October 1999Gershman Acoustics X-1/SW-1 Speaker System
by Ian White
Any escape might help to smooth
Nestled in the incredibly uninspired suburbs of Toronto, Gershman Acoustics has been producing audio products for a number of years, and I must admit that I was more than just a little impressed by their flagship GAP 520-X loudspeaker when I first heard it at the 98 Toronto hi-fi show. The only problem with the GAP is that its almost $10,000 per pair, putting it out of reach for a majority of music lovers. Fortunately, Gershman offers a number of more affordable floorstanding speakers, but it was the more-than-diminutive X-1 monitors that really caught my attention at CES, and it was with a great deal of enthusiasm that I took on this review of these very highly regarded monitors (see Doug Schneiders review) and their sibling, the SW-1 subwoofer.
I must concede that as much as I covet a pair of really great monitors like the X-1 or Sonus Faber Signums, I cant help but be bothered by their inherent limitations in the bass department and ridiculously overpriced hernia-inducing stands. My friend Nicole would call it a "testosterone problem," and in all fairness she is probably right. My astute friend knows that I was raised on a diet of William Holden and Gary Cooper films, and as a result I am unable to deal with speakers that talk like a man, but walk like John Wayne's sister. Call me an emotional cripple if you so desire. Ladies and gents, there is a new sheriff in town, and his name isn't Lucinda.
Is that a ten-gallon hat youre wearing, or are you just glad to see me
The X-1 is fairly large for a monitor (15"H x 11"W x 14"D), and at 27 pounds, it certainly does not qualify as a welterweight. The mahogany veneer is as stunning as they come, and I am slightly surprised that Eli Gershman can offer such a beautifully finished speaker at such an affordable price ($1600 per pair). It may not look as sexy as a pair of Sonus Fabers, but the quality of the finish is way more than audiophiles have come to expect from a speaker under $2000.
The X-1 are fairly easy to drive (87dB, 8 ohms), but you should not expect to match them with low-powered single-ended gear and achieve great results. The X-1 needs power to open up, and I would have to say that 75Wpc should be considered the bare minimum. Gershman quotes X-1s frequency response as being 40Hz-20kHz. While I am not sure that I ever reached that level in my 16'L x 14'W x 7'H listening room, the X-1s 6" woofer proved itself to be a willing trooper when I drove it hard with some bass-heavy hip-hop recordings. During the review, I used the X-1 with my sand-filled 24" Target stands (four-pillar variety), and it became rather apparent that these speakers need sturdy stands, from both stability and bass-re-enforcement perspectives. As much as I dislike having to spend a lot of money on a pair of stands, the reality is that using the X-1 with high-quality stands must be considered mandatory.
Setting up the X-1 proved to be a fairly painless exercise. After settling on a distance of three feet from the side walls, I experimented with distances of between three and four feet from the front wall. Three feet produced more bass, but I found that it started to lose some of its definition, so I moved the speaker further forward into the room. When I was happy with the distance from the walls, I experimented with the degree of toe-in, and I discovered rather quickly that I preferred the tonal balance of the speakers with only a small amount of toe-in. I knew that I wasn't allowing the X-1 to image as well as they can, but I felt that the warmer tonal balance was more pleasing to the ear.
Psychic spies from China try to steal your mind's elation
The X-1s under review had absolutely no mileage on them whatsoever, so I decided that a healthy diet of the Red Hot Chili Peppers would be the ideal music to break them in with. The woofer in the X-1 requires more than 100 hours of break-in, and I did notice a rather substantial change in the sound of the speaker over a three-week period. The Chili Pepper's latest recording, Californication [Warner Bros. CDW 47386], is laden with Flea's signature bass lines, and the X-1 did a superb job of reproducing the funky tone of his four-string Alembic and Modulus basses. The opening to the song "Emit Remmus" had me out of my seat playing air bass along with the master himself (unlike Flea, I have a little more dignity when I play -- I wear a wash cloth), and I was very impressed by the X-1's ability to handle dramatic dynamic shifts in the music. The X-1 doesn't move a lot of air, but it never sounds sluggish either. Tonally, the X-1's bass is slightly lean-sounding, but not enough to rob a bass note of its energy or impact at sane volume levels.
