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Reviewer: Edward Barker
Turntables: Scheu Premier II, Garrard 301, Garrard 401, Systemdek Transcription, Thorens TD320, Thorens TD160
Arms: Shroeder DPS, Cartridge Man Conductor, Hadcock 242 SE, Ortofon 212, Mission 774, ET2
Cartridges: Allaerts MC2 Finish, Cartridge Man Music Maker 2 & 3, Koetsu Urushi, Madrigal MC1, Empire MC1000, Shure V15
Phono amplification: Tom Evans Groove Plus, Tron Seven [in for review], DIY Lite Audio, Garrard Missing Link II, Gram Era Gold V
Digital: Resolution Audio Opus 21
Tuner: Sansui TU 719
Preamp: Kondo M77 with phono,
Power amps: Alter Philips monoblocks; Canary Audio CA-301Mk2 [on loan]
Speakers: Living Voice OBXR2
Ancillaries: Kondo KSL LP and Kondo KSL VZ interconnects; Kondo SPC speaker cable and Kondo KSL ACz power cords; Clearlight Audio NFT cabling; Silver Arrow cabling and mains leads; Audiomagic Mini Stealth conditioner, Incognito wiring on Conductor and Hadcock 242, Living Voice Mystic Matt, Boston Audio Graphite Mat, Cartridge Man Isolators and setup tools, Dr. Feickert protractor
Review component retail: £7,500/pr
"I could compare my music to white light which contains all colours. Only a prism can divide the colours and make them appear; this prism could be the spirit of the listener." - Arvo Pärt
In Arvo Pärt's Für Alina there is a secret hidden world which, paradoxically, is also accessible and transparent. It speaks to us about the way we long to be caught up in the angelic aspects of experience and are at the same time irretrievably cut off from them. It's a work of remarkable and utterly haunting artistic beauty, a 20th century masterpiece that every music lover should experience and talk about.
You can find an almost complementary vision in Rilke's Duino Elegies:
"Who, if I cried out, would hear me among the angels'
hierarchies? and even if one of them pressed me
suddenly against his heart: I would be consumed
in that overwhelming existence."
This desire to have some kind of profound relationship with the angelic realm is something music has specialized in for centuries. Composers work to capture these emotions and spiritual states through specific strategies, usually well-known musical structures, melodies and harmonies. For Alina, Pärt pared his palette down to an absolute minimum. This apparently simple piano piece is on a basic level just a hauntingly beautiful melody. On its own, it would never be much more than that. In allowing the piano strings to reverberate in long undamped sustains, however, the transcendent and transformative qualities of the piece come to the foreground. As Hermann Conen puts it, "An additional element of indeterminacy is introduced by the fact that the pedal point struck at the beginning combines with the other sounds to produce humming overtones and shadowy resonances in the piano." These overtones and resonances in some way capture our striving for the angelic, for some truer universe just beyond the limits of the ordinary.
These overtones and resonances become the prism we use to experience the colours Pärt talks about. And it is that prism that evokes what we sense as the extraordinary world of Alina as Pärt' seeks to capture the experience of a little girl exiled in London. The piece is a remarkable evocation of the child in a foreign city, which to her remains an untranslated land. There is almost no other work of art I know of that so perfectly captures this sensation of being a child alone in a mysterious city, which is perhaps benign but frightening and vast. Because the music manages to convey Alina's experience so well, we all recognize in her individual story the actual existential equivalent in our own lives. Of course, our own 'Alina experiences' have been made opaque by everyday existence but Pärt's composition allows us to rediscover them intact and as vivid as distinct memories. This is one of the effects of great art - the triggering and clarifying of experiences so that what were vague sensations are suddenly transformed into something we instantly, intuitively understand and can be changed by.
Frankly, I have never heard Pärt's Alina performed live but I have heard it in other contexts and dismissed it as a pretty but slightly banal tune. I gave it to several friends and to my wife but on her boom box, it just didn't happen. It was only with the arrival of Kevin Scott's latest iteration of his now classic OBX-R series speaker, the OBX-RW (Outboard Crossover-Reworked) that the real musical import of the piece became apparent. Listen to Alina through the RW using the Kondo KSL M77 and what was previously boring, banal and artistically bereft becomes an important, almost seminal musical experience; the kind of uplift that makes you want to get your friends together and talk about how amazing the experience was and what it means.
