The loudspeaker designer's art has changed radically over the past 20 years. Although the goals are largely the same, today's designer employs tools and techniques unimaginable two decades ago. Computer modeling, powerful and affordable FFT machines, and sophisticated new driver technologies are just a few of the advantages enjoyed by the modern designer. The high-tech result is a vastly better loudspeakereven inexpensive products today are significantly better than those of even five years ago, never mind 20.
The new Genesis III loudspeaker shows just how sophisticated the designer's art has become. The Genesis III is as far removed from the cones-in-boxes loudspeakers of yesterday as a Ford Taurus is from a Pinto. Combining a radically different cabinet with unusual custom drive-units, the Genesis III is a paradigm of how high technology has transformed loudspeaker design.
Is there a country that, per capita, has produced more major loudspeaker brands than Great Britain? The British brands that immediately come to mind are Tannoy, KEF, Bowers & Wilkins, Quad, Rogers, Spendor, Harbeth, Castle, Acoustic Energy, ProAc, Monitor Audio, Epos, Celestion, Lowther, PMCand Wharfedale.
In one sense, Richard Vandersteen has been the victim of his own success. His Model 2 loudspeaker (footnote 1), introduced at the 1977 Consumer Electronics Show, put his company on the map but proved a hard product to improve on. Based on the idea that the HF and midrange drive-units should have the minimal baffle area in their acoustic vicinity, both to optimize lateral dispersion and to eliminate the effects of diffraction from the baffle edges, the Model 2 also used a combination of a sloped-back driver array and first-order crossover filters to give a time-coincident wavefront launch.
Though the original Artemis Systems Eos has been around for a few years, it doesn't seem to have made a big impression on audiophiles. Judging by a brief but exciting audition of the new Eos Signature and its accompanying Base Module at HI-FI '96, I found it hard to understand how it could remain such a well-kept secret. A few weeks later, to my surprise, Wes Phillips asked me if I wanted to review a pair and, throwing caution to the winds, I jumped at the opportunity. Rash move.
The movers delivered three large boxes and two absolutely huge crates. Inside the boxes were the two Eos Signatures and their external crossovers. Each crate contained a Base Module, and their appearance struck fear into my heart. I had gone too fareach one weighed 300 lbs, and together they were more commodious than some apartments in my Manhattan neighborhood. I signed for the delivery, then panicked when I realized there was no way to get these unpacked before my wife came home. Indeed, I didn't know how I was going to do it at all.
Since its founding just over ten years ago, Mission Electronics has grown to become one of the largest "real" hi-fi companies in the UK. Although their product line originally consisted of three relatively conventional loudspeakers, it rapidly grew to encompass high-end pre- and power amplifiers, cartridges, tonearms, and turntables, and, in the mid 1980s, a system concept based on CD replay and relatively inexpensive electronics: the Cyrus amplifiers and tuner.
The Wilson Audio Specialties Alexandra XLF costs $200,000/pair. So does a Ferrari. Perhaps if Wilson Audio Specialties sold as many pairs of XLFs as Ferrari sells cars, the price might drop. For now, $200,000 is what you pay.
Can a loudspeaker possibly be worth that much? Add $10,000 for speaker cables, and that's what I paid for my first home in 1992. Today, the average American home costs around $272,000, which is likely less than the cost of an audio system built around a pair of Alexandra XLFs.
Loudspeakers have been commercially available for nearly a century, yet those whose drive-units are mounted to baffles of intentionally limited width didn't appear in significant numbers until the 1980s. That seems a bit strange, given that the technology to transform large boards into smaller boards has existed since the Neolithic era.
A highlight for me of Stereophile's 2011 equipment reviews was Kalman Rubinson's report on Sony's SS-AR1 loudspeaker in July. I had been impressed by this unassuming-looking floorstander at the 2009 Rocky Mountain Audio Fest, when, courtesy Ray Kimber, I had used a pair for my "Loudness Wars" demonstrationand was equally impressed when I used another pair for a dem of my recordings at Massachusetts retailer Goodwin's High End, in summer 2011. The SS-AR1 costs $27,000/pair and combines a full frequency range with an uncolored, detailed midrange, sweet-balanced highs, and excellent dynamics. "The Sony SS-AR1 is an impressive loudspeaker," summed up Dr. Kal; "it brings the analytical capabilities of studio monitoring to the listening room." So when I learned that Sony had introduced a smaller, less-expensive version, the SS-AR2 ($20,000/pair), it took me less than the proverbial New York minute to request a pair for review.
