Review by Wayne Donnelly
Fate has been kind to this reviewer recently, especially in the loudspeaker department. Just as I finished with the excellent Von Schweikert dB-100s, reviewed in December 2001, waiting in the wings (well, actually in my upstairs second system, breaking in) were the Blue Herons. Apart from the mighty Nightingale, with its active subwoofer system and $22,500 price tag, the BH is the big bird in the Meadowlark aviary. I have long admired Meadowlark loudspeakers for their musicality, rational design and attention to quality, and I happily use the company's smallest floorstanders, the Kestrel Hot Rods, in my smaller second system. Needless to say, I was eager to hear what Meadowlark honcho and designer Pat McGinty could do at a bigger price point. The Blue Herons retail for $8,800/pair in standard finishes. The review pair sported gorgeous Birdseye Maple veneer, one of several premium veneers for which there is an upcharge. (See their web site for details.)
The Blue Heron listening experience was not instant nirvana. McGinty had warned me that the BH takes a long time -- in excess of 200 hours -- to break in fully, and I think he was being optimistic. I had been playing the review pair for more than a month in my second system -- albeit at pretty low volume most of the time -- before installing them in the big system. They still sounded pretty stiff. Their potential was already clearly audible, with impressive detail, dynamics and extension, both high and low frequency. And it was impossible not to notice the loudspeakers' sheer speed and transient precision. So I commenced playing the system all day, cranking it up high when going out, and tried to keep from prematurely donning my reviewer's hat before the sound coalesced.
That break-in interval turned out to be another six weeks. It was not that the loudspeakers were hard to listen to-- far from it. Even at the beginning of the process they were better than a number of similar or higher-priced loudspeakers I have heard. But I kept waiting to hear the easy authority, the relaxed musical presentation that would leave me thinking not about the speakers per se, but about the music. And, gradually, the BHs got there. The break-in sequence progressed from high to low frequencies. The tweeter opened up noticeably in just a few days, and within a couple of weeks the midrange began to develop the kind of involving resolution I expected. The twin bass drivers took the longest to reach their full potential. But after about three weeks, their impact and extension seemed to be improving by increments virtually day to day.
I have belabored the break-in time not as a criticism, but as a caution to the prospective buyer. If you listen to a properly broken in pair of BHs at a store, you are going to notice that the new pair you bring home will not sound as good. Do not be discouraged if they take quite a while to get there. The reason, I believe, is that the rugged high-quality components -- drivers, crossover capacitors and resistors, internal wiring -- used in the BHs need more break-in than many cheaper components. So the extended break-in time augurs well for long-term trouble-free listening.
Anatomy Of A Blue Heron
First the drivers... Starting at the bottom, the BH uses two Scan Speak carbon graphite seven-inch woofers in a transmission line loading. The use of two smaller drivers rather than a single large one helps to achieve excellent speed, dynamics and articulation through the bass and lower midrange. Meadowlark claims very fast rise and subtle times for the bass system, and my listening unequivocally confirms that claim.
The cone of the 3.5" midrange driver, sourced from Audax, is made of a very light and stiff material called Aerogel. A symmetrical drive system ensures identical movement of the cone on both instroke and outstroke. This precision provides for a high degree of waveform fidelity across the driver's bandwidth of 300Hz to 5Khz.
The most unusual component in the BH is its "gas piezo" tweeter, also from Audax. This visually distinctive non-magnetic tweeter has none of the elements that make up conventional moving coil tweeters: pole piece, suspension, back cavity. Its only moving part is a very thin film diaphragm. It is said to combine the dispersion patterns of a conventional dome with the transparency of an electrostatic. I would extend that claim even further -- it sounds to me like a fine ribbon driver, but with broader dispersion. After weeks of listening, I have to rate this as one of the most remarkable drivers I have ever heard.
