$9995 to $24,995
Gary Steel has a positive predisposition towards Tannoy loudspeakers that’s reconfirmed (and then some) by its retro-look Prestige Gold Reference series.
TERRY HUMPHRIES IS the kind of guy who believes in doing it properly. Why sell top gear unless you’ve got a beautiful room in which to display it? Why display it if you’re not going to play it? Accordingly, Terry has set up his ‘by-appointment-only’ show room, Audio Reference, down a side street in central Auckland in what is probably the perfect venue to act as a conduit between genuinely high end audio gear and anyone with the ears to appreciate it.
When I turned up, both Terry and Romesh Anandaraja from Tannoy importers Wildash Audio Systems were there to answer any questions, and make the change-over between three different models of the Tannoy Prestige Gold Reference range a smooth process, and they indulged me for hours while I methodically played my music selections.
So let’s backtrack a bit. We all know about Tannoy, the only speaker manufacturer whose products are so ubiquitous that they’re in the dictionary. Those of us with an interest in the broadcast of recorded or live sound know that one famous use of Tannoy speakers is as public address systems, and that if you’re lucky enough to live in a Muslim country, you’ll be woken at some ungodly hour by a public Tannoy making a ‘call for prayer’; more relevant perhaps, is the formidable reputation that Tannoy has as a studio monitor. And then there’s the ‘residential’ market, which we might call ‘domestic’, which goes from fairly lowly, home-theatre-oriented floorstanders right up to the flagship Kingdom Royal.
My personal experience with Tannoy goes back about 16 years, when I was running a shop called Beautiful Music. We served espresso, sold CDs and vinyl, and hosted music performances and DJ sessions in the evening, and I needed speakers to do the space (and the music) justice. A friend was working at a local hi-fi store at the time, and turned me on to his 15-inch dual concentric Tannoy studio monitors. My friend said they sounded better than anything stocked in the shop in which he worked, and when I heard them, I was blown away, and I had to have some for myself. They survived a hell of a beating, and I never got tired of hearing compliments on the great sound from a variety of musicians, producers and sound engineers. (I was juicing them with an old Perreaux amplifier). So that’s my Tannoy soft spot, right there.)
The Tannoy Prestige Gold Reference is something quite different to my rather ugly monitor boxes, but they’re instantly recognisable as Tannoy, nonetheless, because of the unique dual concentric speaker (a tweeter smack-bang in the middle of a large woofer) that’s been a feature of the brand since the 1940s. Yep, that’s right, the London-born, Scotland-based company has been around for something like eight decades, which means they in existence before the word “hi-fi” was even common parlance.
Now, a few paragraphs back I mentioned the Tannoy flagship Kingdom Royal. Well, in a tradition that has become common in modern technology, the Prestige GR Series has benefited from many of the innovations that make the Kingdom Royal so, uh… royal! It’s the flow-down principle. In addition to that, each specific model in the Prestige GR series has its own individual esoteric touches, meaning that it’s not simply a case of bigger is better.
Of the five models in the Prestige GR Series, we were able to audition the Stirling, Turnberry and Kensington, while we’ll have to leave the top-of-range Canterbury and Westminster for another day.
You’ll notice that each member of the Prestige GR Series is similarly styled. That is, they all look like someone has fallen in love with an Edwardian-era gramophone – you know, when audio players actually looked like something you’d decorate the parlour with – and fashioned a speaker out of it. Or two speakers actually, because they do play in stereo. It’s a specific look that will appeal to those with a particular aesthetic, or perhaps those with a beautiful old villa where these beauties would look right at home. And to be honest, there is something comfortably old-world about the Prestige GR series, and when you’re sitting in a room the look of the loudspeakers staring you in the face does impact on the way you hear the sound.
Of course, there’s nothing old-world about the technology built into these speakers, which includes something called Deep Cryogenic Treatment (DCT). Even after Googling it, I was baffled. Impressed, but baffled. Complicating matters is the fact that some of this new technology and quality enhancement is used on some models and not others, so I’m going to try not to tie myself up in knots, and deal with one speaker at a time.
