A Reprint from February 1993, Vol. 16 No. 2
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Acarian Alón IV Loudspeaker
And so it came to pass that on a cold day last July,1 Acarian Systems' President/Designer Carl Marchisotto-chief design engineer at Dahlquist for 15 years-and Marilyn Marchisotto, Acarian's Vice President, showed up on my doorstep with a pair of Alón IVs, ready to install them in my listening room, and bringing with them electronics and cables that Carl had found to be a good match for the speakers.
How did it work out? Read on.
DESCRIPTION & DESIGN
For a speaker weighing in at 105 lbs., the Alón IV looks fairly compact-that is, with the top cover removed. With its cover on, the Alón IV is visually much more imposing, looking like the WATT/Puppy's tall brother on steroids. This is a three-way design, employing a 12" woofer, 5" midrange, and a 1" metal-dome tweeter, all the drivers custom-made to Acarian Systems' specifications. The woofer has its own 2.8-ft3 infinite baffle enclosure of 1 ¼" laminated construction, with extensive bracing to control panel resonances. The midrange and tweeter are mounted on a separate, molded baffle with rounded edges, the baffle mounted at an angle to produce alignment of the drivers' centers and to improve the vertical dispersion pattern. The midrange driver operates without an enclosure, acting as a dipole; the tweeter has a dual-chamber enclosure, with a ring of absorbent material around the front to reduce diffraction, and an open-type phase plug to improve dispersion.
The woofer crosses over to the midrange unit at 400Hz, with crossover to the tweeter at 3.5kHz. The crossover slopes vary between 6 and 12dB/octave, and are specifically designed for the drivers used in the Alón IV rather than following any of the classic curves. The crossover is hard-wired on three separate boards, and features air-core inductors and polypropylene capacitors. Each speaker is provided with six binding posts, to allow the recommended tri-wiring. Biwiring is considered a reduced-performance option; the Owner's Manual warns that with single-wiring the performance may deteriorate to "poor." Only one set of jumpers is provided, just to make sure you're not tempted to single-wire. A set of threaded spikes allows for firm mechanical grounding. The speaker is well-finished, in natural oak (the review samples), black oak, or rosewood veneer. The stylish aesthetics are by TAS's Robbii Wessen.
The front ends stayed much the same as in my last couple of reviews: Lingo'd Linn/ Ittok/AudioQuest AQ 7000 analog, Proceed PDT-2/PS Audio UltraLink digital, with considerable use also made of a Mod Squad McCormack Signature CD player. Except for the front ends and some cables, everything else was changed for the Alón IV review. Naturally, my beloved original Quads and Cizek MG-27 subs had to be moved out of the listening room, and the amplifiers I normally use are way underpowered for the Alón IVs. Carl Marchisotto had brought a pair of VTL Deluxe 225s (the latest KT90 version) and a VTL Super Deluxe preamp, components that he has found to interface well with the Alón IVs.
A few days after the arrival of the speakers, I received a Conrad-Johnson EV20 preamp for review; for most of the listening sessions, I used the EV20, duly compensating for its polarity-inverting line stage. In addition to the VTL Deluxe 225s, amps used included a pair of Bryston 7Bs and an Aragon 4004 Mk.II. The power amps were plugged directly into a dedicated AC line; the rest of the analog electronics were fed from a Mk.Il Tice Power Block, in turn plugged into a PAC IDOS (one of the analog outlets), with the digital transport and D/A converter plugged into the IDOS's digital outlets. The IDOS got its power from a second dedicated AC line.
The amps were connected to the preamp via 15' AudioQuest Lapis interconnects; speaker cables included Carl Marchisotto's specially prepared 20' length of tri-wire van den Hul MCD 300 (a cable normally used as an interconnect), three pairs of 8' TARA Labs RSC, and 8' tri-wire AudioQuest Sterling (tweeter), Sterling 2 (midrange), and Midnight (woofer). I also tried the bi-wire option (Sterling 2/Sterling) for long enough to confirm that it does sound somewhat less open. Given the Owner's Manual's dire warning about single wiring, I didn't investigate this mode of operation.
