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The Tidal Audio Pianos ship in individual flight cases with substantial padding to both anchor the speakers in place and protect them. Inside the flight case the Piano is cocooned in a non-abrasive cotton sock for further protection of the extraordinary finish. Unpacking them was easy enough. I required no help but I'm a pretty big guy. If you have a second pair of hands, I suggest getting them involved. Better safe than sorry after all. At the Tidal factory, the raw drivers are driven for 100 hours before assembly so break-in was not necessary. After several minutes of ogling and admiring, the speakers were ready for the listening room.

Setup there was uncomplicated. The speakers are pretty easy to dial in if you know your room. They make no special demands. I started with them in the same vicinity as most of my reference speakers and after some experimentation, they ended up where they started - with their backs about 20 inches from the front wall behind them and well away from the side walls. The old equilateral triangle configuration worked nicely and a gentle toe-in was used.

Once the music started, the Pianos proved to be a revelation, partly because of what they don't do. What they don't do is reach out and grab you with polytechnics or flash. In fact, it took a couple CDs worth of listening before I felt as though I was starting to get these speakers. At first listen what came across was buttery smooth and completely peak and fatigue-free. I don't believe I've ever heard a speaker that sounded so utterly free of harshness, glare or edge. The Pianos seemed all about sweet balanced neutrality. But quickly I began to wonder if this initially impressive character wasn't going to devolve into something bland, lackluster and uninvolving. I was starting to wonder if they weren't missing a little spark, a little life. Mind you, I'm talking about the initial minutes of listening. It's funny how one can overanalyze during the first few moments of a session. Nevertheless, I set out to see if I could shake things up a little - rattle these speakers or at least get them to come out of their shell. I popped into the player one of the dirtiest discs in my collection, Nirvana's Nevermind [DGCD24425].

Soon I was to realize that the more chaotic the music and the more unraveled I expected the presentation to become, the more poised the Pianos would remain. Rather than allowing the music to come apart at the seams, the Pianos steadfastly remained in charge and allowed me the deepest insight into the discs I've ever had. This was a level of sophistication I'd never heard before; a level of accomplishment I frankly didn't know existed. What I was soon to observe in the Pianos is their way of reaching into the music to unearth and retrieve the minutest of musical detail while never removing it from the context of the music as many other hyper-detailed speakers do. Some speakers -- JMlabs for instance -- pull out almost unbelievable amounts of detail but in doing so, they fracture the music and it never becomes whole again. All that fractured detail distracts and detracts from the purpose of the music.

The Pianos, however, capture that same minutiae without dissecting the music. Rather than getting sterile and analytical, the Pianos preserve the music's intent and actually lend keener insight into the composer's meaning. In other words, they focus your attention on the nuance of the music, not the speakers themselves. The key to this type of resolution would seem to be a lower noise floor and less phase shift rather than a frequency response that artificially forces details to the surface.

In much the same way a wine aficionado tastes a wine and not only notes the individual components that make up the wine's character -- the peppers, the tannins, the fruity or floral elements etc. and then proceeds to quantify and qualify them for balance and appeal -- the listener is able to hear into the music through the Pianos to observe the delicate interplay of instrumental timbres, contrasting textures and differing rhythms and timing cues for a deeper
appreciation of the music. The glass doesn't distract the wine connoisseur, the speaker doesn't distract the listener. All attention is directed to the music. More easily observable are the tonal variations and harmonic shadings, not for the sake of paying kudos to the speakers but to the composer and performers.

What's especially amazing about the Tidal Pianos and what makes them a singular listening experience is that they can be so revealing yet involving. So incisive yet organic. They make the strongest of cases for being able to have your cake and eating it, too. It's the fact that the Pianos remain so musically entrancing and affable that truly sets them apart from other such highly resolving speakers. There's no telltale supernatural crispness or brightness that points to an amusical analytical speaker.

As I said, at first blush the Pianos are not what you'd expect from such an insightful pair of speakers. They almost sound bland. That may have been a bit of a break-in issue, maybe even a listener acclimation issue because they've not sounded bland since - not since I've come to understand what's really going on, anyway. They still don't thrust their candor upon the listener. You still have to listen in to hear it. And indeed, the Pianos have the kind of musically suggestive character that invites you to do just that. These are the kind of speakers you can listen to all day without
fatigue. In other words, we're talking about truly extraordinary resolution with none of the disillusion. To use a car analogy, imagine a car that smoothes out every bump in the road as if you're riding on a cushion of air yet corners like it's on rails and remains in full control of the road through the most adverse of conditions.

