ONLINE - ISSUE 28
The Cycle Is Complete - Dr. Sardonicus Returns to the Scene of the Crime
The ESP Concert Grands - Si
As difficult as it is to accept ...it was ten years ago when I did my first review for Positive Feedback; that sterling freshman effort featured the BAT VK-5-i, 6922-based line stage pre-amplifier and the BAT VK-500, solid-state power amplifier. Recently, I did an updated review on the successors to those two classic BAT pieces (currently the VK-51-SE and the VK-600-SE). This was back in PFO Issue 25; to review my comments, see www.positive-feedback.com/Issue25/sardon_bat.htm.
The speakers used for that original review (and my longest tenured reference loudspeaker) were the original ESP Concert Grands.
So, with this review, the cycle is complete. Who says you can't go home again?
Over the years my various listening rooms have been primarily populated by large, full-range, dynamic speakers, from a double-Ampzilla-driven pair of Infinity QLSs, to the Mirage M-1s (with various amplifiers, including the ill-fated Mesa Baron); each with its own unique positives and negatives.
Speakers are like that ...by far and away the most primitive and variable of the audio chain.
I even flirted with some risky possibilities along the line; I was almost seduced by the Krell-powered Apogee Scintilla's, but I recovered my senses when told of the delicacy of those ribbons—delicacy and me NOT being good bedfellows!
Who Keeps a High End Speaker for Ten Years?
But in my search for the water from a deeper well, and through a typically odd series of events, I found myself driving one day from Portland, Oregon, over the mountain passes of central Oregon to Bend (a high desert Oregon resort town) to hear a speaker that was not available through the typical dealer networks (having only one or two brick and mortar dealers at the time ...well, or ever). I kinda liked the idea it was not in wide distribution.
There, in the converted garage-demonstration room I first met designer and builder, Sean McCaughan and first heard his speakers; in this case the ESP Harp (one model down from the Concert Grands). And there, I heard pretty much everything I was seeking in a speaker; resolution, refinement and musicality matched with SPL's ...they did everything I needed. And they were purdy too!
However, because I know myself, I knew I would be forever uneasy if I settled for the second fiddle so I sprang for the top-of-the-line Concert Grands. This after getting to hear them at former PF'er John Colletti's house in Portland, where sadly I made both John and his big Conrad Johnson tube amps profoundly uncomfortable with groups like Hole and Rusted Root, played at levels I knew I would require. I had never seen a tube amp spark before ...hee hee.
My (thankfully now X) wife selected the dark, birds-eye plum veneer; I plunked my deposit down and waited the requisite few weeks for the build.
The original Concert Grands were a revelation from the beginning. Unerringly musical, they drew me deeper into this dark audio obsession than ever I had ventured before. They drove my purchase of the BAT equipment, motivated an ongoing upgrade path for both analog and digital sources ...and cables ...essentially they created the audiophile monster I have become.
Never perfect, never the darlings of the audiophile cognoscenti; you know them, those dark and sinister figures who so perversely seem to prefer amusical, cold analysis ...the Frankenstein "pieces and parts" separation of the musical event into individual spectra (as opposed to listening to actual music), carriers of the dreaded audiophile nervosa.
The ESP Concert Grands were always richly musical, unabashedly emotional, and always enjoyable.
For me, the ESP Concert Grands have always neatly defined the difference between demonstration "HiFi" aficionados and real music lovers ...There was no nod to the former. This was a high-end speaker for people who actually listened to music on their systems.
Over the years, often I emerged shaken from some searing audiophile demonstration, my ears in tatters from the multiple-assault, 20 - 30 second shrieking, icy audio freak show I had just endured ...gratefully returning to my BAT-driven Concert Grands to actually listen to music, like slipping into a Mai Tai driven hot tub, or a classically comfortable silk robe.
What reservations I had about these speakers were relatively modest, much akin to those we maintain about our dearest, much-loved friends, about whom we no longer maintain any illusions.
And over the years, Sean kept me upgraded with all of his changes. We became friends and I ended up owning the only pair of Concert Grand Signatures in existence.
Things Always Change
But when Sean closed production I sold my Concert Grands, temporarily replacing them with the Piega P-10, an utterly charming little floor-stander, (and getting first in line for the first of Jennifer Crock's speakers, the studio version of which, is rapidly reaching completion).
Some time later I discovered that Sean was contemplating returning to production with the Concert Grand Si re-design. Mike Verretto (distributor for ESP) and I spoke about upgrading and doing a review, but it just was not to be. Ultimately, they decided not to offer an upgrade path for their then current owners.
Such is life. I moved on.
Then, a few months ago, through an odd series of events, I found myself back in touch with Mike Verretto and before long we had made arrangements for a review pair of Concert Grand Sis.
Basically, necessity is a mother. I needed a large, full-range speaker for the Boulder 2000 series equipment review, and the CG-Sis seemed just the ticket. I had also hoped to try the Boulder out on some large electrostatics, but alas ...it was not to be.
(Note: after just returning from the Rocky Mountain Audio Fest, I now know why I could not get any Soundlabs ...they were ALL in one room there!)
