Recently, I thought about all the audio shows I've attended over the last 27 years, looking for any pattern that all of them might have shared. I came up with a handful of audio manufacturers that have earned at shows a reputation for getting, year after year, consistently good soundrooms in which I could reliably depend on being able to chill out and enjoy music in good, involving sound. Those companies include Audio Research, Music Hall (distributor of Creek and Epos), Vandersteen Audioand Definitive Technology. Since their founding, in 1990, Maryland-based DefTech has been a major presence at shows, displaying an increasingly wide range of high-value speakers for two-channel and surround-sound systems. But I'd never reviewed one of their models. I thought it was about time.
I've had Vivid Audio's Oval K1 loudspeaker here for several months. Over many years, the only other speaker brands I've written about as much as I have Vivid have been Wilson Benesch and Shahinian Acoustics, whose speakers I still revere and can recommend without reservationto the right listener. But Vivid's high-tech sorcery has raised the bar. The Vivids I've had here are among the best loudspeakers I've ever heard, and that's a consensus that seems headed in the direction of critical mass.
The last few decades have seen dramatic improvements in the art (and science) of loudspeaker design. Tannoy's budget-priced Mercury series is now in its fifth iteration. The two-way, front-ported Mercury V1 ($320/pair) measures 11.8" high by 6.7" wide by 10" deep and weighs 9.9 lbs. My samples came in a very handsome Dark Walnut finish (Sugar Maple is available) with simple black cloth grilles. I left the grilles off to reveal the speakers' attractive front baffles and accentuate their equally attractive high frequencies (more on the latter later).
The Definitive Technology StudioMonitor 45 measures a very room- and back-friendly 11 11/16" (297mm) high by 6¾" (172mm) wide by 11 11/16" (297mm) deep, but these dimensions are attractive for reasons other than simple, efficient transport and placement. I noticed right away that something about the speaker just looked right. Paul DiComo, DefTech's senior vice president of marketing and product development, explained that while the number and size of drivers used in any DefTech design will largely dictate that speaker's height and width, the company nevertheless aims for Fibonacci, or golden-ratio, dimensions. According to DiComo, these efforts help minimize standing-wave and "organ-pipe" resonances inside the speaker's cabinet.
While it is not quite accurate to say that $500/pair loudspeakers are a dime a dozen, they are by no means unusual. And since this is a price area where major design compromises are mandatory (footnote 1), the sound of such loudspeakers tends to vary all over the map, from pretty good to godawfuldepending on what performance areas the designer chose to compromise and by how much.
I approached this latest half-grander with little enthusiasm, despite Siefert's persuasive literature, I have, after all, been reading such self-congratulatory hype abiout new products for longer than most Stereophile readers have been counting birthdays. This, I must admit, was ho-humsville.
When a reviewer specializes in seeking out innovation and value in affordable loudspeakers, certain manufacturers warrant revisiting again and againcompanies that consistently deliver high-value products, but also steadily revamp their lines to trickle down design innovations to ever more affordable models.
It was another flawlessly beautiful spring morning, and I was in Bay Ridge, Brooklyn, to help John Atkinson pack up the Lansche Audio 5.1 loudspeakers ($41,000/pair). John had only just completed his listening and bench tests (see his review in the July issue), and was not ready to let go of the lovely Lanschesbut the speakers would be picked up by a trucking company that afternoon and sent to our cover photographer, Eric Swanson, in Santa Fe, New Mexico. Each Lansche measures 40.9" tall by 10.1" W by 19.3" D and weighs 167.5 lbspacking them and securing them to a shipping pallet is definitely a two-man job. In our case, that job required a lot of wheezing, a little bleeding, and just the right amount of cursing. And because it was only 11am when we met, we were obliged to accomplish the task without the aid of beera crying shame, if you ask mebut we handled it in our usual, manly fashion.
The first loudspeaker I heard from the Canadian company PSB was the Stratus, an affordably priced ($1400/pair), two-way tower with a soft-dome tweeter and an 8" woofer. The Stratus had benefited from designer Paul Barton's being able to use the anechoic chamber at the Canadian government's National Research Center, in Ottawa. The Stratus was reviewed for Stereophile by J. Gordon Holt in our May 1988 issue; he described the speaker as "eminently listenable," though Gordon also felt that it was "a little lacking in guts and liveliness." I had sat in on some of his listening sessions and had been impressed by what I heard.
