March 18, 2012
I am not going to write a ‘review’ of the TAD-CR1 loudspeakers. For that, you can find more professionally done articles on the web:
From Stereophile: http://www.stereophile.com/content/tad-compact-reference-cr1-loudspeaker
From TAS: http://ultimate-audio.eu/wp-content/uploads/2010/10/tad-cr-1-review.pdf
What I’d like to do instead is to share with you my experience living with the TAD-CR1 for the long(er) term, and also what prompted me to fork out a handsome sum of money to keep them in my system, since it is no secret that I am now the owner of a pair of TAD-CR1.
What I am going to write about is my own preferences and prejudices in hifi, they are pretty much personal and subjective (and you’ll see the word ‘I’ used many times). However, I can’t claim to be the first nor the only one who hold these sentiments, as the same are expressed by fellow audiophiles I know. You can also read similar thoughts articulated through discussion forums and the many dozens of comments posted in the first of this TAD-CR1 series.
Since the time I remember myself dabbling in hifi, I have been seeking a ‘sound’. It was my notion of my audio nirvana, so to speak. This ‘sound’ was not a constant, it changed over time. For example, I would yearn for the warm beautiful seductive vocals produced from, say, a classic valve based system driving some British loudspeakers and thought that was it; then I would change and lusted after lightning transient, big sound, hefty bass instead from some American offerings; and yet I would change again after some time and look for airiness, refinement etc.. It was never-ending.
Since the last few years, I started to realize that this chase was futile. Of the hifi gear that came through HiFi Unlimited, many had a sound, or flavours, if you like, that I found very enjoyable, yet if I were to ‘upgrade’ every time, I knew I’d not be satisfied with it for too long, because something that sounded ‘better’ would invariably come along.
Then a ‘hifi sage’ (he knows who he is ;-) ) started brandishing a simple term – ‘balance’. He would not be the first one who came up with it, but he was dogmatic in applying it, either in his own system or when listening to other systems or gear.
My understanding of ‘balance’ simply means that the sound we hear is even, there is nothing jutting out and nothing that is recessed, there isn’t one characteristic of the sound that attracts attention particularly, everything is treated equally.
If I were to walk away after listening to a variety of recordings in a listening session and impressed with one particular aspect of the performance, such as, “Wow, the bass sounded so powerful” or “The mid was so rich and seductive” or “The sound was so warm” or “The high was so sweet”, I’d say they are all signs of a unbalanced system, in various degrees. If you think about it, they are signs of some sort of colouration.
I am not saying that this kind of systems do not sound good. Many audiophiles enjoy tremendously certain type of sound and they tune and set up their systems towards a certain direction. There is nothing wrong with this kind of liking. It is a personal preference for the music they listen to. That was how the owners like it. Indeed, I found this type of sound impressive and attention grabbing on first listen. I have experienced systems that always sounded beautiful with vocals and some others that were always fast, dynamic, impactful, no matter what kind of recordings you played through it.
However, for myself, over time, I found that once I could detect a ‘sound’ in a system, I started to lose interest in it, the pleasure of listening to music via that system diminished. The more prominent the character was, the faster my interest was lost. I found listening this way boring, as every piece of music and every album was portrayed similarly, you could detect the same sound, the same signature.
A balanced system does not mean that the response is flat on all recordings (like, all recordings have the same amount of low, mid, high). It is recording dependent, an electronic guitar or a drum heavy recording will have more bass energy on a balanced system, and likewise a bright recording should have more treble. If the recording is dynamic then it should sound dynamic, if the music is slow, then it should sound slow. The equipment itself does not impose its character; it just reflects the character in the recordings. In short, the recordings should sound very distinctly different from one another, as different recording labels, different bands, different venues, different recording engineers will come up with different sound.
