The E.S.P. “Concert Grand” Speakers

Re-printed with permission from Planet HiFi

Jim Merod

1998

The very large Sean McCaughan-designed E.S.P. “Concert Grand” loudspeakers are remarkable for their relaxed presentation of largescale musical dynamics. They are not the most accurate speaker in recreating the small transient decays of live music. And they do not have the immediacy of the Von Schweikert V-6 and V-8 speakers. They certainly do not have the sheer “heft and slam” of Hales 5 speakers, nor do they capture almost perfectly the sense of “being there” in the audience, right in front of the music, that you feel when you listen to the top-of-the line Cabasse speakers. But those comparisons are NOT intended as dismissals of the splendid “Concert Grands.” They merely situate them within a spectrum of the very best speakers available at any price.

And the E.S.P. (Esoteric Speaker Products) “Concert Grands” are truly among the best speakers. They deserve comparison with their musical brethren. They not only survive comparisons. Their strengths emerge because of them.

Several big-muscle amplifiers were used to give the Grands appropriate room to dance. They were placed in a large wood-ceilinged space with excellent acoustical properties and they were situated well away from walls and room boundaries. This placement is crucial for their full delivery of sonic strength. The Grands matched beautifully with a brilliantly-revised McCormack 0.5 amplifier (an enhancement on an already spectacular amplifier from its designer, Steve McCormack). The Grands also strutted their awe-inspiring stuff when matched up with the Classe 25 amplifier. They made very enjoyable music when they were connected to a mid-priced Rotel amplifier, also. For the greatest amount of listening, the Grands were put in tandem with either WireWorld speaker cable or Nordost SPM speaker cable. Those two very different designs revealed distinct attributes of the Grands. This reviewer wishes that he could have heard the Grands with Magnan speaker cable in the sonic chain. Anyone who has heard the Magnans between Vince Christian, Ltd. speakers and McCormack DNA 0.5 (revision A) monoblocks will know precisely why someone would wish to review high-end speakers and amplifiers with the dauntingly full-spectrum sonic delivery that the Magnan cables (nearly alone) are able to provide.

The first impressive quality about the Grands is the musical beauty they create. Familiar songs, albums, and performances take on a loveliness through these speakers that is undeniable. And enchanting. The beauty that I am pointing to here is directly related to one of the Grands’ central virtues: their ability to recreate the size of a concert hall or club stage. The Grands excell as few speakers do at giving a listener the sense of real space and a concrete recorded performance. They are among the three or four speakers, that this listener has heard closely, able to capture large musical spaces.

This is not rendered by the Grands so much in small and delicate microdynamics of musical sound as much by the speakers’ brute ability to throw a very big (and truly convincing) musical stage all around and between themselves. Such a delivery extends left to right, up and down, and front to back. When you sit before the Grands as they reproduce a well-recorded Duke Ellington Orchestra – say, the one captured on the 1958 BLUES IN ORBIT album (Columbia CK 44051) – you feel that the band is in your room and that you can virtually get up from your listening position to adjust Cootie Williams’ microphone or Johnny Hodges’ chair. That experience is welcome if slightly spooky. It is rare and deeply appealing.

Nothing can rival a sense of (spooky) “thereness” and immediacy in this regard – the sense of a real band in real space that is precisely the space of your own room – more than the experience of hearing recordings you have made yourself. In such circumstances, the listener knows the size of the hall or stage where the music being listened to was created. The listener also knows where the musicians were located and what the sound in the hall delivered to the naked ear. When you put such a recording through the Grands, you hear their strengths and weakness – just as you will with any other speaker. A master recording gives the listener who created it the most intimate look into the sonic “world” of the speaker and its sound reproduction chain.

The Concert Grands revealed just how proud they are in the delivery of real-world staging. A recording of an extraordinarily percussive, extremely intimate microphone placement that captured a vibraphone-led sextet showed off the accurate sense of scale that the Grands recreate. The entire stage in its full volume was thrown up (and essentially all around) the listener. The piano extend well beyond the outside of the left speaker. The conga was to the outside of the right one. The timbales/drum kit was precisely right: back centerstage with full voice and volume. Everything was in its rightful location. And each instrument took on a size that was essentially the whole of its actual weight and dimension. Few speakers deliver, convincingly, this sense of scale and placement. This is a matter not of “staging” or “imaging” so much as a matter of tactile presence and “groundedness” (a quality that indicates the genuine recreation of a sonic fact as it really existed).