The Stirling GR ($9995) is the low end of the Prestige range, but it still looks and sounds top notch. You might look at it and think: “But where are all the drivers? I can only see one!” and you’d be right. But the thing is, with only one beaut 10-inch driver and that lovely gold dual concentric tweeter at its core, you’ve got a distinctively Tannoy sound which gives alarming musical cohesion, and burns away all that crossover distortion.
Needless to say that, although the Stirling is devoid of some of the fancy new technology carried by the upper echelon of Prestige models, the basics are all there and they’re nothing to be sneezed at: Like the hand-built, pre-oiled cabinet in real walnut wood veneer, which is (according to the blurb) ‘complemented with solid walnut trim and edging, machined metal trim and adjustable high power switch.’
The Stirling was perfectly suited to that outstanding, classic Bill Evans jazz album, Waltz For Debby, and brought out its incredibly resonant bass, natural dynamism and the well-rounded piano fingering in a way that the clarity of my Martin Logan electrostatic hybrids would sacrifice.
K&D Sessions by Kruder & Dorfmeister is a nicely engineered electronic downbeat collection, and while its ‘Speechless’ track by Count Basic really called for a subwoofer bass extension, the bass presence of the Stirling was quite phenomenal.
The haunting freak-folk sound of Lyttelton songbird Aldous Harding, on the other hand, fails to sound as “in my head” as it does at home, but then again, we’re listening in a very large room with very high ceiling, so perhaps the intimacy you’d get in an average size lounge will naturally be missing. Ditto Brendan Perry, whose Ark album sounds less 3D or stereophonically magical but certainly still impressive.
Emiliana Torrini’s ‘Birds’ is an interesting track, because it features up-close recording of voice and acoustic guitar, but also an intermittent groove and ambient guitar and piano sounds, and the more you listen, the more you hear. It strikes me that the Stirling bears the classic Tannoy sound: one that never tries to play magic tricks on you, but when something sonically amazing happens on a disc, it’s right there and present and waiting to floor you with its abilities. This happened on ‘Birds’ halfway through when the bass notes sounded. It wasn’t a ‘too much bass’ moment, just a moment when you’re floored by what you’re hearing, and I haven’t heard it before quite like that on another pair of speakers.
Next up was the Turnberry GR ($11,995), which looks near identical to the Stirling but is just that little bit bigger and better.
The blurb raves on about the new dual concentric driver, and why not? ‘The 10-inch Gold Reference Dual, unique to the Turnberry GR, uses a paper pulp cone material with twin roll fabric surround and 33mm aluminium-magnesium alloy dome tweeter with Tulip WaveGuide. The low frequency cone is fitted with a 52mm edge wound voice coil. This latest evolution of the 10-inch Dual brings an even more thrilling and dynamic performance than its well-regarded predecessor.’
The thing about Tannoy – and maybe it’s because of the company’s refinement of the studio monitor or just a characteristic of the dual concentric cone – is they don’t bullshit you. If you play a record that’s sonically compromised, then sonically compromised is what you get. So many speakers will modify a bad recording to make it sound okay. That doesn’t happen with Tannoy. It’s an aurally honest way of reproducing sound. When I played a track from a recent album by NZ jazz ensemble The Jac, I was taken aback by the intensity of the horn sound. Sure, ensemble horns blatting away can sound quite harsh. I wouldn’t describe the sound as harsh, exactly, but definitely edgy. And my guess is that the sound engineer didn’t quite have a handle on the horns. But anyway, the undertow, especially the bass and the drums, sounded spectacularly alive and present.
In fact, everything I played for a second time sounded more open, more detailed, and a little bit more dynamic than they did on the Stirling.
But the Kensington ($24,995), as you would expect for the price: now that was something else! If anything, it looks a little more svelte than its brothers, but there are many ways in which it justifies the price tag, not just that lovely reddish hue coming out of the dual concentric tweeter!
