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Equipment Review
September 2008

MaxxHorn Audio Lumination Loudspeakers

by Vade Forrester


"I have no higher praise for a component than to say it makes me want to listen to more music, and that's exactly what the MaxxHorn Luminations do."

Reviewers' Choice Logo

 

 

 

Review Summary
Sound "You can’t get decent bass from a 5" driver, can you?… While the Luminations didn’t go flat to 20Hz, the 5" Feastrex drivers pounded out bass down to around 40Hz with impressive power." "No crossover means that the amplifier got a firm, direct grip on the driver, and, as a result, double-basses, celli, and percussion instruments were reproduced with unusual drive, energy, and detail." In addition, "the Luminations retrieved an astonishing amount of midrange detail. Switching to them after hearing other speakers was like switching from standard TV to HDTV." Higher up, "I was pleasantly surprised to find that the Feastrex driver’s treble exhibited the same smoothness and continuousness as the bass and midbass."
Features Crossover-less single-driver speaker that uses "the Japanese Feastrex Dimension Five Monster Alnico, which costs as much as good speakers: $6300 per pair." "MaxxHorn Audio uses an unusual type of enclosure to complement the Feastrex driver: a rear-loaded full-range tractrix horn." "Feastrex drivers have a 16-ohm impedance, quite rare today. Most tube amplifiers don’t even have 16-ohm outputs, but since the Luminations’ sensitivity is so high (a claimed 103dB/W/m), most amps will deliver enough power from their 8-ohm outputs."
Use "The Feastrex drivers are rated to handle only 15 steady-state watts, or 25 watts of music power. Connecting them to an amplifier of even moderate power could be fatal to the drivers." "Delivery and setup by MaxxHorn personnel anywhere in the continental US is an essential part of the purchase price."
Value "You pay more and you get more -- much, much more -- with the MaxxHorn Luminations. No surprise there, I guess."

The woofer, midrange and tweeter blended together so well they sounded like a single driver.

Have you ever read this in a speaker review? It makes me chuckle. How many reviewers have actually heard a single-driver speaker? How many listeners have heard one? If you own Quads, you can raise your hand, and you also can if you have one of the more esoteric speakers that use a Lowther, Fostex, or AER driver. But many people are in the dark, relying on conjecture more than firsthand experience, even as reviewers seem to agree that a single-driver speaker has some definite advantages.

Well, having just reviewed the MaxxHorn Audio Lumination speakers, I can tell you that single-driver advocates are right. So many listeners take for granted the crossover networks in today’s multi-driver speakers, but I’m convinced that even the best crossovers mess up the sound far more than we realize. Connecting the driver directly to the amplifier gives the amp maximum control over the speaker, which makes for very dynamic and detailed sound. This is something you have to hear to appreciate, and it is the major reason some folks prize single-driver speakers, both dynamic and electrostatic.

In a white paper describing his design philosophy, MaxxHorn Audio designer Johan van Zyl lists the advantages of going crossover-less better than I could. He contends that single-driver speakers present a "very coherent and precise presentation of the music in the time and space domain." He adds, "There is no phase shift over the vital mid-range," so, "no muddying of dynamic complex signals, and no softening of transients from passive crossover filters. In other words, there’s no sonic signature from crossover components to impact the musicians’ performance."

Weighing in at 150 pounds, and standing 62" high by 17" wide by 24 1/2" deep, the $28,500 USD-per-pair Lumination speakers are certainly imposing. However, they are gracefully shaped, exquisitely crafted and finished with virtually any material you choose -- wood veneer, black lacquer, stainless steel, even Corian. The review model was finished with an Ambrosia maple front and black satin top, sides, and back. To my eye, they were drop-dead gorgeous, inciting a case of instant audiophile lust. My wife, who unlike me has impeccable taste in furniture, gave the Luminations a rare stamp of approval.

The single driver in the Lumination horn enclosure is the Japanese Feastrex Dimension Five Monster Alnico, which costs as much as good speakers: $6300 per pair. From the front, the 5" Feastrex driver looks a lot like the older Lowther DX55, except the Feastrex driver uses a brass phase plug instead of a wooden one. But from the back the Feastrex driver looks nothing like any Lowther. Several different types of magnets are available, including field coils (electromagnets), which have even greater strength than the magnets commonly used in speaker drivers.

