Audiophile July 1992, Audiophile June 1994, Obelisk, The Absolute Sound

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The Fifth Element - John Marks Jan 2004


Arc review from Audiophile July 1992


   Oddly shaped and bristling with drive units, the Arcs certainly catch the eye. Alvin Gold and Jimmy Hughes find out whether they have anything other than eccentricity to offer.

   Whenever Linn Products sent a product for review, it would invariably arrive with one of their more trustworthy staff who would set it up and generally make sure the subtleties were handled correctly. For a while, the person entrusted with the critical job of ensuring the press didn't screw up was John Burns, a softly spoken native of Edinburgh with an obvious love for, and encyclopedic knowledge of, recorded music.

   Quite recently, John left and soon after, set up a company under the name of Pear Audio to distribute a brand of loudspeakers called Shahinian he had heard while on a visit to New York. By all accounts, founder Richard Shahinian is also a softly spoken man with a love for, and an encyclopedic knowledge of, recorded music, who in his time has designed loudspeakers for Rectilinear and for Harman/Kardon (the Citation 13 is mentioned in the literature as the direct progenitor of the Arc). All he seems to lack is a proper Edinburgh accent.

   First time around, when John bought the speakers around for an earballing session, I had some problems with the Arc. On that occasion it was listened to hard on the heels of the more ambitious Obelisk, and from the start it was obvious that whilst it had certain special qualities, it was also beset with problems. The bass had considerable depth and fluidity, but its balance was light and agile, at the expense, I felt, of the more visceral qualities of power, weight and authority, More important, the tweeter had a definite sting in the tail, a factor that was clearly a part of both speakers, not just one or the other. One reason appeared obvious: the use of a synthetic tweeter dome with a vapor deposited titanium layer, which on past form was always likely to be a disaster and an abomination. More generally the speakers seemed in need of a lot of running in, and John agreed that this was indeed the case. But I wasn't convinced.

   Some time later, the Obelisk returned. Not the original sample, but another pair which had been used for a much longer period of time, and sure enough the treble and deep bass had improved out of all recognition, which just shows how wrong I was. Then history promptly repeated itself with the review pair of Arcs. At first I assumed I was listening to the original pair, and I rang John up to ask what had happened. But it turned out to be a different pair which had been much more thoroughly run in. It transpires that Richard Shahinian only does his development work with fully run in drive units. Hence they only sound right when fully run in.

   Positioning is easy: they're relatively uncritical of placement relative to walls, though in my room I preferred a relatively open position. The Arcs can even be partially obscured behind an armchair or other furniture without problems. Once set up and plugged in, the speakers showed themselves capable of providing realistic stereo over a wide lateral angle and range of listening distances. What is more, this excellent soundstaging was available without too much loss of specificity and focus of individual instruments. Offhand, I can't think of another loudspeaker (apart from the Obelisk) more capable of providing a firm placement of the main instruments, drawing a larger scale sound picture of the recorded acoustic and simultaneously maintaining the imaging from a range of angles and distances. Only dipole designs like the Martin-Logan Quests have proved capable of the same (or better) clarity of position and a comparably large image scale, but such designs impose draconian restrictions on where the listener sits, and don't always display the corporeal presence of a pair of Shahinians in full flood.

   If it wasn't for the imaging properties, the Arcs could have been one of the better Snells or Vandersteens: they have a similar combination of dynamics, clarity and organisation of musical cues, and the same apparent disregard for the sheer beauty of many sounds, a quality exemplified by the aforementioned Quests or equivalents – or live performance. In fact the Arc has less colouration and smear than with the other box speaker brands mentioned, and a transparency to the source material that approaches a good panel.

   And now we're getting close to what the Arc is all about. Unfailingly musical in a genuinely undemonstrative way, this loudspeaker simply allows music to speak for itself. It is remarkably adept at filling space in a way that could be mistaken for the performer or group playing at the time, be it Suzanne Vega singing in Tom's Diner or the massive augmented orchestral and vocal forces that come together in Mahler's orgasmic 8th symphony. Although there are rough edges (some shelving up of the treble) and some limitations (bass is still on the lightweight side even after running in); these things do remarkably little to intrude on the music. And here is one of those subtle ironies that makes hi-fi endlessly intriguing: although the design is wilful almost to the point of eccentricity, the Arc itself is not a wilful loudspeaker. It does not get in the way.

   More than just liking these speakers, I have to confess to being a convert. It's not just the way the Arcs sound that really impresses; it is the way the music itself is allowed to speak without cramping the style. Mere words, however, really do not do them justice: like other idiosyncratic designs the Arc is bound to evoke strong feelings, anti as well as pro.

   The Arcs are not necessarily the easiest loudspeakers to accommodate (they are fussy about what amplifier they partner for example), and I achieved the best results using Roksan amplification which is suitably quick and transparent. But when they're good, they're very, very good.

 -Alvin Gold


Second Opinion

   I've always like direct/reflecting loudspeakers ever since I heard the Swedish Sonab range way back in 1972. Recently, more to the point, I've grown less happy with the concept of forward-radiating speakers, feeling their designs present the ear with a waveform that is too stark and lacking in integration. It's a bit like trying to evenly light a room with bright, directional searchlights and then wondering why the effect is harsh; a diffuse light is easier on the eye.

   Not that there s anything diffuse of 'soft' about the Arc loudspeakers, on the contrary, they're bright, lively, very articulate, detailed, and altogether transparent. They produce a sound that is undeniably tactile and forward, yet at the same time create a wonderful sense of wholeness and integration. Clarity is outstanding, and instruments sound as if they have a real space around them. Stereophonically, the sound is clear and impressively holographic.

