Your tunes plus the world
I suppose you could just grab a pair of headphones and sit out on your apartment’s balcony. That would kinda do what Madison-Fielding is doing with their Flagstone series of loudspeakers — which is to get you out of that silly cave and into the light of day. With your music intact.
I mean, as long as you don’t have any friends. Or family. Because, well, then it’s not really the same. Headphones, when you’re around other people, is a not very subtle way of saying “Go away!” Kinda the opposite of what the Flagstones are doing at that point. Which is partying. Because these “architectural” loudspeakers are a party on your porch.
- The Flagstones are a 3-way loudspeaker that can produce real bass and excellent stereo images out in free-space, without needing a wall or building to support the sound.
- Detail, tone and frequency extension are all excellent, especially for a product in this corner of the “lifestyle segment”, and the fact that they can completely disappear into your scenery — this is a for-real planter for crying out loud — is icing on a cake I just want plant my face in.
- These speakers are responsible for the best sound I’ve heard outside. With these on my patio, I spent an enormous amount of time away from my main system — and loved every minute of it. I’m sure my neighbors did, too.
- They’re not exactly cheap. At $3,500/pair, this is a serious outdoor commitment to high quality sound — sound that your neighbors had better be down with sharing. You could use these as in-home speakers too, but that price point lets a lot of competition in the door.
- The finish is a bit pedestrian — the cabinets are molded plastic. While this makes them weather proof (and I mean that, I just left them outside — in the rain), it doesn’t really make them “furniture grade”.
- The overall size of the cabinet is rather low for a loudspeaker, which means that you will need some space between them and the listener for the soundstage to develop a natural sense of height.
I first heard the Flagstones at AXPONA last year and promptly laughed my ass right off. A big ol’ Parasound amplifier, wired directly into a pair of plants? For reals? After a few minutes of casual, then semi-panicked, searching for the “real speakers” in the room, someone finally clued me into the fact that the speakers were the plants. Well, the planters that the plants sat in. I took some convincing, I’ll admit. Because there seemed no possible reason why that quality of sound could be coming from speakers so clearly not “audiophile”.
That sounds harsh, but I don’t mean it that way. My wife’s typical reaction to the loudspeakers that come through “the test bench” can usually be captured by the phrase: “Space Penises”. Yeah. That’s a thing. Anyway, she has a point — let’s just say that when form follows function, bad things can happen, especially when the term ‘bad things’ is reinterpreted as “Crimes Against Fashion”, and by ‘fashion’, I mean “common sense”. In short, speakers can be downright ugly. Stunningly so.
Guess what isn’t stunningly ugly? A plant. Pretty much ever, actually. I mean, unless I’m growing it. Or we’re talking about Amorphophallus Titanum, and that’s really more about the smell. Anyway … a “real” speaker that can vanish into your decor (who doesn’t like plants?) is typically not ‘audiophile’, it’s more ‘architectural’, so I suppose we have something of a crossover here — but my general experience with architectural audio tends to be function following form — they almost always look better than they sound, and unless they’re built into the walls, they don’t really look all that good.
So, when I heard the demo in Chicago, you could have colored me curious. When I heard them again at Newport, the hamster finally came in off the lunch break and the wheels started turning. I had to have a pair of these for review. I started playing games at CAF and New York, sending unsuspecting victims into the demo room with innocence and smiles.
A truly home-friendly loudspeaker. Indoor — and perhaps better still — or outdoor.
What could be better?
The Flagstone is a fully-passive speaker with a couple of variations, related to size (there’s a “Mini” version) and output (there’s a high-output version for noisy commercial areas, like a public swimming pool, called the “C-Flagstone”). The “regular” version has a 1″ tweeter and a 4″ midrange, paired with a big 10″ down-firing bass driver. That latter is the biggest difference between the “Mini” version (which uses an 8″ driver) and it’s larger, more expensive sibling.
They can be ordered with a variety of configurations, mainly having to do with the way the drivers are arranged. That is, you can order a pair of speakers with the “normal” complement of front-facing tweeter/mids, or, you can order the Flagstones with a second set of tweeter/mids, facing either 90° or 180° away. Might be useful if you’re attempting to cover a very large area with sound, but I tend to think of these as more “commercial” options. For my uses, the “normal” was plenty.
In all the options and variations, the cabinets are made of plastic, which makes sense, as the material is relatively inert and has a wonderful ability to withstand
life nature. By design, it’s outdoor-friendly, with binding posts tucked unobtrusively up underneath. The posts are five-way designs, but if you’re attempting to use these out-of-doors in anything resembling inclement weather (I hate you, Southern California), then consider going with “naked wire”. There are some plastic post-caps that can slip over the binding posts, creating a much better weather-seal than you’re likely to get with locking bananas or perfectly-fitting spades.
