R/E/P Community

Please login or register.

Login with username, password and session length
Advanced search  

Pages: [1]   Go Down

Author Topic: Why I like my Alon IVs for mastering  (Read 1679 times)

Thomas W. Bethel

  • Sr. Member
  • ****
  • Online Online
  • Posts: 318
  • Real Full Name: Thomas W. Bethel
  • When only the best will do.
Why I like my Alon IVs for mastering
« on: June 23, 2013, 08:40:00 am »

I found this review from Absolute Sound on line. It sums up why I like my Alon IVs so much for mastering

 THE ACARIAN SYSTEMS, LTD.
Alón IV Speakers
A Distinguished Debut

I HATE loudspeakers. What they do to music shouldn't happen to a shaded dog. Transducers, you call them? -- no, traducers, I say, of the finely honed signals our High End electronics dispatch to them. Wire me up to my amp, Scotty, please. Some folks actually appear to like the way speakers exaggerate (or eliminate) the bass, subject the treble to an electron microscope's scrutiny (or to a wet rag), and create a virtual reality of fascinating but impossible topological and ambience effects never heard live and sober. Not me. What this audio-musicophile yearns for is a speaker that will start the music going and then vanish, withdraw, be gone. Even the most elaborate, exotic, and expensive speakers, the ones that can put you in closest touch with the performers, stamp their own complex personalities on every bar.

Even the word "loudspeakers" is vexing. It refers to speech and loudness-accurate nomenclature for a device that never has the least problem imitating a human speaking loudly. Somebody, please-give us not a "loud-speaker" but a "sweet-sounder" or "reticent-singer" that will submerge its personality in that of the recording and will commit no sins it, or a reviewer, must apologize for.

Remember that surprising pair, Lo and Behold? Here they are again. We have a candidate for "sweet-sounder" in Acarian Systems' Alón IV. Listening to this new product for many weeks has actually assuaged my antipathy toward speakers, at least for now. The Alón IVs stimulate strong-very strong-affection for their honest presentation of the music. They truly do sing smoothly-and with impressive conviction and authority as well. Neutrality, too, remarkable neutrality,-- including the low bass, in fact. (Neutral bass? Tell me more.)

The floor-standing Alón demonstrates what good ears, good taste, and first-rate engineering can accomplish in a more or less conventional dynamic cone-box design. Its designer and manufacturer, Carl J. Marchisotto, was for many years chief engineer and later part-owner of Dahlquist. He developed the Dahlquist DQ-20, DQ-12, and DQ-8 speakers-all employing the open baffle and phased-array introduced in the original DQ-10-and the LP-1 solid-state crossover, a candidate for all-time best value among high-quality subwoofer electronics.

Marchisotto recently departed Dahlquist and established his own company, Acarian Systems. The Alón IVs are his first product. Powered by a relatively modest Aragon amp, they made quite a sensational impression upon visitors at the January, 1992 CES. I owned for almost a decade an early pair of DQ-10s which were periodically tweaked by Carl and by Jon Dahlquist himself, so, as an old Dahlquist hand, I was eager to audition these nephews-of-DQ in my own system.

The Alóns owe little of their design to the DQ series. They are handsome floor-standing 50-inch tower-boxes resembling Snells. They are not pyramidal but rectangular, and deeper than wide, with a 15" by 18" footprint. They look solid and substantial rather than slender and willowy. They employ a conventional roster of drivers: a 12-inch woofer in a sealed enclosure and a cone midrange and a dome tweeter mounted, less conventionally, on carefully shaped open baffles above the woofer. The rear of the tweeter baffle is partially enclosed by a distinctive rigid collar of varying width, to reduce diffraction effects.

The Alón's intriguing cosmetics were designed by Robbii Wessen. Two four-sided wraparound grilles fit over the speaker in a kind of 3-D jigsaw puzzle. The upper grille (cloth on perforated metal) provides total cover for the open baffles, while the lower grille (cloth on heavy fiberboard) slides over the enclosure like a skin and covers the woofer. The two grilles are easily removable without tools and are meant to be removed for critical listening. They are quite heavy and account for a significant fraction of each speaker's 105-pound weight. (Too bad the grilles aren't as easy to store as they are to remove!)

