John Larsen, the designer of these intriguing and unusual speakers, worked with the late Stig Carlsson for sixteen years until Carlsson’s death, and the Larsen Model 8s are in a sense a continuation of the ideas that arose from their work together. But there are new features in the design compared to the Sonabs of yesterday, the speakers which brought Carlsson’s work to the USA in the 1970s and made him well known as a theoretician and designer.
Words like “unforgettable” can sometimes be flung around a bit, but in the case of the Sonabs this is the literal truth. I not only recall the specific occasion when I first heard them (at someone’s house), but also the recording I heard (namely Handel’s Rinaldo on Columbia Masterworks M334592)—the impression they made was that vivid. To say that the occasion was memorable is an understatement!
Naturally I was interested when it came to my attention that John Larsen had continued the development of this type of speaker. After a convincing demonstration at T.H.E. Show Newport 2014, a review pair was on the way.
Not to maintain artificial suspense, the Larsen 8s are, like their ancestors, speakers that produce an unusually natural sound, a sound that bears a surprising resemblance to concert music. But, again like their ancestors, they are quite different from ordinary speakers—by intention. So to appreciate them, one needs to think for a moment about certain fundamental matters of speakers in rooms.
What Gives With Speakers
It is, of course, familiar stuff in audio that speakers can have various basic radiation patterns: omni, dipoles, or that intrinsically strange if most common hybrid, the “forward-radiating” box speaker designed to be out in the room, which is typically omni in the bass, shifts to radiating primarily forward (half-space radiation) somewhere around 300 to 700Hz, depending on the width of the front baffle, and then narrows its pattern yet more in the high frequencies. On the face of it, this most common kind of speaker seems, like the chimera, to be led from ill-matching parts, as far as radiation pattern goes.
Designers have, of course, become adept at making these transitions of pattern occur smoothly, and thus sound less troublesome to the ear. But the forward-radiating box out in the room remains an odd creature on the face of it.
And then there is the question of “free space mounting,” the “out in the room” part. Since bass works better if the speaker is up against a room boundary (or two or three), how did it get to be a habit to put the speaker out in the room—and to have its woofer off the floor, usually? The answer is historically complex. But roughly speaking, you can blame it on the British. Free space mounting makes it easiest to avoid boundary-induced coloration of the midrange, and the midrange was most of what the British audio establishment of the 1960s and 1970s was interested in. Midrange and precision stereo imaging is also easiest with free space mounting, which delays reflections for a long time.
What To Do About It?
In other places, though—back in the USA and also in continental Europe—people were thinking hard about how advantageous it was for bass to have the speaker up against a wall or two, and to have the bass driver on the floor, as well. Allison in the USA promoted this. And so did Stig Carlsson in Europe.
Carlsson in fact began a systematic rethinking of how speakers interacted with rooms and how sound ought to be radiated into the room. The placement against the wall was advantageous not only for the bass but also for ideal stereo. One needs room sound in stereo—anechoic stereo sounds odd and unconvincing. But the sound off the back wall, from that part of the speaker’s sound that came around behind (a lot in the bass and less as frequency rose), arrived back at the listening position very early, if one had the speakers anything but a long distance from the back wall. And that secondary arrival was not really useful in conveying information about the original recording venue. So went the thinking, as I understand it.
So the natural thing to do was to eliminate the back-wall reflection by placing the speaker against the wall so that the sound off the wall formed in effect a unit with the forward sound. Room sound then arrives a long time after, especially if one puts the speakers on the long wall so that they are far from the sidewalls.
Another aspect of the situation is that the directivity of the speaker ought, in one theory anyway, to remain essentially constant. The up-against-the-wall placement eliminates the baffle step (omni-to-forward) shift in directivity since the speaker is forward radiating all the way down. (The shift to the involvement of the floor is at a quite low frequency and is less consequential in effect than the usual baffle step in the midrange.) In an attempt to achieve constant directivity, the Larsen speaker has a much wider treble dispersion, the result of the upward-firing tweeter. This aim at constant directivity includes in the Larsen speakers adding extra tweeters, not firing directly at the listener, to fill in the power response in the high frequencies, where most speakers become quite directional.
What Is In The Larsen Speaker?
