Escaping the maze

June 25, 2022
 by Paul McGowan

Different isn’t necessarily better, but it is often the key to escaping the maze of sameness.

A different way of reminding ourselves not to get trapped in the classic definition of insanity: doing the same thing time and again hoping for different results.

For years I skipped between electrostatic speaker models hoping for musical nirvana. With each new model, I inched closer to my goal only in the end to be so unhappy with the lack of dynamics and bass that I gave up and moved on to the next.

I couldn’t escape the maze until I tried something entirely different.

The escape route turned out to be planar magnetic drivers. The speed and effortlessness of the electrostatic panel with the punch and dynamics of a traditional cone.

It is often frustration that prompts us to take a chance on something new.

On occasion, we just might be open enough to try different just for the sake of different.

It is, after all, not the same.

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24 comments on “Escaping the maze”

  1. That’s definitely a wise hint and a topic that probably accompanied many of us. We tend to stay in our own chosen microcosmos, often even without having actually heard meaningfully what we decided to avoid or to argument against. Since long, when trying on my own or comparing at shows or dealers or friends, I aim to hear and know as many different concepts as possible to be able to form my opinion and decide.

  2. Different and not better! That indeed characterizes the discussion about aural perceptions. Just look at the most different technical approaches for loudspeakers (point-source, line-source, near-field, mid-field, far-field, horns, panel, omnis, open baffle, closed, ported, transmission lines, active, passive, dynamic drivers, ribbons, plasmas, bending-plates, piezo, 2-ways, 2.5 ways, 3-ways, etc., etc..And every designer just tries to precisely reproduce the originally recorded sound-ways and finally has to desperately voice the loudspeaker even by adding drivers pointing to the rear or to the ceiling for getting an acceptable result in a specific listening room for a specific listening distance. Not to forget the adding of multiple subwoofer distributed all over the listening room for taming inherent room modes. I wonder on which technical aspect and which measurable parameter all loudspeaker designers would agree???

  3. Paul you can’t seem to sing the praises of planar-magnetic drivers enough.
    Hopefully one day I’ll be motivated enough to go & listen to some loud-
    speakers that incorporate planar-magnetics similar to the aspen FR30’s,
    but within my budget.
    It does make me wonder though why so many high-end loudspeaker
    manufacturers still persist with the conventional dome tweeter if planar-
    magnetics are the pinnacle of high & midrange frequency drivers.

    Paul McGowan…PM…Planar Magnetic…OK, I get it 😉

    1. The overall concept always overrules such detail solutions.

      Although I’m also fan of certain detail concepts, there were always also other concepts used in speakers, being superior (or not) in an overall musical/magical sense. We buy into an overall concept when we choose. A speaker with the best detail solutions doesn’t have to be the one with the best overall result, it can even be the opposite. When both matches…or quite matches…that’s certainly optimal.

        1. Here is another perspective: headphones. You probably will always hear more details buried in the recording via headphones than via loudspeakers. And the sharpest transients will be reproduced much better by headphones. Thus which degree of inherent loudspeaker-based degradations can you tolerate and which artificial loudspeaker-based “effects” do you prefer?

          1. ps,
            I’ve tried a few times, during the last 45 years, to acclimatise my self to headphones, usually a decade apart each time, but I just can’t/don’t enjoy listening to music through headphones, even high-end ones.
            I think that I’m just ‘can-ophobic’ & so it was/is never a viable option for me, however I do understand your point.
            Planar headphones are very accurate & extremely listenable…unfortunately only for short periods, for me.

            1. Me too, I can’t stand traditional headphones (“cans”, indeed) either closed back or open back for more than some minutes. In-ears are even less acceptable for me. Thus I enthusiastically embraced the design of the AKG K1000 some 35 years ago whose resolution and punch are still my reference (powered today by a headphone amp from Ferrum (Oor) when checking quantum leaps claimed for new loudspeakers. The new planar headphones from RAAL seem to be a possible successor.

          2. A very good point. The resolve of some headphones can be pretty scary. So much so one could alter their entire system to accommodate them! Lol.
            Headphones can be a dirty rabbit hole if one is not careful. I recommend loads of research before buying headphones, especially hi-end ones.

  4. One of the things about trying something new is that it needs to be over relatively longer periods of time. I’m sure you didn’t switch between electrostatics every few days or so. Odds are you jumped in with something with the “this is it” frame of mind, only to find out down the road it was indeed different but not what you ultimately wanted or demanded.
    Add in the fact that for you, for years, new speakers were, and probably still are, a business expense as they are a major tool of the trade. (How else are you going to get the sound out and voice your electronics?)

