Conventional wisdom has it that large Japanese corporations are insular. But when it comes to audio, Sony bucks the conventional wisdom as much as it does in pretty much everything it does. In Europe, the company has long had an excellent reputation for producing loudspeakers using local design talent, so I wasn't surprised to see Sony launching a line of American-designed and -made speakers at Stereophile's 1994 High-End Hi-Fi Show in Miami. Stereophile writer Barry Willis came away from that Show raving about the Sonys: "What we heard was gorgeous, absolutely beautiful: rich, warm, and deep, with a seductive midrange, a shimmering, delicate, grain-free top-end, and a soundstage to die for," he wrote about the sound of the three-way SS-M7 in Miami (footnote 1), 1 concluding that "WATT/Puppy performance is now available at Vandersteen prices in an American-made loudspeaker sporting a Japanese badge."
When I say that this past—and last—Summer CES in Chicago was dead daddy dead, I'm not talking about fewer high-end exhibits and attendees than ever before. I'm talking I walked in the front door of the Chicago Hilton and almost puked from that smell of dead, mealy meat that hits you in the face and kicks-in the gag reflex. The smell of death you can taste even if you're breathing with your mouth. In most religions, it's a sin to let something that dead just sit there without at least spreading some lye on it to kill the stink. I once cut a man for misadjusting the VTA on my cartridge, and that man lying on my listening-room floor with an Allen wrench still clenched in his hand wasn't as dead as this last SCES.
With the introduction of the 1000 Be series in 2005, Focal slipped its exclusive, high-performance beryllium tweeter out of the stuffy-looking Utopia series and into a sleeker, more stylish, more modern form.
The devil's in the details, so here's one detail you should know going in: The El Diablo, a deceptively modest-looking, casket-like, compact, three-way loudspeaker from Danish firm Peak Consult, will cost you a penny less than $65,000/pair. Why? Yes, the dollar's continued slide has alarmingly driven up the price of imported audio gear, but even so...
John Atkinson Opens
I've said it before and I'll say it again: a would-be loudspeaker designer shouldn't even start to think about the possibility of maybe designing a full-range, multi-way loudspeaker until he (and they do all appear to be men) has cut his teeth on a small two-way design. There is still as much art as science in designing a successful loudspeaker, even with all the computer-aided this and Thiele-and-Small that, that even a two-way design requires a designer either to be possessed of a monster talent or of the willingness to undergo months, even years, of tedious and repetitive work—or of both. For a would-be speaker engineer to start his career with a wide dynamic-range, multi-way design, intended to cover the entire musical spectrum from infra-bass to ultra-treble, seems to me to be a perfect case of an admittedly well-intentioned fool rushing in where any sufficiently self-critical angel would fear to tread.
Home Entertainment 2006 in L.A. The weather is fine. The restaurants are cool. The company is très neat. I can't wait to schmooze with manufacturers, writers, dealers, and meet, for the first time, writers of letters to the editor of Stereophile. Play some jazz with John Atkinson and Immedia's Allen Perkins—one smokin' drummer since he's been studying with Peter Erskine (Joni Mitchell, Weather Report, Diana Krall). Of course, my prime objective at the Show is to seek out the best-sounding affordable loudspeakers, to keep my review hopper full for the next year.
Frankly it's a bit nutty for me to be doing this review. First, as Publisher of this esteemed journal, my primary duties involve financial and personnel management, as well as a good bit of public relations; I don't need and am not required to perform the exacting tedium of product reviews. Second, Jim Thiel and Kathy Gornik of Thiel are friends of mine. So what, you ask? Well, if this were going to be a uniformly positive review, I would therefore be ruled out as the reviewer; if it's to be wholly or partially negative, it will surely put a strain on one of my best audio friendships.
