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Beatnik Pet Peeve #3: “The Way Modern Speakers Play Bass”

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Jack Roberts Beatnik's JourneyVery few people like a speaker that has fat, flabby sounding bass. More people nowadays seem to like fast, tight bass with lots of slam. People also seem hung up on how low speakers play bass. There are speakers which can place bass down to the low 20 Hz regions that don’t have satisfying bass. There are speakers like any of the LS3/5As that don’t make it to 40 Hz but the bass sounds musical, and admittedly not powerful or very full.

The part of my audio journey that has brought me to be thinking about bass has been listening to Wayne Picquet’s rebuilt Quad ESL. I hadn’t expected them to have some of the most musical bass I have had in my house. When word got out that I had them in, I was surprised how many people wanted to come by to hear them; seems that a lot of people have never heard this legendary speaker. Everyone that came by first commented on how wonderful the bass was. I would tell them they don’t go that low and they would reply that they didn’t care because the bass sounded more like real instruments. The next thing they commented on was how natural the voices sounded; that I expected.

So all this talk about bass started me thinking about some of the speakers I have reviewed and listened to at audio shows in the last couple of years. A few came to mind: the Burwell & Sons Homage speakers, the big JBL Everest, the incredible sounding RCA LC-1A LS-11 and those wonderful sounding Tannoy Golds mounted in a Jensen Imperial Cabinets turned upside down so that the empty horn part of the cabinet acted as a stand to raise the Tannoy Gold drivers to the right height. Those were in the Pass Labs room at the 2014 California Audio Show.

All of these speakers have several things in common. First, they are all based on or actually are speakers from the mid to late 50s. Second, none of them attempt to play down into the 20s, in fact some don’t make it below 45Hz. Third, they all have very large drivers, most of them have 15-inch bass drivers and the Quad ESL bass panels have around 500 square inches for each speaker. Lastly, while they don’t all sound the same in the bass they all sound wonderfully musical.

There seems to me to be something fundamentally different in the way these speakers play bass compared to modern speakers with their super dead cabinets and incredible fast, tight and really deep bass. While these speakers sound very impressive their bass just doesn’t flow within the performance like these older-design speakers. The bass on these newer speakers is definitely deeper, faster and has more slam, but they just don’t have the life in the bass that the more vintage designs do. All of the speakers above have incredible air and harmonics in the bass. You feel the bass. Yes, you feel the bass with the modern speaker as well, but differently. The bass from modern speakers with extremely dead cabinets has a very pistonic sound. To me, real music seldom sounds this way, occasionally rock music does, but it also often sounds purposefully distorted.

Let’s use a selection that is a show favorite for showing off bass; the “Fever” cut on Elvis is Back is a favorite demo for the modern speakers designed with really dead cabinets and fast, deep bass. The first time I ever heard this LP was at the last Stereophile Show held in San Francisco. People were standing in line to hear something in the Wilson Audio and VTL room. When my turn came along I went in to see the big Wilson speakers with the biggest tube amps I had ever seen. Elvis’ “Fever” was the first cut they played. It was awesome. Everybody wanted to know which Elvis album that was on? I bet this one demo sold a lot of the LPs. The cut started with a standup bass playing left of center. On the Wilson’s that day and on other speakers of this type I have heard over the years the bass simply explodes out of silence; Elvis is just right there in the center of the soundstage, like he was suspended in space; the finger snaps seem to float in space, the snare comes at you fast, tight and appears from different points in the sound stage like watch fireworks at night; and to follow the same thought the bass drum explodes like cannons with shocking slam and speed. While really impressive, I doubt Elvis or his fans ever heard it sound like this live or in the studio.

By contrast on the Quad 57 or the Burwell & Sons, the standup bass is warmer, fuller and sounds much more like a wooden string instrument, on the 57 you can hear and feel the air move from it. On these two speakers Elvis is not so precisely located, he is in the center but the image is a little bigger and not as sharp. On the 57, the voice is much more natural than either of two. The finger snaps still seem odd, I think they were just recorded too close to the mic. On the 57, they sound alright, but they seem to be on the panels. On the Burwell & Sons they come out of the horn and are a little tinny sounding. The snares are very different from the modern, dead cabinet speakers, they are still spaced a little strangely but they sound like snares and not something else and they have air instead of empty space around them. Lastly, the sound of the bass drums is very different. The drum doesn’t sound shocking, just big and powerful. On both the 57 and the Burwell & Sons it just sounds more like a drum. Interestingly, the 57 actually move more air on this cut than the Burwell & Sons.

All of these comparisons are interesting, but the only thing that matters is that the Quad 57 and the Burwell & Sons play Elvis’ “Fever” more like you would hear it at a performance and the modern speakers with their dead cabinets and deep, deep bass just sound more impressive in areas that aren’t part of the musical experience.

I need to say that one of the things I cannot tolerate in an audio system is fat, boomy bass. Still, it seems I prefer a more vintage sound when it comes to bass. With all these speakers, placement and amp selection is absolutely a necessity or they can sound fat and boomy. For example, the only way I could get the Quad 57 to play this kind of bass was by using the incredible Pass Labs XA30.8. Even then the Quads had to be at least 5 feet off the wall behind them to not sound tubby. Still, in the end I find the harmonics, richness, air and weight of the vintage sound to allow music to flow in a more natural way than most top-of-the-line modern speakers, even those costing in the six figure range.

Are there any exceptions to this? Well, open baffled speakers do a pretty good job with bass, the big Maggies do as well, but with both of those we don’t have ported, dead boxes trying to play live sounding music. This is all just my own opinion, but that’s what a column is all about after all.

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3 Responses to Beatnik Pet Peeve #3: “The Way Modern Speakers Play Bass”

  1. Paul MacEwen says:

    i certainly don’t have the exposure to equipment that you do but i traded my modern paradigm monitors for a pair of tannoy berkeleys after hearing a friends tannoy devons. he is a vintage guy through and through. there is something in the way tannoy’s present music that i love. i have a 25 year old forte audio(pass design) amp pushing them with blue circle audio preamp, phono stage and dac. saving up for a blue circle amp. i got my dad a pair of audio note an-k spe for his room and i love the sound of those and they were just on top of the tannoys.

  2. BradleyP says:

    Let’s face it. The best stereo in the world can’t fool us into thinking we are at a live concert. So, if certain inaccuracies somehow get us psychologically/emotionally closer to that elusive goal, then so be it. And this is coming from a guy who listens 90% of the time on a pair of pancake-flat professional studio monitors.

  3. Allen Edelstein says:

    It’s interesting that a friend of mine who designed the SEAS Froy 3 kit designed a set of 18″ woofers for them that can be used ported(3Db down at 23 Hz) or closed box(3Db down at 33 Hz). I prefer the dryer bass closed box. My friend prefers the ported box(done with a rarely used for reflex box, Bessel function roll off). And we both agree exactly on what we hear on both setups. The closed box is definitely tighter(which by topology it should be) and more defined. But there is a sense of ‘life’ with the ported box missing from the closed version.

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