Time thins the ranks of specialist industries. Trends, products, and companies come and go. High-end audio is a poster child for this reality, and most veteran audiophiles have evidence of the casualtiesliterature or orphaned products, stashed away somewhere. But a small number of true believers remain true to their visions, and persevere to help advance the state of the art.
I got a call a while back from Stephen Mejias (Stereophile('s Sancho Panza to John Atkinson's Don Quixote), who informed me that Aperion Audio had redesigned their entire line of loudspeakers, and suggested that I check them out. I had responded very favorably to Aperion's Intimus 533-T, which I reviewed in the April 2007 issue. I loved the speaker's sound, the sexy appearance, and felt it was good value at $750/pair. And I thought Aperion's 30-day free trial with free shipping each way was a deal that few could resist. So when this factory-direct, Oregon-based company informed me that they'd updated the drivers and crossovers across their entire speaker line, I decided to give a listen to their new flagship, the Intimus 6T ($1390/pair).
It's always fun to visit the Burmester Audio suite at the annual Consumer Electronic Show. Founder Dieter Burmester and CEO Udo Besser are upbeat, fun-loving personalities who enjoy demonstrating their latest home audio gearthat is, when they're not working on the latest updates to their sound system for the $2.1 million Bugatti Veyron 16.4 supercar. This past year they introduced their new B25 loudspeaker, an 88-lb floorstander. This "baby" Burmester's suggested retail price of $12,000/pair is only one-sixth that of Burmester's flagship speaker, the B100, only one-fourth its weight, and half its height. The design goals for the B25 were a less expensive, lighter speaker that was easier to set up, while retaining Burmester products' high-quality sound and good looks. Playing my own CDs through the B25s at the 2008 CES, I found them notably smooth and detailed; they also imaged well, and were particularly good at reproducing male voices.
With hindsight, it should have been obvious at the time that the 1970s witnessed a glorious flowering of high-end audio. Almost all the brands now regarded as leaders had their start in that decade, though with perhaps the exceptions of Audio Research, Linn, Magnepan, and Naim, those of us working at audio magazines missed the significance of the new names. Dynaudio, for example, was founded in 1977, but not until the end of the 1980s did I become fully aware of the ground being broken in drive-unit and overall system design by this Danish loudspeaker manufacturer.
When JA suggested I review one of the "smaller" VMPS loudspeakers, I felt the hot breath of controversy in the air. The recent debate in these pages concerning the "proper" amount of bass required for true high-fidelity reproduction, and the inability of small loudspeakers (according to one camp) to provide it, hadn't yet cooled off, nor showed any sign of doing so. VMPS, a small West-Coast manufacturer most famous for its humongous Super Tower IIa/R (at 6-plus feet and 250 lbs per side, first reviewed for Stereophile by AHC in Vol.9 No.3 and the latest version of which is examined by JGH elsewhere in this issue), is hardly a fence-sitter in the debate; they are clearly pro-low-end response. I chose to request the Tower II/R, an upgraded version of the smallest of their floor-standing systems, for review; with a rated 3dB-down point of 22Hz (the same as their standard subwoofer), it's not exactly a member of the restrained bass brigade.
"How do you make an object common as a box iconic?" asked Bob Graffy, Snell's vice president/brand manager. He and Joseph D'Appolito, Snell's chief design engineer, were sitting in my listening room, discussing cabinet designs. Graffy noted that KEF had sought the same in their distinctive, silvery, cylindrical Muon loudspeaker ($150,000/pair). For the flagship model in their Illusion series, Snell commissioned Gerd Schmieta, former designer for Ideo, to integrate D'Appolito's wish list for an ideal enclosure: a narrow, rounded upper baffle for the midrange and tweeter, wider at the base for the woofers, holding a constant cross-sectional area while maximizing cabinet volume, and compliance with a 15° tip test.
