There is a perplexing and occasionally bizarre dichotomy that exists at the heart of audio fashion and, by extension (or perhaps as a result of) reviewing. The products that get the most attention seem to fall into two opposing camps: those that are (or claim to be) so cutting-edge that they risk injuring themselves or anybody coming into contact with them, and those that rely on some obsolescent (and preferably unobtainable) technology or component. Barely a month goes by without some new, all-conquering plasma coating or NOS tube being touted as the latest big thing. But while marketing men and manufacturers alike, love to love a silver bullet solution, more often than not it’s those products that stand astride the middle ground of proven technology and established engineering that actually deliver the most balanced performance and the greatest musical satisfaction – and in no part of the market is this more obvious than loudspeakers.
At first glance, the latest models from Vienna Acoustics, the very essence of a company with a “ploughing their own furrow, established technology, gradual evolutionary” approach to product development, might appear to have made a grab for the tail-board of the latest passing band-wagon – what with their talk of “composite-cone” drivers. But for once, the oft-used (and almost as often misused) description is as accurate in the engineering sense as the benefits are real in the musical sense. With not a potential poisonous metal, diamond coating, ceramic cone or carbon-fibre in sight, Vienna Acoustics have, nonetheless, managed to advance the performance of their in-house drivers significantly. Also, they have hiked the performance bar in what is arguably the most competitive area of the audio market as a whole. Meet the Beethoven References, speakers that 250 years after their namesake’s birth could (and probably should) do to the world of mid-priced, floorstanding loudspeakers what he did to classical music.
Amidst all the marketing, mechanical and materials mayhem, Vienna Acoustics has long been an island of reliable if singular sanity. Their designs have always been long on proven approaches and carefully chosen materials, cost-effective construction and niceties that actually matter – factors that combine to create finished products that offer performance that’s as exceptional and deliverable as the fit and finish is understated and remarkable for the price. But even by their exacting standards, Vienna’s latest offerings are more than just a little bit special. The fact that they embody a (slightly tongue in cheek) sideswipe at their more technologically ostentatious or constipated brethren broadens the smile they bring to this listener’s face. The term “composite” might conjure images of carbon-fibre and stealth fighters, but in engineering terms it’s a far more broad-based concept than that. A composite construction is one that employs more than one material, be that steel-reinforced concrete or glass fibre – the end-product extending the mechanical properties of the individual elements involved – the very essence of the whole exceeding the sum of its parts. When Vienna Acoustics dubbed their latest driver construction as composite, they were being almost prosaically accurate, the driver’s diaphragm combining two distinct materials to achieve a single goal.
Vienna is one of the few companies still working with modified polypropylene compounds for their bass and mid units. It might be deeply unfashionable these days, but nobody said that fashion makes sense, and in this case, it ignores both the physical and mechanical advantages of the material. By carefully selecting additives, a designer can stiffen or damp the polymer, a physical quality reinforced by the ability to mould it into complex shapes. Combine that with advanced FEA techniques, and you’ve got a highly tuneable material with which to work. Several years ago, Vienna introduced their new X3P formulation and used it to create coincident, treble/midrange drivers for their flagship designs. These used silk dome tweeters surrounded by flat diaphragms, stiffened with carefully profiled, radial buttresses, visible through the clear plastic faces, an arrangement that eliminated many of the acoustic and phase related issues that bedevil more traditional coincident designs.
The drivers in the Beethovens take things a further, generational step forwards, introducing flat “spider cones” moulded from the latest X4P polymer compound into both mid and bass units for use in the company’s more affordable speakers, where they are paired with their established 28mm coated silk dome tweeter. Just how clever these drivers are can be seen in the complex profiling of those buttresses, whose depth, shape and thickness is frequency specific to the driver’s purpose, engineered to create a perfectly even, phase-coherent impulse response across the entire surface. Having three dimensions to work in (rather than just the profile and thickness of a cone), allows for remarkable manipulation of the mechanical characteristics of the diaphragm and, just as importantly, the precision and repeatability with which its output and roll-off can be controlled.