   For a speaker so tonally bright and dynamic, the sound has remarkable depth and space; you really get a sense of the acoustic in which the recording was made. The bass is powerful and surprisingly deep for such a small enclosure, and overall the Arcs are capable of real clout on dynamic material. They're fast too, but tonally not wholly neutral. The initial impression was of a bright peaky treble combined with a strong bass line, and not much in the middle. Yet, curiously, the ear quickly adjusts to this, something that wouldn't happen quite so readily with a conventional speaker.

   It's almost as though these speakers succeed despite their quirky tonal balance, so integrated and musically rewarding is the effect produced. Listening to the Arcs is indeed a very musical experience, and something that may not be immediately apparent is the way they seem to make sense of the music and its performance, being excellent in terms of rhythm and timing.

   Purists will probably hate them, but anyone willing to listen with an open mind should gain a clear idea of their remarkable qualities. A very special speaker and one far greater than the sum of its parts.

Jimmy Hughes

Wall to Wall Sound

   Although not the most outrageous loudspeaker in the five-strong range that is being handled in the UK, the Arc is unusual enough. It is a floor standing box with a top surface. In effect the baffle, slanted about 45° upwards, and with a large area passive bass radiator fitted stage rear (the classic 'flapping baffle' of yore). Lift the cover and you'll find not two but three drive units, a 200mm polypropylene cone bass driver, a 34 mm fabric dome midrange and a 25mm metallised dome tweeter.

   One small criticism of the Arcs is that  the  enclosures  are not handed left and right and therefore will not radiate in true mirror image fashion. But the close proximity of the units makes the effective acoustic 'size' very small, and the units sound unusually homogeneous even from close quarters.

   The enclosure, constructed of 19mm wood veneered fibreboard, has an irregular internal shape by virtue of the top panel, and is filled with two grades of sound absorbing material, namely BAF wadding and long hair wool, to give the required absorbent characteristic. This is typical of the fastidious attention to detail of this and other speakers in the range, or at least the Obelisk, which I have examined minutely. The inset base is fitted with hard, wide diameter feet (not spikes) and a single pair of loudspeaker terminals with a fuse inset.

   The most intriguing aspect of the design, however, is the acoustic design. It is Richard Shahinian's belief that a loudspeaker should radiate sound into a room in much the same way that acoustic instruments do which means that the speaker should approach being omnidirectional. The Arc throws the sound upwards and forwards, and is bounced off the hard, reflecting areas of the listening room giving a sense of air and space not usually available from traditional forward radiating loudspeakers. There is a degree of forward bias in the Arc's output though.

   Keen readers will recognise the similarity of concept with the Canon range. Those with white-fringed goatees may even remember Sonab. Come back. Prof. Stig Caarison, all is forgiven. . .

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System Satisfaction from Audiophile June 1994

One for the Vinyl Enthusiast

   In search of system satisfaction this month we decided to see what we could assemble for £6000 that would have a vinyl enthusiast in raptures. We sent Malcolm Steward to Loughborough, to Sound Advice, to set the whole thing spinning...

   Watching while Sound Advice's boss Derek Whittington and Pear Audio's John Burns set up this system was intriguing. Most of the activity centred around the unusual Well Tempered Classic turntable and tone arm. It’s a dream for those vinyl fans who enjoy fine-tuning the front-end set up! There's no aspect of the silicone damped WT tone arms geometry or operation that can't be twiddled or tweaked. That having been said, in use it’s neither fiddly nor delicate.

   Coming to terms with the Classic itself takes a little more effort. A unique main bearing design allows the platter to flop over if you apply slight pressure to the side away from the motor. The latter, incidentally, isn't attached to the main body of the turntable: it sits directly upon the support surface and protrudes through a circular cutout in the plinth. The bearing arrangement sounds highly impractical, but is said to offer a better performance than more conventional bearing designs. Soon adapting to placing a finger on the motor side of the platter while clamping discs onto the deck, I noticed none of the cell-tale signs of poor speed stability nor bearing give while the system was being played.

   Of course, this all had to wait until the deck had been parked on its perch. Burns didn't want to use my regular Mana support, saying that the WT preferred something very substantial beneath it. Exactly how much more substantial than seven steel tables, six sheets of Medite and one of glass - all of them supported upon my concrete floor - I wondered!

   Burns suggested a sideboard or heavy wooden table, saying that his experience showed the WT didn't much favour most steel tables. We compromised by using a Mana Sound Table topped with Medite, upon which we placed a slab of slate separated from the Medite by rubber feet. So supported, the Classic voiced no objections. Its bass sounded as firm and nimble as it had done in Sound Advice's listening room, and the unusually neutral quality I'd heard on vocal recordings was evident, too.

   I enjoyed this system's impressive dynamic compass. One of the discs I bought at Sound Advice was a recording of the Dallas Symphony orchestra playing Copland's Fanfare For The Common Man and dances from the ballet Rodeo. It's a wonderful recording, here made all the more inspiring. From out of a CD-like blackness the music thundered and resounded with breathtaking power and extraordinary finesse. Nowhere was this more apparent than in the recreation of the percussion.

