Wednesday, November 4, 2015

The Chronicles of Sydnia, Finale: The Brigadiers Audio BA1 Loudspeaker

I'm currently fulfilling my own prediction that I'll be talking about my trip to Australia for the rest of my life. Here it is, nearly two months to the day after I returned to the US, and I'm still acting like one of those '50s dads who invites everyone over for twenty minutes of drinks and three hours of vacation slides. I'm ready to wrap it up now, although my trip will influence the direction of CCI over the next year.

For me, the single biggest reason to travel to Australia--outside of getting that first official passport stamp--was to hear Brad Serhan and David Allen's masterpiece, the Brigadiers Audio BA1 loudspeaker. I didn't even get a chance to hear it until about two weeks into my trip. I'd heard plenty about them beforehand, however. One of the many things I learned about Aussies was that they consider bragging to be poor form. (An American friend of mine has sarcastically noted, however, that Aussies like to brag about their modesty.) Brad wasn't telling me that he had made his masterpiece, a speaker so good that I should travel 8,167 miles just to hear it.

Instead, he said things like "we're anxious to have you over for a listen" and "we think it's really good but we want your feedback" and "we've had some reviewers and dealers here give it a listen and they really love it, but let's not get ahead of ourselves."

Here it is in all its glory. The Brigadiers Audio BA1 is much like its creators, understated and modest on the outside and utterly engaging while going about its daily business. Featuring two of those famous SEAS magnesium mid/bass drivers per side as well as a Raal ribbon tweeter, the BA1 seems very much like a traditional 2.5-way design--albeit one using the finest parts and materials. With this speaker, God is in the details with its birch-ply cabinet construction, constrained layer damping cabinet design using a new adhesive between the layers, and a remarkably refined crossover that is the culmination of Brad's thirty-plus years in speaker design.

In addition, Brigadiers can customize the BA1 and the BA2 in a number of different ways. An outboard crossover will be an option, for example, as well as driver gaskets made from additional constrained layer damping material from Les Davis. But one of the most unique aspects of these two speakers are their almost bespoke quality. When a customer decides to order a pair of BA1s or BA2s from a dealer, they will begin a relationship with that speaker. They can decide between exotic hand-oiled Australian veneers such as brushbox (seen in the completed BA1 we evaluated) and Australian rosewood and much more. Toby Hogpin, the master carpenter who is making the complex and beautifully-made cabinets for these speakers, can also encase them in dozens of different Corian finishes.

Then, once an order is placed, the entire team will send the customer video updates of the speaker being made. The customer will literally know his speaker inside and out before it even arrives. And while many manufacturers would use this custom approach to stretch out the delivery time of the finished product, Brad figures he can build a pair of these in just a few weeks.

Brad and David and I visited Toby at his shop in Sydney about a week into my visit, and to tell you the truth I had been looking forward to it for days. I have kind of a fetish about wooden loudspeaker veneers, and I'll be the first to admit that a gorgeous wooden finish is very, very important to me when I'm making a loudspeaker buying decision. I want something breathtakingly beautiful, something that no one else has. So I love the idea that you can discuss options with your dealer based on hi-rez photos supplied on the Brigadiers Audio website and choose a unique pair of speakers that no one else will have.

In other words, if your buddy buys a pair of custom BA1s or BA2s and you listen to them and decide you also want a pair, your speakers will not look exactly the same even if you choose the same veneer. Toby is always on the hunt for exciting and beautiful veneers, and he knows that the variations from tree to tree are profound enough to create a distinctive look for each pair of speakers. Then again, if you want a pair of speakers exactly like your buddy's, then it can probably be done. But what fun is that?

For instance, Toby showed me these blocks, which are all Australian rosewood. You can see the differences in color and grain patterns. That's why Toby will supply Brigadiers Audio with hi-rez photos so that the potential customers can see close-ups of the wood grain. The photos have to be hi-rez, of course; I don't know about you, but I've received speakers that looked completely different than they did on the website, thanks to these differences in veneers. Hi-rez photos are the best way to give the customer an almost exact idea of the final product.

