December 15, 2003
Duevel Venus Loudspeakers
Given a choice between a product of exceptional merit and one of magic, Ill take magic every time. While one can admire, appreciate, and respect an exceptional product, a magical one touches the soul. The Duevel Venus loudspeaker is neither perfect nor exceptional, but it is magical.
The Venus ($3995 USD per pair) is the smallest speaker in the Duevel line, all of which are omnidirectional. The larger Jupiter and Bella Luna models are partially horn-loaded as well; the Venus is ported but not horn-loaded. A great deal of technological sophistication and craftsmanship are apparent in every pair of Duevel loudspeakers. The fitnfinish is furniture-grade, and the overall look is distinctive and handsome, in a decidedly unconventional way.
The Venus measures a tad over 3 tall and is in three sections. Starting at the bottom, there is first the six-sided (to reduce internal standing waves) rear-ported bass enclosure, at the top of which is an 8" carbon-fiber woofer. The woofer fires up into a flying-saucer-shaped sound radiator of beautifully finished wood; this disperses the sound evenly over 360 degrees. The radiator is suspended on six narrow, cylindrical metal posts above the woofer, and sits closer to, but still a distance from, the soft-dome tweeter, which is connected to the radiator by another six posts and fires down into the radiator. The radiator is shaped slightly differently on top and bottom to reflect the differences in the soundwaves from woofer and tweeter. The Venuss impedance is listed as 4 ohms, its sensitivity as 88dB. Each speaker has a single pair of binding posts. Plastic they may be, but I found them a joy to use, with no apparent adverse sonic consequences. The speaker has rubber feet.
Ted Lindblad, Duevels exuberant and thoughtful importer, dropped off a pair of Venuses at my home in Connecticut. The speakers ultimate destination was my New York City apartment, for some long-term auditioning; I had neither the right space nor the right amps for them in Connecticut. Still, I couldnt resist hooking the Venuses up for a few days casual listening.
The two amps I had on hand were veritable Monsters of the Midway. In one corner sat the highly regarded Simaudio W-5, a dual-differential solid-state amp capable of outputting +300W into the Duevels 4-ohm load. The W-5 took a back seat in power, however, to the Innersound ESL 800 monoblock, which delivered a whopping 1200Wpc into the diminutive Venuses. Eyeballing the speakers, I figured them likely to be more at home in rooms about half to two thirds the size of my 30 x 18 x 9 family/listening room.
A few days casual listening? Not a chance. Even with the wrong amps in the wrong room, I found it hard to stop listening. I went to bed late at night, woke up early in the morning, stopped preparing for class -- or at least didnt prepare with quite the focus and attention students paying $35,000 annual tuition are entitled to. The book I was writing would have to wait as well. I wasnt just smitten, as if by a summer love -- I was seduced. I couldnt wait to get the Venuses into more suitable surroundings.
On Wednesday, I packed the speakers into the back of the minivan and headed down to the Big Apple. My son met me in the lobby of the apartment building, and in less than half an hour we had the Duevels set up in my living room, ready for a preliminary listening session.
We set them up on the hardwood floor as equipped -- no spikes or platforms, just the rubber feet -- and 4 from the front wall. The right speaker was 5 from the sidewall. The left speaker had no sidewall -- the living room opens into the front hall and the dining alcove. The main seating was the L-shaped couch, about 10 from the speakers, which were placed about 7 apart, measured from the centers of the mid-tweeters. The listening space itself is about 17 x 17 x 8, with the couch, a big chair, a large bookcase along the front wall, long and tall windows along one wall, lots of plants, and art on the walls -- a lively but nevertheless pretty well-balanced space with no intentional room treatment.