The New Si's - Initial Impressions
Well, first thing I noticed was the two speakers (old and new) are visually identical.
These are huge speakers but much less imposing visually than similarly sized competitors, probably because of the angularly "sliced" front aspect. I always thought the Grands were a very attractive speaker, even though they are definitely "bigun's."
Long ago I accepted that my hi-fi gear will dominate my life, and so it is not a problem for me. I like big speakers (" ...big steaks, big girls, no trouble there ...") and WAF is not an issue any more. So, laissez les bons temps rouler!
Even the bi-wire speaker terminals are (sadly) the same on the new version. I wish Sean would drop these proprietary, soft copper terminals and put something more serviceable in, like the Cardas posts. There is always a risk of stripping the terminals when you try to cinch them down on spades. I babied one side of my original Grands along for years, knowing that I was one twist away from having to replace them. This time, if I were keeping the Grands I would spring for the Jena Labs cryogenically treated big banana adaptors from Cardas, and not use a spade connection.
I think the finish on the woodwork is significantly better on the Sis than with the original speaker. Other than that, one would be hard pressed to tell the old from the new, strictly by looking.
Under the Hood
Once past cosmetics, there are many differences. First, internal construction is quite different. The new speaker is heavier (more drivers, more bracing) and boasts ten drivers per cabinet, each a premium unit. Sean says the raw drivers alone are over $5000, which rather neatly explains the $40,000 asking price. The crossover, too, has been re-designed.
But how do they sound?
Sonically the Sis are, at the same time, very different from the original Grands, and very much the same. While they maintain the musicality and "walk in" sound staging of the original they have definitely migrated towards much greater resolution, one of the things often complained about by audiophiles with the original speaker.
The original Grands could sound the tiniest bit opaque when compared against the likes of Avalon and other audiophile darlings. Frankly, I was quite comfortable with giving up a bit of resolution to be able to listen for extended periods without having my ears sanded off the side of my head. But, I think Sean knew that he was going to have to address the resolution and transparency issue if he was going to compete with the big dogs, so he did.
The original Grands were always a teensy bit bass-shy, even with addition of the third woofer. Essentially, Sean wanted them placed on concrete floors, but this is a rarity for most owners in the US. For myself, they were always on suspended floors through three houses, and I always wished for a bit more grunt and extension on the low end.
Well, the bass output is definitely higher on the Sis but I don't think they actually go much lower, frequency-wise, than the originals. So, while there are improvements, the bass is still an issue. At $40,000 I find it to be much more of an issue than at $15,000 (the original retail on the Grands). Perhaps it's just me, but I think $40k speakers should do 20/20000 +/- 3dB.
That being said, I am a total bass head and most audiophile will find the bass performance to be quite generous.
Resolution and Transparency
This new speaker is significantly more resolving and transparent in comparison with the original. There simply is no comparison; but because of the "sock" design many serious audiophiles will write the speaker off without a listen, assuming that the sock will have a deleterious effect on resolution and transparency, which to some vanishingly small extent, it no doubt does (no such thing as a sonically invisible grill-cloth material).
This being said, in actual listening the speaker is very revealing and in a different class from its predecessor in terms of openness and transparency. Sean shot for addressing the criticisms leveled at the original speaker in this regard, and he hit a bull's eye with the Si.
(Note: In my most recent communication with Sean, he has opted for creating a removable front for the Grands, to address the issue with the sock. Bravo!)
Tonality and Balance
The original Grands were king when it came to tonal richness and a natural balance. I always found them imminently satisfying in this regard. While listeners who are not familiar with the original may actually find the new Grands a bit rich sounding in comparison with the whippet-lean crop of current audiophile favorites, the new speaker is somewhat cooler sounding than the original, so long as you get good bass control.
Initially, I adopted three strategies for bass control, the simplest of which was to spike the speaker to the floor with the terrific new spikes that are provided. Secondly, it is important to keep the speaker AWAY from room boundaries, and lastly it is important to provide them with a good high-powered amp with a good damping factor to control all those woofers.
Of the three strategies, the second (room boundaries) actually turns out to be both the most difficult and perhaps the most important. It also turns out that the last recommendation (amplifier) may not be as important so long as you get the other two correct.
Because of how these speakers are designed they WILL excite your room more than a traditional design, and keeping them away from the edges helps to tame both the bass and the tendency for the indirect sound sources within the speaker to "splash."
Boulder and ESP
I started this review process with the incredible Boulder 2000 series electronics, centered on their 2060 model, six-hundred watt stereo amplifier. The amplifier was simply indifferent to the challenge of these humongous 10-driver towers. From DC to daylight and out to six hundred plus watts of class A power (the Grands present a nominal impedance of 6 ohms), with staggering current reserves, the Grands were held by the Boulder like Rosanne holding a Dilly Bar after a twenty minute fast.
But alas, my room at the time I began this review was simply inadequate in size for the new Grands. Even re-orienting the system with the speakers firing into the long axis helped only a bit. Quite simply there was not enough distance from the walls, not enough cubic footage to allow the Grands to function properly.
