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Positive Feedback ISSUE 9
morel acoustics usa
Overachieving Duets: Morel Acoustics USA, Inc.'s Surrounding Little Vixens
I guess you'd have every reason to call me fickle if I started writing love poetry to my new Morel surround-sound rig, especially if you've been reading in Positive Feedback Online a while, and particularly if you've read my rhapsodic praise for my last "reference" surround sound speaker system, my Polk rig. (See PFO, Issue 6, http://www.positive-feedback.com/Issue6/polk.htm.) So, it's true. So nu? So sue me, sue me. What can you do me?
It's Max, and I'm in love again. And I've moved up in class, just a notch. This fall I'm in love with Morel Acoustics USA Inc.'s Renaissance Duet, a small to medium sized two-way featuring a 6.5" double ferrite magnet woofer, and a 1.1" triple ferrite magnet dome tweeter, in a rear slot-loaded cabinet; plus their Renaissance Phantom sub-woofer, an active 12" driver coupled to a passive 15" radiator, mounted in its own cabinet that includes a 300 watt dedicated amplifier. The Renaissance Duets usually come in pairs, but Morel Acoustics USA, Inc. was cooperative enough to send me five, for which I must offer thanks. The set up consists of Duets left, right, and center, plus two more Duets for surrounds left and right, with the sub off to one side. (To clarify: the manufacturer's correct name is Morel Acoustics USA, Inc. The product line is Renaissance, and the model names are Duet and Phantom. I will probably use these terms in various combinations as they best suit my poet's instinct on how trippingly the syllables tumble off the tongue to the word-processor, or what sounds best to me. Be patient.)
Let me try to explain some murky prose at the start, just so you understand my terminology. When I say, piece of gear A sounds more up close and near field, while piece of gear B sounds farther back in the hall, I don't mean that A eliminates all hall ambiance or venue clues, nor do I mean that B is so far back in the hall it washes out all detail. I do mean, on some continuum (impossible to describe exactly), with reference to something we'd call the Platonic ideal of neutral (about 13 to 17 rows in back of the conductor in a symphony hall), A tends toward giving the illusion of being up closer than neutral, while B tends toward the illusion of being farther back in the hall than neutral. I'm leaving it to your experience with live symphonic music and audio gear, and to your ears, what "tends toward" and "neutral" mean. If you're a regular reader, I think we'd be in agreement 90% of the time.
Then there's the "down in the mix" and "up in the mix" illusion. When I say a recording engineer has left some details "down in the mix" I mean, those details are not so prominent in the listening experience through some gear. The opposite, or, "up in the mix" means, some details come to prominence unexpectedly. These details might consist of little grace notes written into the composition, as when a whole symphony orchestra is at full cry and you can hear the tinkling triangle has a moment of silence and then reappears: not the bass drum, or the cymbals, mind you; but the triangle. Or they might be when a blues band is cookin' and the slide guitar man changes from a glass bottleneck to a metal slide between cuts. Some speakers catch that kind of thing, and it sort of jumps out, while other speakers just don't. When I don't hear those details, I think they're the product of the recording engineer's options, and they've been "lost in the mix." Then, when I listen to the same recording on other speakers and the details leap out, I realize they were always there, but one speaker does better than another at retrieving them.
Having said all that, my ex-sweetheart, the Polk system, is a tad forgiving. That seems to have been a design goal. It makes certain instruments and human voices sound very pretty. Another way of saying that is the Polk engineers, to avoid shrillness, chose to make their LSi9s sound as if certain details were down in the mix. They succeeded, and that speaker was very suave and seductive, a successful design, much like the Sennheiser model 600 headphones.
My latest Duchess, the Morel system, is a tad more analytic. That seems to have been its design goal. It keeps the pretty quality of the human voice, the solo violin, near-field microphony, without dropping details down in the mix. Morel's Renaissance designers have succeeded in coming up with a speaker, the Duet, that tends toward presence when compared with the LSi9s. It retrieves certain details and brings them up in the mix, much as Grado's best headphones, their model RS-1s do, when compared to the Sennheiser 600s. I'd say the Duet is also a highly successful design.
