I can't resist reading about a company's flagship loudspeaker—the price-no-object product that embodies the most advanced ideas from a company's research and design department. Flagship loudspeakers tend to be large, heavy, and complex, and are designed to perform best in large rooms; often, each part of each driver is hand-built to the highest level of quality, with precisely tight tolerances. The cost? Don't ask. Some two-channel, audio-only flagships cost more than a BMW M5 sports sedan or a Porsche 911.
Film sequels are a mixed blessing. If an action movie holds my attention, I can't wait to see the sequel: same characters, same actors, new adventures. And if the first film was successful, studios are more than willing to oblige. So Jurassic Park begat The Lost World, which begat Jurassic Park III. But the results are often unsatisfying.
With hindsight, it should have been obvious at the time that the 1970s witnessed a glorious flowering of high-end audio. Almost all the brands now regarded as leaders had their start in that decade, though with perhaps the exceptions of Audio Research, Linn, Magnepan, and Naim, those of us working at audio magazines missed the significance of the new names. Dynaudio, for example, was founded in 1977, but not until the end of the 1980s did I become fully aware of the ground being broken in drive-unit and overall system design by this Danish loudspeaker manufacturer.
It's always tough to follow an award-winning act. Wes Phillips raved about the original EgglestonWorks Andra back in October 1997, and it was subsequently dubbed Stereophile's Speaker of the Year for 1997. The Andra won many other plaudits, and found its way into a number of top-shelf recording studios as the monitor of choice. Such a reputation for excellence is the stuff most speaker designers dream of. It also imposes the burden of expectation—the "new and improved" version of such a knockout product had better be good, or else.
Bill Eggleston builds speakers because his father did. "My dad always told me that when he started, the only way you could get really good speakers was to build them yourself. We always had drivers and parts around, and I just began building my own so early I can't even remember. Much more important, my father passed on his wide-ranging approach to music. He listened to everything, and he taught me to be open-minded about music."
There is something especially exciting about a new loudspeaker design, if only because speakers are the component where one constantly hopes for the sonic miracle that will suddenly make it all sound real. No other component has the same overall impact in coloring the system, presents more room problems, or inspires more frustration on the road to the perfect system.
We've all read about how bookstores, appliance stores, and other bricks-and-mortar retailers are suffering with the increasing domination of Internet sales. That got me thinking about audio dealers. I've always believed that one can't really make an informed purchase of audiophile equipment without hearing it in a system properly set up by and at at a serious audio retailer. Here in New York City, we're blessed with six first-rate audio dealers in Manhattan alone, with more in the suburbs. I estimate that 90% of the products reviewed in Stereophile can be auditioned at a dealer or two within a two-hour drive of anywhere in the New York metropolitan area.
If Canada has emerged as a hotbed of loudspeaker production in the past few years, the folks at Audio Products International must be positively sizzling. Of their three lines—Mirage, Energy, and Sound Dynamics—Mirage is perhaps the best known in the US, with Energy running a distant second. Mirage, at least in their flagship M series, features rather esoteric bipolar designs, while Energy sticks to the more conservative, forward-radiating approach. Stereophile has had extensive exposure to the various Mirages (a review of one of the M-series babies, the M-7si, is scheduled for a future issue); our exposure to Energy has been virtually nil, save for the odd Hi-Fi Show and CES. And thereby hangs a tale.
If reviewers can be believed, the diminutive, $995/pair Epos ES11 loudspeaker has been a phenomenal success worldwide since its 1990 introduction. Stereophile added its voice to this hallelujah chorus in Vol.14 No.7, when the '11 kicked butt in a blind-listening-panel evaluation of inexpensive small speakers. While the ES11 did plenty of things extremely well, it was inevitable that it was limited in terms of ultimate sound-pressure levels (spls), deep-bass extension, and dynamic persuasiveness. While the ES11 was an unqualified success given its modest size and price, one couldn't help but wonder what Epos might be capable of in a larger model. (While a larger Epos model already existed in the $1695/pair ES14, it predated the technology of the ES11 by four years.)
Last year, when Epos importer Music Hall contacted me about reviewing the then-new M16 floorstanding loudspeaker, I hesitated. I had been very impressed with the M16's little bookshelf brother, the M5 (see my review in the April 2005 Stereophile, Vol.28 No.4), which I found uncolored, detailed, and a great value. Most of all, the M5 had an incredible balance of performance. But several times in the past, having been seduced by a wonderfully balanced bookshelf speaker, I've then been disappointed by one of its costlier, floorstanding brethren. The larger speaker might share the bookshelf's overall character, have deeper bass, and play louder with less strain, but too often that magical sense of balance that I had so enjoyed in the smaller speaker would be absent.
Audio shows are where reviewers search out products for possible review. We are always on the lookoutor listenoutfor components that transcend the boundaries of the ordinary, that set the pulse racing a little faster. The 2007 Rocky Mountain Audio Fest, held in Denver last October, was the first RMAF I had attended, and among the rooms that impressed me was one featuring components from the Japanese brand Esoteric, which was celebrating its 20th anniversary.
Balanced performance isn't the be-all and end-all of product design. A person can listen to a product which balances the highs with the lows, detail with forgiveness, delicacy with dynamics, and still feel unmoved. Such a product might sound "proper," but it won't produce the illusion of a live performance. It takes a special window or two on reality to convince you you're listening to live music. Such a loudspeaker may have other deficiencies which keep it from being a universally appealing product, but it keeps reminding you of the live experience. It may appeal only to a small number of audiophiles, but their experience may well be more intense.
Does spending more money on audio equipment get you better sound? Some audiophiles assume that anything that costs more must be betterand that if it's relatively inexpensive, then it can't be any good. Others hold the opposite view: expensive components can't possibly be worth their prices, and those who manufacture themand audio journalists who report on themmust be charlatans.
With the introduction of the 1000 Be series in 2005, Focal slipped its exclusive, high-performance beryllium tweeter out of the stuffy-looking Utopia series and into a sleeker, more stylish, more modern form.