Dali Grand Loudspeakers
by Ken Micallef
The introduction of a new component to one's hi-fi system usually entails blood, sweat, and afterwards a couple beers -- particularly if you live as I do, in a small Manhattan walk-up apartment. When Gunnar Ek, Dali's US managing director, arrived on my Greenwich Village street, he was instantly excited about the possibilities of finding his own square foot of Manhattan soilent green to inhabit. Me? I was just wondering how we were going to get the teenager-sized Dali Grands up my building's rickety 19th-Century staircase.
Measuring 16 1/4"Dx11"Wx46 1/2"H with spikes, the Dali Grands weigh in at a beefy 99 pounds each and cost $4522 USD per pair. As I wheezed around the second-floor bend, Gunnar wasn't even breaking a sweat. Must be either that hardy Danish weather or the comprehensive health-care system. Once inside my place, we unloaded the speakers and I was instantly taken with their fine cherry-brown frames. These are gorgeous speakers. The Grand's corners are "chamfered," or sculpted, 30 degrees, "reducing the level of influence from diffraction," Dali's European managing director, Lars Worre, informed me later. The Dali's front edges and accompanying foam grilles, are also sleekly contoured, making the speakers look a bit like a svelte supermodel. The visual effect recalls an hourglass sloping from 9 1/2" to 8 1/2" at its crown, then moving slightly outward to 9" at mid-cabinet, expanding gently as you go down to 9 1/2", (just like the bodacious booty of Tyra Banks!). Worre on the hourglass design: "[The chamfered front edges] are where the most important sound improvement is caused by the increased variation in distance from the driver's centers to the particular baffle edge at any vertical position." OK...these are beautiful speakers. Like those Danish women we hear so much about, the Dali Grands are regal in bearing, a majestic delight to look at. But as with the best genetic engineering, Dali didn't come this far on lust (or looks) alone.
Though not well-known in the US, Dali is one of the most revered loudspeaker manufacturers in Europe. Founded in 1983 by former employees of Denmark's Hi-Fi Klub retail chain, the company bought -- on credit -- some of the most sophisticated computer technology and measuring equipment of the day, and capitalized on both the Scandinavian tradition of fine furniture making and the Danish academic tradition of research in the acoustic sciences. Expanding from a small furniture plant, Dali (part of the TacT group, partially owned by NAD, who produces the Millennium digital amp) now resides in their current 18,000 square-foot location in Denmark's North Jutland region. All cabinet production, loudspeaker testing, R&D, and crossover assembly is done in-house. Fine fact: DALI uses no assembly lines, but rather two-person work crews. Each duo individually assembles, tests and packs every speaker!
Back in the Manhattan, I wrestled the Grands into my smallish living room, (15'Lx10'Wx8'H) biwring them via the flush-mounted, gold-plated, copper terminals on the bottom of the cabinets. I currently own a pair of JMlab Daline 6.1s, which I love. Before the Dalines, I went through some fine bookshelf speakers: Epos ES-14s, B&W 805s and 602s, some smokin' little Tannoy M1s, and assorted Monitor Audio speakers. My rig, assembled from much dillying and dallying: Muse Model 2 DAC, Theta Data II transport (with TLC), Audio Note M2 preamp (with Tungsol 6SN7 tubes), Cary SLA-70 Signature Amp (65Wpc, modified by Cary, using Teslovak KT88s, RCA 5AR4s and 5691s), Thorens TD 166 turntable with Sumiko Blue Point Special cartridge, Rotel RQ-970BX phono section, all wired up with JPS Labs Superconductor interconnect and speaker cable, Synergistic and Cardas power cords. Everything sits atop a Standesign rack. I have all the Seismic Sinks (anybody checked the Mana tables yet?), BDR points, DH Cones, sand bags, Foculpads, tube jackets, and multitudinous rubber feet one man can stand. While these sundry goods definitely deliver improvements, collecting the stuff can drive you nuts. I got off the audio nut train -- now I listen to music.
I am no budding speaker designer or technical kind-a guy. I write about music for a living, though, and I was a jazz drummer for many years. I live with my system, day in, day out. And like you probably, I own so many back issues of stereo mags that my closets are a dangerous place. Self-education is a wonderful thang.
The Dali Grand is a bass reflex system with two rear-mounted 3" ports (tuned to 27.5Hz) whose placement roughly corresponds with the unit's two 8" woofers, which operate in parallel. A 1" silk-dome tweeter is sandwiched, D'Appolito style, between two 5" midrange drivers. Dali's custom-built drivers are made of coated and doped fiber-reinforced pulp materials, and have rubber surrounds. Rated frequency response is 33Hz-27kHz, and sensitivity is 90dB at 4 ohms. The Grand is extensively cross-braced; the tweeter-midrange unit is enclosed in an asymmetrical chamber, and the woofers are separated by side-to-side and front-to-back internal bracing to reduce standing waves. Dali uses 22mm MDF throughout, damped with bitumen. They also -- check this out -- apply veneer to both sides of the MDF panel, to "cancel out stress and provide additional reinforcement." Dali's Grand crossover employs a combination of iron powder and air-core inductors, and is soldered by hand. Dali literature states that their crossover aids in achieving "linear directivity, allowing listeners to experience high-quality sound without having to sit in the hot seat." I found this to be true.