Large tower speakers made entirely of wood remind me of coffins-a morbid fancy that intensifies with the passing of years-and so I note cheerfully that the Alón IVs exterior is instead mainly cloth (black or beige), with elegant wood accents (light or dark oak or rosewood). Removing the lower grille exposes semi-gloss black surfaces, and removing the tall top grille greatly reduces the frontal, backal, and sidal area of the speaker, so the Alón IV never resembles a sarcophagus.

Like the shaped open baffles, the woofer box is made of rigid and non-resonant fiberboard, both internally and externally braced. The external bracing consists of the finished wood paneling, curving sinuously around the box, to which it is bolted from the inside. Thus the cosmetics and structure of the speaker are interdependent, as all good designs ought to be. Each tower sits on four spikes, easily adjustable in place.

Marchisotto's fundamental principle is simplicity. The three drivers are electrically independent and "crossover-less." That is, eschewing the expected drop-dead multi-component three-way crossover, Marchisotto has fitted each driver with its own appropriate band-pass filter (hard-wired, no printed circuits) and has connected each driver separately to two of the six terminal posts. A user can therefore bi- or triamplify the Alón IV without an external crossover or any modification to the speaker; the Alón's internal filters do the job. Confident of his design, Marchisotto has even omitted any controls or "hi / lo" switches of any kind, so users can't "tailor" the Alóns to their rooms or whatever, and most users won't want to.

Paradoxically, to take best advantage of this direct signal path, I needed to get a little more complicated in the hookup. Shorting straps are provided for biwiring or single-wiring, but triwiring, strongly recommended, is as far as most audiophiles will need to go to get the best out of the Alón IVs. I am using a harness of six individual van den Hul conductors (per side) attached to a single spade lug at the amplifier end and individual spades at the speaker end. 1

Another consideration is that the Alóns, nominally four ohms, drop to three ohms in the bass and, with their moderate 87 dB efficiency and infinite-baffle woofer, demand hefty amplification to produce the type of sound they are capable of. Most users will find at least 200-watts per channel suitable, though state-of-the-art 1 00-watt units may suffice. With underpowered amps, I heard at volume peaks the gritty sound of amp clipping, and you should avoid putting this kind of burden on the tweeters.

Though impressive, the Alón IV's appearance does not quite prepare one for the attention-grabbing sound that emerges, particularly with the grilles removed. (My evaluation is based upon listening that way, although the Alón IVs produce perfectly respectable music with the grilles on for movies or casual listening.) When I first turned them on, I was confronted by a gigantic rectangular soundstage reaching from beyond the left edge of the left speaker to beyond the right edge of the right speaker and extending rearwards from a plane behind the speakers as far as the particular recording and associated equipment allowed. I noticed that each voice, instrument, or group of instruments, all the way to the rear of that epic stage, has a defined, focused location, as well as a pure, clear tonality. At the same time, I was struck by the palpable bass foundation, in which bass tones have not only weight and power, but extremely clean definition and an almost tangible presence.

After enjoying these "wow!" qualities for a while, I realized I wasn't sacrificing anything for them. I appreciated subtler virtues like a pure, liquid tonal quality including ample upper (and lower) frequency atmosphere, and a complete absence of "bite" or edge. The panorama of performers seems to be fully populated from side to side, without holes or space-warps, and to have real height as well as breadth. Each tower creates an arc of sound behind it, and the two arcs merge imperceptibly for a partition-free stereo stage. Large ensembles create a large space, small ones a smaller space.

Furthermore, I sensed a neutral musical balance, free of exaggeration or depression of any frequency range. I heard pianos with no chesty or smeared quality in the bass or zing in the treble. I was also conscious of ultra-fast, planar-like transients and limitless dynamic bloom. The three-way Alón IVs blend seamlessly without making you aware of even two separate drivers, much less three. One reason the bass is so impressive is that the midrange harmonics of bass fundamentals are so right. Eventually I gave up analyzing and just enjoyed. The Alón IV's sound is much closer to the "simple" sound of live music than to the complex mix of clashing attributes that our increasingly elaborate audio systems often deliver (as per REG's Gradient review in Issue 77).