I've been listening to this Nirvana disc for what seems like forever. I've used it on more systems than I could possibly recollect. But through the Pianos, I heard into it as I've never heard before. For one thing, Chris Novoselic's bass sounded completely fresh. I heard it pulsating with a more highly differentiated sense of micro dynamics and tonal depth that was completely new as was its sense of tempo. I gained access into Kurt Cobain's voice revealing a new significance, body and harmonic layering that I had no idea had been captured on the disc. Despite the surrounding auditory chaos, I could hear Cobain's vocals as clearly as if he was singing a cappella. I could go on and on with the list of revelations. It was truly a sense of finally hearing the forest for the trees, of observing the calm despite the storm.

There's very little overt about the Pianos. What they do -- and what they do is considerable -- they go about doing in a fairly understated way. Nothing with the exception of their smooth overall character jumps out at you. They are superbly balanced. Dynamically speaking, these speakers will on occasion surprise you. The most micro of micro dynamics are less pronounced than on some other speakers such as horns and single-driver speakers. But by comparison, the Pianos can make such speakers sound almost unnaturally jittery and nervous. In my experience, such micro dynamics are only apparent from live music when you're very close to the musicians. Like razor sharp imaging, such dynamics are rarely found when seated in the audience. Many find them to heighten the sense of reality and intimacy of reproduced music and those that do will get no argument from me. On occasion, however, the Pianos will startle you with microbursts of energy. The soundtrack from Casper [MCA 11240] is filled with such orchestral eruptions, intended to shock and awe the audience as would the sudden appearance of a ghostly apparition. The Pianos communicated these orchestrated eruptions with striking ease. When these events were coupled with hefty bass (and there's a lot of that on this disc), so much the better. The Pianos are exceptionally coherent and quick in the bass and the speakers turn on a dime.

The Pianos present music with an outstanding sense of pace and rhythm. Timing changes in Jazz and Big Band are more expressive and when a musician, as Max Roach would say, colors around the beat, there's no missing it over the Pianos. Attacks and decays are well preserved and naturally presented.

Depeche Mode is known for innovative techno, relatively complex arrangements, prodigious amounts of bass and copious amounts of incisive percussion. Music For The Masses [Sire9 25614-2] was a complete success over the Tidal speakers. Though a fairly bright-sounding disc, the Pianos managed to keep it in the comfort zone even at high levels. Most tracks produced a soundstage that was large and spacious, frequently (though not always) wall to wall. Dynamic contrasts were nicely articulated as intended rhythms were successfully communicated. From time to time, a few more cycles of bass extension would have behooved the synthetic presentation. But as far as they went, the Pianos produced a lively and substantial rendition that made up for the missing subterranean reach with snappy room-filling energy that never strained even at enthusiastic levels.

In other words, the Pianos may not produce the deepest bass fundamentals but what is there is very quick, very detailed and very full. In my room, the Pianos were very full down to 30Hz, with usable output at 25Hz. Down to their limit, the Pianos are so good that they are one of the few speakers I doubt can be easily improved upon with a subwoofer. I'm sure it can be done but it won't be accomplished without some expertise in subwoofer splicing. You'll want to mate the speakers with an exceptionally fast sub. Think REL or comparable subwoofers, perhaps even Tidal's own subwoofer, the Drum (though I haven't heard that one).

Lest I convey an impression of an overly sophisticated bass that is all glory and no guts, cue up "Who Made Who" from AC/DC Live [Epic E2K 80215] and crank it up! The Pianos really produce a wallop! Witness a bass drum that energizes the room and gut alike. While you're at it, notice how the CD/speaker combo combines to fill the room with palpable energy for a remarkable sensation of actually being there in the audience. With sophisticated fare, these speakers are remarkably refined. But when the music calls for it, these speakers can get loud and raunchy. They can rock.

