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The Orchid Audio PLL1 Phase Linked Loudspeaker

[Italian version]

Product: Orchid Audio PLL1
Manufacturer: Orchid Precision Audio - UK
E-mail: Enquiries to Orchid Precision Audio
Price : from 5,970 UKP - appx. 9,000 S$ (depends upon finish)

[Orchid Audio PLL1 Picture]

Meet the Speaker

This review was really a long time coming. I met Orchid Audio's Designer Dave Mate at the 1998 Heathrow Hi-Fi Show where he demonstrated this Speaker as well as an absolutely insane looking device with ton's of Valves inside which turned out to be the "Natural Force" Valve Amplifier. Both Speakers and Amplifier seemed very well engineered and sound rather good, especially considering the Show Conditions. Dave was mostly playing Vinyl, a surefire way to make me like you.... Also, Dave's audio background just like mine is on the pro audio side of the fence, so we could bitch quite intimately and hilariously about all these "Hi-Fi" Manufacturers.

After that I kept loosely in contact with Dave. When the occasion arose to review a pair of the PLL1 I jumped on it. It took a while to arrange everything, but then one day in March did the speakers arrive, driven over by Dave. Getting the Speakers out of the Van and set up in the living room was quite a chore and definitely a 2-MAN job (and quite BIG AND STRONG Man or Woman at that).
These babies are HEAVY.

In my system the PLL1 took the place of the Hoerning Perikles, a much less expensive Speaker based around Lowther Drive Units, but of substantially higher sensitivity. Connecting the PLL1 to my Legacy Amplifiers running at that time with 2A3 Triodes at a low power operating point revealed that a Amplifier with only 2 Watt was not able to raise what I consider adequate Volume Levels. We placed the Speakers on some low Stands I had at hand, Orchid does make a matching stand from Slate for the PLL1, this may give the preformance of the speaker a boost. Non where available in time for my review, so I was not able to test this.

After readjusting the Amplifier for 300B Valves and plugging in a pair of Svetlana 300B Valves the power was now sufficient for all but the most extreme levels I listen at. After playing a little with placement Dave and myself sat down for a quick few pieces of music. The PLL1 certainly showed some excellent performance. Dave remarked on the fact that the SE Amplifier was surprisingly able to drive the Speakers and that it indeed offered a directness and immediacy rarely heard. But I digress. It was time for Dave to leave and time for me to sit down and listen. I did exactly that for the next few hours, then evenings and on and on.

The Technology

The PLL1 is a true 6Way Loudspeaker. It uses only first order Filter allowing with the rest of the construction a truly phaselinear Speaker. The "PhaseLink" concept which gave the PLL1 it's name ensures that not only the phase is linear, but also the Frequency is made very linear, something normally difficult in such a speaker.

The Drive Units used are of high quality and from a variety of manufacturers, suggesting very careful selection of the Drivers. The Crossover frequencies are selected so as to allow the Drivers to operate mostly in the range where they operate best.

Below 300Hz a 10 Inch Bass Driver from Volt UK with a paper cone operates in a rear ported enclosure. In room the bass extends down to below 25Hz.

Above 300Hz operates a 4 Inch Audax HDA Driver up to 5kHz where it hands over to a Morel 1 Inch Softdome Tweeter. Another Tweeter and a Morel 5 Inch Driver are used as "PhaseLink" Drivers. The Softdome Tweeter is operated only up to 10kHz, above this a large true Ribbon Tweeter takes over.

The Choice of the Audax HAD Midrange Driver is one I might consider slightly questionable. I have found repeatedly that despite quite good measurements these Drivers due to their cone material have a often aggressive and unpleasant Midrange. This might indeed explain the slight aggressiveness of speaker noted by panelists and myself.

On the other hand the choice to roll out the Soft dome tweeter early is a very good one, avoiding the often severe breakup of the dome which can result in an unnaturaly soft and ill defined treble. The Ribbon unit is made in the UK and based on the original Kelly Ribbon Design, one of the best ever made.

The Box is made from MDF and veneered. The workmanship is outstanding and to the highest standards. The actual enclosure is very heavy and inert. Any vibration of the cabinet walls is minimised.

All the main Midrange Drivers are bunched into a tight array which will with enough listening distance (> 2m) make them appear as almost seamless single acoustic unit. Nevertheless, this speaker needs quite some distance to integrate the Drivers best, 2m appear the bare minimum, more is desirable. As the main Driver array should be at about ear-height the PLL1 must be placed on low stands for best performance.

