To date we have had two distinct loudspeaker families at polar opposite ends of the market; the Auditorium Series and the Vox Series, both aimed squarely at the most discerning music lover and both optimised for Class A valve amplification.
The gulf in size and complexity between them could not be greater and for an age I have wanted to create something that combined the scale and physical thrill of the Vox Olympian with the seamless coherence of the OBX-RW4, which is at the top end of our Auditorium family.
Before arriving at the R80 concept, I had long been fixated on the idea of a ‘value-engineered’ iteration of one of our horn systems. We had already made a bespoke commission for the Spiritland cocktail bar & listening venue at King’s Cross, which had successfully explored some of these ideas. Still, no matter which way you cut it, a horn speaker done properly is always going to be exclusively big – or maybe that should read ‘huge’ – and will be necessarily expensive. I wanted a speaker that was much more democratic in every way.
I had a minor epiphany at Munich High-End 2019 while playing the OBX-RW4. They were positioned in front of the Vox Olympian & Vox Elysian horn system playing a selection of ‘take no prisoners’ music, including Beethoven Symphonies 5 and 6 from the John Elliot Gardener cycle on the ARKIV label. We played both symphonies right through without interruption, followed by the Joyce DiDonato album of Handel Arias, a rollercoaster ride that lights up the soul.
Throughout the day, many people assumed the Vox Olympians were playing, and they expressed their delight as such. This was fate having a word with me. It was a key experience that made me look away from a path derived from the Vox Series towards an MTM (mid / treble / mid) two-way design taken to its absolute maximum potential, and this marked the beginning of a journey of exploration that led to the R80 design.
The R80 shares the virtues of both design approaches whilst gaining unique performance advantages in the process. It successfully bridges the gap between our two loudspeaker families in both size and complexity.
Only the MTM driver topology and the reflex loading. That’s it.
Absolutely. I think of MTM as the ‘Occam’s Razor’ topology. It has holistic elegance and pushes at open doors.
Two 8” bass / mid drivers working in parallel can generate the scale, heft, and dynamic range of a single 12” driver, except with an upper-frequency range performance that sails cleanly up to the high-mid range. A 12” driver cannot do this without introducing significant break-up modes at and above crossover – break-up modes which ‘haze’ the background and introduce grain and hash. The paralleled drivers confer two distinct benefits: allowing the rest of the bandwidth to be covered by a single H/F driver working comfortably two octaves above its natural resonance (Fs) and facilitating a more accurate crossover execution than could be achieved with a single 12” drive unit. So, in one fell swoop, the MTM topology elegantly obviates the need for a three-way design with its associated complexity and covers the full bandwidth with a single crossover band.
There’s more. The list of advantages is compelling – the paralleled bass/mid driver operation brings the gift of increased sensitivity in a 3dB gain, in other words, a halving of amplifier power for any given volume level. This is definitely to be embraced, particularly if you like Class A triode amplifiers. From a musical point of view, having what is effectively a 12” driver working right up through the mid-range makes pianos and mezzo-sopranos sound palpable and real, with believable conviction, body, and gravitas – the music lives and breathes.
The crossover is the DNA of a loudspeaker, determining 90% of the speaker’s attributes; it affects the tonal balance, the driver integration, on-axis — as well as off-axis — performance, impedance characteristics, power response, electrical phase and the acoustical phase. It is possible to make dozens, if not hundreds, of crossover designs, all with the same drivers in the same cabinets and all with different strengths and weaknesses.
The crossover determines the speaker’ performance, not just across the crossover band, but above and below it too. In fact, everything other than the bass alignment is in the crossover domain, and the key is to work empirically and iteratively in logical steps. Measurement techniques are always qualified by listening, and this was the reciprocal process by which the R80 crossover was evolved and resolved, all with reference to programme material in the subjective domain.
