Pensil 12 and B&W Matrix 802
Another thread has already mentioned my plan to set up a 5.1 system using Alpair 12 and Alpair 7 drivers, and I’ll post more info on that once I get it going.
In the meantime, Mark has kindly lent me his test Pensil 12 speakers so that I can listen to them in my own room. I had previously heard them at his studio here in Hong Kong where they were very impressive. The damped air coupled boxes sounded much clearer than the ported box version, but his studio is very large (maybe 8m x 15m and 3m high?) and so the Pensils had a lot of space to breathe in.
My main interest is stereo, as you can tell from my system: a relatively high end KT88 push-pull amp, a TVC and an Ayre CX7eMP CD player for stereo, and a Pioneer DVD and lowly Denon receiver for movies. Exact details are here - My web page. In particular I am comparing the Pensils to my modified B&W Matrix 802 Series 3 speakers.
Mark originally supplied the speakers with 275g of damping material inside but I reduced this to 180g and found I preferred the sound a bit more, but that is something you need to play with depending on your tastes and the size of your room.
The first and most obvious thing I noticed was the extra detail coming through. Some is due to the extra treble compared to my B&Ws, which I have rolled off to stop the tweeters getting too prominent, but most is just because there is no crossover. Solo instruments, and especially the piano for some reason, sound much clearer. Trumpets and violins sound sharper but not unrealistically so, and not in an unpleasant way that I know the B&Ws would be if I pushed them as high. What really surprised me was on a percussion track hearing so much more detail in the decay of the drum sounds.
The Pensils do have a slightly leaner sound to them than the B&Ws in the midrange, but aren’t lacking in warmth. I’d say in that area they were different rather than better or worse.
For sheer quantity of bass I’d say the B&Ws have the edge, but on hearing the Pensils I realize the B&W bass is lacking any real detail. For music that makes the Pensils better but when I swapped across to movies it wasn’t quite the same. At the moment I run a 5.0 system as the B&Ws provide more than enough for my room, but with the Pensils it’s really going to need to be a 5.1 to get the impact from sound effects. They seem to go as low on the sounds, they just don’t physically move the same amount of air. Organs, drums etc are great but exploding buildings aren’t as impressive. But I think Mark has already mentioned elsewhere that these aren’t supposed to be subwoofer drivers.
I get the feeling that the Alpair drivers take a little longer to warm up than the B&Ws, but that might be because these ones are relatively new (only 10 hours on them when I got them). Or maybe they are showing up the effect of my amp warming up which the B&Ws don’t do so much. It only takes about 10 minutes anyway.
It is worth noting that with the Pensils, like any very revealing speakers, you will quickly become aware of any failings in other areas of your system or the quality of recordings. CDs that I know aren’t well made do sound pretty awful on the Pensils, but of course the good ones sound great. But that isn’t really the fault of the Pensils as it’s common to all high end systems. But the better the electronics you pair them with the better the results are going to be.
Pencil 12 and home theatre system
I've had my speakers for a while now so thought it was time I updated my post. They are MDF cabinets which, as you can see from the photos, have been finished in a piano gloss burgundy colour (although flash and bright daylight makes some photos show them as a bit more purple) with the gold coloured drivers. Of the attached photos, the closeup of the driver is the most realistic representation of the colour in real life.
The front speakers are Pencil 12s with no internal bracing, just the material damping, although there are some brackets just above the hole to hold the damping in place. The centre speaker is a sealed box with a single Alpair 12 at an angle of about 10 degrees so that it faces up slightly. The size of the box was dictated by the space in my TV cabinet, but I think it looks quite smart. The rear speakers, which are about 1m to the side of the listening area, are ported cabinets with two Alpair 7s in each, wired in series so that they match the 8ohms of the front speakers.
I also asked Mark to fit the Pencil 12s with and extra positive binding post. This has an inductor attached (0.6mH I think) for rolling off the treble a bit. Some of my CDs are of music from the 70s where I find the mix a bit too bright and I thought having the option to tone them down might be useful. I haven't actually used them yet though other than for testing.
The main and rear speakers are sitting on some feet that Mark had made for me, machined out of solid brass and then chrome plated. They are "H" shaped with adjustable feet on each corner, but are not actually attached to the cabinets. They look beautiful but the chrome is a bit of a pain as it seems to tarnish quite quickly. Hong Kong is very humid at this time of year and after aircon has been on I think they might be suffering from the damp of condensation.
