Thanks to those 6moons readers who've sent enthusiastically expectant emails regarding this forthcoming review of the Meadowlark Audio Kestrel2. Two readers asked if I could relate some of my early listening experiences. At the time, I hadn't even received the review samples yet. Personally, I prefer not to share my initial impressions because they may be unclear or wrong. Whenever a new component is added to a stereo system, it takes a lot of time to discover what's changed and why the music is sounding better or worse. Without a full review that includes thorough descriptions and explanations, I'd just be throwing idle opinions around. There's plenty already of that on the web-at-large!

'Tis Himself!

When I first spoke with Pat McGinty in the middle of March, idle opinions were definitely not part of the conversation! Pat has very clear ideas about the loudspeaker designs he brings to market. He spoke very earnestly about the Kestrel2 design and about his reasons for moving his entire company from California to New York state.

The original Kestrel was the speaker that built Meadowlark Audio. It was a clever design with time-aligned drivers, first order crossovers, and transmission line bass. I never got a chance to hear the originals but the reviews at the time suggested that they offered a very natural presentation and a lot of excitement for just under $1,000/pair. The speaker was so successful that Pat McGinty eventually released a "Hot Rod" version that included premium parts and connectors.

It wasn't long before his company outgrew the manufacturing facility in San Diego, making production not only more difficult but dangerous as well. So in 2001, Pat up and moved his company from California to a less expensive manufacturing facility in Watertown, NY, with skilled workers and plenty of room to grow. Since 2001, a bevy of new products has been introduced, with cabinet finishes superior to what the company could produce in California.

I asked Pat if the new K2s were going to be "hot-rodded" like the snazzier version of the originals. Pat explained, very politely, that he doesn't want to create custom versions of his new designs, by offering an original version followed by a super-duper iteration. He's got a solid design with the new Kestrel (hey, he apparently had a good one with the original!) and already's used the most expensive parts its retail price can justify. So he's not interested in new & improved. The 2-designation took plenty care of that. It's very unlikely then that he's going to tag a bunch of surnames to the Kestrel all over again.

For comparison, I remember a statement made by Vince Clarke, a brilliant electronic pop musician since the late '70s and founding member of Depeche Mode, Yazoo, The Assembly, and erasure. He said he was more interested in creating great pop songs than having to revise them in yet another extended re-mix for the dance clubs. So here we have a speaker designer who wants to create a speaker that is as exciting to listen to like a great pop song, and something that sounds great on its own without needing a remix to promote it. Makes sense to me.

Start with the finish

My daughter thought the new speakers looked like bird wings. They do exude a certain avian quality with their swept-back front baffles and gently sloping transmission line enclosure. The light Ash finish is very even and extends around the entire cabinet. All edges on the front baffles are curved, and the Meadowlark Audio songbird engraved on the front of the speaker is a nice touch; as are the heavy base plate and the talon-sharp carpet spikes.

My wife wasn't bowled over by the speakers' appearance because she doesn't fancy exposed drivers. Still, the Kestrel2s were unobtrusive enough to reside in our living room for two weeks without domestic rancor and do come with slip-on grilles to cover its drivers.

Fans of biamping/biwiring will appreciate the doubled-up gold-plated terminals on the Kestrel2s. I do not have a separate amp to biamp nor the cable to biwire; however, I was able to try the Kestrel2s in a different system and get a taste of how they sounded when driven with the crossovers separated. On each speaker, the right and left terminals are connected with a thin silver jumper wire, preventing me from fully inserting the banana plugs of my Oval 12 speaker cables. So I connected the wires on the outside edge of each set of connectors and plugged the bananas into the upper connectors. I'm not going to tell you that this minor reconfiguration significantly enhanced the music - but it did put my obsessive doubts at ease.

When my wife first saw the Kestrel2s, she noticed that the review samples did not exactly match each other; one speaker appeared to have a slightly lighter finish. There were also a few dings on these samples incurred by the previous reviewer. His nerve! I expect that the quality control for paying customers is significantly higher than what clumsy reviewers would let pass (and cause). Speaking of clumsy reviewers, it's time to confess - I bent the spikes. In my never-ending quest for optimal speaker placement in less-than-optimal home environments, I got a little lazy. Instead of carefully lifting the speakers and setting them into position (which is easy enough since they only weigh 42lbs. each), I got into the habit of balancing the speakers on a single talon and rotating them into position. This bent the talons, er, carpet spikes. I already told Pat. We'll see whether he reports me to ASPCA. However, if you decide to become a Kestrel2 owner, a spare set of spikes can be purchased through Meadowlark Audio or a related dealer.

