Life is not fair, but people should be. The problem is, it is not always easy to be fair, particularly when there are numerous parties involved.
What does all that have to do with a speaker review? As it turns out, a great deal. Some issues came up that have changed what was intended to be a full review into a provisional preview. The reasons will become clear in a moment.
Mark & Daniel is a new company based in Canada. It is fair for us to point out that it is not unusual for new product from a new company to have problems. Just yesterday I called up a speaker maker who had promised to send us his new speaker last week. He apologized for the delay but at the last minute he had found a way to improve the speaker and those changes were being implemented as we spoke. I congratulated him on his passion and dedication.
If you have been reading high-end reviews for any time at all, you know it is common for upgrades to occur during a review process. This situation is a little different and it has put us all to the test. Here’s the story.
AS THE SPEAKERS TURN
A high-end dealer contacted me about a new speaker line on the market he thought was something special. He had just taken on the line and wondered if Stereomojo would be interested in doing a review. This dealer, who shall remain nameless, is a guy I had dealt with before and trusted. He put me in touch with Loren Charles, the North American distributor of Mark & Daniel speakers.
A review of the Mark & Daniel Maximus Monitor was scheduled as soon as a review pair became available. Stereomojo was to receive the very first pair for review.
Loren was true to his word and the speakers arrived. After the proscribed 100 hours of burn-in, the Max’s had perhaps the most amazing bass response ever from a stand-mount, monitor-type speaker. Audiophile friends who listened to them always asked “Where’s the sub”? And for good reason. The woofer really is a remarkable design with an unbelievable excursion of over 2 inches allowing the Max's to sound much more like large floorstanders than small stand mounts.
The midrange/tweeter did some very nice things as well. It is a modification of the original Heil Air-Motion Transformer (AMT) developed by Dr. Oscar Heil. The original Heil AMT has been strengthened, and in most applications, curved, for superior sound dispersion. I was selling high-end audio when the original ESS speaker (left) came out. I remember how they sound pretty well since it was the subject of huge debate. Everyone agreed it sounded bright, but that was before the need for speaker break-in was generally known. Ribbons and Heils definately need some time. We did sell quite a few of them, mostly to rockers. I remember selling 2 pairs to a local funk group named Lakeside who demanded that we get the wood cabinets mirrored. Yes, covered with mirrors.
Well, most of the ESS Heils came back as fast as they went out. The Air Motion Transformers (AMT) were going up in smoke. The owner dropped the line as did most others. The AMT has seen a bit of a revival of late as Adam Speakers and several others have brought it back, this time much heartier.
The AMT is essentially a folded ribbon driver that “squeezes” air back and forth like an accordian instead of moving air through the vibrations of a circular cone or horn. The overall area of all the "folds" is much larger than any normal tweeter by sometimes hundreds of inches - in this case a claimed 60. So, more radiant surface = more moving air, just like an 18" woofer moves more air than a 6 incher. As you know, a big heavy woofer is usually very slow, but because the Heil is such low mass (micro thin aluminum), it is actually faster than a conventional driver. M&D call their version the "DREAMS" or Directly Responding Emitter by Air Motion Structure. By whatever name, the Heil can work beautifully if implemented properly, but because of its wide frequency response, it's not so easy. I'm told this one covers 800Hz up to 22kHz!
The custom-made, molded synthetic marble cabinets were impressive, too, as an expensive anti-resonance solution. They even come in a bunch of colors other than the bright white samples I had. They are good looking, sculpted boxes. At about 30 pounds, they are pretty hefty as well.
In addition to the monitors, which are rated at a nominal 4 ohms with the lowest dip above 200Hz a very low 2.8 Ohms, we were to get the optional “Omni Harmonizers” , but because Loren was out of them, the dealer sent a pair of his along with the jumper cables needed to attach them to the Max’s - even though at $900/pair they should include the mandatory cables. The small boxes simply sit atop the Max's, connected in parallel to either of three connectors that give you a choice of "Low - Medium and High" output. The Harmonizers are a rather clever super tweeter that fires up into a funnel shaped device that spreads the sound into an omni 360 degrees.
In the above paragraph lurks a rather serious problem. Can you decipher it? Neither did I right away. The saga continues.
As time progressed, some of the anomalies usually associated with break-in were not going away. Even at their rated 85db efficiency (rather low), they seemed very hard to drive. I employed several different amplifers and they all ran unusually hot. Tube amps really struggled, even those like the Nightingale Armonia with 45 wpc. Okay, so these speakers were not a particularly easy load, but still, something seemed amiss.
In addition, I was having a hard time pinning down the Monitor/Harmonizer basic personality. It seemed to keep changing. On one recording they would seem very bright – annoyingly so, while on another they would seem quite normal with maybe a little brightness disguised by the ribbon’s penchant for detail. The Harmonizer only performed from 7,000 Hz up and were adjustable to three different output levels to help match them to a room. Adjusting them sometimes made things better, sometimes not, but the overall characteristic of the system was consistently inconsistent. Moving them around, toeing in and out did not solve the problem. The frustrating thing was that when the Mark & Daniel was good, it was very, very good. I was determined to figure it out.
