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Many people who own and listen to full-range Lowther drivers consciously or unconsciously find themselves adjusting their listening preferences. They will buy warmer sounding CD players or move to 2A3-based amplifiers which are not typically as resolving as the best 300B designs. More importantly, owners of the typical Lowther full-range speaker who own the speaker over the long haul listen more and more to acoustic guitar recordings, small jazz and classical ensembles and more Patricia Barber CDs than anyone should be allowed to hear in one lifetime. The strategy is often unconscious but entirely peremptory. Avoid anything that can stimulate the peak and don't even bother with music that needs a rock-solid or authoritative bottom end.

Those who crave more often end up doing one of two things. They sell the speakers and try going down another path or they monkey around with their speaker. When you have a full-range driver, it should come as no surprise that you have limited extension, output and extension on top and down below. So the obvious solution is to add subwoofers and super tweeters to resolve the problems. And this works for many folks. God bless them.

I'm skeptical. In the first place, the entire point of having a full-range driver is to avoid crossovers. Almost every speaker I have owned or listened to has crossovers of course, and I have enjoyed more than a few of them and loved my share. But there is simply no denying that one's brain just works harder when listening to a speaker with a crossover. The brain has to put back together in a unified way what was taken apart by the crossover feeding different drivers. One can be made aware of the difference when listening to a speaker without a crossover. The entire experience is just less mentally taxing.

That doesn't make any speaker without a crossover better than any speaker with one. They are just importantly different. Crossoverless speakers can never be as extended as speakers with crossovers and multiple drivers. But implemented well, they are significantly more natural and immediate. The experience of listening to them is in a way less mediated by electronic and mechanical processes.

If you add an aftermarket subwoofer and super tweeter, you are unavoidably cobbling a speaker system together. The speed and tonal qualities of the drivers may not match well (indeed, they rarely do), and you are working with artificially predetermined ranges of possible crossover points and slopes relative to where a designer would be had he or she set out from the outset to build a three-way with a woofer and tweeter and a Lowther employed as a midrange. This is the approach that Hørning has adopted with considerable success.

In any event, once you add a driver and a crossover to a Lowther or any other full-range driver, you are in principle losing something. The question is whether you gain more than you lose. The Vivaldi Academy is largely a success story in this regard. The crossover from Lowther to Visaton horn is not noticeable either in terms of speed or tonality differences. In addition to extending the speaker's frequency range, the crossover also functions as a baffle correction system to smooth out overall response.

The Vivaldi Academy exhibits the virtues associated with Lowther drivers. The sound is pure, vivid, dynamic, punchy, open and spacious. The horn super tweeter's dispersion pattern creates an airy soundscape that can be experienced somewhat off as well as on axis. Like other Lowther-based speakers, the Vivaldi is at its best reproducing small jazz ensembles, chamber groups, female vocalists and choral groups. Unlike many other speakers employing Lowthers run full range, it does well on horns including soprano saxophones. Cymbals shimmer convincingly and decay naturally. Overall the presentation is remarkably smooth and non-fatiguing. The notorious and ubiquitous peak rears its head rarely and its untoward effects are largely blunted and not musically distracting.

Whereas a Lowther driver running full range can be immediate, vivid and highly resolute, the fact is that the tonal balance of a Lowther driver implemented full range is a bit on the light side and tends to favor the leading edge over the body of the notes and their decay. The sense of extraordinary detail that Lowther owners rave about has always struck me as not completely true to the facts. There is a kind of artificiality to the details that does not correspond to how music sounds in the natural world. In
many Lowther-based designs, the emphasis on the leading edge of notes gives an impression of great focus, sharp outlines in space and detail galore. In point of fact, some important details -- harmonic structure of notes, their body and their density -- have gone missing or are otherwise under-represented.

The most long-term listenable designs all share one thing: tonal balance. Speakers that are tipped down ultimately sound leaden and heavy. The entire sound can become sluggish. Those that are tipped up are light, quick but ultimately more see-through than see-into.

Adding a super tweeter without adding a subwoofer threatens to exacerbate these problems by shifting the tonal balance up even higher, making the entire sound lighter and thinner.

I am happy to report that Lew Hardy's speaker largely avoids these problems. The super tweeter is added for extension and to help fight off the Lowther nasties. The crossover serves not only to extend the speaker's range but its baffle correction system is designed to smooth out response.

