The Vince Christian, Ltd. E6 Speaker System
The Vince Christian, Ltd. E6 Speaker System
Effortless Precision: A Pro's Point of View
9 November 2001
E6 Studio Deluxe (MTM satellite) sensitivity: 92.5db
Frequency response: 65Hz to 18kHz (-3db)
Crossover topography: series
Crossover frequency: 8.2kHz
Impedance: 6-ohm nominal 4-ohm minimum (200Hz-600Hz)
Dimensions: 30" H × 7.75" W × 8.75" D
Net weight: 32 pounds
Price: $3200 in modern gray; $4000 in white pearl or piano black
B12WP Bass Cube (subwoofer) sensitivity: 90db
Frequency response: continuously variable 24 Hz to 90 Hz (active second order low pass filter) Right, left, and center inputs
12" acoustic suspension driver with 150 watt RMS dedicated amplifier
Dimensions: 13.75" H × 13.75" W × 14.25" D
Net weight: 52 pounds
Price: $2300 in modern grey; $2700 in white pearl or piano black
The search for affordable, truly accurate yet exquisitely musical monitor speakers is, it seems, quite possibly futile. Reviewers are aware of the discomfort involved in such a quest. Home audio enthusiasts frequently swap out speakers, big and small, looking for greater degrees of musical pleasure and sonic definition. Recording and mastering engineers are always at the mercy of the monitors they use for their work. For most, the idea of a monitor speaker system does not invoke the idea of musicality. Traditional "monitor-grade" speakers celebrate accuracy. Musical charm is usually an after thought or, in fact, an exiled extravagance.
Price becomes a practical consideration as well. What are you willing to pay to get precisely delivered, gorgeously rendered musical information? How many time-intensive listening sessions to a never-ending stream of new speakers does it take to curtail all hope that a relatively modest price is not utterly at odds with musical magnificence devoted (sublimely, iconoclastically) to genuine sonic truthfulness?
Whatever the number, a reviewer's well-earned skepticism stands on guard as a permanent sobering agent. Experience is a wary partner. The notion of affordable but "musical" and "accurate" monitors may be illusory.
Perhaps not, depending upon how you understand the relationship between "musical magnificence" and "sonic truthfulness." Depending, as well, upon the ratio you form between price and performance.
Experience -- with sound, with music, with speakers (and other sound reproducing instruments) -- often charts a course between optimism and despair. Audio experience is derived from engagement with products that sometimes are counter-intuitive. The reviewer's task, like the audio enthusiast's, is quite literally never complete.
Therefore, with joy and surprise one comes across high-performance monitor-grade speakers that can be seen as modestly priced relative to the audio market but not modest in their ability to engage the ear and heart and mind. In this convergence of a relative value (price) with an absolute value (sonic superiority), we must remember that musical seduction is not an audible experience alone. Musical seduction, the result of great music in the arms of sonic magnificence, is a deeply emotional and (sometimes) intellectual event.
One has a limited vocabulary to portray such an event. It is powerfully real. It is also to some degree transcendent, utterly beyond ordinary reality: a potentially transformative experience.
I will leave it to others (and to another occasion) to look at what is at work in such moments of musical magic. Here, for this report, let me point to an emerging contender for that elusive, prized audio object, a sonically coherent, musically seductive yet (relatively) modestly priced speaker system.
The Vince Christian, Ltd. E6 speaker system (which includes the 12" bass cube subwoofer) has been evolving through numerous incarnations for several years. Its designer's tenacious refinements have now culminated, it seems, in a long sought if painstakingly garnered success. The E6 speaker system is ready for prime time markets.
I first encountered Vince Christian's demonic little speakers in 1997 at an audio show in the St. Francis Hotel in San Francisco. At first glance, they are unremarkable. When you come across this three-piece system, it does not jolt you with an avant-garde space-age look. Visually, these speakers are almost self-effacing: industrial-strength enamel grey; self-confident classic lines. At first glance, you feel as if you've seen this speaker all your life.
