Tuesday, September 15, 2015

The Chronicles of Sydnia, Part 2: Getting to Work

In the interest of disclosure, I must state my biases about Brigadier Audio up front, especially in the context of my recent visit to Australia. I've been consulting with Brad Serhan and David Allen on these two speaker models all year long. I'm not even going to try to say that I had something to do with the final design--Brad and Dave have been completely obsessed with these two speakers for more than a year and a half. My role is little more than an audiophile who came in, listened and offered feedback. Despite all that, the Brigadiers Audio BA1 and BA2 are sort of my babies, in a godchild sort of way, and my main objective in going to Australia was to sit down with Dave and Brad and listen and tweak until we were absolutely sure they were great enough to bring to the US market. So of course I'm going to tell you that I love these two speakers--but just not because I want to sell them to you.

Let me illustrate. I love pizza, and the best pizza I've ever eaten was mine. Ask most of my family and close friends about their favorite pizza, and they'll probably tell you it was mine as well. While I was in college I worked at a local pizza parlor, then I managed it, then I started my own pizza parlor based on my own recipe, and then I sold it and partnered up on a second one. When I developed my own recipe, I basically started with solid recipes that I truly enjoyed, and then I tweaked it until it had evolved into the best tasting pizza I had tried up to that point. It wasn't culinary skill, and it wasn't luck. It was just about indulging my own preferences, and hoping that my tastes in pizza had a somewhat universal appeal.

It was the same with these two speakers, especially the BA2 2-way monitor that I've been evaluating since last CES. I was going to listen, offer my opinions, and then step back and let Brad and David decide whether or not my recommendations were valid. When I told Brad that after listening to the BA2s my only reservations were the extreme bottom end and a reticent midrange, he nodded and agreed as if to say, "I thought so." It turns out that Brad was able to voice the speaker in one of two ways, and he basically flipped a coin to decide which setting he was going to use on my sample pair. After hearing my comments on the BA2's performance, he basically told himself, "Ah, the other setting."

Once I arrived in Australia and my body clock adjusted somewhat, we dove into work. Brad's first recommendation was to experiment with a variety of resistor swaps that would set the impedance at different values between 4.5 and 5 Ohms. David, shown in the photo at left, suggested that we swap out the rear ports as well. In the workshop they had a variety of wooden O-rings of different shapes, as well as matching tubes of differing lengths. When I told Brad that I wanted deeper bass, he and David decided to try a longer port with a smaller diameter hole. Dave got to work on machining the O-ring so that I would fit perfectly into the rear of the BA2 cabinets.

Sure enough, the change in the port dimensions produced a much deeper and much more satisfying bottom octave. I told Brad and David from the beginning that every smallish two-way monitor sold in the US had to have one salient feature in order to be successful--it had to sound "much bigger than it looked." After the port tweak, I no longer had reservations about the bottom end of this speaker. The deep bass was huge, deep, full, round and musically persuasive. The port fix also seemed to cure the laid-back midrange, the proverbial two birds with one stone. If these different ports had been available to me while I had the BA2s in the US, I wouldn't have needed to go to Australia at all. They would have been perfect, in my honest opinion.

But I'm so glad I did get to go, so that point is sort of moot.

By the way, we did all of our final testing of the two Brigadiers Audio speakers with this Einstein integrated amplifier with internal phono stage. We had quite a few amps on hand to test out the speakers, but we decided unanimously that this German-made Einstein did the best job of stepping aside and letting us hear what the speakers were really doing. We compared the Einstein to another very highly-regarded amplifier from a very highly-regarded European manufacturer--and we were all surprised when the Einstein came out head-and-shoulders above in terms of detail and focus and imaging.

I know very little about the brand--I did have a chance to audition one of their phono stages years ago when I was reviewing equipment, and I remember liking it. But this amp right here, well, wow. What a nice, beautiful, state of the art amplifier that is, incidentally, light enough for one person to carry around comfortably. Someone told me they thought it retailed for around AU$16,000, but that's actually a bargain for this level of performance.