While the sound is definitely on the lighter and quicker side of the equation, it is by no means a meatless vegetarian offering. Quite the contrary, the sound is reasonably full, especially in the midrange. The bottom end is incredibly dynamic and lively. In my large room, the bottom end lacked ultimate authority and weight but the presentation was exceedingly dynamic and unforced. I thought the sound was simply terrific in almost all regards.

I think one key to success is the use of plywood rather than MDF. The apple ply enclosures and labyrinths make for a much more energetic yet naturally fulsome presentation. When I first heard the speakers, they were constructed of MDF and I would have described them as very smooth, non-fatiguing but somewhat dry and less than energized. Not any longer.

The Vivaldi Academy are forthright, incredibly dynamic and full of life. They can barely constrain themselves; the music just can't wait to be free from confinement in the boxes. The real trick is that the Vivaldis also manage to be nuanced and are as happy to reveal music's subtleties as to express its energy.

Extending the top end without comparably extending the bottom definitely shifts the tonal balance up a bit. This fact must be taken into account when choosing ancillary equipment. The speaker sounds best with slightly warmer tube electronics. To me this translates into a preference for 2A3s over 300Bs amongst single-ended designs and EL34 over EL84 tubes among push/pull designs. An amp based on a 6550 tube should likely be avoided. Among solid-state amplifiers, the Gaincard is a good match as are, I imagine, the latest Nelson Pass offerings under the First Watt marquee.

The same goes for cables. I had more success with Auditorium 23 speaker cables than with Stealth Hybrid MLTs. The latter emphasized speed and transparency at the expense of weight and authority. Not what you want with these speakers. Interconnects had a similar impact. My Stealth Indra were terrific at highlighting the speaker's way with nuance and subtlety but again left the bottom end longing just a bit for friendship. This is a speaker that calls for copper interconnects jut to warm things up a bit.

The most surprising result was the interface between the Vivaldi and my sources. The Vivaldi sounded just wonderful with both the new Reimyo DAC being fed by an Audio Note transport and the Shindo Garrard 301 table but it did not mate nearly as well with the Clearaudio Maximum Solution. Both components favor the leading edge just a bit and putting them together in the same system was just too much of one thing.

Given that I have been around the horn block a fair bit, I thought it might be helpful to compare the Vivaldi Academy with other more well-known efforts with which I have varying degrees of familiarity.

I have had a fair bit of experience with Lowther drivers in Medallion II enclosures. I found the Vivaldi better balanced than all of these, more natural, developed and dynamic. I found the Oris 200 to best the Vivaldi in some respects but not in others. The Vivaldi is a back-loaded horn with no crossover. The bass is compromised in extension, weight and authority as compared to the modified Onken enclosure of the Oris 200. On the other hand, the bass of the Vivaldi is not the product of a different kind of driver in a different kind of enclosure, nor does it require a crossover. The Vivaldi bottom end is more of a piece with the rest of the speaker's presentation than is the Oris. The Oris sounded its best with AER drivers. With the Lowther PM2A that I used in both the Oris design and the Medallion cabinet, the sound -- while completely unforced and immediate -- was a bit beamier and more peaky than the Vivaldi which was by comparison smoother and more expansive.

I preferred the Vivaldi to the Hedlund horn as well. My experience with the Hedlund is that it has a very narrow volume range in which it sounds right and in balance. Once the volume goes up enough -- to levels that are not at all extraordinary -- the speaker's top-to-bottom balance disappears. To its credit, the Vivaldi sounds convincing and remains consistent in its top-to-bottom balance at all reasonable listening volumes I tried. I had no interest in seeing if I could replicate Pete Townshend's hearing loss.

I found the Vivaldi to be more incisive and revealing than any Fostex-based system with which I am familiar. In these regards, it far surpassed the performance of the Jericho horn enclosure I had for over a year. I have no basis to compare it with any of the Cain & Cain designs, having only heard them under show conditions. The only one I have listened to extensively is the Abby and that is a very simple Voight pipe design that does not represent a fair comparison with the much more expensive and complex Vivaldi. That said, the Abby is one hell of a bargain and a good speaker in absolute terms as well.

