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One thing I noticed about the speaker sidewalls? They're not totally dead when playing music. This is a deliberate part of the design and differs from the massive, inert midrange/tweeter section. Instead of attempting to convert all that bass energy into heat with an enormous, very heavy enclosure, DeVore has tuned the bass enclosure very carefully and allowed it to resonate slightly in a controlled manner. Each panel section has a specific resonance and when combined, contributes evenly to the overall bass output.

On the rear of the speaker is a large machined aluminum panel (the silver back?) engraved with the Silverback gorilla logo. This heavy plate is the first of a 4-stage suspension and isolation system for the crossover dubbed the DeF SVDX or Suspended Vibration Damped X-over. This system completely encapsulates the crossover components in something called Vibraflex, then suspends the whole thing inside the cabinet thus isolating the critical coils, caps, resistors and what-have-you from the vibrations and resonances of a speaker enclosure's internal air pressures.

The crossover itself uses what DeVore calls his Gibbon circuit and is designed, along with the drivers and cabinets, to present the easiest possible load to an amplifier. The Silverback crossover is designed to minimize the impact of back EMF, a largely underappreciated dimension of the amplifier/speaker interface. The interface between speaker and amplifier is two-directional: amplifier to speaker and speaker to amplifier (back EMF). Lack of attention to back EMF is one reason why so many ostensibly easy loads (if judged by impedance and sensitivity figures) are bears to drive in practice.

Returning to the crossover, the components -- all of which are high quality, including oil-damped silver capacitors and silver internal wiring -- are laid out using 3-D CAD software to optimize the circuit and to ensure the shortest possible signal path. There is also a large toggle switch on the crossover board, just above the machined copper
binding posts labeled direct or HT. This switch actually alters the crossover slopes and is said to extend the dynamic capabilities for low-bass heavy sources played very loud (HT for Home Theater I guess). I did all my critical listening with the switch in the direct position.

Into the System
John DeVore came to my CT home to provide initial setup of the speakers. He came two other times, once to finalize setup, once much later simply to listen to the Shindo-Garrard 301 turntable and to witness the incredible impact of adding it and a second HRS rack to the system [below].

As a group, reviewers are of two minds about having designers, manufacturers or their representatives set up review components. Some quite plausibly believe that because the average customer cannot expect to have a component set up by the manufacturer or designer and are thus left to fend for themselves, so too should reviewers. The underlying thought must be that the reviewer is looking at the product and his or her experience with it from the point of view of the potential customer.

I see the point but am not persuaded by it. In the first place, many customers purchase from dealers and a good dealership often helps with setup. Second, the reviewer's relationship with manufacturers is so different in so many ways from that of a potential customer that it may simply be disingenuous to try to simulate that relationship in this one regard.

More importantly -- arguably -- the reviewer has a responsibility to both manufacturers/designers and consumers to provide the most illuminating and useful insights into a component's performance. That requires hearing a component in circumstances most favorable to its ability to demonstrate its potential. If that means having the designer, manufacturer or a representative set up the component and stay around long enough to be satisfied that it's performing within the expected parameters, I'm all for it.

When setup is completed, a baseline of performance has been established. I then work within those parameters with the resources that are available to me to see if I can improve on the sound of the system with the review component in it.

The Silverbacks replaced the Hørning Agathon Ultimates in my reference system. They ended up 11 feet apart, 20 inches off the rear wall and toed in to fire directly over my shoulders at the critical listening position 10 feet away. The speakers' ultimate performance was best at the listening position, but the Silverback provided unusually good performance in the most employed off-axis listening positions - on a couch to the left and especially on the couch six or so feet directly behind the optimal listening position. In other words, the sound was quite impressive in every spot in the room in which people normally convene. In the listening seat, it was to die for. Or is that to kill for?

