pair of Abbys in red
Cain & Cain
A pair of Abbys in the red sunburst finish. The speakers size and shape have a lot to do with the way it sounds.
By Columnist
msnbc.com
updated 4/25/2005 2:19:24 PM ET 2005-04-25T18:19:24

Back in the day — way before DVDs, CD, cassettes, MP3s, HDTV, video games or even home computers — geeks had to channel their energy into experimenting with the gadgets available at that time. For many that meant ham radio, and stereos. Amateur radio was a tough sell for some, but everyone of a certain age had to have a stereo system.  It was a rite of passage in college dorms for years.

I love modern day gadgets, but I’ve come to realize that one of my great passions in life is listening to music in my home. What that means in real terms is that I spend way too much time trying to find the perfect stereo equipment. (This will not come as a shock to any of my regular readers .)

Which brings me to a pair of Cain & Cain speakers that have been sitting in my living room the past few months.  How they got there is an interesting story. I had heard about an amplifier that controls loudspeakers in an unusual way and only works with the few speakers that have a single driver (not separate woofers and tweeters and other circuitry).

In bed one night, I was studying a single-driver speaker Web site when my wife looked over my shoulder and exclaimed “What are those speakers? They’re beautiful. Buy them.” 

My wife has put up with every imaginable piece of electronic gear you can think of over the years (including lime green speakers that were 6 feet high and 20 feet long), not to mention all the boxes which they come in. She has never said anything like that to me. Ever! If these speakers had a WAF (wife acceptance factor) of one million, I had to hear them.

So, the next morning, I was on the phone with amplifier guru Nelson Pass and speaker designer Terry Cain to see what all the fuss was about. Cain lives in Walla Walla, Wash., and is a cabinet maker by trade and a music lover by heart. That is a dangerous combination. In addition to other woodworking tasks, Terry makes a number of speakers systems. The ones under discussion here today are the least expensive in the line. They’re called Abbys. 

Abbys are a few inches short of 6 feet tall. The wooden base is 14 inches square, with the speaker itself about 9 inches square at the bottom, then tapering up to 9 by 2 inches or so at the top. They actually have less visual impact on a room than you might imagine from my measurements.

The enclosure is made of real wood, not particle board. Up close, it’s beautiful. The two speakers (finished in sunburst blue) and their wooden shipping crate weighed about 120 pounds when they arrived at my door.

The Abby’s only driver is a 6-inch Fostex FE166E. It reproduces everything: bass, midrange and treble. The speaker enclosure is shaped the way it is to help reproduce sound from that single driver. Known as a Voigt pipe, the design was created in the 1930s to reinforce the sound coming from the back of the speaker driver, helping create the illusion of deep bass.  Terry Cain has improved on that idea.

The design is very basic: one ported box, one speaker driver and wire leading from the driver to the speaker jacks on the back. Terry created an oversized round mount for the driver — and a special way to put everything together. That seems to make all the difference in the world.

Abbys sell for $1,500 a pair. In this world of people listening on portable devices to compressed digital music files — and thinking that it sounds good — $1,500 may seem like a lot of money. But in the 2005 world of price-is-no-object hi-fi equipment the Abbys are a veritable bargain.

This is the part of any review where I’m supposed to tell you how the Abbys sound. Tempted though I am, I promise not to swoon and gush and proclaim these the best speakers I’ve ever heard in my living room.

Single driver speakers need time to break in. At least a day is necessary for everything to get used to the temperature in the room (especially true of winter deliveries) and then 100-200 hours of playing music to get them sounding just right. 

I’d like to tell you that the Abbys reproduce deep bass and ultra-high treble sounds as well as my current living room reference, a pair of DeVore Fidelity Gibbon 8s. They don’t— but they come real close. I’d like to say they sound like what many people think were the greatest speakers ever made — Quad ESL-57s. They probably don’t (I don’t have a pair to compare) — but I can tell you that like the Quads, Abbys can make voices and instruments sound real.

As a matter of fact, the Abby sound is absolutely addictive. For me, these speakers actually make listening to music fun again. Even though they won’t reproduce the lowest bass notes (Cain sells a matching subwoofer for just that purpose), Abbys sound truly seductive.

Abbys in a row
Cain & Cain
Abbys in a row — waiting for their Fostexs to be mounted.  A Bailey subwoofer can be seen on the left.
One of the most interesting things I found is that Abbys sound great with almost every amplifier I tried. That’s partly because they’re so efficient.  At 95 db, they require very little amplifier wattage to make music. Amplifiers usually sound better when they’re not being over-worked.

Abbys also let you clearly hear the way different amplifiers sound. My friend calls the speakers chameleons.  They’re actually a terrific testing tool.

In my living room the Abbys sounded amazingly great using some ancient equipment (Dynaco ST-35, Sugden A21) and truly unbelievable with my old Quad 33/303s.  This last combination has to be experienced to understand my enthusiasm.  It was scary good with newer stuff too: a single-ended amp based on 6L6 tubes from importer Robin Wyatt (what a soundstage), plus from importer Creston Funk, a Crimson amp/pre-amp and the nearly unbeatable DNM 3C/PA3S combination.  For instance, listening to the last Ray Charles album "Genius Loves Company" on SACD, via Sony’s top-of-the-line XA9000ES plus the Quad gear, created goose bumps for everyone in the room.

That brings us to the amp that was designed for speakers like the Abbys — Nelson Pass’ First Watt. Pass is one of the great amplifier experts today and other equipment designs sold under the Pass Labs brand are very highly regarded. 

So, everybody sat up when Pass started what he calls a kitchen-table effort to build very simple high quality/low power audio amplifiers intended for use with sensitive high quality loudspeaker drivers.

He calls his tiny firm First Watt because the first watt coming from any amplifier should sound better, really great. The company’s first product is the $2,500 F1, a 10 watt per channel stereo amplifier operating in balanced single-ended Class A without feedback. 

Technically, the F1 is a power trans-conductance or power current amplifier.  It changes an input voltage into an output current.  A regular amplifier sends output voltage to the loudspeaker.  Pass told me that the F1 ignores the elements in series with the load circuit, including back-EMF, wire resistance, inductance and such, and creates voice coil acceleration in direct proportion to the input signal.  I think I understand.

F1 amplifier
firstwatt.com
The F1 amplifier comes in a large enclosure, has 10 watts per channel, runs hot and sounds sweet.
Pass considers this amp an experiment of sorts.  A design like this has limited appeal — limited to people with very high efficiency, single-driver speakers. He’s making only 100 F1s.  After that, he’ll tinker with the circuits and create a F2.

When Pass sent the amp to audition, he also sent a pair of strange looking, hand-assembled small circuits that are made to connect to the speaker’s terminals in addition to the speaker cables from the amp. These are parallel loading networks — made especially for the Abby/F1 combo — to tailor the speaker driver’s response to the amp. 

The sound from the F1 is pretty amazing.  It sounded OK with my multiple-driver DeVore speakers (the amp wasn’t designed for speakers like that) but really came to life with the Abbys. Without the loading networks in place the Abbys sounded slightly bright, crisp and accurate with good bass. With the networks, the Abbys treble smoothed out and the Abbys became bass monsters. After stuffing a goodly amount of a Dacron pillow innards into the speaker port (as recommended by Terry Cain) to damp extra resonances you won’t believe how good this sounds.

The bottom line from all this is that Abby speakers are truly great — and can sound pretty amazing with nearly any amplifier you can think of (or own). If you want to hear what may be the direction of home sound reproduction — pair the Abbys with the First Watt F1 and you’ll be way ahead of the game.

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