A clever engineer with an interest in home audio says that the real obstacle to high-fidelity sound is the adverse and unpredictable way in which speakers interact with most domestic rooms. To address that need, he brings to market a loudspeaker that disperses sound in a new and original way. Controversy ensues. Controversy endures.
According to the conventional wisdom, companies selling consumer products fall into two categories: those whose sales are "marketing-led" and those whose sales are "product-led." Marketing-led companies tend to sell mature products into a mature market where there are no real differences between competing productssoap powder, mass-market beer, or cigarettes, for examplewhereas product-led companies tend to sell new technologies, such as personal computers and high-end hi-fi components. In the audio separates market, conventional wisdom would have a hard time categorizing any individual company: no matter which you choose, it would be simplistic to say that it is either product- or marketing-led. No matter how good the product, without good marketing the manufacturer stands little chance of success; a poor product superbly marketed may make a company successful overnight, but that success will have hit the end stops by the following night. Nevertheless, for this review, I have chosen a model from a company renowned for its marketing strength: Polk Audio.
Considering that the crates they're shipped in are each as large as a Manhattan studio apartment, once they'd been set up in my listening room, Focal's Maestro Utopia III speakers weren't as visually overpowering as I'd anticipated. The elegant dark-gloss front baffles, the gloss-gray side panels, and the fact that the speaker's three subenclosures are vertically arrayed so that the top, midrange section is angled down, significantly reduced their apparent size.
Before last year, I had no more than a professional interest in the products of Wilson Audio Specialties. But before last year I hadn't experienced Wilson's Sophia Series 2 loudspeaker ($16,700/pair)which, like the wines I tend to order when my wife and I go out to dinner, is the second-cheapest item on their menu. Within weeks of the Sophias' arrival, respect had turned to rapture, like to love, and an entirely new appreciation for Wilson Audio was mine (footnote 1).
Over the years that I've been reviewing hi-fi, I've had my share of loudspeakers that drew comments from everyone who visited during the audition period. Some of those comments were about the speakers' appearancemost often about their sizeand some were about how good they sounded. Vivid's G1Giya loudspeaker ($65,000/pair), its narrow-baffled, swirling cochlear shape molded from fiber-reinforced composite, elicited more comments of both types than has any other speaker I've reviewed.
For the past few years, PSB Speakers International has been replacing its older lines with new models designed in Canada, and assembled in China from Chinese-made components. Judging from the reception here of PSB's Synchrony One and Imagine T, it's clear that the new models combine advanced performance with true economy. Now, with the new Image line, we see the result of trickling all this down to less expensive products.
I was greatly impressed by the performance of the Canton Reference 9.2 DC loudspeaker, which I reviewed in the March 2008 "Music in the Round" in the context of a 5.1-channel system. Those beautiful jewels not only sounded balanced and transparent, they had more sheer grunt in the low end than could be reasonably expected from their size. I wanted to hear more from Canton, but couldn't decide whether to go up in size or down in price. The problem I've always had with Canton is that they offer such a wide range of products that it's like choosing food from a multipage menu at a fine restaurant: everything looks good. It's especially difficult when your hunger is further piqued by your own past experience and the recommendations of others. (Check out the November 2006 issue to learn how much Wes Phillips enjoyed Canton's flagship speaker, the Reference 1 DC.)
JBL was founded 60 years ago, by Jim Lansing. Its history has been amply detailed in the book The JBL Story: 60 Years of Audio Innovation, by the late John Eargle's (JBL Professional, 2006). Although it is primarily known for its pro-audio loudspeakers, the Californian company has offered a steady stream of high-performance domestic loudspeakers to the home market, including the 1971 Paragon, the L100 bookshelf speaker, and the JBL 250Ti floorstander, all of which remained in JBL's catalog for 20 years. In 1990, JBL produced the Project K2 S9500 flagship speaker for the Japanese high-end market. The K2 Project culminated in the $60,000/pair DD55000 Everest system, with its cross-firing asymmetric horns, and the subject of this review, the Synthesis 1400 Array BG, was a spin-off from the K2 project. It features horn-loaded midrange and tweeters to attain a flat response out to a claimed 48kHz.
Balanced performance isn't the be-all and end-all of product design. A person can listen to a product which balances the highs with the lows, detail with forgiveness, delicacy with dynamics, and still feel unmoved. Such a product might sound "proper," but it won't produce the illusion of a live performance. It takes a special window or two on reality to convince you you're listening to live music. Such a loudspeaker may have other deficiencies which keep it from being a universally appealing product, but it keeps reminding you of the live experience. It may appeal only to a small number of audiophiles, but their experience may well be more intense.
There's a fantastic new two-SACD/CD set of a demonstration-quality live recording of a rather obscure work you really should get to know, not only for its own merits, but also for what I believe is its underappreciated but major influence on music and on popular culture. The piece is by 20th-century composer Arnold Schoenberg, but trust meit's more than "listenable." It (or, at least, the music on the first disc) is beyond engaging; it is compellinga revelation, even. The work is Gurrelieder (Songs of Gurre), Gurre being a castle in medieval Denmark that was the setting of a real-life doomed love triangle, the story of which has since loomed large in the moodily brooding artistic consciousness of Danes. The 19th-century Danish poet Jens Peter Jacobsen wrote a collection of poems based on medieval legends, including this one, and a German translation by Robert Franz Arnold provided Schoenberg's dramatic texts.
A few years ago, I had a phone call from a marketing organization. I was asked, as a member of the audiophile press, to participate in a survey dealing with the "images" of various brands of loudspeakers.
It was only a few months ago that I greeted Oppo Digital's BDP-83 universal Blu-ray player as a breakthrough consumer component, and it became a Runner-Up for Stereophile's Budget Product of 2009. It now appears that Oppo is using the design as a base on which to develop similar and more advanced products, both for themselves and for a good many other manufacturers. Some may take exception to my use of the word manufacturersif it's an Oppo under the skin, what, precisely, are these other "manufacturers" contributing? Well, that's hardly a new question.
It's difficult to believe that the former top model of Vandersteen Audio's line of loudspeakers, the Model 5, has been in production in one form or another since 1997. Time passes quickly when you're having fun. Like all Vandersteen speakers, the 5 was and remains a good value and performance proposition. For all the 5's high technology and excellent performance both measured and audible, its price now starts at under $20,000/pair (up from about $10,000/pair when the 5 was introduced in 1997), including a built-in, proprietary powered subwoofer in each cabinet, and a sophisticated equalization system for room compensation.
On two occasions I've caught myself wondering how to afford a pair of Wilson Audio loudspeakers. Interestingly, both happened within the past year. The first was in April 2009, at the Son et Image show in Montreal, during a demonstration of the MAXX Series 3. The experience was notable for its blend of genuinely great sound with genuine musicality: Each performance unfolded of its own natural accord, with human randomness and nuance, and without the fussy, mechanical, shallow artifice that attracts some audiophiles in the way a carnivorous plant attracts fliesand, if they're lucky, kills them (the audiophiles, that is).
Almost every assumption you might make about Vienna Acoustics' Klimt The Kiss loudspeaker by looking at it would be wrong. It is not a stand-mounted two-way loudspeaker. It's a three-way, with a coincident tweeter-midrange. And that ain't no standit's an integral part of the speaker. It does not have a conventional cabinetthere are two separate enclosures, complete with micrometer control of both vertical and horizontal axes. And those sure aren't plain-vanilla drive-unitsthey're about as unique as they come.