April 2012 - Gammas in Orbit
My friend Alexander's audio experiences

As Norbert mentioned my system in his review of the Gamma speakers, endorsing that those cute full range horns even allow them being coupled together with sand amps, I felt tempted to write some lines on how jaw dropping the Gammas in fact are, whether being propelled by nil (vacuum) or sand. As Norbert has already praised and provided the details of the Gammas, I thought it may be interesting to know for the Audio Eagle reader how I saw David giving birth to the Gammas and how these beauties compare against speakers I had a chance to audition in the past. Since in my firm belief how and what you like to hear is highly dependent on how - from your earliest days - you have been trained (or trained yourself) to hear, I will take this opportunity to also list the audio equipment to which I was listening to, starting from the time when my father infected me with the hi-fi virus. Also I can not resist commenting one point Norbert raised in his brilliant review. I will come back to this later below.

It all started with my father's system he had in our living room, almost only Technics/Matsushita, which he purchased back in 1977. This was the time when audio gear still ranked number three in the list of must-haves (first was the condo (emphasis on the "c") followed by a car). Center of the system was the Technics SU3500 integrated which I still have today (still in good working order). A Nippon sand classic. Around that gathered a (even by today's standards) stylish Braun reel to reel machine, a Technics direct driven (SL Series) turntable with a Shure V15 mounted on its arm and some of those classic Technics monitor speakers. I can't remember the spec but those were giants compared to today's bookshelf and I-thing support speakers. The system was booked on classical and swing music and swinging it was, even with classical stuff. I came a long way since then and asked myself on several and sometimes sad occasions if indeed so little has changed in audio quality.

Following early university days with NAD 3020i, Thorens 320, Sumiko Blue Point and Wharfdale, for quite a while thereafter I had Triangle Elypse speakers, which I loved for their easy drive load and the crisp attack produced by their still underrated (and meanwhile long out - of production) paper cones, a Project 2.9 wood spinner with Benz Series 1 PP1 phono stage, and a Benz Ace (L) cartridge as well as a Musical Fidelity A-300 integrated). My urge to change for something better was mainly driven by my discomfort with the reproduction quality of classical music I sometimes like to listen to (and at that time also acid jazz) in stereo, and where it was painfully clear to the ears that the system built around the MF amp lacked stage image, musical fluidity, and both, bass depth and articulation.

First and without being interested in any alternatives since I was quite impressed with all the Linn front-end some of my friends had  (and where also my father invested into a Linn system) I got myself a fully equipped Linn LP12/Ekos/Lingo/Linto/Akiva. That helped. Though I appreciate that there are other wonderful designs around (like Norbert's massively pimped Lenco), I still hang on to the Linn.

It got more difficult with speakers. Quite some transducers have been on offer at that time (2006) by the traditional market-players including KEF Reference 205 and XQ standfloor series, Triangle Zays and Lyrr, B&W's 803D and 802D, Revel Performa M20, Ultima Salon and Concerta F12, all of which I auditioned.  The B&Ws soon came out as my favourites. I felt that the 803D was at eye level with the more expensive Ultima Salon (a used pair of which was on offer then - I could by far not have afforded new ones) whilst the 802D was playing the music with even more poise. Also the 802Ds were coming at a price overblowing my budget. But I was truly impressed even though I assumed that those few press reports saying that, whilst on paper an easier load than its predecessor, the 802Ds are still a difficult load to drive, were right (in fact this has been the only weakness which the reviewers (if at all) of the audio tabloids dared to mention) and though it felt difficult for me to believe in the dealer's word saying that the 802Ds' would also properly behave in my listening room (being much smaller in comparison to the dealer's demonstration room), I decided to go for the 802Ds. The last nudge I needed to put the money on the table was that even the 800Ds (which I auditioned as well, though it was clear from the start that I could not afford them) didn't do better than their smaller sisters.

Indeed, I was pleasantly surprised that the seller was not promising too much as in the first instance the speakers indeed integrated well into my (heavy damped) music room at least to the extent not causing any nasty deletions or room resonance. Maybe this was also due to the fact that I only fed them with the max 130 W/pch which the A-300 is capable to deliver against an 8 ohm load. Stage image and bass finally came to my music room but in comparison to the demonstration room (when the speakers were amped by using heavy Accuphase gear) what I missed was attack and preciseness. Even small jazz combos came out rather stark and wishy - washy.

