Why nude is always better than naked

The longer that you're married, the more there's to discover about the spouse you love. According to my wife, the point of nudist beaches is not to get naked and show off your hardware/software as though you were gallivanting along a muscle beach. People go to nudist beaches because it really does feel good not to wear any clothes. How often do you let your entire body take in a breath of fresh air?

I would suggest that the Kestrel2s were not designed solely to achieve particular specs or to show off their drivers when their grille socks are removed. While these speakers certainly look distinctive, the real point of a design like the Kestrel2 is to encourage listeners to enjoy what feels good. Like a breath of fresh mountain air, these speakers can win you over with their nude sonic presentation.

What does nude sound like? To start with, flat, as in a flat response from top to bottom in the loudspeaker's frequency range. When I played the Gothic Voices' performance of "Dame de qui toute ma joie vient" by Guillame de Machaut [The Mirror of Narcissus, Hyperion 66087 1987], I heard the beautiful voices singing their different parts of the song with the right combination of delicacy and tonal fullness. This is a wonderful recording for mixed men's/women's choir. The male voices never sounded chesty or over-emphasized, plenty of high frequency detail ensured that I could hear the quality of the diction and sibilants in the female singers. This extra detail was also apparent in the way the decays of voices rang through the church hall acoustic. For comparison, my Vienna Acoustics Haydn loudspeakers are slightly tipped up in the midbass. This gives the impression of a weightier tone, however male voices can sound slightly forward because of it. The Kestrel2s didn't tell a white lie by boosting the midbass. There was simply less to listen through to get to the music. Nude, get it?

This coherent and linear response -- or my response to it -- may have been partly due to the time-alignment of the drivers. It attempts to have the output from both drivers converge at the listener's ears simultaneously, at the same time. The integration of tweeter and midrange was certainly seamless, making for a very clear picture of the Gothic Voices spread across the soundstage. Seamlessness is one of the qualities I love about two-way loudspeakers. Time alignment seems to take things a little further still, here by keeping all the singers unwaveringly together on stage yet clearly placed and individually delineated. Higher sibilants weren't masking lower singing voices, detail was never at the expense of tonal accuracy. The head and the heart were singing together.

Because the Kestrel2s aren't colored through the midrange, I wanted to hear if they could swing as well as my bookshelf speakers. Ella Fitzgerald singing "They Can't Take That Away From Me" [Best of the Songbooks, Verve 519804 1993] has more than enough meat and booty for this test. The Kestrel2s did an excellent job presenting all the breeze, bounce and swagger that Nelson Riddle and his Orchestra muster here. What gets me about this song is that while the huge drum kit plays a striptease rhythm, the strings keep everything respectable. Ella's pipes are full-throttled, masterfully controlled, and definitive. You want vocal midrange magic? It's there on the Kestrel2s.

Other strings deserving respect are on Tony Rice's Native American CD [Rounder 0248 1988]. A friend gave it to me so I could hear some good flatpickin'. It is filled with lively "NewGrass" covers of popular songs by Gordon Lightfoot, Joni Mitchell, Bob Dylan, and others. "Where You Been Gone So Long" is a representative track, featuring Tony's unaffected singing and staggering musicianship. As was starting to become a habit with these speakers, the first thing I noticed was the soundstage. I was able to quickly distinguish the vocals in center stage from the plucked upright bass, the guitars and dobro to the right and the fiddle slightly to the left of center. By localizing the sounds of each instrument accurately, the Kestrel2s made it easy to distinguish individual instruments from the mix.

The Kestrel2s never made the music sound artificial, unlike certain designs that can transform individual instruments to sound bizarre, by thrusting certain frequencies forward at the listener while others sound slightly recessed and muddy, all in the questionable service of adding unnatural detail or overdone bass impact. Instead, the Kestrel2s gave me bluegrass music that was charged with the natural pulse of a rushing stream.

Just to be weird, I decided to play one of my favorite recordings that also happens to nearly exhibit the worst possible sonics - David Bowie's Lodger [Virgin 521909 1999]. Granted, I have other recordings that are a lot worse even but shall save them for other reviews. Lodger has lots of guitar and tape distortions which I love - but I swear it sounded better on that old Rykodisc analog cassette in my car than it does on this horribly bright'n'grainy 24-bit remastered CD. The Kestrel2s didn't attempt to cover up this raw sound with low-end warmth. Instead, they shook my listening area with all the pent-up aggression and fury of an esthetician convention's hair-dryer cat fight. In short: If it sounds bad on the disc, it's gonna sound bad, period. With the Kestrel2s, just what was bad was simply more accurately depicted.

Playing "It's No Game" from David Bowie's Scary Monsters (and Super Creeps) [Virgin 521895 1999] was a significant improvement over Lodger as far as recording quality went. The drums and bass were clearly centered between the speakers, the Japanese singer clear as a bell and very forward in the soundstage. The chorus extended beyond the outer edges of the speakers, and Bowie sounded shrill and expressive rather than shrill and irritating like on the previous recording. "Fashion" from the same recording shows off fuller bass for very danceable glam-funk. The Kestrel2s revealed the proficiencies and deficiencies in each of the Bowie recordings without distorting or prettifying the picture.

