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January / February 2005
Superior Audio Equipment Review

Meadowlark Blue Heron2 Loudspeaker
Zen And The Art Of Compromise
Review By Wayne Donnelly
Click here to e-mail reviewer.

 

Meadowlark Blue Heron2 Loudspeaker  This article marks my fifth review in recent years of loudspeakers from Meadowlark Audio of Watertown, N.Y. I keep returning to this line because I have found the designs of Meadowlark founder Pat McGinty consistently excellent in musicality, appearance and value. In 2002 I chose the original Blue Heron for an Enjoy the Music.com™ Best of the Year Award. That loudspeaker so impressed me that I was tempted to buy the review pair.  One reason I held off was the incipient release of the Blue Heron2, which I subsequently saw/heard at both the 2003 and 2004 Consumer Electronics Shows. Both times the BH2s in the Meadowlark room achieved the elusive goal of getting very good, highly engaging sound at this often frustrating venue, so I determined to give the company‘s new flagship the same thorough evaluation its predecessor had undergone. (BTW, the original review pair of Blue Herons went on to be used by the noted remastering guru Steve Hoffman, who praised them highly in numerous postings on his website.)

One constant in all of my previous Meadowlark reviews has been a rundown of the basic principles that underlie every Pat McGinty design: time coherence through physical alignment of the drivers (using slanted baffles), the use exclusively of simple first-order (6 dB/octave) crossovers, and transmission-line-loaded bass systems.  The Meadowlark website offers McGinty's rationale for those choices in several lucid essays.  Rather than paraphrasing those arguments, I urge the reader to read them thoroughly.  McGinty's approach contradicts the methods of many speaker designers, and there are vast numbers of highly regarded loudspeakers that reflect none of his precepts.  In my opinion, whether one prefers a Meadowlark loudspeaker or a very differently conceived competitor, understanding the arguments for and against these different design philosophies will better equip any audiophile to judge the claims made for any speaker.

Recently, McGinty has added a new phrase to his designer's mantra: dynamic linearity.  In an interview published in the Audio Perfectionist Journal (and reprinted on the Meadowlark site), he speaks to that subject:

"…most of the important performance criteria fall under the general heading of waveform fidelity. Time coherence plays a big part in seeing to it that the speaker faithfully reproduces the waveform, but there are other key ideas as well."

"On the frontier of our art is the problem of dynamic linearity. In a case of ideal dynamic linearity the magnitude of the acoustic output increases exactly as the magnitude of the input signal, at all frequencies within the band. Every time you double the input, you should see a doubling of the output. When you see less than that, the waveform is not being accurately reproduced, but rather is being ‘compressed.' This effect is one of the main reasons why stereo sounds like stereo instead of sounding like the real thing." 

"[the BH2] cuts some new ground in this regard, and the perception of explosive ease across the entire band is really quite thrilling. Good dynamic linearity does not come cheap, but it is certainly worth the price."

 

I will comment on this concept and how well the BH2 performs in this respect later in this review. 

 

Design & Engineering Highlights
The BH2 departs from its predecessor in several ways.  In particular, the "gas piezo" tweeter and midrange of the Blue Heron were sourced from Audax.  That tweeter in particular was one of the smoothest, most open and extended that this writer has ever listened to, and I was initially dismayed to learn that it would not be used in the new design.  All of the transducers in the BH2 are Scan-Speak, one of the excellent driver lines (along with Vifa, Peerless and LOGIC) offered by Danish Sound Technology.

The BH2 Tweeter is Scan-Speak's new flagship, replacing the much-praised Revelator.  It features the state-of-the-art SD-1 drive system with a long-throw coil and large neodymium motor, dual concentric ring radiator diaphragm, and phase plug.  According to McGinty, this tweeter attains textbook perfect dynamic linearity across a band that extends out to 50kHz. He asserts that most tweeters cannot claim even good, much less excellent, dynamic linearity.

