Cain & Cain Company Abby Loudspeaker
Review By Ian White
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"I love to roll in the hay...
roll, roll, roll"
Call me a "quasi-adulterer" if you must, but last September I caught myself cheating. No, not on my wife of eleven months, but on the other "lady" in my life. For the better part of three years, I had lusted and drooled over a lovely pair of cherry-finished Spendor SP2/3 loudspeakers. Before I heard the boxy maidens of Surrey, I had engaged in a shameless and dirty affair with an electrostatic speaker with a glandular disorder. Apparently, size does matter.
As the three delivery men finished lowering the enormous shipping container onto our living room floor, I sensed that the mood in my home changed. My wife, who had never shown interest in anything that I had ever reviewed, was hovering over my shoulder as I used a drill to take apart the container.
"What's that?" she asked.
"It's a new speaker from this company called Cain and Cain." I replied.
"Is it good?"
My wife is a graduate of Northwestern University with two graduate degrees. Nuff said?
"I've never heard it, but I'm sure that it is awesome," I replied with some anger as I dropped two of the shipping screws under the ottoman.
"But if you have never heard it, how do you know that it is awesome?"
"Because someone on the Internet told me so," I replied with my twisted Sideshow Bob grin.
"Okay…well, I am going to the office. Have fun with your new speaker. Oh and by the way, why did you move one of your other speakers closer to the door?"
Before I could answer that I had no idea what she was talking about, the door slammed shut and I was alone with two slender towers, wrapped in enough bubble pack for a family of four. Lifting the Abbys from their shipping container required some effort, but after I finished unwrapping them, I was enraptured. As I ran my hands down the sleek baffles, I realized that I was fondling a pair of loudspeakers, but life is too short to quibble about something so innocent.
Apparently, the other lady of the house did not look upon my behavior with such understanding. Have you ever had the feeling that you were being watched? The "right" Spendor SP2/3 in my system had broken free from its shackles and was spying on me as I inspected every inch of the
Abbys. A fair way to distinguish the two would be to say that the Spendor SP2/3s are Maureen O'Hara with the voice of Sarah Vaughn (not a bad combination) and that the Cain Abbys are Rita Hayworth with the voice of Judy Garland. Neither one would have anyone running for the exits.
After I finished inspecting the fine cabinetry of the Abbys, which are made from 100% alder wood and not one inch of MDF, I began moving them into my listening room. Before I could even get one foot inside the door, an album cover flew from one of the shelves and nearly decapitated me (hey, those Hendrix reissues are solid). A second album cover missed my head and smashed into the wall behind me. CDs began to hurl themselves at me from different directions and I was forced to retreat back into the living room with the surprisingly unfazed Abby. As I turned around, the door slammed shut and I could swear I heard the left SP2/3 yell something about the Sira and Duetto conspiring to keep the "love triangle" together.
Wookin pa nub in all da wong
The Abby are a rare commodity. Not only do they deliver from a style and function perspective, but they excel in the performance department and suck you in with their ability to communicate. No, they are not perfect, but they are also not a one-night stand.
At 70" x 9" x 9" (HxWxD), the Abby are certainly not your average looking pair of loudspeakers. The Abby are a ported, modified
Voight-pipe design which utilize single-drivers from Japanese manufacturer, Fostex. Although two different drivers are available for the Abby, the review sample in question was the "Normal" version (Igor, Igor!) which uses the Fostex Fe 166e driver. The "Nearfield" model uses the Fostex FF 165K driver and is designed to work best in rooms that are 12' x 12' x 8'
(WxLxH) or smaller. If you are going to be sitting six feet or less from the driver, the "Nearfield" version is probably a better choice.
The finish on the Abbys is really quite exceptional, even more so when one considers the fact that they are only $1,500. There are four finishes available (natural alder wood, hunter green, kind-of-cobalt blue, rosewood red) and my pair came finished in the exquisite rosewood red. Terry Cain earns a living building very expensive cabinetry and you do not have to be a "New Yankee Workshop" junkie to figure out that he cut very few corners designing this speaker. The construction quality is superb for a speaker in this price bracket. A lot of pride and experience went into the building of these speakers.
