I, like everyone else, have had my moments of revelation, what Kenneth Clark calls in art “moments of vision,” where some experience imprints an indelible memory that somehow redefines one’s whole relationship to audio. No doubt a mental list springs to mind for each of us. For me, a surprising number of these moments involved speakers that avoided early reflections but also offered a smooth total room sound. I have written often about the RFZ (reflection free zone) room of Focus Recordings in Copenhagen, designed by Ole Lund Christensen and Poul Ladegaard—once heard, never forgotten. The rather prosaic description given does not remotely do justice to the actual experience. Another experience of this type was my first audition of the (resuscitated) Allison Model Threes at a CES, speakers which were in corners and filled the room with Paul Desmond and colleagues as if one were in the recording venue. The listening room was all but suppressed. And then there was the Steinway-Lyngdorf S15 system, which I went so far as to call “perfection” in my TAS review and which offered similar suppression of the listening room’s acoustics.
What all these have in common is that the sound is all direct arrival for a long time before reflections reach the listener. This was attained by the speakers themselves being against or even in the back wall. This is not an easy thing to bring off. But once one has encountered it, there is in my experience a certain magic about it that is truly memorable
I do not think anyone will accuse me of lack of admiration for flat-response, forward-radiating, “free space” monitors. They, too, can work superbly well. But one has to get close to them. Close up to, say, the Spendor BC1s or SP1/2s or their modern descendants like the Stirling Broadcast LS3/6s, one can come remarkably near to hearing what is actually on the recording. But in some sense you are arranging to work against the room—hence the need for sitting close up. This can really work well, but there is another approach to dealing with speakers in rooms that can also work really well. This involves driving the room from the boundaries. Enter, at last, the Larsen Model 9.
The Model 9
Larsen speakers have been reviewed twice before in TAS, the Model 8 (REG, Issue 251) and the Model 6 (AQ, Issue 276). For your convenience, let me summarize their general nature once more. They are an outgrowth of ideas developed by Stig Carlsson decades ago, involving placing the speaker against the wall but far from the corners, so that early reflections were minimal (the backwall reflection being of a piece with the direct sound). At the same time, the speakers had an unusually uniform power response up to quite high frequencies so that the overall room sound has uniform balance. In particular, there was no “baffle step” because the wall placement provided half-space directivity already in the bass. (Free-space box speakers are omni in the bass but switch to essentially half-space directivity at what is called the “baffle step” frequency, where the wavelength of the sound gets down to something along the lines of the width of the speaker. This involves a change of directivity of an emphatic sort—from omni to half-space radiation. With the popular narrow-front floorstanders of today, this transition occurs somewhere from 500–1000Hz, an unfortunate location for an abrupt change in radiation pattern. People seems to have decided to ignore this or at best to make the transition as gradual as possible, but this does not make it cease to exist.)
The Model 9 follows the same principles as the Model 8, and indeed superficially resembles it. The Model 9, too, has a woofer close to the floor, a diagonally mounted woofer/midrange, a tweeter firing out into the room from a join between two surfaces, and two upward-firing tweeters that fill in the reverberant field in the higher frequencies (see theabsolutesound.com/articles/larsen-model-8-loudspeaker/ for some further details of the physical nature of the design). But the Model 9 has a new and very elegant cabinet, with curved woodwork, along with higher-quality drivers, described by Larsen as among the best that Scan-Speak produces (from the Illuminator Series), and new crossovers using ultra-premium parts. I did not have the Model 8 and Model 9 in house simultaneously, but to the best of my recollection, the Model 9 is much improved over the Model 8. The basic acoustic design—the midrange tilted both horizontally and vertically in its mount, the upward-firing tweeters, and the woofer vented near the floor—remains the same, but the changes to the crossover and the improved drivers have added further sonic excellence. The higher price compared to the Model 8 is firmly justified, though, of course, the unusual nature of the design dominates one’s immediate sonic impression in both cases.
