Musical Oxygen

You know what I want? Everything. I need my music to live and breathe. I want to experience waves of sound gushing forth from instruments stroked, caressed and coaxed by the hands, lips (and possibly feet - kink alert!) of living, breathing and emotionally complex human beings.

I think that about covers it?

Blame it on the single-ended Art Audio Jota. A few years back, it clued me in to possibilities beyond mere HiFi. Later its Diavolo sibling took me down even further that path of connecting with the music through harmonically festive, utterly non-electronic tunesmithing. And then came the Nottingham Space Deck with its darkly detailed revelations...

Each of these devices coaxed my Cabasse Catalane 500s farther along. This allowed me to experience new levels of appreciation, for what the artists -- not boxes -- wished to communicate. Lulled into a mounting state of musical bliss, I didn't comprehend that in my gradually evolving system, progress towards pure, rich and oxygenated music could have been achieved in one giant single leap - full-range single-driver leap, that is.

Enter the Cain & Cain Studio Series Double Horn BEN (Big ENough), a blend of the best attributes of three previous system residents: The tonal purity, ambience retrieval and image height/density of the Maggies; the articulation, image specificity and speed of the Dunlavys; and the pace & space of the Cabasses. Add more still. But first...

I met Terry Cain in late 2001 at the Bottlehead Corporation sponsored "Vacuum State of the Art Conference" in Silverdale/WA. Show conditions or not, I was immediately taken with what I heard in his room. The level of unforced natural clarity I experienced from both the TQWTs and the BEN 208mm-driver single horn [see left] had me plotting, planning, dreaming and scamming. How could I get a pair of his TQWTs inside, on top -- or, if necessary, strapped to the sides -- of my VW Sportwagon?


... of the geographical kind: As luck would have it, Terry turned out to be a neighbor. Well, neighbour if you live in these parts of the Pacific NorthWest where anyone within a hundred miles is considered such. No heroic or unsightly transportation measures would be required to make the easy 45 mile drive up to Walla Walla/WA.

I bet Terry does rue the day though when he said "sure Stephæn, come on up for a visit any time you like". Any time I damn please? What about his regular job? Terry chuckled then and I now know why. Probably much to the chagrin of his fine furniture customers (and as our concluding interview will show) this is his regular job now.

VSAC display
By virtue of such proximity, I've heard all of the Cain & Cain designs. I even had the good fortune to enjoy four of them in my own home for extended periods: The traditional Abby, the nearfield Abby (both at $1500/pr); the single horn BEN ($4,425/pr as shown at VSAC) and its present double-horn iteration ($5,500/pr). Terry's got a few exciting things in mind for the future, too. Including corner horns.

... of the interpersonal kind: In relatively short order, Terry and his significant other, Leslie, have become valued friends of mine and my lady's. Leslie Cain's an artist in her own right. She greets the world with a wicked sense of humor cultivated over many years of people watching - when she's not sculpting stunning landscapes on canvas. She is Terry's perfect counterbalance. His, too, is a quick-witted and brilliant mind and coupled to an intense soul. But, we'll label Terry the slightly more reserved of the two.

Let me put it this way. You want to get something done? Talk to Leslie. Be quick, clever and to-the-point or get in the kitchen and talk it over while demonstrating certain practical skills outside audio. Say baking bread or pies. You want a journey of aural discovery instead? Sit down, sip some port with Terry and hang on to your seat. The man's more than just a fountain of knowledge. He's incredibly passionate about what he does. Through his obvious skills, ongoing openness to learning, contagious appreciation for music and, ultimately, his product, Terry Cain's proven to me on more than one occasion that he's the real deal. And I'm not saying this lightly in an industry that surely isn't wanting for passionate examples.

... of the fiscal kind: I have purchased two pairs of Terry's speakers. First the traditional Abby in rosewood red [see right], now the BENs. That said, no matter how much I like my acquisitions, my financial station in life does not permit me to throw thousands of dollars at folks just because they're friends. Based strictly on the intrinsic worth of these products, I've selected them for my personal use. Obviously, I don't waver for a moment to suggest giving them a solid audition. But you do deserve disclosure of such growing friendships when they begin to bleed into a reviewer's duties.

< The BEN Intermediates, with the original Ben peeking out. Ben's father Steve Farrell and Terry are both lifelong audiobuds and sons of Boeing engineers. Steve has part of an Electrical Degree and helped with initial design theory. Steve's father, now deceased, started the boys with Eicos and AR3a's in the 60's.