Attentive readers of 6moons might remember that I had a fairly transcendent audio experience earlier this year at the Living Voice/Kondo setup in Nottingham. The sounds I heard there comprehensively challenged everything I'd come across before. The sensation was of listening to reproduced music an order of magnitude better than I'd thought possible. Whether that was actually the case is another matter. It's really hard to lock the experiences away because of course, we are being changed by them. In fact I'm convinced that the synapses along our auditory system are constantly strengthening and loosening the neural pathways between our cortex and more importantly, our limbic systems and the emotional processing that goes on there. So finding a valid reference point is always going to be something of a moving target. Which makes us wonder if we are doing much more than tripping the light fantastic only to discover that on taking this stuff home, it doesn't end up recreating the same kind of emotional experience we'd been hoping for. A fairly common experience for the reviewer. Would it be the same thing here?
There is something about an audiophile's instinctive realization that the quality of an experience is minutely caught up with the equipment that goes into producing that experience. It's not just audio though. This summer I spent a couple of months windsurfing and the effect of the gear you use is actually exponential. The experience of windsurfing is fairly banal while one ploughs through the water like a sailing boat. But the moment the wind gets up and the board lifts up off the water and starts planing like a speedboat, the effect is simply incredible. It's the difference between being stuck in a traffic jam and flying with your own wings. Yes there's some skill involved but with the same wind you'll find some blokes puffing along at 4 knots and others skimming past at 20 so naturally we take a good long look at the gear of the guy who's doing better than us. The better you get, the better the equipment you want and the better you can use it, the more you get out of it.
With audio, for me, there seem to be two mutually exclusive demands. The first is that I want to be as close to the sound as possible. It is immediacy that I'm looking for, the sense that the instrument is right there with its plethora of minute vibrations, harmonics, fundamentals and overtones. This means a system that can reproduce really minute and delicate signals. The problem is that a system that can do this will usually reproduce and amplify a lot of things that are wrong as well. I mean the ones created by the system itself - the bass can't keep up with the mids or is detached from the rest; or rhythms are overemphasized at the expense of tonal colour. The list of faults is almost endless. And it is here that the Living Voice OBX-RW reveals its first, significant quality. It is of a piece. Everything is in proportion. I have no quibbles, no nagging doubts, no secret wish list for some aspect to be different than what it is.
The RWs have been four years in the making during which time Definitive Audio became the UK distributor of the peerless Kondo electronics. Using these components, Scott found at hand a whole new level of resolution and musical significance with which to work. Musical effects that had previously been difficult to discern became obvious, simple and easily legible. The RW has been designed exclusively using Kondo equipment and there is no question that the electronics have had a profound impact on the speaker design. There is deep synergy in the craftsmanship, approach and philosophy between the two companies. Kondo itself has recognized this and used the OBX-RW as the speaker for their system at the last Hong Kong show [below] Which is no mean thing considering that Kondo makes beautiful two-way speakers themselves.
The RWs like all Living Voice speakers are designed by ear. Scott has no doubt that measurements are very useful in development and provide a sensible starting point. But it is the subjective development and voicing process that determines the speakers' quality as a communicative device. Much hifi focuses on credibly reproducing the sound of a sax or a double bass but music is not that. It is so much more. It is about organizing the jigsaw of musical relationships so the listener gains insight into the musical performance and connects with it as a transcendent experience. That is what Living Voice is after. The problem is that this method of speaker design requires discipline, rigorous scientific methodology and constant and consistent reference points. Few designers in the UK in my experience have the relentless obsession and patience to follow this path to its logical and fruitful conclusion.
So, lets look at the changes from the R2. At first glance there are few. The cabinets are identical as are the plinths and its spikes. The drivers are the same and are still manufactured for Living Voice to identical specifications. The binding post panel has been changed as has the internal wiring loom. But the lions' share of the differences between the R2 and RW lie in the differences in crossover component quality, the bulk of which are now made in house.
