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Unfinished business with the Dutch & Dutch 8c

  • Looking back, it fell to my own lack of experience: making good on a 15-day ‘no questions asked’ return policy because the floorstanding loudspeakers that I’d ordered didn’t live up to the expectations drummed up by a formidable online reputation and a promotional pull quote that read “Best bass in the world”. Not in my room it wasn’t.

    My mistake – as suggested by the manufacturer just prior to the speakers’ return – was that I’d not considered the room in which the loudspeakers would sit. On the face of it, an average Australian apartment, where the lounge space extended into the kitchen, seemed appropriate for a mid-sized floorstander. Reality said otherwise. We live, we learn.

    A frequency sweep conducted some months later by a visiting audiophile friend isolated the problem: a 60Hz room mode that caused standing waves to build in one corner, a null close to the middle of the listening space and – worse – the excitement of both front and rear plasterboard walls.

    That was 2009 and this fella’s first abrupt lesson in how the room rule can break (or make) even the best loudspeaker, especially in the low frequencies. Could this be why I have subsequently chosen standmounts over floorstanders?

    During the intervening ten years, exposure to hundreds of hi-fi systems in hundred of rooms has clarified my thinking to underscore the obvious: a) that the average listening room isn’t a hotel room (where most show exhibits take place) and b) only a small percentage of this site’s audience will be listening in a room like my own.

    Two corollaries follow: a) audio show-based assessments are a total non-starter and b) unless the reviewer’s room is a close approximation of the reader’s, the latter must follow a reviewer over time, and through many twists and turns, to get a proper handle on his/her findings.

    Perhaps THE single most important piece of advice we might give to any newcomer audio enthusiast is that wherever you are listening to a loudspeaker, you are not only hearing the loudspeaker but the loudspeaker AND its interaction with the room. The lower the frequency, the more a loudspeaker throws sound in all directions such that the direct and reflected sound can arrive at the listening position at (almost) the same time. How does the ear-brain separate the two?

    My Berlin lounge room measures 6m x 5m. Ceiling, floor and walls (bar one inward leaning glass section) are solid concrete. It’s one thing to calculate room modes for those dimensions but to hear them first hand is a trip. Playing a 35Hz test tone and walking around my room, I hear intense bass build up in the back left and right corners but absolutely nothing – no bass at all – about a meter in front of the listening position.

    And I know this because of Dutch & Dutch’s Martijn Mensink who, in August of 2018, over a year after our first email interaction locking in a review, drove a pair of his company’s 8c loudspeakers (€9950/pair) from The Netherlands to Berlin. For reasons that will soon become self-evident, Mensink was keen to set them up himself.

    The 8c is a large (48.5 x 27 x 38cm) and heavy (26kg) full-range active standmount loudspeaker whose room accommodation goes several steps beyond the boundary proximity adjustments found on more affordable offerings from ELAC, KEF, Dynaudio, et al.

    To minimise omnidirectional midrange radiation, the 8c put a waveguide on the tweeter to better integrate its output with a front-facing 8” alumimium driver whose (inverted) back wave is squirted out through a slot in the side wall to cancel out frequencies that attempt to wrap around the sidewall and head rearwards. Ergo, a cardioid dispersion pattern but, crucially, executed acoustically and without the DSP intervention favoured by Kii Audio for their Three active (intro here, review here).

    These Dutchies also ask us to reset our ideas about front wall clearance. Handy for those listening in tight quarters but a possible visual adjustment for those used to seeing their loudspeakers sitting further out into the room. Here, recommended front wall distance is “less than a meter”. We then specify this distance in the web interface. What gives? According to Mensink, for a reflection-free hemispherical dispersion of 100Hz and below, each 8c’s twin rear-facing high-excursion 8” ‘subwoofer’ drivers must acoustically couple to the front wall. This based on the findings of Acoustic Research’s late Roy Allison.

    The 8c’s better-than-average room agnosticism doesn’t end there. An Analog Devices ADAU1452 DSP chip accommodates driver crossover but adds network-accessible parametric EQ filter settings. A web browser and an IP address open the door.