The Alón IV has recessed, thicker-than usual binding posts; connecting some of the speaker cables involved much sweat, a few tears, and nearly some blood. I do wish that manufacturers of cables, speakers, and amplifiers would agree on a simple matter such as the thickness of the binding post and the size of the opening in a spade lug. For all "serious" auditioning, the speaker's top and bottom covers were removed, which produced a slightly more transparent sound.
ARE WE HAVING FUN YET?
Although I've written a piece on how to tweak your audio system (see Vol. 13 No. 12, p.81), I'm not the sort of person who finds it thrilling to spend a Saturday afternoon listening to the effects of adjusting cartridge VTA by minute increments, or agonizing over what sort of string should be used to suspend speaker cables. Whenever I read a speaker review which states that the sound of the speaker changes from heavenly to horrible when you vary the speaker's position by ¼", 1 know this is not a speaker I'd like to have in my listening room. Ditto for a speaker that requires a king's ransom's worth of RoomTunes or Tube Traps arranged exactly the right way if it's not to sound dreadful.
Fortunately, the Alón IVs proved to be relatively non-temperamental when it came to positioning and the need for room acoustical treatment. Carl Marchisotto suggested that they'd probably sound best just where I'd positioned my Quad/Cizek system, so that's where I put them. The sound was generally pretty good, but Carl thought it could be improved by taking out the RoomTunes that had been placed in the comers and in the middle of the wall behind the speakers. He was right: with the RoomTunes removed, there was a more even spread of sound. (The same RoomTunes arrangement had helped the Quad/Cizek system.)
With a further bit of tweaking over the next few weeks, I came up with a setup that seemed to provide an even better combination of smooth tonal balance, bass extension, spaciousness, and focus. The speakers are still more or less in the same position, along the longer wall of my 14' by 16' by 7 ½' listening room, with the front of each speaker 43" from the back wall, the left side of the left speaker 38' from the side wall, and the right side of the right speaker 32" from the side wall. The Listening Room computer program confirmed that in my room this position is just about ideal for minimizing standing waves and early reflections from the side wars? A 4' by 6' shag rug hangs on the wall behind the listening area, and the speakers are toed-in ever so slightly. A final touch was a RoomTune panel placed along each side wall, about a foot forward from the speaker, with the absorbent side facing the room, to catch some of the early reflections.
A HUGE soundstage. With a 92" center-to-center distance between speakers and about the same distance or less between the listener's ears and the center of each speaker, the soundstage is super-wide (although there's no problem with center-fill), and depth seems restricted only by the size of the recording venue. This was my favored listening position, but I should admit (if it's not already obvious) that I like a very wide soundstage; in most audio store demonstrations, I pull my chair closer to the speakers. Many speakers make it impossible to achieve this sort of stage width unless you're willing to put up with a hole in the middle; sitting this close also tends to highlight lobing effects and arrival-time differences between drivers, with potential imaging problems.
The Alón IVs are unusual in giving you this "widescreen" effect while maintaining specificity of images within the soundstage. Individual images within the soundstage don't have quite the pinpoint "holographic" definition you get with the best minimonitors, but they're excellent by any other standard. (In a larger room, being able to sit farther from the speakers while maintaining a wide angle is likely to improve the imaging.) Similarly, depth is extensive and, unlike what one tends to get from dipoles or bipolar speakers, quite precisely layered. Opera recordings, like the Caballé/Carreras Tosca or the Pavarotti/Freni La Bohème, in which the "soundstage" literally represents sounds generated on stage, are ideal for demonstrating the Alón IVs' remarkable spatial qualities, but I find that a wide and deep soundstage enhances the enjoyment of all sorts of music, including audiophile favorites like the Weavers' Reunion At Carnegie Hall. (I understand that Corey Greenberg is willing to trade his entire Elvis collection for a mint copy of the original release of the Weavers album plus an autographed picture of Amanda McBroom.)
The "Mapping the Soundstage" track on Stereophile's Test CD 2 reproduced just the way it's pictured in the notes (but with Larry moving away from the listener, of course). While in the test-CD mood, I also tried Chesky's, and found that the Alón IVs did quite well on the LEDR, the "Up" pattern curving only slightly to the center at the top of its travel, the "Over" describing a smooth arc, and the "lateral" similarly smooth. With this test, I got quite a good "outside" image on the left, but the outside image on the right was phasey. (The right outside image is similarly phasey with the Quads; this almost certainly represents a room anomaly.)
