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Ear Wax
by Srajan Ebaen
Click here to e-mail reviewer

 

Vince Christian
Mutiny in the County

 

Buccaneer’s cove

  Unless you know the geography of John Steinbeck’s “East of Eden” country like the back of your hand – Monterey county and the Salinas valley -- you could accuse Vince Christian Ltd. of Moss Landing to be barely on the map yet. And if he were to play his cards right, he’d never turn into a big household name speaker design house. Yet, look closer and you’ll realize that Vince has been at it for quite a few years. In one incarnation or another, his unusually widely-spaced d’Appolito monitors and small-cube subwoofer have played the central California scene for two past Stereophile summer shows – San Francisco and Los Angeles, receiving a “Best of Show” nomination for his Axis model by Peter Moncrieff – and since gained reference status with Steve McCormack and Jim Merod for their live BluePort recording projects, and with Robert Lee and Dan Griffith at Acoustic Zen and neighboring Gilles Gameiro of Birdland Audio for research and development on their in-house products.

When fellow manufacturers quietly displace much costlier loudspeaker systems for that of a newcomer to monitor the comings and goings of their own creations with newfound accuracy, chances are excellent this occurred purely because the underdog performed. It certainly didn’t happen because he bestowed prestige with a recognizably meaty growl, curried political favors with shoulders muscled from years of survival or engendered cash-happy business alliances by throwing his menacing weight around.

 

And indeed, Christian’s penetration of the critical hearing threshold with certain experienced listeners has occurred quietly, without fanfare, salubrious marketing campaigns, mainstream reviews or even a concerted effort at playing all the usual odds. He’s concentrated instead on refining his core product, the E-6 monitors, maintaining sane inventory levels and supporting a handful of dealers that have come aboard. For the past six years, Vince Christian has been his own boss. He’s supported himself entirely with his love of audio, kept his overhead low and reminded himself on occasion that living in Monterey Bay with a family-based business is far more rewarding than moving north to Silicon Valley and hitting the big time with all its headaches.

 

The open seas are a’ calling

Of course there comes a point in every enterprise when growing bigger does rear its chimerical head with the specter of absolute necessity. Christian, who in his own words “never got the designing out of the way to get to the business part” feels he’s laid the proper groundwork to finally hoist his very own skull & bones flag: his investment of sweat equity and greenbacks now has to make a real profit and turn into a proper business. As El Grande Kahuna and Head Enchilada of his outfit, he must become an even bigger cheese than “merely” playing designer, inventor, fabricator, shipper and bookkeeper. He must spill his beans as entrepreneurial marketeer and sauce up his self worth and that of his speakers with plenty of spicy mole. At 52, Christian’s no longer a wide-eyed spring chicken. Unlike most freshly hatched purveyors of fine audio gear, he no longer believes entirely that the world at large needs saving from bad sound badly enough to guarantee success with superior product alone. But make no mistake - the proverbial field of dreams archetype “build it and they’ll come” still yanks with a highly charged magnetic pull on a truly passionate guy like Vince – that’s the breaks of being an enthusiast rather than a cold cucumber in a fancy suit. Still, raw life experience in other strata of employment has tempered his unmitigated enthusiasm just enough to have his eyes wide open. He realizes that plenty of less-than-stellar products exist that enjoy enviable economic responses like rabid Las Vegas slot machines, while truly groundbreaking products have come and gone the dead-end way of the dodo, to be remembered by only a few ancient fossils.

 

But first, a series treasure map

Recalling his own beginnings, Vince lights up today in wonder at first encountering a friend’s father’s Heath Kit, Allied tri-axial speakers and AR turntable. He’s been hooked on audio ever since even though his own parents kept encouraging him repeatedly to look toward real jobs instead. Incidentally, this well-meaning parental de-meriting of turning one’s passion into a business is a very common denominator among creative folks. It’s something you’ll come across in High-End audio a lot. At times it’s not even anecdotal evidence buried in the remote past but present-day doubts and misgivings by the very ones who followed their bliss only to have arrived in questionable financial circumstances today. Ah, the webs we all weave for ourselves!

In Christian’s case, while harsh reason held out as long as it could -- from selling produce to working in public relations firms to playing guitar in a band that nearly signed with Apple Records -- building speakers continued as a juicy romance in the background all along. This brought with it the study of most everything that’s been written about speaker design by the authorities. He quips that little of this body of work relates to how a speaker actually sounds. He points to similarly populist measures of Megahertz computer speeds that disguise how fast a PC can really run restrained by its operating system and other less advertised liabilities.

A visit to the San Francisco Audio Excellence dealership exposed our up-and-coming speaker designer to the Rogers LS35A monitors teamed up with a Dahlquist subwoofer. This became a pivotal experience. It steered the next part of his evolution by creating an aural expectation that caused him to eventually come up with something to outperform and finally erase this obnoxious imprint. It also tuned out to be terribly inefficient and hard to drive, forcing him back to the drawing board. Incidentally, his website features a gallery page that documents select one-up projects that preceded the products marketed today.