"Aspen" on the new Wimme CD, bárru [NorthSide 6074 2003] was much more palatable, with well-recorded airy synths, a steady electronic beat of what sounds like tablas and a very clear guitar sample, Wimme Saari's plaintive voice soaring over the top. Thanks to Bass*ic, when I cranked up the volume, the midrange drivers on the Kestrel2s appeared to hardly be moving at all, but the bass weight and reach always sounded true to the recording. For comparison, I remember a pair of bookshelf speakers I demoed years ago that sounded "interesting" and could be temporarily labeled "exciting" but ultimately sounded artificial and non-compelling. They farted out all kinds of bass, but nothing appropriate to what I knew to be in the recording.

For certain Rock and electronica, you may prefer an even more whomping beat with a fatter sound, something that could always be supplied by a carefully matched subwoofer. However, I would hate to introduce distractions sacrificing the Kestrel2s ability to unearth what feels like musical truth. What the midrange driver in its traditional transmission line loading delivers is substantial, uncolored, tuneful and appropriate for the music. Classical music made this point very clearly.

OrKestrel Music

I've been playing a lot of large-scale symphonic recordings lately. The larger the orchestra, the more congested the music can sound coming out of a pair of simple speakers. Take my current favorite recording of the super-congested 8th Symphony by Gustav Mahler, with Sir Georg Solti at the helm of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra and hordes of Viennese singers [Decca Legends 460972 1999]. Even with Solti's considerable studio manipulations, there's still a lot of sonic head cheese for your speakers to slice through. Because the Kestrel2s are a very coherent two-way design, they managed to sort through and properly separate the huge orchestral forces, soloists, split choirs, and boy's choir though some of the most heavily layered and convoluted parts could still seem somewhat overwhelming.

However, even during these dense passages, the Kestrel2s still managed to separate out the details, including the interacting effect of the split choirs, the reverberation of voices off the venue walls, and the dramatic emoting of the soloists. The Kestrel2s let me hear every note of this symphony in a new, clearer light than I was used to with my Vienna Acoustic monitors. This experience was truly wonderful.

For smaller scale music, Haydn's Piano Trio in e flat (Hob. xv31) performed by the Beaux Arts Trio [Philips 454098 1996] played to the Kestrel2s' strengths. The music combines Haydn's smiling humor with beauty and wisdom, and although it points the way to Romanticism, is never narcistically self-indulgent. The Kestrel2s captured the sound of the bows and rosin on the cello strings, with the soundstage deeper than I remembered hearing from my bookshelf loudspeakers whose presentation is more forward and foreshortened. In the recording, the violin is placed to the left, the piano is in the middle, and the cello is towards the right, filling out the foundation. The bass was taut yet not thin, the rendering of the Kestrel2s with this type of chamber music spellbinding because all instruments sounded realistically true to timbre. The speakers also dipped low enough to represent a hefty portion of the piano's range without suffering undue dropouts in the lowest register.

Where these Meadowlarks truly excelled was to display the inner workings of the piano, resolving the percussive quality of the music resulting from the way the hammers struck the strings. The Kestrel2s also did an excellent job of distinguishing between interweaving and overlapping cello/piano lines. The naturalness of the presentation encouraged extended listening, the newfound detail in the treble and bass learning. In recordings like these, there's a lot to discover, both from interpretative style as well as the music's inventive base score.

Compromises and Conclusions

As you can tell, I listened to a lot of music through the Kestrel2s and even brought them downstairs for my family and company to enjoy. The presentation was always very clear and natural. The midrange didn't feel forward and slightly pushy as with my own two-way loudspeakers, something I attribute to the Kestrel2s flatter, more extended response. What the Kestrel2s offered was a chance to take off the heavy overcoat my recordings had been wearing and get closer to the truth underneath.

If you like the lower end of your recordings to sound prominent and extra heavy, you'll have to keep shopping around for bigger woofers than the Kestrel2s. When sticking with 2-ways, this would likely incur less openess and finesse in the vocal range to trade transparency for ultimate bottom end weight. While these Meadowlarks offer a more linear response and deeper bass than my bookshelf speakers, they won't sound fat. Naturally, all loudspeakers are room dependent and the Kestrel2s suffered from the same bass suck-out that all other speakers in my suspended-floor second story listening room have to contend with (I'm tempted to try listening in my garage). But no matter what room I put them in, the Kestrel2s always made music that was lively and compelling. They were revealing of source equipment changes as any good loudspeaker should be (follow-up report to Srajan's Bel Canto Design DAC-2 review forthcoming) but they were not finicky when I tried them in different systems (see below).

If classical music dominates your daily play list, the Kestrel2s would make an excellent choice for a pair of reference loudspeakers. They do a fine job of representing orchestral dynamic swings and create a wonderfully airy, spacious and detailed soundstage for soloists. Chamber music in particular sounds outstanding.