More exactly, what does that mean? A David Grisman band, Here Today, (Rounder CD 0169) made an album that I've had around on LP (since 1982) and on CD (since 1992) a long while, suitably titled Here Today (as it was short-lived, and Gone Tomorrow). It features Bluegrass tunes mostly dating from the 50s, when I was first turned on by the "high-lonesome sound." The band itself, featuring Grisman on mandolin, Herb Pedersen on banjo, Vince Gill on guitar, Jim Buchanan on fiddle, and Emory Goordy, Jr. on bass, performed at the level of an all-star group, and the instrumental playing and vocal performances often improved on the originals. I've been listening to this band play these arrangements for over twenty years. I've listened to this recording on tube electronics through an Altec Voice of the Theater system, and through Quad electrostatics; through mini-monitors, and through giant rigs; in my house and in my car (copied to cassette); upstairs, downstairs, and in my lady's chamber. I know how it sounds on tube amps and on solid state amps, on systems good and not so good.
On the second cut, "Once More," Vince Gill sings and plays the guitar, and his guitar is sort of down in the mix. It is down in the mix even on speakers that are forward and presence oriented, like my old Quads. On the Polk LSi9s, the strummed guitar is (for me and my aging ears) a bit too far down in the mix. On Morel's Renaissance Duets Vince Gill's guitar is just about where I'd have said it was supposed to be, based on my long familiarity with that performance. That is to say, with reference to my Platonic Ideal of neutral (whatever that means), the recording engineer, John Haeny, has captured just the right shade of delicacy, the guitar's strumming between the sung phrases, to keep the beat without calling too much attention to itself. There are other offerings on this album that have a much stronger guitar presence. Here, the guitar is low-balling it. The recording captures that. The Duets capture that. And that is what I, posing as a fancy-schmecker, sometimes call "resolution of inner detail." Other times I call it, "Just right."
Once more with some great Telarc SACDs!
Having heard the Duets catch the evanescence, the ephemera of this shading, on a standard CD, I was eager to hear how they'd do with some other kinds of music, in SACD and SACD surround-sound formats. I set about to audition what have become my usual round of selected recordings. First, to hear them capture the harmonic overtones of the harmonica, I played Junior Wells' album, Come On In This House (Telarc SACD 63395) and I was floored by the cleanliness of the harmonica and the cymbals. You can't tell anything much about the lead guitar because of the fuzz tone and all the other pedals they have to mess with; though the acoustical instruments, piano, slide guitar, drums, and harmonica, come through clean and clear. Did I mention the bass? I'll get to that. The bass requires some space of its own.
Next, I played the three recordings of the Cincinnati Symphony, under Paavo Järvi, that I've been recently been taken with. The Berlioz Symphony Fantastique (Telarc SACD 60578), the Sibelius 2nd Symphony (Telarc SACD 60588), and Stravinsky's Petrouchka (Telarc SACD 60587), all dynamite! [ I select these titles because I've written about them in reviews, and if you'd like, you can go back to them. I have lots of favorites on other labels, like Rounder's Here Today, that I'll also sometimes refer to.] The festive cornet part at the end of the Fantastique's second movement (Un Bal) is pretty near perfectly balanced. The cornet comes across strong and clear without being drowned out by the massed strings (as in some previous recordings), and without seeming to come to the front of the stage. String tone, bowed and pizzicato, is in evidence in the eerie beginning of the second movement of the Sibelius 2nd.
This is not so difficult to get right, and lots of speakers do it. The Renaissance Duets deliver with impressive harmonic correctness and dynamic ease. Not only do they get it just right, they do so in fine style, complementing the reedy oboes and murky horns, leading up to some of the most powerful tutti sections in the work. In the minutes leading up to the well-known trumpet solo in Petrouchka's third section, "The Blackmoor's Room," about 2:45 in, there is a mysterious exchange between the bass drum and the bass viols, both playing very softly. The sound is subtle. The speakers must be able to reproduce the thump of the struck drum and the plucked bass, and also the texture and decay of each of the sustained tones. The Duets handle this chore without stress or strain. So regarding the playback of inner detail, the timbre and loudness of brass, accuracy of string tone, the consistency of position in the sound field, and both the attack and decay of bass, this system does an excellent job.