Sources included the criminally good Exemplar/Denon 2900 universal player and two of the best turntables I have had the pleasure of listening to: the wonderful Brinkmann Balance that I recently reviewed, and the absolutely stunning Shindo Garrard 301 with Shindo 12-inch arm and Shindo modified SPU classic cartridge. Electronics were the Shindo Catherine preamplifier and the aforementioned Shindo WE 300B Ltd mono blocks. Interconnects were Stealth Indras and speaker cable duties were handled by Auditorium 23 that were recently mentioned in Jeff Day's review of the Omega loudspeakers.

Just a word, actually two, about these speaker cables: buy them. Whatever else you purchase for your system this year, do yourself a favor and purchase these speaker cables. They are the most balanced, natural yet revealing speaker cables I have ever owned or heard. They are at home in every system I have ever heard them in - regardless of price. And by high-end standards, they are not just a bargain but a steal.

By the time the Silverbacks arrived for review, I had replaced the very good BPT 3.5 Signature power line conditioner with Shindo's Mr. T, which provided a more synergistic pairing with Shindo electronics. Towards the end of the review cycle, I added a second Harmonic Resolution Systems M1R equipment rack.

Let's talk about speakers
Ever notice that when people enter a listening room -- whether in someone's home, an audio salon or even an industry show -- they frame their comments about the sound in terms of how the speaker sounds. No one walks into a room and says, "Gee, those interconnects sound great; and man, that's an amazing power cord on the amp." Let's face it, loudspeakers are the sexiest of audio components or at least the most attention-grabbing and thus most easily identifiable with a system's sound.

An easy identification to make but often a misleading one; and not just because the sound of a system is
unavoidably the sound of a system and not that of a particular component within it. It must drive audio sales people crazy to work so hard at putting a system together -- choosing just the right interconnects, cables, amplification and sources -- only to have customer after customer come into a room to comment on the sound of those speakers.

More interestingly, one could argue that the ideal speaker should have no distinctive sound of its own, that it should simply let the music through. Rather than leaving its fingerprints all over the sound, it should be an open window to the upstream components and ultimately to the music on the recording. From this perspective, identifying the sound of a system with the sound of the speaker is especially problematic. The ideal speaker has no sound at all.

It should be obvious that very few speaker designers actually approach design with the goal of creating an open window to the music. Many in fact design 'musical', 'beautiful' or 'seductive' loudspeakers. Others design loudspeakers that self-consciously offer correctives to the shortcomings they anticipate with upstream components. These are speakers not just with character but also with a characteristic sound. And many of them are quite wonderful for what they are and what they attempt to do.

They can also be joy for a salesman to work with. The number of different kinds of electronics that will work, say with the beautiful and seductive Harmonix Bravo or the Opera monitor, is staggering. Just put a high voltage and high current amplifier of even modest subtlety in front of the Magneplanar 3.6R and you will be rewarded with a naturalness of voice and a rightness of tone that is endlessly satisfying. And put a powerful and refined enough amplifier in front of the best that Sonus Faber has to offer and you will make a music-loving customer as happy as can be.

Speakers that have a characteristic voice, a fingerprint that to varying degrees imposes its will on the music, also impose costs. That is, they necessarily limit the extent to which the listener can hear back through the speaker to the upstream components, to the source, to the recording and ultimately, to the intentions of the recording engineer, the vision of the composer and musicians and the will of the conductor. Such speakers do not distort as much as they substitute. It becomes their vision of what the
experience of listening should be like instead of remaining an unqualified opportunity to look back as deeply as the listener might to uncover, interpret and evaluate the performance on her own. They help present an experience of listening to music, organized in the best cases around a plausible hypothesis about the value of music in one's life, and the core of meaning in music - whether tonality, dynamics, warmth or whatever. For all their virtues -- and believe me, I don't for a second mean to underplay those virtues; you cannot once you've heard the best that Sonus Faber for example has to offer -- these speaker systems limit the extent to which a listener can look into the music. They are not, as it were, open windows to the source.

No doubt, a speaker that is an open window to the source can have its ambitions undermined by upstream components that are themselves inadequate to the task. And a speaker that is an open window may well reveal a dirty picture. But the fact that the view outside is not always lovely is simply no argument against cleaning one's windows. It is what it is. And to understand your place in the world, you need to look at it for what it is and find your place. Still less is it a reason for keeping one's windows closed or worse, painted shut.