Having lived with the Alón IVs for a while, I discovered additionally that they are reasonably easy to drive, within the caveats offered above, and are reasonably easy to position. Mine are about four-feet from the wall behind them-meaning the front of the speaker is well over five-feet from that wall-and 16-inches from the side walls with, in my small room, about six-feet separating the inner edges of the enclosures, with no toe-in. I learned that the drivers have superb dispersion both laterally and vertically, allowing a wide range of listening positions with little loss in imaging. Sitting to one side is like sitting on a side aisle. And I gratefully discovered that the Alón IVs are unreasonably easy to listen to for hours on end, because, even more convincingly than r-mini-monitors, they do indeed vanish.

For instance: Sheffield's direct-disc Wagner LP [LAB-7] comes through the Alón IVs more powerfully and cleanly than in any system I have previously used. Detail and impact are tremendous-you could write down the trombone and tuba parts note for note simply by listening. Yet the woody character of clarinets and bassoons and the tracery of the solo violin in Forest Murmurs are also honored. Both the large dimensions and the ambient deadness of the MGM recording studio are dearly discernible. The Alón IVs are a Wagnerian speaker without Wagnerian bulk.

In weeks of listening, in fact, I have never heard a raucous or unconvincing sound emerge from the Alón [Vs unless it was on the record. They persuade me that tweeters need not be mercilessly explicit to the point of torture in order to convey airy atmosphere, hall echo, and the wispiest nuances of music. The Alóns are responsive to every nuance, but not overly deferential to nuance at the expense of linearity or sweetness. They never say, "Hey, listen to this incredible detail!" Though they avoid the ruthlessly thin effect some electrostats and ribbons can produce when provoked, they aren't "forgiving" either-bad recordings, like the strident and grainy original LP versions of many of John McClure's Leonard Bernstein recordings on Columbia, sound bad enough but never worse than they must. The Alón IV's highs are, like its bass and midrange, just there-not attention grabbing until needed to delineate a concert space or round out a cymbal crash. They are airy but never shiny, or silvery, or velvety; once again, neutral is the word that comes to mind. And the highs are present in the most distant and wispy sound in your soundstage, not just the front row of players. When the recorded upper midrange is shrill, you hear shrill, but not the voice of the Devil. The Alón IVs bring out the best sonic features of even mediocre recordings; that is, they won't pre-shrink your collection to only its best recordings.

Yet hearing the Alón IVs isn't a "polite" experience at all, if that's the implication of anything I've said. Their courtesy extends simply to respect for the music, and it the music is overwhelming, so is the Alón sound. Neutrality means not a pallid picture, but getting out of the way of the performers so they can hurl the music right at you, and that's just what the Alóns do. They convey the rich tonal colors of vocal and instruments music with rare harmonic accuracy. They deliver the full slam of a rock group with electric guitars and heavy bass beat [check out Thom Rotelia's band on DMP CD 460] just as accurately as a solo guitar and its finger-stringy plonks and squeaks [for instance, on Japan RCA LP RDCE-8, Kazuhito Yamashita's Romance de Amor. The Alón IVs don't just not-tall-apart at high levels, they positively enjoy producing intolerable SPLs without ever losing their aplomb. Even bass tones remain tight and focused at high volume. (Establishing this point was not without its cost. I report with a rueful smile that the Alóns are the first speaker that have elicited complaints from neighbors during testing, yet I could never make them sound hard just by driving them hard-the speakers, I mean, not the neighbors.)

At the opposite end of the dynamic spectrum. another revealing quality of the Alóns is that they sound musical even at low levels. I once convinced myself that planar speakers could sound more real than cone speakers at low listening levels (as at midnight in an apartment building when everyone else is asleep and headphones simply won't do). Then I wondered why, in actual practice, various planar speakers were so uninteresting at low levels, why they needed high volume to bring forth the full dimensions and clarity of the music. The Alóns have showed me the error of my ways. Perfect midnight speakers, they are almost as involving at low volume as at normal volume. All the music is there, from top to bottom, with an ample measure of spaciousness and air as well, just farther away. I now have convinced myself that a speaker's performance at low volume correlates with its performance at normal volume. It detail and air disappear at soft levels, they may not show up in the right proportions at normal levels either, Fletcher and Munson notwithstanding. From now on, I will include low volume listening in my repertoire of audition procedures.

