Adjusting the Bias

Over the past couple of years, I've contemplated audio reviewing. The more I think about it, the more it bothers me. There seems to be an inevitable and fundamental flaw in the process. Let's skip back to 1927 to look over the shoulder of that great German physicist, Werner Heisenberg. He formulates his famous Uncertainty Principle. While thinking about the nature of particles, he realizes that it is impossible to know, simultaneously, the location and direction of a particle. Crudely put, Heisenberg sees how at this mysterious edge of quantum mechanics, the observer actually becomes part of the experiment and effects what he is observing simply by defining the parameters that will be used to measure particle behavior. It is an astonishing conundrum but also an established fact.

What does quantum mechanics have to do with reviewing? As the quantum observer affects the journey of the particle, so the reviewer, in concentrating on the kit, inevitably affects the delicate processes of how music speaks to us. In a perfect world, the audio gear shouldn't be there at all. The next best thing? It shouldn't be calling attention to itself. Don't get me wrong; I'm an audiophile. By definition, the gear is important to me. But it must be as a way of getting closer to the music. Once the kit become the focus of attention, we're in serious danger of losing the plot, of confusing ends and means. But of course, to review equipment, we have to pay attention to the component. If we do it regularly, that will have consequences on our listening habits. Worse, there's a danger it might end up substituting itself for the music.

The upside? By communicating and sharing our experiences, we can learn from each other. I'm hoping that by formalizing my own reactions, I'll learn a little more not just about music, but about the way language works as a writer. One of the really attractive things about writing from an audiophile perspective is the difficulty of describing sonic effects. The borderline between effectively described precision and pure gobbledegook is narrow. I'm hoping that climbing those precarious verbal cliff faces will turn me into a better writer.

Of course it's pretty nerve-racking to get up on stage to spout views. I've had a lot of doubts about this aspect of reviewing as well. The reality? A lot of readers have not just more experience but also have been exposed to completely different equipment to arrive at completely different but equally valid priorities. Perhaps even more important than that, I have a problem with what the written word does in this little world of ours. Just because someone can string two words together doesn't mean their ears or opinions are fois-gras. Regardless, reviewers end up wielding genuine power even if they don't mean to. That's not something I find attractive even by default. My first and major concern is to remember the individuality of our respective sonic journeys. Our goals are equally valid, whether we end up waxing lyrical about them or not.

Ultimately, it's only worth reading someone if you trust them. The only way I can think of doing that is to explain my sonic tastes, prejudices and history. I won't tax your patience with the whole sordid story, but I might start off with a little background. I'm forty-or-so years old. Hell, I'm lying already. OK, forty-two. About five years ago, I wasn't listening to much music. Then a friend of mine bought an expensive home cinema projector and sound system. Somehow I couldn't resist. Monkey see, monkey do. I loved the projector, but the sound of the sound system completely captivated me. It was excellent, a real pleasure to listen to. Way better in fact than the high-street separates that were pretty much gathering dust in my living room. And thus began a ruinously expensive and time-wasting hobby. These days, the vast majority of my spare time is spent listening to music. The hi-fi has long since been separated from the home theatre system, though I s'ppose I still watch a couple of films a week. One plus? Music has pretty much taken the place of television in my life. That can't be a bad thing. So I belong to that growing school of folks who came to audiophilia through home theatre. That ought to give us hope.

I guess I caught the bug pretty badly. The first couple of years were a frenzied hunt. I couldn't do enough research. I craved hearing any unusual kind of system, changed speakers and other components every few weeks. You know the syndrome: Audiophilia Nervosa. A sad bad case. A few years down the line, I got more experience in audiophile matters. But the fact is, I'm increasingly aware that the more I know and hear, the less I'm able to draw firm conclusions. Put differently, I can no longer tell what I'm looking for exactly - where I'm going or why.

Let me try for some prejudices. Hi-end audio gear is overpriced. How can one justify 100K+ on a system? On the other hand, if I could afford it, would my views change? One of my major audiophile shocks came when I crossed the ruinous barrier of thinking that £1000 for a component was absolute tops. Suddenly and for no good reason, I was willing to spend more if and when I had it.

Value for money has always been key - all the more so if I could find the desired component second-hand. Unlike paid reviewers, most of us have to acquire the gear we audition. If we buy second-hand, the cost of chopping and changing comes way down. One other point: I live in London. What you'll get is more of a UK/Euro perspective. We just do not have access to the amazing quantity of choices that the US market provides. A lot of very fine American components unfortunately don't make their way across the pond. The slow boat to China instead?

