Howard Popeck writes: Bosendorfer have been making concert pianos for 175 years. This is their first venture into Hi-Fi. Their aspiration was to produce the most authentic sound possible from loudspeakers. So they researched carefully with leading artists and prominent concert halls to help achieve their ambition. Hans Deutsch, their acoustician uses unusual design techniques to satisfy both Bosendorfer?s demands and his own. But does it make music? |
I'm in favour of system reviews rather than A/B testing. I?m not convinced that A/B testing is always of major practical value for readers. Would you value a review of a Ford Mondeo gearbox if it were, in addition to the Mondeo, comparatively tested inside an Alfa, Audi, Masserati or whatever? Of course not.
There are exceptions though. KK?s insightful, highly readable and indispensable review of pretenders to the LS3/5a crown being a case in point. So please don?t view this as universal unthinking condemnation. It?s just that? well I can?t really sign up to the A/B ethos when it comes to me writing in that way. I truly believe that audio components should be tested within the context of harmonious ancillary items. However, as you?ll see here, not necessarily items in similar price bands.
Today I'm presenting the Bosendorfer VC7 speaker system. I?ll introduce you to a few worthy co-stars and you?ll explore a few potentially interesting side-road distractions. There?s a bit of well-intentioned, albeit layman?s philosophy, a few conclusions, some positive recommendations, and a momentary insight into my own fallibility.
I was driven by two thoughts. First, the name Bosendorfer ? and everything it implies. Secondly, I just had to get out more, to go into ?civilian? homes and listen to purchased rather than loaned equipment. I needed to learn how civilians arrived at the sound they achieved, and why, and their reactions to the buying process ? and their views regarding the end result. So I did, and I learned.
A little history
Audusa, the importers of Bosendorfer speakers have been advertising in Hi-Fi News for some while and no, the editor didn?t suggest I ?reward? them with a review. Bosendorfer have been making concert pianos for 175 years. This is their first venture into Hi-Fi. Their aspiration was to produce the most authentic sound possible from loudspeakers. So they researched carefully with leading artists and prominent concert halls to help achieve their ambition. Hans Deutsch, their acoustician uses unusual design techniques to satisfy both Bosendorfer?s demands and his own. In essence, acoustic panels that vibrate in a manner similar to the way musical instruments work i.e. large surface areas with small vibrations. Well, that?s my layman?s grasp of it.
All the drivers are Bosendorfer-designed and as I understand it, not available to anyone else. Until now, there were no reviews anywhere published in the English language. Quite an accolade for Hi-Fi News I feel.
As for getting out more, well my non-review listening experiences, although pleasurable, were staid, unadventurous, possibly out of touch with modern thinking and increasingly predictable. I'm certain now that it wasn?t helping my reviewing stance and style. So before this review I spent some time in other people?s homes listening to their systems. It was a belated breath of fresh air.
For example, it turns out that I?d forgotten just how much I like the characteristic Naim sound, how enjoyable B&W speakers are, especially when driven by Levinson amplification, how captivating Wilsons Watts/Puppies are when driven by Rowland amplification, what an old Cello Pallete preamp can really do, how rewarding FM really is when ?done right? ? and so on. Not once though did I discover an SACD or DVD-A user!
I gained fresh perspectives. I realised that there was a world out there beyond all the positive attributes of my own personal system. I'm hoping my interpretations of those civilian experiences will make my writing more worthwhile, more relevant and more accessible. Perhaps you?d like to let the editor know if I?ve been successful?
First, I don?t review valves, uni-pivots or headphones. I like to seek out the unusual, the equipment with excellent pedigrees that rarely gets reviewed; the dependable makers who get passed over, and the new makers who are not quite there. Today you?ll find all this and more.
I'm focusing on the Bosendorfer VC7 speakers, top of their range. Supporting roles were played by Accuphase, Spectral, Musical Fidelity, Dynavector and Acoustic Solid. CD source was throughout, my purchased Ayre CX-7. FM was my Trio KT-917. The CX-7 has been commented on so favourably and in-depth globally that it needs no further commentary from me. The KT-917 is an indisputable masterpiece of audiophile Japanese historic pre-eminence in this field ? commanding over ?550 even today, 25 years after production ceased.
Introducing the 'supporting cast'
Why Accuphase? I?ve always had a warm spot for class-A amplification as exemplified by Krell in the 1980s. To me, while Krell subsequently built bigger and more reliably, I never again heard anything quite as musically magical nor agile as the KSA-50. I wanted to recapture that type of amplification characteristic if I could. A hunch, and no more than that suggested the Accuphase E-530 might be a good sonic match for the VC7s.