   I dare say chat this was one of a handful of systems I’ve heard that could convey both the instrumental colour and sheer power of this score at anything approaching realistic listening levels. Others that could manage the same degree of poise and insight surely couldn't muster the same physical presence and might. And on the subject of CDs inky black silences, please don't be misled: while the Classic is super quiet it's hard to imagine a CD player that would match the WT and Dynavector pairings reach-out-and-touch-it sense of instrumental timbre and three-dimensionality. Timpani rolls, for instance, weren't merely low frequency rumbles but palpable masses of air being set in motion as a result of skins being fiercely struck.

   As I played more albums two things became apparent above all else. Firstly, this system communicated the emotional qualities in music with remarkable eloquence. Nothing I played left me feeling short-changed in the fun, excitement or drama departments. Secondly - and doubtless partly influential in respect of point one – this system is one of those rare animals that could be simultaneously musical and analytical. It's a detail vulture, but its facility for information gathering rarely intruded upon its ability to involve me in the music.

   This latter quality, however, is to some extent tuneable, as I discovered by accident. During a session I put on an elderly Steve Marriott album, 30 Seconds to Midnite, for the track All Or Nothing. But it sounded uncharacteristically detailed in a hi-fi-ish, clinical manner - certainly an informative portrayal, but not especially involving nor as coherent as I'd expected. Indeed, the system appeared to have lost some of its approachable, human quality and taken on a comparatively mechanical, artificial character...

   I switched to another album, and normality was restored. So I went back to the Marriott disc and that now seemed okay. There was no loss of detail, but now everything seemed cogent and properly integrated. John Burns suggested a possible cause: I'd tightened down the Classic's record clamp too much. He was right! Backing it off a quarter of a turn did the trick. It's important to fix records firmly to the platter, but you must avoid placing them under tension. This particular disc's tight centre hole had exacerbated the situation.

   When you have discs clamped optimally the system reveals what’s happening within recordings and mixes without any undue highlighting. It seems to separate notes better, to punctuate phrases and passages more accurately with silences, allowing individual events to be more clearly appreciated. The rhythmic precision of tracks on the Steve Marriott disc and others reinforced this hypothesis. When the Well Tempered latches onto a groove it leaves you in no doubt of its ability to portray timing information decisively and sympathetically. The temporally adept Naim amplifiers and responsive Shahinian speakers reflect this quality more than adequately.

   The system is revealing of its own set-up and state of tune. I'd wired the speakers initially with Audio Note silver cable while the Naim NAC A5 cables destined to connect the system were being prepared. I've used this particular Audio Note cable with Naim amps and other speakers quite successfully, but it wasn't happy here. The system sounded closed-in, the bass was weakened and less tuneful, the top end unusually dirty and lacking in transparency. Switching to NAC A5 pumped up the bass, cleaned the mid and treble, and opened out the sound remarkably.

   This was how the system stayed for the remainder of its sojourn. I felt no urge to tinker or twiddle, but I'll admit that it made me feel incredibly guilt-stricken. I realised just how lazy I've become of late - simply switching on the CD player when I want to relax, rather than blowing the dust off a record occasionally! While I lived with this system I rediscovered the joys of vinyl and relived the excitement of previous milestone encounters in my addiction to long-playing records - such as buying a Naim ARO tone-arm, and first planting my Linn on a Mana table.

   A flick-through the pile of unusual bedfellow discs next to the Classic — Fun Boy Threes Waiting, John McLaughlin's Extrapolation, Little Feat's Last Record Album, and Mozart's Le Nozze De Figaro - best witnesses the systems finest qualities. The diversity tells you that it treats all manner of music equally and, just an importantly, that it stimulates that I-wonder-what-this-disc-will-sound-like appetite, which is the most reliable indicator of a system working as it should. Any confection that encourages me to mix Lowell George with opera -for fun and not professional interest – has to be worth taking seriously!

   One final note concerning the most frequently cited criticism of vinyl systems - distracting surface noise. I didn't once remove a disc because I found surface noise in the least intrusive. And remember that I listen at high levels and usually clean records by wiping them with the first soft object that comes to hand. The lack of HF nasties has nothing to do with the systems tonal balance: this rig covers the range from lowest bass to highest treble without any mollifying subjective dips.

   In short, while this system certainly presents music in a fashion which I found more than somewhat different to the one with which I regularly live, I reckon it's one of a very small number I could readily adjust to. Even if that meant using a record clamp and having the deck parked on a sideboard!

Selecting the System

   The system I’d discussed by phone with Sound Advice had been set up before I arrived. It was amended slightly – to include a less expensive cartridge and power amplifier than the planned £998 DynavectorXX1-L and £940 Naim NAP180 - merely because of a communications mishap regarding what was to be included in the price. That sorted, my writing schedule then coincided with Naim Audio’s April price rises, so we nonetheless still broke the bank — but only by a paltry £69!

   Otherwise everything sailed plainly. I walked into the demonstration room, sat and listened to Hendrix, Jeff Beck, Edgar Varèse and Copland seasoned with a dash of Adrian Sherwood, and said ‘Wrap it up, I’ll take it’

   Buying hi-fi in real life should be that easy. Forget endless A/B comparisons chasing insignificant cosmetic differences; three quarters of any successful and worthwhile demonstration should be spent pillaging the dealer’s record shelves. If it isn’t, then whatever’s under consideration clearly isn’t especially exciting.

   From the outset, Sound Advice’s system played music so fluently and persuasively that I felt no inclination to fret about its performance or presentational aspects - not that there were any that concerned me unduly. There’s almost nothing else to say... 

