Living Voice OBX-R2 Speakers : Hi-Fi+ Review : June to July 2004

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Living Voice OBX-R2 HiFi+ June to July 2004

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HiFi+ - Jun/Jul 2004

 

The Living Voice Avatar OBX-R2 Loudspeakers

 

or Little Speaker In The Big City

 

By: Scott Markwell

 

 

*Click on any of the photos below to enlarge if desired

 

"...breakfast in Los Angeles... macrobiotic stuff...". That is what it said, best that I can remember, in the Pink Floyd song that has been going round and round in my head ever since the last time I listened to that damn Atom Heart Mother album. The same thing happens with almost anything you play through the Living Voice Avatar OBXs: you hear the song or the piece once, and you are then forever humming it and hearing it in your head over and over for the next several days. With great clarity and mental rendition of detail. It is an uncanny thing, and one that forces me to really think about what these speakers are doing that is so different from so many others out there (that are just dirtying up the field for anyone who is seriously trying to make a better mousetrap). Kevin Scott of Living Voice has kept his focused gaze front and centre, avoiding the usual pitfalls of more pedestrian, mediocre loudspeaker design and has managed to hit the nail squarely on the head.
 

I have been ruminating on this for a long while, even as I crossed the Great Divide to get to my new job in California. Having heard these speakers with a wide variety of electronics, and in a very different room from the one in the house where I lived for the last year and a half in New York, allowed me to have a sonic memory on how to proceed once I got to my new home in Los Angeles (yet Living Voice OBX-R2 speakersanother cathartic experience). First I had to move house, with all of the love/hate trauma that is associated with that endeavor, and then I had to find out that the lovely speaker in short pants and knickers that I had known and come to love on the east coast, had grown up and turned into a still reasonably diminutive, but now potent and self-aware, diva of stunning proportions on the west coast. One who now has her lungs and can belt it out like Garland or croon sweetly to you like Fitzgerald in a particularly sultry mood. Day after day, these loudspeakers continue to teach me new things about both my record collection and my own emotional state of mind. With the advent of my re-setting up in LA, it has become quite apparent to me that the Avatar OBX loudspeaker is both a reference quality domestic listening tool of the highest order, and a modern classic in terms of its apparent simplicity and clean, almost stark physical design.


Equally at home in a long and narrow, classic shoebox listening room as in a commoner, rather more squarish one, the OBXs evoke first and foremost a feeling of exceptional control and agility, both tonally and dynamically Their basic tonal balance is at once instantly appealing and smacking of a definite "rightness". We have all listened to speaker systems that sounded perhaps phenomenally good in one respect or another: great imaging, soundstaging, bass impact, ethereal high-frequency reproduction, or a beguilingly sweet rendition of female vocalists. But so many otherwise fine loudspeakers are marred by what turns out in the end to be unacceptable levels of coloration. The OBXs simply do not have that vice. They may err slightly on the side of a lightness of tone, but never at the expense of overall tonal balance. Instead their ability to project energy and define micro-dynamic levels brings vivid, lifelike colour to instruments and voices. What I'm referring to as lightness is more to do with a deft agility and speed of response than any loss of harmonic energy They're just not clogged or bloated like a lot of speakers that squeeze ever more bandwidth from overloaded cabinet volumes.

 

This balance is key to the loudspeaker's success. Already excelling in terms of agile dynamic response and transient behaviour, the OBXs manage to generate a well•crafted soundstage and a high level of dimensionality to boot. But their finely judged tonal balance and lack of any overt colourations lend them a neutral overall demeanor that tends to just disappear when you play them. They stand behind the music rather than between you and it. I have found that I can hear an amplifier, pre•amplifier, digital or phono component far easier than I can hear the loud•speakers. OK, if I turn off the sub-woofer I can tell that power response below about 50-60 Hz is being truncated, but there is no penalty otherwise. Astonishingly honest and impressively detailed, yet never ruthlessly revealing in a bleached or X-ray sense, the OBXs are capable, in a room of reasonable proportion (mine is such a one and measures 17' x 13' with an 8' ceiling) of convincingly reproducing a scaled-down facsimile of a full symphony orchestra or grand opera. What they do with pop, jazz, blues, chamber music, and smaller orchestral compositions is also convincing enough, to be sure, but it is with full orchestral fare that the R2s, for me, reach their zenith and fulfill their true potential.