The speakers' "open" quality, which had impressed me in my initial WCES auditioning, was very much in evidence in my listening room; in this respect, the Alón IV reminded me of the better panel speakers. The dipole midrange is undoubtedly a contributor to this effect. Unlike most speakers that give you a high-definition soundstage, the Alón IVs didn't require the listener to sit in a head-in-a-vise position; in , a good semblance of a soundstage was evident off-center. Also, the Alón IVs didn't discriminate against the short or the tall; soundstage and tonal balance were preserved over a considerable vertical angle. (My usual listening position places my ears at a height of 38", well off the tweeter and midrange axes.)
Oh, yes, the tonal balance. JGH is right, of course. (Why else is he the one in whose ears we trust?) No speaker can be considered a high-fidelity device if its tonal balance is off. The Alón IV happens to be nearly neutral in this respect. First of all, it's a genuine fullrange reproducer, with bass extension bettered only by some expensive dedicated subwoofers and by behemoths several times its size. In my room- which, remember, is only 14' by 16' by 7 ½'-the 31.5Hz track of the second Stereophile Test CD was reproduced cleanly and, according to my trusty Radio Shack SPL meter, hardly down in level from the midrange; the 25Hz was there but down about 6dB (that's assuming that the meter is accurate in this part of the range); the 20Hz track was faint but still detectable.
Just for the fun of it, I dug out my old LP of Emerson, Lake, & Palmer (Cotillion SD 9040). "Tank" features a percussion solo culminating in a couple of bass notes apparently intended to send wimpy woofers to dusty death. The Alón IVs handled these with aplomb, shaking the room in the process. In fact, both the extension and the quality of the low end are among the Alón IV's strengths. Bass drum, timpani, string bass, and bass guitar had proper weight, without the slow, plodding quality that leads rhythm-and-pace fans to give up bass extension for bass quality. The Alón IV's bass was definitely not in the lean'n'mean Hales/Avalon tradition, nor was it over-rich or bloated, like ... well, you know who you are.
I've always thought that my Quad/Cizek setup was among the better combinations involving subwoofers, but in its bass extension, tightness, and integration with the midbass, the Alón IV proved clearly superior. The transition from bass to midrange is difficult for any speaker to manage; many have a boost here, which gives over-prominence to instruments like string bass and makes baritones sound more like basses. Alternatively, a speaker may have a suckout in this area, leading to a lack of "fullness" in orchestral textures and making basses sound more like baritones. The Alón IV managed to avoid both of these errors. Playing the opening scene of La Bohème through these speakers, I could hear clearly that when Nicolai Ghiaurov and Rolando Panerai sing the same notes, one is a bass, the other a baritone. Characteristic timbres were maintained, giving me the sense that I was hearing a real singer rather than a synthesized one.3
If the Alón IV had a weakness, it was in the area of the upper midrange/lower treble. It certainly wasn't bright in the usual sense (the extreme highs were extended but not overemphasized), and there was nothing annoying enough to be called hardness, aggressiveness, or glare. At times, however, voices and massed strings took on a somewhat "etched" quality, with sibilants more intrusive than ideal. Being used to the sound of original Quads driven by a zero-feedback tube amp, a combination that's extremely laid-back in this region, I had a difficult time deciding whether the Alón IV was: a) simply reproducing more accurately what was on the recordings, b) reproducing tendencies inherent in associated equipment, or c) exacerbating problems in source material and in associated equipment. Having lived with the speakers for a couple of months, and having sifted through the many variables that could be responsible for this effect, I've come to the conclusion that the answer is mostly, if not entirely, a) and b). With state-of-the-art recordings, like the recent jazz releases from ViTaL (eg, Karen, ViTaL 009), there was little to criticize. With early digital and some less-than-pristine CD transfers like, unfortunately, many of the original Broadway cast recordings I'm fond of, the results could be a bit relentless. Certainly, like any high-end audio device, the Alón IVs benefit from a careful choice of associated components. The PS UltraLink, which performed so well in the Quad-based system, proved less than ideally matched to the Alón IVs, the processor's forward tendency noted by RH (Vol.15 No.6) and acknowledged in my "Follow-Up" (Vol.15 No.9) more in evidence.
