WAJ on AUDIO - for truth in hifi / stereo / high-end audio




Introducing; 'The HEADPHONE-EFFECT' - a plague on the small driver.

By W.A.J.



From all appearances it is obvious that most audiophiles are happy with modern small-coned speaker-systems. And why shouldn't they be?

After all, they're conveniently sized, aesthetically pleasing and, most importantly, they're perfect for the multitudes of audiophiles who've been influenced by the mainstream magazines' propaganda spewed on behalf of their partnering manufacturers. Many audiophiles greatly appreciate the unrealistic levels of detail (in favored regions) and acute soundstaging these speakers excel at (the only things they excel at, in fact) as touted by the mags. Never you mind the overly sweet, thin-midranged, undynamic sonic features of such speaker-systems. To such audiophiles, it matters little that these modern small-coned speakers simply cannot realistically emulate the sound of real instruments - the essence of 'High-Fidelity'. Some even proudly proclaim the 'superiority' of this alien sound over that of live instruments - further indication of how much both sounds differ. (Let's not speculate on the level of intellect of those who'd make such a claim). To each, his own. And, with all due respect to the aficionados of those speakers and that type of sound, I view such speakers as outside the scope of 'High-Fidelity'.  'High-Analytics' would be a more apt description.

However, this piece, this site, is really addressed to the few who are actually interested in the lifelike and realistic reproduction of music - again; the essence of 'High-Fidelity'. If this is what you seek, then it's a waste of time and resources to focus on these modern small-coned speakers - trust me, I've been there. Later I'll try to show why

[I should explain that a part of this piece is a combination of segments from two previous articles. However, for facilitating ease of reference, I thought it best to combine the following points under this heading, in order to expand on them. If you've already  read my articles on 'Balance...' and 'High-Fidelity vs Tastes & Preferences...', then be advised. And let me be clear, at the outset: I do not advocate excess 'warmth' in systems - or excess anything, for that matter. I advocate realism. If real music displays more 'warmth' than most modern speaker-systems can properly reproduce, then so be it. This is what I advocate - absolutely nothing more, and absolutely nothing less.]

But first, allow me to highlight the fact that ancient speakers, from 40 to 70 years ago, routinely outperform modern small-coned speakers at the cutting-edge of the state of the art, TODAY. And, at the risk of wearing-out these links, once again; 
here's the proof and here, here, and here. 

So then, why is it that ancient relics, and modern replicas of ancient relics, routinely outperform the very best of modern conventional speakers? I could simply say that the relics excel at sonic realism, while modern small-coned speakers excel at hifi gimmickry - but I won't. For a more nuanced answer to that, I'll first refer you to a segment of one of the fore-mentioned articles: 

Basically, designers from the previous era did their sums right. They obeyed the laws of physics and came up with the most efficient means of reproducing sound in the most lifelike and realistic manner possible at the time (and still today). Importantly, they recognized the overwhelming importance of reproducing ALL of the midrange accurately. They also recognized the overwhelming importance of high-efficiency, and the role it plays in facilitating lifelike dynamics. These factors are absolutely critical to realistic reproduction - high fidelity.

Features of this basic concept included; large enclosures facilitating lifelike bass and lower-midrange tones, large and efficient mid-woofers facilitating bass and lower-midrange tones (again) and also dynamism. This is the basic template, as the laws of physics prescribe.

If we consider that there can never be more than one answer to any one mathematical problem, then we'll recognize that there can never be any alternative to that original template. Any such alternative (utilizing boxes and cones) will be severely compromised in several important areas.

And this is what we have today from modern speakers - severely compromised performance, in regards to dynamism, lower-midrange tonality & detail, and overall realism.

Lowered Fidelity for Profit: Ever since the late 1960s, modern designers have been fruitlessly trying to re-invent the wheel, so to speak, for the purposes of convenience, aesthetics, and profit.  But since there can never be two right answers to one mathematical problem, they'll always remain at a severe disadvantage at all the really important aspects of performance. (An oval wheel or anything other than geometrically-round, regardless of lavish adornments and hype, will always be less capable than the original mathematically-correct design. Such is the magnitude of their handicaps on the course they've chosen, for profit.

Yet they've long opted to conceal these handicaps with deceit, and brazenly promote their handicaps as assets, aided by highly-influential elements of the mainstream audio-press, of course).

Since many people were averse to accommodating large enclosures in their homes, modern designers found a way to extract bass from small boxes, leaving dynamism by the wayside. They also found that stereophonic imaging was enhanced with the use of small drivers in slender boxes, thereby also leaving the lower-midrange by the wayside. They now had the basics of a system which was of a more convenient size, facilitating more consumers. These systems were also cheaper to produce, facilitating a larger profit-margin.

But these systems can never compete with those conforming to the original concept of high-fidelity, and in accordance with the laws of physics. They lack some of the most important requirements for realism; dynamism and lower-midrange prowess. And this is the reason why ancient systems from the 1930s outperform them in realism today. A disgrace, really. But no real mystery.

In my opinion, what they should have done was this; produce these smaller compromised systems for the majority who could not accommodate the better and proper large systems. And tell the people the truth; that the performance of these small systems is really compromised. And for those that wanted the very best in performance, they should have  continued to develop on the work of the masters; those large systems from the previous era. The same large systems that put them to shame today.

Instead, what they opted to do was/is conspire with the mainstream audio-press and lie to the general public. They devised this scheme purporting that one size fits all, basically. That the ultimate in performance can be attained by embellishing undersized 7" mid-woofers, and undersized enclosures/sub-enclosures, with so-called 'exotic' and so-called  'expensive' materials. And for the utmost of the ultimate in performance, all they need to do is double-up these undersized 7" drivers and their subwoofers, adding more embellishments, of course, enticing people into thinking these accoutrements enhance realism - at exorbitant costs, of course. 