Christian's exterior speaker design is low-keyed and unprepossessing. With considered reserve and aplomb, it stands its ground without fanfare or protest. The understated cosmetic surface of the satellites and subwoofer make them easy to accommodate in a wide variety of domestic and listening environments. There is nothing visually eccentric about this system. None of your domestic partners will rebel when you install these beautifully unpretentious music-makers. They look good in each of their basic colors (polished grey, pearl white, and piano black). They sound better than good.
The satellites work at a nominal 6-ohm impedance, dropping to a 4-ohm load below 600Hz. They are contoured with a frequency response from 65Hz to 18kHz and are rated at a 92.5 dB sensitivity. Those values have been well chosen. They play perfectly into the acoustical pleasure of this system's marvelous musical devisings.
Two immediate sonic characteristics are evident once the system is broken in. First, the integration that can be achieved between the satellites and a single proprietary subwoofer is remarkable and surprisingly easy to attain. Such integration is not an event one takes for granted. As any dogged reviewer and most steadfast audiophiles know, bottom end sonic resolution is one of the irritating quests that hinders the listening enterprise. Christian's subwoofer design allows welcome flexibility in establishing both frequency and dynamic integration. Arriving at such integration is not difficult or improbable. The Christian, Ltd. bass cube is genuinely user friendly. Throughout this review period, I have been impressed by the rationality of its continuously variable dynamic (volume) and low pass controls and by the simplicity of locking the three-piece system into revealing musical coherence. Such savvy design is not to be overlooked.
Second, that coherence emerges at ease at loud volumes as well as at a whisper. Such differentiation is a good test of any speaker system's ability to enchant the ear while delivering musical truth. Can a system accurately portray subtle details of soundstaging as well as a high resolution of vocal, instrumental, and ambient musical life at a wide variety of volume settings?
The Vince Christian Ltd. system does. Better yet, the vivid truth of music fed to this beautifully coherent speaker system does not become a victim of false or "enhanced" sonic grandeur. The slight degree of top end roll off (minus 3db at 18kHz) does not diminish its detailed sonic reproduction. In fact, the virtue of this mighty, not in the least bulky, three-piece system is no doubt earned by the designer's insistence upon getting the mid-range frequencies right. This brings the full sonic spectrum to a stunning (if, also, relaxed) and seamless coherence … as if the speaker's focal point were calibrated to a well-tuned piano's middle-C and to the human voice, which is that calibration's most perfect but demanding indicator. Many speaker systems, it seems to me, seek grandeur at the expense of a living, breathing human (and musical) vivacity. The impressive outcome of such inflation can sometimes be arresting -- and arrestingly etched in a momentarily enchanting, but false, sonic Technicolor.
Such systems tire the ear and fray one's attention. And so it has seemed to me for a long while that, at its most trustworthy, a studio-monitor set up -- and the Christian, Ltd. speaker system is a sophisticated version of such -- establishes a defining sonic standard. That of the reproduction of a real human voice in real space just as that voice actually sounds in an unobtrusive ambient environment.
Such a standard is elusive but possible to attain. Yet any search for an absolute audio value is somewhat askew because all recording environments worthy of use as engaging reinforcements of real instruments and actual singers inevitably color (by some degree) what is recorded. That is why, among other reasons, I continue to believe that live "on location" recordings make not only the most interesting approaches to the "actual sound" of real music performed without artificial sonic contouring. Live recordings also capture what gifted musicians do at their most artistically inventive and spontaneously imaginative peaks of inspiration.
Isn't that what we seek from music: inspiration, beauty, surprise, and a sense of an irreproducible but (serendipitously captured) permanent moment of aesthetic magic?
When live "on location" recordings are delivered to the Christian system, one begins to hear their special quality . . . the speakers' openness and relaxation as well as the sonic tactility of such recordings. On the Christian set up, the voice of a singer is THERE before you. It has no veil or sheen or slight recessive coyness. Nor does it pop forward with harsh, self-centered energy. A surrounding instrumental ensemble presents itself with no less credibility. The entire group appears as just that: live musicians together on a bandstand, close to one another as a working unit.
