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Update on Feastrex, Eltus WE, Maxonic field coil speakers. Also FAL "Flat-S" is nice! (LONG, rant warning)

Since I have been reporting occasionally on my experiences with hi-fi speakers here in Tokyo, I need to give an update. This time I will report briefly about my most recent experiences with the following speaker families, the first three heard at Sound Mates in Akihabara and the fourth heard at the manufacturer (Maxonic), also in Akihabara:

1) Feastrex Dimension 5nf, Dimension 5, Dimension 5e fullrange loudspeakers
2) Eltus Niagara (Japanese clones of Western Electric field coil drivers used in a 3-way system)
3) Furuyama Audio Laboratory (FAL) Supreme-S neodymium flat fullrange speaker (http://www.fal.gr.jp/catalog/s/supreme_s.html)
4) Maxonic 3-way field coil horn speakers with original Maxonic pre- and power amplifiers (using original transistors developed in-house)

Unfortunately, part of what I need to say here is highly negative and critical concerning the Sound Mates shop in Tokyo, but since I have given that shop a strong recommendation in the past, I feel compelled to warn people about the highly unsatisfactory experience I just had there.

Fortunately there are also some very good news items to report, and hopefully even the negative things covered herein will provide some good lessons for various people.

I visited the Sound Mates shop twice recently in the space of a few days. The first visit was on May 25, and although the main purpose was to hear the Feastrex fullrange speakers, Feastrex's Mr. Teramoto was unable to join us since the people I accompanied there didn't give sufficient advance notice for him to come. I called Mr. Teramoto as soon as I heard from the visitors (two audiophiles from Norway and Portugal who were visiting Tokyo on business), but even if Mr. Teramoto had left his home immediately, he would not have been able to arrive before our listening session was over. So I called Sound Mates myself; the proprietor, Mr. Asayama, graciously agreed to let us listen to various speakers in his shop even without Mr. Teramoto present.

Normally Mr. Asayama has the Feastrex Dimension 5 (alnico) and the Dimension 5e (field coil) drivers in his shop, but on this visit we were not able to listen to the field coil version because he had changed the voltage of his power supplies to 24V to use them with his Eltus "Western Electric" field coil speakers. That was too bad because I had loaned him a pair of decent 15V power supplies to use with the Feastrex drivers and all he needed to do to use them was attach a power cord -- not exactly a difficult item to locate in Akihabara. However, since we had given him such short notice I didn't complain about the inability to listen to the field coil drivers. We listened to the alnico Dimension 5 instead.

Frankly, the sound quality was not what I had expected. The Feastrex D5 units sounded pretty good, but not great. I was a bit surprised since they had seemed, to my mind, to sound much better on my previous visits to the shop. However, Feastrex's Mr. Teramoto was not there and I lacked confidence in my own judgment so I kept my thoughts to myself.

Next we listened to the Eltus Niagara three-way system with its knock-off Western Electric field coil drivers that are reputed to be better than the WE originals. The last time I heard this system it had lacked the 555 midrange driver and was functioning as a two-way with just the 46cm woofer and a horn tweeter, and, frankly, I had been pleasantly surprised by the fine performance at that time. So I was expecting that with the 555 in place it would sound even better. And, it did sound very good indeed, but I was a bit surprised that to my ears it did not sound appreciably better than on my previous visits. Something odd was going on here, but we were pressed for time and I didn't feel it was appropriate to try to dig into the reasons why.

Then we heard the Furuyama Audio Laboratory (FAL) Supreme-S neodymium flat fullrange speaker, and both the gentlemen visiting with me and I agreed that this was an extremely impressive speaker. I was immediately struck by the fact that the sound balance and the dynamics of the speaker was MUCH better than the Feastrex Dimension 5 we had just heard. There were still some things about the D5 that I preferred, but overall the FAL Flat-S driver was a superior performer, despite being cheaper than the Feastrex D5. Because of my partiality to the Feastrex speakers, the FAL driver's out-performing of the D5 really caught my attention! In fact, it overall sounded better than the Eltus system, which cost more than 10 times the price. That also struck me a very strange. It didn't seem right that the sound of the Eltus and Feastrex speakers had taken a turn for the worse since my last visit. I left Sound Mates shop with a sense of happiness at having discovered such a nice driver in the FAL Flat-S, and a sense of dismay that the Feastrex D5 drivers had not sounded nearly so nice as I had remembered them . . . It was a great mystery, but the mystery would be cleared up on my next visit a few days later.

The story with the Feastrex drivers continues, but as I'm discussing things in chronological order, let's put that on the back burner for a moment and turn our attention to the next place that I took the visitors from Norway and Portugal -- the offices of Maxonic, which are only about a five-minute walk from Sound Mates. By now it was 8:00 PM and I must express a HUGE thank you to Maxonic's Mr. Gotoh who not only spent the next two hours listening with us, but also took us out to dinner afterwards!

