AOM Logo November 1997


The Waveform Mach 17 Loudspeaker

Blair Roger listens to the latest iteration of Waveform's tri-amplified, active loudspeaker system

Waveform Mach 17 Preface on Things Technical
To briefly recap my previous article on the Waveform Mach 17s, this speaker system consists of two truncated pyramids about thirty-six inches tall and twenty-four inches square at the base. The speakers are divided into two units: the lower one housing two twelve inch drivers (with better air moving ability than one twenty-four inch device), and an extremely robust upper module shaped like a giant egg, housing the mid and treble drivers. The two units are connected with a professional quality shielded cable terminated with a Neutrik XLR connector. The speakers require six channels of amplification. An active outboard crossover, designed to exacting standards for Waveform by Bryston, allows extremely subtle compensations for room acoustics and anomalies in source material, and also eliminates the distortions of back electromotive forces returning to the amplifiers from the internal, passive crossover network it replaces. The result is a highly sensitive and easy amplifier load that is low in inherent colorations. Choice of cables and electronics become, therefore, relatively non-critical.

The concept of an outboard active crossover is valid and valuable. It is a very sophisticated, subtle and beautifully made device. It took me a couple of weeks to realize that it could compensate for unbalanced acoustics in my music room with only a minor tweak of the correct channel pots. A brilliant part of the Mach 17 system.

Prior to starting this review, Waveform's John Ötvös suggested that we contact Chris Johnson of Sonic Frontiers and request a 110 Watt Power 2 amp and a brace of 55 Watt Power 1s for use during the review period. Given their relatively low output impedance (.2 to .3 Ohms), John felt that the Power series of amplifiers would be compatible with his speaker system. I also suspect that he wanted the audio world to know that the Mach 17s would work with reasonably powered tube equipment. "Any more Watts than that, particularly on the tweeters and midrange units, would be wasted", he said. The prospect of reviewing the Mach 17s with Sonic Frontiers' amplification was an exciting one since this speaker system had never been reviewed with tube power amplifiers before.

Chris obliged the Editor's request at once with three brand new amps. They were large and exceptionally heavy, with the Power 2 weighing 110 lbs. As they spread before me on the floor, I quickly realized that 1 meter interconnects would be of inadequate length. A brief call to Christine Bernaski, Chris Johnson's efficient personal assistant, solved the problem. I asked for three 2-meter pairs of XLR terminated interconnects, made from any kind of wire available. They were ready the next morning! Christine graciously presented me with a box of pink bubble wrap containing the "extra long" interconnects. I glanced and gasped: inside was the unmistakable weave of Kimber KCAG - three 20 foot pairs!

Following setup and tube biasing, I left the amps powered up continuously throughout the review period. Happily, I did not experience the slightest problem. They appear to have solid-state reliability and, as a bonus, kept my listening room warm and cozy through the chilly month of October.

Power, depth, control, speed, dynamics, detail and sweetness; the Sonic Frontiers Power series of amplifiers has them in abundance. We measured a true 20 Hz test tone from the listening position with the Power 2 hooked up to the bass drivers during setup. (For acousticians: my room is about 18 feet by 20 feet with an alcove extending the long side to 28 feet). Later, while playing the Classic Records Royal Ballet Gala, we experienced the London subway running under the hall in all its infrasonic glory.

The Main Course
I recently skimmed through a book on a very popular subject, Attention Deficit Disorder, in which the thesis presented was that humankind has evolved from two basic behavioral models: the hunter and the wine-maker. The gist of the argument is that hunters, by nature, are keenly perceptive, restless, and impatient. They seek constant challenges, act on impulse, and only concentrate on a task when absolutely necessary. Vintners patiently tend their plots with hawk-eyed vigilance, are methodical, analytical, have foresight about long-term outcomes, and can recognize the peak of maturity in products and processes.

I found myself thinking about these two models during the time I had the Mach 17s for review. As such, I began to look at the world of audiophilia from a new perspective. We need the hunters because their quick wits and restlessness put the meat on the table. But we also need the vintners to quench our thirst for the sublime, the spiritual, the inexplicable.

What an odd way to begin an audio review! But the Waveforms are the sort of transducers that make one philosophical because they make possible the experience of music in depth. Depth in all its dimensions: time, space, frequency, timbre. Also in the genius that brings all these elements together in the moment of performance. And this is the sublimity of audio: the possibility of re-creating an ephemeral moment of genius. This philosophical ideal is one to which the Waveforms come startlingly close.

Mach 17s and Power 1 and Power 2 Amplifiers Once you have experienced the Waveform Mach 17s - tri-amplified, with their active crossover - you will find it very difficult indeed to return to the world of common, everyday audio. This system can, given the right circumstances, reproduce sound with a verisimilitude that is shockingly immediate, direct and powerful, yet, never strained or harsh. Previously, I have quoted John Ötvös saying that "this is a mature design." After a month of listening, I must agree with him. I cannot think of a way, sonically, in which they could be improved. I'm not going to pull any punches here folks. I'm telling you right up front - they've got it all: electrostatic-like transparency, a midrange that can fool you into thinking you are listening to the real thing, mid-bass energy that will raise you, conducting like Sir Tommy Beecham, to your feet, and, finally, a bass foundation that will bring the London 'tube' running under Kingsway Hall into your music room. This is a system with the heart of a lion and the intestinal fortitude of Gilles Villeneuve.

