Walking into a demo room is like walking into someone else’s mind. Or, some piece of it. Some minds are ordered. Tidy. Clean and organized. Some are warm, like a heated towel. Comfortable, like an broken-in boot. And then, there are those that are clearly out of their mind.
I’m not calling Duke LeJeune and James Romeyn crazy. Far from it. I mean, maybe they are, but that’s almost beside the point — they clearly are “doing things”, pushing ideas around, having fun, and exploring. If you’re not ready, you’re gonna wonder what the heck is going on. If, maybe, you’ve made a wrong turn. And this is precisely why I always go hunting for Duke and James. While I never know quite what to expect, I do know this one thing: I’m not going to be disappointed.
The last few shows, I’ve found the guys talking about LCS, or “late ceiling splash”. The idea, at least as I’m able to grasp it, seems to hinge on the idea that loudspeakers, generally speaking, really stink at getting any sense of real space. In fact, I think James would argue, audiophiles go out of their way to eliminate some of the very things that make live music sound live — that is, they damp, absorb, or otherwise treat reflections right out of existence. The result, for most systems, is … boring.
Again, putting words in their mouths, I think they’d say that all reflections are not created equal and should not be universally stamped out of existence. The rule of thumb is 5 milliseconds — sounds, or more properly, sound waves that arrive within 5ms of each other cannot be distinguished as separate things. Signals overlapping in this window can “sound” smeared, robbed of detail, and generally unpleasing. This is why GIK Acoustics, and others, have gone out of their way to sell you “first reflection” and “second reflection” absorption devices — with a side wall that’s relatively close to the loudspeaker, you could be smearing your signals. Similarly, just any panel speaker owner will tell you, pulling those speakers at least 3′ from the front wall will dramatically improve the sound — for exactly the same reason. That extra 6′ (3′ to the front wall, and 3′ back) adds approximately 6ms to the “back wave” coming off the panel and heading to the front of the room, before bouncing and coming back to you, the listener, which is enough time for your brain to separate the signals and interpreting it as “air” instead of “mud”. Note that this is also why most panel speaker aficionados will suggest 5′, not a mere 3′, of distance, but we’re digressing. Anyway, this back wave reflection is in no small part responsible for the “open box”/boxless/panel/open-baffle sound — it’s a good thing, listeners tend to like it, but there are other challenges with panels (specifically) that make their use problematic (namely, one, that they tend to suck at bass, and two, to get what bass they can, they tend to be friggin’ huge). So, wouldn’t it be nifty if we could capture that effect and translate it to the world of “regular” speakers?
The implementation here, with this year’s RMAF iteration, is as a completely separate pair of loudspeakers, pulled back from the mains, and oriented (targeted, if you will) in such a way that they take advantage of your room’s size and shape to “fire” that missing back wave in such a way that it’ll arrive clear and clean of the primary signal. Done correctly, the argument goes, this will dramatically increase the size of the sound stage and add back in much of the scope lost to the traditional box-speaker approach, which then lets box speakers do whatever it is that they’re best at.
Say hello to The Space Generators ($1,800/pair). The Generators will “fit” in parallel to your current speakers (assuming those speakers are about 90dB or less), and can be leveled or tilted in order to be shoehorned into the loaded corners.
The Generators were run in-room with an AudioKinesis Planetarium Sigma loudspeaker system. The main speakers, the Sigma main modules ($6,600/pair, including stands), were matched with the award-winning Swarm subwoofer system ($2,800). That latter is worth a quick note.
If you haven’t explored Duke’s Swarm, I highly recommend it. The idea is, again, not controversial: bass is hard to integrate into a room. The typical solution is to add a subwoofer. That’ll get reach, but not necessarily coverage — there are entire courses on how to integrate a sub successfully with its associated system. Two subs, most experienced integrators will tell you, are easier than one, as you can work the room nodes a bit more successfully with creative placement. Three subs are better than two — in addition to subjugating room nodes that much more easily, with each sub, all of them have to work a whole lot less to create the SPLs desired. Which means you can use smaller drivers. Which means that bass response can actually be faster and better integrated with these smaller, subs. And that’s the Swarm. Duke’s subs are all ported (but can be plugged), use 10″ drivers, and are all run from a single amp (a second amp can be added, if you want to run the subs in stereo). If you’re like me, and one (much less two or more) big ass subs are problematic for your space, the Swarm could be your ticket to bone-rattling bass response.
In this room, also, I found an Exogal Comet Plus DAC ($3,499 with optional linear PSU), an Aurender N100 caching network streamer ($2,499) and an Esoteric DV-50S universal player. All wire was custom, and came from James Romeyn (prices vary). The preamplifier was a tricked out Pioneer; the amplifier, an Electra-Fidelity EL-34 SET ($4,500), producing a startling 11 watts per channel.
The demo I heard was with/without the Space Generators, Duke manning the kill-switch sitting on the floor in front of the amplifier. With the Generators, the sound was quite good — warmth, with great tone, the character of that Electra-Fidelity amp just as clear as you’d want. This was comfort (as opposed to “tidy”, as I put it above), and I was a happy, happy boy. Then, Duke killed the Generators.
The word non-plussed doesn’t get a lot of play in modern usage, and it’s a shame. Essentially, I didn’t “get it”. What just happened? I asked Duke to cut it back in again, and he proceeded to cut the Generators in and out every 20 seconds or so, but after that first surprise-at-no-surprise, I heard it. Or rather, realized I had missed something.
I suppose what I was expecting was “total change” — and this was not that. The Generators don’t change the system, or how it sounds, not fundamentally. That system will sound as good, or not, as it happens to be. The Generators are very straightforwardly adding something. Not PRaT. No, the speakers didn’t magically transform themselves into Magicos or Magnepans. They sounded exactly the same. What was added? A bigger room. No, seriously — it was as if the room got 10′ bigger in every dimension. More specifically, it was as if the music was played on a much larger stage. Audiophiles talk about how sound stage might “spread past the boundaries of the speakers” and how rare that is. That’s exactly what was happening here. There was this moment when I found myself bracing, my mind repeating “Whoa whoa whoa …!” And then the speakers fell away and vanished. The walls did too. Space yawned, darkness fell, and we were all spinning around with the stars. It was cool.
Honestly, the experience also told me how silly A/B comparisons can be; after all, my first reaction was a raised eyebrow and shrug. I was listening for tone, bass, detail. Soundstage wasn’t something I was keying off of and it took me more than a second to notice the (profound) change. Biases, biases, they’re everywhere. But taking the time, exploring, trusting my unfolding experience and putting myself in the hands of an accomplished guide, well, I was rewarded.
Seriously, folks. Duke and James are magicians. This demo was like a Penn and Teller routine. “How did you do that?” Science, baby! It’s all science.