You may remember that when I last reported, Maxonic had developed an awesome time-aligned coaxial field coil driver, the TW-7000, that may be thought of as a 15-inch Altec field coil driver on steroids: the thing weighs more than 30kg! This time that was coupled with a separate field coil horn supertweeter. I did not confirm the weight of this tweeter but it must have been close to 20kg.

I'll start off by repeating what I have said before -- that although I once owned and loved large horn speakers, they are no longer my cup of tea and I do not foresee a horn speaker in my future. The reasons are entirely practical: I live in a relatively small house with a wife and seven children, and all hell would break loose if I ever put a large horn system in my living room. It would be a good way for me to become un-married real fast. The Maxonic speakers would probably reduce the usable area of my living room by about 25%.

Having said that, let me emphasize that I was greatly astounded by the beauty of what I heard with these speakers. The supertweeter was crossed at around 10kHz (if I recall correctly), and the fact that all the units were time aligned, along with the concentricity of the bass and midrange units (i.e., everything below 10kHz) gave the system an organic integrity and excellent imaging and soundstage that I am not accustomed to hearing with multiway speakers. One of the visitors commented, "The damn things have the approximate dimensions of a laundromat clothes washing machine, but boy, they sure do sound fanastic!" I can't recall having ever heard large horn speakers that simply disappear the way these do. Open your eyes and you're in the laundromat; close your eyes and you're in the best seat of the concert hall. There is no doubt in my mind that these can be considered some of the world's finest horn speakers, and -- as long as one has enough room for them -- there is no reason whatsoever why they should not be seriously considered for use by audiophiles in the home. I could live happily ever after with these speakers (again, as long as I was able to make room for them) and that is NOT something that I could say about the overwhelming majority of horn speakers that I have heard in the past, so coming from me, the above should be considered the highest praise. I think both horn lovers and people who have "written off" horns owe it to themselves to hear these speakers if there is ever an opportunity to do so. These speakers have some great surprises in store for both groups.

Maxonic also has some other extremely interesting products in various stages of development. These include a field coil 15-inch woofer, a field coil midrange horn driver, and a 5-octave curled horn, as well as some superb electronics built around their original transistors. Their transistor preamplifier and their transistor OTL amplifier are both works of art -- *industrial* art, with emphasis on "industrial." In fact, "industrial" -- or perhaps "bomb-proof" -- comes to mind with regard to the appearance of all their products, but the sound has a delicacy and refinement perhaps difficult to imagine from their clunky, heavy-duty construction. "Built like a tank, drives like a sports car." If this approach to audio appeals to you, you owe it to yourself to hear these if you have a chance. The following page is in need of updating but shows what the basic loudspeaker looks like.
http://www.maxonic-audio.com/invitation/

Okay, now back to Feastrex and Sound Mates. On May 30 I visited Sound Mates with Mr. Teramoto and a gentleman from Singapore. Fortunately, Mr. Teramoto decided to bring two pairs of his own speakers in for us to listen to -- one pair of Dimension D5nf and one pair of Dimension 5 speakers. Since Sound Mates has a pair of Dimension 5 on display all the time, normally Mr. Teramoto would not bring in a pair of his own, but he had made some very minor changes to the treatment of the cone that he wanted us to listen to. This providential decision on his part provided the decisive key to understanding why the Feastrex speakers in Sound Mates did not sound nearly as good to my ears as they had sounded previously.

Also, to make matters more interesting, just as we were getting ready to begin listening to the speakers, out of the blue another foreign visitor -- this time a dealer of high-end audio equipment based in Portugal -- suddenly walked into the shop. It was a good thing I just happened to be there to serve as his interpreter. His presence there also made a decisive difference in the way the evening turned out, although I strongly suspect he left with a poor opinion of Feastrex speakers, due to the problems we experienced in demonstrating them. (As a true gentleman, however, he was polite enough not to say anything disparaging about the Feastrex speakers, and I admit that I am speculating about what his true opinions were.)