I can't think of two products at further ends of the audio spectrum than a single-ended triode tubed amplifier and a mass-market Home Theater loudspeaker. Single-ended tubed amplifiers are about reproducing subtlety, delicacy, nuance, and communicating the music's inner essence. Conversely, a Home Theater loudspeaker systemparticularly one made by a mass-market manufacturerwould appear to put the emphasis on booming bass and reproducing shotgun blasts, with little regard for musical refinement.
What a bizarre marriage it was, then, to pair the new Infinity Composition Prelude P-FR loudspeakers with the Cary Audio Design CAD-300SEI 11W single-ended triode amplifier (reviewed elsewhere in this issue). This combination didn't happen by accident; as you'll see, these apparently disparate products are a match made in heaven.
I discovered the Infinity Preludes while surveying Home Theater loudspeaker systems for the upcoming second issue of the Stereophile Guide to Home Theater. In addition to evaluating the loudspeaker systems under review with video soundtracks, I assessed their musical qualitiesor lack thereof. The Preludes were such a musical standout that I rescued them from the Home Theater room (where they had been powered by mass-market receivers and fed with a laserdisc source) and gave them a new lease on life in the larger music room, with reference-quality source and amplification components. The Preludes' extraordinary musical performance and unique design compelled me to tell you about how they performed in an audiophile-quality two-channel playback system.
If it's rare to go to an audio show and hear most of a company's products set up properly in multiple rooms, it's rarer still to hear those products also sounding terrific in each and every room. Such was my introduction to Marten's loudspeakers at the 2010 Consumer Electronics Show. In each of the systems in which the Swedish company's speakers were set up, and no matter what gear was upstream of them, I heard distinctly neutral, open, musical sound. After having the very same experience with Marten's speakers at the 2011 CES, I concluded that they must know what they're doing, and that their speakers are the real deal. I wanted to review some.
One of my formative audiophile experiences was the first time I heard electrostatic speakers. I walked into an audio store and heard music played by a live jazz combo. But where were the musicians? I saw none, though I did notice a couple of room-divider panels in the part of the store where the music seemed to be coming from. Eventually, it dawned on me that these must be loudspeakersbut they sounded like no other speakers I'd ever heard, and nothing like the Advents I had at home.
The Jadis Eurythmie speakers ($37,000/pair) arrived in a multitude of oversized boxes. Importer Northstar Leading the Way's Frank Garbie dragged them into our downstairs lobby and broke them open, elevatoring the individual modules up to our door. This happened on one of my office days, but Kathleen pushed me out the door in the morning with a "Don't worry cherie, I can handle it..." She phoned in periodic updates on Garbie's progress. Remember that old Stan Freberg routine? "I got it, I got it...I don't got it!" I arrived home just in time to hook up the amps.
According to designer Bill Reed, the Nelson-Reed 8-04/B was not originally intended to be an audiophile speaker system, but was instead designed as a high-quality monitor for the critical recording engineer who wanted to be able to walk from the studio into the control room and hear the same thing from his speakers that he heard "live." The fact that modern studio mike technique ensures that this could never happen is probably beside the point. The point is that reproducing the original power and dynamic range of live music is a formidable challenge, which practically no audiophile speakers have met successfully. On the other hand, so-called studio monitors, which can do that routinely, have tended to be highly colored and otherwise generally lousy in all areas of fidelity except output capability. The 8-04/B was an attempt to combine the strengths of both kinds of speaker, while avoiding their usual weaknesses.
We've all read about how bookstores, appliance stores, and other bricks-and-mortar retailers are suffering with the increasing domination of Internet sales. That got me thinking about audio dealers. I've always believed that one can't really make an informed purchase of audiophile equipment without hearing it in a system properly set up by and at at a serious audio retailer. Here in New York City, we're blessed with six first-rate audio dealers in Manhattan alone, with more in the suburbs. I estimate that 90% of the products reviewed in Stereophile can be auditioned at a dealer or two within a two-hour drive of anywhere in the New York metropolitan area.
It was three or four years ago, at a CEDIA Expo, that I first happened upon Advanced Dynamic Audio Monitors, aka ADAM Audio. What grabbed me was the array of imposingly high-tech speakers comprising their elite Tensor line. Sitting out in the middle of the floor of the Atlanta Convention Center, they not only looked more advanced than anything else around, they had the audacity to sound superb in a totally inappropriate acoustic situation. Despite the surrounding busyness of the Expo, I was able to sit down and actually enjoy the Beatles' Love on DVD-Audio. Clearly, these guys knew what they were doing. I vowed to follow up on it.