It must be difficult for makers of audio equipment to decide how to best exhibit their products at events such as the annual Consumer Electronics Show. If you're doing a demo, you want it to impress audio journalists and potential dealers, and sometimes just playing music is not enough: you need something extra. A few years ago, Joseph Audio put on a demo, supposedly of their top-of-the-line floorstanding speaker, during which Jeff Joseph removed a cloth that had been draped over what was assumed to be hotel-room furniture. Under that cloth were the speakers that were actually playing: Joseph's new in-wall model, mounted on flat baffles. Wilson Audio Specialties demonstrated their speakers with purportedly ultra-high-end electronics and digital source, then revealed that they were actually using a modestly priced preamp and power amp, and that the source was an Apple iPod.
One of the highlights of such annual events as the Consumer Electronics and Primedia Home Entertainment shows has been the demonstrations of loudspeakers from TAD, the professional division of Pioneer Electronics. Designer Andrew Jones is always generous in using recordings brought by visitors, and enthusiastic in explaining the technology behind these beautiful behemoths. Among these speakers' unique features are a beryllium dome tweeter mounted concentrically inside a beryllium midrange cone, and a cabinet built of stacked, carved horizontal sections, for incredible rigidity without using exotic materials or excessive mass. The concentric upper-range driver is a reminder that, some time back, Jones worked for KEF, where the coaxial UniQ driver was developed, but the materials and details of the TAD drivers are all new. While the TAD Model 1s are always good for musical and audiophile thrills, their price is in the upper five figures, which put them out of serious purchase consideration.
What's 1/16" narrower, over 1/2" shallower, and 3/16" higher than the Mirage M-3 loudspeaker? The new Mirage M-3si, that's what. Though the published dimensions for the old and new speakers are the same, my eyes told me there was a difference between them when I had them side-by-side in my listening room in Santa Fe. Being the compulsive type, I got out my trusty tape measure. No, my eyes had not deceived me—the M-3si is skinnier and taller. As I waltzed them into position, I sensed they weighed about the same as their predecessors; close enough that setting them on Arcici Super Spikes is a two-man operation. Though either speaker makes a definite presence in a room, I still find their high-gloss, black finish (the only finish available) unassuming, attractive, and elegant.
If reviewers can be believed, the diminutive, $995/pair Epos ES11 loudspeaker has been a phenomenal success worldwide since its 1990 introduction. Stereophile added its voice to this hallelujah chorus in Vol.14 No.7, when the '11 kicked butt in a blind-listening-panel evaluation of inexpensive small speakers. While the ES11 did plenty of things extremely well, it was inevitable that it was limited in terms of ultimate sound-pressure levels (spls), deep-bass extension, and dynamic persuasiveness. While the ES11 was an unqualified success given its modest size and price, one couldn't help but wonder what Epos might be capable of in a larger model. (While a larger Epos model already existed in the $1695/pair ES14, it predated the technology of the ES11 by four years.)
The latest edition of Audio's annual equipment directory lists 238 speaker manufacturers. At best I can claim to have heard one product from 10–15% of the manufacturers on this list, and the top of the current product line from a far smaller percentage.
Thiel Audio, headed up by Jim Thiel (President and chief designer) and Kathy Gornik (Marketing Director), sets itself apart from other speaker manufacturers not only by making what I feel to be almost uniformly excellent products, but also by serving as a kind of hallmark for the good dealer: Although not all good dealers sell Thiel, just about every Thiel dealer is a good one. This comes about because, in spite of just about uniformly positive reviews and excellent customer relations, Thiel (primarily in the person of Ms. Gornik) has insisted on limited distribution through retailers they know will give their product a good demonstration. There are a few other such companies performing this hallmark function, though only Mark Levinson Audio Systems readily comes to mind. Most other successful companies prefer as wide a geographical distribution as possible, in spite of the occasional necessary compromises in dealer quality.
There are three requirements: You must invent a very good loudspeaker that sells for between $1000 and $2000/pair. You have to make enough of them, over a long enough time, to achieve a certain level of brand recognition and market penetration. And you must create a dealer network of reasonable size, with an emphasis on well-promoted specialty shops.