Associated Equipment:
Digital Front End
Amplification
Waveform Mach Solo Loudspeakers

Rich Harkness

2 February 2000

Mach SoloSpecifications

Type: 3-Way Ported Floor Standing
Bass Driver: 10 " treated paper
Mid Driver: treated paper cone
High Frequency Driver: 1" silk-dome tweeter
Frequency Range: 38 Hz - 20 kHz ± 1 dB (anechoic)
Impedance: 8 ohms nominal, 6.5 ohms minimum
Sensitivity: 87.5 dB anechoic for 2.83V input @ 1M
(up to 89dB 1W / 1M room)
Weight: 83 lbs. each
Dimensions: 17" square bass, 41" tall.
Price: $4,535 US & International / $6,395 CDN
Web Site: www.waveform.ca

The Back Story

"My review pair came in a sinfully lustrous quilted makoré. While the Solos may look odd in photos, in person they evince a level of craftsmanship that almost vaults them into the object de' art category."

As I stated in my last review, I had recently conducted a "mega-huge, mega-idiotic speaker search," at the end of which I purchased Von Schweikert VR-4 Gen II speakers. Listening to a dizzying amount of audio gear during this quest led me to a puzzling conclusion: despite my passionate interest in all things sonic, it is the rare high-end audio system that makes me actually want to part with my stingy bucks. I get an emotional reaction to music played over my car stereo or my wife's mid-fi system, so why pay more? Don't get me wrong, I'm no bottom feeder. I'm nutty enough to hop on a plane just to get to a city that has exciting audio gear I can't hear in Toronto. And sure, I'm as amazed as anyone by the virtual reality experience offered by some of the pricey high-end gear. Yet, I often find that a sense of the music as a whole does not survive the vivisection performed by these analytical mega-systems. Frankly, I can count on one hand the number of high-end experiences that have blown me away, ones that had a sense of revelation and musical magic rolled into one. One of those revelations was an encounter with the Waveform Mach 17.

The Mach 17 loudspeaker was the brainchild of Waveform's founder and manufacturer, John Otvos. An accomplished cabinet maker with a passion for audio, John had employed the talents of acoustic designer Dr. Claude Fortier, of Canada's National Research Council (NRC), in attempting an all out assault on the science of loudspeaker design. The NRC is well known as one of the world's top technical facilities for work on acoustical research, and is host to a wealth of information accumulated from a long history of acoustical studies. Access to the NRC's leading theoretical and technical resources allowed Otvos and Dr. Fortier to hone their loudspeaker, through many iterations, toward their lofty goal of imitating a "spherical point-source radiator". To explain: while many speakers may beam accurate sound toward the listener, the off-axis sound (the sound radiated into the rest of the room) will often be less accurate. The listener's ear perceives these varying versions of the signal bouncing around the room as sounding unnatural. The Mach 17's principal design goal was to maintain accurate frequency response over an exceedingly wide dispersion pattern, in both the horizontal and the vertical plane, so that the listener will hear a homogeneous sound source energizing in his room, much like a real instrument would.

Certainly the pictures of the Mach 17 intrigued me: they showed a large, pyramidal wooden cabinet housing two 12" woofers, on top of which sat an egg-shaped head module containing the midrange and treble drivers. Magazine reviews and owner testimonials were red hot, unanimously praising the Mach 17 as having pushed the performance envelope for dynamic speakers. Damn I wanted to hear what these things sounded like! And, holy smokes, the Waveform factory was in Brighton, Ontario--a few hours drive east of my native Toronto.