More illustrations: In the gigantic soundstage of Antill's Corroboree [Everest LP SDBR 3003], the brasses in the rear corners really sit in those corners. And the Alóns can produce this widescreen effect closer to the front plane than any other speaker I've heard in my room. That is, instruments and voices actually can emanate from just behind and to the outside of the speaker cabinet. Previously, my out-of-cabinet experiences tended to restrict themselves to the rear corners of the soundstage.

Back on the pop side, the Alóns help Brad Fiedel's synthesizer soundtrack of Terminator 2: Judgment Day [Varčse Sarabande CD VSD 5335] to inflate an enormous galaxy of electronic space sounds that sometimes manages to imitate a "reel" orchestra. You aren't going to hear a soundstage as ample as this in most theaters, nor will the theater experience threaten to terminate your loudspeakers as this CD will if you go overboard on the gain control. The Alóns let it all open up magnificently. On a smaller scale, the soft, wispy percussion and whistle sounds in "Viola Fora da Moda" in Rio After Dark [Chesky CD JD28] take on a vivid spatiaj presence, surrounding Ana Caram's voice like jungle foliage. I was present at the recording session for the first Chesky jazz CD, Live from Studio A, with Johnny Frigo and Bucky and John Pizzarelli [JD1], and I note that the Alóns re-create the original miking setup, as I remember it. Most other systems push the two guitars back, away from the front plane where they were closely miked, one on the left and one on the right, at the session. The Alóns keep the guitars right up front, just behind the speakers, while putting the violin dead center and the bass and drums farther back, as I recall they were in Studio A. Listen to these speakers for a while, and you'll learn quite a bit about good and bad miking.

Decca's LP of Benjamin Britten's Young Person's Guide to the Orchestra as conducted by the composer [SXL 6450] tests a system's ability to focus solo instruments and groups in 'space, to accurately represent in true proportion the dynamics of a soft solo and a full orchestra plus everything in between, and to transmit faithfully the exposed voice of every instrument. In textural variety, this recording is like several recordings rolled into one. Over the Alón IVs it is not only convincing, but breathtaking. Engineer Kenneth Wilkinson's characteristic stage layout (I'm assuming this is one of his) is so clearly mapped you could draw a picture, from the four horns in the left rear, not far from a woody xylophone, to the trumpets in the right rear, to the woodwinds spread in the middle distance from center left to center right, tympani and bass drum center rear, high percussion on extreme opposite sides of the stage (those sides well beyond the edges of the speakers), a harp in the right center front, second violins behind the firsts on the left, and so on. Even at a low overall volume level, late at night, the whole orchestra is right there before your eyes and ears, from the tiny tweet of a solo piccolo to ail the percussion going full blast to the whole ensemble letting loose at the end. The Decca mike tree puts the bulk of the orchestra outside the lateral distance- a few feet- covered by the tree itself, and I actually heard this arc of continuous sound arrayed behind and around the speakers rather than clumped claustrophobically between them. This kind of clarity is what everybody in audio talks about but seldom achieves, I dug out an old English Philips LP, from this label's two-mike period, of Tchaikovsky's Manfred conducted by Markevitch [SAL 3491] and was bowled over by the LSO's ravishing string sound, the image, though much more distant, of the LPO's string sound as heard from fifth-row seats in Carnegie Hall the night before.2 Likewise, the continuo harpsichord sound in Orpheus' baroque program on DG [CD 429390-2] is amazingly lifelike- from the thunk of the pluck to the zing of the string. I found myself, in fact, constantly being struck by the tonal beauty and truthfulness of solo instruments and voices- even on CDs, which normally seem to me somewhat impoverished in timbre.

