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Reviewer: Mike Healey
Source: Audio Refinement CD player, Bel Canto Design DAC2, Technics turntable, Music Hall CD25.2, Underwood Level 1 Plus Modified Music Hall CD 25.2 [for review and comparison]
Preamp/Integrated: Audio Refinement Complete integrated, BVaudio P1 preamplifier
Amp: BVaudio PA300 stereo amplifier
Speakers: Vienna Acoustics Haydn, DeVore Fidelity Gibbon 3 [for review]
Cables: Analysis Plus Oval 12 speaker cables, Analysis Plus Oval One interconnects, Analysis Plus Digital Oval, 2 x Audio Magic Xstream power cables, 2 x Shunyata Research DiamondBack power cables, 2 x Audio Magic Xstream loudspeaker cables
Stands: Sumiko Foster & Lowell Standards, StudioTech Ultra 5-shelf audio rack
Powerline conditioning: Shunyata Guardian 4-HT
Sundry accessories: Cardas Signature RCA caps, BVaudio SR-1 Sound Refiner
Room size: 11' x 17' with 9' vaulted ceilings
Review component retail: $1499/pr
|"For those of you who've just tuned in, the Pinedale Shopping Mall has just been bombed with live turkeys. Film at eleven." - from the TV series WKRP in Cincinnati
Please bear with me for a minute. I have to get this out of my system. It has been 24 years since I first traveled to Cincinnati as a kid. I was an annoying fourteen year old whose knees hurt from growing too fast. My best friend invited me to go with his family all the way from Toledo in Northwest Ohio down to Cincinnati in Southwest Ohio. We rode The Beast at Kings Island (now Paramount's King's Island) and ate Skyline Chili. The Beast was a 70mph rollercoaster that would briefly plunge tourists through a dark mine shaft. Skyline Chili was made of ground beef, beans, chili sauce, thin noodles and cheese. I'll let you decide which experience was more harrowing.
When Srajan mentioned a new pair of affordable floorstanding speakers from Ohio Valley Audio - East, a company based outside of Cincinnati in the town of Blue Ash, I was genuinely excited. All of my memories of some of the nicest people I ever met (and the highway cops I never wanted to meet) came flooding back to me.
|"I like Chinese" - Monty Python
Times are changing faster than ever before. The Sheffields, like so many other products today, are manufactured in China. It's the best way for a small company to start production on new designs without frightening customers away with ridiculously high prices. Rather than discuss the socio-political state of our global economy, this review will focus on the products themselves. For those who want to start a discussion, I can recommend a book my wife has been reading, The World Is Flat: A Brief History of the Twenty-first Century by Thomas L. Friedman. Of course, I can't discuss the book until after I finish slogging my way through Mallory's Arthurian saga.
|The Sheffields arrived in double boxes. The inner boxes were fine but the outer boxes had obviously taken a beating by some frustrated UPS worker. Brief unpacking instructions (a simple graphic stuck on the outside of the box) and set-up instructions (a single sheet inside the inner box) would be most welcome. The plastic port on one of the speakers was slightly out of alignment, possibly from shipping, but the speakers were otherwise undamaged.
The high-gloss finish on these speakers is entrancing. The Sheffields were the first loudspeakers that immediately impressed my wife when she saw them. I only noticed one slight blemish on the front corner of one of the speakers. My wife thought they looked great. The speaker connectors were so beautiful that I would consider bi-wiring if I owned a pair. Other cosmetic features include a tidy two-tone name plate, tapered cabinet edges, a gently sloped baffle and a metal connector plate with correct speaker information on back.
|Remove the grilles and the protective tape over the ribbon tweeters, screw in the pointy carpet spikes, connect your speaker cables and you're good to go! Of course, the Sheffields needed a significant break-in time to tame the tweeters and settle the woofers. Initially, I heard little promise buried by big bottom bass bloat and forward and narrow treble - the woofer and tweeter sounded like Venus and Mars colliding.
When I played Eliane Elias' cover of "Tangerine" [Dreamer, Bluebird 2004], I started to chuckle. The way the music sounded reminded me of one of my buddy's girlfriend's back in high school. She was very pretty and knew it so she could be a little too haughty. When I told my friend he had a very pretty girlfriend, he responded, "Yeah, but she's got a big butt." Funny how some guys will go straight for the jugular. Needless to say, Eliane would not be pleased with the way the raw Sheffields added ten pounds to her bottom end. So I decided to give her a hand, by carefully breaking in the speakers (in the old-world tradition - with music) and searching for the optimal placement in my listening room.
For this review, I connected the Analysis Plus Oval 12 speaker cables from the Sheffields to the 4-ohm taps on the BVaudio PA300 amplifier. All other components in the system are listed in the description at the top of this review.
The ribbon tweeter
Ribbon tweeters were created to solve problems inherent in dome-tweeter designs. They operate in a similar fashion to full-range planar speakers. A thin metal ribbon (aluminum in this case) is suspended between the positive and negative poles of a magnet. The poles are connected to a special transformer that feeds a high current. When the music signal is converted to current, the ribbon tweeter reacts to the changes in current, moves air and makes music similar to the way the voice coil in a dynamic loudspeaker reacts to changes in current. Ribbon drivers cost more to manufacture than dynamic drivers; however, ribbon drivers offer several claimed advantages over dynamic drivers:
So with a ribbon driver, you get low distortion, improved frequency response and greater transient speed, all from a folded piece of aluminum. It certainly sounds good on paper.
