Featured Pick:

Osborn Grand Monument Reference

     This is one of the very few large speaker systems that is truly a great speaker system. It comfortably surpasses the already excellent sonics of its smaller Osborn siblings, including the Epitome favorably reviewed here previously. Its overall sonic performance easily surpasses that of most other comparably priced large, grand "ultimate statement" speakers. And it equals the performance of the very best large systems, some selling for 2 to 7 times its price, making it an outstanding value in its class.
     It is the hope of every speaker designer, and the acquisitive dream of every audiophile, to create and acquire (respectively) the ultimate speaker system, the "ultimate statement" embodiment of a particular design philosophy that is then carried out to the ultimate extreme, without compromise for the sake of low cost or moderate physical size. Speaker design is inherently so imperfect, and so burdened with engineering tradeoffs, that great strides can indeed be made if the fetters of cost and size are removed.
     Furthermore, speaker design is one audio arena where being bigger should indeed mean being better. Larger physical size, for the cabinet and for low frequency drivers, intrinsically brings with it the benefits of wider bandwidth, higher power output capability, higher efficiency, and lower distortion - as well of course as higher cost (cabinet costs alone go up dramatically with size). Also, the prospect of being able to use more drivers, alloting to each driver only that portion of the musical spectrum for which it is ideally suited, brings with it the promise of flatter frequency response, more neutral tonal balance, more accurate pistonic reproduction of the music wavefront, fewer diaphragm material colorations from non-pistonic breakup, lower breakup distortion, lower IM distortion (including lower Doppler distortion), etc.
     Small wonder that many loudspeaker designers and manufacturers have introduced a "ultimate statement" model, these days mostly priced around $20K-30K. These large ultimate models are usually a scaled up version of the same design philosophy employed in that manufacturer's smaller models, using similar drivers but more of them in a larger box. If the manufacturer's chosen design philosophy works well, and the smaller speaker models sound good, then in theory the larger no-compromise sibling should sound even better.
     But there's a slip twixt the cup and the lip. In practice, we have found that the large "ultimate statement" model from many (indeed most) manufacturers does not sound very good, even when their smaller models based on the same design philosophy might sound very good. Most of these large, ultimate models sound disjointed and overblown, pumping out lots of acoustic energy but sounding less like real music than their supposedly compromised smaller siblings from the same manufacturer. The smaller siblings (in the best cases) present an integrated sound that could pass for a real live musical instrument or voice. In contrast, the large "ultimate statement" model from the same manufacturer often sounds like its simply radiating disjointed splats of bass and treble energy, which are not related to each other, and which do not come together as they should to form a single seamless portrait of a single musical instrument or voice.
     Obviously, there is a special art to scaling up a speaker design philosophy, and not all speaker designers have mastered that art. It might also be that some speaker design philosophies are inherently not suited to scaling up, and can work well only in small scale.
     There are some truly excellent small and medium speakers on the market, some of which are reviewed here. But unfortunately it does not follow that the large, scaled up, ultimate model from the same manufacturer will sound good. There are now many "ultimate statement" models on the market, but most cannot be sonically recommended at all, and certainly not at their high prices.
     Thus, we can count on one hand the truly great sounding large speaker systems in the world. We would include Roger West's Sound Lab A1 electrostatic, the Martin-Logan Statement hybrid electrostatic, the Wilson Grand Slamm, and the speaker under review here, the Osborn Grand Monument Reference.
     Right off the bat, it's obvious that the Osborn has crucial advantages over these other great large speaker systems. It is far more efficient, far easier to drive, and can play louder than the electrostatics. At $19,975 it costs a mere fraction of what most of the other great large speakers cost. And it is among the easiest to drive, with your choice of power amp, since its efficiency is moderately high (rated 92 dB) and, more importantly, its impedance does not dip too low (rated 5 ohms minimum).
