Howard Swayne of Live Sound Design re-created a classic RCA bass horn, added a replica of an Altec 1505, threw in some Altec amps restored and modified by Tom Tutay of Transition Audio Designs, and wiped away some 70 years of audio advancement.
The Grand Theatre System ($79,900) is about 105dB sensitive, and driven by 165 watts from the 811 tubes in the Altec amps, produced some of the most effortless, graceful and altogether enthralling sound at the show this year. There's pretty much nothing over 15kHz or so, and not a lot below 100Hz. Imaging wasn't anywhere near as incisive as a modern loudspeaker. But you know what? I did not care. At all.
If there was any way I could fit a system like this in a house (unlikely) or afford it (less so), I would have carted it off right then and there. Here's why. You'll hear audio reporters talk about the immediacy and presence of a stereo image in phrases like "Dylan was right there in the room with me" and "I could reach out and touch his guitar."
Weird as that might be, this experience was pretty much the opposite. He wasn't with me; I was with him. I was at a Dylan show. The wall of sound was 40' high and the soundstage was as wide as an end zone.
I was gobsmacked. Ho-lee-cow.
After (and during) this visit, I was asking myself all manner of uncomfortable questions. For example: has sound quality actually improved over the last 70 years? Yeah. Ouch.
Yes, transducers have gotten very clean and precise in their ability to convey ever-increasing amounts of information. Crossovers, at least in some notable cases, have gotten a whole lot more seamless. And “the everything else” has gotten considerably better at getting out of the way. But. But but but. But — with all that, have we gotten any closer to the music? Listening to the Grand Theater, I’d say that’s arguable. And that’s not necessarily a good thing. Well, unless you’re Howard Swayne. In which case, you’d probably give a knowing shrug.
For an extraordinarily high price, the Live Sound Designs delivers an out-of-the-park sound experience. This is what the high-end once was, and I for one would love to see more like it in the high-end that is.