Loudspeaker Day in Orinda – Review by Laurent Heller
It was a warm and characteristically beautiful morning on June 13th, 2015 as I packed up my little Leben CS-300X integrated and bounded out from my house in Berkeley through the tunnel, headed for Leslie’s place in Orinda and the SFAS Speaker Demonstration event. I had been looking forward to this for weeks!
The day promised to be a study in contrasts, with the hope of gaining some insight into two alternate paths to audio nirvana, care of Piraeus Audio and Burwell & Sons Loudspeakers.
I had heard good things about Piraeus from friends, but hadn’t yet had the pleasure of hearing them myself. I didn’t know much, but I did know enough to expect big, technical, and active loudspeakers in their AM presentation.
I had heard the Burwell & Sons Homage horns at the California Audio Show a couple years earlier. I didn’t recall the sound particularly, coming as it did at the end of a long day of wandering through rooms, blissing out on systems both reasonable and ridiculous. Whatever sounds I had encountered were lost to time, but I do remember being very much smitten with the look and aesthetic which was definitively retro in both form and function. If truth be told, I’m drawn to old school gear, high sensitivity speakers, and anachronism in all its many forms.
All our listening was done in Leslie’s converted garage. We had about thirty members in attendance, spread out across the folding chairs and various sofas lining the walls. We left the back (garage) door open, with large acoustic screens forming a back wall, after a fashion.
This system and room are familiar to many of us by now, affording those in the know an opportunity to hear the differences elicited by inserting a new piece of gear, the new gear in this case being Piraeus’ active Athena speakers ($23,500) in the AM, and Burwell & Sons’ horn-loaded Homage speakers ($80,000) in the afternoon with a mix of tubed and solid-state amps. This was going to be great!
We started things off with Iain McNeill, Chief Technical Officer for Piraeus Audio. Iain kicked us off by announcing that he was, for all intents and purposes, a heretic… Iain, you see, is a digital guy. Now don’t get me wrong, many of our members are digital guys, and that’s all perfectly fine as these things go, but talking about the limitations of analog strikes this particular author as almost a counter-culture viewpoint in the midst of the vinyl revival of 2015. Did I mention that I love heresy (or at least the idea thereof) almost as much as anachronism? In order to cement his growing heresy, Iain got us going on a quick PowerPoint presentation on what Piraeus and the Athena’s were all about and why digital technology brings certain inimitable strengths to speaker design that can’t be duplicated in the analog realm. Intriguing…
I’m a music lover for sure, and something of a gear snob at times, but one thing I’m definitely not is an audio engineer. Those in attendance who are card carrying members of the AES (and there were several that I know of) might have gotten a lot more out of Iain’s impressive charts and graphs than I did, but I’ll try to pass along the highlights here for your reference and/or amusement. I trust the technical folks amongst us will correct my errors in the comments below as needed.
Iain points out that it’s essentially impossible to have one driver produce a flat frequency response across the entire audio band. Different drivers do better or worse, more or less at different frequencies, and in order to avoid a gap, we tend to use multiple drivers and to overlap the audio frequencies produced thereby to ensure adequate coverage of frequency response in the audio band. Of course, the necessary overlap in frequency ranges means that drivers are summing their sounds together and producing both frequency and phase peaks and valleys in the speakers overall response at various points. Proper integration of the drivers to produce something like a flat frequency response requires a crossover network.
Iain tells us that a first-order crossover with a steep slope would be a perfect way to do this in theory, but in reality it’s a lot more complicated than this. The speaker’s resistance is not perfectly even and the drivers’ impedance interacts with the crossover, leading to sub-optimal results for both magnitude and phase of response. From there, the designer fiddles with the network, trying to correct these errors, but those changes insert still more possible error, altering phase and magnitude of response simultaneously. Getting this right takes a lot of trial and error and ultimately the results are only as stable as your capacitors and inductors and their behavior may shift over time and alter what the designer originally intended.
For these and other reasons, Piraeus has been blazing an alternative trail using DSP and digital active crossovers instead. The approach used in the Athena has each of its three drivers driven by its own individual amplifier, fed by its own DAC (a Wolfson 8741), downstream from a DSP engine that creates the virtual crossover required to more or less perfectly tailor the speaker’s frequency and phase response across all three drivers. Designing this crossover in the digital domain allows for independent tweaks to both phase and frequency response, allowing Piraeus to develop what I’m told is a magnificent set of measured responses from the system. Iain shared various charts with us and I didn’t need a technical background to see that the frequency response and phase curves were indeed remarkably flat and benign. All this, plus the Bubinga veneer on the pair before us was gorgeous.
