November 2007Verity Audio Lohengrin II Loudspeakers
by Marc Mickelson
Canada -- land of moose and beaver, maple syrup, and long, cold winters. One of Canada's highest-quality exports (no, not Molson) is easy to overlook: loudspeakers. The loudspeaker industry "oop norte" is bigger than the country's population of 33 million would suggest. Along with titans like Paradigm and the Audio Products International group of brands are well-established smaller companies like Axiom Audio and Verity Audio. Verity is more different from the others than like them. While the others have used the important work done at the National Research Council in the 1980s as the basis for their speaker designs to varying degrees, Verity has blazed a different trail, one that has made it Canada's foremost maker of luxury speakers for audiophiles.
Verity was founded in the mid-1990s by a pair of friends, Bruno Bouchard and Julien Pelchat. Bruno and Julien produced their first commercial product, a speaker, for Oracle Audio, the company well known for its gleaming high-end turntable. This led to the first Verity Audio product -- the original Parsifal. That two-piece speaker was very well received, and it remains in the company's product line today, though in a much-refined form.
Verity's current product lineup shows the influence of the Parsifal, which is in its third version, aptly named "Ovation." The smaller Fidelio Encore and Rienzi use the two-cabinet platform of the Parsifal. The Fidelio's woofer fires to the rear, while the Rienzi's woofer, like that of the Parsifal, can fire forward or back, the orientation depending on the room in which the speaker will be used. The larger Sarastro looks like a slightly larger Parsifal with a ribbon tweeter. Even the smaller Tamino resembles the Parsifal, though it's a single-cabinet, two-way design. There is a powered subwoofer, the Rocco, and a new center-channel speaker, the EXR Center, too.
Then there's the Lohengrin, Verity Audio's flagship speaker, and one of unique proportions and beauty. Introduced back in 2001, the original Lohengrin never gained a strong foothold in the US, perhaps because very little press existed on it. Late last year, Bruno and Julien introduced the latest and greatest Lohengrin II, which costs a hefty $79,995 USD per pair in its standard finish. This was not a radical reworking of the original design, but it seemed like a new speaker, perhaps because of the original's low profile.
Like the Parsifal, the Lohengrin II is a two-piece speaker, with the bottom cabinet dedicated to the woofer. However, unlike the Parsifal, the Lohengrin II's top module is a three-way design, mating proprietary 5" and 9" mineral-filled polypropylene-cone drivers to a 2" ribbon tweeter. This tweeter is special -- a Verity Audio-designed and -manufactured driver with claimed output to 100kHz. To create such a driver, Julien and Bruno devised a number of innovations, including a custom transformer built to their specifications in Europe, an optimized motor system with a very strong magnet array, and a suspension that improves power handling. Bruno and Julien also devised a process of heating the driver's thin and very fragile ribbon material. This changes the material's physical properties and makes it suitable for this implementation.
The ribbon tweeter crosses to the 5" midrange at 5500Hz, and the 9" lower midrange comes in at 300Hz. These are the only two electrical crossover points for the Lohengrin II. The 5" midrange driver operates over a very wide range -- from the upper crossover point all the way down to where its output ceases. Verity has always been a stickler about the midrange, preferring to have a single driver cover a very wide swath of the frequency range and letting it roll off on its own. That's what's happening here.
When you walk around back, you see something unexpected -- a big, honkin' 15" woofer that the slimmer front of the speaker gives no indication exists. This is another proprietary driver, one that Verity chose over two or more smaller woofers, and it allows the Lohengrin II to have a -6dB point of 10Hz. It's a true subwoofer, operating at roughly 80Hz and below. This big driver always fires rearward, Verity's preferred orientation.
The Lohengrin's two-piece cabinet and proprietary bracing system are made completely of MDF, which the Verity brain-trust prefers to more exotic materials. "We know what it will do," Julien told me, meaning that the placement of a glue joint or brace affects the acoustic output of the speaker in predictable ways. The Lohengrin II's upper and lower cabinets are isolated from each other by a thick machined-aluminum plate and a profusion of sorbothane pucks.
The most basic finish for the Lohengrin II is piano-black Italian polyester lacquer. This dark, handsome, hand-applied finish is as deeply lustrous as any I've seen, and better than most. Optional finishes include a hand-applied silver lacquer and a few real-wood veneers, including my favorite -- quilted big leaf maple. This finish adds a five-figure premium to the cost of the Lohengrin II, pushing it to more than $100,000 per pair, but when you see it, you'll want it.