     Furthermore, the Osborn Grand Monument Reference (and its junior sibling, the Monument) sonically surpass the many other "ultimate statement" large speakers on the market, most of which are comparably priced, or in the $20K-30K range. These others sound overblown, fragmented, disjointed, splattered, defocused. The Osborn in contrast sounds integrated and focused. And, even though music from the Osborn does sound big (which most listeners do want from a large speaker system), its size and scale are consistent for all portions of the spectrum and for all types of music.
     How does the Osborn achieve its integrated, focused sound when so many other large speakers fail? In a word, the answer is simplicity.
     Most other manufacturers, when they create their "ultimate statement" model, start by using multiples of the same drivers they use in their smaller models, winding up with multiple midranges and even multiple tweeters. Their goal in using multiple drivers is to obtain the greater power handling capability, greater loudness capability, and greater efficiency that befits a large speaker system. Some manufacturers also create more complex crossovers, or even split up the spectrum among more drivers, as they move toward their large ultimate speaker model. However, multiple drivers can create disjointed sound (for a number of reasons, including direct radiation interference patterns, compound diffraction sources [which are especially problematic from larger cabinets], etc.).
     In contrast, the heart of each Osborn Monument (and Grand Monument Reference) is simply a single pair of drivers, one woofer and one tweeter. Think of it. A simple 2 way system, not a 4 or 5 way system as in other manufacturers' "ultimate statement" models. As you may know, some of the best sounding speakers along the highway of speaker history, in terms of reproducing music as a seamless, integrated, focused whole, have been simple 2 way systems (including mini-monitors). And the shoulders of this same highway are littered with the corpses of many 3 way speaker designs which failed to reproduce music as a seamless, coherent whole, in spite of the fact that the drivers in a 3 way system theoretically should be able to cover the spectrum more perfectly.
     This Osborn is not only simply a 2 way system. It also eschews the commonly practiced use of multiple drivers. In this Osborn there is only one woofer/midrange driver, not several. And of course only one tweeter driver.
     It's also important that these two Osborn drivers are mounted fairly close together. The cabinet of the Osborn Monument (and Grand Monument Reference) stands nearly 6 feet tall. Yet the two key drivers are merely 7.5 inches apart (center to center). That means that these two key drivers are about the same distance apart as they would be in a 2 way mini-monitor. In other words, this huge speaker system is really acting like a small 2 way mini-monitor over most of the musical spectrum! No wonder the Osborn is able to produce a well integrated musical portrait, much like 2 way mini-monitors excel at, whereas most competing "ultimate statement" speaker models cannot, with their multiple drivers scattered all over a large cabinet.
     If the Osborn is at heart just a simple 2 way, 2 driver mini-monitor (except in a large box), then how on earth does it achieve the large speaker goals of high effciency, high power handling, and high loudness capability? The answer again is simple: big bucks. Designer Greg Osborn has spent huge amounts of money on just these two drivers, in order to obtain premium units that have enormous power handling capability (achieved with expensive rugged construction features) and high efficiency (achieved with expensive powerful magnets). Other manufacturers can justify the $20K range price of their large "ultimate statement" speaker model by the sheer numbers of multiple drivers they employ, while Osborn puts the same total money into a select few drivers. The Osborn Grand Monument Reference can thereby give you the best of worlds, the seamless integration and focus of a 2 way mini-monitor, plus the grand sound of a large speaker system.
     It's worth noting that such expensive drivers would never appear in an actual mini-monitor, since no one would pay that much money for a small speaker system. Also, these drivers surely require a large enclosure volume to achieve their high efficiency and performance capabilities.
     Osborn has given the woofer/midrange its own vented enclosure, within the tower, separate from the tweeter. Both drivers are set at mid-height on the tower, so they are aligned with listening height for a normal seated listener. The diameter of the woofer/midrange diaphragm is only about 6 inches. This small diameter means that it can handle frequencies up into the midrange, to blend well with the small metal dome tweeter. On the other hand, this small diameter naturally means that this small woofer, regardless of its ruggedness and powerful magnet, won't be able to put out much quantity of deep bass. So where then does the bass come from, for this large speaker system? From the built-in subwoofer, of course.
