Shun Mook Bella Voce Signature Loudspeakers
Rich Harknes
8 September 2000

shnsml~1.jpg (8256 bytes)Specifications

Type: 3-Way Ported Floor Standing
Bass Driver: 10"
Mid Driver: 3.5"cloth soft-dome
High Frequency Driver: 1" cloth soft-dome tweeter
Frequency Range: 30-20kHz, +/-3dB
Impedance: 6 ohms
Sensitivity: 89dB/W
Weight: 85 lbs. each
Dimensions: H/W/D: 43"× 11"× 14"
Price: $8,200 US MSRP
Web Site: www.shunmook.com

Note that this review is somewhat lengthy (especially for a Web-zine) due to a few factors. Since I'm a new face around here, the review shares space with my views on audio and info about my previous gear so the reader will know where I'm coming from. Secondly, the Bella Voce Signatures are not an inexpensive purchase, and because they are mostly sold direct from Shun Mook Audio, auditions of these speakers are very hard to come by. With this in mind I have done my best to give the reader as much information as I can about the Bella Voces, so that he can decide if tracking down a pair might be worth the effort.

"What haunted me was the Bella Voce Signature's way with acoustic instruments and voices. There was a tonal richness to the Signatures that was jaw-dropping."

The Quest

Just over a year ago I completed a mega-huge, mega-idiotic speaker search. I had to replace my Quad ESL-63/Gradient subwoofer loudspeaker combo because these giant black monoliths were acting as room dividers in an already spatially-challenged living room. Of course, being a card-carrying music lover/audiophile, I used this aesthetic crisis to launch a search for NEW GEAR! If the truth be told, despite my enjoying the transparency and tonal balance offered by the Quads, listening to them was often an "intellectual" experience. The electrostatic sound tends to be somewhat weightless and ghostly, as if you and the music are in different rooms. Through the Quads I could hear string sections digging in for climaxes, but I felt . . . nothing. I began to crave the companionship of dynamic speakers. I needed some "presence."

With determination, I searched for almost two years for the perfect dynamic speaker. This was brutal after having lived with ESL-63s. How do you replace that peerless Quad midrange -- that purity and lack of coloration? Here's how: you have lots of friends who are audiophiles, who own audio stores, who write for audio magazines, and who introduce you to tons of amazing gear. Then your budget creeps up and up as you travel around hearing everything under the sun, from prototype speakers built by local designers to all the mega-buck systems you've read about in the audio press. Then you have your first baby, your budget drops, and your wife tells you to make a decision, so you buy some speakers. At least that method worked for me. I bought Von Schweikert VR-4 Gen IIs, which in my room sound both boxless, and full bodied.

When Stereo Times' publisher Clement Perry conscripted me to write reviews, I thought I'd write about some of the products I’d auditioned during my mega-speaker quest; the ones that struck me as special. I love my Gen IIs, but along the way I heard some speakers that still haunt me. One of these was the Shun Mook Bella Voce Signatures. I couldn't forget the special beauty I heard when I spent some time with them at a local store, and later at a dealer's house. What haunted me was the Bella Voce Signature's way with acoustic instruments and voices. There was a tonal richness to the Signatures that was jaw-dropping.

Soooo, I got in touch with the guys at Shun Mook Audio, who happily arranged to send me a pair of the Bella Voce Signature speakers. Dealing with Shun Mook was a pleasure, as the folks there were very friendly and helpful -- especially during the long period the speakers went missing in shipping, only to arrive with a damaged midrange driver. Talk about disheartening. Luckily it was an easy fix. Guided over the phone by Shun Mook's Dr. Yu-Wah Tan, I nudged a jammed voice coil into place, after which the speakers worked fine. For what it's worth, I also spoke to some Bella Voce owners who were very happy with the pre and post purchase service from Shun Mook, some of them emphasizing their satisfaction with Shun Mook's guidance in tuning their systems.

Shun Mook Audio produces a single line of speakers comprising three models: the original Bella Voce speakers, the Bella Voce Signatures (the subject of this review) and the Bella Voce Reference. Each speaker is constructed from birch plywood. The Bella Voce (hereafter, "BV") is a three-way design, employing a second order crossover. All three models use the same Dynaudio drivers: a 1"soft cloth dome tweeter, a 3.5" cloth soft dome midrange, and a 10" woofer. Bandwith is stated to be 30Hz-20kHz. They are ported in the front, with a claimed sensitivity of 89 dB, 6 ohms nominal impedance.

