ONLINE - ISSUE 16
From an Editor's Notebook: Some Further Thoughts on the Ultimate Monitor
from AudioMachina, together with a digression on cost and worth…
Photographs and image processing by Robinson
The AudioMachina Ultimate Monitor with BOMB™ bass extension module, shown here with the Linn Klimax monoblocks, interconnects and speaker cables by JENA Labs, and power cabling by First Impression Music
From time to time, I get to take a break from the more-or-less standard routine of reviewing, and publish some loose notes/reflections on a theme, a promising prototype, or a product that didn't stay long enough for a proper evaluation. These are usually brief, and shouldn't be taken as anything more than some passing pensées… take them for what they're worth.
Along that line: several months ago I published an interview that I did with Karl Schuemann of AudioMachina, the developer and producer of the "Ultimate Monitor." (See PFO Issue 14 at www.positive-feedback.com/Issue14/audiomachina.htm for the main body of our discussion, together with photos of Karl and his product.) Karl is a thoughtful Northwestern audio designer with a strong interest in advancing the art of monitor building, a passion that is clearly evident in the interview cited above. He left a pair of the Ultimate Monitors together with their BOMB ("Bottom Octave Magic Box") for several weeks earlier in the year, and I got a chance to hear them for a short while. I conducted the interview at the end of that period, and Karl bundled up his speakers.
After the interview was published, I had a reader who inquired what I "really" thought of the Ultimate Monitors. $16,000 seemed like a lot of money for a monitor design to his way of thinking; were the Ultimate Monitors really worth it? What did I think?
A simple question, really.
And yet long-time readers may be aware of the fact that I do not ever seek to answer that question for our readers. The reason for this is simple: only the person who is making the decision about a purchase—any purchase—can answer that question. "Is it worth it?" is a query that belongs to the buyer, not to the reviewer or the editor. Every audiophile has to assume the responsibility for his or her own decisions, has to take published evaluations and reviews, arrange a listen (if possible), consider their own financial resources and priorities carefully...
…and then choose.
Everything after that is just living with your choices, which is why you want to make good ones.
I responded to the reader's inquiry about the Ultimate Monitor along these lines. I have a feeling that he felt I was being a bit coy… was ducking the question… but actually, this is a long-standing and deeply held position of mine.
Excepting the abovementioned question of worth, I can say a bit more about the Ultimate Monitors briefly, because they do have several interesting points. (I'll also mention a caveat or two.) Before I do, I should openly confess that I am not an enthusiast about monitor speakers generally. Their strengths of coherence and imaging are almost always compromised by their lack of the bottom octave or two (a critical, indeed, unacceptable loss to my way of thinking), their lack of efficiency, and their all-too-often "boxy" presentation. Full-range, floor-standing dynamic speakers, even with their own set of compromises, are still closer to the heart for me.
That said, I can also say that I did find some very appealing aspects to the performance of the Ultimate Monitor during its short stay in my listening room. These would include the following:
The carbon fiber cabinet was very solid and free of the sort of obnoxious ringing that's pretty common with many monitor speakers.
The Ultimate Monitor's innovative curved cabinet design results in an audio "stealth effect"—lacking hard lines/edges, this speaker has a way of melting away and simply disappearing when the music starts. This is a relatively rare quality, and one that is highly desirable. The Ultimate Monitor has it.
Karl's commitment to First-Order crossovers did produce a sound that was extremely coherent and phase correct. The seamlessness of the music was notable; I was not able to close my eyes and pick out the shift from one driver to another. The sound simply flowed from points in space; it's no surprise that imaging and soundstaging with the Ultimate Monitor was excellent.
Karl Schuemann holding a BOMB™ module next to an Ultimate Monitor on its dedicated stand
The BOMB™ bass-extension module did improve the lower frequency somewhat, making it somewhat more acceptable to the audiophile who cannot be without the frequency foundations of audio reproduction. As a matter of fact, I would say that I do not consider the BOMB™ to be "optional" with the Ultimate Monitor—it's essential.
The well-engineered dedicated Sound Anchors stands did not contribute anomalies to the sound; the use of heavy-duty double-stick mounting tape produced a nicely inert interface between the Ultimate Monitor and their speaker stands.
I have to admit that for a person who isn't usually very enthusiastic about many monitors that he's heard, the Ultimate Monitors did impress me; they were the things I've listed above very well.
