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The Lawrence Audio Mandolin Loudspeakers

The Virtues Knowing One’s Self

 

December, 2011



  

Often in high-end audio, designers tend to want to be something other than what they obviously appear to be. What I mean is, some designers build massive amplifiers stuffed full of beer can sized capacitors or Mason Jar sized vacuum tubes, that only deliver about ten watts of power. Others make diminutive cigar box sized Class-D amps, but they deliver a shocking 1,000 watts per channel. But my favorites have always been the loudspeaker manufacturers who build small “bookshelf” or stand-mounted speakers that they claim “fills the room with sound” and “has shockingly deep bass.” So when I was offered the opportunity to review the Lawrence Audio Mandolin loudspeakers, I prepared myself for another looks small, sounds big music experience. Surprisingly, that wasn’t exactly the case.

About the Company
Lawrence Audio was founded in Taiwan in 1996 by Lawrence Liao. Liao is more than just a speaker builder; he is also a musician, an artist and an interior designer. This is something that speaks to me because I love it when speakers are designed, not just to sound good (which of course they should) but also to improve the aesthetic appeal of the room they are in. Lord knows I’ve had more than my share of big black monoliths taking up space in my main listening room. They sound great, sure, but boy you just want to throw a blanket over them when music’s not coming out of them.

Thankfully, the inspiration for the design of the Lawrence Audio speakers is Liao’s own love of classical music and the workmanship that goes into making fine instruments such as the violin, cello and of course the mandolin. All Lawrence Audio speakers are designed entirely in Taiwan and tested for sound quality by professional engineers and even by Liao himself. So right away I knew two things: One, Liao probably has strict control over the quality of production, and two, they are going to be very affordable compared to comparable U.S. designs. Don’t look now but in the last few years companies like Usher Audio, King Sound and Vincent Audio have been part of a surge in Asian audio companies that offer wonderful, gorgeously built, thoughtfully designed and relatively affordable high-end speakers and components. This would be an apt description of the $3,600/pair Mandolin.

About the speaker
The Mandolin is a two-way, bass-reflex, stand-mounted loudspeaker. It uses a 5” long purified aluminum ribbon tweeter and a 6.5" carbon fiber bass/midrange driver. The cabinet is made of MDF and is extremely rigid and non-resonant. My review samples were finished in a lovely natural cherry wood veneer. Their distinctive shape is designed to be reminiscent of a mandolin, though my first thought was more of a metronome than anything else. Regardless, it is a visually appealing piece of work. The narrow front baffle is painted black and the area surrounding the drivers are elegantly contoured to minimize diffraction and help achieve an open and spacious sound. A single pair of heavy-duty five-way binding posts adorns the rear of the speakers, as does a slotted port.

The speakers are directly coupled to custom speaker stands via a set of heavy-duty screws. The stands are designed to match the speaker front baffles and are relatively easy to assemble. The speakers come with some nicely made spikes and discs so that the stands can be coupled to the floor to enhance their rigidity.

The Mandolins arrived in three separate containers; one for each speaker and one for the stands. Each container was triple boxed and each speaker came in its own cloth bag, which was further packed in Styrofoam. When you see this level of care go into the packaging, you know you’re dealing with a considerate company. As I began to pull off the cloth bags and expose the gorgeous and sleek cabinet styling, my girlfriend Mittie blurted out, “those speakers are gorgeous!” This was actually high praise on two fronts: First, Mittie generally doesn’t like any speakers that I bring into the house because usually, they’re taller than she is. And second, she normally refers to the few speakers she does like as “cute.” This, of course, drives me nuts.

About the Setup

The arrival of the Mandolins came just about a week after the arrival of the new Vitus Audio RI-100 integrated amplifier (above photo). The RI-100 is a 300-watt beast that no doubt would be capable of drawing the most out of the Mandolins. I played a lot of music through the Vitus during that first week before the Mandolins arrived, so it would be fairly well broken-in by the time I installed the speakers into my system.

In my reference system I used the OPPO Digital DV-980H Universal Disc Player as a transport connected to the coaxial digital input of the Citypulse Audio DA-2.03e USB DAC. Analog was courtesy of the wonderful new George Warren Precision Sound turntable and arm and a Benz Micro Ace cartridge. This rig fed a Clearaudio Smartphono phonostage. My reference speakers are the Escalante Design Fremonts and the Dynaudio Sapphires. The system was connected with the stunning Hemmingway Audio Prime Signature MK II cables, accept the digital cable which was the Entreq Audio Konstantin.

My 22’ x 25’ family room is where I do most of my listening, but I also listen to smaller systems in my 12’ x 15’ den. This would prove to be an important part of my evaluation of the Mandolins.

In my main room, I placed the speakers about 4’ from the rear wall and 6’ from the side walls. There was about 12’ between them, with the listening position about 12’ back. I gave the speakers about ten degrees of toe-in. The floors are covered in a Berber carpet and the walls have Native American rugs on them in a few select spots.

Listening
I let the Mandolins break-in for a few days when they first arrived. I used my Apple TV device to play internet radio stations during the day and at night I would watch action movies on Netflix through them. After a few days I was ready to begin doing some serious listening.

As I’ve already mentioned, I have an appreciation for aesthetically pleasing audio components, particularly speakers because they usually take a prominent place in a room. But my reaction to the Mandolins was mixed. While they are certainly gorgeously made speakers, they also have a rather smallish footprint and actually looked a bit underwhelming in my main listening room. Now bear in mind that my main speakers, the Fremonts and Sapphires, are massive by comparison, so it took me a little while to mentally adjust my thinking and gain (as my brother would say) “the proper perspective.”