Yet I was not feeling too frustrated since I knew that the MF amp was not in the right peer group to pair with the B&Ws. The only slight concern I had was that my budget was already overblown after buying the speakers. Yet I could not resist from buying another MF amp, the heavy muscled 630 W/pch Musical Fidelity kW 550. Can't precisely say why but I always liked MF products (I also had the original A1 and the Tempest in my earlier systems), may be because (like NAD) most of them offer value for money, maybe only because their marketing worked well on me. For this reason the purchase was done without looking at any of the contenders. I didn't even know but only learned later that quite some reviewers labelled the 802D playing together with the kW 550 as dream combo (see http://www.stereophile.com/content/journeys-end).

And that it was. Particularly when the kW 550 was properly heated up there was stage, musical flow and deep going, room shattering bass. I was swelling with pride and was full of confidence that I had, if not the best, than certainly one of the best vinyl playback systems in Vienna. That was in 2006 and only some few months before Norbert and David taught me better.

Still, it was a good wind blowing me right into the arms of those two audio-maniacs. First I met Norbert. We have been introduced to each other when my lady learned from her English trainer that her husband has his own room in the basement of their home stuck with vinyl and audio-gear. If Heather had not mentioned the basement, Gerlinde would have thought Heather was referring to me and my music room (which is not in the basement). Instantly they agreed that we had to meet.

Only some days later Norbert introduced me to the sound of his 2A3 Moondog driven Haigner three way monitors (a photo which you can find elsewhere on this page). Bringing my own music (on vinyl) to his place I discovered a full bouquet of tonal colours which I never thought I would find on these platters when played on his system. Now, it was not so that I had not heard single ended tubes at work before but (unless played at ridiculously low levels) there was always strain resulting in a sluggish and soft sound often combined with overblown mids. Not so here. Within the mid-treble range this was certainly the best what I have heard so far (beating by far the hyped yellowish B&W mid-drivers). Also the rest was nothing but excellent. Even when played at volumes I consider as adequate. And all of that came out of equipment which looked very much DIY-made, pimped or at least very much exotic. Certainly not coming from the shelf of the big industry players. The pride I had felt for my own system before having entered Norbert's music room melted like snow exposed to a fully lit 300B.

When I asked why the mono amps (delivering around 3,5 W/ch) only showed fatigue when played at very high levels, Norbert - almost succeeding in suppressing a lenient undertone - explained to me that all of  the Haigner speakers he prefers so much are not only designed for time coherent presentation but are also operating at very stable and rather high (above 8 Ohms) impedance levels across the spectrum. Which is why even his conventional (non-horn) driven Haigner three way prototype monitors measured at 92dB/W/m feel comfortable with low powered single ended amps. Said so and added that it would be a shame if now they had to disassemble the monitors and cut the solid-alder cabinets to firewood. In particular since they were hand-polished and waxed by Norbert himself.

I was so overwhelmed by what I experienced in Norbert's room that - without thinking much, if anything - I asked the question Norbert wanted to hear: "Why would you do so?". "Well," he said "when I got my monitors some years ago, after listening to them I was full of confidence that I had, if not the best, than certainly one of the best speakers on this planet". That should have reminded me of something. "Now however," Norbert was quick to continue, "David has decided to do a new two-way horn speaker and I have decided for myself to invest. So, if I can't find a buyer for my monitors I will dismantle them so that we can recycle the high quality audio parts we used for building them."

Some few weeks later the monitors moved into my listening room, placed side - to - side to the B&Ws.  Before arrival at my home Norbert also introduced to me his friend and loudspeaker master, guru, designer and maker not only of the monitors but also such monsters as the "Beta" and the even more famed "Alpha" horns (all of which I had never heard of before),  David Haigner to me. David confirmed that not before long (as he already started to design the new two-way horns) they would take apart the monitors unless I buy them from Norbert. Though quality wise light-years away from his Alpha and Beta horns, no doubt the monitors would beat the B&Ws in all categories and in the most unlikely event of this proving wrong to my uneducated ears, David promised to further tweak the monitors to this end. Needless to say that finally I paid to Norbert quite a hefty ransom for the monitors. At least I felt proud of having saved them from being disembowelled and then fed to the oven.

