From my first exposure to Charney Audio speakers at a Capital Audiofest a few years back, I’ve remained somewhat smitten with the possibilities that exist in the world of well-designed single-driver speakers.
The single-driver speaker has long been a niche product in high-end audio, which one might argue, is itself something of a niche industry. Prior to listening to Brian Charney’s artful designs at that audio show, I’d pretty much ignored and disregarded these seemingly old-fashioned designs, much like that tweed jacket of my grandfather’s that hangs somewhere in the back of my closet. It’s an interesting antique, but otherwise not worth much more than a quick mention. But then again, single-ended vacuum tube amplifiers are basically antiques too, and we tend to mention them a lot. I’ve since learned that coupling one of those bad boys to a good single-driver speaker can have even modern audio nuts like myself crying out from the rooftops!
So then, what’s all of the fuss about? I’d suggest, if possible, digging up a bunch of the late Art Dudley’s writings from the latter part of the last century as found in his long-defunct Listener magazine. Here, Art, a long-time proponent of the single-driver approach, waxed poetically about the sonic and technological marvels these speakers can be. He also did a great job of explaining why these classic designs can still work so well today.
Can’t locate your old copies of Listener? No problem! Have a quick look at my introduction to Charney Audio in the Summer 2019 The Occasional magazine to review the basics, as well as learn a bit about Charney’s “secret sauce.” All schooled up now? Great! Let’s focus on Charney Audio’s smallest and least expensive entry-level speaker, the Maestro.
The Charney Audio Maestro
Like all of its larger brethren in the Charney Audio lineup, the Maestro makes use of a single driver coupled to a horn-loaded enclosure. As the driver fires treble and midrange notes into space towards the listener, the rear-wave gets transmitted back into the cabinet. Here is where the real elegance of the enclosure design makes itself known.
I was blown away when I first heard a Charney speaker: there was a tiny driver putting out some serious bass, both deep and well-defined. Little did I realize at the time what an important role the cabinet itself was playing.
Remember that rear-translating wave from the backside of the driver? Well, that enters the cabinet at the “throat” of the horn and gets amplified mechanically from there until it exits through the “mouth,” much more fortified than it was at entry. Additionally, the horn serves as a mechanical low-pass filter, meaning that the midrange and treble notes get cancelled out and don’t leave the “mouth.” For all of this magic to happen, the cabinet (horn) must be meticulously designed and carefully crafted. A key term toward helping us understand this is “tractrix,” which refers to the mathematical theory and relationships that govern how well the mechanical amplification of the bass notes actually happens. More specifically, I’m talking about horn characteristics such as length, rate of flare, and the like. Get it wrong, and bad things happen; get it right, and the magic flows.
The ultimate goal of a well-designed and constructed cabinet is to allow the bass notes that we want to propagate constructively while the rest of the spectrum gets cancelled out. Getting a proper horn-loaded cabinet constructed according to tractrix theory is both difficult and expensive. In my Occasional piece, I describe how Brian Charney goes about accomplishing this goal. Trust me, it isn’t easy, and that’s why most manufacturers wouldn’t try to attempt doing it.
Oddly enough, it’s the bass presentation that really stood out to me when I first heard a good tractrix design. You get some of the cleanest, fastest, defined, and coherent reproduced bass you will ever hear. It’s true that larger conventional speakers with crossed-over bass drivers may go lower, but the quality just isn’t the same. You have to hear it to really understand what I’m trying to convey here.
So…back to the Charney Audio Maestro. These are relatively compact speakers for floor-standers. A single Maestro stands just 42” high, including its attached pedestal stand; it’s also 15” wide and only 7” deep. The speakers are designed to be placed close against the wall, or better yet, into a corner. As such, they have an unusual tendency to blend into a room’s decor. Spouse acceptance factor is said to be unusually high due to both ease of placement and the physical beauty of the things. My pair came in a natural bamboo, which I think is astonishingly lovely.
Want to upgrade to a fancy veneer on top of baltic birch ply? No problem! On a tight budget? Get the unfinished baltic birch cabinet option for a grand total of $2800 (with a customized driver from a Chinese manufacturer in place of the Voxativ AC 1.6). Brian Charney likes the veneer option; I’m partial to the bamboo myself. (The review pair, with the Voxativ 1.6s, is $4400/pair.)