Perhaps noteworthy is that a active Crossover can be supplied for the PLL1, which allows fully active 6-Way drive, with obviously 12 Monoblock Amplifiers or six Stereo Amplifiers. Short of the extreme inconvenience of such setups I think that doing so with the right Amplifiers might give astounding results.

Technical Test and Measurement Results

During testing I found that both of the Cone Midrange Driver where subject to quite large displacements of the cone at high levels of low frequencies. This will likely lead to a higher degree of intermodulation than ideal, I did however not detect much of this subjectively.

Using the Amplifiers at hand I could not detect any problems even with full power sinewave tests, suggesting an excellent power handling in line with the specifications

Using my own method of estimating the sensitivity of the Speaker I measured 86db for 2.83V of Pink Noise (from the Stereophile Test CD) in room, at 1m distance from the Tweeter Axis. This is comparably low and indeed 3db below the 89db/2.83V/1m specified.

However, my measurements use a slightly more "stringent" method as standardised, so this is no indication of the manufacturer actually doctoring the Spec in any undue way.

However, together with being a bona fide 4 Ohm Speaker it makes the PLL1 comparably hard to drive. A minimum of 25 - 30W RMS seems called for, even though I did have good success with a low power Single Ended Amplifier.

In room I measured (using the warble tones from the Stereophile Test CD) a very smooth and extended bass, with 20Hz being about 4db down. This is one of the best results ever for LF extension and smoothness, suggesting that in the design phase room interactions where included and addressed.

All in all, the measurements taken and the construction is mostly impeccable and certainly commendable. At the same time I must note that at the price I would expect nothing less.

Bomb Da Bass!

This was the first thing I noticed. The PLL1 has a Bass that reaches extremely low and with authority. I dug some of my absolute "Bass Fiend" CD's out first. After some Grandmaster Flash, Sugarhill Gang, The Funky Four (plus one more) and some Trance Samplers one thing was clear. Here was bass that went low. Real low. Overall, listening to all these cut's my strongest impression was that of listening in the studio to a pair of large and very good Studio monitors. Indeed, with the modified LEDE Setup in my living Room (sound absorptive wall hanging rugs behind the couch, near random sound dispersion from Record, Book and Video shelves between the Speaker and a whopping great TV in the middle my living room resembles a studio setup to a certain degree.

Of course all music listened to so far was also electronically produced and assembled artificially in the Studio from a Multitrack machine, so I decided to spin some Vinyl with various pieces of acoustic Jazz, including such seminal pieces as Miles Davis's "Kind of Blue" and "Sketches of Spain". Also a spin got a Live Album from the Chicago Transit Authority. Then a bit of Fleetwood Mac "Rumors" and I still was not quite sure what I should think of the Speakers.

I played on with music to get a real handle on theway the Speakers sounded, trying some Music from "Commotion" a Sampler from the Windham Hill Jazz label, then "Companeros" from Working Week and Bruce Cockburns 1989 Live Album. I laid in loads of classical music, including the very dynamic "Pictures at an Exhibition" with Abbado and the Chicago Symphonics on CBS and Copeland's "Fanfare for the Common Man" & "Rodeo" with the Dallas Symphonic Orchestra on Decca/Turnabout.

The Speakers showed very good articulation, unraveling often difficult to understand lyrics quite easily (for example massed Vocals on Vivaldi's "Gloria in D-Minor" on the Loiseu Lyre Label or haendels "Messiah"). The Treble was beautifully smooth but very extended and with great definition, something often lacking from modern, softdome tweeter equipped Speakers. Percussion and Cymbals acquired "air" and "shimmer" and the PLL1 passed my favorite "Can I tell which Brand of Cymbals are on this Drumkit?" test easily.

Perhaps the only Achilles Heel in a tonal sense was present in Midrange. Here was a tendency to a hardness that could make certain recordings (such with a slightly overemphasised presence region) somewhat unpleasant to listen to. This may have been a characteristic of my System or the recordings, but it persisted with a range of different Amplifiers driving the Speakers. Also, with other speakers renowned for similar Midrange Problems (like Lowthers) I never perceived this effect so strongly with the same recordings.

Admittedly, this was notable only with a very few recordings and possibly the Orchid's where only revealing what was on the recording and other Speakers tried before did not. Certainly this is a very curious effect.

