[Note: "Open Mike" is a series of off-topic essays by Yr. Hmbl. Blggr. that usually appear on Sundays. This one's a little late.]
You might recall that I wrote under this rubric a few weeks ago about my momentous recent purchase of new/used speakers. My old ones were teenagers, and I had been getting a little impatient with them.
I'll sum up the previous article so you don't have to go re-read it: I chose a used pair of "budget" speakers from a "boutique" high-end or audiophile name brand and bought a secondhand but supposedly never used pair from a seller on Audiogon. And they turned out to be so incredibly badly and cheaply built that I half suspected they might actually have been counterfeits.
A brief tip about buying stereo equipment: never buy the budget line. Like any generalization this isn't always true, but in general, whatever your budget, you want to stay in the middle part of a manufacturer's lineup or higher. Even McIntosh, a legendary American maker of very high-quality, very well-built traditional components, known for its preamplifiers among other things, once made a cheap-crap budget preamplifier (the C15). It came out in 1998 at $1,500—and it was much worse, and much more poorly made, than preamps from manufacturers whose best preamps cost around $1,500 at the time, despite names that weren't nearly as prestigious. Stick in the area of the product lineup that made the name famous; don't assume that the name will somehow elevate the cheaper offerings.
One of my mistakes in buying these speakers was in buying the $2,500 offering from a manufacturer whose mainstream, bread-and-butter products are in the $5,000–10,000 range. Big mistake. (Note that I'm referring here to new, retail prices—I was buying used, and I paid a lot less.) It would have been a lot smarter to buy from a manufacturer whose best-selling or top-of-the-line products are in the $2,500 new/retail range.
The enchanted stereo store
I've been an audio hobbyist for most of my life, and I've even written on the topic of the unfortunate decline of stereo and audio retail stores. So when my new/old speakers arrived with the woofer drivers on one channel dead, I didn't know where to take them to be repaired. I Googled "speaker repair Milwaukee" (Milwaukee being the nearest large city to me), and one of the first results that came up was a shop nearby that specializes in bringing old speakers from "my" era back to life. It's called Audio Ventures, and it's run by Bill Waara, who is my age, and his young nephew Andy.
It's also close enough to my home that I could walk to it—and I never even knew it was there. This is a mystery so strange it borders on the supernatural. The windowless storefront is small and unprepossessing, and I guess I must have assumed, years ago, that it had to be some gnarly little car-audio joint or something. I've driven right by it hundreds of times—many hundreds of times—without even seeing it.
Turns out it's not gnarly or small by any measure—it's a wonderland. Although up a flight of stairs from street level, it has a beautifully finished reception area, multiple equipment showrooms, a large shop, and several large warehouse rooms chock full of neatly arranged classic and vintage stereo equipment.
Visit? Friend, I could live there.
So I've thought about this, and I've come to a tentative conclusion: I think the explanation is that it actually wasn't there all those times I drove by. I think it magically appeared the instant I needed it—and that both Andy and Bill are in fact enchanted leprechauns. This is not the Occam's Razor explanation, but best fits the available facts as I perceive them.
My big leap of faith
Audio Ventures is nominally famous for restoring old JBLs, but that's really just the tip of a big 'berg. They rebuild all sorts of speakers and many makes of vintage electronics. Bill Waara turns out to be not only a speaker repairman, but a speaker designer—and a really talented one, according to my ears. My very experienced ears. He played me a long audition on some monitor-style three-ways that I thought couldn't possibly be that good, and they were tremendous—it was one of the ten best speakers auditions I've heard in my life. And I'm the type of guy that I remember the other nine. So what were they?
They don't even have a name. He designed and built them himself. Bill doesn't make "models"—each of his creations is a one-of-a-kind custom job. It comes from having developed a personal style and a technical approach over the course of repairing literally thousands of pairs of old speakers—any of which might range from a clean-and-resolder job to a total rebuild with all new drivers and all-new, custom-made crossovers.
Bill has a signature sound—open, vivid without being harsh, very dynamic, and that sound great loud. (Great soft too, but most speakers sound okay at low volumes. Not very many sound good at high volume.) Not an accident that his audition was meant to reproduce what you'd hear standing in "about the eighth row" of a rock concert. It did, except it was better, cleaner, clearer, and more articulate that any live music I've ever heard.
I was so smitten with Bill's skills that I took a very big (and potentially very stupid) leap. Rather than return my sub-par speakers to the guy who had sold them to me, I opted to have them rebuilt.
This is not a smart move, on the face of it. I was going past the point of no return—literally, because obviously once I had them rebuilt I could no longer return them to the guy who sold them to me. Rather, I would end up with a pair of non-resellable, one-of-a-kind speakers in which I had sunk way too much money (despite a partial refund issued by the seller). If I hated the finished result, I'd be stuck with a very expensive white elephant.
But I took the plunge.
