Living Voice • Vox Olympian/Vox Elysian Speaker System

by Roy Gregory | December 29, 2014

www.theaudiobeat.com

There are so few facts in the world of high-performance audio that we should cherish the ones we have. Here’s one to conjure with: At a starting price of 435,000 plus tax a set (that’s $721,930 at today’s exchange rate -- and it can go a lot higher than that, depending on finish), nobody is saving up for a Living Voice Vox Olympian/Vox Elysian (VO/VE) system. You either have the coin or you haven’t, so let’s not have any of the hand-wringing or whining that those on the audio fora do so well when it comes to reviews of expensive kit. The readers of car magazines don’t complain when a Bugatti or the latest Ferrari is covered, and there’s no torrent of angst when Wine Spectator features impossibly rare and costly labels and vintages. For those of us, myself included, who will never, ever be able to afford these speakers, it’s okay to dream and it’s certainly okay to investigate or appreciate the outer reaches of what is possible. Those who can (and do) afford them get to travel where we can only occasionally visit, a journey to savor, with no fixed destination to end the fun.

Reviewing audio equipment can be a daunting experience -- for any number of reasons. Products can be intimidating on the grounds of price or physical size, reputation or the reputation of the person behind them. It’s remarkable how quickly the phrase "two tons of fun" can become "I wish I’d never seen, met or agreed to review this $#@^%&* product" [insert favorite, most heartfelt expletive as appropriate]. I’d be a fool if I hadn’t experienced some trepidation and more than a twinge of self-doubt before the arrival of the Vox Olympians and their matching subs. It matched the twinges in my back from moving all the accumulated equipment from the listening room so as to clear the space necessary to unpack, handle and install these speakers -- and that with the subs being a pair of fabric-wrapped "demonstration mules"; fully finished cabinets are simply too large and too vulnerable to contemplate hauling from one location to another without impractically massive crates and unacceptable risk of cosmetic damage. Transportation and installation once are one thing; repeated journeys to multiple locations, that’s quite another.

As it transpired, my concerns were ill-placed, and installation, though hard work, went surprisingly smoothly, while listening started well and just got better and better. Leaving aside the physical insult inflicted by installing any speakers this size, the rest of the review was a breeze. That’s partly down to the refreshing willingness of Living Voice to provide exactly the level of knowledge and support that any purchaser of a product like this should expect, but also because it’s rare for a product to be so comfortable in the superiority of its musical performance and so explicit when it comes to the reasons for it. Why review a product that involves so much cost and effort just to transport and install that few if any of us will ever buy? Precisely because of what it tells us about what’s important and just how important it is.

Let’s look at a specific example of the VO/VE system in action, at what it does and how it does it. The case in point is the Fitzwilliam Quartet playing the Shostakovich String Quartet No. 9 in E flat major, op. 117 [Decca 455 776-2]. I chose it not just as a vivid example of what these speakers are capable of, but because it’s a Living Voice favorite, meaning that those of you lucky enough to have heard these speakers, either at the Munich show or through the company’s UK retail arm, the Nottingham-based Definitive Audio, are quite likely to have heard the piece.

Press play, sit back and listen: the opening bars of the Moderato con moto emerge, the rising and falling balance of the long phrases creating a languid musical tension that grows almost imperceptibly, the strength of the bowing swelling to meet the sudden pizzicato interjections. The slow evolution of the second section (Adagio) takes on a living, breathing beauty of delicate, almost fragile power and aching intensity, while the sharp, angular violin phrases of the following Allegretto clash and contrast so dramatically with the robustly vigorous responses of viola and cello. The music has a captivating, almost hypnotic quality that pulls you in, holding your attention to the extent that you find yourself holding your breath. The emotional connection, the anticipation, the journey through the piece and eventual release are both powerful and powerfully reminiscent of the live experience. This is complex, occasionally angular and difficult music. It demands your attention and rewards it, establishing an almost physical connection between the players and the audience, such is the power and intensity they can generate.

You start by playing it to demonstrate the speakers’ quality, you feel compelled to play it right through, and when you reach the end? First there’s a moment of silence (that same moment of silence that precedes the applause at a live performance) then the listeners’ response -- always, always about the music, the playing, the piece, the performance; never, ever about the speakers or the system or the sound.

Now, ask yourself this: how often do you play string quartets on your system at home? How often have you heard a system that allows you to play and enjoy string quartets? In fact, you might well ask, what’s the point of string quartets, period? Except that just about every major classical composer wrote them, and for many they are considered amongst their major works. Why? Because the instrumentation allows an incisive temporal precision to the playing that, combined with the massive dynamic contrasts available, can create exactly the drama and intensity I described above -- a level of drama and intensity that escapes virtually all audio systems. Indeed, most hi-fi renders string quartets, especially the later examples, as little more than random noise.