The Alón IVs present the shimmering wind and percussion sounds of Mercury's British and American Band Classics [CD 432009-2, LP SR90197] with striking clarity and dynamism, not to mention the spaciousness that puts the band on a free-floating platform independent of the speakers. The presence and mellowness of the woodwinds in the soft opening of Walton's Crown Imperial march are as exciting as is the quiet but vivid tympani stroke behind them in the left rear corner. The Eastman Wind Ensemble fills the entire stage behind the speakers and extends outward beyond them. Trumpets and trombones slice through the air with bite and glitter, and- even in the CD version!- I can hear the initial "blat" of lips on the brass mouthpieces, as well as a complexly pipey flute sound. The climactic organ part in Crown Imperial makes a real contribution with the Alón IVs, clearly differentiated from the winds and behind them, yet warmly enveloping. The sinister tones of Hoist's Hammersmith are no less impressive in their spooky way, suspended in space as if the loudspeakers and electronics had left the room on a lunch break (this is an especially good recording to listen to in a darkened room). As with an electrostatic speaker, each woodwind, brass, and percussion tone is distinct in timbre and image, yet all are perfectly blended. Other Living Presence recordings make a similar impact; for instance, the combination of sweet strings and organ pedals so focused you can sing along in the Saint-Saëns Organ Symphony [CD 4.32719-2].

As with all new and superior equipment, it is difficult to characterize the sound of the Alón IVs other than in terms of music. Despite their power and authority, these speakers almost have no individual voice of their own. They neither sweeten edgy recordings nor roughen soft-edged ones, nor do they impose a sonic signature upon every recording. Audiophiles pay lip service to the idea of neutrality and claim to believe that the best component is the one that reveals most completely what is fed to it. I wonder whether we really want to live with truly neutral components and whether much High End equipment doesn't ingratiate our ears by subtly coloring the signal in ways we like. Somehow, the Alón doesn't do what it does by sleight-of-ear, by a clever tailoring of inaccuracies to achieve a cumulatively impressive effect. Instead, it is a rarity among speakers, a synthesizing reproducer that, like certain amps and preamps, renders terms like cold analytical detail and warm romantic envelopment irrelevant. Yes, because of its neutrality, you can make the Alón IVs sound ultra-warm, ultra-rounded, ultra-analytical, or ultra-atmospheric- just select amplification to suit and off you go! They will sound most like unamplified music, though, if you select for neutrality, low noise, and low distortion.

The Alón IVs are chameleon-like in their ability to sound different with differently-colored electronics and signal sources. Let me explain. With my reference ARC SP-14 preamp and Classic 60 amplifier, the Alóns sounded warm and cheery, with a rounded lower midrange, plenty of microscopic upper midrange detail, a trace of grain in the extreme highs, and large images behind the plane of the speakers. But this combination proved dynamically uninvolving- too polite and laid back. No doubt the amp's 60 triode watts were not enough; the Alón IVs, their appetite for current unsatisfied, never really opened up. If I had stopped auditioning right here, I would have told you the Alóns were pleasant, warm, and detailed, but a little lifeless.

Substituting VTL Deluxe 225 tube monoblocks made a major difference-with 225 triode watts, the Alón IVs came alive, and the 19 Hz organ pedals in Peter Huriord's CD of Mendelssohn [Argo 4144202], as much felt as heard, blossomed into my small room as if ii were Riverside Church (try the last minute of track 10). Dorian's Pictures at an Exhibition organ CD produced awesome pedals too.3 The soundstage widened and deepened too, while the lower midrange warmth and the upper midrange grain were somewhat reduced. Had I stopped here, I would have said the Alóns were bassy, dynamic, clean, and fast, but a little etched in the highs.

Replacing the SP-14 with VTL's Super Deluxe dual-mono preamplifier completed the Alón IV's conversion from a plush teddy-bear trying too hard to be likable, to a devastatingly revealing professional, as uncolored as anything I've ever heard and wholly at the service of the input signal. The overdeveloped bass and the upper midrange microscope disappeared altogether, leaving a grainfree, electrostatic-like lower midrange and midrange topped by airy high frequencies so pure they lose their independent identity as "highs." And the tight and extended bass response still offered those 19 Hz organ pedals, albeit with less sheer amplitude than with the SP-14. Soundstaging was widened and deepened further, while images became less "rounded" (if you like that sort of effect) or less "bloated" (if you don't) and more realistic in proportion, with more open space between them.