Every part used in the signal path of the Blue Heron is top quality. The simple first order crossovers (more on that below) are constructed using Auric capacitors, heat-sinked Caddock power resistors and very low Q Perfect Lay 14 gauge conductors. (In simple terms, Q represents susceptibility to resonance.) The internal wiring is Tara Labs' premium Rectangular Solid Core, and the bi-wire speaker terminals are Cardas gold rhodium posts. None of this stuff is cheap.
Meadowlark is obsessive about eliminating coloration caused by mechanical resonances. The crossover components are isolated from their mounting board with a damping material called Keldamp. That board is located in a separate dedicated compartment underneath the driver cabinet, and further isolated with Keldamp. The slanted baffle, of two-inch-thick MDF, is also decoupled from the cabinet, and the section of baffle holding the tweeter and midrange is decoupled from the woofer baffle to prevent low-frequency resonances from affecting the higher frequencies. The construction of the transmission line system and the internal cabinet bracing are robust and obviously very effective. All of these factors add up to a cabinet that is among the most acoustically inert I have ever seen. The ubiquitous knuckle rap test produces nothing but a very dull, damped sound -- no audible cabinet ringing. It's no surprise that this compact floorstander weighs in at a solid 120 lbs.
Time Is Of The Essence
Music -- and electronic reproduction of music -- comprises the elements of pitch (frequency), loudness (amplitude) and timing. At Meadowlark, the most essential aspect of a speaker's performance is time coherence. Put simply, time coherence means that the frequencies generated by each driver reach the listener's ear at precisely the same instant. Sounds simple, right? Without time coherence, a system, no matter how expensive, is not reproducing the original sounds accurately -- even if the speaker delivers flat frequency and amplitude response. In the Engineering Philosophy section of the Meadowlark web site, Pat McGinty argues very clearly -- and to me, persuasively -- the case for time coherence. Rather than reprise his argument, I urge interested parties (who should include anyone contemplating a speaker purchase) to read the material and think about its implications.
All Meadowlark speakers are designed for time coherence. Two factors are essential to achieving time coherence, according to McGinty. First, the baffle must be slanted so that the acoustic centers of the drivers are perfectly aligned. Second, first-order (6dB/octave) crossovers must be used. Again, these concepts are explained in the web site discussion. (I have been struck, over the years, by the number of avid audiophiles who don't understand what an octave is, much less a first-order, second-order, etc., crossover. But it's never too late to learn.)
Another factor contributes to the clarity and openness of the Blue Heron (and the other Meadowlark birds as well). That thick, decoupled baffle is nicely radiused around its periphery, and the grille is simply a sheer black elastic fabric that attaches by tucking it into a groove around the sides of the baffle. Both the rounded edges and the absence of a frame for the grille cloth are key to eliminating diffraction -- early reflections of driver output that are generated perpendicular to the direction toward which the drivers are pointed. Diffraction can subtly but materially affect the ear's perception of timing. (The grille fabric itself has only a slight audible effect on the sound, but the speaker sounds best with the grille fabric removed. For me, the appearance of the BH with grille removed is quite acceptable, as the baffle is nicely finished in black -- and I love the iridescent appearance of that tweeter.)
The Eye Candy Factor
At 11.5" x 15" x 44" (WxDxH), the Blue Herons can not be considered small. But if there were an index relating performance to size, they would score very high. Visitors to my listening room have been surprised at such a dynamic sound emanating from these unassuming, simply styled speakers. I find this design almost Shaker-like in its elegant, functional simplicity, and the slanted baffle makes it seem even less physically dominating. It is a sure bet, though, that the Shakers never dreamed of the multiplicity of veneers available from Meadowlark. In addition to the generous selection of standard veneers -- Rosewood, Ash, Mahogany, Ebony, Cherry -- the Meadowlark web site displays no less than sixteen optional extra-cost veneers, including such exotics as Anigre, Makore, Sapele, Cedar and Zebrawood. Both the Birdseye Maple of the review BHs and the Fiddleback Makore of my Kestrels are extremely beautiful. I am not aware of any other speaker manufacturer who offers this degree of choice.