   After five minutes messing to bring the line-up onto budget and ensure that it still delivered the performance I wanted, I spent the rest of the afternoon working through proprietor Derek Whittington’s demo discs and filling a carrier bag with vinyl from the healthy stock of records he sells alongside the hi-fi.

   Two factors - apart from the system itself - probably explain the ease with which I selected this system...

   The first is the demonstration room at Sound Advice’s Loughborough premises, which is especially conducive to listening to music. There’s no equipment in the room bar the pair of speakers being auditioned, which, along with carefully chosen decor, makes for a thoroughly comfortable atmosphere for listening.

   Secondly, there’s the shop’s music-first attitude. I’ve known Whittington for over ten years and I’ve never had a conversation with him yet that didn’t conclude with a list of album recommendations. 

   It was hardly surprising that he’d assembled a system that was right on my wavelength, one that was overtly musically informative and rewarding. And, though it incorporated one of Naim Audio’s smaller amplifiers, it easily fulfilled my requirement for playing at realistic volume levels. As Whittington pragmatically asserts, you can’t sell someone a £6000 system and then tell them that it will work properly only at modest levels!

Shahinian Arc Loudspeakers

   The Shahinian Arcs depart from conventional loudspeaker design at every turn. For starters, their cabinets aren’t spiked — they squat on the floor, on plastic feet. Then they’re not bi-wirable. Good grief, they even have fuses in them! All this sacrilege is apparent before you consider what appears to be their most obvious fault - none of the speaker’s drive units point towards you. The passive radiator bass unit fires away from you while the bass, midrange and treble drivers aim sky-wards. If that’s not enough to upset your sensibilities then listening to them will be.

   While you’d have every right to expect an oddball performance, you find that while they’re certainly different these speakers are also incredibly involving and musically can-did. They have an openness and a sense of composure that provides an indecently clean window through which you may happily indulge in musical voyeurism.

   New drive units and a revised crossover also mean that the Arcs are no longer the ball-breakers they use to be.  With a high sensitivity (probably just over 88dB, I’d guess) and an impedance curve that’s friendlier than before, they no longer demand more than most amplifiers could comfortably deliver. Suitably sourced and driven, they provide an eye-opening insight into music — emotionally stimulating and astonishingly earthy.

   Though they’re physically compact, there’s nothing diminutive about the performances the Arcs offer. They are, despite being more muscular than they look, also sensitive souls: they’re very revealing of aspects of system set up that can pass unnoticed on other speakers.

Design Talk

A Radiation Theory...

   In System Satisfaction, page 4, Malcolm Steward listens to a combination that includes the highly unconventional Shahinian Arc loudspeakers. Here, he talks to Dick Shahinian, their creator. 

   In an afternoon’s conversation with New York-born Dick Shahinian I found myself discussing topics as diverse as real ale and Turner. In his likeable and flamboyant manner Shahinian labels Turner as one of the ‘cosmic greats’ in art. We talked music too - this man has a truly encyclopaedic knowledge. The consequence of it all? I gained a better appreciation of why Shahinians loudspeakers flout convention. Here’s some of what he told me, though in this space I can barely penetrate the surface of the erudite and entertaining discourse he gave...

   ‘Fifty years ago, when I was fourteen, I went to my first concert at Carnegie Hall. I came away thinking records are a joke, affecting to duplicate that dynamic range and tone at home! That was what started me in audio — the idea that somehow it could be done. Since then, my reaction to convention has been that being one of the pack is truly boring. I think that going back and looking at what’s been ignored is more interesting than going forward like some blind fool, hurtling ahead to find that what’s there isn’t really that interesting or different.

   ‘Ninety-nine per cent of loudspeakers copy each other, either looking or sounding alike. I’m taking another direction, following people like Otto Enckel, A. Stewart Hegeman, Murray Crosby and Buckminster Fuller. I’m not trying to challenge the rest of the audio community - other than to say that I’m impatient with its idea that what 1m doing is off-centre! I’m ready to start taking on its attitude towards non-directional or omni-directional sound and address the fact that all sound in the universe is radial and not directional.

   ‘What I'm doing is not trail-blazing or innovative, because much of my work is based on things that you’ll find in Harry F. Olsons treatise in 1939, following simple ideas such as the geometry published in Van Nostrand’s Elements of Acoustic Engineering. This said that the worst possible shape for a loudspeaker is a square cube with the driver mounted in the centre of one face, and that the second worst is a rectangular box - which is exactly what most modern loudspeakers are. The top form of the Shahinian Obelisk — by accident, because I didn’t see Olson’s book until after I’d designed it - is the second most nearly correct shape for a loudspeaker: the best is a sphere while the second is a pyramid with a rectangular base.

   ‘Nobody seems to consider that the waveforms of music and sound are radial. They radiate in all directions so why make a loudspeaker box where the drivers sit on one face pointing towards you? Listen to someone standing in the middle of a room and speaking: have them rotate through 360 degrees and they have a sound that you can specifically hear as being on-axis and off-axis. Put that voice through a conventional loudspeaker and rotate it, and once you get about ten or fifteen degrees off- axis — notwithstanding all the nonsense published about dispersion! - the voice takes on a very different character because of diffraction and collected axial effects. Do that with our loudspeakers and it sounds more like a person rotating. This sounds primitive, but it demonstrates that what’s really required is that a loudspeaker be a point source with polydirectional activity.