Looking at the specs, the three models would appear to be the same speaker. However, the difference between the original BVs, the Signatures and the Reference is described as an increasing refinement of the Shun Mook speaker-tuning method. As I understand it (I've only heard the Sigs) the BV sound becomes cleaner and more detailed as you ascend the price range. As well, the top-of-the-line BV Reference speaker comes in a Steinway piano-black gloss finish, which is a definite step up from the flat black lacquer of the Signatures (the BVs are finished in black epoxy).

Now about the Shun Mook method of speaker design . . .

"Would anyone design a violin with separate boxes for the different strings it has? Thus, the drivers are mounted in a single cabinet, an approach the Mookists feel better blends the sound of the drivers."

The Men of Mook, Dr. Yu-Wah Tan, Bill Ying and Andy Chow, are no strangers to controversy in the audio world. Their resonance control devices, such as the wooden Mpingo disks, are claimed to improve the sound of your stereo system simply by placing them on your audio components.

The Mpingo disks have often been used as a demarcation between the "rational-minded" audio community and the "irrational, tweak-audiophiles". Objectivists and most engineers simply don't buy Shun Mook's explanation that the disks "have a capacity when excited by sound to resonate throughout the entire sonic spectrum" and that "the disk resonance thus overrides unwanted harmonic distortions and enhances sound reproduction quality."

Me, I admit that I am a natural skeptic with a healthy regard for the methods of science and engineering. Whenever I inch into the fringe waters of high end audio I maintain a "prove it to me" attitude. That said, like most audiophiles, I use my ears to make purchases. If I perceive an unequivocal difference between two CD players, I'm buying the one I like, specs be damned. Even as skeptic, I have no problem with this because my goal in assembling my audio system is not to practice science, but to please my senses. However, when we get into the area of proving audible differences I have too much respect for good experimental protocol to go around proclaiming my personal perceptions are some ultimate arbiter of reality. Oh crap, I'm out on a philosophical limb. Back to the review...

Clearly Shun Mook believes in its products. The Bella Voce Signatures are full of Mpingo disks -- eleven disks in each speaker to be exact. Eight disks are attached inside each speaker to "control enclosure and driver resonance" and three loose disks are set atop each speaker to allow "tuning of the frequency balance." Shun Mook's instructions on the placement and orientation of these disks are quite particular. A plastic template is supplied to help place the Mpingo disks in a triangular formation atop the speaker. Slight movements of the individual disks are claimed to affect the frequency balance and soundstaging. Do the disks work? More on that later . . .

Shun Mook's eccentric design philosophy makes their product literature a refreshing read. Here are a few quotes: "We view a loudspeaker system as a musical instrument and resonance of material as a good thing." And, "Can you imagine music and musical sound without resonance?" In creating the Bella Voces, Shun Mook has eschewed the recent trend of mounting the drivers in separate enclosures. They feel that mounting the low/mid/hi drivers in boxes of varying materials and dimensions often results in a lack of cohesion to the sound: "Would anyone design a violin with separate boxes for the different strings it has?" Thus, the drivers are mounted in a single cabinet, an approach the Mookists feel better blends the sound of the drivers.

The literature goes on to state that many loudspeaker designs, in their attempt to chase away all resonance in the system, end up sounding thin, dry and cool. Even then, you are still going to hear the resonant effect of the build materials on the sound, and if these materials have ugly sonic signatures, you're in trouble. "Everything sings," is Shun Mook's motto. Following this belief, Shun Mook tests every component in their speakers for its effect on the overall sound, down to the paint finish and binding posts.

After exhaustively evaluating a huge number of speaker cabinet materials, Shun Mook settled on birch plywood as having the most desirable sonic characteristics. Internally, the speaker is not cross braced, but is instead asymmetrically reinforced at crucial points by attaching pieces of wood of varying thickness and size. Shun Mook calls this approach "A.R.T.S." for Asymmetrically Resonance Tuned Speaker.™

Just to clarify, further reading of their literature makes it clear that Shun Mook is not trying to increase warm, woody resonance, or create a colored, euphonic frequency balance. They are attempting to remove the sound of the box and produce a pure tonal balance just like the next guy. They simply acknowledge that you cannot totally remove the sound of the cabinet from the presentation, so the cabinet colorations may as well be as musically consonant as possible, and thus become more invisible to the ear.

Set 'Em Up

"These speakers were already disappearing big time. Jimmy Cobb's ride cymbal inches into the mix. He's playing at whisper level, yet the shimmer of his cymbal is already complex and lifelike, with great imaging and, ok, ok, I'll say it, ‘air’."

