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Should a loudspeaker be a musical instrument?

technofile  by al fasoldt

Columns and commentaries in a life-long dance with technology

Simple gray rule

Should a loudspeaker be a musical instrument? Does it matter?

By Al Fasoldt

Copyright © 1989, The Syracuse Newspapers

Ken McCarthy wouldn't take no for an answer when he called to sell me on the virtues of his loudspeaker.

It's new, it's different, it's unique, he said.

Since I've heard the same claims dozens of times from other speaker designers, I told him I would have a hard time believing him.

Nothing's really new in the loudspeaker business, I said. Every design has been tried many times already, and speakers are still the weakest link in the audio chain. Most of them sound like speakers, not like the real thing.

Ken listened while I complained about the faults of typical loudspeakers, and then he carefully and methodically went a little bit crazy.

He told me that his loudspeakers sounded so good because they were musical instruments. He compared them to a Stradivarius violin.

Just about everybody in the hi-fi business knows that speakers aren't supposed to be musical instruments. They're supposed to be neutral. If you imagined that sound was like light, you'd want speakers to be colorless, so they wouldn't add any tints of their own to the music.

I told this to Ken McCarthy and he stuck to his story.

"Listen to them and hear for yourself," he said.

And that's how I came to acquire-on an all-too-short loan-a pair of Acoustic 2000 loudspeakers. They're made by McCarthy's company, Biphonic Sound, in the unlikely community of Groton, in a valley east of Ithaca. They sell in the range of $1,000 or more a pair.

The Biphonic speakers may or may not be musical instruments-I never did settle the issue with Ken McCarthy-but they definitely are different from most other speakers. Externally, they look like large bookshelf-type speakers, but that's where the similarity ends.

For one thing thing, McCarthy's Biphonic speakers don't have any low-frequency woofers or high-frequency tweeters. And that means they don't have crossover networks-small electrical circuits that divide the signal so the woofer doesn't tweet and the tweeter doesn't huff itself into a frenzy by trying to woof.

They each have two identical speaker drivers, about 6 inches in diameter. Each one covers the full frequency range.

For another, his speakers don't have a completely rigid enclosure. Something inside the Acoustic 2000 vibrates, or shakes, or moves, or does something as yet unexplained, to improve the sound. I would like to tell what that moving or vibrating thing does, but I don't know; McCarthy wouldn't let me saw apart his multi-thousand-dollar hand-built prototypes to take a look.

But in audio, like so many other pursuits, it's the destination that counts, not the road taken, and so I stopped pressing McCarthy to explain the mystery component and left the matter alone. If the speakers sounded good, I didn't care if they had chickens and geese inside.

I set up the two Acoustic 2000 speakers in the same location as a pair of highly touted name-brand speakers, using the same amplifier and other components that I had used in regular listening. When I began playing a recording, I had to stop to double-check the speaker connections. The Biphonics sounded quite a bit different from the speakers I was used to.

I soon came to prefer the Acoustic 2000 speakers over most of the others when listening to all types of recordings. Their only drawback was a reluctance to play at rock-concert levels. A minor point was their weakness in the deepest bass, down in organ territory. On most music, that limitation never became a problem.

Extended listening to some of the latest compact discs, most which had been engineered without obvious signal tailoring, convinced me that the Biphonics have few peers in the recreation of string instrument sonorities, and even fewer rivals in the area of vocal purity. They are, in short, unusual, and possibly in some ways unique.

But as to whether they are musical instruments, I'll let Ken McCarthy keep arguing the point by himself. All that matters to me is that they sound marvelous.

If you'd like more information on the Acoustic 2000 speakers, contact Biphonic Sound at Box 192, Groton, N.Y. 13073.

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