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Positive Feedback ISSUE 6
Offrandes loudspeakers, revisited
as reviewed by Bob Neill
One of the oddest things I have noticed about the world of high end audio in the last few years is the failure by many audiophiles to understand that no componentno piece of scientific equipment made by human hands, no humanhas direct access to what Robert E. Greene confidently calls "objective reality." Every manmade thing is an interpretation. Everybody interprets. The microscope interprets less than a novel, but the difference is in degree, not in kind. This is not a statement of disbelief in "objective reality." I believe in it as much as Robert Greene does. But neither Professor Greene nor I have direct access to it, any more than a religious believer has direct access to his god. Both are matters of faith. I find faith in objective reality to be the far more reasonable of the two, but I don't delude myself that this is anything more than an inference I draw from its apparent solidity, general predictability, and success in winning a broad consensus about its nature. Clearly something is there, which is not something I can say with confidence about the almighty(s).
What is this preamble about? It is a reminder, mainly; a form of caveat lector that I find is increasingly necessary. To wit: when you read in a review that Speaker A is more accurate, more transparent, more truthful, more correct, smile knowingly, understand that you are listening to rhetorica reviewer's interpretation of a designer's interpretation, and look elsewhere for less ambitious and more knowing counsel. To wit: Reynaudseven these marvelous little creatures I am about to describeare not more (or less) truthful or accurate than Harbeths, Spendors, Quads, Merlins, Josephs, or Sonus Fabers. They will not provide you with superior (or inferior) access to the ding an sich than these other worthies. They offer an interpretation of the world of music that differs from that of the others. Their interpretation, their point of view, their choice of priorities, interests and has come to appeal to me, which is why I have spent the last few months exploring and writing about Reynauds. But when I rave about them, as I sometimes do, you must understand my raving as rhetoric: personal enthusiasm taking the form of persuasion. Speakers compete with each other rhetorically: they attempt to persuade you that their designer's point of view is "the best." Enthusiastic reviewers will often do the same. We are rhetoricians. Robert Greene is as much a rhetorician in his way as I am in mine. Even the Gospel is rhetoric, an interpretation which represents a point of viewmany actually; and you'd be amazed at some of the interpretations the editors left out! Which is why Christians have their favorite versions of it: why some find the King James "truer" than the Revised Standard and others will only read it in Hebrew and Greek. And we won't go into the rhetoric of science'!
To the Subject at Hand
I brought a lot of baggage to this audition. I had just spent several months with Reynaud's new Twins III and new Trentes, both of which reformed my expectations of and altered my taste in speakers, creating great expectations for their nearly twice as large (mainly in depth) and also significantly more expensive brother. Also, I had heard Offrandes before, in their most recent prior iteration, a year or so ago. (See review at http://www.enjoythemusic.com/magazine/archives/. I liked them then but they weren't persuasive enough, I wasn't ready for them, they weren't quite ripe, or all of the above.
I will spare you the day-to-day up and down experience of revisiting this famous speaker in its latest version that I burdened several of my audio friends with, as the Offrandes and I broke each other in, other than to say that the experience did not end up being the continuous journey that I expected from Twins to Trentes to Offfrandes. The new Offrandes are not refined and more sophisticated Trentes. They are philosophically consistent with their smaller siblings. Their sonic priorities are the same: to communicate an immediate, tactile sense of performed music; to be candid, expressive, and enthusiastic rather than refined, diplomatic, tonally pure, or charming. But they are much more dynamic, larger in scale, wider in bandwidth, warmer, richer, and more detailedespecially in the bass. The earlier version struck me at the time as a bit opaquenot these. The Trentes are really insufficient preparation for them. They sound like no other speaker I have ever heard. At times they reminded me of the earlier Offrandesin their breathy immediacy and tactility especially; but these new Offrandes are more dynamic, more authoritativeespecially in the bass, and smoother. And unlike the earlier Offrandes, they don't require large output tubes to bring out their character. They sounded very happy on my neutral hybrids. They are clearly Jean Marie Reynaud's statement' productand while I expect more ease, fullness, and authority on the bottom from the larger, 3-way, floor-standing Concordes, which are the next step up the Reynaud line (and waiting in the Green Room), I do not expect a significantly different sounding speaker. "I could not have designed and built the Concordes had I not designed, built, and redesigned the Offrandes first." JMR