I found setting up the Signatures to be fairly easy. For carpeted floors like mine, Shun Mook supplies a pair of black maple boards to sit under the speaker. On the bottom of the Signatures are three tiny ebony wood pins that sit into indentations on the maple boards. The Mookists wish the speaker to be decoupled from the floor, in order to "sing" on it's own without contamination from floor-borne resonance.

These maple boards slide easily enough on carpet to make fine tuning the positions of the Signatures easier than with most large speakers (just don't snap the ebony wood pegs).

The Signatures are fairly large speakers, with a bit of a wife-acceptance-factor (WAF) to overcome. Unlike most audiophiles I know, I am quite sensitive to the appearance of audio equipment; I want good looks for my big bucks. Looking at the Shun Mook Bella Voce Signature speakers does not lead you to expect much from their sound. They are just a plain pair of tar-black boxes with three black exposed drivers, looking for all the world like the speakers your buddies used to build in wood shop. However, while the Signatures are not objets d'art, neither are they obnoxious looking like many of the gaudy, hi-tech speakers featuring brightly colored drivers and industrial geek-chic design -- the type only an engineer or a living-in-the-dark, mushroom-covered audiophile could think looks cool. I'll take the Signature's subtle, self-effacing presence over those designs any day.

My living/listening room is fairly small at 14’ x 15’ -- dangerously close to the dreaded cube. Luckily, some large bay windows break the room into odd angles and one wall is largely open to the hallway, which seems to give large speakers some sonic breathing room. This, and a decent ratio of live to dead surfaces, has allowed me to achieve good, balanced sound with many different speakers. The Signatures were no exception. I found they sounded best with moderate toe-in, just as the manual suggests. Too much toe-in and I found that the soundstage shrank; images became too tiny and the frequency balance grew more lightweight. I have found this to be the case with almost every speaker I've tried, so I'm sure personal preference is playing its part here.

I use a Meridian 566 24-bit DAC with the 508.20 CD player as a transport (alternately a Mietner Bidat). Depending on the situation I'll either use my locally-built tube preamp, or I'll run the DAC into my Z-systems RDP-1 digital preamp/eq. I used three different amplifiers for my review: conrad johnson MV55 (45W/side) tube amp, a superb set of locally-built 30W zero-feedback tube monoblocks and a Bryston 4B ST solid state amp.

Now, the Signatures are said to work very well with low powered tube amps, like single-ended triodes (SETs). In fact, some SET manufactures list the Bella Voces among the speakers that work well with their products. How so? As the BVs are only moderately sensitive at 89 dB/W, I'd have to assume their 6 ohm impedance remains fairly steady -- de rigueur for tiny tube amps. Certainly I can see how the SET crowd would latch on to the Bella Voces, since these speakers share many of the same sonic virtues attributed to SET amps. However, while I achieved excellent results with all three amplifiers, I did find equipment matching could be crucial in some areas. With a tubey amplifier like the MV55, these speakers could get a bit incontinent in the bass region. The bass control became quite good with my 30W tube monoblocks, and with the powerful Bryston 4B ST, the Bella Voce Signature's focus and pitch in the bass region could be stunning. It seems even a SET friendly speaker will appreciate a good supply of current.

Oh, and the Mpingo disks? I frankly didn't perceive a difference with them on or off the speakers, although I admit to not spending a lot time testing their effects (I kept them on the speakers for most of the review). Interestingly, when placed on my electronic components, both I and my non-audiophile helper occasionally perceived a mild smoothing out of the high frequencies of my system (I had my eyes closed to guess -- Mpingo disks on/off.). I didn’t find the effect to be unequivocally present and it was a very uncontrolled test, so bear that in mind.

Sounds Like...

"…the Bella Voces seem to dig out harmonic information, like the weight and metal of Miles' horn, that goes AWOL with many other speakers."

My sweaty little fingers drop Miles' "So What" from Kinda Blue (Columbia/Legacy, CK 64935) into the CD player and I tiptoe back to my seat wondering if the Signatures will live up to my first encounter with them.

Whoa! Paul Chambers’ bass appears directly between the speakers, Bill Evan's piano floats in the vicinity of the left speaker, but behind and beyond it in its own little alcove of reverb. These speakers were already disappearing big time. Jimmy Cobb's ride cymbal inches into the mix. He's playing at whisper level, yet the shimmer of his cymbal is already complex and lifelike, with great imaging and, ok, ok, I'll say it, "air." I didn't have to strain at all to perceive this. Most systems have difficulty producing low level signals with any degree of realism. It seems that low level details are lost by most average speakers, making subtleties like Cobb's opening cymbals sound opaque and two-dimensional. Often, the sound becomes satisfying only when a certain volume threshold has been reached. In contrast, the BV Signatures sound musical and more dimensional even at low volume levels.

