HP’s SUPER COMPONENT LIST – ISSUE 146
The Perils of Reviewing (or) Into the Gray Zone with HP
The Coincident Technologies Total Victory Speaker System
There is an unexplored world in audio criticism. This
world is the one of the serious analysis of neglected
speaker systems. I'm talking about the designs emanating
from the "gray zone", that broad band between
the really terrific small speakers and those biggies
aspiring to be "statements" of one sort or
These are the systems whose price falls between the
cracks, being neither fish (great buys) nor fowl (those
aspiring to fly like the real thing and at ozone layer
prices). To be fair, I probably should say the gray
zone is mostly unexplored by the more thoughtful or
ambitious reviewers who are, almost to the man, mostly
jockeying to review the latest and greatest things.
And so, at the outset, I wanted you to know this is
not going to be a conventional review. As I probed more
deeply into the speakers performance, I came to a point
where I felt a rabbit hole had unexpectedly opened up
under my feet and that there were all sorts of directions
I might pursue to understand not just the speaker, but
its interactions with the rest of the system. You will
find these nuggets of doubt embedded in the text, and
I will go further prospecting during the next year.
I want you with me as I take an up-close look at a $11,500/pair
set of Canadian speakers, the Coincident Speaker Technologies'
Total Victorys, whose designer's ambition to create
a great multi-way system pushes the envelope, though
bumping seriously up against the constraints of price.
So why these speakers from Coincident Technology?
I was intrigued by the fact of their high sensitivity
(rated at 97db, one watt, one meter). I thought I might
get myself a chance to audition some of the highly-touted
low-powered tubed amplifiers we had on hand; and hear
them from a design said to be refreshingly free of coloration,
something of a rarity among high-sensitivity speakers.
Even these attributes didn't make the speakers a matter
of high priority, until Chance entered the picture.
And it came with our need to establish an initial multi-channel
music system to evaluate high-definition digital in
the form of SACD and DVD-A. The conglomerate system
we'd thrown together for the home-theater system (in
room 1) just wasn't creating a convincing soundfield,
so we put the Total Victorys in first as the main left
and right speakers, which confirmed our not-so-dark
suspicion that multi-channel sound, to be heard aright,
would require - if not five identical speakers for the
main channels - then five speakers of similar manufacture
and sound. To this end, we used three smaller Coincident
Technology speakers (impressively solid two-way systems
called the Total Eclipses) for the center and the two
rears. (We used an array of four Alon Thunderbolt subs
for the .1 channel, one at each corner of the room).
The resulting sound was mightily impressive. Just how
impressive, of course, I couldn't know at first, since
I had no baseline experiences to use as a sounding board.
The dynamic range, with Ed Meitner's electronics (the
DAC-6 SACD decoder) and his modification of a Phillips
1000 player, was, on SACD, little short of breathtaking,
showing me, definitively, that conventional 16/44 digital
simply could not reproduce either the dynamic contrasts
or width of dynamics of the real thing, or, for that
matter, of the best analog (setting aside the question
of low-bass loudness). The midbass articulation struck
both me, and visiting luminaries, as something special.
Percussive transients had the freedom and ability to
float over an orchestral texture that one always encounters
in real, unamplified music, though I was a little surprised
at the relative absence of depth-of-field from the front
stage, since I anticipated a realistic sense of three-dimensional
depth would be a slam-dunk for multichannel.
Let no one tell you that reviewing a multichannel system
is anything like reviewing a two-channel stereo speaker
setup. They just are not the same experiences and it's
almost impossible to deduce from the two-channel experience
how the same speakers will perform when the channels
I discovered that the more speakers you add to a soundstage,
the more forgiving that system will be of shortcomings
and colorations in the speakers themselves. Which worked
brilliantly and to the advantage of the Coincidents.
You'd think I should have known this, given my experiences
with multi-driver arrays in ordinary stereo setups,
but, nevertheless, my reaction has been one of consternation.
How exactly, I now ask myself, are you going to be able
to reliably and critically review a multi-channel-read
non-surround, non-home-theater-system for the playback
of music? What I wouldn't have anticipated was that
a set of highly musical speakers set up for surround
never came alive. But such was the case with an Alon
Lotus-Elite based-system I thought extraordinary in
regular stereo. And, if it's another irony you'd like:
The Magnepan surrounds, from which I expected an Alon-like
disappointment, came to life with a transparency and
excitement that were not just revelatory, but taught
me a thing or two about multichannel and dipolar dispersion.
