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The Great Leap Forward

The Great Leap Forward

I’ve recently been through several loudspeakers in the review process recently. And two in particular highlight a marked step-change in the way audio systems have sounded, and now sound.

The two loudspeakers are the excellent Graham Audio LS5/9 loudspeaker and the equally excellent – but very different – Triangle Signature Delta. The Graham Audio LS5/9 is very much of the old-school BBC transducer design (thin-walled wide-front baffle standmount box, relatively low-impact load, low sensitivity, gently rolled off top and bottom). The Triangle, on the other hand, is very much the new order of audio, with high sensitivity, a frequency response extended to the limits of the hearing of the best of us, a slim-baffle and thick cabinet).

The LS5/9 is one of the lesser-known and last BBC loudspeaker designs, developed in the late 1970s and early 1980s. Triangle was around at that time, but although its modern models have a heritage, it’s hard to see them as even distant relatives. Perhaps more importantly though, they sound very different to one another; that might sound obvious (they are from different companies, use different drivers, one is a three, the other a two-way… things like that) but the differences run deeper than most.

In some ways, the Graham Audio is a time machine. It takes the listener back to a time when high frequencies were something to be gently encouraged, rather than emphasized. A time when bass was not considered a foundation stone to good sound and a time when the midrange was the place where all loudspeakers were judged.

 

We’ve moved on. As a loudspeaker like the Triangle demonstrates, an extended treble, clean almost to the point of brightness, and an authoritative bass are the orders of the day. It’s still important to get the midrange right – and in fairness, this has long been a strong-point for the French brand – but it’s just one of the priorities now.

In fact, you could argue that we moved on and are beginning to swing away from overly bright speaker systems. The days of zingy, stingy metal dome tweeters are behind us, even behind those who use metal dome tweeters. But the sound is still far brighter and far more forward today.

I don’t want this to descend into an argument that rose-tints either ‘bright, forward’ or ‘soft, laid-back’. A better line of reasoning might be to investigate ‘why’? I suspect it’s a combination of things.

A lot of what passed for good speaker design a few decades ago was constrained by the limits of materials science at the time. While it became possible thanks to companies like KEF making the first plastic cones and domes, it still took a while for a HF component beyond about 15-16kHz to catch on.

However, I think it comes down to changes in priority of the listeners themselves. A typical hi-fi enthusiast of the 1950s and 1960s wasn’t normally playing Elvis or The Beatles through his system. They were fans of classical, jazz and other kinds of acoustic music, the sound of which they tried to anchor in their heads and reproduce in the home. Whether a move from acoustic to amplified instruments did seem to spark interest in loudspeakers with a brighter top end is unclear, because correlation does not imply causation. But it warrants historical investigation.

This might even have a demographic component. What is impossible to separate is whether that demographic component (should it be demonstrable) comes down to learned response; certainly anyone in the Baby Boomer cohort (currently those aged between 50 and 68) will likely have spent their formative years listening to loudspeakers with a gentle roll-off, which anyone born in the 1970s or 1980s is less likely to have experienced. It’s anecdotal at best, but those who still have their own hair tended to like the Triangle sound, while those of superior maturity tended to like the Graham. Again, whether that’s due to history or even presbycusis is not easy to separate now.

It’s clear the drive toward more forward sounding loudspeakers is not without its exceptions. Alongside Graham Audio, fellow keepers of the BBC flame, Harbeth, Stirling Broadcast and Spendor have all had marked success in their product lines, and Tannoy’s Prestige range steadfastly refuse to push their sound forward. One could also look at designs from Audio Note, Avalon, Rockport and more that provide a sense of balance between the two polar opposites. However, the immediacy forward sounds provide does make for a compelling demonstration, which could also be a reason why more up-front sounding speakers dominate the market today.

Why is this an important consideration, though? There seem to be a lot of people expressing dissatisfaction with audio today. Some of that is directed at the spiralling price of top-end equipment, but others just find themselves out of sorts with what their audio system has to offer. To them, I’d say look to the speakers. If your system is forward sounding, try something a little less upfront; if it’s too laid-back, go with a more upfront sound. Or go for some genuine balance.

I think that just as tastes change over time, so we begin to change our perceptions about our own equipment. Over time, we start to crave something different. Not necessarily more, and not necessarily less; but ‘different’. And this could be the best way to find your way out of audio ennui.

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