Next, sax men Adderley and Coltrane enter. Each sax is richly differentiated, their sound being both present and vivid yet totally relaxed. There was no edge or stridency to the sound at all. My ears never wanted to shut down -- and still no sound coming directly from the BVs themselves. The musicians stand behind and between the speakers, playing. All the studio artifacts are on display; the acoustic isolation of the piano, saxes and drums from each other, and the varying qualities of the microphones. Yet the sound is so clear and harmonically rich that it tweaked that part of my brain that says "live." It's like a melding of that old high end audio dichotomy – either "you are there" or "they are here." I got both.

When Miles finally enters I am amazed again at the sound of his horn. It’s holographic at front and center, yet full, warm and shimmering with brassy harmonics. Many speakers reproduce close-miked trumpets as all mouthpiece, air and spittle. This misses the entire point of the trumpet. The excitation of the resonating brass, especially the flared bell, is what gives the instrument its pleasing signature. Of course, much of the blame lies with microphones placed too close to the rushing air of the trumpet. However, the Bella Voces seem to dig out harmonic information, like the weight and metal of Miles' horn, that goes AWOL with many other speakers. The result is that the BVs give back some of the beauty of real instruments that are so often missing in reproduced sound. I felt I got a more complete picture of the instruments played on Kinda Blue, and of those played on many other CDs.

Can we talk soundstaging? Did I say these speakers disappear? Yesirree. I would be hard pressed to think of a speaker that presented a more lifelike recreation of acoustic instruments in real space. I was amazed to find the BV Signatures outdoing even my VR-4 Gen IIs in their ability to extend soundscapes from here to kingdom come. I would swear that some orchestral instruments must have ended up in my neighbor's lap! You can stare at the left speaker listening to an acoustic guitar that has been panned hard left and if there is any ambiance or reverb to the recording at all, the BVs will float the guitar image in an exact space around the speaker. Several instrumental recordings that I thought were utterly dry, such as guitars that were typically plastered to the front of the speakers, were revealed by the BVs to have been sitting in a light reverb track. Or I would notice in a live recording that a closely miked sax had indeed picked up some hall ambiance, adding new subtle, realistic dimension to its sound. Certainly some of the mega-buck, Robbie-the-Robot sized speakers do the life-sized imaging thing, but few populate those soundscapes with instruments as carefully rendered as the BVs, to my ear.

The world class detail offered by the BVs was never forced, it was merely revealed in a more natural, lifelike manner. After reading about Shun Mook's design philosophy, it was a bit of a shock to hear how neutral and uncolored the Bella Voce Signatures sounded. The treble is just gorgeously clear of grain. Drum cymbals, whose sound has an "ouch" factor through many systems, resonate musically. Instruments sounded more smoothly rendered, more distinct from each other and less electronic than through many competing speaker designs. The Signatures can convey a sense of delicacy when called for, such as during hushed string parts, that few other speakers I've heard can match.

The BVs were also fantastically coherent. So coherent from the lower midrange on up, that scrutinizing the sound for crossover points and mid/tweeter artifacts was difficult. There was nothing to distract me from the convincing sound of voices and instruments playing before me. I often find that speaker systems in which certain drivers are featured like movie stars, such as those that tout their ultra expensive tweeters, allow those drivers to steal the show. In those cases, coherency suffers. Shun Mook would seem to have chosen their off-the-shelf Dynaudio drivers with the emphasis on balance and integration instead of bragging rights. The approach works beautifully; the entire frequency range sounds cut from the same cloth. I'd start analyzing and quickly end up absorbed in the music. That's a good thing.

The coherency extended down to the bottom of the BV Signature's frequency range, but as I mentioned earlier, I did have to work out some extra bass warmth with careful positioning and by selecting appropriate associated components.

I find the BVs to be just about the right size. As they are a moderately large floorstander and as they have a generally solid, weighty sound top to bottom, the BVs present life-sized images of voices and instruments (very much like my ex Quad ESL-63s). You don't get the "toy orchestra" effect found in many mini-monitors, or even in some floor standing speakers that have a scoop-out in the midrange in order to sound spacious.