So I badgered the congenial Mr. Otvos, who laboriously hand-crafts each Waveform speaker out of facilities bordering his home, into inviting me and an audiophile friend over to his house to hear the Mach 17s (he is actually happy to oblige those willing to make the trip). Once in John's spacious self-built home, my friend and I sat our jaded butts down in front of a pair of impeccably finished Mach 17s. As John placed the first CD into the player we were actually prepared to be disappointed. Sure they looked cool and cutting edge, but my buddy and I had been underwhelmed by over-hyped speakers so many times now that...WOW!!! What freakin' amazing sound! The Mach 17s stunned us with a musical presentation combining the speed, clarity and openness of an electrostatic speaker with the body and heft of a dynamic speaker (a VERY dynamic speaker). The tonal balance was accurate and controlled from top to the formidable bottom, and the spacious imaging rivaled that of dipolar designs. The Mach 17 sounded so effortless, so free of the limitations and colorations we had heard from other "great" speakers that my friend and I left wondering why we hadn't heard sound like this before.

However the Mach 17s, though attractively built, were quite large--too wide for my tiny living room. Plus, they employed an active crossover that required three channels of amplification: one for bass, one for the midrange and one for the tweeter. John explained the expense for amplification to drive the Mach 17s is not really so daunting. They were designed to work well with modestly priced, well-designed solid-state amps such as those offered by Bryston, or even, (gasp) Kenwood.

Fast forward through a lot of begging on my behalf to this review of the new Waveform "Mach Solo" speaker. John has heard the cries of whiny types like me who are scared off by the Mach 17s amplification requirements and who haven't the space for his flagship speaker. This is why he has created the Mach Solo--a smaller speaker that requires a single amplifier to drive them, hence, "Solo".

Looking like a Slim-Fast version of the Mach 17, the Mach Solo employs the same egg-shaped module and drivers as its big sister. However, the ported bass cabinet houses a single 10" woofer (as opposed to the Mach 17s two 12"woofers) allowing the cabinet to be slimmed from 23 1/2 " to a comely 17'' square base, narrowing to 11 1/2 " at the top. I must say that the new dimensions are more graceful than those of the Mach 17. The Solo's cabinet has a more pleasing sense of proportion and flow with the egg module. Plus John's cabinetwork is gorgeous. My review pair came in a sinfully lustrous quilted makoré. While the Solos may look odd in photos, in person they evince a level of craftsmanship that almost vaults them into the object de' art category. Don't believe me? As soon as John Otvos unpacked the Solos in our living room, my wife, who can't wait until someone invents an invisible speaker, whispered into my ear: "Those are beautiful, why didn't you buy those speakers? Can we have these speakers instead (ad nauseam)?" Guests in our home also commented positively on the Solo's sculptural elegance.

Now for some technical mumbo jumbo: in contrast to the refined-by-ear method of the Shun Mook speaker designers (read my last review of the Shun Mook Bella Voce ), Waveform is a "graphs-proud" company, always designing for a good set of measurements before listening evaluations begin. The tweeter is a silk dome design; the woofer and midrange drivers are treated paper cones chosen for their efficiency and excellent off-axis frequency response. Waveform will proudly show you charts displaying the Mach Solo’s smoothly matching frequency responses taken at 0-30-60 degrees off axis. These measurements would seem to validate John's claim that the egg shape is well suited to replicating a point source. The egg module allows the wave launch from the drivers to wrap around the enclosure unimpeded both vertically and horizontally, thus greatly reducing cabinet baffle distortion (colorations produced by the driver signal bouncing off the surrounding cabinet, typical of a box speaker). Sixteen layers* of tightly glued MDF make the egg enclosure extremely dense and non-resonant. You WILL wince if you rap your knuckles against these things. Luckily the eggs are finished with a very attractive, powder-coated "gator black" baked on at 400degrees F. Similar attention has been paid to reducing the bass cabinet's resonance to virtual inaudibility. Waveform insists that measurements made at the NRC, show that you'll be hearing the music, not the speaker materials.

*A Note from J. Otvos:

["The 16 layers of MDF were done only for the first production run of the Mach 17s. We now use a thin-wall aluminum casting of more optimum geometry, which has a sandwich layer of open cell, natural rubber glued to the entire inside cavity. This not only dampens the initial transient ring of the rarely excited metal, but more importantly the later reverberant echo, inside the cavity. Poured closed cell rubbers, of various descriptions simply don't absorb anywhere near as much."]