At home I wired up the newly arrived Haigner monitors to the MF 550kW. Both, Norbert and David were (and still are) not shy to express their distaste when it comes to sand-amps - however both were quick in confirming to me that the monitors would not at all  mind being powered with 200 times more of wattage than originally used to. They were right. Even though the tube magic could not be evoked again by the only tube the MF 550kW has in its pre-amp stage, it was immediately clear that mids were better defined and at the same time presented with more bloom than the B&Ws were able to. In the bass region the B&Ws eventually dug deeper but the Haigners being equipped with RCF L15 P200 15inch bass drivers were close on the heels and had a better articulated bass. Still it needs to be told that the Expolinear ribbon tweeter of the Haigners could not cope with B&W's diamond tweeter. Initially thinking that the diamond thing rather was a marketing gag of the London contender (kind of - if a male buys a diamond it comes with a speaker attached and not only a boring ring)  I only found out by running the speakers against each other of how good the diamond tweeter in fact is.

I was of course quick in conveying back to David and Norbert that in the higher frequencies the B&Ws had a much more refined sound than the monitors. I also reminded David of his promise. Both, Norbert and David wanted to hear evidence and so we had a joint listening session (the first of many to follow) at my place. Since the blemish with the tweeters was much less severe than I made them believe in the first place, I was surprised to hear them both agreeing with my verdict. And David added that for a very modest cost contribution for replacing the tweeters he would fix that within next-to-nothing.

Since I was already well trained in spending my savings on hi-fi gadgets, I paid the contribution and some few weeks later David replaced the Expolinear ribbon-tweeters with high performance Italian tweeter- domes which David nowadays uses for most of his conventional speaker designs. The result was very convincing. Still there was this smoothness but there also was attack and brilliance but only when the recording required. At this moment I decided to sell the B&Ws. Only problem was that in the next moment David murmured something about the bass being now too much laid back. Also this could be fixed, though crossover design would have to be fixed too. In short, after payment of further contribution dues and some other weeks passing the RCF L15 P200 bass drivers were replaced with 18Sound 15inchers with all two crossovers heavily modified to fit the new drivers resulting in a total refurbishment of the monitors.

Sound even got better when I further invested into a MF Primo, AMS 50 pre - power combo, which (just as I thought) turned out to be the ideal partners for the monitors.

Meanwhile, Norbert started envying me not only because his former speakers now sounded better than ever but also because David was spending more of his time on heavily upgrading the monitors rather than working on Norbert's new horn speakers. Even worse, the modifications were so promising that David decided to use the crossovers as well as the mid and upper driver design as blue print for a new speaker line of his - the highly successful Tau. Norbert's foul mood quickly brightened up, when David gave him the first prototypes of the Taus as an interim speaker until the new horns (which in the meantime had developed from a two-way design to a three-way design) would be ready for roll-out.

Their maiden flight took place at the Vienna Vibes show in July 2010 (see Norbert's report elsewhere on this page). The Gammas' first stage appearance was indeed an all limbs-shaking event. David decided to team them up with two bass lines next to each Gamma, each equipped with four eighteen inchers stuck into a wooden frame. David mentioned earlier that he plans to kick-ass the audience with something really big. When I first saw the Gammas together with the bass-lines, I wondered whether his true intention was to blow up the huge demo-room together with all show-visitors impatiently waiting for this world-premiere.  When finally the provisional crossovers of the Gammas were soldered together (a ceremonial piece of work supervised by David and done by some of the show visitors who have volunteered as his acolytes) and connected to power, Reno (David's distributor) had the idea to feed heavy and deep going electronica music to the Gammas. The Gammas behaved like hungry tigers jumping right into your face with slam, attack and full of raw violence. Norbert did a kowtow right in front of his Gammas. The experts within the all-experts audience all lifted an eyebrow. The rest was left behind quite breathless. The scene had something of a performing arts happening and at the same time reminded me of the TV reports on the history of the Apollo program. The part which follows the word "ingnition" and where you see the stress on the faces of the technicians in the control center crossing their fingers in hope that the rocket would not detonate when still on the launch pad.  Audio-director David had a bitter look on his face, be it because of the insufficient room acoustics, the audience failing to pull out the cheque-books or him admitting to himself in (ahem) silence that the Gammas went off but did not quite reach orbit. The director decided not to fuel the Gammas with any other music material and the flight ended pretty soon.