The rest of the system consisted of a Sony DVP-9000ES player used as a transport, feeding the Benchmark DAC 1 via Analysis Plus optical interconnect (eventually replaced by a variety of digital links). The DAC 1 was linked by Crystal Reference interconnects to a Counterpoint SA 5.0 preamp, this wired via Stealth CWS interconnects to tubed monoblock amplifiers built by Mark Pearson, which in turn drove the Venuses via the spectacularly good Stealth MLT Hybrid speaker cable. The 45Wpc generated by the Pearsons 1960-vintage Mullard EL34 tubes was more than enough for the Duevels.
My son wanted to head out for dinner, as is our weekly ritual when I arrive in town. A young musician and writer, hes always hungry -- as much a matter of principle as of fact. I resisted, but I wanted him to stick around -- he has a great ear, broad musical taste, and a natural skepticism of audiophilia, no doubt inspired by watching his father suffer through 20 years of the disease. We struck a deal: He would listen for an hour or so, give me his initial impression, and then Id take him out to a dinner of his choice.
We sat down, expecting to spend an hour or so fine-tuning the Duevels placement. In fact, the only time either of us left the couch was to change CDs. Two hours later, I ordered takeout. Four hours after that, well past midnight -- and well past the limits of my neighbors patience (as I found out the next day) -- we called it quits.
Different kinds of speakers present music differently, but nothing is quite like an omnidirectional design. Through the Venuses, I connected completely with the music in an altogether personal way -- yet, because it was an omnidirectional speaker, that experience could be shared by other people in any number of other locations in the room. Thats one of the knocks against omnidirectional speakers: Critics charge that one consequence of the sound being reflected and projected equally in all directions is that the enormous soundstage comes at the high price of diffuse and unstable imaging.
But the Duevels imaging was well-delineated and stable. "Conference of the Birds," from Dave Hollands landmark album of the same name [ECM 1027], involves a series of sounds emanating from all over the soundstage. The sounds are often sharp, quick punctuations of varying pitch -- a dialogue of disparate ideas that ultimately come together in a unified whole. These bursts -- each a short, well-structured musical sentence -- were rendered flawlessly in tone by the Duevels, and in precise spatial location and relationship with one another, with no discernible image drift or instability.
A word about precision: In one sense, a precise image is one stably located within the overall soundstage. In another, precise refers to the sharpness of the outlines of particular images -- the "outlines" around instruments, voices, or performers. This kind of precise imaging is the special province of certain minimonitors and audiophile-approved full-range speakers. Speakers that project unstable images are much worse than those that dont image at all -- unstable images move randomly across the stage, rendering the entire experience incoherent rather than merely inadequately reconstructed. Image stability is a condition of coherence, and coherence is a requirement of a natural portrayal of the music.
Sharply delineated images are a different matter. They are arguably hi-fi artifacts, and are preferred by many audiophiles as the mark of a high-resolution playback system. In my book, far from being the signature of a high-resolution loudspeaker, sharply etched images betray a failure of resolution.
The sonic picture portrayed by an image sharply focused in space omits the information between the performers -- exactly the information that connects the performers to one another, that makes a performance continuous. This is the information that allows us to distinguish between musicians playing together and those merely playing simultaneously -- alongside one another.
Music reproduced with knife-edged precision fails to move me because I can neither hear nor reconstruct its organic wholeness. Those who crave this sort of imaging replace the sonic experience with a visual one; some may even confuse the latter with the former.
The Duevel Venuses created fully palpable, three-dimensional, completely stable soundstages that were appropriate to the music being played. Bill Evans famous piano trio, caught live at the Village Vanguard on both vinyl and aluminum, doesnt occupy space in the soundstage as do the full cast and orchestra of the original recording of the "Youll Never Walk Alone" reprise of Rodgers and Hammersteins Carousel [MCA-10048]. But in both cases the sound was alive and natural through the Duevels, the spatial relations among performers stable and appropriately sized and rendered. On the other hand, those looking for minimonitor precision in imaging need to look elsewhere. The Duevel Venus presented the music naturally, not surgically.
