Odyssey Audio Nightingale Loudspeakers
by David Millman
These are the ideas I pondered and the questions I asked myself as I listened to the Nightingale speakers, the penultimate speaker in Odyssey Audio's lineup. For an explanation of what I learned, read on.
Klaus Bunge is an interesting man. Focused in his goals but completely unpretentious in his manner, the former historian and political scientist turned high-value-audio seller has boundless enthusiasm and a refreshing openness. Over the phone, Klaus answered every question with candor -- he is a man who has nothing to hide and a lot to share about the path that has led him to where he is now. Though there have been more than a few rough spots, the native of Germany has rebounded -- and grown.
Bunge has three principles that guide his selection of audio products: There must be emotion, a clear top end (no harshness or sibilance), and a big soundstage. Add direct-to-consumer pricing, long-term warranties (five years on speakers, 20 years on electronics) and a 30-day "no questions asked" money-back guarantee, and you have the cornerstones of Odyssey Audio's business plan.
Bunge began his loudspeaker program in earnest two years ago. He already had the German-made Lorelei in his portfolio and wanted to add speakers at lower price points. A friend told him about an exciting designer from Montreal named Alain Courteau, which was fortuitous given Klaus's problems finding affordable US-made gear and his personal aversion to the growing trend of sending audio manufacturing to China and Southeast Asia.
Though Klaus and Alain had never met, the speakers Alain presented had everything Klaus wanted, both sonically and aesthetically. According to Klaus, he and Alain had an agreement less than four hours after their first conversation. I asked Klaus what input he had into the Nightingales, and he said "none," that Alain's original designs were already thrilling. And, very important to Klaus, Alain Courteau is a tweaker and listener, meaning that he is constantly trying to improve his work and depends on his own ears for all important and final decisions.
The Odyssey Audio Nightingales fit neatly into Klaus's floorstanding lineup (there is also a bookshelf speaker and center-channel speaker available, both also designed by Courteau). Less than half the cost of the flagship Lorelei speakers, the Nightingales are still substantial, measuring 38"H x 6 1/2"W x 6 1/2"D and weighing 34 pounds. The Nightingales' stated sensitivity is 91dB, and they are a 4-ohm load. Their overall frequency range is given as 39Hz-25kHz.
The Nightingales have an unusual, rather attractive shape. The base plate is roughly in the shape of home plate (in baseball) and connects to the speaker via five cylindrical spikes. This gap allows for a downward firing port. Affecting the bass is the extra cabinet volume as a result of the speaker's bottom front baffle, which juts forward from the otherwise flat front. The three drivers are all housed in the top portion of the speaker, which continues the five-sided shape, minimizing standing waves and other hazards of conventional square-box designs.
The Nightingale is a two-and-a-half-way design with crossover points at 3000Hz and 150Hz. All drivers are sourced from Danish Sound Technologies (now merged with Tymphany), the same company that manufacturers Scan-Speak and VIFA drivers. There is a single 1" tweeter and two 5.8" woofers, aligned vertically, with the tweeter above the woofers. Grilles are simple and well integrated. I didn't find much difference with them on or off. Around back are high-quality binding posts suitable for biwiring, and I understand that these have been upgraded since I received the review samples. Klaus always recommends biwiring if possible, but I relied instead on the well-crafted jumpers that are thoughtfully included.
The Nightingales are available in several fine finishes, including a wide range of custom finishes. Klaus is justifiably proud of the cabinetry. It is first-rate in execution, which isn't so surprising when one finds out that Alain Courteau's cabinet builder works from a small shop using old-world tools and techniques. The overall look is slim and stylish, perfect in a variety of environments, including apartments with space issues.
All in all, there's a lot here for the $1295 USD asking price.
My review rig has been fairly consistent for a while now, with a Pioneer DVD-434 DVD player (ModWright modified) as a CD transport, Perpetual Technologies P-3A DAC (with Level II ModWright mods), a prototype ModWright tube preamp, a PS Audio HCA-2 amplifier (also with ModWright mods), and Vandersteen 1C speakers. Interconnects are Jena Labs Trios, with Mapleshade Clearview speaker cables also used. The digital cable is a Jena Labs Digi-Link. A Shunyata Research Hydra Model-6 feeds all electronics; it reaches the wall via a Shunyata Copperhead power cord. For this review, I also used the recently reviewed CR Developments Romulus integrated amp, a superb 35Wpc English tube unit. I put in some time with my old Rotel 985 BX integrated amp as well, so I could get another window on what the Nightingales might do.
No instruction manual shipped with the review pair of Nightingales, but one is available. The speakers are intended to be flexible in a wide range of rooms, so rather than dictate positioning, Klaus prefers that listeners experiment until they find their own ideal setup. I wound up with the speakers about five feet from the front wall and about three feet from the sides. Nearer to the corners quickly dulled the sound, a phenomenon I haven't experienced so dramatically before. I used very slight toe-in, which added the last touch of focus.
