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300B SETs and 89dB Speakers – are you NUTs?

Galibier Design - NiWatt Amps Driving Von Schweikert LoudspeakersWho, in their right mind would ever dream of matching a 300B SET amplifier to an 89dB speaker?

The NiWatts have been on a local tour as we await the first batch of production chassis – this, in preparation for their Fall tour to the East Coast.

Yesterday, I put them to a real test – with speakers that no 300B amplifier has any right to expect to drive to satisfactory levels – Von Schweikerts.

The Von Schweikerts are a claimed 94dB, but like most speaker designers’ optimistic claims, they’re more of a real-world 88-89dB speaker (you can ask me offline if you’re curious as to why I say this).

Our host is a big fan of Stevie Ray Vaughn and Pink Floyd, so I knew that he would show no mercy in terms of listening levels (way too loud for me).  This really piqued my curiosity.

I brought a few records along to add some contrast to our listening session: 

  • Oregon’s “Out of the Woods”
  • David Amram’s “Havana/New York”
  • Lauri Anderson’s “Mr. Heartbreak”
  • John Denver’s “Poems, Prayers & Promises”
  • Michele Campanella performing Lizt’s “Hungarian Rhapsodies” (solo piano)

Our host pulled out:

  • Some outlaw country music I’m not familiar with
  • Roger Waters’ live performance of “The Wall”
  • Ry Cooder’s “Paradise and Lunch” (one of his few albums I don’t own, but absolutely must have)
  • John Lee Hooker’s “The Healer” (one cut featuring Carlos Santana and another one with Bonnie Raitt)
  • Johnny Cash – “American IV: The Man Comes Around” (title track)

To say the NiWatts acquitted themselves in a “hostile” speaker environment was both a surprise to me as well as an understatement.  The NiWatts have continued to amaze me with the speakers they can drive.  They’re much closer to an 845 amplifier than a 300B (but with all of a 300B’s charms).

The only time they were under duress was at insane (for me) listening levels on one crescendo on the Roger Waters record.  I’d estimate we were listening at 102dB (fingers in my ears to protect my hearing, folks).

They sailed through all of the other program material while barely breaking a sweat. 

When an amplifier is overtaxed, you’ll get dynamic compression and the soundstage collapses.  Rhythmic drive falls apart as well.  On the John Lee Hooker/Carlos Santana cut (played at a “soulful” listening level), it was all about the rhythm, and space portrayal was there in spades. 

Lynn Olson was in attendance and he took the words right out of my mouth, when after that cut he commented that there was an ethereal sense of Santana’s guitar weaving a conversation with the drummer’s rhythm in both time and space (depth). 

I too, had an uncanny sense of the interplay between Carlos’ lead line and the drummer, and it’s all about rhythm when you’re listening to Santana (or Afro-Cuban jazz like the David Amram record).  When listening through our host’s 200 watt, Berning ZOTLs, I did not understand this performance, but with the NiWatts, everything made sense.  Go figure that one out! 

On the Bonnie Raitt track, she sold the song with that sultry voice like no one’s business.  Nuance and TONE, baby.

When the session kicked off, everyone was in chatty/audiophile mode, playing single cuts from various records.  Then … our host cued up side one of the Ry Cooder album, and we listened through the entire side.  There was dead silence as everyone was entranced.  The NiWatts were weaving their spell.

OK … take this with a grain of salt.  I’m the designer and have a vested interest in the outcome. 

Frankly however, last night’s experiment was intended only to prove to me how far past their limit the VonScheikerts were for the NiWatts.  I need to know this in terms of making recommendations. 

Well, I was wrong and I can’t say that I was disappointed about this, but I was most definitely surprised. 

If you listen to metal or rock at concert volumes, than no, I’d say these speakers are a bit much for the NiWatts.  Go find yourself a big arc welding solid state amplifier or an amp with a bank of KT-88s. 

At “normal” (but still loud) listening levels, I’d have no reservations in calling the NiWatts a good match for the Von Schweikerts.