Anyway, with a generally very evenhanded Balance and mostly free from notable coloration's the PLL1 offers a very high standard of performance with some of the lowest reaching Bass I have heard from a still fairly modestly sized Speaker. Tonality was mostly spot on and I never had the feeling that I listened to a gaggle of individual Drive Units, instead the whole speaker was exceptionally coherent. Continuing on, I noticed that the PLL1 never quite achieved the kind of solidity of Instrumental Images I have become so accustomed to. True this is now generally with Speakers based on antique wideband or fullrange Drivers (Note, even Lowthers should be considered antique, as most fundamental aspects of the Drivers have remained the same since the late 1930's) which can absolute excel in this respect.

Soundstaging and Imaging where certainly not bad, probably only slightly short of what is available from a Wilson Audio WITT or WATT/PUPPY Speaker, it's perhaps just that I have grown very used to a higher standard. For soundstaging and imaging if placed in a suitable room certainly some Electrostatic Speakers or Panel Speakers can outperform the PLL1. However I do suspect that not many conventional cone/dome multiway Speakers will manage this. All in all a "technical" performance I would class in many ways as excellent to impeccable.

So, here I had at my hands Speakers with excellent, in some areas even exceptional performance. I had these Speakers I was prepared to like, even wanted to like, yet I felt something was wrong. Perhaps I was just trying to hard, who knows. So I left it for a few days without trying to listen critically, taking the Speakers just as a piece of Living Room furniture, listening to music, TV Sound and so on trough the PLL1's. After that I spend some more time on trying to optimise the placement and overall got a very good sound, but one that ultimately left me less involved with the music than I'm used to.

I felt that during listening with the PLL1 "Studio" Perspective persisted, making me more of a passive observer of the proceedings than one involved. I always felt somewhat on "the other side of the Glass Plane". This may very well have to do with the tonal balancing of the Speaker, which owes more to a high quality Studio Monitor than to a Hi-Fi Speaker, it may just be a slight failing in rhythmic ability, I'm not sure. Certainly I noticed myself doing less foot tapping and swinging with the Music than I usually do.

Ok Corral!

During the time I spend with the PLL1 I had a "small" meeting of our local Audio Club in my place. This was very fortuitous as it ensured ample help for lugging around large and heavy speakers as well as a number of outside opinions on the Speakers at hand. While I don't necessarily put all that much stock for a final review into such opinions, they are a very useful reality check.

I was quite interested in the reactions from the participants. I should note that most that where present are not "Audiophiles" in the common Sense, indeed, only one "true" Audiophile attended. The rest where much more "average" music Lovers, also clearly not people who would drop six grand on ANY pair of Loudspeakers. Moreover, the number of people who would rate classical or jazz as a large part of the Music they would play for normal listening was down to me and to my classic music loving Audiophile friend.

The music selection was varied and a number of turns with different Amplifiers and Speakers where taken. The comments both "formally" submitted and just snatched out of conversations where highly intriguing and revealing. My "Audiophile" Friend noted the even balance and delicate treble of the Speaker but complained about the Imaging (he does use Electrostatic Speakers in a rather large room). Someone else complained about the "lack of deep bass", something which is clearly at odds with the fact that the Speaker can reproduce very low Frequencies at a high SPL. My interpretation is simply that he is used to listen to speakers that measure flat anaechonically, but as a result show about 10db Lift at 30Hz in a normal room. With the lift removed (This lift is pretty much quivalent to turning the bass control up halve the way) suddenly there was to him no "deep bass". Furthermore, most attendees did notice the occasional upper midrange hardness.

The general conclusion from a crowd arguably mostly primed on DIY Stereo was that they felt the PLL1 very compromised, even though literally everyone had different complaints. There was no common theme whatsoever (apart form the noted occasional hardness) in the criticism. This to me points strongly not so much to "just a bad Speaker" but rather to the fact that the Speaker presented the Music very different form the usual listening habits of those present.

It was also often said "not worth six grand". I must say that I disagree here and quite strongly. The build quality and number of Drivers and their quality together with the fact that the PLL1 is a commercial Product with Dealers margins and a Profit for the Manufacturer factored in means that a certain pricetag must be attached. In the end the PLL1 is a loudspeaker that tells the truth. It does not alter the truth to suit a certain notion of "musicality". This a rare quality, but one which tends out of sync with many peoples listening habits (including perhaps my own).