Having made these complimentary points, I'll have to balance the picture, because there are a couple of performance parameters that I think AudioMachina ought to consider:
Karl and I talked several times about these observations. The good news is that he is working on further enhancements to the design. Schuemann claims that these improvements will be significant, and that they will respond to my reservations listed above.
We'll get a chance to see and hear these improvements very soon now. Karl Schuemann and AudioMachina will be exhibiting at T.H.E. Show at the St. Tropez in Room 1509; I plan on stopping by and seeing what he's done with his conceptions. Who knows? Perhaps this full-range speaker lover will find more the Ultimate Monitor to be much more compelling at that time.
A Designer Responds
On the topic of bass extension:
With the BOMB modules in place, and with proper setup, the frequency response in a typical room (1200-1500 ft3) will reach flat into the low 30's, and will be 3dB down in the upper 20's, with a useful response into the mid 20s. While I agree wholeheartedly that more extension would be desirable (it always is...), I should make a couple points. First, this is lower by a significant margin than any small speaker ever made, and has already pushed the laws of physics to their breaking point. Many floorstanders don't go this deep! And while many monitors (and larger speakers) have been designed to give the illusion of "good bass", it is usually achieved by overdoing the response in the 40+Hz region, after which it falls like a brick. While it might sound "great" for a week or two, this drives me crazy, and makes most of them unlistenable long-term.
An even more important point is in regard to the quality of the bass produced. I will make the statement that at least 90% of all box speakers on the market have a bloated, slow, overly warm bass region when compared to what is strictly "accurate", i.e., relative to live music. The speaker market is dominated by high-Q ported-box designs which achieve "good bass" by a deliberate "hump" in the frequency response. Even worse, they have terrible time-domain performance, having a slow attack and a long overhang. This combination of qualities is translated by many listeners as "warmth", and considered to be a good thing. But "accurate", as in true to live sound, it is not. The Ultimate Monitor is one of the only small speakers in the world which delivers deep but accurate bass, in both the frequency and time domains. (The Gryphon Cantata is the other, and those who have seen it will note its striking similarity to the Ultimate Monitor in many ways, albeit at 50% higher cost and with a less-refined cabinet design, but a very cool space-age look) In my experience, it takes a long time for most people to begin to recognize the "quality" of bass (i.e., the time-domain response), and to be able to separate that from the "quantity" (frequency response) in their own mind. I would encourage anyone who wants to think about bass response more deeply (ha ha) to visit our website and read the article on bass under the "tech notes" section.
However, for the incorrigible bass freaks among us (and I count myself as one), I am in the process of developing a new speaker which will deliver true fast-and-flat-to-the-teens response, while retaining all the strong points of the Ultimate Monitor, and still remaining liftable. This is no small task, and it is still a ways off. In the meantime, I would strongly encourage those looking for a state-of-the-art full-range system to consider using a pair of Ultimate Monitors with a pair of REL Stentor III subs. For a system cost of under $23,000 MSRP (and even lower in reality), with careful setup, this combination will seriously outclass anything else anywhere near its price range, and not just in the bass.
On the topic of treble extension:
I will say first that you are the only person who has ever asked for more HF response. Most people consider it to be "just right". However, there is no question that 1" silk-dome tweeters, even state-of-the-art units such as the one we use, will never reach beyond 20kHz, and most will be rolling off before that. While it is easy to ask for more extension, it is a very difficult thing to deliver in the context of all the other (more) important design requirements. In this particular case, the extraordinary "disappearing act" that these speakers achieve is in no small part due to the basic physical design of the speaker and the front baffle. The tweeter is set into a waveguide for perfect time alignment, which is absolutely paramount. This waveguide will not work properly with any inverted-dome tweeter, because the wavefront propagation does not match. This instantly eliminates any of the current inverted-dome beryllium or diamond tweeters from consideration, and puts you back at metal domes, which to my ears have never sounded as good overall as a top-level silk dome. This is a long way of saying that in my opinion, when every important aspect of the design is considered, the design compromise is as good as can be achieved at this time.