As a concession to the review, I opted for a big box of installer’s “burial grade” OCC speaker cable so I wouldn’t have to worry about it lying around outside. 500′ is overkill (and almost absurdly heavy), but hey, it might come in handy some day. Normally, I “make do” with whatever I have to hand (and I have quite a lot of very nice wire), but I had absolutely nothing 50′ long. Yeah, 50′. Okay, it might have been 60′.
You see, I stacked the electronics inside the house and just ran a very long run of speaker cables out to the speakers on the patio. That way, when it rained, the only thing that got wet was the speakers. Of course, the run was almost absurdly long (for a typical “audiophile” system), so I opted for the heaviest gauge I could get, which in this configuration, was a 4-strand 14 gauge wire; I was able to twist up the two opposing pairs to make an 11 gauge positive and negative run out of a single cable. Might not be Audiophile Approved, but it worked fine.
Getting back to the color of the loudspeaker — my demo pair was a grey, clearly meant to mimic cast-concrete lawn decorations or stonework. While this is probably fine for speakers sitting in the visual background, it’s not exactly going to stand up to a furniture-grade requirement. The material is contoured, it has shape, but it’s clearly plastic. Opt for the black version, however, and there’s a slightly different take on the finish — it’s not exactly a solid color as it has a bit of texture, but I think it looks a bit nicer up close. If you’re considering an outdoor installation, grey is going to do just fine.
Oh, last thing — these are planters. As in, you put plants in them. No, really. They come with matching bins that you can fill with dirt, or whatever fake stuff you use when you’re fake planting a bunch of fake plants. And yes, there’s a drainage system.
I first tried the Flagstones in my living room, a 14″ by 24″ “great room” where we keep the big TV and all the leather couches, and bracketing the fireplace in the middle of the front wall/short wall. That room is more than a little “live” — I have not made much progress in damping this room, and the very conversation makes my wife break out in hives. Anyway, that was setup #1, with the amp — a Luxman L-505u integrated — sitting on the hearth.
The problem is the cables — they kinda went everywhere in a rather visible fashion, and that “broke” the decor thing. Oh well. Obviously, I could have done something a bit more sneaky with removable floor boards or something, but for a demo, this seemed a bit overkill.
Setup #2 was outside, on the patio. My patio is stone, a level area built into a hill to manage a rather steep grade, and looks out into some woods that feed into a county park. A couple of years ago, a “teenage” bear wandered in and laid waste to a bird feeder, twisting the steel rods holding the tasty treats into something resembling a pretzel. We don’t put birdseed out until Winter anymore. But that back yard gets us all manner of critters, including deer, fox, groundhogs, turtles, snakes, mice, and a huge selection of local birds. It’s a pleasant place to be, actually. Sitting out there, with a monster umbrella to take the summer sun, can be quite enjoyable. Until Bug Season, of course, and for that three months, sitting out there is more like offering yourself up as a buffet. Which means I have about three months prior in Spring and three in Fall where it’s pretty much perfect. Not that I really tend to enjoy it. I’m usually working in the basement, and my improvements to my stereo don’t really do much to entice me out into the fresh air.
Before I bought the Big Box of Wire, I set the Flagstones up as I would have if I’d been indoors. Well, indoors in a big room — I put at least 10′ between them and sat a good 15′ back. Or so. I got really uncomfortable with the idea of resting my Luxman on the stone because bugs and quickly borrowed a picnic bench for an impromptu stereo rack. Later, I just left the components inside and ran long wires, firing the relevant remotes through a screen door. I liked that setup better (not having to hand-carry heavy electronics is always the preferable installation), and it allowed me to get some seriously extreme separation — 20′ apart was not a problem, and created a simply insane sound stage.
In the spirit of full disclosure, I’ll offer that there was a Setup #3. This configuration, with the speakers on opposing corners of the front porch, was only on offer for two days. Specifically, October 30th and 31st. Yeah, I used this system to play Halloween music and sound effects. Ha! My house is set a bit back from the other houses on the cul-del-sac, a good 100′ or more back from the street. With the speakers 30′ or so apart, run by the 100 watt per channel Luxman, I was able to scare the living tar out of approximately 100 neighbors, most of whom were way under the age of 10. Heh heh. That was awesome. Sorry about those diapers, kid!
What struck me, almost comically so, was this: these plants sound better than most of the speakers I’ve heard.
No, they’re not perfect. Wouldn’t that be sweet? But while they’re not perfect, they are pretty damn good.