About that bass
Having skirted the bass reproduction, for the most part, it seems time to call attention to it. It's so fine. The 12" active driver in the Phantom is fast and accurate, with its 3 dB down point said to be 17 Hz. Looking up my high school algebra formula to achieve a rough idea of the radiating area, if A=pr2, then it is p times the square of the radius. For the 12" driver it would be 3.1416 times 6 squared, or 36, for a total of about 108 square inches, rounded off. For the 15" passive radiator, equally in motion, it would be 3.1416 times 7.5 squared, or about 50, for a total of about 150 square inches. Together they would be somewhat more than 260 square inches. The Phantom is capable of moving lots and lots of air. An 18" sub-woofer, in comparison, has an area of 3.1416 times 9 squared, or 81, for a total of somewhat more than 240 square inches. That's what it would be in "Old Math": I'm not sure what it would be in the "New Math," or in "Government Math." In theory, breaking up the radiating area in this way should allow the subwoofer to be better controlled and faster, and the box smaller, than if one had a similarly designed 18" driver. It sounds that way to me. With its own dedicated amp, having its own controls for crossover knee, gain, and 180° phase-reversal, this seems a very well engineered piece. It takes some tweaking (I like the knee to be nearly all the way down around 60 Hz), care in placement (I like less than a foot from the rear wall.) and care for phase accuracy (which may vary with recordings). Optimum performance soon becomes evident.
There are two options from the factory: you can get the Phantom set up for home theater surround sound that gets to the sphincterial resonating earthquake frequencies very well, but without the fine resolution it's capable of. Or you can specify the model with increased mass loading done at the factory, whereupon the passive radiator sounds stiffer and tighter, and its reproduction of the fine textures found in jazz, rock, and symphonic music become clearer. You stipulate that at time of purchase: "home theater," or "music only." If the system is to serve double duty, the music only option won't affect the home theater sound that much. Some folks prefer it to home theater. The -3 dB point might go up a few cycles, I haven't the equipment to test it, but it still reproduces dinosaur footsteps and organ pedal tones with the power and authority that rattle the windows of my old house. I'd guess the usable response is in the lower 20 Hz range, based on my listening to the Rutter Requiem (Reference Recordings RR-57 CD). In the small room off my "lab," I could feel some very palpable pulses. I actually did the mass loading in my "lab," so I could compare before and after. I found the raw bass power was about the same, but less "wooly" with the additional mass loading. I'd let the factory do it, if I had it to do over.
With the Renaissance Phantom sub-woofer properly crossed over, in phase, and in proper placement, this is one helluva unit that competes with the best 18" units at twice its price. It may be one of the best I've heard. I'd say "the best," but I've not sampled everything out there. In my stereo big-rig, I use isobarik loaded double 12" Dynaudio drivers (30W-100s with 4" voice coils), and the subjective impression is that I can adjust the Phantom to sound like my big-rig. Of course that is my default system, the sound I carry around in my head, the sound I've been living with for over fifteen years now. It is pretty tight, as isobariks are designed to be, and gets down as low as any test CD offers. I can't quibble about a few frequencies, but the Phantom seems its equal in low frequency response. The quality is excellent, and the flexibility is value added. If you haven't gotten the message, this is one helluva sub.
