Every few years, it seems, Sony offers a statement product. Sometimes they do it to define a new product categorythe SCD-1 introduced to the world the SACD/CD player. Sometimes they do it because they can, as with the outstanding ES SS-M9 and ES SS-M9ED loudspeakers, enthusiastically reviewed by John Atkinson in Stereophile in September 1996 and August 2001, respectively. So when I heard that Sony would introduce a special new speaker at a "by invitation only" event at the 2011 Consumer Electronics Show last January, my interest was piqued. I've always kicked myself for not buying a pair of ES SS-M9s ($3500) when I could have. The ES SS-M9EDs were even better, said JAand, at $16,000/pair, a lot more expensive. Now, a decade later, Sony has decided to make another "statement."
Direct Acoustics is a loudspeaker company in Weston, Massachusetts, that sells, by mail-order only, just one product: the two-way, floorstanding Silent Speaker II ($748/pair).
Its seemingly paradoxical name refers not to any inability of the Silent to create sound, but rather is intended by its maker to indicate two aspects of its performance. First is the ability of the loudspeaker boxes to "disappear" in the sense of not being readily apparent as sound sources. Well, okay, everyone wants that. The other intended sense of Silent is that the woofer and its loading arrangement were designed to minimize stray noises created by the woofer's excursion, or by the movements of air within, or in and out of, its vent or port.
In the May 2009 issue, I gushed over the performance of Linn Products' remarkable little bookshelf speaker, the Majik 109 ($1590/pair). In particular, I was struck by how I'd never heard any speaker at any price whose high frequencies sounded more natural, detailed, or pure than the 109's. Then, wondering what a pricier Linn speaker might sound like in my system, I asked Linn which was their most expensive model that also incorporates the 2K tweeter-supertweeter array used in the Majik 109. The answer: the floorstanding Majik 140 ($2995/pair). Once I'd worked through my reviewing backlog, two 140s were on their way to my listening den.
As B&W's 800 Series has evolved, Stereophile has reported on its progress. Lewis Lipnick reviewed the Matrix 801 Series 2 in 1987, and Wes Phillips wrote about the Nautilus 801 in 1999. I reviewed the B&W 800 Signature in 2002 and the 802D in 2005. This is getting to be a habit.
Two years ago, I was drawn to the Wilson Audio Sophia Series 2then as now, the company's entry-level floorstanderby its good reputation among lovers of low-power tube amplifiers. "Forget the specs," they said. "Sophia is the one to hear." In fact, with its 89dB sensitivity (slightly lower than most of Wilson's other domestic loudspeakers) and mildly challenging impedance curve (less daunting than those of its stablemates, but not by a lot), the Sophia seemed, on paper, no better than average for use with flea-watt amps. But when I tried a pair at home with my 25W Shindo Corton-Charlemagne mono amps, I was impressed: The Sophia Series 2 was, as I suggested in my "Listening" column in the February 2010 issue, the product that will forever mark Wilson Audio's progress toward not merely excellent sound but beautiful sound.
The Snell Type C/IV's design has been highly influenced by both the testing methods and philosophy of Canada's National Research Council in Ottawa. Other well-known loudspeakers to have benefited from the NRC's testing facilities include the Mirage M-1 and M-3, PSB Stratus Gold, the Waveform, and Camber 3.5. The NRC provides a variety of services to loudspeaker designers, notably use of their testing facilities which include a full-sized anechoic chamber. In addition, the NRC is heavily involved in carefully controlled blind listening comparisons between loudspeakers, used to aid the loudspeaker designer while the product is under development. The NRC doesn't provide design services, but rather the means of testing and evaluating work in progress and finished products.
Despite not offering design aid, many loudspeakers created with the NRC's testing and listening laboratories share some common philosophies. Chief among these is the belief that flat amplitude response is far and away the most significant factor in listener preferences and thus should be the paramount design goal. Many NRC-influenced loudspeakers share steep crossover slopes, wide dispersion, smooth off-axis response, and pay considerable attention to the way the loudspeaker interacts with the listening room.
Last July I reviewed the $4850/pair Hales System Two Signature loudspeakers and enthusiastically recommended them. In fact, they displaced the B&W 801 Matrix 2 as my reference loudspeaker, and have become a fixture in my listening room. Over the past seven months, my impressions of the Signatures have been largely confirmed: transparent and uncolored midrange, resolution of fine detail, precise imaging, superb transient abilities, and, most importantly, an ability to thoroughly involve the listener in the music. These qualities earned the Signature a Class A recommendation in Stereophile's "Recommended Components." I've greatly enjoyed the many hours spent with the Signatures.