    In this video, Mensink discusses a loudspeaker’s room interactions, how the 8c tackle those interactions as well as the 8c’s range of digital and analogue inputs:

    In setting each speaker’s room EQ, Mensink used Room EQ Wizard running on an 11” MacBook Air and a Umik-1 USB microphone (both supplied by yours truly). The left speaker’s measured in-room frequency response visually confirmed the aforementioned 35Hz issue. Adding a -dB gain adjustment to that frequency along with a Q (the width of the frequency adjustment), storing both inside the loudspeaker and then remeasuring its output at the listening position takes a mallet to frequency bumps. This measure-correct-remeasure process was then repeated for additional frequency bumps until a relatively smooth, gently downward-sloping in-room response was achieved; and then repeated for the right slightly speaker’s less troublesome set of in-room issues. It’s a few hours of work for a first timer but once it’s done, it’s done. Having done numerous setups like this, Mensink says he’s got his 8c EQ injection down to around 20 minutes.

    I make a further video introduction here:

    Getting music into the 8c is a cinch. Roon Ready code sits in each speaker; the two play as a pair, synchronised to single-sample accuracy. Otherwise, an outboard streamer like AURALiC’s Aries G1, which does Roon, Lightning DS AND Spotify Connect, can be connected via AES/EBU. For those preferring a different flavour, any DAC with volume control or a pre-amplifier can be connected to the 8c’s analogue XLR inputs.

    With room EQ store inside the speaker, thus keeping vinyl spinners happy, the sound of this loudspeaker is potentially anything we want it to be.

    But there was a problem. One loudspeaker was playing slightly louder than the other and whilst this could easily be offset in the web interface’s volume control, Mensink opted to take the 8c back to The Netherlands and ship me a fresh pair with the room EQ settings copied over. This would also give him time to supply more appropriate speaker stands than the Tontraeger that, prior to the Dutchman’s arrival, sat beneath a pair of Harbeth Compact 7ES-3. Volume re-balanced in software, I could snatch a few hours of listening before Mensink would drive the faulty pair of 8c back to The Netherlands.

    Out of the gate, LCD Soundsystem’s American Dream told me in no uncertain terms that these boxen could deliver a full-fat bass, a startlingly open midrange and a rich top-end. A run through Plaid’s sparkling Spokes confirmed that their deep detail dig is delivered without ever sounding analytical or ‘science-y’. A surprise given this brand’s pro/studio roots.

    The Dutch & Dutch 8c are a very easy listen with well above average dynamics, even at lower volumes. And they don’t just put paid to the idea that Class D-amplified systems sound cold or emotionally distant, they build the coffin, supply the nails, finance the funeral and host the wake. The amplifier modules inside the 8c come from Pascal: one 250w module each for the tweeter and midrange driver, one 500w module for the rear-firing subs.

    Make no mistake: the Dutch & Dutch is not only in a different league to the similarly proportioned Harbeth, but on a different performance planet. To the Harbeth we must add DAC and amplifier but not even Hegel’s superb H590 integrated could save the Harbeth from being trumped by the Dutch & Dutch on in its strongest suit: midrange eloquence. On dynamics and punch, sat next to the 8c, the Compact 7ES-3 isn’t even in the game. So wide was the performance delta that I felt compelled to repeat this comparison six months later just to be sure I’d not misremembered or misjudged it. I hadn’t.

    True to his word, a pair of Atacama stands arrived at my door three weeks after Mensink’s visit but there’d been a wrinkle at the factory in migrating the settings from the old speakers to the new. Would I be up for a second visit to remeasure and re-install? Of course, I would. A fresh pair of 8c would be couriered to me ahead of Mensink’s (second) arrival but a November date was ultimately nixed by a dose of Dutch flu. Our conversation then lay dormant until January 2019 when my review schedule exposed an opening at the end of February.