To me electronica-music is (with some few exceptions to the rule) pain to my ears. And what I experienced with the Gammas was exactly that, pain. So I thought that the Gammas allow for an authentic presentation. Obviously, I could not know at that time if the Gammas would ever be capable of giving me maybe even the same amount of pleasure, but I somehow sensed that David would not rest until Norbert will see his Gammas as his new fixed star on the audio firmament. Now, I felt the envy and so decided to ask David to build a pair for myself.

At first, David was hesitant to accept this assignment - not because the Gammas' first appearance in the public was less successful David was hoping for and also not because I knew I would have difficulties in explaining another purchase to my beloved missus but mostly because he already knew my listening room, which, no doubt, is not suitable for a full range horn. Also, I believed that he had some doubt whether he would manage to tame the Gamma's hunger for human ears (and, if possible, also taking the scalp).

Some weeks after the Vienna Vibes, Norbert talked me into joining him for a trip to Munich for collecting his new Thomas Mayer amps. When David learned that we were going to Munich, he ordered me to also fetch from another audio-friend two pairs of heavy-weighing TAD fifteen inch bass drivers. I only learned some days later when David asked me to pay for one pair that these were designated to serve as bass drivers for my Gammas.

Also Norbert's pair was further tweaked during that time. Once I was allowed to give them a listen at David's romantic workshop in the middle of Vienna's seventh district. Sound was already much more civilised, despite the fact that David hooked the Gammas up to a 20 US$ single in and out class D amp having the size of a box of cigarettes with only a volume knob on it. Finally, the then finished Gammas were brought to Norbert's place, but to David's and Norbert's unpleasant surprise the Gammas behaviour in Norbert's listening room was quite different at first from how good the sounded at David's place. Just like there the Gammas had a deep (and for a horn an incredibly) wide stage image. Stage height was however much too close to the floor. Sound was powerful and spectacular but still there was that unforgiving directness revealing the slightest weakness of both, of the signal itself and within its path from the recording to the Gammas. It was as if the accurateness worked as counter-spell against the tube magic of Norbert's 801A SE amp. It was not only clear to me that this was nothing for long distance listening sessions. But David and Norbert did not give up, as David found the reason for this behaviour quite quickly. The reason was a 25cm difference in the height of the listening position between a chair David used for the development work at his workspace vs. the sofa in Norbert's music room. Given the near field listening environment of the Gammas in Norbert's room, 25cm difference in height is huge and therefore the midrange was way too prominent. Capacitors as well as resistors were changed and only after a series of further rehearsals (during which David inter alia changed driver capacity in 0,25 dB steps to arrive at the right level) the Gamma's lost all harshness and presented the music just as it should be, in full colour but without any colouration, at the correct stage height, with deep but still realistic bass, rock solid voice articulation, timing like the British railways back in the 19th century, bloom and attack but only when required from the recording and, and, and. When I was allowed to hear the first pair of Gammas for the first time after Norbert commissioned them to be final and I experienced all of their qualities first hand, I asked David when my pair would finally be ready.

