Further Notes: Fall 2009
Disclaimer: If you don’t believe hybrids can work, don’t read further. If you believe Quad or Maggie or whatever looks flat rules, read no further. If you want to fight over what planars are best, get away! For those a little more objective, or less stubborn, a star is born.
A Tale of Two Drivers: An old colleague had a large hybrid ML which, because of wife factor, he placed close to the front wall, and that was a no-no. He bi-amped with Jadis Defy 7 and an Aragon. No, I’d never do that if that’s what it takes. However, even then, I heard many good things, and have kept an eye on this company. It seemed to me their products have steadily gotten better and better. Back some years ago, you could have heard quite a bit of ML hybrids in show conditions, but not any more, as ML, like other stats, is really a minority taste in HK. I remember a smaller ML floor-stander in a hotel room having one of the best sounds in the show, better integration than a lot of the Wilson’s, Dynaudio’s and quite a few of those horrid German speakers in the same show. However, labels are difficult to shake off, and “coherence” has always been an albatross on the neck of ML.
My discovery of this pair was due to Jonathan Valin’s review in the March issue of TAS. Now, I am rather neutral towards JV the writer, unlike a few others of TAS (like Steven Stone, who should just stick to desktops). What caught my eyes in this review were:
- Small footprint and rather nice styling.
- High sensitivity; 90 db.
- JV’s claim that the ML is the most coherent hybrid he has ever heard, with almost no discontinuity he can discern. That’s a tall statement, but from a man (and a magazine) who should know his planars and who used to own the ML CLS. He’s putting his reputation on the stake for this statement.
- Paper cone woofer (though you can’t tell by looking).
Searching for Godot: My friend E and I set out to find some place to hear this.
By chance I saw a like-new pair on the web for sale and, after some emails, landed a brand-new pair at substantial discount! My friend E was really surprised as ML, like B&W, doesn’t usually discount at all.
Great Expectations: Two huge boxes arrived like a pair of Trojan horses, much larger than the speakers themselves. Power supply is via a small wall-mart like box not much bigger than a deck of cards, which never even gets warm, visually less threatening than Quad. There is a rear-firing port, and the woofer is located less than 1 ft from the floor (sans spikes), things that I usually avoid in my speaker selection, except this time. The manual is very well written, advising distance between the speakers and the front and side walls. I have no problem with the front wall, but have problem with one side wall, closer than recommended.
For the run-in period (manual says 72 hrs for the woofers) I had the right speaker virtually against the side barrier. The left speaker’s woofer is very close to the couch but its port is well ventilated due to the presence of a nearby corridor in the rear. And so, while the left side poses no problem, bass on the right was suboptimal at first, not helped that the classical music I listen to usually have a lot more bass to the right. Adjusting the degree of the port helps quite a bit. Although absorption supposedly does not work at low frequencies, I thought a large piece of cloth helped (maybe just psychological?). Sound in the mid-range and treble was startling good from the start, not surprising as suspense is in the bass. These are nominal 5 ohm speakers, with lowest impedance of 1.6 ohm at 20k Hz. This did not trouble my NAD 325BEE, nor the Marantz 8B, and had no trouble driving the Source to good level.
The bass gradually cleared up, becoming more and more layered. I moved the right speaker one ft more into the room and the bass cleared up further. Note that I did not install the spikes for fear of scratching my wood floor. Even then, for my loud listening level I find them satisfyingly coherent. Nor did the higher-than-normal cross-over point (470 Hz) seem to color any instrument.
After experimenting with toe-in, one can get superior dispersion (for stats), and I can sit anywhere and things still remain in the center. No, none of that tiresome move-your-head-a-little-and-hear-only-one-speaker thing. The images are tall, just like the MMG. My friend E auditioned this with me from the start and he, like I, preferred the Source to the MMGs for its realism and bass performance, even if the lean bass of the MMG is more room-friendly. Here I have to emphasize that I think whatever little problem the bass may have is due rather to the port and non-ideal placement of my right speaker. I don’t find the bass slow at all, nor do I think there is anything incoherent anymore than I may (and do) find in many conventional ported designs, or even “true” ribbon Maggies (which JV thinks are less coherent than Quasi’s). If anything, the bass performance outshines that of many conventional speakers. It goes deep and is rhythmic and walking when it should be. Even the droning bass guitar of Wilco’s A Ghost is Born cannot faze the ML.