Ideally, the spatial and reverberant cues of the original recording session are picked up by the recording microphones, and that information is recorded on the master tape. According to conventional wisdom, the preferred playback system would be one that took the impact of the listeners room completely out of the equation. Adding that room to the reproduction chain can only distort the presentation of the information captured on the tape.
This implies that the ideal reproducer of the original spatial information would be a pair of headphones. The second-best alternative would be a completely directional loudspeaker system. From this perspective, an omnidirectional speaker might well qualify as the least desirable music transducer, for the one thing all omnidirectional loudspeakers do is bring the room into play as a greater part of the reproduction system.
Advocates of omnidirectional loudspeakers consider that a strength, not a weakness; in their view, its what makes music via omnis sound so naturally rendered. In one view, omnis are more natural because they re-create music in the way instruments themselves create it. The problem with this explanation is that omnis radiate music equally in all directions; instruments, typically, do not.
More plausible is the view that there is no denying that the room is part of the typical listening experience, and that taking the room out of the music playback system leaves any listening experience flat, impersonal, uninvolving, and unnatural. From this perspective, the music system is not merely a transmitter of performance but another performer itself, and the listener is part of the audience of that performers performance. And that performance is alive and involving only if it presents the music to the listener as music does -- by interacting with the room.
The Duevel Venus should be a terrific speaker for individuals with challenging rooms because it proved extremely responsive to placement. In my living room, if I moved the speakers 6 or 8 away from the front wall, the soundstage became more open and spacious than any in my experience. But the sound was also more ethereal than tangible. There just werent enough room reflections to flesh out the midrange.
Moving the Duevels to about 2 from the front wall increased the fundamentals tremendously, and the Venuses coupled better with one another. The images were more fully fleshed out, bass was just as good, and the soundstage, while still far larger and more open than any other in my experience, was smaller than it was with the speakers well out into the room.
When I moved the speakers farther apart, the soundstage increased but images were, again, less tangible. When I moved them to their final positions, about 7 from each other and 4 from the front wall, everything locked in. The point is not that the speakers were difficult to set up. Quite the contrary: Because the Venus was so responsive to change, it was easy to set up. There were several places in the room in which it sounded tonally and spatially right. It was less finicky than flexible.
Beyond the Venuses incredible spatial properties, which were so extraordinary that I couldnt help but take notice of them every time I played music, their most striking feature was their refinement. This was an extremely nuanced and subtle speaker that simply sounded right. The music was always proper and well-mannered, never stuffy or smug.
Like all speakers, the Venus is a balancing act: a full-range loudspeaker with a surprisingly good bottom end. In my apartment living room it was able to reproduce frequencies down to the mid-30Hz area. There was not a lot of energy real low, however; I wouldnt count on the Venus to satisfactorily reproduce fundamentals much below 40Hz.
Still, the bass notes that introduce "I Love You," on Daniel Lanois Shine [Arti 86661-2], as well as the bass line that carries the song throughout, were rendered fully, with adequate weight and appropriate decay on the back ends of the notes. On the other hand, I wouldnt buy the Venus if I had a hankering for pipe-organ music. For that, one might have to go a bit further up the Duevel chain -- perhaps all the way to the $16,000/pair Jupiters.
In my experience, a "lean" sound is often the result of a recessed midbass. This is an especially tricky range for a speaker to reproduce correctly, but its absolutely crucial to any speakers success. Insufficient weight in the midbass leads to a lean sound. On the other hand, too much weight and the speaker comes off as sluggish. Worse, overhang adversely affects midrange purity and naturalness. The sound smears; male voices, for example, come across as a bit too chesty.
In my recent experience, only the Magneplanar 3.6R, properly driven, surpasses the Duevels way with the lower midrange/upper bass. Taken together, the Venuss lower midrange and bass created a wonderful foundation, on which rested the remainder of the presentation.
