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July 2016
Enjoy the Music.com Review Magazine
Superior Audio Equipment Review
World Premiere!
Westlake Audio Tower 5 Loudspeakers
I say go for it!
Review By Tom Lyle

 

Westlake Audio Tower 5 Loudspeakers Review

  I consider myself very lucky to have in my listening room for the last few months the Westlake's Audio Tower 5, the most recent design in Westlake's Tower series. Their Tower series is part of the Hi-Fi series, the other speaker series is Westlake Audio's Professional, which brings us to why I'm feel so lucky. I admit that I'm not familiar with every speaker manufacture in the world, let alone every speaker manufacturer in North America. But I have heard of Westlake Audio, mostly because of their Professional series.  I've seen Westlake Audio monitors in more than a few recording studios there happens to be a list of some of Westlake's clients on their website, and many of these studios have very recognizable names, including some of the best recording studios in the world. Which enables these studios not only to be able to afford some of these very expensive   monitors, but also install them as some Westlake Audio Professional Series monitors weigh over 500 pounds each.

 

Respectable
In their specifications Westlake has the Tower 5 listed as weighing a very respectable 104 pounds each. For a speaker that is just a bit over 3.5' tall, 12" wide, and 15" deep, this speaker weighs much more than I expected it to as I quickly learned when dragging them up to my listening room. When taking a break from setting up the speakers I visited Westlake Audio's website -- which I found very informative, to say the least. On their website there are sections, among others, on associated equipment selection, speaker positioning in one's room, listening room acoustics, advice on sound pressure levels, and recommendations if the speakers become damaged. Most interesting to me was a section titled Creating A Dampened Acoustical Environment For Critical Stereo Listening. It is obvious that the topics covered in these sections were written by those who seemed very aware of a recording studio's environment, where speaker position and the room's acoustics are critical. Even though many of their suggestions are easier to carry out in a recording studio or in a dedicated listening room, any audiophile could learn quite a bit because of Westlake Audio's years of studio experience. I listened to the Tower 5 in a dedicated listening room where reflective and absorptive areas in the room are treated, but still, even if one is using a living space as their listening room, one can still make small but significant changes using much of Westlake's advice.

 

Interesting
One of the most interesting things I discovered while perusing Westlake's website are their two white papers on "P.E. Distortion". Glenn Phoenix, Westlake Audio's president and chief engineer concluded that there was a class of distortions that were not easily identified by conventional terms and testing methods. This Phoenix Effect (P.E.) Distortion, he says, has been gleaned from 40+ years of experience in tape recording, recording studio, acoustics and loudspeaker system design" The proprietary nature of this discovery prevents Westlake from "full disclosure" of the technical explanations of these distortions, but with speakers in particular, and I'm quoting almost word for word from Westlake's white paper: the large variances in signal path and current flow often produce the effect in varying amounts throughout the audio band. The compensation for this distortion are more effective when the system has more drivers, and with a speaker such as the Tower 5, the introduction of Westlake's method of lowering the P.E. distortion is extremely effective. As a side-effect, as their method lowers the amount of P.E. distortion, it lowers other distortions such as Intermodulation (IM). And Westlake says that listening tests have proven its effectiveness.

Westlake Audio describes their Tower 5 as having dual "low error" 5" woofers and a 1.15" (29mm) "high-resolution" fabric dome tweeter. The not-quite rectangular cabinet is heavily damped, and this damping material likely contribute to why the Tower 5 tips the scales at over 100 pounds. Removing the grille of the speaker reveals that suspended over each of the speaker's drivers are what I can only describe as a foam and wire diffraction lattice. The soft foam and wire piece is the Driver Muff, an important and integral part of the P.E. Distortion solution.  Since I'm usually the only person in my listening room I left the grilles off during the review period. If one uses these speakers in a common space of one's house such as a living room, one might consider leaving the grilles in place to protect the obviously fragile web of material that has been constructed over the drivers. To me these diffraction apparatuses give the speakers an appealing scientific instrument-like appearance. A spouse or the guests to one's home might feel differently. With the black speaker grilles in place, the wood veneered speakers are very nice looking.

 

 

On the rear of the Tower 5 are two pair of speaker binding posts that enable bi-wiring or bi-amp'ing. I was sent with the speakers a bi-wire set of their own Westlake Audio speaker cables to use with the Tower 5. It is refreshing that Westlake makes no wild claims as for the reason for their cables' superior performance, but as most other manufacturers they do claim that that it is high in conductivity and low in resistance. Their cable does seem very well constructed and was thankfully very flexible and easy to use. As I didn't have any other bi-wire speaker cable in-house that was similarly priced to this approximately $460 a foot cable, I used their cable throughout the review period. Near the end of the review I did listen to the speakers using a set of MIT cable that was much less expensive than the Westlake cable, and the Westlake indeed sounded much, much better in many areas. In truth, the Westlake cable was hugely better than the MIT cable, as it should have, given their large price difference.

