Bill Eggleston builds speakers because his father did. "My dad always told me that when he started, the only way you could get really good speakers was to build them yourself. We always had drivers and parts around, and I just began building my own so early I can't even remember. Much more important, my father passed on his wide-ranging approach to music. He listened to everything, and he taught me to be open-minded about music."
A science-fiction parable I read too many years ago to remember who wrote it used the image of a glass jar stuffed with colored plastic spheres. The story's protagonist was asked whether the glass was full. "Of course," was his reply, whereupon a hidden faucet was turned, the jar filled up with water, and fish swam in the spaces between the balls.
Astute readers will note that although my name appears under the "hardware" heading of Stereophile's masthead, I have rarely written about specific products, and, apart from secondary comments or Follow-Ups, have never written a formal equipment report. For years I resisted reviewing because I was usually connected in some way to audio manufacturers and/or retailers, and felt very uncomfortable with the conflict of interest. The other reason I was disinclined to review is that the critical listening required of reviewers is work, and after a long day or week of working on, or with, audio equipment, the only thing I wanted to do when I came home was relax. But since I have hung up my soldering iron and oscilloscope probe for what I hope is the last time, and am cleaving instead to my word processor (or, as playwright David Ives dubbed it, my "verboblender"), you may see more of this—WP, JA, and God willing.
An equipment reviewer for one of the consumer hi-fi magazines once confided to a manufacturer that he found it hard to like electrostatics because of the kind of people who usually like electrostatics. His implication—that certain kinds of people gravitate towards certain kinds of sound—is an interesting thought, and one that might bear some further investigation. But there is no questioning the fact that electrostatic speakers in general do have a particular kind of sound, that might be characterized as "polite."
"I am not in love; but I'm open to persuasion," sings Joan Armatrading in her song "Love and Affection," the track I was playing when I finally realized that my attempts to get a sound from the Apogee Caliper ribbon speakers approaching what I had heard at the 1986 Chicago CES were bearing fruit. And that sentence pretty much describes the creed of the professional audio critic. Each new product that arrives at your door could be the one to pass the J. Gordon Holt "goose-bump" test, to leave the hairs on your arms permanently erect. Did the Caliper full-range ribbons excite my previously quiescent nerve-endings? Did Bobby Ewing return from the dead? Did Sam propose to Diane? Will Alan Alda ever outgrow Hawkeye? What on Earth made Georgette marry Ted Baxter? Why can't Tubbs roll up his jacket sleeves like Crockett? How could a fine actor like Jack Klugman accept such a dreadful role? Some of these questions will be answered overleaf, but in the meantime, what is a ribbon speaker?
Whenever I think of cone speaker systems, I think of three brand names: Snell, Thiel, and Vandersteen. There are many good loudspeakers and many good designers and manufacturers, but it is these three who, in my opinion, consistently produce the best cone loudspeaker systems. All three companies produce full-range systems, transparent systems, and systems which mate well with a wide range of equipment. Their systems can be owned and enjoyed for years. Long after some fad or special feature has given a competing designer brief notoriety, these are the products you turn back to for music.
The Vandersteen 3A is a higher-end variation on the theme established by the company's first loudspeaker, the 2C. The latter is still available, though much updated into the current, highly popular 2Ce. A four-way design, the 3A has separate sub-enclosures for each drive unit; the whole affair is covered with a knit grille-cloth "sock" with wood trim end pieces. A rear-mounted metal brace allows the user to vary the tiltback—an important consideration for best performance with this loudspeaker.
The Model Four is the largest model in KEF's current Reference series of loudspeakers, discounting the R107/2 Raymond Cooke Special-Edition (reviewed in a follow-up in October '95). It's also the largest KEF model that uses their Uni-Q® loudspeaker configuration. When I visited the KEF factory last October with a group of audio journalists from the US, KEF emphasized the importance of Uni-Q technology to their future plans. They consider it proprietary, and intend to enforce the worldwide patents they hold on the design. One look at KEF's current line will be enough to tell you why they're so serious. Uni-Q drivers may be found not only in most of the Reference series, but in most of their other models as well. The most significant exceptions: the Raymond Cooke series, a few inexpensive models, and their THX-certified loudspeaker system.
In the audio field, the British have traditionally thought "small," scoring hits both with their compact loudspeakers and with medium-priced amplifiers. The continued growth of the audiophile speaker market in the US, however, which favors larger loudspeakers, has at the same time stimulated the research and design of more powerful, excellent quality amplifiers. In their turn, these have placed increased demands on the speakers they drive.
Since the introduction of the original B&W 801 monitor loudspeaker in 1980, it has been adopted as a reference by several recording studios around the world, Over the past five years, I have seen 801s present in just about every recording session with which I have been artistically involved. While the original 801 monitor had its strong points, I was never satisfied with the detached and muddy-sounding bass, discontinuous driver balance, and low sensitivity. Unless this speaker was driven by an enormous solid-state power amplifier, with an elevated high-frequency response, the tubby and slow bass response often obliterated any detail in the two bottom octaves of musical material.
The quest for a full-range electrostatic loudspeaker has occupied many engineers' minds for many years. The problems are manifold: large physical size (which can lead to room placement problems and poor dispersion), the difficulty of achieving high sound pressure levels, the need for a potentially sound-degrading step-up transformer, and the unsuitability for production-line manufacture. Even so, the potential rewards are so great that one can understand why loudspeaker designers keep on attempting the apparently impossible. Epoch-making models do appear at infrequent intervals, keeping the flame burning since the appearance of the original Quad in 1955: Acoustat, Sound Lab, and Beveridge in the US, Stax in Japan, Audiostatic in Holland, Quad, of course, in England, and now MartinLogan.
Some products are destined never to be seen for what they are. Instead, they exist as avatars, the very embodiment of their ages or concepts. The Wilson Audio WATT (Wilson Audio Tiny Tot) and its nigh-unto-ubiquitous subwoofer, the Puppy, have achieved this legendary status—no, have manifested it almost from their creation 10 years ago—to such a degree that they've come to stand for the entire class of no-holds-barred-monitor loudspeaker. They serve as the focus for a whole realm of the industry; indeed, to show any customer an expensive speaker possessing a modest footprint and not to invoke the incantation "better than a WATT" seems to abjure any pretense of serious sales strategy. At the same time, this speaker system has polarized the industry and its followers, strongly praised by some for its staggering accuracy, and equally dismissed by others for having little soul (musicality, to the initiated).
That's right, that's no typo; the name of this speaker is the Thiel CS.5—not 1.5, not 8.5, just point five. The CS.5 is the smallest of Thiel's floorstanding CS (Coherent Source) loudspeaker family, and is likely to remain so—a name like CS.125, for example, is a bit unwieldy. If you're familiar with the rest of Thiel's CS line, then you can imagine what the CS.5 looks like: it resembles the other CS speakers, except it's smaller (footnote 1). And, being a typical smartypants 'ender (as in "high-ender"), I bet you think you know 'zactly how these sound, too, don't you? Well? I thought so.