As much as I'm tempted by the impressive sweep and scale with which some of the large, full-range loudspeakers endow music, for some reason I find myself more at home with more compact examples of the breed. This is not through lack of familiarity with large speakers, a pair of B&W 801s occupying pride of place in our living room (which also serves as my wife's listening room). Yet I find myself hankering after that ultimate soundstage precision that only minimonitors seem capable of producing: the loudspeakers totally disappearing, vocal and instrumental images hanging in space, truly solid—the prefix "stereo-" is derived from the Greek word stereos, which means solid—so that a rectangular, totally transparent window into the concert hall opens at the rear of your room. In addition, the necessarily limited low-frequency extension offered by small speakers makes it much easier to get the optimum integration with the room acoustics below 100Hz.
As I said during the 1991 Stereophile writers' conference (Vol.14 No.12): "There's immense satisfaction in finding that next Audible Illusions or Vandersteen or Rotel." My oh my, am I satisfied! But before you start writing checks, hold onto those pens for a few moments. The PSB Alphas are not ProAc, Hales, Quad, or even Vandersteen killers. Goodness, what do you expect for $200?
As much as I'm tempted by the impressive sweep and scale with which some of the large, full-range loudspeakers endow music, for some reason I find myself more at home with more compact examples of the breed. This is not through lack of familiarity with large speakers, a pair of B&W Matrix 801s occupying pride of place in our living room (which also serves as my wife's listening room). Yet I find myself hankering after that ultimate soundstage precision that only minimonitors seem capable of producing: the loudspeakers totally disappearing, vocal and instrumental images hanging in space, truly solid—the prefix "stereo-" is derived from the Greek word stereos, which means solid—so that a rectangular, totally transparent window into the concert hall opens at the rear of your room. In addition, the necessarily limited low-frequency extension offered by small speakers makes it much easier to get the optimum integration with the room acoustics below 100Hz.
Street buzz is a force to reckon with. When an audiophile whispers to me that a piece of new equipment sounds unusually good, I'm interested. When two manufacturers of other equipment independently tell me "You've got to listen to this speaker," I get excited.
The last few years at our annual Home Entertainment Show, many readers have come up to me and asked: "How do you select which speakers to review?" In my case, most candidates are either new products that have impressed me when demonstrated at our HE Shows, or new products from manufacturers whose designs have impressed me in the past. Occasionally, editor John Atkinson gets wind of a speaker and asks if I'd like to review it. But once in a while, a manufacturer reads a rave review of a competing product that makes his or her blood boil.
NHT's Xd system is what audiophiles have been saying they want: a matched loudspeaker system that optimizes the performance of its components for a real-world domestic listening environment. But with their dollars they've voted against just such systems for years. If we put our money where our mouths are, active speaker systems such as Meridian's DSP or those used in recording studios would dominate the High End.
Beauty is in the eye of the beholder—but all too often there is little of beauty to be found in high-end audio. In these aesthetic dark ages, we have been indoctrinated to forsake grace and elegance; we all know that every underlying penny should be spent only in the pursuit of superior sonic performance.
Loudspeaker manufacturer Boston Acoustics made its name—and its fortune—building high-performance but low-cost speakers. Indeed, I recently set up a modest system for my mother-in-law that was based on Boston's classic A-40—a two-way design that sold for just $160/pair back in 1986—and was very pleasantly surprised at the quality these little speakers offered. Back in the early '90s, however, the Massachusetts-based company announced that they were taking a step into the High End with a new loudspeaker line, the Lynnfields (see Thomas J. Norton's interview with Boston's Andy Kotsatos elsewhere in this issue). These were designed by expatriate British engineer Phil Jones, previously responsible for the impressive Acoustic Energy speakers.
I first heard the Totem Acoustic Tabù loudspeakers at HI-FI '96, Stereophile's Home Theater & Specialty Audio Show at the Waldorf=Astoria in New York City last June. A startlingly realistic vocal recording drew me to Totem's sixth-floor demo room. Vincent Bruzzese, the speaker's designer, was playing Michael Jonasz singing "Si si si le ciel" from la fabuleuse histoire de Mister Swing (WEA 2292-42338-2, imported by May Audio Marketing). The small, two-way Tabù cast a holographic, palpable musical image with clear highs and sizzling dynamic pace. I was bitten, and set things in motion for this review. And two other things drew me to the Tabù: its capacitor-less crossover and its similarity to Totem's Model 1.
I have a theory about "showing off" systems. I call it Zen and the Art of Keeping Your Yap Shut. Think about it: what's the first thing that pops into your head when someone tells you how great their system sounds? "Yeah, right!"
It was a classic American tale: hearing that the head honcho of RadioShack was in town, the principals of Oregon-based high-end loudspeaker manufacturer Linaeum found out where he was staying and called him to see if RadioShack would be interested in marketing their speakers. They were rewarded for their daring by being given an introduction to the right RadioShack department head, and before you could say time-coherent, a deal was struck for RadioShack to manufacture a new line of three "audiophile" loudspeakers featuring a version of the unique Linaeum tweeter. The less-expensive Optimus Pro X77 and LX4 models use a baffle-mounted tweeter that radiates just to the front; the top-of-the-line Optimus Pro LX5 reviewed here mounts a bi-directional tweeter on the top of a diecast aluminum enclosure.
Back in the early 1970s, the BBC needed a physically unobtrusive, nearfield monitor loudspeaker for use in outside-broadcast trucks. Accordingly, they instructed their design department, which at that time featured such luminaries as Dudley Harwood (the "father" of the polypropylene cone, who went on to found Harbeth) and the late Spencer Hughes (the "father" of the Bextrene cone, who went on to found Spendor), to produce such a model. Thus, not only was what was then probably the finest collection of British speaker-design talent involved in its development, there were no commercial constraints placed on the design. The only limitations were intended to be those arising from the necessarily small enclosure and the absence of the need for a wide dynamic range under close monitoring conditions.
Scratch an audiophile and, chances are, you'll find a closet Wilson Audio fan. The Wilson WATT/Puppy would probably make almost anyone's list of the most significant high-end loudspeaker designs. David Wilson first built his reputation with the custom-built WAMM loudspeaker—a monumental piece invariably included with products like the Infinity IRS, Genesis I, and Apogee Grand when the world's most awesome loudspeakers are discussed. But it was the WATT, followed by the WATT/Puppy—the latter now several generations improved over the original design—that really put the company on the high-end audio map.
Canadian company Paradigm has made a name for itself over the past 20 years with affordably priced, high-performance loudspeakers. Its Reference Series designs have garnered much praise from this magazine—I was well impressed by the floorstanding Series 3 Reference Studio/100 ($2300/pair) last January, my review following hard on the heels of Kalman Rubinson's enthusiastic recommendation of the smaller Studio/60 v.3 ($1600/pair) in December 2004, while the bookshelf Reference Studio/20 ($800/pair) has been a resident of Stereophile's "Recommended Components" listing ever since Bob Reina's original review in February 1998.