Feastrex drivers have a 16-ohm impedance, quite rare today. Most tube amplifiers don’t even have 16-ohm outputs, but since the Luminations’ sensitivity is so high (a claimed 103dB/W/m), most amps will deliver enough power from their 8-ohm outputs. Solid-state amps should be able to drive the speakers, but at approximately half the power of their 8-ohm rating. But here’s a serious limitation: The Feastrex drivers are rated to handle only 15 steady-state watts, or 25 watts of music power. Connecting them to an amplifier of even moderate power could be fatal to the drivers.

A good driver is necessary to build a good single-driver speaker, but a good enclosure is equally important. MaxxHorn Audio uses an unusual type of enclosure to complement the Feastrex driver: a rear-loaded full-range tractrix horn. Unlike many horn enclosures, the tractrix horn doesn’t use a high-pressure chamber behind the horn to decouple the bass from higher frequencies, so it loads the horn up to 1kHz, squarely in the midrange. Most tractrix horns are loaded from the throat, but the Lumination horn is loaded from the side. At the bottom of the enclosure, the horn’s mouth radiates in all directions for best coupling to the room. With most speakers, room positioning affects only the bass, but the Luminations’ midrange is also affected. That makes setup even more challenging and illustrates why delivery and setup by MaxxHorn personnel anywhere in the continental US is an essential part of the purchase.

MaxxHorn president Robert Spence builds the enclosure from MDF panels of varying thickness, with a front baffle consisting of an inch-thick constrained-layer panel. Dado, dowel, and biscuit joinery are used in the cabinet's construction. Screws are used only to attach the base, and then stainless-steel bolts do the job.

The large panels are machined with a precision computer-aided CNC router. Considerable time is then spent hand assembling and finishing the cabinets. No furniture I’ve seen is finished with more care and attention to detail. A rear chamber allows for additional damping material (kitty litter is recommended) to be added to the cabinet.

The driver frame is not screwed to the front baffle. Instead, it is isolated from it by a specialty foam gasket and pulled into the cabinet from the rear with a single bolt. Not only does that arrangement create a neat appearance from the front, it also provides support for the magnet, which is not called a "Monster Alnico" for nothing.

Stainless-steel spikes are included, but you can use any footer with a 1/4-by-20 thread. Optionally, Stillpoints and risers may be used under the base. If you have hardwood floors, optional nylon-ball transfer rollers can be used. The rollers work well for moving the speakers around on carpeted floors too. High-purity copper Vampire Wire binding posts tightly grip the speaker cables. Because the binding posts are hexagonal, you can use an AudioQuest binding-post wrench or a 7/16" socket wrench or nut driver to really crank down on a spade lug. Because some of my very heavy speaker cables will pull off a binding post if it's not strongly tightened, I appreciate that feature. Internal wiring comes from Clarity Cable.

Setting up

Just as he would for any customer, Robert Spence set up the Luminations in my listening room. Spence fully understood how to best position the speakers down to the nearest 1/16th of an inch. And, yes, such fine adjustments made a readily perceptible difference. He wound up putting the speakers just outside the zone where the wall behind them would have begun to load the driver, affecting its sound. The enclosures were toed in so that the drivers pointed directly at the listening position. I understand that toe-in is usually not so extreme, but you have to adjust it to fit the room.

Feastrex drivers have problems with high-capacitance speaker cables, so some I had on hand produced an obvious edginess. However, Purist Audio Venustas speaker cables produced sound free of the nasties and with deeper bass, but with a slightly rolled-off top end. Clarity Cable’s Passion had a more expansive soundstage and more extended highs and proved be to the best choice. TG Audio High Purity Revised interconnects were also an excellent match for the Luminations.

The Luminations’ high sensitivity would seem to make them a natural match for single-ended triode (SET) amplifiers, and that turned out to be largely true. My reference Art Audio PX-25 sounded pretty good with the speakers, but on first listen it seemed to lack dynamics and drive. I greatly preferred my Atma-Sphere S-30 Mk III output-transformerless (OTL) amplifier, which produced a more spacious and precise soundstage and wide dynamic swings. Because its output capacity greatly exceeded the drivers’ power handling, I was a little leery of using the S-30 with the Luminations, but no harm came.

