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Adagio loudspeakers: Nowhere to Hide from Such joy
as reviewed by Jim Merod
Last week I joined a small gathering of professorial curmudgeons to pay tribute to a legendary former Ivy Leaguer - retired professor of literature and critical theorist, also now retired. The honoree spends one week a year on the west coast, travels across Europe and Asia with abiding whims and significant interests while, otherwise, enjoying the soon to be tropical coast of Maine during its final days of salt air moderation.
The scene of four neo-vaudevillian wine drinkers toasting ghosts of departed intellects such as Yale's Paul de Man and Vienna's Wolfgang Iser prompted the gracious owner-hostess of our fancy Newport restaurant, Michiko, to flag me down before I left her parking lot.
"Do you men like my food?" I assured her we did.
"How about music …was it okay?" I paused, since our conviviality had drowned out any appearance of recognizable melodic energy. She took up the slack.
"What music you like?" To which I told her of my longstanding interest in jazz and classical music at their best. I had no idea that such simple inquiries would trigger several days' of self-inventory.
Her questions lingered to remind me that music is too often a sullen background for work, play, shopping, entertainment, and just plain loafing. I had no idea what sonic drones may have surrounded our several hours of restaurant conversation, but a central but vanishing truth—that great music exists in order to express the unutterable—appeared in vivid Technicolor as the aftermath of Michiko's questions.
Truth: as strange as music
For the vast majority of my time as an audio reviewer, my attention is devoted to small details of sonic performance. I'm aware, always, of the full context of critical listening, but the details …inevitably the details, hold the devil's work when devilish things are amuck.
Musical "truth" is largely emotional, but in a musician's performance, "truth" is frequently technical: the execution of perfection in rendering a song's notational directions. Over three decades of live recording work, I've been surprised at the number of times that world-class musicians opt for the technically flawless presentation over those with more feeling or drama or mystery. Far too often, in my estimation, musicians choose the safe route—flawless, error-free tracks at the expense of those that may hold finger faults or momentary fluffs, but that, as a whole, truly are enchanting.
An unlegislated rule of professional life demands that freedom from error prevail over the mysteries and astonishment of stylistic uniqueness, innovation, and all those hard to define qualities that accomplish art's deepest magic. I've had long, hard, and genuinely difficult conversations with great musicians about which "take"—the raw but deeply innocent first set performance or the more polished, but routine second set exercise—ought to be put on their albums. I've won my share of these discussions, but win or lose, I walk away weary and sad with the knowledge that even superior artists sometimes do not "get" what their art is all about at its supreme height of musical glory.
The unwritten law at stake is a version of the blue-collar rule, to cover your butt in the presence of authorities. I was introduced to that gross cowardice as a teenager when, before I departed for college, I worked for nine months as a janitor in a big St. Louis factory. I had to join the union and I was told the rules of avoidance and engagement with management. In later life, I've been disappointed to find that same rule applies to the choices of crème de la crème artists, no less. In sum, leave no shred of evidence that you may be in error on occasion. Give your detractors as little as possible to condemn or denigrate your actions.
Such thinking is a losing enterprise. We're all "in error" at some the time, knowingly or unknowingly, and efforts to seem faultless are, in essence, attempts at inhumanity. Nevertheless, the point of my musings here is this alone: music may be the most transcendent of the arts, the most sublime form of human energy and imagination possible. The inexpressible quality of music at its most magnificent, literally brings its attentive witness to a new level of awareness and humility. What is most at stake in musical performance, therefore, is not the "throw away" execution of ditties—what Itzak Perlman called last night, at his White House performance for Queen Elizabeth, musical "bonbons"—but that unutterable achievement of renewed and heightened consciousness.
The Adagio Singing
Acoustic Zen's Robert Lee offered me a glimpse of his evolving "under-hung" speaker design many years ago. I had visited his nearby showroom and one of his older speakers caught my eye. I asked questions about its fate and Maestro Lee (a man of mysterious comic moods) replied that it was incomplete, and in truth, a dead end. I talked him into a listen of those flawed speakers, and found them far less offensive or short of the mark than he did. However, such as it was, I forgot about Lee's promise to revisit his previous design-thinking someday, only to be startled a year or so ago by a call from the Maestro himself. He wanted to know if I'd like to hear his new speakers. Sharks still poop in deep water, so I scurried over to Acoustic Zen's new headquarters in Rancho Bernardo.
Robert Lee is a beguiling man, generous of spirit, deeply humorous, and truly both kind and humble. In order for him to reveal the full story of his artisanship, one must work and work because his reticence protects an exquisite artistic sensitivity. Robert Lee does not like to bask in spotlights, unlike many others we know. Instead, he prefers to let his work speak for itself.