Despite what I said about the specific tastes of Harbeth and Spendor lovers in my Trente review, I find it hard to believe that anyone would not like or at least admire the Trentes, fans of the Harbeth Monitor 30 especially. But I expect there will be some for whom the new Offrandes will be too much: they may have too much expressiveness and personality for tender, indoor sensibilities. A statement product tends to be a stronger expression of a designer's particular point of view than other products in the line designed to please a broader audience. The Offrandes are the most expressive of JMR's speakers I've heard yet. They have more personality than either the Trentes or the Twins. They are not overly assertive or at all harsh; but there are some folks who prefer a little more domesticity, or at least civility, in their home music systems than live' music provides. They like a little aesthetic distance between themselves and the performers. How many people who consider themselves music lovers would really like the sound of the Emerson Quartet playing Shostakovich #8 just nine feet away, in their living room? Shouldn't the violin be a little more liquid, the viola a little less husky, the whole thing a little less dynamic? Of course, if you like. There are some paintings even sophisticated art lovers dote on in museums that they would be reluctant to hang on their walls at home because well because they are not homely (in that word's original sense). They are not restful, they are too passionate. And frankly, it's not the custom as it once was to invite a string quartet into one's drawing room, especially one that plays, say, Bartok or Shostakovich.
The Case for the Rightness of the Offrandes
Rhetoric Alert! But some of us like to come up against the unyielding and often revelatory edge of art, no matter where we are. And I have become one of those folks. I like interpretations of music that capture the immediacy and presence of a performance. And so Jean Marie Reynaud has become my man. Il est L'homme.
The Offrandes are warm, clear, detailed, dynamic, immediate, tactile, firm, and expressive. Clearly the warmth is the unexpected and crucial item here. Lots of speakers we know of can do clear, detailed, and immediatebut warm too? Like live music is warm? Yes. That is the ace JMR plays with all of his speakers. He can do expressiveness and clarity but warmth as well. And because he can do natural, accurate warmth, he doesn't have to add extra liquidity to please us, to soften the impact of instruments. He can please us with a close likeness of their sound as we would hear it in a live' performance. He can give us not more beauty but what feels strikingly like the exact beauty of the violin.
On Schumann's String Quartets Nos. 1 and 3 played by the St. Lawrence Quartet (EMI), you can hear the breath of the violins. Ribbons of sound come bearing thickness and substance as well as surface. Warm, dynamic, clear. Not notably pretty. Not especially refined. Candid, present, forceful, not to be denied or ignored. Exactly as the quartet I last heard live' sounded in Bezanson Hall at UMass/Amherst. I remember saying to myself at that concert, "This is full of energy, power, and eloquence, but it's not particularly pretty. It doesn't sound like an expensive refined audio system. But it sounds wonderful!" This recording is just a bit prettier on the Trentes but hasn't quite the dynamics and power to grab you that the Offrandes have. The adjustment you have to make moving from the Trentes to the Offrandes is like moving from a studio into a space where you can hear instruments as they sound in a performing venue. The balance feels warmer, the sound is both more dynamic and more reverberant, without losing clarity. It is a very different sound than many of us are accustomed to hearing from our music systems: much more involving, exciting, and dramatic. Again, the violin is not just a beautiful ribbon of sound but a fulsome piece of wood and steel, with an underside. Either the Offrandes have matured since I heard them a year or so ago, I have, or both.
Kim Kashkashion, Robert Levin, Georgy Kurtag: Homage to Schumann (ECM). This may be the best viola recording I've ever heard. Bashnet's recent release of music by Gubaidulina and Kancheli is probably its equal, but here we have chamber music where the viola is more on its own. The viola chants, snarls, purrs; the piano rings, then tolls like a church bell. The range of sound is astonishingand in this recording we are occasionally aware of how delicate the Offrandes can also be, when asked. Schumann can't believe he wrote anything quite this beautiful.
Rattle on Mahler Symphony No. 4 (EMI). On the Trentes, it is beautiful, smooth, the upper mids airy and especially smooth. The violin enters at 8:40 of the third movement and is exquisiteI note the time for comparison. On the Offrandes, it is all slightly warmer, less overtly beautiful; but I notice that the oboe is richer. Massed strings are not as delicious but full and clear and the double basses are more evident. The violin enters at 8:40 and is very fine but not as exquisite. This is an interesting difference that I don't know quite what to make of, so I'll just note it.