As a technical aside, there is another topic which may explain why you felt the treble response to be "refined". This has to do with the difference between frequency response and power response. Most home loudspeakers (including the Ultimate Monitor) are designed for flat frequency response, meaning that the direct sound from the speaker is given highest priority. This tends to give a better result in the "nearfield", which is the dominant source of most domestic systems' sound. The power response is of more importance in concert halls and auditoriums, where the reverberant field is the dominant source. In our particular case, one of the results of the waveguide is increased directionality in the top octave, which in turn causes a reduction in the power response if one designs for a flat frequency response. Therefore, the in-room reverberant field (due to "splash" off the side walls, etc.) will be less in the top octave than in a speaker which has wide dispersion all the way up. This is especially true in a "live" room such as yours, with no wall or ceiling treatments to absorb midrange frequencies.
However, as has been noted in controlled listening tests, a gradual and smooth falloff in upper-octave off-axis response will have a much more benign effect than an abrupt discontinuity in the off-axis response, such as that seen in almost all flat-baffle speakers with high-order crossovers (i.e., most "normal" speakers). It merely lends a "refined" or "clean" quality to the treble, as opposed to making it instantly obvious that you are listening to a loudspeaker. To me, there is no question of which compromise I prefer in this case.
On the topic of "value":
It has been interesting watching the response of many audiophiles (and American ones, in particular) to a "small speaker" which retails for $16,000 per system. Many of them have the same reaction as your reader, and gasp when they see the price tag. I will make several points here.
First, there has never been a speaker, of any size or price, which has used this advanced a cabinet design and construction. While most people don't have the technical background to understand what goes into it, I can state with confidence that there is a reason no one else has done it: It's extremely difficult, and extremely expensive. The flat aluminum pieces which make up a Krell or a Goldmund, or the sheets of phenolic laminate used in a Wilson, or the solid wood laminates in a Sonus Faber, or the carbon fiber/ MDF panels in a Kharma, are all a dream compared to the amount of effort in this cabinet. The closest thing to our construction method is the molded fiberglass construction made famous by Rockport's $90,000/pair Hyperion. While our construction technique is more advanced than Rockport's in many ways, it is a simple fact that if you want a truly "inaudible" cabinet, and the enormous improvement in sonic realism that comes with it, you're going to pay dearly for it.
Second, there is a real "mental block" in many people's minds when it comes to "price vs performance vs size" in loudspeakers. More than any other component, a loudspeaker is judged by its size, not by the job it does. I'll not speculate on the reasons, merely observe that it's true, whether the cost is $100/pair or $100,000/pair. The one thing that doesn't change is that at a given price point, the smallest model is usually the best sounding, and also the hardest to sell. Who's going to buy a pair of LS3/5A's when for the same price you can get a pair of buttkickin' Cerwin-Vegas with 15" woofers? Only someone who values music more than sound, and has enough self-confidence to act on it.
Other components have a much easier time of it. For example, some will listen to the Linn Klimax Mono amps, and will conclude that they are excellent amps despite the fact that they are $20,000/pair Plain-Jane boxes that can be lifted easily in one hand. Luckily for Linn, occasionally an audiophile will have a light go on in his head (I say "his" because women don't have to figure this one out; they already know), and he will say, "Wow, it's really neat to have amps that are superbly made, fit easily into my room, deliver beautiful music to my ears no matter what I play, and don't require a couple gorillas to move!"
But when the subject turns to speakers, many audiophiles can't make the very same mental leap, to replace the word "amps" with the word "speakers" in the above quote. All too often they fall into the trap of evaluating the product on the basis of dollars per cubic inch, or dollars per pound. While this is a good way to buy groceries, it's a lousy way to choose loudspeakers. I believe that when it comes to creating the "illusion" of live music in a typical home listening room, at typical listening levels, the Ultimate Monitor/BOMB system so badly embarrasses most large speakers in the $20K/pair range that it isn't even funny. It won't compete in loudness capability, but within its limits (and the limits of most listeners), it simply "disappears" better than anything I've ever heard, regardless of size or price.
So, I ask: Is that not what it's all about? Speaking for myself, I can pay no higher compliment to any audio component than to say "I can't tell it's there." And that, in a nutshell, was the #1 design goal for the Ultimate Monitor from the very beginning. The proof of its success is in the listening.
I would like to encourage anyone interested in hearing this system to stop by room 1509 in the St. Tropez at THE Show, Jan. 6-10, 2005 in Las Vegas, and stay as long as you like. And please, bring some good music to play!