The driver itself is Tannoy’s Gold Reference 10-inch, and to quote the blurb again: ‘Its high-efficiency compression driver with 52mm heat-treated dome, Alnico motor system and high rigidity material creates outstanding dynamics, spacious sound staging and exceptional musical articulation.” None of which I would disagree with. But this is the bit I like: ‘To match the new 10-inch Dual, the Kensington crossover has been extensively upgraded with custom-specification ICW ClarityCap MR capacitors, low loss laminated core inductors and thick-film resistors, before the whole unit is Deep Cryogenically Treated. This technology brings a wealth of benefits to the Kensington GR sound, including more spacious soundstage, crisper micro dynamic detailing and an exceptional natural HF response.’
So, what does music sound like on it? Well, it’s still that identifiably Tannoy sonic signature, but the Kensington is effortlessly superior to its more humble siblings. I wish I had begun the day listening to it, because by now, I was feeling a little audition fatigued, but honestly, the Kensington is superb.
One of my favourite hi-fi test discs is Brian Eno’s Drawn From Life, an album he made with J. Peter Schwalm back in 2001, and which combines an incredibly spacious sonic palette with both electronic and orchestral elements. The album sounded so luxuriant on the Kensington’s that you could almost smell it. The bass was effortlessly deep while the orchestrations were so creamy you wanted to lap them up.
Frank Zappa’s ‘Watermelon In Easter Hay’ is one of the loveliest guitar pieces ever committed to vinyl, and the Kensington replicated the air sculptures of Zappa’s guitar perfectly.
From my favourite electronic dub (International Observer) to the jazz diva iterations of Holly Cole to Leonard Cohen’s old-man rumble of Old Ideas, the Kensington never stopped spilling out wads of superbly well defined, dynamic yet refined sound, and did it all effortlessly, while remaining totally in control.
Of course, this is called a FIRST LISTEN because that’s what it is. I haven’t spent weeks in my own environment getting to know these speakers. But I would implore anyone who likes the look of them, and likes what they read about them, to experience at least one of these Tannoy Prestige Gold Reference models for themselves. GARY STEEL
PS, Not to forget all the componentry that went together to help them perform at their best. All of that (thanks to Terry) is detailed below.
1) TANNOY Prestige GR STIRLING speakers @ RRP $9995/pr
OPPO JTLI (hot rodded) CD / Multi format Player – RRP $4250
Antipodes DS Music Server @ RRP 2995 with Aqua La Scala tube DAC @ RRP $8250
Ayon Scorpio KT88 Class-A 45w tube integrated amo pentode / 30 triode @ RRP 5995
TELLURIUM-Q Interconnect XLR Black Diamond reference @ $2795/pr
TELLURIUM-Q Speaker cable Ultra Black speaker cables @ $3750/ 3mtr pr
2) TANNOY Prestige GR Turnberry speakers @ RRP 11,995/pr
Ayon CDT – tube CD transport @ RRP $7995
Ayon Stealth tube DAC/Preamp @ RRP $10,995
Ayon Triton III KT150 class-A tube stereo power amp – 120w pentode / 70w triode @ RRP $15,995
Acoustic Zen Absolute Copper interconnects XLR-zero crystal ribbon copper interconnects @ 2750/pr
Tellurium-Q Speaker cable Black Diamond speaker cables @ $9375/ 3mtr pr
3) TANNOY Prestige GR KENSINGTON speakers @ RRP $24,995/pr
Accustic Arts TOP PLAYER-I Mk3 CD Player @ RRP $9995
Accustic Arts REFERENCE TUBE PRE-II Mk2 preamp @ 15,495
Accustic Arts REFERENCE MONO-II 300w Mono Blocks @ $25,995/pr
Acoustic Zen Absolute Silver interconnect cables @ $4750/pr
Tellurium-Q Silver Diamond speaker cables @ $11,995/ 3mtr pr