The Charney Audio Maestro gets away with its thin depth measurement due to the flaring of the internal horn only in a single dimension (e.g., side-to-side when looking at the speaker). This simplicity also makes the Maestro easier and less expensive to construct than Charney’s larger and more sophisticated tractrix-based designs.
As with other single-driver designs, the Maestro has no crossover. This trait leads in part to the efficient 101 dB sensitivity of the speaker. If, like myself, you favor the sound of low-powered amplification, then this speaker design could well be for you.
An added benefit offered up with the Maestro is its customizability. Almost any 8” full-range driver can be slotted into its cabinet, so the user can somewhat tweak the sound by swapping drivers, much like a tube roller changes out vacuum tubes in a favorite amp. Brian Charney turned me loose with both the stock Voxativ AC 1.6 and the more upscale Voxative AC 2.6
Tweaks and Such…
These Charney Audio Maestros in a sense are an audio tweaker’s dream come true. They are sensitive to so many variables, including placement, amplification, and driver choice. Some might call them finicky. I call them fun.
Firstly comes the caveat, which is room size and placement. Here’s where my pig-headedness comes into play. I really wanted to try the Charney Audio Maestros out because of their entry-level affordability, but also because I could fit them readily into the back of my Subaru. Brian Charney warned me… these speakers are meant to be used in smaller rooms, tucked up into corners so they can optimally couple to their environment. Unfortunately, I was unable to accommodate either of these criteria in my dedicated listening space, and I fear that I never got the best out of the design. Mea culpa- my bad!
Does that mean that the Maestros sounded lacking in my space? Hardly, but I’ll be honest here. The only thing I found missing was maybe half an octave of deeper bass. Brian claims that the Maestros go down to just under 40 Hz; I was getting nowhere near this in my room. One could probably solve this problem, at least partially, with a small, fast subwoofer. I wasn’t tempted to do that, for fear of screwing up all of the other stuff the Charney Audio Maestro was doing so well. Or, do as Brian suggested, and put the damn things in the correctly sized room! Again, not an option.
My search for bass was never-ending, but let’s get back to the important part of the story. First impressions? Well, I’ll be darned if these speakers didn’t remind me of my Quads. Prior to receiving the Charney Maestros, I’d been listening a lot to my re-conditioned Quad ESL-63 panels. For anyone who’s never heard a properly set up and amplified pair of Quad speakers, trust me when I say they make music sound real. Those electrostatic panels are damned quick, leaving no sense of overhang or clutter to the notes. They’re just there, like in real life. They also don’t lie, meaning they tend toward the revealing side of the spectrum. A lot of us understandably like our music warmed up and glossed over, but that’s not what we get here.
These Charney Audio Maestros, like my Quads, are real truth-tellers. You get the beauty and the warts.
I listened daily for a full month using the stock Voxativ AC 1.6 drivers, which are that company’s entry-level driver. From the midrange up, speed, resolution, and extension were the order of the day. However, I felt this driver, at least in my environment, to be a bit thin-sounding and overly analytical from the lower midrange and into the upper bass. My experience with the driver could be due to either sub-optimal placement in the room (quite likely) or lack of break-in. I’ve read that single-driver speakers can take months of regular use to sound their best, and this was a brand new pair.
Swapping the Voxativ AC 2.6 drivers into the Maestro cabinets was a game-changer, at least for me. These drivers had a lot more time on them, and they use a different, more powerful magnet as the motor. I can’t say that bass extension improved all that much, but I heard a world of difference regarding the warmth of the mids and upper bass. I didn’t necessarily hear a loss of resolution in this all-important part of the audio spectrum, but rather got a fuller, more pleasant and engaging overall presentation. Much more to my taste, as it were.
And Now… Amplifiers
Once I had a driver that I felt matched my listening criteria, it was time to check into amplifier options. I have plenty of options on hand of the 20 watt per channel (or less) variety, both tubed and solid state, and I think I tried them all. Each was at least acceptable, and some outright enjoyable, but none was really grabbing that last iota of bass extension I really hoped to get.