The internal wiring harness uses our crystal-oriented 2-core deep cryogenically treated copper. As with all Living Voice speakers, the precision-calibrated crossover components are made by hand in-house or by specialist suppliers specifically for this model. The R80 also incorporates a conjugate load network (LCR) that sits across the input terminals, making the load characteristic unusually flat. The lowest impedance is 4.2 ohms at 126 Hz, rising slowly to 9 ohms at 1kHz and then gently dropping back to 6.5 ohms at 20kHz. This is a dream situation for a valve amplifier.
It wouldn’t be a Living Voice loudspeaker if we didn’t offer a choice of inboard (IBX) and outboard (OBX) crossovers.
All crossover components are microphonic to a greater or lesser extent, and locating these outside of the high-energy environment of the main cabinet allows for a calmer resolution of dynamics, purer tonal shape and colour, and improved coherence during high density and heavily modulated passages.
We recognise the convenience and domestic appeal of the inboard configuration and have gone to great lengths to optimise the component layout of the IBX version, implementing damping techniques to minimise the aforementioned microphonic effects. I am very happy with the balance that we have achieved.
Because it has an 80-litre enclosure and it’s reflex loaded. Simple really. We had been referring to it casually as the ‘R80’ throughout its development, and at any point when we discussed a new name, we would always say, “What shall we call the R80?” So, the name stuck. It’s logical, and it rolls off the tongue. I like it.
Just as different diaphragm materials used in drive units have clearly audible signatures tonally and dynamically, so do cabinet materials and the techniques and glues used in their construction.
Making the same speaker from ten different cabinet materials reveals ten varying sound characters. We have painstakingly developed our cabinets slowly and methodically, using a broad spectrum of material densities and compositions. This has been a fascinating and instructive journey, with results sometimes flying in the face of expected or even desired outcomes.
The R80 cabinet further develops what we have evolved over the years. It allows the performance of the drive units to shine and the cabinet’s contribution to be benign; neither under-damped nor over-damped, it aids the natural tonal filigree and the easy dynamic contrast of the music.
Scanspeak Ellipticor Dome Tweeter and Ellipticor Midwoofer paper cone. Air-circ Elliptical core.
I was very tempted by them on paper. The HF unit has a big 34mm fabric diaphragm with a huge motor structure and exceptionally low resonance frequency – also an unusually flat impedance characteristic. This driver simply begged to be used in an MTM topology with 2 of the 8” bass /mid drivers from the same product family. The Ellipticors are the most technically ambitious drivers Scanspeak have ever produced with impeccable engineering tolerances – as good as I have seen. Their motor structures are highly unusual in that they use elliptical pole pieces and voice coils to eliminate the inherent breakup behaviour of traditional circular motor structures.
They are extremely high-tech, yet retain some older, tried and trusted diaphragm materials – paper and treated fabric. These materials have stood the test of time as the most tonally natural choices, exactly what I would want if Living Voice were commissioning a bespoke driver. Well done, Scanspeak.
A love of music, listening skills, and time.
A great deal of time.
A hi-fi system, or in this case, a loudspeaker, should allow free access to the ease of navigation through any musical landscape.
Take the Floristan Trio performing Beethoven’s Opus 70 & 97 ‘Archduke’. For me, this is time travel. We are listening to Beethoven, who is speaking directly to us from 200 years ago. Getting to this level of free immersion is tantamount to an obsession, and it gives me the energy to keep at the design work until this transcendent state is available ‘on tap.’ Having Beethoven’s inner world transposed into my inner world without mediation – this is the goal.
Immersive, human, and transcendent. A loudspeaker should be a passport to whichever musical constellation you wish to visit, and for me, the R80 does this and more.
I listen to a lot of music all the time, and my music collection is quite extensive, so I have a wealth of beloved music I can reference. During the creation of the R80’s I listened to a wide range; some old, some new, some analogue, and some digital, but all familiar and artful performances of equally artful music. These are ‘data sets’ for me that are rich in depth, not just generic genres (if that’s not a tautology) but specific performances I know and love. This means I can capture the gestalt of the music during the design process because I know where this music’s gestalt lives.
Certain musical performances shine a particularly critical light on the successes and failures of the compromises you must inevitably make in audio design.