The midrange was simply captivating -- I dont know that I have heard a more natural one. In this area, even the mighty Maggies didnt surpass the Duevels. Some recordings that tend toward hardness in the upper midrange benefit from the Duevels way with midrange. Norah Jones multi-Grammy-winning effort (Come Away with Me [Blue Note 41747]) is remarkable for its music, but the recording lets her down every now and again as her voice hardens on some cuts. Not through the Duevel, however.
The Duevel took the edge off some less-than-ideal recordings, and in that sense was a "forgiving" loudspeaker, and a bit like Magneplanars. Both reveal the musical truth, even if that means not telling the whole truth. On the other hand, they dont lie -- they just dont expose all the warts to see where the truth lies. Surely, thats right.
The upper frequencies were spot on, but limited in ultimate extension and energy. The shimmer of the hi-hat came on quickly and decayed slowly into space. The decay, moreover, was not so much into blackness as into air.
Again, while not shelved-down or rolled-off, the highs were not as extended through the Venus as they are through the Morel tweeter of the Green Mountain Audio Continuum 1.5i, which had been my dynamic loudspeaker reference. This was evident on John Coltranes saxophone, on various versions I played of My Favorite Things [CD, Atlantic SD-1361-2]. The leading edge of the sax was just right, and the speaker conveyed the body of the instrument completely. There was no denying, however, that overtone information was more limited. That was also the judgment of a friend, a professional saxophonist who knows firsthand what Coltranes horn sounded like.
As I said, the Duevel Venus was something of a balancing act. It did not plumb the depths, nor did it provide high-frequency energy into the stratosphere.
I dont recommend mating the Duevel with a subwoofer or supertweeter in hopes of extending its performance in either direction. The Venus is so incredibly well-balanced that any effort to expand its range is likely to muck things up for very little potential payoff.
In addition to being a bit limited at the frequency extremes, the Duevel is moderately dynamic -- you wont be showing it off to your friends because of its way with funk. On the other hand, I listen to a lot of live music, especially live electronic music, and the bass slam that audiophiles want from their speakers is not quite what I hear in live music.
The Duevels revealed a consistent dynamic character. The dynamics of the midrange, where so many planars and electrostatics fall short, were not only very good, but completely of a piece with the dynamics of the bottom end. All of this contributed to the speakers incredible naturalness and coherence.
I want a music-reproduction system that makes me want to play and enjoy more, not less, of my music. Within the limitations of its frequency range, the Duevel Venus not only allowed me to play and enjoy the full range of the music I love, it continually prodded me to do so. The sound was transparent but not crystalline. If you want to use your loudspeakers as scientific tools, look for something more "ruthlessly revealing."
Unconsciously, perhaps, too many audiophiles end up playing just a handful of their favorite recordings. The chosen discs more often than not do not start out as favorite recordings, but become so because they sound good on the audiophiles system. Fine, but what about the rest of their music? Sure, theyll listen to it in the car or at the office or on an iPod, but not on their $20,000 home audio system. When this happens, something has gone awry.
It may be permissible for an audio retailer to play the same 10 cuts 300 times a day to show off a systems strengths, but its not okay for a music lover. If the aim is to listen to music that sounds good on a system, why not just cue up Cheskys Ultimate Demonstration Disc [Chesky UD095] and hit Repeat? It always sounds good.
I listened to the Duevel Venus driven by a wide array of amplifiers, from the Innersound ESL 800s to the Simaudio W-5 to the mbl 8011 to my custom 45W tube amps. The Venus stood up well to them all, and was responsive to each. The Innersound gave the speaker a lightning-fast, more dynamic presentation; the Simaudio gave it full-bodied comfort; the mbl added a subwoofer to the sound, while displaying a refined exterior but an excitable hidden nature; and the tube amps gave the Duevel body, weight, harmonic completeness, and an altogether natural way with the music.
If you like music and you have an open mind, you may well fall in love with the Duevel Venus. It makes music -- not only in a way that will seduce the music lover, but also in ways that can please more than a handful of them, at the same time and in the same room. How does it do that? As the man said, "Its magic."
Duevel Venus Loudspeakers
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