This review page is supported in part by the sponsors whose ad banners are displayed below

Srajan Ebaen
Financial Interests: click here
Source: 1TB iMac (AIFF) running OSX 10.6.6 and PureMusic 1.74 in hybrid memory play with pre-allocated RAM, Burson Audio HA160D
Preamplifier: Bent Audio Tap-X (remote-controlled AVC passive), Esoteric C-03 (transistor), ModWright LS100 with Synergy Hifi valves
Amplifier: FirstWatt F5 and J2 and M2, Yamamoto A-09S, Trafomatic Audio Kaivalya, ModWright KWA-100 SE
Loudspeakers: ASI Tango R, Mark+Daniel Fantasia S [on review], Aurelia Graphica [on review], Gallo Classico III [on review]
Cables: ASI Liveline, Zu Event, Crystal Cable Ultra, Kondo Silver [on loan]
Stands: 2 x ASI HeartSong 3-tier, 2 x ASI HeartSong amp stand
Powerline conditioning: 1 x GigaWatt LF-2, 1 x Furutech RTP6
Sundry accessories:
Extensive use of Acoustic System Resonators, noise filters and phase inverters
Room size:5m x 11.5m W x D, 2.6m ceiling with exposed wooden cross beams every 60cm, plaster over brick walls, suspended wood floor with Tatami-type throw rugs. The listening space opens into the second storey via a staircase and the kitchen/dining room are behind the main listening chair. The latter is thus positioned in the middle of this open floor plan without the usual nearby back wall.
Review Component Retail: from £8.900/pr to £10.000/pr

Traveling first-class for half or less than your neighbor paid is flipping fab. Having your expensive speakers looking indistinguishable from your mate's 65% cheaper version might be less so. Now consider four outwardly identical models—the Living Voice Auditorium, Avatar II, R2 and RW—with two flavors for the R versions (inboard or outboard crossover). It's a marketeer's nightmare. He needs boldly visible differentiators for good, better, best. He does not happily relate to stumpy 18mm chipboard cabs, stamped steel baskets, light foam surrounds, 6.5" paper-cone drivers or 3-driver two-ways for £10.000/pr which look just like their entry-level £3.200/pr equivalents. Does any of this bring audiophile testosterone to a boil? Surely not.

Common to all are the 22 x 28 x 104cm dimensions. Weight scales from 18kg for the Auditorium to 20kg for the Avatar II, 21kg for the IBX-R2 and 22kg for the IBX-RW. The OBX-R2 takes off two pounds back to 19kg, the OBX-RW four to 20kg. The outboard crossovers for the R2 and RW weigh 3.5 and 5kg respectively and measure 420 x 260 x 100mm and 450 x 270 x 120mm. The R2 gets black network boxes, the RW fancy veneers to match the mains.

For drivers, the Auditorium runs a stock Vifa D26TG–05-06 1-inch fabric dome and Scanspeak C17WG76-08 6.5" doped paper mid/woofers, no triple enclosure bracing and no star earthing. The Avatar II and two R versions stiffen up the enclosures with triple braces, upgrade to Scanspeak's D2905 NRC silk-dome tweeter and Living Voice's proprietary 6.5" doped paper mid/woofers. Crossover components are upgraded to Hovland discrete film/foil Musicaps. The RW then goes ultra tweaky with a crystal-oriented internal wiring harness, WBT Platinum binding posts, cryogenic treatment for select components and extreme tolerance parts matching.

It's reasonable to assume that the sweet spot in the line is the Avatar II. Refinements to the core recipe kick in with the R2. As ancillaries improve and thus our ability to hear more, such refinements become more relevant and meaningful. Pricing breaks down as follows: Auditorium £3.200. Avatar II £4.200 for Cherry, Maple and Walnut, an extra £300 for Santos Rosewood. IBX-R2 £5.200 for Cherry, Maple and Walnut, add £300 for Santos Rosewood and Black Ash, add £500 for Satin Walnut and Burr Oak, add £700 for Ebony and Bamboo.

OBX-R2 £6.000 for Cherry, Maple and Walnut, add £200 for Santos Rosewood and Black Ash, add £400 for Satin Walnut and Burr Oak, £800 for Ebony and Bamboo. IBX-RW £7.500 in Cherry, Maple and Walnut. Add £200 for Santos Rosewood and Black Ash. Add £400 for Satin Walnut and Burr Oak, £900 for Ebony and Bamboo. OBX-RW £8.900 in Cherry, Maple and Walnut, add £300 for Santos Rosewood and Black Ash. Add £500 for Satin Walnut and Burr Oak, add £1.100 for Burr Oak and Bamboo.

In its most expensive finish, the top model of this line thus tops out at a stout £10.000/pr (at time of writing €12.000 or $15.400).

The smaller auditorium at Definitive Audio, the Living Voice factory showroom

In their home 10 minutes from the Harrington Mill factory and showroom, Living Voice designer Kevin Scott and his wife Lynn listen to exactly that. Their OBX-RW pair is preceded by a top-shelf C.E.C. belt-drive deck, Kondo Ongaku integrated 211 SET and pricey Kondo wiring. Pearls before swine? Having heard their system after taking the Vox Olympian for a spin on Kondo Gakuoh 300B push/pull monos with Kondo M-77 preamp, I knew exactly why in a normal home environment, one really wouldn't want or need more. On first sight it isn't exactly an easy sell though, is it?

