February 2002Krell LAT-2 Loudspeakers
by Wes Phillips
How would you go about designing the perfect loudspeaker? Maybe you have some speaker-building prejudices you'd like to favor. Would you start with the design philosophy? Or would you first choose the drivers? Or maybe you'd start with a blank sheet of paper and list the attributes such a beast would entail and then decide how to construct the finished product.
It's actually a far more difficult question to answer if you don't have a stake in how it's answered. For example, a speaker company that manufactured its own drivers would probably start with the drivers -- it's what they do, after all. Another speaker company, having mastered the complexities of constructing rigidly braced boxes, might start with the enclosure, while a company with experience constructing ribbons might well start with a super-ribbon.
But let's stipulate that you're a company known for building state-of-the-art electronics and, therefore, lacking any established speaker-building philosophy. What would you design your loudspeakers around?
In the case of Krell's Lossless Acoustic Transducer (LAT) series, the answer is obvious: design 'em to match the electronics. Even without peeking, I could have guessed that the LAT-2s, $10,000 USD per pair, were made by Krell. They are constructed beyond any rational standard and are bullet-proof. Krell pays obsessive attention to the smallest details, and they prize dynamic capability and freedom from coloration beyond all other consideration.
Sounds like the perfect speaker, then, doesn't it? Yes and no -- I suspect the LAT-2s actually fulfill their blank-page brief perfectly, but their adherence to that design brief will inevitably be seen by some critics as their undoing. More than most, the LAT-2 can truly be said to be a two-way loudspeaker.
Ninety-nine and a half won't do
The most striking thing about the LAT-2, at first glance, is its complex shape. Wide enough in front to seat its 7" midrange-woofer, its rear panel is a scant 4" wide (the cabinet measures approximately 9 1/2"W by 12 7/8"H by 14 3/4"D). Connecting the two are side walls that are arcs cut from a much larger circle. Seen from the top, the speaker resembles a deep D. This shape is designed to eliminate internal standing waves, as well as driver diffraction.
When you attempt to move them, the most striking thing about the LAT-2s is their weight. These modest sized boxes weigh 70 pounds each. Each LAT-2 is fabricated from 1.5" solid aluminum. The curved side-panels are ribbed, meaning that the side-wall thickness varies from .75-1", which serves to break up resonances.
The rear panel sports a pair of extremely well-designed, custom-made gold-plated brass binding posts with large, easy-to-grip knurled knobs, not to mention two flared ports.
The LAT-2 utilizes the same 1" dual concentric tweeter employed in the LAT-1. This tweeter uses a "waveguide" to increase its dispersion (it also has the effect of changing the driver's first resonance above 44kHz). The multi-faceted 7" composite carbon-fiber cone midrange-woofer is damped by a butyl surround and housed in a cast-aluminum/magnesium frame said to be "ideal" for ported enclosures. The driver has a long throw (1" peak to peak), which is abetted by its extended voice coil. The speaker is video-shielded.
The second-order crossover (at 2.7kHz) features "amplifier-grade circuitry," resident on an 1/8" glass epoxy board with 4-ounce copper traces, which aids in eliminating microphonics, resistance, and inductance.
The grille is also unique. Well, unusual, really. It is based upon the bar-and-elastic-cord design employed for the Sonus-Faber Amati Homage. Dan D'Agostino admired it and, before utilizing it, asked for and received Franco Serblin's permission to create a grille based upon it. It was a good call -- it's a perfect cosmetic match for the side panels' ribbing.
Not just a part but all your heart
I mounted the LAT-2s on my Cliff Stone Foundation stands, which are filled with concrete and about as dead to resonance as the speakers (translation: extremely) and which put the tweeters slightly above my ears when I was seated in my comfy chair. Each speaker was about four feet away from the rear wall and about three feet in from the side walls, which left them about six feet apart (tweeter to tweeter) pointed straight forward, without toe-in. I sat ten feet back from their front panels.
I'm so specific about all this because you can clearly hear the room's boundaries interacting with the speakers' sound -- and these speakers have such purity of sound that every minute spent attending to what might be minor details with another loudspeaker pays immense dividends in long-term listening pleasure. So yes, I spent a lot of time moving the speakers away from the side and rear walls and then made sure I sat inside their first side-wall reflection point.
