Meadowlark Audio Swift, Swan & Swallow £2400
1st Mar 2005 | 00:00
Go ornithological with these stylised home speakers
If the name Meadowlark Audio is unfamiliar, you are not alone. Even within the UK audio industry few people have heard of them, or know anything about them. It turns out however that Meadowlark Audio is not entirely unknown. The brand has been available in a low key way for some years, but under new distribution arrangements, the name may soon become better known.
On technical merit, Meadowlark Audio doesn't deserve its current obscurity. The company began life in San Diego in 1987, but has since moved just north of New York in the heart of extensive hardwood forests which provide the raw material for Meadowlark's loudspeaker enclosures. And amongst the growing hordes of sub/sat systems, its audiophile-grade L/R floorstanders are a refreshing sight.
The American way
There is a traditional quality to speakers that wear the Meadowlark name, whose logo is inscribed on the front panels - itself an unusual touch. Grille covers take the form of elasticised cloths that are stretched over the drive units and secured using recesses between the panels.
Where most comparable speakers are made from chipboard or MDF which is V-grooved and folded, the Meadowlark speakers are constructed from flat panels which are cold-glued under pressure the traditional way, the rear panels inset to increase cabinet stiffness.
Almost uniquely at the price, the front baffles are made from solid wood (not chipboard) - ash in this case - with a strongly figured grain, and some elaborate machining which is clearly visible from close quarters. A transparent lacquer finish is then applied. The effect is very raw and furniture-like in a way that many speakers are not.
However, on closer examination, I had some minor points of criticism. One is the lip around the centre channel tweeter which will encourage diffraction and can be expected to generate edginess in the extreme treble. Another point is that not all adjacent panels have matching grain structure. That said, the Meadowlark system reviewed here is a definite step up the construction ladder.
The floorstanding Swift and its truncated sibling, the Swan (enrolled in this system as the rear effects speaker) have tilted baffles to provide time alignment, which means that sounds of all frequencies reach the listener in step.
This is important because every note you hear consists of a wide range of frequencies (harmonics) played simultaneously. With a non-time aligned system, an impulse consisting of many frequencies fed into the loudspeaker terminals would be reproduced over n extended period with different frequencies appearing at various times, a subtle but significant form of distortion.
In this case low-rate (6dB/octave) crossover slopes help avoid disturbing the phase relationships between bass/mid frequencies and the treble any more than strictly necessary. Predictably, it is the centre speaker that is out of step, necessarily so as this is a horizontally oriented design.
The crossover in each case is a very simple, hard-wired network using high-grade components and in the case of the Swift housed in its own internal enclosure. Identical Vifa drivers are used throughout this system.
The final unusual feature of the Meadowlark speakers is that instead of conventional reflex loading to define the bass, they use a proprietary form of transmission line bass-loading. The main advantage is what may appear to be the incidental one of additional cabinet bracing that the internally labyrinthine sound path provides.
The voicing of the speakers is consistent, especially between front main and rear speakers. The centre speaker sounds subtly different, inevitably given its horizontal orientations and the lack of time alignment. The centre speaker is more boxy and wooden in comparison, though you'll be unlucky to hear any inconsistency when the system is in use.
With speakers as idiosyncratically designed as this, you won't be surprised to hear that they have distinctive voicing. This is a system that has a light, open touch, and an expressive, organic way of reproducing music and film soundtracks alike. The treble is not the most refined in quality, but it is generally clean and highly detailed.
The bass (see our Practical Tip) is limited by the physical nature of the system, and tends to lack weight and power if used without the support of a subwoofer. It's not just that you won't hear the big explosive events on blockbuster moves - the loss of ambient information and space is more relevant. The Meadowlark system sounds relatively small in scale and light in weight.
Significantly, with more mainstream material the Meadowlark system wasn't quite up to the task of reproducing ambience and space which partly depends on subtle low frequency cues. But the speakers were always tuneful and in control. Additionally, the Meadowlark bass belongs with the mid and treble, rather than sounding uncomfortably stitched on to the rest of the audio band.
The Meadowlark Swift, Swan and Swallow package is neither the most refined system at its price level, nor is it tonally the most neutral with a centre of gravity in the upper mid-band and veering into the lower reaches of the treble. But it's coherent and stylish. If you're looking for an individual speaker choice able to perform well with both multichannel and stereo sources, then an audition will prove rewarding.