 

 

 

Speaker Muff
When the speakers arrived there were two other boxes besides the pair of speakers, those boxes weighing much, much less than the others because they contained Westlake Audio speaker and cable muffs. The Westlake Audio Speaker Muff is a proprietary design that enhances the performance of their speakers. They are made of a type of foam that when attached to the speaker's sides and top increase the size of the front baffle. With them in place it takes longer for sound waves to reach the cabinet edge, and therefore reduces edge reflection. With the reduction of edge reflections more music is able to reach the listener unaffected by these distortions, and in turn has a "smoothing effect" of the music's frequency response, the imaging is improved, and there is a perceived increase in bass frequency response. Westlake Audio says that the Speaker Muff is "precision cut" to match each individual loudspeaker. They need no adhesives since they attach to the speakers using dowels that fit into pre-drilled holes in the speaker cabinet. I'll be frank, though the appearance of the Tower 5 speakers with these generic grey panels attached to them is not likely to fit into most decors. For me, having a dedicated listening room makes this point moot, but I'd be interested to hear about any audiophile's spouses and their reaction to the Westlake Speaker Muffs. I expect the results to reveal that about 50% of Westlake Audio speaker owners to have to remove them when not performing serious listening sessions. They are not difficult to install, but it does take some time. I began my listening sessions with the Speaker Muffs not being used, then later into the review period put them on the speakers to hear the difference.

 

 

Cable Muff
The Westlake Audio Cable Muffs are a cable management system designed to minimize noise, and are basically cable elevators and cable separators made out of the same material as the Speaker Muffs. Westlake is well aware of the skeptics that may doubt that a piece of cleverly shaped foam can change the sound of one's system, and in their literature poke fun at themselves "Oh, sure, we can hear it now; you want how much for a cutesy piece of packing foam?" They go on to say that despite the naysayers, there was much discussion in regards to the Cable Muffs design, and they are priced low enough that audiophiles can try them, and at the very least they'll be to act as a reminder to arrange one's cables so the power and interconnect don't interfere with one another, speaker cables are placed far enough away from power amplifiers, and better yet, they'll see that the Westlake Cable Muffs will stay in place better than most every other method short of tacking the cables to the floor or wall.

 

Big
Anyone who has read any of my reviews should be aware that I like big speakers. And by big I mean large and tall taller-than-an-adult-male electrostatic speakers that will likely be declared as "too big for the room". I suppose they mean that one will run into problems, and excuse me for simplifying this, but some will say problems caused by waveforms not being able to fully develop and therefore standing waves will be created. And thus the resulting sound will not be as good as speakers that are smaller and more "appropriately sized" for the room. Well, I don't give a hoot about "overpowering" a room. But I'm not stupid so I've treated my medium sized listening room with acoustic treatment panels along with other methods to guarantee that I'm hearing only the speakers and if I'm hearing the room, only the portions of the room that are beneficial to the overall sound of the speakers and the music.

I'm someone who uses live music as a reference, be that orchestral music in Carnegie Hall, or a rock band playing indoors and this is what I'm trying to recreate in my listening room. If one has ever heard an instrument being played inside one's home, or has heard someone sing indoors in a small space (especially through a microphone connected to a PA), one will recall this instrument or voice as being very loud. Put a group of these instruments together in a room that is about the size of my listening room and not only will the resulting sound "overpower" the room, but the listener is likely to not only suffer hearing loss but perhaps suffer a coronary incident. So, one must not only have a speaker system that can reproduce instruments and voices on the recordings we play as realistically as possible, but at the same time attenuate the volume without affecting its realism. Impossible? Probably. Can we come close? Yes, and spoiler alert, in my medium sized listening room the Westlake Audio Tower 5 does a pretty damn good job at accomplishing this feat.