You may have noticed that virtually all of the very best of world-acclaimed speaker-systems, with realistic claims to lifelike realism, from; Acapella, Avantgarde, Magico, Martion, Tannoy, Edgarhorn, etc., they're all modern takes on the old designs. (This is no accident or coincidence). They're all large. And they're all highly efficient. With current technology, the very ultimate in realism can never be achieved in any other way than that charted by the old masters (who did their sums right) since the 1930s.

Conventional small-coned aspirants to this level stake their claims mainly on soundstaging, bass-response, middle-midrange 'detail', and treble 'air'  - NOT on overall realism - they cannot approach those above in that all-important aspect.

Those above, however, cover virtually all the aspects conventional aspirants excel at and, additionally, supply all the dynamism, lower-midrange tone/detail (some better than others, here) and overall REALISM conventional aspirants cannot begin to touch. This is the reality!

Measurements vs 'Real-World' Performance:  Perhaps we're being a bit too harsh on the designers and advocates of these small-coned modern systems. I'm sure some designers are trying their very best to supply the very best designs they think they possibly can. But perhaps (and I do believe) they're being led astray by too much reliance on measurements. Many of these systems may well measure 'flat', but I say again; we all know that measurements do not tell the whole story as to how realistic a component may actually sound.

For instance, consider the disparity between the measurements and the actual difference between passive and active pre-amps, at the lower-midrange. Both may measure flat, but passives are invariably thinner in the lower mids, while actives are more realistically hefty, in this region. Such differences between measurements and actual sonics are evident in amps, CD-players, phono-cartridges, and virtually every component in the audio chain. But in speakers, for reasons nobody is really sure of, the disparity between measurements and sonics is more pronounced.

In speaker-design, there's actually well-documented evidence of some of the harsh penalties for strict adherence to ruler-flat frequency-response. For instance, a speaker-system, today, which measures flat at high frequencies is virtually guaranteed to sound too bright and pretty-near unlistenable in the real world, with a significant difference between the sound of that speaker and the sound of actual instruments. (Though debates on the issue still rage, to be fair. See here, for the obvious answer as to why this may be the case with today's speaker-systems). Some of the more realistically-sounding speakers tend to have a down-tilted response at high-frequencies - re; Celestions world-acclaimed SL-600, for instance. This is a well-known fact.

All speaker-designers should know this, just as they should know that such paradoxes are apparent in several regions of the frequency-spectrum. And one such region is, in fact; the lower-midrange: Even some of the best small-coned speaker-systems that measure ruler-flat through this region tend to sound lean, compared to actual musical instruments. Now, I DO NOT suggest that designers should seek anything other than 'flat' measurements, per se. However, I absolutely am suggesting that if a component which measures 'flat' reveals itself to be less than capable of closely replicating the sound of real music, then all is not well with such a component, regardless of what the measurements say. Later we may see why.

Perhaps one reason why designers persist with small-coned mid-woofers is that they do achieve (economically) respectable measurements through this region, just as is apparent with larger drivers. But the truth is, also, that the small drivers cannot deliver the tonal weight of instruments when called-upon to do so in the real world.

I absolutely believe that much too much emphasis is placed on measurements. And not enough emphasis is placed on how closely these speakers replicate the sound of actual instruments including, importantly, the accurate tonal-balance, and overall-balance, in relation to that of the actual musical instruments - not in relation to the measurements. If enough of this were being done then articles like this would be un-necessary. I believe measurements should be used as a basis. Bt the final design of any speaker worth its components should be based on a comparison with actual musical-instruments, and adjustments made to achieve the highest level of fidelity to the dynamics, tone, and balance, of the actual musical-instruments, again; regardless of what the measurements may say.

All things considered, I believe the root of the problem lies in driver-size or, more specifically, cone-surface area. Despite what steady-state measurements may say, the small cones of modern speakers cannot properly energize the air with the power, authentic authority, and subsequent realism, of the larger drivers that better them in performance at the lower-midrange.

The Headphone-Effect: For what it's worth, if anything, here's what I said recently, in a popular discussion-forum;

[Again] ...I'd suggest that the measurements don't tell all, especially what obtains in the real-world. In explaining this point I'll cite what I'd call 'The Headphone-Effect':

A good set of headphones also measure virtually flat thru all frequencies of the audio-spectrum. And, when we clamp them to our ears, that's what we hear - all frequencies in proper proportion, relative to the music being played. However, if we place those 'phones on a table and listen from a distance this all changes. The 'phones now sound like tweeters as as the lower frequencies go absent - call this 'The Proximity-Effect'.

Why is this so? Obviously the 'phones' tiny drivers are unable to energize sufficient air for their lower frequencies (i.e. mids, lower-mids, bass) to sound realistic from any distance. I'd suggest that the very same thing happens with the popular small-coned speakers (albeit, to a lesser degree, and manifested mostly at the lower-mids, due to the popular satellite/sub configuration). And this is one of the main reasons why they can never be anywhere near as realistic as the large-coned Altecs, Tannoys, Klipschorns, JBLs, and the like, of this world. 

A speaker's cone is actually the business-end of a piston which pushes air. The larger the piston; the more air is moved efficiently. A small piston/cone does efficiently move air at higher frequencies. But then, the lower the frequency; the less efficient the small piston/cone becomes. I believe this explains the small driver's competence at middle-midrange, and also its ineptitude at lower-mids (and bass, of course). The overwhelming evidence indicates that small drivers are incapable of energizing the volumes of air necessary to accurately replicate the robust tones of actual instruments operating in the lower-midrange. In their vain efforts to do so, they actually deliver more of the middle-mids and less of the lower-mids. Or this is what reaches our ears - and this accounts for their anemic balance, compared to live music - despite what the measurements say. 

