Tuesday, November 15, 2005

Audiophilia: The Audio Upgrade Bug Strikes, pt 2

It was only a matter of time, but it seems the time has come. I previously acquired some fantastic used Proceed gear at an astonishing price. I had this incredible amp and no speakers for it to drive!

I've been researching speakers for a couple months on-and-off and finally went out and auditioned the front-runners this past weekend. My main interest right now is a high end pair of left/right mains that can be mated with a good center channel for movies and 5.1 music.

The contenders:
- Paradigm Studio 100, Studio 60
- Thiel 2.3, 1.6
- Revel F32
- B&W 603 S3, B&W 704, 703

Test material:
- "Serenity" Soundtrack
- James Taylor - Greatest Hits
- Mary Chapin Carpenter - State of the Heart, Stones in the Road
- Lord of the Rings: Fellowship of the Ring Extended Edition

There's a bit of a wide range in cost here - $2000/pair up to $4000/pair. But the used market tends to equalize matters if necessary.

B&W 703: So very pretty
The first speakers I auditioned were the B&W 703s. They were my front-runner on paper and have by far the best looks of all the speakers under consideration. I tried to not let the gorgeous woodwork and sloping cabinet design and cool yellow Kevlar woofer cone bias me.

But the 703s are more than just pretty. They sounded incredible. Not very stout at the low end, but they seemed quite accurate down there - a fair trade off as far as I'm concerned. Especially since a subwoofer will almost always be filling in the deepest bottom end anyway.

It was the midrange that completely stunned me - such clarity, definition, and accuracy! The high end was equally detailed without being overly crisp or bright. Some people have complained about brightness in this speaker, but I think they're pairing it with inferior amps.

The Serenity soundtrack CD is a detailed, lively recording of a much higher quality than I would have expected. Tracks 3 and 4 particularly emphasize the 703s strengths in the midrange. They became part of my standard test material package. Mary Chapin Carpenter's a capella intro to "Why Walk When You Can Fly" was a marvel.

I also listened to the matching HTM7 center channel running by itself with Cate Blanchett's intro to Fellowship of the Ring. I had to ask the sales guy if a subwoofer was on - he smiled and said "no".

The HTM7 was much fuller than expected, detailed in the mids and highs without any harshness or brightness. My quick listen led me to believe it completely capable in its job as the crucial center speaker for movies.

I tried out the 704, the 703's smaller companion in the 700 series. There was no comparison. The 704 was decent but it immediately fell short of its big brother. It was much less lively, less involving, dynamics were more muted.

The Thiel 1.6 was next. No comparison here either. They were obviously not on the same par as the B&W 703s. Oddly the staging was much wider than the 703s but as a consequence James Taylor's voice on "Fire and Rain" was much less coherent and dispersed, whereas on the 703s you can almost reach out and touch James Taylor in front of you. This is likely highly dependent on speaker placement/alignment so I wouldn't dwell on it too much.

I'm sure the Thiel 2.3s would offer a more suitable challenge. Tragically I no longer have my former roommate's 2.3s to compare against nor do I particularly remember their sound.

I then took a trip over to Fairfax and Beverly to try out the Paradigms. The Studio 100s were respectable though not exhilirating. Mary Chapin Carpenter's "Never Had It So Good" is a torture test of brightness in the recording and these speakers emphasized the brightness even more. Each guitar strike of the taught, metal strings clicked painfully, ruining any possible enjoyment.

This dealer also had the B&W 703s sitting next to the Paradigms. To refresh my memory we plugged the 703s in and tried the same test material. Within the first four notes or so of "Fire And Rain" I knew the B&Ws were the obvious winner. The sales guy was trying to conceal his smile at how big a difference there was but we both basically just shook our heads and chuckled. Adios Paradigm.

Next up was the Revel F32s. They offered big, bountiful bass - much more than any of the others I auditioned. Surprisingly I felt the midrange to be a bit thin, though perhaps only in comparison to the extremely strong deep bass. Detail was also good but not as gripping and thrilling as the 703s. I don't think our listening room was the best though - I doubt that the acoustic treatment fully made up for the rather small size of the room.

I found the F32s to just not really be my taste. My roommate loved the strong bass but it was too much for me. I felt it clouded over the more interesting midrange and upper range. Then again I'm not much used to speakers that can go deep like that. At $4k per pair I just couldn't claim that I liked them $1000 more than the 703s. Maybe if the Revels were $1000 cheaper than the 703s, but certainly not the other way around.

The sales guy at this place dragged us into his PMC listening room and we auditioned a pair of utterly uninteresting floor standers. They failed the Mary Chapin Carpenter brightness test - I think there was blood dripping out of my ears from the piercing brightness.

So despite not auditioning the Thiel 2.3s I was more than happy to choose the B&W 703s. I realize that I wanted to like them so one could fault my objectivity. But at the same time I don't think anyone could find fault with my choice. These are very good speakers.

I found a used pair on audiogon.com with a matching HTM7 center channel for $2800 (list price new is $3k + $750). They're in the gorgeous Rosenut veneer shown in the pictures above. Drool. I just hope they arrive before I leave for my Thanksgiving vacation to Chicago.

To round out the system I've got my eye on a set of used B&W 602 Series 3s for direct radiating surrounds. The 602 S3 is their largest bookshelf in the line down from the 700 series. The 600s share enough in common with the 700 series that they should match well enough. And the 602 S3 is no slouch either - the word "bookshelf" is a bit of a misnomer for this 23lb speaker that stands 19" tall.

Anyway once it all arrives, I should really be just about finished with any big purchases for the next couple of years! And should be pretty well set. The only thing I'll be missing is a subwoofer which is probably the easiest item to add down the road.

I'm dying to get it all here and finally unleash my amp!


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