   ‘Using such speakers you can enjoy the recreation of a three-dimensional, natural effect of listening to music instead of the synthetic activity of listening to two sources. About ten years ago the then technical editor of Stereo Review, Larry Klein, wrote that he did not like the idea of stereo — because he knew of no music which started out as two sources! The spirit of what I’m doing is to go back to the professional symbol used for stereo - a pair of overlapped circles. I don’t recognise left and right. For me its left all the way to right, front all the way to back, I’ve never yet seen a conductor conducting an orchestra where the middle of the stage was empty, yet I think most loudspeakers sound like that.

   ‘This preoccupation with a phantom image in between the loudspeakers, which everybody gets so thrilled about, can easily be achieved by the worst loudspeakers in the world — simply by switching to mono. So what’s the big excitement about? To sit and listen to left and right was finished at the very beginning of stereo. It was page one of the book and we should have turned over by now…’

Proof of the Pudding

   Listen to Shahinian with a closed mind and preconceptions founded on conventional thinking and you alight indeed consider him off-centre. However, he has ways of confronting cynicism: ‘I did a series of psychoacoustical experiments every weekend for eleven weeks, using two pairs of identical Obelisk loudspeakers, one of which pairs was concealed by acoustically transparent screens. Every listener greatly preferred what they were sure were the larger speakers behind the screens. That alone illustrates that we still have much to learn about listening to music and loudspeakers.’

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Owner Review of Obelisk


    The  Shahinian  Obelisk  is  a  speaker  that  has  thoroughly captivated my soul.  As it is a very unusual design, its virtues and design are best understood by comparison with more ordinary kinds of designs.  Hence a brief digression into the hows and whys of speaker design.

   What is the  job of a speaker?   Simply put,  to convert electricity into air motion, in accordance with the way that air motion was converted into that electricity in the first place.  A speaker  is pretty much  the opposite of  a microphone.   A microphone is supposed to transform air motion into electricity in a predetermined   fashion.   A perfect chain from microphone to storage to playback to speakers should produce the exact pattern of air motion present at the microphone(s).   Alas,  nothing is perfect.

   Ruling out  losses from microphones,  storage and playback equipment, a speaker should produce a pattern of air motion that matches the original (microphone feed) as closely as possible.  An ideal speaker should do exactly what the amplifier tells it to do,  nothing  more,  nothing  less.    (In my  opinion  this  is  the paradigm for any piece of stereo equipment, to simply do what its predecessor tells it to do without adding or subtracting anything. ) The best that we can hope for from a real world speaker is an increasingly close approximation to that ideal.

   The problems of speaker design and operation are immediately complicated by the  fact  that while speakers are rather  like microphones in their principles of operation, they are little like the musical instruments that produce the original sounds.  A stereo recording is (usually) the result of multiple sound sources being funneled into two channels.   The speakers must then create the illusion of the original array of sound sources.  All of this in the face of two major unknowns:     The amplifier-cable-speaker interface/interaction, and the speaker-room interface/interaction.

   There are additional problems of size, cost, appearance, and how many individuals may simultaneously hear and enjoy a proper presentation of a stereo recording.  Speakers must be real-world products.  They must be affordable, and fit in with the decor of the room in which they are placed;  specially since many audio systems occupy people’s living rooms.  And, if a couple wants to listen to music together, they really shouldn’t have to fight for the  “sweet  spot”.    (Think about  the  communal  superiority  of television in this regard. )

   Then  of  course,  there  are  the  more  technical  design considerations,  including:  Planar vs.  dynamic,  and if planar, ribbon, or electrostatic.   If dynamic, one must worry about full range vs, a satellite-subwoofer arrangement; crossover points, the number of drivers, and the specific frequency ranges that they should handle.  There are also considerations of frequency response-  tonal  balance,  impedance,  power  handling,  efficiency,  time alignment, shape, size, weight, point vs. line source, loudness capabilities,  dispersion,  and  finish.    And,  there  are  also production considerations such as cost, repeatability for low unit to unit variation, whether it can be UPSed, stable parts sources, etc..  All in all, it seems that the speaker designer’s job is a unending  nightmare  of  interlocking  design  and  production considerations.  It’s really a wonder anyone bothers.

   To my thinking, success or failure of a particular speaker design consists in achieving a unified gestalt, rather than a focus on particular aspects of design or performance. There are no such things  as  ideal  woofers,  tweeters,  crossovers,  or  cabinets, considered in isolation.  What really matters is how the components interact  with  each  other.    Whole  designs  are  what  count.  Similarly, a great smile by Itself, does not make a great person.  I believe that many audiophiles are too concerned with what’s in the box and what it’s made out of, instead of with its performance, visual appeal, affordability, usefulness, and value.

   It’s a real challenge to review speakers because of their unpredictable interactions with rooms and amplifiers.  Speakers, unlike most loads, fight back.   Speakers  produce an electrical signal when moving backwards, and how different amplifiers are able to ignore this back EMF is somewhat unpredictable.   And,  it is difficult to assess how this affects the sound, as you can’t hear the amp without booking it up to speakers, and vice versa.

   As the Obelisk is a rather unique design, before commenting on its sound I will describe their appearance and configuration, (Most of this data is taken directly from Shahinian’s brochure.) Imagine a Neanderthal Washington monument in wood and cloth.  The rectangular portion of the cabinet is constructed from ¾” Finland birch, veneered in your choice of wood.  The pyramid tops and the woofers are covered with either black or brown grille cloth, to aesthetically match the choice of veneer for the main cabinets.  The edges of the Finland birch are mitered and exposed, producing a striking and elegant contrast with the veneer.

   The dimensions are 29” high, by 14.5” wide, by 12.5” deep.  They weigh 55 lbs. each, and the speaker is on double wheeled plastic casters.