"Trying to keep these performance parameters optimized in the Mach Solo without the benefits of an active crossover was quite a challenge for John and his crew. So the question of the day, is how much of the Mach 17's performance do you still get in the Mach Solo?"

John Otvos feels that designing speakers for perfect time alignment (for instance, achieving an impeccable square wave response) is not nearly as sonically meaningful as achieving wide, evenly radiated power response. Thus they eschew first order crossovers, which require drivers to operate outside their optimal pass band. Instead the Mach Solo, like the Mach 17, employs a 24-dB/octave Linkwitz-Riley crossover. Waveform claims that this maximizes transient response and power handling, and minimizes intermodulation distortion between the drivers. The Solo's in-room frequency response is estimated at 35Hz (10 dB down at 31 Hz) to 20kHz. Their sensitivity is rated at approximately 89dB +/- 1dB (in-room), 8ohms impedance. I used a Bryston 3B amplifier (120Wpc) for much of the review, and a newer Bryston 4B (250Wpc). I've listed the rest of the associated components at the end of the review.

The Mach Solo uses a passive crossover to divide the signal from a single amp, among the speaker’s three drivers. Heresy! Over the years John Otvos has been downright evangelical in preaching the superiority of active crossovers. The Mach 17's active crossover, designed by Bryston, allowed direct coupling of the amplification to each driver, hence that speaker's amazing transient response, super-low driver distortion and power handling ability. Trying to keep these performance parameters optimized in the Mach Solo without the benefits of an active crossover was quite a challenge for John and his crew. So the question of the day, is how much of the Mach 17's performance do you still get in the Mach Solo?

Sound: The Power and the Glory...

"As rendered by my VR-4s, and the Shun Mook Bella Voce speakers, the Maiden Voyage CD sounded beautiful, but somewhat sleepy. The Mach Solo seemed to wake the performers up."

It took no time at all to recognize that the voice and talents of the Mach 17 had been largely transferred to the smaller Mach Solo. The first thing that hit me was the stunning clarity and immediacy. The area between and around the speakers became populated with exceedingly vivid, palpable and DYNAMIC images of instruments. Transients were quick and propulsive right down to the low bass, which could hit like a sledgehammer when called upon to do so. John Otvos often uses the analogy of "drag racing speakers," and I can see where he's coming from. The Mach Solo reminded me of my first time in a pal's Corvette as a teenager--"Ahhh, so this is what real power and speed feels like, it's gooood." Yet the vividness and snap of the Solos didn't come at the expense of a tipped up treble response, a trick sometimes used to give false clarity to a speaker.

There simply seemed to be no "fog" to the presentation, not a jot of box coloration to blur the sound or slow the rhythm at any frequency. One word that kept coming to my mind listening the first week was "alive". The Mach Solos seemed to exhibit a sort of life-energy that is lacking in many speakers. You've really gotta hear flamenco guitar played through the Solos to appreciate how a great speaker can recreate the vibrancy, attack and vitality of a great player like Paco DeLucia. Or witness the way Brazilian classical guitarist Badi Assad shifts from delicately plucked passages, playing notes that just barely sound (clearly audible on the Mach Solos) to attacking the strings like a madwoman bent on destroying her instrument. I was exhausted just listening to these musicians. Yet the Mach Solos just sat there unruffled, not a bead of sweat breaking on their module, as if challenging: "Is that all ya got?" "Not at all, my little egg-headed friend," I thought, "Let's see if you can handle...THIS!" I whipped on my Portraits Of Steel CD (Sanch Electronix, Ltd. 9701), a collection of "Panorama Champion" steel drum bands playing with bombastic furry. The tremendous, clanging midrange energy of these tracks would have many speakers begging for mercy. The Solos brought these troops thundering into my living room, showing no strain at all. And damn if these speakers didn't nail the tonality of steel drums, which are tricky instruments to reproduce. The attacks of the mallets on the drums were correctly blunt sounding, while retaining their full of percussive impact. Having recently enjoyed several live steel band performances while vacationing in Jamaica, I was startled at how faithfully the Solos recreated the experience.