The Pianos provided insight anew to Neal Young's Harvest Moon LP [Reprise 9 45057-2] and restored long lost excitement, so much so that I listened to the disc over and over. While never sounding supernaturally edgy or overly crisp, the Pianos stacked the listening experience with details upon details. Young's harmonica came across with unusual clarity as the Tidals extracted each and every component of every riff. It was the same with Young's guitars. His slightly offbeat rhythms were highly palatable and easily digestible, his occasional misfingerings slightly more obvious which added humanity to his playing. Each single note came across with exceptional nuance and meaning. Easily witnessed were the hammering of the strings and occasional fret buzz. Not the one with the surest of voices, I often heard Young's vocals waver back and forth. The bass in the recording is slightly overblown but richly textured and was deftly handled by the Tidals. The first several footfalls on the recording had me looking outside my room to see who had just entered the house slamming the door behind. From the rumbling bass to the harmonica's overtones, the Pianos allowed me to see into the recording as never before. I enjoyed superb clarity and dimensionality which made for a much more interesting listening experience than what I usually experience. Even more important, it was 100% enjoyment and zero fatigue.

Late in the review period I did something I never would have attempted on my own. At the behest of Tidal's affable US distributor, Half Note Audio's Daniel Barnum, I replaced the 500-watt Bel Canto e.One Reference 1000 monos with the 16-watt Art Audio Carissa, a tube amplifier utilizing the 845 output tube. I was cautious at the outset but eventually stunned to hear just how well the Carissa pushed the Pianos. They may be rated at only 88dB efficiency but these speakers are cream puffs to drive. On Green Day's American Idiot [Reprise 48777-2], average levels of 90dBs with peaks of 96dBs were achieved with no sense of strain at the speakers, just my ears. SPLs notwithstanding, the disc sounded fabulous as the Piano/Carissa combo delivered powerfully solid bass drums on "St. Jimmy" and "Homecoming", crystalline acoustic guitar strings on "Wake Me Up When September Comes", superb clarity on Billy Joe Armstrong's vocals on "Whatshername" and all the expected raucous energy of the CD's title cut. Once the Art Audio amplifier made it into the system, it never came out.

A nearly perfect speaker then? Well, not quite. I still haven't found those. I was very mildly disappointed with solo vocals that I knew to be extremely well recorded, such as the simple Hawaiian vocal arrangement of Keali'l Reichel [E O Mai, Punahele 17862 ]. I've heard his voice reproduced with stunning clarity and intimacy by the Third Rethm's DX55 Lowther and in this one area, the Tidals couldn't quite compete. The Pianos couldn't lay bare the vocal textures with the same degree of detail and clarity as the Rethms. Of course, this is the Rethm's raison d'être and precious few speakers can compete on its turf. It's just that the Tidals set the bar so high in all other areas that I had hoped for just a little better. In truth, they didn't miss the mark by much. And of course, in no other area of performance could the Rethms even hope to compete. Bass response? Forget it. Treble extension? Get real. Overall smoothness, build quality and fit'n'finish? Not even close.

The Pianos are not quite the last word in low volume declaration. Not a regular practitioner of abusive outputs, I average sound pressure levels of around 80dB. 85 is fun and mid 90s are just about as out of control as I get in normal listening. But I noticed two things about the Pianos. First, they do appreciate being goosed just a little bit, just a few clicks past my norm, nothing outrageous or dangerous. They just seem to bloom at this slightly higher output to come alive. More so than most speakers in my experience, the Tidals will strongly suggest to you the proper playback of your recordings. Secondly, that aforementioned smooth and congenial character means that even at boisterous levels, the Pianos are exceptionally pleasant to listen to over extended listening sessions and that fatigue factor is vanishingly low.

As I've already mentioned, the Tidals can't dredge up an uncut 20Hz fundamental nor manage the very lowest bass as contained on organ recordings. Those subsisting on a steady diet of cannon blasts may want to look elsewhere. I won't gloss over this deficiency. It would be really nice in a speaker that costs $17,000/pr. However, on most recordings and with most styles of music, the Pianos produce a satisfyingly robust, full-bodied and extremely articulate bass response that won't overwhelm medium-sized rooms like mine. Most speakers with a healthier bass output will be significantly larger than the Pianos and physically dominate the room to a far greater extent. Though a warmer speaker overall, in terms of bass output the Pianos are akin to what I get from my Thiel CS2.4s yet when the recording is up to it, the Pianos will reach down and pull up a dose of detail the Thiels can't. In fact, the Pianos produce the most natural sounding bass I've ever heard in my room. Subwoofers may go deeper but the Tidals' bass seems perfectly integrated.

