Readers often ask how I choose components for review. My method is simple: Ninety percent of what I review is gear that has impressed me at one of our Home Entertainment Shows, or new designs from manufacturers whose products I've liked in the past. The remainder are assigned by John Atkinson.
Home Entertainment 2007 was a blast for me, as it is every year. Not only did I get to perform with two jazz bands, Attention Screen and the John Atkinson Trio, but I enjoyed good to extraordinary sound in every room I visited. I've been attending hi-fi shows more than 20 years, so I'm rarely surprised, but HE2007 had two big surprises in store. First, the percentage of rooms sporting analog front-ends—vinyl and open-reel tape—was the highest I've seen at a show in over a decade. Second, there was a surprising number of very expensive loudspeakers. In fact, I counted more speakers costing over $50,000/pair than I did costing under $500/pair.
When folks visit from out of town, they frequently remark that my Brooklyn neighborhood reminds them of "a real neighborhood" from their neck of the woods. "Except that we know all our neighbors and talk to them when we're cutting the grass, watering the lawn, and walking the dog. You probably don't even know the names of any of yours."
I had intended that my recent exploration of what was available in the world of high-performance minimonitors—the Era Acoustics Design 4 ($600/pair) in January, the Stirling LS3/5a V2 ($1695/pair) and Harbeth HL-P3ES2 ($1850/pair) in April, the PSB Alpha B1 ($279/pair) in May—was to end in July, with my review of the American Acoustic Development Reference Silver-1 ($1550/pair). But there was one more real-world–priced, stand-mounted model that piqued my interest before I return to cost-no-object floorstanders in the substantial form of Sonus Faber's new Cremona Elipsa ($20,000/pair): the Gold Signature GS10 from Monitor Audio ($1495/pair).
Audiophile eyes usually roll when a manufacturer describes a loudspeaker as a "genuine musical instrument." Musical instruments have specific characteristics of pitch and timbre. Ideally, a loudspeaker should be a portal to the music; the speaker itself should be neutral in pitch and timbre—in other words, the opposite of a musical instrument. That the sound produced should be "musical" is a different argument.
Bookshelf loudspeaker. The phrase may be common usage, but I really dislike describing small speakers as "bookshelf" models. Place a pair of high-performance minis on a bookshelf against the wall and you destroy much of the sound quality for which you've paid. Yet place the same speakers on good stands well away from room boundaries, and while it could be argued that their footprint is no smaller than a conventional tower speaker, with the best designs you'll get true high-end sound, particularly regarding the accuracy of midrange reproduction and the stability of stereo imaging.
When audiophiles speak of the "Golden Age" of audio components, they almost always are talking about amplifiers and preamplifiers, not loudspeakers. While a very few speaker models have stood the test of time—among them the BBC LS3/5a, the Vandersteen 2, the original Quad electrostatic and the Quad ESL-63, some of the Magnepans, and the Klipschorn—almost no one would disagree that, taken en masse, the speakers of today outperform not just those of the 1960s and 1970s but even those of the 1980s and 1990s. The advent of low-cost, computerized test equipment, high-quality, inexpensive measuring microphones, and persuasive research into what measured parameters matter most to listeners who are listening for a neutral-sounding, uncolored loudspeaker (footnote 1), has led to an almost across-the-board improvement in speaker sound quality (footnote 2).
In some ways, building an inexpensive yet musical two-way loudspeaker is a greater design challenge than creating a cost-no-object reference product. Although the latter is a much more complex endeavor, the venerable two-way box seems to bring out the creativity and resources of the designer. Rather than throw money at the product in the form of more expensive drivers, enclosures, or components, the designer of a low-cost two-way is forced to go back to the basics, rethink closely-held tenets, and rely on ingenuity and sheer talent to squeeze the most music from a given cost. Consequently, the inexpensive two-way is the perfect vehicle for designers to develop their skills. If one has mastered this art form, one is much more likely to achieve success when more ambitious designs are attempted.
Jeff Joseph always causes a stir at Stereophile's annual Home Entertainment Shows. No matter which speakers he exhibits, he invariably gets wonderful sound in his room. He's fooled more than one Stereophile writer who thought he was listening to Joseph's flagship Pearls when, behind a curtain, it was actually two of his in-wall models that were playing. And his competitors seem to envy his hi-fi show sound more each year.
Flip flip flip]...Where the heck is it?...[flip flip flip]...Got it!" What am I looking for? There, in black and white, on p.634 of J. Gordon Holt's Really Reliable Rules for Rookie Reviewers (footnote 1), is the Prime Directive On Loudspeaker Setup: "Never, ever, choose a loudspeaker that has too much bass extension for your room!"
As far as I can tell, Santa Fe–based speaker engineer John Bau had designed but four commercial loudspeakers before the TC-60 was launched at the 1994 Winter CES: in order of appearance, they were the Spica SC50i (1980), the TC-50 (1983), the Angelus (1987), and the SC-30 (1989). None were expensive, and all garnered much praise, both in Stereophile's pages and elsewhere.
The first time I attended the Las Vegas Consumer Electronics Show, in January 1986, I didn't get there until the second day of the Show. Still, by the beginning of the fourth and final day I'd managed to visit every high-end audio exhibit, and still had time to go back for seconds to the rooms that had sounded the best. Twenty years later, CES has grown so much that it's impossible for a single writer to visit even a quarter of the exhibits in which he might be interested. And even with the sort of team reportingStereophile now practices, covering the Show has become an exercise in applied logistics for the busy journalist: "Should I wait for the free shuttle bus? Should I get a taxi—though I might get caught in Las Vegas's increasing traffic jams, or even just get stuck at the city's interminable traffic lights? Or should I take the new monorail—though that goes nowhere near the hotel in which [insert name of hot company] is demming its products?"