 

Power
To power the Tower 5, I used my reference two-channel Pass Laboratories X350.5 which puts out a healthy 350 Watts per channel. The preamplifier was either a tubed Balanced Audio Technology (BAT) VK-33, but with the current set up I found a better match using the solid-state Merrill Audio Cara linestage. I've almost exclusively using upstream equipment that has balanced outputs, and thus balanced interconnects, and although the BAT has a couple of balanced inputs, all four of Merrill Audio's Cara's inputs are balanced. It's "sound", or lack thereof, also matches superbly with the Pass Lab's power amplifier. My digital source is almost exclusively via my music server, and both the Foobar 2000 and J. Rivers Media Center's preferences are set for DSD ASIO, allowing them to take advantage of DSD file's full resolution when being sent via a Furutech USB cable to the AURALiC Vega DAC. Me being me, as I do appreciate the exceptional sound of DSD audio, and have a plethora of files to choose from, the large majority of the FLAC files on my external hard-drives are plain vanilla CD quality (16-bit/44.1kHz) files, with a sprinkling of higher-rez 24-bit/96kHz files. I've found that if any equipment is sent for can sound great with high-resolution files, then there's a pretty good chance that these lower resolution files will sound good, too.

Of course there are built-in restrictions when listening to a file that was made from an older CD, but the majority of the time if the equipment is good enough, my attention will be drawn to the music, not the method in which it was stored.  So, until the UK Subs, High On Fire, Boards Of Canada, Norman Connors, and others in my database are released on high-resolution formats, I'm going to continue listening to these "low-rez" files. Still, the analog front end is where I spend the majority of my time during serious listening sessions (digit-philes should have no fear since 51% is a "majority). There were two turntable systems set up during the Westlake Audio Tower 5's stay, the Gold Note Meditteraneo with its B5.1 tonearm that I reviewed in Enjoy The Music.com's May 2016 issue from Italy, which is a stellar performer, along with my even better (and costlier) reference turntable, a Basis Audio Debut V turntable with a Tri-Planar 6 tonearm. Although I've been using the fantastic sounding Kesiki Purple Heart phono cartridge reviewed in the July 2015 issue, the Tuscany, which is the top-of-the-line cartridge sold by Gold Note that was sent along with the Meditteraneo turntable. The Gold Note Tuscany is the better of the two, so that's what I used during almost all of the time the Westlake Tower 5 speakers were in my system.

 

Speaker
I've heard many different speaker systems during my many years as an equipment reviewer. When I'm sent speakers with sonic characteristics that are easy to spot, this makes the review much easier to write. Conversely, when I'm sent speaker with an extremely neutral sound such as the Westlake Audio Tower 5, it makes it more difficult. I will do my best to describe what I heard during the couple of months the speakers were in my system, but please excuse me if I sound as if I am searching for descriptive terms to use in this review. First of all, the fact that I am used to electrostatic speakers that stand over six feet tall wasn't as distressing as I thought it would be. Initially, I thought that I would listen to the Tower 5's for a while after they broke in, then switch back to my reference to get back to my normal listening routine. Well, I was wrong. One of the Tower 5's most striking features was its ability to throw up a huge field of sound. Many might call this "field of sound" a soundstage, but the Tower 5's sound was too perspicacious for such a conventional term. It wasn't only that the Tower 5 disappeared as a source, but its sound was so enveloping it was as if I could "see" into the recording.

One of the first recordings I played through the Tower 5 was the DSD file of Miles Davis' Sorcerer album. This Miles Davis album was first released in 1967, the classic Miles Davis Quintet's fourth release if I'm not mistaken, with the stellar line-up of Miles Davis on trumpet, Herbie Hancock on piano, Wayne Shorter on sax, and a young Tony Williams on drums.  On the first track on the album "Prince Of Darkness", Miles Davis and Wayne Shorter jump right in and play the theme of the tune. Miles' horn is of course front and center, with Shorter's sax panned to the right. A generous amount of reverb is added to each instrument, which allows Mr. Shorter's sax to bleed into the center and the left of the soundstage. Mr. Davis' horn is also wetted with this reverb, yet its halo does not interfere with the sound of the instrument, in fact, the reverb occupies a distinct space in the sound-field. It's odd, as I'm writing this I'm thinking that one might interpret this reverb as a very un-musical sounding. It isn't.

As the music is playing, my mind's ears "see" Mr. Shorter's sax slightly behind and to the right of Mr. Davis's horn, as the reverb fills the space between the two instruments, along with the microphone bleed into both channels. The result is a smoky sounding session, and the resulting sound was as it was allowing me to peer into the session as it happened, sort of like I was time traveling back to Columbia's 30th Street studios in New York City. Herbie Hancock's piano also has the same reverb added to its sound. Although it slightly blurs the initial attack of the keys, Herbie Hancock's piano was still very natural sounding, and his choice of chords that both accompanies the theme and the proceeding solos that follow are spot-on perfect. Herbie Hancock is a large part of what defines the sound of the Miles Davis Quintet in 1967, and it is all here for me to enjoy, was for me to hear, thanks to the extremely accurate sounding mid-range of the Tower 5. Tony Williams's drum kit is spread across the soundstage, playing with the time signature like a child disassembling and reassembling a toy, at the same time telepathically anticipating the rest of the band's every move. Yes, it is amazing that Tony Williams is one of the most intelligent and musically creative drummers I've ever heard, yet at the time of this recording he was 22 years old. It boggles the mind.