Contrast that with the delivery of the VO/VE, where instrumental lines are perfectly intelligible, structures explicit and contrasts dramatically effective. What the Living Voice speakers do is preserve the musical conversation that’s at the core of any string quartet. They follow the debate, trace the cut and thrust, reveal the soto voce aside or the bombastic flourish. What they do is preserve and present the sense of the piece -- and they do it effortlessly and utterly without constraint.

That final sentence contains the essence of the VO/VE achievement. These speakers are all about the sense of the music, the intent of the performers. They are all about what happens when, where and why. They’re all about the relationship between the players and the notes they play -- and that’s all down to their ability to preserve the nature and level of the energy that makes up each note. You’ll also notice that "without constraint" comment. But it’s not just about mapping the peak energy level of each note, or its leading edge, an obvious inference given the dynamic compression that afflicts most audio systems. This freedom from restraint is both vertical and longitudinal. It embraces both level and length, so that each note has a peak level but also a shape that includes a tail, critical because it’s in that decay that so much of an instrument’s or voice’s harmonic character resides. The VO/VE system is uncannily accurate when it comes to reproducing and shaping those discrete packets of musical energy that make up the whole. But what makes it really special -- remarkable, in fact -- is that it does so with equal efficacy across its entire bandwidth. That has two significant results, both of which help elevate the Living Voice speakers above the competition.

Firstly, the ability to discriminate dynamic character and energy levels irrespective of pitch makes the VO/VE combination remarkably even from top to bottom. In turn that makes it incredibly consistent across the range of any given instrument or voice. In the first of a series of deviations from accepted practice, these speakers achieve a remarkable level of neutrality -- but not in the way we would normally assume. Generally, degrees of neutrality are associated with or expressed in terms of the absence of tonal or harmonic distortion. Of course, that cuts both ways, and absent harmonics might be less destructive than tonal aberrations, but they’re no less noticeable.

The logic that informs the Living Voice speakers starts from a different place. The assumption is that there is no one violin. Not only do all violins sound different, but the same violin sounds different played in different acoustic environments. Yet, a violin is always recognizable as a violin. That has to do with relative energy, how it produces a note and how that note decays. The pattern of each note will always have a common overall shape. It might be bent this way or that, pulled here by this instrument or there by that acoustic, but the character of that note will always be closer to itself than the same note played on a totally different instrument -- a viola or cello, a woodwind or a horn. Because it manages to mimic those energy patterns so accurately, irrespective of pitch, the Living Voice system makes both the identity and character of instruments or voices so clear that the question never even arises. The violins, viola and cello that make up the Fitzwilliam are each utterly separate, in terms of their musical contribution and role within the complex dance that constitutes a string quartet, each stepping forward into a leading role or receding, supporting or clashing with its companions as the music demands, without the listener ever losing the sense of which player is saying what.

The second key musical contribution comes from the tail on each note. By accurately reflecting the duration of each individual note, the speakers reveal the full expressive range within the playing, the shape of the phrases, the accents and impetus, hesitations and control employed by each player. Such is the level of resolution that each note exists, irrespective of those around it, helping to create both the individual lines and the shape of the whole. That ability to map the decay of each note establishes the relationship between individual players in time and space, defined by relative level. Again, we tend to think of imaging in terms of geographical distance -- the physical spacing of one player from another. That three-dimensional construct is an area in which certain systems excel -- yet it’s also an area that many designers and listeners question, pointing out that live listening rarely offers such pinpoint locational separation. I’ve always tended to the view that imaging isn’t that crucial in and of itself, but if a system images well it suggests that it's doing other more important (time- and space-related ) things well too.

The VO/VE pairing takes that to its logical extreme. By defining the position of a player in terms of the relative level and arrival time of the energy they produce, they eschew the traditional audio understanding of soundstaging, yet leave the listener in absolutely no doubt as to who is doing what and where. The relative size and power of the violins and bigger, bolder voice and body of the cello are perfectly obvious, the richer, woodier tone of the viola as opposed to its smaller brothers just as apparent. Perhaps most impressive of all is the sheer physical presence enjoyed by each instrument, the focused energy generated, adding to the drama and sense of musical experience. Of course that all plays into the notion of instrumental identity and separation laid out above, but just as traditional imaging points to more important performance attributes, so does the effortlessly natural perspective offered by the VO/VE.

