To many audiophiles, the name Boston Acoustics is synonymous with mass-market budget loudspeakers. Although many of its products have offered good value for the money, Boston Acoustics has never been known for driving the envelope of high-priced loudspeaker design (footnote 1). The company has been content to churn out well-designed, affordable boxes and let others attempt state-of-the-art loudspeakers. Until now.
Boston Acoustics made its name in the early 1980s with the A40, an inexpensive two-way bookshelf design that became one of that decade's best-selling speakers. Stephen Mejias was impressed by the A40's spiritual descendant, the Boston Acoustics A25 bookshelf speaker ($299.98/pair), when he reviewed it in November 2011, and I was similarly impressed when I had the speaker on the test bench for measurement. So when, in the fall of 2012, Boston's soon-to-be-departing PR representative Sara Trujillo let me know that the company was introducing a range of more expensive speakers, I asked to review the top-of-the-line, floorstanding M350.
I don't think that the Bowers and Wilkins 804, in any of its incarnation, gets its due respect. As the smallest floorstander in B&W's elite 800 series, it has historically been overshadowed by its larger brethren and outmaneuvered by the smaller, stand-mounted 805. However, the 804 Diamond is unique, and deserves special attention for reasons I discovered when I chose the earlier 804S for the surround channels of my 5.1-channel surround system.
Sometimes it all comes down to the shape of the side panels. I was smitten by the gentle curves of the Burmester B99 loudspeaker's aluminum side grilles, which have uncommon grace. A love affair with an enclosure? Well, yes. After all, beauty is an intensely personal matter. In the words of Burmester's motto: "Art for the ear."
It's always fun to visit the Burmester Audio suite at the annual Consumer Electronic Show. Founder Dieter Burmester and CEO Udo Besser are upbeat, fun-loving personalities who enjoy demonstrating their latest home audio gearthat is, when they're not working on the latest updates to their sound system for the $2.1 million Bugatti Veyron 16.4 supercar. This past year they introduced their new B25 loudspeaker, an 88-lb floorstander. This "baby" Burmester's suggested retail price of $12,000/pair is only one-sixth that of Burmester's flagship speaker, the B100, only one-fourth its weight, and half its height. The design goals for the B25 were a less expensive, lighter speaker that was easier to set up, while retaining Burmester products' high-quality sound and good looks. Playing my own CDs through the B25s at the 2008 CES, I found them notably smooth and detailed; they also imaged well, and were particularly good at reproducing male voices.
Of all the components to be seen and heard at an audio show or in a dealer's showroom, the most memorable and attention-grabbing are inevitably the super-speakers—bogglingly expensive, filled with cutting-edge engineering and exotic materials, of mammoth size and weight, with full-range reproduction that shakes building foundations and extends far enough up top to disrupt the navigation of bats. Survey the field, and the biggest Wilson, Aln, JMlab-Focal, Burmester, EgglestonWorks, and Nearfield Acoustics models, to name a few, fit that description.
Despite my 26 years in audio journalism, the amount of stuff I need to know seems to increase faster than I can cope with it. Thus it didn't come as too much of a surprise for me to learn that speaker manufacturer Canton, the Teutonic equivalent of England's B&W, a) was 30 years old in 2002, and b) claims the dominant market share of the German market. Yes, I'd been peripherally aware of Canton through the years, but for various reasons had never auditioned any of their models. I was amenable, therefore, when Canton USA's Paul Madsen suggested to me last May, at Home Entertainment 2002 in New York City, that I review their flagship speaker.
I was greatly impressed by the performance of the Canton Reference 9.2 DC loudspeaker, which I reviewed in the March 2008 "Music in the Round" in the context of a 5.1-channel system. Those beautiful jewels not only sounded balanced and transparent, they had more sheer grunt in the low end than could be reasonably expected from their size. I wanted to hear more from Canton, but couldn't decide whether to go up in size or down in price. The problem I've always had with Canton is that they offer such a wide range of products that it's like choosing food from a multipage menu at a fine restaurant: everything looks good. It's especially difficult when your hunger is further piqued by your own past experience and the recommendations of others. (Check out the November 2006 issue to learn how much Wes Phillips enjoyed Canton's flagship speaker, the Reference 1 DC.)
What, exactly, is one to make of a speaker named "Reference"? An easy answer might be that it will be expensive. Another easy answer is that someone might be being overly optimistic or downright deceitful. Ambitious? Certainly.
Even to a nontechnical observer, someone without a deep grasp of the germane technical issues, the Amazing Loudspeaker should indeed prove a source of amazement. First of all, there's no box. Don't mistake the back grille for an enclosure—if you pass your hand along the Amazing's behind, you'll realize that the grille is merely a cosmetic cover; you can actually stroke the woofer magnets if you're so inclined. Yet without an enclosure or electronic trickery, this speaker boasts excellent dynamic headroom and true flat bass extension almost to 20Hz. Just think of the woodworking costs inherent in trying to coax such low-end performance from a conventional box speaker. The savings in carpentry have been put toward one heavy-duty ribbon design. The Amazing begins to sound like an incredible bargain at its modest (by high-end standards) asking price. What's the catch? Fundamentally, the answer lies in superior engineering. And, as Bob Carver will readily admit, good engineering isn't inherently any more costly than bad engineering.
In the audio field, the British have traditionally thought "small," scoring hits both with their compact loudspeakers and with medium-priced amplifiers. The continued growth of the audiophile speaker market in the US, however, which favors larger loudspeakers, has at the same time stimulated the research and design of more powerful, excellent quality amplifiers. In their turn, these have placed increased demands on the speakers they drive.
Italian manufacturer Chario Loudspeakers has never had a strong presence in the US. No wonder, then, when confronted by these exquisitely finished beauties of solid hardwood, many American audiophiles think, "Sonus Faber rip-off." Without knowing the musical history of the 1960s, had you heard Badfinger first, you might have thought the same thing when you then heard the Beatles. Similarly, Chario, by far Italy's largest maker of high-performance speakers, was founded in 1975, eight years before Sonus Faber. While SF has its drive-units built to its own specifications by other firms, Chario designs and builds its own.
Usually, I review a component after it has impressed me at a show or in a store. Though this approach reduces the possibility of a bad review—I pre-select based on real experience—it does not minimize the possibility of disappointment. This makes me a sort of stand-in for the consumer who would like to take something home for a real shakeout, and only then decide to buy it or send it back.