The Tower 5 is able to totally disappear as a sound source. Its soundstage is certainly not its only positive sonic quality, but it is quite noticeable with a good recording. The soundstage is both incredibly large and layered, and has marvelously detailed imaging capabilities. Nonetheless, this incredible soundstage does not exist as some sort of parlor trick as it never sounds as if it is large and layered for any reason other than to recreate what is on the recording. Since instruments and voices will appear behind, in between, outside, and especially in front of the speakers, some might feel as if the Tower 5 sound is a bit forward sounding. I don't.

When playing certain well-recorded material, yes, some instruments and voices appear in front, and sometime very far in front, of the plane of the speakers. This occurs more frequently with instruments with a marked amount of energy in the upper midrange and lower treble, for example, some female vocals. Even so, I felt as I was being enveloped by the sound, and there is absolutely nothing wrong with that! The Tower 5's mids and treble are incredible neutral sounding, and during the majority of my serious listening sessions, analyzing the audiophile qualities of the sound of these instruments and voices was the last thing on my mind, unless I was listening critically to the sound, rather than the music.

Before receiving the Westlake Audio Tower 5, I didn't read much about them, other than the history of Westlake Audio and the descriptions of some of their other products. Upon discovering that the speakers were designed with a mid/woofer arrangement of two 5" drivers, I have to admit I was a little disappointed. Although I often use a subwoofer even when listening to much larger speakers than the Tower 5, I prefer setting my resident Velodyne sub, with its on-board 2500 Watt Class D amplifier and 15" woofer, at the lowest settings I can get away with. Setting its frequency cut-off at 50 or 60 Hz, rather than the often standard 80Hz that many use with smaller satellite speakers is the norm in my listening room. After the Tower 5 was broken in, I played lots of music that relies heavily on the bass frequencies, such as power orchestral, organ recitals, heavy metal, and some electronic music. Guess what? The Tower 5's two 5" mid/woofers have an extremely tuneful, pitch stable, and extraordinarily tight sounding bass. I'm sure somewhere in the Tower 5's literature there is an explanation as to how Westlake Audio manages to get this type of low-end heft from this innocent looking speaker. This hardly matters, as anyone who is lucky enough to be able to acquire a pair of these speakers will be the beneficiary.

I have a rather large music collection, and often after guests see the walls of records many make the comment that there is no good music being released these days. What I often tell them that a good number of the young, talented musicians these days are into heavy metal. And they undoubtedly have no shortage of fans. There are so many into metal that these days, the term "metal" is so broad that it's lost its meaning. So many new sub-genres of metal have been created the flow chart that started many years ago with Black Sabbaths first album in 1969 looks as complex as a biological evolutionary tree. I started listening to this type of music when I was a kid. I would have never dreamed that this music would not only still exist in 2016 but be thriving. And that I'd still be into it at my age.

But there are many types of this heavy music that one can easily avoid the infantile.  Another great thing about this genre is that it is often very well recorded. One band in particular, Triptykon, from Zurich Switzerland, has been spending lots of time running on my music server, coming through my headphones, and on my turntable. Triptykon started out during the 1980s as Celtic Frost (which started out as Hellhammer), a sort of punk rock/metal hybrid led by guitarist and vocalist Tom Gabriel. After he split with his co-conspirator and bass player Martin Ain, Tom Gabriel formed Triptykon. Triptykon has two albums, their latest Melana Chasmata was released in 2010. The sound of Triptykon is brutal. And thus the conundrum -- can an album that is recorded with the meters pinned in the red, with 90% of the tunes having dynamics that range from loud to louder be audiophile material? The answer is yes, even if one only pays attention to the well recorded drum sounds. For a system to decipher the onslaught of multi-tracked mayhem it must be top-notch. This is especially true of the speakers one uses.