Recorded properly, one should hear (and feel) spatial depth that suffuses the whole. Reproduced accurately, such depth is an unmistakable element of the musical performance. Turn the volume up or down. Listen closely. The singer is an actual presence before you, a voice and body wholly rendered. She relents. Applause. Her saxophonist's guttural wheeze explodes like cement crashing from unfathomable heights. Just right. Small-scale echoes of the sonically undamped musical enclave -- a jazz club late at night, its throng abuzz, ambient sounds reverberant -- ring like cherubs in the rafters... all of it haunting, complex, and vividly real. Simultaneously, the stage and its players stand in the undimmed light of audio visibility, proud, self-confident.
The palpable eccentricity of such a stage is only "there" in sound -- a product of multiple nearly inaudible sonic cues that add into an amassed sense of something real, ongoing, still expansive with the raspy trace of human life. Well captured, well reproduced, the illusion holds. That bandstand sits before you, undismissable and wholly imaginable.
You cannot escape the tug of such graphically recreated performative space. There is something magical about its aesthetic physicality, the reappearance of a long lost musical event. How many recordings truly place you in such a vivid, unalterable location? When you find one, how many audio systems put you there, fully within it? How many more or less modestly priced speaker systems deliver radical access to such magical moments?
It is all a matter of degree. It is all an illusion, a gorgeous and emotionally satisfying illusion. Nonetheless, succumbing to it without choice, sitting in your studio, the audience is there immediately with you, hovering near . . . you a solitary figure among absent (somehow present) others. You are somewhere else (Birdland in New York). You are in your audio den, Los Angeles, Barcelona, Hong Kong or Tangiers.
Music perseveres despite location. Live music captured well perseveres the most. Your singularity remains. You are the focus of the drama within the surrounding whole -- music, people, sound, unfolding events all relaxed or surging around you. A coke bottle is kicked over. It so close, so vividly disruptive, it makes you jump though you've heard that bottle drop and bounce without damage many times before. The clanging bottle is part of the fun, part of the illusion and the closeness you feel.
For anyone hooked on the deepest experience of sound, on music caught in real performative space, this illusion cannot be muffled. It is immediate and emotionally engaging. But a slight perplexity dogs the experience. How could such sonic vivacity exist? How can one be so close to the reality of an event no longer real? How can one be so immersed in this almost nothingness defined alone by lyric force and beauty? The music erupts into an audience you were never part of and yet now sit within. The whole "live" (recorded) musical environment buzzes with unfettered freedom, the outcropping of artistic devotion, personal energy, friendship and alcohol, collective witness, onstage enthusiasm, and the moment's madness.
In some sense the experience is mad with cheerful disregard for its own improbability. Well-recorded live music carries exceptional sonic energy without in any way diminishing the force and beauty, the delicacy or shock, of the music it delivers. The trick, with such a complex three-dimensional recording before you (and all around), is to hear it portrayed AS IF it is palpable and real. When such musical and ambient information is available to be heard, one wants to hear it. Two channels well situated can astonish you. Push further. Five channels, six. Find an appropriate ambient balance among them. So much depends upon the ability of the speakers that reproduce the entire, unique event. . . two channels or more, for better or worse.
I'm aware that the idea of a "studio monitor" speaker set up does not hold the exotic appeal that monstrous transducers, the season's newest Boffo Grand Canyon Speaker System, carry with them. Larger is not necessarily better in the world of sound. Many are certain that musical joy, musical truth, resides only with big speakers. That is an American habit, perhaps. Our greatest novel, MOBY DICK, is after all a monstrous tale presented on a vast and turbulent seascape, a deliberately sprawling narrative with eloquence that approaches Milton and Shakespeare. Greatness is demanding. Forgive such excess where it is appropriate.
