My wife really likes this one, as it was told to her many years ago by a very smart matron when she was trying to raise children, earn a graduate degree, volunteer in the community, and forge ahead with a professional career. Once she took the advice to heart, her life took on a sense of much-needed focus and satisfaction.
Here I am thinking, as a seasoned audiophile and reviewer, that this advice might well apply to our lot also. I have three systems in rotation here these days. One consists of my big ATC speakers driven by a big Pass Labs amp, and it does scale and dynamic like nobody’s business. Another is built around the legendary Quad ESL63 panel speakers driven by either tube or solid state amplification, which have a magic all their own, but alas don’t revel in the strengths of the ATC/Pass combo. And then there is the review system. The focal point is the pair of efficient Living Voice IBX-R3 speakers powered by various flea-watt amps. These speakers don’t exactly sound like Quads or ATCs, but they do indeed offer up some special sauce all their own, as we shall soon see.
So, maybe I can have it all, but unfortunately I can’t listen to all three systems at the same time. Dang it!
About those speakers…
In all honesty, I’d been interested in spending some time with a pair of Living Voice speakers for quite awhile now. I’ve heard them at shows powered by Gary Dews’ legendary BorderPatrol amplifiers, and also once or twice at Scot Hull’s place (he also owns a pair). No matter the venue, I’d been taken in by their smooth, rich tonal balance and resolving power; they were always pleasantly easy on the ears while providing the level of detail I like to hear.
Cutting straight to the chase, I’ve found these Living Voice speakers to be a revelation in my system, especially given my penchant for “little amps.” While many of my amps play just fine with other speakers I keep around here, mating them with the right kind of speaker is a thing, let me tell you.
As it turns out, there are actually two lines of Living Voice speakers. The first is the well-known Vox series, which are classic horns. These are reputed to be some of the finest sounding (and priciest) speakers money can buy; I can’t say from first-hand experience, as I have never encountered them in the wild (or in a zoo). The second line is the Auditorium Series, to which the IBX-R3 belongs. These are more cost-effective dynamic driver tower speakers which take up a whole lot less real estate in the listening room.
The Auditorium Line comprises five different models: the Auditorium R25, the Avatar, the IBX-R3, the IBX-RW3, and the OBX-RW3; the RW models utilize outboard crossovers. The IBX-R3, up for review here, sits bang in the middle of the range, one quality level from the top. occupies the third level, or one down from the top.
Living Voice IBX-R3 specifics
Now that all of the bigger picture is out of the way, shall we focus on the speakers at hand?
These Living Voice IBX-R3 speakers to me are kind of like Goldilocks’ take on Baby Bear’s porridge–they’re “just right.” What I mean to convey is that they check my most important boxes. They have enough cabinet volume and the right driver complement to sound “big” without taking up a lot of space. They go low enough in the bass to keep me happy sans subwoofer. And they’re dynamic enough to keep me from drifting off on a cold winter’s night. These guys strike a nice balance between the relative strengths of mini-monitors and monster floor-standers.
As I alluded before, these IBX-R3 speakers are efficient. Stated at 94 db, low powered amps of both the vacuum tube and solid state varieties will light them up. If you don’t have a big space to fill, and you don’t listen at clinically insane volumes, you may only need a watt or two. Really.
Gary Dews, who brought these to me, really likes around 20 watts per side. That makes these Living Voice specimens a perfect match for his superb BorderPatrol push-pull and parallel SET 300B amps. I know, as I’ve spent countless hours listening to the BorderPatrol P21 push-pull amp driving the Living Voice IBX-R3 speakers.
But…dirty little secret here. I can get away with a lot less power and still be plenty satisfied.
For those who care about technical specifications, here they are. The IBX-R3 speakers consist of an attractively veneered hardwood composite cabinet with internal double bracing and rear porting. The driver arrangement is an MTM (mid/treble/mid) topology with slightly offset tweeters. As mentioned before, sensitivity is a relatively high 94 dB, offering a frequency response of 35Hz-25kHz and a nominal impedance of 6 ohms. The crossover is reportedly quite simple, which aligns the design nicely with low-powered amplification. Drivers are custom units: fabric domed tweeters and doped paper midrange/bass cones, both sourced from Scanspeak. Lots of custom veneer options are available as well; mine were a very nicely finished Santos rosewood. As an additional nod to attentiveness to detail, the inside surfaces of the cabinets are veneered with maple, regardless of the exterior veneer.