To prove this 'surface-area' theory (if the 'Headphone-Effect' isn't enough) double-stack two pairs of mini-monitors, and see if the double-stacked pair doesn't reproduce music with slightly more realistic 'body' and 'substance', in the lower-mids, than the identical single-pair - as one magazine's writer recently discovered. (Refer to the excellent review of the Coincident Pure Reference 'Double' Extreme speakers by The Audio Critique webzine. See part eleven of that review, especially the reference to; 'More Natural SUBSTANCE', regarding the double-stacked pair, compared to the identical singles).

This suggests that the double-stacked pairs of cones are slightly more efficient in moving the larger volumes of air necessary at lower-midrange frequencies. This suggests, also, that the single-pair does, indeed, supply the lower midrange tones, as the measurements would verify (as with the headphones). But not enough for us to hear those low-mids with the stacked pair's more realistic body, weight, or 'substance'. For the speaker-system to be able to energize enough air for the resulting sound to be more representative of the actual lower-tones/body/substance of real instruments (to the human ear in the real world) then the cone surface-area MUST be increased, whether thru multiples of small drivers, or by one large-coned driver, per channel.

It's as simple as that. For true realism, small drivers are entirely inadequate, unless utilized in multiples (as per Whisper's Legacy and Helix models, for example). Yet, this is what dominates our audio-world today. And this anemic balance, of the popular but inadequate sub-woofed mini-monitor, is what mainstream audio magazines have long been passing-off as the 'correct balance', in collusion with their 'favorite' manufacturers, for their own self-serving purposes. 

Note carefully; the above example proves that increasing mini-monitors' surface-area (by double-stacking) does increase these speakers' ability to render just slightly  more 'substance' and consequent realism at lower-mids - with emphasis on the word; 'slight', for the double-stacked mini-monitor. 

Yet, the point is proven; a larger cone-surface area, than that of the typical mini-monitor, is required for more realistic lower-midrange performance. This is an ABSOLUTE FACT!

The Matter of Size: But how large a surface-area is required for realistic reproduction? That's the question which now begs attention.

My own comparisons, with a previous and extremely highly-rated 7"-equipped speaker-system, against live music, revealed such speakers' balance to be much, much, too lean (dynamism was/is a major issue too). A slight increase in substance at lower-mids would not have equated to the live sound either - so vast was/is the difference.

At several high-end audio shows, ancient speakers utilizing 15" or doubled 12" mid-woofers, have totally outclassed state of the art representatives of modern designs incorporating the typical single or doubled small-coned mid-woofers - as previously mentioned. And the relics' major advantage was/is in dynamics and lower-midrange prowess - by far, on both counts. With the relics presenting the much more realistic tonal and overall balance of real music, featuring the lower-midrange heft modern speakers (even those with doubled small-coned mid-woofers) cannot come close to replicating. A slight increase in lower-midrange body/heft/substance, therefore, would not correct the tonal and overall imbalance of modern speakers.

With all other parameters being equal, of course, consider the major disadvantage of the 5" to 8" driver used to cover this region in most modern speakers, as against the much larger surface area of the doubled 12s, or single 15" driver, of these relics:

Double-stacking two 8" drivers results in the cone surface-area of one 10" driver (i.e; in piston-area - surround-suspension excluded). It takes two 10"ers for the equivalent of one 12"er. And it takes two 12"ers to be the equivalent of one 15"er, in surface-area. Therefore, the surface area of a 12" mid-woofer is four times as much as that of the 8" mid-woofer of our typical modern example. And the surface-area of a 15"er is a whopping eight times as much as that of the little 8"er of the modern system.

In other words, it would take eight (8"-equipped) modern speakers to attain the equivalent lower-midrange competence of one (15"-equipped) ancient relic, which routinely outperforms modern speakers in lower-midrange 'substance', detail, 'body', and overall realism.

I submit that any 5" to 8" mid-woofer (single, or doubled) operating to 200hz, or below, will be inept at realistically replicating the robust lower-midrange tones of instruments operating in this range - because of 'The Headphone-Effect'. Based on the evidence of the fore-mentioned relics' superiority, and on that of others which are similar, and based also on my own experience in my own experiments comparing drivers to live music, I'd suggest that the cone-surface area of a 15" mid-woofer (or multiples of drivers amounting to the equivalent in surface-area) is the ideal for the realistic reproduction of the tones of real instruments. And I'd also suggest that this is relevant even in a reasonably small room.

This means that anything less than the equivalent of a 15" driver would be a compromise. A single or doubled 7" pair would, therefore, be hopeless - 'compromise' is too nice a word, in this case. (Additional evidence supporting this theory may become even more apparent by way of an example below).

So that answers that question, I suppose.

The Way Forward; Alternatives: Since we universally recognize small drivers' similar disadvantage in reproducing bass, then why is it so difficult for us to recognize the near-identical problem (next-door to bass) at lower-mids? (A part of the problem is that many do not recognize a problem, since the measurements say 'all is well'. Yet, they also pay scant attention to the most important area of measurement - i.e; against the actual live music). Perhaps too many believe machines are more accurate in determining what the actual music thru these speakers should sound like.

