Meadowlark Blue Heron2 Loudspeaker
Zen And The Art Of Compromise
Review By Wayne Donnelly
here to e-mail reviewer.
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
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
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
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
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
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
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.
Type: Three-way, four driver loudspeaker with transmission
Frequency Response: 25Hz to 50kHz
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
Meadowlark Audio Inc.
800 Starbuck Avenue Suite A-103
Watertown, NY 13601
Voice: (315) 779-8875
Fax: (315) 779-8835