Later, I discovered that the Art Audio amp was suffering from a severe case of Tired Triode Syndrome -- the output tubes were approaching the end of their useful life span. Replacing the output tubes brought back missing dynamic pep and tonal density, and the choice between the amps became a lot more difficult to make. Both sounded terrific, but they certainly didn't sound alike.

Illumination

I expected the Luminations to have wimpy bass. After all, you can’t get decent bass from a 5" driver, can you? So much for my expectations.

While the Luminations didn’t go flat to 20Hz, the 5" Feastrex drivers pounded out bass down to around 40Hz with impressive power, and there was even a smidgen of output into the upper-30Hz range. And this was not wimpy, rolled-off bass; rather, it had powerful impact and weight clear down to its limits. Even better, because the bass was produced by the same driver that produced the midrange and high frequencies, the entire sonic output was cut from the same cloth (well, OK, paper) and there was no, nada, zero change in character, as is usually caused by a woofer and midrange driver being constructed of different materials and separated by a crossover network.

You have to hear it to appreciate how good bass from a single driver can sound -- if done right. Heavy-metal fans will probably want to look elsewhere, but for most non-amplified music (e.g., jazz and even large-scale classical), you probably won’t notice any limitations. On Jennifer Warnes’ The Hunter CD (Private Music 01005-82089-2), "Way Down Deep" features an extensive collection of drums and percussion instruments, some of which do indeed go way down deep. The Luminations portrayed all of the drums as well as I’ve heard them with no loss of bass impact and extension, and they presented more musical detail than I’ve ever experienced. On the other hand, on Chris Jones’s CD Roadhouses and Automobiles (Stockfisch SFR 357.6027.2), "No Sanctuary Here" went plenty deep but lacked a little weight. However, the greater bass detail compensated. The Luminations even handled pipe organ pretty well, but you really need a subwoofer to do full justice to that challenging instrument -- a subwoofer like MaxxHorn’s forthcoming Bastillion perhaps.

Associated Equipment

Loudspeakers –  Second ReTHM, Opera Audio Consonance M12.

Power amplifiers –  Atma-Sphere S-30 Mk III stereo amp, Art Audio PX 25 stereo amp, Wright Sound Company WPA3.5 mono amps, Welborne Labs 300B DRD mono amps.

Preamplifier – Audio Research LS26.

Digital – Meridian 508.24 CD player, Oppo DV-970HD universal player.

Analog – Linn LP12 turntable, Graham 2.2 tonearm, van den Hul Frog cartridge, Audio Research PH5 phono stage.

Interconnects – Purist Audio Design Venustas, DNM/Reson TSC, TG Audio High Purity Revised, Blue Marble Audio Blue IC.

Speaker cables – Purist Audio Design Venustas, Blue Marble Audio speaker cables.

Power cords – Purist Audio Design Venustas, Blue Marble Audio Lightning.

Accessories Walker Audio Talisman LP/CD treatment, VPI HW-16.5 record cleaner.

The Lumination's single driver meant that the punch and weight in the bass continued seamlessly into the midbass, so the droop in this region in the sound of many speakers was totally missing. No crossover means that the amplifier got a firm, direct grip on the driver, and, as a result, double-basses, celli, and percussion instruments were reproduced with unusual drive, energy, and detail. During Eije Oue and the Minnesota Orchestra’s performance of Kabalevsky’s "Overture to Colas Breugnon" (Reference Recordings RR-92CD), the detail of the lower strings’ bowing came through as never before. I could easily hear the bows scraping across the strings for the initial launch of a note, then back for the next note.

The Luminations’ treble wasn’t as big a surprise as its bass. Fearful of getting a peaky "shout" like that produced by a Lowther driver, I was pleasantly surprised to find that the Feastrex driver’s treble exhibited the same smoothness and continuousness as the bass and midbass. Actually, I suspect the treble rolls off slightly, but I was largely able to compensate by system tuning with cables and accessories. Swapping out tubes for others provided another way to tune the treble. Replacing the 6922 input tubes and 12BH7 drivers in my Art Audio amp with Siemens-Halske E188CC and mil-spec GE 5965 tubes added some high-frequency sparkle.

