Larsen 4.2: review


Welcome to the revolution: the Larsen 4.2

Most speakers today are wooden boxes with one or more drivers mounted on the front firing straight ahead. They can sound wonderful or not and there’s a plethora of speakers to choose from. From small plasticky desktop speakers to giant monoliths; from active studio monitors to passive horn speakers. The common problem all loudspeakers are subject to is room acoustics. The room itself – and particularly the distance from the speakers to room boundaries – is critical. The reasons for this are, simply put, first reflections!


One of the ways that audiophiles combat first reflections is by placing their speakers out into the room, away from the front- and side walls. However, having a pair of big speakers one meter into the living room is not always the recipe for marital bliss. But try putting, say, a pair of Harbeth SHL5plus XD up against the wall or, even worse, back them into a corner. Their performance will be greatly compromised. In short, the bass will be boomy-woolly and that lush and pristine midrange will be muddy-opaque. And perhaps most problematic of all: the soundstage will shrink, crumple, and disappear. This is true for most box speakers. It’s true also for every electrostatic speaker I’ve tried.


In fact, unless a speaker has been specifically designed for placing against a wall (Audio Note and Klipsch come to mind) it will perform poorer than its potential if you place it close to a wall…


If you think about it, that’s kind of crazy. Most people don’t have dedicated listening rooms. Most people put their speakers in their living room along with sofas, books, tv’s, tables, chairs, etc. If you’re in an apartment having speakers a full meter into your already cramped space is probably not possible. Why aren’t there more speakers that sound their best up against a wall?


Turns out, there’s a Swedish company that does exactly that. Meet Larsen and their four-strong lineup of loudspeakers. Today I will talk about the smallest, the Larsen 4.2. (The 4.2 have recently been upgraded to 4.3).


I’ll come right out of the gate and tell you that the Larsen 4.2 do everything differently. – And do it exceptionally well. They are small floorstanding speakers and to say they are unconventional is an understatement. The Larsen 4.2  are ortho acoustic speakers. What does that mean? From the website:


“Larsen speakers are designed and constructed to thrive and perform phenomenally in your room, by incorporating surface reflections in the design process; enriching the listening experience, instead of degrading it.”


That seems like a good idea. But how do they accomplish that? Again, the website:


“The Larsen ortho acoustic speakers eliminate the back-wall reflection by placing the speaker against the wall and having the correct amount of absorption material around the drivers so that the sound formed off the wall, in effect a unit with the forward sound. The angle of the drivers, firing upwards and inwards, also eliminates the typically dreaded first reflection from the side wall. Add Larsen’s unique matched crossover and you have Larsen ortho acoustic speakers that performs perfectly when placed against the wall and work with the room, not against it. Consequently, the late reflected room sound then arrives much later, just like it does at a good concert hall.


The final aspect is that the directivity of any speaker should, in theory, remain essentially constant. The up-against-the-wall placement eliminates the baffle step (omni-to-forward) shift in directivity since the speaker is forward radiating all the way down. In order to achieve constant directivity, the Larsen speaker has a much wider treble dispersion, which is the effect of the actual tweeter used, the angle of the tweeter and the surrounding metal plate with creates a wide tweeter dispersion into the room.


This constant directivity design in the Larsen ortho acoustic speakers, with drivers and tweeters not firing directly at the listener, fills in the power response in the high frequencies, where most speakers become quite directional. Thus, the whole listening room becomes filled with music like at a great concert hall, with all the frequencies radiating in the same manner and where all early distorting reflexes are eliminated, resulting in a very natural music reproduction.”


The Larsen 4.2 are, indeed, meant to be placed up against the wall. And that’s all the way bang against the wall. Further, main man John Larsen specifies no toe-in, is needed. Speakers flat against the wall, firing straight ahead and that’s it. For any card-carrying audiophile this can be hard to accept: no need to use all those preconceived notions from a long life of cable wars and ‘analog sounds better than digital’? What, no measuring tape!? No tweaking? Are we supposed to just relax and listen to music? The answer to that last question is a firm Yes!