My favorite Lowther-based speaker remains the Hørning Agathon Ultimates which I reviewed earlier. This is a genuine full-range speaker with the Lowther DX4 driver employed in effect as a midrange only. Though the integration of EX3 to Visaton tweeter in the Vivaldi is excellent, the integration in the Hørning is seamless and unequaled in a hybrid design (in my experience). Whereas the Vivaldi relies on a back-loaded horn to deepen the bass response, the Hørning employs two 12" professional woofers sourced from Beyma. The Vivaldi simply cannot match the Hørning's overall range and presentation. On the other hand, the Vivaldi escapes some of the issues that Hørning has to face. The Hørning woofers are rear-firing and so one has to have a big room and sit far enough away for the sound bounces coming off the rear woofers (which employ a first order crossover to boot) to be adequately dissipated. In small rooms, the woofers can overwhelm the room and in the process mask the purity of the Lowther midrange. This is just not a problem for the Vivaldi in a room of any size. In my experience, the Hørnings like to see a lot of cubic volume. In the right room, Hørnings can be truly exceptional.

Perhaps the most highly regarded of all Lowther-based full-range speakers is the Beauhorn. My experience with the Beauhorn is extremely limited but in many ways, it represents the realization of the Lowther ideal. The sound is fast, dynamic, coherent and pure. The speaker is more challenged in the lower registers than in the upper ones but it is compromised at both extremes. The speaker has almost no bottom end to speak of, less than the Vivaldi. On the other hand, the Beauhorn is more coherent (no crossover) and manages to eliminate almost of the peak as well.

While not as full range as the Hørning or as pure and coherent as the Beauhorn, the Vivaldi is a very impressive 'compromise' between the two. It represents a successful variation on a time-tested design from Lowther itself. It is therefore less innovative than either Hørning or Beauhorn but it is somewhat more room-friendly, aesthetically more broadly compatible and less expensive than either.

Put in a mid-sized room and mated with ancillary equipment that complements its many virtues and mitigates the impact of its limitations, the Vivaldi Academy speaker can be the centerpiece of a truly high end, musically persuasive audio system. I not only admired the speaker, I fully enjoyed my time with it.

For fun and illustration, I offer one such system below: one that makes sense financially as well as musically.

Digital: Exemplar Denon 2900, a bit warmer and fuller in the lower octaves than the more recent 3910 which is more resolving and dynamic but to my ears a bit less musical.
Analog: Rega 3 with Denon 103, feeding Auditorium 23 step-up transformer. The best buy in high-end cartridges into a relatively inexpensive step-up transformer designed to address the few shortcomings of the cartridge.
Preamplifier: Shindo Aurieges. To my mind, preamps are the most important component in a system and this one is a complement to the Vivaldi Academy in virtue of its degree of informativeness and tonal neutrality. Also, like all Shindo preamplifiers, it has an excellent phono stage. This one is MM only and the perfect home for the A23 step up
Amplifier: Sun Audio 2A3 amp. Sam Tellig brought his over to my house to listen to the Vivaldi Academy and the little amp did just what the speaker needed. It warmed things up a bit, added some spaciousness to it all and had enough power to drive the speakers in my rather large room. The damn little thing is a steal as well at $2K or so. If you like the 2A3 tube, this is great amp to try and the Vivaldi is a really good speaker to bring along for the ride.
Interconnects: PHY or Analysis Plus (both a bit on the warmish side while still being adequately informative and transparent)
Speaker cable: Auditorium23 (the best buy in audio - by my lights anyway. I never heard a system in which the cables did not work extremely well. You can do better no doubt, but not at a price point that makes sense in this system.)
Rack: Finite Elemente Pagode - it works, looks great and sounds even better with tube gear.
Power Conditioner: Your guess is as good as mine. I have had great luck with Shindo Mr.T which has the advantage of not being terribly expensive in systems with Shindo gear. I have had no luck with anything else yet, no matter what gear I have. Probably the best thing to do is ground the system outdoors and pay for dedicated lines.
Vivaldi Audio responds:
I would like to take this opportunity to thank Jules Coleman for his thoughtful and extensive review of the Vivaldi Audio Academy speaker. His years of experience evaluating a multitude of horn speakers and source components gives him a unique perspective. His thoughtful investigations into the soul of the speaker under review provides both the manufacturer and the review reader with invaluable third-party, expert witness testimony. Reviews conducted by Jules Coleman have become the gold standard for both manufacturers and audiophiles when searching for an industry-recognized expert review conducted with experience, dedication, intelligence and impartiality.

I also would like to thank Srajan for his excellent site, which has become the premier resource for individuals throughout the world as they look for experienced and knowledgeable reviews and industry news.

Lew Hardy
Vivaldi Audio

Manufacturer's website