Does this explain why except for their starting at £210.000/pr flagship* to the left, Living Voice speakers haven't made the press in years? As it turns out, quite the contrary.

"At one stage we did lots of hifi shows like Bristol, Manchester, London, CES and Hong Kong - all in one year. That gets expensive fast. But, we had reviews in all of the publications. Then the editors of Hifi World, Hifi Choice, Hifi Plus and others were using our OBX-R2 model in their domestic systems as primary speaker. Suddenly we had reached this critical mass of exposure. I recognized a problem. We’re not a company which changes products every 18 months after all. A good loudspeaker today is a good loudspeaker 15 years from now. It’s not suddenly bad. A lot of big companies simply need to consistently refresh their brand to keep up with the competition.


* That heart-stopping figure is a function of five years R&D, top-line Vitavox and TAD drivers, solid Beech and bronze enclosures and horns, bespoke finishing (American Black Walnut with Lacewood stringers in the above sample hand-polished to a traditional full-grain French finish) and a luxury yacht target audience where delivery, setup and interfacing with various brokerages and intermediaries add significant costs. Living Voice eventually might work on a cosmetically 'dumbed down' version that's aimed at traditional audio establishments. The current focus however is the extremely exclusive luxury yacht market for which Living Voice has previously designed their 250kg G8 equipment rack.

"Suddenly they want a yellow or piezo tweeter, a woven or carbon-fiber reinforced diaphragm when fundamentally there's no real change. It’s just window dressing. So we withdrew from having reviews.

"Our speakers have evolved though, the R2 and RW significantly albeit only when necessity became the mother of invention. Quite often those improvements happened very reluctantly because a capacitor manufacturer went bust or a cabinet supplier closed his doors. It was never about dissatisfaction over components or performance. I loved the cabinets we sourced from Castle here in the UK. When they folded, it was a very long road to get those Danish Hornslet cabinets to sound right. From a marketing point of view this sounds terrible but our Auditorium and Avatar cabinets are made from chipboard – a very particular type of chipboard but not MDF. Compared to MDF which is saw dust set in glue, chipboard uses very large shaggily shaped softwood particles. The reason for chipboard is that when I started out, I sold JPW speakers. Those came out of the Dartmoor prison's inmate rehabilitation scheme and their boxes were made of veneered chipboard. They sounded great for what they were, real budget wonders. Then JPW polished up the range (same crossover, same drive units) by making the enclosures from MDF. That killed them. They suddenly sounded very gray, dull and ordinary. The Snells with their life and vitality too used chipboard. 

"During our initial prototyping, I had to learn about just the right grade and thickness of chipboard to use. We tried 400, 520, 640 and 750 densities. Neither the most nor least dense were best. We got to a grade we liked for that speaker with those drivers and were very successful with it. Once we moved from having the cabinets made by Castle to Hornslet, we had to supply the Danes with our chosen substrate. We used to get it from a Welsh plant which supplied Castle. Suddenly we had to source it from a multinational company with suppliers all over Europe instead. Unbeknownst to us, our original substrate had been made up of seasoned and recycled varied wood species (up to five) whereas the new Finnish material was simply virgin spruce and nothing else. The density of wood fiber and resin was identical. No matter, we just couldn’t get the same sound. We looked at glues, how Castle had assembled the boxes - at anything that could be conceivably different. We finally did track down the real culprit but it was a really painful process.

"The right type of chipboard created a naturally vibrant, energetic, powerful and radiant sound. Thicker panels diminished those qualities. Hence we use 18mm thickness, not the 22 or 24 which any marketing man would prefer. What's annoying is that veneer on high-quality MDF looks fantastic. The same veneer on chipboard doesn’t look anywhere near as sheer because it isn't as flat. Hornslet did figure out how to lay on a perfect veneer over chipboard too but that was another learning curve. Their workers also don’t like working in chipboard. It eats their blades and cutter heads from three to four times faster than MDF. The second problem is that seeing chipboard, they initially assumed a cheaper product which meant they didn’t pay the same kind of attention. At first this multiplied our cabinet rejection ratio.

"I eventually did want to use a different material somewhere to break up cabinet uniformity. So I tried an MDF front baffle for the money shot. Just in case I also had some other cabs made with MDF backs. Of course the fickle gods decided that the penalty for pursuing better sound came from the MDF back plate and chipboard for the sides and front. It was so much better having the drivers seated in this very lossy dispersive material. So in the early days we’d go to hifi shows and people would like our sound. Then they'd come up and put their hands on the cabinets and complain that they could feel them vibrating. I’d ask whether they could hear any troughs or peaks or resonances that interfered with the music. Of course they couldn’t. But it was a real perception hurdle to overcome when the prevailing paradigm was the high-mass loudspeaker which acts as a black hole for the energy that’s supposed to be released from the diaphragms. They call it very uncoloured but that’s deluded. The sound has lost all its color."