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Sound Lab Dynastat loudspeakers.

Manufacturer: Sound Lab, P.O. Box 981508, Park City, UT 84098; 435/658-1341; www.soundlab-speakers.com, info@soundlab-speakers.com

Price: $3,870

Source: Reviewer purchase

Reviewer: Tom Lyle

The opportunity to audition a pair of electrostatic speakers in my listening room presented itself. I never thought it possible (or sensible) to bring a pair into my home because I thought my room was too small to accommodate such speakers. At least not the type of electrostatic speakers I lusted after--those much larger than the frequency-limited Quad ESL-63s (although I haven't heard their larger, but out of my price-range 989 or 988 models). Nevertheless, Sound Lab claims on their website that their speakers work well in small rooms, that from an acoustical standpoint, within reason, there is no room too small. Besides their center channel model, the Dynastat is Sound Lab's smallest speaker. Their A-1 and M-1 models are gargantuan, but the hybrid electrostatic/dynamic Dynastats are "only" 72" x 17" x 2.5" with a 16" deep woofer box.

For the uninitiated (which included yours truly until now), the underlying theory of electrostatic speakers, according to Sound Labs, is actually quite simple. And although they explain why this is so on their website using the simplest language they can muster, it took me quite a while until I understood the theory behind it (well ... most of it).

The laws of physics teach that "like" electrical charges repel one-another and "unlike" electrical charges attract one another. Using this principle, one would start by stretching a thin plastic membrane on a rigid frame and then coat it with a low-mass electrically conductive substance. Next, fabricate two stiff, flat electrodes called the stators. They are insulated to prevent electrical discharge. One has to give each stator the same area as the membrane and place one on either side of it. The membrane is placed exactly equidistant between the two stators. Finally, the stators must have holes in them to permit sound to pass through.

To make this simple electrostatic speaker work, a dense population of electrons is forced onto the membrane using a power supply. The audio signal voltage from the amplifier is connected to the two stators, but in a special manner: the signal applied to each stator is identical with the exception of phase: one signal is 180 degrees out of phase with the other. Thus, as the signal voltage on one stator increases positively, it attracts the negative electron charge on the membrane. The signal voltage on the other stator is increasing negatively and, hence, repels the charge on the membrane. Thus, a "push-pull" force is exerted on me membrane. When the audio signal reverses, the push-pull force also reverses. Since the membrane is compliant, the push-pull electrostatic force applied to it causes it to move. Thus, air is moved and sound is created in the image of the electrical driving force. Sound simple? Not to me. But I trust in time I will understand more (but it hardly mattered once I started listening!).

Setting up the speakers took a while. The initial set up entailed attaching the panels to the ported woofer cabinet that contains a 10_" driver via four pegs. Three wires on the back of the panel, a positive, negative, and ground are connected when the panel is eased into position, but before it is fully attached. The speakers then needed to be connected to the AC via their removable IEC power cables. They need AC power because the membrane in the panel must be charged with the dense field of electrons that I spoke of. The current draw is minimal, but without it the speakers won't work. I ended up with the speakers along the long wall of my 18' x 14' x 8' room, slightly toed in toward the listening position against the opposite damped wall. The depth of the soundstage seemed to depend upon this toe-in because the omni-directional speakers reflected off the back wall. After much experimenting, the speakers ended up about 8 feet apart, and the rears of the panels were three feet from the rear wall.

After even more experimenting, I ended up setting the speaker's brilliance control to almost zero, and the bass control to between three and four on a scale of ten. When I changed to other amplifiers I needed to adjust these controls, but the solid-state amp I was using sounded best, but a bit bright when the brilliance control was raised any higher. I also needed to set the bias control with a flat head screwdriver that is supposed to be lowered until the crackling/static sound stops. I lowered the bias to what I thought would be OK, but the crackling sound returned after using the speakers for a while. I lowered it again, used the speakers for a while again, and went through this procedure quite a number of times before the speakers were silent.

