclosure’s construction—the two aluminum shells plus the intervening polymer—has been designated DAMSTIF by Payor, who is in the process of getting the name trademarked. (He’d better hurry before the pharmaceutical industry gets wind of the term and uses it for a men’s health product.)

Andy Payor has redesigned all the drivers. The Lyra is a three-and-a-half-way system that includes a 1-inch beryllium tweeter, two 6-inch midrange drivers, and two 10-inch woofers. Unlike some earlier Rockport designs that sport side-firing bass drivers, those in the Lyra are mounted on the front baffle. The midrange and bass drivers employ a new iteration of a diaphragm material unique to Rockport speakers, a nine-layer carbon-fiber/Rohacell sandwich that varies in thickness over the radial dimension of the cone. These nine layers have been “consolidated” in machined aluminum tooling under conditions of increased temperature and pressure to produce a membrane that’s remarkably stiff but still very light. The tweeter is waveguide-mounted, which greatly improves the coupling efficiency in that driver’s lower reaches, the 1500 to 3000Hz range. Payor explains that this brings about a roughly 6dB increase in sensitivity at a point in the frequency spectrum that’s critical to faithful musical reproduction. There’s less thermal distortion, less distortion caused by driver excursion, better directivity in the crossover region, and fewer issues with edge diffraction (because without the waveguide, the tweeter’s dispersion is virtually omnidirectional at the bottom of its range). The crossover network—Payor favors steep slopes—employs point-to-point wiring as well as custom-made inductors and capacitors. For every loudspeaker that leaves the Rockport factory, Andy Payor fine-tunes the crossover himself. The loudspeakers are beautifully finished; the painstaking process requires about 40 hours per pair, not including the cure time between applications of primer, paint, and clear coat.

High-end manufacturers, small and less small (nobody’s big), tend to set up shop in industrial parks, so arriving at the Rockport “factory” was pleasantly disorienting. An hour-and-a-half drive north of Portland, the facility sits just yards from coastal inlet water of the Atlantic Ocean and resembles an unassuming, if spacious, suburban home from the outside. In fact, most of the structure is new, purpose-specific construction that, naturally, includes a dedicated listening room. There, the Lyras were set up with a Doshi Audio linestage and Jhor monoblock amplifiers, connected up with Transparent Audio cabling. Digital files were called up from a BlueSmoke server running JRiver software and decoded by a dCS Vivaldi DAC; LPs were played on a Rockport Sirius III turntable fitted with a Dynavector cartridge, running through a Doshi phonostage. All of the front-end components were plugged into an AudioQuest Niagara 7000 Low-Z Power Noise-Dissipation System. Harmonic Resolution Systems (HRS) racks supported all the equipment. Andy Payor had asked the attendees each to send a flash drive with reference music in advance of visiting, and I happily obliged. He’d dutifully listened to the files and noted optimal gain settings. My consideration of the Lyras, while not the same as an evaluation over weeks to months needed to produce a meaningful “review” of an advanced audio component, was nonetheless vastly better than even a private, after-hours demo at a trade show—and I felt I could draw some solid conclusions.

What I concluded was that the Rockport Technologies Lyra is surely among the finest loudspeakers on earth; it’s certainly the most extraordinary I’ve heard under circumstances where my exposure was sufficient to have that kind of opinion. Every musical genre—and between my files and the material provided by the other visitors, the musical waterfront was covered—was rendered with complete fealty to scale, tonal color, and dynamics. The sense of occasion, with both live performances and studio recordings, was remarkably consistent and contributed mightily to a tendency to forget that this was canned sound. The openness and transparency, the presentation of natural detail, and the stunning delineation of space all spoke to a complete lack of mechanical distortion. Cues that I was hearing the reproduction of music as opposed to the real thing were reduced to the lowest level in my personal experience. Highlights? The twelve young members of the British choral group Stile Antico singing Thomas Campion’s “Never Weather Beaten Sail” from the album Tune Thy Musicke to Thy Hart, the collaborative spirit of their ensemble work as evident as when I’ve seen them in concert; the staggering power of Gordon Goodwin’s Big Phat Band as they sailed through the high-octane, funk-based title track on Act Your Age; the late-night reverie induced by “Why Worry” from Dire Straits’ Brothers in Arms, played from an LP, the soundstage extending for what seemed like 50 yards beyond the front wall of Payor’s listening room and into the cool, dark Maine countryside.

The Lyra is actually smaller than Rockport’s Altair, a speaker that Andy Payor feels will work in a typical domestic environment less capacious than his 21’ x 31’ listening room. Well, that’s a supposition that needs to be tested. If TAS needs a volunteer for this odious task, I’ll selflessly sign up. That’s just the kind of guy I am. Heroic, you might say.