by James Causey
When my significant other and I first decided last fall to move into a new apartment, one of our criteria was a suitable listening space for my two-channel system. I didnt have a problem with sharing the listening room for other purposes, but the dimensions had to work well. Unfortunately, many modern apartment buildings use rooms that are shaped and sized for silly things like appearance and comfort rather than the demands of todays educated audiophile.
Thus, when we found an attractive place with a third bedroom we could dedicate to the stereo system, I fell in love immediately. Over the next several months, my excitement over finally having a dedicated listening room knew no bounds. However, in my enthusiasm, I paid little attention to the rooms actual dimensions -- 11' 6" by 10' 6" by 8'. My new listening room was nearly cubical!
Ill spare you the horrific description of trying to determine optimal speaker placement in a cubical space. However, there was a bright side to this problem room. SoundStage! ed-in-chief Marc Mickelson recognized this as an opportunity to investigate speaker applications in the kinds of tough rooms that many audiophiles have to live with. Thus, over the next few months, Ill be spending time with various loudspeaker designs, trying to find products that work well in less-than-ideal room placements.
Ohm loudspeakers have piqued my curiosity for many years. I remember first seeing a pair of Ohms in the parlor of a wealthy relative in Chicago when I was young; their tall, rounded shape confounded my world view of speakers as big brown fiberboard boxes with round drivers. Since that first encounter, Ive run into them in the oddest places. My favorite record store in town has an old, beat-up pair of them to provide the store with musical ambience. A pawn shop just outside campus always seems to have a pair of the obelisk-shaped speakers that inspire the mind to seek nirvana in a continuous loop of those environmental-sounds CDs found in department stores everywhere.
Since those early formative days, Ive run across many "non-traditional" loudspeaker designs, ranging from electrostats to horns to the needs-no-description B&W Nautilus. However, that first encounter with a pair of Ohms has always left unanswered questions in my mind: What were those? Is Ohm even still around? Ohm is, indeed, still around and produces a full line of products for two-channel and home-theater customers. When I was given the opportunity to review a pair of their speakers, I jumped on it.
Ohm focuses on selling its speakers directly to the end-user via mail order, offering a 120-day in-home audition program as well as personalized assistance to help customers select the Ohm design that will work best for their room, equipment, and musical tastes. After consulting with Ohm President John Strohbeen, SoundStage! elected to review the Ohm Walsh 100 Mark 2, the entry-level model to the Ohm Walsh line of speakers.
The latest revision of Ohms patented Walsh driver system consists of two drivers arranged to present a vertical line source. The first is an inverted-cone dynamic driver, oriented vertically rather than horizontally and described to me by John Strohbeen as the "main drive." A more traditional aluminum-dome vented supertweeter, carefully aligned on top of the main drive to provide time coherence, handles high frequencies above 8kHz. A port on the bottom of the speaker takes over for frequencies below 45Hz.
Rather than using a crossover, the tweeter is driven via a simple high-pass filter, with the main driver being driven full-range (though electrical inductance, as well as its own mass, causes the main drive to roll-off high frequencies). According to Strohbeen, the use of a simple filtering mechanism allows the Walsh driver to be truly phase coherent. Ohm claims a frequency range of 29Hz-20kHz (+/- 3dB) and sensitivity of 87dB/W/m for the Walsh 100 Mk 2. In addition, Ohm states that the Walsh driver system is completely free of intermodulation distortion.
In addition to being time and phase coherent, the Ohm Walsh loudspeakers are also designed to provide "full-room stereo," where soundstaging and instrument placement are perceived from many positions throughout the listening environment, rather than being focused within a narrow sweet spot.
The Walsh 100 Mk 2 was reviewed using my standard amplification setup of a McCormack DNA-1 amplifier and TLC-1 used exclusively as a passive line stage. The Parasound CD/P-1000 CD player was used as the system front-end, with cabling duties handled by Kimber HERO interconnects with WBT RCA termination and Kimber 8TC speaker wire with WBT banana plugs. In addition, Cardas Twinlink-A speaker wire with default spade-lug termination was used for comparison purposes. All electrical components were plugged directly into the outlets for the listening rooms dedicated circuit, with no surge protection or filtration. XLO TPC wipes were used to treat all connections, and source devices were supported on a Michael Green Designs Justarack in natural cherry. A blue lava lamp provided ambience, and Gabby the Audio Cat provided technical assistance.
Appearance and initial setup
The Walsh 100 Mk 2 speakers appeared on my door in gigantic, well-protected shipping boxes. Unpacking the speakers involved a wrestling match with the tall boxes, finally revealing the prizes inside.