Nevertheless, if I'm right in the-above theories, then there's really no need for camel-humped equalization enhancements of small drivers, in this region, for those manufacturers who'd want to continue to benefit from the small-drivers' limited virtues. That is; if I'm also right in the following:

Without nullifying the unique but limited benefits of the small driver, simply incorporating larger mid/woofers, similar to those of olde, would go a long way toward alleviating the disadvantage of modern small-coned systems. This would go toward facilitating the reproduction of ALL the midrange that's so important for REALISM. The best of both worlds, perhaps. Thus; correcting the tonal and overall-balance, and facilitating all the lower-mids tones and detail currently missing. (An example of a DIY speaker-system, on this site, shows one possible way of achieving this). A leading manufacturer, Wilson Audio, also employed a similar principle at the top of that line, coincidentally - though, perhaps, not to full effect. (Perhaps 'voicing' too reminiscent of the smaller models in the range, the 'Wilson Sound', may be the cause of a lighter lower-mids presentation than that of a Focal-JMlab Grand Utopia of past vintage, for instance, as one reviewer discovered. Yet, though I'm not a fan of the Wilson-Audio 'house-sound', I applaud certain aspects of the previous X-1/Grand SLAMM's design-principles, nonetheless).

If I were to suggest the way forward, for modern manufacturers aiming for the very best performance, then this would be it - a combination of the best features of the old and the new. I've yet to discover a large driver which displays the transient alacrity of a 7" mid-woofer installed in my own DIY speaker-system. (It excels at sharpening the leading-edges at mid-bass, for instance, at influencing tone in that region, and at coordinating the PRaT of the entire system). Its full-range output is paralleled and carefully blended (below midrange) with that of two 12" mid-woofers which display outstanding abilities at the lower-mids - a feat which the smaller driver can't even begin to accomplish. (A mid/hi horn, super tweeters, and a pair of 18" subs complete the 95db/1w package, in this case). The result is - the best aspects of both the small and the large driver - unprecedented and uncanny similarity to a live acoustic band, which occasionally plays next to my backyard. The true tonal weight of real instruments is now achieved (with the requisite transient & dynamic-response, among other aspects, of course) to the point of being scary, sometimes. 

As mentioned, Wilson Audio employed a vaguely similar strategy in their former top of the line X-1. I'd suggest that other manufacturers emulate this concept. Nearly all of them, including Wilson Audio, have loosely copied the integral monitor/sub concept popularized by B&W's 801. (Re; for instance, the Watt/Puppy, Sasha-Watt/Puppy, Sophia, etc., Hansen Prince, Kharma Midi-Grand Ceramique, etc., etc. All with small-coned 'monitor'-sections, similar to the 801, and all sharply crossed-over to their woofers below 150 hz, in these typical examples). So I see no reason why manufacturers couldn't also copy the X-1's concept

Here's a brief description of the X-1: One 15" woofer, one 12" woofer, and two 7" mid-woofers sandwiching a tweeter, in near-D'Apollito array, etc. But the most remarkable feature of its concept, and most similar to my own, is that  the 7"ers operate far into the bass region (sharpening mid-bass' leading-edges, influencing PRaT, etc.) and, more importantly, the large woofers operate way up into the lower-mids (theoretically lending weight to the region).This is because of the shallow slope of the x-over between them (i.e. 1st-order, set at around *120hz). In other words, since there's significant output from them even at 500hz, the larger drivers help to carry the weight of the lower-mids, theoretically. Great potential here, though perhaps not fully utilized, as we'll see below. I'd suggest that other manufacturers could perhaps adapt this concept (with the caveat that raising the *x-over frequency further towards the low-mids may address the concerns expressed by some, including me, regarding the X-1's 'voicing'). Yeah, that's one way to marry the best of the old with the best of the new - assist the small mid-woofer in reproducing the lower-mids weight it cannot realistically carry, to the listener, by itself.

Perhaps because it almost mirrors my own way of thinking (by sheer coincidence, I assure you) I have a fair amount of respect for the 95db/1w/1m-efficient X-1, if only based on its principles. Can't say the same about the alleged state of the art Watt/Puppy tho, or any of the others in that line - or most other such lines, for that matter.

Another alternative, for the makers of the overwhelmingly popular monitor/sub types of speaker-systems, aspiring to realistic reproduction, is simply to cross-in their 15"er (or equivalent) earlier. Somewhere around 500hz could be great (for x-overs with sharper slopes than the X-1's). That's somewhat similar to what B&W did with the 12"er of the original 801 (x'd-over at somewhere near the mid-300s, in that case). This way we'd be making the most of the little 5 or 7"er at frequencies it can realistically reproduce, while the larger driver handles those the little tyrant can't, with the proper authority. Others do employ a higher x-over point - but not enough of them - and whether the surface-area of the 'lower-mids/bass drivers' is adequate; that's another question, in most cases. (Let's continue to ignore the very important aspect of  dynamism, here, for the sake of simplicity. And since there are a few small drivers which are also very efficient/dynamic, then dynamism would be irrelevant in this article focusing on the intrinsic limitations of the small driver).

Examples - Allow me a not-too-brief word on three iconic modern conventional speaker-systems; the 801, X-1, and Grand Utopia:

Even with the shallow slope of its cross-over, I believe the X-1  has not maximized the potential of its method of operation. This would cause the middle-midrange of its small mid-woofers to dominate in much the same way the small coned drivers dominate in that line's lesser models. To be specific; it's not so much that the middle-mids dominate, in lesser models, it's more that the lower-mids fail to show up, really. This, in fact, weakens the power, body, and substance of the whole of the all-important midrange-region, actually - not to mention the missing details, in the nether-regions of this range. (As mentioned, this would be easily corrected with a simple raising of the x-over point between the X-1's adequately-sized woofers and its small mid-woofers - the potential is there).

