While we’re on James Carter and “Nuages,” it’s a good moment to describe another virtue of these speakers—the way they capture the full tone and texture of an instrument. Carter, who plays all kinds of reeds, blows a bass saxophone on this song. I know of no other horn player (except maybe Anthony Braxton) who has played lead melody on bass sax. The Parsifal Ovations make it abundantly clear that Carter is blowing a bass sax, not a slightly deeper-sounding baritone sax. It’s an enormous instrument— meant to play simple bass lines, like a tuba—and when Carter belts out a frantically fast improvisation, it takes on a congested quality; you hear him blowing a note on the mouthpiece while his previous note is still coursing through the horn’s curves and bell. Again, this is not mere audiophilia; it enhances the illusion that you’re hearing not some vaguely brassy low-frequency sounds, but an adventurous musician navigating an unwieldy instrument.
This illusion is further bolstered by the Ovations’ insouciant flair for floating the images of instruments and voices, in all their size and dimension (at least to the extent the recording allows). On the Omer Avitar Sextet’s terrific live CD, Asking No Permission [Smalls Records—reviewed in this issue’s jazz section], four saxophones often play in harmony or unison, and the horns never get scrambled or merged. Each pops out in its space. On the final track, “The Fields,” tenor saxophonist Mark Turner is playing a solo; he appears just slightly to the left and rear of the right speaker. I focused very hard on that right speaker, trying to force his sound into the box (as you can with many speakers), but it wouldn’t go in; it doggedly stayed where the microphone had captured it.
At this point, you may be wondering about the caveat in this review’s first paragraph: that the Ovations rank in the top tier of speakers “by almost every measure.” What’s with the “almost”? What’s wrong with them? My sole reservation about the Ovations concerns the bass. My problem has nothing to do with bass extension, dynamics, or tunefulness. When Paul Chambers plucks those six very low notes just after the start of “So What,” on Miles Davis’ Kind of Blue [Columbia], you hear them all as notes; the deepest one doesn’t bottom out, like an air flap, as it does on many speakers. On the first track of Lorraine Hunt Lieberson’s wondrous Nonesuch CD of Bach cantatas, a bass and an organ play in unison to mark the beat. I’d heard this record many times, but hadn’t realized
before that there was a bass and organ; they’d sounded like a big, vague bass sound. The Ovations reveal each instrument’s distinct texture and the space between them.
No, the problem is, or has been, with the integration of the bass and the higher octaves. When the Parsifals first arrived, after the folks at Verity had warmed them up in their Quebec factory for 50 hours, the bass shook the room. We moved the speakers back and forth, hither and thither, but couldn’t get rid of that boom. For the first couple weeks, I thought the problem might be some strange interaction with my room. Then, gradually, the bass tightened up; the boom diminished; and, as might be expected, the rest of the sound—which always was at least very good—opened up as well.
When I asked Verity Audio for the speaker’s technical specifications, I noticed that one of the specs (which I don’t think I’d ever seen before) reads, “Break-in Time: 100 hours (63%), 750 hours (99%).” This seemed preposterous. Who ever heard of speakers taking 750 hours to break in? And what does “63% break-in” mean? How do you measure that? Nonetheless, I suspect the figure is accurate. If so, I guess I’m still breaking these things in. (I certainly haven’t played music through them for 750 hours—i.e., for the equivalent of one month, non-stop.) The bass is improving— getting tighter and more coherent— with practically each listening.
So my scorecard on this point must be tentative. For the moment, I can detect when the music passes from the midrange driver into the woofer—not always, as I could at first, but still sometimes. If the break-in spec is accurate, this flaw may dwindle and finally vanish in the coming months. Even now, the problem diminishes only slightly the excellence of these speakers.