As a class, I think omni-directional speakers suffer somewhat of a bum rap when it comes to their imaging and soundstaging characteristics. I’m forever getting emails asking if the “artificiality” of the omni-directional presentation grows old after a while - as though it were somewhat akin to listening to music in a reverb chamber. Nothing could be further from the truth. While it is true that most omni-directional speakers don’t image in quite the same way as most monopoles, they don’t suffer all that much by comparison. These don’t, anyway. The Ohms are quite specific in their imaging. They just don’t cast quite the razor-sharp image outlines thrown by some of the very best speakers but never by live music.
While on the subject of what these speakers don’t do, let me get one more thing out of the way. The Ohms are musical enjoyment speakers, not laboratory instruments. If your idea of high-end sound is the ability to hear into every nook and cranny in a recording, no matter how non-musical or not intended for reproduction, the Ohms are probably not for you. But then again, after you get your fill of such HiFi speakers, maybe the Ohms can educate you on what is important in music listening. Believe me, I’ve been to the detail-above-all-else precipice and I’m here to tell you that a lot of audiophiles (if not a lot of the high-end) are moving in the wrong direction. This is not what musical enjoyment is all about.
That said, the Ohms are not heavy-handed or opaque. To the contrary, they are reasonably transparent to upstream electronics. The better you feed them, the better they treat you. Neither do they impose their will on all recordings. They render different acoustic recordings very differently and they also pass along more information than you want to know of on poor recordings. Of course, great recordings sound wonderful. In my months with the speakers, I haven’t been aware of one musically significant detail that was lost to the Ohms.
So what do the Ohms bring to the table? First, the Ohms are smooth - smooth, neutral and utterly coherent. I’m guessing that the single-driver coherency is largely responsible for their velvety smoothness. They also cast one harmonically dense production. Light and ethereal are not words I’d use to describe them. The Ohms create music that is both colorful and rich, with plenty of meat on the bones.
Twenty-some years ago, Ohm Acoustics ran an advertisement that featured a living room with a pair of their speakers along the far wall. Only the far wall was non-existent as the room opened up on an orchestral hall. This is exactly what the Ohms do. They don’t project out toward the listener as much as they drop the presentation behind the speakers. The Ohms make the rear wall of the room absolutely disappear. The room now sounds much larger and deeper than it is. Completely consistent with this perspective, the Ohms give a slightly distant view of acoustic and orchestral presentations. That makes perfect sense when viewing it through the mind’s eye. Orchestras are very neatly and naturally laid out from a mid-hall perspective. They also project a real sense of space around the orchestra to convey an excellent sense of the hall.
To some extent, the midrange control on the speakers can be adjusted to change the perspective but I find the way I have adjusted them (as described above) absolutely beguiling. I’ve touched on the Ohm’s bass response, which is truly excellent by almost any standard. The only bass experience I’ve heard in my room that exceeded it came at the hands of the Thiel Smart Sub which by itself costs about the same as the entire investment in the Ohms and is achieved via some very innovative methods of bass equalization. In the living room (my theater room), the Ohms require absolutely no subwoofer subsidization, just the power to drive them. And the better the amp, the better your Ohmage. In the dedicated music room, their bass reproduction is sublime. I’ve already pleaded guilty to enjoying the pagan pleasures of slightly exaggerated bass but if neutrality was what I wanted, I could easily achieve it. One night, I sat through both of George Winston’s December and Autumn LPs [Windham Hill Records C-1025 and C-1012] as they were reproduced with a luxuriously warm and weighty left register, completely natural depending upon one’s proximity to the real instrument. And that instrument seemed in perfect balance as it ebbed and flowed throughout my listening room.
Bass strings, be they plucked, bowed, acoustic or amplified, legato or staccato, all sound rich and satisfying over the Ohms. The Ohms are the only speakers in this class I have any experience with that even come close to giving the full measure of a pipe organ. Only those experiencing it on very large and expensive systems or via systems utilizing the very best of subwoofers will know anything is missing at all. Try Peter Richard Conte’s MAGIC! At the Wannamaker Grand Court Organ [Dorian XCD 90308] and witness the Ohms’ way with energizing the entire room for dramatic effect. Also listen for the way the recorded venue seems to change from passage to passage (in relation to the presence of deep bass). Then you can tell me whether the Ohms impose any artificiality on soundstaging.
Omni-directional speakers in general and Ohms in particular have a reputation for being especially outstanding reproducers of classical music. It’s true, they are. But these Ohms have both the dexterity and power to do complete justice to rock music. Over the course of the last two days, I’ve put in about 14 hours of listening with nary a hint of any fatigue. Program material? How about Van Halen’s 1984 [Warner 23985-1], Stevie Ray Vaughn & Double Trouble’s Texas Flood [Epic BFE 38734], U2’s The Joshua Tree [Island 7 A1 90581] and even some Huey Lewis and The News Sports [Chrysalis FV 41412]? You gotta hear the opening bass line on “Walking On A Thin Line” and the powerfully concussive “Bad Is Bad” among many others. Did I mention that it was a classic rock weekend? I even threw in some of Sony Music’s HQ-180 pressing of The All-Time Greatest Hits of Roy Orbison [S&P (2)-507] for good measure. Try as I might, I couldn’t get the Ohms to trip or flinch. They go loud, they play hard and they do total justice.