Given my aforementioned room mismatch, I figured I might wander close to nirvana, but not quite reach it.
I could regale you here for pages on my perambulations with various amps and their strengths and weaknesses with the Charney Audio Maestros, but I’ll save a lot of ink and just cut to the chase. I knew that Brian Charney builds his own single-ended 300B amp that he uses to demo his speaker designs. I’ve heard them together, and they’re little short of magical.
Unfortunately, I didn’t have such an amp on hand until about a month or so ago, when Gary Dews (Mr. BorderPatrol) showed up with his original design: the single-ended BorderPatrol SE300BEXD stereo amp. I had just demoed the Maestros with another tube amp for Gary, and we both lamented that bit of bass that we craved but seemingly went missing. As soon as we hooked up the BorderPatrol amp, there it was! BASS! No, not earth shaking, but it was that last piece of the puzzle that took the Maestro from being merely very good to at least nearly great, even given my compromised venue. Now I spend time wondering how good this speaker/amp combo might sound when correctly set up in a properly sized room.
Obviously, there seems to be some sort of special synergy between a good 300B SET amp and this type of speaker. Of course, the BorderPatrol amp provides a great example of the kind of quality bass one can coax out of the 300B tube using a great power supply, but that’s a story for another time.
So, how good is the Charney Audio Maestro, really?
Now, with everything about as dialed in as I could manage, it was time to really get down to musical enjoyment. For me, the Charney Audio Maestro is the nearly perfect speaker for listening to the type of jazz I enjoy, which is more ethereal and languid. Voices are stunning via these speakers: the performers really almost seem in the room. Overall presentation is startlingly coherent (as to be expected with a good single-driver design), focused, and tonally transparent. Stereo images float effortlessly between, above, and behind the speakers. Perhaps the best overall attribute of the system is the totally effortless presentation of the music. The drivers don’t let go of the notes; they just happen! Listening to the Maestros took a bit of getting used to, as they aren’t as tonally dense as most good audiophile-approved speakers. The trade-off is greater speed and resolution, coupled with seamless integration of the bass. Other speakers will likely sound slow and muddled in comparison.
An album (among many) that really shows off what the Charney Audio Maestros can do is Melody Gardot’s Sunset in the Blue (24/96 kHz flac, streamed via Qobuz). Wow! Both male and female vocals are exquisitely reproduced against the backing instrumentation, providing for a beautifully laid-out soundstage that is the sonic version of a perfectly perfumed floral bouquet. It’s easy to pick out the individual goings ons, but the overall mix is heady to the point that the sum is far
greater than its parts.
Did I miss that last bit of bass? Not really! I only notice it when I fire up my reference system, which is composed of a Pass Labs X250.5 amp driving my ATC SCM 100 studio monitors. These speakers are big, and they do serious bass. So yes, the ATCs go deeper, but there’s still a tradeoff: the Charneys are cleaner, more integrated, and better defined down low, even if
down there isn’t as far down there.
So yeah, if my standard musical diet were large symphonic orchestral works and hard rock, I’d go for the ATC speakers. They do serious tonal density from the lower midrange on down. Jazz, vocals, and smaller instrumental works? Well, that’s where the Charney Audio Maestros really shine in my room.
Final Thoughts on the Charney Audio Maestro
Even though I wasn’t able to get the Charney Audio Maestros optimally set up in my room (heck, I didn’t even have the right room!), I still found them to be an addictively successful design. I’ve had them for a long time, and I can’t think of a day that’s gone by where I haven’t fired them up and spent enjoyable time with them. As with any speaker design, they will have their user-defined strengths, limitations and weaknesses, as I’ve attempted to outline in this review. Oh, and messing around with them by exchanging drivers, amps, and the like has been what audio geeking out is all about! It’s damn fun!
Most importantly, after hearing almost all of Brian Charney’s designs, either here at my home, his home, or at shows, I truly think he’s onto something really special with his carefully engineered and constructed tractrix cabinets. The music is just so naturally effortless in its presentation. The listener would be excused for darkening the room, closing their eyes, and
drifting across the boundaries of reproduced music and into the facsimile of the real musical event.
Yes, they are that good. Just be patient and expect to do some work to coax the best possible performance out of them.