…And the results speak for themselves: in my low-ceilinged room, about 3,5×5,5m, with one of the long sides opening to a small sitting area the Larsen 4.2 threw a wide and high soundstage. For a speaker touching the front wall soundstage depth was impressive. Imaging is precise but peculiar (more on that later). Setup, including connecting the Larsen 4.2 to my Croft Micro 25 and Series 7 amps and positioning the speakers optimally took less than four minutes…


Let’s talk tone and timbre: I cannot remember when I’ve listened to a speaker that sounded so natural, and at this price point it simply hasn’t happened. I can only speculate; but using quality drivers in an ortho-acoustic design that removes a lot of the issues with room boundaries and first reflections is what gives me this natural experience of instruments playing in the room. Instruments sound real, like they are there. Much more so than via my Omega Super Alnico High Output Monitors ($3195). More so than with my big Guru Audio Q60 speakers; more so than a pair of Harbeth SHL5+ that also passed through here; more so, even, than the Red 100 from Russell K (review). The Larsen 4.2, diminutive and comparatively inexpensive, sounds righter, than speakers costing many more and with a more impressive pedigree.


The Larsen 4.2 doesn’t sound as big as the Harbeth SHL5+, and they’re not as warm and liquid in the midrange, nor is the treble as smooth or refined. They’re not as transparent and the big Harbeths make music sound supremely beautiful. But the Larsen 4.2 are faster, tighter, with punchier and deeper bass, and sounds more (a)live. Also, did I mention they take up next to no space?


During lockdown I reviewed the incredible Red 100 from Russell K. In Denmark, the Red 100 is about double the price of the Larsen 4.2. The Red 100 are more dynamic and thrust their midrange waaay out into the room. I find them intoxicating. Compared to the Larsen 4.2 they are more energetic in the midrange and things like vocals pop right out of them. But they suffer the same drawbacks as most other speakers: they sound great in the sweet spot, but not for the guy sitting in the wrong chair – let alone for someone seated at a table across the room. And, like your Harbeths, Omegas, KEFs, etc., they prefer a lot of free space around them. Properly setup and in the right chair at the right place, they are among the most satisfying speakers I’ve heard. Period. But here’s the thing: even then, they don’t sound as natural as the Larsen 4.2; and they don’t give the listener that sense of a real performance taking place in her room.


It’s been a while, but I can almost remember how an amplified concert sounds – or feels. And when you’re in the crowd, with friends, and beer and the lights and people talking and smoking and shoving, there’s no such thing as “pinpoint imaging” or “holographic soundstage depth”. Those concepts become audiophile trickery.


The sound at a concert is one of a broad and undivided forcefield of sound, a sound-field. Not where the bass is to the left, the singer is front and center, the drums behind and the guitar to the right. That is never how a concert sounds – at least not the raw, amplified concerts I attend – and that’s not where the musicians are placed anyway. With the Larsen 4.2 the music is presented like at live event, like a sound-field; a wall of sound.


The placement of the Larsen 4.2 in my room is not really optional. They stand on either side of my admittedly homebrewed hifi-rack. ON either side of the speakers there’s a 10-15 cm to a corner. That sub-optimal placement is non-negotiable, and it shouldn’t work. Backed up to the wall and  into two corners they should sound confined, with muddy bass and a smeared midrange. Well, they don’t. The Larsen 4.2 sound completely free of room-constraints. With satisfyingly crisp bass and a clear midrange. They sound open and composed across the frequency spectrum. I can turn it waaay up and the Larsen 4.2 comply without a hitch. They are not as refined or resolving as my Omega, but in this room, the Omega are fussy and very placement dependent and reside well over a meter into the room. With the Omega the soundstage suffers if I move my head too much… The Larsen 4.2 take up no space, go deeper, are much punchier, but doesn’t have the midrange insight of the Omega. But the Omega, shipped to Denmark and including taxes, are over three times the price…


Let me add this: one of my favorite qualities of the Larsen 4.2 is the way they allow me to move around a room with no discerning loss to sound quality. I can lie down, sit up, move to the side, even work at a desk off to the side, and the sound remains balanced and the sound-field is intact. For a fidgeting and impatient listener like myself that has proven to be a surprisingly important attribute.


With almost any speaker, listening late at night in the dark is transformative. With the Larsen 4.2 it can be a holy experience. Nick Cave’s voice comes from a broad place within the field. Not from a narrow place, but almost from the entire space between the speakers. The sound-field is not artificially segregated into narrow spaces for the different instruments. It is portrayed as a whole. In the dark that becomes eerily lifelike; like being at a concert – because that is how concerts sound. I must have seen/heard the Danish band Kashmir at least twenty times across 25 years, at all sorts of venues, from small bars to the Orange main stage on Roskilde Festival. And no speaker, regardless of price, have made me feel like being at those formative shows. Until now, with the Larsen 4.2 – and a bottle of wine and some cigarettes.