It's both wise, and conservative, to keep in mind that
we are not yet playing with a full deck when it comes
to multichannel sound reproduction. SACD encoding and
decoding will continue improve (as no doubt will DVD-A
as well). Ed Meitner, for one, is staking his professional
reputation on the SACD. And those improvements will,
no doubt, take place in the top octaves. Further, I
think it's safe to say we as reviewers, are still on
a steep learning curve with the multichannel experience
and it's extremely difficult to separate, in discriminating
fashion, the impact of it's broadly reproduced soundfield
from frequency and dynamic shortcomings. Remember, the
more speakers, the more forgiving of their individual
Coincident's resident designer, Israel Blume, importuned
me to consider the Victorys as two-channel reproducers
once I had discussed their performance in the original
essay on SACD (see Issue 141), and in Issue 143 as a
Super Component. Scot Markwell set the speakers up in
Music Room 2, with the Antique Sound Labs AQ1009 845
DT amplifier, a push-pull triode design good for 60
watts each. And truth to tell, the speakers sounded
sweeter and more extended on top than they had, even
with the tube amps driving them in the multichannel
system. More electrostatic-like, if you will. On a quick
listen, just gorgeous. So, what the hell thought I,
maybe I've been in a rut, let's give them a shot.
At this point, we should discuss the Total Victory as
a speaker. Its tech specs are essential to understanding
what will come next. Its impedance is 10 ohms, on the
high side for some amps (not the so-called SETs though).
The specs say the speaker can be driven with as few
as 3 watts, and can comfortably handle powers all the
way up to 300 watts. (This is true, by the way.) It's
a heavyweight at 200 pounds per speaker, and its dimensions
are a bit awkward, nearly two feet deep, nine inches
across, and just a few inches short of five feet in
Within its highly-reinforced enclosure are nine drivers,
each in a separate sub-cabinet, with its four 8-inch
woofers firing to the side (out or in, your choice by
placement) and the other five drivers forward facing.
These include an "isodynamic" planar quasi-ribbon
(Kapron film based) tweeter (operating above 3kHz),
two 3-inch (fabric) dome midranges (1 to 3kHz), arranged
in D'Appolito fashion (and perhaps set too close together),
and two Seas 6.5-inch midbass units (that roll off,
acoustically, at 81Hz), and four Scanspeak woofers,
operating below 100Hz, and tunes to a port at 81Hz.
All of the speakers in the system are housed in their
own sub-enclosures. The crossovers are all first order.
It's evident, from our discussions and correspondences
with the designer, that every element in the system
was subjected to intensive analysis, but I neither have
the space nor inclination to go into such deep detail
herein, though you could, if interested, contact him
at [email protected]
Example: Blume says,
"I firmly believe that everything, no matter how
small or seemingly insignificant, makes a sonic difference"
and cites the fact that Coincident makes its own binding
posts of 5N copper-solid .25" posts, mounted on
.25" high-density acrylic. Need I say, once again,
that he was one of the earliest readers of this magazine
before he got into the business himself? Everything
sounds is a mantra he knows by heart.
At the outset, I decided to keep most of the elements
in the two-channel system constant, with the exception
of the basic amplifiers themselves.
I don't believe you can test any speaker system with
a single amplifier. Since I had reason to believe this
particular system was capable of high and exacting resolution
through most of its range I decided to evaluate the
pair using four special, but unlike, amplifiers: The
Conrad-Johnson Premier 140's (strapped for monoblock
operation and capable of a mono output of 280 watts
per side); the new VAC Standard 220 monoblocks, the
Antique Sound Labs 845 push-pull triodes, and finally,
the one solid-state unit, a sweet sounding thing, the
For LP playback, I used the VPI TNT-HRX table and JMW
Memorial 12.5-inch arm and Lyra/Scantech Titan moving-coil
cartridge. The phonostage was that of the new Burmeister
011 full preamplifier. Some of the music: the Classic
45-rpm disc of "Un Bal" from the Berlioz'
Symphonie Fantastique (Munch, Boston), the new Classic
transfer of Songs of the Auvergne (Davrath), the "Sandman"
cut from America, the Classic 45-rpm disc of Tchaikovksy's
Nutcracker (Suite) from The Royal Ballet (Ansermet).