My first impression of the Ohm speakers was, well, uh -- lets just say I was underwhelmed. The speakers are 14" x 10" pillars, reaching a height of roughly 38". Finished in a somewhat chintzy-feeling oak veneer, the speakers are capped by a round driver cover made from dark, vented steel that looks like it came from a WWII-vintage German tank. The provided trapezoidal cloth covers snap onto the speakers lid and dress up the appearance a bit. The speakers rest on four casters(!) which are built into the base, two of which are lockable.
Scratching my head at the speakers unusual appearance, I took advantage of the casters to rapidly roll the 55-pound Walsh 100s into my listening room. The solid-feeling three-way binding posts on the underside of the speakers (near the bass port) made connection easy and quick, though the single set of posts makes biwiring out of the question.
To minimize unwanted listening-room interaction, I began my placement experimentation by using a configuration first recommended to me by SoundStage! technical editor Doug Blackburn, and later seconded by John Strohbeen. The speakers were placed along adjacent walls in the room, firing diagonally from a corner, with my listening chair placed in the opposite corner. From the listening chair, I directly faced the "Aim Corner At Center Of Room" stickers on the speakers lid. Though I was still dubious about the casters effect on the sound of the speakers, I was impressed by how easy they made placement and experimentation.
Initial impressions -- ugly duckling or golden goose?
Firing up my system, I carefully prepared myself to view the speakers in an objective light, as its dreadfully unfair to draw conclusions about any piece of equipment before its broken in. However, I was instantly struck by the level of instrumental detail that the speakers revealed. Many details that were either murky or completely unheard previously leapt out to take their rightful place in the musical presentation. Intrigued, I fiddled for a few minutes with the speakers orientation, aiming the fronts of the speakers more directly at my listening position. I was immediately rewarded with a wide, expansive soundstage, with instrumental positions hovering clearly in space. Thrilled, I proceeded to spend the rest of the evening running through my CD collection.
Ohm claims a break-in period of merely 12 hours for the Walsh 100 Mk 2, the least break-in required for any of the Walsh speakers. Being the anal, paranoid reviewer that I am, I proceeded to break in the speakers for over 100 hours, using nearly every CD in my collection during days while I was at work. Once this was complete, I settled down to really grasp the sound of these unique loudspeakers.
Im an imaging addict, and in this regard, the Ohms really floated my boat. The amount of time needed to place these speakers for optimum sound is ridiculously small (I spent less than 30 minutes total adjusting the placement, thanks in part to the casters), and once placed, the Walsh 100 Mk 2s throw a deep, clear soundstage. I perceived the soundstage in a deep arc, curving from the left speaker away from me into the corner, then curving back toward me as it ended in the right speaker. There was depth in all parts of the curve, with instruments distinctly registering their front-to-back positions throughout -- but the forward-most image was deeper between the speakers than along the edges of the soundstage. Placement on the left-to-right axis in the soundstage was phenomenal; instruments appeared distinct and clear without being unnaturally highlighted.
One of my current favorite reference tracks is Orbitals "The Girl With The Sun In Her Head" (In Sides [FFRR/Internal, 697-124 087-2]). The track opens with a series of sweeping, low-midrange "whooshes" which track across the soundstage, building a framework upon which layers of electronic chords are slowly built up, finally culminating in a pounding beat with layers of pulsating notes whirling throughout the soundstage. The Walsh 100s handled this song superbly, with the high-pitched notes trilling clearly out of the dark electronic rhythmic space generated by the drum machines. Their positioning was crisp and tactile, to the point that you almost thought you could touch them. The noises themselves were full-bodied, with a level of detail and character that Id previously not experienced.
As mentioned above, the speakers matched their incredible positional imaging with an excellent sense of instrumental detail. The electronic noises on "The Girl With The Sun In Her Head" growled, hissed, pulsed, rang, and throbbed, with their harmonic overtones fully preserved. A similar effect was noted on "This Is The Night" from The Thes Dusk [Epic/Sony UK, EK 53164]. The honky-tonk upright piano chords rang, with the entire sound of the pianos keys, body, and hammers on strings. Matt Johnsons voice hissed and gasped from the center of the stage, with the rest of the instruments taking their rightful place in a wide, detailed soundstage.
No matter what I listened to, I was continually impressed with the level of instrumental detail, particularly on acoustic instruments. In addition to how they handled the instruments, the Ohms also provided an excellent sense of the recording space itself. On live recordings such as the aforementioned Dusk, or Viva! by Ottmar Liebert and Luna Negra [Epic/Sony EK 66455] the hall acoustic was a vivid, real thing.
