Criterion review

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Criterion review
« on: 1 Apr 2003, 05:48 pm »
About a month ago, I received a phone call from Danny wondering if I’d like to give the Criterion a listen.  The audition pair was in my area and the next person on the list was not able to receive them for a week.  I had expressed interest in them when they were first announced.  So, I said I’d be glad to give them a listen and give a review.

Here is the context for this ‘review’.  My system is comprised of a Linn LP12, an Akito II tone arm, Dynavector 10X4 Mk2, an EAR 834P preamp, an old Stax DP80 power amp and ProAc Tablettes.  Except for the Dynavector, all of these components were second hand cast-offs from acquaintances.  The reason for this rather disparate system is that until recently, I was much more a record collector than an audiophile, in terms of money spent at least.  Anyway, most should have some feel for these components with the exception of the Stax amp.  This amp is a solid state class A amp that is rated at 40 watts per channel.  The friend I bought it from says it sounds very similar to the Symphonic Line amp he owned at the same time he owned the Stax, but with less power.  He has tried to purchase it back from me a couple of times.  I’d say it is quite good, with very little ‘transistor sound’.  The other thing you should know is that my room is quite small, about 15’ by 17’.  Due to the layout, I sit very nearfield, about 7 feet from the speakers.  OK, enough about all that.

I was impressed with the physical aspects of the Criterions upon unpacking them.  They certainly have a lot of heft for their size and are rock solid.  The veneer was very good, if not perfect.  Since this pair was built expressedly to be demo units, I’m not sure it’s right to nitpick about the veneer.  Suffice it to say that I’d be happy to have them in my home and my wife felt the same.

What follows are my notes taken while listening to some records I chose to evaluate the Criterions.  These are basically unedited.  I’ll add perspective and commentary after the notes.
Stravinsky Firebird   Mercury SR90226 (Classic reissue)
There is an obvious power mismatch with the Stax.  They sound very dynamically compressed.  I have to set the volume control to about 2:00.  Even then, this record isn’t making me jump as it occassionally should.  The balance is much better than the Tablettes.  Tweeter is clean and flat – that will take some getting used to, but I won’t miss the fatigue.  The integration of the drivers is excellent.  Imaging and soundstage are also exemplary.  It’s nice to have some bass, and it’s very clean.  The trombones growl and the bass drum has a healthy thwack, sounding reasonably deep and very clean.  Personally, I wouldn’t need a subwoofer in this environment.  There is excellent deliniation of the various instruments skittering about.

Holst Choral Hymns from the Rig Veda   Argo ZK 98 (Dutch pressing)
The placements of the (female) chorus members are very stable as they should be with this record.  The harp is missing the hard quality on high notes that is so evident on the Tablettes, but on the other hand, detail in the midrange seems slightly more diffuse.  This may be a function of the presence of fundamentals which the Tablettes do not reproduce as loudly.  Depth of the soundstage may be foreshortened a bit.  The emotion (fear, grief, etc.) in Janet Baker’s voice is amazingly portrayed.

Debussy Images   Philips 9500 509
This outstanding recording sounds just that.  All that is missing is dynamics.  Again, the balance is so much better.  I can’t detect any tonal colorations at this point.

Schubert String Quartets   Philips 9500 078
I’m not quite sure what to make of the sound of a string quartet on these speakers.  The sound so favors the viola and ‘cello.  Especially the ‘cello.  Is this just me (needing adjustment)?  Perhaps the way to describe it is that the highs seem dynamically compressed.  This may be a combination of the extended tonal balance and the reduced dynamics due to insufficient power.  Still, I could definitely live very happily with this sound.

Britten Prince of the Pagodas   Decca GOS 558/9 (English pressing)
Here, the music is very well served by the speakers.  They sound great.  It simply sounds like a real orchestra.

I also listened to a lot of other records throughout the week, including some jazz.  The jazz records always sounded excellent.

I put the word review in quotes in the second paragraph, as I feel that my assesment is more one of the Criterions in my particular environment than of their full capabilities.  Perhaps it would be more accurate to call it an audition report.  In almost every way, they were all one could ask for, however, in my system, they sounded dynamically limited.  This wasn’t a matter of not playing loud enough.  I could get them to do that by turning up the volume.  It was more a matter of them needing a fair amount of volume (power) before they sounded real dynamically.  I imagine that with a higher powered amplifier, this might not be an issue.  Still, this impacted my appreciation of chamber music since it requires the ability to sound real at lesser volumes due to the more intimate nature of the music.

I also wondered at times if the highs were rolled off prematurely.  But this is an area where the Tablettes are so wrong, that I’m not sure I can assess that.  I definitely prefered the tonal balance of the Criterions to the Tablettes.

On to the good news.  The Criterions are excellent at imaging and soundstage, at least as good as the Tablettes.  This, to me, is saying a lot as I find very few speakers can match the Tablettes in this regard.  A related strength is that the integration between the ribbon and the midbass drivers is faultless.  These two traits cause the Criterions to really disappear (commonly touted, but seldom realized, IMHO).  This was the case over a good bit of the room.  Vertical position altered the ability to image and the tonal balance as well, but less so than I might have suspected.

Within their bass limitations, I could detect no significant tonal colorations (except the possible high frequency rolloff already mentioned).  Instruments all sounded very real tonally.  Human voice always sounded great, as did piano.  Everything sounded very clean and undistorted.  I never experienced any fatigue of any sort while listening to them.

The bass surprised me quite often.  At one point I was playing the Planets by Holst (I’ve forgotten which recording – probably the Mobile Fidelity recording of Solti) and when the organ entered, both my wife and I jumped.  We actually felt the bass as well as hearing it.  I’m not saying that the full power of the organ was reproduced, but what was there was very impressive for the size of the midbass driver (keep in mind the size of my room).  I don't think that integrating them with a subwoofer would be any problem should that be desired.

My overall assesment is that these are great speakers.  I would be very happy to own a pair.  Doing so would require me to also purchase a different amplifier.  I’d probably look for something on the order of 100 watts or more.  I suspect that they would perform faultlessly in that situation.  I was not at all happy to have to send them on to the next audition.  I feel very comfortable recommending them highly.

Paul Ebert