When you hear how enchanting a superior monitor set up can be, how detailed and revealing of previously unheard sonic nuances, you may start your trek toward audio nirvana once more. A monitor system has the advantage of delivering sound that interacts less with its surroundings -- your own room -- and, thus, it has the advantage of delivering sound and music without reflections and distortions that add immediate environmental drama (the fragile joy of hearing where you are seated, an illusion-breaking intrusion) while subtracting sonic truthfulness and musical seduction.
It may not be the case that Vince Christian, the wily designer of these immensely satisfying speakers, intends to designate his creation as a "monitor reference speaker system." But, like it or not, Vince Christian is stuck with that fact, since that is what we have when we are confronted with the exuberant musical detail his handiwork has crafted.
If the integrated E6 Christian, Ltd. system can serve as a "reference," a term often used by audio designers to suggest a potential state of the art product, it does so as any other sonic product must. The notion of an audio "reference" is somewhat vexed. There are, in fact, reference audio instruments on the market, though I find them more readily available on the recording side of the musical equation than on the audiophile's earnestly sought "absolute reference" (reproduction) side. The DPA (formerly B & K) line of microphones is a case in point which I discussed awhile back on this site.
If, however, a reference instrument of any sort -- speaker, microphone, interconnect, pre-amp, etc. -- worth taking careful notes and painstaking sonic cues from has a perennial use (and it does), then it does so not as a maverick single indicator of sonic truth. It does so as one among several other "references." If, in addition, this incarnation of Vince Christian's E6 speaker and his full three-piece system can serve as such a "reference," it does so because it possesses a particular musical and sonic strength.
This system's unique strength rests with its mid-range articulation and wide frequency coherence. Doubtless that fact contributes massively to the way in which "on location" recordings gain particular sonic authority and detail when reproduced by the integrated Christian set up.
The notion of a speaker system "reference," as I use it, demands that several speaker systems must be used in order (a) to know how any one "reference-grade" system works on its own; and (b) to establish an evolving (never final) sonic standard from which any speaker system, in turn, can be judged to be among those few that are of genuinely "reference" caliber. The idea of a "reference" here is the idea of an interactive standard among several highly defined instruments. Needless to say, one's entire audio system is judged within that set of interactions -- among various "reference" speakers and among other refined instruments in the chain of critical audio listening. The idea of a "reference," thus is unavoidably shifting and under constant suspicion. One establishes a sonic standard by an almost continually refined set of comparisons.
Take this an inch further. You cannot be certain of the truthful complexity of live sound (of any sound, for that matter) unless you listen to your own recordings on several systems that allow you to hear the full range of sub-dynamic musical clues that reside on a superior recording. You may prefer one speaker system or one monitoring set up to others. Yet, if you are to get the essential truth of the sound, you must calibrate what you hear on one "reference" system with another potentially "reference-grade" monitor set up. That process may seem boring. It is time-consuming. But it is necessary and, surprisingly, has its own inherent pleasure.
Knowing what you've done in creating a live recording is uncertain and laborious. The whole process is a kind of triangulation among various sound systems. Sonic knowledge is very much like intellectual knowledge. You have to come at it from several viewpoints. It does not rest in a single place. But the point of such an exercise is to learn what you have done as a recording engineer (if you are encumbered by that work) so that you are not constrained by only one reproduction set up with its particular sonic eccentricities. That exercise also allows you to make an educated guess -- or an experimental attempt -- at improving (at least, tailoring) the way you record in the future. The process of recording, mastering, listening, and coming to know what is at stake here is entirely a learning process, always in motion, never settled -- no matter what others may wish to assert about the predictive or discriminative power of so called sonic "experts."
Live recordings that have not been "enhanced" with various compression, reverberation, and supplemental devices can approach musical information that is as close to real sound in real space as possible. For the work of mastering, editing, and crafting a finished album, a superior monitoring system is crucial. As a monitoring set up for such uses, the Christian speaker system delivers extraordinary imaging and an almost uncanny sense of "you are there" presence. And it does so with deep commitment to the musical truth of what it delivers.
