May 1999Shun Mook Bella Voce Reference Loudspeakers
by Marc Mickelson
Blame it on Las Vegas. Although I was there to cover the CES, I could never fully turn off my audiophile lust, so temptation was everywhere in the shape of products I had never encountered before. Easily the two rooms whose sound impressed me the most were those of Wavelength/Nirvana and Shun Mook. Both were playing a pair of the Shun Mook Bella Voce speakers -- the Signature model along with Wavelength electronics and Nirvana cables in the former, and the top-of-the-line Reference speakers driven by Lamm ML2 mono amplifiers in the latter. Both rooms made smooth and relaxing music that was a respite from the hustle and bustle and often blaring sound heard elsewhere. I visited the rooms twice, just to be sure of what I was hearing. And after the second visit to the Shun Mook room, I sprang the question: how about a SoundStage! review of the speakers? After consulting their schedule for reviews, Dr. Yu Wah Tan and Andy Chow of Shun Mook agreed.
As most audiophiles know, Shun Mook Audio does things its own way -- and one that often seems strange even for the sometimes-crazy world of high-end audio. First, there are the ebony Mpingo Discs that have spawned a whole product line, from room-tuning devices to footers, even a very expensive ($1800!) record clamp. And then theres the Original Kable Jacket, made by the Shun Mook offshoot company of the same name, which you drape over power cords, interconnects and speaker cables. Finally, there is the Bella Voce line of speakers, another Shun Mook product that flies in the face of convention. How so?
The Reference speakers are but one model in Shun Mooks Bella Voce line. All use the same cabinet and drivers, even the same crossover, but their costs are wildly different: $5600 per pair for the Standard model, $8200 for the Signature, and $11,000 for the Reference. As you go up the line in price, you get a further refinement of what Shun Mook calls its A.R.T.S. (Asymmetrically Resonance Tuned Speaker) principle. This eschews the use of any internal cross-bracing to control resonance. Instead, Shun Mook uses "asymmetric reinforcement of the sides, top and bottom of the cabinet," which amounts to "varying thickness of the panels in an asymmetric pattern." This, they claim, helps to distribute speaker resonance over a wider sonic range while only allowing each panel to resonate within narrow limits. This allows Shun Mook to "control the resonance of the enclosure" and presumably to have a better understanding of how to manipulate the resonance to musical effect.
The cabinet itself is constructed of birch plywood and not from the MDF thats the essential ingredient in the cabinets of practically all other speakers. Shun Mook has discovered that an MDF speaker cabinet does not sound as good as one made from birch. Other than the refinement of the A.R.T.S. principle, the various Bella Voce models differ in the kind of finish used on each. Once again, Shun Mook relies on the musical-instrument metaphor, maintaining that the finish of their speakers, like the finish of a finely made violin, is to a great extent responsible for the quality of the sound produced. Hence, the Bella Voce Standard is finished in epoxy paint, the Signature in lacquer, and the Reference in gloss piano finish, the same that Steinway uses.
The drivers for all Bella Voce models are from Dynaudio: a 1" soft-dome tweeter, 2.5" dome midrange, and 10" woofer. The speakers measure 43"H x 11"W x 14"D and weigh 85 pounds each. Claimed sensitivity is 89dB/W/m, with a nominal 6-ohm impedance. The crossover frequencies are 500Hz and 5kHz. The speaker has a port in the front, inside of which is a small strip of felt that Shun Mook claims helps tune the bass and smooth out the transition between the midrange driver and woofer. A small dot of felt is also placed near the tweeters dome to cut down on defraction. A sextet of Mpingo Discs is included, and there are more Mpingo Discs affixed inside each cabinet along with six Original Kable Jackets on the internal wiring and crossover boards. The Bella Voce Reference has a single pair of binding posts that comes with an attached warning against tightening them with anything but your fingers. A durability issue? Nope. Shun Mook claims that over-tightening the posts adversely affects the sound of the speakers. Overall, the Bella Voce speakers may seem tweaky, but there is a considered theory at work -- one that pays homage to the ears of the maker and not his anechoic chamber, which the Shun Mook gang would say is "too crude to do the job."
System and setup
I used the Bella Voce Reference speakers along with my standard lineup of electronics and cables: Timbre TT-1 DAC and Wadia 20 transport as source, Lamm L1 line-stage preamp, Lamm ML1 amplifiers, JPS Labs interconnects and speaker cables, Audio Magic Tubed Interconnect, API and JPS Labs power cords, Marigo digital cable. I also had on hand a few additional products: Mark Levinson No.39 CD player, Lamm ML2 mono amplifiers, and Audio Aero Capitole stereo amplifier. Comparisons were made to my reference speakers, ProAc Response Fours.