The Solos brought their brand of clarity and exuberance to one of my favorite CDs: Herbie Hancock's newly re-mastered Maiden Voyage (Blue Note RVG edition 84195). As rendered by my VR-4s, and the Shun Mook Bella Voce speakers, the Maiden Voyage CD sounded beautiful, but somewhat sleepy. The Mach Solo seemed to wake the performers up. The precision of instrumental lines and the dynamic interplay between the musicians had never been so compelling. I could hear trumpet player Freddie Hubbard practically bursting his embouchure while blowing his heart out on "Eye Of The Hurricane". And William's cymbals were brassy and placed three-dimensionally, clean and round. By "round" I mean that many speakers are incapable of preserving the sense of body and dynamics in the upper frequencies, causing instruments that live in the treble region (cymbals, triangles, upper registers of piccolos, violin etc.) to sound unnaturally small or thin. The Solos were coherent and smooth sounding from top to bottom. They authoritatively rendered instrumental timbres, such as the reed and brass of a resonating Selmer saxophone, the woody body of a cello, the gut strings of a classical guitar, or the piercing silvery ring of a chime.

Piano was particularly complete sounding. Felt hammers hitting steel strings, percussive attack, and the supremely satisfying woody growl of the piano's lower registers. This timbral accuracy had a way of putting me at ease. I was able to concentrate on the musical performance, rather than on mentally correcting for any speaker colorations. Where appropriate, sonic images were life-sized. Plus, the Solos wide dispersion worked as advertised, producing a very large, multi-layered soundstage which could be appreciated from a couch-wide sweet spot. In fact, there was very little change in sound when standing up, moving closer or farther to the speakers, or even listening from another room.

Throughout the review period, the Mach Solo kept tweaking my memories of playing live instruments. I've played several instruments in a 13-piece funk band throughout the last nine years--none of them well enough to give "The Artist" anything to worry about. If you listen to an electric bass played live (and especially if you play one) you will recognize a sense of weight, punch and solidity to the sound that makes most audiophile speaker’s bass reproduction seem like a joke. However, the Mach Solos give you a fuller measure of this sense of "live attack," than the majority of speakers I've heard. That goes for kick drums as well. You don't just get a low frequency "thump, thump," under jazz music, as you do with many speakers; instead, you hear that papery/plastic-like "WACK! WACK!" of the drum pedal hitting the head. You also feel the quick percussive bursts of air pumping toward your chest, very much as you do when standing near a live drum kit. In fact, upon playing some of my own band's live recordings, I felt almost transported to one of our gigs or practice sessions. No speaker I've had in my house has been able to reproduce my band mate's beer-charged playing with such life-like energy and presence. When I left the room while our recording was playing, it sounded like I'd taken a break at one of our rehearsals, with the band continuing to practice without me in the other room.

Although only rated down to 35 Hz in the bass, I rarely felt I was missing the foundation for large-scale music. The Solos could reproduce rousing orchestral showpieces with aplomb. Rachmaninov's Symphonic Dances, Stravinsky's Firebird Suite, and Glinka's Ruslan and Lyudmila (Overture) were thrilling through the Solos. My VR-4 speakers, being flat in the bass to almost 20 Hz, also do very well with big orchestras. However, while my VR-4s produced an even larger soundstage than the Solos, the Solos, with their sense of unrestrained dynamics and timbral authority, remained equally convincing when reproducing the sheer scale and grandeur of an orchestra.

Please don't read into these ramblings that the Solos were always heavy-handed or bombastic. The superior clarity offered by these speakers also serves music's most delicate passages. A track from Gavin Bryars' Farewell To Philosophy (PGD/Point Music 454126) illustrates the strengths of the Solos resolution. In the piece "One Last Bar, Then Joe Can Sing," the virtuoso percussion quintet, Nexus, play xylophones, marimbas, crotales and songbells at PPP levels in a huge reverberant space. The playing and recording is extremely quiet, and on many speakers the instruments take on a distant foggy quality that makes the recording sound lifeless. The Mach Solos cleared the fog away, like aural Windex. The mallet hits, while still softly played, had greater solidity and clarity than through my VR-4s, with timbral qualities of the wood and metal becoming more vivid. Delicate dynamics in each musician's playing became apparent, and the piece became more vital and tonally vibrant. The ease with which I could discern the musical lines became more akin to hearing a live performance. Delicate string passages, whispered vocal lines, tiny percussive accompaniments--all were explicitly, yet carefully rendered by the Solos.