(Some would call this ‘transparent’, ‘neutral’ or ‘honest’. I prefer the term ‘balanced’ as I think it is more encompassing. If I were to ask a bunch of audiophiles, vast majority would say that balance in sound is a good thing to have. However, it is also my experience that a balanced system usually doesn’t impress, especially on a short listen. I speculate that this is because we are conditioned to a certain extent by some characteristics or some emphases in our system’s sound that we like and we unconsciously go look for the same, and it will take some time to unlearn).
I am not sure how much a flat frequency response is correlated with a balanced sound, though I think it is one of the very important pre-requisites. Most modern electronics are pretty even sounding (though there is some designer or brand signature to some extent), the biggest variation usually is in the loudspeaker and its interaction with the room.
Enters the TAD-CR1.The first few short listening sessions I had with them I was not very impressed. There was no character to the sound, I thought. Though, deep down there was something tugging at me that I could not let them out of my mind completely. They must have been doing something right. Anyway, I asked James to allow me to have them at my place for an extended listen, in an environment and with recordings that I am familiar with.
In the first few listening sessions, it was apparent that a bunch of colouration in my system’s sound went out the window or greatly diminished. With the TAD-CR1, the sound from various instruments sounded so much more accurate and realistic. I believe I was subconsciously compensating for the colourations and imbalances mentally in the past, especially after living with them long term.
By saying the insterments sounded accurate, I mean it sounds like the real instrument in live, the timbre or the harmonic structure of the instrument is intact. A piano sounds like a piano, a guitar sounds like a guitar. (I don’t mean it sounds like the actual performance that was recorded or the actual piece of instrument that was recorded, because we have no way to know it ourselves except perhaps the performers who made the recording).
Piano is one of the instruments I use to do this ‘balance’ test. As my children play the piano, I have a real life reference on how one should sound. Solo piano is considered by many as difficult to reproduce correctly, an imbalance system will make certain range jutting out, the sound character change as we go up and down the scale, the notes don’t sound like coming from the same piano. Worse, a bass heavy system for example may blur the piano bass notes making a mess out of it. You don’t have to be a piano player to know instinctively that the sound is wrong.
My favourite solo piano recording is ‘Black & White’ by Danny Wright. One track is particularly useful in this regard – ‘Don’t cry for me, Argentina’. The TAD-CR1 got this timbre thingy correct such that the piano sounded seamless and coherent. The instrument was positioned right in front of me and as the notes traversed the left hand and the right, the character did not change, it sounded like the same piano. It was not just the timbre accuracy, but the percussive and transient nature of the piano sound was conveyed accurately too. When Wright got heavy on the left hand, the bang of the notes was dynamic, and it was accompanied by all the harmonic complexity produced from the piano soundboard. When a note was sustained, I could hear the subtle changes and variation in the harmonic structure as the note progressed, just like in real life. The right hand pings instead sounded sharp and metallic with excellent attack, again just like real life. Now, that is a pretty damn ‘balanced’ portrayal to me. My experience listening to this on the TAD-CR1 was uncannily realistic.
Another album I like to use is Sonny Rollins’ ‘Way Out West’, the XRCD version. On the title track, the saxophone, drum, and double bass are portrayed with equal weight in the mix. Through the TAD-CR1 again, this was beautifully done. Rollins’ sax on the left channel balanced nicely with Brown’s double bass and Manne’s cymbal and high hat splashes on the right, each occupying the mid, bass, treble parts of the frequency spectrum. No one was stealing the limelight, each one took turn to shine in their solo part, and when they played together, my attention could shift from one to another and followed that thread with ease.
I love it. Once I heard this kind of portrayal and gotten used to it, even expected it, I could not go back to my previous experience. I got closer to the real thing.
Let me talk a bit about bass through the TAD-CR1 in my system. I like bass, my preference and expectation about bass was shaped by an occasion many years ago and re-affirmed recently through another listening experience.