There are no spikes to deal with when setting up the Bella Voce speakers, but there are ebony pins on the bottom of the cabinets, these permanently attached and fixed in length. If your listening-room floor is covered with carpet, which most are, you need to place the supplied stained maple boards under each speaker so that the pins sit in small rounded-out indentations in the boards. In addition, there is a fine-tuning process involving Shun Mook Mpingo discs. You place three of the Discs in a triangular pattern on top of each speaker, logo side down, and orient the punched dot on the edge of each Disc appropriately. Thankfully, Shun Mook includes a Plexiglas template for the ideal placement of the Discs; just place the template on top of the speaker, put the Discs in the holes in the template, orient the dots, then remove the template. The manual also explains how to rotate the Discs to tune the speakers further -- increasing or decreasing either treble or bass energy in the process.
Once the speakers are set up on their maple boards, they are not as stable as speakers spiked into the floor, but they wont fall over either. Changing placement or toe-in is exceptionally easy because the speakers/boards slide on the carpet. I found the whole process only a little more involved than setting up other speakers. The Reference speakers offer generous bass response (more on this later), so I had to experiment quite a bit with how far out into the room and from the side walls to place them. I eventually ended up with the speakers about 40" from the back wall and 30" from the side walls -- within the range recommended in the owner's manual. I also found that the 5 degrees of toe-in recommended was also the trick.
The Shun Mook method
As you might expect from a speaker thats claimed to be made like a musical instrument, the Bella Voce Reference is very musically engaging, eschewing an analytical sound for its standard suave way of doing things. First and foremost, the sound of the Reference is seamless, like what you hear from a good pair of electrostats or planars, even great headphones like the Sennheiser HD 580s. In fact, the Bella Voce Reference speakers sound like one full-range driver, even when youre up close to them -- as near as three feet away. Im sure the use of three drivers from the same manufacturer, and Dynaudio at that, doesnt impair this aspect of the References sound, but Im also convinced that there must be something to the tuning of the speaker that allows this -- no other dynamic speaker that Ive heard sounds as integrated. Busy orchestral music shows this off the best -- the two cuts from the Bill Holman Band on the JVC XRCD2 Sampler [JVC JVCXR-0201-2] having a sense of wholeness I havent heard otherwise -- but you can hear it on everything you play. Its very seductive to hear a dynamic speaker sound so utterly coherent, and it makes listening to the Bella Voce Reference a treat.
The tonal balance of the Reference is on the dark side of things, but Im not complaining. Ill take it to overly bright any day. Along with this, however, are copious amounts of tonal purity, not an amusical artifact to be found. Throw on your favorite recordings, from small-scale jazz to thumping rock, and you wont be dissatisfied. At about the same time the Reference speakers arrived, I started listening to DCCs remaster of Van Halens eponymous debut album [DCC GZS-1129]. It had been years since I had heard "Aint Talkin Bout Love," so I cranked it. The guitars screamed and screeched, but the speakers didnt, staying composed at all volumes, even ear-bleeding. On Lucinda Williams more sedate Car Wheels on a Gravel Road [Mercury 314 558 338-2], the individual performers were beautifully delineated -- plenty of air there, so the overall darkness of the Reference speakers was not a liability, to my ears anyway.
However, where this darkness becomes a potential problem is in terms of dynamics and overall transparency. Although certain low-powered tube amps may make for very intimate sound when paired with the Reference (as the Wavelength and Lamm SET amps that drove the Bella Voce speakers at the CES illustrated), you may be left unsatisfied, longing for a more spacious and open window on the music. Also, while the Reference doesnt obviously color sonic details, it also doesnt present every nuance with absolute precision, making some low-level details harder to pick out than with other speakers. Again, Im not complaining -- I prefer the Bella Voce References way of doing things to speakers that offer a hyper-real presentation, where even small details seem to take on a larger-than-real-life stature. But I realize that for some of you, too much by my standards may be just the right amount. Of course, this aspect of the References sound can be manipulated with upstream electronics. I found that the Audio Aero Capitole, with its expansive soundstage and overall airy and resolving qualities, was an ideal match for the Reference, taking a relatively flat-sounding disc like the Ginger Baker Trios Falling Off the Roof [Atlantic 82900-2] and punching it up some. I suspect that the Bel Canto SETi40 integrated amp may work well with the Bella Voce Reference too. Incidentally, I tried to effect a change in the tonal balance of the Reference speakers by turning the Mpingo Discs on top of each, as outlined in the manual. I heard no change. I even removed the Discs completely, and once again I heard nothing. On the other hand, there are Mpingo Discs placed strategically inside the cabinets, and I have no doubt that the special tuning of the speaker cabinet is responsible for the unique sound of the Reference. Go figure.
