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- Written by Doug Schneider Doug Schneider
- Category: Full-Length Equipment Reviews Full-Length Equipment Reviews
- Created: 01 October 2011 01 October 2011
Note: Measurements taken in the anechoic chamber at Canada's National Research Council can be found through this link.
Vienna Acoustics’ Mozart Grand SE piqued my interest the first time I saw and heard it earlier this year at the Salon Son & Image show in Montreal, Canada. Its cabinetwork looked spectacular, its drivers and their configuration seemed interesting, the sound was pleasing, and its price of $3500 USD per pair seemed reasonable, given all that I was seeing and hearing. I requested a review sample, and a few months later, a brand-new pair arrived at my door.
Vienna Acoustics began in the late 1980s in Vienna, Austria, where they continue to design, make, and test loudspeakers today. The Mozart Grand SE is part of their Concert Grand series, which comprises nine models: four floorstanders (the two-way Bach Grand is below the Mozart Grand SE in the line; above it are the larger three-way Beethoven Baby Grand and the Beethoven Concert Grand), a bookshelf (Haydn Grand), a very-low-profile wall-mount (Waltz Grand), two center-channels (Maestro Grand and Theatro Grand), and a subwoofer (Principal Grand).
The original Mozart Grand debuted in 2005; the SE version is new this year. "SE" stands for neither Special Edition nor Signature Edition, but Symphony Edition. The cabinet measures 38.25"H x 8.5"W x 13.5"D and comes with a high-quality metal outrigger base that can accommodate large spikes, to better couple the speaker to the floor.
The Grand SE is a 2.5-way design -- that is, it’s somewhere between a two- and a three-way configuration. Basically, two drivers are used for the bass, but the output of the woofer lower on the front baffle is tapered off in the upper-bass region, while the upper woofer’s output rises to meet that of the tweeter, which reproduces the highs. A 2.5-way can generally provide deeper, louder bass than a two-way, two-driver design because two drivers are handling the lowest frequencies. The bass and bass/midrange drivers are each 6" in diameter and ported to the rear.
The noteworthy differences between the original Mozart and the new SE are the use of the company’s newer Spider-Cone driver for the bass-only driver, a polypropylene-based cone that’s stiffer than their standard cone made of the polymer X3P (and used in the original Mozart) due to embedded "ribs," as well as crossover enhancements that purport to result in better overall sound.
The X3P driver is still used as a midrange driver because it’s in that area that Vienna feels it excels. X3P is basically polypropylene, a material that many companies abandoned years ago because they couldn’t get it to sound right. Instead of dismissing the material, Vienna Acoustics worked with it for years to come up with a proprietary blend that achieves the sound they desired. According to their literature, "Combining TPX, the unique thermoplastic used in all X3P cones, with three polypropylene-based synthetics achieves maximum inner damping, ultralow mass, and precise control over cone density and rigidity. Dubbed X3P (X3P because of the three additional polymers in its composition) this cone material allows the driver to provide an extraordinarily wide bandwidth, while possessing a level of inner detail, quietness, and control that is truly remarkable." Vienna Acoustics says that the 1" soft-dome tweeter is their proprietary design and is manufactured for them in Denmark by Scan-Speak.
Vienna claims for the Mozart Grand SE a sensitivity of 90dB/W/m, an impedance of 4 ohms, and a low-end bass reach of 32Hz. The recommended range of amplifier power is 30-200W. The available finishes are Piano Black, Piano White, Cherry, and Rosewood. My review pair came in Rosewood and looked absolutely stunning -- no matter what part of the cabinet I looked at, the workmanship was extremely good.
Which is why I spent quite a bit of time talking to the folks at Vienna Acoustics about how they can offer such a high-quality finish at such a reasonable price. I figured I’d hear that their cabinets come from the Far East, where so many companies have them made nowadays, to cut costs. Nope. Instead, VA has a well-established relationship with an Italian furniture manufacturer, and the cabinets come from there. To keep costs down, VA’s production is done in the furniture maker’s low-volume season, which creates a win-win-win situation for the furniture maker, VA, and the consumer. Don’t lose that relationship, I say; these are, hands down, the best-finished, real-wood-veneer cabinets I’ve seen on any loudspeaker south of ten grand. Add to that extremely good binding posts, beautiful finishing around the ports, an attractive grille (only to protect the drivers; remove them for serious listening), and an overall look so elegant that you’ll want to showcase these speakers rather than try to hide them. It’s no wonder they so impressed me in Montreal. But would they sound the same in my listening room?