This is an important point when you look at the world of monitors. One is genuinely amazed at the squeaky, etched, and almost unlistenable monitors to be found in many longstanding recording studios. Bleeding ears and weary minds do not enable engineers to make more splendid recordings. Superior monitors -- whether they reside at home or in a studio -- can be the listener's best friend. "Musicality," as a value, need not be at odds with "accuracy" of sonic delivery. At its best, it never is.
The special quality that distinguishes Vince Christian's work with the E6 speaker system is subtle but clear. I am not suggesting that this system achieves an absolute sonic reproduction standard (a foolish assertion) or serves as an inviolable reference (I have not yet found one). I am saying that the E6 system's inevitable sonic colorations are subtractive and less intrusive than many monitor systems that similarly strive for eminently musical values along with sonic accuracy. This is a speaker system that thrives on use. Its nominal thirty-hour break in period is a bare start. The E6 juggernaut begins to roll merrily down your backcountry lane after several long weeks of rigorous use. Think of a hundred hours of break in as a minimum.
The special quality of the E6 system can be heard when you listen to its grasp of a remarkable and easily accessible recording: Miles Davis, Someday My Prince Will Come [Mobile Fidelity, MFCD 828]. This album's quirky sonic loveliness serves quite well as a vehicle to look at the Christian system's virtues . . . a forty-year-old recording wonderfully alive, slightly eccentric, but defined by exceptionally well-recorded studio sound.
Mobile Fidelity transferred the original Columbia analog master tapes, at half-speed, to a phonograph record. The resulting transfer to the digital domain presents ear-opening sonic transparency. Columbia's recording technique across the period from Kind of Blue (1959) through this March 1961 session employed a three-track analog capture. Miles' open or muted horn is given a dollop of reverberation (here less carefully rendered than on the more famous 1959 recordings). Miles is placed squarely at the center of action. Jimmy Cobb's drums are located squarely to the right, Wynton Kelly's piano to the left. Hank Mobley's tenor sax sits to the right, John Coltrane's to the left. Bassist Paul Chambers is routed equally left and right.
This set up gives Miles untrammeled pride of place as the focal point around which everything occurs. As a view of real music on a performance stage, it is aberrant, unreal. But the point of studio recordings is to make a statement of audio values that embody an engineer's or producer's aesthetic sense.
Only because the band is an assemblage of musical giants and (precisely to the point here) the opening title track so unswervingly dramatic -- driven by Chamber's propulsive pedal tone that acts as an invocation to a charmed and mysterious musical world -- does the sonic disunity of Columbia's three-track cleavage not wholly disengage our interest. These magnificent players are massaged by the recording's marvelous clarity even if they are akimbo in strange sonic space.
The E6 system exposes the almost comical, bigger than life recording game at work: Miles-in-the-middle; Miles as King of the Hill; Miles the elusive but ever-so-commanding Prince of Darkness. Cobb is stuck thoroughly in the right channel so that, mid-way through the cut, you are startled by Coltrane's emergence in the left channel. But notice this. Coltrane's inimitable sound looms well outside the left speaker. Coltrane becomes thereby a haunted figure on his own, an exiled musical partner pleading for re-entry to the circle.
The whole musical drama is ripe for explication because each solo is pristine, intelligent, and close at hand. Your ear is not distracted by any blurring of audio placement. The placement, if anything, is overdone. Two additional features nag at the scene. Kelly's piano is somewhat less discrete than it should be, less fully embodied as the large, complexly toned instrument that it is. Also, little sense of the ensemble as a gathering of musical minds in proximity, bodies and selves together, emerges. Instead, we find six disembodied voices or, rather, one incarnated voice, Miles the master of the scene, with five others displayed as troops right and left. Paul Chambers' bass, which truly holds the scene together sonically and dramatically, becomes a somewhat split figure whose double appearance, right and left but not quite in the middle (behind Miles), balances the sonic equation . . . never, however, bringing that equation into unity.
Appealing and informative at once, the Christian speaker troika reproduces the logic of this split three-track recording set up with stunning sonic truthfulness and equal musical allure. You hear how the recording has been pieced together, and yet you hear (also) how beautiful the sound created at Columbia was, how noble, refined, and astute each of these world-class musicians are. Somehow, despite the stereo trickiness of the three-track process -- not quite a ping-pong back and forth, but a sonic bifurcation, nonetheless -- the musical integrity of the session emerges full, proud and whole.
