When reviewing affordable speakers, it's critical to have benchmarks and comparisons for various price points. Inexpensive speaker designs are exercises in tradeoffs and compromises, especially for the least costly products. In all of my reviews, I try to compare the speaker in question with other designs close to the review sample's price, chosen from my list of previously reviewed speakers. From time to time, if a speaker particularly impresses me, I ask the manufacturer if I can keep the speakers around a while longer, so that it can serve as a comparison reference for a certain price point. That's not to say that any speaker I don't keep around is less desirable—there's just not enough room in my house to keep a sample of every speaker I like. An audio reviewer's wife puts up with enough as it is.
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!"
Last summer, John Atkinson and I were playing a jazz gig poolside at my local club, and during a break we began discussing equipment. As JA adjusted his microphones and I became increasingly nervous about the running, jumping kids splashing chlorinated water on his Nagra digital recorder, he asked me if I'd like to review the Z1 loudspeaker from BG Corp. "It's an interesting little bookshelf speaker featuring a ribbon tweeter." Hmm—an affordable bookshelf speaker matching a ribbon tweeter to a dynamic woofer? Very interesting. "Sounds good," said I, and resumed my ivory duties.
Blind loudspeaker listening tests are hard work, not least because usually, most of the models being auditioned fail to light any musical sparks. But back in the spring of 1991, when a small group of Stereophile writers were doing blind tests for a group speaker review, one speaker did light up smiles on the listeners' faces, including my own. (We don't talk during our blind tests, but it's more difficult to keep body language in check.) Once the results were in, we learned that the speaker that got the music right in that test was the diminutive ES11 from Epos in England (footnote 1).
Back in the early 1970s, the BBC needed a physically unobtrusive, nearfield monitor loudspeaker for use in outside-broadcast trucks. Accordingly, they instructed their design department, which at that time featured such luminaries as Dudley Harwood (the "father" of the polypropylene cone, who went on to found Harbeth) and the late Spencer Hughes (the "father" of the Bextrene cone, who went on to found Spendor), to produce such a model. Thus, not only was what was then probably the finest collection of British speaker-design talent involved in its development, there were no commercial constraints placed on the design. The only limitations were intended to be those arising from the necessarily small enclosure and the absence of the need for a wide dynamic range under close monitoring conditions.
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.