I can hear clearly now
Playing Donald Byrd's In Flight [Blue Note RVG 90842-2], I immediately noticed the beautiful top end of the Nightingales -- it's impossible not to. Byrd's soaring trumpet pushed straight out of the speakers in a virtual upward spiral. On a track like "Night Flower" (by Herbie Hancock, who plays on the session along with sax great Wayne Shorter, Butch Warren, and Billy Higgins -- a classic Blue Note backing quartet if ever there was one), I couldn't help but follow the sound of the trumpet as it moved towards the ceiling. This immediately reminded me of another great Byrd solo, on "Tania," the 18-minute lead track on Dexter Gordon's One Flight Up [Blue Note RVG 96505-2], so I pulled that CD out and turned the Nightingales loose. Once again, Byrd's trumpet was able to jump out of the speaker with energy and emotion.
As much as I enjoyed this and the listening sessions that followed, things got much better after 50 hours or so. Though I would never call the Nightingales etched or harsh, the treble clarity is startling -- and initially somewhat forward. In time, the rest of the picture filled in, and quite coherently. In fact, my last listening session featured yet another round with Kind of Blue [Sony/Legacy 64935-2], a recording I may never tire of. Miles Davis and John Coltrane are eternally amazing, but this time it was Jimmy Cobb's tastefully swinging trap drums that caught my attention. The deft trap workouts suddenly seemed so much more crucial to the overall presentation over the Nightingales, which called to mind John Bonham's epic Led Zeppelin work (the members of Zeppelin were right to break up the band when Bonham died).
Time after time I found myself pulling out many CDs to listen to, perhaps the surest sign of success for a loudspeaker -- or any piece of audio gear. One particular listening marathon found me digging up my Rodney Crowell Collection [Warner Bros. 25965-2], a somewhat slapdash look at the Houston-born singer/songwriter's more popular work. Crowell the singer and guitarist has been far eclipsed by the success of Crowell the songwriter. His songs often hit the charts in the hands of other artists (Bob Seger, Emmylou Harris, Juice Newton), so it's fun to hear him in such fine voice on his own. Through the Nightingales, it was a joy to hear the scorched emotional earth of "Ashes By Now," a "done me wrong" song you'd never want to know was written about you.
I expected that a speaker with such clarity might be very revealing of differences in various amplifiers, and in this case the answer was "sometimes." When using the Nightingales with the Romulus integrated amp, I didn't notice tremendous differences between it and my PS Audio/ModWright system. Both sounded good, and the changes didn't justify the time spent changing cables, for instance. However, when I tried the Rotel 985BX integrated amp, I was confronted by a definite mid-fi, solid-state character, consistent with the Rotel's design and price point. According to Klaus, the speakers may be sensitive, but they like "to be slapped around" by high-current designs, the higher the better. I'll take his word for it. In the meantime, I switched back to the PS Audio/ModWright system, which isn't shy about power and dynamics.
While the Nightingales are clear, extended, musical and involving, my only admonition is to think about what kind of bass you enjoy. If you want the really deep stuff, think seriously about adding a tight, fast, musical subwoofer. You'll still be in a very friendly price range. If you want to forego the sub, then audition these speakers carefully. The bass tends toward the lean side. Some speakers make you forget the size of the cabinet and drivers. These aren't those.
To calibrate myself, I pulled out my reviewing favorite, Kathryn Williams's Old Low Light [Caw/East West 0927-47552-2]. I've said it before and it's still true: The opening bass line on "Little Black Numbers" is a beautifully recorded ascending double-bass figure that packs a thick-finger wallop over the right equipment. The Nightingales delivered the clarity and nimbleness of the playing, but not the fullness of the instrument. So, while the emotion was maintained, some of the groove was missing. On other recordings that reach down, the Nightingales consistently presented a leaner picture.
At various times, I swapped in Vandersteen 1Cs ($785 per pair), a larger, less expensive two-way design that has served me well for ten years now. The sonic differences were obvious with every listen. The Vandersteens trade crystalline clarity for roundness and a bit more heft. For example, saxophones had purer tones through the Nightingales, but the 1Cs gave the instrument more body. Though the two speakers have similar frequency ranges and sensitivities, practical listening tells me that the Vandersteens reach lower depths, filling out the sound with greater natural weight, while the Nightingales have greater top-end extension.
I listen to a fair amount of '70s soul, especially those recordings with exceptional rhythm guitar, which is practically a lost art these days. If you dig up a track like the Maurice White-produced "Flowers" by the Emotions, from Best of My Love: the Best of The Emotions [Sony/Legacy 64823-2], you can't help but groove to Al McKay's tight playing -- once he's in the pocket, he ain't leaving. Prominent as it is, the Vandersteen 1Cs aren't able to spotlight the guitar in quite the way it deserves, much like an important painting deserves its own special lighting. No problem for the Nightingales.
Of course, whether or not this is a tradeoff you'd be willing to make is up to you, and probably depends on the equipment you have now, but the Nightingales provide exactly the kind of knife-through-butter sound that some listeners adore.
For the $1295 a pair that the Odyssey Nightingales cost, you get superb loudspeakers with fantastic clarity, a gorgeous slim design, and a gentleman named Klaus who takes customer service seriously. Assuming one isn't starting with a lean or overly analytical system, there's every chance that the Nightingales will give you a highly polished window into the music's soul. For full or partially tubed systems of good quality, these speakers just might be a bit of heaven. For solid-state or digital systems that have full, round qualities (rather than bright sound), these could also be good choices.
In the end, there's nothing to lose and a whole lot to gain by auditioning the Odyssey Audio Nightingales. Klaus will happily send you a pair for 30 days of evaluation, so what are you waiting for?
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