Listening to classical music was fantastic as well. I spun the beautiful old London recording of Ravel's Ma Mere L'oye and Debussy's Nocturnes (Classic Records reissue, CSCD 6023), conducted by Ernest Ansermet. I find that instruments nearer the back of the hall, like woodwinds and flutes, sound distressingly similar on most sound systems. It's too often a strain to discern between the various reed instruments unless they are playing in an identifying register. Not only that, the instruments farthest from the microphone often sound like they have shrunk in size, rather than simply being farther away. Not on the BV Signatures, where there was as much or more detail as I've heard from any speakers. This went a great way toward helping with the above problem because there were effortless changes in the instrumental tone, weight and "color," making it easy to hear what was going on even at the back of the hall. Strings were gorgeous, among the best I've heard -- smooth, sweet, and full. The sound of violins and the other strings were presented whole, wooden bodies and all. Massed strings were more pleasurable and convincing on the BVs than on the majority of systems I've heard.

Geez, I could go on . . . Ah, hell -- I will! Jazz vibraphones were rendered with the most satisfyingly complex rainbow of colors and tones. A real jaw-dropper was a track entitled "Fode Kouyate," from the CD African Troubadours (Shanachie 64092), that I often play when auditioning systems. The song begins with an African instrument that sounds like a sort of harp-lute. The strings are very high pitched and the attack and decay of the plucked strings is extremely short. On many sound systems the instrument sounds like short bursts of transient string noise and not much else, sort of like a crummy guitar sample on a cheap digital synthesizer. On really good systems it becomes apparent that this is a plucked string instrument with some short resonance after the attack. On the BV Signatures, the instrument (and the musician) came alive. The strings actually had body when plucked, and a beautiful, lengthy shimmering decay that is barely evident on any other system I've heard. Even my Quad ESL-63s never showed me this.

Any Problems?

"…while the Signature's highs sounded more natural and less grainy than almost any speakers I know of, tonal balance in absolute terms was a little on the dark side. Think of the aural equivalent of dark Belgium chocolate."

You wouldn't take the above oohing and aahing as a sign that I've found the perfect speaker, would you? Of course not, you know better than that. If you get a chance to hear the Bella Voce Signature speakers you will not hear a new paradigm in sound reproduction. In fact, the Signatures have such a natural, non hi-fi tonal balance that audiophiles looking for audio fireworks will likely be disappointed. They are sort of Spendor-like in that respect (although they do not sound like the classic Spendor monitors).

Also, the Signatures can be a bit reticent with hard transients. Just a bit soft. With good amplification the attack on piano keys, guitar picks and the like are as clear as through any transducers I've heard. Still, high-pitched transients don't always have the exciting projection found in other great high end speakers. This leads the Bella Voces to have a sort of gentle or graceful sound overall. Yet they still rocked. In my room the Signatures played rock, funk and everything in between very satisfactorily. This is because, I feel, just up to the higher treble region, the BVs really move air. The full-bodied instruments and projection of the sound provides excitement enough to make you not miss the treble zing you get with other speakers. But watch it: I've heard the Signatures in several locations, and with sluggish amplification they can sound a little lackadaisical.

Further, while I didn't detect any cabinet resonances at all infecting the lower mids to the highs, I never quite felt I got totally rid of them in the low bass. I have heard the Signatures sound somewhat boxy in other locations, using other equipment. Even with the Bryston 4B, I could occasionally hear some bass lift, or blurring coming from the cabinet. Again, in my room this didn't happen on too many recordings, and on the whole I found the Signature's bass pitch to be excellent. However the BV's bass was not as uncolored, holographic and extended as the bass reproduced by my VR-4 Gen IIs.

And, while the Signature's highs sounded more natural and less grainy than almost any speakers I know of, tonal balance in absolute terms was a little on the dark side. Think of the aural equivalent of dark Belgium chocolate.

Wrap-Up

The Bella Voce Signatures are music machines, plain and simple. It was a chore to analyze the sound for this review, as I was constantly pulled into the music instead. The BV's are special in pulling off one of the hardest combinations in high end audio: world class detail retrieval AND musicality. One is never drawn to the details as such, but to the revealed beauty of the instruments and voices. They are really a music-lover's speaker, not meant for show off sessions. That said, one night I was listening to the Bella Voces with my brother, Steve. He is a musician and has a job at the local symphony hall where he hears performances nightly (he’s also familiar with my reference system). The Eroica Trio (EMI Classics 56673-2) had just finished playing Rachmaninov's Vocalise before us in my living room, and Steve turned to me exhausted and amazed. "I have never heard music reproduced like that before in my life," he said.

On that night, I wouldn't have argued. What the Bella Voce Signatures do well, they do very, very well.

 

 


 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Ascendo