On first listen, the bass of the Bella Voce Reference was a mixed bag, but persistence paid off. On the one hand, it was deep and weighty -- surprisingly so for a mid-sized speaker with a single woofer. Although in-room measured response (via the Stereophile Text CD 2 and my trusty Radio Shack SPL meter) showed the Reference to be a little shy of the ProAcs almost-flat-at-20Hz extension, the weight of the References low end helped to make up the difference. However, before the bass achieved a satisfying quality, I had to fiddle with the speaker cables. With the JPS Labs Superconductor NC Series cables that I use as my reference, the Bella Voce Reference had bass that was overripe and uncontrolled, and obviously so. Because I first used the speakers this way, I was worried that this would be their lot in my listening room. However, substituting a pair of less costly D.H. Labs Silver Sonic speaker cables solved this problem to a great degree, transforming the hefty bass into a bona fide characteristic and not a potential flaw. The Silver Sonic cable is rather light in the bottom end intrinsically, but using two runs can solve this. One run with the Bella Voce Reference was perfect, although I suspect that other cables -- Nirvana for sure, given what I heard at the CES -- will work equally well in this regard and give you more in the midrange and treble.
Speaking of treble, the highs of the Bella Voce Reference are utterly grain-free, liquid and involving, but some listeners may miss -- or be more accustomed to -- a metallic tinge, perhaps from a metal-dome tweeter. Not me -- Im with the Reference here. I found I could throw on recording after recording and never tire of any -- a significant point in my book. Everything from older Sinatra to JVC XRCDs emerged from the Bella Voce Reference speakers with the same degree of intrinsic beauty that drew me into the performances. Although I've listened to it many times and with many different combinations of equipment, Diana Kralls Love Scenes [Impulse! IMPD-233] surprised me when played over the Reference speakers, her singing and playing taking on an even duskier level of sensuousness. But if youre worn thin by Love Scenes, try Victoria Williams earthy and personal Musings of a Creek Dipper [Atlantic 83072-2] -- bare feet required. The Reference speakers provided an exalted amount of pure enjoyment with all kinds of music, and more than anything else, thats what this avocation is about, eh?
The midrange exhibits a reach-out and-caress-them kind of "thereness" on vocals, but this doesnt tell the whole story. Theres also a lucidity to the midrange that, once again, is pleasing to the nth degree. These two things together point out another unique sonic characteristic of the Reference, the way that vocals never get lost in the music around them, always remaining full yet distinct. Of course, this also means that other sounds in the same frequency range of the vocals display this same characteristic, a good thing. "That Lonesome Road" from James Taylors Dad Loves His Work [Mobile Fidelity UDCD 726] displays this very well because its practically all vocals -- including those of Taylor and Jennifer Warnes. The midrange has its own sense of bloom and life, projecting but never sounding forward or out of scale in terms of the full range of sound produced. This is an inexact explanation, I know, but the Bella Voce Reference speakers are exceedingly hard to describe here. Perhaps its no more complicated than to say that the midrange sounds very right -- that its balance of body and resolution is just about ideal. Whatever, the explanation, Ill fall back on how exciting it is to hear vocals through these speakers.
In comparison to my ProAc Fours, the Bella Voce Reference speakers are noticeably more coherent -- no comparison there. They cede a bit of depth and control in the bass, but much in terms of treble openness and resolution of low-level detail. The two speakers throw equally deep soundstages, but the ProAcs offer up a clearer view to the rearmost corners. Neither speaker can be considered analytical, especially the Bella Voce Reference. Interestingly, although both are rated as 89dB/W/m efficient, the ProAcs play noticeably louder with the same amount of power, which means they worked better overall with the 18 watts that Lamm ML2 single-ended monoblocks delivered. I also tried the Mpingo Discs on top of the ProAcs, arranged in a number of different ways including in the triangle pattern of the template supplied with the Bella Voce Reference speakers. Once again, I heard no discernible difference.
In the end, the unorthodox Shun Mook Bella Voce Reference speakers are unique in a number of ways, including how they are made and how they sound -- probably no coincidence. The Reference sounds more seamless and whole than any dynamic speaker Ive encountered, and this is probably the attribute that will sell more of them than any other. But the good points dont stop there. An overall music-friendly character, deep and weighty bass (when the speaker cables are right), and a complexly satisfying midrange make for a speaker that charmed me to no end. Although the Lamm ML1 and ML2 monoblocks made typically great sound with the Reference, some listeners may enjoy the speaker with a more lively and insistent amp like the fine Audio Aero Capitole. I suspect that solid-state amps of many flavors will make fine music with the Reference too.
The unique approach of Shun Mook to designing and building the Reference speakers is one that I find stimulating and refreshing. Does it make for a distinctly better speaker? I wont speculate, but I will say that I enjoyed my time with the Bella Voce Reference very much because of its unique sound and the way it makes engaging music. And if you cant swing the $11k for the Reference, there are very similar models (in terms of construction, drivers and crossover at least) at lower prices, making the Bella Voce sound attainable for more people.
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