December 1999Greybeard Audio KB/2/1 Loudspeakers
by Todd Warnke
Not so long ago I lived in Portland, Oregon. For those who havent been there, Portland has been described as a collection of 25 towns of 20,000 people each that just grew together, which is a mighty fine description as there are at least 25 distinct, wonderful and close-knit neighborhoods. And thats important since most of those neighborhoods support their own McMinnimen Brothers Brewpub. And since each McMinnimen pub makes a unique and very worthwhile brew, having 25 around is a very good thing. On the other hand, a city of 25 small towns can be hard to explore properly, even, or perhaps especially, while pub crawling.
Case in point: it was only after I left Portland that I encountered the wetheads that run Positive Feedback, as well as discovering that several cool audio companies make their home in Portland. For at least one of those companies, Greybeard, I can be forgiven since they are a relative newcomer. Still, when I first encountered them I was glad to hear they are from my old stomping grounds. (Actually, they are in Vancouver, WA, which is to Portland as Brooklyn is to New York. That is the same thing to outsiders in spite of being an essential distinction to locals.) Of course, none of this matters since SoundStage! is an audio magazine and not a geography site. What does matter is that the folks at Greybeard have done some serious thinking on what makes a great speaker and have taken those thoughts from Platonic form to Aristotelian reality. All of which brings us to their entry-level example of that thinking, the KB/2/1.
Back to the story
The first thing that strikes everyone about the Greybeard speakers -- and yes, I feel comfortable making a blanket statement like that -- is their cabinetry. Just as with the entryway in that high-end home you could afford if not for your stereo, you get a choice of two styles with the Greybeard: tile or slate. And even more, you can request special colors of each, so matching your décor is not a valid reason to pass on the Greybeards.
The good news is that the slate or tile exterior is not just an exercise in domestic tranquility. According to Keith Wallan and Tim Wright at Greybeard, the slate or tile is merely the mass-loading exterior of a constrained-layer-damped cabinet that uses six other materials in its design. Speaking of mass, the sides and top of the cabinet are 1.5" thick while the face is 2.5" thick. Yes, it passes the knuckle rap test. But there is much more to the KB/2/1 than a slick skin.
A two-way design, the 7" mid-woofer is a Scan-Speak 8500 series driver while the 1" silk-dome tweeter is also a Scan-Speak unit. The modified third-order crossover is built from premium parts -- Hovland and InfiniCap SETI capacitors, Caddock resistors, Alpha-Core copper-foil inductors and DH Labs Silver Sonic hook-up wire -- and is mounted in a separate enclosure. This enclosure is located on the rear of the speaker and has a smoked acrylic cover that, using a bright flashlight, you can see through and verify the goodies contained therein. Just above the crossover are a single pair of TIFF five-way binding posts, which offer a secure fit but also rule out bi-wiring or -amping.
The enclosure is rear ported with the integral rectangular ports at the very bottom of the rearward sloping cabinet. According to Greybeard, the slope is to time align the drivers. With a height of 28", the KB/2/1 needs 12" to 16" stands. For the review, Greybeard supplied a pair of the superb Osiris 16" stands. And for the majority of the review, I listened to the KB/2/1s nude -- that is, I took off their reticulated foam grilles while leaving my clothes on.
As for specs, Greybeard indicates a bottom extension to 35Hz, with a sensitivity of 87dB and a nominal impedance of 6 ohms. Besides being 28" tall, the are 9" by 16" at the base and each speaker tips the scale at 75 pounds, with a pair of em costing $4480 USD.
Just as the KB/2/1 creates a strong visual first impression, so to does it create a striking first aural impression -- of clarity. The first disc I played with the Greybeards in the main system was the under-appreciated Chris Whitley debut set, Living With The Law [Columbia CK 46966], and even in comparison to my reference Merlin VSM-SEs, the KB/2/1 offered a greater sense of clarity and information retrieval. Besides clarity, each vocal line had tremendous immediacy, as did the instrumentals, while dynamics were fully and forcefully reproduced. The combination of clarity and immediacy was inviting and exciting. However, along with the clarity I also noticed that the very top of the treble range was slightly rolled off, but more significantly, that there was a slight "cupped hands" coloration in the lower mids.
After running the speakers in for several days -- the speakers had also spent several months of occasional duty in the office system and so were fully broken in but not yet warmed up -- I came back to do more serious listening. Once again I was welcomed to a vivid musical soundscape that was detailed and immediate. The highs had fleshed out and were well integrated, but the slight coloration I had noticed in the mids, while less noticeable, remained. Having heard the Greybeards at CES 99 as well as spending some serious time with their larger brother, the KB/2/2, I was concerned as I had not heard this particular deviation before. Since I was using the Atma-Sphere M-60 Mk II OTL amps which like a flat load, I figured that the next step was to try a less load sensitive amp, and thats exactly what I did. Out came the M-60s and in went the Blue Circle BC6.
The very good news is that the transparency I had noted earlier remained, as did the sense of superb dynamics, while the deep bass, which had been very good, was a tad more extended and tighter. The moderately good news was that the coloration I heard, while further repressed, was not quite extinguished. What then ensued was a several-day orgy of amp and speaker-wire swapping using C-J, ARC, Warner Imaging, Blue Circle and Atma-Sphere amps with Cardas, Audio Magic and JPS Labs speaker wire, with the final coupling of C-J amp and JPS Labs wire offering the best combination of top-to-bottom coherency and control of the midrange. As for the cupped-hands coloration, it was now a mere blip, although it remained just above the audible threshold on male vocals, and more specifically on vocals in the Muddy Waters range as opposed to, say, the Al Stewart range. My guess is that what I was hearing was an artifact of the woofer as the cabinet itself was solid as, well, slate.