The new 12-centimeter flagship midrange is the sister driver to the tweeter, and McGinty credits it with the same spectacular dynamic linearity.  It also employs the neodymium motor, which is designed so that the motor structure does not impose itself into the backwave (the source of reflection in many midranges). In the BH2 the midrange is loaded to a full wavelength, asymmetrical transmission line lined with felt and stuffed with long-hair lamb's wool for effective dissipation of the driver's backwave.

The twin 7-inch woofer cones are a composite of carbon graphite and paper pulp. The handmade cones are laid up on conical formers and air-dried. That process produces a cone that is thicker at the root and thinner at the perimeter, an idea first put forth decades ago by Bozak.  Varying cone thickness in this way yields superior smoothness in the roll-off region — a key to working in a first-order design. McGinty notes that the tapered cone thickness also lessens emmissive diameter with ascending frequency, which significantly reduces beaming.

The woofers are loaded to an elaborately constructed transmission line labyrinth that Meadowlark has dubbed "BASSIC"  (for impedance-coupled bass) — a proprietary variation on the TL that Meadowlark introduced in the entry-level Swift and has now implemented across the whole product family.  I have not encountered many transmission-line loudspeakers speed, precision and sheer impact comparable to the BH2.

Internal wiring is TARA Labs' Rectangular Solid Core. Connections are hand-soldered using premium silver solder.  The crossover (pictured above) comprises excellent parts: proprietary CANARY CAPS; Caddock laser-trimmed metal-oxide 1% power resistors with heat sinks for thermal stability; Solen 14-gauge Perfect Lay inductor coils. This simple first-order network is housed in an isolation bay under the bass enclosure. Cardas gold rhodium 5-way binding posts (two sets for bi-wiring) are standard.

The hand-assembled enclosures are strongly braced and acoustically inert; they do not ring noticeably when knuckle-rapped.  The tweeter and midrange driver are isolated internally from the  bass enclosure.  The baffle is a formidable six-layer sandwich: starting at the front, 0.8" solid hardwood veneer, a 1/16" Keldamp elastic damping layer, 3/4" mid-baffle of black lacquered MDF2, another layer of Keldamp, 1" MDF2 inner baffle, with the inner surface lined with 5/8" of heavy felt.

 

Have It Your Way
Bucking the growing trend toward offshore mass production, Meadowlark's loudspeakers are hand-built at the company's factory in Watertown, New York. Few if any speaker makers offer anything approaching Meadowlark's incredible variety of available hardwood veneers or skill in creating custom looks. BH2 buyers can choose from standard finishes such as light or dark Ash and Ebony at $12,000 per pair, a generous selection of premium finishes for $13,000, or virtually any legally obtainable exotic veneers, for which McGinty will quote a price — typically up to $14,000 per pair.  Customers can select one wood for the sides, back and top, and a different wood for the baffle.  Contrasting hardwood "stringers" of virtually any width, in one or more veneers, can be inset into the baffle.  Again I refer the reader to the Meadowlark web site, which contains dozens of photographs of custom combinations — check out the site's two "Blue Heron Swimsuit Editions" for a sexy-looking collection of loudspeakers.

 

Having It My Way
Because hand-made-to-order is such an integral part of Meadowlark's marketing appeal, I thought it would be appropriate to review not just the sound of the BH2, but also the experience of getting a uniquely finished loudspeaker.  I asked Pat McGinty if he would be willing to create a pair of BH2s to my specification without my making any prior commitment to buying that special pair.  I was not too surprised when he eagerly agreed.

Frankly, the dizzying variety of gorgeous hardwoods put me in a dither for several weeks. Should I choose African Lacewood sides & back with Honduran Mahogany baffle?, How many stringers, using how many woods, and how wide? Day by day, my notions kept shifting.

I finally fixed on an unusual exotic domestic: Ambrosia Maple. Ambrosia beetles bore into the maple trees and lay their eggs.  When the larvae hatch, they tunnel through the trees as they feed, leaving in their wake small holes and irregular bluish-purple streaks. (Hence the rise of the coinage "Beetleshit Maple" in conversations about the project — sorry, Pat.) I found the look of this wood so striking that I requested a pair of BH2s with Ambrosia Maple on all sides.  Moreover, because the streaks are so dramatic in their own right, I decided to eschew any stringers.

