The Sears guy came to our basement the other day to check out the water heater. Staring at the walls of LPs and tiptoeing through the piles of CDs strewn on the floor, he exclaimed, "What the heck are you? A disc jockey?" So I told him.
Thanks to Ben Peters, there's an electrostatic lifeline in Holland. Founded about 25 years ago, his company, Audiostatic, struggled through the 1980s, but with distribution by SOTA Industries, it's now on firm footing in the US. In fact, SOTA's Jack Shafton told me that all assembly and some manufacturing are now conducted in the US. My ES-100 samples came from the first US production run.
I first encountered Avalon Acoustics' loudspeakers about 20 years ago. The hi-fi shop I worked for sold Jeff Rowland Design Group electronics, and Jeff Rowland insisted that no loudspeaker better showcased his electronics than the Avalons. Rowland sent us a pair of Ascents, and we were startled by their gem-like, faceted cabinets and remarkable soundstaging. As we packed them up to return them to Colorado, I remember thinking, I could live with these speakers.
"Boy, that's flat!" I whistled. I was looking at a quasi-anechoic TDS response Avalon Acoustics' Charles Hansen had produced for his latest brainchild, the two-way Eclipse loudspeaker that he was setting up in my listening room.
After a year spent exploring the best that can be obtained from minimonitor loudspeakers, I embarked on what will be an equally long examination of what floorstanding towers have to offer. I began with the Sonus Faber Cremona Elipsa ($20,800/pair) in December 2007, followed in 2008 by: in February, the KEF Reference 207/2 ($20,000/pair); in April, the PSB Synchrony One ($4500/pair); and in May, the Magico V3 ($25,000/pair). For this review, I've been listening to a speaker aimed at those with shallower pockets than are required even for the PSB: the Avalon NP Evolution 2.0, which costs just $1995/pair.
A compact horn loudspeaker. Isn't that an oxymoron, like jumbo shrimp, or military intelligence? From such venerable speakers as the half century-old Altec Voice of the Theater and the Klipschorn, as well as more modern examples like the Avantgarde Acoustic Trio, horns have always been big. The original Avantgarde Uno was the smallest speaker in Avantgarde's line, but it was still visually imposing, with a big horn midrange on top, a horn tweeter below that, and a powered sealed-box subwoofer at the bottom. (I reviewed the Uno 2.0 in Stereophile in August 2000, Vol.23 No.8, and the Uno 3.0 in August 2002, Vol.25 No.8.) The Uno and its siblings, the Duo and Trio, are perhaps the antithesis of the in-wall loudspeakers beloved by interior designers. These speakers do not fade into the backgroundnot visually or sonically.
You've probably seen the ad in Stereophile: a very personal account by Avantgarde-USA president Jim Smith, describing how, during a 30-year career in high-end audio, he had become increasingly disappointed with conventional loudspeakers' ability to communicate the emotional impact of live music, and how he found the answer with the Avantgarde horn loudspeakers. It's advertising copy in the best I-liked-it-so-much-I-bought-the-company tradition—with the exception that Smith did not actually buy Avantgarde Acoustic, but did become their North American distributor.
As B&W's 800 Series has evolved, Stereophile has reported on its progress. Lewis Lipnick reviewed the Matrix 801 Series 2 in 1987, and Wes Phillips wrote about the Nautilus 801 in 1999. I reviewed the B&W 800 Signature in 2002 and the 802D in 2005. This is getting to be a habit.
We all know it's impossible to reproduce live music. An obvious statement, no doubt, and one that holds every audiophile hostage to the never-ending search. As a musician, I find the situation especially frustrating. The constant reminder of live vs reproduced makes living with an audio system a serious compromise, regardless of price or quality. About three and a half years ago, however, I reviewed a product which I felt, and still feel, offers the first real glimpse of that impossible dream: the B&W 801 Matrix Monitor (footnote 1). Although it wasn't perfect, I found this speaker provided more musical honesty than anything I had heard before. In this respect, it established a new standard by which others would be judged.
Back in the 1970s, I used to hang out at an audio store on Northern Boulevard's Miracle Mile. After business hours—and sometimes during them—a group of us audiophiles would put every new product through the wringer. One of the most anticipated was the original B&W 801, which appeared in 1979. The 801 was simply unflappable. Fed enough power, a pair of them played louder and cleaner than anything we had ever heard, including the mammoth, multimodule Fultons that were the pride of that shop. But—and this was a big but—the 801 lacked immediacy and engagement, and I soon fell back to preferring an earlier B&W model, the DM6, which seemed more coherent and to offer the music out to the listener. The 801 was more objective and detached, but boy, could it knock you over with the right source material.
It occurred to me recently that, after nearly a decade of specializing in reviewing affordable speakers, and with the exceptions of two entry-level Mission models, I'd never taken a look at recent designs from the large mainstream British speaker manufacturers. So with this review I embark on a Bob Reina "British Invasion" tour to seek out the most innovative and value-conscious designs from companies that have been household names in British stereo shoppes for decades.
Since the introduction of the original B&W 801 monitor loudspeaker in 1980, it has been adopted as a reference by several recording studios around the world, Over the past five years, I have seen 801s present in just about every recording session with which I have been artistically involved. While the original 801 monitor had its strong points, I was never satisfied with the detached and muddy-sounding bass, discontinuous driver balance, and low sensitivity. Unless this speaker was driven by an enormous solid-state power amplifier, with an elevated high-frequency response, the tubby and slow bass response often obliterated any detail in the two bottom octaves of musical material.
If, as some would have it, Audiophilia nervosa is like the dark night of reason, then certain audio epiphanies must necessarily stand out from a distance, like a grove of trees 20 miles away thrown into stark relief by prairie lightning. And make no mistake that Audiophilia is a disease---I treasure the memory of the first time my wife and I heard Quad ESLs with tubes far more than the memory of my first kiss (although not more, I hasten to add in case Joan is reading this review, than the memory of our first kiss). I know men who stare into their flickering fireplaces on long winter nights and remember all the women they've known. Myself, I'm more likely to reminisce about my first tube preamp, or list the great-sounding systems I've owned.
I once got a fortune cookie that read, "Ask and ye shall receive. This includes trouble." A few years back, shopping for speakers, I inquired about reviewing the B&W Nautilus 802, but it was too soon after Wes Phillips had reviewed the Nautilus 801 for Stereophile. So, other auditioning and reviewing (and buying) other speakers, I asked again, and again was met with deferral. Recently, out of the blue, B&W offered the Nautilus 802—then, in the next breath, asked if I'd rather have the Signature 800s.
Loudspeaker cabinet design has been strongly influenced by home theater. Large floorstanding cabinets, required for reproduction of bass frequencies, are being replaced by tall, graceful towers with small footprints. While these slim speakers fit more easily into home décor and living spaces, to fill out their bass response they depend on being used with the subwoofers that are standard in multichannel systems.