AOM Logo November 2008

 

The Lenehan Audio ML1 Loudspeaker



Andy Fawcett

 

 


If you just clicked that link out of pure curiosity, then I’m going to be straight with you – this is a review of a 2-way mini-monitor, from an Australian company that you’ve most probably never heard of. Even if that’s given you 3 distinct reasons to hit the “Back” button, please stay with me on this one… I think you’ll be glad you did.

Based on Queensland’s Gold Coast, a holiday playground far from the nation’s major centres of population and culture, the odds were stacked against designer Mike Lenehan and his fledgling company from the start. Yet, for more than 10 years, they have eked out a solid living selling largely by word of mouth, with the help of some influential supporters in the industry. The times, though, they are a-changin'. With retail outlets in decline, and forced to compete with a flood of cheaply-produced imports, Lenehan Audio has made an aggressive move to online selling – ramping up production and offering wholesale pricing to drive up volumes. And that is distinctly good news for those discriminating music lovers whose tastes happen to exceed their budget (you too, eh?).

The company’s current model range is simplicity itself – you’re looking at it! The ML1 has been the focus of an intensive period of development and, according to Lenehan, its performance was improved to such an extent that a complete redesign of the previous range (which had included a larger standmount and a floorstander) is now required. However, before that there are plans afoot for a new model incorporating some truly innovative technology, the like of which has never featured in a commercial design to my knowledge. The details are a closely-guarded secret but, believe me, this is one company that’s capable of thinking outside the box. To find out more about what makes them tick then, as usual, the website is the place to start. Anyone keen to gain insight into general aspects of loudspeaker design should also find its coverage of the subject eminently readable.

So, to the matter at hand. On first appearances an unremarkable execution of a well-established formula – 5.5” mid-bass driver and 1” fabric dome tweeter in a compact 8-litre enclosure with rear-facing port – the ML1’s considerable weight (11kg / 24lbs) pays testimony to its extraordinarily thorough engineering. The cabinets (featuring a proprietary bracing technique) are laboriously hand built from HD3 composite; a denser, better damped and much more expensive alternative to the MDF found in almost all competing designs. The crossover is even more unusual – a wooden mounting board (not your typical PCB) dominated by three huge inductors, wound by hand from heavy-gauge copper wire, the largest of which alone weighs in at more than a kilogram (2.5 lbs)! Only hard-wired, audiophile grade capacitors and high power handling resistors are used. Hugely labour-intensive to produce, crossovers of this quality are rarely encountered, even at the loftiest altitudes of the high end; that they are found in a loudspeaker at this price point is astonishing, a paean to their designer’s uncompromising clarity of purpose. The speaker is finished – in common with other brands employing composites, such as Wilson Audio and Hansen – in an attractive high gloss paint finish, instead of the more typical timber laminate. The adverse economics of custom spraying have restricted the colour options to Metallic Black, Titanium Grey and Cherry Bronze (a personal favourite, due to its uncanny resemblance to one of my guitars!) – all three would grace any décor.

Despite the “bookshelf” moniker once commonly applied to speakers of this size, in use they gave of their best when sited in free space (as do many of their peers). Their bass output required no boundary reinforcement, and optimum balance and focus were achieved when positioned 4 to 5 feet from the rear wall and around 8 feet apart, cabinets slightly toed-in. 24” stands placed the tweeter perfectly at ear level, which proved to be the best place for it. At 86dB the ML1s are a little less efficient than the norm, but atone for it by presenting a benign electrical load (nominal impedance is 8ohms, with gentle phase angles and a 6.5 ohm minimum) – tube amps of 20 watts or more are considered suitable by the manufacturer, though the speaker’s exceptional power handling will reward those owners with larger reserves of power on tap.