On my visit to Nottingham I was surprised to see how many different prototype components and cabinets were lying around discarded in the never-ending pursuit of these musical goals. It appears however that the evolution of the cabinets themselves may have reached a point where they have arrived at their final iteration. The unornamented elegant simplicity of the Living Voice speakers is determined by a very strict choice of cabinet substrate. Living Voice's chosen material does not lend itself to a curvilinear construction so no curves or swoops, which makes them refreshingly unpretentious. There is maturity about the look and feel of these speakers that is a world away from the kind of bling and superficial appeal that characterizes so much of contemporary industrial design. It is this simplicity that gives the design so much appeal. As with the R2, the veneer finish is of the highest order. I find the look of the speakers very satisfying in a slightly puritanical way. My wife likes the look of them too, which was not the case with the Marten Design Coltrane Altos. The speakers are relatively small and even with the crossovers they are liveable and will not dominate a room in the way my Martens did. Overall they have an understated refinement that I find seductive.
Anyway, back to the speaker itself. The bulk of the changes are concentrated in the outboard crossover. This is a larger, deeper and heavier box than the R2, supplied in black or a veneer to match the speakers. The binding posts are the substantial platinum-plated WBTs that Living Voice subsequently has cryogenically treated. As with the R2s, the RWs do not come supplied with the jumper cable to connect the crossover to the loudspeaker cabinet so bear this in mind especially if you elect to have Kondo SPZ, which in a 1.5 meter set comes to £2,500. However, the KSL-SPC copper would add just £480. In fact it's possible to allow for 4 runs of say 50cms each to reach the cabinet if you stand the crossover on its side. Nevertheless, many of the people who have auditioned the RW have chosen the Kondo cable option at home.
|Now, given the staggering and largely unexpected improvements of the RWs over the R2s, it is obvious that some real magic has occurred within the crossovers. Every component adds its character to the sound of the speaker and over the last four years Kevin Scott has been listening carefully to different dielectrics and different resistors with different core materials - even down to different resistor wire winding techniques. This is an incredibly time-consuming process and a labour of love but an essential one given that the crossover governs the integration of the drivers, the dynamic range and the dynamic balance of the speaker itself. The crossover is in fact the controlling DNA of the speakers. The integrity of the presentation is a key characteristic of the OBX-RW. The design of the resistors and capacitors (now hand made at Living Voice) is new and the techniques of manufacture would not have come into existence without the experience gathered with Kondo electronics.
I knew beforehand that Kevin Scott is one of the finest designers of crossovers around but I was surprised to learn how much a crossover change can contribute to the dramatic increase in the quality of speakers' performance. Which is kind of amazing if you think about it. The R2 is a very fine speaker indeed. It remains the biggest Living Voice seller. But the RWs are on a completely different plane. The picture is slightly bigger but it isn't the quantitative improvement that impresses, rather it is the qualitative one. The whole is so seamless. The key qualities that emerge right away are coherence, purity, integration and a revealing deep fine-grained detail with amazing depth of tone.
Setup and system
Like the R2s, with good amplification the RWs can be placed very far apart and toed in to give that hanging in space soundstage. Unfortunately my new room isn't that wide. I do like them quite far from the walls but that's mainly to keep them away from the turntables. They are less fussy about exact setup than either the original Rs or R2s and the soundstage is less about a sweet spot. In fact I find I enjoy them from any part of the room.
While the speakers are 94dB sensitive, I personally would hesitate to pair them with flea-powered amp - though many people do. For my taste and at the volume I tend to go to on a listening session, I suspect that 8 watts of SET would clip my wings. I like to go loud and to be able to fill the room with sound in an approximation of natural volume levels (don't the neighbours know it!).
I've tried the RWs spiked into the carpet and spiked to hardwood plinths into the carpet and I've used RDC cones. I have also tried them floating on air suspension and I couldn't get the latter to work but I was happy with both the other systems. At the moment I'm using these direct into the floor.
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