I spin vinyl on a Basis Debut V turntable with a Lyra Helikon phono cartridge mounted on a Tri-Planar VI Ultimate tonearm. The digital discs are played on a Sony DVP-NS755V DVD/SACD player, with its analog outputs wired to the preamp to play the few SACDs I own, but its digital output going to a Perpetual Technologies P-1A/P-3A combo with a Monolithic power supply to play everything else. The preamp is an Audible Illusions Modulus 3a, then later into the review period a Rowland Coherence One, both with Moving Coil phono inputs. The power amplifier is a Krell KAV-250a. I bi-wired the speakers with MIT's AVt 1 bi-wire speaker cable. I use a Velodyne HGS-15b subwoofer for almost all my listening.

When mentioning the Legacy Classics, the speakers that have spent more time than others in my listening room during the last decade, I constantly wrote how the speakers seemed to emanate a "wall of sound" that was very impressive. The Sound Labs don't seem to emanate a wall of sound; they are a wall of sound. At over six feet tall when they are lifted off the ground with the screwed-in feet on the woofer cabinets they are quite imposing. Instruments that are part of the huge soundstage aren't vague semblances, but so extraordinarily solid I'd rather call this trait instrument "placement" rather than imaging. It was also eerie how much separation there was between instruments, so much so that I felt I could measure the gaps with a yardstick.

The Dynastats' midrange went beyond the characteristic I value so highly in quality speakers--the ability to realistically reproduce instruments that they took on an uncanny faithfulness to the actual event. And it wasn't just the midrange that took on this trait, but it extended into the other frequency ranges, so every instrument that passed through these speakers, at least with decent recordings, was reproduced with the utmost authenticity.

The ability to reproduce instruments faithfully given the recording was extraordinary--but because the Sound Labs are so mercilessly transparent they also reveal the faults of many, many recordings. I guess that's why so many claim that electrostatics have trouble reproducing rock music. It's not the music they have trouble with, it's the recording themselves. The recording quality of most rock recordings stink. I eventually became accustomed to this trait, so recordings that were less than first-rate became more listen-able. I guess this was because the music on these records and CDs came through so clearly now--and the recording quality became part of the oeuvre, ff you will. I listen to quite a bit of hard rock through the Dynastats, some of it quite politically incorrect, such as Iron Maiden and Black Sabbath, and these speakers let me know exactly what was on the recordings, good and bad. But it was easy to discern the good--subsequently, they rocked the house.

When playing rock the old sounded better than the new. As a rule, "classic rock" is more simply recorded. The lack of excessive signal processing on the recordings let them come through the speakers with the instruments and voices more intact. Records from the late 1960s to late 1970s faired extremely well. I could cite countless examples, but David Bowie's early catalog and just about every Pink Floyd album sounds great through the Sound Labs.

Another trait of the Sound Labs, and I suppose electrostatic speakers in general, is their ability so sort out complex recordings. Orchestral music is not only no problem for these speakers, they seem to thrive on it. As I am writing this on my laptop I'm taking breaks to listen to Elgar's Second Symphony conducted by Sir Adrian Boult on EMI (which as probably as close to a stereo recording of Elgar conducting it himself as one is likely to hear). The intermittently dense orchestration is brought to life through these speakers--as if I'm attending the recording session sitting as far from the podium as the microphones.

My precious Mahler recordings became new again, for I heard details previously obscured. This was not only because the Legacies (or the Soliloquy 6.3s that I've been listening to the previous nine months before the Dynastats unseated them) could not approach the spaciousness that the Sound Labs, but because they could not separate the instruments involved in the complex orchestration. It was as if looking at a photo that had been blown-up. The identical detail is present in the original but much easier to make out once it is enlarged. The original may look fine, but the bigger one is better. One only has to listen to the DG disc of Mahler's Seventh played by the Berlin Phil conducted by Claudio Abbado to hear this. Even through the most modest of systems it's easy to tell that this CD is a fantastic recording--that's why I've used it before in other reviews as a musical example. Through the Sound Labs it is overwhelming--it takes no time to realize that it is a great recording, but also a fantastic performance as well. This CD should be in every Mahler fan's collection.