Until now Meadowlark has offered its speakers without veneers on the rear surface, providing a neatly finished black paint instead. I have regarded that practice as a reasonable economy, given the price/performance value of the speakers. Henceforth, however all floorstanding Meadowlark speakers will be veneered on all four sides, with no increase in retail prices.
The components used with the Blue Herons included the Basis 2800/Graham 2.2/Koetsu Urushi Platinum for analog; an Andy Bartha-modified Pioneer 434 DVD player and Thor DC-1000 DAC for CD; Paravicini 312 preamp [overdue review coming in May -- I promise!), Thor TA-1000 line stage, Thor and Vendetta phono preamps; VTL MB-750 Reference, VTL Tiny Triode and Andy Bartha solid-state monoblock amplifiers; various cables from Nordost, Transparent, Jena Labs and Townshend, as well as Jack Bybee custom-made interconnects. For most of the review., the BHs were spiked through carpet to the concrete subfloor. Toward the end I placed them on Townshend 2-D air-suspension Seismic Sinks comments to come).
The Blue Herons perform brilliantly in what I call the differentiation test. Whenever I substitute any of the above-listed elements, the effect on the sound is unfailingly audible and easy to characterize. They perform similarly in sorting out the sonic qualities of analog and digital software. The best things sound staggeringly good, and in the upper registers clearly better than I have previously heard in my system. Equally important, however, is that the shortcomings of source material are heard with equal clarity. The BHs are truth tellers, not sweeteners.
I am pleased to report that the BHs perform very well with all three amplifier options. The mighty VTL 750s, of course, will drive virtually anything, even in their half-power (350 watts each) triode setting. But the 45-watt Tiny Triodes, imported from the second system into the main listening room, also drive the BHs to soul-satisfying volumes, with excellent bass control. (VTL amps are designed with solid-state rectification and optimized for a 5-ohm load, so the BHs' 4ohm impedance poses no problem for them. Some tube amps are less comfortable with low-impedance speakers, and any prospective combination should be carefully auditioned.
The Andy Bartha 50-watt monoblocks (review to come) also make fine partners for the BHs. Compared to the Tiny Triodes, the Bartha amps seem to retrieve just as much inner detail, and the high frequencies are sweeter than I expected. The ability of the two sets of small amplifiers to control the bass was pretty much a dead heat. Next to the 750s, they both lack some weight and authority -- but since the combined price is roughly one-quarter that of the 750s, that's hardly a harsh criticism.
From A Whisper To A Roar -- It's All Good
Once fully broken in, the BHs' almost startling speed, dynamics and micro-resolution are so apparent that this listener, an orchestra junkie, found himself irresistibly drawn to large-scale music. Two Reference Recordings CDs by Eiji Oue conducting the Minnesota Orchestra have become virtual test recordings for me. On the Respighi disc (RR-95 CD), the shattering climaxes of the "Appian Way" movement from Pines of Rome ring out with no sense of strain or dynamic limiting, and the layout of the orchestra is credibly presented across a gratifyingly wide and deep soundstage. On the Bernstein disc (RR-87 CD), the composer's "Four Meditations from Mass," characterized by huge dynamic changes, from barely audible from taps to orchestral crescendos, the music takes on a spatial as well as tonal logic; the front-to-back layering of the sound is uncanny. My ultimate test CD for spatial reproduction is the Sibelius Violin Concerto, played with uncommon naturalness and conviction by little-known Finnish musicians (Musical Heritage Society 514261Z). Originally recorded for the Bis label by producer Robert von Bahr, using only four microphones, this wonderful performance is the most realistically proportioned recording of an orchestra and non-spotlighted violin soloist that I know. I have never heard its spatiality reproduced more convincingly than by the Blue Herons.