Hales Audio makes another loudspeakerthe System Two reviewed herethat is very similar to the Signature, but much less expensive (footnote 1). Because the System Two is such a close relation to the Signatureit uses identical drivers, a nearly identical crossover, and similar cabinet constructionand costs nearly 2 kilobucks less, I was eager to hear what the smaller system had to offer. Because the Signature was recommendable at $4850, the System Two just might be a bargain at $3000 if it even came close to the Signature's musicality.
I've always enjoyed the time I've spent with NHT loudspeakers. The two bookshelf models I've reviewedthe SB-3 (Stereophile, November 2002) and its successor, the Classic Three (November 2006)shared NHT's "house sound": liquid, balanced, and dynamic, with little coloration, and a slightly forward and lively midrange. The newer Classic Three, still in production, sounded more refined, natural, and detailed than the SB-3. I like to see speaker designers whose work improves over time.
So when NHT approached me about reviewing a new floorstanding model with a small footprint, the Classic Absolute Towertheir first new speaker design of the next decade, they sayI jumped at the chance. Not only had I not reviewed an NHT in a while, but I'm increasingly intrigued withand applaudthe trend of manufacturers to add small-footprint tower speakers to their lines of affordable speakers. As most speakers costing under $1000/pair tend to be bookshelf models, shoppers need to worry about buying good-quality stands of the appropriate height, and about optimizing the speaker positions with respect to the front and side walls.
Although, historically, Asian high-performance loudspeakers have not had much impact in the US (with the possible exception of the Yamaha NS1000), it is obvious from recent events that that situation might change. Some Japanese manufacturers are determinedly attempting in 1989 to scale the high-end heights. Onkyo, for example, launched an entire range under the Precise brandname, designed by that most idiosyncratic of talented Californian engineers, Keith Johnson, while Yamaha has licensed the Swedish ACE-Bass technology to produce loudspeakers that extend amazingly low in the bass for their size. But it is Pioneer, already well-ensconced in the US pro market with their TAD (Technical Audio Devices) drive-units and monitors, who have made perhaps the biggest techno-splash with their "Elite-TZ" speakers. These feature both high-tech drive-units and a novel (if not entirely new) method of minimizing enclosure vibrations.
The TZ-9 is the top of Pioneer's new line, and costs a cool $4000/pair, placing it firmly in the high-end category. But for that outlay, the TZ-9 owner acquires a largish and quite handsome speaker, finished in a rather orange-colored oak veneer and standing some 4' high. Both tweeter and midrange units feature domes fabricated from an amorphous form of carbon termed by Pioneer "Ceramic Graphite," which is said to have 10 times the bending stiffness and two times the internal loss or self-damping of an equivalent titanium dome. The practical result should be accurate pistonic motion in each unit's passband, with a better-damped HF resonance than a metal dome. In practice, these Ceramic Graphite diaphragms can be quite brittle. Despite the presence of protective wire grilles over the mid- and high-frequency units, the first pair of TZ-9s we received had had the midrange domes shattered, due to inadequate early packaging.
Does spending more money on audio equipment get you better sound? Some audiophiles assume that anything that costs more must be betterand that if it's relatively inexpensive, then it can't be any good. Others hold the opposite view: expensive components can't possibly be worth their prices, and those who manufacture themand audio journalists who report on themmust be charlatans.
Show a time traveler from the 1920s an iPad and most likely he'd neither know what he was looking at nor what it might do. Show him a loudspeaker, even one as advanced as Magico's new Q5 ($59,950/pair), and he'd probably know exactly what it was and what it did, even if what it's made of might seem to have come from another planet.
Stereophile's founder, the late J. Gordon Holt, always had a thing for horn loudspeakers, feeling that these archaic beasts offered a "jump factor" that could never be rivaled by conventional, direct-radiating designs. A horn drastically increases the efficiency with which electrical power is converted into acoustic power, which means that for a given sound-pressure level, a smaller amplifier can be used compared with a direct-radiator, and that all distortions, both electrical and mechanical, can theoretically be much lower. Yet outside of a small circle of enthusiasts, horns never got much of a following in high-end audio, and as high amplifier power became plentiful and relatively cheap, horns largely disappeared from domestic audio use (except in Japan).
I like reviewing loudspeakers. The more you become familiar with the art, the greater the sense of anticipation as you open up a pair of cartons. A visual inspection of the speaker always reveals a challenging mixture of the familiar and the new. The size of the cabinet is always the first cluehas sensitivity been a design priority or was low-frequency extension uppermost in the designer's thoughts? You espy a known drive-unithas this tweeter's propensity for upper-presence sizzle been tamed? You find a reflex port on the rear panelhas the temptation to go for a "commercial," under-damped bass alignment been successfully resisted? You spot factors which intuitively seem wrong for precise stereoa wide baffle lacking any kind of absorbent covering for diffraction control; a grille frame which puts acoustic obstacles in the way of the wavefront emerging from the tweeter.
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.