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|A lot of high-end speakers project an aural image so that it floats above and forward of the speakers. That drives me a bit nuts because I don't want to sit in an umpire's chair. I like the way the middle of the soundscape is just above eye level. This is different to the R2s, which major on hanging individual instruments in their own space between the speakers. With the RW, one is much less conscious of a soundstage at all. There is so much harmonic information and so many overtones and transients emanating from the speakers that the sound fields from each instrument blend into the space of others and fill the whole room. It's much more like the way instruments interact in real life - and in the same way that in real life you don't really care where you sit. So with the RWs we are released from that tight sweet-spot neurosis and can sit anywhere. That's not to say the stereo effect isn't important, it's just less so.
Going back to my piece on Definitive Audio/Kondo, I wondered then how much of what I was so seduced by in the Living Voice system could be down to the speakers themselves. I guess it's pretty obvious that I didn't think they could be doing anything like the lion's share of the work. Boy was I wrong. I would now describe the RW as a huge contributor to the ultimate sound of that system. Since my Definitive Audio piece last spring, I've been back up to Nottingham several times and have listened to many different combinations of equipment and I have learnt there is one common quality that the RWs bring to the party. It is difficult to describe but one key to the sound I heard is something along the lines of goldenness, like the difference between putting on a woollen sweater and a cashmere one. It is immediately audible with sounds like a bow on string where you get the delicate texture of rubbing and the complex harmonic of the string's vibration as well as its acoustic context. In other audio systems this can just comes out as a simple note. It's a quality that is utterly compelling and beautiful. I'm not sure yet what domain it comes from but part of it might well have to do with the way that system deals with complex microdynamics. Or perhaps it's the relationship of the overtones and harmonics of the notes that are being played. Once heard its been impossible to forget and I have craved it ever since.
I'd originally given most of the credit for this sound to the full Kondo equipment [below] and of course it's there that it is generated. However, I've now heard the Kondo system on other speakers and this particular quality was not quite there. And discussing it with Scott, we were pretty sure it wasn't there with the OBX-R2 either. Which means, as far as its possible to deduce these things, that this particular quality is only really expressed and available with the RW. True, one needs some form of Kondo amplification to get there but something has happened with the new crossovers and internal wiring that allows it to come through. Which makes me think that the RW may well be in a class of its own as far as accurately revealing the minute inner detail that go into making the fabric of a note.
The RW sound can be characterized as lithe, supple and succulent. One of the first and more audible set of differences is an apparent sense of more bass, more tonality and a considerably richer soundscape. The ear goes and follows way deeper into the recording and the performance. Indeed, the reverberation from the inside of a cello is more sonorous and each individual vibration is much more audible. It's the oddest feeling -- because the speaker looks exactly like the one I've had for a couple of years -- but the sound is of a completely different order.
Having brought them home, the first thing I put on is a random piece of music on the radio. Voices, harpsichord and cello. Right away I hear that the cello has a richness, a tonal melancholy that is absolutely haunting and physical. It grabs one's viscera with its silky smooth yet somehow chestnuty textures. On the radio, that's right. It seems incredible that subtle tonalities can emerge over the airwaves.
Then I put on Pandolfo's Bach Cello Suites [GCD P30405] and I'm in love. The most thrilling part of it all is the effortless yet meaningful way in which the instrument expands and falls back, the extraordinary living, breathing quality of the dynamics. It's late, my teenager is shouting at me to turn down the music but I just can't stop listening. I'm frightened that if I turn it off, this beautiful sound might have just been a dream and disappear. In fact I couldn't get to sleep all night, a combination of feeling like I'd won the lottery and mild panic that it might be just the excitement of the new.
But it went on, day after day. I put on the "Allegri Miserere" and for the first time I clearly heard three-dimensionality in each of the massed voices and the uncanny clarity of the acoustic. It's a genuine echo, not a recording. The sound is simply much more present and haunting. It no longer really makes sense to talk about the sound itself but rather how absolutely wonderful the music becomes. I've never had such a completely revelatory and unexpected experience in my home audio life. It's like suddenly finding a bird of paradise in your room. It's the difference between a bunch of final year students at the Royal College of Music and Vengerov. It is experientially different. Here it is, the Promised Land. Half my brain is being rewired so the music goes directly into the viscera and emotional processing centres, bypassing criticism and rationality completely.
Live sound has some basic characteristics that are immediately identifiable if compared to say a normal audio system. Dynamic range, basically. A flute has an incredible amount of harmonics that spray out into the corners of a room. It will have a density and 3-dimensional soundfield emanating from it. The initial transient will be a complex sound made up of multiple pulses at different wavelengths. Within milliseconds that sound will change character completely as the harmonics take over. Depending on how the musician plays, the sound may have lots of initial transients or they may be glossed over completely in favour of smooth, harmonic-based transitions.
