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Positive Feedback ISSUE 7
as reviewed by Bob Neill
I come to audio from literature, not from math & science or engineering, as most reviewers do. This affects how I listen, what I listen for, and most conspicuously how I talk about what I hear. It also probably explains why I behave somewhat as a completist.' I hear one Blue Circle preamp and I have to hear em all. I hear Audience Au 24 and I have to hear Auric Illuminator and the Audience modified Sony DVD player. Same with Naim CD players. And finally, I hear the Reynaud Twins and I have to track down the Trentes, Offrandes, and now, the Concordes. Like a literary reader, I become fascinated by the author, I need to hear as much of his oeuvre as I can.
Jean Marie Reynaud
This is not a rewarding enterprise with a minor artist. It is repetitious and eventually cloying. But I discovered very early that Jean Marie Reynaud is not a minor artist: he is major. Everything he makes (that I have heard) is part of a greater whole that is informed by an interpretation of the musical worldthe line has integrity in that sense. And even more important, each speaker makes a distinctive contribution to a whole story that tells us more and more about music reproduction that we did not know before. JMR is not, as I tried to say last time out, the definitive designer of his dayhe is one of several. Major artists are not "better" than one another, except among critics and fans. What makes them major is that they have a powerful and distinctive voice that extends over a whole series of works, a voice we find it impossible to ignore, a voice that expresses a view of the (musical) world that has not been heard before it arrived. Major artists do not displace other major artists, they force them to move over and make room.
The Concordes: The End of the Line
I'm going to put my cards down early this time. The Concordes are the best speakers I've yet to hear. While there are likely others out there that can do better at this or thatespecially if you're willing to pay $10,000 and up, I doubt there are many even in that range that have the Concorde's wonderful balance of virtues. I feel no need at this point in time to continue my personal odyssey to more exotic islands. The Concordes sound like Ithaca to me and barring the unexpected will likely serve as my reference music-maker for the foreseeable future. The Concordes, as I will try to explain, are the kind of speaker that can do that to you. They have the feel of arrival about them. Take the principal virtues of the Offrandesimmediacy, tactility, expressiveness. Add greater fullness, larger scale, still better definition, more precise imaging and separation, and significantly deeper bass. And then, arguably most important of all, temper all of these characteristics with the overall sense of ease, smoothness, and confidence that a well-designed true three-way design can produce (where a dedicated woofer takes the responsibility for information below 250 Hz). Results: musical concord. All of the essential aspects of musical reproduction woven together into a harmonious whole, resulting in a speaker to stand alongside the Harbeth Monitor 40's (at exactly the same price) and give no quarter. Both are statements by major designers of significantly different interpretations of musical reality. Both, within the limits of reason, compromise on no important aspect of music reproduction to realize their designers' visions.
I see no reason to do another Harbeth/Reynaud comparison here. Their essential difference in point of view remains the same. It is worth noting, however, that the Concordes do go audibly lower than the Monitor 40's, which adds both impact and clarity to the low register. Comparing the Offrandes and Concordes is more instructive and will tell you most of what you want to know. "I could not have designed the Concordes had I had not learned all that I did designing and building the Offrandes" (JMR). Moving back and forth between them, what you notice first is a difference in perspective and the qualitative differences that go with that. With the Offrandes, everything is a bit closer and so a bit more crisp, enthusiastic, tactile, fresh, sassy. Both speakers are warm, as only Reynauds can be, without ceding clarity; but with the Concordes, the warmth has a spatial qualityit seems to become the character of a venue. You are back another 8-10 rows in the hall, where the sound is as clear but where it also has about it that natural smoothness that only ambience can provide; it is no less expressive but it is less crisp. It is not on you so quickly. The overall tonal balance is changed, thanks to the woofer and larger enclosure that fill out the lower range, so that everything seems a bit more relaxed, expansive, and grand. The music is centered lower in the range and feels both more physical and more authoritative. With everything I threw at them, music came back with a new level of real presence. I told Jean Marie that the Concordes sound like what we would expect Offrandes to sound like when they have grown up, matured. They laugh a bit less, smile more. Their personality is less evident.