I knew that the Mozart Grand SE stood a very good chance of sounding at least similar in my room to how they sounded at SSI -- it was Vienna Acoustics’ Patrick Butler, who had been in charge of that room in Montreal, who brought the speakers to my door and insisted on setting them up himself. Who am I to argue with a guy willing to unpack a couple of 57-pound speakers and carry them upstairs? My only stipulation was that they needed to be set up in the same part of the room that I set up other loudspeakers. Other than that, I gave Butler free rein.
The Butler setup resulted in the Mozart Grand SEs spaced about 7’ apart and toed in a bit, and about 8’ from my listening chair. I like to listen in the nearfield, but Butler said he wouldn’t recommend sitting any closer than 8’, where, he said, the blend of the drivers’ outputs begins to be at its best. The speakers ended up very far from the wall boundaries -- almost 5’ from each sidewall, and 7’ from the front wall. This meant that they didn’t get as much bass reinforcement from the walls as they could have, but these placements way out in the room were my stipulation, not Butler’s; I’m more interested in hearing what a speaker can do than what my room is contributing to its sound.
Speaker width, listening distance, and toe-in were areas of concern, but there was a fourth: the rake angle of the front baffle, which can be adjusted with the spikes. Butler ended up tilting the speakers back about 5°, so that, when I sat in my listening chair, my ears would align with the midpoint between the tweeter and mid/woofer, which is Vienna’s preferred listening axis for this model. This was also the axis we measured them on in the anechoic chamber at Canada’s National Research Council.
After he’d finished, Butler sat me down in the sweet spot and, from a MacBook Pro he’d hooked up to my DAC, played Rob Wasserman’s Duets (16/44.1 WAV, MCA Jazz), a recording we both know well. I was surprised and impressed to hear something not just a little better than what I’d heard in Montreal, but a lot better. Jennifer Warnes’s voice, in her cover of Leonard Cohen’s "Ballad of the Runaway Horse," hovered holographically in the stage with a tube-like richness and unmistakable smoothness that were captivating, while Wasserman’s bass had a depth, fullness, and presence that belied the Mozart Grand SE’s modest size. Overall, the sound was fuller, richer, smoother, and much more present than I’d experienced in Montreal, and with far better imaging specificity and soundstage depth. In fact, Warnes’s voice hovered in space so solidly, and with such great separation from Wasserman’s bass, that it was almost uncanny.
Butler left a few tracks later, leaving me alone to quickly teach myself what the Viennas could do. Hearing Jennifer Warnes’s voice reproduced so smoothly and seductively had me wondering about male voices, so I played Willie Nelson’s Stardust (CD, Columbia/Legacy CK 65946). "Georgia On My Mind" revealed the same kind of vocal richness and smoothness I’d heard from the Warnes track, and the same precision of image placement: Nelson’s voice hung starkly in space, center stage, the instruments distinctly behind him, with extremely good separation. Most important, his voice didn’t sound chesty or too full, as it can with some speakers; instead, it sounded very present, highly detailed, exceedingly clean, and extremely natural.
However, the Mozart Grand SE’s richness and presence in the vocal region didn’t strike me as 100% accurate, something I know from having the reference-level Revel Ultima Salon2s on hand. I suspect that the Vienna has some emphasis around the 1kHz region, and perhaps something of a broad depression just a little above, where the crossover region is; however, these subtle colorations didn’t detract from the overall sound quality. In fact, these colorations did lots to enhance my listening experience, and gave the Mozart Grand SE a unique sound that I found suitable not only for voices, but for instruments as well. Acoustic guitars, for example, had a body and a presence that made them sound all the more real, while pianos were reproduced with a fullness that gave them appropriate size and scale.