It is tempting to keep talking about the theory behind the speaker because it is so different from usual forward-firing floorstanders. But let me combine the theoretical ideas with the consequences for musical experience. The most striking aspect of the Model 9’s presentation is also one that is hard to explain in specific terms: It sounds very much not like a speaker. In particular, it sounds almost not at all like a speaker in a room. To some extent, sitting really close to ordinary speakers gives you the impression of no longer being in your own listening room. But with the Larsens, the absence of early sidewall reflections and of a delayed backwall reflection really erases your room to a surprising extent. Larsen and his people emphasize the point that the speakers do not need acoustic treatment of the room around them, that they ignore the room on their own. In my experience this is true. You get the very positive effect of an RFZ (reflection free zone ) room just from the nature of the speakers themselves, without the need actually to modify your listening room.
Musically, the absence of early reflections makes the sound very clear but also very natural in the sense of sounding like real instruments in real space. This is quite different from the instruments-in-your-listening-room effect often talked about—different and to my mind much better. “You are there” is always better than “they are here” in my book.
The Larsens’ remarkable ability to erase the room around you is illustrated especially well by recordings which have themselves an enveloping acoustical quality. For instance, the recording on Paula of music of Buxtehude recorded in Roskilde Cathedral in Denmark—Ulrik Sprague Hansen Performs the Works of Buxtehude, Volume 5. Volume 5 of the complete works for organ of Buxtehude is a pure Blumlein recording. With any reasonable playback system this recording provides a good impression of the acoustics of the cathedral (I used to live near Roskilde and am quite familiar with the organ and the acoustics of the cathedral.) But the Larsens moved this recording, always remarkable, to a higher level of spatial truth. One no longer had to struggle to listen around the acoustics of one’s home listening room in the usual way. It was as if one’s home listening room had nearly ceased to exist acoustically.
This effect was particularly spectacular playing purist-miked recordings like this one. But it was always there, with any reasonable kind of stereo. What it really sounds like—this independence of the acoustics of one’s listening room—is not easy to explain in words. But it is unmistakably present. This is one case in which a brief audition, even at a show, will reveal something really striking. You don’t have to listen for days or weeks . A few minutes of listening will show what is going on.
Theory and Practice
This is not a theoretical surprise. Long-delayed sidewall first reflections, absence of backwall reflections, a correct interaction with the floor, and a uniform overall room sound—the result is perhaps expected. But to actually hear it is very striking, indeed. And it is permanently gratifying in musical terms. This is not some gee-whiz sound effect that one notes in passing and then forgets about. Music should not be kicked around by the acoustics of one’s listening room, but rather should bloom as in suitable concert venues, where one supposes it was recorded to begin with. Reproducing this is one of the main goals of high end—”real music in real space,” as HP used to say. One never tires of it and indeed feels deprived when it is missing, once one recognizes the extent to which it can be realized.
In the long development process that led from Carlsson’s original designs to the present-day Larsen designs, a lot of consideration has been given to how a speaker should interact—or more precisely not interact—with the room around it. The result is a speaker which is surprisingly unaffected by details of placement. The Model 9s are not speakers which have to be moved by fractions of an inch to find a place where they will work. Some positions are, of course, a little better than others, but the speakers work really well in almost any plausible spot of the sort specified—against the wall, reasonably far from the sidewalls, and bingo. No tedious and usually quite unstable maneuverings are required to defeat Allison-effect cancellations and the “usual floor dip,” in Martin Colloms’ phrase. The speaker just works in a most unusually convincing fashion.
The Model 9s are relatively small speakers, but their bass performance is extremely convincing. The absence of the floor dip and the driving of the room from the junction of two boundaries—floor and wall—gives striking definition of bass lines. The bass is truly solid down to below 40Hz with extension yet further down, and it has real definition. One can hear bass lines in complex music in a way that escapes most speakers. Orchestral music has bass that is impressively realistic, much like the actual thing, without boom but with real definition and impact. (One of the really striking differences between reproduced orchestral music and live, at relatively close range where the microphones are, is the extreme level of bass definition of the live sound. Tubas and trombones have a definiteness that is usually missing in a home listening environment. One can get the volume easily enough, but seldom the definition.)
