21 January, 2013

Home Visit: Tannoy Westminster Royal SE, Part I

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Home Visit: Tannoy Westminster Royal SE, Part I

For a brief review of Tannoy background pertinent to this article, please scroll down and read my last post.

A Stolen Moment
I have preciously little time these days for home visits, yet I felt obliged when my old friend 風鳴~康格爾 called me up and told me he had a rare day off. The reason I felt so is apparent from the photo: as a Tannoy man, how could I not grab at the opportunity to hear (and tinker with) the mighty Westminster, elder brother of my Canterbury?

The somewhat reclusive 風鳴 is foremost a bookworm, then a music lover. Although we have known each other for years, and he had once come to listen to my Canterbury, I have never had the chance to visit him. And what a cozy place have I missed!

Just to let you have an idea about his odyssey, the last incarnation of his system was FM Acoustics driving Magnepan 3.6. Talking about a different direction! Almost everything has changed. His system now has mostly components that have been covered in detail in this Blog:

CDP: Audio Research CD8 (old stock 6550)
Preamp: EAR 912 (remote version; stock tubes)(review of my own unit here)
Amp: Wavac MD-805  monoblocks (old stock tubes)(auditions here and here)
Loudspeakers: Tannoy Westminster Royal SE (bi-wired with Gotham 50040)

The room is a rectangular room of good proportion. The Westminster's sat where they are aesthetically pleasing, as sort of "wardrobe" room-dividers, a bit shy of a third of the way from the front-wall. The distance between the driver pairs is less than 10 ft, and the long isosceles triangle that is formed with the listening seat is surely not quite ideal. But then one must be practical.

I was not expecting much when we started listening after a good cup of double espresso. After all, the units are brand-new and nowhere near broken-in.

Round 1 - Tannoy chained
Even then I was not quite prepared for the overly restrained sound I heard. In addition, after listening to Fischer-Dieskau's (? last) remake of the Winterreise, I also became aware of a possible suck-out in midrange. FD's voice is for me instantly recognizable, but not quite on this occasion. I was cautious since I have never heard this recording before, and I certainly knew FD by this late period had lost quite a bit of bloom in his voice, so it might not have been entirely due to the playback.

The situation did not improve with successive albums. The Poco Adagio of Saint Saens' Organ Symphony failed to transport me. A Japanese performance (unknown previously to me) of Mahler's 5th fared worse, indeed thoroughly disspiriting. We tinkered with the treble settings but somehow the Tannoy midrange magic was missing.

The Essential Saint-SaënsRound 2 - Tannoy unchained

A bit desperate, I began to look at the way the equipment were supported. Unusually for HK, the floor was carpeted. The Wavac monoblocks were sitting on acrylic slabs which in turn rest on some kind of cones/point supports. As I believe heavy amps should sit directly on the floor, I naturally frowned upon this. But the bottom of the tube amps do need ventilation and could not have been placed directly upon carpets, and the host did not want the acrylic slabs to deeply mark his carpet. For the moment, I had to turn my attention to elsewhere.

I then noticed the preamp sat upon a thick slab of wood, of high density according to the host. As I am not usually overtly fond of heavy wood slabs under the front end, I noticed an unused slab of corian sitting across the room.

We slipped it between the preamp and the woodblock. Bingo! I kid you not, everything became much more alive! The episodes of Pictures at an Exhibition now almost leapt out of the cabinets, and FD started to resemble his old self, regaining some flesh in his voice (though still not much). No, even the excavated energy could not save the Japanese Mahler, which remained a prosaic performance (and a mediocre recording). But then, a switch to Solti's glorious CSO Mahler 5th instantly told us what the piece is all about! Now too, Saint Saens' slow movement started to reveal its stunning beauty.

The system now had reasonable tonal balance and dynamics. Most importantly, there is a sense of presence, something truthful, that a good set of horns do so well at. I now genuinely look forward to more auditions in the future. Indeed, I suspect this pair of Westminster may eventually turn out to be the best of the ones I auditioned.

Superior Digital Source Aside from commenting on the Tannoy, I must pay tribute to the fine digital source, in this case the Audio Research CD8. What I noticed was that I could sense and visualize the touch (and body language) of the keyboardist: how hard he attacks a note, or how soft he treats one. This is a rare quality in a digital source (of course the loudspeaker has to be up to it) (for additional description, read the Naim section of this old article). Even in Round 1, I sensed great purity and texture in the treble, again rare in a digital source. Again, it cannot be stressed enough that the front-end is of great importance. Our experience here showcased the importance of both the source and the preamp (and what they rest upon). The power amp is by far of the least importance.

Highly Revealing What is apparent too is that the Tannoy unit is extraordinarily revealing. For me, I have to qualify this. When I say "revealing" I mean the capability to reveal details in every area, be it harmonic composition, hall sound or ambience. Too often, modern speakers reveal only facets of truth but not the whole fabric. Tannoy does that in spades; it instantly tells you something is missing or not. Tannoy facilitates listening with one's heart. And if you do not understand this, I suggest you read less audio magazines; instead read Antoine Saint Exupery's The Little Prince, one of my favorite books!

The system is at its early stage of tuning. I am sure a lot more could be done in equipment support and isolation. When I say this, I mean to keep it simple. In audio, we can compromise the sound by using shoddy ancillary equipment, BUT this pales next to the damage brought forth by employing heavy (and expensive) doses of anything, be it stone or wood slabs or power conditioning, for tweaking and correction. I shall deal with that in the next article, Part II. 

pic shows Pu-Er Tea

Perhaps good audio should be like good Pu-Er tea, flavorful but of mild temperament, good for one's well-being and long-term companionship. There are many varieties that offer more instant excitement, but not as good for you. Moderation.

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