|Imagine a big record company with an established name. They now crave a new pair of loudspeakers, not for their studios but for the demonstration facility at headquarters, a room where they can present visitors with their own music in a most positive and impressive way. And they are dead serious. They want to acquire truly good loudspeakers.
So they organize a contest, a shoot-out between five or six short-listed speaker systems, all considered to be excellent in one way or the other. As to the jury, they don't merely trust their own ears. They therefore invite a group of audiophiles to offer their educated opinion. You're one of 'em.
Now that's something. I know. I once attended such an event. Beautiful young ladies were hired to take care of the refreshments and ... what really made the situation exciting and challenging was our being invited as experts. In that capacity, we were supposed to recognize a good loudspeaker by its sound. That's bold. As is the very idea that the selection of the speakers could in fact be performed objectively by calling in so-called experts.
|What's a good speaker? Or better yet, what does a speaker have to do to be considered good? Presumably, it must be technically correct and mechanically flawless. A speaker with a tweeter whose voice coil regularly goes up in smoke would not apply.
I say correct because speaker designers typically disagree upon what exactly it is that makes a speaker technically good. Some swear by controlled directivity. Others prefer different radiation patterns. One school of thought aims at high sensitivity (efficiency) while others are willing to trade off sensitivity for flat response, phase coherence etc. At any rate, no technically incompetent speaker could hope to be a good speaker.
Technical acumen (applied and displayed) is, however, not sufficient to make a speaker good. There are technically extremely correct speakers, which aren't good. One Technics mini monitor in particular comes to mind. It probably had the flattest anechoic frequency response I've ever witnessed. It had some other superior specifications as well. But it wasn't a good speaker. Why? Well, it didn't sound good to begin with. Or think of Rehdeko! Everything in it is 'technically' wrong: two or more drivers with no crossover, frequency response rolling off above 6kHz and more. Yet certain people consider it a very good speaker, a fabulously musical performer.
So for a speaker to be a good, it must perform well. It must be good for some specific purpose. It has to be good in actual use like a good hammer is good for nailing or a good knife is good for carving. What use or purpose does a good speaker serve? I've seen speakers used as a stand for a vase or statue. I've seen speakers used as a climbing frame for a cat and as a trap for rats (the latter were Martin Logan CSLs with their voltage supply unit left powered on, with its case removed overnight). But those are not the kind of purposes for which speakers are typically used. They are typically used for playing music. Can we then agree that a good speaker is one that is good for playing music?
What's "good for playing music"? That's tough. It depends. For one thing, it depends on who is doing the listening. A rock band wants one kind of speaker for a stadium performance, a recording engineer another type for a studio, our dear audiophile fellow fiend yet another kind for his sound temple. In each case, different conditions of use dictate what makes a speaker good for playing music.
Srajan once wrote a small piece on consumer versus pro products, how the two worlds interact and how we as audiophiles and music lovers should not automatically dismiss products from the professional sector. Here's his conclusion: "What's this mean for the hobbyist music lover? Simply that many products in the professional market carry pricing far more attractive than HighEnd audio. This pricing is usually attached to very feature-rich packages that go beyond what the consumer market offers. At the risk of over-generalizing things, consumer audio is about toys, pro audio is about tools. Nuff said. Just because a product derives from the professional sector no longer needs to mean unfit for serious High-End applications. Any number of upper-crust recording monitors -- active or passive -- can give their equivalent consumer relatives a fierce run for the money. Think ATC and Tannoy, for example."
Well, I did. I chose Tannoy because it's the more familiar brand to me. I once visited their headquarters/factory at Scotland and wrote a report of the company. I've been privileged to review several of their HiFi speakers (residential models in Tannoy speak), have spent time in recording studios equipped with Tannoy monitors and more.
Tannoy is a company with a tremendous past. They already existed when most of our fathers were not yet born. And long before they addressed the home-based music lover, they addressed the public in garden parties, circus arenas, railway stations, sports stadiums, via broadcasting stations and studios. The company supported professional sound reproduction from the very beginning and was in the service of the public address business as early as the 1930s.
Anyone interested in Tannoy's history should read Julian Alderton's wonderful The Tannoy Story (2004). Once you've finished with that, move on to Ken Kessler's Quad, The closest approach (2003).
|Today Tannoy offers a wide variety of speakers for consumers, ranging from the entry-level Mercury F series to the fabulous Dimensions to the mighty Prestige and Kingdom speakers. Despite this development, Tannoy's remains very active in the pro sector. A big stake of their annual turnover in fact derives from the professional world. Most people really have no idea how entrenched Tannoy is. It's hard to imagine anybody who hasn't been exposed -- knowingly or not -- to the Tannoy sound in pubs, clubs, movie houses, corporate boardrooms, leisure venues, public buildings, churches, theaters, opera houses and indirectly through recording studios where Tannoy monitors were used by the mastering engineers.