"Can they rock?" asks one of my web friends, reading my early notes? On goes Christian McBride's latest outing, Vertical Vision (Warner Bros.)new band, more jazz-rock fusion than I am used to with McBride. Slashing, impactful, percussion banging off the walls, very impressive. Yes, friend, they can rock. A few cuts of Bad Plus's These are the Vistas (Columbia) confirm the observation. And finally, to be fair to readers of the earlier Offrande review, on goes Patti Smith's Horses (Arista) and yes, she's all there this time!
What Can't they Do?
The Offrandes are not full-range floor standing speakers, though on some recordings they can fool you. They are (effectively) two-way stand-mounted speakers which are actually nearly twice as large in volume as the Trentes, thanks to their 5 ½ inches greater depth front to back, which helps to give them the surprising low end authority they have. Their bass is conspicuously greater than the Trentes,' but they still cannot present a full orchestra with the authority and overall sense of ease and confidence of 3 ½ times larger three-way monitors like the Harbeth Monitor 40's, with their 12-inch woofers. No stand-mounted, two-way speaker anywhere near its size can do that.
There is nothing else the Offrandes can't do. On chamber music, rock, and jazz, they are to my ears and according to my taste, peerless. On orchestral music they are impressive, generally satisfying but not overwhelming. The earth does not quite move. Would it move in a room smaller than my 5000 cubic footer?
They are very handsome, appear to be extremely well made, and have their tweeters, the same unit in the Trente (and Evolution 3), mounted in the cabinet and below the woofer, to keep it out of the way of the triangular mini-transmission line path of the woofer, rather than mounted on top as on the Trente, Evolution 3, and Concorde. (This reportedly makes them more acceptable to spouses.) There is a star shaped "phase piece" mounted in front of the tweeter to increase dispersion and give the speaker a polar response comparable to that of the top-mounted tweeters. I expected that mounting the tweeter so low would reduce the airiness of these speakers and limit the breadth of their soundstage and had this impression in the first week or so. After that, either I adjusted to the presentation (which is also a bit warmer overall because of the Offrandes' significantly deeper bass) or my initial prejudice died away. I certainly did not end up feeling the Offrandes had limitations of this kind.
The Offrande woofer is "deeply different" from the Trente woofer, except for the Zamac basket in which it is mounted. "The cone has a new internal damping material... The magnet system is also strongly different." There is a fifth binding (grounding) post which is intended to be attached by wire to the body of the amplifier to eliminate static charges on the cone's surface.
Closing Thoughts and Conclusions
I spent most of the time listening to these Offrandes on my reference electronics, Blue Circle AG 3000 double single-ended tube preamp and AG8000 150-watt balanced hybrid monoblocks. They performed equally well, trading off some dynamics for some sensuality, on a single-ended Blue Circle BC3 Galatea and BC 24 sixty-watt hybrid stereo amp. They strike me as being a very friendly load, which should respond well to any good amp that can deliver 50-150 watts into their 4 ohms, so long as it's not too cool sounding. An Audiomat Prelude integrated tube amp (EL 34's) comes to mind as an interesting alternative. I used the Audience modified Sony DVP-NS999ES dvd player, which takes both CD's and SACD's as my source. It delivers a more open, more detailed, airier, though less robust, less visceral presentation than my usual reference Naim CDS2. The Offrandes were happy with both players. Interconnects were Audience Au 24, speaker cable was JMR HP216A, bi-wired.
So where are we? Where the Trentes strike me as an easy recommendation in their mid $2000's price-range and beyond for a fairly divers audience who want something a bit more live' and musically exciting than the principal competition, I think the Offrandes will probably pick their audience more critically. If you like Trentes and just want a bit more bass, fullness, and a slightly softer presentation, I'm told the floor-standing Evolution 3 is the logical place to go. But if you like the Trentes and want more of everything: more immediacy, more dynamics, more bass, more of the underside of musicand if you're not afraid of getting a little closer to the music, as close as Jean Marie himself clearly wants to bethese may be the only speakers in the world for you.
Jean Marie Reynaud
Bob Neill is a part-time retail dealer for Blue Circle Audio.