By Bill Heck
If you follow “audiophile” magazines or websites (and if you don’t, it may be a sign of wisdom), you have seen breathless reviews of gigantic – if all too often ugly – speakers, with gigantic price tags to match, meant to be played in gigantic rooms ideally dimensioned and often purpose-built for the best sound, said rooms being filled with gigantic sound absorbing or diffusing – and all too often ugly – panels and materials. Even if you have salivated over such spectacular setups, deep inside you've known that you, along with most of us, don't live in a world with all this giganticness. Perhaps multiple tens of thousands of dollars, sometimes many multiples, is a little too pricey. Perhaps you live in a beautiful older – or even newer – house or condo with normal-sized rooms which are not custom-designed for impressive sound. And perhaps you live in that house with a partner who is less than thrilled with decor that brings to mind either the laboratory of a mad scientist or a freight depot. In other words, you might live with most of us in the real world.
|Legacy Signatures (oak finish)
So is this “introduction” a "review"? I suppose so, but let's put some qualifications on the table. First, speaker performance is heavily influenced by the listening room and even the room contents, and listener priorities and habits can vary wildly, so no one “review” can be the “truth” for everyone. Furthermore, in the case of speakers – especially large speakers – it is exceedingly difficult to minimize all sources of potential bias or confusion, such as volume mismatches, visual appearance, price, and perceived reputation; conducting any sort of blind comparison is fraught with difficulties. Finally, memory for the details of sound is notoriously fickle and short-lived, making comparisons of experiences widely separated in time less than fully reliable. None of this means that assessments are useless, but reviewers should approach their tasks with a certain humility, and readers should approach reviews with some understanding of the limitations of any single perspective. My approach is to tell you about my experience with the Signatures and let you make your own decisions about whether they might be right for you. An advantage of this approach is that it emphasizes that real world value that I mentioned earlier, which will be a theme that returns often here.
This approach will not involve breathless announcements of discoveries in often-heard recordings. Hearing a backing vocal or faint cello line for the first time on a familiar recording could be the sign of truly extraordinary sound – or it could be the result of a nasty peak at a particular frequency or a well-timed sneeze on the part of the listener or (mis)placing the left speaker two inches to the right or the quality of the adult beverage that one happens to be consuming at the time. Similarly, I will not describe minute differences between the Signatures and something that I heard six months (or years) ago; alas, despite the avowals of golden-eared shamans, memory doesn’t work that way. Instead, I’ll concentrate on describing performance in the here (hear?) and now, perhaps with a few comparisons to general impressions of other components because memory does work more like that.
Let’s start with my priorities to see how they line up with yours. Because we’re focusing on classical music, the goal of my music reproduction system is to recreate, insofar as possible and practical, the sonic experience of live music, maximizing those elements that contribute to the illusion and minimizing those that detract. Specifically, I want sound that is clear (live music always is); that creates the illusion of the concert space (live music never is an amorphous blob but comes from somewhere); that covers the full frequency range cleanly at any reasonable volume (consider an orchestra going full blast); and that avoids the colorations that scream “we’re not in the hall” (think, for instance, of nasal-sounding midrange).
For all sorts of technical and practical reasons, no audio system fully recreates the actual sound of real musicians playing in real space, although a stereo system can portray a musical event sufficiently well to provide (sometimes) a satisfying illusion. But here’s where the priorities come into play. Way back in the early 1960’s, Stereophile founder J Gordon Holt pointed out that evaluation of audio products was tricky because one listener might be particularly conscious of, say, bass response while another focuses on midrange clarity, while a third is crazy about…well, you get the idea. Keep my own priorities in mind as you translate for yourself.
Above, I wrote “music reproduction system”, and I mean that in a broad sense. The performance of a home audio system is limited by what is on a given recording, although we may be able to help some recordings with clever processing. Our audio components are only the last stage in a chain – but these components are what we, as consumers, can control. My approach is to reproduce as accurately as possible what’s on the recording – and hope that makers of said recording had a good day.
Finally, before we get started, I want to be fully transparent with you, my readers. I purchased my pair of the Signature SEs up front, and did so for my own use. I received a good deal but did not agree – in fact, did not plan – to write a review. I decided to do so because…well, it just seemed like a nice idea. I am receiving no financial remuneration from anyone for doing so, and I certainly do not plan to sell my Signatures. You deserve to know all that, and now you do.
My previous speakers, Waveform Mach Solos, just celebrated their 23rd birthday. The Mach Solos were, and still are, outstanding speakers, yielding amazingly transparent sound, approaching the clarity of electrostatics but with good musical heft for their size (10” woofer, 5” mid, 1” tweeter). I should add that I come by the love of clarity and transparency honestly: my earlier speakers included original Quad 57 electrostatics and their successors, the Quad 63s. I also tried adding a subwoofer, but integrating it properly was challenging in my real world room; more on that below.
But time marches on. The past two decades have seen advances in materials science, in manufacturing, and in theoretical understanding as well as modeling software and computational capabilities, all of which have contributed to innovations and refinement in design.
Having heard some of those advances, yours truly has been hankering for an “ultimate system”: not gonzo equipment for its own sake, but a set of components that would bring home as much music as possible. Like many other relatively small designs, the Waveforms could become congested with louder, complex sounds, such as forte orchestral passages; moreover, although they scrupulously reproduce the tone of individual instruments, they don’t quite convey the true power of a solo piano or a cello or a horn. I wanted speakers with more dynamic capability, ones that truly could cope with large orchestral works. I wanted big speakers.