That brings me to the midrange, which is the second area where the Luminations impressed me with each recording. The Luminations retrieved an astonishing amount of midrange detail. Switching to them after hearing other speakers was like switching from standard TV to HDTV. The increased detail the Luminations retrieved included the complex timbral characteristics of both instrumental and vocal performers; both small- and large-scale variations in dynamics; musical pacing and momentum, which make music exciting; and precise spatial information -- in short everything that happens in the midrange.

Although no other speaker I’ve heard comes close to the Luminations in retrieving all that information, it was not so much their performance in each of those areas by itself that makes them significant tranducers. Their crowning achievement is how well they fuse together all those areas into a musical whole that often produced an uncanny illusion of an actual performance. My all-time favorite audition piece (at least for this week), "Folia: Rodrigo Martinez" by Jordi Savall and associates on the CD La Folia (AliaVox AV9805), features density of information that tests any equipment. I’ve listened to this piece hundreds of times, and I thought I knew each note, each nuance of the piece, but the Luminations showed me even more. For example, the unusual collection of percussion instruments includes a wood block that is struck throughout. Previously, the wood block seemed to fade into the background when it wasn’t struck loudly; however, the Luminations revealed that the block is actually being struck throughout the piece, and they enabled me to hear every strike, however light and fleeting. Similarly, there’s a barely audible drum roll on what sounds like a small drum. The Luminations clearly depicted each blow to the drum and revealed that the drummer is actually striking the drum head with his fingers. And then there’s the bass drum, which goes into the mid-20Hz range with obvious power. No, the Luminations didn’t fully reproduce the deepest frequencies, but they surprised me with their impact and power, which was not greatly different from the sound of my Opera Audio M12 speakers with their 12" woofers.

And while I'm discussing "Folia: Rodrigo Martinez," I should also note that the Luminations effortlessly reproduced its challenging dynamics. These aren’t big macrodynamic swings but constantly changing volume levels that convey considerable excitement if done right. Many speakers compress the dynamic changes, diminishing the tension and excitement. The Luminations’ dynamic performance reminded me of a spring coiling up and then releasing its stored energy in a flash, just the way the performers actually played the piece.

An area that’s seldom, if ever, mentioned in speaker reviews is the temporal coherence -- how well the various musical details coalesce so that all aspects of sound fuse together at precisely the right time. Probably the reason it’s seldom mentioned is that it very seldom happens -- those crossovers and multiple drivers mucking things up again. But the Luminations achieved temporal coherence effortlessly, and in spite of this coherence and the speakers' high-definition nature, they never sounded ruthless. They did, however, tell me in no uncertain terms how all the other components in my system sounded. When I cued up Neal Diamond’s 12 Songs (Columbia Records 8-2876-77507-1) and played the first few bars of "I’m on to You," something didn’t sound quite right, so I checked my tonearm and discovered I had left the VTA set for the standard-thickness record I played just before 12 Songs. Raising the tonearm base to the proper setting for a 180-gram record restored the sonic performance I expected. My normal speakers wouldn’t have made the tiny difference in VTA setting so obvious. After that, Diamond’s gravelly voice sounded very natural and human. I could easily identify the miniscule changes in the vocal inflection he used to phrase the song, something I had never heard so clearly before.

Although one’s emotional reaction to a recording is primarily a reaction to the music itself, there’s also some reaction to the sound. More than once when I heard beautiful music played back through the Luminations -- with ravishing tonality and copious nuance -- the speakers seemed to open up a channel directly from the musician. I became choked up, and that’s rare. The Luminations were exciting and uplifting, making the music itself more interesting. Moreover, I found myself listening to and appreciating music I seldom frequent -- like jazz. I have no higher praise for a component than to say it makes me want to listen to more music, and that's exactly what the MaxxHorn Luminations do.