When it comes to pace and tempo, the all-important sense of musical momentum and purpose, I’ve never experienced speakers as lucid and uninhibited as these. The performance proceeds just as fast or slowly as the players make it. Some systems impose their own rhythmic rectitude on proceedings, while others allow the music to proceed at its own pace. The VO/VE combination moves beyond even that; just as the identity of an instrument is so obvious as to be beyond question, when things happen (and why) is just as apparent. As you listen, the rests and silences that characterize the Shostakovich quartets are utterly natural, the drama of the sudden bursts of energy, the spray of notes that follow them all the more effective for the anticipation. But the precision and incisive playing that this demands from the performers will be lost and diluted if their notes are foreshortened by harmonic pruning, or displaced by phase and intermodulation issues. In other words, if the notes -- all of the notes -- don’t start and stop exactly when they should, the sense and power of the performance will be lost. When I said that most hi-fi systems fail miserably when it comes to playing string quartets I wasn’t joking. By now you should be drawing your own conclusions as to just why.

Okay, so speakers this big and this expensive just to play string quartets would be considered extravagant under any circumstances. But as specific as this example is, the implications are general. The very quality that allows the VO/VE to bring the Fitzwilliam Quartet to such vivid and musically effective life is just as applicable to any other form of music -- and I do mean any. While I had the Living Voice system at home I played a lot of different music for a lot of different people. There wasn’t a single piece or genre where the big speakers turned up their noses or refused to engage. You want to go bigger? What better than the Vaughan Williams Tallis Fantasia with Barbirolli conducting the Sinfonia of London (Barbirolli Conducts English String Music LP [EMI ASD 521] or Sir John Barbirolli The Great EMI Recordings [EMI 4 57767 2 4], a ten-disc CD set that contains a beautiful remaster of the same performance)? This has always been for me the definitive performance of this work. Barbirolli’s iron grip on tempo combined with the Sinfonia of London’s superb ensemble precision bringing poise, drama and intensity to a piece that too many conductors treat as an orchestral sketch or lightweight filler. Sir John ramps up the tension, his carefully stepped crescendos piling on the sweeping emotional range of the work. Played on the VO/VE, the brilliantly restrained playing of the strings and the beautifully subtle underpinning of the organ are brought vividly to life. The suddenness of the dynamic swings are genuinely shocking, matched by the emotional power of the diminuendos’ measured descents. Yes, I know that in reality the Tallis Fantasia is a string quartet writ large, but that’s the point; the very same qualities that make the Fitzwilliam or Quartetto Italiano so arresting scale up just as effectively. I’m not exaggerating when I say that the Tallis discs reduced listeners to an awed silence on more than one occasion -- through the power of the music rather than the power of the system.

Why mention both the LP and the CD? Because each, in its own way, illustrates another unique aspect of the VO/VE listening experience. These speakers love CD, thriving on its linearity and stability, qualities that echo their own strengths so closely. Don’t get me wrong, LPs sound just as fabulous through the big Living Voice speakers, but the wrong record player can definitely sound bumptious and even a little crude, especially on classical music. No such problems with the VPI Classic Direct Drive with Lyra Etna, but then linearity and stability are pretty high on its agenda too. With the Tallis, the record brought a beguiling sense of immediacy and presence, life and color. In comparison, the CD sounded flatter, but otherwise it was actually, if anything, even more convincingly reminiscent of live performance. Suddenly, playing classical music on the Neodio Origine through the VO/VE setup, CD ceases to be a poor second to vinyl, matching it and even exceeding it on occasions.

Before you get too excited about the vinyl scales falling from my eyes (and ears) what’s really significant here is not which is better -- a judgment that varies with recording and source components -- but that CD becomes a perfectly viable alternative to LP. That increases the range of listening options by better than a half!

You want bigger still? How about the Glory soundtrack [Classic Records/Virgin VR 91329], a score so over the top that it qualifies as the full orchestral klangfest. Orchestra, choir, marching band and associated synthesized fillers, extra chimes and percussion -- you don’t get much bigger than this. The breadth and scale presented by the VO/VE are awesome. It’s all about numbers (how many drums, how many fifes?) and clean, clear acoustic power. There’s none of the ponderous weight that typifies hi-fi low frequencies, an earth-bound rolling thunder. This is bass that floats and envelops, full of texture and layered harmonics rather than slabs of sound that slam you in the chest. The width is Cinemascope, the astonishing depth on distant trumpets accepted without question. When the whole ensemble swells into a full-throated climax, the concentrated power, level and substance are almost physical in terms of presence and musical impact, but they never homogenize or become solid. You never lose that sense that this really is a lot of people working together to move a lot of air. You never lose the sense that it is air that you are feeling, as insubstantial and imperceptible -- and ultimately magical -- as that is. Even at these extremes the VO/VE combination never loses its grip on relative level or its stability or allows one set of instruments to bleed over or swamp another. Once again, it is more like the complex power that comes off of a live orchestra than the single wall of sound you expect out of a big audio system.