Taking advantage of computer programs to create sophisticated and complex crossovers, Vince soon concluded that flat frequency response and unified power response alone predicted with precious little accuracy how a speaker would really perform in a standard living room environment. He eventually also realized that conventional parallel crossovers caused more problems than they solved. He implemented 1st-order Butterworth filters as the least harmful alternative before terminal frustration led him to cross paths with series-type networks. This turned affable Vince Christian into mutinous Fletcher Christian, defying popular parallelist wisdom and joining ranks with such constant-voltage underground heretics as Bud Fried and Robert Gross who chase after minimizing group delay and phase rotation in their own work of integrating speaker drivers into a seamless whole.

 

A proper pirate map lacks pieces to maintain that aura of secrecy and mystery

It’s well known that, except for 1st order types, all conventional parallel Butterworth filter types suffer from phase anomalies while offering maximally flat on-axis behavior. Implementing designers of course claim that their compromised time domain behavior remains inaudible and is of interest only to theoretical purists. Popular forth-order Linkwitz-Riley topologies feature sharp roll-offs and optimized off-axis response but suffer from the most severe phase rotation. Those like Dunlavy, Green Mountain, Meadowlark, Sonus Faber, Thiel and Vandersteen who believe that such time domain errors are very much audible and thus highly critical claim that these trade-offs result in inferior transient response, confused imaging and a narrow sweet spot.

In a series network, all crossover components are inserted between hot and ground. They’re shunted across the transducer terminals to create a single closed loop circuit that delivers identical current and voltage to all drivers. This effectively causes every single network element to affect or load every other one. These volatile variables seem to have caused all known speaker designers to shun higher-order series filters like the plague, Bob Gross of Speaker Art excepted. Over many years of trial and error, he has perfected 4th and 8th order cascaded quasi-second order series networks as first suggested by the mathematician Kaminsky.

The least complex iteration of a series filter is an electrical 1st order capacitor/coil design. When added to the purely mechanical roll-off any driver exhibits even in free air, it combines to an effective second-order or 12dB response, or what Bob Gross would call a quasi-second order filter. Citing from his website [www.speakerart.com] “...such a  [] crossover maintains full amplitude linearity through the crossover region, and exhibits a rising rate of attenuation beyond the crossover point reaching a maximum of 12dB per octave. Moreover, phase linearity is better than for any other crossover type excepting the first order Butterworth...”

The Vince Christian Ltd. E-6 uses a 1st-order series network. This naturally necessitated wide bandwidth drivers to augment the shallow filter slope. He’s found them in the Audax 5-inch woven carbon fiber units that he fancies over the firm’s Aerogel or Bextrine versions housed in the same basket. He crosses them over at a very high 8.2kHz and calls them essentially flat from 100Hz to 8000Hz. Using two of them increases the amount of air he can move so that piano and even male vocals are reproduced with correct timbre and weight. The crossover frequency just about runs these midranges wide open and approaches single driver mode that employs the tweeter purely for upper harmonics. According to Christian, the series-filter solution also achieves higher-than-usual loudness capabilities, giving his narrow-profile monitors dynamics he claims are beyond his personal comfort zone to fully explore.

 

The wide, 11-inch center-to-center driver spacing was a result of experiments intended to overcome what he describes as a certain wooliness he hears in conventional MTM arrays. He remembers playing with different grade drivers and comparing two inferior drivers with wider spacing to higher-grade versions in closer proximity. Even though his measurement confirmed the former to be of lesser quality, they performed markedly better in this installation. Swapping them for the more expensive units resulted in the precursor of today’s E-6 and established his trademark long baffle. It’s covered in felt to avoid spurious reflections and has the woofers protrude on square sub-baffles to maintain physical time alignment.

All inside surfaces of the E-6 monitors are covered in Deflex polymer pads sourced from a British vendor. They create an uneven diffractive layer atop the MDF panels to avoid parallel surfaces and absorb the drivers’ rear-firing acoustical energy. He described these pads as miniature flapping shark needles arrayed in concentric circles. They apparently feel greasy and flubbery to the touch like Silicon and are mightily expensive.

Despite these very thorough attempts at enhancing acoustical transfer precision by counteracting MDF’s penchant for leaking sound pressure, Vince confided that his new E-9 concept model – using identical drivers and spacing but housing them in individual PVC pipes – is truly forward-radiating while the E-6, when listened to from behind and compared to the E-9, still exhibits minor omnidirectional tendencies as all MDF carcass speakers do. Compared side-by-side, the PVC model with its completely non-lossy chassis thus sounds louder for identical input voltages. Having heard nØrh’s phenomenal new synthetic marble speaker dubbed SM 6.9, I can not only appreciate this efficiency in loudness behavior from truly inert, super-dense cabinets, but also the added vividness or absence of residual fuzziness that circular cabinets achieve over their more traditionally square – well, rectangular -- brethren.

