A highlight for me of Stereophile's 2011 equipment reviews was Kalman Rubinson's report on Sony's SS-AR1 loudspeaker in July. I had been impressed by this unassuming-looking floorstander at the 2009 Rocky Mountain Audio Fest, when, courtesy Ray Kimber, I had used a pair for my "Loudness Wars" demonstrationand was equally impressed when I used another pair for a dem of my recordings at Massachusetts retailer Goodwin's High End, in summer 2011. The SS-AR1 costs $27,000/pair and combines a full frequency range with an uncolored, detailed midrange, sweet-balanced highs, and excellent dynamics. "The Sony SS-AR1 is an impressive loudspeaker," summed up Dr. Kal; "it brings the analytical capabilities of studio monitoring to the listening room." So when I learned that Sony had introduced a smaller, less-expensive version, the SS-AR2 ($20,000/pair), it took me less than the proverbial New York minute to request a pair for review.
The door to a professional reviewer's listening room is one that revolves: As one product leaves, another enters. After a while, it becomes difficult to remember exactly when you auditioned any specific component. But some products stick in your memoryyou fondly remember the time you spent with them, and wish they hadn't departed quite so quickly. With loudspeakers, I recall a few such: Revel's Ultima Salon2 ($22,000, footnote 1), MBL's 111B ($17,000), Dynaudio's Confidence C4 ($16,000), Sonus Faber's Amati Futura ($36,000), Vivid's B1 ($14,990), TAD's Compact Reference CR1 ($40,600 with stands), and even the much less expensive Harbeth P3ESR ($2195$2395) and KEF LS50 ($1500). Among the most recently reviewed of those fondly remembered speakers is Sony's SS-AR2ES ($20,000).
Designer Dr. Roger West got his first taste of electrostatic transducers many years ago during a stint with Janszen (remember the Janszen tweeter?). To realize the potential of the full-range electrostatic loudspeaker (ESL), he and Dr. Dale Ream formed a new company dedicated to ESL research and development. West describes this company, Sound-Lab Corp., as "the electrostatic speaker specialists."
The Sound-Lab electrostatic loudspeakers are legendary. Many serious audiophiles have heard of them, and rumors of their existence abound in audio circles. But, like gnomes, UFOs, and poltergeists, Sound-Lab loudspeakers are sufficiently hard to find that it is sometimes difficult to prove to skeptics that they exist at all. Well, I can now report that they do. As proof of this contention, I can point to the two which are actually occupying solid, tangible space in my listening room at this very moment. I have even taken a photo of them, which will be published along with this report if they leave any sort of an image on the film emulsion. (Many such apparitions do not!)
I'm never more conservative than when the subject turns to home audio. And at the end of the day, I want little more than to preserve the hobby's finest institutions: Alnico magnets. Parchment cones. Mono. Sonata form. Ballads that actually tell stories. Give me tubes. Give me vinyl. Give me thin-walled hardwood cabinets, obsolete tweeters, and handmade polypropylene woofers. Give me the Spendor BC1.
I am puzzled. No, really. I know you find it hard to believe that we sacerdotes of the golden-eared persuasion could ever be perplexed, but I have been pondering the imponderables of ports. Ever since the classic work of Richard Small and Neville Thiele in the early '70s showed how the low-frequency response of any box loudspeaker can be modeled as an electrical high-pass filter of some kind, with the relevant equations and data made available to all, there would seem to be very little reason why all loudspeakers with the same extension should not sound alike (or at least very similar) below 100Hz. Yet after reviewing 20 dynamic loudspeakers (and using 24) in the same room over the last seven months, I am led to the conclusion that speakers vary as much in the quality of their mid-to-upper bass as they do in any other region. A few are dry, more are exaggerated in this region; some are detailed and "fast," most are blurred, with the upper bass "slow" (by which I mean that the weight of bass tone seems to lag behind the leading edges of the sound).
As a privileged reviewer-type person, I was sent the souped-up, all-rosewood, bi-wirable version that sells for $2905/pair. They're quite handsome and very solidly built, weighing in at a respectable 50 lbs each. At $2275$2905/pair, the Baton is Swans' most affordable speaker, and reportedly employs many of the technical refinements of their larger, more costly models.