Following so close on the heels of the very excellent $3K Thiel PCS monitors and their outstanding treble, I was also made aware that the treble response of the Ohms isn’t perfect. But it ain’t bad either. You have to do something really stupid to get the Ohm’s treble to sound hard, spitty or abrasive. This applies to any and every Ohm I’ve ever heard. In fact, what originally attracted me to Ohms 20+ years ago was the smooth and fatigue-free treble. So what’s the problem? No problem. It’s just that as measured against the very best such as the Thiels, the Ohms lack just a touch of resolution. Just a touch. As smooth and unobtrusive as the treble is, compared to the very finest treble presentations I’ve heard, the Ohm’s don’t quite preserve the delicate shimmer and air associated with brassy percussive instruments (cymbals) to separate it out from the initial and repeated percussive transient the way I know great treble producers can. Such was the case on the copious cymbal work on “Nothing ‘Bout Me” from Sting’s Ten Summoner’s Tales [A&M CD 0070]. That said, treble presence is very good as triangles hang delicately in mid-air and masses of strings exhibit a wonderful balance of string tone and woody resonance. All in all, the Ohms treble performance is pretty good for sure.
Those who remember my Ohm Walsh Micro review will know that the nuts and bolts of the speaker were only the beginning of what was so great about them. The same applies to macro Ohms. Those experienced with a large dipole speaker such as the Magnepan 3.6 or 20.1 have an idea how such a speaker energizes the room with a power response that no domestically acceptable monopole speaker can approximate. They really do make the room come alive and become part of the experience. But what no dipole aficionado can relate to is the wide sweet spot and stable soundstaging these omnis call up.
As I sit here typing, I’m listening to Rimsky-Korsakoff’s Scheherazade [RCA Living Stereo LSC 2446] over the Ohms behind me. I sit in the corner of the room almost directly in front (slightly to the outside) of the left speaker. Yet behind me, I hear an entire soundstage full of musicians. Unlike with any other speaker, I have no hint of where the near speaker is sited. It vanishes completely into a full soundstage, albeit one slightly biased toward the near speaker. That’s “slightly biased toward”, not “collapsed into”. This is what makes the Ohms so fantastic. No more being a slave to the sweet spot as you enjoy the music from anywhere in the room. Soundstaging issues aside, even the timbre of the instruments is preserved in a way that no monopole speaker can duplicate since it’s impossible to walk outside most of their spectrum’s radiation pattern. Even the Ohm’s tweeter is mounted so as to radiate the bulk of its energy into the middle of the room. As you move toward one speaker, you find yourself even more on-axis with the far speaker’s tweeter. There are none of those drastic timbral changes moving about the room that everybody else experiences with regular speakers.
Of course, Sheherazade is a big piece with plenty of drama, both of which the Ohms communicated in spades. What a wonderful piece. What a wonderful recording! What a wonderful listening experience. Home theater practitioners have even more reason to enjoy the Ohms. Those employing a two-channel home theater will adore the Ohms for doing a far better job of nailing the image to the screen than any other speaker I’ve ever used even as you move outside the prime viewing area. Those employing a full 5.1 or 7.1 system will find that the soundfield produced remains more stable for a wider array of listeners. Those multi-channel SACDs or DVD-As that omit the center channel remain almost unbelievably stable for quite a parallel assortment of listeners.
As good as the nuts and bolts performance is, it is their omni-directional qualities that I find absolutely endearing about the Ohms. Until one lives with a pair of these speakers, one just can’t appreciate how much the quality of sound suffers as one moves about the room. It’s just become so ingrained in our expectations that one tends to ignore it. But one doesn’t have to tolerate it. Not anymore.
The vintage Ohm Walsh 4s with Ohm’s 4.5Mk II update represent a value and upgrade path that’s almost too good to be true. Companies that deal directly with the customer almost always offer great value as they obviate the need for a middleman and his chunk of the pie. That Ohm can offer so much performance to the buyer at such a reasonable cost is no miracle in and of itself. Neither is the fact that Ohm Acoustics has honed their products to such a high extent. They’ve concentrated on the same basic design for almost three decades rather than trying to reinvent the wheel with each new model year. And even Ohm’s MIT-educated prez John Strohbeen can’t lay claim to having invented the omni-directional speaker. So what’s not to believe?
Believe this: If you own a pair of vintage Ohms, it’s time to upgrade. Other than the relatively minor depletion of your bank account (definitely minor for what you get), there’s no downside here. Today’s Ohms are better in every way and are at the very least fully competitive with anything in their class. A major upside is that you get to keep your vintage cabinets (did I mention that I just dig the way they look?) and don’t have to ditch that part of your investment. Ask any manufacturer - cabinets are a major portion of overall loudspeaker manufacturing cost.
It should also be known that Ohm takes all of their speakers in trade. They have further been known to buy back vintage products when advertised on the Net. This means they have a fairly steady supply of vintage cabinets that, from time to time, get equipped with new drivers and offered for sale at less-than-mint prices.
Of course, I also think that anybody in the market who is not already an Ohm customer should consider Ohm’s pledge of 100% satisfaction or your money back within their 120-day home-trial period. So sure are they that you’ll be happy with your purchase that they even encourage you to keep them for a minimum of 30 days to make sure they’ve had a chance to break-in before you even begin to seriously consider your acquisition. I’d encourage you to do the same - all of it!