The McCormack Signature CD player proved a more favorable match, perhaps giving up the nth degree of detail, but producing an overall more relaxed sound. Similarly, the TARA Labs RSC speaker cable (you know, the one He uses), so wonderful with the Quads, sounded less so with the Alón IVs, lending a degree of emphasis to the upper midrange. Carl Marchisotto's set of tri-wire van den Hul MCD300 worked better, and I had very good results with the AudioQuest Sterling/Sterling 2/Midnight combo. Both the VTL Super Deluxe and Conrad-Johnson EV20 were a good match, the EV20 (review forthcoming) particularly effective in communicating the sense of space. Similarly, the speakers were well-driven by the VTL Deluxe 225s or the Bryston 7Bs; the VTLs had a little more midrange liquidity, but overall I have to give the nod to the Bryston 7Bs, used in the parallel (current) mode, for their extended and well-controlled bass, clean but not clinical upper frequencies, and precise focus. Costing nearly $10,000, the EV20/ VTL 225 or the EV20/Bryston 7B are not typical of the equipment the Alón IV is likely to be combined with in the real world, but the speaker is certainly good enough to benefit from this level of associated equipment.
As a check on compatibility with somewhat less stellar electronics, I also used a Conrad-Johnson PV11/Aragon 4004 Mk.II pairing, which comes in at well under $4000. This proved to be quite a synergistic combination, giving up some ultimate transparency to their more expensive brethren, but sounded much more than just listenable. I also obtained good results driving the Aragon 4004 Mk. II directly from the variable outputs of the McCormack Signature CD player.
I've left for last discussion of one of the Alón IV's strong suits: dynamics. In audiophile circles, this term has taken on two meanings. First, there's dynamics in the sense of "dynamic range," or "How loud will it play?" (For cars, the analogous question would be "How fast does it go?") Well, with an amplifier that has enough juice (a criterion amply fulfilled by the amps I used), the Alón IV went very fast-- er, loud, with little apparent strain. This is certainly no polite "audiophile" speaker; my ears gave out before the speakers did.
The second meaning of "dynamics" refers to a component's ability to follow the music's rapid moment-to-moment loudness variations, a characteristic akin to a car's responsiveness to variations in pressure on the gas pedal. Some speakers come alive only at high spls, just as some cars perform well only at highway speeds, feeling sluggish around town. Like my Acura Legend (it's a recent purchase, so you'll have to excuse the protracted automotive analogy), the Alón IV had plenty of torque throughout the range, sounding as dynamic at late-night-listening-with-the-lights-out levels as it did at headbanger levels. At low levels, the original Quads have a quickness that I haven't heard equaled by any non-electrostatic speaker, including the Alón IV, but, ofcourse, electrostatics have limitations oftheir own-- like expiring if asked to reproduce levels that wouldn't cause the Alón IV to work up a sweat.
MEASUREMENTS FROM JA
Looking first at the Alón's impedance magnitude and phase (fig. 1), the minimum value agrees with the specification and is shown by the cursor position: 3.03 ohms at 70Hz. This speaker will be moderately hard to drive; although a good tube amplifier with a 4 ohm output should have no problems, a solid-state amplifier will give better control of the speaker's bass region. The sealed-box bass enclosure is tuned to a low 38Hz. The sensitivity on the tweeter axis was also to specification at around 87dB at 1m for 2.83V in.
The speaker's three sets of input terminals make it easy to examine the behavior of each of the drive-units. The individual impulse responses (not shown), taken with DRA Labs' MLSSA system and a calibrated B&K mike, reveal the tweeter and woofer to be connected with negative polarity, the midrange with positive. Transforming these impulse responses to the frequency domain gives the individual amplitude responses shown in fig.2. The woofer's output peaks at 50Hz, rolling out at the expected 12dB/ octave below that frequency and above the crossover frequency of 400Hz. The midrange unit smoothly rolls in at its lower crossover frequency, but features both a peak and sharp suckout between 1kHz and 2kHz. The tweeter also rolls in smoothly below its passband, but there is an octave region where the tweeter and midrange unit overlap.
Fig. 1: Alón IV, electrical impedance (solid) and phase (dashed) (2 ohms/vertical div.). Cursor shows minimum value.