For vinyl, well Dynavector was my first choice. Solid reputation, no hype and very little UK editorial exposure in recent years. Ideal. If it?s overlooked by others without good cause, well it?s a natural choice for me. The Dynavector DV17 MC cartridge was always a favourite of mine and has evolved to the 17D2-Mk2. The DV-507 tonearm is an expensive mechanical delight at considerable expense, and a tweaker?s dream as well.
So, one slot left. Something new, untried and potentially risky that could take the shuddering weight of the DV-507 and sound good too. Enter please, the Acoustic Solid ?Small Royal?
Mains leads, interconnects and the distribution box were LAT throughout. Supports were, as always, Mana throughout.
Meet the star
The Bosendorfer VC7s are floor standing cabinets just 7.7? (w) by 52.4? (h) by 15.9? (d). Power handling is 180 watts, claimed impedance is 4 ohms and efficiency is 91 dB/m or 1.1 watts. The cabinets are designed to resonate i.e. there is very little damping. Visually elegant.
Now, meet the 'cast'
Accuphase E-530; a full width 25 kg integrated amplifier with 8 RCA inputs, tone controls and bypass, pre-out/main-in jacks, facilities for 2 tape decks and 2 pairs of speakers. Slots for retro-fit Phono stage and DAC too. It works happily into anything from 2 ohms to 16 ohms. 30 watts RMS at 8 ohms. A conversation piece.
Dynavector DV-507; a bi-axis inertia-controlled dynamic-balance tone arm with a suite of uncomplicated tuning adjustments. 1.38 kg. SME-type detachable headshell. Looks like something from an operating theatre.
Dynavector 17D2-Mk2; a 5.3 g moving coil cartridge with Micro-ridge stylus, 0.26mV output and a 1.7mm solid diamond cantilever. Tracking force is 1.8 to 2.0g. Tiny.
Dynavector P-75; a entry level phono stage with several outstanding features that, it?s claimed, ensures the P-75 will out perform other phono stages costing considerably more. By a simple arrangement of jumper settings all conventional, MM, MI, high and low output cartridges are catered for. The case looks nothing special. New Zealand.
Acoustic Solid ?Small Royal?; a 60mm solid highly polished aluminium platter on an un-sprung base driven via a thin cord from a synchronous-type motor. Plexiglass platter-interface piece and leather platter top pad included. 25kg. German.
No doubt about it, the E-530 is magnificent both cosmetically and sonically. The attention to detail, the facilities and that clean uncluttered sound that so characterises exemplary class-A circuitry are all here in abundance. In some ways though it?s anachronistic. Giant power meters confront you; beautifully engineered, but ultimately pointless. You get tone controls which lack sufficiently subtlety, at least with the Bosendorfer VC7s. There is a tone by-pass, fortunately.
The alleged 30 watts RMS per channel is mightier than I ever believed possible but then again, if my suspicions are correct in that the VC7s may drop towards 2 ohms, then the Accuphase is probably delivering circa 100 RMS (pure class-A mind you ? not class A-B) at times. Only when trying to deliberately provoke the system into misbehaving is there a glimmer of dynamic constriction. Highly recommended. If you want class-A from something that will look good on a shelf rather than deserving to be hidden in a bunker, well this is probably your only option today.
Personally speaking I think Accuphase should consider building a derivative without meters, without tone controls and with just one set of speaker outputs - with a commensurate price reduction. This would be an even harder act to follow. Space precludes me from commenting further but suffice to say I was smitten with the E-530 and I may well purchase one, such is its appeal.
Dynavector D17-D2 cartridge
Properly mounted in a sympathetic arm, this must surely represent one of the audio world?s hidden bargains. Yes, it has a lowish output, a miniscule brittle cantilever that you can barely see - but the sound is so very dynamic, and the bass so tight and fast. Transients are superbly resolved. Yes, it?s a little bright, but to me that?s no problem. Excellent detail, tightly focused imaging; in fact tonally, very reminiscent of the best examples of the many Decca London cartridges I used in the late 1970s alongside the original version of this Dynavector, which has globally sold over 50,000 to date.
Dynavector DV-507 tonearm
This is a joy to use. "Bi-axis inertia separation" sounds complex but it simply refers to a tone arm having two arms which operate independently in the horizontal and vertical planes. The design philosophy being that the tone arm should have a large effective mass and enough damping in the horizontal plane and at the same time a small effective mass in the vertical plane.
These conditions are almost impossible to achieve with a tone arm of conventional design using gimbal bearings. So Dynavector designed a tonearm where the shorter and lightweight vertical sub arm is placed at the end of the massive horizontal main arm.
The tracking force is applied by a precision spiral spring device which it is claimed maintains an unvarying tracking force regardless of any record warp. Tracking force is easily adjusted by turning a calibrated dial.