A speaker with the unusual nature of the Larsen 9s is going to sound potentially different from forward-firing towers out in the room. The radiation is wider than usual up into quite high frequencies, and of course the speaker has half-space directivity from the bottom on up so there is no “baffle step,” as already noted. In particular, the Model 9s sound more “live” than speakers which narrow their pattern with increasing frequency, starting as far down as say 500Hz, as typically happens with narrow-front floorstanders. This makes sense: The reverberant field of concert halls is typically quite flat out to around somewhere between 2kHz and 4kHz. Concert halls do not exhibit anything analogous to the baffle step at 500Hz!
Larsen has, it seems, carefully investigated how to make the result sound balanced naturally. On the whole this investigation has been very successful. There is one oddity, or so it seems to me. Namely there is a perceived (by me) excess of energy around 600–650Hz. This shows clearly in the steady-state room sound, though it is less obvious in music material, though still perceptible. But it is easily adjusted if adjustment seems called for. (Old-fashioned “flat” measurement people tended to get bent out of shape about such things, but in our time, correction of them is so easy that they hardly seem a central issue. If you want less 600Hz, just go for some EQ, which is in fact easy to arrange accurately in this case.) Exactly correct perceived frequency response is indeed significant in audible terms for all speakers, but it is also easily altered, if the speaker is otherwise well behaved, as is surely the case here.
Once such details are attended to, the result is a remarkably neutral sound, in which the consistency of room sound compared to direct arrival comes to the fore. Up to the top octave, the room sound matches the direct arrival very well, and the usual push and tug between room and direct sound is all but eliminated. This contributes a lot to the sense of “non-speakerdom.” And it gives the Larsens a really natural tonal character to my ears. The whole room is alive with uniform balance.
Where the Larsen 9 Is Relative to Other Speakers
Reading reviews of unusual speaker designs, one is tempted sometimes to think that Talleyrand was anticipating audio reviewers, not describing the Bourbon royal family, when he remarked “They had learned nothing and forgotten nothing.” Speaker design as a whole was the subject of a lot of theoretical thought and insight beginning long ago—the first serious speaker designing goes back at least as far as the 1920s. And the field reached almost a feverish intensity in the great hi-fi boom of the 1950s and early 1960s. But reviewers have in recent times often tended to lock themselves into one aspect of the theory, and to expect, whether consciously or not, all speakers to work essentially the same way, albeit some better than others. This is an odd development because how speakers ought to work in rooms is a complicated and far from completely resolved question.
This creates a challenging situation for a design that works in a way different from the, by now, ensconced forward-radiating box with directivity increasing with increasing frequency that has somehow become a “standard,” whether it should have or not. And such a design as the Larsen Model 9—this is something different. It is also something good. Very good, indeed.
It is also something very different from usual. If I may borrow one of HP’s phrases once more, this is a speaker that should be heard by every student of the audio arts. The idea of using boundary placement to reduce the influence of the listening room on the sound has been around for a long time and tried in various ways. But it remains rather unusual. All you have to do is look through audio magazines to see that almost all contemporary speakers are really quite a lot alike in their general nature. Some are better than others, and we all have our favorites according to various theories and listening experiences. But there is a considerable sense of “déjà vu all over again.” The Larsens are members of a family, too, in some sense. But their family of boundary-placement speakers is a very much smaller one. The Larsens offer a unique sound that to my ears is unusually true to actual music, and they are unusual, too, in their ease of effective placement in the room. They offer their unique sound with a truly minimal disturbance of domestic life. Whether their unique sound is for you is something you need to experience for yourself. You will have not heard anything else much like the sound — except of course in live music.