If, as some would have it, Audiophilia nervosa is like the dark night of reason, then certain audio epiphanies must necessarily stand out from a distance, like a grove of trees 20 miles away thrown into stark relief by prairie lightning. And make no mistake that Audiophilia is a disease---I treasure the memory of the first time my wife and I heard Quad ESLs with tubes far more than the memory of my first kiss (although not more, I hasten to add in case Joan is reading this review, than the memory of our first kiss). I know men who stare into their flickering fireplaces on long winter nights and remember all the women they've known. Myself, I'm more likely to reminisce about my first tube preamp, or list the great-sounding systems I've owned.
How can a reviewer possibly put a value on a loudspeaker as costly as the Wilson Audio Specialties X-1/Grand SLAMM? When he reviewed Wilson's WATT 3/Puppy 2 system ($12,900-$16,000/pair, depending on finish) a few years back (footnote 1), John Atkinson said that it was "one of the more expensive loudspeakers around." The Grand SLAMM costs almost five times as much!
Really Big Hi-Fi came to live with me for a couple of months this past spring in the form of a pair of Tannoy Churchill loudspeakers. They were trucked directly to San Rafael, California from Kitchener, Ontario, in flight cases so bulky they could double as coffins for NFL offensive linemen. Once ensconced chez moi, the Tannoy dreadnoughts provoked bewilderment, alarm, curiosity, envy, admiration, awe, and amazement in all who heard and saw them.
The first time I encountered Dunlavy's Signature Collection loudspeakers was at the 1993 Chicago Summer CES. I was familiar with, and had a lot of respect for, the speakers John Dunlavy had designed for the Australian Duntech brand, but I thought this new line clearly transcended his previous efforts—and at significantly lower prices. The model that I ended up reviewing—and, after the review (Vol.17 No.4), buying—was the SC-IV, subsequently honored as Stereophile's 1994 Loudspeaker of the Year and Product of the Year. In 1995, the SC-IV underwent changes, including a new woofer and a modified tweeter, resulting in some sonic improvements (see my Follow-Up review in Vol.18 No.3).
You might recall that ditty from childhood about the little engine that could (I think I can, I think I can, I think I can...). It's an apt metaphor for high-end audio. In traversing the aural sepulchers of last winter's Consumer Electronics Show and the summer's HI-FI Show, I routinely encountered one divine sound system after another. Yet while I never tire of transcendent sonics, eventually I become inured to the procession of celestial, cost-no-object speakers. It's like having a white-light experience, then returning to the gritty reality of life on earth, where for most of us cost is not merely the object, but the determining factor in finding an optimal balance among audio components.
It was one of those uncommonly warm late winter Sundays when you hardly need a coat. The fine weather had set aside any critical listening sessions, the door to the kitchen was open, and I was playing my audio system—then equipped with a pair of Spendor BC-1 loudspeakers—at moderate levels. Playing on the Linn turntable was an LP that the kids loved—"The Magic Garden Song," sung by the two female leads from the children's television show of the same name (footnote 1), My wife doesn't often comment positively on audio equipment, but that day she walked in from the kitchen to say, "Those voices sound real—as if two people just walked in our living room and started singing."
The Model R107 represents the flagship of KEF's Reference Series, and is second only to the Professional Series KM-1 in KEF's product line. Anatomically, the 107 resembles a person. Beneath a decorative "hat," there's a special head assembly akin to the head on the old Model R105. This head assembly contains the brains of the 107, namely a T33 ferrofluid-cooled tweeter and an improved version of the classic B110 midrange driver, featuring a better voice-coil and a new polypropylene cone. The nerve center is also here, in the form of two passive dividing networks and load-impedance equalizing network. Level equalization of the drivers is performed actively within the KUBE, the second brain of the 107—about which you'll hear more shortly.
In this age of $70,000-plus "flagship" designs, perhaps $25k is no longer an obscene amount to pay for a pair of loudspeakers. Still, it's mucho dinero. What makes a speaker worth this kind of bread? Does the product's intrinsic value really warrant such a lofty cost, or is it merely a matter of pricing at what the market will bear? The answers to these questions requires careful examination of not only the speaker, but also of the buyer's own soul, priorities, and pocketbook.
I've never heard a pair of the Italian Sonus Faber speakers I didn't like. What I've never liked was the US price: too high. And then you have to put them on costly stands. Plus, you're paying a premium for the magnificent woodworking and exquisite design—something I wasn't into, since I live with my stereo in a basement office/workshop/listening room some (who shall remain nameless) refer to as the "habitat for inhumanity."
I first met Jacques Mahul (the JM in JMlab/Focal) when my wife Kathleen and I traveled to Paris to cover HiFi (Hee-Fee) '96. The sound produced by the JMlab Grand Utopias—on a collection of many-chassis'd YBA electronics—got my enthusiastic vote for best of show (footnote 1). JMlab's large demo room was always packed to the rafters with avid listeners. (As a group, melomanes, as audiophiles are called in France, exactly mirror their stateside brethren in appearance and general demeanor. Yes, they're a raucous and demanding bunch!)
A reviewer's life is not all fame and fortune. There are downsides, too, one of which is that, while many great-sounding components pass through your listening room, only a few get to stay there on anything like a permanent basis. (And that involves money changing hands, as in [gasp!] "purchase.") Before I bought my long-term reference loudspeakers—a pair of B&W John Bowers Silver Signatures—back in 1994, the speakers that had spent the most time in my 2900-cubic foot listening room were a pair of Thiel CS2 2s. I reviewed the '2 2 in the January 1993 issue of Stereophile (Vol.16 No.1), and although it was relatively affordable ($2250/pair at the time of the review), it did most of what I wanted a speaker to do. Other than a limited dynamic range in the bottom audio octave and a slightly exaggerated top octave, the CS2 2 sounded effortlessly smooth and free from coloration throughout the midrange and treble. It was also a real imaging champ.
Got a garage, a router, and a band saw? Poof! You're a speaker designer. How many audiophiles dream of buying some raw drivers, some MDF and veneer, building a baffle, soldering up a computer-designed crossover, and assembling the Shmendrick Audio 2001? Plenty.
"Danes are boring," Dynaudio US's president Al Filippelli said. "Let's face it: They work hard, they tell the truth, they give full measure in deals, and they don't embroider. What you see is what you get."
Audio Artistry's Beethoven is the banner model of the company's Composer series (footnote 1), which includes the entry-level Vivaldi as well as the Dvorak I reviewed in the April 1996 Stereophile (Vol.19 No.4, p.204). Like the Dvorak, the Beethoven is a four-piece, bi-amplified, dynamic dipole design; unlike the Dvorak, the Beethoven has been taken to the nth degree of refinement.