Comparison

On paper, my $7500-per-pair Second ReTHM speakers appear to be very similar to the MaxxHorn Luminations. They use a single driver, in this case a highly modified 8" Lowther DX4, with bass frequencies augmented by a horn-like acoustic-labyrinth cabinet. However, there are significant differences. The ReTHM enclosure uses a high-pressure chamber behind the driver to limit the input into the enclosure to bass frequencies only. That means the driver loads the horn from the throat. Bass is fast and continuous, but only extends to 50Hz -- well, maybe 45Hz on a good day. That description doesn’t appear greatly different from what is happening with the Luminations, but the subjective difference is notable. The MaxxHorn speakers went happily down to around 40Hz with detail and speed, and they had substantially greater weight and impact. Although the Feastrex driver must be a major contributor, I give most of the credit to the enclosure. I’ve heard Feastrex drivers in other enclosures with far-less-distinguished results.

It’s a real challenge for an 8" cone to produce 20kHz treble, but the Second ReTHM's Lowther DX4 does a reasonably good job of it. However, treble extension comes at the cost of definite treble peakiness. ReTHM designer Jacob George tried to tame treble shoutiness by modifying the Lowther’s whizzer cone and phase plug, and he partially succeeded. But there’s still some residual peakiness and brightness in the ReTHM’s treble. On some music, that can sound exciting, but eventually it gets tiring. To my ears, smaller Lowther drivers like the 6" DX55 have less inherent shoutiness, though also less bass than one of the 8" drivers. I could detect no shoutiness whatsoever from the 5" Feastrex driver. The much smoother response enabled the Luminations to integrate instrumental nuances of phrasing, such as microdynamic changes and tonal modulations, more vividly into the musical picture.

Because the Luminations are nearly four times as expensive as the Second ReTHMs, one would devoutly hope they surpass them in virtually all areas -- and they do. Lowther-based speakers are justly known for their speed, but the Feastrex drivers used for the MaxxHorn speakers are a major improvement in that regard. As a result, the Luminations were more detailed and had staggering dynamic energy. Both speakers throw excellent soundstages, but I heard more hall sound through the Luminations. At one time I was an agnostic about hall sound, but the Luminations have converted me. Perhaps the one area where the Second ReTHMs gave an appearance of superiority was in treble extension, but that was due to their peakier response.

I’ve touted several advantages of single-driver speakers in this review, but the truth is that most just don’t have enough bandwidth to do justice to music reproduction. And while the Luminations offer a wider, smoother response than any other single-driver speaker I’ve heard, they are also not truly full-range speakers. But even with their limits, the MaxxHorn Audio Luminations are, in all areas that are important to me, the best speaker I’ve heard, and not by a small margin. You pay more and you get more -- much, much more -- with the MaxxHorn Luminations. No surprise there, I guess.

Winding down

For the price of the MaxxHorn Luminations, you could buy some highly respected speakers like the Wilson Audio Watt/Puppy 8, Magico V3, or the Revel Salon 2 -- all speakers with a profusion of praise in the audio press. All those speakers do deep bass and maximum volume better than the Luminations. So should you invest in a pair of Luminations instead of one of those speakers? That depends on your personal preferences. If you value speed, dynamic prowess and midrange detail, no speaker in my experience comes close to the MaxxHorn Lumination. Nothing in this speaker's sound is smeared by a slow driver or the enclosure -- or by a crossover network. That the Luminations work very well with tube amps delivering low power is a bonus for those of us who love such amps. MaxxHorn Audio gives a 60-day audition period to decide whether the Luminations are the speakers for you, during which you can return them for a full refund, so an audition is nearly painless.

As for me, the Luminations awed my intellect and captured my heart. Seldom did they exceed their limits as I listened to music and never did those limits diminish my enjoyment of their sound. As the best single-driver speakers I've heard in my system -- and the best speakers I've heard, period -- they are an easy Reviewers’ Choice.

...Vade Forrester
vade@soundstage.com

MaxxHorn Audio Lumination Speakers
Price: $28,500 USD per pair.
Warranty: Five years parts and labor.

MaxxHorn Audio
2601 Chadbourne Drive
Plano, Texas 75023
Phone: (214) 908-8482

E-mail: sales@maxxhorn.com
Website: www.maxxhorn.com

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