I truly doubt if there is a cartridge made that can?t be properly accommodated here. Realistically though, this arm is probably too expensive now for the sound quality ? what with the Brinkmann 10.5 being around ?800 less and superb arms from Origin available at reasonable prices. Having said this though, the ability to finely tune the 507 to extract the best from the majority of cartridges is, for me, very seductive. In terms of sonic quality and engineering finesse it deserves to mentioned in the same breath as the SME V and its few peers. The DV-507 is viable alternative to these.
Dynavector P-75 phono preamplifier
In some ways this modest looking device was the most surprising, enigmatic and wonderful pieces of audio kit I?ve heard in a long time. The PE (phono enhancing) Dr Tominari circuit is claimed to ?dramatically improve the performance of low output moving coil cartridges?. The full significance of this circuit only became apparent by chance.
Experimentally I plugged my Spectral DMC-12 into the Accuphase?s power amp section. CD and FM was slightly more musical compared to using the complete E-530. This improvement wasn?t significant though and so not worth the additional ?4k. Clearly the preamp stage of the E-530 is first class. Then I tried the Dynavector cartridge straight into the phono stage of the Spectral. It wasn?t too good. The P-75 into the DMC-12?s Aux input was more dynamic, the top end was further extended, the presentation was tauter, more rhythmic and better defined. Bear in mind though, the P-75 is considerably more expensive than the DMC-12?s on-board phono stage.
Now admittedly my Spectral phono stage has been set to match my EMT ? but loading alone can?t account for this. The Tominari circuit really does work for this cartridge and no doubt many others too. It gives life, energy, vividness and above all, believability to vinyl in a way I?ve only heard through vastly more expensive equipment.
However, I had a problem, probably of my own making. The level of white noise from the P75 using this specific Dynavector cartridge on full gain was just too intrusive. The Spectral was, at full gain, silent in comparison. In retrospect it should have occurred to me to set the PE circuit to medium gain which would reduce the white noise and probably give enough gain too. But annoyingly, it didn?t occur to me.
There is so much potential with the P-75 in terms of musicality that I fully intend to revisit it later this year. Meanwhile, I urge you to listen to it in your own system. It might be the best value vinyl replay upgrade you?ll make this year, or any other.
Acoustic Solid 'Small Royal' turntable
Fitting the arm and cartridge took around 10 mins. Alignment took just a little longer. No springs, no bouncing, no self-congratulatory gurus needing to pronounce the set up as being ?just right?. No flatulent bass and above all, no ambiguity. You set it up according to the sparse instructions, and that?s that.
The sound is more reminiscent of the Brinkmann LaGrange rather than my Michell Orbe SE/DC. It sounds closer to my old AC driven Orbe than my DC driven Orbe, and I like that. A single word description? Okay ? lively! The bass is superbly solid, deeply extended, very precise and taut. Tonality for the price is outstanding. However I regret to say that based on the sample I received direct from Germany, quality control with this model is a significant problem currently and I can?t, despite the above, offer a recommendation. Circumstances permitting, I?ll try to revisit this model using the Michell Techno Arm.
The Bosendorfer VC7 in all its glory
In my room via this equipment there was almost complete neutrality. So self-effacing in fact that the initially ignorant listener might feel the system to be ?boring?. There isn?t the visceral grip and immediacy of the Wilson 7 Watts/Puppies nor quite the wonderful mid range of a Quad 57 nor quite the treble shimmer of a Pinsh Model 1. What there is though is a sound so wonderful that you might question how you?ve lived without it. I certainly did.
There are some aspects that take getting used to. Seating height being the principle one. Vertical dispersion of the twin forward-facing tweeters is deliberately tight, while wide horizontally. Sitting too high or low and you loose detail. The designer confirmed this was exactly as he expected. If you hear these at a dealer or show, sit down. No exceptions!
The mid/bass drivers are side-firing. Naturally, positioning with regard to side walls is important and takes time to get right. I needed to sit within the ?magic triangle? with me at the apex about 10? from the toed-in cabinets. Outside the ?triangle? the sound became a little odd; a bit like being in the corridor outside the concert hall during a performance.
Above all though, the VC7 is an instrument. This isn?t marketing hype. Fine tuning of the cabinet itself and it?s interface with the floor gives a range of options far beyond any non-parametric controller I know off. The 4 heavy duty spikes per cabinet noticeably change the bass characteristics depending on how those spikes are capped. Spikes into small brass cups give one bass perspective, piercing the floorboards gives another and ceramic cones yet another. It?s personal taste, so there?s no recommendation from me here.