Anyway, on to the system. It's developed and transformed itself several times, scaled hills, hit a few dead ends in the process as well. Like most systems, it's grown organically, with chance and circumstance playing their part. Still, its general performance has pretty much stabilized now. It represents a decent take on the sound I'm looking for based on the pool of kit I've been exposed to.

Living Voices

Lets kick off with the tail end, the speakers - Living Voice Avatar OBX-Rs. These are very ordinary-looking small two-way floorstanders, with a tweeter surrounded by two bass drivers in a typical D'Appolito configuration. Apart from standing on a plinth which raises them 8 inches off the floor, they look like a pair of ordinary £300 speakers - except that they come with two extra metal boxes. Other than that, they're plain-old squarish cabinets for goodness' sake. These days even mass-market manufacturers give you entry-level speakers that are rounded off like Sonus Fabers. Apparently, Living Voice isn't following this trend. So cheap-looking floorstanders it is - except they sell for £4000. What? I might as well add that they only weigh 17 kilos. You can just about blow them over. We've all been told how cabinet inertia is key to keeping speakers in good sonic order. Seems Living Voice hasn't heard of this concept either. At this point you might be wondering. How the hell do they sell these things? The weird thing is that they do - in spades. In fact, the OBX-R is the biggest seller in the range, more so than the lesser-priced Auditorium (£1500) and Avatar (£2500). Keep in mind that they all look not just similar but spittin'-image identical. Truly!

Why then? Why are they so popular? Who in their right mind would plunk down this heftily for them? Well, one point in their favor is a reputation for being one of the ultimate 300B mates around. Not that they are particularly sensitive (94 dB). They are, however, incredibly transparent and delicate to allow that lush midrange to gush forth unsullied. The OBX-R designation stands for Out Board Crossover (revised) - those two metal boxes. They're fitted with cheap multicolored terminals. This poses a potentially serious problem for those into expensive cables. It requires 6 extra bits of cable to wire up each speaker. Living Voice designer Kevin Scott recommends using Electrofluidics 20/20, bi-wired at a reasonable £45 a meter. That proved no good to me as I'm close to married to my Clearlight Audio cables. These are wonder children of Kurt Olbert's brain, he of the RDC damping compounds, the Recovery turntable and now a new speaker which has garnered considerable praise in Germany.

To my knowledge, Clearlight Audio (after Lavardin and Nordost Valhalla) was the third cable brand employing microwave technology. Other manufacturers like Chord with their new Signature I/C are getting into the act now. The difference with the Clearlights? They were comparably serious bargains - £295 for the I/Cs, £600 for the cable. Still, there was no way I was going to have Clearlight make up 6 further pairs of speaker cables. Instead, I bought an interconnect and chopped it up. I also removed the 4mm plugs from the speaker cables to get as close a connection between amp and cable as possible, and a connection that was in-line with the binding post rather than angled.

Back to the OBX-Rs. It's when you start looking at what's inside them that the penny starts to drop. The two woofers are adapted from a Viva driver but with magnets beefed up to ridiculously non-stock proportions (don't put these speakers within 3 feet of a TV). The tweeter is the famous Scanspeak Revelator usually found in only serious state-of-the-art kit at several multiples of my price bracket. The cabinets in the OBX-Rs are reinforced with several carefully placed struts, yet clearly that's not where the money has gone. What about the crossovers? They are housed in big, 18" x 10" x 4 " boxes. Inside you'll find Hovland discrete film and foil capacitors, Clarostat non-inductive wire-wound resistors and hand-made air core inductors, with an attention to layout detail that seems difficult to surpass. Along with the Revelator, this crossover is a key ingredient to the OBX-R's magic.

A simple two-way system is only as good as its drivers and crossover. This one's almost inaudible. In fact, the OBX-R has more than a passing resemblance to the Reference 3A line-up. Given they have no crossover at all, the References might be a tad more transparent, but the Living Voices come seriously close.