Nobody is ever going to confuse Anthony Kiedis with the late Frank Sinatra, but the rather energetic crooner from Los Angeles really shines on Californication, and the disc proved to be a good test of the X-1's midrange clarity. On the title track, Kiedis rather eloquently exposes Hollywood for the fraud that he believes that it is, and his passion comes across strongly. The X-1's midrange is very clean-sounding, and I thought that it did a very good job of reproducing Kiedis' voice. In comparison to the Totem Model 1 Signatures that I reviewed last summer, I thought that the X-1 was far more natural-sounding on male vocals. The Model 1 Signatures are neutral through the midrange, but I found that they sounded harder than the X-1s when I pushed the volume up a few notches. The X-1's dome tweeter sounded sweeter as well, and I found that the Model 1 Signature's treble was more fatiguing in comparison.
After making myself sick of the Chili Peppers (like anything in life, including KK doughnuts, there are limits to how much one can handle), I decided to play something a little less emotionally involving. Smashing Pumpkins' Siamese Dream [Virgin V2 0777-7 88267-29] is a terrific test of a speaker's ability to reproduce really taut bass and thunderous guitar riffs, and while the X-1 did a fairly admirable job, it did begin to reveal its limitations in the bass. Although somewhat disappointed after such a promising start with the Chili Peppers, I knew that I had just the disc to see if I was mistaken about the X-1's bass performance.
Béla Fleck and The Flecktones are probably one of the most impressive bands that I have ever seen perform live. Their album Left of Cool [Warner Bros. CDW 46896 HDCD] has become the recording that I listen to late at night when I am really desperate for something that will calm my nerves. (I'd take up drinking, but then Id have to give up midnight Kendo in the front yard.) Left of Cool is a superb collection of funk, jazz, fusion, and world music and a spectacular recording that makes chulent (a slowly cooked Eastern European Jewish dish that does the body good) out of really mediocre-sounding speakers.
The X-1 expressed themselves fairly well, and I was rather impressed by their ability to place each individual performer within the soundstage. On the plus side, the X-1 never robbed bassist Victor Wooten of his legendary "snap, crackle, pop," and I think that a majority of listeners would be more than satisfied with the tonality and pace of this speaker with similar recordings. The clarinet and banjo (and to think that I thought that guy on Hee Haw with the banjo was such a loser) were wonderfully reproduced, and I found myself picking along with Béla into the wee hours of the morning. As satisfied as I was with the sound, I knew that I was not hearing the X-1 at its absolute best.
My house is alive with the sound of bass!
When I was about ten years old, I remember placing a copy of Saturday Night Fever on my parents turntable and pressing the button that cued up the tonearm and lowered the needle onto the record. At the time, our home stereo was an incredibly large Zenith console unit with built-in speakers, receiver, 8-track, and turntable. As bad as it was (the console itself managed to follow us around for years), it was my first experience with hi-fi and more importantly, my first experience with bass. Like any normal kid, I was impressed with things that made a lot of noise, and it was sheer curiosity that made me listen to the Bee Gees with the bass control turned all the way up. Not that getting smacked in the rear was really worth it (not for the Bee Gees, it wasn't), but on that fateful day I learned two valuable lessons:
At the '98 Toronto Show, Eli Gershman showed me a production version of the SW-1 subwoofer, and I understood what he was trying to do right away. Using the same 10" fiberglass, mass-loaded woofer that he uses in his GAP 520-X, Gershman was rather intelligently offering owners and perspective owners of his X-1 monitors an affordable upgrade that would not only extend the frequency response of the speaker down to 20Hz, but add a really well-made subwoofer that could be used in a home theater as well.
Setting up the SW-1 subwoofers is not a one-person job. Eli Gershman takes pride in the quality of his products and he packs them so that they arrive in pristine condition. When I loaded them into the back of my Yukon, I knew that I was going to have trouble carrying them on my own. The cabinets are incredibly heavy, and I would advise inviting your strongest friends over for lunch on delivery day. After we managed to carry the two cabinets down into my basement (tip: use the triangular port on the rear of the cabinet as a place to grab onto), I connected the subwoofers to another amplifier and let them break-in for about two weeks.
The cabinet itself is an inch thick (except for the bottom, where the thickness increases to two inches) and has the same beautiful mahogany veneer as the X-1 monitors. The speaker does become the focal point of your room once it is set up. The 10" yellow carbon-fiber woofer looks odd in my opinion, but I guess that is why man invented grilles. The interior of the cabinet is heavily braced and lined with damping material. On the rear panel, youll find a triangular port (designed to help eliminate standing waves) and two sets of binding posts. The first set of binding posts is for the speaker cables from your amplifier, and the second is for the supplied umbilical that connects the subwoofer to the X-1s binding posts. Internally, copper wiring is used throughout. For an additional $250, Gershman can have the SW-1 wired with cable from JPS Labs. On the top of the SW-1 cabinet, you will find a set of four clear rubber feet. Not only do the feet help you properly align the monitor on top of the subwoofer cabinet, but they do a great job of isolating the monitor from vibrations.
