HP’s SUPER COMPONENT LIST – ISSUE 146

HP's Workshop
The Perils of Reviewing (or) Into the Gray Zone with HP
The Coincident Technologies Total Victory Speaker System

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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 the other.

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 are multiplied.

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 limitations.

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 height.

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 Plinius SB-300.

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 point.

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 into clipping.

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 midrange.

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.

Review gratefully used by permission.
The Absolute Sound

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