22 January, 2013

Home Visit: Tannoy Westminster Royal SE, Part II

Corian sandwiched between preamplifier and wood slab. What a difference it made!
Home Visit: Tannoy Westminster Royal SE, Part II
Overview: Tannoy (Prestige Series) Westminster Canterbury, Part II
Talk Tweak - Equipment Support

Please scroll down to read Part I, which describes the visit. This Part II analyses my findings and poses questions.

An Examination Into the Place of Tweaking in a Tannoy System
I say this because a Tannoy system does NOT usually need much tweaking to perform well, but then there are exceptions. More on this later.

In Part I, we discovered that in the current case a simple alteration of the platform upon which the preamplifier was placed transformed the sound. I wrote that up with hesitation. I don't want to be seen as an audio diagnostician/magician, and I definitely am not a tweaking type and don't encourage constant tinkering nor exaggeration of the benefits of tweaking. But the experience was too worthwhile not to write-up.

False Assumptions I would not have done so if what I heard at first did not perplex me a little, given my familiarity with modern (and vintage) Tannoy's. Some other people (who perhaps are not that familiar with Tannoy) who have heard the same Westminsters before my visit attributed the curious restraint to the drivers being not broken in, but I just knew there were likely other factors at play. So I looked and luck was on my side that the first and only move improved things so much. Many times you tried various things and get little in return. When something is not quite right, it's important to look into everything and not assume too much.

History repeats Itself One of the reasons I looked at the support was our previous experience with another pair of Canterbury SE (lengthily treated in this article, with a follow-up here). In that case, removal of amplifier racks and not using the spikes under the Canterbury SE brought massive benefits, so it was natural I was looking at similar things here. Since the host was reluctant to dispense with the spikes under his Westminster SE and, since the two of us might not have been up to the task with the behemoths anyway, we dropped the idea.

Overcome Laziness and Know What is Wrong The important thing is to know the character of what you have, and to know what the sound lacks. Too many people force their equipment to do what they don't do well; even more people do not seem to know in what respects the sound is deficient. Also, we tend to be lazy and forgiving with our own system (even in some case when it has drifted far from norm) but more critical when listening to other people's system. Therefore, it helps to have critical friends to listen together.

Reminder:Nothing trains the ear more than listening to real (live and recorded) music. Stop playing only your audiophile tracks!

A concrete example that simple may be best!
Encouraging and Simple Observation Over two decades of home visits in HK has taught me many things, the most important ones being not what to do, but what to not do. One example of the latter relevant for this article is: Equipment casually disposed more often than not sound better than highly tweaked equipment, often placed on ridiculously expensive racks and platforms (think Finite Element, TAOC, Symposium, the list goes on). The former's deficiencies are usually only sins of omission, and that is far preferable to the latter's problems, which range from cloying or irritating artificiality to deadly skewed tonal balance and dynamics.

This observation holds true of the many big Tannoy systems I have heard: the best did not, does not and will never need much tweaking, and were bereft of expensive racks and cones and what have you. For something recent, think of our friend Karma's Canterbury, brand new but quite listenable from day one (albeit after some de-tweaking; covered here). An even better example was our friend Mr Tang's humble setup of Tannoy Edinburgh (covered here). OK, the article is in Chinese, but just look at the pic, cheap CD player into cheap tube amp, all placed on regular furniture. I'd say my own Canterbury HE system belongs to this camp (I do use reasonable racks, like Solidsteel and Target, for my front ends).

As a corollary, in my experience more "sophisticated" Tannoy systems often need much more attention. Ironically, usually more de-tweaking than tweaking, requiring the owner to unlearn whatever he has learned in seeking improvements for his previous (and usually less worthwhile) loudspeaker systems. And believe me, unlearning is usually harder than learning!

Tannoy Westminster (and Canterbury) - Pointers and Lingering Questions
I don't own the Westminster but have listened to a few in depth. I can also confidently say I also have more experience and encounters with the Canterbury (which uses the same driver in a more conventional design) in its many guises than anyone I could find on the internet. IMHO, if you have one of these, here are points you may want to think about:

Run-In Time Unfortunately, long. The hard edge of the HE and SE versions take a long time to run-in, but it is worthwhile as the resultant sound is definitely superior to their foam surround counterparts (slower bass that is also less clean).