The first song I plaid was the title track from the late great Phoebe Snow’s album, Something Real [JDC]. Her syrupy vibrato poured from the Mandolins in a way that gave me goose bumps. I was up late one night listening in near darkness and it was only because I knew that, sadly, she was no longer with us, that I didn’t think that she was actually in that dark room with me. Actually, I found the experience so unsettling that I immediately turned a couple of lights on. The third song on this album, “Touch Your Soul” begins with an acoustic guitar lead-in that the Mandolins rendered splendidly. The detail of vibrating strings pressed against metal frets is made so clear that it made me think that this was music that I could play. But of course I can’t.

Live jazz always presents a good measure of a speaker’s ability to convey soundstage ambience and scale, so I put on one of my favorite live CDs, Diana Krall’s, Live In Paris [Verve]. The opening track, “I Love Being Here With You,” is a snappy little tune that shows off the Mandolin’s ability to project a nicely balanced soundstage and maintain a good sense of rhythm and pace. There was no blending of instrumental performances that makes the music sound a bit electronic. I couldn’t quite hone in on the scale of the venue which is typically difficult for small speakers to do. Also, the bass, while reasonably deep and well articulated, did not attempt to artificially replicate the lower registers. This was actually something that I have come to appreciate and brings me back to my earlier reference to my secondary listening room.

My main room is just over 500 square feet and is well suited for larger speakers like the Fremonts and Sapphires. But my second listening room at around 180 square feet is ideal for a smaller speaker. So after having the Mandolins in my main room for a month or so I decided to moved them and the Vitus integrated into my smaller room and used my iPod and the Citypulse DAC as my source.

Oh baby! Unburdened by the need to realistically fill my large room with sound, the Mandolins began to show their stuff. The musicality and pace that I heard in the big room were now enhanced by the speakers’ ability to produce a fuller sound. The bass was more than adequate but now seemed to add some dimensionality to the soundstage. The width, height and depth of the venue came more in to focus on the Krall CD, especially track six, “I’ve Got You Under My Skin.” Wow. Holographic imaging never had it so good.

These are speakers that you have to be careful not try to make be something that they are not. They were not made to be or emulate a full range speaker. Small speakers that attempt this usually sound bloated and wooly on the bottom and bright at the top. Besides, that is what other Lawrence Audio speakers like the Eagle and Firebird are designed to be. Instead the Mandolin knows its place is in a smaller sized room, made for intimate music at relatively moderate listening levels. In that environment, these speakers are special. And though I didn’t have one on hand, I can only imagine how wonderful they would sound with a good single-ended tube amp on them.

Where the Mandolins really came to life was in the area of vocal and instrumental specificity. A great example of this strength could be heard on Erin Bode’s CD The Little Garden [Native Language Music]. Track two, “Chasing After You” is a nice little blend of percussion, guitar and of course Bode’s mellifluous voice. The Mandolins render the bongos and keyboard with such realism that you are deeply drawn into the music. This also adds to the impact of the vocals and lyrics. With a singer like Erin Bode, this is very important and really adds to the overall enjoyment of this kind of music. I drew the same conclusion while listening to Eva Youngblood sing “Bridge Over Troubled Water,” on her legendary Live At Blues Alley CD [Blix Street]. The Mandolin was made for music like this.

            

Conclusion
The Lawrence Audio Mandolins are wonderful loudspeakers on many levels. Their lovely craftsmanship and looks will definitely enhance any room that they’re put in. And while they sounded fine in my large listening room, they were definitely more at home in my smaller room. I wish I would have had a good subwoofer like the JL Audio Fathom f13 on hand to see just how well the Mandolin would have done in longer sessions in my main room. But I didn’t feel it would be fair to ask them to do the job of their much larger siblings (i.e. play some bass thumpin, head slammin, funk or rock at neighbor crushing levels).

These speakers are exactly what they look like and I believe exactly what Lawrence Liao designed them to be: elegant, musical and perfect for an intimate room and intimate music. Placed in the right system and space they will reward you with a musical experience that enhances your quality of life without doing too much damage to your bank account. Highly recommended.







Specifications
Type : 2-way, 2 driver bass- reflex speaker
Drivers : A ribbon tweeter, a 6.5" carbon fiber midrange/woofer
Frequency Response: 45-40 000 Hz, +/- 3db
Sensitivity : 89db
Nominal Impedance: 8 ohms (min. 6.4 ohms)
Crossover frequency: 2600 Hz
Crossover’s Attenuation Slope:Woofer -12dB, Tweeter -18dB
Power: 30 - 150 watts recommended
Stands : Custom matched exquisitely made to compliment speakers both aesthetically and with integrated resonance control.
Speaker Finishes : Laquered cherry, Laquered Rosewood, Natural Cherry, Natural Rosewood, custom colors on request for additional charge
3 year warranty
Dimensions (H x W x D) : 43 x 9 x 11" (on stands)
Net weight : 26.5 lb (12 kg) per speaker
Shipping weight: 3 boxes, 110 lbs
Price: $5,500/pair (includes stands)


Address:
Lawrence Audio Co., Ltd.
No. 77, Sec. 3, Chenggong Rd.
Neihu District, Taipei, Taiwan
Email: snlawren@ms79.hinet.net
http://www.lawrenceaudio.com

Audio Revelation (U.S. Dealer)
2630 Pirineos Way #24
Carlsbad, CA 92009
jay@audiorevelation.com 
+1-760-944-0444