Silverline Audio Bolero Loudspeakers
by Wes Phillips
Silverline Audio -- or perhaps it would be more accurate to say, Alan Yun -- has been building loudspeakers professionally in this country only since 1996, but audio has been Yun's lifelong passion. Before emigrating from Hong Kong in the mid-'90s, Yun manufactured over 4000 pairs of loudspeakers under the Classics One marque. Mr. Yun built his first tube amp before reaching his teens -- and he studied music from an early age, to boot.
Silverline Audio is Alan Yun. The remarkable range of products offered by the company (currently 15 models) is a reflection of Yun's limitless imagination and indefatigable energy. The gorgeous wood finishes, book-matched veneers, and meticulous craftsmanship are extensions of his quest for perfection. And the sound of his loudspeakers springs directly from his understanding of what music is -- and ought to be.
Which raises a fascinating question, as well as its corollary: To what extent is loudspeaker design engineering? How much of it is art?
Some folks would posit that loudspeaker design is pure science. That might be true if we had an undeniably perfect cabinet material, flawless drivers, a crossover design with no tradeoffs and -- most importantly, I suspect -- an unlimited budget. But here in the real world, we don't have perfect speaker components, nor, despite the gasp-producing prices of some designs, do we ever have an unlimited budget.
Drivers today are extremely good, but we still have to design around drive-unit shortcomings. Crossovers also have their own problems -- efficiency, phase angle, linearity, to name but a few. And cabinets? Don't get me started! Let's just say that we need have no fear of reaching perfection any time soon.
So art must enter into the equation, since there's no single quantifiable, achievable criterion for loudspeaker excellence. The success or failure of any given loudspeaker design ultimately rests upon the extent to which its designer has resolved the two sometimes contradictory imperatives of art and engineering.
Enter the Silverline Audio Bolero. Like all of Alan Yun's products, it's a physical manifestation of his love of music -- the way he hears it. The question is, do you hear what he hears?
Theres sure no passion in the human soul, but finds its food in music
The Bolero, $8000 USD per pair, is a floorstanding three-way loudspeaker (40"H x 12"W x 14"D) with a rear-firing port that loads the woofer (the midrange and tweeter are encased in an enclosed interior chamber). The cabinet is a complex affair that combines the properties of a truncated pyramid with those of a more traditional rectangular box -- think of a Wilson Audio Sophia with extra chamfering on the lower portion of the front baffle. The speaker is constructed from MDF panels ranging in thickness from 1 1/4" to 2" and seems to be rigidly braced. The review pair came clad in some of the most beautifully matched and finished heartwood Tigris (Machaerium Schomburgkii) veneer I have ever seen.
The driver complement is first-rate stuff sourced from Dynaudio. The tweeter is the extremely pricey T330D Esotar 1 1/4" soft-dome design, the midrange is a 5" 15WLQ Esotec cone with a 3" voice coil, and the woofer is a 9" 24W100X long-throw cone with a 4" voice coil.
Yun describes the crossover as a combination first- and second-order design. "The midrange is second-order (12dB slope) while the high and the low are first-order (6dB)." The crossover points are 1.8kHz and 3.5kHz.
There are two pairs of hefty gold-plated brass binding posts located on the speaker's rear panel, conveniently close to the floor, where the crossover is housed within its separate internal enclosure. The Bolero is fitted with impressively machined threaded spikes -- my review pair came with dimpled discs that would keep the spikes from making holes in a wood floor, although I used the spikes to penetrate my carpet and anchor the speakers to the subfloor.
The Bolero's sensitivity is given as 92dB/W/m, and the speaker did seem reasonably easy to drive -- which would also suggest that it really might be driven by amps ranging from 15-1000W, as the product literature recommends.
One passion doth expel another still
I auditioned the Boleros with a variety of components, including the Krell KAV-280p preamp/KAV-2250 power amp combo, the Musical Fidelity Tri-Vista 300 integrated amplifier, the Ayre AX-7 integrated, and my old stand-by in-house reference Musical Fidelity Nu-Vista preamp/Nu-Vista 300 power amp. Just for fun, given the speakers' stated sensitivity, I also connected my VTL TT-25 monoblocks, which worked a treat. The Musical Fidelity Tri-Vista SACD player and Ayre CX-7 CD player, along with a Classé CDP-10 CD player, spun silver discs.
I had several other not too dissimilarly priced loudspeakers on hand for comparison, including the Amphion Xenons and Focus Audio Signature FS-888s.
The cables were primarily my current in-house favorites: Shunyata Research's Aries interconnects (balanced for the Krell and Ayre equipment, single-ended for the Musical Fidelity) and Lyra speaker cables. I also cycled in Kimber Kable KCAG interconnect and speaker cables and AudioQuest Emerald interconnects. Shunyata Research Diamondback AC cords carried the juice the last few feet of the way from the local station.
What passion cannot Music raise and quell?
I had no problems setting up the Boleros. As Marc Mickelson observed of the Silverline Sonatinas, they sounded good just about everywhere I put 'em, but they sounded best as far apart as I could spread 'em -- about nine feet apart in my listening room. I also prefer that loudspeakers have lots of room between their rear panels and the front wall, so I pulled the Boleros about 42" into my room. In this position, with virtually no toe-in to speak of, the speakers cast a wide soundstage, infused with an almost golden warmth.
I was initially entranced by the sound. It was certainly not in-your-face or edgy -- quite the reverse. Music never sounded aggressive through the Boleros. Old favorites, such as James Horner's score for Iris [Sony Classical SK 89806], seemed illuminated by their own transcendence -- particularly Joshua Bell's plangent violin and Charlotte Church's ethereal solo.