I'll dispel any mystery here. Lee's Adagio speakers do, indeed, "speak for themselves" …they speak "songfully", and that is their special mark of audio distinction.
I'll let others describe the structural contours of the Acoustic Zen "under hung" philosophy—tho' it sounds on first encounter, either extremely macho, or its opposite …I'll attest to a macho reading here. My interest is not in the unique technical achievement these speakers manifest, but the "whole of music" approach that Robert Lee apparently sought in their design.
Sit Back. Blast Off
The day I accepted Lee's invitation to hear for myself his softly uttered "eureka" accomplishment was very warm, an unseasonable day in San Diego county. I was relieved to wander into the large inner sanctum of Acoustic Zen's air-cooled warehouse where temperature control allows Lee's staff to carry out their work in comfort and with minimized heat-related variables.
At Robert Lee's request, I brought a set of recently recorded masters to his private demo studio. The Maestro handed me a glass of water and told me the room was mine to roust about it, listening as I wished, changing the set-up as needed or desired. He then left me to my own devising.
Right away—I mean immediately—I was struck by how gorgeously musical the Adagio speakers sounded. Over the years, I've encountered (and sometimes owned and lived with) speakers that carry a significant "boogie factor" …speakers such as the old KEF 104.2s and various Sonus Faber speakers, as well as stacked Quads. Such speakers present a thorough musical experience, with emphasis upon the thrill and heart-throbbing drama of "experience" within, around, and because of the music they deliver.
The greatest speakers make a world. They do not merely "reproduce" sound nicely or accurately. They deliver an event to life's eager yearning for joy and dramatic witness. Music is a universe to itself, but its cosmos is infinitely generous since music is made for human reception. Music, with all its allure, nuance, and seductive energy, demands to be deeply experienced …not as "background sound", musical noise, or a distracting buzzing.
Acoustic Zen's Adagio speakers—like the KEF 104s before them; like Sonus Faber before and later (now)—hold an ineradicable artistic pedigree. They comprehend music as embodied art and not as reproduced sound. In short, there is something magical in music delivered by such speakers. They may not "measure" to someone's abstract standard. They may not attempt, or achieve, sonic "linearity". Nevertheless, like the horse that took the Kentucky Derby last Saturday (May 5th, '07), Street Sense, such speakers seem to roar past competitors coming from the back of a crowded pack, leaving the force of their fleeing hooves branded on all behind.
My analogy is meant precisely, because since the Adagio speakers are ridiculously priced ($4300 retail), they may seem to be the shy, back-of-the-pack runners. Do not allow the modest price to lull you into overlooking their superior performing qualities.
Victory, Going Away
My initial impression of these remarkable speakers was only a wake-up call to dig in further. I brought a set of these beautifully crafted devices to Casa BluePort, in blonde burl finish, and let them break in for several weeks. Even during that period of sonic emergence, everything they delivered was joyful, engaging, and wholly coherent. As time and break-in conspired to bring them to the homestretch, I found myself somewhat startled. I truly had no doubt that Robert Lee, whose audio cables are among the finest at any price, would not entice me to listen closely if he were not satisfied that his new speaker design had not achieved his goals.
What startled me was the gradual increase in emotional seduction that held me longer, day by day, in my reviewing seat. Something special was emerging from these relatively inexpensive speakers. I'll admit to precisely what startled me with gradual boosts and musical welcome: my own growing excitement witnessing such steady, slow motion enlargement of musical vivacity.
You will note that the emphasis in my vocabulary here rests with the words "music" and "musical". Although it could be read as dismissive if all that I said to describe and honor these special instruments were that they "make good music," or they "are inherently musical," the truth of these thoroughbred speakers is that they are the genuine thing itself: boogie monsters. Acoustic Zen's Adagios knocked my internal cap from its sleepy resting place that first moment, listening to master recordings in Acoustic Zen's private studio. They literally "captured" my attention. Each day and week since, as each listening session followed the previous one, the Adagios reminded me of the truth of music's irreplaceable importance in our lives. Music tames the beast in us by unleashing boogie monsters in place of worse instincts. Show me a person who does not care for music and I'll warn you to keep your eye on his every move.
I recommend anyone who believes that music is meant to be felt with passion and savored like great wine, to give the Adagios a test run. Their price is already in your favor. Their thoroughbred musical heart may very well startle you as much as it did me. If and when Maestro Robert Lee—part time comedian; sometime dancing bear; full-time artist—decides to craft a bigger, more ferocious speaker engine than this one, I will doubtless stand in line for a ride, though I will no doubt fear for my emotional life's fragility. Moreover, I will probably shake my head in amazement, as I am right here, that such an innocent man, such modest if also handsome speakers, conspire with boogie monsters and angelic musical devils. Jim Merod