I have crossed paths with Lenehan speakers on odd occasions over the years, and generally been quite impressed. It’s only fair to admit, though, that I am not a fan of conventional moving coil loudspeakers, which I generally find unacceptably coloured and bright compared to panel designs; and waiting at home for the snack-sized ML1s were my much-loved (and imposing) Acoustat full-range hybrid electrostats. Fearing that would present too Herculean a challenge for them, I was also able to borrow a current pair of the highly regarded ProAc Response 1SC speakers [One of my all time favourites - Ed], whose similar cabinet dimensions and driver configuration throw out a direct challenge to the ML1 – even if its Australian retail price of $3700 is almost 50% higher. So, to the listening … and before David was forced to confront Goliath (with Goliath confident of exacting a historical revenge!), the lightweight division faced off.

ML1 vs. ProAc Response 1SC

Domestic circumstances forced me to conduct this part of the review using a friend’s system, and serendipitously so … robbed of any prejudicial reference to the familiar sound of my own speakers, the comparison became particularly easy; it sounded one way with the ProAcs, another way with the ML1s, and any difference was down to the transducers alone. The listening room (and quite possibly the system, too … which I can’t praise too fulsomely, given that its owner will doubtless read this!) is also superior to my own, and provided a superbly resolved and flawlessly smooth performance – burning the midnight oil over several long evenings to bring you this was no hardship at all, let me tell you.

Unfortunately, my very first action – connecting up the ML1s – proved to be my first mistake. Had I started with the ProAcs, I’d have been able to enjoy their fine soundstaging (especially in the lateral plane), vivid imaging and pleasant vocal sound. But “great is the enemy of good”, as they say, and having already been (metaphorically) knocked sideways by the stunning performance of the ML1s, the Response 1SC served only as a disappointing jolt back to reality. Scanning my extensive listening notes, I can find not a single attribute of the ProAcs’ sound - not even their fabled strengths - that was superior to the Lenehans; and most were easily surpassed by them. Simply put, the ML1s had a soundstage that was noticeably taller and a fraction deeper. They had a gutsier, more robust sound and a stronger, more extended bass output, which endowed greater physicality to rock music. And their clearly superior detail resolution, greater sense of treble ‘air’ and more refined instrumental timbre ensured that acoustic music in all its forms was equally well served. The ProAcs were at their best with smaller-scale works, their soundstage becoming a tad cluttered as the complexity and dynamic demands increased; the ML1s maintained an extraordinary level of composure, apparently unfazed by anything that was thrown at them.

Beyond that, there were a couple of areas where the ML1s truly excelled. Firstly, across their surprisingly extended frequency range they offered no obvious colouration, unevenness or undue emphasis that I could detect. None. Not even the crossover region was audible (which surely supports the company’s claim of exceptional phase coherence through that area). Just an effortless tonal neutrality, as pure as I’ve heard in any remotely affordable box speaker. Secondly, such was their sheer resolution that the sound took on an extra, almost “living” dimension that was completely absent with the ProAcs. On suitable programme (Andreas Vollenweider’s sublime “Pyramid” remains etched in my audio memory!) the ML1s constructed the soundstage with such exquisite subtlety of tonal and textural shading, such vivid spatial layering, that I was utterly captivated. The ability of the music to engage – mentally, physically and above all emotionally - was elevated to a level that the ProAcs never approached. The first part of our challenge had a winner, and it wasn’t on points … this was a knockout!