The fact that the X-1 is/was rated among the best of modern speakers is more a manifestation of the extreme popularity of this type of lean analytical sound than an indication of its realism, as far as I'm concerned. I've said elsewhere that I believe audiophiles are divided into two camps. The majority are into the currently popular, lean, detailed, dynamically-constrained, analytical sound - as defined by the characteristics and limitations of the ubiquitous small driver, which most modern speakers are based on. Enhanced detail-resolution, in limited regions, and ultra-realistically acute soundstaging, both, constitute the number-one priority for members of this camp. (This is the sound and these are the features endorsed, promoted, encouraged, and perpetually advocated by the mainstream mags, in support of the characteristics and limitations displayed by their partners' small-coned speaker-systems). And the other camp is occupied by the minority who're actually seeking high levels of overall sonic realism - high fidelity - the closest approach to the real thing. (This includes lifelike dynamism and the 'weighty' tonal-characteristics of real musical instruments, in live-performance - real music). And without the currently-fashionable enhancements and omissions.

I believe the X-1 - like the vast majority of speakers, which are absolutely similar - unapologetically caters to the occupants of the former camp. (It's also dynamic, however, unlike most). There's no question that the X-1 is/was perhaps the absolute best at what it does, indeed perhaps the very best of its type, and should be recognized as such - by right. The real question is, quite simply; whether what it does is right.

Others have described it as more analytic than realistic.

In a direct comparison between the Wilson X-1 and Focal-JMlab's Grand Utopia, one writer found that the X-2's predecessor ..presented a lighter, brighter sound, with greater emphasis in the mid-treble. In contrast, he found the Grand Utopia ..presented a weightier, warmer sound with greater midbass emphasis. The result was that; harmonic structures were richer, orchestral weight greater, with more resolute foundations... The latter is the presentation preferred by the writer, as he observed; The most startling and immediately obvious difference between these two full-range loudspeakers was their respective voicings..

In my own experience comparing systems with the live sound, I'd whole-heartedly agree that the 'weightier' lower-mids presentation is much more akin to that of live music. This 'weight' is unobtainable by any small-coned driver (single or doubled) that I'm aware of. The stark lack of this 'weight' is what also causes 'the most startling and immediately obvious difference', when we also directly compare the live sound to any of these small-coned drivers - as I've found in my own extensive experiments. Larger drivers, generally, tend to do a better job. But, even so, only a very few of these come really close to the tonal-characteristics and weight of the real thing.

And, no, I haven't missed the point about 'greater mid-bass emphasis', in regards to the Utopia. But later we'll see where mid-bass and low-mids are supplied by the same driver. And a driver which features a prominent mid-bass is highly likely to also display a realistically prominent lower-midrange (unless deliberately equalized to suppress it). Note, also, the writer's allusion to 'richer' harmonic structures, as a consequence of the 'weightier' presentation. I'm no great musician (so I could be wrong, here) but since music is mostly midrange-oriented, then I'd assume that these harmonic-structures would mostly originate in the midrange, including low-midrange. Furthermore, the point about these harmonic structures being 'richer' also implicates a 'richer' lower-midrange (in addition to upper and mid-bass). If he'd come right out and said it, then this would've made my task easier, though, sans interpretations. But since I'm sure he's constrained by strict word-counts, among other things, I fully understand his economy.

Unlike that writer, in regards to his X-1/Utopia speaker-comparo, I don't see such differences as a matter of preference. Especially where there's a 'startling and immediately obvious difference' in the kind of sonics (refer to his allusion to this 'startling...difference' in their respective 'voicings') either presentation WILL be closer to being right. This means that the other (with its 'startling' difference) MUST be wrong. Both can never be right - not with such differences. (Both speakers are different today, by the way).

Now let's see what may account for the difference in their presentations, especially since their driver-complements are pretty-much the same - even down to the brand; Focal.

Briefly, the 95db/1w/1m-efficient Utopia similarly consists of; a 15" woofer, an 11" mid-bass/lower-mids driver, 2 x 6.5" mid-woofers, and a tweeter. (Pretty-near a mirror-image of the X-1). As I see it, the main reason for the difference between the two is that the Utopia's 11" driver is crossed-over to the small mid-woofers at 400hz, a significantly higher frequency than the 120hz of the X-1 (even with the latter's shallow slope). This high crossover-point causes the larger 11" driver of the Utopia to be THE driver responsible for reproducing the lower-midrange (which spans the range from 160 to 320hz) while the X-1's lower-mids are handled by its small mid-woofers, due to their lower crossover-point at 120hz.

This  is the only relevant difference between the two, in this context. And this is the reason for the 'startling' difference in their 'voicings'. In accord with the points highlighted in the previous segments; 'The Headphone-Effect' & 'The Matter of Size', the surface-area of the doubled 7"ers of the X-1 amount to less than half that of the 11"er used by the Utopia, for the same purpose of reproducing the lower-midrange. Therefore, the difference in cone-surface area is what accounts for the difference in their midrange presentations.

In other words, the X-1's small mid-woofers are the main suppliers of (inadequate) lower-mids - contributing to its 'lighter, brighter' disposition. (This; due to 'The Headphone-Effect', previously cited). Where-as, in the Utopia, the larger 11" driver is the more competent supplier of lower-mids - hence; the 'weightier' lower-mids presentation, more like that of live music. 

Perhaps this is why the writer also said something to this effect; The Utopia was at least the equal of the SLAMMs in the resolution of detail, and was actually superior through the midrange. Imagine that. In other words, and based on the evidence, the Utopia's midrange is superior because it displays the realistically 'warm' and 'weighty' lower-mids, which it does because of its large 11" lower-mids driver. This is remarkable, when you examine it; that a writer from a mainstream mag, late in the previous (20th) century would, in effect, admit that a large driver does a 'superior' job at even partially reproducing the midrange - superior to today's idolized small-coned driver. Or, indeed, that a more realistically 'weighty' sound displaying real-world 'warmth' (yes, the 'warmth' we've been dishonestly warned against, by the mags) is 'superior' to the lean, thin-midranged, so-called 'accurate' sound of the idolized small-coned driver. (And, at no loss of the 'detail' we were warned such 'warmth' would obscure). This is absolutely remarkable - and profoundly so, on so many different levels. Imagine that - really!