There are two areas where electrostatic speakers have a less than favorable reputation--the deep bass and the upper treble. If they didn't have the separate woofer cabinet, their bass would be severely truncated. With the ported woofer cabinet the speaker's bass is certainly respectable--the cabinet is as large as some full range speakers! It had no trouble reaching down into the mid to lower 30 Hertz range, until it rolled-off slowly in the upper 20's. I could see using this speaker without a subwoofer without any problems whatsoever. But paired with the Velodyne sub the system was bass was as perfect as I could imagine from a system this size. I'm not going to fault the Dynastats' bass because I don't think there are speakers anywhere near their price that can't be bettered with the addition of a good outboard subwoofer. And as far as the "seam" that some speak of when mating an electrostatic with a dynamic woofer, I really couldn't hear much of one. That likely is due to my listening position being practically near-field. Obviously, the transient response of the woofer cabinet was nowhere near as quick as the panel, so I suppose the bass appeared to lag slightly behind the rest of the music. The electrostatic panel of the Dynastats is extremely quick sounding--a quicker transient response I have never heard, and as close to "real life" as I've ever had in my listening room. But the difference didn't bother me that much. And when matched with the Velodyne, the system's bass was so authoritative it one of the system's greatest assets

Because I didn't have them in my home to put them side-by-side, I don't think it that it's fair to compare the treble response of the Dynastats to the most popular of the electrostatics (and admittedly better looking) Martin-Logans. My only experience with the Martin-Logins have been in audio salons and reading about them. But the Dynastats' treble is extremely extended, and I found it to be one of the most surprising characteristics of these speakers. When auditioning them in the store, the Martin-Logans never impressed me in this regard. Even when reading glowing reviews of these speakers, most all audio critics admit their sound is on the darker side of neutral. I did not find this true with the Dynastats. As high as the recording reached, so did these speakers. I wrote earlier in the review that I had to lower the brilliance control because they were too bright! The treble sparkled given the right recording, and was as neutral sounding as the rest of the frequency spectrum.

Are the Dynastats perfect speakers? No, but I predict that they're as perfect as I'm going to hear in my listening room for quite a while. If I were to nit-pick, I guess I should point out that at excessive volume they became a little "shout-y", that is, their midrange became forward and they started to compress a bit. This was at volumes that exceeded sane levels, and I only noticed this trait when experimenting to see how loud they could go before they became stressed. I listened to the speakers at concert level volumes quite often with no audible strain.

There was also a bit of distortion in the bass. It sounded like a resonance-type problem with the electrostatic panels that manifested itself as a crackling sound. This was most noticeable when the speakers weren't warmed up, and when extremely dynamic instruments such as a powerful tympani thwack or a bass drum whack. I didn't leave the speakers powered 24 hours a day because I had them hooked up to the AC coming from a PS Audio Power Plant AC regenerator that powered the rest of my equipment. If powered all the time I bet this problem would appear much less often. Also occurring occasionally was a "popping" that sounded very similar to the sound the speakers made when the bias was set too high. This anomaly was only noticeable when the speakers didn't have any music playing through them, but it was a little disconcerting.

Their greatest "problem" is of course their size. By most standards these speakers are huge. Some crafty domestic negotiations were necessary to install these speakers permanently in my listening room (charmingly called our "living room" by my loving wife). But I can only imagine what these speakers would be like in a home theater set-up when used as main speakers flanking a large screen. Not only would it sound amazing, it would look awesome--the envy of not only all the neighbors, but quite a few audiophiles as well.

Are they a $ensible buy? No way. If you can afford them, do they make sense? Absolutely.

--TL
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Title Annotation:Components
Author:Lyle, Tom
Publication:Sensible Sound
Article Type:Product/Service Evaluation
Date:Jan 1, 2004
Words:2461
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