While I can’t say that the Mozart Grand rendered the high frequencies in any extraordinary way, I can say that the speaker sounded superbly extended and very sweet up top in a more than competent way. In a nutshell, the Mozart’s top end didn’t sound as distinctive as its tube-like, sultry midrange, but it was nicely extended without ever being bright, and very refined.
But the Vienna’s bass was something else: fuller than I remembered hearing in Montreal, and giving me the impression that I was listening to a larger speaker. Part of the difference probably had to do with the difference in amplification. In Montreal, Vienna Acoustics used an Ayre Acoustics AX-7e, a great integrated amplifier but not all that powerful: 60Wpc into 8 ohms. At home, I used Blue Circle Audio’s BC204 (160Wpc into 8 ohms), Simaudio’s Moon 400M monoblocks (400W into 8 ohms), and, mostly, Bryston’s 4B SST2 (300Wpc into 8 ohms). The Mozart Grand SE certainly didn’t need all the juice these amps can provide, but they did seem to like a robust, powerful amp behind them to really come alive and play to their full potential.
Still, I think the difference was mainly attributable to my room, which is a lot bigger than that room in Montreal, and far more capable of supporting the surprisingly prodigious low-frequency output that a pair of Mozart Grand SEs can provide. The speaker’s generous bass wasn’t the last word in solidity or impact -- it’s a little more to the side of rounded and full than visceral and tight -- but it did lay the foundation for a weighty, robust, grand sound that not only made the Mozart sound larger than it is, but also provided a lifelike, room-filling sound that I found more satisfying than what most bass-limited, stand-mounted two-ways can produce. Nor is that necessarily to compare apples to oranges: these days, many upscale, stand-mounted speakers cost about the same as the Mozart Grand SE. My best guesstimate of the Vienna’s bass extension was that it had decent output down to about 35Hz, which is good for a speaker of this size. It also seemed to have a bit of emphasis from 70 to 150Hz that, while not necessarily strictly accurate again, did give drums and the low end of pianos impact and weight.
The Mozart Grand SEs also played louder than I initially thought they might, something I’d noticed when Patrick Butler was setting them up (he didn’t seem apprehensive about playing them very loud from time to time), which I confirmed by cranking up some raucous rock’n’roll after he’d left -- Guns N’ Roses, April Wine, The Clash, and the like -- as well as some movies, after I’d installed them in my home theater: Unknown, Cars, Black Swan, etc. The Mozart wouldn’t be my first choice for high-output rock or explosion-dominated soundtracks -- there are other speakers specifically designed for ear-splitting volume levels and heart-stopping impact -- but its ample bass supplied a very firm foundation, even without a subwoofer, and the overall sound remained remarkably composed even when the speakers were pushed beyond levels that I consider reasonable for a design of this type. I knew I’d hit the speakers’ limits when they compressed gently at first, particularly in the midrange and bass; when I went beyond that point, they sounded nasty, indicating severe driver stress. I could push the Mozart Grand SE pretty hard, but not too hard.
Thiel Audio’s SCS4T ($3690/pr.) stopped off at my place en route to Philip Beaudette for full review, giving me a chance to compare it with the Mozart Grand SE. Their similar prices, sizes, and builds make these models head-to-head competitors. Their cabinets are roughly the same size, and both are finished to a high standard, with real-wood veneers. Both have outrigger stands and feet that are as attractive as they are effective. It’s hard to criticize either in terms of build quality, but the Thiel’s Dark Cherry finish was no match for the Vienna’s Rosewood, which looked more luxurious and as if it cost a lot more. What the Italians can do with furniture is difficult to beat.
The SCS4T is a two-way design using Thiel’s proprietary coaxial driver, while the Mozart Grand SE is, as explained, a 2.5-way speaker using Vienna’s own cone drivers and soft-dome tweeter. The SCS4T seemed a touch easier to drive, but both seemed to work best with solid-state amps with good current capability.
