There are certain manufacturers for whom every new product implies the promise of countless modifications, Usually a month or so apart, culminating inevitably in a version so far removed from the original that it must be assigned a new model designation—usually a letter suffix ranging from A, to D. By the time E is envisioned, another CE Show is approaching, so the decision is made to give the unit an exterior facelift and a brand-new model number. Presto! A new product for CES.
An equipment reviewer for one of the consumer hi-fi magazines once confided to a manufacturer that he found it hard to like electrostatics because of the kind of people who usually like electrostatics. His implication—that certain kinds of people gravitate towards certain kinds of sound—is an interesting thought, and one that might bear some further investigation. But there is no questioning the fact that electrostatic speakers in general do have a particular kind of sound, that might be characterized as "polite."
I was trading e-mails with Roger Sanders, manufacturer of the Eros Mk.III electrostatic (ESL) loudspeakers, when it occurred to me to ask him about his name. I was struck that he had the same last name as Gayle Sanders, president of another American electrostatic speaker company, MartinLogan. Were they related? "No," replied Roger Sanders, "it's simply a coincidence that we have similar names. I've never even met him.
New experiences are some of the most pleasurable parts of being an audio reviewer. Despite being involved with the High End for longer than I care to think about, I had never had the experience of owning, living with, or reviewing a pair of electrostatic speakers, be they full-range or hybrid. I'd heard various Quads plenty of times at shows and in the homes of audio buddies, but in my own listening cave? Never.
Unless you've been on active duty in the Middle East, you're aware that Mobile Fidelity Sound Lab is back in business. During Stereophile's Home Entertainment 2003 show in San Francisco last June, Kal Rubinson and I played hookey to visit MoFi mastering engineer Paul Stubblebine's recording studio, at 1340 Mission Street. As we sat spellbound, Paul played the original four-track, ½", 1-mil master tape of Stanislaw Skrowaczewski and the Minnesota Orchestra's legendary 1974 recording of Ravel's Boléro and Daphnis et Chloé (footnote 1). Stubblebine fed the four discrete channels from the specially modified ReVox reel-to-reel deck to a modern surround system. The master tape produced the cleanest, purest sound I had heard in a long time.
The Jadis Eurythmie speakers ($37,000/pair) arrived in a multitude of oversized boxes. Importer Northstar Leading the Way's Frank Garbie dragged them into our downstairs lobby and broke them open, elevatoring the individual modules up to our door. This happened on one of my office days, but Kathleen pushed me out the door in the morning with a "Don't worry cherie, I can handle it..." She phoned in periodic updates on Garbie's progress. Remember that old Stan Freberg routine? "I got it, I got it...I don't got it!" I arrived home just in time to hook up the amps.
It was love at first sight when I saw a Jamo Reference R 909 loudspeaker in sparkling red lacquer on the floor of the 2007 Consumer Electronics Show. It made no sound, but it was beautiful, and I wanted it. It summoned up all my latent predilections for snazzy colors, striking shapes, and dipole speakers. But, as with many passing encounters in life, nothing came of it.
Once upon a time, in audio's infancy, anyone who wanted better than average soundaverage sound during the 1940s being rich, boomy and dullhad no choice but to buy professional loudspeakers. In those days, "professional" meant one of two things: movie-theater speakers or recording-studio speakers. Both were designed, first and foremost, to produce high sound levels, and used horn loading to increase their efficiency and project the sound forwards. They sounded shockingly raw and harsh in the confines of the typical living room.
When I reviewed JBL's S38 loudspeaker for the June 2001 issue of Stereophile (Vol.24 No.6), I was impressed with the performance of this large, inexpensive ($599/pair) bookshelf speaker. When I received a press announcement at the end of 2005 announcing JBL's new affordable speakers, the Studio L series, which incorporates innovations developed for JBL's recording-studio monitors, I began a discussion with JBL's public-relations firm. They promised many significant design innovations and sonic improvements over the S series.
JBL was founded 60 years ago, by Jim Lansing. Its history has been amply detailed in the book The JBL Story: 60 Years of Audio Innovation, by the late John Eargle's (JBL Professional, 2006). Although it is primarily known for its pro-audio loudspeakers, the Californian company has offered a steady stream of high-performance domestic loudspeakers to the home market, including the 1971 Paragon, the L100 bookshelf speaker, and the JBL 250Ti floorstander, all of which remained in JBL's catalog for 20 years. In 1990, JBL produced the Project K2 S9500 flagship speaker for the Japanese high-end market. The K2 Project culminated in the $60,000/pair DD55000 Everest system, with its cross-firing asymmetric horns, and the subject of this review, the Synthesis 1400 Array BG, was a spin-off from the K2 project. It features horn-loaded midrange and tweeters to attain a flat response out to a claimed 48kHz.
Loudspeakers are all about balancing conflicting variables: accepting that you can't have electrostatic transparency and horn dynamics; finding something to suit the size of your room and credit rating; and picking the best all-around compromise to suit your particular taste. Goldilocks had the right attitude for loudspeaker reviewing. All that too-soft/too-hard, too-hot/too-cold merely sets the scene; "just right" goes straight to the heart of the matter.
I first met Jacques Mahul (the JM in JMlab/Focal) when my wife Kathleen and I traveled to Paris to cover HiFi (Hee-Fee) '96. The sound produced by the JMlab Grand Utopias—on a collection of many-chassis'd YBA electronics—got my enthusiastic vote for best of show (footnote 1). JMlab's large demo room was always packed to the rafters with avid listeners. (As a group, melomanes, as audiophiles are called in France, exactly mirror their stateside brethren in appearance and general demeanor. Yes, they're a raucous and demanding bunch!)
You might recall that ditty from childhood about the little engine that could (I think I can, I think I can, I think I can...). It's an apt metaphor for high-end audio. In traversing the aural sepulchers of last winter's Consumer Electronics Show and the summer's HI-FI Show, I routinely encountered one divine sound system after another. Yet while I never tire of transcendent sonics, eventually I become inured to the procession of celestial, cost-no-object speakers. It's like having a white-light experience, then returning to the gritty reality of life on earth, where for most of us cost is not merely the object, but the determining factor in finding an optimal balance among audio components.
People come to high-end audio with different needs and expectations—some fairly reasoned, some slightly more highfalutin. Some listeners want to get as close as possible to an immersion experience, be it of a live performance or of some more idealized studio ecstasy. Others are enraptured by the status and sex appeal of big, hot-rod components, and simply dig gear—much as they might dig the visceral rush of a high-performance car. Still others compulsively upgrade their equipment in search of some unattainable perfection. But no matter the initial motivation, all roads eventually lead back to a love of music.