Review: AR18s (1982)

Written by on June 6, 2012 in Timeless Classics - No comments

 


I originally wrote this review as entry to a competition on www.gearslutz.com , but felt since I now have the blog site I’ve always wanted, it will find a more appropriate place here:

Back in 1982 Edgar Villchur, 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, bring about 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 custom in-house designed and manufactured drive units, minimalist cross-overs and ferro-fluid cooling. In fact, in those days if a designer wanted to succeed at 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 freed 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 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 yet constantly increase it’s capabilities as technology from the opposite end of the listening system improves. Over the years, whenever I found myself in a place of not having an expensive set of speakers to audition, I fell back onto my trusty ARs. With every welcome reintroduction they mirrored closely the best of what I have tasted in my listening room.

To this day I find myself amazed at their sheer competence across the range of musical attributes I value most. Usually when a new preamplifier, power amplifier, cartridge or DAC comes along, I hook up my old 18s’s as my longest dependable constant. They allow 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 in the cross-over region (2kHz). Some see this as a drawback, others like my father find the extra energy in the presence band a welcome benefit. In the treble department they suffer from earlier roll-off than others and this range could have been cleaner. The 1,25″ cone tweeter has always been known for being a little spitty. Bass is tight and fast as can be expected from the small sealed enclosure. As much as bass speed and definition is an advantage of the sealed box, it also suffers from the typical downfall of limited extension. I however favor the tighter balance of speed where a good subwoofer can fill in the lower parts that fade early. These are small criticisms considering the overall musically satisfying performance and brilliant midrange the ARs are capable of, so it shouldn’t be taken too seriously.

There is something very special about a fully fleshed 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. Much like the wonderful flesh-on-the-bones midrange valve amplifiers are known for.

The AR18s is capable of such performance and I am very sure it has something to do with using, instead of the typical 6/7″ woofer-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 connection 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 to avoid the need for a passive cross-over network. 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 designed and manufactured 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 (a 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 earlier 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?

The AR18s has a fantastically neutral and engaging upper bass / lower midrange spectrum. Pitch definition is never questioned with these speakers. Bass lines are driven forth with speed, tightness and accuracy despite being a little lean when moved away from the wall. Although an owners manual found on the internet confirmed boundary loading (positioned hard up against the back wall) for optimum bass response, I found more experimentation yielding great returns along the lines of imaging and I am happy to trade a little bass for image specificity.

In this regard a decent set of spiked stands are mandatory. I keep a pair of Acoustic Energy Reference stands from the model AE-1 handy. On the AE stands the AR’s bass response can be tailored to personal tastes simply by moving them forwards and backwards in relation to the wall behind them. In my current room I ended up leaving them about 800mm from the rear wall on the AE-1 Reference stands filled with lead shot and spiked to the floor.

Mounted like this with three meters between them, a small amount of toe-in and tilting the stands backwards just a little, the ARs image incredibly well. I experience palpable image projection a good deal beyond speaker boundaries with excellent center fill and focus. My preference is having a wider side to side image placement with good focus to a more tightly squeezed, but deeper soundstage. The ARs are champs at painting a broad lifelike picture of the music. I simply get a wall of sound from them, but they need to be kept in good company and they don’t tolerate halfhearted setup!

Don’t think you’ll get the reference quality perspectives I describe here 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! The ARs 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 AR18s 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 ARs is the deviancy in the digital format and playback 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 and players are getting closer and closer to the analogue ideal.

Driven by a high-end vacuum tube amplifier and a decent record player as source, these speakers leave me longing for very little. To round the package off though, 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 effectively delt with 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. Good speakers cost a lot of money these days!

If you know where to find a good condition set of these old gems, keep very quiet and just go get them!

Tested with in recent times:

Linn Sondek
Linn Axis
Dynavector DV10x5
Dynavector DV20xL
Grado Gold
Denon DL103 / DL110
Linn Asaka
Van den Hul Colibri
Manley Steelhead
Audio Research Reference 3/5/5SE
EAR 834L / 834P / 868
NAD 3020/A/B/3120
Dynaco MkIII
Aragon 4004mk2
Naim NAP250 / NAC72 / Hi-Cap
Naim Nait 1 & 5
Audio Research VS115 KT120
Audio Research HD220
Wadia 8/12
NAD M55 / C565BEE
Naim CD5i
Audio Research DAC3mk2
Audio Research CD2mk2
Audio Research Reference CD7

About the Author

Audio Engineer, Critic & Retailer twenty years in the making.

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