An extravagance is anything you buy that is of no earthly use to your wife.
Franklin P. Jones (1887-1929)

In addition to the VSAC experience -- room after room filled with single-driver and other horn-loaded goodies -- I've listened to numerous other such exotic designs. This includes the Galante Silverdale, AvantGarde Duo and the Lamhorn 1.8. The Duos did so many things well that I really fell for them hard. I was also moved by VSAC's Sierra-Brooks design. But one look-see by my bride put a resounding stop to those notions. Yes, their prices would have been an uncomfortable stretch, too, but that hasn't stopped me yet (who needs clothing or furniture when there's great music in the house?).

< The Cain-squared BEN (as shown here in Terry's room)and Abby are a decidedly different tale. In addition to their relative affordability (the BENs are the same price as my soon-to-be-retired French reference) my bride is at ease with their appearance. The craftsman from Walla-squared has hit the mark both sonically and æsthetically. You'd be hard-pressed to pull off the latter with a speaker of six-foot height. But Terry manages, in part because of a modest 11" W x 15" D footprint. My Dunlavy SC-III -- two systems removed -- were of similar dimensions but lacked the cosmetics and craftsmanship of the BENs. In those days, my better half spared no efforts to remind me not infrequently of the SC-IIIs rather coffin-like appearance. Terry's sure to make points with other couples, for helping maintain the domestic tranquility that can be strained by our single-minded pursuit of musical delights.

Even better is the fact that all this beauty is far from useless. It contributes to the desired function of the speakers. The all-wood deliberately tuned cabinet is designed to minimize resonances and support low level resolution. Terry, drawing on his love of Japan's contribution to the field, is fond of saying that in an industry devoted to utilizing "the latest materials", we've actually lost touch with what solid wood can do for sound reproduction. It exhibits a sonic signature that benignly influences the sound of associated equipment (I think Monsignor Serblin of Sonus Faber would agree). My Abbys use Alder wood for its extreme rigidity as well as reflectivity (and of course forest sustainability and availability) while the larger BENs use hard Eastern maple.

Technological progress has provided us with a more efficient means of going backwards.
Aldous Huxley (1894-1963)

Terry's desk. "L'invincible. This is where all my speakers begin."
This high-speed sander uses a 22' long belt. In traditional piano crafting, it is employed to achieve flawless surfaces with very fine abrasives.

Speaking of high-speed (sanding), more than once the BENs startled me with their well-delineated leading edges of instruments and vocals. In this case, fast is distinctly not a euphemism for abrasive or thin. Both male and female vocals were pure, well-rounded and liquid while at the same time exceptionally clear, nuanced and involving. A mean trick, this.

When hearing theses speakers, you'll appreciate firsthand how using solid Maple delivers dynamic dexterity to acoustical music. From Bluegrass to stringed quartets, the low level decay of string tones played on variously sized instruments (from ukuleles to piano) was effortlessly discerned. Cymbal sustain lingered nicely before fading lazily into black space.

Low frequencies are served well by the large horn mouth and internal horn length. During his casual audition of the BENs while at Josh Stippich's of Electronluv, Srajan surmised correctly that "while the lowest octave was only hinted at, the midbass was as punchy, fleshed out and potent as a champion boxer".

The fact is, the BENs are flat to 63Hz in my 25' x 16' x 9' room. There's still substantial yet fleet-footed energy to 40 which gives the speakers a cheetah-like agility that matches up perfectly with the remainder of the spectrum. Below 40Hz, there is a significant decrease in output. Still, considering that my room leaks low frequencies through a 4 x 9 opening just to the side of the listening seats, the actual amount of energy down to 20 is actually rather surprising.

Though not really needed unless you pump out Kruder and Dorfmeister, Morcheeba or want the full effect of Charles Webster's Born on the 24th of July, I'm integrating a REL Strata III to rather good effect. Even without the sub, the drums on Yuri Hornig's Trio rendition of "Walking On The Moon" had more snap, slam and subtleties than I've experienced with any other speakers. By contrast, the sax entered all warm and seductive before it turned snappy, toe-tappin' and swingin'. You couldn't help but be swept along as this small formation approached Big Band volumes. Throughout all of it, the deepest bass guitar lines weren't missing a beat. One of the things that one doesn't expect from single-ended triodes and single driver speakers is this kind of unwavering palpability at full boogie. These speakers -- when leashed to a great amp -- will defy all such low-aiming expectations or unfriendly prior conclusions.

Terry notes that regardless of speakers chosen, it's vital to use a bass trap that combines state-of-the-art low frequency absorption with built-in stress reduction.
The didgeridoo on Oystein Sevag's Global Planet always produces a big, growling, dynamic sound. It never sounds boomy but distributes well-controlled pressure waves that go under your skin. With the BENs however, there was an additional and unexpected sense of airiness around this tribal drone which escaped me before. With the shakers and all manner of other percussion entering, the depth of stage with its vertical layering made for a highly visual -- and of course sonic -- treat.