Thiel Audio, headed up by Jim Thiel (President and chief designer) and Kathy Gornik (Marketing Director), sets itself apart from other speaker manufacturers not only by making what I feel to be almost uniformly excellent products, but also by serving as a kind of hallmark for the good dealer: Although not all good dealers sell Thiel, just about every Thiel dealer is a good one. This comes about because, in spite of just about uniformly positive reviews and excellent customer relations, Thiel (primarily in the person of Ms. Gornik) has insisted on limited distribution through retailers they know will give their product a good demonstration. There are a few other such companies performing this hallmark function, though only Mark Levinson Audio Systems readily comes to mind. Most other successful companies prefer as wide a geographical distribution as possible, in spite of the occasional necessary compromises in dealer quality.
There are three requirements: You must invent a very good loudspeaker that sells for between $1000 and $2000/pair. You have to make enough of them, over a long enough time, to achieve a certain level of brand recognition and market penetration. And you must create a dealer network of reasonable size, with an emphasis on well-promoted specialty shops.
Let's see—should I start with a discussion of conflict? Or maybe indecision? No, let's be more psychological and talk about approach/avoidance dilemmas...No, I'm supposed to be entertaining. How about a joke? Nah, that won't do. Well how about the framework for a joke? Yeah, that's the ticket!
What, exactly, is one to make of a speaker named "Reference"? An easy answer might be that it will be expensive. Another easy answer is that someone might be being overly optimistic or downright deceitful. Ambitious? Certainly.
There are certain manufacturers for whom every new product implies the promise of countless modifications, Usually a month or so apart, culminating inevitably in a version so far removed from the original that it must be assigned a new model designation—usually a letter suffix ranging from A, to D. By the time E is envisioned, another CE Show is approaching, so the decision is made to give the unit an exterior facelift and a brand-new model number. Presto! A new product for CES.
When a loudspeaker designer produces a world-class product, it is usually the result of years, perhaps decades, of experience gained from designing less ambitious products. To review a particular designer's product history is to witness the learning curve in action as both his skill and technology advance. Successfully battling the laws of physics to produce a truly exceptional loudspeaker is thus thought of as the domain of the seasoned veteran whose vast knowledge and experience culminate in the pinnacle of his career—a world-class loudspeaker. Moreover, it is just these designers, working their way up to their masterpiece, who are the most successful at getting an ambitious design right. The high-end loudspeaker business is littered with the remains of companies that attempted to build a first product far too lofty for their skills.
The speaker review in the July 1996 issue of the German audio magazine Stereoplay didn't hold back the praise. "Absolut Spitzenklasse III Referenz" was their overall rating, which I guess translates to "You'd better hear this, buddy," in American English. So when MBL of America's Marc Lawrence called to find out if I wanted to review the subject of that review, the MBL 111, I didn't need to be asked twice.
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.
My first encounter with the Acarian Alón IV was at the 1992 Las Vegas WCES. I was doing the show report dealing with speakers, and there was already enough advance buzz about the Alón IV that I put it on my "Speakers I Must Listen To" list. And listen I did, at some length, and came away impressed with their open quality and well-defined soundstage. In discussing reviewing assignments with John Atkinson, I told him that the Alón IV was one of the speakers I wouldn't mind spending some time with. (The list also includes the WAMM, the MartinLogan Statement, and the Apogee Grand, but I'm not holding my breath.)
In audiophile circles, it is the "Stuart"—electronics designer Bob Stuart of the Boothroyd-Stuart collaboration—who has received most recognition. The contribution of industrial designer and stylist Allen Boothroyd has gone relatively unremarked. Yet as I unpacked Meridian's D600 "Digital Active" loudspeaker, I was struck by Boothroyd's ability to make the humdrum—a rectangular box loudspeaker—seem more than just that. The man has one hell of an eye for proportion. From the first Orpheus loudspeaker of 1975, through the Celestion SL6 and 'SL600 (where AB did the industrial and package design), to this latest Meridian loudspeaker design, his brainchildren look "right," to the extent of making competing designs appear at minimum over-square and clumsy, if not downright ugly.
More than any other component, it is the loudspeaker that seems to invite the most audacious—some would say flat-out lunatic—efforts at design. There have been attempts at full-range plasma speakers, speakers one had to hook up to tanks of pressurized gas, speakers with drivers attached to what looked like copper salad bowls (the infamous Tri-Torr of the early 1990s).
John Ötvös, the father of Waveform Research Inc. and The Waveform Loudspeaker, hesitates not at inviting ultracritical examination: "The Waveform is the most accurate, the best, forward-firing loudspeaker in the world." Period. Reviewers, of course, welcome such statements, and I'll be examining that one, but I'll also try to answer the inherent reviewing question of whether the Waveform is a good place for you to park $9800 on your way to "the highest of high-end sound" (that was our slogan for the first Santa Monica High End Hi-Fi Show).