More than that, in the case of audio equipment, there is reason to believe that there are many upstream components -- sources, preamplifiers and amplifiers -- that, while not perfect, are more than adequate to let you see into the music. They are more often incomplete rather than inadequate. They more often fall short of the ideal than they exhibit positively harmful attributes. Ditto for the vast majority of recordings. There is much to hear in even less than stellar recordings. The entire point of listening to music is ultimately to be both deeply inside a performance and engulfed by it. The aim is to be as free to hear as deeply into the music as one can, to investigate and discover as one wishes. It is not ultimately about being manipulated into a good feeling. It is about creating the right kind of causal connection between the music, your experience of it and your feelings about it.

In a way, those who pursue the open-window approach are giving content to the idea that audio components exist only to serve the music. I would venture that DeVore's twelve years in retail contribute to his trust in the overall quality of upstream components and certainly in those likely to be mated with the Silverback. DeVore's commitment to the open-window approach is not a mere article of faith or a theorem derived a priori from some axioms specifying a theory of correct speaker design but is instead the result of a trust grounded in years of experience in retail.

To be sure, there was a time when recording engineers engineered with upstream components and their limitations in mind. This is less true now than ever. And while there was a time when it would have been very appropriate for a speaker designer to bear in mind the likely characteristic failings and shortcomings of upstream components (especially compact disc players), recording techniques and software, there are presently good grounds not just for optimism about the future but for confidence in the quality of most high-end components in the here and now.

But aren't what you are calling open-window approaches no more than what others used to refer to as ruthlessly revealing? Nonsense!

The audio world is in the grips of at least two false dichotomies that are the bane of both music appreciation and the discourse surrounding it. The first is that between high resolution and musicality; the second that between ruthlessly revealing components and musical ones. What people object to under the label high resolution is not high resolution but a lack of resolution: an emphasis on the leading edge and attack of notes at the expense of unraveling harmonic detail and natural decay. They are also railing against finely etched stick figures dangling in empty space. Again, this is the opposite of high resolution for such forms of imaging fail to resolve the sound of the space between the players and the notes they play.

Similarly, the term ruthlessly revealing has nothing to do with an open window to the source. Speakers that are often characterized as ruthlessly revealing are instead simply unbalanced. Often they possess tipped-up high frequencies. The contrast with musicality in both cases is misleading. The source of the problem is not high resolution or the openness of the window. Instead, it's a lack of proper balance. A speaker cannot resolve more information than is on the recording. It can resolve the leading edge at the expense of the harmonics and decay. That's not high resolution but simply inadequate or incomplete i.e. unbalanced resolution. Ruthlessly revealing speakers are simply those that shine a spotlight on certain frequencies - taking them out of their proper place in the mix. Again, the failure is one of balance, not resolution or openness.

Improper balance can be a problem in the lower registers as well. Critics of some loudspeakers refer to them as more dynamic than life or too dynamic. Again, a speaker cannot create dynamics that are not on the recording. What a speaker can do is present the dynamics out of balance with the rest of the musical information. Speakers that are "too dynamic", "ruthlessly revealing" or whatever are simply unbalanced speakers.

A useful illustration is provided by the older Wilson Watt/Puppy 3.2, which was often criticized as being ruthlessly revealing. The speaker makes my point in a variety of ways because it was unbalanced both on top and below. Not only were the high frequencies out of balance with the rest of the speaker, the same was true of the midbass, bumped up to compensate for a cabinet of inadequate volume. The mid and upper frequencies were portrayed as significantly more transparent than the bass regions, which were much more veiled - or so it seemed to me at the time. The failure in such designs is one of balance not in the sense of compromise but in the sense of internal consistency and evenhandedness. I simply reject the idea that there can be too much resolution. And I reject the more general idea that a speaker that is an open window is thus ruthlessly revealing. If anything, a ruthlessly revealing speaker is, by virtue of its lack of balance, anything but revealing.