From the stereo point of view nothing has really changed from my comments below. The Pencil 12s (not Pensil 12s anymore!) clearly sound much better than my old B&Ws which have now been transferred to my "second system". The second system didn't actually exist before, but it did give me an excuse to buy a new amp (a Luxman L-505u) and upgrade my CD player (to an Esoteric X05). The B&Ws sound much better with the Luxman than with my Ella tube amp, whereas the Pencils seem happier with the Ella. The Pencils show so much detail that you can hear some grain in the midrange with the Luxman, although to be fair this model is Luxman's entry level amp. The B&Ws on the other hand like the extra power.
What was more interesting was to try out the Pencil 12s with the new centre and rear speakers. Before I only had the B&W CC6 speaker and some awful, small JBL "style" system rears, so my surround system relied almost totally on the 802s. What a difference it has made to have the full set!
The Audyssey software from Denon set the rear crossover at 40Hz and the centre at 80Hz and had no problem setting the distances and levels. I turned the rear levels down slightly but only because I prefer the balance to be more towards the front. I then used the Denon in its "5 channel stereo" mode to burn in the speakers for a while although it spent much of that time playing vuvuzela noise from the TV!
Unfortunately all that football meant I didn't get much time to watch any movies, but I've started to rectify that. Originally I had expected that I'd need to add a subwoofer, but so far I really don't think that is going to be necessary. The effects in the Avatar DVD were impressive and certainly sufficient for my tastes. Not really room shaking but I think having the rear speakers going quite low has certainly helped. So unless I find myself in a much bigger room I'm going to stay at 5.0 for now.
I suppose my next step should be to uggrade the Denon, but I never play music DVDs through it (they get sent in stereo to the Ella) and for movies it seems OK for now. But now I've got some speakers that could really take advantage of something better, you never know…
Very nice. What would you say the differences are in relation to the single 12 vs. the double 7's?
Thanx for the report Graham. Lovely to see a full FR HT :)
One comment though is that my spec to Mark for the 7s was that they were to be rear speakers, quite close to the listening position and without much room. He's done a really good job with the cabinet as the treble is slightly restrained, so there is no sense of shouting, and they seem more than happy in a restricted space. I always feel the Pencil design needs more space to really perform at it's best.
But for main speakers I would always go with the Pencils rather than the ported box with either the Alpair 7s or 12s. I did hear some ported 12s at Marks studio and although they were very good, they lacked a bit of air when compared to the Pencils. But then Mark's studio is also a large space and so suited the Pencils more than the ported box. I think in a smaller room or with a closer listening position the ported cabinets might have an advantage.
Scott has done a tremendous job with the Pencil design and he really gets the best out of the drivers. I wonder if it would be possible to use two 7s in a Pencil box? Probably not much point - if you have a room big enough to need two 7s in that type of box you might as well use the Alpair 10 or 12. Could be fun to try though as four of those in a HT system would look very pretty too!
And the quality of the machining from Mr. Chu on the feet is something to see. Even on the round receptacles that go under the spikes he has machined out a gap that holds a rubber o-ring to protect the floor.
Mark - if you don't mind giving away the details of your contacts feel free to provide more information here. I only know them as "Michael" and "Mr. Chu"!
Glad you've mentioned the fellas who put the build together. I'm all for crediting the people that do the hard work.
Agreed, all credit to Scott for a fine piece of box design work. He's managed to extract a great deal from the Alpair 12 using the Damped Air Coupled principle, more than I'd originally calculated in respect of the driver. Scott sometimes hints that I'm rather cautious on specs. He's right, most engineers like to keep 10% or more in reserve.
Michael's fit and finish is excellent. He can work with MFD, ply and solid woods, painted or veneered finishes. Anyone interested in having Michael make custom boxes, please contact me.
Mr Chui is my mould/frame maker. An excellent engineer, I shall be at his factory this Saturday to carry on the preparations for Alpair 6 and Alpair 10 builds. Anyone interested in custom speaker stands, or much anything machined or moulded, let me know.
Those look very impressive indeed. Glad you're enjoying your system.
Re a Pencil for twin Alpair 7s, yes, it's certainly possible, but you're spot on -essentially it would be double the volume of the Pencil 7, by which point you may as well go for the Pencil 10 or 12, as you say.
Graham, where can I get the plans for the twin 7 design that you built? Towers.
You know, I have to say I get really pretty tired of people constantly saying "Oh, made in China? Must be crap." The beautiful setup you're showing here will hopefully put some of that kind of talk to rest. The cabinet work looks fantastic, the paint/finish is wonderful, and the machine work for the "feet" is perfect. I'll be contacting Mark soon to get some details on what has been shown in this thread.
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