A while back, out of the blue, I was contacted by audio distributor May Audio Marketing. They wanted to know if I was interested in reviewing any models from the Genius line of German manufacturer ASW Loudspeakers. I have a lot of time for distributors such as May Audio, whose primary role is to promote lesser-known European audio products on this side of the pond. All of May's principal clientsCastle, Enigma, and Gradient speakers; Sonneteer and Sphinx electronics; and Roksan turntable systemsare much better known in their home countries than in the US.
The venerable British company ATC Loudspeaker Technology was founded in 1974 by Billy Woodman, and is famous within the professional community for developing the first soft-dome midrange driver, and for their well-regarded line of active (powered) studio monitors, the user list of which is a veritable Who's Who of mastering engineers. ATC loudspeakers are all still made in the UK, and were a favorite of the late J. Gordon Holt.
In 1974, in England, Australian Reverse-Pommy pianist and recording engineer Billy Woodman founded the Acoustic Transducer Co. (ATC) as a maker of loudspeaker drive-units. That makes ATC a few years younger than Spendor (1969) and a few years older than Harbeth (1977). When I mentioned all that to a quick-witted audio buddy, he immediately came back with "Middle Child Syndrome!"
When something called "high fidelity" assumed fad status during the 1950s, many manufacturers climbed on board by the simple expedient of adorning their last year's product with a high fidelity label. The Home Theater bandwagon is a little harder to jump on, because loudspeakers for use with television sets require something "ordinary" stereo speakers don't: magnetic shielding (or, more accurately, magnetic cancellation). Without it, placing the speakers within a few feet of a large-screen set does psychedelic-type things to the color (footnote 1). However, adding magnetic shielding, usually in the form of a second magnet glued to the rear of each loudspeaker's motor magnet, is the only thing that some loudspeaker manufacturers change before slapping a Home Theater label on last year's stereo speakers.
Attending a Consumer Electronics Show is enjoyable, productive, nerve-racking, and exhausting. Too many components, so little time. One has to prioritize to ensure sufficient time to cover everything intended. One needs to avoid certain rooms, such as those with new, unremarkable designs from companies whose designers would love to talk—for half an hour or more—with each audio reviewer who makes the mistake of sauntering in. There are also many rooms in that middle region—rooms on neither the Must Hit nor the Must Avoid list.
It seems the obvious way to build a loudspeaker: one driver, no crossover, full range.
Instead, most speakers work this way: Complicated electronics split the audio signal into pieces, adding various colorations and phase shifts along the way. The pieces are distributed to different drivers, each of which adds another unique set of characteristics. We then expect these fragments of electronic signal to be brought together again in a continuous, coherent reproduction of music. We agonize over different cable routings or which contact cleaner to use, and yet we calmly accept this grotesque sausage-making way of building speakers. It's ludicrous.
As the years pass and I turn into a crotchety old man, I'm reminded of those old TV ads for the Honda Accord: "Simplify." Even though I now have more things going on than at any other point in my life, I try to eliminate complications everywhere I can. I now can't believe that, for over 15 years, I used the Infinity RS-1B as my reference loudspeaker. Sure, I loved itthe RS-1B was the first speaker I'd owned that produced a wide, deep soundstage, the full dynamic range of an orchestra, and bass extension down to 25Hz. But it was ridiculously complex: a five-way design with three different driver types and a servomechanism for the woofers. It also required biamplificationI got the best sound with a combination of high-powered tube amp and high-current, solid-state amp.
Given Audio Note's early dominance of the low-power scene, you'd expect any loudspeaker from them to be a high-efficiency design, and you'd be right. What you wouldn't expect is how they go about doing it, since none of the 20-odd models in their speaker line appears to be much more than a plain-Jane two-way box, with nary a horn or whizzer in sight.
Immedia introduced the German Audio Physic speakers at the 1994 Winter CES. As I mentioned in my Show report (Vol.17 No.4), I felt the price:performance ratios of the three models displayed was an indirect one: the least-expensivethe Stepsounded best. Since I'm always looking for products that offer great bang for the buck, I arranged to receive a pair of review samples.