After just hearing the Boulder on the Wilsons at the RMAF, there is no question the ESP Concert Grand is a HUGELY better match, making the Wilsons effectively sound like PA speakers in comparison.
My new room, which is significantly larger, works perfectly. No boom, no splash ...the Grands breathe easily and their character changes.
What is most surprising to me is that in the new room I find I can drive the new Grands very well with, yes ...that's right boys and girls, SEVENTY-FIVE watts of tube power! Of all the unlikely pairings, the ESP Concert Grand Sis and the Ming Da MC34AB integrated work together in a most satisfying manner.
This strengthens my contention that you must deal with your room situation if you are going to consider this speaker. You cannot shoehorn it into a smaller room, or shove it into the corners or you will never know what it sounds like.
Sort of the Bottom Line
I have listened to more high-end speakers over the past five years than I can comfortably stand. Most of them left me either shaking my head in pain, or completely unmoved.
Thus far in my life, my three peak speaker experiences are: (chronologically)...
...a THC fueled, state-dependent memory of a classic Macintosh-driven JBL Paragon, a warm summer afternoon, a huge bottle of sun-warmed, war era Japanese Saki, and the Beatles, Sgt. Peppers on virgin vinyl. Youth is NOT wasted on the young.
More contemporarily (and less chemically altered) is the frequency range covered by a huge JBL bi-lateral horn (the 2360-A) in the otherwise less-impressive Chinese sourced XLH Reference 1812 speaker. Heavily bi-wired and jumper'ed with Jena Labs cabling, driven by BAT and Lamm amplification ...from about 400Hz to probably close to 10,000Hz, this is as close to speaker nirvana as I have ever been. Try to imagine the speed and transparency of the best electrostatic you can imagine with practically unlimited dynamic range and power ...and NO horn sound ...it has left me scarred for life. I can only gesticulate weakly at the accusations, which will no doubt flow from this admission that I have unfairly and with malice, bagged on horns pretty much every time I have written about them. I clutch at my chest, call for a drink of water, and try to gasp out, "Bite me audiodork!"
And most recently, the barely pre-production Jena Labs speaker, which is likely to be an absolutely explosive influence in the under $50k range for full-range speakers (and which will eventually be accompanied by at least two other speakers in the line).
But in the here and now, and overall, I have to give my favorite speaker nod to the new ESP Concert Grand Si. Possessed of both delicacy and great power, the ESP Concert Grand Si is a speaker with few shortcomings, once its environmental needs have been met.
This is the kind of speaker that delivers the goods and keeps you satisfied, year after year.
Sean has created a masterpiece speaker that absolutely bridges the seemingly cavernous gap between demonstration hi-fi and true musical reproduction. I know of no other currently available speaker to do this at this level of completeness.
Space, the Final Frontier
While the ESP Concert Grands are perhaps not quite as picky about rooms as the big Sound Labs or Magnepans ...they are close. This is because there is a significant amount of indirect sound radiating from the boxes, more so than with the earlier version. In too small a room this may result in a splashy effect that can be disconcerting.
My current room is nearly seventeen feet wide and quite long, with vaulted ceilings and a lot of irregular surfaces. This is the perfect environment for the Grands, wanting only a solid concrete floor, rare most US homes.
The Grands like lots breathing room, both laterally and behind, with at least four or five feet from the back walls needed and probably three feet from the sidewalls ...more is better. If they are going to function optimally, the Concert Grand Sis will take over your largish room. If you are unwilling to allow this, they are probably not for you.
Given the room they need, I cannot think of another current production speaker with the ESP Concert Grand Si's long list of superlatives ...and no serious contender for overall musicality, so long as you are willing to bow to their demands.
This is an absolutely stellar, world-class speaker.
After a protracted period of time away from my babies, my reference BAT electronics are just recently back in place (VK-P-10-SE phono, VK-51-SE line, and VK-600-SE amplifier), lashed together with Jena Labs Pathfinder and Dreamdancer cables, and suspended alternately on the continually evolving and quite remarkable Critical Mass amplifier stands, and the superb Billy Bags floor stands.
Driven by what remains my favorite digital source (the voluptuous Lindemann 820 SACD player), and my Cardas Heart/Jena Labs table, I am back to sitting transfixed in front of my system, disc-after-disc, record-after-record. I watch guests in my room, and they don't twitch or move ...facial features flat and eyes glassy ... altered states for sure, and for sure, the best indication that music be in the place.
After my experiences at Rocky Mountain Audio Fest, I am convinced that for many audio enthusiasts, the act of listening to music is more akin to participating in an auditory autopsy than a joyous artistic-emotional event.
I watched attendees flee in flocks from music, to alight cooing at valium-driven Patricia Barber, harpsichord pieces or bizarre barking llama music demonstrations (OK, I admit that my Klezmer recording was a bit ...challenging, but at least it was real!).
In spite of the impressive changes Sean has made in this classic transducer, this speaker will NEVER appeal to demonstration audio enthusiasts. It just makes too much music.
For myself, I will part with it regretfully. I could easily live with it forever.
Retail: USD $40,000