How about weaknesses? Well, any full-range floorstanding speaker in this price range is bound to have some. The primary weakness I experienced was in the speakers low-bass performance. In most cases, particularly with acoustic jazz and new-age music, the bass allowed no room for complaint, but when dealing with low electric bass, organ, and synthesized tones, the speaker tended to bloat things a bit. On U2s Achtung Baby [Island, 314-51 490-2], the low electric bass on songs like "Zoo Station," "Even Better Than The Real Thing," and "Until The End Of The World" bloated into a throbbing mass of unintelligibility, while it held together rather well on "Mysterious Ways." A similar phenomenon was found on The Crystal Methods Vegas [Outpost OPRD-30003], where the bass held up well in short drumlike beats (such as on "Comin Back"), but fell apart on sustained synthesizer notes. This was most clearly exhibited on "Keep Hope Alive," where the slamming drum beats do well, but the low driving tones come apart. Various attempts to correct the situation with room placement resulted in either reinforcing the bass bloat even further, or robbing the speaker of bass entirely. Suspecting the casters, I tried placing the speakers on some large granite paving stones, but to no avail. As John Strohbeen pointed out to me in an e-mail message, the vertical nature of the main drive eliminates the need for a rigid coupling (such as with spikes) to prevent distortion of the sound by cabinet rocking, and this experiment proved that the casters were not the source of the Walsh 100s somewhat bloated bass performance.
The Walsh 100 Mk 2s also came across as being slightly laid-back. I personally believe this to be part of the nature of its time and phase coherence, where instrumental tones were presented more realistically, without a lot of the additional "sparkle" or "sizzle" found in other designs, and it didnt bother me a bit. One of my friends, however, felt that the speaker lacked something in its upper registers that he liked. I did notice that my Cardas speaker wire significantly reduced this laid-back nature, so it might not be noticeable at all in a brighter system.
My primary comparison reference for the review period consisted of my PSB 1000i floorstanding loudspeakers. The first major difference between the two pairs of speakers was in ease of setup; the 1000s require much more careful and painstaking listening and positioning to provide their optimum performance in my tiny listening room, while the Walsh 100 Mk 2 fit in with only a few small adjustments. The Ohm speakers also provided a clearer, less veiled midrange presentation. In comparison, the PSB speakers seemed to smear the sound a bit, masking some instrumental and environmental detail. On "Drawn To The Rhythm" from Sarah McLachlans Solace [Arista/Nettwerk 18631-2], the PSBs soundstaging was less distinct, with more smear between the positions of the instruments and in the sounds of particular instruments themselves. The PSB speakers soundstage was also showed somewhat less depth, with none of the "arcing" I noticed with the Walsh 100s. However, the PSBs were much more willing to throw a soundstage beyond the confines of the speakers on the left and right, as well as bring instruments and voices slightly forward of the plane of the drivers, while the Walsh 100 never seemed to throw an image in front of the speaker cabinets themselves.
The PSB speakers also demonstrated significantly more sparkle. Ive never thought of the 1000i as a strident or bright speaker, but in comparison with the Walsh 100 Mk 2, the PSBs had a sense of spittiness on sibilants and a hissing or sparkling on cymbal crashes and higher tones. This was most notable on recordings with a brighter, grainier nature, and almost completely unnoticeable on neutral or dark recordings.
Perhaps the most important difference in the sound of the PSB 1000i and the Ohm Walsh 100 Mk 2 was in the bass presentation. On more acoustic recordings (such as The Thes Dusk), the Ohms had a slight edge in bass detail and definition. However, when the going got low, tough, and electric or electronic, the PSBs stole the show, slamming and pounding away with much more depth and tightness, and just a hint of room overloading. In contrast, the Ohm speakers often completely lost their cool, rendering such low bass as an overloaded throbbing nightmare.
In order to pin down the differences between the two speakers, I spent a great deal of time A/B-ing Loreena McKennitts "The Book of Secrets" [Quinlan Road/Warner Bros 946719-2], an disc laced with excellent imaging, rich acoustic instrumentation, and haunting vocals. Both speakers, when properly placed, made the music extremely enjoyable. The PSBs easier handling of deep bass information and slightly more sparkly highs made for a more dynamic experience, while the Walsh 100 turned in a more suave performance, with their superb soundstaging, excellent instrumental detail, and (to my ears) more natural upper registers. Both speakers were very listenable and enjoyable, and I would desperately love to build a hybrid with the tight, deep bass of the PSBs and the detail, soundstaging, and natural presentation of the Walsh 100s. Maybe Ohm has such a speaker.
The Ohm Walsh 100 Mk 2s overcome their slightly dated and unusual appearance with a swinging, musical, detailed presentation that really made music an enjoyable, right-brain experience. To my ears, they bested the PSB 1000i in nearly every regard, no mean feat when compared to one of the finest values in $1000 floorstanders today. The only bit of the Walsh 100 Mk 2s nature that gave me serious pause was its bass performance, but that could very well be ameliorated some by room treatments, more suitable listening rooms, or larger Ohm models.
All in all, I was extremely impressed by this unassuming little floorstanding loudspeaker. I only wish I had the time and opportunity to experiment with Walsh 100 Mk 2s in a more ideal listening space to see if their bass performance could be brought in line with their other delightful musical characteristics.
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