How does the Source sound? JV said it best: “In a word, terrific. This is one very quick, very high resolution, surprisingly robust, wideband, and coherent loudspeaker, capable of making select voices and instruments sound as you-are-there ‘real’ as some multi-thousand-dollar big boys…” Sound is not as warm as Quad, but certainly warmer than Maggies. The spec’s of 42-22k Hz +/- 3 db is definitely on target, and you can still hear bass a little lower than that. I know there are people out there who think of Maggies as the most live-like thing out there. That’s simply not true. Although the imaging of Maggie is uncanny, that does not necessarily equate real presence, and in that department, good as they are, Maggies lag behind good horns, Lowther, Apogee, and Quad. Now, add ML to the list. It simply has a presence that the MMG does not.
Now, with one month on them (mine is likely equivalent to the usual person’s half a year), not only has the bass snapped into focus, the treble has also become that little bit smoother. I think they have completely broken in, and I think I can give this report with confidence. These are very revealing, yet never fatiquing as even the “true ribbon” Maggies can sometimes be. It’s like a marriage of Quad and Maggie, with the tonal purity of the former and the dispersion of the latter. Though, the soundstage has good depth but less lateral spread than Maggie, I feel the first class presence makes music sounds more like a live event, in a real hall, and not artificial “soundstage”. As I listen to to Perahia’s Mozart K453 (Sony/LP), I can clearly visualize him moving the keys with varying touch, as well as the string players leaning forward and digging in and, yes, the oboe sounds so real I recall CP’s unique ESL 57 sound. Yes, I have packed away my MMG for the moment. And even the SF EA-II is gathering dust.
Epiphany: I have saved the biggest surprise for last. I was checking out for my friend E his pair of
Big orchestral works posed no problem too. People who know me know that I listen at concert hall level. The ML acquits itself splendidly: Wand’s Bruckner 6th (RCA) is energized and has gravitas; Solti’s Shostakovich 9th (Decca) is all quicksilver and tongue-in-cheek. And yes, no super-tweeters nor subwoofers needed. Better leave those at your voodoo master’s place. After this, I tried the Sun Audio 2A3 (~2 watts), which did fine though the 300B amp’s inherently leaner bass and greater power provides a somewhat better match.
The other day, my friend M arrived when I was listening with E. M said, “Sonus Faber playing? Nice vocals!” That should say it all about vocals.
My daily listening now is the Source as heard through the very humble AES SE-1 300B amp, hooked up with Belden 9497. Even though it may be hard to find this lowly ML demo’ed anywhere, try to check this out if:
- you’re a SET amp fancier (but the dealer would surely not use a SET amp).
- you’re an electrostatic or other planar fancier, but not yet locked into the “XXX is best and there is simply no other choice” camp.
Less is More: There’s an irony about the whole thing. Ever since I started listening to direct-heated triodes about 10 years ago in HK, all else have become secondary. I have always missed the sound of SET whenever I return to NY. This time I brought back my AES and planned on other SET amps to be used in my bedroom, as big efficient speakers are out of the question in the living room. The ML, with its small footprint, was bought to have a taste of electrostatics without attendant troubles. Little did I think these would prove SET-friendly. This shows the truth that there is always no harm trying, and once in a while you can be rewarded BIG. Now, SET is set (no pun intended) to be the main thing in my living room, though I have a suspicion they shall do very well at low level even in my bedroom. For me, that’s a bounty!
(See pic) The other day my friend E took his vintage RCA single-ended 6V6 receiver and it drove the ML Source beautifully, with no lack of power, though midrange was decidedly on the lean side. For fun I hooked up my pair of