Cain and Cain supply eight very heavy and sharp spikes with each pair of Abbys and their application is mandatory. While the speaker looks stable without them, they do wobble slightly and the sound difference is significant without them. My wife was not overly impressed with the holes they left in the carpet, but they do firmly plant the speaker in place and are worth the aggravation. Every speaker manufactured by Cain and Cain utilizes Cardas wiring and binding posts. The Abby are similar to the Horn loudspeakers that I reviewed earlier this year, as they do not have a crossover. The signal from your power amplifier runs directly through the internal wiring to the Fostex driver.
When Terry Cain and I were busy organizing the review via email, he emphasized that it would be a mistake if I only used the Abbys with my Wavelength Duetto 300B single-ended power amplifier. While Terry loves the sound of his speaker with a triode based amplifier, he suggested that I would be very surprised by their performance with integrated amplifiers (both tube and solid state), solid-state amplifiers, and surround sound receivers.
Fortunately, I had four amplifiers available during the review process and I was able to judge the validity of Terry's claim. Aside from my beloved Wavelength
Duetto, I punished the Abbys with a Blue Circle BC6 hybrid single-ended amplifier, Naim Nait 5, and Denon AVR-2800 surround sound receiver.
Terrified of opening the door to my listening room, I decided to set-up the Abbys in my living room and use them in my home theater system. My living room is a cozy
21.5' x 19.5' x 9' (LxWxH), so I had plenty of room to work with. After a lot of trial and error, I ended up placing the Abbys 24" from the front wall (distance from wall to back panel) and 40" from the side walls. The unshielded Fostex drivers were more than three feet from my television and I never had a problem with the set-up. I experimented with toe-in/toe-out and decided that I preferred the sound with the speakers slightly toed-in. The tonal balance of the speaker leans towards the accuracy side, but it is also something that was heavily influenced by my choice of amplification.
There was certainly a difference between the Abbys and my Meadowlark Audio Petrel center channel speaker, as far as tonality was concerned but the sound was still very good.
When I drove the Abbys with the Denon AVR-2800, the sound was crisp, immediate and slightly forward sounding, but still very listenable with DD and DTS soundtracks. The Abbys do not need a lot of power to fill a room with sound, but they also do not have the low-end visceral impact to really work in a large home theater room. While it is easy to suggest that a subwoofer would take care of this problem, I would still recommend a pair of full-range floor standing loudspeakers (along with a subwoofer) in a larger room. If you were interested in building a tube-based home theater system in a room that is not very large, the Abbys would be an interesting option.
Before I removed the Abbys from my home theater system, I drove them with the Blue Circle BC6 and I noticed a number of significant changes. The BC6 is hybrid single-ended amplifier that leans towards the "warm" side of the musical spectrum and it completely changed the presentation of the
Abbys. The sound was still crisp and immediate, but it was also fuller in the midrange and a lot smoother in the treble. Vocals on a number of the music DVDs that I used were transformed by the BC6. The bass firmed up significantly and I began to rethink my criticism.
My best advice would be (should you decide to use the Abbys with a surround sound receiver) to try the Abbys with Rotel, B&K, and even Arcam - three brands that lean towards the "warm" side of the force.
The Spendor SP2/3s did not leave without incident when I finally inserted the Abbys into my listening room, but a box of chocolates and a promise of triode-based push-pull magic gave me some time to work with. My primary listening room is the same length as my living room but it is only eleven feet wide, which made for some tinkering with the Abbys placement.
The Abbys liked the 24" distance from the front wall, but I ended up moving them much closer together in the smaller room. Another interesting development was that I liked them more with no toe-in.