That was four months later, at the end of May 2011. As if they had not lifted enough Gammas for the rest of their life, Norbert (who on this occasion suffered a hernia but did not say a word) and David helped fetching my lovely, cherry veneered Gamma babies to the second floor of the house where we have our apartment. I was feeling nervous since I remembered quite well how difficult Norbert's pair behaved in the beginning and thus I prepared for the worst. Wired up to the MF combo I put Dave Pike's "Pike's Peak" (the Portrait Master RJ44392 re-issue) on the platter. From the first bar it was nothing but sensational. Herb Lewis' walking bass came swinging and - other than with any other speaker I heard so far - extremely differentiated. There was both, the grunt of the deeper registers and the upper harmonics letting you believe that you can hear the wood of the bass. Pike's vibes were crystal clear and filled the air without any shrill artefacts which you often will have, when you hear that instrument on a lower quality speaker. At the same time, each instrument could be clearly located on stage.  Bill Evans' piano still was offish and stood far behind the other musicians. I knew that this was a (actually the only) blemish of the record - if it were presented more prominently in the front stage, there would be something wrong with the speakers. It all got even better when the MF's and the Linto were warm after an hour or so.  Even when we started to experiment with tilting the Gammas to other listening angles the result did not change much.

Beautiful cherry veneered Haigner Gammas

Relaxed listening experience with a lot of Jazz records to pick from :-)

Another record I often use for system-testing is Sade's "Diamond Life" (Dutch Epic pressing). "Smooth Operator" is much better suitable for testing, since, other than with the Dave Pike quartet, there is not only Sade's alluring vocals but also that famous sax soloing in close at the heels of Sade. Though there are not that many musicians performing on this record, instrumentation is much richer since the recording engineer exploited the capabilities of a mid 80's record studio which certainly had much more to offer than the studio in which the Pike's Peak session had been recorded and mastered. There are overdubs and the rhythm section is amplified all across just as you would expect from a mid-80ies album. Only that this is one of the album's of that time where sound quality clearly stands test of time (which can not be said from many albums of that era). At the beginning of "Smooth Operator" right before the sax kicks in, there is that ascending bell-like sound. If that sequence of notes seems to be coming out from a set of vibes, or - even worse - if that sequence of notes seem to smear or overlap, there is something wrong with your music reproduction units. And quite often the speakers will prove to be the limiting part of your system. Not so with the Gammas. It is not only clear that this sound is being made by the e-piano player but it is even absolutely clear where the piano is positioned on the stage (respectively where the mastering engineer decided to position it).

And results are not only stellar with combo jazz or pop. With the Gammas you will even have full sized classical orchestras in your (be it tiny or huge) listening room. David's and Norbert's efforts for tweaking the Gammas to make them a bit more forgiving (not necessarily softer or even so that any information were withheld) also turned out to be a full success. Now, one may of course not expect that the Gammas will mend all faults a recording or pressing may have. In my copy of Nathan Davis' "Best of 65 - 78" album (again the vinyl edition which came out on Jazzman Records) there has been carved a very distorted (be it from bad re-mastering or pressing) cut of "Mandigo's Pad". When listening to this in the Gamma's very early times that would have been a guarantor for an instant headache. Not so after the modifications were completed with Norbert's initial pair (luckily enough I have this song also on "Rules of Freedom" issued on Polydor Germany). In every respect and category they were clearly better than my Haigner monitors (though I still consider them to be terrific speakers).

A change of partners to the Gammas will immediately result in a different listening experience. As long as it is quality (and I am not saying expensive) audio-stuff it will only be a matter of taste, though. As such, the Gammas will also reveal strengths and weaknesses of any of your audio equipment. When I still had the B&W's, I could find no and with the Haigner Monitors I only could find nuances of different sounding cables (regardless whether speaker or phono). Also that has dramatically changed.

Now, this gets me to the point where I wanted to comment on Norbert's article by saying that it is certainly not only about source, amplification and rear end being decisive on whether you will enjoy your system, or not. First thing will always be your mood and then the music. And if it is recorded music, then it will be the quality of the recording and (in particular when you listen to vinyl) the pressing. A truly good system will provide you with the option to either filter out any recording/pressing blemishes and to only enjoy the music or to undoubtedly hear any faults of the recording, be it in the recording or pressing process or in the presentation. The Gammas will offer you both. At least my pair is doing so ever since they first moved in.

Are these now the final speakers, the end of history in terms of audio enjoyment? If you read the above, you will know why I am cautious here. Let me say that the Gammas certainly are the speakers I like most by far. Also, let me say that much more often than before I still will turn on the system even after a long day's work. And finally, let me say that they not only reached a stable orbit but also allow to go for a most exciting musical deep space exploration whenever you wish.



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