But I wasn't done yet.  Meadowlark's sheer, frameless grille cloths have minimal effect on their speakers' sound quality compared to most other grille types, but still I had always preferred to remove them to squeeze out that last bit of openness and resolution.  So I asked that the grooves that are normally cut into the baffle for attaching the grille cloths be omitted.  My review pair would have no provision for grille cloths, but a more elegant-looking baffle was a tradeoff I was delighted to make.

I also wanted the review pair configured for a single run of speaker cables. I have long believed that the most significant product of bi-wiring is in most cases not better sound but rather increased speaker cable sales.  The two sets of binding posts on each speaker were connected internally at the factory, so that only one cable per speaker is needed.  This could be easily reversed should bi-wiring be desired at a later date.

Any buyer could request the custom details mentioned so far.  But as a reviewer I had one further special request.  Meadowlark speakers take longer to break in than other brands I have reviewed — perhaps because their very high-quality drivers and electrical parts take longer to season than more cheaply made alternatives. The original Blue Herons had taken what seemed forever—six full months, to be exact — to loosen up completely and reach their full sonic potential.  My heart sank at the thought of another six-month break-in cycle, so I asked McGinty to fully burn in my pair of BH2s before shipping them to me. The benefit to him, apart from padding the balance in his good karma account, was that the review would be ready months earlier.  I haven't asked, but I suspect Meadowlark would normally, and understandably, be reluctant to take on the additional overhead labor of providing this service.  As it turned out, the review pair was set up in the woodworking shop and played quite loudly, I'm told — 24/7 for three months.  With that time added to the nearly two months required to acquire sufficient Ambrosia Maple and build the speakers, the interval between placing the order and receiving the speakers was nearly six months.

 

Listening To The Blue Heron2
Finally the BH2s arrived, each speaker safely encased in a sturdy full-coverage wooden shipping crate.  With a little help from my friends (and after quite a few minutes spent admiring the speakers' stunning looks) they took the place of my long-time reference loudspeakers, the Albert Von Schweikert-custom-upgraded Eggleston Andra IIs.  Quickly connecting my single run of speaker cable and screwing in the furniture glides (available  from the Meadowlark web site), I was ready to laisse les bons temps rouler.

Within seconds of spinning up the first CD (the astonishing Rite of Spring by Valery Gergiev and the Kirov Orchestra on Philips), I sent a fervent thanks to Pat McGinty for taking on that heroic break-in marathon.

I was not prepared for the initially almost overwhelming presence of this music through the BH2s.  It was not so much the usual left-brain "audio checklist" qualities, impressive as they were.  I had never heard this beloved recording — the best of this work ever, in my opinion — sound so colorful, so energetic, so utterly and passionately pagan.  It wasn't that the BH2s were aggressive or forward-sounding in the usual sense — far from it.  Rather, it was as if the music, not the audio, was somehow reaching out and enfolding me into its world.

So exciting was this initial experience that it took a couple of days before I could tear myself away from a steady succession of big-scale orchestral and choral works: Mahler Third, Shostakovich Tenth, Bach B minor Mass, Berlioz Symphonie fantastique, Prokofiev Alexander Nevsky—you get the drift.

But soon enough the BH2s demonstrated that they are truly a speaker for all seasons — and all musical genres.  Soprano Dawn Upshaw's sparkling yet intimate renditions of Canteloube's Songs of the Auvergne drew me in as never before, the most subtle vocal shadings illuminated in the most natural and relaxed way.  Live recordings really sprang to life. The 2CD Alison Krauss + Union Station Live flooded the listening room with infectious energy, and I don't remember the last time previously that the Stones' classic LP Get Yer Ya-Yas Out had me shaking my aging booty so youthfully.