But the sound, especially when partnered with a Bryston 3B amp, was on the "dry" side. String sections while always lucid, could sound somewhat separated from the surrounding acoustics and thus lost some of their romantic lushness and bloom. This was ameliorated by switching to the Bryston 4B ST, a newer amplifier with meticulously updated circuitry. The sound relaxed and darkened, sounding less dry and forward. The acoustic envelope of a given recording was more obvious. This was a superb combination. And yet, I wondered: could the Solos get really romantic? Would the Solos protest if I slipped them a tube?

True sonic nirvana waited for the implementation of my tiny, locally built, zero-feedback, 28W tube mono blocks. These little amps are notable for their incredibly clean sounding presentation and lack of electronic haze. Partnered with the Solos, the sound was to die for. It was relaxed, harmonically rich, and possessed stunning clarity and ease in the treble region. The soundstage finally broke free of my room barriers, with the variations of the different recording venues shape shifting in front of me. Yes, I lost some dynamics and bass control in the nether regions, but for me the gains in naturalness from the mid-bass and up, where perhaps worth it. In fact, Sarah Mclachlan's, singing on the track "Ice," from her Fumbling Towards Ecstasy CD (Nettwerk W2-30081) was so humanly present that I dragged my long suffering wife, Susie, into the room. I turned off the lights and left her listening. Normally Susie cannot sit still to listen to anything at all on my high-end system, as she professes not to hear meaningful differences between it and her old mid-fi system. Well she was so affected by this particular Sarah Mclachlan track, that she actually had tears in her eyes. Can the Mach Solos transmit the emotional content of music? Yes indeedy!

I believe my VR-4 speakers, and the Shun Mook Bella Voce speakers I reviewed previously, are champions at providing a sense of fullness and body in the midrange. The Mach Solos never quite matched them in this one regard. I'm not talking about any suck-outs in the midrange. The Mach Solos sound (and measure) complete in their frequency response. However vocalists, for instance, could lack that last bit of bodily presence behind their voices through the Mach Solos, making their sonic image slightly flatter or more lightweight than I got through the Shun Mook speakers. Is this the price to be paid in listening to a design that has so successfully reduced resonances in the speaker system--resonances that would have added a spurious sense of fullness? I don't know. Yet the Mach Solo often made up for this by sounding more "authentic". Instruments and voices sounded just that much more like themselves through these speakers, which is an extremely important criterion for musical satisfaction in my book.

Also, a word of caution--the Mach Solo's powerful bass capabilities can make correct placement crucial. Otherwise the bass frequencies may become overbearing and out of proportion to the rest of the spectrum. As it happened, the Solos actually worked better closer to my back wall (about 2.5 feet away) than my larger VR-4s. As always it's a room interaction thing. These being a ported cabinet design, John Otvos strictly recommends the use of solid-state amplification for proper bass control.

The Outro

To sum up, with the Mach Solos you get stunning clarity and immediacy along with dynamic capabilities that are second to none at this price point (excepting some horn designs, perhaps). You will have trouble finding a speaker anywhere that can combine this level of smoothness and coherence with the butt-kicking dynamics of live performances. John Otvos is right, his typical music-loving, non-audiophile customer can partner the Solos to a modestly priced solid-state amp and achieve cutting edge sound reproduction. And for us stereo equipment hobbyists, the Mach Solos can be viewed as an ultra low distortion transducer that will eagerly mirror the sound that we are trying to achieve. If you're looking for speakers in this price range, I highly recommend an audience with these state-of-the-art beauties.

 


 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Waveform Mach Solo Loudspeakers