Anyway if you equate the quantity of Bass with "deep bass" for example, such speakers as the PLL1 are not for you. If you want the cuddly warmth and fuzziness offered by many of the Speakers that are "musical", again look elsewhere. In many ways the PPL1's remind me of the larger PMC Studio Monitors, but with much better Treble and coherence. Knowing from the days long gone the predecessors of the ME Gaithain Monitor Werner Ogier has reviewed a while back in these pages I'd think again we would find strong parallels. Also, the PLL1's have more than a strong hint of the behavior of earlier (MK III and before) Wilson Audio WATT/PUPPIES, admittedly still one of my favorite "normal" Loudspeaker. Compared to the Wilsons the PLL1 is however overall much more evenhanded in Virtues with it's main vice being a lack of involvement.

So What!?

The PPL1's are Speakers with very considerable merit. In it's "peer group" which would include the larger Thiel and Hales Speakers, Avalon and Wilson Audio's lower and middle of the range Speakers and similar designs the PPL1's offer a performance likely equal to the best at a price which while high is nevertheless still sane. And your money does buy you a very substantial, very well engineered Speaker. Indeed, if one sums up the cost of the Drive Units and of getting a suitable cabinet professionally made to the standards shown the Price must be considered as rather reasonable.

Yet it is a Speaker which will not please everyone and many might not end up liking the way the PPL1's present music, perhaps a little bit too literal, but the same could be said about Thiel, Hales, Avalon and recent Wilson Audio Designs. If you are in the Market for a 6,000 - 10,000 Pair of loudspeakers of the kind represented by the likes of Thiel, Hales, Wilson Audio and Avalon, you should give the PLL1's a very extended audition. Matching with right kind of Amplifier will likely be able to slightly shift the whole system away from the perhaps too literal presentation of the PPL1's.

My own Amplifiers are VERY, VERY literal, not the usual colored and cuddly soft and sweet SE Amp sound that seems common these days. I might have not gotten the best from the PLL1 with either my 50WPC Solid State Amplifier (a heavily modified Marantz) or with my 300B based SE valve Amplifier. Yet I do feel that I did get a good Idea of what kind of Amplifier would perhaps cooperate with the PLL1 for a subjectively very pleasing result. My personal take would be to avoid overly bright and etched sounding Amplifiers, so certainly Krell, Mark Levinson and Spectral are in my view out. If you must use a Solid State Amplifier my personal guess would be towards something like the Jeff Rowland Model 2 or larger, perhaps some of the Pass Designs also.

However, an overall much better synergy could be in my opinion had from a good medium to high powered Push-Pull Valve Amplifier. From experience, especially Conrad Johnson Premier Series, Jadis and (my favorite of these) Quicksilver's M135 Monoblocks would supply the musicality sometimes lacking from the PLL1's. Sure, what makes these Amplifier good companions are their modest levels of euphonic coloration's, but the result counts from where I stand. Do avoid overly bright Valve Amplifiers.

If I had to sum to up this speaker in a few lines I would say: "If I where at the moment building up a Recording Studio, I'd seriously consider the PLL1's as MAIN Monitors, because they tell the truth. But to listen to music at home and as second Monitor in the Studio I'd likely drag in a few old Goodmans Fullrange Units."

So, if your taste runs in "classic Audiophile" style systems and you want one of the better Speakers available, try the PLL1 out. It is in it's own kind and way very good. Sadly, to quote a phrase often used in Speaker Reviews: "The PLL1 will remain a Speaker I will more respect than love.".


The System

The PLL1 was auditioned in my own System consisting of:

Manufacturer's comment

It is a good review. Unfortunately I object to the inclusion of the very last sentence "It is a speaker I will respect more than love". This personal conclusion by Thorsten is of course expected - Thorsten loves vintage audio and SETs, and on that basis the review of a product which is not in that vein should not be coloured by the final closing attack "I'd get Goodmans full range units". This represents a hi-fi view which is not widely shared and such sentences should be at least printed in that context. It would be eually misleading for example to review a 300B SET amplifier, capable of about 9 watts output, hook it to a Sonus Faber Extrema, and then complain about the poor strength of the amplifier. The vintage audio branch of hi-fi has to be seen as a special case, something which should not color the large majority view.
Also, the PLL1 is a high output loudspeaker, a facet of its performance which cannot be understood with a nine watt amplifier.
David Mate - Orchid Precision Audio

© Copyright 2000 Thorsten Loesch - http://www.tnt-audio.com

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