Piano is another instrument that famously challenges the capabilities of audio systems. Its combination of percussive brilliance and sonority, bandwidth and dynamic range, are challenge enough, but with weight of note and spacing, rhythmic flexibility and fluid tempi governing the range of expression, a system needs to be able to stretch in all directions if it is to really capture this most demanding of instruments. I’ve already noted in the VPI Classic Direct review the temporal stability and control the ‘table brings to piano recordings. Throw in the VO/VEs’ ability to preserve the layers and textures, the leading edge of transients as well as their nature and you have a system that allows the full complexity of the piano to bloom. It doesn’t matter whether you are listening to Beethoven or Basie, Joe Jackson or Duke Ellington, the instrument takes on its full weight, power, complexity and subtlety. Whether it’s the poise and control, range and expressive mastery of Arturo Benedetti Michelangeli or the deft stabs and rhythmic prompts of the Count, the piano comes alive, a box full of discrete notes, vibrating strings and layered energy, sympathetic harmonics and physical dimensions. Subtleties of line and weight, the spacing or delaying of notes, the dexterity of glissandi and rapid runs, sudden stabs or crashing chords, all become an extension of the player’s flying fingers as they and the instrument dance. Listening live, there are few pianists playing today who can consistently conjure that alchemy, making the music powerful yet fleet of foot: Amongst those I’ve heard Maria Joao Pires, Argerich (when she’s warmed up -- and when she turns up), Angela Hewitt. It’s not a long list. The list of speaker systems that can reproduce that quality from the great recordings is shorter still. Currently in my experience, this is it.

As I’ve already suggested, the musical strength and coherence that enable the Living Voice speakers to transcend the limitations of piano recordings that we’ve all come to accept and spark small-ensemble classical pieces to vivid life and invest larger-scale works with a convincing power and emotional scope translate to every other form of music I played. Listening sessions became long, meandering trawls through the music collection and the discs, both analog and digital, that visitors had brought, each piece suggesting and leading almost inevitably to another. Last night's Leonard Cohen Songs From the Road [Columbia/Legacy MOVLP193] led to Bob Dylan’s Rolling Thunder Review [Columbia/Legacy C2K 87047-1] and on to Suzanne Vega's Close-Up, Vol. 2 [Amaneunsis MOVLP231], Michelle Shocked's Short, Sharp, Shocked [Cooking Vinyl CVLP1], Bonnie Raitt singing "Baby Mine" (from Stay Awake [A&M AMA 3918]) and Shelby Lynne singing "Just A Little Lovin’" [Lost Highway B0009789-01]. That was followed by a brief discussion of vocal phrasing and the almost inevitable playing of the Dusty Springfield original [Analogue Productions APP8214-45], Aimee Mann’s Bachelor No.2 [Mobile Fidelity MFSL 1-282] and then on through a slew of Ella and Billie. The night before, Beethoven and Sibelius symphonies were followed by the Pet Shop Boys (the Introspective limited-edition 12" single set [EMI PCSX 7325]), Nouvelle Vague (Bande A Part [Peacefrog PFG079 5060100740430]), The Cure (Seventeen Seconds [Fiction FIX 004]), Neil Young’s Sleeps With Angels [Reprise 9 45749-1] and a bit of Lloyd Cole.

And so it goes, the speakers seeming to not just open a succession of musical doors but actively beckon you through. The playlists above are notable for their variety but also a degree of consistency. There’s a lot of singing in there and a lot of it is live. As special as the Living Voice speakers are on a whole range of instruments, in many ways it’s their vocal performance that is the jewel in their crown. Long sessions of full opera and individual arias, lieder and jazz standards tell their own story, just as clearly as the rock and pop tracks listed above. Nor are there any limitations when it comes to the scale of recordings. The system is just as engaging and musically compelling with everything from solo voice and guitar to massive orchestral blockbusters or the slabs of urgent synth that have them busting moves on the dance floor. If ever one size really did fit all, then, once again, this is it.

So far you may have noticed that I haven’t actually discussed the nature of the speakers themselves. The H-word has been conspicuous by its absence, as has a laundry list of exotic components and design heritage. That’s entirely deliberate; I really want you to think about these as speakers, as a solution to transducing a recording from electrical into acoustic form, rather than as horns, folded horns, expensive horns or even horn-loaded subs. The fact is, they really don’t sound like horns -- at least not the sort of horns that most of us have heard, so the preconceptions and baggage that come with the horn label are less than helpful when it comes to understanding just how special these speakers are. The description of their top-to-bottom coherence and even spectral balance should tell you that they have successfully eliminated traditional horn colorations. The nuts and bolts are described in the sidebar above, but for me the success of the VO/VE is encapsulated not in its cabinets but in the evidence of its crossover and the accumulated experience that has informed its design. If ever a product encapsulated the golden rule that it’s not what you use but how you use it that matters, this is it.