Ben Webster's live At the Renaissance is an absolutely central and stunning performance. The recording, taped in October 1960, seems to capture all the exuberance and longing of the period, the hopes and misaligned glamour. I love it to bits. My disc is a digitally remastered one from 1989 [Contemporary OJC-390] and I found that it seemed miked as if it was too close to the action so while it gained in directness, the instruments never quite managed to come together and cohere. The attempt to turn mono into stereo fell between two stools. Not a problem that destroyed the pleasure of listening but the potential wasn't quite realized. Well, with the Kondo M77 preamplifier driving the RWs the problem is gone. The instruments gel convincingly because they are bigger and closer and their harmonic spectrum, the shape and size of the harmonics and overtones, is way more enveloping and three-dimensional. Never have 5 improvising musicians seemed to be so deeply in each other's groove. It's like the music has taken over their wills and is just pouring out through them. It's a genuinely remarkable thing, an unbelievable reality that does prove the centrality of gifted inspiration in the creation of great art.
|The highest praise I've ever come across in a reputable magazine was something along the lines that the component in question was so good that any system including this component would be better than any other system without it. Of course we all recognize that this kind of statement is logically absurd -- the system is as good as the worst link --but it tells a lot about the individual reviewer's enthusiasm. I can understand the reasons to feel like that though and some equivalent sensation comes up, some kind of "let's throw caution to the winds". What I would say is that if asked what component I would vote for in the "most musically expressive audio component ever" hall of fame, I'd be hesitating between these speakers and the Kondo preamps. It's going to take a while to really think this through but for the moment I would go for these speakers. It's something I say with considerable hesitation and all the caveats: in my experience I haven't heard everything but nevertheless, that's what I'd come up with.
|Why? Primarily because speakers are so excruciatingly difficult to design. Most of the audiophiles I know are in some kind of between speakers limbo, an endless attempt to get around the problems their current speakers are giving them. And so was I ''til these showed up at home. Then suddenly I was home. Found them. Over. Off go the horn drivers I'd been trying to figure out. Off go the one ways, the open baffles and the three ways with Alnico magnets. Out go the crossover networks. Not
|interested anymore. Put it another way. If you asked me to trade like for like, these speakers for anything else, I'd be polite but it would be a damned firm "no thank you". Not your Acapella Triolons Es, not your Wilson Alexandrias, Avantgarde Trio/Basshorns. I'll pass on your Marten Design Coltrane Supremes and your five-way Goto horn system that I haven't heard either. I'm conscious here of throwing caution to the winds and talking these speakers up in a way that could well be counterproductive. But there is a point here. There are a lot of UK audiophiles who know Living Voice speakers and covet them. They are to a man people who love music more than they care about audio or eye candy.
So I've found my ultimate speaker. But wait a second... hang on... how can I say that? How can I be so sure? Like everyone else, there are tons of fine speakers I haven't been exposed to or explored. Is there anything better out there? I don't care!
I too love the sculptural wonders of those behemoths with 15-inch bass drivers and Darth Vader cabinets. And they can do some great things. But how long does it take before we start to hear that the bass driver is struggling to keep up and not really managing - or the tonal balance is adrift? Maybe they have fantastic drivers made of exotic materials but, after minutes, there is a weird metallic sheen. And where's the fine detail gone? Sometimes it takes months to hear the problem and then you realize your lovingly crafted beauties sound odd, cupped, shut in and dynamically limp. It goes on and on. There are a few very good expensive speakers and the best of them project a big soundstage with instruments well forward and well shaped and really there - and then again, after a while the effect may well turn out to be slightly artificial, a bit tiring, a little fake, like something is trying too hard, wearing too much makeup. Those incredibly inert cabinets made out of marble, aluminium, Delrin, unobtainium - you name it. Why don't they make great musical instruments out of these materials? Because inert sounds inert. No. No. No.
|The reproduction, the recreation of a musical experience is not primarily an engineering problem. You can't
|successfully navigate only by the twin stars of electrical theory and equations. You can't just throw money at it. There are no genuine short cuts. The only way to get there is to be seriously obsessed with music, in love with it, and to put all your attention, skill, passion and expertise into how musical experiences connect with us emotionally and spiritually. To listen and listen and listen again. Yes, we've got to try every possible option but only follow what the music is telling us, not what our eyes ask nor what the market demands nor trying to outspend the most expensive audio jewelry. Kevin Scott is one of that rare breed of people who cares for naught but getting to the heart of the emotion itself. And you can hear it right away. You can literally hear it from the room next door.
Bling speakers are great for impressing (come on: fooling) ourselves and may well get us over the old mid-life crisis hump but after that, you're going to want a speaker you can listen to without your inner audio critic piping up every five minutes about dynamic envelopes or pointing out the mismatch between the plasma outriggers and the electrostatic subwoofer.
|Kondo himself said the hardest component to design is the speaker and I think every seasoned music lover instinctively knows that. They are the hardest components to settle with in the long term because there is so much that can be wrong. The music junkie knows not to trust initial impressions too much. He knows that a speaker that is actually going to last on his desert island has to have certain basic prerequisites spot on. A good speaker is going to be good over the long run; it will be hugely poised and attentive to musical expressions. The timing will be immaculate and the pauses and suspensions as adept as the notes themselves.
Let's conclude: These speakers have a set of extraordinary qualities. There's a life-enhancing richness, a depth and fullness of timbre. There's succulence, vibrancy and opulence to the tonal colours; a physicality of texture and a density of passion that in my experience is unprecedented. If you care about music and want a speaker to take you to a palm-fringed Cabana on your desert island, I'd recommend the OBX-RW. From my vantage point, it's the most desirable speaker available today. I say that without apologies, caveats, disclaimers, quibbles, or even the false glow of first acquaintance. I say it only as a music junkie trying to express what I've found. It's a remarkable achievement and listening to my system with the winter nights closing in, I just can't believe how lucky I am.
This is the first part of what will be a four-part series examining the Living Voice/Kondo system in detail. There will be subsequent pieces on the Kondo M77, the Kondo Gakuohs and the Kondo wiring loom. After all, I'm keenly aware that the ultimate magic of what I'm hearing resides in how these components come together to transcend individual contributions.