It’s hard to pick just a few examples, but as a ‘starter for ten,’ one might consider the selection below.
The Floristan Trio’s performance of Beethoven’s Opus 70 ¶ Opus 97 ‘Archduke’ is unfortunately only available on CD but as a design tool, it allows me to make finely graded judgments about the speakers’ balance. These musicians can make you feel like you are inside Beethoven’s head, inside his creative consciousness. When the design is absolutely right on point, the music inhabits your soul without feeling it is being mediated through technology. For me, this is the definitive performance of these works. I think it is the nature of their ensemble playing…
The Shostakovich symphonies conducted by Kiril Kondrashin on the Melodiya label – Soviet-era recordings – pressed by EMI in London have a raw heterogenous believability that is a thrill and a half. They pose different challenges. They combine substantial physical scale with vast dynamic range, unique instrumentation, and challenging, searching emotional landscapes ranging from the inward and reflective to the outward and declamatory.
This music is all about Shostakovich’s personal struggles and turmoil throughout his long career. They are a valuable and unforgiving tool in my development process. They contain unique and complex sonorities that can find the cracks in even the most apparently sturdy of audio edifices. His nominally conventional classical form is where the nominally conventional ends. When the goosebumps are there, you know you have got it. There’s nothing better.
A very useful recording that asks searching questions of a system’s balance is the Vivaldi Gloria with the choir of Christchurch Cathedral Oxford and the Academy Of Ancient Music, directed by Simon Preston. This is a mid-70s recording on L’Oiseau Lyre, and much like Philips recordings, it has an unadorned honesty of production values.
This music is a poised spiritual celebration across a span of 30 minutes with tiers of voices ranging from bass to baritone, alto, soprano, and treble – voices that go way up into the high rafters of a natural cool acoustic. Massed strings, clarinet, oboe, bassoon, and baroque organ are all figured in this wonderful, serene sound world. The sheer variety, scale and quality of performers all at the top of their game is a magic moment captured in time. Trying to capture that moment tells you so much that you need to know as a speaker designer. It’s an invaluable tool, although it’s a shame to talk about it in that way.
Aside from all this high-brow, high-art stuff, it is also essential that a loudspeaker can take you on other journeys and press different emotive buttons. I want music that makes me laugh and music that is hypnotic, music that is propulsive with forward momentum or compelling drive. It could be Scientist Dubs Culture or Marc Johnson Bass Desires – a wild jazz fusion with Bill Frisell and Peter Erskine that asks more questions than most HiFi systems can adequately answer. Or it could be the juicy swagger of Thievery Corporation’s ‘The Temple of I & I,’ such a beautifully produced, hypnotic and entrancing recording – or at least it should be if I’ve done my homework right.
The list goes on. A good loudspeaker should play all music types without fear or favour.
John Hassell’s album ‘Last Night the Moon Came Dropping Its Clothes in the Street’ is an architecturally expansive, diffuse, suggestive dream world; trance-like and hypnotic and fundamentally evocative in nature. The watchword is restraint. The modulating, ebbing and flowing energy balance should compel the listener into a state of otherworldly calm and remove you completely from the here and now. It is a fine and subtle balance to achieve. When the system, and in this case the loudspeaker, is spot on, it contains a wealth of riches and is a deeply immersive experience. When the system is not spot on, its music seems empty, unimaginative and lacking in developmental purpose. It’s a subtle and fine litmus test for any loudspeaker.
Raime’s album ‘Tooth’ is virtually impossible for most speakers and most systems to play, let alone enjoyably. This music is post-industrial apocalyptic and dystopian. The deep, deep bass and demonic circular guitar motifs underpin and propel nervous searching noise-scapes into an uncertain land of eternal night. In the wrong hands the bass can dominate, drawing the ear away from the musical whole and leave it feeling devoid of ideas, drawing out ‘system performance’ anxieties. In the right hands it arrests your attention, fixes you in its spell, and without a glimmer of distraction, draws you into its dark zen. A tremendous album.