I found the sound room in the workshop to be a little on the live side. I could hear around the room acoustics to a certain extent, but I was concerned that some of the room reflections could mask minor problems with the sound. So we moved the BA2s and the Einstein to Dave's gorgeous condo right on Sydney Harbor. If you've seen the photographs of the Axis VoiceBox S on the Axis website, the ones with the Sydney Harbor Bridge in the background, well, then you've seen Dave's place. Despite lots of glass sliding doors and sleek, modern surfaces, Dave's living room actually turned out to be a great place to listen. Solid floors and soundproof rooms combined to make the BA2s sound focused, warm and full of inner detail.

We did proceed with a few transistor swaps and finally came up with an impedance value that balanced the midrange perfectly against the frequency extremes for a totally coherent and balanced sound. We listened for hours, and at the end of a long night we all decided that the BA2 design was finished.

So I've been talking about the search for a perfect two-way speaker in this blog, to which SpJ's Judy Spotheim-Koreneeff told me "No such thing, and no such creation." I know that in high-end audio, there is no perfect and there is no best. But I can say that the Brigadiers Audio BA2 is a lot like a slice of my pizza circa 1982--it's what I want in a two-way if given the choice. Because it's a two-way, it's small and easily managed when it comes to speaker placement. (Someone, I think it was Brad, mentioned that the strength of the two-way is that it's much easier to set up in a small room, and I believe we all agreed.) It images like crazy, with musicians and voices inhabiting very specific spaces between the speakers, their actual sizes perfectly reproduced in Dave's living room.

But because of the complex, solid birch-ply construction, constrained layer damping and high quality drivers, I just got the impression that this was a basic two-way design taken to the nth degree. Now I know there are some pretty ambitious and expensive two way speakers out there from the likes of Magico and Raidho and others, tiny speakers that sound magnificent--and cost about the same as a new Honda Accord. The BA2s will cost a fraction of that, but they will still seem fairly pricey to the uninitiated. But this is simply a matter of looking a little deeper--seeing the love that Brad and David put into every pair, and then hearing the results. I'm very proud of how this speaker turned out, and I can't wait to share it here in the US.

I'm jumping the gun a little--I'm saving the coverage of the cabinet-making aspect of Brigadiers Audio for later--but I did want to show you an unexpected development in the cabinet choices of these two speakers. Brad and Dave and I went to visit Toby Hogpin, the master carpenter who will be building the exquisite cabinets for the BA1 and BA2. In addition to plenty of exotic Australian hardwood veneers, the cabinets of the Brigadiers Audio loudspeakers can also be made from Corian. You probably know Corian from its applications in kitchen counter tops. My personal pair of Trenner & Friedl ART loudspeakers have Corian on the front baffles, which is very polished and shiny and attractive.

Well, Toby made a couple of BA2 enclosures using black and white Corian and they are simply beautiful. What's unusual about Corian is that it can be repaired and re-polished if there's an incident. So if you scratch the outside of these speakers, you can take them to anyone who is a certified Corian installer and have them re-polished and restored to their original pristine state. If a chunk gets knocked out of them--and I've seen this on many traditional wood veneer enclosures--you can get add a piece and re-contour the surface and get them almost back to perfect--supposedly you can see where the piece has been added if you look up close, but not from your listening position, where it counts.

These speakers can be finished in 35 or 40 different Corian finishes. Many of these finishes will remind you granite counter tops, however, so sticking to the solid colors is probably wise.

So for now the Brigadiers Audio BA2 2-way bookshelf monitor is finished. Brad and David are going to perform some measurements so we can get some specs on the Brigadiers Audio website. Then I'm getting another pair sent to me so I can show them to dealers, at trade shows, all the usual venues. I'm nervous and excited, as are Brad and David. But we're eager to see how audiophiles and music lovers respond to the BA2.

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