The JMR website description of this quality: "Micro-details, that so many designs intentionally bring to the foreground to give a false impression of transparency, are rendered the way you would really hear them, as part of a wider musical environment. The scraping of a chair, the breathing of an interpreter, his/her whispers, the venue's ambiance, each melt intimately into the music to recreate a coherent and global message."
My first impression of the Concordes, after they lost their initial smoothness from being too stiff not to blur a little, was a slight dullness. Compared with Offrandes, they were a bit blah. Foolish audiophile. Impatient, thrill-seeking audiophile. My second impression, some one hundred or so hours in, using both the JMR break-in disc and a variety of music, was that I was listening to CD's longer, forgetting to notice what they sounded like, what the speakers were doing to them. I don't remember an intermediate stage. They simply went from smooth to dull to musically transparent. JMR explained that what happens between the initial break-in stage and the Concordes' final arrival (which may still be ahead of me) is that the pair of surrounds used for the woofer unit take a long time to achieve the same compliance.
And then there is the issue of speaker support. I am accustomed to putting Blue Tak under any and all speakers, something that Rob Doughty of Applause Audio in Toronto and JMR agree, in the case of the Concordes, will blur its powers of expression. It turns out they are right, the sound is a bit muddy. So on go the lovely brass spikes provided with the speakers and whoa, way too lean and brisk. Rob suggests Symposium Sveltes, which are 5/8-inch sandwich type bases designed and marketed by Symposium Acoustics, a recommendation seconded by Backwoods Ontario Barry, who has them under his Reynaud EV3's. (Symposium Acoustics also makes the widely praised Rollerblocks.) I run the idea past JMR, who tells me he is in the process of designing a similar product. Agreement is a rare treat in audio and so I pounce on it. A quick call to Symposium's Peter Bizlewicz (who speaks and writes eloquently and enthusiastically on the subject of mechanical interference in audio) and within a week, a pair of the magical supports arrives. Much better! I do not recommend auditioning Concordes without Sveltes.
So, with compliance sufficiently if not yet entirely (who knows?) achieved by the woofer surrounds and the Sveltes tucked snugly between the bare bottoms of the Concordes (I removed their own low stands) and my ¾-inch oak flooring (over slab concrete), everything settled into eloquent peace. Not the supremely articulate peace of the Harbeths nor the charming cleric peace of Spendors: the peace of an unprocessed, untamed live' musical performance. Musical peace. Where you are absolutely alert to the musicand to nothing else. And because there is no intermediary, either hyping or taming the music, there is neither artificial intensity nor doubt about what you are hearing. Listening to jazz, for example, through the Concordes all of the instruments become a bit more substantial (never underestimate the power of true bass to change the world!) and more complete sounding, the venue comes into play as an aspect of the instruments, and the voices seem to achieve a natural separation from one another in space. The result is that while the energy of jazz that you hear clearly through the Offrandes is still there, its profundity is there too: its ability to create a sense of stillness out of motion, something other forms of popular music cannot do. Listening to Monk on the Concordes, I understood why there has always been a group of people in American culture who want to claim it as "our" classical music. Listening to a Boccherini string trio, I first missed the brusk brio the Offrandes got out of it, then heard the more moving idyll beneath the brio: the brio was still there but no longer the only point.
During the listening sessions with the Concordes, I found myself gravitating back to Audience Au 24 speaker cable (single wired with Au 24 jumpers), a combination that is pleasing me a lot lately. I suppose that means I have to retract my recent statement that JMR's bi-wired HP216A should be considered definitive for Reynaud speakers. Sometimes it does seem so: it has great clarity without the usual overly vivid downside of wire that is as clear as it is. But sometimes I find I prefer the less exciting pleasures of Au 24. No big deal. My general observations and conclusions in this review are based on experience with both cables (and both the Audience modified Sony DVP-NS 999ES reviewed last month and the Naim CDS2). The specific listening notes below are based on Au 24 and the Naim source.