The Larsen Model 8 is a relatively small speaker, which sits on the floor against the wall. Domestic compatibility is certain: It is elegant looking in an understated way and it is not underfoot. But, of course, appearance is not the point of the wall placement, as noted. The speaker contains a side-firing driver near the floor, a midrange/bass driver which fires forward, up a little and inward pointing (the speakers are mirror imaged). There is a main tweeter mounted above the midrange in the angle formed by two surfaces. And two auxiliary tweeters, each attenuated by 10dB, fire upwards from the top surface in front of the midrange driver. (The picture is worth quite a few words here.)
How The Model 8s Sound
Balance from the bottom up: For a relatively small speaker, there is a lot of bass extension. The manufacturer claims 23Hz in-room.
“Gnomus” from Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition arranged for organ, recorded by Dorian, sounded impressive indeed, with startling impact to the bass attacks and a precise sense of the stopping of the bass sounds, as well. The speaker has very uniform response into the room, with the peaks and dips that typically arise in the sub-500Hz region with usual free-space floorstanders largely missing. (To be fair, these peaks and dips can also be dealt with in free-space floorstanders via multi-woofer systems, e.g., PSB, but this is uncommon.)
The smoothness continues into the midrange, although truth to tell the speaker is not quite as uncolored in the mids as the best British box monitors designed for free-space mounting, though, comes to that, hardly anything else is. (Devotion to neutral mids above all else was what those BBC monitors were about, after all.)
Around 1kHz, a broad depression begins, followed by a return to level in the treble. This gives the speaker a slightly pushed-back sound, as opposed to the forward sound that is unfortunately all too common in audio-land. The speaker is well compensated for wall placement—it is smoother against the wall than if one puts it out in the room. But there is an apparently deliberate droop in the presence range. The treble is wider in pattern than usual—in the sense that the upward-firing tweeters fill in the room sound with high frequencies.
The manufacturer’s “white paper” makes no bones about the fact that the extra high-frequency energy in the power response, and in the overall response into the room, may not suit all recordings, though theoretically it has a solid basis. The user should be prepared to cut treble a bit by EQ on occasion—or if electronic purism is desired, to cover up the upward-firing tweeters. This is simple since the tweeters are recessed in a flat surface. Of course on recordings of the right sort, the flatter than usual power in the top end adds realistic “air” to the sound.
I was noticing at rehearsal the other night, during the opening violin passage of the last movement of the Beethoven First Symphony, how airy the sound was at close range. This is an effect one seldom hears correctly from speakers—not that the sound itself was so much particularly “present”—rather the contrary—but that there was a lot of air and micro-texture. Realism is a complex question!
Purists of tonal accuracy might want to experiment with making the transition to the somewhat recessed presence range somewhat smoother, which reduces coloration.
This summary description of the tonal balance of the Model 8s omits, however, a crucial aspect. Namely, the tonal character of the sound is extremely consistent with respect to movement of the listener, and the room sound matches the direct sound very well. There is true consistency of the room sound with the direct sound, and the result is more than usually convincing in tonal terms. In concert music—or even instruments in your room—the sound does not change dramatically with small or even fairly large movements of the listener. And neither does this happen here. Walking into the room while Paul Desmond Live is playing gave the real impression of someone playing the saxophone in the room. Harnoy’s cello on The Best of Ofrah Harnoy was similarly convincing—real cello sound, indeed. This uniformity of room sound was one of the classical ideals of the speaker designs of the Golden Age of Speaker Design in the USA in the 1950s and early 1960s—AR, KLH, Allison. And there was a good reason why people were interested in it. This is a stunning effect and I think an important one. Only if one is willing to sit extremely close to speakers and/or listen to highly directional ones can one get away from hearing the tonal character of the room.
The Sound In General
While the Model 8s have the consistency between room sound and direct sound of an omni, at the same time they are quite directional thanks to their wall placement—they are by nature half-space radiators. So the sound has a much greater directness than one gets from omnis. And this directness leads to extraordinary definition from the lower midrange on down. Trombones, for example, have the solidity and definition of attack that they have in reality. (Hearing a real trombone after listening to a trombone on a speaker tends to be a disconcerting experience. The speaker version lacks adequate definition of the complex initial structure all too often. But not here!)