The Tower 5 is not only able to unravel the torrent of multi-instrumentation and bruising complexity of the album, it seems to thrive on it.  Of course there is no shortage of loud distorted guitars, pounding drums, and deep electric bass. But there are also strings, various types of percussion, and both male and female vocals. Again the Tower 5 was able to demonstrate that two 5" woofers included within its cabinet is nothing to sneeze at. The bass frequencies provide not only a very satisfying bass guitar wallop, but the low-end frequency of the kick drum and bass guitar seemed to be extended beyond the limits of human hearing, and continues as a thump in my gut and the shaking of the listening room's window frames. I'm not going to lie to you, the Tower 5 doesn't have the amount of bass that speakers with much larger cabinets and much larger drivers might possess. Yet, when listening to the Triptykon double LP set I never felt wanting -- for more bass, a more grinding rhythm guitar, or a more devastating (in a good way) experience. But the low end did sound better when I connected the sub.

Still, the Tower 5's bass is quite incredible, and I suppose a large majority of owners of these speakers will be extremely satisfied with the quality of its bass. Sure, the quantity of the bass will often be determined by the type of music one listens to, and if one catches the same disease I've been inflicted with in one's choice of music, a sub might be necessary. Nevertheless, the Tower 5's deep, pitch stable, extremely tight bass is accompanied by absolutely no mid-bass hump that some manufacturers opt for when voicing their speakers as compensation for lack of bass quantity. The amount of mid-bass present when listening to the Tower 5 is an accurate reproduction of the mid-bass that is present on the recording.

 

Ingenious
The Speaker Muffs that are included with the Westlake Audio Tower 5 are an ingenious complement to an already great sounding speaker. They are not a mandatory installation, but when they are used, they boost just about every positive sonic trait of the speakers.  Westlake Audio isn't kidding when they say more music is able to reach the listener unaffected by room distortions caused by room reflections, and in turn has a "smoothing effect" of the music's frequency response, the imaging is improved, and there is a perceived increase in bass frequency response. Yes, my room is acoustically treated, but definitely not perfectly acoustically treated. After moving in I did what I could to improve the sound of the room, but the Tower 5's Speaker Muffs seem to take this one step further. But again, the sound of the Tower 5 is fantastic even without them, so if one can't install them for some of the reasons I state in the beginning of this review (chief among them being esthetics) one shouldn't forgo any serious listening sessions without them. These speakers were designed by Westlake Audio as a precision audio component, with or without these speaker muffs.

The Westlake Audio Tower 5 is not a perfect speaker. Some may find them too small for an extra-large listening room. And then there is the cost, only a little south of 30-grand isn't the type of purchase that many of us make on impulse. But if one can afford this amount for a pair of made-in-the-USA speakers, I say go for it. For those with a smaller to medium sized listening room, and even for those with a listening room on the larger side, these speakers do so many things right and make me search for things to say negative that I have no choice but to give them my highest recommendation.

 

 

Tonality

Sub-bass (10Hz - 60Hz)

Mid-bass (80Hz - 200Hz)

Midrange (200Hz - 3,000Hz)

High Frequencies (3,000Hz On Up)

Attack

Decay

Inner Resolution

Soundscape Width Front

Soundscape Width Rear
Soundscape Depth Behind Speakers

Soundscape Extension Into Room

Imaging

Fit And Finish

Self Noise

Value For The Money

 

Manufacturer Reply
Thank you for your time and efforts to review the Tower 5's for your readers. I'm glad you appreciated the results that decades of studio recording and loud speaker manufacturing has allowed us to offer the discriminating listener. For those who have heard the range of speakers we offer the question often comes up "How do we get that "Westlake Sound" from what might appear to be such wide engineering approaches required of the various systems? And the answer is "Signal Integrity" a term more often heard in relationship to instrumentation electronics rather than speakers. But it's true and how we do it is by paying close attention to how the signal flows through each part of the system and how the signal is effected in its environment. Thus the concept of "P.E. Distortion" and how the limit its effect on the listening experience.

Again Tom, thank you for your time and efforts. We are glad you had the time to review the Tower 5's for your readers.

Glenn Phoenix
Westlake Audio

 

Specifications
Type: Floorstanding loudspeakers
Drivers: Two 5" woofers and a 1.15" fabric dome tweeter
Power Handling: 120 / 400 (low frequency) 90 / 200 (high frequency)
Impedance: 4 Ohm nominal, 2 min., 7 max.
Sensitivity: 91dB/W/m
Warranty: 5 years
Dimensions: 43" x 12" x 15" (HxWxD)
Weight: 104 pounds
Price: $28,000
Speaker Cable: $11,500 for 12" bi-wire pair

 

Company Information
Westlake Audio Loudspeaker Systems
2696 Lavery Court - Unit 18
Newbury Park, CA 91320-1591

Voice: (805) 499-3686 
Fax: (805) 498-2571
E-mail: info@westlakeaudio.com
Website: www.WestlakeAudio.com

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

     
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