The Lohengrin II flares at the back and the bottom, measuring 60"H x 19"W x 23 1/2"D at its widest points. Each speaker weighs 250 pounds, but the two-piece design makes moving each cabinet a possibility for one strong person. As with most of its other speakers, Verity Audio packs the Lohengrin II in custom-made reinforced flight cases. I don't know what these add to the cost of the speakers, but they're worth every cent, protecting their cargo like no mere "packing materials" can. They're cumbersome to store, but if you ever have to move your speakers or ship them back for service, you'll be glad you have them.
The Lohengrin II's sensitivity is quoted as 95dB/W/m, which is very high, especially for a dynamic speaker. I can't confirm that this figure is correct, but I will speculate that it's either right on the money or very close to the Lohengrin II's actual sensitivity -- within a decibel or so. We measured the Wilson Audio WATT/Puppy 8s, which preceded the Lohengrin IIs in my room, and they came out at 91dB. At the same preamp setting, the Verity speakers played noticeably louder, so their sensitivity is even higher, and 95dB is not out of the question.
The amps I had on hand ranged in power output from 18 to 400 watts and in technologies from single-ended and output-transformerless tubes to burly solid state. Mono amps included Lamm ML2.1 and M1.2 Reference, and Atma-Sphere MA-2 Mk III, while stereo models were a Conrad-Johnson Premier 350, an Audio Research Reference 110 and a Convergent Audio Technology JL2 Signature Mk 2. Preamps were a Convergent Audio Technology SL1 Ultimate Mk 2, an Audio Research Reference 3, and an Aurum Acoustics Integris CDP. Digital sources were just as plentiful and included an Audio Research Reference CD7 CD player, an Ayre C-5xe universal player, a Zanden Audio Model 5000 Signature DAC and a Model 2000 Premium transport connected with Zanden's proprietary I2S digital cable, and the Aurum CDP, which is a CD player as well as a preamp.
The electronics rested primarily on Silent Running Audio products -- a Craz 4 Reference rack and Ohio Class XL Plus2 platforms. The Zanden digital separates sounded best on a pair of Harmonic Resolution Systems platforms, and the stereo amps sat on Corian slabs that were placed directly onto the carpet-over-concrete floor of my 29'L x 20'W x 10'H listening room.
Interconnects and speaker cables were from Shunyata Research (Antares Helix and Orion Helix), Crystal Cable (Ultra), or Acapella (High LaMusika). A Shunyata Research Hydra Model-8 or V-Ray, or an Essential Sound Products The Essence Reference power distributor did its thing on the electricity feeding all of the preamps, amps and digital sources, except for the CAT electronics, which used what came straight out of the wall. Power cords were Shunyata Research Anaconda Helix and Python Helix in both Vx and Alpha varieties, Crystal Cable Ultra, or Essential Sound Products The Essence Reference.
As has become standard operating procedure for large loudspeakers that inhabit my listening room, the people who sent the speakers followed them in order to set them up properly. In this case, John Quick, Verity's marketing director, and Julien Pelchat did the honors, lugging along a laptop and laser measuring device to determine where in my room the speakers would perform best. They made very precise movements -- I remember that exactly 4' 11 3/4" from the side walls was deemed ideal -- and ultimately placed the speakers nearer to the wall behind them and farther out from the room's center than where the Wilson Audio MAXX 2s had been. They also moved my listening seat back four feet, putting me nearly 13 feet from the speakers.
This final adjustment, as I came to understand during my listening, was very important to the sonic outcome. The output of the drivers simply didn't sum at the listening position when I was sitting too close, skewing the spectral balance of the speakers and creating a diffuse, confused soundstage. You will know when things are wrong with the setup of the Lohengrin IIs.
After the correct positions for the speakers and listening seat were identified, John and Julien spiked the speakers and adjusted the rake angle -- the amount the speakers lean forward or back -- in order to finalize the setup. This affected the soundstage greatly and, interestingly enough, helped lock in the speakers' midrange at the listening position.
As with the setup that Wilson Audio does for its customers, buyers of Verity Lohengrin IIs can expect a visit from John or Julien once their speakers arrive. Listening rooms vary to such an immense degree that this sort of service should be included with every pricey floorstanding speaker.
Big speaker, small speaker
Doug Schneider has celebrated the sonic virtues of minimonitors for over a decade, and when you listen to such speakers, especially some of the best that Doug has heard and written about, you can understand his enthusiasm. A minimonitor perched on a stand presents a smaller point from which the sound radiates, and this has many advantages, including the ability to disappear into the soundfield the speakers create. In effect, you're left with the music, not a wall of sound whose points of origin are always conspicuous. Once you become accustomed to this sort of boxless presentation, you won't want to give it up.
And you won't have to with the Lohengrin IIs. Once set up properly, these big speakers disappear as deftly as any minimonitors I've heard, melting into an ambience-rich soundstage that changes, sometimes dramatically, from recording to recording. Orchestras sound big -- or huge -- while solo guitarists or pianists inhabit a defined place and, when the recording is up to the task, both are awash in air that seems to come from nowhere and everywhere at once.