This is not easy to quantify in measurement, but it is surely easy—and rewarding—to hear. The lower brass, the cello and basses, the bottom range of the piano, all such things acquire the kind of precision and sculptured sound that they really have. There is a good reason to have bass drive up against the boundaries. This is, of course, also the reason for the development of the corner woofer systems of TacT and Lyngdorf, and much earlier for the Allison speakers, which were placed either in corners or against the wall with woofer close to the floor.
This stuff works! One really hears the lower mids on down better. Not only is the presentation more even in frequency response but better in definition. (Because minimum phase matters, these two things are related, but in listening terms they are perceived as quite distinct.)
The stereo imaging of the Model 8s is again different from an ordinary speaker. The directness makes images seem very solid, but the focus of them is of a different character from free-space speakers. The images are either more “dimensional” or less focused, depending on one’s viewpoint. This is not an obvious matter in terms of realism, since the kind of focus of image that can arise in stereo is not really a feature of real sound. One can get to like it a lot, but in a real concert environment, the extreme image focus does not actually happen. The making of recordings has to some extent responded to this by using spaced microphone techniques that blur the stereo images in the recording no matter how one plays them back. Again, life is complicated. In any case, the Model 8s sound close to reality, but not exactly like other speakers as far as imaging is concerned. Imaging is convincing and hearing into the recording venue is excellent but the imaging is different in character. The wide pattern gives unusual stability, but focus is less precise.
The Sound In Itself
All this detail about exactly what happens and why does not really get across the remarkable impression these speakers create. If one forgets about audio categories, turns one’s mind away from a checklist of what speakers are supposed to do, and turns one’s mind away from what most speakers do do, and thinks instead of what music sounds like in reality, these speakers are hugely intriguing. Once one gets used to the fact that they are different from free-space floorstanders; indeed, one can become positively addicted to their sound. In a certain sense, the Model 8s are something of a road not taken in audio. But one cannot help wondering if this is not perhaps because audio took a wrong turn somewhere to some extent if the goal is to sound like real music, especially in terms of reproducing the lower midrange on down.
Large-scaled music, where the match between room sound and direct sound is a vital matter, especially illustrates the virtues of the Model 8s. Orchestras sound surprisingly like orchestras, with a transparency that goes not just down into the midrange but all the way down. If you wanted to write down the bass and cello parts of a symphonic composition from listening, these speakers would make it easy.
At the same time, the human voice is also very convincing. A good recording of a person speaking sounds startlingly like a real person, something that often escapes speakers that change directivity in the midrange on account of the baffle step. And instruments with serious lower-midrange content sound unusually convincing, as noted.
The Larsen Model 8 is to my mind a speaker that everyone seriously interested in audio ought to listen to and at as much length as possible, since one needs to adjust to its quite different approach to reproducing sound in rooms. There are things it does, and important things at that, that to my mind lie at the heart of actually sounding like live music. The approach is entirely different from the near-field, directional speakers that can also claim a really accurate reproduction of what is on the recordings, albeit in a different way. But the approach of the Larsen Model 8s has validity of its own. How speakers should work in rooms is not a very standardized matter. But the way of the Larsens is one of the ways that works. The Larsens, most impressively, really sound the way music actually does sound. The Model 8s are not just another try at making a speaker like all the rest except better, as so many high-end speakers are. Rather, the Larsen Model 8s are something special in their own right.
SPECS & PRICING
Type: Two-and-a halfway floorstander (bottom driver low-pass-limited at 300Hz, crossover to main tweeter at 2.5kHz, vertical tweeters high-pass-filtered at 5kHz); placement against wall recommended by design
Driver complement: Two 7″ Scan-Speak drivers, one as bass up to 300Hz, one as bass/mid; three soft-dome Scan-Speak tweeters, one forward-firing, two firing vertically (the latter attenuated by 10dB)
Frequency response: 23Hz–20kHz
Maximum recommended input: 200 watts
Dimensions: 11″ x 36″ x 13″
Weight: 55 lbs.
568 31 Skillingaryd
+46 370 70 900
AUDIO SKIES (U.S. Distributor)
Los Angeles, CA