In nearly 25 years, it's been rare that I've reviewed an exciting breakthrough product. The Audioengine 2 is such a product—not because it performs at an extraordinary level (though it does), and not because it's such an incredible value for money (though it is), but because it creates a new market, a new application for high-end audio, and a chance for audiophiles to enjoy music in ways they may have never considered before.
In the March 2008 Stereophile (Vol.31 No.3), I wrote favorably about the A-50T integrated amplifier from the Chinese company Cayin Audio. I was very impressed with its sound, appearance, and construction quality for the price: $1295. This positive experience led me to look into what other products Cayin's importer, VAS Industries, distributes here. More often than not, when a keen ear imports an interesting product into the US, that ear has also heard the good sounds of other products, as attested by the diverse product lines of distributors such as Music Hall and Sumiko. It turns out that VAS distributes Chinese loudspeakers made by Aurum Cantus, including seven two-channel models. I chose the entry-level design, the two-way V2M bookshelf speaker ($1890/pair), which combines a ribbon tweeter with a dynamic mid-woofer cone.
Audiophile societies are frequently sources of interesting new equipment to review. Recently, trolling New York's Audiophile Society, I discovered a tremendous buzz about the Onix Reference 1 Mk.II, an affordable bookshelf speaker from AV123. Founded by Audio Alchemy cofounder Mark Schifter, AV123 is a Colorado-based manufacturer and retailer that specializes in affordable audio gear, mostly speakers and electronics, which it sells exclusively over the Internet with a 30-day money-back guarantee. AV123's factories in China and Colombia design, manufacture, and distribute speakers under the brand names Onix, X-Series, and Rocket, and, I am told, also make speakers for a number of other companies. If the name Onix rings a bell, this former UK brand has long been known for its dedication to making affordable audio gear. AV123 bought Onix from the Rogers speaker company more than 10 years ago.
When I was first getting interested in "high fidelity," as we called it back in the 1960s, there was an audio dealer in Worthing, England called Bowers & Wilkins. Their advertisement in the February 1966 issue of Hi-Fi News features their annual sale, with a Quad Electrostatic Speaker priced at $l30 instead of the manufacturer's recommended $l37 (footnote 1), and offering other bargains, from ReVox, Quad, Rogers, Leak, and Armstrong. Conspicuous by their absence from the ad are Bowers & Wilkins speakers. The first reference to those I could find was in the August 1968 issue of what was then called The Gramophone, when race-car driver turned audio critic John Gilbert raved about the P2 Monitor. Designed by avid concertgoer John Bowers with Peter Hayward and featuring an EMI bass unit and a Celestion tweeter, the two-way P2 was priced at more than twice the Quad speaker, at $l159/pair.
While large, floorstanding speakers appear to offer the most material for the buck, I feel that small stand-mounted speakers both offer the best value in sound quality, as well as standing the best chance of sounding good in moderate-sized listening rooms. In recent months Stereophile has reviewed a varied group of such speakers. In order of descending price, these include the Acoustic Energy AE2 Signature ($5495/pair, November '95); Dzurko Acoustics Jaguar ($4500/pair, reviewed elsewhere in this issue); Totem Mani-2 ($3995/pair, February '96); Platinum Audio Solo ($2498/pair, November '95); Coincident Speaker Technology Troubador ($1495/pair, January and February '96); Joseph Audio RM7si ($1299-$1499/pair, February '96); Acarian Alón Petite ($995-$1195/pair, January '96); Phase Technology PC80 II ($699/pair, December '95); and Spectrum 108cd ($399/pair, December '95).
What kind of speaker can you get for $250/pair? The most tightly contested sector of the speaker market in the UK is right around that price. If you want to be competitive in Old Blighty, you have to offer something pretty special in that range—and because the stakes are so high, the competition is fierce.