I reviewed JMlab's Mezzo Utopia loudspeaker in the July 1999 Stereophile (Vol.22 No.7). By chance, the Mezzos had followed a pair of B&W Nautilus 801s into my listening room, and the substitution had proved rather interesting. For all their many fine qualities, the 801, with its 15" bass driver, was distinctly bass-heavy in my room, whereas the 11" drivers of the Mezzos seemed just right in this regard.
Of all the components to be seen and heard at an audio show or in a dealer's showroom, the most memorable and attention-grabbing are inevitably the super-speakers—bogglingly expensive, filled with cutting-edge engineering and exotic materials, of mammoth size and weight, with full-range reproduction that shakes building foundations and extends far enough up top to disrupt the navigation of bats. Survey the field, and the biggest Wilson, Aln, JMlab-Focal, Burmester, EgglestonWorks, and Nearfield Acoustics models, to name a few, fit that description.
Rarely has the debut of a new loudspeaker company and its inaugural model created as big a buzz as did Lumen White and their Whitelight speaker at the 2001 Consumer Electronics Show. Driven by Vaic tube amplifiers in one of the larger corner rooms at the Alexis Park Hotel, the big Whitelights had a look and a sound that attracted continuous crowds. Of the questions among audio cognoscenti that I overheard at the end of each day, two of the most common were "Hey, did you hear those Lumen Whites?" and "What? Can you speak louder?"
Antares is a giant red star in the constellation Scorpio. According to Rockport Technologies' Andy Payor, the $41,500/pair Antares loudspeaker is the "ultimate" reasonably sized, full-range loudspeaker, and is built to a standard "unequaled in the industry." Rockport's $73,750 System III Sirius turntable came with equally boastful claims that turned out to be anything but hyperbole. Has Rockport done it again with the Antares?
It's not every Consumer Electronics Show that someone introduces a $29,000 solid-state phono preamplifier—and I miss it. The 2002 CES was one. My show report in the April issue made it seem as if I'd found out about it there, but the fact is, someone clued me in after I'd returned home. I needed to come clean on that.
I can't resist reading about a company's flagship loudspeaker—the price-no-object product that embodies the most advanced ideas from a company's research and design department. Flagship loudspeakers tend to be large, heavy, and complex, and are designed to perform best in large rooms; often, each part of each driver is hand-built to the highest level of quality, with precisely tight tolerances. The cost? Don't ask. Some two-channel, audio-only flagships cost more than a BMW M5 sports sedan or a Porsche 911.
It's been five years since David Wilson's X-1/Grand SLAMM speaker system invaded our audio consciousness with its 500W power capacity and very high (95dB/W) sensitivity (footnote 1). Capable of an earsplitting 123dB at 1m, with a bandwidth to match, this was one speaker system that refused to be ignored. The X-1 has since evolved to $70,000/pair Mk.II form. It now provides some flexibility of tonal balance for different room acoustics, and is distinguished by greater subtlety in its differentiation of timbre. Beneath the X-1 in Wilson's range comes the WATT/Puppy ensemble, now in its 5.1 iteration (footnote 2). The WATT/Puppy has survived for over 10 years, and sets a benchmark for the Wilson line at its $17,270 system price.
How can a reviewer possibly put a value on a loudspeaker as costly as the Wilson Audio Specialties X-1/Grand SLAMM? When he reviewed Wilson's WATT 3/Puppy 2 system ($12,900-$16,000/pair, depending on finish) a few years back (footnote 1), John Atkinson said that it was "one of the more expensive loudspeakers around." The Grand SLAMM costs almost five times as much!
Really Big Hi-Fi came to live with me for a couple of months this past spring in the form of a pair of Tannoy Churchill loudspeakers. They were trucked directly to San Rafael, California from Kitchener, Ontario, in flight cases so bulky they could double as coffins for NFL offensive linemen. Once ensconced chez moi, the Tannoy dreadnoughts provoked bewilderment, alarm, curiosity, envy, admiration, awe, and amazement in all who heard and saw them.
I think I've finally figured out the secret of Stereophile's success. You, cherished reader, don't read this mag because it's chock full o' reviews of tantalizing audio gear (even though it is). And you don't read this mag because JA and RL strive so hard to keep the literary quotient as hi as the fi (even though they do). And I know you don't read this mag cuz trusting yer own sensory input is a mighty scary proposition indeed so you look to Stereophile as to a Holy Bible that eases your Earthly burden by telling you, Ah say Ah say TAILING YEW what to buy (do you?).
In this age of $70,000-plus "flagship" designs, perhaps $25k is no longer an obscene amount to pay for a pair of loudspeakers. Still, it's mucho dinero. What makes a speaker worth this kind of bread? Does the product's intrinsic value really warrant such a lofty cost, or is it merely a matter of pricing at what the market will bear? The answers to these questions requires careful examination of not only the speaker, but also of the buyer's own soul, priorities, and pocketbook.