These two are/were examples of the very best of the very best of modern conventional speaker-systems. Not least is the fact that they're so very, very similar - leaving absolutely no reasonable doubt as to the real REASON for their significant sonic differences. There's no way I could have come up with a better example to verify the points I've been making. Points verified by a writer I don't even know. He won't say it, but I will: Simply because its x-over allows the larger driver to handle the lower-mids, the Utopia is the better and more realistic speaker-system of the two. If it better presents the characteristics and features of live music; ..harmonic structures were richer, orchestral weight greater, with more resolute foundations.., for instance, then it's unquestionably the better system. Certainly better than the X-1's less than realistic ..lighter, brighter sound, with greater emphasis in the mid-treble. Yet, I'd have preferred for him not to have used the word 'preference' in coyly declaring the winner, leaving the door open for another to declare a 'preference' for inferiority. And how can an inferior transducer be 'accurate'? Indeed, why is it that so many reviewers insist on  throwing the loser a bone? (Oh, shucks... that link was Stereophile.... I forgot. Please refer to the *footnote).

Indeed, preference or taste is irrelevant, and have no business in high-fidelity. A system either achieves high levels of fidelity/realism, or it does not. The latter doesn't count. 'Preference' is an excuse invented by the mainstream audio-press in order to sell mediocrity.

There's only one standard for the live sound. There's only one standard for fidelity to that live sound. (Those who 'prefer' something else are not really in search of High-Fidelity which, by definition, aims at a close facsimile of sonic-realism). If one system closely approaches it, and another does not then, I say again; the latter is irrelevant - especially where the prices are similar. And consider this when next you run out to buy that small-coned/sub-woofed system (x'd-over below 200hz) which the mags so delight in pushing onto unsuspecting audiophiles: If the former 'state of the art' X-1's doubled small-coned mid-woofers, assisted by its woofer system (albeit very feebly assisted) is so comprehensively outperformed at lower-mids by a better large-coned system (operating in that range) then what chance does the lesser small-coned systems have at being realistic? Be aware that, as with the X-1, EVERY similar small-coned system operating thru the lower-mids is FLAWED in a similar manner - there are NO EXCEPTIONS, absolutely NONE. This is not an opinion, it's a FACT. Blame it on the laws of physics, as manifest in the features of; 'The Headphone-Effect'.

This was not just a comparison between two specific speaker-systems, in isolation. This was a comparison of the small-coned driver, as similarly used by the vast majority of the world's speaker-systems, against the large-coned system - a comparison of both genres of drivers, so to speak. The outcome is relevant to the vast majority of the world's small-coned speaker-systems, with serious implications as to their real quality, or worth. More specifically: This was a straight fight, at the lower midrange, between the doubled small-coned mid-woofer and the larger driver I've long been advocating for this region. Shall we declare the outcome - do we need to? The doubled small-coned mid-woofer LOST the fight - miserably - no competition, really. Point proven - again: Especially for the absolutely important lower-midrange reproduction, the large driver is, by far, superior to the small. (Of course, this has always been the truth - really - dishonestly distorted by most manufacturers and the mainstream audio-press in their efforts to sell more-profitable, cheaper-to-build, small-coned systems. They still do this, so be advised, and beware).

Oh, and mainly because of its judicious (400hz) employment of a large-coned driver for the low-mids, the Grand Utopia is, without shadow of doubt, the better, more realistic speaker-system, relative to the X-1. It's as simple as that!

The B&W 801, once the favorite of Classical recording-studios because of its accuracy, utilizes a similar x-over point (380hz) for its similarly large 12" woofer. One of its most appreciated attributes is said to be its ability to replicate the 'tonal weight' of the instruments of an orchestra. And, similar to the Utopia, its utilization of a large driver for the lower-mids is the main reason for this important ability. (By the way, the near identical 802, with its smaller woofers, would not be as good, here - the later Nautilus 801s employed a 15" woofer, however, and the 800 Matrix sported two 12s, both the latter being theoretically ideal, in my estimation). I believe it significant that these (the 801 and Utopia) are universally acknowledged as two of the very best of modern conventional speakers (past and present) incorporating small mid-woofers. The 801 was among the best of its type, in its era of the '80s/'90s. And JMlab's Grand Utopia is listed among the best of its type in the current era. (Though neither is/was the best of all types, in my opinion, for various reasons). I believe it, also, most significant that in both cases, of the best of such types (incorporating small drivers) the lower-mids are reproduced by the larger drivers of their woofer-systems.

I do see the 801 as the father of the currently and overwhelmingly popular integral-monitor/sub configuration - even of the mega-buck monoliths, like Kharma's Exquisite Grand, most of which may be seen as 'double-stacked' clones of the 801. But I also believe the overwhelming majority of the 801's descendants, in  delinquently opting for sharp cross-over points below the lower-midrange (160hz, etc) have mistakenly relegated themselves to inferior performance, in regards to their serious lack of realistic tonal-weight, by requiring the small mid-woofer to perform an impossible task, at low-mids. (It would have served them better if they had also copied their progenitor's relevant crossover-point. And ensuring adequate surface-area in their low-mid/woofer's wouldn't have hurt either - also, an increase in dynamism would've been nice). My arguments against the small driver are directed at those, the vast majority of popular speakers - the designers of which fail to respect the laws of physics in so far as such laws pertain to the small driver - not at those like the 801 and Grand Utopia (the cited iteration only) which employ the small mid-woofer in a sensible manner, conducive to its limitations.