Iain started us off with what must have been the simplest system ever to grace an SFAS event. I’ve only been to a few, of course, but tell me I’m wrong! Iain’s system consisted of an Apple Airport Express, a small white box the size of a pack of cigarettes, plugged into a wall outlet with a 6 foot length of optical cable running from there to the right speaker. Another lead connects the right (master) speaker to its left (slave) counterpart, and that’s it. Instant Hi-Fi!
The simplicity of this setup is pretty remarkable and might just mark the easiest path from zero to serious hi-fi. Try this on for size… Step 1: Sign up for a lossless streaming service like TIDAL. Step 2: Buy one Airport Express and TOSLINK cable. Step 3: Add a pair of Piraeus Athena speakers. Step 4: Sit back and enjoy 25 million tracks in a seriously hi-fi stereo setup with only one connection to make. It’s almost too easy for us audiophile obsessives.
Ok, so these technical aspects are all well and good, as is the simplicity of the Athenas’ plug and play setup, but none of that would count for much if it didn’t sound good… Fortunately for those of us assembled at the event, the Athenas sounded great.
Iain kicked things off for us using his iPad with some acoustic James Taylor, flowing from there to a great cover of Girl from Ipanema that turned out to be by Rosa Passos with Ron Carter on the bass. In both cases the sound was very well controlled with ultra-smooth treble, and generous but precise bass lines. Instruments were laid out on a soundstage that was both wide and precisely defined. I imagine the precisely aligned phase performance of Iain’s active digital crossovers placing each instrument very intentionally and just so for our listening pleasure. I’m here to tell you, it was pretty sweet.
After fifteen minutes of similar smooth, if unfamiliar, tunes from Iain’s library, we asked if he wouldn’t mind having us connect up with Leslie’s library. He graciously agreed and the gang set to work running an optical cable out of Leslie’s PC into the Athenas. This took us just a minute or so and we were ready to rock again with a track some of us have been playing a lot lately, the Alabama Shakes’ Don’t Wanna Cry no More. For the record, this track isn’t really hi-fi, but it is pretty fantastic.
The assembled crew very nearly jumped out of their seats as the first spastic, echo-drenched guitar tones rang out from the modified stereo setup. The sound was kind of muffled perhaps, but was noticeably louder and had a decidedly, nay wildly different character. I looked over at Alón sitting next to me and we shared a WTF-style look for a second before someone called out with the answer to our unspoken question… The Burwell horns were suddenly playing, not the Athenas!
We had been playing the Burwells on Leslie’s stereo, trying out different amps before the event started that morning and they were still hooked up, just behind the Athenas and we had accidentally left the whole system up and running in a state of readiness, poised to leap into action when we hit play and forgot to change the output on Leslie’s JRiver Media Center. Much hilarity ensued, along with apologies to those in attendance, but the error was quickly fixed and the Piraeus leapt to life again, while that momentary blast of sound presaged some of the differences we would all note in the afternoon’s session.
Music continued quite satisfyingly on the Athenas throughout the remainder of the morning. The Mission Soundtrack, a latter-day Ennio Morricone composition, was populated with beautiful cello tones and remarkable ambient cues. Dusty Springfield’s voice was smooth as silk and brushes drug languidly across snare heads with impressive realism on Kind of Blue. After maybe 90 minutes of blissful listening, we thanked Iain and broke for a leisurely lunch on the deck in the noonday Orinda sunshine.
The afternoon kicked off with a quick presentation from Gordon Burwell and his son, um… Gordon Burwell. The Gordons Burwell shared some thoughts about their design philosophy, rooted in beautiful, handcrafted speakers in the style of old Altec Lansing designs from the 30’s and 40’s, like the Model 7 Voice of the Theater speakers on which the Homage horns before us were based.
I had the pleasure of sitting next to Gordon Sr. at the Phono Stage Shootout a few months earlier where we had a blast talking about what we were hearing, what we liked and disliked, and just generally trading notes on life, music, and this crazy hobby we’re all engaged with. So I already knew Gordon was a bit of a character, but everyone assembled got a big dose of his down-to-earth style and dry sense of humor while we waited out some slow loading photos as his talk began… Gordon mentioned that Leslie had asked him to bring a PowerPoint presentation to the event, but he didn’t know what that was so he had to Google it to find out.
In the end, the Gordons went for a slide show (digital obviously) instead of a PowerPoint and it worked out great, even without the bulleted lists that tell you what you’re supposed to think about things. As the slide show loaded on Leslie’s computer, Gordon Jr. noted that he was bringing his dad kicking and screaming into the 90’s whether he liked it or not.
Before I go any further, I just have to mention that the Burwell Homage horns really are a sight to behold. The main enclosure holds a 12” vintage Altec horn-loaded woofer, resting on top of a slot-shaped port tuned to the low 30’s. On top of the enclosure rests a vintage Altec compression driver mounted to a bespoke, handcrafted wooden horn. Gordon shared pictures of the process of assembling these wooden horns, hand selecting grains from up to 60 different pieces of various exotic hardwoods, carving, sanding, assembling, and finishing these into the finest looking tweeters you’re ever likely to encounter. Gordon regaled us with stories and photos of their converted garage and manufacturing facility, along with the occasional photo of the family cats until we were finally able to fire up the Homages.