The Pianos' insightful yet musically congenial nature is partly the result of a tweeter that knows its place and doesn't need to show off and make its presence known. Consequently, these speakers sacrifice some of the air of speakers with a more pronounced forward treble balance. They don't sound quite as open and they won't exaggerate the sense of space. I found that a very short period of acclimation was required to make that adjustment. Then I was rewarded by treble refinement that made the Thiel CS 2.4 sound raucous and mechanical by comparison to the Piano's smooth, sweet and highly refined nature. That's no slam on the Thiel, mind you. It's an excellent speaker. The Tidal just occupies the next level up.

So think not of these observations as criticisms or caveats but just more observations. I don't downgrade the Pianos in the least for these deviations from my own personal vision of perfection. The Piano is what it is and is a great speaker.

In terms of system transparency and the ability to hear what's upstream, they were somewhat
of a paradox. You'd think that such a neutral speaker with the heightened ability to resolve inner detail would highlight or exacerbate upstream deficiencies. Not that I suffer from these but as I swapped in and out components and experimented with peripherals, I found that the basic tenets of the Piano's signature remained relatively unchanged. That's not to say you'll want to mate them with your classic Technics receiver but as Wilson Audio is known to demonstrate, the Pianos don't suffer much if they represent the majority of your system-buying budget. You need not fear mating them with products of a slightly more - pedestrian lineage. However, there's no doubt that the Pianos will make the most of what you feed them. They had me appreciating my fairly costly digital front end as I never have before. In fact, I feel that I'm now hearing my Accustic Arts transport and Audio Aero converter in a completely new light. Never before had digital sounded so right, so rhythmic and so alive. What blew my mind was when a guest listener looked up in the middle of a CD and remarked, "That's a really good CD transport". I guess I shouldn't be surprised that a great pair of speakers would reflect well on other well-designed components in the chain.

My guest listener also said something else of interest. This economically prudent fellow has been coming over to hear review speakers for years and seems to make sport out of finding reasons to not be enthralled by them. Well, I was floored at the end of this session when he told me that if he had the money, he'd buy them. That was a first.

If I had to list my favorite aspects of the Tidal Piano's performance in order of preference, I'd have a difficult time deciding between its smooth well-balanced and fatigue-free character -- to which you really can listen to all day -- and its way with rhythm, timing and pace as it imbues music with a degree of life and conviction that few other speakers do. The Pianos make old recordings new and fun again and they really do have me discovering my music collection. The Piano's combination of midrange articulation and fine flowing dynamic expression is captivating. So smooth, so revealing; so sophisticated and expressive of nuance - so utterly satisfying.

A sizeable portion of the Piano's price is the result of the costly finishing process. Did I mention sixteen polished coats of clear piano varnish outside and a coating inside of melamine resin to seal the speaker from damaging humidity? There will be those who think that paying for eye candy is silly and a waste. No doubt, many of these naysayers will be among those who can't afford the Pianos. To those who can, I would say that at least as much time is spent looking at one's speakers as listening and there's a lot to be said for making them as aesthetically pleasing as possible. These speakers are beautiful. The Tidal Pianos combine a luxuriously deep and highly polished finish with fine woods and a simple yet elegant shape as no other speakers I've ever encountered do.

The Tidal Pianos' beauty goes much deeper than veneer or gloss, however. What they produce is every bit as lovely as their appearance. If you can afford them -- or even if you can't -- see if you can arrange an audition. I haven't heard every great speaker in the world but I'm convinced that the Piano deserves its place among the very best. There's something very different about these Pianos, something very special. I've never yet had to have speakers of the Piano's cleary superior -- and concomitantly costly -- caliber. Yet they operate so clearly on a higher plateau than what I presently own; and work as a true full-range speaker in my smallish room without causing any of the usual problems; that I'm committed to liquidate a few investments and get my own piano into the house. The fact that I can't play isn't lost on me. What otherwise would be a trophy purchase -- suggesting to visitors that I can tickle the ivories -- becomes an essential acquisition that plays itself. And unlike those programmed instruments, these pianos make music more organically than I knew to expect from electronic playback. Believe me, that I didn't expect. I thought I'd pretty much heard it all by now. Apparently not...
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