By John Stancavage
Every year there seems to be no lack of new ideas in the high-end audio industry. Many, though, are variations on a theme or sketchy tweaks. Rarely is a product truly reimagined from the ground up.
One exception is Muraudio’s relatively new line of speakers. The units feature an electrostatic element that takes over from conventional woofers at 450 hz.
So what, you might be thinking. There are plenty of hybrid electrostatics out there, including Martin-Logan and Jantzen.
Yes, but Canada-based Muraudio curves its electrostatic panels.
Big deal, you might answer. So do Sound Lab and the afore-mentioned Martin-Logan.
Yes, true again. But while those manufacturers manage about a 30-degree bend, Muraudio curves its ESL midrange-tweeter unit in every direction — 360 degrees horizontal and 16 degrees vertical.
“Try imagining a huge grape with the top and bottom cut off. That’s the shape of our panel,” company founder and chief technical officer Murray Harman told me during a demo at AXPONA 2015.
You can quickly run into problems when you start bending electrostatic panels, which are essentially very thin, coated sheets of Mylar. Martin-Logan and Sound Lab address these issues in different ways, but Harman faced even bigger hurdles.
“We had to find a film that could be stretched and maintain its sound, for one thing,” he said.
Another was figuring out how to electrify the ELS panel. Conventional speakers might distort if a design is substandard. ESLs tend to spark and even catch fire.
Harman solved that problem, too. Then he turned to the other not-so-easy challenge of building a bass unit that not only could keep up with the ESL panel speed-wise, but one that also could match its 360 degree dispersion. He overcame that hurdle by using three 25 mm aluminum cones, all sealed in their own aluminum enclosure and firing in different directions.
Altogether, it took Harman 13 painstaking years to engineer his dream speaker. Now they are being sent to customers (Muraudio is selling direct and also lining up dealers), but the same detail-oriented approach is being used in manufacturing as it was in development. Painting alone involves 18 layers and three days of work.
On a crisp Saturday in Chicago, I battled a few thousand other audio nuts to hear a pair in gleaming piano black making an astonishingly great sound in a large, basement room at the Westin Hotel O’Hare.
Harmon was using a rack of Simaudio reference gear and Nordost cable to power his Domain Omni PX1 loudspeakers ($63,000 a pair). As you might imagine, these speakers need not only juice from the wall, but high current from the amps, as the sensitivity is only 82 decibels. Harman, however, wanted to assure me — and potential buyers — that the PX1s were not as fussy about power as that number might suggest. The Moon amps were rated at 350 watts, but he insisted such brute force isn’t necessary.
“You can drive them with a 100-watt receiver if you want,” Harman said. “It wouldn’t sound as good as the Moons, but it would work.”
Donald Fagen’s excellent third solo album, Morph the Cat, began playing as I moved instinctively to the center chair. The tale of a supernatural feline kicks off with a typically (for Fagen) jazzy, funky rhythm and builds into a refined, hook-filled, jazz-pop concoction that wouldn’t have been out-of-place on Steely Dan’s Gaucho.
Bass response was deep, tuneful and showed good pace, easily keeping up with the ESL panels. And, those panels … “wow” isn’t strong enough a word for my reaction on hearing the PX1s for the first time.
The PX1s brought me closer into the studio than almost any other speaker I’ve heard. I felt like I was on the other side of the mike during a band rehearsal, bathed in the direct sound of Fagan’s voice, but also enveloped by the other instruments and the room’s reverberation. You might think that the 360 degree radiating angle of the ESL panel would create too many reflections and muddy the sound, but a nifty internal filter that kills the back wave ensures that you would think wrong. Instead, Fagen’s lead vocal was focused and dead center in the mix, and I easily could identify his own background vocals from the other singers on the track.
ESL designs also are known for rolling off the top end slightly, but again the Muraudios refused to fit into stereotypes. The speakers, rated at 20hz – 22khz, produced extended highs without any brightness. You just kind of soaked up the music, making the overall rig the kind you want to keep turning up louder and louder.
Still to come was maybe the PX1s best trick. Seeing I was sitting, by habit, in the conventional sweet spot between the speakers, I was encouraged by Harman to move around. The first thing I did, while still seated, was slump down and then sit up as tall as possible. No change in sound. Then I learned left and right. Ditto. Finally, I physically got up and roamed the room. Incredibly, you could walk far off-axis and not suffer from too much change in the presentation.
“I wanted to design these speakers so you could recline on the sofa or sit up, walk around, whatever, and not need to have your head locked in a vise,” Harman said.
Mission accomplished. There are surprisingly quite a few speakers that exceed $50,000 a pair these days. But few have the engineering accomplishments of the Muraudio PX1s, let alone the combination of focused, yet wide-dispersion sound. These speakers, in fact, would be my top choice when I sell my company and cash out. Of course, I guess that means I better get busy and start that company in the first place. If you are not so patient, I’d be prepared to at least consider dumping the BMW lease or getting a second mortgage. The PX1s are that good.