    Now onto “ planar magnetic drivers”… way back in my late 20’s I reached the same conclusion as you now espouse. It literally took a couple of years of comparing at many various dealers (remember them?) of all kinds of speaker topologies, on all kinds of electronics, in all kinds of rooms before I became certain of what I preferred. Show after show was in the mix also, along with reading and a world full of opinions.

    Fast forward 30 years or so. After close to 20 years or so of complacency with what I had, the interest in audio was rekindled. Lots had changed in those years, and things still are changing, but my preference for “planar magnetic drivers” hasn’t.

    Home Audio to me isn’t a vocation but rather more like a vacation, so the approach is different.

    Having a preference for something doesn’t make everything else wrong. Just not as appealing to you….

  5. Interesting Paul. My sequence was just the opposite. After several traditional box speakers while in high school and college, and a pair of small but impressive Philips “David” speakers with integrated electronic crossovers and direct-drive bi-amps for small apartment use, I got a pair of the original Magnepans [the ones that looked similar to the KLH 9 electrostats] before moving into my first house. I loved the sound. But they had reliability problems – burned-out tweeter wire despite being fused. [The guy who I sold them to after getting them repaired lived near the Florida beach, and had much worse problems – the salty humid air eventually disintegrated the exposed aluminum tweeter wires in many spots – totally unrepairable.] I graduated to a pair of Magneplanar Tympani 1Ds, driven by a Sumo “The Power” amp. WOW! The famous “slam” in the tight bass. Fantastic dynamics. But they had similar reliability problems – burned out tweeter wire (again despite proper fusing), and the adhesive holding the looped ends of the enameled copper woofer wires to the diaphragms separated, and the loose wires buzzed as they would vibrate against the diaphragm. I was able to do repair surgery on them by spreading the large loose grill fabric threads and inserting small tools like a syringe with rubber cement and a soldering iron and short length of aluminum wire with aluminum solder to bridge the gap in the tweeter wire. But I told my dealer that I eventually wanted to get speakers that sounded as great and neutral as my Stax SR-X electrostatic earspeakers. I was saving up for a pair of Apogee full-range ribbons, which met that requirement. But then he started carrying these strange new electrostats made by a company called Martin Logan, which he claimed were even better. I auditioned the only two models available at the time – the big cone/electrostat hybrids (the Monoliths) and the smaller “full-range electrostat” CLS. Talk about disappearing speakers! I got a pair of CLSs for their superior musicality. That was 1986. For bass dynamics, they of course required a subwoofer, and I found that the Velodyne ULD-15 with servo control and integrated 400W amp was a good match [the CLSs were initially driven by an Aragon 8008, a recommendation from ML tech support]. After having earlier gone through about 12 speaker system upgrades, and many upgrades in the electronics, I still have, and enjoy, that same CLS/ULD-15 system today, 36 years later. The only changes since that original configuration (besides source components and preamp) are the addition of a Velodyne SMS subwoofer management system (to correct for the room’s resonance modes – no subwoofer location flexibility), a PS Audio P20 power regenerator for the entire system, and a pair of PS Audio Stellar M700s to drive the CLSs [replacing a self-built 60W/ch modern tube amp kit with premium parts and a solid-state drop-in replacement for the rectifier tube for better dynamics with that difficult CLS load]. The M700s effortlessly drive the CLSs in the ~ 3600 cubic-foot music room. I’m still very happy with those CLSs and Velodyne sub after 36 years! [I have tried Klipschorns and other Klipsch speakers, Definitive Technology bipolars, VMPS ribbons, auditioned Golden Ears, and have heard your IRS-V system at the original plant in Boulder, but I’m still very satisfied with the CLSs and Velodyne sub.]

    1. Similar story for my audio equipment history. Started with conventional box speakers and then stumbled on a pair of Acoustat Spectra 22s. Loved them especially when driven with a proper amplifier (Innersound). They really needed a subwoofer though. Then pursued Innersound/Sanders Sound Systems hybrid ‘stats and still have them to this day.