The Last Straw: Incidentally, since this rare direct comparison has proven the 11" driver of the Grand Utopia to be superior to the (feebly-assisted) doubled small-coned mid-woofers of the X-1 (at the lower-midrange) then it may now be easier to understand why the large-coned drivers of the ancient relics, linked above, routinely outperform modern s.o.t.a. speakers like the X-1/X-2, and all others that are similar. Indeed, regardless of its commendable 11" driver at low-mids, even the Utopia would still be at an insurmountable disadvantage against the doubled 12s and single 15" mid-woofers of the relics. So now (for the very same reason the Utopia proved superior to the X-1) when lined-up against the very best of modern conventional  speakers, including the Utopia, it's not difficult to see why the relics would still prove superior, as they have. (Superior dynamism would also be a factor). Certainly, they'd garner similar comment describing; ..a weightier, warmer sound with a greater midbass emphasis. As a result, harmonic structures were richer, orchestral weight greater, with more resolute foundations.. - and they have, time and again - see the links.

Interestingly, the absolute laws of physics do not recognize or respect; high prices, fancy embellishments, convenience, disingenuous claims of technological-advancements, misleading 'raves' from nefarious audio mags with sinister intent, modernity for the mere sake of modernity, or impressively-worded technical mumbo-jumbo claiming to have defied or circumvented said laws - neither should you. These laws exclusively recognize and favorably support only such designs which conform to said laws. If your goal is High-Fidelity then, perhaps, so should you. 

It is entirely ironic that both manufacturers and mainstream audio mags, their allies, have long been denigrating the large-coned speaker-system that they'd already ousted in their bid to promote the inferior, but more profitable, small-coned system. They're especially fond of disparaging the 'warmth' of the large-coned systems - the same 'warmth' their favored small-coned systems cannot reproduce, 'coincidentally'. Yet, when examples of these same large-coned 'ancient-relic' speaker-systems disgrace their mega-buck small-coned 'state of the art' systems at disparate audio shows, demonstrating indisputable superiority by way of lifelike and realistic 'warmth', among other things, these same entities and individuals assume and maintain a deafening silence on the subjects. (No, the relics and their replicas are not perfect, no speaker is, but they're more ideal, in more significant ways, and at more significant attributes, than any small-coned system ever contemplated, let alone actually built).

Isn't it also interesting, and even more ironic, that two of the foremost, most respected, and most successful purveyors of the small-coned speaker-system both, yes, both turn to replicas of these same ancient relics to showcase the very ultimate in sonic realism currently achievable? I refer to the horn-systems of the Magico Ultimate and the large-coned Kharma Grand Enigma, at costs of $400k and $1million, respectively.

This has to be the last straw, the final insult, indeed, the final nail in the coffin of the lover of the small-coned speaker-system. If this doesn't convince the faithful that the deified small-coned speaker is nowhere near, and can NEVER be, as realistic as the ancient relics, or modern replicas of the ancient relics, then nothing ever will. After all, this is exactly what these brands have admitted, by their actions. By said actions, they're literally shouting to the faithful that even the very best of their own small-coned systems can never be made to be as good as the replicas of the ancient relics. And do remember that these are two of the very best brands, specializing in extremely expensive small-coned speaker-systems. Need I say more? Perhaps not, except to point-out that similar performance may be had from similar horns and similar large-coned systems costing very-much less (see the link below). Much less than even these brands' over-priced and over-rated small-coned systems, which they'll also routinely and comprehensively outperform without even trying - literally. (Against the backdrop of the facts above, this should not be, at all, surprising). Those audiophiles who continue to be fooled by the press' propaganda, as they follow-suit in championing the cause of the small-coned speaker-system, singing its praises over all, and thinking it's the best thing since sliced-bread, only contiune to display the extent of their blissful-ignorance. Let's wish them all the best, just the same - and continued bliss.

But, generally, perhaps it's about time audiophiles wake-up and smell the coffee. 

All are not equal: Regarding manufacturers or DIYers who've, somehow, come to 'see the light'; some may well see it more prudent to discard the small driver completely, as some like Tannoy have always done, at the top of that line. Regardless of my arguments positing the efficacy of combining both, above, if faced with a choice of; 'either or', then the large driver will always be the better choice over the small, overall. That is; if realism is the goal.

Indeed, virtually any large driver will be an improvement over the small but, for the very ultimate in performance, finding even large drivers which are fully competent in this region is the greatest challenge, as only a very few are uniquely outstanding in this regard: Altec/GPA 414, 416, and 515, are perhaps the best, currently available. [Apart from Tannoy, Phy-HP, and perhaps Vitavox, I simply can't think of any other that's really close since lower-mids prowess, in speakers, seems to be a lost art that died with the likes of Western-Electric, Bozak, Klangfilm, Henry Kloss' designs, and RCA. Somewhat below that level the majority of large-coned drivers - JBL, Eminence, etc. - are fairly competent, however. But the use of any ol' large-driver does not automatically guarantee the ultimate in lower-mids performance as quite a few are pathetic, in this regard. Be advised. And as to today's small drivers, in like regard? Please...!]

Conclusion: Lest I be misunderstood, I'm certainly not suggesting that the small-coned speaker-system be discarded. I reiterate; it's ideal for the vast majority of casual listeners. Even in the highest realms of 'pro-hifi', it serves as an ideal near-field or close-monitor - with the emphasis on 'close' (due to 'The Headphone-Effect'). Oh, and for those enamored with the currently popular emphasis on enhanced detail (in the favored regions) and soundstaging - in other words - for those high-end audiophiles with an analytical-bent, so to speak, the best of such speakers have no peers (in the enhanced aspects they excel at). My respects to those who're happy with such choices.

