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.
After a year spent exploring the best that can be obtained from minimonitor loudspeakers, I embarked on what will be an equally long examination of what floorstanding towers have to offer. I began with the Sonus Faber Cremona Elipsa ($20,800/pair) in December 2007, followed in 2008 by: in February, the KEF Reference 207/2 ($20,000/pair); in April, the PSB Synchrony One ($4500/pair); and in May, the Magico V3 ($25,000/pair). For this review, I've been listening to a speaker aimed at those with shallower pockets than are required even for the PSB: the Avalon NP Evolution 2.0, which costs just $1995/pair.
"Where do you want 'em?" Doug'n'David (of Stereophile's shipping and receiving, not your favorite morning drive-time talk radio co-hosts) had just wrestled over 500 lbs of cocooned Wilson WITT loudspeakers onto the floor of my garage. Like the Thiel CS7s I had parted with just a few weeks earlier, the WITTs came packed in solid, heavy wooden crates. The pained expressions on Doug'n'David's faces indicated that it was time for me to start reviewing minimonitors! The unpacking went more smoothly than I expected, but this is clearly a pair of loudspeakers that demand to be delivered, uncrated, and set up by a dealer.
We all know it's impossible to reproduce live music. An obvious statement, no doubt, and one that holds every audiophile hostage to the never-ending search. As a musician, I find the situation especially frustrating. The constant reminder of live vs reproduced makes living with an audio system a serious compromise, regardless of price or quality. About three and a half years ago, however, I reviewed a product which I felt, and still feel, offers the first real glimpse of that impossible dream: the B&W 801 Matrix Monitor (footnote 1). Although it wasn't perfect, I found this speaker provided more musical honesty than anything I had heard before. In this respect, it established a new standard by which others would be judged.
Last year, when Epos importer Music Hall contacted me about reviewing the then-new M16 floorstanding loudspeaker, I hesitated. I had been very impressed with the M16's little bookshelf brother, the M5 (see my review in the April 2005 Stereophile, Vol.28 No.4), which I found uncolored, detailed, and a great value. Most of all, the M5 had an incredible balance of performance. But several times in the past, having been seduced by a wonderfully balanced bookshelf speaker, I've then been disappointed by one of its costlier, floorstanding brethren. The larger speaker might share the bookshelf's overall character, have deeper bass, and play louder with less strain, but too often that magical sense of balance that I had so enjoyed in the smaller speaker would be absent.
Back in March 1998, Revel's Ultima Salon1 floorstanding loudspeaker generated quite a stir at Stereophile (Vol.22 No.3). Our reviewers were impressed by its seven designed-from-scratch drive-units, its ultramodern enclosure with curved rosewood side panels, exposed front tweeter and midrange, rear-facing reflex port and tweeter, and a flying grille over the mid-woofer and woofers. In the December issue (Vol.22 No.12), the Ultima Salon1 ($16,000/pair) was named Stereophile's "Joint Speaker of 1999" for its "big bass, timbral accuracy, low distortion, dynamics, lack of compression, and best fit'n'finish."
So far, as part of my quest to find good affordable box loudspeakers, I have reviewed 16 models, in the August, October, and November 1987 issues of Stereophile (Vol.10 Nos.5, 7, & 8). This fourth group of loudspeakers expands the price range covered, down to $329/pair and up to $1349/pair, and includes one model from California (Nelson-Reed), one from Canada (Paradigm), and one, Monitor Audio's "flagship," the R952MD, from the UK.
The conventional wisdom in publishing is that magazines are dependent on scoops—that getting the news out to the readers first is of primary importance. Yes, being timely with what it has to say is important for any publication. But soon after I joined Stereophile in 1986, a series of negative experiences with review samples that were little better than prototypes led me to rethink the need for scoops. As a result, I decided to impose restrictions on what we chose to review; this would allow us to focus the magazine's review resources on products that were out of beta testing and were ready for prime time, and, most important, would be representative of what our readers could audition for themselves at specialty retailers, confident in the knowledge that what they heard would be what we had reviewed.
Today, as every Saturday, I brought my daughter to the stables where she has her riding lessons. But this time was different. As we pulled up the long gravel driveway, we found ourselves dodging a riderless horse, moving at a trot across our path. It turned out that the very cold weather had caused a latch to malfunction—"gate won't close, railing's froze"—and five horses had gotten loose.
One question posed by John Atkinson at the July 1991 StereophileWriters Conference had to do with the ease of reviewing: Is it harder to write a bad review of an expensive product than a good review? I find it hardest to write a good review of an inexpensive product. If I admire a less expensive loudspeaker, for example, it may become a recommended component, and can displace a more expensive speaker (that received mixed comments) from our twice-yearly rankings. This can be a big responsibility; even a conditional rave of a low-cost product means that JA may assign another Stereophile reviewer to do an immediate follow-up report. The Snell Type E/III loudspeaker may be a good case in point.