      Not sure what Paul means regarding lack of dynamics and bass. These SSS hybrid ‘stats play from a whisper to “screaming” in an instant. If you played at max levels you’d be deaf in short order. Also, the TL (transmission line) woofer enclosure and LMS (loudspeaker management system) with (2) 900W/channel stereo amps (SSS Magtechs) there’s never any lack of bass or dynamics. Near massless ‘stat membranes are faster than any other form of speaker driver. They don’t provide deep bass and that’s why Roger Sanders mated the panels with TL woofers and active DSP LMS. I would never give up the adjustability of the LMS.

      Still very happy with this setup after 14 years and every single upstream change is easily audible (for better or worse).

      And, SSS ‘stats are 100% arc proof to boot. They are not affected by dust, cat hair, etc. Plus a lifetime warranty to the original owner. Roger Sanders and his company offer truly great customer service (a lot like PS Audio).

  6. Moving into a new house with a large 8x5m room to do with whatever I like. Hey!
    (Except not upset the neighbors. Boo!)
    Three systems to try there then sell off the others.
    1) quad 63 plus Gradient subs
    2) Stax F-81 nearfield.
    3) ATC SMC19s plus B&W PV1b subs.
    Plus
    4) Stax headphones.

    Assuming appropriate amplification, which system would you choose? I like mostly jazz and occasional Mahler.

    1. Peter, I use ATC SCM19’s in my video system with an REL G1 subwoofer. I works very well although as I said above I have to tweak G1 settings after making some minor changes.

    2. Hi Peter,
      Probably go the ATC’s.
      Any chance that you could trade them for a pair of Harbeth ‘7ES-2’ or 3’s?

      Cameron Pope from ‘Krispy Audio’ in Sydney has a pair of
      Ex-Demo Harbeth ‘Super HL5 Plus’ for AU$7,500…just saying.

      An 8 x 5 room you say.
      Hmm, I am jealous 😉

  7. I do not do different just to be different. I can do the same routine everyday and I have no desire to change it. My wife likes to be different without warning. Really irritates me. I do, however, think that it is dumb to keep doing the exact same thing over and over that fails every time. It is OK if you try a variation each time, after all, we would not have the light bulb if Edison hadn’t kept trying.

    Now to the audio subject of day: electrostatic speakers and planar magnetic drivers. I have never heard a pair of either of theses speakers that use dynamic woofers that do not sound like I am listening to two different speakers at the same time. It is like when a subwoofer is not properly integrated into a system ( which reminds me I have got to tweak the subwoofer in my video system 😮 ).

    The only time I heard a planar that worked was the Apogees. I hear them in NYC at Andy Singer’s place in the 1980’s before he moved to his Union Square location. I would have bought them if I could have afforded to do so.

    1. The Apogee mids and tweeters were ribbons, not planars. And the woofer had ribbon characteristics. The geometric movement of ribbons is different than planars. The terms, ribbon and planar are usually used interchangeably incorrectly since at 1st glance they look the same.

      Planars are clamped tightly on 4 sides(like electrostatics). Ribbons are clamped only on two opposing sides and are not stretched taughtly. I suspect ribbons are more linear but they are much more delicate and more prone to damage which is why they are usually only used in tweeters(Apogee is a big exception) and horn loaded to increase sensitivity so they don’t have to move as much as if they were not horn loaded.

  8. Trying something different is an attitude we had no problem with as children.

    No hesitation, just try it!
    Disappointment maybe, but something learned.

    I have learned that audio gear set-up is a craft not explained beyond the basic in manufacturers’ manuals.

    And that expensive gear is no guarantee of satisfaction without proper set-up. I remember the mystique and trial and error of setting up a Linn LP12 to make it sound better than the turntable it replaced.

    Anyway, if trying something different was a waste of time, Robert Frost would never have penned that magnificent poem, ‘The Road not Taken.’

  9. Well, I think I’ve said this before. The difference is everything and that difference doesn’t necessarily have to be better. I’m just grateful this hobby offers so much and many changes in direction. Sure. You gotta be brave sometimes and take the plunge.
    I’m learning that big-time with vacuum tubes. A lot to choose from.

  10. While planar drivers are catching up to the strengths of cone drivers, cone drivers are catching up to planars and electrostatics. Tubes are catching up to the strengths of transistors while transistor amps are catching up to the strengths of tubes. Class D amplifiers are catching up to class AB. It’s an exciting time for audiophiles.

  11. I love to listen at realistic volumes or above. My journey was comparable to Paul’s.
    If I would be forced to listen at low levels only or mainly, I’d consider planars again.

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