Specifics
I've got to confess that I'm an electrostatic kind of guy. I've shared home and hearth with Martin-Logans and vintage Quads for many years. And it's primarily the absence of boxy colorations, the low, low, distortion, transparent, fleet, sweet treble and the holographic imaging that has led me down this road to music. Anyone familiar with the positive attributes of electrostats will nod his or her head knowingly upon first auditioning the current iteration of the Waveforms. There is more than a passing similarity, and here we have many bonuses not granted to that electrified transducer club: bass that is flat to nearly 20 Hz and the ability to play loud, and I mean really loud, without stress or hardness or even the thrill of an unexpected light show. And all of this because of the ultra-wide dispersion of the Waveform drivers. They provide a truly holographic presentation of the performance.

I discovered that it was possible to walk slowly from one side of the music room to the other, a distance just shy of 20 feet, some 15 feet from the Waveforms, and to observe a shimmering three-dimensional aural image that shifted smoothly and continuously with the change in listening position. This gave the impression that one was in the virtual presence of the performers. A real shocker that one must experience to believe. This, coupled with the ease with which the Waveforms play at redoubtable volumes, give the music a realism that is unique.

I'm sure you will agree that there is a certain elusive factor that allows us to distinguish instantly between live and recorded music. What that factor is exactly, I do not know. But I am certain that it exists, because it can raise the hair on the nape of your neck and bring joyful or bitter tears to your eyes. I have heard a Hebrew word, yofi, that I understand means, literally, beautiful. The beautiful is that which satisfies our expectations. Perhaps this powerful, elusive characteristic should be called the yofi factor. In any case, the Waveforms have it in spades, clubs, hearts and diamonds. Just spin any of the Classic Records RCA re-issues and you'll understand at once.

But there is more, and this is what will make these loudspeakers sought after classics in the years to come. They are possessed of a neutrality that allows the source material, that ephemeral combination of artists, acoustics, and microphones, to completely dominate the choice of electronics in the reproduction chain. This neutrality allows us to simply listen to the music. Some of you may not like what I am saying, but if you haven't actually heard this for yourself it may be difficult to grasp its significance. In plain terms it is this: it doesn't really matter so much what you choose as peripherals to accompany the Waveforms as to which performance you decide to listen. This because the frequency response of the speakers is so flat and well balanced (i.e. neutral), that you will find yourself lost in the magic of the music. In this sense, the Waveforms transmute your system into a kind of time machine that will transport you beyond the banality of everyday life. The capacity to delight and amaze that is locked in our record collections shines forth compellingly.

Associated Components

Analogue: Well-Tempered Turntable with LP Labs carbon fibre tonearm, Lyra Lydian cartridge
Preamplifier: .Audio Research SP-9 Mk. II
Power Amplifiers: Sonic Frontiers Power 1 and Power 2
Cables: Kimber PBJ and Kimber KCAG interconnects, Purist Audio Design Aqueous loudspeaker cable, Kimber 4TC loudspeaker cable
Accessories: ASC acoustic wall treatment panels

The Music
In listening to the Symphonie Fantastique (Classic Records LSC-1900) we immediately sense the light and frothy, ineffably 'French' sound that Munch is able to draw forth from the Boston Symphony players. The rubato phrasing in the first movement is enchanting and we are amazed by the see-into transparency revealed by the shuffling of the instrumentalists during quiet passages. The phrasing of the first violins is exquisitely delicate. Forte passages are wall-to-wall, with the idee-fixe carried by the trumpet deep to the right. Munch has supple control of the crescendi and decrescendi. The listener is drawn into Boston Symphony Hall through space and time by the transparency of the details and the realism of the dynamics. In the fourth movement we note the superb layering and depth in the counterpoint of the tympani and clarinet. Berlioz pulls out all the stops in the finale and we are treated to the clanging gong, trombones, tubas and breathy flutes. Overall, the music is fluid and breathtakingly dynamic.

The well-known Lieutenant Kije, Op. 60 by Prokofieff (Classic Records LSC-2150) opens with the snare drum deep stage left, filling the soundstage with reverberations. The deep strings are rich and full with excellent layering. The brass treble, triple-tonguing trumpets, are true and clear. In the second movement the whole orchestra pulses to the rhythm of the swaggering saxophone. String fortepianos stand out vividly. What fun. I hope the neighbors agree.

On the Decca re-issue of Swan Lake (SPA 224) conducted by Jean Morel, we bathe in sweet string tone. The Royal Opera House Orchestra of Covent Garden play like demons on the second cut and we are swept up by their musicianship. The third cut wings along effortlessly, highlighted by subtle cymbal swishes. The strings and woodwinds have exceptionally sweet timbre. My listening notes say: '"makes you want to listen to records straight through just for the pleasure of it."