Then something happened that would change everything.
THE NEXT CHAPTER
Our dealer friend who had introduced us to M&D brought a pair of his Maximus Monitors to Stereomojo’s Technical Editor and speaker design guru, Danny Richie. The pair had been damaged in shipment and Danny was asked to fix them. This event was entirely separate from anything pertaining to this review, even though the speakers (minus the add-on Harmonizers) were identical to the pair I had – even the color.
At this point, we need to introduce you to Daniel Lee, the “Daniel” in “Mark & Daniel”. Mr. Lee is the chief designer. He is a a former Colonel in the Chinese military where Mark Wong (the "Mark" half) has been described as a Zen Master Capitalist Entrepreneur. Really. So then, we have myself, Loren Charles, an unnamed dealer, Danny Richie and Daniel Lee in our saga so far.
Danny opens up the Maximus Monitor to see what has been damaged because (and this is important) there was no damage to the outside at all. What Danny finds inside is what changes the complexion of this review. We don’t need to go into detail here, but suffice it to say that what was found was substandard in parts quality and construction.
Then Danny does what Danny does so well and measures the Maximus Monitor. (Say that three times real fast…). Not surprisingly, problems are found.
Danny contacts me since he knows I am in the midst of doing the listening part of the review. My sample pair was intended to go to Danny for measurements when I was finished.
What Danny’s measurements show on paper is what I was hearing in my room – almost. Danny’s response curve shows two large but very narrow spikes in the midrange and upper mids – one at 2Khz and the other at 6KHz. Both are below the super tweeter’s (Harmonizer) staring freqencing, so it is not the issue. It’s no wonder different recordings sound so difference. I one recording has a lot of energy and information in one or both of those very narrow bands, it could sound very bright and exaggerated. If another recording does not have as much there, it will sound less so.
But there was something else of more significance that showed up. Danny’s impendence measurements showed a graph that was actually closer to 3 Ohms than 4 with a dip well into 2 Ohm territory. This represents an impossible load for virtually all tube amps and an unpleasant load for many solid states. But there was one additional factor of which Danny was not aware that has a significant effect on what happens next.
Let’s go back to the paragraph I pointed out earlier. Did you catch the problem? I didn’t either until I was talking to Danny about his measurements. Here's the deal:
Okay. The Maximus Monitor on its own has a wickedly low impedence load that could potentially cause problems (damage) for a good number of amplifiers on the market today – especially tubes. This does not mean the amp will disintegrate as soon as you turn it on, but picture those movie scenes where the rider keeps pushing his horse unrelentingly in the dessert. The poor stallion keeps going valiantly until it just gives out from being forced to run too hard too long. It's a cumulative thing.
But then, what happens when you add another driver (the Omni Harmonizer) wired in parallel to the Maximus Monitor? Or more succinctly, what happens to the overall impedance?
A. Stay the same
B. Get higher
C. Go lower
D. Who cares – I only listen to headphones!
The correct answer is “C”; the overall impedance goes lower. Cue up the theme from Top Gun because you are now in “The Danger Zone”. This doesn’t mean an amp will explode the moment these speakers are connected, but it does mean that over time an amplifier may keep trying to drive them to the point it does burn up. Many amps have fuses, yes, but they may not protect against this type of situation. It is at least safe to say that many amplifiers will find their life cycle shortened by prolonged use of the M&D’s. In fact, as this review drew to an end, we did get a confirmed report of a quality, well known brand of amplifier that did indeed go poof with the Max Monitors.
To be factual, it does state in the M&D owner's manual: “For proper operation, a high current amplifier with 100 watts output (or above) is recommended”.
We think this statement is vague and open to wide interpretation. It's also a bit late in the game since an owner's manual is for an owner, meaning you've already purchased the speakers. Are you now going to run out and buy "a high current amplifier with 100 watts output (or above)"? And what is “proper operation”? What is “high current” and is that 100 watts output per channel or total for both channels? And, what could happen if their recommendation is not followed? What we find more disturbing is that nowhere is there a warning about the detrimental effect of using the super tweeter they call the “Omni Harmonizer” in parallel with the Max Monitors.
Things start moving fast at this point, propelled by the fan they had just hit. Mr. Lee is informed. The dealer is informed. Loren Charles the distributor is informed. Emails and phone calls are exchanged.
But then things take even a more bizarre turn. (Cue the soap opera track)
CUT TO THE CHASE
THE WORLD TURNS EVEN MORE
Loren tells me that there is a brand NEW version (left) of the Maximus Monitor! He says he doesn’t know much about it because he only found out about it because of an article on 6moons! It seems Mr. Lee had “forgotten” to tell his North American distributor (the largest market in the world) that a new Max existed or even was planned. And that he had sent a pair to 6moons - another audio journal which had done a full "review" of the new model. It should be noted that the new model sent to 6 moons addresses none of the issues Stereomojo found.
