Stereophile's founder, the late J. Gordon Holt, always had a thing for horn loudspeakers, feeling that these archaic beasts offered a "jump factor" that could never be rivaled by conventional, direct-radiating designs. A horn drastically increases the efficiency with which electrical power is converted into acoustic power, which means that for a given sound-pressure level, a smaller amplifier can be used compared with a direct-radiator, and that all distortions, both electrical and mechanical, can theoretically be much lower. Yet outside of a small circle of enthusiasts, horns never got much of a following in high-end audio, and as high amplifier power became plentiful and relatively cheap, horns largely disappeared from domestic audio use (except in Japan).
My first encounter with the Acarian Alón IV was at the 1992 Las Vegas WCES. I was doing the show report dealing with speakers, and there was already enough advance buzz about the Alón IV that I put it on my "Speakers I Must Listen To" list. And listen I did, at some length, and came away impressed with their open quality and well-defined soundstage. In discussing reviewing assignments with John Atkinson, I told him that the Alón IV was one of the speakers I wouldn't mind spending some time with. (The list also includes the WAMM, the MartinLogan Statement, and the Apogee Grand, but I'm not holding my breath.)
While I refuse to admit publicly how long I have been sitting on these loudspeakers before doing the report on them, I must say that it is probably a good thing I wasn't in all that of a hurry to get around to it. They did not sound very good in the room where I had initially installed them, and had I written the report on that basis, it would have been lukewarm, to say the least.
I have now had the opportunity to live with the Acoustat 2+2s in my usual listening room, which is more like a typical listening environment (19' by 24' by 9' and moderately padded), and I am more than a little impressed. This is an extremely good speaker, particularly at its price of $2100/pair.
The 2+2 resembles the Model Four in that it contains four of Acoustat's full-range electrostatic panels per side, but differs from it in that two of the panels (per side) are stacked on top of the first pair to produce a radiating surface twice as high and half as wide as that of the Four. The result, particularly in the case of the black-grilled version we tested, bears a startling resemblance to the mysterious obelisk in 2001, A Space Odyssey. The 2+2 system towers almost to the ceiling (and at just under 8' may be too high for some ceilings), and although it is more graceful in appearance than a pair of Fours, it tends to dominate a listening room at least as much.
Experienced reviewers know that shows are the wrong environments for critical audiophile listening. Convention centers—especially the one at Las Vegas—are huge, cavernous airplane hangers, not the intimate listening rooms reviewers thrive in. Extraneous sounds from subwoofer blasts and the constantly milling crowds leak in to sully the music. Booths set up by manufacturers on the show floor have very thin, flexible walls, and no bass treatment.
It was three or four years ago, at a CEDIA Expo, that I first happened upon Advanced Dynamic Audio Monitors, aka ADAM Audio. What grabbed me was the array of imposingly high-tech speakers comprising their elite Tensor line. Sitting out in the middle of the floor of the Atlanta Convention Center, they not only looked more advanced than anything else around, they had the audacity to sound superb in a totally inappropriate acoustic situation. Despite the surrounding busyness of the Expo, I was able to sit down and actually enjoy the Beatles' Love on DVD-Audio. Clearly, these guys knew what they were doing. I vowed to follow up on it.
It was an audacious demonstration. For the launch of Aerial's 20T loudspeaker at the end of 2002, Aerial's head honcho and designer, Michael Kelly, had arranged to compare the speakers reproducing the recorded sound of virtuoso violinist Arturo Delmoni with the real thing. The setting was the ornate dining room of one of Newport, Rhode Island's many mansions, and, given the inevitable differencesdue to the facts that a violin has a very different radiation pattern from a loudspeaker and thus excites the room differently, and that the recording inevitably gives the listener a double dose of the room's acousticthe demo was successful. There was much subsequent argy-bargying between Stereophile's reviewers about who would review the Aerial 20T, but it was Michael Fremer who eventually wrote about it in April 2004.
Loudspeaker design is an art and a science. Anyone who tells you it's only one or the other is probably building or listening to some awful-sounding speakers. Design a speaker in an anechoic chamber for the "theoretical" world, and there's no guarantee it will sound good in the real one. Even building a speaker that excels at "real-room" measurements doesn't guarantee that it will sound all that convincing when reproducing music. We can't measure everything, and what we can measure can't be reliably ranked in terms of what's important to most listeners.
Although the component that actually produces the sound is obviously the loudspeaker, audiophiles know that everything in the system—digital or analog source, preamplifier, amplifier, cables, room acoustics—has an influence on sound quality. No matter how good the speaker, its performance depends on the quality of the signal, the speaker's acoustical environment, and how the speaker is set up in that environment. I've heard speakers that I knew to be topnotch performers sound dreadful at audio shows and in dealers' listening rooms.
It's hard to believe that it's been 20 years since Michael Kelly formed Aerial Acoustics, introduced the Model 10T loudspeaker, and I wandered into his demo room at a New York audio show and was smitten. That speaker did everything right and seemed to do nothing wrong. Disc after disc was played as I imposed my impression on the listening chair (I recall there being only one). At the time, the 10T was only a bit out of my price range, so for many years it was what I aspired to have. Kelly and I repeated this little play over the years as his speaker line grew, and he always was patient as he explained what he intended for each model and how he had gone about meeting his goals.
Got a garage, a router, and a band saw? Poof! You're a speaker designer. How many audiophiles dream of buying some raw drivers, some MDF and veneer, building a baffle, soldering up a computer-designed crossover, and assembling the Shmendrick Audio 2001? Plenty.
One of my favorite parts of attending Stereophile's Home Entertainment shows—aside from seeking out the sexy new gear and pressing the flesh of readers—is the "Ask the Editors" panel discussions. What begins as a Q&A session usually turns into a free-for-all, as the outspoken and opinionated likes of Sam Tellig, Michael Fremer, Ken Kessler, and John Marks barely give room for wallflowers such as Art Dudley and yours truly to express our opinions—except when editor John Atkinson asks each of us, in turn, to cast our votes for the "most interesting rooms to visit." At both the HE2004 and HE2005 "Ask the Editors" panels, one company was recommended by a number of Stereophile writers, me included: Almarro Products.
Home Entertainment 2006 in L.A. The weather is fine. The restaurants are cool. The company is très neat. I can't wait to schmooze with manufacturers, writers, dealers, and meet, for the first time, writers of letters to the editor of Stereophile. Play some jazz with John Atkinson and Immedia's Allen Perkins—one smokin' drummer since he's been studying with Peter Erskine (Joni Mitchell, Weather Report, Diana Krall). Of course, my prime objective at the Show is to seek out the best-sounding affordable loudspeakers, to keep my review hopper full for the next year.