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As a result, very few speakers employing the Academy design found their way into the market. Instead, the vast majority of full-range horns employing Lowther drivers look very much alike. They are mostly back-loaded horns using single drivers in cabinets of reasonable volume. The main difference is whether the horn fires front, back or down. The other difference is cabinet construction. Some employ MDF and seek to minimize cabinet resonances while others employ plywood and leave the cabinet largely or entirely undamped. Both approaches can succeed or fail. Even when successful, I much prefer cabinets that are designed as if they were a musical instrument rather than a concrete bunker from which music is hard pressed to escape.

I strongly prefer minimally damped cabinets constructed from plywood. I especially prefer plywood in the horn itself. This is all personal preference of course but I have found such cabinets to present music in a more dynamic, natural and life-like way.

At various audio shows I find myself drawn to any room displaying an innovative or retro attempt to produce a horn or open-baffle speaker. I don't have many other options for my own reference system, which features an 8-watt amplifier.

At last year's T.H.E. Show held in conjunction with CES, I found myself chatting over breakfast with one Lew Hardy,
a gregarious fellow who at some point let on that he was displaying a new speaker of his in one of the rooms at the St. Tropez and then encouraged me to stop by for a listen. When he told me that his speaker was a reworking of the original Lowther Academy design, my interest rose accordingly.

I had no idea what to expect having never heard of Lew, his company Vivaldi and never having heard the Academy design implemented in any cabinet whatsoever. On the other hand, I have heard a lot of Lowthers implemented full range and it was with mild trepidation that I entered Lew's room at T.H.E. Show. I was very pleasantly surprised. The speakers were beautifully finished and sounded promising being driven by Nelson Pass' First Watt amplifier. Seating was a bit distant for a Lowther design. The sound was smooth and pleasing but lacking some of the energy and dynamics of other Lowther designs with which I was familiar.

I returned to the room several times and by the last day of the show, the speaker was being driven by one of John Tucker's 300B amplifiers to better effect. The sound was more energetic and resolute. The speaker/listening position configuration had been improved as well.

I talked to Lew several times about the speaker and we stayed in touch after Las Vegas. He was extremely open and anxious to hear criticisms and suggestions. What a change of pace from the vast majority of exhibitors who are defensive and hardly enthusiastic about any form of feedback other than unqualified praise. I don't blame these exhibitors for their defensiveness given the unsatisfactory rooms and the difficulties of setup and coordination with other designers showing in the same room. Not to mention that we are often talking about someone's life work or at least something to which he or she is very emotionally attached. Even so, it is a great pleasure and something of a relief to come across someone who welcomes criticism and is not merely unfazed by it.

In one phone call or email exchange, I suggested that Lew try to construct the speaker out of some form of plywood instead of MDF even though the most recent Lowther Academy plans specify MDF. It is very unlikely that the originals did, however, as MDF might not have been as ubiquitous then as it is today. Some months passed before I heard from Lew again. He had committed to a plywood prototype though he was certain it would be a bear to do and that he might have to make compromises in the way he accomplished joints within the labyrinth.

More time elapsed before he called again, this time quite excited about changes he had made to the Academy design. He had great sonic success (along with a lot of pain) in constructing the cabinet and horn from apple plywood and had settled once and for all on apple ply. Beyond that, he had decided not to run the Lowther driver full range, choosing instead to add a Visaton horn-loaded super tweeter as well as a proprietary crossover, thus converting the Vivaldi into a two-way design. He loved the speaker and was genuinely enthusiastic about it. He wanted someone with a good deal more experience with horns to have a listen and I agreed at that time to review the speaker. The Vivaldi Academy loudspeaker arrived in mid August and has been in my reference system pretty much ever since.

In his reviews, Steve Marsh makes it a point to comment on the packaging and delivery of equipment for review and he has a good point. I have not before received any component that was as carefully packaged and secured as were the Vivaldi. Each speaker was separately crated in a wooden coffin-like box that was itself a significant construction project. Both crates were secured to a palette. Each speaker within each crate was wrapped and wrapped again and secured in place. The process of removing each speaker from the crate and unwrapping it for setup was therefore longer than usual, but worth every minute knowing that when the task was completed the speakers would be unharmed and ready for listening.