I have listened to this track for a long time and on many speaker systems. I do in truth hear Columbia's peculiar recording logic at work on other systems. I hear its musical majesty as well. But on no other set of speakers has the uncanny combination, which joins a truly analytic sonic revelation together with the unmistakable savvy of such musical bliss been so precisely rendered. The effect is like hearing a gorgeous if somewhat bizarre recording on two levels at once in which the sonically strange and the musically sublime are locked in an audible sexual embrace. The effect is intriguing, a product of Columbia's original recording set up, Mobile Fidelity's faithful transfer to the low-tech realm of 16-bit digital, and Vince Christian's penchant for accuracy and beauty, sonic facts yoked to musical seduction . . . an unusual occurrence here rendered as a virtual partnership of cooperative energies. The Christian speakers render it in earnest.
Speakers are "voiced" instruments. Like their audio cousins, microphones, speaker systems have a predilection for certain frequencies and sonic resonance. You might say that every speaker worth spending time with carries with it a romance, a particular form of sonic voicing.
I'm aware of measurements that seek (and find) the more or less "flat" microphone or the no less improbably "flat" speaker, thus giving a reviewer a measurable standard for numerical comparison. Believe this: a microphone that measures unswervingly "flat" is not necessarily (or even occasionally) the most beautiful sounding, the most technically engaging, or the most pragmatically useful.
I cite that complication because the voicing of a speaker determines how revealing it can be, among other sonic values, and the Christian orientation toward voicing seems to have found a way to allow a large degree of sonic transparency without the stridency that can emerge from a speaker with a vigorously more "flat" frequency spectrum. I recognize the counter-intuition at work here, but hearing is the final residence of musical truth. The Christian speakers produce significant sonic openness, tonal accuracy, soundstage transparency, and beguiling musicality. And they do so against the grain since, relative to much larger speakers that have earned considerable hype, they recreate coherent, detailed, and beguiling musical events from a small footprint . . . with unstudied ease.
All this bears interest to a related audio illusion worth looking at. Let me point to an inexpensive but useful compact disc: Stan Kenton [LaserLight 15 725]. The use this disc holds is subtle but of considerable interest for anyone who wishes to find out if an audio system is in phase and capable of rendering a large orchestra accurately. Few recordings I know of are so revealing of a speaker system's ability to image well outside their physical boundaries. Go to track two, "Artistry in Rhythm." Unlike the Columbia Miles Davis recording scheme, there is no hole-in-the-center with one radiant figure only. Kenton's entire large band surges forth between the speakers, beyond them, behind and despite them -- as if the band's immense size is compelled to spill over all environmental restraints. Nothing about the recording is manipulated or etched with enhanced sonic Technicolor. This is not a big-scale bravura "hi fi" extravaganza. On the contrary, it is a restrained but deeply compelling recording. Crank it up. An unusual degree of sonic honesty awaits your listening there.
I cite this enjoyful, rare disc as a useful analytic tool not because the music or the recording on it is in any way analytically-oriented, but because its acoustically innocent, ambient sonic quality allows you to examine a dimension of an audio system, its imaging capacity, without shrinking or taxing your attention. Unless you are not inclined to indulge Kenton's sometimes-bombastic orchestral voicings, I suspect that you may find music presented there with considerable regard for the physical reality of coherent recorded sound. Here, too, displaying the disc's exceptional, large soundstage, the Christian monitors were on target with all of Kenton's bells and whistles captured to the last inch and itch.
Vince Christian's alluring E6 speaker set up is an unobtrusive little giant that promises, I'd bet, to introduce a line of speakers worthy of long term interest. If you find a way to hear the E6 system, listen critically and carefully. The more you do, the more the likelihood something valuable in music that is important to you will emerge. The Christian Ltd. system has earned my respect.
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