   The Obelisk uses a patented woofer loading technique called the “Shahinian passive radiator”.   It features a front firing 8” polypropylene curved texture cone woofer with a 1.5” aluminum high temperature voice coil and a 28 oz. ceramic magnet.  The woofer is mounted on the lower third of the front face of the cabinet, slightly off center horizontally.  The cabinet is a transmission line terminated by a rear-firing plastic 10” passive radiator.  Each of the four  faces of the pyramid contains a “W-shaped” polyamid dome tweeter with a 10mm voice coil.  The front and back faces of the pyramid top contain “34mm cambric ultra light exposed dome midrange drivers”.  The woofer cabinet is damped with lamb’s wool and virgin polyfill.    The Obelisks are not mirror imaged, and their nominal impedance is 6 ohms.

   The Obelisk is configured as a three way design with a 6dB/octave slope for the woofer, and 18dB/octave slopes for both the midranges and the tweeters.   It is comprised of high quality drivers and crossover parts, and is wired internally with Kimber cable.  They are assembled with a perfectionist’s eye toward fit and finish;  and the reviewed pair was supplied in Rosewood.  The cabinetwork is extremely good, among the best I’ve seen.  It is easily of furniture quality.  The veneers are carefully matched, so that each surface of the speakers has markings that match the respective surface on its mate.  This on every pair of Shahinian’s that I’ve seen, not all of which have been Obelisks;  (about 10-15 pair, if you’re curious.)  Every speaker is given a listening test to verify  that  it  is  performing correctly before  leaving the factory.

   The crossovers are mounted on the bottom of the cabinet, and the panels contain binding posts which accept dual bananas, spade lugs or bare wire.  The panels also contain screw-in fuse holders for regular 3 amp fuses.

   It is easy to connect large gauge stiff speaker cables to the Obelisks since the speaker cabinets are nicely elevated by the casters.  The bottom connection is a nice touch, not only because it makes the speaker wire less obtrusive visually, but also because the speaker wire doesn’t have to run several feet up to connect to the back of the speaker.  Given the cost of today’s best speaker cables, it’s nice to save six or so feet of cable via bottom rather than rear connection.

   The reason for the pyramid top and front woofer-rear passive radiator, is so that the speaker can simulate a pulsating sphere point  source.    Given  the  dispersion  characteristics  of  the particular drivers and their mounting positions, the Obelisk is largely omnidirectional.

   According to Shahinian, all musical waveforms are spherical in origin.  As such, only a point source omnidirectional speaker can  correctly  reproduce  these  waveforms.    So,  the  unusual configuration of the Obelisk  is in fact a vital aspect of the design, rather than an attempt to market them on the basis of an unusual shape.

   I have heard the Obelisks with a variety of amplifiers in four different rooms.  I have spent at least ten hours listening to them in each of these rooms, so these are valid reviewing experiences.  (FYI the four rooms are:  Shahinian’s room at the June Consumer Electronics Show, Bedini’s room at the same Consumer Electronics Show, an audio showroom where I worked for a year and had ample time to familiarize myself with the room, ancillary equipment etc., and at home.)  Therefore, I feel equipped to speak accurately and intelligently about the performance of these speakers under a variety of real world conditions.

   I first fell in love with the Shahinian Obelisks about a year ago at the June Consumer Electronics Show in Chicago.   I kept returning to Shahinian’s suite to hear music, as opposed to hi-fi.  Shahinian plays his speakers at the show, rather than trying to sell them.   This is an important and not  too subtle matter.  Shahinian is not alone in this regard, but is certainly in the minority.    It  amazes  me  that  these  speakers  have  been  in production, virtually unchanged for 10 years or so, and have been entirely ignored by the audio press.  What they do they do uniquely well.   They do nothing badly.   In this regard they are only bettered by their more expensive siblings - the Diapason.

   The Obelisks, somewhat uniquely in my experience, provide the listener with an uncanny insight into the recording’s environment and microphone placement.  Their sound is spacious and effortless, and they do not homogenize recordings.  Records that should sound different do sound different.   They don’t call attention to a particular part of the frequency spectrum.  They produce a large soundstage in width, depth, and height when and only when the recording has soundstage information.  They are neither forward nor recessed,  again this depends on the recording.  Some records throw the soundstage mostly in front of the speakers, some partially in front  and partially behind them,  and some mostly behind  the speakers.

   They  are  neither  bright  (tilted up  tonal  balance)  nor warm/sluggish (downward tilted tonal balance).   Bright records sound bright through them, dull warm records sound warm and dull through them.  Acoustic music simply miked in performance spaces sounds that way.  Artificial studio recordings sound artificial.

   The Obelisk is a detailed speaker without the false detail from tweaking the frequency response.  They produce accurate tone colors, harmonic and soundstage information when appropriate.  They neither add it nor subtract it.  They are a wonderful speaker to use  if you want  to enjoy your records and CDs,  as they are decidedly not hi-fi artifice.  They don’t strike you as detailed, instead they simply allow you to hear more of what’s going on in the performance.  They don’t tell you things, they simply let you hear them.

   For me the main virtue of the Obelisks is that they let me forget the equipment and focus on the performance.  I can’t think of a better criterion for evaluating audio equipment.   They are coherent and realistic, producing a smooth relaxed sound. They do not, however, do this by robbing dynamics and smoothing over the source.  Rather, they just seem to be very comfortable producing whatever you feed them.