New discoveries were also given a burnished luster. David Lang's The Passing Measures [Cantaloupe Music CA21003] is basically a 42-minute-long exhalation. Its warm breathiness is reinforced by Marty Ehrlich's bass clarinet and a disembodied women's chorus. The Passing Measures is a singular piece, seemingly motionless and inexorable at the same time -- against a motionless orchestral susurration, the bass clarinet and voices progress and recede repeatedly, until Measures expires in a final sigh. The Boleros emphasized the breathiness and shimmering beauty of the disc in a way that had me hitting play every time the work ended.
Sound addictive? It was.
And yet I couldn't escape the notion that something was missing. I could work up a visceral appreciation of the sumptuousness of the sound -- and I was certainly cerebrally stimulated by the ideas in the music I was listening to -- but the Boleros lacked the sparkle and sheer physical energy that some music (such as almost all rock, most jazz, and some classical) required.
At first I thought it was a synergy problem, so I changed amps, preamps, even CD players. I went to the cable archives for the Kimber and AudioQuest. I tried a taller listening chair, then a shorter one, thinking the speaker might have been designed for a different focal height (or distance) than my usual one(s). I toed the Boleros in more severely (tweeters aimed at my shoulders), but doing so compressed the soundstage without adding more sparkle. The dissatisfaction persisted. I pondered.
The musical perspective was a tad distant, and the more I listened, the more I missed the type of pinpoint imaging I have become used to with the Wilson Audio, Amphion, and Focus Audio loudspeakers I have reviewed recently. I walked around the Boleros and noticed, once again, the biwirable binding posts. Hmmm.
I changed the polarity of the cables connecting the midrange/tweeter units on both speakers -- now the top pair of binding posts were reversed in polarity from the bottom pair.
The sound now took two dramatic shifts -- one in focus, one in timbre. The Boleros now threw a soundstage that sounded extremely up-close-and-personal. And they had an upper-midrange glare that was very detailed, not to mention fatiguing. While this offered more detail and far more midrange detail, I found it too shelved up in the upper mids for long-term listening and switched the cables back.
I asked Yun about this after I had completed the listening phase of the review. The speaker seems to have a deliberate dip in the 1kHz-2kHz region (or a bump, if you reverse the polarity of the mid/tweeters) -- was that a result of his voicing philosophy? His response was terse, but emphatic, "We believe that our design is more natural than a conventional design."
In other words, the Bolero sounds the way he meant it to.
This music crept by me upon the waters,
The cock of the walk around my house these days is the Amphion Xenon, an elegant three-way floorstander that costs $4699 per pair. The Xenons are the polar opposite of the Bolero in their timbral presentation -- in contrast to the honeyed mellowness of the Silverlines, the Amphions are light and airy.
This was immediately apparent when I compared the two reproducing The Passing Measures. The Boleros emphasized the dark warmth and sustained aspiration of the work, while the Xenons gave it a lighter, lither character -- one teeming with inner voices in the midrange that the Boleros simply did not uncover. The Xenons also captured the piece's airiness in a way the Boleros did not -- at least for me.
This was also true with music of a more, shall we say, physical nature, such as the Steve Earle/Cheryl Crow cover of "Time Has Come Today" (Sidetracks [Artemis 751128]). "Time" starts with a sharply struck cowbell, followed by scratchy-sounding voice clips, and then by a screaming bass/drum/guitar groove. The sound is raw and powerful -- ragged but right, as the old country song put it.
On the Xenons, the cowbell has a transient attack that could peel the enamel off your teeth, surrounded by a classic plate reverb decay. The bass and drums are sharply defined and impressively deep. The Bolero removes some of the immediacy from the song -- it doesn't so much blunt that transient attack as move it further away from you, de-nastifying it, if you will. The plate reverb is less patently false and sounds richer and more natural.
It must be said, however, that while the Xenons reproduced Iris with a taut immediacy, they could not match the rich luster of the Boleros in reproducing Joshua Bell's string sound. If you love the sound of the wonderful Cremonese violin builders -- that smoky, amber purr of a string amplified by wood that sings -- you'll find few speakers that can scratch that itch better than the Boleros.
And passion turn into respect
The Bolero never sounded edgy or sharp or rough. That's part of my problem, actually -- sometimes music can be all of those things. Or, at least, that's what I believe.
Not everyone agrees with me, I realize. My friend Randy, for example, has no truck with music that attacks or challenges him. "The perfect music is a mother singing a lullaby to her baby," he once told me.
"But if that baby grows up and goes on the dole straight out of high school and never has any hope of a meaningful, productive life, the music he creates is a lot more likely to be a howl of rage," I suggested.
"That's not music; that's just noise," Randy averred.
As much beauty as I find in music, I believe there is more to music than mere beauty. There can be anger and sorrow and outrage and weariness and all the shades in between and many others besides -- and these things make music's beautiful moments all the more precious. What I react to in music is the whole spectrum of emotions it can convey -- but I know that isn't what everyone else wants to take away from the listening experience.
I suspect Alan Yun's conception of what music is may resemble Randy's model more than mine, but I don't doubt for an instant that he's every bit as passionate about his pursuit of the life-affirming power of that art. That love manifests itself in his speakers, which are beautifully made of extremely fine materials. It also manifests itself in the sound of the speakers he produces, which I'm convinced is a deliberate attempt on his part to convey what music means to him -- warmth and beauty heading the list.
That sound doesn't happen to be the sound I'm looking for, but it could very well be what you are.
You should listen to the Silverline Boleros. You may not end up buying them, but you won't forget them. I sure won't.
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