Last year (1995),
I went to a Boston Audio Societymeeting that was held at the new Waltham,
MA, location of Goodwin's Highend. The subject was ABX'ing amps.
The three amps under test included a new Carver Sunfire set to run in current
mode, a Crown Macro Reference, and a 28 year old (!) Phase Linear. The speakers
used were Wilson Audio Watt/Puppies. These speakers cost $14,990.
It was a very interesting experience. To my ears, the Carver in current mode was clearly distinguishable from the Crown. The Sunfire was softer, and had less bass slam. The Phase Linear v. Crown, at least in this ABX comparo, was more subtle to detect, but the Crown was still clearly identifiable. The Phase Linear had more grain, less air, etc. All in all, I liked the Crown and SunFire very much (at least in this 3 way set-up).
The CD transport used in the ABX tests was a Theta Data Basic, run though the Spectral HDCD DAC. (I can't say I was all that impressed with the one HDCD recording they had on hand.) Cables and interconnects throughout were the muy mucho expensive MITs. Supposedly, the MIT wire and the Spectral gear have a special affinity for one another.
No matter which amp was being used in the ABX tests, the Wilson's displayed all those fave-rave qualities so dearly beloved by the audiophile press. They displayed extraordinary transparency, threw a huge soundstage, had great detail, dealt out solid bass, etc. But they had one small problem: The Wilson's didn't sound like music. The notes were all there, certainly. And all the recordings were ruthlessly revealed, for good or ill. But sound like music? No.
This observation obviously flies in the face of all that has been said and written about these Wilson speakers. This praise continues right into today, as evidenced by their great review in the February, 1996, issue of Audio. So, what gives? Is it time for me to lie down on my wife's couch (she's a psychiatrist) and discuss my audio nervosa?
I think not. And I will tell you why.
My speculation is that many enthusiasts in the audio high end do not get out to live concerts on a regular basis. Most especially, they probably don't get to hear live, un-amplified performances. And increasingly, this is a tough thing to do.
Even small venue jazz clubs seem to have gone overboard, stuffing microphones inside saxophones, mouths, and other musician orifices. The result is that even if you are close to the stage, your brain is processing multi-aspected sound, coming from multiple sources, and with different arrival times.
As a consequence of this ever-increasing electronic grundge, our collective aural criteria for establishing the true nature of music -- and here I qualify this as mostly being acoustic in nature -- is being lost. This has some bad consequences. For if you lose the proper frame of reference, you also lose the ability to critically judge equipment that seeks to reproduce the true musical experience. The Wilsons are a case in point.
They do everything right according to the audiophile bible, but in my opinion, they have missed the musical boat entirely. So what gives me the right to pass such judgments? It's all in the geography.
We live in Boston, one of the great musical Meccas. The Boston/Cambridge area, on any given night, has lots of music being performed, of all types. And most of it is cheap to attend, if not free.
For example, The New England Conservatory and its Jordan Hall (pre-restoration; the jury is still out on how well the newly restored space will eventually fare) offer a great opportunity to calibrate one's ears to live acoustic music. Seully Hall at Boston Conservatory is another good space. The performance 'salon' at the French Library in Back Bay is also wonderful. And let's not forget our Grande dame, Boston Symphony Hall. There are also innumerable churches in the Boston area, like Emmanuel church, that offer up all types of live music performances, both secular and religious.
Thus, within a ten minute walking distance of our home, my wife and I can go to a wide variety of acoustic, un-amplified performances. And we do; sometimes as often as three times a week. This repeated music-going experience is what serves as the basis for our aural memory -- and not how one component under review fares against the last. I believe this 'how-does-it-compare" is a dangerous trap that many reviewers fall into, no matter how well intentioned.
This circular reasoning is best epitomized by the Stereophile Recommended Components list. This list is brilliant magazine marketing, but a lousy reviewing practice, and does a great disservice to everyone involved, the user, dealer, and manufacturer -- except Stereophile, of course.
So what have we got? Many audiophiles who probably don't get out to live events; live music that sounds increasingly less like live music; audio equipment reviewers/makers living in a closed, self-reinforcing universe, and a powerful media force in the high end that panders to the worst of it. In short, we have a quadruple whammy. With one result of this star-crossed conjugation being the Wilson Watts.
All of the above is but a preface to explain why a vendor, no matter how well intentioned, or how good its product, if it strays outside the provincial confines of the high end, can quickly find itself in trouble. Case in point: Waveform, the Canadian speaker company
John Otvos, Waveform's founder and principal, ran straight into the High End Inquisition. His sin? He aggressively sought to make a top to bottom loudspeaker with a flat response from 0 to 60 degrees off axis. The Waveform speaker was thoroughly blasted by Larry Archibald and John Atkinson in the November, 1989 issue of Stereophile. The results were predictable: The high end user/dealer community quickly turned a deaf ear to Otvos, and to his speaker.
But, paradoxically, the professional audio folks who make recordings for a living, like Telarc, Dorian, and Delos International, embraced the Waveform, Mach 7 version. They began using it as their professional monitor during recording sessions.
Thus, we have a delicious irony: Many of the CDs used as reference recordings by Stereophile, et al, are themselves produced with the assistance of Waveform speakers! This is one of those wonderful logical contradictions that Zen masters somehow turn into spiritual enlightenment. Unfortunately, in this case, the enlightened did not include Messrs. Archibald and Atkinson.