     The majority of the large enclosure tower is actually devoted to the system subwoofer, which comprises two 12 inch woofers, each in its own vented enclosure (one at the top of the tower, one at the bottom). This subwoofer crosses over to the main 2 way system at 125 Hz. Thus, it merely augments the low end of the musical range, just as the tall large subwoofers from Wilson, Martin-Logan, etc. also do. In the case of this Osborn, the subwoofer is included in your purchase price, and furthermore is already integrated into the main enclosure. And remember, unlike most other "ultimate statement" large speaker models, with this Osborn the music remains chiefly sourced from that simple 2 way speaker system in the center of the tower.
     What is the sound of the Osborn Grand Monument Reference? A number of important sonic qualities are so outstanding in this speaker that they all capture your attention from the moment the music starts playing.
     First, this speaker is alive and engaging. It is vivid, vivacious, even gregarious. In short, it brings music to life. This is decidedly not a shy, retiring, passive speaker (see our critique of the Quad 989 for a discussion of that kind of sound). Which does not mean that the Osborn is overly aggressive. It just excels at letting the music energetically sing, communicating the radiant enthusiasm that the players are surely trying to imbue into their performance.
     Second, this speaker is wonderfully transparent. You easily hear into the subtle timbres and textures of musical instruments and voices. All music simply sounds much more real, and much more richly involving, when you can so easily hear from a recording the subtle sounds that you usually can only hear live. Very few other speakers are this transparent. One might liken it to the transparency of great electrostatics, but that's not quite right. Electrostatics still are superior to dynamic drivers in sheer speed and lack of inertial hangover. But this Osborn is nearly as transparent, and its version of transparency is actually preferable to an electrostatic's, because this Osborn has what we'll call dynamic transparency (the Wilson Grand Slamm also excels at this). This Osborn (and this Wilson) can track a strong dynamic transient, and still resolve the subtle timbral and textural noises that make this transient sound real (say a cow bell hit on a drum kit). The electrostatic cannot reproduce the dynamics of the main strong transient, and if its not accurately tracking the true dynamics of the overall waveform, then good transparency achieved for subtle sounds within the shrunken transient is less challenging, and is even in a sense academic (if the main event is distorted and squashed, then who cares if the subtle frills are transparently reproduced).
     Third, this speaker sounds wonderfully open and airy. There's a sense of freedom and expansiveness to the sound of every musical note. In contrast, many other speaker systems, even large ones, make music sound closeted, closed in, blanketed, or boxed into an enclosure.
     Fourth, this speaker lets music sound big. One of the special joys of listening to a large speaker system is that large scale musical works sound large, and commandingly impressive, just as they do live, and just as the composer intended them to sound. This bigness of sound is not simply a matter of being able to play loud, since the Osborn's sound is big even at moderate volume levels. Some of the bigness is attributable to the size of the stereo image generated by large speaker systems. But perhaps the most telling reason for the Osborn's bigness of sound is this speaker's rich warmth. Musical performances posses a wonderfully rich body, weight, and authoritative heft through this Osborn. Singers have real chests, not just vocal cords; pianos have real wood sounding boards, not just hammers and strings; cellos have a large resonant cavity, not just strings and a bow.
     People have always responded favorably to rich warmth in speakers, because of the natural musicality it provides, and also because it keeps a speaker from sounding too lean, bright, and analytical (especially speakers with revealing transparency and full treble response, like this Osborn, which could easily sound this way if there were not enough counterbalancing warmth). Henry Kloss, for example, has always taken care that his speaker designs feature rich warmth, and his historic milestones such as the KLH 6 and 8 owe their musical success to this factor. Even our grandparents in their wisdom, shopping in the 1930s for a radio console as their entertainment center, sought what they then called "good tone", by which they meant rich warmth.
