November 1, 2009

TWBAS 2009 Revisited


Flying over Lake Michigan early on Monday, May 11, 2009, I cast my mind back to where it all began in the mid-1980s, when I religiously made pilgrimages to the Summer Consumer Electronics Show in Chicago. McCormick Place and the Conrad Hilton were the venues at which I forged lifelong friendships with many pioneers of high-end audio.

Today I was en route to Maine to spend two days with yet another of those illustrious, idiosyncratic entrepreneurs who had cast a giant shadow over the industry. The purpose? To revisit The World’s Best Audio System 2009, which I attended and wrote about, and see if I could further Optimize the Sound of the Song.

Aesthetics, dimensional coordination, functionality

Much has been written about the many outstanding engineering achievements of Andy Payor and his company, Rockport Technologies. Jeffrey W. Fritz, editor-in-chief of the SoundStage! Network, has described their manufacturing processes in great detail. However, some layman aspects of Payor’s designs really fascinate me, especially after being up close and personal with the flagship Arrakis loudspeakers at TWBAS 2009.

Though the Arrakis is a colossally imposing behemoth, she strikes a gracefully steadfast, sublime stance similar to that of a cat relaxing on its haunches: feline stealth with an air of aristocracy. This is attributable to her unusual shape -- gentle curves from top to bottom and from front to back made possible by molded, monocoque construction. This continuously varying shape addresses problems associated with minimizing baffle-edge diffraction. But more important, these curves transform the Arrakis into a creature of rare beauty.

The Arrakis’s twin 15" woofers are not mounted on her front baffle, but fire from the side, a driver placement used in all of Rockport’s three- and four-way designs. This gave sufficient leeway to optimize the dimensional coordination of her sleek cabinet. The owner is thus given two opportunities for tweaking the interface of loudspeaker and room: the woofers can face toward or away from each other. However, the front-to-back curvature of the Arrakis would have made it awkward to mount a side-firing woofer flush with the speaker’s convex sidewall. Payor has thus come up with an elegant solution by creating a boss along its contour, allowing the woofers to be correctly mounted in one plane.

Apart from functionality, the overall mysticism and aesthetic appeal of Payor’s creations are highly enhanced through his use of state-of-the-art 3D computer modeling, five-axis CNC pattern making, and, ultimately, the unique molded fabrication methods used to build the Arrakis.

At TWBAS 2009, Payor had intimated to me his design goals regarding side-firing woofers: "Mounting a woofer on the side of a cabinet is beneficial for many reasons. First, it permits use of large woofers. A woofer with a sizable radiating surface does a much better job at hooking up with the air-mass load at low frequencies than do smaller ones with greater excursion. However, if forward-mounted, baffle dimensions would become unacceptably large visually, as well as hinder the loudspeaker’s imaging qualities.

"In addition, the best starting place to minimize transverse axial modes in a room is with woofers at approximately a 5:8:5 ratio across the width of the room. In all but the widest rooms, moving a front-mounted woofer to this position tends to drive the centerline of the midrange and tweeter too close to the center of the room for proper imaging and sidewall support for the midrange. By side-mounting the woofer, one can address the requirements of woofer placement within the room as well as maintain the proper spread for the midrange and tweeter, and thus have a better chance for optimizing both.

"What is also largely misunderstood is that, at the crossover frequency to the woofer, the wavelength is over 12’ long -- so its radiation pattern is already omnidirectional, therefore side-mounting of the woofer is not an issue. Of course, the proof is in listening, so I encourage listeners to notice the proper placement of the standup bass, or piano, or drum kit, or double basses on the soundstage, as well as scrutinize the critical integration of the upper bass to low midrange."

All the way from Illinois to Maine, I contemplated whether or not I would be able to hear any of what Payor had explained to me.

In an ideal room

Andy Payor met me at Portland Jetport at around 12:45 p.m. We then made the 2.5-hour drive to Rockport Technologies, in Rockport, Maine. Having spent a weekend with him at TWBAS 2009, I was determined to visit his facility. And being seriously interested in Rockport’s Altair loudspeakers, I felt compelled to learn more about some radically different engineering philosophies.

Naturally, our discussion centered on TWBAS 2009 and the behavior of Rockport’s best loudspeakers in Jeff Fritz’s Music Vault. Both Payor and Ralf Ballmann, designer of the Behold electronics, had surveyed the room and spent quite some time discussing its characteristics. I had also auditioned there my Jurassic Menu of reference tracks, described in a feature article published by Ultra Audio on April 1, 2009.