   No single performance aspect of these speakers calls attention to the speakers themselves.  In general, when an audio product has noticeable performance in a single attribute, e.g., good bass, good imaging, this should alert you to the fact that the speaker must be doing less well in other areas.

   Instead, the design should be successful as a coherent whole.  This the Obelisks do quite well.   They disappear from the room, making it difficult to determine that the sound is coming from those unusual looking boxes.  Instead, the speaker end of the room takes on the characteristics of the space where the recording was made.  The speakers get out of the way so the music can come out.

   Some of  you might  be  used  to  reviews  that  dissect  the performance of an audio component, describing  various aspects of its  performance  in  metaphoric  language  somewhat  akin  to  the esoteric terminology of wine tasting,  for example.   It is my contention that this misses the point.  The easier it is to dissect the performance of the audio component,  the  less coherent and unified its performance.  When I listen to the Obelisk it disarms my critical faculties.  Instead of thinking about bass, highs, or imaging,  I  find myself thinking about  the performance of the musicians, the ambience of the performance space, and other purely musical criteria.  These speakers just don’t sound like speakers.  They do,  however,  perform quite well  in traditional high end performance parameters.

   The highs are sweet, dynamic and extended, not bright, harsh, hard or grainy.  Records that have a natural high end sound this way.  Conversely, records that are bright or grainy sound that way.  Deep bass is reproduced with tight, harmonically accurate, clear-pitched bass.  A well listened audiophile friend proclaimed these as the best imaging speakers that he’d ever heard.  He thought that his Snell AS’s, which cost three times the price and are almost four times the size produced more bass.  He could muster no other critical remark.   He was dumbfounded.   Another friend, between smiles,  said   “My speakers image pretty good,  these are truly amazing. “

   While  these  speakers  do  not  sound  bad  reproducing  any particular kind of music they really come into their own with well recorded acoustic jazz and classical music - the penchant of their designer.    Shahinian knows well, and loves,  the sound of the concert hall, and knows how to produce speakers that evoke the beauty, bloom, and emotional sweep of live music.

   In addition to their wonderful musical sound, the Obelisks have many other equally important virtues.   They are small, therefore visually unobtrusive.  They don’t take over the listening room the way some speakers can.

   They aren’t that fussy about placement,  just keep them a foot or so from walls, away from the corners, and in my experience, do not toe them in.  They like to be fairly far apart, and given their ease of placement, the casters allow them to be easily rolled to the appropriate location.

   Additionally, they throw a wide stereo image.  These are not a lock your head in a vice speaker. They have large sweet spot that is several feet wide.   My sofa is seven feet wide and I can hear a good stereo presentation from any position on my sofa without lamenting being off the center position.  Thus, these speakers not only produce world class sound, but they satisfy every rational real-world consideration. This makes them not only a great value, but also a product that is easy to live with.  I can’t think of any way to improve them.

   The Obelisk is a complete, coherent design that has stood the test of time.  They deserve to make Dick Shahinian wealthy, even though this is not a particular concern of his.  I am delighted and proud to own a pair of these myself.   Until I can afford the Diapasons I would not swap these for any other speaker that I’ve heard, even though I’ve heard many very good speakers that are worthwhile in their own right.


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The Absolute Sound

Golden Ear Award Dec. 99/Jan 2000

  The Shahinian Obelisks have been around for more than 20 years, but they have been continuously refined to keep pace with driver technology, and it was only this year that The Absolute Sound obtained a pair for review. The Obelisks are the heart of the Stereo for Mr. Stevens (see the Fifth Column, Issues 116 - 121). No other speakers I have heard in the $[outdated price removed] price range come close in filling the room with sound while rendering images with non-fatiguing refinement. They will work acceptably well with “affordable” sources and amplification, but they will only show what they are truly capable of with purified wall current, a coherently musical front end, amplifiers that have extraordinary bass control, and fast, detailed cables. Considering the Obelisks’ driver count and cabinet complexity, their price seems stuck circa the Carter presidency, so grab a pair quickly. The Obelisks are the loudspeaker sleeper bargain.


Mr. Steven's Stereo

   The refinement of Mr. Stevens’ stereo-in-progress (see Issue115) continues. In fact, we have arrived at Provisionally Poetic and Acceptable System No. 1. Not, perhaps, the final word, but a safe bet that is worth getting excited about.

   The Thorens CD player has been gently nudged out by the slightly more affordable ($2,500) Enlightened Audio Designs Ultradisc 2000 Revised. (Additional benefit: HDCD decoding.) Enlightened’s CD player excels in coherently bringing out musical subtleties such as vocal and instrumental vibrato. The individual pulses of Ella Fitzgerald’s vibrato on “You’d Be So Easy To Love” {The Cole Porter Songbook, Vol. 2, Verve CD 821-990-2} came into focus as never before. This wonderful focus, both spatial and temporal, does not come at the cost of edginess or glaze. Until further notice, the Ultradisc 2000 Revised is our digital source “King of the Hill.”

   Another high-quality integrated amp made its appearance here recently: Conrad-Johnson’s all-tube CAV-50. The CAV-50 delivers enjoyable sound quality and good value for money.

Thoughtful design couches and beefy build, including lather massive transformers, make it closer competition for the 150 wpc Plinius 8150 than a 50 wpc tube amp has any right to be. If non-fatiguing (though not objectionably euphonic) listening is your Number 1 priority, you will be happy with the CAV-50.