American Viola Concertos, Piston, Harbison, & Adler, Albany Records. It is nice to have orchestral instruments distinguished as clearly as thiswhich is only really possible with a solid and extended low end and the kind of resolution a 3-way floor-stander permits. Good speakers love violas, even more than they do cellos because there is a narrower brusk/smooth contrast to show off and because violas are more agile than their larger siblings. Samuel Adler's is the piece here that really goes after the instrumentand the Concordes' smoothness and tactility working together get it, both the lyrical creaminess and the breathy alto cantor-like intonation. The Concordes seem able to get more of the orchestral instruments' various colors than I've heard from other speakers.
Bach, Solo Violin Sonatas & Partitas, Kuijken, Deutsche Harmonia Mundi. The Concordes make this definitive performance of the Bach solo violin pieces sound wiser and more mature than they do on the Offrandes. They render the recording with more confidence and less urgency. The baroque violin is no less immediate but it is ever so slightly richer, smoother, and a little less piquant without losing the bitter-sweet quality of this three-hundred year old Milanese instrument. A Harbeth and even more so a Spendor wouldn't quite let this performance take us the way both the Reynaud Offrandes and Concordes do. I have never heard this recording sound this real and this exciting.
Rameau, Suites for Keyboard, Angela Hewett, piano, Hyperion. French baroque keyboard music is less linear sounding than its German counterpart, something that is clearer on a piano than on the harpsichord for which it was written, which is why I am glad Ms. Hewett has made this recording, for which incidentally, she has taken a bit of flack from purists. On the Concordes, because we get more sense of venue, this aspect of Rameau's suites is more evident than on speakers that can't pick it up. We sense the piano in the room where it is played. The music appears to spread out into space. We anticipate Debussy!
Benjamin Britten, Piano Concerto & Violin Concerto, Britten, Richter, and Lubotsky, Decca (1971). The Audience/Sony treated this 35-year-old recording with a little more generosity than the Naim, but both let great music-making of less than great music, which I nevertheless care for greatly, overcome Decca's respectable but still somewhat restricted ADRM re-mastering. What the Concordes do is let the music spread out a bit sonically, making the whole very listenable. Richter's piano rings clear and the orchestral colors surprisingly are all there. The violin concerto is the prize here and while Vengerov's and Rostropovich's recent recording (EMI) has virtues to offer (superior sound and more understanding of Britten's relation to Shostakovich than he himself may have had), nothing quite captures the exquisite sadness and eloquent anger of this piece as Lubotsky and the composer himself do on this generation old recorded performance. The Concordes throw the horns up against the violin as I've never quite heard as dramatically before. The Concordes let each of these two recordings strut its stuff and make me happy I have both. I hope Rostropovich records a lot more Britten. This is one of music's most extraordinary partnerships.
Sonny Rollins, Plus 4, Prestige. Recorded in 1956, remastered in 2002. I couldn't own speakers that can't do classical music and jazz equally well, which is part of the problem I've had finding reference speakers the last few years. All Reynauds fit this bill well, mainly by not falling into the trap of refining jazz. Backwoods Barry once characterized a pair of British monitors he was auditioning as only capable of playing Platonic Mingus.' I disagreed with him about these speakers and their limitation at the time, but have spent the last year coming to realize it was dead right. This recording, coming through the Concordes, is as full of gusto and panache as the Britten is poignant. It brought the listening session to a standstill, as I let Sonny, Clifford Brown, Richie Powell, and especially Max Roach take me away into the night47 years after the fact!