But to its credit, The Absolute Sound and its Best of 1993 issue (TAS, mercifully, does not engage in the facetious A/B/C/D class warfare of the Stereophile lists) included the Mach 7, with Robert E. Greene commenting "Anyone interested in large-scale music really should hear the Waveform before they spend a fortune, or even a little, on anything else."
Otvos obviously had a great speaker, but this fact was known and appreciated by very few people. Not the easiest way to build a business.
But despite the Santa Fe Savaging, Otvos and Waveform persisted. The result is the new Mach 17. It is a total redesign, have almost nothing in common with the Waveform Mach versions 7/10/13; save its avowed mission of being a full range speaker with incredibly flat response. On January 29, 1996, at another BAS meeting, Gordana and Francis got to see and hear John Otvos, and listen to his new creation.
The BAS venue was not really optimal, and was somewhat similar to conditions found in audio shows. Regardless, what we heard coming out the Mach 17 was extraordinary. Not because it played full range. Not because it threw a huge soundstage. Not because it was flat. And not because it was incredibly transparent. The speaker was all of those things.
No. It was extraordinary because the Mach 17 sounded like music! It is what the Wilson Watt could have been, had it not fallen into high end audio's circular reviewing trap.
One demo piece, in particular, floored Gordana and Francis at the BAS meeting. It was a piano solo, one of the most difficult things to get right. But played through the Mach 17, the recording sounded and 'looked' like a real piano, right up and down the scales.
What is even more incredible is that this was a pre-production unit. The Mach 17 uses an all-active electronic crossover, custom manufactured by Bryston. The system includes user adjustable controls, so you can easily alter the bass-mid-treble response as it relates to speaker/room response. (Note: It is not a graphic equalizer.)
But this important piece of gear was not yet ready for the BAS meeting. Nor in time for the Mach 17 demo that Otvos was giving down in New York City the very next day at Sony's recording studios. (We later learned that Sony simply lifted the two piece, 88 pound speaker one and a half feet off the floor, with stunning results. But with the production Bryston control box, you can save yourself the effort, and just turn a dial.)
The lower section of the Mach 17 includes a subwoofer consisting of two 12" treated paper cones; one passive, the other active. But it is the upper speaker module which is unique. It is an egg-shaped housing, containing the tweeter and midrange. This 'egg' swivels far left and right, and also rotates up and down; thereby giving the listener tremendous flexibility in speaker set-up.
Thanks to all of the Mach 17's special design features, Otvos has apparently succeeded in getting the flattest, most wide angle response possible out of a conventional loudspeaker. The Mach 17 measures essentially flat -- a 1 dB difference -- from 50 cycles to 20K cycles, at 0 degrees on axis and still comes close at 60 degrees off axis. An incredible feat. Finally, the overall anechoic sensitivity of the speaker is 91.5dB (94dB in a room).
But this may be the best part: Instead of charging $14,990 like Wilson does, the new Mach 17 costs only $5,995. In addition, Otvos sells a complete system, including Bryston amplifiers -- the Mach 17 requires six channels of amplification -- for $9,595, and also includes four pairs of 1 meter balanced interconnects
Copyright 1996, Francis Vale, All Rights Reserved,
WAVEFORM, Mach 17
2-12" treated paper cone
3/4" MDF board
Fiberglass damping material used internally
Three pairs of heavy gold on solid brass terminals
for tri-amplification - all active
Architectural-grade American steamed
black walnut veneer
quilted Makore or pommele Mahogany
Black laminate top and bottom
Rubber insulated nylon furniture glides.
Black oxide line inlay on vacuum formed
radiused mitred edges.
9 internal braces.
Integral black nylon rope tote handle for
ease of movement.
Handle disappears under transition molding.
Standard - Black upper and lower grille cage
Optional - Gray
23 1/2" sq x 16 3/4" sq x 25" tall
4.79 cu ft (134 L)
88 lbs (95 lbs crated) -
System Weight Per Channel 125 lbs (136 lbs crated)
Frequency Response (on axis)
27 Hz - 20 kHz ±1 dB,
measured anechoically at the NRC Canada
91.5 dB 1W/1M (94 dB room )
Sub to Mid: 325 Hz,
Mid to Tweeter: 1850 Hz
Linkwitz Reilly Slope:
Minimum Amp Power:
125W (400W max) woofer,
50W (120W max) mid and tweeter
Custom faceplated 1" silk dome
Super high efficiency, super linear, cast aluminum
basket with flat surround, vented pole piece/
phase plug, cone is vacuum formed plastic TPX
16 layer MDF laminate turning
4 pin gold plated Neutrik XLR connection to
sub cabinet, stainless steel shielded
Silver pearl glaze over black mini-textured
acid cured paint
Tilt and turn CRT based mountable egg head,
45 degrees left and right,
13 degrees up and down
2 1/2" acoustic foam rubber mounted on 3/4" MDF base
located and isolated from spurious bass vibrations
by 4-3/4" rubber dowels of 50 durometer rating and
further isolated by a sheet of 1/16" neoprene rubber
of 20 durometer rating
Black double knit polyester covering
1/8" x 1/4" flat bar steel (removable for best
sound, although best measurable grille available)
12" x 14 1/2"
(Overall Head Module is 16 3/4" sq x 17" high)
37 lbs (41 lbs crated)
Warranty & Guarantee
Thirty day money back guarantee on loudspeaker systems
Ten year limited warranty.
Twenty year warranty on electronics
$5,995 US, $8,200 Cdn,
sold manufacturer direct by Waveform (freight extra)
Authorized Bryston dealer
Shipping containers are 200 lb test
21st, The VXM Network, http://www.vxm.com