It's freaky to hear some of the spatial tricks that Josh Ritter plays on his brilliant The Animal Years [V2 Records 27296] over the Lohengrin IIs. This is busy folk music, and as with Dylan's great albums, one of its songs, "Thin Blue Flame," is of epic length and verbal inventiveness. During "Best for the Best," an effect that sounds like a whirring motor cuts across the soundstage from the right channel to the left. The Lohengrin IIs didn't hit it with a spotlight and also didn't lose track of it amidst the instruments and Ritter's singing. It's an interesting little electronic effect that imparts a feeling of entropy to what could have been a straightforward, singer-on-a-stool-playing-his-guitar folk song, and the Lohengrin IIs easily sussed it out of a very dense mix.
Speakers that impart as much air and ambience as the Lohengrin IIs can also have a treble range that's so hot it requires you choose recordings that won't perturb it. As John and Julien were setting up the Lohengrin IIs, playing a few tunes here or there, I thought that the treble might be a problem because of what I was hearing. But that's what long-term auditioning is for -- figuring out the real sonic character of a product. I tortured the Lohengrin IIs, throwing every spitty, hashy CD I could find in my collection at them, and I simply couldn't trip them up. The tremendous air that these speakers can portray does not come at the price of glare. An aggressive cymbal crash can sound metallic and cacophonous, but the speakers never tipped it over into distress. The light pluck of a nylon string had a soft attack and it decayed into oblivion. Over and over, at the point where I expected the Lohengrin II's ribbon tweeter to turn nasty, it proved me wrong. This is not a forgiving speaker. It will take you right up to whatever edge is on a recording, but its intrinsic character won't shove you over it.
A great addition to the Lohengrin IIs' portrayal of space is it effortless dynamic prowess. At low levels, the music isn't swallowed up by the speakers' own distortion, and it can go from this point to utter bombast with realistic speed. Rock and jazz can't illustrate this nearly as well as classical. Much of Telarc's back catalog has screaming dynamic range, and the recordings in my collection, many now on SACD, were reproduced with the kind of progression from subtlety to raw power that makes non-audiophiles stand in awe. Aficionados of horn-speaker dynamics -- both the big and small shifts in volume -- will find a lot to love about the Lohengrin IIs.
So will midrange fanatics. The Lohengrin II is essentially a single-driver speaker throughout the entire midband, and the directness and transparency throughout the entire region that the driver covers are startling unless you've heard them before -- from another Verity Audio speaker or perhaps an OTL amplifier. When I put the two together -- the Atma-Sphere MA-2 Mk III amps driving the Lohengrin IIs -- I heard into the recordings I played like never before -- seemingly right down to the very bottom of the pits. Like the Atma-Sphere amps, the Verity speakers are chameleons, taking on the character of the recordings played, and conveying the identifying timbral marks of voices with extreme honesty. For its handling of the midrange, this is one of the most memorable amp-speaker pairings I've ever heard.
I've always found Greg Brown's leaden baritone to be one of the hardest male voices for an audio system to get right, and no less difficult than Lucinda Williams' nasally warbling. Once I realized how adept the Lohengrin IIs were through the midrange, I played a handful of CDs by both and heard these voices like never before -- raw and seemingly stripped of any artifacts of reproduction. These are definitely not speakers for someone who likes a lush, rounded midrange presentation, because the unadulterated truth is what you're going to get.
The bass of the Verity Audio speakers I had heard before the Lohengrin IIs arrived was always agile but unassuming, never achieving the pants-flapping low-frequency power of the Lohengrin IIs. That big rear-firing woofer asserted its presence on some of my low-frequency test CDs, like Suzanne Vega's Nine Objects of Desire [A&M 540583] and Harry Connick's She [Columbia CK 64376]. The very low throbbing tones on "3000 Miles" from Tracy Chapman's Where You Live [Elektra 83803-2] threatened to vibrate the plaster off the walls of my large listening room. This bass was no sonic wallflower.
However, the low frequencies also highlighted a feeling I had about the Lohengrin IIs -- that their individual traits overshadowed the sonic whole. I was aware of the speakers' bass depth and power, the see-through midrange, and the airy treble with every cut I played. Maybe I'm to blame, my perception of the sound always trumping my ability to become lost in the music, or maybe it was a matter of the drivers never quite coalescing into a continuous sonic picture.
The effect was rather like seeing a pointillist painting, Seurat's A Sunday on La Grande Jatte -- 1884, for instance. Some will take in the entirety of the scene, the sweep of the visual narrative and the stature of the figures, while others will be drawn to the tiny dots of paint that create it all. I admired the technique of the Lohengrin IIs, perhaps too much to take in fully the aural tableau they created. Maybe that's just me, but maybe that's you too.