The various problems we encountered this evening were partially related to the fact that much of Sound Mates' best electronic equipment was out on loan. We were unable to listen to vinyl at all, and the available electronics were not optimally matched to the various speakers we listened to. But other problems were directly the result of the idiosyncrasies of the shop's owner, Mr. Asayama. As the evening progressed, it became clear that he has some very strange, highly cherished ideas about the way audio equipment is supposed to sound, and he is easily offended by anything that he perceives as implying his cherished approaches are wrong. With regard to the Feastrex speakers in particular the problems were two-fold, and they combined to severely harm the sound. First is his preference for using the speakers directly on the carpeted floor without any stand beneath them. Since the speakers are quite small, this puts them at well below ear height. That by itself might not be a problem when the speakers are on the right kind of floor and properly played otherwise -- because they are capable of producing a huge soundstage and a huge "sweet spot" with fantastic imaging, so that regardless of where one listens in the room, the speakers always sound excellent. However, the carpet on the floor was not doing the speakers any good, and the sound suffered somewhat. This was true of both the Feastrex speakers owned by Sound Mates and also the ones that Mr. Teramoto brought in. It was only at the very end of the evening, after the gentleman from Portugal had just left, that the gentleman from Singapore and I decided to appropriate a pair of speaker stands from another corner of the shop and use them on our own, and WOW what an immediate and huge difference that made to the sound! The entire evening -- as well as previous evening of May 25 -- would have been much more enjoyable if we had followed our instincts and firmly requested speaker stands from the beginning, rather than humoring Mr. Asayama's idiosyncrasies. As a result the visitor from Singapore left with a greatly improved opinion of Mr. Teramoto's D5 drivers. It is greatly to be regretted that the gentleman from Portugal left without hearing anything that could make him feel really impressed and excited that evening. When someone travels halfway around the globe to hear a pair of speakers, you want them to leave with a really positive memory about something.

One of the low points of the evening came when we removed Mr. Teramoto's D5 (alnico) speakers and hooked up the pair of D5e (field coil) speakers owned by Sound Mates. The sole difference between these two models is supposed to be the motor. And, based on my previous experience with the D5 and the D5e, one listens to the D5 in a state of rapt excitement, imagining that the sound couldn't possibly get any better, and then the D5e comes in and simply blows your mind because the D5e does indeed sound noticeably better than the D5. The visitor from Portugal is really an extremely observant fellow, and he very perceptively asked me even before the D5e started to play, "Does the field coil model use cone paper different from that of the alnico model?" I immediately said "No, they are identical," but I did take a second look and then I noticed something very odd -- the paper in Mr. Teramoto's D5 did indeed look different from the paper in the Sound Mates D5e, even though they were supposed to be exactly the same. I assumed it was due to the lighting in the shop, or perhaps my mind was playing tricks on me. But as soon as the field coil model started to play, I knew something was seriously wrong, because instead of sounding better than the alnico model, it sounded noticeably worse. The speaker that was normally supposed to be overflowing with life sounded very dead indeed. It was disturbing, not only to me, but also to the visitors from Singapore and Portugal. We immediately started to try to find out what on earth the problem could be.

It was at this point that Sound Mates' Mr. Asayama remarked that he had painted the Feastrex cones with some special concoction that had greatly improved their "papery sound." The actual expression that he used in Japanese is "kami kusai oto" -- "sound that reeks of paper." Now what is THAT supposed to mean? Basically "kami kusai oto" is little more than a way of disparaging a paper cone speaker that you don't particularly like. So he completely painted the main cone and whizzer with some special compound -- what it was he refused to say, because he wanted to protect his great "secret" -- and the resulting sound was, to his own ears, a huge improvement. However, as far as Mr. Teramoto, the visitors from Singapore and Portugal, and I were concerned, he completely destroyed the sound of the speakers. He took a pair of what are by far the world's most expensive fullrange drivers (with the motor being milled from a single piece of Permendur) and completely ruined them. The only way to restore their sound would be to recone them, and that won't ever happen unless Mr. Asayama eventually admits that he made a huge mistake -- something he seems incapable of admitting.

Amazingly, despite the fact that I was freaking out and I'm sure Mr. Teramoto probably felt like he was going to have a heart attack at any moment, we all kept our calm. I quietly explained to the visitors that field coil speakers sounded so strange because Mr. Asayama had modified them, and we collectively shrugged our shoulders and went back to listening to Mr. Teramoto's alnico D5 units.

Now at this point I wish to make it clear that I think any end user of a product is free to modify his own property in any way that he likes. I may personally think the results sound like crap but if he is happy with the way his own audio equipment sounds, who am I to complain? And it is true that the D5 and D5e units that Mr. Asayama modified are his own property. He paid for them; they are his to do whatever he wants with them.

HOWEVER -- and here is the problem -- Mr. Asayama is also a dealer for Feastrex. As a dealer for Feastrex, Mr. Asayama has a duty to demonstrate the Feastrex speakers without modification. If he wants to modify them in any way, he needs to get the manufacturer's permission first. And he also needs to let listeners know beforehand that he has modified the products. If he does not do that he is committing a serious breach of ethics as a dealer. That fact that he could not understand this most basic of points utterly amazed and dismayed me.