Besides them, there are quite a few other speakers I really like. Some are even cheaper than the OBX-Rs, or at least in their ball park. A friend just obtained a pair of second-hand Martin Logan CLS IIs with matching Kinergetics subwoofers, for less than a new pair of Living Voices. I love the sound they make though mind you, no savings in the end since he's ended up amping them with a Rogue Audio 99 Magnum pre and four Rogue 120 Magnums monos. And what about those beautiful Avantgardes at Srajan's? Tempting - I could easily work up a steam of lather but the Living Voices are going nowhere soon. The main reason? "She who has cast a spell on me" simply won't allow anything larger than the Living Voices into the room that triples as bedroom, office and listening room.

The other reason? I know I would miss them badly. If I'm going to buy more speakers, it's going to be in addition to these - I just can't see selling them. Once you've lived with the way the OBX-Rs recreate instruments in the room, it's hard to get too worked up about any other conventional speaker of their size. Not to say eventual gallivanting is inconceivable. Gotta leave the back door unlatched to indulge the audiophile Jones when he rises. I'm waiting to hear the new top-of-the range Amphions due out this summer at £6000, not to mention the Clearlight Audios. Or the little Kharma Ceramique. But hey, they'd better dislodge my jaw for £20k - that's a lot of money for 2 drivers.

Still, on balance I suspect that the OBX-Rs are unlikely to go anywhere soon. I was lucky enough to grab a very rare second- hand pair, so I wouldn't lose out selling - which is a consideration. But the reality is simply that they tickle whatever it is that gets tickled for me. To be honest, they've never particularly impressed at audio shows. But once I'd lived with their peculiar combination of transparency, timbral delicacy and concert-hall-sized soundstage, they've become a really tough act to replace, let alone in their size and price bracket. They don't have the explosive dynamics of a good horn (though it's not too far off), or the shimmering midrange immediacy of electrostatics. But for my ear, they do a close-to-unbeatable job of actually placing realistic instruments into the room while suspending disbelief about how the heck they got there.

Placement-wise, I've ended up with the same arrangement Kevin Scott uses - a 13-14 feet spread about ten feet from the listening position aka the chaise lounge. With this setup, the instruments float convincingly in their own acoustic space across a wall-to-wall soundstage which, in my room, stretches to about 18 feet. To date, it's the best I've heard though perhaps I should qualify that most super systems I've listened to were either in hotel rooms or at equally turgid shop demos.


Given the OBX-R's affinity for very refined valve amps and a UK propensity for pairing them with the Border Patrol 300B amp, this could seem the prime-time ticket. Actually, I haven't yet fallen under the 300B spell.

In fact, there's a whole bunch of SETs in general that leave me shaking my head. Not that the concept itself seems off - those Lamms for instance are pretty interesting. But personally, I have more time for well-designed push-pulls. As the saying goes, where do you want to make your compromises? I've heard the OBX demoed with 4-box Canary push-pull amps to pretty good effect, but there are any number of attractive alternatives, from the beautiful Jadis or Hovland to the plain-old-ugly but great Lamms. Did I add how I can't afford any of these? Reality bites. However, these speakers just are not interested in anything but a great amp. They are crying out for something transparent yet refined. Enter the 55-watt solid-state Lavardin IT. Heresy?

I remember talking to Kevin Scott a few years ago. He pouted that there was no transistor amp worth listening to. I sympathized with this view until I heard he had brought a little transistor amp of his own design to this year's CES. Traitor. Not that he was alone. Be Yamamura's gone transistor recently as well. My 2 cents? There are good valve amps and good transistor amps - and either is really hard to design. Valves are beautiful just by themselves and can sound beautiful too - sometimes too much so for their own good. One advantage with the Lavardin is that it doesn't act as space heater - and it can be left powered up permanently. That makes a worthwhile difference over time.

So what's different about the Lavardin apart from it being an ugly black box? It's essentially a technology demonstrator. The design is late 90s but based on 12-year research why tube amps sound better than transistors. The wily French engineers claim to have found an important culprit - electrons imprint transistors for up to several minutes after having passed through. Lavardin calls it "memory distortion" and says they can measure it. They've remained mum about exactly what is going on though being patented, the cat's now probably out of the bag. In any case, claims are easy. How does it sound? Like a very good, very transparent, un-valvy valve amp. I've spent several years with Lavardins and haven't found any serious discernable faults apart from being really ugly and not sexily valved. At £3400, that's pretty amazing - another piece I'm going to have a hard time parting with. I'll go out on a limb and say that in my experience, the OBX-R / Lavardin IT is one of those spectacular combination that, once heard, will never be forgotten. They just seem to love each other. Why get in the way?