by Andy Fawcett
To my great surprise, I find that it is not quite a year since my review of the ML1 mini monitor loudspeaker introduced Lenehan Audio to an unsuspecting world. I made some pretty outrageous claims for it at the time, and am gratified that they have been so thoroughly vindicated. Our own Anthony Kershaw, who wrote a follow-up, purchased the review pair for his own use, and many Australian and overseas audiophiles have seen fit to post their (invariably glowing) impressions across various forums (fora?!). With superlatives like “best monitors ever” starting to be thrown around, it’s fair to say that they’ve been a hit … and I have followed these events with keen interest and, I confess, a certain degree of pride! But things have not stood still at Lenehan Audio in the interim, so I was pleased to accept an invitation last week to visit their new factory premises and catch up on all the changes.
HD3 – a Dead Parrot
Imagine that you’ve built your business on constructing loudspeaker cabinets from an expensive, inert composite material called HD3 … what’s the worst thing that can happen?! When news reached Lenehan earlier this year that HD3 production had ceased with immediate effect, their first response was a frantic effort to locate all remaining stocks. When it became clear that those could not support continued production, new cabinet prototypes were built up in the closest equivalent material available – High Density Fibreboard (HDF), a material that lacks some of HD3’s advantages while still clearly surpassing the MDF used in the great majority of competing designs. The result was a huge disappointment, falling far short of the lightning speed and clarity achieved with the HD3 cabinet.
HDF simply lacked the stiffness and density of HD3 … and it took a particularly warped imagination (have any of you met Mike Lenehan?) to come up with the solution – steel cladding! For good measure, they even devised a clever way (that’s not bragging; they showed me, and it is!) of applying the ⅛” steel sheet so that it is not just dead weight, but works actively to damp the cabinet. To restore the original internal volume, the cabinet has grown by a centimetre and its weight increased by 1kg. Though little has been made of this forced change, I’m told by a couple of friends who’ve heard both versions side by side that the steel-clad cabinet is a performance gain – unfortunately, the substantial extra labour required to construct it forced a rise in price to AU$2750.
Tolerancing and Pair Matching
When designing this new cabinet, Mike Lenehan took the opportunity to make a change that must have spared him from countless hours of frustration, while also benefiting the customer; a feel good, win-win story if ever there was one! Mike has always hand-tuned every pair of ML1s that left the factory, a horribly time-consuming process that sometimes required several cycles of listening, measurement, disassembly and adjustment of the hand-built crossovers before the finished pair met his fanatically tight tolerance. By the time they were despatched, each pair had around 40 hours of running on them – which still left the small possibility that they could continue to change, however slightly, after delivery to the customer. As volumes rose, there simply weren’t enough hours in the day and orders started to back up against this logjam.
The problem is that the electrical values and mechanical properties of the speaker drivers and all of the crossover components (excepting the hand-wound inductors, of course) will all differ slightly from sample to sample, and continue to change slightly as the speaker runs in. The net effect of these variables can cause a loudspeaker’s frequency response to deviate significantly from the designer’s reference, and (more damagingly) from its partner in the stereo pair. Is this an issue you’ve seen discussed before? Me neither. Most manufacturers, it would seem, are unwilling to incur the costly overhead of careful pair matching … which means that you, the customer, takes pot luck.
The solution that Mike reached says everything about his sheer obsessiveness and, it is claimed (though not, typically, by the man himself), propels Lenehan Audio to the very forefront of the industry. After assembly, the speaker is burned in on the workbench for 100 hours using high-level music signal. Then, by means of a newly designed resistor bay in the cabinet’s rear (covered by a screwed-down plate bearing the serial number), it is a simple matter to measure the speaker’s response and apply the precise adjustments required to match this back to the reference. A critical listening test always follows, but the work is essentially done and the need for disassembly eliminated … while the customer receives a fully run-in speaker of unparalleled consistency.
A new model – the ML1 Plus
The volume of ML1 sales achieved (coupled with the hugely labour-intensive nature of their construction), plus some unexpected distractions like the new cabinet, have prevented the development of new models that the company had planned. Small numbers of ML1 Signature speakers have been produced to special order though, rather than having a fixed specification, these have tended to represent the very best, cost-no-object variant on the ML1 that Mike could put together at the time. During recent experimentation along those lines, a particularly auspicious upgrade to the crossover was discovered, utilising Mundorf Supreme Silver Oil bypass capacitors and Vishay resistors. This is now being offered as the ML1 Plus model, at an AU$400 upcharge. Owners of earlier ML1s who are able to return their speakers to the factory can have the modification retro-fitted for the same sum, plus a small additional labour charge.
My visit culminated in a chance to hear the latest ML1 and ML1 Plus models side-by-side. With no samples of the original HD3 model on the premises, I was unable to gauge how much improvement has been realised in the base speaker since my review. What I can say is that the ML1 sounded absolutely spectacular, even more so than I remembered it – little wonder it makes such a powerful impression on those unsuspecting souls hearing it for the first time. Yet, even on a relatively brief comparison, the ML1 Plus demonstrated improvements in treble smoothness, detail resolution and soundstage focus that were as obvious as they were unexpected. I find it hard to imagine anyone who, hearing the same comparison, wouldn’t gladly throw down the extra money and thank Mike for taking it; though, in truth, it may not be every system that is capable of revealing the differences so clearly.
Boys will be Boys …
Finally, I shall repeat a story told to me by one of those present, as it may just be the most remarkable testament yet to the ML1’s capabilities. Though it’s tempting to assume that alcohol had a role to play in these events, it seems that testosterone is the more likely explanation! Anyway, to the story - a potential customer had turned up at the factory with a very expensive and powerful pair of solid state monoblocs, and passed comment that they’d have to be careful not to damage the speakers. He was politely informed that his amps would give up before the speakers did – and male bravado took care of the rest. With a small jury of listeners hastily assembled, the volume control went up … and up … and up … until the clipping warning lights on the amps started flickering. With neither side prepared to back down, there was only one thing for it; give it some more juice. After running for several minutes with the clipping lights regularly illuminated, the owner of the amps threw in the towel. One of the listeners innocently remarked that he’d never heard the speakers sound better!
Yes, you’re right – I have overlooked one small detail. The amplifier’s manual confirmed that its clipping protection activated when the output exceeded 700 watts …
Coming to an Audio Fest near you …
Well, this time I may have exaggerated a little – if you happen to live in Denver then they’re coming to an Audio Fest near you, on October 2nd – 4th 2009 to be specific. There will be ML1s on display in Monarchy Audio’s room, including a pair in the jaw-droppingly gorgeous dark red metallic paint job that I gather will henceforth be available as a standard colour option (changing to a new spray painter has resulted in still further improvement of their already excellent finish). In an effort to drive sales to the States, I’m also told that there will be a generous deal on offer for orders placed at the show, so do please drop by and check them out.
In concluding my original review, I stated that the ML1 was “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”. For everything that has changed in the last year, one thing at least has stayed resolutely the same.