Fig. 2: Alón IV, individual anechoic responses of tweeter, midrange unit, and woofer on listening axis, all corrected for microphone response, spliced to nearfield response of midrange unit (below 500 Hz) and woofer (below 200 Hz).
Fig. 3: Alón IV, anechoic response on listening axis 38" from the ground at 45" averaged across 30° horizontal window and corrected for microphone response, with nearfield woofer response plotted below 200Hz.
Fig. 4 Alón IV, horizontal response family at 45", normalized to response on listening axis, from back to front: reference response; differences 15° off-axis, 30° off-axis, 45° off-axis, 60° off-axis, 75° off-axis, and 90° off-axis.
Fig. 5 Alón IV, vertical response family at 45", normalized to response on tweeter axis, from back to front: response difference 15° above top of sub-baffle; difference 7.5° above top of sub-baffle; difference level with top of sub-baffle; difference on tweeter axis; reference response midway between tweeter and midrange unit; difference on midrange axis; difference level with top of woofer enclosure.
The right-hand curve in fig. 3 shows how these individual drive-unit responses sum on an axis 38' from the ground, a typical listening height midway between the tweeter and midrange that was chosen by RD. The peak and dip in the latter's bandpass are still present, but the tweeter's output integrates beautifully, giving a flat, unexaggerated treble region. Bob Deutsch did comment on an occasionally relentless quality to the 4's upper midrange, and I suspect that the midrange's peak is responsible here. Usually, I have found this kind of response to lend a speaker's sound a touch of nasality. However, RD was not perturbed by any such coloration.
To the left of fig. 3 is shown the woofer's response measured with the microphone almost touching its dustcap, which gives an approximation to an anechoic response. The level matching between this curve and the FFT-derived one to its right can only be approximate, yet it suggests a powerful, perhaps undercontrolled bass region. That RD could appreciate the Alón IV's low-frequency extension yet was not bothered by any boom suggests that designer Carl Marchisotto has carefully tailored the sealed-box-loaded woofer to work well with the typical boost give by the room.
Fig. 4 shows the manner in which the speaker's tonal balance changes as the listener moves to its side- (Only the changes are shown, which means that the on-axis response appears to be a straight line- every speaker designer wishes!) The first thing to note from this graph is that the on-axis suckout fills in off-axis. This is probably why RD was not bothered by any nasal coloration due to the peak/adjacent dip: the dip would only be heard on axis; in a typical room, the reverberant soundfield-- which also contributes to a speaker's perceived balance-- would not have the dip. However, note that the peak accentuates for extreme off-axis angles as the region below-the center of the dipole midrange's passband-nulls out and the region above, handled by the tweeter, increasingly rolls off Reflections of the speaker's sound from the sidewalls will be too bright, therefore, and will exacerbate the propensity of the on-axis peak to give the sound somewhat of an "etched" quality. Experimenting with rugs or diffusing surfaces on the sidewalls will be a good idea with this speaker.
Fig.6 Alón IV, impulse response on listening axis at 45" (5 ms time window, 30kHz bandwidth).
Fig.7 Alón IV, cumulative spectral-decay plot on listening axis at 45".
Fig. 5 shows the changes in tonal balance for changes in vertical listening axis. Below the 38"-high axis, the sound increasingly acquires a deep suckout in the crossover region between the tweeter and midrange unit. The lowest curve shown and the one most afflicted is for a listening axis level with the top of the Alón IV's bass bin, 29" from the ground. This is what a short person in a typical couch would perceive, so be warned: don't sit too low with this speaker. Sit high and the entire tweeter region comes up a couple of dB, but the response remains smooth. Listen with your ears level with or above the top of the tweeter baffle, however, and as well as the crossover suckout reappearing, the low treble becomes significantly peaky.
Finally, the Alón's response on the listening axis is shown in fig. 6. The first room reflection of the impulse is that from the ceiling and can be seen just before the 8ms line. Note, however, a reflection at 4.6ms, about 1ms after the start of the impulse; this might be a reflection from the edge of the bass enclosure. Fig. 7 is the cumulative spectral decay or "waterfall" plot calculated from fig. 6. Note how smooth and clean the entire treble region is. Here's one of the reasons-Bob Deutsch liked the sound of this speaker as much as he did. The cursor, which is a little hard to see, is placed at the bottom of the midrange suckout at 1690Hz. Note that there is delayed energy at this frequency, which means that the suckout is probably due to the speaker's geometry: i.e., the direct sound is canceling with a reflection at that frequency.