Two coils and a cheap cap: one of the great swindles in audio is encapsulated in the word "minimalist." What it means 90% of the time is, "we're saving on parts." This is the entire crossover of one of my new/used "audiophile" speakers ($2,500 retail, remember(!)) as it came from the factory. (Note the broken solder joint, the culprit behind the dead woofers.)
What we really needed to do was to get better midrange drivers into the things. The midranges of the original speakers were inexpensive, low-quality drive units that created a large suckout at the upper end of their range that was not subtle—you could hear it plainly on most program material. I opted to have Bill replace the tweeters too, simply because he has his favorite drivers and he knows how to cross them over. I just wanted to give him some design flexibility, rather than make him start from unmapped territory with tweeters he wasn't familiar with.
We left the original four woofers alone.
And the result? Oh, but you will have to wait again, Grasshopper. That's for Part III of this saga, coming up in "Open Mike" a few weeks from now. Suffice to say...well, what, you think enchanted leprechauns who appear out of nowhere just when they are needed are going to create speakers that aren't magical?!?
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Original contents copyright 2012 by Michael C. Johnston and/or the bylined author. All Rights Reserved.
Question from Ed Kirkpatrick: "Sounds like great fun Lucy, but you need to 'splain what a crossover is and how it works...please?"
Mike replies: In multi-driver speakers, each driver or drive unit is assigned one part of the frequency spectrum to turn into sound. In a classic three-way, you have a "woofer" driver for the low frequencies, a "tweeter" driver for the high frequencies, and a midrange driver for the frequencies in the middle, where most of the music is. (Think shadows, highlights, and midtones respectively [g]). But the signal comes in from the amplifier all in one piece, and where the loudspeaker as whole stands or falls is how the duties are passed off between these (in this case) three ranges. The "crossover" refers to the electronic bits that determine which driver takes which part of the signal to turn into sound. In a "passive" (unpowered, non-adjustable) crossover, which is essentially a filter, the goal is the seamless integration of the three drivers such that they all sound coherent together and together create a reasonably flat frequency response over the whole audible spectrum.
Crossover design is an art in itself, and it's also the part where most manufacturers skimp, because the bits are on the inside of the speaker where most purchasers never look. As you might expect, there are various "schools of thought" when it comes to crossover design and implementation amongst audio aficionados, but that's another story.
The biggest expenses in marketing commercial home audio speakers are a) the cabinet, b) shipping the cabinet (they can be big and heavy, which makes them expensive to shift about the world), the cardboard boxes and padding in which to ship the cabinet (I kid you not, this is a significant expense for speaker manufacturers) and advertising and marketing. The parts that ought to be the biggest expenses are...well, the parts, meaning the drivers and the crossover. But this is in fact where manufacturers have the opportunity to cut costs. And this they often do...sometimes with a vengeance.
Featured Comment by Robert Roaldi: "Do you have any idea how much it cheers me up to hear stories like this about people with deep knowledge who actually know what they're doing? Somehow, and I can't prove this, this culture actively tries to get rid of people like these. This is just my opinion, of course, but it's a deep gut feeling I have."
Mike replies: Me too. I was talking to Bill Waara about the way that a lot of audiophiles have trouble stepping outside of what I called the "status ranking"—the idea that speaker A which costs x "must" be superior to speaker B which costs y because they've been told it is. And Bill said "I have spent my whole life outside of the status ranking." A memorable quote, for me.
Question from Manuel [see the rest of Manuel's comment in the Comments section]: "Your new midrange driver appears to be sourced from Focal, the French brand once known as JMLab. Am I right?"
Mike replies: You are correct sir. Bill appears to be partial to Focal drivers, and in fact among commercial speakers that I've heard, his custom speakers sound most like Focal Utopias to me.
Featured Comment by Dan: "Now I'll have to check this place out the next time I'm in Milwaukee—I have an account I call on there. I had something similar done with some speakers my brother built. Beautiful cabinets and an OK sound. He had been guided by a guy who had owned a speaker company out of SoCal. So I took them to Van L Speakerworks on the 5700 block of Western Ave. in Chicago. He worked magic on them. This was in the mid '90s. Have never tired of them and am impressed every time I listen."
Mike replies: I know Van. I once wrote an article called "The Great Chicago Audio Walkabout." The concept was that I visited every audio emporium I could find in the greater Chicagoland area—this was when I lived there, of course—and did a serious audition of the best high-end demo system at each shop. Then I evaluated the sound of the respective demos based purely on sound quality, with no thought given to anything else. The article was rejected by several magazines and never published—it naturally criticized several influential dealers—but the winners of the Walkabout were Van L Speakerworks and Holm Audio, two very different dealers who nevertheless both knew good sound.
Featured Comment by Jim in Denver: "I've been into speaker building since I was quite young, helping my father.... At a glance I can most certainly verify that the crossover components are of fantastic quality. And the Focal aerogel midrange? Wonderful! Eagerly waiting the next installment of this story. :-) "