When a loudspeaker designer produces a world-class product, it is usually the result of years, perhaps decades, of experience gained from designing less ambitious products. To review a particular designer's product history is to witness the learning curve in action as both his skill and technology advance. Successfully battling the laws of physics to produce a truly exceptional loudspeaker is thus thought of as the domain of the seasoned veteran whose vast knowledge and experience culminate in the pinnacle of his career—a world-class loudspeaker. Moreover, it is just these designers, working their way up to their masterpiece, who are the most successful at getting an ambitious design right. The high-end loudspeaker business is littered with the remains of companies that attempted to build a first product far too lofty for their skills.
Paul Hales does things differently. "I set out to build a true reference speaker," he asserted when I asked him about the, er, concept behind his Concept Five loudspeaker. For a mere six grand? The other guys don't even blink at $20k, $30k, even $70k statement speakers.
Paul Hales has been a busy guy lately. In little over a year, he has designed and brought to production four new speakers in his Revelation series (footnote 1); his cost-no-object flagship, the Alexandra, which had been seen but not heard at a number of shows, was finally demonstrated at the 1999 CES; and he has introduced the new Transcendence series, which replaces the Concept series. (He's also produced a brand-new baby girl during this period, although I believe his wife made a significant contribution to that project.)
Last July I reviewed the $4850/pair Hales System Two Signature loudspeakers and enthusiastically recommended them. In fact, they displaced the B&W 801 Matrix 2 as my reference loudspeaker, and have become a fixture in my listening room. Over the past seven months, my impressions of the Signatures have been largely confirmed: transparent and uncolored midrange, resolution of fine detail, precise imaging, superb transient abilities, and, most importantly, an ability to thoroughly involve the listener in the music. These qualities earned the Signature a Class A recommendation in Stereophile's "Recommended Components." I've greatly enjoyed the many hours spent with the Signatures.
Hales Audio makes another loudspeakerthe System Two reviewed herethat is very similar to the Signature, but much less expensive (footnote 1). Because the System Two is such a close relation to the Signatureit uses identical drivers, a nearly identical crossover, and similar cabinet constructionand costs nearly 2 kilobucks less, I was eager to hear what the smaller system had to offer. Because the Signature was recommendable at $4850, the System Two just might be a bargain at $3000 if it even came close to the Signature's musicality.
Like most people, I'm not interested in long, windy essays about audio reviewing, having barely enough time and interest for audio itself. But I do perk up when the debate turns to the audio reviewer's purpose in life: Should I write about everything that crosses my path, or should I limit my attention to those products that interest me, and that stand a chance of being good?
"My vision for the future is one where all manufacturers sell their products directly to the end user. In this way, even the audiophiles in Dead Horse, Alaska can have access to all the audio manufacturing community has to offer." Thus wrote loudspeaker designer David Fokos in a letter introducing his new company Icon Acoustics to the press at Stereophile's High End Hi-Fi show in San Mateo, CA last April (footnote 1). Mr. Fokos, a Cornell graduate who for some years worked for Conrad-Johnson Design and designed that company's well-regarded Synthesis and Sonographe loudspeaker models, feels very strongly that the traditional retailing setup is inefficient when it comes to exposing audiophiles to a wide enough choice of product, particularly when it comes to loudspeakers. With 300 speaker manufacturers listed in the Audio directory issue but even a major retailer restricted to probably six brands, even big-city audiophiles will only be able to audition a fraction of the total number of brands. "Our industry is suffering from product saturation of its retail distribution network."
I like reviewing loudspeakers. The more you become familiar with the art, the greater the sense of anticipation as you open up a pair of cartons. A visual inspection of the speaker always reveals a challenging mixture of the familiar and the new. The size of the cabinet is always the first cluehas sensitivity been a design priority or was low-frequency extension uppermost in the designer's thoughts? You espy a known drive-unithas this tweeter's propensity for upper-presence sizzle been tamed? You find a reflex port on the rear panelhas the temptation to go for a "commercial," under-damped bass alignment been successfully resisted? You spot factors which intuitively seem wrong for precise stereoa wide baffle lacking any kind of absorbent covering for diffraction control; a grille frame which puts acoustic obstacles in the way of the wavefront emerging from the tweeter.
I can't think of two products at further ends of the audio spectrum than a single-ended triode tubed amplifier and a mass-market Home Theater loudspeaker. Single-ended tubed amplifiers are about reproducing subtlety, delicacy, nuance, and communicating the music's inner essence. Conversely, a Home Theater loudspeaker systemparticularly one made by a mass-market manufacturerwould appear to put the emphasis on booming bass and reproducing shotgun blasts, with little regard for musical refinement.
What a bizarre marriage it was, then, to pair the new Infinity Composition Prelude P-FR loudspeakers with the Cary Audio Design CAD-300SEI 11W single-ended triode amplifier (reviewed elsewhere in this issue). This combination didn't happen by accident; as you'll see, these apparently disparate products are a match made in heaven.
I discovered the Infinity Preludes while surveying Home Theater loudspeaker systems for the upcoming second issue of the Stereophile Guide to Home Theater. In addition to evaluating the loudspeaker systems under review with video soundtracks, I assessed their musical qualitiesor lack thereof. The Preludes were such a musical standout that I rescued them from the Home Theater room (where they had been powered by mass-market receivers and fed with a laserdisc source) and gave them a new lease on life in the larger music room, with reference-quality source and amplification components. The Preludes' extraordinary musical performance and unique design compelled me to tell you about how they performed in an audiophile-quality two-channel playback system.
In 1966, two avid audiophile/music lovers—a nuclear physicist named Arnold Nudell and an airline pilot named Cary Christie—labored over weekends and evenings for 18 months in Nudell's garage to put together the world's first hybrid electrostatic/dynamic loudspeaker system. It cost them $5000 for materials, launched a company (New Technology Enterprises), and helped contribute to the popular myth that all of the really important audiophile manufacturers got started in somebody's basement or garage (footnote 1). The system was marketed as the Servo-Statik I, for the princely sum of $1795. (At the time, the most expensive loudspeaker listed in Stereo Review's "Stereo/Hi-Fi Directory" was JBL's "Metregon," at $1230.)
Like all companies that have been in business long enough to become fixtures in the marketplace, Infinity has seen its share of changes. It has long been that audio raritya company with one foot in the High End and one in the mass market. For the past few years, however, and despite continuing production of the now-classic IRS in its Series V incarnation, Infinity's mass-market foot has been the more firmly planted. Infinity, now a large company, is part of an even larger conglomerate, Harman International.
Sometimes you have to wonder why big corporations gobble up small speaker companies. Most such firms are built by individualist entrepreneurs chasing an elusive dream—an up-close and personal thing that is the antithesis of the corporate mentality. That's why speaker companies are so often named after the founder.
When I reviewed Infinity's Primus 150 loudspeaker in the April 2004 Stereophile, I was very impressed with its overall performance. To this day, I continue to be amazed at the level of realism this $198/pair loudspeaker can reproduce, and I've kept the review pair to serve as a benchmark for an entry-level audiophile speaker. When I'd completed that review, my first thought was: Now—what can Infinity do within the affordable Primus series for more money? So I requested a review sample of the Primus series' flagship, the three-way Primus 360 floorstanding speaker. After all, how could I resist listening to a speaker that claims 38Hz bass extension for only $658/pair?