Iris Dement, Infamous Angel, Philo. These are the only speakers I've heard that let Iris sound the way she sounds in Northampton Massachusetts' Iron Horse club. Jim Rooney is behind a great many wonderful sounding country folk' recordings made over the last two decades and this one is no exception. If your speakers can't get the bottom and if they are not naturally balanced, Iris's voice can squawk a bit, which is how most people who have never heard her sing live think she sounds. In real life and through the Concordes, her squawk' reveals itself as an subtle and artful coloration of a voice that is eloquent in its lyrical candor. How many people know that Iris Dement has a beautiful voice?
Mahler, Symphony No. 3, Boulez, Philharmonic, DGG. I like Boulez's Mahler because we both seem to agree that Mahler only really works if you understand it as decadence: the decay of romanticism. A little desperate, aware of the impossibility of its affirmations, of being too late to the fair. Boulez brings out this aspect of Mahler's music wonderfully, mainly by taking some of the affirmative energy out of it and focusing inwardly on orchestral detail, to the disappointment of many! And as you might guess, the Concordes' range and ability to distinguish clearly among instruments along with their marvelous smoothness, makes them superb Mahler speakers. Bruckner too, have no fear!
I had the feeling as this audition extended over a several days that the Concordes were becoming smoother and smoother, replicating the experience I had with the Trentes and Offrandes, and I expect they will grow smoother yet. I say this not to complain but simply to acknowledge the realities of reviewing. There is not enough time in my life to put several hundred hours on these speakers before forming a judgment. I have waited until they made me happy. If I grow happier yet, I will have no complaints.
Reynaud Speakers: A Recapitulation
I have enjoyed all four of the Reynaud speakers I've had in my house over the past six months or so, and while they got "better" as I moved "up" the oeuvre, no speaker upstaged or caused its less expensive, less ambitious siblings to sound inferior. I consider this an extraordinary accomplishment. You may remember, the first Reynauds to turn my head were the remarkable little Twins III that sell for $849!
Each of the Reynaud speakers honors its designer's priorities: immediacy, expressiveness, clarity, natural warmth, and a sense of a live' performance. Each has its defining virtue. The Twins have the least personality, raising none of the sonic issues and hence choices that its chief competition force upon us. I cannot imagine a better balanced speaker for a modest system. The Trentes are more highly resolved than the Twins and have greater bandwidth: they are also strikingly neutral sounding and are more transparent without sounding assertive or analytic. Most systems would be entirely satisfied with them. The Offrandes are the most expressive in the line, adding an extra dose of immediacy to the musical proceedings and, thanks to extrended bass, greater authority and fullness. They have the added virtue of integral bases. The Concordes expand on the strengths of the other three, tempering the enthusiasm of the Offrandes with a degree of refinement and ease and demonstrating an even greater ability to render the sense of a live performance. The Concordes are so competent that, as with the Twins, we are not aware of any speaker personality. The Concordes in a sense tell us how good the Twins are.
I can imagine choosing any one of JMR's speakers, depending on circumstances. But at least for now, I can't imagine choosing anybody else's! I do hope to audition some stats later this year; but this won't be out of any dissatisfaction with the Concordes. It will be for my edification: I am told that my credibility will suffer until I do that!
Details and Technical Matters
The Concordes are tall, slender towers. Mine are finished attractively in cherry stained beech. The tweeter, as with the Trentes, is enclosed in cherry stained wood as well. I would say they are handsome but do not take ones breath away. According to JMR, the cabinets are "real beech-veneered medite material on both sides. Assembled under press to guarantee a completely inert structure. Optimized internal damping. Rounded edges to limit diffraction effects. Solid beech base uncoupled from the main enclosure with a high-damping viscoelastic material." There are two taps for bi-wiring, which JMR recommends: presumably for the tweeter & midrange and the woofer. There is also a tap for grounding to drain off static electricity which apparently builds up on the surface of the midrange driver and woofer.
Jean Marie generally quotes the bandwidth of his speakers as +/- 2 dB. A reviewer for Prestige Audio Video measured the Concordes down 3 dB at 30 Hz, which sounds impressive enough to me.
Jean Marie Reynaud
Bob Neill is a part-time retail dealer for Blue Circle Audio.