Feastrex also provides fullrange drivers on an OEM basis to manufacturers in Japan and overseas, and is more than happy to make any changes that the customer requests. And Feastrex is also more than happy to completely respect the customers' proprietary technology and intellectual property rights. So if Mr. Asayama had wanted to make any changes, Feastrex would have been more than happy to accommodate those requests with the proviso that the customer put his own brand name on the driver and not sell it as a Feastrex speaker.

Needless to say, I feel totally disgusted at such a complete lack of professionalism.

But it gets worse. You see, Mr. Asayama is absolutely in love with his Eltus Niagara system using Western Electric field coil type drivers. (http://www.eltus.net/english/index-e.html) We made the mistake of asking to listen to this system and then expressing our frank opinion on the sound. When we asked to hear the system, Mr. Asayama was really happy to demonstrate it to us. It was obvious that he thought we were going to get the most delightful sound experience of our lives. However, they sounded pretty pathetic, at least for a pair of loudspeakers that cost about US$35,000. It turns out that he has also modified these speakers. So between the Eltus and the Feastrex systems, he has severely impaired the sound of about $50,000 worth of speakers. They are all repairable, I'm sure, but still, I feel really sorry for the guy. Anyway, the visitor from Portugal was obviously frustrated, and he asked me to ask Mr. Asayama if we couldn't please try a different amplifier instead. So I dutifully told Mr. Asayama that we're not happy with the sound and can't we please try another amplifier.

What he did next really surprised me. I have been living in Japan for more than a quarter century and I never saw anything like this before. He unplugged the speakers and said (in Japanese), "I don't want you to listen to these." And then he started to criticize Mr. Teramoto for bringing people who don't understand audio into his shop. "The guy who was in the shop just before these guys came in spent two million yen [about $16,000] without listening to anything. These guys come in here and make all these ridiculous demands and they don't buy anything." About this time the gentleman from Portugal left, and the fellow from Singapore and I were listening to the Feastrex D5. Because of my Japanese ability I could understand that Mr. Asayama was upset but I was focusing on trying to help the visitor from Singapore get satisfaction, so that his visit would not end up as a complete waste. And then after a few minutes Mr. Asayama suggested it was about time that the evening's demonstration came to an end.

Needless to say I no longer have a very high opinion of Mr. Asayama. Basically, despite the fact that he opened up his own shop and is running it as a business, his audio business is nothing more an extension of his audio hobby, and the aim is not to satisfy his customers but rather to satisfy himself. He can't see that a business exists for the purpose of satisfying its customers' needs. Rather, for him the customers exist in order to satisfy *his* needs -- not least the needs of his ego. I agree there is a sense in which in any business the customers exist in order to satisfy the proprietor's needs, but that's not where the proprietor's focus is supposed to be. If he satisfies his customers, in the end his customers will give him satisfaction too. In business, the best servant always wins in the end. The business owner's satisfaction must be a by-product of satisfying the customers. But Mr. Asayama can't see that. He is experiencing the curse of someone who was born into a lot of money, and who has all the money he could want to pursue his own audio hobby, and he does not feel the least incentive to set his own personal feelings as an audiophile aside for five minutes -- not to mention his immense self-conceit and pride -- in order to seek his customer's satisfaction. If you go into his shop and don't like what he has to offer, you can expect him to dismiss you as "unworthy" of his greatness. It is ironic that he would take such huge personal offense (where none was intended) at the suggestion that his speakers don't sound wonderful, even as he looks Mr. Teramoto in the face and informs him that he improved Mr. Teramoto's speakers by painting the cones to remove their "kami kusai oto."

Anyway, as far as Sound Mates is concerned, I can highly recommend the Furuyama Audio Laboratory Supreme-S speakers. They will no doubt sound wonderful until Mr. Asayama gets around to "improving" their sound (as he has informed me he has plans to do).

Other than that, I'm not sure what to recommend to people who want to listen to a variety of Feastrex drivers next time they visit Tokyo. Until Mr. Teramoto can find an alternate arrangement in Tokyo, the Feastrex head office is 1.5 hours from Tokyo by train. They have very good facilities there and a very wide variety of speakers -- not only the currently marketed models but also models in various stages of development, and visitors can also visit the workshop where the speakers are assembled. (http://www.feastrex.com)

And please remember that the Maxonic speakers have no connection with Sound Mates, so they remain a "must visit" destination for horn speaker lovers visiting Akihabara from overseas.

Thanks for reading! I guess you can tell that I needed to blow off a bit of steam.


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Topic - Update on Feastrex, Eltus WE, Maxonic field coil speakers. Also FAL "Flat-S" is nice! (LONG, rant warning) - Christopher Witmer 04:06:40 05/31/07 (9)

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