Lew Hardy is a professional cabinet maker and it shows in the crates and in the speakers themselves, both inside and out. The Vivaldi speaker is a basic column of modest height. It is as narrow as most modern dynamic loudspeakers which follows the fashion of narrow front baffles to improve imaging and aesthetics. In contrast, for example, the JBL Hartsfields which boast a sensitivity of roughly 107dB and a compression tweeter of roughly 75 lbs each checks in at an imposing 45 inches width. Wider front baffles enhance low-end reproduction at the expense of pinpoint imaging and room aesthetics. I'll let you know more about just how they do sometime down the road as I am due to receive a pair of Hartsfields within the next couple of weeks.

The Vivaldi is deeper than most dynamic cabinets in order to accommodate the top-loaded Lowther driver, the internal labyrinth and to provide adequate internal volume. For the Vivaldi, Hardy chose Lowther's EX3 drivers which are comparable to the DX3 but sport even more exotic neodyne magnets. Hardy removes the standard phase plug in favor of a wooden one sporting the company logo. Nice touch that as it happens to improve the sound as well. On the speaker itself, each driver is protected by a handsomely shaped removable grill cloth. The grill cloth simply has to be removed for critical listening.

Current-production Vivaldis include four Black Diamond Racing cones that can be threaded into the bottom of each speaker for decoupling and resonance control. My review pair did not come similarly equipped. I employed other approaches to decoupling the speaker from the floor, which I discuss below.

The key to the Vivaldi design is the internal labyrinth or folded horn. Hardy described the labyrinth as "hellishly complex, with 26 different angles machined to extreme tolerances on 13 pieces of plywood. There are within the speaker four hermetically sealed cavities that receive an acoustical dampening foam during assembly. The complexity of interior partitions and pathways mandate that the only successful way to assemble it is in one non-stop operation.

After dry fitting all of the interior pieces, the final assembly with glue, wiring and foaming is conducted in one intensely frenetic operation. I use only cabinet maker's yellow glue (no hot melt glues are used) and mechanical clamping. It takes 46 individual clamps to assemble one speaker."

I said earlier that once uncrated, the speaker is ready for listening. Not quite. All Lowther drivers take a near eternity to break in fully, which is not uncommon for full-range drivers more generally. The PHY driver, I have discovered, appears as well to be in no rush to break in. In general, it takes quite some time for any short-excursion driver to loosen up and relax. And Lowthers do need to relax. I set the speaker up in another room driven by an inexpensive solid-state receiver sourced from Circuit City and kept the speaker running day and night for several week while I was getting the measure of the Clearaudio analog front end I reported on earlier.

That task accomplished, I moved the Vivaldi to my listening room (which doubles as a music room), replaced the Clearaudio at first with my reference Shindo Garrard 301 turntable setup (with which I was more familiar) and set about to taking an initial listen to the Vivaldis.

I began by placing the speakers 6 or so feet into the room. The sound was detailed, intoxicating in its own way but too light. I moved them close to the wall leaving enough room for the rear mouth of the horn to breathe and the bottom end filled out considerably. On the other hand, the speaker had lost some of the magic, vivid presentation I have always associated with Lowther drivers. Back and forth I went looking for the best balance of extension and authority on the one hand and vividness and immediacy on the other. I ended up placing the speakers a bit further from the wall than other speakers, about three and a half feet, and just about as far apart as has proven to be the regular distance in my room - about nine feet.

Before I settled in for serious listening, I had to do something about decoupling the speaker. Lew had assured me that the speaker sounds fine placed flush on wood or carpet. This has never been my experience with speakers and was not the case this time either. All speakers suffer when on carpet - especially carpets that are thick and not made of natural fibers. Don't believe me? Get on your knees, lower your head and speak into a carpet and hear what happens to your voice.

Speakers do best on wood but wood resonates and carries vibrations and often with unwanted consequences. I removed two of the Harmonic Resolution System bases from my equipment rack and placed them under the speakers for my first forays into critical listening. At various times, I took the HRS bases out from the speakers and replaced them with brass and other cones I had laying around. I also had several Black Diamond Racing cones and tried those as well.

The speakers sounded their best on the HRS bases (which are not sold for these purposes, but which work extremely well in this capacity as long as the base employed is figured to accommodate the weight of the speakers), least good without decoupling altogether and not significantly better with Black Diamond Racing cones. They sounded least good on carpet, regardless of method of decoupling. Though the speakers come with Black Diamond Racing Cones, I would recommend that purchasers look into alternatives.