I know Ive dwelled at length on this and am afraid that by doing so too much will be made of it. Let me be very clear that this coloration was slight, and that it occupied a precise and narrow range. Also, male vocals were the only way to consistently draw it forth. While playing instrumentals of any type -- jazz, classical or ambient -- I was oblivious to it. Further, had the speaker not been so very good elsewhere, I might not have been so obsessed with this one deviation. In the final analysis, I could live with this, but I would also do my damnedest to ameliorate it since in nearly all other areas the KB/2/1 is a world-class reproducer.
Moving on to those other skills, playing disc after platter, hour after hour, the KB/2/1 opened a detailed window on recordings. Even non-audiophile recordings such as the Music and Arts series of Furtwängler live recordings from the war years and just after (see www.musicandarts.com for a complete listing) were rendered with inviting immediacy. While the recording quality constrained the illusion, the Greybeards let through the sense of music being made with startling force.
This ability to extract maximum musical data from a recording became the defining character of the KB/2/1. Whether the hot blast of a three-tenor line on Johnny Griffins A Blowin Session [Blue Note 4 99009 2], the reflective early-morning call of Ralph Vaughn Williams The Lark Ascending [Marriner and the Academy of St. Martin-In-The-Fields, London 414 595-2] or the Indian trance state of Shelia Chandra on ABoneCroneDrone [Realworld Carol 2356-2], the KB/2/1 did the proverbial Dance of the Seven Veils.
As for specifics, the bass extension of the entry-level Greybeards has a firm reach into the mid 30s, which gives the speaker the skill to reproduce just about everything short of a pipe organ without a sub. I also perceived a slight hump starting about 80 cycles or so, but this served only to impart a nice weight to bass instruments and was never so large as to annoy or to overwhelm.
As I indicated earlier, the very top of the very top octave is a tad shelved, but this had just minor effect on the proceedings. Rather than dull good recordings, it was just present enough to tame hot ones. Also, while no one will confuse the Scan-Speak silk-dome tweeter with a metal tweeter, there was an oh-so-slight roughness to the treble that other more expensive speakers tame.
Dynamically, the KB/2/1 is a wolf in slate clothing. Listening to my standard dynamic test album, Steve Tibbets The Fall of Us All [ECM 1527], I was taken aback with the power these speakers delivered. And not just bass whacks either, as treble peaks were powerful but not sharp, while mids could launch their own power wave in the room as well.
Which is not to say that the KB/2/1 cant do the subtle stuff too. The layering on the k.d. lang and Jane Siberry track "Calling All Angels" from Siberrys When I Was A Boy [Reprise 9 26824-2] floated with delicacy all around the room. The differences between these two fabulous singers were up front while their harmonies were also fully integrated. Other subtle pieces, such as the interplay of the Vermeer Quartet in the late Beethoven string quartets [Teldec 4509-91496-2], were equally vivid and revealing.
The staging skills of the KB/2/1s, while not standard-bearers, are not shy either. While offering up a wide, deep and stable image, it is more important that the image they project is stable and convincing.
Playing the field
Putting the Greybeards in a mano-y-mano battle with the Dunlavy SC-IIIs, which at $3995 are a natural competitor, proved quite interesting. The Dunlavys speak with superb coherency and have a very even tonal balance across their working range. On the other hand, that working range extends to about 45-47 cycles, and this can give the SC-III a slight lightness, especially on rock, jazz and blues material. Not so the Greybeards. With the very edge off the top and their small bass bump, they offer a rich, full sound. Significantly, they do this without becoming slow, muddled, dark or dull.
The KB/2/1 also offers greater clarity than the SC-III in spite of the Dunlavy speakers more accurate top end. Perhaps it is the care and effort expended on the cabinet that is the reason, but whatever it is, it is a very good thing. Finally, the KB/2/1 has a stronger dynamic kick than the Dunlavy speaker.
On the other hand, the SC-III has a more even tonal balance with no colorations over their operating range. Also, their MTM topology makes listener height less of an issue. With the Dunlavy speakers, I can slump (as I often do at the end of the day), and the sound is little changed from an alert position. Not so with the KB/2/1. I found that getting the right listening height, while not hard, was very important.
In the end, I suppose that the SC-III would appeal more to the classic audiophile, someone who is on a quest for even tonal balance, ultimate fidelity to the recording and "accuracy." This is not to say that the KB/2/1 is a euphonic tone machine, as it isnt. But it seems to be voiced to appeal to a music lover first and an audiophile second. A quick example: the final track of the aforementioned Chris Whitley disc is some studio celebration. With the Dunlavy speakers, I heard everything quite precisely, but was also very aware that I was listening to a recording. With the Greybeards, it was easier to believe that there were real people and not just digits making those sounds.
The KB/2/1 is a serious effort and rewards serious listening. If offers clarity and immediacy that set the standard for affordable dynamic speakers. It also has prodigious dynamic power. And the KB/2/1 uses these skills to create a strong sense of music-making. Coupled with a strong bottom end, the overall presentation is much more than respectable for a speaker in this price class. On the debit side, they do have several slight deviations from dead flat, but as J. Gordon Holt reminds us, flat speakers generally suck in a real room. And while I like the finish (OK, the slate but not the tile), you may not. As always, the best advice is to audition them first, but when you do, it's worth bringing the checkbook along.
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