Tempting Fate?

The art of extracting real performance in a real world situation…

By Roy Gregory

You have a complex and demanding system. You have a smaller than expected room, given the size of that system – and you’ve just bought a pair of equally large speakers: equal to the system that is, rather than the room… The challenges are significant, but the rewards are potentially magnificent – and with this much invested, financially and emotionally, you want to make sure the system is performing at its best.

The daunting question is, how do you navigate the limits imposed by the room, solve the problems and realise the potential benefits?

This is no imaginary scenario, but a very real conundrum facing a very real music lover. The speakers in question are Stenheim U2s. The room is around 11’5” by 23’ long, with a 16’4” tall, vaulted ceiling. Starting life as an ancient, brick-built barn attached to a family farmhouse, it is asymmetrical, both in terms of dimensions and venting, while a set of steps let into the floor on the right-hand side severely limits the forward placement of the right-hand speaker. Those steps lead through to the dining room, creating a void to the right of that speaker – whereas the speaker on the left is flanked by a solid brick wall.

Nor is it an overly optimistic leap of faith, simply ordering a large pair of potent loudspeakers and then hoping to make them work. The eventual arrival of the U2s was the culmination of a long and considered process: a process in which a large number of alternatives were considered (and rejected) before undertaking the by no means trivial task of home auditioning the two final contenders. If the Stenheims ultimately emerged victorious from this contest, it was in the full knowledge of the challenges that maximising their performance might present.

Meanwhile, the system itself presents its own challenges. A multi-source set up, it features a turntable, optical disc transport, three-box DAC, several tape machines, a multi-box, dual-mono, SUT/phono-stage, one stereo and two mono power amps, mostly mounted in a massive Stacore rack complete with pneumatic isolation shelves. Throw in multiple grounding boxes plus additional power supplies and pumps, and that’s a lot of equipment in a relatively small space. Ranged along the rear wall, the system effectively limits any rear movement of the speakers.

The original set up, showing just some of the driving system and how tight the space is.

The peculiarities of the room and system certainly place this set up well outside the norm, demanding specialist aid. So – who you gonna call? Not Ghostbusters! In this case – and in consultation with the speaker manufacturer – the customer called in Stirling Trayle of Audio Systems Optimized. Stirling has considerable experience with the Stenheim speakers and came highly recommended by Jean-Pascal Panchard of Stenheim. If anybody could coax the maximum musically rewards from these difficult circumstances, Stirling’s the man. Intrigued by the challenge and wanting to catch up with the latest evolutionary steps in the ASO approach, I came along too, to hold his coat and pass the odd tool.