The SW-1 uses a third-order crossover and at 87dB (8 ohms) is fairly easy to drive. Its frequency response is rated at 20Hz-90Hz +/- 3dB. The crossover point between the subwoofers and the X-1 is at 90Hz, and I was really curious to hear how different the monitors would sound when they were freed from bondage.
The little engine that could
Before I explain why I think that the SW-1 are a mandatory addition to the X-1 monitors, I would be remiss if I didnt detail my experience with a number of different amplifiers. I had very high hopes for my Copland CTA-501, but its 30 watts of tube power proved to be a major disappointment with the X-1/SW-1 combination. The Copland has a midrange to die for, but it choked and sputtered when I drove the system to any decent listening levels. When I turned up the volume while listening to Drink Smalls Electric Blues Doctor Live! [Mapleshade 01932], the bass turned to mush and the amp clipped rather quickly. Not a good sign. Next up was my Rotel RSX-965 digital surround-sound receiver, and while it had more than enough power to drive the X-1/SW-1 combination, it lacked any degree of sparkle in the midrange. The Rotel works well with smaller, more efficient speakers, and it was rather obvious that I needed something special to drive the X-1/SW-1 combo with.
Someone once described my OCM 200 as a "poor mans Levinson" (if I remember correctly, it was the dealer who sold it to me), and Im not sure that I agree. It may be blasphemy of sorts, but my OCM 200 sounds sweeter and more open than any Levinson amplifier Ive heard. The OCM 200 was a superb match for the X-1/SW-1, and I was more than impressed by the overall clarity, tonality, and pace of the sound at all listening levels. The SW-1 needs an amp with a lot of control in the bass, and the OCM excels in that role. All of the extension and tautness that I was missing with the X-1 was delivered by the SW-1 subwoofers, and I knew that I was on the right track. In my limited experience with the Gershman speakers, Ive discovered that they also work really well with amplification from SimAudio and Classé.
While I have never been a huge fan of Bruce Springsteen, The Ghost of Tom Joad [Columbia C67484] struck a nerve with me, and I continue to listen to it on a fairly regular basis. My vinyl copy of the recording has really exceptional sound, and I liked how immediate it sounded through the X-1/SW-1 combination. The addition of the SW-1 subwoofers allowed the X-1 to open up, and I noticed an improvement in its midrange clarity. The impact on vocals was quite extraordinary, and I enjoyed listening to Los Lobos The Neighborhood [Slash/Warner CD 26131] with the subwoofers in place. Not only was there a rather dramatic improvement in the clarity and resolution, but the addition of really taut bass made me feel as if I were hearing the entire recording and not just parts of it. My listening room is probably too small for the X-1/SW-1 combination, but I never felt that I was being bombarded with an excess of bass energy. Two of the walls in my room ring when they are exposed to too much bass energy, and I could feel that I was starting to push my luck as I increased the volume into "very loud" territory.
The X-1/SW-2 system performed extremely well with rock and alternative music, but it really made a serious case for itself with jazz. The one disc that I bought at CES was Mobile Fidelitys John Coltrane and Johnny Hartman [Mobile Fidelity UDCD 740] and after listening to it through the X-1/SW-1 combination, it became rather obvious to me that Eli Gershman voiced this speaker system with a lot of jazz recordings. One of the hardest instruments to reproduce properly is the piano, but the Gershman system was exceptional in this regard. Little things, such as the decay of notes, became more apparent to me, and the sound certainly caused me to pay closer attention when I listened to some of my Thelonious Monk records. When a speaker makes you sit up and notice things that enhance the listening experience, it is doing something right.
Yea or nay?
I think that it is fair to say that I really enjoyed the time that I spent with the X-1/SW-1, but nothing in life is perfect, and I have a few suggestions to make for those of you who might be interested in this combo. If your room isnt very large, I would suggest trying the X-1 with good stands and sticking with that. The SW-1 may produce too much bass, and I dont think that you will be a happy camper. If you are looking for a very efficient speaker that you can drive with a 20-watt single-ended amplifier, look elsewhere. If you opt for a pair of X-1 monitors, use an amplifier with some authority in the bottom end. If you have a fairly large home-theater room, are looking for an excellent full-range system to use for both music and film, and you dont want to break the bank, I can enthusiastically recommend the X-1/SW-1 combination.
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