     Fifth, this speaker sounds effortless. As we discussed previously in IAR, the hallmark of a truly great audio component is a sense of relaxed ease at doing its job, the same sense we see in Fred Astaire's dancing. This is the last hurdle for many audio components trying to achieve greatness. They may have flat frequency response and wide bandwidth and low measured distortion. But they still can't sound truly great if they evince signs of strain and struggle when playing music. Speakers often sound as if they're working hard to push or pump out the music, thereby imposing on reproduced music a forced quality that is alien to what live music actually sounds like. And speakers also often sound as if they're squashing or compressing music, or imposing a ceiling on it, or stuffing it into a small closet, or muffling it under a blanket. In short, these speakers intrude themselves and their limitations on the music, imposing themselves between you and your music. In contrast, this Osborn sounds like it's having a joyfully easy, relaxed time bringing you the music. With this Osborn, there's much less speaker strain to intrude. And that puts you more directly in touch with your music.
     Sixth, this speaker sounds very well integrated, especially for a large system. As discussed above, most other multi-way speaker systems, and most other multiple driver large speaker systems, sound fragmented - the harmonics or treble parts of a musical note sound as if they're coming from a different kind of material driver or speaker than the midrange or bass parts of the same note. This Osborn has very good integration, probably because it is at heart a 2 way mini-monitor - on steroids.
     Seventh, this speaker sounds impressively authoritative. It can play loud, but you can easily hear this authority even at moderate volume levels. We attribute this sense of authority to a wide dynamic range, which accurately and quickly handles the high crest factors of music, without compression and without the time smearing overhang that compression brings. Live music can have a very high crest factor, where the instantaneous peak value of a momentary transient is much, much higher than the average power level of the music's loudness. Most speakers cannot handle these very high peaks accurately, even when playing music at moderate volume levels. So they squash the amplitude of the very high momentary peak, thereby making this musical peak sound unrealistic. And, since the squashed energy has to go somewhere, the waveform gets smeared out into a time overhang, while the speaker struggles to regain its equilibrium after being dynamically overloaded, thereby making this musical peak sound doubly unrealistic. In other words, the real transient goes up to a very high peak and then is over with very quickly in time, whereas most speakers squash the amplitude of the high peak and then extend the squashed energy longer in time than it should be, thereby committing a double blunder.
     In contrast, this Osborn does a superb job of replicating the very high peak and then getting over it quickly. It's tricky to put into words what this sounds like when done correctly, as this Osborn does it. It doesn't really sound louder, since the very high amplitude transient is over with so quickly in time. Perhaps the best description is to say that, when these high momentary transients are handled with full dynamic range and are quickly left behind, then music sounds more real, more alive and alert, more fresh, and more impactive but without being heavy handed. And that's how this Osborn sounds. It accurately reproduces both the high amplitude and the short duration of the momentary musical transient peak
     Note that this Osborn retains its balance and poise while doing this, so it is instantly ready to accurately reproduce the very next tidbit of musical subtlety to come along. Most other speakers get flustered by the overload of these high musical peaks, and therefore, until they recover their balance and poise from this overload (i.e. until they manage to dissipate over time the energy stored from their dynamic squashing), they can't do as good a job of transparently and accurately revealing the next tidbit of musical subtlety to come along. Incidentally, this is part of what we meant above by dynamic transparency, when we noted that this Osborn and the Wilson Grand Slamm are more transparent than electrostatics in handling dynamic musical material.
     As you continue listening to the Osborn Grand Monument Reference, you begin to become aware of further secondary sonic qualities.
     First, this speaker is excellent at projecting a musical performance into your listening room. If a singer or a pianist is closely miked center stage (and most are on most recordings), this Osborn puts them right there, center stage, in your listening room, with a solid, believable, body (this body being helped by the rich warmth discussed above). Many music recordings heard through this Osborn can have a vividly realistic presence in your listening room. It's an exciting, impressive, immensely

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