At some level, front-firing speakers – even my lovely Omega, driven by a voluptuous 300B SET amp  – sound off next to the naturalness of the Larsen 4.2. I’ve alternated between my Omega and the Larsen 4.2, both driven by Croft amplification, while listening to Dave Holland’s Emerald Tears. The Omega give me more saturated tone, but the Larsen have better tonal accuracy, they simply sound truer. It is a simple album – which makes it difficult to get it to sound right. The Omega give me a feeling of listening to a great studio recording – which is of course what I’m doing. But the Larsen give me a sense of listening to a live act. Most of the time – maybe all the time? – it is just a single upright bass playing. Why does it sound more present coming from the Larsen?


Question and Answer with Pat Metheny, Roy Haynes, and Dave Holland is a wonderful little gem of spontaneous jazz. On the Larsen 4.2, now with the Hugo2Go feeding the MZ2 from Linear Tube Audio, feeding the seriously underrated Schiit Vidar the sound is supremely alive. What is remarkable in this setup is the articulation of the acoustic drums. The soundstage is wide. The hi-hat and the ride cymbal spread out beyond the physical boundaries of the Larsen 4.2 with shimmering energy. The drummer, Roy Haynes, is a newish revelation in this commentator’s jazz apprenticeship. His drumming here sounds immediate and direct. Toms are spread out wide between the speakers. The snare is positioned in a narrower space between the Larsen 4.2, but still, somehow, occupy a wider space than with any front-firing speaker I know. That makes imaging non-pin-point, but precisely not smeared. Metheny’s guitar is mellow-clean, and his playing is his usual fluid effortlessness. His tone is warm and again the Larsen 4.2 makes his guitar occupy a wide front area of the sound-field.


One of the reasons I like to use ambient music when I review hifi, is because the sense of openness and atmosphere is critical: the space between the notes is as important as the notes themselves. That makes ambient music a formidable genre for a system to reproduce convincingly. Eivind Aarset’s Dream Logic is an album that can open-up in front of and around you with the right setup. Aarset is becoming one of my favorite guitarists. What he does is somehow very unpretentious. Those simple chords or notes on the opening track Close (For Comfort) are sublime. I could probably play the notes myself, but holy hell, not like that. On the Larsen 4.2 those notes are palpable and present in a way that makes my spine tingle. And there’s so much detail present at different heights and widths of the sound-field. The Hugo2Go, the MZ2, and the Vidar allow the Larsen 4.2 to translate an incredible amount of musical information. To say nothing of the album Aarset did with Michele Rabbia and Gianluca Petrella, Lost River, where Aarset’s smooth guitar notes on the track What Floats Beneath are achingly, longingly beautiful. The Larsen 4.2 capture the reverb and subtlety perfectly. The sense of space is enormous, cavernlike. If this song isn’t supposed to sound exactly like this I’m getting out of this game…


If we look at pricing, finally, for once, we have it better here in Denmark/Scandinavia than do our friends in the U.S. The Larsen 4.2 are $2195 in the US. They’re about half that in Denmark. I bought them for $800, new, at a dealer in Copenhagen. I bought them as a speaker to compare to other entry-level speakers. Later I discovered that they sold for what I would characterize  as a mid-fi price in the US. This case somehow highlights some of the murkiness of pricing in hifi. I think the Larsen 4.2 are phenomenal speakers. At $1100 which is about their price here in Denmark they are a ridiculous bargain. At $2195, I recommend them wholeheartedly.


The Larsen 4.2 are speakers for the (jaded) audiophile (which, eventually, means most of us) who wants to refocus on the music and stop this incessant worry about the gear. Why? Because – in the truest sense – they get out of the way – and makes the room get out the way – and play music without any of those uptight constraints of normal front-firing speakers. More than any other speaker, they make the constraints of the room disappear. One of the most tired clichés in hifi is that ‘the music sounds like a live concert’. In this case there’s more than a bit of merit to the claim. Not (only) because of natural tone and timbre – which they excel at – but because the way the Larsen 4.2 present music is how music sounds in real life.


  • MMK


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