I have a friend, a true connoisseur of great jazz, who owns a pair of 35-year-old speakers which no amount of teasing, deriding or ridicule can convince him to chuck out the window. He recently had them reconditioned, and I’m sure they sound better now after surgery, but not even a quadruple bypass can bring his old, trusty Advents—great speakers in their day—up to the level of modern speaker performance.
The operative phrase here is “in their day.” Loudspeaker technology has advanced by leaps and bounds in the last 30 years, hell, in the last 15, and the dated technology of those old Hall-of-Famers produces nothing short of dated sound.
Today’s speaker designers know far more about cabinet structure, resonance control, crossover circuitry—the electronic gizmos that send the woofers the lows and the tweeters the highs—not to mention, they have a far greater choice of high quality raw speaker drivers than ever before, making their job that much easier. Even the wire used for all the internal connections has improved a hundred-fold since the early 1970s when the original Advents came out. Like I said, the Advents were great way back when, but so was my original Macintosh computer, but it would be ludicrous, no, impossible, to do most of what I do today on that old Mac, good as it was. As with those old speakers, technology has passed it by.
So, how many other jazz fans are missing an enormous amount of musical detail, musical dynamics, and just pure pleasure by continuing to pipe their music collection through aging, sonically ailing loudspeakers? My guess, and it’s only a guess, is that more than half of the dedicated jazz listeners in this country are using speakers purchased before 1990. That’s a shame because music can be so much more fun, so much more involving, with a great pair of speakers. We replace our cars every three to four years, regardless, but we usually only replace hi-fi gear when something breaks down or blows up.
If you are in that group of speaker-museum-curator-wannabes, now might be the time to check out some of the great new speakers on the market, some quite affordable, some with break-the-bank stickers. Over the years, we’ve enjoyed products from Triangle, Joseph Audio, DeVore Audio, PSB, Paradigm, Tetra, Totem, Almarro, Von Schweikert, Magnepan, Spendor, Vandersteen, and Harbeth, just to name a few. All these folks produce speakers capable of making beautiful music, and all are worthy of consideration when shopping, dependent, of course, upon budget, room size and personal preferences.
Today, though, we’ll examine a couple of relatively new speakers to add to that already lengthy list, and maybe these few remarks can make your shopping easier.
You are going shopping, aren’t you?
A couple of years back we took a look at the then brand new stereo receiver from Outlaw Audio (www.outlawaudio.com) and found it to be a worthy product, especially for its reasonable price. Outlaw has made its name engineering great gear at affordable prices—affordable partly through Outlaw’s direct-sale only approach to marketing, and the fact that, though they do all their design work in-house, they outsource all their manufacturing (not necessarily overseas) and don’t have a pile of dough invested in factories and associated personnel.
After years of success selling value-laden electronics and subwoofers, Outlaw has recently released their first speaker—other than their acclaimed subs, that is—called the Outlaw Bookshelf Loudspeaker ($999 in black/$1099 in cherry). And true to form, it is a winner.
Clearly well made, each speaker is hand assembled in the good old US of A, and tweaked to unheard of tolerances to Outlaw’s reference standard, so each unit sounds identical to any other; a feat nearly impossible to achieve with typical mass-market gear. Internal components are all audiophile grade and the exterior finish, at least in the cherry model on loan for review, is furniture grade veneer and much nicer than it probably should be at this price. These babies allow for bi-amping or bi-wiring, include a unique room position compensation switch which changes the internal equalization curve depending on where you place them relative to wall boundaries, and a high frequency adjustment switch which fine tunes the highs relative to room surfaces such as hard floors, or heavily carpeted floors.
For this audition, we utilized Outlaw’s RR2150 Stereo Receiver in addition to their LFM-2 Subwoofer ($299). The sub is another recent addition to the Outlaw lineup and adds that last dollop of bass to the system, down to about 25hz, a useful augmentation since the Bookshelf speakers cut off in the lower fifties. For some music, the sub will not be necessary, but it sure is nice to have that extra extension into the nearly sub-audible range, especially with very low acoustic bass, hard-plucked electric, well-recorded bass drums and, well, action-packed action flicks. Yep, this is a great little system for a non-surround home theater setup—I spent many hours enjoying films with this high performance Outlaw gang. And when Outlaw unveils their new center channel speaker, add an extra mono amp to the 2150, and you really couldn’t ask for more in a modestly priced system geared equally toward music and film.