Why has Kevin Scott of Living Voice succeeded where so many others have failed, shackling the dynamic and discriminatory advantages of horn loading to more traditional notions of neutrality and bandwidth? Partly because he’s been working at it for more than 30 years -- and by "it" I mean this specific solution. Look at the original Air Partner, the Air Scout that followed it and the bass bin that accompanied that and there’s a clear, incremental developmental path, through the drivers and horns, the cabinet materials and the crossover that laces the whole thing together. Horn design is an exacting discipline, offering the designer a wider range of options and punishing his mistakes more obviously and more severely than what we’ve come to consider as "more conventional" speakers. When it comes to boxes, poor drivers and bad cabinets can conspire to hide a multitude of sins -- and what they don’t obscure will be brushed under the compressive carpet of low efficiency and lossy crossovers. With a horn speaker there’s nowhere to hide, which makes them cruel task masters but great teachers.

What the VO/VE listening experience demonstrates is that if you narrow your technological ambitions and follow a proven path (the Air Partner itself owed more than a little to the well-established Vitavox Thunderbolt), then sufficient dedication, application and not a little talent can use that feedback, brutal as it may be, to refine the recipe into something truly exceptional.

How do you put a speaker system like the Vox Olympian/Vox Elysian in context? With considerable difficulty, because they don’t accept the same contextual limitations as other speaker systems -- at least the ones I’ve heard. There are speakers that do at lest some of what the VO/VE combination can achieve. The massive Marten Coltrane CS2s, themselves almost as expensive as the Living Voice speakers, match their even energy output across the bandwidth -- although not their 104dB sensitivity and the dynamic discrimination and expression that go with it. The Avantgarde Trios match the VO/VEs’ sense of scale and dynamic range, but not their subtle harmonic decay or rhythmic fluidity -- although the addition of Avantgarde's horn-loaded subs would narrow the gap, if my limited experience with them is anything to go by. The obvious competition would be the Magico Ultimate, but I’ve yet to hear that speaker so no judgment is possible -- and even if I do, it’s unlikely to be within the confines of my own listening room and system. The Crystal Cable/Siltech Absolute Dream system (Absolute Arabesque speakers, SAGA electronics and Absolute Dream cables) comes closest to matching the Living Voices’ overall sense of coherence, musical expression and continuity, but without the scale and dynamic authority the far bigger speakers deliver. It’s also a system that travels by a different route, achieving its very special qualities by including everything short of the source within the system itself, so that every junction, every component and every inch of the signal path is accounted for. It’s an integrated sound from an integrated solution.

Which brings us to the next contextual issue concerning the Living Voice speakers: What do you use to drive a speaker that has everything? Living Voice has presented their flagship speakers twice at the Munich show -- and both times they’ve used essentially the same system: Kondo Gakuoh push-pull 300B monoblocks, 'M77 preamp, Kondo DAC and CEC transport, laced together with all Kondo cable and fed from a sophisticated rechargeable battery power supply that will power the whole system for the whole day. It’s a setup that matches the material and technological continuity of the Siltech/Crystal Cable system, as well as sharing a number of key features. Listen to the VO/VE speakers at Definitive Audio and it’s likely that it will be on the end of a virtually identical setup. So is this really a system solution rather than just a set of speakers? Do you have to have the Kondo amps and cables to make the Living Voice sing?

Let’s be absolutely clear about this: The answer to both questions is an emphatic and resounding No! Although Living Voice brought the Kondo amps with the speakers and used them for the setup, they never installed Kondo cables and promptly removed the electronics as soon as they were happy with the speakers’ position and integration, returning them towards the end of the review period so that I could enjoy their chosen combination, having already gotten a handle on the speakers. Instead, I ran the VO/VEs with Nordost Odin and Valhalla 2 cables; BorderPatrol, Jadis, Berning and Engstrom & Engstrom amplifiers; Connoisseur, Primary Acoustics and two different Kondo preamps; as well as more phono stages, turntables and digital front-ends than I can list. My personally preferred match? The Engstrom & Engstrom Lars 2 monoblocks running Emission Labs 300B XLS tubes, amplifiers that brought an additional immediacy and clarity to the music, without disturbing the overall balance and coherence. If I were on a budget (I guess it’s just about possible that purchasing the speakers might leave you short), the BorderPatrol amp delivered a superbly solid and purposeful performance, but each amp in its own way lent its own flavor to proceedings without disturbing the overall majesty of the musical presentation. In fact, the matching of preamp and power amp proved far more critical, the speakers ruthlessly revealing any lack of musical grip or authority.