These speakers also very convincingly reproduce piano. That old standby Nojima Plays Liszt (Reference Recordings RR 29, LP), still one of the finest piano recordings I know, presents a formidable challenge to audio systems. It's not easy to capture accurately the powerful transients and full harmonic richness on this record, but I give the BHs a solid A. And, with the Wild/Fiedler/Boston Pops record of Gershwin's Concerto in F (RCA Living Stereo LSC 2586), the BHs easily clarify the sonic differences between the original LP and the Classic Records reissue. The latter, by comparison, has a slight glare in the piano and less warmth in the orchestral parts, especially the strings. (But if you're not comparing, the reissue sounds fabulous -- and in my book it's the best performance of the piece ever recorded.)
But it's also easy to appreciate the BHs' subtler virtues. After reveling in the sumptuous vocalism and yearning emotion of soprano Renee Fleming singing Richard Strauss's Four Last Songs (RCA Red Seal 0926-685392, CD), I am drawn in by her delicacy and nuance, her small expressive modulations, her subtle breath control, as she traverses a program of French, German and Russian art songs, sympathetically accompanied by pianist Jean-Yves Thibaudet (Nightsongs, Decca 289 467 697-2 CD). Other examples abound: Lucinda Williams' emotional range -- her fragile, vulnerable vocal on "I Envy the Wind" contrasted with her prowling sexuality on "Essence" (Essence, Lost Highway 088 170 197-2, CD). Or the capture of the multiplicity of picking, fiddling and vocal styles on the 0 Brother Where Art Thou soundtrack (Lost Highway 088 170 069-2, CD).
I could go on for pages, listing the musical epiphanies experienced with the Blue Herons. But the point is, whatever music I play through them comes to life, draws me in. Listening fatigue? Doesn't happen. There's something to this time coherence business.
The Blue Herons, at $9,000, and the $10,000 Von Schweikert dB-100s I praised so highly in the December Review Magazine offer an interesting comparison. They do not compete directly, since the dB-100 is designed to be driven by low-power Single-Ended Triode amplifiers and the BH, although pretty efficient at 90 dB sensitivity, really needs fairly robust amplification. But they share some striking similarities. Both have dual-woofer transmission line bass systems. The dB-100 bass is driven by an internal 600-watt amplifier; not surprisingly, it goes that extra half octave deeper than the BH, and delivers more sheer "slam." But the BH is no slouch in the slam department, and its quick, tuneful bass is beautifully matched to its upper registers. The dB-100 midrange is a different Audax aerogel driver, a more efficient 6-incher. The two midrange presentations are different, but both are superb. In the tweeter, I give the Blue Heron's unusual gas piezo transducer a decided edge, not just over the front & back-firing dB-100 tweeter system, but over most other high-frequency systems I have heard. Both speakers deliver good imaging and soundstaging; again the BH is slightly more impressive.
The real competition for the Blue Heron, in my opinion, is any number of speakers with five-figure price tags. My Eggleston Andras, $15,000 retail, and significantly enhanced by the installation of Bybee Quantum Purifiers, simply cannot match the speed, dynamics, extension, inner detail, delicacy and spatial resolution of the Blue Herons. It's a speaker designed by a music lover for music lovers. If you have some cash to spend, and are not afflicted with "mine is bigger than yours" audiophile machismo, you owe it to yourself to give these extraordinary speakers a serious audition.
Editor's Note: Please see this month's Ear Wax featuring a close up look at Heron Audio by clicking here.
Type: three-way, four-driver, floorstanding loudspeaker system
Bass: two ScanSpeak 7" carbon graphite woofers in rear-ported transmission line system
Midrange: Audax Aerogel 3.5" driver
Tweeter: Audax "gas piezo" driver
Crossovers: 300Hz, 5kHz (first-order 6dB/octave)
Frequency response: 30Hz - 30kHZ (+/-3dB)
Impedance: 4 ohms
Dimensions: 11.5" x 15" x 44" (WxDxH)
Weight: 120 lbs.
Warranty: Five years
Price: $8800 in standard finishes; premium veneers available that extra charge
Meadowlark Audio Inc.