If you’re an EDM fan, or into Lorde (or anything with a modern, deep and propulsive bass track), you might not flip quite as hard as fans of classical, jazz or rock. Specs put the low-end performance down to 40 Hz, and I think that number is pretty solid. That is, solid in open air — indoors, and with proper positioning, you can get some powerful reinforcement from your room. I found the output quite thoroughly able to pressurize my medium-sized room, and I got bass performance that was just silly. In fact, it was almost overwhelming — pulling them into the room helped considerably, but did tend to destroy the illusion of total invisibility. Anyway, I fully expect your mileage to vary. For a point of comparison, they not going to hit as deep as a PA-style tower speaker like, say, the SEAS Pendragon from Tekton. Not that you’d ever drag a pair of those onto your patio, but whatever; the Flagstones just don’t go that low.
As for the rest of the audio band, there was a very pleasing and even relaxing sense of coherence, top to bottom. As long as I was able to sit far enough back — 10′ was a good distance — I was able to get the soundstage height I wanted. Detail retrieval was a bit better than average, with excellent placement and a good sense of tone. Once I’d fiddled around a bit with placement, nothing really stood out. And yes, that’s a good thing. Fed a steady diet of whatever-the-hell I wanted, I had no serious complaints. They played “bigger” than the Pioneer SP-series budget speakers I had on hand. Sound was more precise, imaging a bit better, and bass performance more convincing. Of course, those speakers are $250 a pair. Anyway. The Tekton SEAS Pendragons John reviewed last month are about $2,500 and seem to be more on-a-plane with the Flagstones. I’ve already said those speakers reach lower, but I’ll offer that the Flagstones seem to have a more engaging mid-to-top end. The Tektons, admittedly voiced more for a PA-crowd, are not mid-forward like the Flagstones seem to be. On the top end, the Tektons are a little soft — again, these speakers are designed to play really loud, so that’s not surprising as a voicing choice — while the Flagstones sounded more even-handed to my ear, and while not the last word in high-end sweetness, were nevertheless non-fatiguing.
These are, admittedly, very general comments.
I should also mention the very general grin my face was wearing for the time I was able to spend with them. Big, silly, and ear-to-ear. These are planters. And yes, I’m having a hard time getting tired of repeating that. Heh heh, heh heh. Planters!
While they’re fine indoors, taking them outside was pretty clearly what they were designed to do. Put out into the dappled sunlight on my back patio, overlooking the hill and the woods, let me to completely ignore all that natural beauty and jam out to the Scorpions. Ha! A little Kansas, a little CSNY — heck, I even dabbled in a some Alice in Chains. Yep. Right there, in Mother Nature’s boudoir. The Sierra Club has since sent a cease and desist letter. A series of them, actually. I burned them.
Which brings me to a problem of public displays of audio.
The problem with most “personal PA” systems, at least what my pro musician friends tend to tote around to gigs, is that they sound like crap. Bass, if present, is wooly. Treble, if present, is piercing. Part of that is due to the gear itself, part of it is setup, part of is normal acoustics in the space they’re heard in … all understood. Even so, the average PA system, especially one set up outside by performers tends to suck rocks. That said, what PA systems tend to do really well — play loud — they tend to do really well. Which is why it’s not enough to just contribute to the Fraternal Order of Police. You’re gonna have to talk to the neighbors. Of course, they may just talk to you, especially if you’re into Zeppelin.
I got away with cranking the stereo over pretty much only once during “normal listening hours”, and that was on Halloween. I’d set the speakers up on the front porch and blasted the Tocata and Fugue at the neighborhood, right around dusk. You know. When the littlest of the little kiddies were out.
With a L-505u 100 watt stereo integrated from Luxman, the sound I was able to get out was easily heard from 3 streets away. Total projection? About 1/2 mile (I got in the car and checked) before the crap in the way bled all but the vaguest sense of the music into the background. My wife was thrilled with that little sonic test. So was I, but I think we might have had different interpretations of the term ‘thrilled’. My neighbors are still talking about it. Not always in a good way, but who cares. I got to keep a lot of candy this past year.
Anyway, more common was a much more moderate playback volume. Late summer was usually unpleasant to be out and about, but on the not-sweltering evenings, the family ate on the porch. My wife would tend toward classical or maybe some kind of instrumental, which meant I got to explore Zoë Keating this way. Her cello arrangements are a little genre-defying, but the haunting strains are clearly eeriest when played outside. Steak, with a side order of snark and grumpkin; the bow-on-strings echoed down and out, flowing over us and away like so much acoustic water. Refreshing.