I am fully aware of the Response 1SC’s fine reputation, and do not level these criticisms at it lightly. Without the ML1 as a point of comparison, my impression would certainly have been much more favourable; though there were aspects of the ProAcs’ sound with which I was not at all taken. To my ears, they have had their frequency response very obviously tailored – a hump in the mid-bass to disguise the limited LF extension, leanness through the lower midrange, a lift in the vocal region and rolled-off high treble – and imposed that artificial balance quite intrusively upon everything they played; something that I consistently recorded in my notes as a ‘processed’ quality. If a conspicuously tailored response were the only way to get this level of performance from a mini-monitor then so be it; but the ML1’s top-to-bottom consistency and utter neutrality simply opened the window to the music so much wider. Furthermore, in a system that was flawlessly smooth at all frequencies, the Response 1SC’s sound on most material at moderate to high levels exhibited a brittleness through the crossover region that I found quite uncomfortable. I am especially sensitive to this flaw, which I hear to some extent in virtually all conventional box speakers (it’s perhaps the single main reason I’m a panel guy); but again, playing the same material at the same volume, the ML1 proved that it doesn’t have to be so. Even when deliberately attempting to overdrive it, the only sign of complaint was mild dynamic compression … and I suspect that might have been the amplifiers giving up! For those many ProAc devotees, who must be reading this with some scepticism, I can only add that half-a-dozen experienced listeners were able to sit in and make the same comparison at various points during the review period. While most reacted slightly better to the 1SC than I did, there was still complete unanimity on the wide margin of the ML1’s superiority. Of course, the fact that six audiophiles were able to agree on anything is in itself an event worthy of note!

Perplexed by the disappointing performance of the ProAcs in this comparison, and easily led astray by bad company, I was persuaded into opening them up for a look-see (something that will cost me profuse apologies and a case of beer when their owner finds out …). What greeted us was surprising, and apparently a far cry from ProAc’s claims. Pretty everywhere that shows, the Response 1SC’s drivers and fittings are top notch – but the thin-walled and notably resonant cabinet was entirely unbraced, and loosely stuffed with single sheets of the lowest grade acoustic foam. The crossover comprised a mere handful of modest commercial-grade electronic components mounted on a PCB, the production cost of which must be vanishingly small. Maybe I’m out of step with reality but, for its retail price, I had not expected such obvious signs of cost-cutting. I suspect that my reservations about the 1SC’s sound are, to a large extent, directly attributable to these compromises in its construction.

ML1 vs. Acoustat Hybrid Electrostats.

“This is stupid!” Having removed the props from “2001 – A Space Odyssey” that have dominated my lounge for years and replaced them with a speaker exactly 7% of their size, this whole comparison-test lark suddenly didn’t seem like such a good idea. It wasn’t that the ML1s weren’t up to it; after their amazing performance in the first bout, Goliath’s odds had lengthened considerably! But the relative strengths and weaknesses of the two technologies have been established for decades … and it’s pretty clear which side of the fence I sit on. Would I learn anything at all from this exercise?

In one respect, no. By virtue of driving an almost weightless diaphragm over its entire surface area, ‘stats typically excel in the speed and transparency of their presentation. So, the fact that the ML1 failed to match it in those areas should not be seen as a criticism. And, with room for four ML1s (plus something to wash them down!) in each of the Acoustat’s dedicated bass bins, the issue of ultimate bass power and extension was rendered no contest. On the other hand, the inability of the electrostatic panel to move a lot of air, and the inevitable problems integrating it with the moving coil bass driver, handed the baton back to the ML1 when it came to the convincing portrayal of rock music and the seamless coherence of its lower frequencies. These are the rules we have known and lived by – the fighters were still in their corners.

But, you know that isn’t the end of the story. In fact, far more remarkable than these inevitable differences were the many striking similarities between the two adversaries. Once set up optimally in my room, their soundstages were identically proportioned in all three dimensions, and of equal precision … a finding that seemed almost comically improbable given the huge disparity in their sizes and technologies, though it’s fair to say that both designs inherently favour exceptional soundstaging. Their timbral signatures, from upper bass to high treble, were also barely distinguishable – an authentically natural tonality, the hallmark of exceptionally low colouration. And, when I said that the ML1s fell short of the Acoustats’ ultimate speed and transparency, what I failed to mention is just how small that deficit was … they got as close as any speaker with “conventional” drivers that I’ve ever heard. The extent of these similarities caught me completely off-guard, though I admit that I also found it reassuring; if a loudspeaker’s job is to faithfully transduce the signal that is fed to it then we should hear a great deal less variety in the sound of high-end speakers than we do!