Initial Sound Depending on the equipment one has on hand, the sound could be just a little tight if you're lucky to downright dull if you're not. In case of the latter, increasing the treble energy helps to tie you over, but with time normalcy is likely restored. Incidentally, no one says the level and energy settings have to be at "zero", though a properly set up and run-in setting should only have small adjustments! No matter the tonal balance, the sound should have some presence and life to it, even initially, or else something is astray elsewhere. I suspect the Westminster SE due to its design has a duller initial sound than the Canterbury SE.

Placement Canterbury In case of the Canterbury, placement far into the room is definitely feasible, even desirable. In my own setup, the in-room placement results in the deepest soundstage among the Canterbury's I have heard, at no expense of presence. Depending on proximity to the sidewalls, the vents could be opened or closed (the former is usually better). Westminster Placement of the Westminster is an enigma: if you ask me, its rear-loaded horn design should make use of room corners, but I have not seen anyone done so, yet. If you read Jeff Day, you shall see he simply has them close to the front wall, but not to the corners, and he simply ignored the issue of placement in his review. For why this bothers me, see Bass Quality below.

Bass Quality Inch for inch, and bar none I have heard, Tannoy gives you deeper bass. Not the midbass of JBL and TAD, but bass that plumbs the depth like the best of them. Canterbury The deep bass of my Canterbury HE is clean, easily heard and of good speed. One thing that bothers me is that none of the Canterbury SE's I have heard so far goes as deep as my HE, easily missing the bottom 10 Hz (for this great story, read my previous coverage). Why is that so? I don't know! I hope it is because the drivers take time to yield those last few Hz's, and not because something of the design of the SE makes them less easily heard! Mind you, I am a great skeptic of revisions and boutique components. Westminster While the Westminster has more bass heft than the Canterbury, the deep bass is necessarily just a little slower due to the folded horn. What truly puzzles me is that I don't hear them go any deeper than my Canterbury. I suspect proper coupling with room corners will get even better bass out of them, but no one seems to have tried. If you have the opportunity (and the manpower), perhaps try it and tell me the result!

Power Needed There are many ways to go, and here are my views: 1) I believe for personal listening there is nothing better than DHT SET amps. I kinda agree with Jeff Day that anything under 5 wpc is cutting it close (look at his space), but in HK, where space comes at a premium, less power is needed, and I even do well with a well-made 45 amp. 2) I also believe usually the lower output triodes sound better than ones with higher output; that is 45, 2A3, 300B etc have more finesse than 811A, 805A etc. The important thing is, see what you can get away with. An example is that I prefer the Wavac MD-300B to the MD-805 (experience here). 3) Should you need more power a low to medium powered push-pull amplifier is likely a more cost-effective solution than an expensive high-powered SET amp (like Wavac 805, 833, Air Tight 211 or Kondo). A great example is the sterling performance delivered by my humble Fisher X-101-C integrated amp (reported here). Believe me, the 25 watts will rock your boat, and sink your friends' too (and destroy their audio self-esteem)!

Reminder: With low powered SET amp, it is imperative to have a good preamplifier of good control (vintage preamps need not apply).

Speaker Cables Thin, preferably soft professional cables of simple construction will do much better than heavyweights. Belden 9497 and 8471 (covered here), as well as many Gotham cables, are good choices. I remain skeptical of bi-wiring in speakers of such high efficiency.

Spikes The SE versions of the Westminster and Canterbury come with spikes underneath. I advise you NOT to use them. These speakers are heavy enough not to need them. As a matter of fact, I suspect they are responsible for reining in the deep bass (see History Repeats Itself section above).

Sidetrack: A Quick Re-Visit to my Tannoy Canterbury
Last Saturday I had the rare chance to listen for a while to my Canterbury, which hardly gets played these days. Driven by Western Electric 133A, they delivered again a meticulously detailed, subtle and positively energizing performance. How lucky I am to have spent so much time with them!

Westminster vs Canterbury Now, the million dollar question! Which is more suitable for you? Now, be careful, this is not asking which is better! At considerable risk, here are my opinions: 1) You need a big space for the Westminster to breathe. Most HK spaces are likely not optimal, which is not to say they cannot sound good; 2) The bass quality of Westminster, while impressive, needs more care, and efforts at placement are certainly needed; 3) I reckon the Canterbury gets more easy results in a HK space.

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