During the late 1970s and early '80s, I worked my way through college by selling hi-fi, or more precisely, mid-fi. During those years, I heard and sold several hundred different loudspeakers costing under $1000/pair. Despite the fact that I experienced them under less than ideal conditions, I was nevertheless able to get a feel for their relative performance. When switching between speakers, the differences between them were drastically juxtaposed. No two loudspeakers sounded even remotely similar tonally, indicating that they all had severe colorations.
I believe Ken Kantor said it first: a couple of years ago, in his September 1990 interview with Robert Harley (Vol.13 No.9), he remarked that "there's no reason why a two-way 6" loudspeaker can't be the equal of almost the best speaker out there from a certain frequency point upward, with the possible exception of dynamic range." When I read those words, they rang true. If you put to one side the need to reproduce low bass frequencies and can accept less-than-live playback levels, a small speaker can be as good as the best, and allow its owner to enjoy the benefits of its size—visual appeal, ease of placement in the room, and the often excellent imaging afforded by the use of a small front baffle.
According to the conventional wisdom, companies selling consumer products fall into two categories: those whose sales are "marketing-led" and those whose sales are "product-led." Marketing-led companies tend to sell mature products into a mature market where there are no real differences between competing products—soap powder, mass-market beer, or cigarettes, for example—whereas product-led companies tend to sell new technologies, such as personal computers and high-end hi-fi components. In the audio separates market, conventional wisdom would have a hard time categorizing any individual company: no matter which you choose, it would be simplistic to say that it is either product- or marketing-led. No matter how good the product, without good marketing the manufacturer stands little chance of success; a poor product superbly marketed may make a company successful overnight, but that success will have hit the end stops by the following night.
Room lock occurs when a set of loudspeakers reproduces the deep-bass notes of a pipe organ powerfully enough that the sounds can be felt as pressure waves. On Day 2 of the 2007 Home Entertainment Show, in one of the Sound By Singer rooms, our own John Marks played his recording of organist James Busby performing Herbert Howells' Master Tallis's Testament through a pair of Fremont loudspeakers from Escalante Design. The sustained bass note at the end of the passage took my breath away—the stand-mounted Fremonts sounded as open and dynamic as anything else I heard at HE2007. I wondered if they'd sound as good in my home listening room.
I want to start this year's gift recommendations by briefly revisiting the results of my Musical Cultural Literacy for Americans write-in competition, which ran in the April issue. All 12 winning entries of 12 selections each are posted online (footnote 1).
In nearly 25 years, it's been rare that I've reviewed an exciting breakthrough product. The Audioengine 2 is such a product—not because it performs at an extraordinary level (though it does), and not because it's such an incredible value for money (though it is), but because it creates a new market, a new application for high-end audio, and a chance for audiophiles to enjoy music in ways they may have never considered before.
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).