Once a veneer is chosen, Toby gets started on the construction of the cabinets. With all of the layers of birch play, these speakers are very heavy for their size. I've had the 2-way BA2s since January and they're heavier, in my opinion, than any other wooden speaker of its size--more than 40 lbs. each. The BA1, despite having a relatively compact footprint and height, is a monster. It took two of us to carry each one of the empty cabinets back to Brad's house. They're not one of those behemoth loudspeakers that require you to place hydraulic jacks under your suspended floor, but they are surprisingly hefty.

As an additional choice, Toby can make the BA1 and BA2 with a Corian finish instead of the wood veneer for customers who want a more modern, streamlined look. Corian is a really interesting material for loudspeaker cabinets because, unlike wooden cabinets, Corian cabinets are repairable. If you scratch the cabinets of your BA1 or BA2, anyone who is a certified Corian installer can buff out the scratch and make your speakers look like new again. If you knock a chunk out of your loudspeaker cabinet, a Corian technician can merely shape a new chunk, fit it to size, and work it into the cabinet. You'll be able to see where these bigger repairs were made from up close, but not from your listening position. Minor scratches and dings, however, will not be detectable after repair.

Toby also has the ability to produce different combinations of veneers, so you can have brushbox on the outer sides and Corian on the front baffle, or anything else that might strike your fancy. Toby has more than 30 different colors available in Corian.

Once we carefully packed up the empty cabinets in the back of Brad's wagon, we returned to Brigadiers to assemble the speakers. For my initial listening impressions, we left the crossovers on the floor behind the speakers so that we could change resistor values if needed. (This is what we did with the BA2s, by the way.) Within a couple of hours, our BA1 was ready for my approval.

My input, as it turned out, wasn't really needed. Unlike the smaller BA2, which was still an unfinished prototype when I arrived in Sydney, the BA1 was a finished design and was already making the rounds. Indeed, this pair wasn't even serial number #001. With that Einstein integrated, the BA1 was an incredibly complete speaker, one that did everything I wanted it to do. After spending more than a week fine-tuning the BA2, I was beginning to think that my quest for the perfect two-way speaker was over. The BA2s were, in its final reiteration, so solid in the lower bass that I could not imagine needing more. When I heard the BA1, however, I heard that more and knew I had to have this speaker. Natural, detailed, extended and the frequency extremes--I knew that Brad had made his masterpiece. The perfect speaker for me, in other words, is a 2.5-way.

I'm going to stop right now with the hyperbole and the marketing talk because I don't want this to be about sales. It's just that this has been one of the highlights of my audiophile life, actually working with designers and consulting with them and getting results that are far better than I ever expected.

The challenge, of course, is bringing these two wonderful speakers to the US market and beyond. In just a short time, Brad and David have found a couple of dealers in Australia, and they're already talking about New Zealand distribution. But the US has become a very tricky market for high-end audio. It's not enough to say here, listen to this, you'll like it and want to buy it. As an importer and distributor, my main obstacle is usually bringing in brands to the US that represent good value, something that can be tough to do when you have to work in the cost of global shipping and still pay the bills. That has become one of the main requirements for CCI carrying a brand--when someone asks me how much a product is, I want them to say "Oh, is that all?" and not "Why is it so expensive?"

With this level of design, however, every little thing makes a difference in the final product, and everything costs money. These two speakers will not be cheap. That means Brad and Davis and Morris Swift (a third partner I haven't mentioned yet...sorry, Morris!) will have to ensure that they are running their operation as lean as possible without affecting the results. Plus, there are hundreds and hundreds of new speaker companies trying to get a foothold in the US market. They all want to be the next KEF or Harbeth or Quad or whatever.

All I can say is that this is the speaker I want when I retire, when I get off the audio merry-go-round. Is that enough to make people notice? Well, I aim to find out. Right now I'm trying to get all of these Down Under brands together at a US high-end audio show, possibly next year's show at Newport, so people can listen for themselves and decide whether or not I know what I'm talking about when it comes to good sound. I'm talking PureAudio, Axis, Redgum Audio, Brigadiers Audio--and let's not forget Les Davis' intriguing new CLD material--all in one room, or maybe two.

Australia and New Zealand are hot spots for high-end audio. They know good sound, and they are serious about achieving it. That's my story, and I'm sticking to it. And I can't wait to go back.

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