Back in 1982 Edgar Villchur, the founder of the original Acoustic Research Company already knew stuff about acoustic engineering and loudspeaker design many modern day designers have only come to know in recent years. One such aspect is the minimalist cross over network, that when implemented in conjunction with custom designed drive units, cause for unparalleled transparency from the transducer system.
The subject of this review is probably AR’s most famous loudspeaker, the AR18s, and back in 1982 already featured modern day buzz words like in house custom designed and manufactured drive units, minimalist cross-overs and ferro-fluid cooling. In fact, in those days if a designer wanted to succeed in making a note worthy product of any kind, the in house route proved the only way.
In my time as audiophile, music lover and field related businessman, I’ve had the privilege of spending extended time with many highly regarded loudspeakers and monitors. Some of these speaker systems were of such lofty cost that the sale of the family vehicle or two would not have loosened up enough cash to make them possessions. For most of us this will probably always be the case, but there is light at the end of the tunnel and this time it is not the obvious freight carrier speeding to shatter a most aspiring dream.
You see, a good used set of AR18s’ could be acquired for far less than a mere $50. Here at the most southern tip of Africa I’ve acquired my last three sets of AR18s’ for less than R150 a set! All were bought from the obvious 2nd hand exchange chain stores and none of them needed more work than replacement of the foam woofer surrounds.
I love the AR18s. It is one of those timeless designs that seemingly constantly increase it’s capabilities as technology from the opposite end of the listening/monitoring system improves. Over the years, whenever I found myself in a place of not having a demo set of speakers or busy assessing new models, I fell back onto my trusty AR’s. With every welcome reintroduction they mirrored closely the best of what I have tasted in my own listening room.
Time and again I found myself amazed at their sheer competence across the range of high-end attributes. At various points when a new preamplifier, power amplifier, DAC etc came along, I hooked up my old 18’s as my longest standing constant. They allowed me to make very accurate judgments about the ancillaries in my system/s by allowing me to keep at least one important variable constant.
What they are not, is the last word in neutrality especially within the upper mid-band where they can be a little forward, but never nasal as another relic from its time, the Linn Sara could be. In the treble department they suffer from earlier roll-off than others and this range could ideally have been cleaner. These are small criticisms however considering the over-all picture the AR’s are capable of.
There is something very special about a fully fledged out midrange. Everything just sounds more lifelike and proportionate in scale. It allows the sound to cross a dividing barrier from being well reproduced high fidelity to something akin to real performers playing real instruments. The AR18s’ are capable of such performance and I am very sure it has something to do with using, instead of the typical 6/7” driver mostly seen these days, a comparably larger 8” unit. It is as if the 8” cone’s surface area more easily and more truthfully portrays midrange substance. Note worthy in relation to the type of mid/woofer used, is the fact that in the case of the AR18s’, the mid/woofer is direct coupled to the rear terminals. There are no passive components in between the mid/woofer and amplifier providing the signal. The signal thus passes with the least impairment possible. The trick is in the design of the driver where a natural mechanical roll-off was purposefully engineered into them. Quite an achievement back in the day!
The AR18s is a two way stand mount loudspeaker (bookshelf design in old school) using an in house 8” mid/woofer and a 1.25” cone type tweeter both made of good old paper. The box is of acoustic suspension / sealed box design (another proprietary Edgar Villchur development) and is of good proportions to promote rigidity. And yes, all speakers prior to the AR model One from the mid nineteen fifties were other than sealed enclosure designs!
I much prefer the old sealed box. Most never suffered the bloated upper bass artifacts that came as a byproduct of ported designs where designers were increasingly challenged by modern day trends to extract more bass from ever diminutive speaker boxes and bass drivers. Remember the old Morduant-Short MS10?
AR18’s have the most neutral and engaging upper bass / lower midrange spectrum I’ve yet encountered in monitors of comparable size. Pitch definition is never questioned with these babies. Bass lines are driven forth with speed, tightness and accuracy. Although an owners manual found on the internet recommends boundary loading (against the back wall positioning), I found more experimentation yielding great returns. Such as a decent set of spiked stands or wall brackets. Properly stand mounted with something like the Acoustic Energy Reference stands from the model AE-1, the AR’s bass response can be tailored to your acoustics or tastes simply by moving them forwards and backwards in relation to the front wall. In my current room I ended up leaving them 800mm from the rear wall on AE Reference stands filled with lead shot and spiked to the floor.
Mounted like this, with a very small amount of toe-in, staging is three dimensional and I experience palpable image projection a good deal beyond speaker boundaries. I easily prefer having a wide accurate side to side image placement and focus to a more tightly squeezed, but deeper soundstage. From a mix-down perspective, accurate left to right image positioning I value most. The AR’s are simply champs at getting this aspect right, but they need to be kept in good company and they need careful setup…
Don’t think you’ll get the reference qualities described above simply by hooking them up with lamp wire to the old Technics integrated on the attic. No, they will show you how horrible your amplifier is. Ipod, 1st or 2nd generation CD-player as source? Forget it! They will pierce your eardrums with the violence that besot thirty years of digital… They are unforgiving. They do not polish or wax sheen over inferior material or ancillaries. What you put in, you will get out and this aspect I value most in any piece of equipment.
Remember the AR18’s and all speakers from the golden years, were developed using analogue sources, be it tape or records. In actual fact what we hear when we don’t like what is coming from the AR’s are the deviancy in the digital format and material to the analogue ideal. The good news is, modern digital is getting better and better by the day. Which is why I made earlier mention of the AR’s seemingly getting better with the tide. What they are actually doing is showing how better digitally recorded material is getting closer and closer to the analogue ideal.
Driven by a high-end amp, tube preamp and high-end DAC, these speakers leave me longing for very little. To round the package off, I recommend a decent subwoofer like the B&W ASW608 and if you feel like splashing out on your magical find (and you have the means to), add a set of Townsend Audio Maximum Super Tweeters. By adding these devices the mild frequency extreme limitations are sorted and will boast maximum capitalization on the AR’s delicious midrange. To get a considerably better speaker system than this combination, many will face no alternative than to sell the family vehicles after all!
Manufacturer’s specifications attached.