For digital playback, I used the MSB (Revised) Platinum
CD player, using both its own high-output passive attenuator
(instead of a linestage) and, for contrariness' sake,
the Emotive Audio tubed linestage (also part of the
LP playback chain). Some, but not all, of the CDs in
play: The Thin Red Line (soundtrack, cuts 3, 6 and 7);
Shchederin/Bizet Carmen (Suite), Fiedler, Boston; parts
of Puccini's Tosca (the EMI version with Pappano conducting);
Baroque Beatles (in particular cut 15, "Lucy in
the Sky with Diamonds"); Hanson The Composer and
his Orchestra (Mercury).
I wanted the widest range of equipment and the widest
range of recorded material to push the speakers to their
limits. (For reasons that will all too soon become apparent,
I haven't mentioned the interconnects.)
A couple of short thoughts: I didn't find setup very
difficult. I used the Pearson Rule of Thirds to establish
the proximate positions and with only minor adjustments,
stuck with these positions. Almost all of the adjustments
were made to toe the speakers in toward my listening
position (at the head of an equilateral triangle). The
Victory's are all bevel-edged, so that there will be
no cabinet diffractions (another though to which we
shall return shortly). I was surprised by how much they
had to be toed-in order to achieve the correct centerfield
of sound, as well as width to the right and left of
their outside edges. I found that I wound up using the
speakers configured much as they had been in the Room
1 multichannel setup. Markwell and I experimented with
the woofers, and decided the most realistic bass was
achieved with the woofers toward the walls of the room.
At the outset - and I want you to keep this in mind
- whatever shortcomings I found, the Victorys were never
less than spectacularly impressive and capable of virtually
all the fidelity you could ask for.
The Coincident speakers revealed the individual "character"
of each amplifier I used. They did not, as you may have
already surmised, sound much alike. Briefly: The Premiers
were the most music-like of the bunch, but "soft"
at the very top, just like, as I would learn, the speaker
itself. The VACs weren't happy in this setup and that
finding would be one of the things that prompted our
deeper look later. The 845's were just gorgeous, especially
in the lower and middle highs, though colored like an
electrostatic in the midrange, and quite ripe below
that point. The Plinius didn't sound much like transistors
at all, or, for that matter, like earlier Plinius designs
in the highs.
Certain things about the Victorys were, after quite
a few hours, apparent. Its mid-bass is superb, and just
possibly as good as I've heard from any multi-driver
system. There is a palpability and authentic richness
to lower string and percussion sounds that startled
me. Low-frequency ambient air lent a real sense of the
hall. As Blume suggested in a letter to me, he made
some sacrifices with the bottom octave (where there
mostly isn't a plethora of information) to get the foundation
of the orchestra just right. You won't notice a bottom
octave shortcoming when the music is rolling along at
something less than a double or triple forte. But, let
things get loud and a bit sticky, and the fundamentals
below about 40Hz become soft ans somewhat "plumy"
with the transient impact of say, a big bass drum, somewhat
dulled. (An aside: But not with the new Siltech cables;
more about this to come.) I'd say this is no big deal,
but you might think otherwise. When, for instance, the
two bass drums (cut 6, Thin Red Line) are slammed; you
couldn't ask for more, er, "slam", but then
there's not much else going on; but earlier on (cut
3), in a more fully scored passage, that same drum is
more of a feeling than a specific note.
Just above 3kHz, somewhat above the frequency where
the planar unit cuts in, the sound extends upwards,
with great sweetness, inner detailing, and a goodly
amount of air. But the tweeter starts to roll just above
12kHz, and so you may find that last little frisson
of "thereness", made manifest in delicate
sustained overtones from struck percussion, a bit shy.
Not, as in the case of the ultra-bottom, any big deal
if it's the essential truth you want, and that is what
the Victorys do give. This simply is no big deal in
most home systems, nor would you expect much way up
yonder from a speaker in its price range.
That said, one of the most troubling things about the
Victorys, as far as this man is concerned, is some sort
of perturbation in the crossover region between the
midrange drivers and the planar units. At normal listening
levels, with material that doesn't really push the system,
what you'll hear is a sexy, silky sheen, not unlike
that of the first-generation Magnepan ribbons. This
plateau or whatever-it-is certainly makes virtually
all of the details encoded in a disc or CD plain to
hear and suggests that these speakers would make a fine
"monitor" or reference in a recording studio.