The sheer number of boxes involved in the system brought its own challenges when it came to layout and real estate. The option of running the amps on short interconnects simply wasn’t possible -- short of standing them right in front of a subwoofer’s mouth -- so long leads were de rigeur. Running them on the end of the Kondo M7, the preamp’s ability to drive long leads was brutally exposed, the difference between five-, four- and three-meter leads being instantly and shockingly apparent.

What did I spend most time listening to? The 'M7 driving the Lars 2 on three-meter leads, fed by the Connoisseur or Allnic H5000-DHT phono stages and the Neodio Origine or Wadia S7i CD players. Each combination brought its own shift in balance and specific virtues, but each also underlined that when it comes to partnering electronics the VO/VEs are no one-trick pony. The only thing I’d like to have tried (but didn’t have the chance) was a solid-state amplification option. Given the speaker’s clear preference for the grip and control provided by push-pull amps, I suspect that the right bits of silicon could be spectacularly successful -- just watch out for their overall gain (a concern that applies to any amplifier connected to speakers this efficient). Avantgarde’s amplifiers would be an obvious choice, but the 25Wpc Vitus Audio integrated also suggests itself, while there are plenty of other alternatives that would thrive on the coherence and qualities of the VO/VEs.

Where does the Vox Olympian/Vox Elysian system stand relative to the rest of the market? Head and shoulders above anything else I’ve heard. Which brings me to perhaps the most perplexing aspect of this product. My brother Guy summed it up best when he observed (having heard most of the serious systems I’ve had at home in the last three decades) that, when listening to all the other really great speakers and systems I’ve had over the years, he could at least relate what he was hearing to what he listened to at home: better, yes, but still recognizably an extension of the same thing. Not so the Living Voice speakers. The idea that you could somehow jump from what his (pretty good) system was doing to what the VO/VE delivered was beyond comprehension. They’re not just better, they’re different too, representing a step change in the listening experience that moves us away from audio systems (with their familiar and readily identifiable flaws) into a realm that is much more akin to the sense and sensibilities of the live event -- not indistinguishable, but much, much closer, certainly in terms of meaning, structure and emotional impact. The nearest I’ve previously come to that experiential dislocation was the Glass CD -- a disc that is unrecognizable alongside its plastic brethren, or any other kind of disc either. It moves the goal posts so profoundly that it leaves LP, SACD, high-res file replay or anything else you care to mention littered in its wake. It totally changes your expectations and view of what might be possible. That’s exactly what the VO/VE does. It doesn’t just extend existing performance, it totally rewrites the rules.

That is in turn reflected in the reaction of first-time listeners. More than with any other speaker I’ve had, I was interested in the way people responded to the Vox Olympian/Vox Elysian setup. Without exception, they made a beeline for the speakers as soon as they hove into view. In fact, the speakers proved so magnetically attractive that I had to string a rope across the room in front of them to keep the drool and mucky paws at bay (polishing off those lacquered surfaces is a bear!). Industry insiders wanted details, details and more details. Non-industry music lovers just marveled at the monstrous complexity and marvelous finish of the cabinets. But they all had one thing in common: As soon as I played the system, they forgot about the speakers completely, and all anybody wanted to talk about was the music. The natural, communicative quality of what these speakers do is so manifestly apparent that everybody who heard them recognized it instantly, so much so in fact that I’d be deeply suspicious of anybody who didn’t.

We all pay lip service to putting the music first. It is (in theory at least) the sole raison d'tre of everything we do. For all of their astonishing price and flawless finish, immaculate detailing and impressive size, the Vox Olympians and Vox Elysians really do exist only to serve the musical performance. No other product I’ve handled has been so markedly or so consistently superior, yet so easy to appreciate and enjoy. If the aim of recording and replaying a musical performance is to transport that experience, the emotional power, instrumental weight, the sense and subtle chemistry of that event, complete and intact, through time to another location, then regular listeners to live music know just how far we are from that goal. Well, folks, we just got a whole lot closer -- closer than I’ve ever experienced, closer than 30 years of doing this job have left me thinking was even possible.

What so many people heard and remarked on at Munich was just the tip of the iceberg. As stupendously good as the Living Voice room was at those shows, it pales into insignificance once you get the speakers settled into something closer to an optimum environment. Even better is that their ability to transport performances through time, performances captured on LP, CD or any other format, brings the great performers and performances in your collection back to life. You want an evening with Louis and Ella? Not a problem. Carlos Kleiber and the Vienna, or von Karajan and the Berlin boys, with drinks after dinner? Nothing could be easier. But best of all, you don’t need to be precious. You can afford to put Frank off until next week, rebook the Count or reschedule the Duke, because with the Vox Olympians and Vox Elysians in play, that astonishing level of musical access becomes a given.