Interestingly, these Living Voice speakers look like floor-standers, but in fact, they sit on included matte black spiked plinths which look like an extension of the cabinet. These are purposely made of he same material as the speakers for best sonic results.
They’re quite attractive as a package- small and understated, but people notice them and comment upon entering the listening area. They are pretty, and folks tell me so.
I have a literal bevy of low-powered amps on hand–I just like them a lot.
For starters, I spent a great deal of time listening to the Living Voice IBX-R3 speakers powered by the BorderPatrol P21 EXD push-pull tube amp, and in fact used these speakers as a centerpiece of my recent review of that amp.
For my present focus on the speakers themselves, I’ve opted to try out four more amps I have here: two solid-state, and two tubed. Specifically these are the First Watt SIT-3 (18 watts per channel), the Sparkler Audio Ether (around 7 watts per channel), the Linear Tube Audio ZOTL10 (10 watts per channel), and the Dennis Had Inspire SE Triode High Output (around 5 watts per channel running 6880 output tubes). To keep matters fair and transparent, I ran the variable outputs of my Crane Song Solaris DAC straight into the inputs of each amp. Things don’t get much simpler than that.
Power-wise, none of these amps had any issues driving the Living Voice speakers to comfortable and satisfying levels in my listening room.
Now, on to some specific ruminations.
With the First Watt SIT-3
With its triode-like static induction transistors and and an intentional dose of even order distortion, the First Watt SIT-3 does a really nice job of integrating some of the magic of tube amplification with the benefits of solid state. It’s a very satisfying box and a joy to hear. Powering the Living Voice IBX-R3 speakers was no exception–the resulting sound was as warm, smooth-as-velvet, and highly engaging on an emotional level as I’ve yet heard from the little First Watt.
This would be a good time to introduce a new album I’ve used throughout my critical listening sessions with the Living Voice speakers. It’s called Force Majeure (24/44.1 kHz flac file, streamed via Qobuz), and it’s a duet by bassist Dezron Douglas and harpist Brandee Younger, recorded in their Harlem apartment during COVID lockdown. The music-making between these two is undeniably luscious, but it’s the intimacy of the event that really gets me. The whole affair is close-mic’d using a single pickup device, and one can hear not only the gentle banter between the two musicians but also the occasional pedestrian noise outside as regular folks try going about their lives in these strange times. It’s an album well worth checking out.
Via the SIT-3, the Living Voice speakers took on an inviting, silky, and appropriately fleshed-out presentation. I’d have almost been fooled into thinking I was listening to a very high quality tubed amp. Performers were portrayed as big and bold, with plenty of space surrounding them. On Force Majeure, for instance, the string bass sounded appropriately “fat” while the harmonic complexities of the harp were as a colorful tonal tapestry spread out before me. I also noticed that the almost-monophonic stereo image was widened when compared to other amps I used, spreading out to the inner edges of the speakers.
If there was any possible criticism to this combo, it would be that the overall presentation could be a bit “wooly,” as in there was a slight loss of leading edge attack on the percussive-like plucked strings of both the bass and harp. I almost visualized this phenomenon as a halo-like glow around the instruments, lending them a beautiful, but slightly gauzy ephemera. Perhaps the effect of that intentional second order harmonic distortion prettying up the frame around the picture? However, low-level detail retrieval was exceptional, as I was able to easily discern road noise below the apartment window.
With the Sparkler Audio Ether
Sticking with solid state, the next amp up was the minute Sparkler Audio Ether integrated. Even though it is super light and almost toy-like in appearance, the Ether’s seven watts of goodness should not be underestimated. With the right speakers, this thing is a pussy cat with a lion’s roar.
Through the efficient Living Voice IBX-R3, the Sparkler amp sings like a star soprano at the Met: you’re gonna hear it! Be mindful of the gain, which at 28 dB is twice that of the First Watt SIT-3.
