Ever since the 1960s, when I built a pair of Altec A7 clones, I've had a preference for relatively big speakers. Yes, I was seduced by the Stax F-81 electrostatics because of their incredibly low coloration, but inevitably I felt the need to return to something that would move more air. Regardless of the type of music (I do like the big stuff) or the sound levels, unless the sound has solidity and size, I can't easily suspend disbelief.
Back at the end of September 2005, I dropped by Jonathan and Kathleen Scull's Chelsea loft after work. I can't remember why; I think I was returning some gear. But we had also just finished shipping the 2006 Stereophile Buyer's Guide to the printer that day, and it was possible that I needed some high-quality musical R'n'R. Sitting in Jonathan's listening seat—the legendary Ribbon Chair"—and enjoying the sound of his system, I flashed on the days when he worked for Stereophile full-time and I occasionally used to pop round to his place, just two blocks away from what was then our office, on Manhattan's Fifth Avenue. Whatever components Jonathan was writing about, a consistent factor in the always superb sound of his system was the presence of the pair of JMlab Utopia loudspeakers that he had reviewed in the April 1998 issue of Stereophile. The Utopias delivered a seamless, full-range presentation that served Jonathan's eclectic taste in music while also allowing him to easily hear the effects, good or bad, of the various tweaks he was always trying.
When someone is described as having "written the book" on a subject, it is generally taken as a figure of speech. But veteran speaker designer Joseph D'Appolito, PhD, quite literally "wrote the book." His Testing Loudspeakers (Audio Amateur Press, 1998) is an invaluable resource for those of us who, lacking any talent for designing speakers ourselves, nevertheless find the subject of speaker performance endlessly fascinating. So when Snell's PR consultant, Bryan Stanton, contacted me a while back about reviewing the LCR7, the first design D'Appolito had seen through from start to finish for the Massachusetts-based company since he had replaced David Smith as Snell's chief engineer, I suffered from more than a little anxiety.
Small enough to fit in a shoebox, these little darlings from England almost manage to redefine the state of the art in very compact monitor design (footnote 1). Here's a speaker that isn't as neutral as the BBC LS3/5a compact monitor, but that does manage to equal or exceed that venerable design in most respects.
In the last issue we published a rather enthusiastic "Quickie" report on a small, $190/pair speaker system from a new company—the FMI Model 80. It was virtually devoid of low end, even as a stereo pair (pairing effectively doubles bass output), and slightly rough as well as a shade soft at the high end, but it had a quality of "aliveness" to it that almost defied belief. Was it a breakthrough in design? A new transducing principle? No, it was neither. In fact, the Model 80 looks like any one of those hundreds of little bookshelf systems that clutter, the pages of Stereo Review's "Hi-Fi Directory" in tedious profusion.
Yes, it's the same Canon—the Japanese photography, photocopier, and laser-printer giant whose logo for so many years adorned the rear wings of Williams Formula 1 racing cars. Canon's venture into the unknown waters of audio was instigated by the head of the UK-based research center, Hiro Negishi. I have been seeing Negishi-san, one of the world's leading minds in optical technology, at Audio Engineering Society conventions since the early '80s, so I was only half-surprised to see Canon launch first one loudspeaker, then a full range (footnote 1).
Given Audio Note's early dominance of the low-power scene, you'd expect any loudspeaker from them to be a high-efficiency design, and you'd be right. What you wouldn't expect is how they go about doing it, since none of the 20-odd models in their speaker line appears to be much more than a plain-Jane two-way box, with nary a horn or whizzer in sight.
One day last year, my friend Larry and I were talking about our college-fraternity days and loudspeakers. Those were four of the best years of my life. Strong friendships were formed, and ever since, we've kept in touch with most of our fraternity's brothers-in-heart. Ours was not a jock house, nor was it the last bastion of rampant male sexuality—it was, after all, an MIT frat house. But it was full of music lovers who fell neatly into three camps: the California School owned JBL Decades, the New England School had Smaller Advents, and the Renegades boasted bootlegged Bose 901s (footnote 1).
Perhaps there is no subject more vigorously debated among audiophiles than the primacy of the loudspeaker. Many 'philes believe there is no more important element in a hi-fi system—after all, they reason, it doesn't matter how good the components ahead of the speakers are; if the transducers can't reproduce the signal, you can't hear it. On the other hand, the source adherents maintain, speakers can't reproduce information that hasn't been retrieved from the recording. Loudspeakers can limit the amount of information you hear, but they can't increase it. This is one of those irresolvable paradoxes similar to the question of which came first, the roast chicken or the omelet.
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.