And I wonder if this "plateau" is what foreshortens
the field of depth, a phenomenon I first attributed
to a failing of present-day SACD. Listening at some
length, one becomes aware that there isn't much layered
depth in evidence here. Which there would be if something
weren't missing or greatly reduced in the critical 3-to-8kHz
range, where much of the ambient air, echo, and reflection
information originates. The reason I think this might
be so os because the field of depth shrinks even further
when big orchestral fortissimi come along, aggravating
what sounds like a resonance to me. My educated guess
is that the solitary ribbon tweeter is running into
trouble at the bottom of its range and near its crossover
What's been left unsaid here is the fact that the Victorys
are free of the sort of "character" that makes
a mockery of so many full-range speaker systems. It
is neither "dark" nor brightly white (as in
yang land), nor thin, nor too, too richly textured.
This is not to say it can't sound that way with an unhappy
amplifier match. But what it can do, and of this I am
sure, is reproduce the basic character of an amplifier
with a vanishingly low coloration of its own.
So what's the "but"?
Well, I have two reservations about the speaker that
I am certain are inherent to its "sound".
Remember the perturbation in the lower highs (centered,
we'd guess, around 3kHz, but, I'd guess, extending above
that point)? Well, when the speaker system is pushed,
it becomes congested in this range. The soundfield collapses.
The sound is similar to amplifier clipping, which at
first I thought it might be. But it was a congestion
(a collapsing of the open-airiness in that region and
scrunching together of the instrumental overtones) that
I heard on all the amplifiers, and certainly neither
the Plinius nor the Connie J. could have been driven
At first I wondered if I had been spoiled by the elaborate
multi-driver arrays of the big systems I'd been using
as a reference. The Victorys do not sound comfortable
or effortless when pushed really hard. I wondered if
a person unfamiliar with the ease of a big system might
even notice the Victorys forwardness above the upper
There was one more small, but forgivably narrow in frequencies,
glitch. In the 80 to 120Hz region the speaker exhibited
an audible peak in output, which could give a second
harmonic goosing to the bass (not dissimilar from what
we used to find on the BBC Rogers LS3/5As). This can
sound most captivating, but it does and will add a bit
of one-note sloppiness to the upper partials of the
string bass and other instruments, certain drums, in
this range. I could live with this.
With, for example, the 845 amplifiers, and their already
extra-rich texture down there, the effect became noticeably
pronounced, with some curious side effects, such as
a psychoacoustic effect, that of a slightly recessive
midrange, which gave the Victorys an electrostatic-like
coloration (not at all unattractive). This, plus the
very sweetness and highly attractive detailing of the
upper partials this combination produced, could drive
one into a sugar-overload of the sort that is most appealing
in the absence of real music, and easily mistaken for
a good orchestra in one of the worlds best halls.
Another of the many surprises (for me) in this venture
came with the Plinius SB-300, which is, in terms of
its top octave, far beyond that firm's earliest designs.
On the Victorys, the Plinius had a couple of top octaves
(up to circa 12kHz) that were the sonic twins of the
Antique Sound Labs 845. And whoever heard of a solid-state
amp with a triode-like authenticity at the top? In this
case, of course, the midbass was most excellent (though
not as authentically realistic as that of the Premiere).
Near the tail end of the sessions, I thought it would
be instructive to change fromt the Nordost Valhalla
interconnects and speaker cables to the new Siltech
Generation 6 top-of-the-line models, which are priced
even higher than the Valhallas (taken together the cost
might buy you a bungalow in Big-Sur).
I tried both sets of connectors with the Conrad-Johnson
Premier and the Plinius. I didn"t expect them to
sound alike, and, indeed, they did not. What fascinated
me was the fact that the sound of the Valhallas and
the Siltechs, the tonal character, audibly changed from
amp to amp and that in a way that I could not attribute
to the speakers essential sonic signatures. To the credit
of the speakers, such distinctions were readily obvious.
It is one of those mysteries that intrigued me.
I respect Blume's achievement here. And I would use
the Victorys and the Eclipses, happily and in a flash,
in a multichannel system. They are knockouts in that
context. In the world of two-channel sound, the Victorys
would best be used as studio monitors (and ought to
be, instead of the junk you mostly now find at recording
sessions), since there is little they do not reveal.
But in this two-channel context, and for long term listening,
I'll withhold final judgment until that upper midrange/lower
treble problem is solved.