I was cruising at 36,000 feet, totally relaxed, listening to Richard Thompson. Looking down at my lap, I caught sight of a little box with a glowing green light. Switching off this light was like turning on the noise—the 767 was roaring like a locomotive and the ambient sound hit me like a fist. Thompson's crisp Celtic chordings turned mushy, undetailed, and dull. I felt weary. Whoa, I wouldn't do that again if I were you, laddie! I fumbled for the switch and reactivated the NoiseGuard circuitry on my Sennheiser HDC 451 noise-canceling headsets. Thompson's guitar rang out clearly, the airplane quieted to sound like an S-class Benz, and I relaxed into a calm reverie with only one worry clouding my contentment. But I patted my pocket: yup, still two cognacs left. Everything would be all right.
When reviewing affordable speakers, it's critical to have benchmarks and comparisons for various price points. Inexpensive speaker designs are exercises in tradeoffs and compromises, especially for the least costly products. In all of my reviews, I try to compare the speaker in question with other designs close to the review sample's price, chosen from my list of previously reviewed speakers. From time to time, if a speaker particularly impresses me, I ask the manufacturer if I can keep the speakers around a while longer, so that it can serve as a comparison reference for a certain price point. That's not to say that any speaker I don't keep around is less desirable—there's just not enough room in my house to keep a sample of every speaker I like. An audio reviewer's wife puts up with enough as it is.
I've been a little remiss in writing about one of the best tools for travel I've experienced recently: Ray Samuels Audio's Emmeline The Hornet ($350), a tiny (3" L by 2" W by 1" H) rechargeable portable headphone amplifier. I tend to travel with my iPod packed with hi-rez music files and a pair of low-impedance headphones. That's not a marriage made in heaven, so I also need a headphone amplifier. Over the years, portable headphone amps have gotten better and better while getting smaller and smaller. The Hornet is the smallest I've discovered so far and is my current favorite.
Last summer, John Atkinson and I were playing a jazz gig poolside at my local club, and during a break we began discussing equipment. As JA adjusted his microphones and I became increasingly nervous about the running, jumping kids splashing chlorinated water on his Nagra digital recorder, he asked me if I'd like to review the Z1 loudspeaker from BG Corp. "It's an interesting little bookshelf speaker featuring a ribbon tweeter." Hmm—an affordable bookshelf speaker matching a ribbon tweeter to a dynamic woofer? Very interesting. "Sounds good," said I, and resumed my ivory duties.
At the extreme high end—Halcro, VTL, Boulder, etc.—reviewers gush about a lack of character. If you're paying $20,000, you want a preamplifier or power amp to disappear. At those price points we also want extreme, unfatiguing resolution, and noise that's well below what most people would consider audible. But at those prices, an absence of character is definitely something most people aspire to.
When I reviewed JBL's S38 loudspeaker for the June 2001 issue of Stereophile (Vol.24 No.6), I was impressed with the performance of this large, inexpensive ($599/pair) bookshelf speaker. When I received a press announcement at the end of 2005 announcing JBL's new affordable speakers, the Studio L series, which incorporates innovations developed for JBL's recording-studio monitors, I began a discussion with JBL's public-relations firm. They promised many significant design innovations and sonic improvements over the S series.
Don't get the wrong idea. I don't watch trash TV. I am not interested in the doings of people who are famous merely for being famous. I was probably the last to realize that Paris Hilton was not the name of a French hotel. But the kitchen TV just happened be tuned to Channel 4 when I switched it on while I was preparing dinner. No, I do not watch NBC's Extra, but as I was reaching for the remote I was stopped in my tracks by what I saw. The show was doing a segment on the new L.A. home of Jessica Aguilera, or Christina Simpson, or . . . well, it doesn't matter. What does matter was the host's mention of all the cool stuff the bimbette had had installed in her new pied-à-terre: "...and a Sonos audio system, of course."
As readers of the Stereophile eNewsletter will be aware, the twin subjects of distributing music around my home and integrating my iTunes library of recordings into my high-end system have occupied much of my attention the past year. I bought an inexpensive Mac mini to use as a music server, using an Airport Express as a WiFi hub, which worked quite well, but my big step forward was getting a Squeezebox. I described this slim device in the mid-March and mid-April eNewsletters; I urge readers to read those reports to get the full background on this impressive device. In addition, the forums and Wiki pages on the Slim Devices website offer a wealth of information on getting the most from a Squeezebox.
Blind loudspeaker listening tests are hard work, not least because usually, most of the models being auditioned fail to light any musical sparks. But back in the spring of 1991, when a small group of Stereophile writers were doing blind tests for a group speaker review, one speaker did light up smiles on the listeners' faces, including my own. (We don't talk during our blind tests, but it's more difficult to keep body language in check.) Once the results were in, we learned that the speaker that got the music right in that test was the diminutive ES11 from Epos in England (footnote 1).
I am a Revel junkie. Their Ultima Studios have been my reference loudspeakers for years, and I've spent many happy hours with their Performa F-30s and Ultima Gems. They're all great speakers. When the original Gem was launched, it was made clear that all the corporate and economic weight of Revel's parent company, Harman International, was behind the development of this new line. When I visited Revel some years back, I saw cutting-edge design and development, in-house manufacturing of the most critical parts under the tightest scrutiny, and quality control of nearly compulsive meticulousness. All of this was reflected in the speakers' prices, which were reasonable for their quality and performance.
When I review an affordable loudspeaker, first impressions are important. Once I've unpacked the speaker, noted the quality of its construction and finish, and have complimented or grumbled about the ergonomics of its five-way binding posts, I fire 'er up and give 'er a first listen. Occasionally, the sound will put a smile on my face, either because I'm impressed with the amount of uncolored detail emanating from such an affordable product, or because the speaker sounds so sweet that I'm intoxicated.