Assessment: my long experience with Morel drivers
The Phantom is remarkable and, in their way, so are the Duets. They are excellent on their own, with silky highs that go out far, beautiful mid-range that captures subtleties that lesser speakers miss, and a firm and tight mid-bass that doesn't roll off until about 50 Hz (Morel advertises their -3dB point at 42 Hz.). I lived with them by themselves for a month or so, until the Morel USA production facility came up with a Phantom sub-woofer for me. They were quite good, even without the bottom octave. As Spencer Tracy said of Katherine Hepburn in one of their movies, "There ain't much to her, but what there is, is cherse." I'd say, Morel's Renaissance Duets are also choice. They play loudly or softly. They capture the inner details of small ensemble work, or the power of an orchestra at triple forte. They image very, very well. They make my small listening room sound convincingly larger. They have harmonic integrity. They capture the nuances of the human voice. They get out of the box. Somehow I feel they shouldn't be as good as they are, or they should cost twice as much. They are terrific overachievers for their size and price. Together with the Phantom sub-woofer, they make one superior rig.
"How do they do this?" you might ask. I'd answer: excellent design engineering, excellent quality control in production, and incremental improvements over their ancestral products for over twenty years. I admit it. I'm partial to manufacturers who keep making small improvements in their line through the years. I think that's more reasonable than redesigning everything from the ground up every so often because there is a tax incentive to do so. I've been familiar with the Morel family of drivers for over the past twenty years, and they keep improving their products. Not just paper claims, but actual improvements in things you wouldn't think matter so much; like adhesives, surround materials, magnet materials and structures, the lay of the voice coil windings, the fabric from which they fashion the domes, the fluid with which they treat the fabric domes, and computer assisted box design.
Take for example the tweeter used in the Duet. I first met it as MDT 28, a superior tweeter twenty years ago. It has been through various incarnations, with ferrite magnet, with neodymium magnet, and it is still in production as the single magnet MDT 30. It was decided that for home audio the ferrite sounds best. For automobiles, with all the road noise to deal with, the neodymium (CR 103) sounds best. With that decision made, the trick was to get the ferrite magnet to develop as much Gauss as the neodymium. There rapidly followed a double magnet structure (the horn loaded version of which is still in the product line), and finally a triple magnet structure. The triple ferrite magnet tweeter featured about three times the Gauss as the MDT 28. Designated as the MDT-33se, it is produced in "matched pairs" made with close enough tolerances to measure within a gnat's ear of each other. This reflects superior design engineering and production quality control. Not many manufacturers will guarantee pairs of tweeters to within 0.6 dB.
The ferro-fluid cooled voice coil, wrapped with aluminum hexagonal wire, weighs nearly the same, and the soft treated fabric dome is nearly the same as in the original MDT 28, but the Gauss has tripled. That is analogous to putting an engine with three times the horsepower in your car. In the case of a loudspeaker, the impulse to make it move is also the impulse to make it stop, the music signal. That means you don't have to install larger brakes on your tweeter: the magnet both starts and stops the voice coil. So, the moving parts of the tweeter are under greater control. You would think the tweeter would play three times louder, but it doesn't. It plays a decibel or so louder. It is notably smoother than the similar tweeter they used to make, especially in the crossover region. That's what you get when you triple up the magnet. That's what you get when you make small, incremental changes over the years.
Similarly with the 6.5" woofer. Morel made a single magnet version of the newer woofer twenty years ago, the MW 160. They were pretty good. I liked them then; I like them now. The newer MW 164 seems "faster" on attack and decay, which makes it seem "punchier" and "tighter." Now, the surround is made of butyl rubber, rather than open cell foam which means the woofer will stay in working order a lot longer. The structure of the speaker, the treated paper cone, spider, voice-coil, are nearly the same. The magnet has twice the Gauss, hence greater motor force. This results in greater smoothness. In particular, the loudspeaker has better performance at the extremes of its range, playing its lowest notes without getting "rough," and playing its highest notes in the crossover region without getting "strident." So this particular driver has been improved to play more loudly and with more punch, to play tighter without strain, and to last longer. Most notably, it is smoother. Together with the MDT 33 tweeter, it makes for a very responsive, yet smooth, system: the Duet. These improvements take an already "good" speaker and elevate it to the "superior" class. The Duets are worthy of the adjective, "high-end." They are superior performers in class but not in cost, at $1200/ pair in piano black finish. Lots of similarly performing speakers are selling for twice the price, or nearly.