Lohengrin II and MAXX 2
The Wilson Audio MAXX 2s ($48,900 per pair) have been my reference speakers for the three years since I reviewed them, but for a sizeable chunk of that time, they have been relegated to storage in a bedroom as other speakers took their place in my listening room. Before I swapped the MAXX 2s' spikes for casters and moved the speakers to storage, I made sure to tape off their positions, not knowing at the time that I wouldn't get the speakers back into my room for nearly two years. Thus, after the Lohengrin IIs had left, out came the MAXX 2s, and the reacquaintance began. Shortly before the publication of this review, the setup experts from Wilson Audio visited and put the MAXX 2s back in their rightful places, spikes and all.
In terms of physical size and weight, the MAXX 2s and Lohengrin IIs are natural competitors, both standing around five feet tall and drawing the attention of anyone who sees them. The artful slants and slopes of the Lohengrin IIs make the harder-angled MAXX 2s look mechanical. Dress them in wood veneer with a glossy finish and the Lohengrin IIs are downright seductive. The desert silver finish of the MAXX 2s goes well in my light-filled listening room, but the lacquer of the Verity speakers is equally well done. These are big speakers, and anything that can be done to make them more visually appealing is a good thing. Verity admits to making good looks a design goal, and the Lohengrin IIs, even at their great size, achieve this.
These two mammoth speaker systems sound more different than they look -- fundamentally different, in fact. The Lohengrin IIs' presentation captures the recording's unique portrayal of space to a singular degree, while the MAXX 2s emphasize the performers' physical presence amidst the ambience they convey. There's no doubt that the sound of the Lohengrin IIs changes more from recording to recording and especially from recording venue to recording venue. In contrast, the MAXX 2s present a more physical and coherent representation of the music, the Lohengrin IIs sounding lighter in comparison.
Jacob Young's Evening Falls [ECM 1876] made this difference plain, with the trumpet on "Blue" decaying from the left channel over to the right in quick bursts over the Lohengrin IIs. The MAXX 2s captured the decay, but it didn't disappear with the same kind of space-defining trail. Instead, the lateral spread was seamless, a single entity from left to right. Everything was well defined, but the Lohengrin IIs again sounded more ethereal but less physical than the MAXX 2s, whose presentation was bigger and bolder.
There's no way I could say that the bass of either speaker went lower than that of the other, but it was clear that the bass range of the MAXX 2s had greater weight, and its dynamic impact -- the rare ability to deliver a soft touch, then a sock to the stomach -- was standard setting. Overall dynamic range was slightly greater with the Lohengrin IIs, and that's quite an achievement because the MAXX 2s are one of the very best speakers I've heard when it comes to conveying soft and very, very loud. "Effortlessly dynamic" say my listening notes about the Lohengrin IIs, but that's something I would say about the MAXX 2s as well.
It's really the big things -- matters basic to the handling of the signal fed to them -- that set the Verity and Wilson speakers apart. A Lohengrin II buyer will value the space his speakers can conjure and the immediacy of their midrange, which seems to have a direct line to the auditory cortex. The MAXX 2 owner, in contrast, will find the gestalt of his speakers irresistible, even as he acknowledges that there are a couple of specific things the Lohengrin II does better.
I valued my time with the Lohengrin IIs, and I played more music with them than any speaker I've had in my system recently, including the MAXX 2s. But I've settled down with the Wilson Audio speakers, and I haven't had any second thoughts.
The Canadian loudspeaker industry is thriving, and its diversity is one of the reasons for this. You can literally buy a well-engineered pair of Canuck speakers for $200; that they will measure well and sound very good seems to be a given. This makes a speaker like the Verity Audio Lohengrin II, all $79,995 of it, a true exception. It is leagues more expensive than much of its Canadian competition, but it's clear that Verity Audio is aiming at a different kind of buyer -- one who is firmly entrenched in the audiophile ethic and dedicated to satisfying his ears, no matter the cost.
The Lohengrin II makes a strong case for itself, even amidst its rarefied competition from around the world, offering a view of the music that replicates the unique space of each recording to an amazing degree and a midrange that's remarkably direct, presenting musicians and singers as the microphone heard them. It has considerably greater bass power than other Verity Audio speakers I've heard, and it conveys the nature of each recording with a purist's touch.
Expensive speakers are flooding the market, perhaps as a byproduct of an economy in which people of means are doing particularly well. I can think of worse ways to spend a Wall Street bonus than on some Lohengrin IIs and Atma-Sphere OTL amps. If you write that check, remember where you read about this combo first, and invite me over, will ya?
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