Next up is Bizet's Carmen suite (Ace of Diamonds SDD 141) with Ansermet at the helm of the L'Orchestre de la Suisse Romande. This early British pressing has the vivid, forward presence of the early Decca three-microphone stereo recordings. The ground shaking bass drum opening appears within an airy, light ambiance as the sound of the orchestra curves gently behind and between the speakers. I adjust the mid and treble controls of the crossover's right channel by a few degrees to tilt the balance slightly to the right. On the second cut the brass and strings have brilliant presence without going over the top or showing any hint of harshness or strain. The sound level is extraordinarily high compared to my usual listening habits. Ansermet drives the SRO with the fire and passion this music demands. The high string passages in the third cut are sweet and we experience transparency highlighted by glittering, cutting percussion. Woody clarinet overtones blend superbly well with the flute and harp in the fourth movement without any unnatural spotlighting. I ask myself: "how could anyone call the SRO a 'ragged band' with playing of this calibre?" I find myself completely enthralled by the delicate mix of woodwinds, strings and percussion that sketches a self-portrait of Carmen: 'prends garde de toi!'. A rare piccolo duet is perfection and then...it's over!

For a complete change I spin a digitally re-mastered LP of Herbie Hancock's Maiden Voyage (Blue Note BN 84195). I hear a dry studio ambiance with close mic'd horns to which some reverb has been added. The sax sounds like it was recorded in another room and the piano and drums are on top of each other. I quickly lose patience with this re-mix, revealed as a contrived studio effort.

This speaker system makes you want to search out the oddities in your collection and I find a recording of piano music by Debussy, Reflets dans L'eau, as it happens (James Boyk, Performance Recordings PR-4) . The sound has a bootleg quality to it, overlaid by tape hiss and I wonder about the adequacy of the microphones. I sense a diffuse, soft atmosphere with a rolled-off top end, interspersed with audience noises that compete with the performance for our attention. One of a kind, as the Waveforms reveal it to be.

One last example: I have enjoyed Sir Colin Davis' recording of Symphony No. 5 by Sibelius (Philips 6500 959) for many years. His cleanly sculpted phrasing makes sense and gives form to this sprawling, wandering piece. For comparison I listen first to the Gibson account of the 5th on Classic Records (LSC-2405). We are in the second or third row center and the stage is brilliantly lit. The performance is very physical, involving and the sound is vintage Decca but I am left with the feeling that I have heard snatches of tone poems strung together by the sheer will of the conductor. Then I go back to Sir Colin and Boston Symphony Hall. What a disappointment. The sound is distant and diffuse, lacking any deep foundation. Strangest of all, the violins on the left definitely sound as if they are playing behind some sort of partition. The Mach 17s have once again revealed the recording's true colors.

Conclusion
After spending a month with the Waveform Mach 17s, I can't imagine how anyone who could afford them could pass them up. Their design was brilliantly conceived and has been superbly executed, combining the strengths of electrostatic speakers with the power and tightly controlled deep bass of the finest dynamic systems. They are large, but not impossibly so, and they do not demand pairing with stratospherically priced amplification or cables. Thus, the Mach 17 is a product that can bring you to the crossroads of hunting and wine-making.

Allow me to be obtuse for a closing thought on this magnificent product. Suppose you found a small advertisement in the back of an auto enthusiast's magazine some forty years ago, offering a two-seat sports car without a top, little perspex windscreens, and the engine where the trunk should be. You notice it is called the Porsche Spyder 550. A brilliant design which could be construed as totally impractical. How many hunters would have dismissed it? How many vintners would still be driving one? I ask you now, who's got the last laugh?

The Waveform Mach 17 loudspeaker system
Designer: Dr. Claude Fortier

Manufactured by Waveform
RR # 4, Brighton, Ontario, K0K 1HO, Canada

phone: (800) 219-8808, fax: (800) 219-8810
Web: http://www.waveform.ca, E-mail: jotvos@waveform.ca

Price: US$ 6995.00 or CDN$ 9595.00
available factory direct with 30 day return privilege (some exclusions apply)

Manufacturer's Response

Dear Editor,

1997 marks the 12th year in the loudspeaker business for Waveform and since January, it has indeed been a fruitful experience for us with support from all quarters. The enthusiasm expressed in Blair Roger's review for our Mach 17 speaker, has followed the altogether uncommon emotional path that only a true music lover could bring to audio journalism.

I am deeply moved in a very personal manner by the outpouring of understanding and enjoyment that he has brought to the review process. This audio thing is a hobby at heart and the real hobby, the original hobby, was always about record collecting and building a library and most important of all, the sharing of that experience with others. This aspect has been vividly brought to the fore for all to realize and I do hope that the small efforts from Waveform will help to return audio to its roots for those to whom that is still a vital factor in their lives.

The sheer joy for music appreciation that I have witnessed amongst Andrew Chasin, Anthony Kershaw and Blair Rogers should act as a role model for the entire audiophile community. Thank you very much for the opportunity to share a little of this passion in your web pages with our product offering.

Sincerely,

John Ötvös
President, Waveform

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