Since the Grands arent light, it's hard to move them around in the listening room. Dali suggests you not toe-in the Grands but position them to fire absolutely forward. The first thing that struck me after powering up the Grands was that they are laid-back and require some juice to really get cooking. That opinion never changed. I prefer up-front and finely detailed sound to slow and smooth, but then the Grand's larger woofers (8") were bound to sound a little slow in comparison to the smaller Dalines (6"). I also felt the Grands were lacking in absolute, ultimate transparency. But these were initial impressions. After living with them for over three months, I can easily say the Grands are amazing, even holographic-sounding speakers. The ease with which they handle everything from hard rock to classical to jazz to electronica, and their characteristic habit of disappearing, is almost like having no speakers at all. Who would have thought that Tom Petty and Pat Metheny could fit into my tiny apartment, gear and all!
Let the games begin
Tom Petty's "It's Good to be King" (Wildfowers [Warners 93624-5759-2]) is a fat, lush recording with lots of lone piano notes, thick bass and snapping drums. Drummer Steve Ferrone's toms imaged wonderfully, punchily rolling from right to left. During the prickly guitar solo, Ferrone's cymbals and snare were so lifelike I could hear the different spots he struck on the cymbal bell and the full decay of each cymbal crash. Throughout the track, strings swirl around the mix, each viola, violin and cello clearly distinguishable over a circling piano riff. Bass was warm and growling, almost too rich. All in all, you feel like you're in the studio with the boys, crawling around the players as they go about their work.
For layering and soundstaging, I find Pat Metheny Group's Imaginary Day [Warners 9362-46791-2] to be revealing. A detailed production full of shimmering synths, brilliant drums and percussion, and, of course, Metheny's varied guitar and synth palettes, the CD demands a lot from a pair of speakers. On "Follow Me," there are two snare drums being played simultaneously, but it's hard to tell. With the Grands, the snares project crisply, almost flaming at times. Steve Rodby's acoustic bass is also served well, sounding full and tremendously rich. You can feel and hear each string being plucked.
For me, a great pair of speakers not only reveals all the musical detail, but the space the music was recorded in, the actual sound of the room and acoustic delay of each note. The Grands render all of this easily. Granted, the Grands make everything sound good, which is fine by me. Moving on to Frank Zappa's The Yellow Shark [Rykodisc RCD 40560], "Dog Breath Variations" is full of the late composer's trademark complicated time signatures and rollicking marimba parts. Trumpets and glockenspiel also double bubbling figures, temple blocks chirp, a harp glissandos, and all is set in warm exacting relief by the Grands, as are the booming concert bass and snare drums. Again, everything sounds extremely natural, nice and easy and well-focused within a broad soundstage, if a bit on the warm side.
On Michael Brecker's "Nothing Personal" (from his Impulse! self-titled debut [MCAD-5980]), the sound is perfect NYC studio jazz, very open -- you can almost hear the wood walls reverberating. I cranked it. Screw the neighbors. You can hear Jack DeJohnette's drums ringing across the mix, though headquartered in the right channel. Pat Metheny's guitar solo enters in a ghostly, deep-toned style, adding more weight over Charlie Haden's transparent, forceful-sounding bass. Breckers solo charges over it all. Even on this mid-80s CD, the sound is ripe, punchy , and rich. And very dynamic.
On the other side of the sonic spectrum, the Chemical Brother's Exit Planet Dust [Astralwerks ASW6157-2] is a lesson in pounding synth bass and sampled funk drum loops, its increased dynamic range and heavy studio production effects demanding much more from a speaker. Dive-bomb squeals, big hall drum sounds, weird stereo panning of voice, this record is a monster and a hell of a lot of fun. The Grands gloried in all the high-end spark and low-end rumble, no matter how hard I pumped them. There is no room sound or ambience here to speak of, just in-your-face boogie. From the piercing high-hat notes to the growling Larry Graham-styled bass warbles, the Grands proved they are a speaker for all musical seasons.
What its all about
Nobody will accuse the Grands of being ruthlessly revealing; instead they offer a naturally warm and well-focused sound redolent with recorded space. Although the Grands require a bit of power to get up and jump, they worked well with my 60Wpc Cary tube amp. I suspect, however, that a beefy solid-state amp may get even more from them.
At $4522 USD per pair, the Dali Grands are not cheap, but you get beautiful looks and sound for your money. I played music louder than I should have and had a hell of a good time hearing some of my previously well-known discs anew. And this kind of excitement is what its all about.
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