Although I already had a good handle on the ML1’s capabilities from the comparative testing with the ProAcs, that had been an exercise in the type of relentlessly hyperanalytical auditioning for which audiophiles are justifiably pilloried. Only when able to relax and enjoy them at home did they reveal further intriguing aspects of their character. They were dynamic and engaging even at low volume – always a good sign. And when fed some of my ‘problem’ recordings, they were consistently able to make the most of whatever was there, without emphasising the shortcomings and all the while resolutely refusing to sound hard or bright. But when the serious listening began, I quickly found myself utterly immersed in the experience – critical faculties suspended and all thought of reviewing forgotten. That really doesn’t happen very often, not when I’ve got my reviewer’s hat on (a tall, pointy one with a large letter ‘D’ on it!), and I was at a loss to explain it. The ML1 has an effortless, unflappable composure to the way it makes music, and incredible top-to-bottom consistency that is surely the signature of its unusually flat in-room frequency response. No range of the frequency spectrum draws any undue attention to itself. The bass, though extraordinarily deep and powerful for the cabinet size, is superbly damped (the result of that massive inductor) and entirely in musical context – a balancing act that many would find preferable to the floorstander’s greater bass power and extension, but reduced grip. Exceptional power handling also means that the ML1’s character does not change as the volume increases.

Nor did they seem to favour any particular type of music; chameleon-like, they would render a Chopin Nocturne with delightful poise and limpid grace, yet become instantly snarling and savage when faced with the brutal onslaught of Tool’s “Aenima” (which, for anyone who thinks that mini-monitors can’t do heavy metal, they conveyed with stunning visceral impact and raw presence). Eventually, the penny dropped. Quite simply, I have never heard a speaker that imposes so little of itself on the music that it reproduces. Our whole audio vocabulary is shaped to describing the way that loudspeakers ‘sound’ – in terms similar to those we might use to compare the sound of musical instruments themselves – yet a loudspeaker is a transducer, so to a large extent we are really describing its colourations. The ML1 had no readily identifiable ‘sound’ of its own; I began to conceptualise it almost as a passive device, just an open window into the music. Strange, almost heretical thoughts started welling up. We are used to gauging the success of an amplifier by its ability to sonically ‘disappear’ (the “straight wire with gain” ideal), and many of us will have heard what a profoundly positive effect on musical reproduction such behaviour has. But what if it were possible to build, and judge, a loudspeaker by that same criterion? I can almost hear the howls of protest, so I’ll quit before destroying the last tattered remnants of my credibility. In the earlier comparison with the ProAc, the ML1 had shown a heightened ability to engage emotionally; my subsequent listening confirmed that the absence of any distracting audible traits (and I’d suggest that even sympathetic colouration presents such a distraction) allows it to deliver the musical message with unprecedented clarity and impact. Although a slightly equivocal term, that is the true sense in which the ML1’s “neutrality” should be understood.

I realise that this reads like a barely-qualified rave, but try to see it from my side. Hey, I’m the one who’s had his prejudices shattered! So completely did the ML1s win me over that, when the review period ended, had I then been told that I would never see my Acoustats again, I truly wouldn’t have minded that much. When I find a speaker I really like – one that can handle all types of music, soundstage superbly, and sound lively, open and transparent without a trace of harshness – I’ll happily stick with it for many years. I’m looking for a relationship, I guess, not a quick fling! The ML1 is that kind of speaker; I just know that, long down the track, it would still be thrilling and beguiling me. For now, the Acoustats (having benefited from some overdue maintenance and mild modification during their downtime) have forgiven my brief infidelity, reclaimed the lounge and are reminding me why we’ve been friends for so long. But I’d forgotten they were so freakin’ BIG!

So, what of our two protagonists of legend, goaded into combat by yours truly? Well, it seems that they were able to resolve their differences amicably, find a commonground of mutual respect and affection, and are even considering opening a small café together. Don’t you just love a happy ending?!