As weeks passed, I gradually got used to how appropriately the BH2s' presentation always seemed scaled to the music.  The warmly intimate acoustic and modestly sized, perfectly placed image of the solo violin made listening to Rachel Podger's Bach Sonatas and Partitas for Unaccompanied Violin in my darkened listening room an extraordinary and compelling "in the room" experience.  At the other extreme, playing the new Mahler Second Symphony (Resurrection) SACD from Michael Tilson Thomas and the San Francisco Symphony conjured up the familiar spacious acoustic of Davies Symphony Hall, with the many disparate sonic challenges — massive orchestra and chorus, two female soloists, off-stage instruments — captured with startling clarity and accurate scale, from the ethereal mezzo-soprano solo "Urlicht" to the loudest heaven-storming passages with orchestra and chorus in full cry.  The BH2s performed this proportionality of scale better than any speaker I have ever had in my system.  They also threw a broad, deep and dimensional soundscape into which the speakers audibly "disappeared"-- especially when aided by the Shakti Hallograph Soundfield Optimizers I previously reviewed on Enjoy the Music.com.

 

The Light Bulb Goes On
Preparing to write this review, I spent a lot of time thinking about how to characterize precisely the BH2s exceptional resolution and integrity of scale. The answer became apparent just a few days ago, when I read Pat McGinty's above-quoted remarks about the concept of dynamic linearity.  Eureka! — the perfect phrase.  Another way of describing the phenomenon is to say that one never hears the BH2s "gassing out" on any element of the music, even when it falls near a crossover frequency.  Moreover, nothing gets submerged or lost when the musical texture becomes complex.  I couldn't believe my ears when, near the end of the Resurrection Symphony, I heard a brief passage in which flute and piccolo, trumpets, violins, soprano chorus and soloist were all perfectly sorted out, every element clearly and accurately rendered.  That, my friends, is what constitutes magic for this audiophile!

 

Tallying The Score
So, what about that audio checklist? OK, here goes: The Blue Heron2 offers seamless top-to-bottom coherence, with exceptional speed, transparency and dynamic resolution that rival or exceed any similarly priced box, planar, electrostatic or ribbon loudspeaker I have auditioned to date.  The bass is wondrous in its combination of visceral impact, true instrumental color and pitch definition.  The open, transparent midrange is for me virtually above reproach.

What about the tweeter? A few months ago I reviewed favorably the Swiss-made Oskar Heil Kithara speaker, which features the latest iteration of the Heil Air Motion Transformer, a freestanding dipole tweeter that creates the largest and most naturally proportioned soundscape of any tweeter I know.  And earlier in this review I recalled the Audax gas piezo tweeter that had been used in the original Blue Heron.  The superb front-firing Scan-Speak tweeter used in the BH2 cannot equal the spatial magic of the Heil AMT.  I also seem to recall that the Audax had a special kind of open airiness — although after two years my memory may be less than perfectly reliable.  But the extraordinary composure and effortless dynamics of the BH2 tweeter are undeniably impressive.  No complaints here.

 

Sign 'em Up!
High-end audio is a crazy business, where some reviewer tells you that a speaker with a five-figure price tag is a bargain.  Well, perhaps the bargain is in the eye (and wallet, of course) of the beholder. But I have no qualms about declaring the Blue Heron2 a superior value. Brilliant design, gorgeous cosmetics, superior handcrafted cabinet construction, top-quality parts — this speaker is nothing less than a work of art — a triumph. Frankly, I wonder that Meadowlark can sell these gems for $12-$14K and still make a profit.  The chance to acquire these beautiful and thrilling music makers at a reviewer's discount is beyond my power to resist, so the Beetleshit Maple Blue Heron2s are now my reference loudspeakers.

 

Specifications
Type: Three-way, four driver loudspeaker with transmission line woofers

Frequency Response: 25Hz to  50kHz

Sensitivity: 91.5dB/W/m

Nominal Impedance: 4 ohms

Dimensions: 10 x 19 x 47 (WxDxH in inches)

Weight: 110 lbs.

Price: $12,000 in Light Ash, Dark Ash, Ebony
$13,000 to $14,000 for custom veneers and stringers

 

Company Information
Meadowlark Audio Inc.
800 Starbuck Avenue Suite A-103
Watertown, NY 13601

Voice: (315) 779-8875
Fax: (315) 779-8835
Website: www.meadowlarkaudio.com
E-mail: meadowlarkaudio@meadowlarkaudio.com

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

     
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