These speakers rewrite the rules just as surely as they rearrange expectations. They are a wonder, a triumph and proof that life’s not fair.

Prices: Vox Olympian, from 270,000 per pair; Vox Elysian, from 165,000 per pair.
Warranty: Five years parts and labor.

Living Voice Ltd.
Stanhope House
Harrington Mill
Long Eaton
England NG10 4QE
+44 (0)115 973

www.livingvoice.co.uk
www.voxolympian.co.uk

The latest in a long line

The hi-fi-buying public has a proven fascination with "heritage" products, from direct-heated triodes and spherically tipped cartridges to antique microphones and field-coil drivers. The current fascination with direct-drive turntables is echoed in a parallel cult worshipping the original Technics SP-15 studio decks, not as affordable alternatives but as genuinely unassailable references, against which all modern alternatives are weak and feeble pretenders. Likewise the obsession with NOS tubes and original pressings of LPs. The dual mantras of "old is good and older is better" and "the original and still the best" are chanted with almost hymnal solemnity, but there’s a world of difference between a reconditioned antique field-coil driver and the EM units being produced by Focal, an old Quad 22 or Dynaco and a modern tube preamp. Just because something is old it doesn’t make it good, and the secret is to learn from and improve on those older technologies, exactly what Living Voice has done with the Vox Olympian and Vox Elysian.

The company’s first folded-horn design, the Air Partner, was an evolutionary development of the Vitavox Thunderbolt, using Vitavox drivers but with the addition of domestically acceptable standards of finish and a high-frequency unit to deliver the sort of bandwidth demanded in hi-fi applications. That was succeeded by a more manageable three-way folded horn, the Air Scout, promptly rendered rather less practical by the addition of W-horn loaded bass enclosures. The path onwards and upwards to the Vox Olympian and Vox Elysian can be clearly charted, with exhaustive listening and lengthy empirical experience informing the steady refinement and evolution of the implementation, while the core components have remained remarkably consistent. The heart of the Vox Olympian is still the same Vitavox S2 compression driver found in the original Air Partner, but using a proprietary alloy diaphragm, a specially modified compression chamber and bronze parts, paired with a 300Hz exponential horn built from laminated beech and evolved from the original Vitavox geometry developed specifically for the S2 and Vitavox 191 system.

That reaches up to 5kHz, where it mates with a modified TAD 2002 tweeter, fitted with a beryllium diaphragm and alnico motor. The prominent trumpet (cast in LG2 bronze) is a spherical derivative with its length exactingly tuned to optimize its acoustic attenuation. Another beryllium-diaphragm compression driver, this time a TAD ET703 with proprietary tuning and slot-dispersion loading, takes over at 15kHz and extends the bandwidth out to a -3dB point of 45kHz.

Below the S2, the midbass is handled by a Vitavox 151, a 15" paper-cone, pleated-paper-surround unit similar to that used in the Air Partner but with an Alnico magnet system. It is loaded by a folded-horn enclosure, with nonparallel sides and again built from laminated beech, that extends its range down to a -3dB point at around 70Hz -- giving the complex and visually imposing Vox Olympians about the same low-frequency bandwidth as an LS3/5A -- hence the existence of the Vox Elysian. The subs are huge exponential-horn enclosures. As big as they appear from the front, nothing quite prepares you for their enormous depth. The laminated beech cabinets house a pair of incredibly long-throw 13" drivers feeding a common mouth, actively driven by a dedicated, class-B solid-state amplifier/crossover, which provides control over roll-off, phase, and upper and lower bass output levels. Living Voice strongly recommend that this is run from the speaker terminals of the main system amplification, although both balanced and single-ended high-level inputs are provided.

The Vox Olympians came with large external boxes that contained their crossovers, and, truth be told, for all the attention that the drive units and cabinets get I suspect that this is where the real magic lies. Years spent listening to driver and horn configurations laced together with different slopes and components have left Kevin Scott with a wealth of empirical evidence that’s been embedded in these networks. With one exception, every individual part in these crossovers -- and there’s a lot of them -- is a proprietary Living Voice component, built in-house or manufactured to Living Voice’s specific design (not just specification). The VO/VE combination might be horn loaded and housed in the most outrageously complex and sumptuous cabinets, but as with any five-way, part-active system, their performance will stand or fall on the quality of the crossover, its ability to seamless link the different drivers and to do it without leaving its own boot prints all over the music; difficult enough to achieve in a conventional box design, the super-critical nature of horns makes it a make or break part of the overall equation. The remarkable musical qualities and communicative abilities of these Living Voice speakers tell their own story -- but also underline the fact that no matter how good the drivers and cabinet, the signal has first to negotiate the crossover before they get to do anything with it -- and in this case virtually every part of that crossover has been built specifically for purpose. The external housings help make the point about the size and layout of the network, but they don’t help with accommodating what is already a large and imposing speaker system, so the external arrangement is optional, the cabinets being capable of accommodating the crossover internally on isolated mountings, whilst still retaining the widely spaced layout.