All things considered, this is an excellent set of measurements, revealing the Alón IV to be as well-engineered as might be predicted from its sound quality. Its only real problem is the slight tendency to brightness in the lower treble, but this can be ameliorated by careful positioning of the speakers in the room, as well as by experimenting with wall coverings. -John Atkinson
To reach the top ranks in tennis, it's not enough to have a competent all-court game; the player must also have a "weapon"-- a sizzling serve, powerful forehand, or lightning quick volley. Similarly, to succeed in the competitive world of high-end audio, a speaker must not merely be competent in all the areas that audiophiles value; it must have a sonic weapon.
The Alón IV, in addition to well-balanced performance in all the traditional audiophile categories, has at least three such weapons. First, it's able to present a wide and deep soundstage, with individual images well-defined within the soundstage. Second, the speaker's ability to communicate the music's dynamics is first-rate, at high levels or low. Finally, bass response, the sonic attribute that's probably the most expensive to engineer into a loudspeaker, is as deep as it is tight.
Although analyzing a speaker's performance according to various specific criteria is useful, I believe that this approach must be supplemented by a more global, Gestalt evaluation. Never mind the tonal balance, bass extension, soundstaging, imaging, etc.-- what overall impression does the speaker make?
To come up with this sort of holistic judgment, you have to almost deliberately put aside the attitude of critical analysis, allowing yourself to be affected by the music alone. When you go into a room where the speaker is playing, do you hear sounds obviously produced by an electromechanical device, or does it sound much like music played and sung by people?4 Sometimes it even helps to be outside the listening room proper (see sidebar), to see how easily you can convince yourself that someone is playing music in the next room.
Whatever their departure from perfection -and I continue to suspect that the upper midrange/lower treble is an area where improvement is possible-I was repeatedly struck by the Alón IVs' essential "rightness." It was easy to imagine that Dick Hyman, or at least his computerized alter ego, was playing Fats Waller on a Bösendorfer Reproducing Piano in my listening room. It need hardly be said-- but I'll say it anyway-- that, at $3400 a pair, the Alón IV represents excellent value. Strongly recommended.
We would like to thank Robert Deutsch and Stereophile for this comprehensive review of the Alón IV speaker system. It is gratifying to see a product embodying flat full-range response combined with a low-distortion neutral sound characteristic be enthusiastically recommended.
According to Robert Deutsch, the Alón IV possesses at least three "weapons." While soundstaging performance receives much attention in Stereophile circles, we would like to point out that the other two "weapons"- dynamics and bass response- are also necessary for the replication of the sound of music. It is the combination of all three in one design which, we feel, sets the Alón IV apart.
Also, I would like to point out the importance of tri-wiring the Alón IV for best performance. The Alón IV was developed as a triwired system and employs three separate crossover boards which provide magnetic, electric, and physical separation for the three sections of the loudspeaker. It is important to use identical lengths of identical cable for this purpose, so as to maintain the coherency built into the system. For instance, it may be "common practice" to use larger-gauge cables for the bass section, but this will invariably upset the tonal balance and coherency of the system.
1 This past July was the coldest and dampest in Ontario in 104 years.
2 The Listening Room saved me a lot of effort. I've always wondered whether I should try repositioning the speakers along the short wall, which would mean having to move tons of equipment, LPs, and CDs. The Listening Room told me that the new arrangement would likely be much less optimal, producing severe standing waves and dips in the frequency response due to boundary effects. This relatively inexpensive program, reviewed by TJN in Vol.13 No.12, is highly recommended to those who, like me, would rather let the computer do the work. The Listening Room is available from Sitting Duck Software, P.O. Box 130, Veneta, OR 97487, Tel: (503) 935-3982, for $47.50 (PC), $67.50 (Macintosh).
3 More than once, I've had the experience of listening to a system playing a record I was familiar with, except that the singers didn't sound like themselves, Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau's distinctive voice sounding like a generic baritone.
4 It's because of the inability to assess the degree of artificiality of the reproduced sound that I feel music produced by a synthesizer is not a good source for listening tests. Besides, I hate the sound of those things.