These simple-looking, yet beautifully veneered and finished, sharply square-edged box speakers may seem like nothing special at first glance. Their relative lack of weight might perhaps suggest an overly-resonant or shouty box. Those hard edges might raise suspicions regarding strong diffraction effects from the front baffle. But on second look, and with naught but a quick listen, there is no doubt that this is a transducer that actually has a chance of getting it right. The two-per-speaker coated paper bass/midrange drivers are manufactured by Vifa, use a rather flexible foam surround, and are said to be well-matched as a quad set for a pair of speakers. Laid out in the classic D'Appolito arrangement, like the rest of the Auditorium series, the OBX stands out from its two junior siblings in the line in its use of the Scanspeak Revelator tweeter, one of the very best silk-dome tweeters on the market, and one that appears in a fair number of serious flagship designs. This excellent tweeter really makes the package, and, along with the sophisticated crossover, is directly responsible for the OBX's superbly smooth and detailed upper octaves.

 

The other and more obvious (and expensive) thing that sets the OBX apart from the two more affordable members in the Auditorium line is its outboard crossover. A premium-parts-only roster of components inside the sleek, low boxes includes proprietary non-inductive wire wound resistors and Hovland discrete film and foil Musicaps. I confess that I used to be a bit sceptical about the differences that the use of particular brands and models of component parts in things like crossovers were said to cause. Then I got the chance to listen to a lot of different component designs and came to see that a truly clever crossover (or any other circuit) will almost surely sound its best if proper design is combined with knowledgeable and seasoned judgment when it comes to parts selection. Scott's outboard unit is transparent enough that I can instantly hear the differences in cables, partnering electronics, any change in the kit upstream of the speakers. He supplied some copper ribbon-type speaker cables for use with the speakers, and these did sound quite good, but in the end I found I preferred the system fully wired (as sparingly as possible) with Nordost Valhalla. This is, even when keeping lengths to a minimum, quite a costly, some would argue insane, undertaking over and above the cost of the speakers, but I can assure you that if you have the means to do it, the Valhallas indeed offer a considerably better glimpse into Living Voice OBX-R2 speakersthe performance of the OBX than any other cable I have tried so far. What "considerably" translates into in terms of pounds sterling will, of course, differ from person to person, but the real meat of the matter here is that the speakers and crossover are transparent and revealing enough that you can not only be confident you will hear exactly what your speaker cable investment is doing for you, you will have it handed to you on a silver (or silver-plated copper) platter. The only crossovers I have heard in the past  couple of years that allow something like this level of see-through quality are the ones that Carl Marchisotto is designing for his Alon speakers (soon to be known by the Nola name). I say that if these two can manage to design such fine, nearly invisible crossovers for their products, more should be able to figure it out. Seems simple to say, but I still hear plenty of loudspeakers that, if nothing else were changed, would reap serious sonic rewards from a better crossover design.
 

As I understand it, the latest version of the crossover that I got with these speakers is one generation farther along than the one that came with the set of OBXs that the Editor reviewed several issues back. The new version offered the opportunity for a second opinion on a product that's since become something of a benchmark, an opinion from someone coming to the speakers with no history or prior experience. When it comes to system matching, Scott's clever and effective crossover is just one of the factors that suits the OBX to lowish powered amps. He tends to eschew the really flea powered designs, where output power can be counted on the digits of a single hand, but move up to 20 or so Watts and the sound produced can have a devastatingly pure and addictive quality with certain types of music, if not the raw power to play at elevated levels. Crossover losses seem to me to be almost as low as if he direct-wired the main drivers to the amplifiers. Anything over 50 wpc with these babies gets you into serious rock-and-roll territory  The sensitivity of the OBX is quite high at a rated 94 dB/watt, and with an impedance curve that comes in with a nominal value of 6 ohms, the speakers are remarkably easy to drive. In Los Angeles, I achieved excellent results with both a 30 WPC class-A Vaic 52B stereo SET amp and a Viva 300B amp using EAT 300BX valves that made the amp good for 23 WPC. Just for fun, I tried a 40 WPC Denon receiver and a 100 WPC Gamut SS stereo amp, but the sound was best with the valves.


