The occasion was the 1999 Consumer Electronics Show, and I had sought out the Sony suite at Bally's—the word in the Las Vegas bars where audio journalists hung out was that Sony was demonstrating the production version of their SCD-1 Super Audio CD player. I was glad I'd made the trek along the Strip: As I reported in the May 1999 Stereophile, the sound of a DMP recording—of unaccompanied choral music recorded and mixed in DSD by Tom Jung—was breathtaking, I felt, with an exquisite sense of space. It was definitely the best sound at the CES.
Electrostatic speakers are my passion. Why else have I put up with their high prices, unreliability, low power handling, tendency to arc, high-frequency beaming, limited bass response, and widely fluctuating impedances?
Those who have read this magazine regularly over the past five years know that Canadian designer Vince Bruzzese has been marketing his small, two-way loudspeakers under the Totem Acoustic brand name. Every review of one of these designs has raved about their strong bass response and three-dimensional imaging, but ends with a "but": "the sound is totally awesome, the imaging is holographic, and my wife thinks it looks terrific in the living room, but..."
I have a passion for great speaker designs at affordable prices, and with modern driver, crossover, and cabinet technologies making innovative strides, many serious high-end speaker designers are turning their attentions to coming up with the next great budget speaker. All audiophiles need affordable speakers, whether to recommend to friends to lure them into our hobby or to set up multiple, less costly systems in our own houses. I currently run a main reference system, a vacation-house system, a recording-studio system, a computer system, a portable system I take to parties, a car system, and an office system. I insist on having music playing constantly, wherever I am, unless my wife or son tells me to turn it off—which happens increasingly often these days.
The Revel Ultima Studios came to me by chance. I'd wanted to review Revel's high-value Performa F-30—see my May 2000 report—but the Studio was offered instead. By the time a pair of Studios had arrived, however, the F-30s were also on their way, and the Studios were put on the back burner. Because of the mix-up, I thought the Studios would be freebies—just listen for a while and send 'em back. I am now obliged to do the honest thing and fess up in public: Many months have passed and the Studios are still here.
English manufacturer Monitor Audio has been around for just about as long as people have been putting "high-end" and "audio" together—they opened their doors in 1972. Back in the mid '80s, when I was a young and carefree (and impoverished) consumer of hi-fi reviews, I'd read about the gold-deposited metal tweeters that Mo Iqbal was concocting and think, "Man, that's some exotic, far-out stuff!"
I've long been a fan of Naim electronic gear, and have used it for many years. I also have admiration and respect for the company's uncompromisingly consistent and determinedly individualistic approach to the various tasks and problems of loudspeaker design. But my enthusiasm for Naim speakers has long been tempered by a feeling that mechanical aspects of the design are given priority over acoustics and styling.
In the Beginning Was the Word... At first blush, the sound of the Vandersteen Model 2Ce Signature transported me to a bucolic nature trail in the Berkshires on one of those high, dry August days when the amber stillness of late afternoon imparts a sense of otherness against the endless vistas of green and brown and blue. In my Wordsworthian reverie, as I made my way up the mountainside, remembrances of venerable loudspeakers past called out to me from the sturdy stands of New England foliage. Mark you the lofty maple and the supple white birch; the noble pine, the mighty oak and humble larch; there, on the crest, an Acoustic Research AR3a; farther up the ridge, a copse of Advent, KLH, and Allison—and finally, high on yonder peak, beckoning like God's own flip-top, crush-proof box, the Vandersteen 2Ce Signature.
You've probably seen the ad in Stereophile: a very personal account by Avantgarde-USA president Jim Smith, describing how, during a 30-year career in high-end audio, he had become increasingly disappointed with conventional loudspeakers' ability to communicate the emotional impact of live music, and how he found the answer with the Avantgarde horn loudspeakers. It's advertising copy in the best I-liked-it-so-much-I-bought-the-company tradition—with the exception that Smith did not actually buy Avantgarde Acoustic, but did become their North American distributor.
Bonnie and I decided to avoid the crowds last weekend, and instead settled in at home to watch the recent remake of Great Expectations, with Ethan Hawke and Gwyneth Paltrow. It seemed like a pretty good movie, but before long I found my thoughts drifting to the review I had in progress: my audition and analysis of the Magnepan Magneplanar MG3.6/R. True, Great Expectations is a little slow, and a few explosions or car chases might have better held my attention, but if ever there was an audio product to which the phrase "great expectations" applied, it's the Magnepan 3.6/R.
It may come as a surprise to relative newcomers to the field of audio, but some loudspeaker manufacturers are manufacturers in only a limited sense. They buy drivers, off-the-shelf or custom-built, from companies like VIFA, SEAS, Focal, etc.; cabinets from a woodworking shop; and crossovers from an electronics subcontractor. While the system design will have taken place in-house, actual manufacturing is restricted to assembling the components, perhaps tweaking the crossover, and final QC. Even some highly successful loudspeaker manufacturers use this approach, which can work well as long as the suppliers do their jobs properly.
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.
I visited the Revel room on the last day of the January 1999 CES, expecting another dynamic demo of their Ultima line. Instead, I found a pair of floorstanding Performa F30s connected to a rack full of the best Mark Levinson electronics. Deeply impressed by the dynamics and clarity of this first model in the new Performa line, I called Revel's Kevin Voecks as soon as I got back to New York City, but was told that another Stereophile reviewer had already got first dibs on the F30. Would I be interested in one of the other Revels? Well, yes, sure, but...
Sometimes you have to wonder why big corporations gobble up small speaker companies. Most such firms are built by individualist entrepreneurs chasing an elusive dream—an up-close and personal thing that is the antithesis of the corporate mentality. That's why speaker companies are so often named after the founder.
How can you tell an audiophile from a normal person? Well, given a list of names like "Haydn, Mozart, Bach, Beethoven, and Mahler," the normal person might respond, "Composers." The audiophile's response is likely to be "Loudspeakers from Vienna Acoustics." Anyway, that's my association when I see these names, which may tell you something about my state of normalcy.