Via the IBX-R3s, the Sparkler amp earns points for its unfettered, incisive clarity, both of tone and attack. With the plucked strings on Force Majeure, I distinctly hear fingers digging into frets and the instruments easily “letting go” of the notes. While more tonally lean than the First Watt SIT-3, the Sparkler nonetheless offers up a truthful and fully believable facsimile of what good, clean recorded string tone ought to be.
The soundstage seems a bit more constricted between the speakers compared to the First Watt amp, but I’m sure that I hear improved delineation between the instruments. It’s almost as if the overall focus has been optimized to intentionally eliminate any “fuzziness” around the edges of each instrument’s image.
With the Linear Tube Audio ZOTL10
Compared against the Sparkler Ether amp, the LTA ZOTL10 shares a similar sense of touch and delicacy, but with more “meat on the bones.” Instrumental images are more fleshed out, but without that slight sense of gauziness I heard with the First Watt SIT-3.
The ZOTL10 has always excelled at speed and resolution, especially for a tubed amp, and driving the Living Voice speakers is no exception. I would, however, say that when driving the Living Voice speakers, the amp has a fuller, fatter tone than I’m used to hearing from it. It doesn’t sound quite as lean harmonically as I have experienced it in the past when driving other speakers. I’d venture to say that the ZOTL10 and the IBX-R3 together strike an almost perfect balance between laser-like resolution, attack, and that full, sweet tone we all love to hear from our favorite amps.
As an example, the plucked bass on Force Majeure displays superb front-end snap and urgency, followed microseconds later by a blooming expansion of harmonic texture followed by sweet decay. Just wow…
With the Dennis Had Inspire SE Triode High Output
I keep this little amp by Cary Audio Design founder Dennis Had around because it’s the closest thing I have to what I would call a traditional tube amp in terms of its classic design and sound. The very first audiophile tube amp I ever experienced was one of Dennis’ early commercial designs demo’d in a dark room. That, folks, was an experience I will never forget, and the little Inspire lets me hedonistically relive those heady days of my youth.
Speaker technology has come a long way in the 30-odd years since first meeting Mr. Had, but his amp designs still strut their stuff quite nicely.
Oddly enough, I found more in common between the First Watt SIT-3 and the Inspire amps than I would have expected when driving the Living Voice IBX-R3 speakers. Think “warm, wet wall of sound.”
Without a doubt, the Inspire amp produces the widest and deepest soundstage of the lot via the IBX-R3 speakers. Image separation is excellent, with each instrument taking its position in three-dimensional space. Tonality is on the lush side of the spectrum, more in line with what we might term “classic” tube sound.
While the Inspire/Living Voice combo gives perhaps the “prettiest” sound I’ve experienced in the roundup, it has some potential pitfalls (depending on one’s listening priorities/preferences, of course). For one, percussive snap on Force Majeure seems a bit lacking, say, compared to what the Sparkler and Linear Tube Audio amps provided. Also, image boundaries aren’t as well defined, blurring somewhat around the edges.
Oh, but those tubes do glow all nice in a dark room.
The final roundup
So, then, how do I really feel about these Living Voice IBX-R3 transducers?
Well, I’ll cut directly to the chase and tell you that I bought the review pair. Why? The short answer is that I’ve wanted for some time a pair of speakers that would bring out the best in the low-powered amps I love to collect and feel real passion about.
The Living Voice speakers fit the bill on multiple levels. I crave the way they help bring out the best in my flea-watt amps while remaining resolving enough to hear the differences among them while teasing out the relative strengths as weaknesses of each.
Other advantages? The IBX-R3s are full-range enough to keep me happy while never taking up too much real estate in my ever-crowded listening area. Besides, they never made any of my amps sound anything less than very good, and that’s a real thing. I can change out my amps as my mood changes and always know I’m getting the best sonic results from each. Well, maybe not the absolute best, but certainly good enough for my long-term listening enjoyment.
In the end, I can’t ask for much more from a product. That, dear friends, is the very definition of good value.
$7750 – $9995 depending on finish
$8075 in Santos Rosewood, as reviewed