I was champing at the bit, itching to hear my entire compilation in Payor’s dedicated room, which was built specifically for auditioning his more ambitious projects. Discussing the ideal reference acoustic space for optimum sound reproduction, we envisaged a model environment that was quiet, non-excitable, and rigid enough to contain all low-frequency energy. Additionally, it should have sufficient acoustic traps to quell bass modes. The dimensions should be proportioned to minimize room modes, and the room’s reverberant signature should be broad, even, properly controlled, and with no coherent specular reflections. Finally, we agreed, our space should be comfortable and well appointed. But what about the speakers?

A theoretically ideal loudspeaker would be inert, aesthetically appealing, with flat frequency response throughout and beyond the extremes of the audioband. It would be acoustically neutral, thus possessing a very rare collection of qualities: a consistent transparency and natural dynamic continuum throughout its entire frequency range, all with vanishingly low distortion. Its impedance magnitude would not fluctuate uncontrollably, and its ability to handle high power would complement its low levels of distortion. This transducer would sonically "disappear" and perform with lightning-quick transient response, assuring endless hours of pleasure without attendant listener fatigue.

Ideal speakers ideally interacting with an ideal room would create a soundfield that would symmetrically surround the sweet spot, and virtually place the vertical and horizontal boundaries at infinity. Incremental tweaks would yield huge sonic improvements, until optimum alignment was realized, and the system/room’s reproduction of musical events was effortlessly truthful and realistic. Soundstages would be balanced, palpable, and palatable, layered with precise imaging and hyperfine delineation. Our ideal loudspeaker would belong in its listening environment.

Sound at Rockport Technologies

We arrived at around 3:30 p.m., after Andy Payor had thoroughly explained his core loudspeaker philosophies. Then it was time to listen. He suggested that we audition my entire Jurassic Menu on a pair of Altairs upstairs in Rockport’s smaller listening room (23’L x 16’W x 9’H). He assured me that this would give me some perception of their performance capability in my own environment (26’L x 14’W x 9’H). While listening, I took copious notes on what I heard, before Payor ushered me downstairs to enjoy his reference system.

There, a pair of Arrakis speakers were set up in a huge room (30’ 5.5"L x 21’ 3"W x 11’H) with 20"-thick, constrained-layer-damped walls treated with an array of RPG’s BAD panels and custom bass traps. The room is well appointed, and the speakers advance about three-fifths out into the space and 5’ from the sidewalls, their woofers facing each other. Completing the system were a Gryphon Sonata Allegro line stage, Gryphon Coliseum and Antileon Signature power amplifiers, Transparent Audio Opus MM2 cables and interconnects, and a Blue Smoke Entertainment Systems music server, into which my reference tracks were loaded. Payor has invested more than $250,000 USD in building and treating this space to make it acoustically neutral, in order to optimize the performance of Rockport’s top models.

Listening to my compilation, my first observation was that Payor’s system could be comfortably driven to intoxicatingly higher levels than in the Music Vault, with a palpable bloom that had gone missing in North Carolina. Payor was impressed by my first selection, pianist Carol Rosenberger performing Debussy’s La cathédrale engloutie, from her Water Music of the Impressionists (CD, Delos D/CD 3006), mainly for its delicious transparency. Rosenberger’s 97-key Bösendorfer appeared life-sized across the room, immediately replacing the Arrakises. Although the piano’s sound was gentle, there was an immediate sense of power, grace, and musical truth . . . it was ethereal, exuding ecstasy. I distinctly remembered that sound, instantly recalling Rosenberger playing her Imperial Concert Grand at her home in Hollywood, about 17 years before. Payor confessed to perceiving an uncanny intimacy of beat frequencies resonating from the instrument’s spruce sounding board. It was ominously audible enough to give him goose pimples.

With my own steelband recording, "Thunder Coming Down," Payor felt that too much was happening at once, and promised to revisit it often to better appreciate Panorama music. To me, the soundstage sounded enormous, perfectly delineated, and sequentially layered to the front wall. Only now I could safely admit to hearing pretty much what I thought I’d captured when I recorded the track in the Trinidad All Stars’ panyard, and wished that arranger Leon "Smooth’’ Edwards could someday hear his creation through a system such as this.