Back at home, I'd recently set up Polk Audio's RTi A3 loudspeakers ($399.95/pair), which, at 14.75" H by 8.58" W x 14" D, are by far the largest bookshelf models I've had in my listening room. Right out of the box, the RTi A3 impressed me with its fit and finish. In Polk's Damped Asymmetrical Hex Laminate Isolation (DAHLI) cabinet design, five layers of MDF are glued together to form a damping system, then topped by a real-wood veneer of black ash or, in the case of my review samples, an impeccable cherry. The gracefully curved cabinet narrows in width from 8.58" at the front to about 5" at the rear, and is said to create a stronger, more rigid, more acoustically inert enclosure. (Knocking on the speaker's side panels resulted in a hollow resonance.)
I thought I'd review the procedure I typically use to seek out affordable speakers for review as, in the case of the Denmark-designed DALI Zensor, made in the company's facility in China, there was a twist at the end.
In preparing to review affordable loudspeakers, I typically put together a list of potential candidates I've discovered at audio shows, or that have been recommended to me by other Stereophile writers. I add to that list products I've learned about from press promotions, usually from companies whose products have impressed me in the past. I boil this down to a short list, then run it by Stephen Mejias to make sure I'm not tripping over The Kid's own quest for budget sonic nirvana.
It was unusually warm for early spring, without a cloud in the big, blue sky to tame the sun's dazzling lightfar too beautiful a day to be indoors, but Uncle Omar and I had already planned a little listening session, and I was determined to show him that high-end cables would make a difference in his system. I wasn't necessarily feeling bullish about the task, though. It had taken me a couple of years to convince Omar that he should replace his old boom-box speakers with something better, and it was only dumb luck that finally made it happen: I was with him when he found a gently used pair of B&W DM602 speakers at a junk shop in Jersey City. When they were new, the DM602s sold for around $600/pair, but on this happy day they were tagged at $50. "Do it," I begged him. "Doooooo it!"
I approached this loudspeaker much as some of today's political candidates might approach sex: as a means of reproduction, not pleasure.
I brought it on myself. I asked to review Joseph Audio's stand-mounted, two-way Pulsar because I felt an obligation to step down from the rarified air of some of the absurdly priced gear I've been reviewing lately and sample something more "affordable." The Pulsar costs $7000/pair.
I had had it in the back of my mind for some time to try to hear the Wilson Duette, if only because celebrated classical recording engineer Tony Faulkner had, some time ago, shared with me his opinion that the Duette's simpler crossover made it the most coherent speaker in Wilson's line. Faulkner told me that when a cramped recording venue makes it impossible for him to use his favorite Quad electrostatic speakers for monitoring, he uses Duettes.
As the music swelled in the background, Humphrey Bogart leaned toward Ingrid Bergman and tenderly said, "Mnn mmmm mnn nnrm murrrmr."
Damn! I hate when that happens. I ran the laserdisc back and played it again, this time louder.
"MNN MMMM MNN NNRM MURRRMR," said Bogart.
When you think about it, the center channel is probably the most important channelif you don't believe this, watch a movie sometime with the dialog speaker turned off and see how compelling the experience is. I mean, I like explosions, rocket launches, and train wrecks as much as the next guy, but what I really want from a video sound system is the words.
I have fond memories of the Paradigm Reference Studio 20. When I reviewed the original version for the February 1998 issue of Stereophile, it was the model that started me on my quest to seek out the best affordable loudspeakers. I believe that of all the speakers I've reviewed, the original Studio 20 remained in the magazine's "Recommended Components" longest. When I checked out the speaker's fourth generation, in May 2008, I felt it had significantly progressed in terms of sound quality and value for money. This didn't surprise me, however, as pushing the envelopes of sound quality and value has long been Paradigm's trademark. They've done with this with every one of their speakers I've heard, including the third and fifth iterations of the Atom (which I reviewed in September 2002 and February 2008, respectively), and the more expensive models I've heard at audio shows. So when I was given the opportunity to review the Studio 20's fifth generation, I jumped.