Admittedly, when I played an LP like Solti's Decca/London recording of Verdi's Othello, with its opening passages full of pounding, wind-swept chords and off-stage thunder, I could bottom out the two SET amps in the bass long before the rest of the spectrum gave up the ghost. But recordings like that, with almost supernatural power in the bottom octave, are relatively rare* and with the vast majority of recordings of any format, true bottom-octave power and weight is something that does not have to be worried over most of the time. The point I am driving at here is that if your amplifier taste leans a bit towards the SET or other little (usually) weenie-sounding designs (despite the horribly high cost of some of the damn things), they'll still drive these speakers very effectively So long as you can come to grips with the reality of volume constraints, really great small amps will sound really great, right up until they run out of power. So you have to use judgment and manage your expectations if you elect to run these speakers with really low-powered amps.
 

But if you run them with an amp that dips below the 20 Watt level then you risk missing out on the full dynamic envelope these speakers can deliver - and that's one of their massive strengths.

 

 

* In the case of CD and other digital formats, there are Rap recordings and the odd disc of whatever music that actually has a lot of real, extended bass; however, much of the time that vaunted "digital-quality" bass is nothing more than an embarrassing mess.

 

There is a separate issue of how well a given combination of amplifier and speaker will sound when partnered in a system. Bear in mind that many smaller valve amps, regardless of other factors, simply do not sound that great driving some speakers, and it most often has to do with a combination of the impedance curve of the speaker and how efficient the design is at turning electricity into sound. With the OBX the speaker is a benign enough load that most any amplifier can couple with it and produce music. But you will need more than 8 WPC if you expect to play any of it really loud.


Do not get me wrong:
that Othello I alluded to above is a real butt-kicker in terms of bandwidth and dynamics. With the 30 WPC Vaic 52B amp in the system I can play it at a very respectable volume, to where the room rattles and shakes like mad (of course I cheat and use an Alon Thunderbolt subwoofer, but I digress). With 80-100 WPC available, you are actually capable of easily overloading the speakers in the bass, but the levels invoked at such power levels are way out of hand for anything but out and out abuse in a home setting. Trust me when I tell you that they will play loudly enough for most all of your needs.


I could go on all day and just ramble around with all sorts of descriptions of the OBXs' performance, but I think that I need to get a capsule around these speakers, make you understand what they do in a nutshell. Whilst you'd never mistake the OBX for an electrostatic, in one way at least it reminds me of the Quad. Just occasionally, once in a while and with a following wind, on certain Living Voice OBX-R2notes and at certain times, it can almost fool you into thinking, just for a moment, that a given musical sound is real. That is priceless in and of itself: That the OBX does it so often and with so little fanfare, just sort of slipping it under your guard is doubly impressive. This is a truly transparent speaker system, one that sounds tonally honest and dynamically uninhibited. The lack of compression and the superb aliveness that the OBX displays with all kinds of music lends it an authenticity and communication that cannot be made up for in other areas. Above 100 Hz, the Avatar OBX is one of those rare birds that sings with a purity and even-handed frequency response that helps it to disappear from the musical picture. It makes you much more aware of the rest of your system and the software it is playing than of the speakers themselves. With both a human warmth and a more literal and unflinching ability to simply grab a note and explode it into the room, the OBXs allow you to forget about the process and go directly into Escape from Reality Mode. What sets the OBXs apart is their ability to encompass a complete musical performance and all its sense, not just parts of it. Of course, you can't have compact dimensions, efficiency and deep, deep bass, although what the OBXs deliver is beautifully judged and more than sufficient for most requirements. If it fails to meet your needs then it's easily sorted with a quality sub. But even alone, many of you will find the bass of these speakers to be more than adequate, certainly in terms of quality. The steep transient attack and tactile feel and sound of a tuned bass drum is easily discerned, as is, almost more importantly, the decay of the note and the way that it resonates in the hall or room. Double basses have texture and air around them, helped by the speed and microdynamic precision of the speakers.

 

For some folks this will never be a serious high-end speaker. They aren't big enough and they certainly aren't expensive or exotic enough. They also won't play at the superhuman levels that some folks seem to need. They will not fill an absolutely huge room with high-level sound. For that you will have to go to pure horns or the like. Perhaps right back to Living Voice for an Air Scout... And the OBXs are not going to be your first choice if you have a hard time paying for good things in a small package. Other than that, I am seriously hard-pressed to find any substantial criticism of these speakers. They are petite (which many would see as an advantage) and they are pricey enough to cause pause, but there is something so seductive in their natural tonal balance and their dynamic agility that they can easily win both your heart and your head.