Inspired by the recent release of Charles Mingus’s Cornell 1964, I’ve been listening to a lot of the amazing body of work, produced by that amazing body of a man, both on CD and vinyl. Playing selections from the Cornell 1964 disc, I was impressed by the system’s ability to resolve details like concert hall ambiance, as well as presenting the fine nuances of instrumental textures, all of which help convince the listener they are listening to real music, played by real musicians in a real acoustic space. Though the master tape itself is probably not the best, Mingus’s solo treatment of “Sophisticated Lady” was offered by the Outlaws with gobs of delicious details, enough to feel you might have been in the hall that glorious night; Mingus has rarely sounded better with this stellar group featuring Eric Dolphy, Clifford Jordan, Johnny Coles, Jaki Byard and Dannie Richmond. Byard’s terrific piano solo on “A Train” came across in all it’s boogie woogie whimsy, with believable piano tone and balance delivered in spades. The nice thing about these speakers is they do nothing to overemphasize any portion of the frequency spectrum, so there is no fatiguing push at the top end, no drop out at the bottom, everything appears balanced as it would in real life. If I had the jack, I’d certainly be tempted to roundup this entire Outlaw pack for my own video system—the addition of excellent music playback in yet another room in the house would be a bonus. One important note: since Outlaw only sells direct, they offer a 30-day home trial period; if you don’t like the gear return it, no questions asked.
For many years at various consumer electronics shows, I’ve marveled over the wonderful speakers produced by Silverline Audio (silverlineaudio.com), and enjoyed the camaraderie of Silverline’s jovial designer Alan Yun.
A couple of shows back, Yun was demonstrating a new product, the Silverline Prelude ($1200), which was a much smaller box than most of his always musical speakers—only about five inches wide and just over three feet tall. The perplexing thing about the performance of the speakers was the prodigious amount of bass and overall level of dynamics. Everyone in the room was convinced Yun had a hidden subwoofer and no one could figure out how such a diminutive package could produce such lifelike sound levels. Well, there was no sub, and the magic Yun achieved can be attributed simply to good design.
Yun wanted to produce an affordable, compact speaker that would outperform its outward appearance, and I must say, in this regard, he is an overachiever. This little devil can plumb bass depths as low as 35hz and, owing to amazing efficiency, can output tremendous volume, even from a modest 8 or so watts.
I will put this right up front: if you are looking for a new speaker, and a pricepoint of 1200 clams falls within your budget, then you simply must consider this speaker. It is that good.
Continuing with the Mingus theme, I listened to a handful of vintage LPs through the Preludes and was never less than at full attention while music was playing. For the money, the level of realism is startling, and that is a literal statement—many times during the audition I found myself looking up at the speakers to discern what was producing the very, very lifelike, nearly jarringly real sounds I was hearing. Dynamics of the instruments, from Mingus’s bass, to Dolphy’s reeds, to Dannie Richmond’s vortex-inducing drumming, all came across with a sense of realistic presence. In addition, each instrument was so well-defined, it seemed to have a three-dimensional shape in the room; needless to say, there was lots of “air” around each player, and plenty of aural cues as to the recording space. Some sections from Charles Mingus Presents: The Charles Mingus Quartet featuring Eric Dolphy (Candid) were downright scary, especially the ensemble passages featuring Dolphy and trumpeter Ted Curson.
Later, my jaw dropped during the first few seconds of “Moose the Mooche” from The Great Jazz Trio at the Village Vanguard featuring Hank Jones, Ron Carter and Tony Williams. Tony’s bass drum felt—notice I said “felt”—like it was in my basement with me, it was that holographic and punchy…and deep. When I emailed Yun about this tremendous bass, especially when spinning great old vinyl, he revealed he had fine-tuned the design of the speakers using his vintage AR turntable and vintage tube electronics. As I write this, Williams is taking a short drum solo at the Vanguard, or is it in my living room, and the power of the reproduction has made me stop and pay absolute attention, jaw again at floor level. Okay, back to writing.
By the way, I did all my listening of these speakers with the spot-on Nottingham Ace Space turntable, the sublime DIY Hi Fi Lady Day 300B tube amps (diyhifisupply.com) and the stunning Supratek Chenin preamp (RIP) which must have emulated, in part, Yun’s own setup. In any case, the sound of all these components performing synergistically together was never short of astonishing. There was always perfect tonal balance from top to bottom, lots and lots of detail, and a pleasing “roundness” to the sound of each instrument and an overall liquidity ot the music most speakers miss. And yeah, the exquisite vinyl and tubes sure helped add to that quality.
It bears repeating: don’t overlook these Preludes, yeah, you can do better, but you will spend many, many more dollars. One sure sign of their quality: I just never wanted to stop listening, never tired of the sound I was hearing, and the more I heard, the better they performed. The Silverline Preludes go highly recommended.