The best, most enduring audio products have in their favor more than great sound: They have some sense of history as well. Particularly good examples abound from the British companies Spendor, Rogers, and Harbeth, some of whose products were actually commissioned into being by the British Broadcasting Corporation. Better that, I suppose, than existing to fill a price point.
I first auditioned a pair of Chario Academy One minimonitors five years ago, but the review was aborted when the Italian Chario company lost its US distribution. When I reheard the Chario Academy Ones at the 1997 WCES, I found their elegant cabinetwork appealing and their sound listenable and involving. I therefore requested a pair for review from the new US importers.
I always enjoy reviewing affordable loudspeakers from Polk Audio, who trumpet high value for the dollar with their philosophy of "Incredible Sound/Affordable Price." They also update their broad and deep product lines more frequently than do most manufacturers. I've always been intrigued by how much Polk has been able to deliver at the bottom of the price range. In fact, the first Polk speaker I reviewed, the RT25i (September 2001, Vol.24 No.9), is the only affordable speaker I've reviewed for Stereophile that I ended up buying (for my computer-based musical-composition system). So, when approached by Polk to review a speaker from their affordable RTi A series, I was interested in the least expensive of that line's five models: the RTi A1 ($349.95/pair).
We continue the search for the successor to Fried's Q loudspeaker of yore. Renaissance Audio is the former Morel USA, so they have a long track record in both OEM driver manufacture and making complete loudspeakers. As I mentioned in my June column, their MLP-403.5 loudspeaker is a two-cubic-foot, sealed-box three-way with a dome midrange driver, at the near-improbable price of $1090/pair (footnote 1).
A while back, out of the blue, I was contacted by audio distributor May Audio Marketing. They wanted to know if I was interested in reviewing any models from the Genius line of German manufacturer ASW Loudspeakers. I have a lot of time for distributors such as May Audio, whose primary role is to promote lesser-known European audio products on this side of the pond. All of May's principal clientsCastle, Enigma, and Gradient speakers; Sonneteer and Sphinx electronics; and Roksan turntable systemsare much better known in their home countries than in the US.
Triad Speakers has been designing and manufacturing three-piece (woofer and two satellites) loudspeaker systems since 1982. The company was formed that year by designer Larry Pexton and has enjoyed steady growth in their market niche. Their original three-piece loudspeaker was a collaboration with Edward M. Long, of "Time-Align" fame, and Ron Wickersham. It was felt that the ideal loudspeaker would have the least cabinet interference, thus the design decision to keep the woofer separate and the midrange/tweeter enclosure small. Triad speakers were selected for inclusion in the Consumer Electronics Show's Innovations 1990 Design and Engineering Showcase, the sixth time the company's products have been selected for this award.
Back in the Spring of 1988, I was sent a pair of diminutive two-way speakers that totally redefined for me what miniature loudspeakers were supposed to be about. That model, Acoustic Energy's AE1, may have offered short measure in the low-bass department, but its apparently effortless dynamics, musically natural balance, and tangible imaging made it a winner. It also broke the mold of modern audiophile speaker design by featuring a 4.5" woofer with a metal cone just 3.5" in diameter. (Various companies have experimented with metal-cone drive-units in the past, only Ohm and pro-sound company Hartke having had any previous commercial success, though Monitor Audio now also offers a range of speakers with metal-cone woofers, their Studio line.) Since that time, Acoustic Energy has tried to produce a full-range speaker that built on the success of the AE1, but with only limited success, in my opinion. While their AE2 added a second identical woofer, and offered useful increases in bass extension and dynamic range, I felt it to be too colored in the midrange to be a real audiophile contender (see Vol.13 No.2, February 1990, p.134.)
Reality check number one. Tired of reading about the latest and greatest $65,000 loudspeakers? Or even the current hot ticket at $2500? Such loudspeakers promise to bring you the audio truth, or the golly-gee-whiz, honest-to-gosh, absolutely positively real sound. And some of them do seem to come awfully close, though truth be told, we're still a long way from replicating realityand will never do it with just two channels.
In an unfortunate coincidence, a few nights before the Cabasse team arrived to install the company's unusual-looking La Sphère powered speaker system, VOOM HD Networks, Monster HD channel, which is exclusively devoted to B horror movies, broadcast The Crawling Eye (aka The Trollenberg Terror), a 1958 black-and-white howler starring Forrest Tucker. I watched.
The Fourier 6 has the special ability to generate large coherent sonic fields, from a box small enough to slip into an ordinary shopping bag. At $499/pair, the 6 competes directly with another remarkable-imaging, compact American speaker, the Spica TC-50 ($420/pair).
I've been musing much of late on what enables some hi-fi components to sound natural while others always seem to add an edge of artificiality to their sound. This dichotomy was examined in last month's "As We See It," where I asked a representative group of Stereophile writers to discuss the fact that many high-end components regarded as being neutral in their sonic character, with apparently little wrong in their measured performance, can actually sound quite unmusical. This would seem to suggest that the nature of what a component does wrong is of greater importance than the level of what it does wrong: 1% of one kind of distortion can be innocuous, even musically appropriate, whereas 0.01% of a different kind of distortion can be musical anathema.
When I attended the 2006 GuangZhou Hi-Fi Show in China, it seemed as though most of the Asian-built loudspeakers I saw were huge, astonishingly efficient, and had horns. When I walked into Usher Audio Technology's room, however, Paul Chen was making music happen with the Usher S-520s ($500/pair).
One of the first affordable loudspeakers I reviewed for Stereophile was the original Paradigm Reference Studio/20 bookshelf model, in the February 1998 issue (Vol.21 No.2). At the time, I felt that the $650/pair speaker was a breakthrough—although not completely devoid of colorations, its ratio of price to performance set a benchmark a decade ago. I kept the Studio/20s around for several years to compare with other bookshelf speakers I reviewed, and they remained listed in Stereophile's "Recommended Components" for several years after that. The Studio/20 is now in its fourth (v.4) iteration, so I thought I'd grab a pair to hear how they compared with current affordable bookshelf designs.