This apparently modest offering from Kevin Scott seriously begs the question of when is less more? At first glance the seemingly simple and unadorned boxes that make up this system belie their ability to musically convince. But make no mistake.


At $7995 in the USA and around 4500 in the UK, the Living Voice Avatar OBX is a formidably good loudspeaker in a very manageably sized box, and must literally be heard correctly to be believed. When I say correctly, it's in recognition that revealing as these speakers are, they'll tell you with less than spectacular sound if the system doing the driving isn't up to the job. It might be poorly matched or poorly tuned, but either way the results will be the same. And many of you will blame the speaker because other speakers don't reveal the problem. Properly set up and on-song, these speakers are capable of the mesmerizing trick of allowing one, for a time, to suspend disbelief and simply revel in the music. Very few loudspeakers can deliver the musical goods, but the Avatar OBX is definitely one of them.

 

Those Crossovers

 

by Roy Gregory

 

As Scot alludes, the R2 designation in the OBX's nomenclature refers to a revision in the external crossover. Along the way the veneers have been improved and the density of the cabinet material has also changed slightly but significantly That might not seem like reason enough to conduct a complete new review, but if you hear the differences between the new and old designs then you'll appreciate that the R2 really does represent a totally different speaker. Also, given that it occupies a reference position for both JK and myself it has become something of a benchmark around here. Under those circumstances, a separate, completely external assessment (reality check) seemed like a good idea. The only problem being that, by definition, SM had no experience with the older crossover and was thus unable to comment on any benefits accruing from the new one.


Putting the crossover in an external box is an obvious way to improve the performance of any loudspeaker. You isolate it from the magnetic fields associated with the drivers, and more importantly, you isolate it from the mechanical interference inevitable within the cabinet. After all, a loudspeaker cabinet is just a box with a number of vibrating elements attached to it. The whole thing is going to shake, along with the air inside it. All things considered, putting the crossover in another, separate box seems more than just a good idea. It could be considered essential to decent performance.
 

Why then isn't it standard practice?
 

Well, it's not without serious implications when it comes to practicality and cost. Given that the box is the most expensive (and problematic) part of any loudspeaker, doubling the cabinet count is very bad for the price of your product. Even using generic boxes doesn't cut costs significantly, and risks compromising performance through materials (down to things like eddy currents in aluminium extrusions) and just as importantly aesthetics. Let's not forget that speakers are the one part of the system you really can't hide. Which brings us to the second issue which is the floor space required. One option is to stand the speaker atop the crossover cabinet, but the physical connection between the two largely defeats the object of the exercise. It seems pretty dumb to take the time and trouble to go through all that effort and expense only to compromise the end result.

 

So, accepting the notion of a no•compromise approach means just that. You're going to have to accept the extra cost and the extra boxes that go with it. And finally, you're going to have to accept the cost of the extra cabling that runs from the crossover to the speaker. And don't think that you can get away with some piece of old tat that just happens to be lying around or left over. It is essential to maintain the integrity of the cable loom if you want to achieve the best results. Indeed, it is essential in order to achieve acceptable results! That means running the same cable from amp to crossover and crossover to speaker, which is another expense on top of the cost of the speakers and crossovers themselves.


Living Voice OBX-R2 external crossoversBy now you might well be wondering if the whole rigmarole is worthwhile. But return to our original premise and the primacy of performance and the benefits are easy to appreciate. Besides, for those that question the sanity of such obsessive behavior, Living Voice offer the more conventional Avatar. However, it's interesting to note that it is outsold significantly by the more expensive and complex OBX, so it seems fair to conclude that the benefits of the external crossover are both significant and readily audible.


All that before we even get to the issue of the new version versus the old one. As to the physical differences between the two, the newer one uses fewer components to achieve the same result. However, as anyone who has ever built crossovers will appreciate, achieving that goal is a far from simple process and places even greater demands on component quality and selection. The main difference between the two crossovers is that the R2 version dispenses with the Zobel network employed in the original. Theoretically speaking, this capacitor/resistor network compensates for rising high•frequency impedance, making the speaker an easier load as well as maintaining a flat phase response. However, the OBX is unusual in that there is no series attenuation at all in the crossover. The subtractive element in the Zobel network was audible as a slight loss of air and energy at the extreme top of the speaker. But its elimination required the revoicing of the mid-bass filter, a process involving the tortuous removal of windings from the in-house wound, air-cored inductor, a quarter winding at a time, and then listening to the results! The end result shares only two components with the original version.