'Twerent work -- I was glad to do it because they sounded so doggone good. I settled down for a long listening session, pushed play on the Persuasions' Might As Well [GDCD 4070] and found myself on my feet within minutes. It seemed only right, after all -- all five of them were standing there. Besides, I wanted to boogie.
I've had loudspeakers that could throw a soundstage before, but never anything like this. It's not so much that my room disappeared or faded away; it just didn't matter as much as what I was hearing off the disc. It was beside the point. Besides, who could worry about stuff like my living room when the Persuasions were standing right there singing?
Next, I cued up Paul O'Dette's Dowland: Musicke for the Lute [Astrée E 7715], a disc that, at least, let me sit down for a while. The precision of the transient string attack was unnerving, as was the rapidity of its decay -- the strings' decay, that is. The rich acoustic cushion of the hall (la Chapelle du Château d'Ussé) kept the note afloat for what seemed like minutes. The crisp articulation and the lightning-fast response were staggering. I was in love.
In fact, I was falling for my first love all over again. I knew that liquid, pure, staggeringly fast sound well from old -- it was the sound of my Quad ESL-57s. The sense of hyper-detail was fostered, at least in part, by what the speaker wasn't telling me.
And that was a couple of octaves that music is built upon. The LAT-2s didn't seem to be putting out much below 70Hz and, if pressed, I'd have guessed they were starting their roll-off right around 100Hz. But what they did play was so natural, so liquid, so free from any coloration whatsoever that the LAT-2s were impossible not to like.
This meant that when I listened to Kent Nagano's new recording of Mahler lieder with Dietrich Henschel [Teldec 8563-86573-2], it sounded incredibly smooth and detailed, but lightweight. It's actually a likeable sound -- after all, you don't know what you're missing. But it's leaving out a significant part of the music, no matter how attractive it sounds.
In fact, as much as I loved my old Quads, they weren't nearly as uncolored as the Krells. The Krells reveal a new level of accuracy (and yes, I know that their lack of bottom end makes them sound clean -- but on top of sounding clean, the LAT-2s are clean). And, unlike the Quads, the LAT-2s are unflappable. They'll play louder than you can stand it before they'll distort. You definitely can't over-drive 'em. I know -- I tried.
And they'll reveal musical details you've never heard or only suspected in your oldest demo discs. I don't mean they reveal edits, dropped sheet music or other studio glitches (although they will); I mean they'll let you track dynamic changes like never before, let you hear the inner voices of chords, and reveal misheard lyrics for what they're supposed to be. You know, musical details.
I've got to have real love and devotion
The $2399-per-pair Dynaudio Contour 1.3 Mk IIs are superb stand-mounted two-way loudspeakers, so it made sense to compare the LAT-2s to them. Without question, the Dynaudios have better bass response than the LAT-2s. The Nagano/Henschel disc was far, far darker than it sounded on the Krells. The added weight and tonal color made it a completely different disc.
However, as good as the Contour 1.3s are, they sounded heavy next to the Krells. Not thick or smeared, just heavy -- the tonal lightness of the LAT-2s seemed validated by its agility and airy texture. If only those qualities, which were undeniably seductive, could have existed in place with the bass weight of the Dynaudios.
Things were a lot less clear cut on recordings such as Hot Swing! [OMAC Records 4], Mark O'Connor's tribute to the music of Stephane Grappelli and Django Reinhardt. Here, the band consists of O'Connor on violin, the extraordinary guitarist Frank Vignola and bassist Jon Barr, and the differences between the speakers were less forthright. There was greater bass weight and impact on the Dynaudios, but the sparkle and liveliness of O'Connor's fiddling was remarkable on the Krells. And when he began to double-stop in the final measures of "Nuages," the sound leaped out of the LAT-2s with such vigor that it seemed to come from everywhere within the room -- just as it does in real life.
And then, Vignola's out-of-this-world single-string soloing on "Sweet Suzanne," alternating with his hyped-up chording, was simply incendiary coming out of the LAT-2s. It was superb with the Contour 1.3 Mk IIs as well, but it just had so much, um, swing with the Krells that it was no contest.