The Baton uses the tried-and-true two-way dynamic design, with a 7" coated-paper woofer and a 1" fabric-dome tweeter. The tweeter comes with a little Marigo dot stuck to its center to shape its response. It's not a physically easy task for a woofer to reproduce (well) all the frequencies from about 60Hz up to about 2 or 3kHz. One that succeeds is a nice find, though, because the sound has a nice coherence to it when most of the music is coming from the same driver. But don't take my word for itjust look how many zillions of two-way speakers there are out there.
Denmark has probably contributed more to loudspeaker technology than any other country in the world. Vifa, Dynaudio, ScanSpeak, and Peerless driversused in a huge variety of speakersare all Danish. Products from companies such as JBL, Spendor, Linn, B&W, Celestion, KEF, Audio Physic, ProAc, and others are partially or wholly made in the little Scandinavian nation.
System Audio originated in 1984, when guitarist and electronics technician Ole Witthoft grew dissatisfied with the lack of realism he heard from most home audio systems and figured he could do better. He built some speakers for himself and for a few friends, with encouraging results. It's a familiar story: we all know competent hobbyist speaker builders. A few of them gain a bit of local notoriety, but most never venture further than making a few units for friends and relatives.
But Witthoft's reputation grew rapidly, and so did his business. Fourteen years later, his little startup has become a serious player in the loudspeaker market, with annual production in excess of 18,000 units.
I had been anticipating getting to audition a pair of TAD loudspeakers in my system since the introduction of the original TAD Model-1, in 2003. It was designed by Andrew Jones, who had recently assumed the mantle of chief designer at Technical Audio Devices Laboratories (TAD), at that time a subsidiary of Pioneer. Although TAD dates back to the mid-1970s, its research and development efforts had been focused on the professional sound market, something that continues. Jones came from a long line of speaker innovators at KEF and was assigned the goal of developing state-of-the-art speakers for the domestic market.
Really Big Hi-Fi came to live with me for a couple of months this past spring in the form of a pair of Tannoy Churchill loudspeakers. They were trucked directly to San Rafael, California from Kitchener, Ontario, in flight cases so bulky they could double as coffins for NFL offensive linemen. Once ensconced chez moi, the Tannoy dreadnoughts provoked bewilderment, alarm, curiosity, envy, admiration, awe, and amazement in all who heard and saw them.
My friend Harvey Rosenberg, who had more clever ideas in a day than most of us have in a lifetime, was a Tannoy loudspeaker enthusiast. I, on the other hand, had little experience with the brand before 1995, when Harvey invited me to come over and hear his then-new Tannoy Westminster Royals.
Tetra Speakers may not be a familiar name to many US audiophiles. Based in Ottawa, Ontario, the company has been around for a decade, but has taken a slow and steady approach to building its visibility in the insanely competitive and trend-conscious world of high-end loudspeakers.
The relationship between many audiophiles and well-sung, well-recorded female vocal tracks is like the relationship between alcoholics and alcohol—or between, apparently, quite a few congresspersons and unworked-for money. The sentence, "Thank you, but I really have had enough already," is seldom heard. In defense of our hobby, buying and setting up stereo equipment so that gorgeous singing can enthrall you does no one any harm, and arguably does much good. "Beauty is truth," and all that.
Were I trying to make a living by giving piano recitals, David Stanhope's new CD, A Virtuoso Recital (Tall Poppies TP184), just might tempt me to wash down a fistful of pills with a bottle of Scotch. The saving grace being that Stanhope seems to have enough things to occupy himself with in his native Australia. The risk of his showing up in New York City and playing a recital, thereby giving a lot of people existential crises and sleepless nights, seems remote.
There's a fantastic new two-SACD/CD set of a demonstration-quality live recording of a rather obscure work you really should get to know, not only for its own merits, but also for what I believe is its underappreciated but major influence on music and on popular culture. The piece is by 20th-century composer Arnold Schoenberg, but trust meit's more than "listenable." It (or, at least, the music on the first disc) is beyond engaging; it is compellinga revelation, even. The work is Gurrelieder (Songs of Gurre), Gurre being a castle in medieval Denmark that was the setting of a real-life doomed love triangle, the story of which has since loomed large in the moodily brooding artistic consciousness of Danes. The 19th-century Danish poet Jens Peter Jacobsen wrote a collection of poems based on medieval legends, including this one, and a German translation by Robert Franz Arnold provided Schoenberg's dramatic texts.