Take Finland for example. The Finnish National Theater, the Finlandia House, the Kiasma Museum of Modern Art, all great buildings in central Helsinki -- they all rely on Tannoy speaker systems. These are merely a few examples from Finland and Finland is only a drop in the ocean [see above].
So are Tannoy pro speakers "fit for serious High-End applications"? How do they compare with Tannoy's own HiFi speakers? Let's take a historical look at the issue first. As is well known, Autographs, Westminsters and other Tannoy classics at one time saw solid use in recording studios for typical monitoring purposes. They were pro speakers head to toe just like the Quad ESL 57 once found itself used by many broadcasting companies for accurate monitoring.
I've been lucky to hear these speakers here and there long enough to promise -- cross my heart -- that if these Tannoy classic speakers are not fit for High-End endeavors, I eat my own excrement. They are more than high end. They are super end (at least when slightly modified).
|I'm not alone in this assessment. With the renaissance of micro-power tube amplifiers, these high-sensitivity giants have once again become quite popular with a wider audience. And as is gospel by now, the Japanese and the late Harvey Gizmo Rosenberg were hip to that truth a lot earlier.
Let's not forget either that Tannoy has been a pioneer of many inventions that are nowadays common sights with many competing manufacturers from Gradient to Kef and Thiel - coaxial drivers for instance. Tannoy introduced them 50 years ago. More recently, Tannoy equipped all of their speakers with a super tweeter and gained enthusiastic followers right away.
So much for history. The fact that certain audiophiles (admittedly a minority) continue to venerate old Tannoys and their sound doesn't mean that all audiophiles have to love them. They have a right to demand more practical sizes as well as a more modern sound (though personally, I'd call that a move in the wrong direction). So how do Tannoy's current professional speakers perform by comparison? Are they any good for satisfying High-End ambitions? Do they give Tannoy's HiFi speakers a good run for their money?
|What to do when you don't know? You find out for yourself. I arranged for a friendly contest. I took a pair of Tannoy Precision 6 Ds at 1400 euros (an active studio monitor with a 6" dual-concentric multi fibre paper pulp cone driver and 1" titanium dome tweeter plus super tweeter - left) and sat it next to a pair of Tannoy Eyris DC1, a 1300 euro/pair domestic/residential bookshelf monitor [below]. The Eyris DC1 is quite similar in construction to the Precision 6 D except that it's fitted with a 175mm version of the dual concentric drive unit, has the reflex port upfront and the 1st order LF/HF crossover point at 1.8kHz rather than the (actively realized) 2.5 kHz of the Precision 6 D.
The CD player in use was a mid-fi Sony SCD-XA9000 and the amplifier an Accuphase C-200 from which an attenuated signal was forwarded to the active Precision 6 Ds. How did the Precision 6 D fare against its HiFi cousin?
|First off, one must admit that the two speakers possessed certain sonic similarities probably due to their fairly similar construction (e.g. constant|
|directivity of the concentric point source driver). The sound from both featured a good amount of integration, dynamics, speed and harmonic alignment.
Having said that, there was a significant difference in their tonal balance. The Precision 6 D was brighter and tuned to a higher tonal center, the Eyris DC1 smoother and warmer but also greyer on some music. Thanks to presumably its tonal balance, the sound field of the Precision 6 D was narrower on the horizontal plane, having a tendency to congest during denser musical interludes. The Eyris sounded more full-bodied, more open and breathed more freely. The Precision cast a more sharply defined soundstage, the Eyris was more blended. The Precision was more direct, forward, simpler and perhaps a bit cheaper sounding but also somehow more exciting or lively. The Eyris was more refined, musical and believable. The Precision wasn't bad but I definitely preferred the Eyris.