But for all the exotic and purpose-built parts, it’s still hard to get past the way these speakers look. Those remarkable cabinets are built and finished by Struik And Hammerslag, a Dutch-owned bespoke furniture maker based in Norfolk in the UK, whose main business is decking out the insides of the biggest and most expensive super yachts. Ah, yesss -- the finish: the prices quoted (270,000 for the Vox Olympians and 165,000 for the Vox Elysians) are for the standard options and exclude sales tax -- that’s another 20% in the UK but could be (considerably!) less where you are. Those options consist of either contrasting wenge and beech, or walnut and lacewood veneers/lipping, both in an open-grain satin lacquer with oxidized silver and gunmetal parts. Go more exotic than that and the prices start to spiral. The Vox Olympian in a sunburst motif European walnut veneer with solid walnut and lacewood lipping and lacewood stringing hikes the price to 325,000 plus tax, while the pair seen and heard in Munich (and that came for review) are even more exotic, with sunburst macassar ebony veneers, amboyna burl and ripple eucalyptus details, macassar lipping and lacewood stringing, all topped off with a high-gloss lacquer finish and a mix of 24ct gold-plated and oxidized silver metal parts. The cost of those cosmetic embellishments? A mere 105,000, making a pair of Vox Olympians weigh in at 375,000 plus tax. Be careful what you wish for.

In the spirit of making things (slightly) more affordable -- and recognizing that the massive faces of the Vox Elysians present an imposing prospect once clad in sheets of wood veneer -- Living Voice are also offering a more retiring, basic black finish for the subs, reducing the price to around the 120,000 mark. Barely less gulp-inducing, I guess every little bit helps -- although the decision was driven more on aesthetic than value grounds. I’m not sure where value considerations stop, but it’s way back beyond the price point -- and performance -- of these speakers.

-Roy Gregory

Associated Equipment

Analog: VPI Classic 4 turntable with SDS; VPI JMW 12.7 and Tri-Planar Mk VII UII tonearms; Lyra Titan i, Etna, Scala, Dorian and Dorian Mono cartridges; Clearaudio Goldfinger Statement cartridge; van den Hul Condor cartridge; Allnic Puritas and Puritas Mono cartridges; Nordost Odin tonearm lead; Allnic H5000-DHT and Lyra Connoisseur 4.2PE phono stages.

Digital: Wadia S7i and GWSC-modified 861SE CD players; dCS Paganini and Vivaldi transports, DACs and uClock; CEC TL-3N transport; Neodio Origine CD player.

Preamps: Connoisseur 4.2 LE, Kondo KSL-M7 and KSL-M77, Primary Acoustics line stage.

Power amps: Berning Quadrature Z, Jadis JA-30, Engstrom & Engstrom The Lars 2, Kondo Gakuoh monoblocks; BorderPatrol P20 PSE ESX stereo amp.

Interconnects and speaker cables: Complete looms of Nordost Odin, Valhalla 2 or Crystal Cable Dreamline Plus from AC socket to speaker terminals.

Power distribution was via Quantum QRT QB8s or Crystal Cable Power Strip Diamonds, with a mix of Quantum Qx2 and Qx4 power purifiers and Qv2 AC harmonizers.

Supports: Racks are a Hutter Racktime used with Nordost SortKone equipment couplers, or an Harmonic Resolution Systems RXR. Cables are elevated on Ayre myrtle-wood blocks or HECC Panda Feet. Nordost Sort Ft units were used under many of the speakers.

Acoustic treatments: As well as the broadband absorption placed behind the listening seat, I employ a combination of RPG Skyline and microperforated velocity chokes.

Accessories: Essential accessories include the Audio System SmarTractor protractor, a USB microscope and Aesthetix cartridge demagnetizer, a precision spirit level and laser, a really long tape measure and plenty of masking tape. I also make extensive use of the Furutech anti-static and demagnetizing devices and the VPI Typhoon record-cleaning machine. The Dr. Feikert PlatterSpeed app has to be the best ever case of digital aiding analog.

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