Call me smitten. The Verity Audio Parsifal Ovations are, by far, the best loudspeakers I’ve ever heard in my system. They’re also the most expensive, which may have something to do with it. But by almost every sonic measure (and we’ll deal with that “almost” in a moment), I’d rank them in the upper tier of all speakers I’ve heard anywhere. If I could afford them, I’d snatch up a pair in a flash.
They take a long time to set up properly (a whole day, in my room) and an extremely long time to break in (a few hundred hours before the woofer tightens up). But once in place and settled down, these speakers disappear to a degree that I’ve seen only mini-monitors do, and taking their place across the back half of the room is a spacious, lit-up, spine-tinglingly lifelike soundstage. Fundamentals and overtones are pure, uncolored, and amazingly detailed. The crossover from middle to high octaves is seamless. Voices and instruments, top to bottom, front to back, breathe, strum, bang, and blow with uncanny 3-D imaging and without seeming artificially sketchy. Dynamics are captured with effortless agility, in terms of dynamic range (from quiet to loud) and dynamic contrasts (the subtlest variances in between).
More than that, all these qualities meld naturally into a sonic whole. It’s hard to parse them individually because you find yourself so immersed in the music. You don’t say, “Listen to those highs,” but rather, “Listen to that voice.” Not “Check out that soundstage,” but “So this is what Davies Symphony Hall sounds like.” Speaking of Davies Hall, do listen to Michael Tilson Thomas and the San Francisco Symphony’s rousing live performance of Mahler’s Ninth (in SACD, on the SFSO’s own label). When a horn blares or a flute flutters, you can tell exactly where it’s coming from, and you hear its sound filling the spaces between it and the other instruments. When the orchestra hits a crescendo, nothing gets scrunched or shmooshed out of place. Each section sounds as clear and rocksolid as it does in the quieter passages.
For a very different orchestral sound, check out the Academy of Ancient Music’s CD of J.S. Bach’s solo and double violin concertos, on Harmonia Mundi. We’re 40 years into the “authentic performance” movement, yet unless you’ve heard the phenomenon live it’s hard to appreciate just how bracing an ensemble of traditional instruments can be. This disc comes closer than I’d previously thought to capturing that feel—the violins’ sweet gut-string resonance, the harpsichord’s zesty grit, the reverberation off the concert-hall walls (because original instruments aren’t quite loud enough to fill the space fully). The first movement of the D minor Concerto (BWV 1043) can sound muddy on many speakers—so many crisscrossing parts and counterparts. Yet the Parsifal Ovations pick up all the slight accents in the bowing; all the musical lines shine through clearly.
The Ovations also handle voices marvelously. I’ve listened dozens of times to Dawn Upshaw’s CD of show tunes by Sondheim and others, I Wish It So [Nonesuch], but hearing it through the Ovations was the first time that I gasped at just how gorgeously she hits the high notes. The mid-to-high octaves are handled by a dome tweeter and a cone midrange, but the sound is so pure, smooth, and airy I would have guessed the drivers were ribbons.
Yet the Ovations aren’t excessively smooth in this realm; they are in no way “forgiving” speakers. For instance, they reveal all too clearly the way Upshaw sometimes strains for cornball dramatic effect. (I’d heard this affectation before, but not so much of it.) Many speakers, even expensive ones, show signs of tradeoffs: say, smooth, extended highs or detailed, dynamic highs, but not often both. The Ovations do both.
A positive example: About 45 seconds into “Nuages,” the first track of Chasin’ the Gypsy [Atlantic], James Carter’s tribute album to Django Reinhardt, someone starts lightly striking a triangle. On other speakers (and this is another album that I’ve heard at least 100 times), it sounds like random triangle dings amid a vast clutter of bells, cymbals, and other percussion ringing and clanging behind a saxophone, violin, accordion, drums, and two guitars. Through the Ovations, it’s clear that that the triangle is sounding out the same rhthym as the accordion, each ping struck in a slightly different way at a slightly different volume. It’s no big deal; it happens for only a bar or so; but it enriches the sound, it thickens the rhythm, and—more still—it deepens our awareness that we’re listening to human beings who are playing their instruments and listening to one another. This is the essence of jazz— and a considerable piece of the pleasure that we all seek from high-end audio.