The ribbon tweeters made the music sound fast. It wasn't fast like a 33 1/3 LP played at 78 RPMs, but fast in the way the ribbon driver let go of the notes. Once the tweeters turn the electrical impulses into music that hits the air, they immediately get out of the way. The ribbon tweeters were so good that the silk dome tweeters on my Vienna Acoustics Haydn bookshelf loudspeakers sounded sluggish and colored in comparison. I also heard greater transparency with the Sheffields. Details sounded fresh like a forest after a soft shower of rain and it seems as though you can hear the trees sighing their relief. This was especially noticeable when playing music with plucked string instruments, like English Country Dances [harmonia mundi classical express 3957186 2002].
The performance is from the 1990s and features David Douglass on violin, Paul O'Dette on theorbo and Andrew Lawrence King on harp. I love this recording for several reasons: It sounds clear and detailed (if a little bright), the music is interesting and varied, the performances are outstanding and it's cheap. Never underestimate the secret allure of budget CDs! With the Sheffields, musical details were much easier to distinguish - like the bow sliding across the strings, or the way strings were plucked (whether softly or more forcefully). Listening to "The Bear Dance", the plucking was more lively and three-dimensional than I am used to hearing from the silk dome tweeters on my reference speakers. The ambient details that indicate the size and shape of the recording venue (or the clever ambience added by sound engineers) were also more clearly defined by the Sheffields.
|Because a plucked therobo only has so much bass to offer, I switched to a punchier rock recording - Steve Miller's warm and fuzzy "Shubada du mama" [Young Hearts - Complete Greatest Hits, Capitol 90509 2003]. The kick drum was more visceral than I usually hear on the itty bitty midranges on my bookshelf speakers and the bass guitar was easier to follow as it bounced along with the funky rhythm. Even though the recording was from the '70s, the ribbon tweeters were still quick on the draw. The ticking cymbals prompted some furious air-drumming on my part and the facility of Steve Miller's guitar plucking and strumming was clearly displayed before the listener. The delicacy of these details made the music seem almost like a live recording. My silk domes can't do this - but the free-floating ribbon drivers sounded magical.
|When I played other rock and electronic recordings, the experience was the same. "Precious" from Depeche Mode's latest [Playing the Angel, Mute 49348 2005] has delightful layers of synthesized and sampled sounds floating above heavy dance rhythms. The Sheffields played well at low volume levels and very well at dance club volumes (remember what I said about how they like power). David Gahan's vocals, while brighter than with the Haydn speakers, sounded appropriately gravelly - I could hear the harrowing experience behind the words he was singing. This additional brightness did not become glare but made the music sound livelier than I was used to hearing. The midrange driver of the Sheffields impressively recreated the lower half of this recording and scratched places my bookshelf speakers can't reach.
|Another good (and cheap) classical recording worth hearing is Serebrier's performances of transcriptions by Leopold Stokowski. This is a Naxos recording with a Telarc sound [Naxos 26452 2005] - a wide dynamic range with excellent bass (something you don't always get from classical recordings). Massed strings glistened with the added detail provided by the tweeters. Xylophones and cymbals were particularly insistent and startling. However, the heavy crash of the full orchestra was too much of a good thing and the tympani were sonically placed in front of the rest of the orchestra. There seemed to be a bump in the midrange. With my reference speakers, the tympani were farther back in the orchestra where they should be. The Sheffields overdid the lower midrange. Other than that, the soundstage was appropriately wide and other instruments were correctly placed in the musical picture. I did not notice this at first with the rock and electronic recordings because they favored the extra boost in the bass. Leave it to an un-amplified orchestra to demand a more truthful representation to get the full musical experience.
It's a little unfair to compare a floorstanding with a bookshelf speaker because each design has a different set of compromises. However, many audiophiles do upgrade from small to larger loudspeakers so it's important to note the differences. My reference Haydn speakers have a bump in the upper midrange, which sounds like added warmth to the music. The Sheffields have a similar midrange bump. Once I heard it with classical music, I noticed it with my other recordings as well. I guess the flipside of the Mozart effect is that the listener might begin to understand how instruments should sound without amplification or emphasis.
Because of this, I was not completely convinced of the balance between the ribbon tweeter and the large midrange driver. It reminded me of a reality show where two people with opposite personalities are forced to share an apartment together. Whether my listening experience resulted from the cabinet design, the midrange driver, the crossover network or simply the way the speakers integrated with my listening room and equipment, I can't say.
As always, be careful when matching any loudspeaker to your system. Because the Sheffields are so revealing in the upper frequencies and like to dip low in the bass, be prepared to spend a little time selecting appropriate speaker cables and placing the speakers in your listening area. The Sheffields do reward the fastidious audiophile. I spent careful hours with the Sheffields listening for the optimal electronic configuration and loudspeaker placement. I also tried the Sheffields downstairs in the family room but they sounded much better in my dedicated listening room. They still had the same over-emphasis in the midrange but the music definitely sounded better. For some listening rooms and for some types of music, the extra bass might be welcome. When playing techno and classic rock CDs, the Sheffields were definitely ready to party! Even though the Sheffields are two-way speakers, they swam to depths that would give my bookshelf speakers the bends. Listeners who must have bass down to 32Hz will want to add a subwoofer, but if they own the Sheffields, they won't need to rush to do it.
The ribbon tweeters are the standout feature for these loudspeakers. The Sheffields outclassed the Haydns with speed and delightful airy details. I could see a fan of acoustic guitar music falling in love with these. The Sheffields pulled a neat trick of letting the music into the air all those graceful details that make the music come to life. And life is what this hobby is all about. If the strengths of this loudspeaker sound appealing, I encourage listeners to arrange an in-home demonstration by e-mailing the friendly people at Ohio Valley Audio - East.