Folksy charm and exceptional cabinetry are all well and good, but it wouldn’t amount to much if the Homages didn’t sound good. I have to confess I was a little nervous there for a minute there, but fortunately again, we were in for a bit of a treat that afternoon. The Homage horns might be pricey, and they are, but they sounded amazingly good.
The Gordons Burwell kicked us off with a David Grisman track, Nature Boy, which sounded very alive and realistic, with startling dynamics on every drum hit or plucked string. From there we went to Bonnie Raitt which exhibited full, luscious bass tones and very smart, attention grabbing snare hits. Yello’s La Habanera, from their Alón-approved album One Second, sounded very deep, the drums and bass resonating realistically in what felt like a truly cavernous recorded space. These speakers have dynamics, tone, and PRAT in spades.
It’s worth noting here that the Homages did all this, nearly blowing us out of the room at times, with a cheapo, 4-watt, Chinese-made tube amp Alón brought along… The horns’ upper 90’s sensitivity and benign 8 ohm impedance making them a good match for all manner of low output amps, several more of which would be swapped into the system over the balance of the afternoon.
A little about the rest of the system first. Leslie’s system has been evolving but that day the Homages were hooked up to a system containing the Ayre QB9 DSD DAC, a windows gaming computer running J-River, Pass Labs XP-30 Pre-amp, High Fidelity Cables CT-1 Ultimate Reference Helix, Platinum to the power strip and DAC, and CT Power 1 to the pre-amp, Synergistic Research Element Copper RCA with Galileo MPC from pre to amp, Merrill balanced interconnects from the DAC to pre, Synergistic Research Tesla T3 SE power cord to the amp, and the SR Galileo USB cable. Phew! Just typing all that out made me tired, imagine setting it all up?
Those of you who dutifully followed all that will note that I didn’t mention an amp… We wound up swapping between four different amplifiers, each brought by one of our members. First up was Alón’s little 4-watt tube amp that sported two very unusual FU-32 output tubes. The sound was lively, spacious, and realistic well beyond anything you should expect for its $300 price. Sadly Alón tells me that the name of the amp manufacturer and model are unpronounceable to those who don’t speak Chinese, including both of us. Buy him a beer and perhaps he’ll show you how to find it on eBay.
Next up on the amplifier front was member Kevin Olson’s First Watt SIT-2. This is an exotic, hand-built, single ended transistor amp using unique custom manufactured static induction transistors and designed by Nelson Pass. Things tightened up significantly as this amp went into the system, bringing excellent control and dense tonal colors, a very refined sound.
Next in the amp rotation was a DIY KT-88-based tube amp designed, built, and brought along by our newest member, Glen Egan who had just signed up for the SFAS that morning. I love that the new guy brought his own tube amp to the event, just in case it would be handy, which of course it was! Better still, the amp sounded great, with a generous helping of detail, tube-y sparkle, and warmth.
We finished up the day using my own Leben CS-300x integrated tube amp, running with NOS Mullard El-84’s. We had to tweak the system for a bit to get this one hooked up and running. When we finally got all the cables hooked up and happy, we had to swap IC’s and take the XP-30 out of the system. I felt that the sound closed in a little as we swapped this one in, but control was good, as was imaging to my ears. Kevin told me the Leben was his favorite tube amp, while my favorite amp was probably his SIT-2, but all the amps paired well with the Homages and sounded great. The speakers just love to sing! Just make sure you’re bringing at least 2 or 3 watts to the party and you should be fine.
You really would have a hard time picking two serious, high fidelity loudspeakers that could be more different. The Piraeus Athenas were the kings of control and precise response, both in frequency and in phase. They’re powerful, practical, cutting edge, and up to the minute. The Burwell Homages, on the other hand, were beautiful, hand wrought, and like their makers, were lively and dripping with character. The Homages are big, bad, beautiful, and so retro that you find yourself transported into a half-remembered past when technology was simpler and could still be made by hand, impractical though this may sound in today’s modern world.
The general consensus of those I spoke to was that the Athenas were very smooth, had pinpoint sharp sound staging, and had a remarkably flat frequency response, offering a textbook performance. The Homage’s on the other hand offered remarkable dynamic realism and realistic tone. There are a lot of different paths to musical nirvana, and any one of them could get you there in style. There is no perfect speaker, nor a perfect system. The key is to keep your eyes and ears peeled for new (or old!) ideas and to enjoy the journey. I’m happy to say that the collected membership of the SFAS did just that on this sunny Saturday in Orinda.