 

 

The main players

The Vince Christian E-6 is available in two trim levels, the E-6 ($3,000/pr) and E-6c ($2,000/pair). With identical electrical and physical specs except for weight – the E-6 is five pounds heavier – the E-6c benefits from less severe and costly internal cabinet damping by moving the resonance frequency of the chassis upwards. This allowed the use of convoluted foam to replace the expensive tuned-polymer damping panels inside the E-6. The E-6c is finished in industrial-grey paint while the E-6 sports high-gloss black and pearl white lacquer. Both feature a vertically and horizontally aligned, time-corrected MTM array using two 5-inch, woven carbon fiber midranges with edge-wound voice coils and Kapton formers, and a one 1-inch high-output soft-dome tweeter. A first-order, series network crosses over at 8.2kHz, with 92.5dB sensitivity compliments of the paralleled woofers, and a frequency response of 65Hz to 18kHz (–3dB). A unique feature is the binding post bypass in which the internal hookup wire is funneled through a tiny hole in the cabinet and direct-soldered to the outside of the terminals for better conductivity.

The speakers measure 30” x 7.75” x 8.75” (HxWxD) and sit on supplied stands.

The 52 lbs bass cube ($1,500 in grey, $2,200 in high-gloss lacquers) is a self-powered low frequency unit with a 150-watt, Class A/B equalized amplifier with velocity feedback control coupled to a front-firing acoustic suspension 12-inch woofer with polymer cone and 90dB sensitivity, all housed in a 14-inch cubed enclosure lined with the same tuned polymer panels as used in the E-6. A LAT-sourced power cord is hardwired, while a variable second order low pass filter and continuously variable attenuator provide user adjustability. Locking aluminum footers allow leveling and stabilizing. Frequency response is 24HZ to 80Hz. Christian alluded that without his proprietary equalization, this particular woofer would need at least a 3 cubic feet enclosure to produce equivalent extension and dynamics.

A forthcoming review in Enjoy the Music.com™’s Review Magazine will investigate how theory and publicity translate into subjective listening impressions.

 

Haunting the seas under raised banner

How will Vince Christian Ltd. survive the uncertain and tumultuous effects of today’s economy? What’s it like, even outside of cyclical trade winds, to be in the business of unessential luxuries quite unlike those purveyors of food, pharmaceuticals and automobile repair services who find themselves in demand no matter what?

Only time will tell. Past case evidence of course points at more eventual failures than long-term successes of small enthusiasts making it in this industry. But considering that Christian and comrades have already weathered six years on the open and shark-infested seas of capitalist commerce while eluding most people’s notice, it stands to reason that they’ve survived the worst – invisibility. Staying lean and mean as they have thus far, they should only go upwards from here.

Having broken-in the E-6/sub cube system in preparation for this article and the actual reviewer, I certainly don’t see any reason why, based on the product’s performance alone, not more folks should come to thoroughly enjoy the fruits of Vince’s labors. Beyond that, he will strike anyone who talks to him even for only a few minutes as one of those genuinely likable, down-to-earth, easy-going and affable types that have a way of attracting good fortune by sheer in-the-bones conviction that Life is intrinsically benign if you align yourself with it properly. In an industry populated with full-of-themselves misfits, that’s definitely good karma. Prospective buyers should never underestimate or disregard this human element. After all, High-End audio in many ways is like fine art. Why buy a beautiful painting from a known sleaze, cold fish or flaming egomaniac if you could purchase an equally compelling rendition from someone pleasant, civilized and interesting?

 

Future raids

Asked what might lie on the horizon for Vince Christian Ltd, I am told of a new high-quality 2-inch full-range driver of undisclosed origin. If initial impressions bear out over the long haul, Vince might be tempted to pull the old HP trick  (that’s Harry Potter to you, not Pearson) of “honey, I shrunk the speaks” and design a set of miniature monitors that would serve his sympathies for domestic integration and relative invisibility. A new 6" version of the 5" mid/woofer he’s so fond of has also hit the market. It potentially could turn into an E-7 or E-8 that would offer more bass extension than the current monitors to make the addition of the bass cube redundant in medium-sized rooms.

What Vince is already committed to, come hell, high water or allied warships, is the circular PVC version of his bass cube he introduced in pre-production form at CES 2002. Queried on how he’s planning to finish raw PVC on the outside, he merely let on that he’s located a specialist in Silicon Valley who’ll transform this mundane poly vinyl chloride into something worthy of serious cosmetic appeal. Stay tuned to his site for updates on this concept project.

 

Up-and-coming

In March, we will chat with one of the coolest cats in all of audio, Joe Fratus of Art Audio USA, to find out about pending amplifier introductions and exciting new tube discoveries. We will possibly also time things just so to talk about an as-yet secret future announcement for his firm.

 

Vince Christian Limited
229 Main Street
Salinas, California 93901

Voice: (831) 455 9308
Fax (831) 455 0650
E-mail: vince@vincechristian.com
Website: www.vincechristian.com

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

     
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