I found that, over time, I self-moderated. Evening hours, I was circumspect. During the day, when the neighbors were at work, I loosened up a bit. At least during lunch-time-ish hours. Happy hour, too. I typically eschew mornings anyway, so observing that as a “quiet zone” wasn’t hard. But I did spend more than a little time wondering what, if any, impact I was having on the unsuspecting. Distracting, that, and it does make me want to caution potential buyers to at least consider the environment you’re planning on installing these into. Got some space and some land? Go for it. Live in a cul-de-sac McMansion, Stepford-like development? Plan on getting letters from the HOA or maybe a visit from the local Sheriff. For the record, the deputy that showed up at my door one September evening thought the sound was awesome.
Given the environment (outside) and the challenges and joys of listening thereto, I’m not going to make too much of the nits here either, but here are some more general notes. The paper says that they have an 89dB sensitivity, but plan on watts — especially if your wire is long. 100 was fine (Luxman), 10 was not (Trends TA 10.2). Did I mention that the speakers liked to be turned up before they come on song? They do — quiet listening is pretty boring, but moderate listening levels was much more interesting, and cranking it up to just below the point where the neighbors start howling is fun.
The main potential issue with these speakers also happens to be true with most speakers — and that’s bass. That down-firing woofer wants something solid under it. Concrete floors? In-ground patio flagstones? Good to go. A wooden patio deck? Not so much. I got a very uneven response until I sat them rock. Out on the lawn was, in some ways, worse — instead of lumpy, the bass just kinda died out. That’s a waste — that 10″ driver is the heart and soul of the speaker. Drag them onto something very solid and you’ll hear, pretty much immediately, why they cost so much more than those silly “rock speakers“.
As for imaging, I had quite a bit of variation. If I was able to sit far enough back, the soundstage achieved a reasonable height. Sitting closer, and that collapsed — not all that weird, given how compact the speaker is. 10-15′ was just fine. Putting them that far back also lets you get some space between them, which lent to some nifty stereo effects (assuming your music incorporated nifty stereo effects), but nailing an image in place was absurdly easy. Without room boundaries, placement is pretty much just a matter of getting distances down. Wham, bam, and crank it up, ma’am.
It’s impossible to classify the Flagstones as anything other than a marvelous oddity in the panoply of high-end audio. I kept trying to judge them on a basis that wasn’t ever quite appropriate — it’s like I was never able to really find a yardstick that worked. After a few weeks of struggling — is this an outdoor speaker working indoors or an indoor speaker operating outdoors — I suspended the question of baselines and just settled in. It just didn’t matter that they weren’t perfect; they were excellent and I was listening to way more music. Hopefully you’ll forgive the fact that I never bothered to go back and look for exactly how to judge these speakers. I just enjoyed the hell out of them.
Overall, I’ll offer that the sound quality is very good, and seems on par with speakers in this price point. Looking at them, this may be hard to imagine. They’re planters! Total cognitive disconnect. No, I’m not saying that there aren’t better speakers. There are. GoldenEar makes some devilishly great loudspeakers around this price point, for one random example. But given the form factor of the Flagstones, and their ability to recreate convincing sound stages do it outside and all-year-round, for me sets these Planter Speakers squarely in category of one. I’m sure that it’s possible that there are architectural loudspeakers that can compete with this offering from Madison-Fielding, but I haven’t found them yet, and honestly, who cares? The point is, here, that I did not have to sacrifice sound for scenery. And that, my friends, is audio winning.
Ultimately, these speakers aren’t really solving a problem I felt I was having, and whether or not the form factor and price make sense are beyond me to pre-analyze for you. But as for me, Spring is coming, and I am seriously wondering if I ought to invest in a pair of these just to keep tempting myself into spending more time outside.
Because the fact is, introducing these speakers into my mostly sedentary, mostly indoor, life and routine was thoroughly disruptive. With the Flagstones, I thought about the patio as a retreat. Weird that it hadn’t happened before, but there you go. Sometime after the review period, my wife and I bought a big, metal fire-pit, some Tiki torches and a case or two of citronella candles. Shortly thereafter, comfy chairs replaced all the crap lawn furniture. A lot of Fall evenings, normally spent in front of the TV watching some absurd crime drama, were cheerfully relocated outside. Weekends meant wine and cigars and friends — and all found a natural home out there, too — with tunes. I don’t want to put too much emphasis on this, but my life changed — for the better — during this review. I honestly can’t say that about any other part of my exploration of this hobby.
- Dimensions: 22″ W x 22″ D x 22″ H
- Frequency response: 40Hz to 18kHz
- Power handling: 150 watts RMS/channel
- Sensitivity: 89 db
- Impedance: 8 ohms
- Recommended amplifier: 150-250 watts RMS (at 8 ohms)
- Price: $3,500/pair