Italian manufacturer Chario Loudspeakers has never had a strong presence in the US. No wonder, then, when confronted by these exquisitely finished beauties of solid hardwood, many American audiophiles think, "Sonus Faber rip-off." Without knowing the musical history of the 1960s, had you heard Badfinger first, you might have thought the same thing when you then heard the Beatles. Similarly, Chario, by far Italy's largest maker of high-performance speakers, was founded in 1975, eight years before Sonus Faber. While SF has its drive-units built to its own specifications by other firms, Chario designs and builds its own.
One might argue that Thiel Audio's 3-series loudspeakers are the audio equivalents of BMW's 3-series sports cars: relatively affordable, but 100% about performance. Thiel has made bigger, more expensive loudspeakers than the 3s, as well as smaller, less expensive modelsbut the iconic Thiels are the 3s.
One of the nicest features of the High End is its diversity. Regardless of whatever trend is fashionable, there will always be manufacturers to buck it, and sell alternative concepts and sounds. VMPS is just such a case. With few exceptions, the recent trend in speaker systems has been toward small-to-medium-sized "monitors" with good imaging and high resolution, but limited bass and dynamics (footnote 1). The VMPS SuperTowers provide the former, but buck the trend by adding reproduction of the deepest bass and outstanding full-range dynamics.
I first encountered Avalon Acoustics' loudspeakers about 20 years ago. The hi-fi shop I worked for sold Jeff Rowland Design Group electronics, and Jeff Rowland insisted that no loudspeaker better showcased his electronics than the Avalons. Rowland sent us a pair of Ascents, and we were startled by their gem-like, faceted cabinets and remarkable soundstaging. As we packed them up to return them to Colorado, I remember thinking, I could live with these speakers.
Despite displaying its products at nearly every CES since 1985, Merlin remains essentially unknown in the US. Problems have plagued the company in this country: key suppliers have gone under, marketing efforts have lacked focus, and the principals of the company seemed to have gotten caught up in audio politics.
Has any modern designer of high-performance speakers extracted more music from a two-way box than ProAc's Stewart Tyler? His early-1990s stand-mounted Response 2 (later upgraded to the Response 2S) was an instant classic, and while his tiny Tablette proved controversial for being bass-shy and relatively pricey, his track record of two-way speakers remains unassailable.
Audio shows are where reviewers search out products for possible review. We are always on the lookoutor listenoutfor components that transcend the boundaries of the ordinary, that set the pulse racing a little faster. The 2007 Rocky Mountain Audio Fest, held in Denver last October, was the first RMAF I had attended, and among the rooms that impressed me was one featuring components from the Japanese brand Esoteric, which was celebrating its 20th anniversary.
John Atkinson and I were in a Manhattan loft apartment that could have stood in for every sophisticated NYC loft you've ever seen in films. We were surrounded by fabulous contemporary art. Asian and South American antiquities were discreetly displayed. The furniture was sparse but choice. And, over in one corner, facing a conversation grouping of paintings, two sleek metal tower loudspeakers were making extremely convincing music. We managed to delay examination of this urban paradise long enough to drink adult beverages and inhale some music.
Loudspeaker designers are dreamers. Something takes hold of a manthe fact that loudspeaker designers are all men must be significantand he wrestles with recalcitrant wood, arcane drive-units, and sundry coils, capacitors, and cables, to produce something which will be individual in its sound quality yet inherently more true to the original sound. An impossible task. Yet if there were to be an aristocratic subset of those dreamers, it would be those who have taken upon themselves the burden of producing electrostatic loudspeakers. For these farsighted engineers, there is no standing on the shoulders of others, there is no recourse to tried and tested combinations of other manufacturers' drive-units. Every aspect of the design, no matter how apparently insignificant, has to be created afresh from first principles. For a new electrostatic design to produce a sound at all represents a great triumph for its progenitor, let alone having it sound musical. And to produce an electrostatic loudspeaker that is also possessed of great visual beauty is indeed a bonus.