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
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 Worlds 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 Payors
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 Arrakiss twin 15" woofers are not mounted on
her front baffle, but fire from the side, a driver placement used in all of
Rockports 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 speakers 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 Payors 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
loudspeakers 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
"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
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 Rockports 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 Rockports best loudspeakers in Jeff Fritzs 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 Payors 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 rooms 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/rooms
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
Rockports smaller listening room (23L x 16W x 9H). He assured me
that this would give me some perception of their performance capability in my own
environment (26L x 14W x 9H). 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 11H) with 20"-thick,
constrained-layer-damped walls treated with an array of RPGs 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 Rockports top models.
Listening to my compilation, my first observation was that
Payors 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 Debussys La
cathédrale engloutie, from her Water Music of the Impressionists (CD, Delos
D/CD 3006), mainly for its delicious transparency. Rosenbergers 97-key
Bösendorfer appeared life-sized across the room, immediately replacing the
Arrakises. Although the pianos 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 instruments 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 Id 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
We were both bowled over by Alan Dawsons drum solo on
Paul Desmonds "Take Five," from Dave Brubecks Were 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
Mulligans baritone sax. Sounds of keypads opening and closing on his and Paul
Desmonds 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
Sinatras 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 Eargles recording of Gerard Schwarz and the Seattle
Symphonys performance of Alan Hovhanesss 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 Hovhanesss 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
Id heard in the Music Vault, or in any other room Ive ever been in.
Payors 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 Bishops 5Hz mix into his creation, way below the 24Hz tuning
frequency of the Arrakiss twin ports of machined aluminum.
After listening for 55 minutes and comparing my findings
with what Id 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 Payors 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 Johnsons 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 mans 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
Id 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
Payors 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 Id just heard?
Perhaps another time . . .
Dedicated to Dr. Simone Laura Sandiford. Congratulations
and bon chance.
. . . Simeon Louis Sandiford