More than 10 years ago, I heard a pair of Wilson X-1/Grand SLAMM at the first KLIAV Show. Their bass performance set my mouth agape. It was not the impact, scale, dynamics of the bass performance that floored me, though that was indeed impressive too, other big loudspeakers could do the same. What I remembered more was the ease with which these behemoths produced very high quality bass notes. The best way I can put this is that the Grand SLAMM showed clearly there were many bass note ‘varieties’ in every recording. The notes had great resolution, they sounded different from one other (rather than the more commonly heard ‘blob of bass energy’), there were subtleties that I could listen into, each note gently churned and changed until they dissipated into thin air, attesting to the very high bass resolution it had.
Recently, I heard the same kind of bass performance from a pair of Wilson MAXX3, similarly the ease with which they resolved bass impressed tremendously.
The TAD-CR1 on the other hand, had extension down to about 30Hz in-room, according to JA’s measurement in his listening room, published in Stereophile, which I believe is sufficient for acoustic instruments. The TAD-CR1 does not do low bass, that is a sin of omission rather than commission, and probably you won’t miss it much unless you listen to a lot of pipe organ or electronic music. The TAD-CR1 though could not match the big bass impact and loudness from those big Wilsons given the physical size difference.
I accept these bass limitations of the TAD-CR1, those Wilsons are at the pinnacle of bass performance. I instead want to focus on getting excellent bass resolution. The TAD-CR1 is definitely up to it in my experience, provided the upstream equipment is up to it too. I heard beautifully articulated bass notes from them via the TAD-D600 digital player, and having the TAD-M2500 power amp in the chain helped too. Bass notes were nicely defined and had excellent details, it was again an addictive experience.
The first few weeks the TAD-CR1 was at my place, the bass was a little thin. Some friends who came to listen commented just as much. A while later I realized that it was some equipment support and room treatment that I did to cater for the bass of my previous speakers that leaned out the TAD-CR1’s bass too much. The room was overdamped for TAD-CR1. I started to pare back the treatment, and the bass body started to come back. However that excited a bit too much bass resonance from wall reflection that muddied the TAD-CR1s bass texture. I have also treated that with some success over time.
As I was experimenting, the bass performance vacillated between being still slightly thin to slightly too much such that the system balance and bass resolution were affected. It was not until recently that I hit on a combination that I am ok with that gave a good balance between bass and the rest of the frequency, yet still preserved the bass resolution that I looked for. In ‘Way Out West’, how the double bass carried the tune, especially in the solo part, was the best defined rendition that I have heard from my system. Each double bass note sounded distinctive from the last, and it also carried the boxy resonance and the fat bass note we hear in real life.
My experiment with bass performance will continue, with balance and resolution as the 2 main guiding principles.
Moving on - if we were to talk about overall resolution, the TAD-CR1 must be placed as one of the top among loudspeakers today. Even with upstream equipment that cost no much more than half of the TAD-CR1 at my place, there is already a great wealth of music details from CD material that are resolved and let through by the TAD-CR1. Of the people who heard them, the resolution of the TAD-CR1 impressed many and probably shocked a few. A visitor even commented that there was too much detail in the music for him to process.
The thing TAD-CR1 does with all its resolving power is that it does not purposely go and highlight the minute details. It always packages the details as part of the musical whole. The TAD-CR1 presents them when the details are present, it does not throw them at you, it is up to you to go pick it up and listen and enjoy for yourself.
Again, once I heard this kind of resolution I could not turn back. There was so much in my music that I was missing out. I didn’t want to miss it anymore.
Now, the music and the performance, rather than the hardware in my system, are doing most of the talking. I found little urge to want to go dissect the sound. I remember the music more than certain performance aspects of the sound, and that is saying a lot about my music enjoyment.
Contact James Tan of AV Designs at 03-21712828 to listen to TAD
P.S., I want to thank many friends who have given me their feedback and suggestions. I especially want to thank JoKi who had helped with the placement of the TAD-CR1, the result was simply amazing.