R.L. Burnside's Come On In [Fat Possum Records 80317-1 LP] is one of my favorite blues recordings of the past few years, and the Abbys just ate it for breakfast with both the Wavelength Duetto and Naim Nait 5. Burnside's sharp guitar licks and rough voice were beautifully reproduced by the
Abbys. Burnside was front and center in my room and I was very impressed by the imaging ability of the speaker. The Abbys are very expressive speakers that allow you to hear every fingering change, every breathing pause, and every ounce of pain or pleasure.
While I still do not get the "Dead" thing, I do really enjoy listening to Jerry Garcia's work with David Grisman and others. Garcia's guitar work on
The Pizza Tapes [Acoustic Disc ACD-41 HDD] begs for a speaker like the Abbys which can reproduce each note with such clarity and coherency. The more I listened to the
Abbys, the more I was convinced that they lean towards the accuracy side of the scale, but not to the extent that they sound clinical. The speaker breathes so much life into the music that is fed to it that it is hard to not be seduced.
When I switched to vocals, I figured out a lot about these speakers. Terry Cain is aiming for a certain type of listener with the
Abbys, and his name is not Angus Van Satriani. If your musical tastes lean towards jazz, blues, folk, chamber, and choral, then you really should try this loudspeaker. Vocalists such as Sam Cooke, Tori Amos, Judy Garland, Sarah Vaughn, and Frank Sinatra were sublime through the
Abbys. Each one of these performers has their own distinct style and the Abbys did not rob them of their charisma, power, and emotion.
If you enjoy Béla Fleck, then you really have not heard it until you try it on a pair of single-driver speakers such as the Abbys and with a single-ended amplifier. There were a number of moments when I could swear that Fleck and Vic Wooten were in my room and I certainly heard some whimpering from the peanut gallery.
Rain On My Parade...
There is no such thing as a perfect component and the Abbys are imperfect. I may be getting older, but I am certainly not dead. I make no apologies for enjoying Green Day, Primus, Rush, Metallica, AC/DC, and Black Flag. The Abbys are rated down to 40Hz but I certainly never heard anything even close to that in either room. It does not take a lot of power to drive these speakers to very loud listening levels, but do not confuse volume with scale or visceral impact. The Abbys are about subtlety, finesse, emotional connection, and clarity. If you are looking for a pair of single-driver speakers that will move a lot of air, then I would suggest one of Terry's larger "studio" models, but not the
This may surprise some people, but I am not 100% convinced that a single-ended power amplifier is the "ultimate" choice for this speaker. I loved music when I drove the Abbys with my Wavelength
Duetto, but I must confess that the hybrid Blue Circle BC6 was more musically satisfying with the
Abbys. The ideal amplifier for this speaker may be a 45-based push-pull amplifier or even an EL34-based integrated amplifier. My point?
The Abbys love the midrange purity of single-ended amplification, but they need the added authority of a push-pull design to really shine.
Rather than end my review with our usual ratings' system, I want to provide the following as food for thought.
"Beauty is not an easy thing to measure. It does not show up in the gross national product, in a weekly paycheck, or in a profit-and-loss statement. But these things are not ends in themselves. They are a road to satisfaction and pleasure and the good life. Beauty makes its own direct contribution to these final ends. Therefore it is one of the most important components of our true national income, not to be left out simply because statisticians cannot calculate its
- Lyndon B. Johnson
The Cain and Cain Abbys are a thing of beauty.
Okay, fine. I give the Abbys a "110" for value for the dollar and "90" for overall tonality.
Driver: Abby "Normal" -- Fostex FE 166e
Abby "Nearfield" -- Fostex FF 165k
Frequency Response: 40Hz to 20kHz (+/- 3dB)
Nominal Impedance: 8 ohms
Minimum Impedance: 5 ohms
Finishes: natural alder wood, hunter green, kind-of-cobalt blue, rosewood red
Dimensions: 9" x 9" x 70" (WxDxH)
Pricing: $1,499 per pair
Cain & Cain Company
941 North 8th Avenue
Walla Walla, WA 99362
Voice: (509) 522-2242
Fax: (509) 522-0461