Although, historically, Asian high-performance loudspeakers have not had much impact in the US (with the possible exception of the Yamaha NS1000), it is obvious from recent events that that situation might change. Some Japanese manufacturers are determinedly attempting in 1989 to scale the high-end heights. Onkyo, for example, launched an entire range under the Precise brandname, designed by that most idiosyncratic of talented Californian engineers, Keith Johnson, while Yamaha has licensed the Swedish ACE-Bass technology to produce loudspeakers that extend amazingly low in the bass for their size. But it is Pioneer, already well-ensconced in the US pro market with their TAD (Technical Audio Devices) drive-units and monitors, who have made perhaps the biggest techno-splash with their "Elite-TZ" speakers. These feature both high-tech drive-units and a novel (if not entirely new) method of minimizing enclosure vibrations.
The TZ-9 is the top of Pioneer's new line, and costs a cool $4000/pair, placing it firmly in the high-end category. But for that outlay, the TZ-9 owner acquires a largish and quite handsome speaker, finished in a rather orange-colored oak veneer and standing some 4' high. Both tweeter and midrange units feature domes fabricated from an amorphous form of carbon termed by Pioneer "Ceramic Graphite," which is said to have 10 times the bending stiffness and two times the internal loss or self-damping of an equivalent titanium dome. The practical result should be accurate pistonic motion in each unit's passband, with a better-damped HF resonance than a metal dome. In practice, these Ceramic Graphite diaphragms can be quite brittle. Despite the presence of protective wire grilles over the mid- and high-frequency units, the first pair of TZ-9s we received had had the midrange domes shattered, due to inadequate early packaging.
One of the highlights of such annual events as the Consumer Electronics and Primedia Home Entertainment shows has been the demonstrations of loudspeakers from TAD, the professional division of Pioneer Electronics. Designer Andrew Jones is always generous in using recordings brought by visitors, and enthusiastic in explaining the technology behind these beautiful behemoths. Among these speakers' unique features are a beryllium dome tweeter mounted concentrically inside a beryllium midrange cone, and a cabinet built of stacked, carved horizontal sections, for incredible rigidity without using exotic materials or excessive mass. The concentric upper-range driver is a reminder that, some time back, Jones worked for KEF, where the coaxial UniQ driver was developed, but the materials and details of the TAD drivers are all new. While the TAD Model 1s are always good for musical and audiophile thrills, their price is in the upper five figures, which put them out of serious purchase consideration.
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 productssoap powder, mass-market beer, or cigarettes, for examplewhereas 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. Nevertheless, for this review, I have chosen a model from a company renowned for its marketing strength: Polk Audio.
A company other than ProAc best describes the Future One: "And now for something completely different!" Of course, that was a company of British comedians. There's nothing funny about the talented British speaker designer Stuart Tyler's latest effort, but there is something odd: Tyler is reputed to have said of the Future One, "This is the loudspeaker I have always wanted to build."
ProAc's designer Stuart Tyler sounded casual—almost bemused—when I spoke with him recently about the new 2.5, a floorstanding, two-way ported box in the middle price slot ($4500/pair) of his Response series. While answering my pressing queries about the crossover point, driver materials, cabinet construction, and other reviewer obsessions, his body language said, "Does any of that really matter with these speakers? You know what the real story is here."
If you've read Stereophile regularly over the past decade, you know that ProAc Audio's Stewart Tyler has a winning formula for designing loudspeakers. In review after review, this magazine's writers have celebrated the sonic profile he has created for ProAc speakers: a spacious soundstage with a big, coherent image; a clean, grain-free midrange; extended highs that don't intrude on the music; and tight, tuneful bass response.
Reviewing audio equipment has always been a blast. With each passing month, some potentially wonderful new piece of audio gear finds its way into my system. But as an audiophile, I don't want to be constantly changing the equipment in my system—I want to put together the best setup I can and spend my time optimizing its performance. In spite of the revolving equipment door, I try to listen to the majority of music on my own equipment.
Has any modern designer of high-performance speakers extracted more music from a two-way box than ProAc's Stewart Tyler? His early-1990s stand-mounted Response 2 (later upgraded to the Response 2S) was an instant classic, and while his tiny Tablette proved controversial for being bass-shy and relatively pricey, his track record of two-way speakers remains unassailable.
Let's see—should I start with a discussion of conflict? Or maybe indecision? No, let's be more psychological and talk about approach/avoidance dilemmas...No, I'm supposed to be entertaining. How about a joke? Nah, that won't do. Well how about the framework for a joke? Yeah, that's the ticket!
I have a passion for great speaker designs at affordable prices, and with modern driver, crossover, and cabinet technologies making innovative strides, many serious high-end speaker designers are turning their attentions to coming up with the next great budget speaker. All audiophiles need affordable speakers, whether to recommend to friends to lure them into our hobby or to set up multiple, less costly systems in our own houses. I currently run a main reference system, a vacation-house system, a recording-studio system, a computer system, a portable system I take to parties, a car system, and an office system. I insist on having music playing constantly, wherever I am, unless my wife or son tells me to turn it off—which happens increasingly often these days.
For the past few years, PSB Speakers International has been replacing its older lines with new models designed in Canada, and assembled in China from Chinese-made components. Judging from the reception here of PSB's Synchrony One and Imagine T, it's clear that the new models combine advanced performance with true economy. Now, with the new Image line, we see the result of trickling all this down to less expensive products.
If you have more than six or seven bucks to spend, you might consider the Imagine T floorstanding speaker from PSB Loudspeakers ($2000/pair). A year ago, John Atkinson reviewed PSB's Synchrony One speaker ($4500/pair; Stereophile, April 2008, Vol.31 No.4). The Imagine series is the next line down, and also includes center, surround, and bookshelf models. John Marks flipped over the Imagine B minimonitor in his column in the February 2009 issue.
The talented loudspeaker engineer is a man who is always in competition with himself. When PSB's Paul Barton put the finishing touches on his Stratus Gold model back in 1990 (footnote 1), I'm sure he had more ideas in mind that he could have used in a flagship design. Yet the Gold offered so much performance at such a competitive price—$2000/pair in 1991, rising to $2100/pair by 1997, then $2400/pair for the the Gold i, an evolutionary development—that it was not surprising that Barton applied his talents to developing ranges of more affordable speakers, such as the best-selling Alpha and Image series.
This must be the month I drew the right straw to review "loudspeakers with three-letter initials." Elsewhere in this issue I describe my experiences with a pair of JBLs. Everyone knows that JBL stands for "James B. Lansing," founder of that company. You do, don't you? But PSB? If you've been paying attention here, you probably remember that JGH reviewed one of their loudspeakers back in May 1988. If you haven't, well, listen up. PSB is named after Paul Barton and his wife Sue, who formed Canada-based PSB in 1971. (Paul is still their chief designer.) The company was unknown in the US until just a few years ago, and still has a lower profile here than, well, certainly that other three-letter company. But not for lack of trying. They have at least 10 models—at last count.
PSB is a small, Toronto-based manufacturer that has been collaborating with Canada's National Research Council to try and take some of the guesswork, some would say magic, out of loudspeaker design.
The NRC, financed by the Canadian government, does basic research in many technological areas and makes its findings available to any firm wishing to use them. (Most other countries provide or encourage this kind of government/business cooperation. It is against the law in the US, to our great disadvantage.) The NRC's audio division, headed by physicist Dr. Floyd E. Toole, has devoted the last several years to the rather formidable task of defining, and assigning numbers to, the various aspects of loudspeaker performance that affect listeners' subjective assessments of their sound.