No, “big speakers” is not just some macho thing; if you’ve ever heard high-quality large speakers, you know what I mean. Large speakers not only can reproduce the frequency range of a full orchestra, they can do so at orchestral volume without strain. Part of this effect is real bass capability, not just the lowest notes from the double basses, but the fundamentals the cellos, horns, and bassoons, not to mention the lower register of a piano. The sound should have weight or power, not just in the lowest registers but all the way through the scales. Smaller speakers can reproduce the notes; large speakers can play the piano, so to speak.
Lest you think that this all is audiobabble, be aware that many of even the most objectivist-oriented of audiophiles perceive the “large speaker” effect; I’ve seen the slogan “there’s no replacement for displacement” (meaning large drivers). Is it because of lower distortion, increased driver surface area, reduced cone travel, or something else? Those factors, and others, are interrelated, and someday we’ll figure it all out.
Big is one thing, but really huge speakers were not on my agenda. Our 1930s-era house has a lovely, comfortable room for listening to music, but one sadly too small to accommodate monstrous transducers. It’s roughly 16 x 17' (272 Sq ft), but the arrangement that works both aesthetically and sonically has the speakers flanking a fireplace in the corner of the room – picture the listening axis of the room on a diagonal – and rather close to the walls behind them. To top it off, in this room the walls behind the listener (those forming the corner opposite the fireplace) are half height, open to a large foyer/kitchen area, so the effective size of the room is much larger than it would seem.
And then there was the price. I knew that a real improvement might require crossing the five-digit barrier, and my oh-so-patient wife told me to follow my dream and get what I wanted – but there would be some limit.
Having followed the Legacy brand for years, starting with a review of their Whisper speakers for the late, lamented The $ensible Sound, and having purchased a Legacy PowerBloc amp a couple of years ago, I naturally checked out their current offerings. It helped as well that my colleague and friend, Karl, was a long-time Legacy owner, and I had been quite impressed with his Legacy Focus SE speakers.
Legacy Audio and My Choice
In case you are not familiar with Legacy Audio, they manufacture superb speakers in Springfield, IL, marketing to both audiophiles and audio professionals. (They also manufacture and sell a line of electronics, such as amplifiers.) Legacy certainly is no newcomer: it was founded in 1983 by Bill Dudleston and Jacob Albright; Bill remains as chief designer and head honcho.
Legacy offers a full lineup, ranging from the Studio (just over $2,000 per pair) to the Valor (about $86,000). I lusted after the Aeris (around $23,000), perhaps the most visually attractive speaker that I’ve ever encountered, and one reviewed quite positively elsewhere, and could conceivably have stretched my budget that far. But alas, the Aeris would not fit into my room either aesthetically or sonically, as a visit to the Legacy factory confirmed. Meanwhile, the more basic models did not seem to be sufficient upgrades for me. That left me in the middle of the lineup: the Focus would at least fit into the room, but there was that “near the wall” thing. Bill Dudleston suggested the Signature SEs, essentially scaled-down Focus SEs using a sealed woofer enclosure (the Focus is ported), which allows placement closer to a wall. Moreover, Bill told me that one would be hard pressed to hear much difference between the Signature and Focus in a smaller room except for the very deepest bass or at high volume, which is not what I do. Sold.
Unpacking and Setup
The Signatures, in their incredibly sturdy shipping boxes weigh in at 147 lbs each; that drops to a svelte 106 when unpacked. And that unpacking alone looked awfully daunting, not to mention moving the speakers into position. Real world?
Well, I got by with a little help from my friends (one of whom owned a furniture dolly); unpacking turned out to be quite simple and required no feats of strength; and those little furniture moving disks available at any hardware store made moving the units around on a carpeted floor easy. Be careful but fear not, brave audiophile.
To Be Continued….
In the second part of this review, I’ll describe what I heard. In the meantime, if you’re curious about the Legacy Signatures, you can find more on the Legacy website.
 We may decide to take liberties with faithful reproduction of the recording by using equalization or room correction or other strategies. But surely we want to do such things consciously and with specific goals rather than settling for flawed reproduction in hopes that said flaws will somehow improve things.
 By the way, the Mach Solos never were advertised as “ultimate” speakers; their big brothers, the Mach 17s, were.
 Another approach is to pair small(ish), easily placed main speakers with a subwoofer, which can be out of the way yet still provide superb bass. This certainly can work, but in the real world is not so simple as it may sound. First, we have already seen that the large speaker effect is not just a question of deep bass: we need to have high dynamic capability across the entire spectrum, and particularly in the lower midrange to upper bass, so the small speakers can’t be too small – or cheap. Beyond this, the easy-peasy mains/subwoofer advice sometimes seems self-contradictory: we are told that the subwoofer can be placed “anywhere”, but then are advised to use complicated, time-consuming techniques for placing subwoofers to avoid standing waves and dead spots – and so we learn quickly that “anywhere” doesn’t mean anywhere. A solution to that conundrum is to employ two or more subwoofers, but not only does this reduce the supposed cost advantage, we also need an extra location for another component, along with more cabling. Is any of this necessarily making life easier or improving the aesthetics of the listening room? Not in my case.
 The Signature XD powered version was not available at that time. I would expect that my comments about the SE would apply to the XD as well, mutatis mutandis.
 Legacy has been shipping large speakers since the company began, so they really do have it down to a science. The packaging is extremely sturdy but designed with great thought for eventual unpacking.