Once again, had I stopped reviewing at this point, I would have praised every aspect of the Alón sound except for a slightly honky quality in the midrange, a veiled or hooded coloration that showed up primarily on piano and other solo recordings but was never entirely absent, especially on LPs. Guess what: the honk disappeared entirely when I (1) disabled the viscous damping on my ET arm (the cartridge I was using, an A-T ML170, evidently prefers not to be damped), and (2) removed the speakers' grilles (I had been making notes with the grilles both on and off, and it took a while to pin the coloration on the grilles). The honk flew North with the geese of Spring. If you should detect it or any other significant coloration in the (nude) Alón IVs, look to your amps, cables, and signal sources for a cure. Of course, like most speakers, the Alón improves- gets smoother and deeper- with age, so allow a couple of weeks for break-in.

To be sure that my appreciation for the Alóns wasn't idiosyncratic, I invited two major label record producers who created several items on HP's Super Disc list to hear their own recordings on the Alón IV in my system. Their reactions were as revealing as the speakers. The first producer kept repeating the word "clear" and paid special attention to the even spread of sound from corner to corner. The second producer remarked that he was hearing certain brass chords and other musical effects in his LPs for the first time since the recording sessions. He claimed that the system allowed him both to appreciate his best recordings more than ever before and also to hear more dearly the sonic deficiencies in his less successful ones. He remarked, "These speakers sound less like speakers than any others I've heard. They let you ignore them and just hear the music." A third visitor called them "Avalons with balls." I guess I'm not alone in appreciating the Alón. Incidentally (perhaps), I've noticed that the Alón makes laserdisc audio, including speech and synthesizer, smoother, gentler, and rounder than anything else I've heard- a good video speaker for those with the space. Try (you should anyway) the new DG laser album of Bernstein's Candide in the 1989 "final version" recorded in London [072523-1]. To accompany the beautiful live concert video, the Alóns will give you unusually suave yet spectacular orchestral and vocal sound, with a big bass drum and macho brasses.

The Alóns are certainly exciting to hear. But I fear they may not stand out in many dealers' showrooms. They are too honest and musical to compete in a quick, casual hearing under retail conditions with the quirkier megaton-bass or 24-karat-treble speakers. If you audition them, remember their chameleon character and insure that adequate electronics and cables are being used and that the speakers are situated favorably. And bring your own recordings.

The common High End wisdom has it that the ideal speaker would have no sound at all. The better the speaker, the more faithfully it transmits the signal it is fed and the less it imparts any color or character of its own. I wonder whether we really want such a speaker. Listening to High End systems, I would surmise that a perfect, truly colorless loudspeaker is the last thing many audiophiles would take to. Some listeners like ultra-potent bass, others surreal detail, others holographically rounded images of a sort never experienced live- and they are content to describe these exaggerations as "natural" and "realistic." The Alón IV, I am forced to conclude, is as close to that ideal of utter neutrality as any speaker I've heard, though of course there are some spectacular things that Ascents and Belas and the like can do with nuance and atmosphere that the Alón IV can't duplicate at its relatively modest price.

Groping for complaints, I come up with binding posts that are not ideal. The terminals are gold-plated and hefty, but each pair of nuts is vertically spaced a bit too closely (standard banana plug distance) for my fingers to get around them, and they don't accept a socket wrench. In addition, the inner face of each nut, the face that compresses the lug, is narrow and does not mate well with lugs that have narrow or thin ears, which tend to twist as you try to tighten the nut. You may want to use gold-plated lock washers.

The Alón successfully challenges planar designs in its midrange purity, bass definition, and overall crispness and will undoubtedly succeed in its goal of attracting planar adherents who seek bass response planars only dream about. It joins the CLS and the VTL 225 and ARC Classic 60 amps in the small company of components I can listen to without regret after a live concert. The best electrostatics, such as Quads and Martin-Logan CLS IIs, can offer an experience of musical immediacy in the midrange that even the Alón IV and its much more expensive cone/dome superiors cannot quite match. But, unlike so many speakers, the Alóns do not achieve their virtues in a careless or new-kid-on-the-block way, emphasizing several breakthrough sonic virtues at the price of annoying flaws. Every speaker represents a compromise, but Carl Marchisotto has bargained shrewdly with Mother Nature: His Alón IV trades away little to create a sound unequaled at anywhere near its price, or well beyond.
Logged
Thomas W. Bethel
Managing Director
Acoustik Musik, Ltd.
http://www.acoustikmusik.com/

Doing what you love is freedom.
Loving what you do is happiness.

Celebrating 23 years in business in 2018
Pages: [1]   Go Up