But, as likeable as the Krells' tonal balance might be -- and it's extremely hard to over emphasize just how right they could sound on their own -- it left out important information. Daniel Barenboim's phenomenal Le Sacre du Printemps with the CSO [Teldec 8573 81702-2] has become one of my new touchstones for orchestral power and drive. It's a lot to ask of any two-way, but the Contours acquitted themselves forcefully, capturing the primitive drive and immense acoustic weight of the CSO. While the LAT-2s allowed me to follow the competing sections, especially in the "Ritual dance of the chosen one," this came at the expense of impact and, to some extent, momentum. The disc was still a sonic blockbuster, but it lost much of its savage splendor. And a La Sacre that falls short on that simply misses the mark.
We got to bring it on down now
Now, this leads us to an interesting question -- that of value. One way of looking at it is that, when you pay $10,000 for a loudspeaker, it ought to be able to reproduce, say, the low E on a bass guitar. It's a point that's hard to argue with and if that's the way you feel, nothing I can say will justify the LAT-2's existence to you.
But, but there's that sound, that purity of response and that remarkable quickness. Those have got to be worth something. I suspect that those are tied in with Krell's refusal to fudge the speaker's response. After all, you've got to figure that a company smart enough to design a speaker as good as the LAT-2 is at least smart enough to know how to coax a few extra Hertz out of it. Unless, of course, in making such a compromise, they destroyed what made the speaker special in the first place. And besides, the very existence of the LAT-2 is proof that compromise just isn't in Krell's vocabulary.
Without question, $10,000 is a ton of money for a loudspeaker -- especially for one without much low end. On the other hand, subwoofers are relatively cheap these days. Well, sort of. There's where you run into the old Quad problem. When a speaker is fast and tonally pure, you can't just go connecting it to any old subwoofer. Fortunately, these days you have your choice from a wide array of high-quality, fast subwoofers such as those from Wilson, REL and (imagine that!) Krell.
Not just a part but all your heart
Krell could rightly argue that the LAT-2 wasn't designed to be a full-range loudspeaker and that, as a result, it's a success at its design brief. After all, their literature shows LAT-2s used as the rear channels in a Krell HEAT (home theater) system. Maybe so -- my wallet doesn't run to $10k rear channels, so I have a hard time imagining such a critter.
But I did try the LAT-2 in another situation where its rapid low-end roll-off and small size worked for it: as desktop monitors for my PC-based recording studio. And they were scary, they were so good. Suddenly, the grooves I was working on had texture and grit I'd never heard before. My Telecaster's twang was twangier, bass was deeper and richer, and the recordings of my own voice revealed how much I need a vocals booth. It wasn't pretty -- it showed me how poor my own recordings sounded. I went back to my Linn Tukans in shame. But the LAT-2s did what a monitor speaker is supposed to do, no matter how much that might have embarrassed me: They told me exactly what I was putting onto hard disk. It wasn't their fault if what I was recording wasn't any better than it was.
The LAT-2s also didn't make it sound any worse. I might not have liked what I heard, but it didn't sound bad. It just sounded like an amateur, which is what I am. The speakers just told it like it was, within their range of excellence. When I get better, that's exactly what I'll be looking for in a monitor speaker.
Got to have 100
There's no question that the Krell LAT-2 is beautifully constructed, solidly built, and intelligently engineered. You'd expect nothing less from Krell.
And the LAT-2 is a brilliant performer. It is accurate, fast, tonally neutral, detailed and a soundstaging champion. In its strengths, it rivals the finest loudspeakers I've ever heard -- and, in fact, when it comes to throwing a holographic image, it may be the finest loudspeaker I've ever heard.
Of course, some of its strengths seem exaggerated by what it doesn't do. Of course it sounds hyper-detailed, but it scants you on the bottom two octaves of music. But it doesn't boom and it doesn't chuff -- like Bartleby the scrivener, it is polite even en extremis. Asked to do something it can't, it politely demurs. For listeners like me, this is the easiest type of shortcoming to overlook. But for some of you out there, this will be a fatal defect, especially in an expensive loudspeaker.
I'm not so sure. I love what this speaker does best. If I can have that, I might be willing to put up with what it cannot do -- especially when you consider the depth of subwoofer offerings now available.
I suspect that's going to be a controversial opinion. It would be easy to dismiss the LAT-2 for being flawed, but I've never heard perfection from any loudspeaker. And what the Krell gets right, it gets so very right. My advice is to give it a listen before you make up your mind. The LAT-2 might very well rearrange some of your favorite prejudices, and when was the last time a loudspeaker could do that?
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