Back to the Bass*ics

The Kestrel2s have traditional transmission line (TL) enclosures. One could be tempted to call them "original formula" or "classic" if one drank a lot of soda. A traditional TL uses a long chamber behind the driver to damp its rear wave by absorption. Since most people don't have the space for a tremendously large speaker cabinet to house such elongated tunnels, the "pipe" can be folded and tapered like a labyrinth. This type of complex MDF chassis is obviously far more challenging to design and manufacture than a more conventional vented or sealed box and thus has but a few rare adherents. [PMC, Buggtussel, Fried and the small Chapman Sound Company of Vashon Island in the Puget Sound are among those. Eli Gershman, in one of his designs, employs something called a "regulation line" which points at a shorter but still bent-pipe form of hybrid bass loading. As a lively Internet thread focused on recently, Von Schweikert too refers to his designs as transmission-line based, but distinguishes them from classic labyrinth approaches with a statement on his site. Instead of a folded tunnel created from extensive cross-bracing, he uses sub-chambers whose walls are defined by stapled stuffing blankets rather than MDF. This might signal a broadening or re-definition of what the term transmission line used to signify in the past. Editor's note.] As the cutaway picture below shows, Meadowlark's adoption of the term adheres to more traditional conventions as made popular especially by Bud Fried's IMF speakers.

Not one to settle for good enough, Pat McGinty has messed a bit with the Classic recipe of traditional transmission line enclosure design. He refers to it as Bass*ic alignment. This was first utilized in the Swift and Osprey designs. According to the Meadowlark Audio website, the enclosures of all vented loudspeakers control the driver " frequencies above the fundamental resonance of the system, but not below. At frequencies below resonance, the driver is not acoustically controlled so output rolls off and the driver is free to flap around - making unmusical noises and banging the stops."

Transmission line cabinets also share this flaw. They are well-damped above resonance, "but they have little control of the driver below resonance." The Bass*ic design attempts to achieve effective damping below resonance through impedance coupling. "In more technical terms, this means that the enclosure exhibits a substantially higher acoustic impedance below system resonance. The air in the enclosure couples to the driver below resonance, thereby keeping excursion under control and, more important, forces the driver to couple effectively to the air in the room." If you're like me and had to re-read those explicit paragraphs a few more times to get it, don't worry. I sent Pat a follow up e-mail and he replied as follows:

"Driver movement is a sort of counter-intuitive thing. When the drivers are coupling most effectively to the air that they are attempting to drive, motion is minimal. A whole lot of flapping around is a pretty good indication of wasted effort. The situation is analogous to rowing a boat. When the oars are firmly coupling to the water, a small stroke gives a big push. If you turn the oar around so it couples poorly, there will be plenty of action, but very little work gets done. The concept of matching the impedance of the oar to the water to force them to couple is quite similar to the idea we employ in designing our lines.

Also, the point of impedance-matching any power source (the oars) to the load (the water)... is to maximize the power transfer. In a speaker, the benefits yield a delightful side effect - since excursion is kept low, we can achieve greater output before 'banging the stops'. For small woofer systems, this is a wonderful thing."

So with impedance coupling, what you don't see is what you get. Without undue motion, the driver extends to its specified frequency in the bass rather than quivering wildly in its boots. Now it made sense. Think of Bass*ic as a rev limiter of sorts. It prevents the 7-inch triple-layer Peerless driver from redlining when the pedal hits the metal and the notes go into the low 30s.

Playing "Deep Voices" from Dr. Roger Payne's recording of the same title [Living Music/Windham Hill 81528 1995] made this point clear. The low-frequency blue whale song (which was recorded at a faster speed to approach the level of human hearing) makes most drivers flap out of control like a basset hound in a convertible. By comparison, the Kestrel2s were as unflappable as Patrick Stewart in the same sporty wheels. Because actions speak louder than words (and theories), read on to see how the Kestrel2s fly in the real world.