Only in the recreation of singing voices, especially female voices, did that experience of convincing accuracy in the representation of musical truth waver a little. One hears a slight softness in the depiction of the alto range. As voices move toward and through the tenor range and on to the baritone male voice, the Grands retain their illusion of palpable scale and accurate sonic embodiment. The much-referenced 1990 Clarity recording of vocalist Mary Stallings, hailed often for its audiophile precision and glory, is somewhat eccentric in one of its magnificent details. Noel Jewkes’ Coltrane-like tenor sax is caught too far forward on the left. It appears in front of Stallings instead of alongside her or (appropriately) just behind her to one side. The recording is startlingly engaging, but a tad disjointed in that one aspect. One does not mean to quarrel with splendid sound. This warm touch of misalignment reveals how difficult it is to accomplish two-microphone recordings, as this one is. If one were to catch any musician too close, Noel Jewkes (with his amazing tone and priapic self-confidence) would be a spectacular choice. I am impressed by the immediacy of the album. On the Grands this session, FINE AND MELLOW (CCD-1001), revealed the anomaly in the soundststage. It was exposed like an exotic fish flopping on a sunny beach. The Clarity recording, in turn, verified the tendency of the Grands to soften a female voice. On this and on other recordings of Stallings as well (master recordings and less detailed Concord CDs), this most seductive of our female jazz singers emerged as the breath-taking vocalist she is: a woman whose presence on stage is as striking as her voice is enchanting. The Grands seemed somehow to “know” that. They recreated the whole of Stallings’ being as a single alluring illusion. Mary Stallings voice was integrated with her beautiful person. The Grands adored her dark, sometimes husky vocal timbre.

A word about the striking difference between the Grands’ musical magic when teased out by David Salz’s WireWorld speaker cable and by Vince Garino’s Nordost SPM cable. The Grands preferred the Nordost, in part I’m certain, because the SPM speaker cable is very quick. Its strength is an ear-expanding delivery of all sonic cues from the region where the lower mid-range begins to join the lower octaves (in the 200-400 Hz bandwidth) on up to the very most extended reaches of musical highs and of hearing itself. The SPM cable is a remarkable revealer of information. It is not the most accurate or revealing of sonic cues below the lower mids and down through the bottom octaves. Matched with the WireWorld cable, on the other hand, the Grands found their baritone fullness improved and deepened. Because the Achilles Heel of the Grands (in fact, a very mild ankle sprain) is a degree of softness in the upper registers, the Nordost cable augmented the Grands in ways needed to depreciate their minimal lack. Perhaps a better way of putting this would be to indicate how open and lively the Grands became in tandem with the SPM cable. With the WireWorld in the chain, the Grands attained a greater sense of heft and force: their existing strengths, in sum, were emphasized.

At $16,000 a pair, the Concert Grands are courting a small client base. The competition is stiff at this level. I believe the Grands deserve attention from prospective purchasers because they carry a strong musical virtue – reproducing the scope of recorded musical scale – which allows them to sit among the most impressive and engaging speakers now available. Especially for those who love symphonic recordings and opera, for those who attend to the variables of appropriate amplification and all the sonic issues of associated equipment choices, the Concert Grands can be a source of deep pleasure. Such people, of course, will need to have a room large enough to house these speakers. They hold forth with style and command. You will always know you have a major league musical reproducer in your home. They are very much like partially-domesticated tigers. They will eat your room alive if it is not up to the sheer scale and force and volume of the Grands’ luxurious energy and relaxed brute strength. They are graceful in appearance even though they are almost six feet tall and weigh 250 pounds a piece. But, like a young tiger brought home to become a pet, the Concert Grands require love and understanding of their power. Once you massage their gentle natures, their force becomes a virtue. Despite any mild caveats about their sonic signature, how often do you sit within the calm of your dwelling and undergo the rigor, and majesty, of live music as if it were made not in the concert hall but in your own well-tweaked listening room?