Conclusion

The truly outstanding performance of these loudspeakers encourages me to view them as somehow radical; in essence they are anything but. Embracing time-honoured design principles and utilising conventional moving coil drivers, their secret instead lies in superlative materials and parts quality, and the designer’s dogged refusal to compromise on any aspect of their mechanical and acoustical engineering. The result is a simply stellar performer; one whose tonal neutrality, superbly flat response and relatively benign electrical properties should synergise well with the great majority of systems, rooms and tastes.

Stand-mounted mini-monitors are not for everybody; they cannot energise very large rooms and, with their limited ability to move air, lack the weight and gravitas that a good floorstander routinely provides. Or, so the story goes. Yet even the most hardened sceptic (and I had counted myself in that number) would find their prejudices challenged by the ML1. True, it didn’t have the sort of bass that resonates in your chest cavity – but its bass extension and power handling far surpassed any reasonable expectation (and its obvious competition), while its breathtaking ability to redefine the established virtues of this category surely knows few equals. Ultimately, through its ability to all but sonically disappear from the listening room, it has immersed me more completely in my music than any other speaker I have experienced. I could criticise it for not doing everything a panel does, and I could criticise it for not doing everything a floorstander does – but within the parameters by which a mini-monitor should be judged, I am struggling to find any fault at all in this near-flawless gem.

The current asking price – stated to be on a limited, introductory basis only – is 2,500 Australian dollars (typically around US$2,000). For that relatively modest outlay, you get a speaker that is painstakingly hand built from the very finest quality components, beautifully finished and carefully pair-matched. A speaker whose overall sonic performance surely defines the state of the art for this category of transducer, at or anywhere near its price. I cannot recommend it more strongly, and consider it to be among the most compelling purchases in all of high end audio. Bravo, Mr Lenehan. Bravo.

Associated Equipment

Analogue: Linn LP12 / Lingo PS / Ittok LVII / Audio Technica OC30
Digital: Meridian 507
Amplification: Custom-built AC Magnum dual mono P200 pre and power
Speakers: Acoustat Spectra 1100 hybrid electrostatics
Cables: Ultimate Cables Silver C4 (i/c and speaker), MAC Ultrasilver+ and Acoustic Zen Matrix Ref 2 i/c’s
Accessories: Sound Mechanics Performance isolation platforms (on each source component) / Target & Sound Organisation stands / Aerolam, RATA & Mission shelves / Vibrapods

Discography

Tracks from the following discs were used for the comparison testing portion of this assessment. Be warned that, among the sonic diamonds, are included a few cubic zirconia!

Talk Talk -- The Colour of Spring
Natalie Merchant -- Tigerlily
Missy Higgins -- The Sound of White
Crowded House -- Recurring Dream
Tom McRae -- Tom McRae
David Gray -- A New Day at Midnight
Andreas Vollenweider -- Behind the Garden; Down to the Moon
W A Mozart -- Clarinet Concerto K622 (SCO/Janiczek); Eine Kleine Nachtmusik (Salomon Quartet)
G F Handel -- Complete Violin Sonatas (Manze/Eggar)
A Vivaldi -- Concert for the Prince of Poland (AAM/Manze); Concertos (Aust Brandenburg Orch/Dyer)
Allegri -- Miserere (The Sixteen/Christophers)
Chopin -- Nocturnes (Roger Woodward); Valses (Stephen Kovacevich)
Michael Hedges - Aerial Boundaries
Newton Faulkner -- Hand Built By Robots
Joe Satriani -- The Electric Joe Satriani
Tool -- Aenima

Manufactured by Lenehan Audio

36 Nind St
Southport QLD Australia 4215

PHONE:
(07) 5571 1527

Source of review sample: manufacturer loan

E-mail: Lenehan Audio

Lenehan Audio website

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