My opinion is seconded by the choice of these drivers, or specially modified versions of these drivers, being used by well known high-end manufacturers, such as Merlin, Eggleston, Triad, and WEG III. The loudspeakers these manufacturers offer usually meet with good reviews in the audio press. Morel Acoustics USA, Inc. might be the best kept secret in the audio industry.
Compared to the Polk LSi9s, the Duets not only coax more inner detail out of the music, they are smoother in the crossover region, (a minor LSi9 problem noted in the Stereophile review). In real but subtle ways, one loudspeaker is a measurable improvement over the other. The Phantom sub-woofer, with its 260 square inch radiating surface, is a large improvement over the Polk PSW 550 with its long-throw 8" driver, having about a 50 square inch radiating surface. The Phantom's dedicated amp rates at 300 Watts, while the Polk rated at 100 Watts. The Phantom's -3 dB point is reported at 17 Hz, while the Polk's is reported at 32Hz. That's nearly a full octave lower of much more powerful bass. This is a real and not-so-subtle difference. The Morel's Renaissance surround sound system is a genuine improvement compared to what I'd been listening to, reflecting engineering and production costs. The complete Polk rig sells for about $3K M.S.R.P, while the Morel's Renaissance system sells for about $4.3K M.S.R.P, for 45%-50% increase in purchase price, depending on available discounts.
How does it sound in ordinary listening conditions? While I am at my computer? When I audition new CDs for review? It sounds awesome! Just awesome!
Of course, following Jonathan Scull's teaching, I did some experimenting with cables, and interconnects, and such, to give the speakers the best chance I could. I fooled around with placement of the woofer a good bit, since it is bi-polar. I had to experiment to get it just the right distance (less than a foot) from the rear and side walls, so the front wave enhanced the reflected wave and didn't cancel it. I also played around a bit with the interconnects and speaker cables, finally settling for a "neutral" set of stuff from Monster Cable, their M2.2s speaker cable and their M550i interconnects. My Marantz SR9200 Surround Receiver and SA8260 SACD Multi-channel player were both powered by my Monster AVS 2000 automatic voltage stabilizer, and HTS 5100 current conditioner. I can't praise them enough. The Marantz 9200 continues to serve in yeomanlike fashion, doing whatever it is called upon to do most gracefully; and the SACD player continues to surprise me with its resolving power. It does a superior job on the newly remastered Pink Floyd's Dark Side Of The Moon, better than my esteemed Sony SCD777es in many regards. (OK, OK! I know the Marantz plays in multi-channel, while the Sony only plays in SACD stereo.) The Monster gear gets out so much crud I didn't realize I had until it went away; I can't express my feelings, except to say they approach thanksgiving. If you live in an older house (like mine), or in an apartment where your lights dim when your neighbor's air conditioner kicks in (despite being on separate meters), you need voltage regulation and current conditioning. For the first time, I have clean AC.
By benefiting from all this auxiliary gear, the five Renaissance Duets plus Phantom- sub, from Morel Acoustics USA, Inc., do a great job with all kinds of music: blues, bluegrass, jazz, classics, solo voices, massed choirs. It is a killer-diller system with no weaknesses. If I may be so bold, this loudspeaker system is a bargain at its price. Properly set up, and with good electronics, front end, cables, etc., this rig proves equal to any demand. I use it to review surround-sound CDs. I use it for fun. I use it for serious listening. It is a great retriever of sonic detail. Since its sound fills the 2nd floor of my house, I use it for news and tracking hurricanes, while I'm in and out of my shower, or on my way to hear live symphonic music, as now. I use it while I'm writing this. It comes very close to my default system (which comes very close to live symphonic music), the sound I carry in my head. I'm not very easily tempted, so my new multi-channel reference speakers had to earn their place in my heart.
If you want to hear what I'm so in love with, the sound I've been seduced by, try to track down a dealer somewhere. You can go to http://www.morelusa.com to check out their dealer list. If you have to drive a distance to hear these, do it. It'll make your adventurous heart quicken to be on the Quest for the Grail again.
And when you get there, tell them Max Dudious sent you!