We were both bowled over by Alan Dawson’s drum solo on Paul Desmond’s "Take Five," from Dave Brubeck’s We’re All Together Again for the First Time (CD, Atlantic/Mobile Fidelity Sound Lab UDCD 627). Payor requested that we repeat the track. I had never before felt so much air around Gerry Mulligan’s baritone sax. Sounds of keypads opening and closing on his and Paul Desmond’s horns proved an interesting distraction, and I was enthralled by the many subtleties of audience sound newly unveiled. We closed our eyes and exulted.

For "The Lady Is a Tramp," from Frank Sinatra’s Duets (24-karat gold CD, Capitol/Digital Compact Classics GZS-1053), the Arrakis put Sinatra and Luther Vandross squarely against the front wall, dead center, side by side, as the 87-piece orchestra unfolded with aplomb. Transients and intertransients were breathtaking. There is no substitute for a good big-band arrangement executed to perfection.

We marveled at simple complexity -- Arne Domnerus’ pristine portrayal of the all-time Cole Porter favorite, "Begin the Beguine," from Shall We Dance? (CD, Proprius PRCD9141). Without second-guessing, I know that Payor enjoyed this rendition more than any other. The intrinsic aural authenticity of recording live to two tracks is almost impossible to describe.

We were enthralled by a heterogeneous type of resolution eked out of engineer John Eargle’s recording of Gerard Schwarz and the Seattle Symphony’s performance of Alan Hovhaness’s Symphony No.50, "Mount St. Helens" (CD, Delos DE 3137). The juxtaposition of silky-smooth strings, undergirded by immensely powerful yet tonally rich and tuneful timpani, really impressed. We marveled that complexity, chaos, and entropy could be so easily simulated in a boiling cauldron of immaculate sound, while never becoming cacophony. And I will always remember the Arrakises’ ability, with this recording, to throw an entire three-dimensional soundstage behind them -- something I had noted at TWBAS 2009. This was even more remarkable because the speaker has no rear-firing midrange and/or high-frequency driver.

The volume levels were high, but we could still converse comfortably. During Hovhaness’s musical simulation of the eruption of Mount St. Helens in 1980, I rose from the sweet spot, put a hand flat against one of the enclosures, and felt . . . nothing. Whenever I had performed this test with other loudspeakers, I could always feel the cabinet vibrating, however minutely.

Finally, T. rex emerged from the rain forest, pounding mother earth into submission as before, in search of his "Jurassic Lunch," from Erich Kunzel and the Cincinnati Pops’ The Great Fantasy Adventure Album (CD, Telarc CD-80342). However, there was a huge difference from what I’d heard in the Music Vault, or in any other room I’ve ever been in. Payor’s room did not vibrate, but he and I did -- clearly, there was no leakage of sonic energy. I admit to being intimidated, especially by the seemingly unlimited subsonic excursions of four 15" woofers. This was in response to recording engineer Michael Bishop’s 5Hz mix into his creation, way below the 24Hz tuning frequency of the Arrakis’s twin ports of machined aluminum.

After listening for 55 minutes and comparing my findings with what I’d heard at TWBAS 2009, I say this: I would prefer to sleep luxuriously in the comfort of my own bed than in a luxuriously comfortable bed elsewhere. The Rockport Arrakis, a precision instrument, belongs in Payor’s room. Moreover, this room is an integral component of his inertial playback system.

I was daydreaming again. Was this the best system on earth? What if the electronics were different? For example, suppose the room contained a Simaudio Moon Evolution amplifier and preamplifier, driven by a Berkeley Audio Designs Alpha DAC playing Prof. Keith Johnson’s Reference Recordings HRx files through a pair of EgglestonWorks Ivy loudspeakers -- would there be any significant difference to the overall sound? What about line conditioning, cables, and interconnects? I was curious.

In short, would man’s desire to hear more ever be satisfied? I believe that the answer is no. There is nothing wrong with that. However, I was now convinced, more than ever, that an optimized loudspeaker/room interface is the most essential ingredient of good sound. Moreover, I would now systematically and incrementally upgrade my own system in an effort to obtain something close to what I’d just heard at Rockport Technologies.

Another time and place

On Tuesday morning, on our way back to the Portland Jetport, we made a brief stop at the shop, where I looked at a CAD illustration of Payor’s new System V Sirius turntable. With its radical portfolio of symmetry, aesthetics, and ergonomics, this new design promises to be a veritable masterpiece of mechanical engineering and architecture. What would that component piece add to the sound I’d just heard?

Perhaps another time . . .

Dedicated to Dr. Simone Laura Sandiford. Congratulations and bon chance.

. . . Simeon Louis Sandiford


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