I then put the Precision 6 D next to Tannoy's Mercury F2 (better known as the Fusion 2). That's an entry-level two-way bass-reflex speaker with a 6.5" paper-cone mid/woofer and 1" dome tweeter crossed in at 2800 Hz. The F2 trades for 330 euro/pair [below].
|The Mercury F2 is a remarkably good speaker as such and especially for the money asked. In many respects, its performance exceeded that of the Precision 6 D. It had better tonal balance, less artificial timbre and superior vocals. During another occasion, I was able to audition a more expensive Tannoy studio speaker, the Ellipse 8 iDP, a 3-way semi-active near-field monitor. Although I think its sound was more competent and more universal than that of either the Precision 6 D or 8 D (with which I briefly compared it), memory suggest that it too wouldn't equal the Eyris DC1 in sheer sound quality. As far as I'm concerned, Tannoys such as the Dimension 10 (10,000 euros per pair) are in a league of their own [below].
|Does all this make the Precision 6 D or other Tannoy studio monitors into bad speakers? Not. First, Tannoy's active monitors -- the Precision 6 D included -- allow user selection of optimum speaker response via a set of DIP switches for real-life situations so that the frequency response remains as linear and flat as possible. I didn't try these adjustments. Secondly, the Precision 6 D would|
|have sonically benefited from a subwoofer , something my comparison didn't allow for. In addition, there's a different rationalization open to us.
For a professional recording monitor, to be good only requires that it be good for the intended purposes. Its goodness is mere usefulness. Not so with a HiFi speaker. Yes, it too must be useful in that it makes sounds. But additionally, it must provide hedonistic pleasure. In at least two ways, it must be enjoyable to its owner.
First, it must be good to look at. It doesn't have to be a utopian design penned by a group of architects (remember those Jadis prototype speakers from the 1990s) but I'm sure that most audiophiles want their speaker to be pleasing to the eye. Indeed, the very reason why many audiophiles repudiate professional speakers -- even fairly good-sounding ones -- is that most of them look like dorks (nicely fitting with conventional German black leather furniture). Tannoy Precision and Ellipse speakers are welcome exceptions to this trend.
|What really makes a HiFi or High-End speaker enjoyable to its owner is naturally how it sounds. It must be fun to listen to. Not every speaker good in the useful sense is good to listen to. What makes a speaker good to listen to? What contributes to an enjoyable likable sound?
Ideas vary. Some audiophiles find a speaker enjoyable when it provides an impression that it truthfully reproduces what's on the record (how they would know what's on the recording in the first place is another topic). They like what they think of as a natural, real, authentic, honest sound. Others prefer speakers that convey to them the spirit of the music, reveal the significant form of a composition and the intention of its composer.
No matter, the difference between a pro and HiFi speaker is striking. A pro speaker -- as Srajan rightly pointed out -- is primarily a tool doesn't have to sound good in order to be good. It doesn't have to be enjoyable as long as it does well what it was designed to do - be revealing. In fact, in what particular way it has an individual sound is not only irrelevant to its ultimate performance but arguably the one thing its user is least interested in. (I heard of one recording engineer who rejected the Tannoy Mercury F2 on the grounds that it sounded too good!)
On the other hand, for a High-End speaker -- or toy as Srajan put it -- to be a good speaker, it is absolutely necessary that it be enjoyable and likable to play with. Wouldn't make any sense if it wasn't. This is a big difference and here's one of its implications.
|The usefulness of a pro speaker depends on those who determine the purpose for which it is to be used (e.g. monitoring). Obviously views here too differ as to what speaker best fits a given purpose. Have you ever seen craftsmen agree on which the best tool to use is? But at least there's a chance that the question over the best tool can be answered objectively by asking professionals who use these tools for a living and on a daily basis how they perform with regards to safety, efficiency, reliability and handling.
The question of goodness in High-End speaker too is inseparable from its users. But what is enjoyable or likable -- cosmetics and sound -- cannot be determined by anybody other than the user. Audiophiles may learn enough about their own proclivities to predict what key ingredients a speaker must possess to make it suitable for personal consideration but they still won't be able to tell which speaker will be enjoyable without actually listening to it. A contractor working with 2 x 4s and size 10 nails can purchase a useful hammer purely on specs. How heavy and big is the head, how long is the handle, how well is the shank integrated into the head?
|The record company eventually decided on a kind of pro speaker. It's made by a company specialized in studio monitors. I think they made the right choice given the type of music they ask the speaker|
|to reproduce; and because they needed a tool even for their playback system. Did they select the best speaker, period? Not in audiophile terms. Among the competitors, there were some whose bass to midrange performance was better delineated, whose sound was livelier and more meaningful.
However, nothing prevents a pro speaker from being pleasing to an audiophile's ear. No doubt many pro speakers do sound good in ways expected from a High-End speaker. But if they don't -- and that too frequently happens -- it doesn't mean that they are not good speakers per se. It's simply a mistake to think that a universal concept of goodness applies to all loudspeakers regardless of intended application and usage. For pleasure; or as a tool and laboratory measuring instrument, e.g. a utilitarian appliance? That's the key difference.