    Take two: the measure-correct-remeasure process for each loudspeaker was run again – another few hours’ work – but playback testing revealed an odd vibration in the right loudspeaker. Had it been damaged in transit? More careful inspection of the packaging suggested yes, it had.

    For take three, Mensink would ensure the settings were migrated at the factory, this time without issue, and ship me another fresh pair. Hearing my minor complaint that the standard black-fronted version was perhaps a little too conservative in appearance, he came through with an experimental white-stained finish. These arrived at the end of March.

    Plug and play took all of five minutes, this time out sucking on an analogue feed from PS Audio’s DirectStream DAC — I was mid-way through testing the matching MemoryPlayer as CD transport and would swap out the (then) incumbent Kii Three for a weeklong listen to the 8c before re-engaging Kii. This week-by-week A/B comparison fuelled the following findings:

    The 8c’s bass punches more forcefully and with more heft than the Kii. It’s squidgier on bass bounce; more squash ball than the Kii’s harder basketball. We might call this greater dynamic elasticity. Could this be the result of the Dutch & Dutch’s larger bass drivers?

    Larger drivers for the midrange had the 8c sounding more open and more expressive than the Kii that, by contrast, sound cleaner and more urgent in their detail delivery. The Kii sound the faster of the two to paint the 8c as comparatively smoother and more relaxed. The Kii’s more evident top-end air bite plays more to the brain than the body.

    On soundstaging, the Kii play it deeper. We get a wall of sound from the 8c but it doesn’t roar quite as fiercely as the German rival. The 8c favour tone and fleshiness, the Kii taut muscular definition.

    If you sense me favouring the 8c’s sound by a nose, you’ll have properly picked up what I’m putting down. That doesn’t necessarily mean the 8c is the better loudspeaker of the two but that it gives us the better loudspeaker/room pairing. With its in-built parametric EQ, the 8c’s output has been cut to my room as a tailor might cut a suit to the customer’s body shape. It’s more closely matched to the room’s (body’s!) bumps and dips.

    The 8c take the guessing game out of room-matching and sidestep potentially expensive or unattractive room treatments. What you hear at a dealer audition or audio show is what you’ll hear at home. Dutch & Dutch offer to save the inexperienced buyer from a potentially costly mistake. That alone is a reason to pull the trigger on a pair.

    On Future-Fi visuals – shape and colour – plus remote connectivity and volume control (bye bye pre-amp), the Kii still have the edge.

    The 8c’s final ace card would be Roon Ready streaming that bypasses the ‘Which Roon streamer?’ debate entirely for an ultra minimal high-end hi-fi system; a pair of loudspeakers and a Roon Core device is all we require. It was from this angle that I intended to start this review…as a video. But gremlins red-carded this highly attractive selling point. I’ve thus reverted to the written format so that what follows can be edited/updated once it is resolved.

    Post-Munich 2019 (mid-May), the white 8c’s Roon Readiness got its first run. And it isn’t playing ball. The right channel won’t auto-switch from another input to Roon as the left channel does. Neither does it synchronise volume changes called from within the Roon app. Only when we revert to Dutch & Dutch’s web interface for volume control do both channels’ volume up and down commands move as expected. The left channel plays AOK but its power status LED no longer responds to the web interface’s ON command.

    I lost an entire day’s work to troubleshooting and removing user error from the blame game before contacting Mensink who has been struck down with another dose of Dutch flu. Both loudspeakers show up on the network. Both respond to web interface commands. The issue could be an error in Dutch & Dutch’s Roon code which, at time of writing, remains uncertified. Or it could be a hardware fault. Time will tell.

    A pity to pause/end my commentary on such a fantastic loudspeaker on such a bum note but if past delays are anything to go by, a review might not surface for (yet more) months. Time already invested in this assignment and my ever-expanding review queue both said now or never.

    To be continued…?

    Further information: Dutch & Dutch

    Written by John

    John currently lives in Berlin where he creates videos and podcasts for Darko.Audio. He has previously contributed to 6moons, TONEAudio, AudioStream and Stereophile.

    Darko.Audio is a member of EISA.

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