They sounded quite different. The Thiel didn’t have anywhere near the Vienna’s fullness and weight in the bass, which made it sound lighter and smaller: Set up in the same positions as the Mozart Grand SEs, the SCS4Ts’ bass was basically gone by about 50Hz. The SCS4T would be far better off closer to the front wall and, probably, used in a smaller room in order to get more low-end reinforcement.
The SCS4T is more neutral throughout the midband, lacking the Mozart Grand SE’s obvious emphasis at around 1kHz and the depression above that; however, despite the Thiel’s neutrality in that region, its restricted bass makes it sound quite a bit leaner than the Vienna, which sounded voluptuous by comparison. The SCS4T had the edge in midrange detail, letting me hear into recordings a bit more -- but it also sounded thinner, and lacked the robustness, "pop," and presence that the Mozart Grand SE had with voices and instruments whose sounds occupy this range. Both speakers had clean highs, but the Mozart Grand SE’s silk-dome tweeter sounded smoother and more refined than the SCS4T’s aluminum dome, which at times sounded a touch unruly and dry.
The SCS4Ts took the lead in image specificity and soundstage precision, things I attribute to their coaxial drivers and Thiel’s design goal of time alignment; however, it was the Mozart Grand SEs’ fuller, more voluptuous sound that made images on the soundstage seem more present, more tangibly real.
These speakers sound decidedly different, but which sounds better will be a matter of personal preference. Although I usually favor accuracy, I definitely preferred the overall sound of the Mozart Grand SE -- not only for the fullness and weight of its bass, but also for its silky-smooth highs and, last but not least, its ultrasmooth and quite present midrange, which really brought voices to life.
Those who regularly read my reviews know that accuracy is almost at the top of my list of desired qualities in a loudspeaker. As described above, Vienna Acoustics’ Mozart Grand SE doesn’t toe the line of accuracy to the nth degree, but it’s balanced well enough overall, and its genuine strengths include: generously full bass that belies the speaker’s size; silky-sweet, thoroughly extended highs; and a smooth, sultry midrange that gives the sound real presence and makes it an absolute joy to use for listening to all kinds of music. Overall, the Mozart Grand SE is more about high musicality than ruthless accuracy, and makes no apologies for that -- nor should it. While I value textbook accuracy, I’ll be the first to say that in my room the Mozart Grand SEs sounded great, and that I listened to more music through them than I ever thought I would.
And of course there are also appearance and build quality, which can go unnoticed or ignored. For those who are décor conscious and want to show off their audio gear rather than hide it away, the Mozart Grand SE exhibits a rare level of craftsmanship and old-world charm that gives this affordable floorstander true luxury appeal. All told, the Vienna Acoustics Mozart Grand Symphony Edition is as easy on the eyes as it is on the ears -- for $3500, it’s not only a very good loudspeaker; it’s a great value.
. . . Doug Schneider
- Speakers -- Revel Ultima Salon2, Thiel Audio SCS4T
- Amplifiers -- Simaudio Moon 400M monoblocks, Blue Circle Audio BC204, Bryston 4B SST2
- Preamplifiers -- Simaudio Moon 350P, JE Audio VL10.1
- Digital sources -- Sony Vaio laptop, Simaudio Moon Evolution 650D DAC-transport, Ayre Acoustics QB-9 USB DAC
- Digital converters (USB to S/PDIF) -- Blue Circle Audio USB Tunnel, Stello U3
- Digital interconnects -- AudioQuest Diamond USB, i2Digital X-60 coaxial
- Analog interconnects -- Nirvana S-L, Nordost Quattro Fil, Nordost Valkyrja
- Speaker cables -- Nirvana S-L, Nordost Valkyrja
Vienna Acoustics Mozart Grand SE Loudspeakers
Price: $3500 USD per pair.
Warranty: Five years parts and labor.
Rysergasse 601230 Wien
Phone: +43 (0)1 88 96 815
Fax: +43 (0)1 88 96 599
Vienna Acoustics North America Inc.
728 Third Street, Unit C
Mukilteo, WA 98275
Phone: (425) 374-4015
Fax: (425) 645-7985