For Rock and Techno, you'll have to decide how much bass you can do without. The high 30s bass was never thick, slow or tubby to make me want to get up and dance (just ask my 5-year old daughter), but if you should enjoy the Kestrel2s midrange magic as much as I did, you may have to ignore the lack of ultimate slam until you can afford to add a quick subwoofer. The proof's in the listening...

Starting at $1695 per pair (fancier wood finishes cost $1,999), the Kestrel2s seem more than competitively priced. This is especially apparent when you consider the amount of innovation that goes into these speakers: The time-aligned high performance drivers, the complex transmission line with its side benefit of extreme cabinet solidity, the finely sculpted and finished artisan-style cabinetry, the custom hand-soldered crossovers, upscale hookup wiring and high grade connectors. Add in biwire capability, the ability to use high- and low-powered amps or receivers, ease of positioning and repositioning (be careful of the spikes), and their relatively unobtrusive effect on your listening space and the Kestrel2s might even be considered a bargain. Musically, you can expect all the attributes that make up the nude sonic presentation mentioned earlier - a linear untailored frequency response, clear and exceptionally precise imaging and soundstaging, a well-defined vocal range without bloom or boom, and taut, controlled bass with no obvious coloration. And that's the full Monty on the Kestrel2s!

Follow up - Bird on a Bi-Wire

I was itching to know how the Kestrel2s would sound when biwired, so I asked my friend Brian if I could try them on his 250-watt Proceed amp. I've been trying to get out to Brian's for months now to hear his new Martin Logan Ascents and Musical Fidelity A308CR CD player. The rest of his system includes an Audio Research preamp, a Sony DVD/SACD player, and a huge TV. He uses Transparent interconnects and speaker cables, Shunyata Research power cables, and he recently installed a PS Audio Power Port in his wall. Brian obviously has a good day job and is also a musician in a HardRock/Metal band. If you think that HardRock only sounds good on boomboxes, you should hear it on a system like Brian's. His offers high resolution and visceral bass without sounding relentless - unless your disc were relentless.

Brian started off with a moody Tori Amos pop song. He apologized for the sound because he'd adjusted the speaker placement just the night before. You know how it goes when you decide to attempt optimizing pinpoint imaging by moving one of the speakers just a little to the left? It takes several subsequent hours of frustrated fiddling to get the speakers to return, remotely close, to what you heard before you messed up the sound! Well, Tori Amos' singing head was larger than life, about 3 feet tall and four feet wide. In spite of this, the Ascents did a good job conveying the sheer presence of Tori in the room.

Next, Brian played a track off the new Audioslave CD [Sony 86968 2002]. Chris Cornell has a delightful howl, which the Ascents conjured up in all its fury. Feeling kick drum impacts in the belly was another neat trick - just like a live concert. For other types of music, this oversized assault wouldn't work, but Rock sounded like it was being played on stage and in your face!

After this workout, we biwired the Kestrel2s to the Proceed and set them up in front of the Ascents. I played "Song to the Siren" from Robert Plant's Dreamland [Universal 69622 2002]. The recording is bright and a little grainy, and Robert's voice can sound too sharp with its sibilants. Compared to how the Kestrel2s sounded on my home system, the difference wasn't as dramatic as I expected. Brian's system had greater control but Plant's voice still sounded a little too edgy; however, bass guitars and kick drums sounded more solid and better defined than with my own 50-watt integrated. The instruments had greater mass and weight in this setup.

Compared to the $4,200/pr Ascents, the Kestrel2s more than stood their ground. The first thing I noticed? The sonic images of vocalists shrunk back down to normal. The imaging and soundstaging provided by the Kestrel2s' tweeters was excellent, especially considering how small they were compared to the electrostats' monolithic panels. The overall aural picture (imagine a frame representing the complete soundstage created by the speakers) was smaller, but not by much. Bass was also reduced though the Kestrel2s offered a more seamless presentation throughout their frequency range than the MartinLogan subwoofer/panel transition.

Playing Stravinsky's Rite of Spring [Philips 80352, 2001] brought out a another distinct difference between the Kestrel2s and the Ascents. In "The Augurs of Spring", the woodwinds make an appearance that could barely be heard through the Ascents, yet sounded right as rain with the Kestrel2s. This dropout may have resulted from improper speaker placement, or it could have been caused by not having set the woofer enclosures on the Ascents to reinforce this frequency - maybe Brian has the crossovers optimized for more slam and home-theater whomp. The massive pounding of the entire orchestra engaged in unison like monstrous percussion certainly sounded heavy!

All in all, the K2s were almost as good as my friend's stats and surpassed them in their seamless presentation, even though the overall scale was reduced. If it were a tennis match between these two, the Kestrel2s did a superb job of "playing up" against a tougher opponent. They didn't make any errors, just put away clean well-aimed volleys and played their best tennis. For a rematch, look for the follow-up report by Paul Candy, our Canadian reviewer who [lucky guy] owns the Kestrel2 and will add his findings, about how these Meadowlarks perform in a different room and as driven from different electronics.

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