   If your budget for amplification tops out at $2,500, you can acquire the CAV-50 with no regrets, and with much confidence in its maker’s track record and customer service. On balance, though, my judgment is that the Plinius 8150 is well worth the additional $500 (though if your favorite recordings benefit from tubular taming or your room volleys the high treble around, the C-J may be more synergistic in your system).

   So the amplification “King of the Hill” remains the Plinius 8150. What makes the Plinius 8150 worth the additional money is finer detail, deeper and more dynamic bass, and more “air.”  But both amps are safely over the line dividing the compromisers from the truly capable servants of music.

   Impressive as they are, the Speaker Art Super Clef loudspeakers are a near-budget ($1,599) product. Direct comparison with my portable 2-way monitors of choice, the Atelier de Synergic Acoustique’s inventively named ASA Pro Monitors (ah, the wry subtlety of French wit), emphasized both strengths and weaknesses in the Super Clefs. The ASA Pros cost about $3,250 in France, so it is an admittedly unfair, but nonetheless instructive, comparison.

   The Super Clefs were demonstrably the more articulate of the two. Our test disc for articulation is the Kings Singers’ excruciatingly poofteh Gilbert & Sullivan Here’s a Howdy Do [RCA CD 09026-61885-2). On Track 9, “With Cat-Like Tread,” certain words that were questionable on the ASA Pros were intelligible on the Super Clefs. Still, the ASAs had more solidity, sweetness, and bloom, especially on orchestral strings.  Picking which speakers just to listen to music on was no contest.  (For fairness’ sake, I will one day evaluate a more expensive Speaker Art offering.)

   Comparing the costs of the two tweeters (Vifa fabric dome vs. Dynaudio Esotec) went a long way toward explaining what I was hearing. Dollars (or francs) spent on parts also explains why, despite their numerous virtues, the ASA Pro Monitors are too rich for Mr. Stevens’ system budget. Especially after the costs of importation are taken into account.  (And like most two-way monitors, the ASA Pro Monitors lack deep bass.) So we have shifted the search to loudspeakers costing in the US up to $3,000 with hoped-for economies elsewhere to balance the budget later.

   On cue, a pair of Shahinian Acoustics’ Obelisk loudspeakers ($[outdated price removed] and up, depending on finish) glided into the system on wheeled casters. The 29 x 13 x 15-inch, 55-pound Obelisks look like squat wooden replicas of the Washington Monument.  Slightly wider than deep, they are surmounted by a four-sided pyramid covered in black fabric. They combine a front-firing 8- inch woofer-mid coupled to a patented rear-mounted passive radiator at the end of a quasi-transmission line, two 1.5-inch dome midranges (on the front and back faces of the pyramid), and four tweeters (one on each face of the pyramid).

   Richard Shahinian is devoted to orchestral music. He designs and voices his speakers to recreate the concert hall, not test tones. Celebrity Shahinian owners include not only this magazines Scot Markwell but also Plinius’ Peter Thomson, so it is no surprise that the Obelisks and the 8150 harmonize splendidly. The Obelisks handily crump the ASAs in bass, and offer a tonally different but equally evocative window into the music.

   On Telarc’s Robert Shaw Brahms German Requiem CD (have you bought your copy yet?), the grandeur was manifest: glorious organ bass, shimmering string tone, individuated choral voices.  The Shahinians, based on A. Stewart Hegeman’s polyradial point-source theory, excel at presenting tonally luscious orchestral texture in a frame of width and height usually unobtainable at this price. And you aren’t confined to a “sweet spot” 18 inches wide, either.

   Quibbles? Front-firing stand-mounted monitors such as the ASAs resolve center images, especially from monophonic sources, appreciably better. (The ASA Pros’ rendering of monophonic Ella Fitzgerald recordings is eerily holographic.) Furthermore, the Obelisks attempt to deliver the sound of Shahinian’s $[outdated price removed] Diapasons at one-third the cost, so the same 8-inch driver handles all of the bass and much of the midrange.  The result is a velvety and slightly recessed lower midrange, coupled with plummy bass.* In neither case offensive, just somewhat unfocused. But for listening to music, this is a system that pulls together admirably and happily.


So, despite a $750 budget over-run, I hereby proclaim a Provisionally Poetic and Acceptable System for Mr. Stevens:

            Enlightened Audio Designs Ultradisc 2000 CD player ($2,500)

           Plinius 8150 integrated amplifier ($2,950)

            Shahinian Obelisk loudspeakers ($[outdated price removed])

The total is $[outdated price removed] — our core-system target was $7,500. And you still need wire goods. But this system substantially meets the goals I posited in Issue 115:

   I can recommend it with complete confidence to a friend. It delivers musical enjoyment and lasting value for the money. I cannot yet say with certainty that it is the optimum, just that it substantially meets all the desiderata, except (sigh) price.

   So the quest continues with two goals: evaluating alternative speaker designs and design approaches (e.g., planar and electrostatic), and trying to equal or surpass the performance of the Enlightened and Plinius electronics for less money.  Next time: speakers, wire products, and the string quartets of Ravel and Debussy. Questions or suggestions, please write, call, or e-mail (



Enlightened Audio Designs: (515) 472-4132

Conrad-Johnson Design Group: (703) 698-8581

Atelier de Synergic Acoustique: fax: 011 33 54 695 5511

Shahinian Acoustics: (631) 736 0033

Ella Fitzgerald, The King’s Singers, and Ein Deutsches Requiem recordings:

800 75-MUSIC or


*That the center of the woofer is about 9” from the floor may contribute to the plumminess. The factory assures me that the bass tightens up with break-in.

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