Many more emails and phone calls ensued while I and Stereomojo were left in a quandary. What to do with this review? If a newer version of this speaker existed, is this review even relevant?
It was suggested that we just dump the review altogether. Act like it never happened. We know other publications do exactly that. That was not about to happen, even though it sure would have been much easier. After all, we are not "Consumer Reports", are we? We are not the "Audio Police" either. No, but we do care about our readers and the audio industry.
JUST THE FACTS, M’AM
A. We have, to the best of our ability, determined that the new model
does not address the issues we found. Therefore, this article is indeed relevant.
B. From the outset, Loren Charles, the North American distributor, has been upfront, honest,
passionate and determined to do his utmost to make sure Mark & Daniel speakers
are first class in every respect. He has promised me to work toward that end. I believe him.
C. To this day, I have had no direct communication with either Mark or Daniel, though I have requested it.
Mr. Lee was asked to respond to our findings for this review, but said through Mr. Charles that he preferred to wait to comment until the review was published.
E. Due to acknowledged “fragile internal construction”, there have been other reports of internal components coming apart during shipping.
F. There has been at least one confirmed report of a solid-state amplifier “blowing up” while driving Maximus Monitors.
G. Loren Charles and Daniel Lee are currently actively pursuing solutions to the issues we found.
Needless to say, we cannot recommend that anyone rush out and purchase the Mark & Daniel Maximum Monitor. In fact, we are recommending that our readers not purchase these speakers until the issues are resolved.
During this odyssey, Loren told me, “My end goal is simple: I want to sell and distribute a speaker that is nearly indestructible in normal use, and that outperforms anything even remotely available in its size or price range. I want M&D speakers to be so good that parents will hand them down to their children as treasured electronic heirlooms. I want them built not just for tomorrow but for eternity. That's my American ethic. Hopefully I can translate my vision and passion into M&Ds entire product line. By the way, James: I've convinced Daniel to allow me to change the parts and labor warranty from one year to five years. Naturally, I will push to make sure that these speakers will not need to be repaired. James, I remain confident that your criticisms will end up enabling M&D to build superior, world-class speakers. And as their North American distributor, I will push Mark & Daniel in this direction until this has been accomplished”.
And that, my friends, is the bottom line. We at Stereomojo believe that Mark & Daniel can and will make a positive and significant contribution to the audio high end. We are also convinced through many “off the record” communications that Mr. Charles and the powers that be at Mark and Daniel are not only committed to Loren’s goals, but are hard at work on them as we speak. We know if you talk to any designer, distributor or manufacturer in this or any other business, they can tell you many stories much more tumultuous than this – probably their own. Everyone makes mistakes. It’s part of life. It is how you deal with them that determines how you are judged and perceived.
Danny Richie has generously offered to measure M&D speakers to see what the rest of the line looks like on paper. GR Research and Stereomojo want to be part of the solution, not just the reporter of problems. It’s not about pointing fingers, it’s about working toward solutions whether it is with designers, our readers or even other audio publications. We think Mark and Daniel deserve another chance and we cannot wait to see and hear their new and improved speakers!
LOREN CHARLES RESPONDS
I must say, after multiple readings, that I am very impressed -- positively impressed -- with what you have written. Besides the fact that you write very well, you obviously took exceptional pains to be fair, even-handed and honest. All I can do is give you my highest commendation; you did a superb job under extremely trying, difficult circumstances.
Not only am I very impressed, I am actually pleased and happy with what you have written. It will provide me with further incentive to make sure things get
done the way I want them to be asap, as the earliest possible opportunity, in the development-construction cycle for all M & D speakers.
As you correctly noted, many new companies have similar "growing pains" when they first bring a product to market. One I can think of (outside of the
audio field) is Buell Motorcycles. They started with great ideas; sometimes their execution and quality control did not measure up to their passion. But with a tireless determination to make things right and correct, and with exceptional attention to detail and correcting flaws and errors as they were revealed, they now build one of the highest quality motorcycles in the world.
In the same way, I will nudge, persuade and push until I get what I want and promised you; a speaker as nearly indestructible as can be made, with exceptional
audio quality, stable, higher impedance loads, high end componentry, and stunning sound.
To that end, I honestly think your review is the best tool in my entire arsenal of persuasion, and again I thank you for writing a very accurate and fair representation of everything that transpired.
Although the new version of the Maximus does not address the issues you discovered and discussed in your provisional review, I am confident that the version following this one definitely will, and I will make certain you actually do get the first sample to be reviewed by anyone, anywhere in the world.
My very best wishes,
Mark & Daniel Audio Labs of North America, LLC
Septempter 24, 2007
Two months after this review appeared we received this notice:
Tweek Geek has teamed up with GR Research and Bolder Cables to offer crossover upgrades to select Mark & Daniel loudspeakers. The upgrades greatly improve internal parts quality, greatly improving the sonic performance of the Mark & Daniel speakers. Currently, upgrades are available for the Ruby, Maximus and Aragorn models.