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.
When I first got into hi-fi, stereo was just over the horizon and imported products were still rare. The inexpensive ones came from Japan, and you could find them, often with names that changed from week to week, in the open-air displays in and around Cortlandt Street in lower Manhattan. The more expensive brands were European, primarily British, and beyond my financial grasp.
I was trading e-mails with Roger Sanders, manufacturer of the Eros Mk.III electrostatic (ESL) loudspeakers, when it occurred to me to ask him about his name. I was struck that he had the same last name as Gayle Sanders, president of another American electrostatic speaker company, MartinLogan. Were they related? "No," replied Roger Sanders, "it's simply a coincidence that we have similar names. I've never even met him.
Judging absolute sound quality under the unfamiliar circumstances of an audio show is always fraught with difficulty. If a system sounds bad, there are so many possible reasons for it to do so that pointing a finger of blame at the components is possibly unfair. Conversely, when a room sounds good at a show, it is probable that the components being used deserve some recognition. Such was the case at Home Entertainment 2002 in New York last May, when Dynaudio's Confidence C4 made its debut.
The very last review I wrote for Hi-Fi News & Record Review (these days just plain Hi-Fi News)—before crossing the Atlantic to take up the reins at Stereophile in May 1986—was of KEF's then-new flagship speaker, the Reference 107. That rave review appeared in the English magazine's July 1986 issue, and was followed by equally positive reports from Stereophile's writers.
Not for nothing did I name the Kharma-Lamm room at Home Entertainment 2002 the "Best Sound in Show." Show attendees slotted it 17th best [see September 2002, p.59—Ed.], behind other rooms to which I also gave high marks—mostly larger rooms featuring far bigger loudspeakers—but to me, the sound emanating from the Kharma Ceramique 3.2 ($19,000/pair), driven by Lamm electronics, possessed a sublime balance of sonic qualities heard in few other rooms.
Despite my 26 years in audio journalism, the amount of stuff I need to know seems to increase faster than I can cope with it. Thus it didn't come as too much of a surprise for me to learn that speaker manufacturer Canton, the Teutonic equivalent of England's B&W, a) was 30 years old in 2002, and b) claims the dominant market share of the German market. Yes, I'd been peripherally aware of Canton through the years, but for various reasons had never auditioned any of their models. I was amenable, therefore, when Canton USA's Paul Madsen suggested to me last May, at Home Entertainment 2002 in New York City, that I review their flagship speaker.
I first heard Eugene Gigout's pipe-organ masterpiece, the Grand Chorus in Dialogue, in the Smetana Concert Hall of Prague's Municipal House (Obecnim Dome) on a Saturday evening before the 2002 flood. I recall seeing the delicate, youthful Michele Hradecka sway from side to side to reach the pedals. In response, a massive wall of deep organ chords shook the hall, the magical acoustic blending the delicate, extended highs with the thunderous bass. But this memory mixed the music with the beauty of Prague's soaring church spires, brilliant red terracotta roofs, and lavish palaces.
It's always tough to follow an award-winning act. Wes Phillips raved about the original EgglestonWorks Andra back in October 1997, and it was subsequently dubbed Stereophile's Speaker of the Year for 1997. The Andra won many other plaudits, and found its way into a number of top-shelf recording studios as the monitor of choice. Such a reputation for excellence is the stuff most speaker designers dream of. It also imposes the burden of expectation—the "new and improved" version of such a knockout product had better be good, or else.
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?"
When it was suggested that I call in on speaker manufacturer RBH Sound during a planned trip to Utah in the fall of 2001, my response was "Who is RBH?" To my embarrassment, the speaker company had not popped up on my radar screen since it was formed in Los Angeles in 1976. However, I had certainly heard some of the speakers they had manufactured for other companies, most notably the McIntosh models of the early 1980s, with their line arrays of dome tweeters.
Though each link in the audio chain is significant in its own way, we seem to spend more time agonizing over the choice and setup of loudspeakers than any other component. Floorstanding or stand-mounted? Full-range frequency extension or minimonitor coherence? Multiple-driver complexity or two-way simplicity? Pleasurable and forgiving or resolved and revealing? And even when money is no object, how much speaker do you really want...or need? It might sound splendid in the shop, but how will it couple with your room? How will it integrate with your other gear? Is it easy to set up and drive or will it involve specialized gear and a massive overhaul of your current rig?
In the past year, Stereophile has reviewed a number of cost-no-object flagship loudspeakers. B&W's Signature 800, MartinLogan's Prodigy, Burmester's B-99, Snell's XA Reference Tower, Krell's LAT-1, Linn's Komri, Dynaudio's Evidence Temptation, Sony's ES SS-M9ED, and Rockport's Antares have all passed through the review mill. Manufacturers like to submit their flagships for review for a number of reasons, not the least of which is the pride they take in showing what their engineers can do when given a blank check. However, while all these models do indeed provide great (if different) sound for the tens of thousands of dollars they demand from their owners, they are out of reach of the majority of audiophiles. It is important, therefore, for reviewers to spend time with real-world designs; when I heard the $1990/pair CS1.6 from Kentucky's Thiel at the 2002 CES last January, I requested a pair for review.