The other major change is the relocation of the LCR network from a position at the crossover input to one between the filter and the drive•units. According to Kevin Scott this allows greater control and authority in the bass. Finally, where the crossover used to employ Clarostat resistors, these have now been replaced by a proprietary design produced specifically for Living Voice.


Externally, the box for the new version is identical to the old, the rack width cabinet being constructed from MDF and supported on three steel cones. Internally the hard-wired circuit is built onto an MDF slab that sits on a thick layer of piano felt, loosely located by retaining slats. It uses the same, supremely practical five-way binding posts and the same colour coding for the speaker outputs, whose non-standard nature (while absolutely necessary) means that you need to exercise considerable care in making connections if you want to avoid getting something out of phase. Do it slowly check it one step at a time, and then, ideally get someone else to check your checking. Alternatively, get your dealer to properly colour code your chosen cables and it becomes perfectly straightforward.


Listening to the two crossovers is a salutary experience, making you realise just how accommodating the ear can be as well as how critical crossovers are to speaker performance. We might get all excited about the far more visible drive•units and their technology but they are poor slaves to the quality of the network they're connected to. It might be visually invisible but sadly, all too often, the same can't be said of its audible impact.

 

Changing from the old crossover to the new (and let's remember just how happy we were with this speaker in its original incarnation) produces an astonishing transformation. The first and most obvious difference is an increase in overall spatial coherence and transparency Instruments and voices are far more focused, but more importantly, they take up proper positions in a single, complete acoustic. It applies just as much to studio recordings as it does to minimal acoustic ones, a fact that reflects an increase in evenness in the speakers' top to bottom frequency response, but much more importantly, its overall energy spectrum.


Okay, lots of fancy words and hi-fi terminology: what does it actually mean in terms of musical reproduction? Playing Eliza Gilkyson's haunting song `Separated' (Land Of Milk And Honey, Red House Records RHR CD 174) with the old crossovers you are aware of a patchwork assembly of different instruments. With the R2 version, the guitar steps away from the left hand speaker, the bass steps back and the music starts to happen in the same plane, coming from the same place and at the same time. With a stark recording such as this the effect is stunning, rather like reassembling the shards of a broken mirror to recreate a single, familiar image. It speaks volumes about the increased phase coherence of the new design.
 

The new crossover is also far more expressive when it comes to the shape and distribution of energy within the note. There's a leaner, clearer quality to the bass that extends across the whole range (as noted by SM) but that simply reflects the rounded warmth and emphasis of the original. Now you can hear the pluck and release of individual notes far more clearly the shape the player gives them, the way they shape the pace and flow of the track.


But the best I've kept for last. Put these two qualities together and they deliver the mid-band and treble purity that so impressed SM. Gilkyson's voice becomes more focused and precise, but it also becomes far more fluid and natural. It loses a grainy texture that overlays the older model, allowing the lyric to communicate far more deftly and directly The shape she puts to words, the feeling behind them is far more obvious and affecting. The four voices that make up the choir on `Peace Call' are beautifully separated, not just in pitch and tone, but in vocal technique as well. The clarity and natural energy spectrum that the R2 delivers gives instruments their own, distinct tonal identity and character. The harmonic structure and colour of the notes produced is vivid and individual, the sense of energy and intensity in a note can be breathtaking. Just play some Cello to marvel at the rich complexity of the music that swells and tumbles from the body of the instrument. It's a heady intoxicating quality, rich and redolent with the magnified energy of the bow and intent of the player.


Combine these effects and what you have is a far more fluid and more naturally proportioned presentation. It makes the musical image easier to accept, the system easier to forget, the musical message much easier to understand. The magnitude of the improvement is out of all proportion with expectations, the results amounting to what is to all intents a brand new speaker.
 

In the process it elevates the performance to quite another level, making the current OBX an even more accomplished and refined communicator than the (already impressive) older versions. Yet the price for the basic finishes remains the same. The really good news is that the new crossovers can be added to existing speakers. The cost of the exercise is S1050 plus the return of your old outboard boxes, for which you receive a brand new set in return. Given the nature of the sonic benefits accrued, that represents a huge bargain and this upgrade should be at the top of every OBX owners wish list. Don't delay - hear them today.

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Living Voice OBX-R2 Speakers : Hi-Fi+ Review : June to July 2004

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