After tuning the cabinet/floor interface to my personal taste for taut rather than extreme extension I achieved a sound very reminiscent of the LS3/5a speakers ? but with an extended, properly integrated and tuneful bass. I achieved a clean and solid 31.5Hz, a useful but faint 25Hz and nothing at all 20Hz and below in my circa 2,300 cu-ft room.
Breaking the mould
The Bosendorfer design philosophy is to view the cabinet as a vibrating, resonant body, allowing the creation of a three-dimensional, transparent, true-to-life sound. This goes against conventional concepts and techniques of cabinet construction, whose overriding goal is to suppress all vibrations and resonances. Hans Deutsch, the designer opines that conventional thinking pays no regard for the overall sound, while delicate tones are simply 'corrected' by powerful frequency filters! Okay, fair enough.
HD?s approach is accomplished by utilising an enlarged diaphragm surface area, which, with no additional weight, is able to introduce bass extremely well into the listening room. Acoustic Sound Boards, heirs in spirit to the Horn Resonator, ?have a unique form which guarantees, a multitude of resonances spread across the entire bass frequency range.?
?The unique shape and construction of the cabinets along with the implementation of special materials which function as acoustically absorbent vibrating components work together as sound dampers. In this way Bosendorfer loudspeakers are able to avoid using additional - imbalanced or non-linear - damping material.?
These Acoustic Sound Boards can be tuned. No instructions are given because only a thoroughly trained dealer or the importer should do this. There?s no ?black art? and no magic, but it takes experience and a keen ear and is not, the designer assured me, a DIY task.
Ah - the sound
The sound is extraordinary in it?s overall balance. The VC7s are capable of exceptional fine detail and dimensionality. There is an impressive naturalness and the soundstage is big and wide. The dynamics are imposing and the tonality is vibrant. Stereo and tonal separation are marvellous. Bass is extended, integrated and self-assured by which I mean the lower bass only ?speaks? when appropriate; it doesn?t need to interrupt on every inappropriate occasion.
Their clarity is so fine (but a touch behind the ?14k PCI Empress) that even busy complex passages sound open and clearly defined. The music ? from any source ? sounds vivid and engaging. In short, highly involving, three-dimensional, true-to-life, living sound as close to level of the original performance as I?ve ever heard in my room.
Am I alone here? No. When the designer visited and heard his speakers with the above equipment, playing the Esther Ofarim record (ATR 001), tears rolled down his cheeks. Yes, literally. He said he?d never heard them sound better ? anywhere. Which was nice. Check out http://www.allmusic.com/cg/amg.dll?p=amg&sql=11:8b841vjjzzza~T1 for more information.
And by the way .....
Just in case you think you can only achieve greatness of a high budget, then think on this. I plugged in a Musical Fidelity X-150 integrated; ?800. Even from stone cold it was an admirable match. This unpretentious inexpensive little integrated gave a smooth, detailed and lively sound that demanded I pay attention. It had a little more verve than the Accuphase but was slightly harsher. The bass was softer and less controlled and voices did shout a little ? but then again, look at the price comparison! Everything you?ve read about this fine design is true, and then some. Astonishing value. Ratio of speaker to amp pricing = 5.87:1. Absurd.
Of course I had to try to MF A5. Dave Berriman?s Hi-Fi News review is right on the nail ? again. It drove the VC7s brilliantly. It?s different to the Accuphase E-530 in tonal balance, presentation, staging and perspective but not inferior ? despite the trademark MF high-end/high-value pricing. Resolution was superb, fast paced. It demanded and got my attention. Dynamics were unconstrained. Ratio of speaker to amp pricing = 3.13:1. Barely credible.
The VC7s are the first speakers in many years that I?ve seriously thought of buying.
When I was listening through them, even using the modestly priced Musical Fidelity X-150, I just didn?t want to leave the room. Using the Accuphase, well there were times when my listening room became my entire world. A recluse?s dream, really. In terms of the sensible compromises, the sheer musicality and the sense of being there, the VC7s are masterpieces. I'm in no doubt they can and will take this design philosophy further. In terms of value, they are terrific.
In almost every newsagent you?ll see men reading leisure magazines they rarely buy. First they read the conclusions of any interesting review. Then they might read the full review, and then they might go on to buy the magazine. So dear reader, these final bits are just for you.
First, buy this issue and read the entire review ? please. There?s much to consider, and not just this review either. Now then ? the Bosendorfer VC7s are for me a dream come true. I?ve been searching for speakers that demonstrate all the sonic qualities of the LS3/5a ? but which can fill my 2,300 cu ft listening room and much larger too ? but which can resolve detail at modest volumes and generate extended but credible bass. All of this at a tolerable price, in a cabinet with a modest footprint. The VC7s are all this and more. I can offer no higher praise.
An edited version of this review first appeared in Hi-Fi News Magazine