But for those seeking said details in a realistic context, along with the realistic (lower-mids) tone and details small-coned speakers can't properly supply - in other words; for those seeking REALISM as their 1st-priority - a speaker-system properly employing the large-coned driver is the only prudent choice (in the realm of boxes & cones) all things considered.

A good efficient speaker-system, equipped with a good large-coned (preferably 15") mid-woofer, will lift the performance of ANY *good audio-system currently outfitted with ANY, single or doubled, small-coned speaker-system (x'd-over to woofers below 200hz). I guarantee it. Vastly-increased REALISM will be the result. (An example of this is ensconced in this article - please pay particular attention to the requirements of a *good audio-system, re; amp and active pre-amp).

I wish some modern manufacturers would, at least, investigate the possibilities, ultimately giving audiophiles better choices with speakers which actually reproduce the complete notes and genuine tonal and overall-balance of actual musical-instruments and performances. [For the discerning audiophile; some of the very few speaker-systems, currently available, that do deliver on these attributes (along with, the equally essential dynamism) are listed in this article; 'The Ultimate Speakers Are Within Reach'.

Manufacturers, and their accomplices in the press, are guilty of one of the greatest frauds ever perpetrated against the audiophile. As we've seen, small-coned drivers have no business attempting to handle the lower-mids, by themselves, in any bona-fide high-fidelity system. And many of these guys know it. I make no apologies for this, or any other such statement in this piece.

Oh yeah, 'The Headphone-Effect' is, indeed, the bane of the small-coned driver's existence, absolutely!

But then, these are only my opinions.



*Footnote:  I should remind you that a review from such a source as that mag needs to be interpreted (much like the Bible, for instance). One needs to be proficient at 'reading between the lines'. For 'political' reasons, a writer from such a source can never be truly forthright and straight-forward. His message is coded, and also watered-down (in the interest of job-preservation). For instance, the code-word; 'accurate', usually refers to a component which displays the very popular thin-midranged, 'detailed', analytical sound (having nothing really to do with accuracy, or fidelity to the real thing). The word 'musical', however, though it may often be used as a cop-out, depending on the context, it may also mean the component actually sounds like real music. And, in a comparison between components, you may as well ignore any gratuitous praise for the loser. After all, if the overall sound of the loser significantly differs from what real music sounds like (in other words; if it's flawed) then praise of its wonderful 'details' is irrelevant. (This practice pleases the source, and its relevant benefactors/advertisers, however). If a writer actually declares a preference for one over the other then, depending on the context again (for they can be disingenuous here too) you're most times left not really being sure as to the real truth (especially with praise showered in all directions).

But if one component is a home-grown product, from a manufacturer most favored by the source, and if the other is a foreign product, not favored by the source to a similar degree, then you should perhaps take notice of any favorable reference to the outsider - such a favorable reference is usually acknowledgement of an obvious and known truth the source finds it impossible to deny. Now if...and this is the real bomb-shell... If, on some rare occasion, a writer actually goes so far as to declare a PREFERENCE for the outsider (not the normally done thing - and forbidden by the source) then, just by that mere fact, you'll KNOW, without hint of doubt, that the outsider is head and shoulders above the source's most favored component. (The outsider has to be MUCH better to be judged even slightly better - if you catch my drift). Furthermore, allusions to 'startling and immediately obvious differences in voicings', and to the 'superior' midrange of this writer's preference, in this instance, both combine to give us a sense of the utter and 'startling' magnitude of the superiority of his preferred component. Such revelations are of inestimable import, especially when we consider that the midrange is THE most important region of the spectrum. And no less significant when we  consider the real REASON for this midrange-superiority.

Be cognizant of these things as you visit that link to this comparison. (The relevant reviews of both speakers are also linked elsewhere in this piece). Of note, in the actual reviews, is that near the end of an 8-page rave full of praise, the X-1's reviewer hinted at; a touch of upper-midrange leanness, and also at; forwardness which could result in a trace of hardness. In setting-up the X-1 for a second room, that reviewer also cited 'leanness' (not just in the upper-mids) as a characteristic which presented a challenge in overcoming. This also suggests, to me, a predisposition towards 'leanness', in the X-1. My experience also tells me that speakers predisposed in this manner, sometimes require monumental efforts to get them to sound more 'full-bodied' and 'fleshed-out' - a feat never ever fully achieved, with such speakers. (Perhaps I should reiterate; I don't dispute for a second that the X-1 is a truly awesome loudspeaker, in its own right. But....).

In the Utopia's 2-page review, on the other hand, the reviewer expressed surprise that, unlike most such speakers, the Utopias; were extremely adroit at playing softly. He felt that; this may be related to their tonal balance and high sensitivity; they had body and life even at unrealistically low levels. The key-words of relevance here are; 'leanness/forwardness', and 'body/tonal-balance', for the X-1 and Utopia, respectively. Of note is that; the rare speakers which exhibit realistic lower-midrange body, will also feature said body at extremely-low levels, unlike most others which lack said body. Now, let's see what the writer said, regarding normal to lifelike volume-levels, in his review of the Utopia; In contrast to the Utopia many other speakers have sparkle but little body in portraying naturally occurring waves of sound in real space. Again, with the Utopia, he also felt that; The spaces themselves had weight and volume, a sense of heft rarely properly captured - by the vast majority of other speakers, I might safely add, including the comparatively 'light and bright' X-1. For reviews, from such coded sources, such minute hints speak volumes - cumulatively, they hit like a ton of bricks, in this case, though. (Sadly, however, you may never ever hear from that Utopia reviewer again since the source may now suddenly express a 'preference' for the insights of another writer, in his stead).


Copyright 2012