I've been chipping away for some time at the task of trying to put together a music lover's stereo system for about half the money of my last such effort: $2500 to $3750 now, vs around $7500 back in 2005. My timing was good: CD and DVD receivers are a hot product category, with several attractive new entries at various prices.
The first loudspeaker I heard from the Canadian company PSB was the Stratus, an affordably priced ($1400/pair), two-way tower with a soft-dome tweeter and an 8" woofer. The Stratus had benefited from designer Paul Barton's being able to use the anechoic chamber at the Canadian government's National Research Center, in Ottawa. The Stratus was reviewed for Stereophile by J. Gordon Holt in our May 1988 issue; he described the speaker as "eminently listenable," though Gordon also felt that it was "a little lacking in guts and liveliness." I had sat in on some of his listening sessions and had been impressed by what I heard.
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).
It was a classic American tale: hearing that the head honcho of RadioShack was in town, the principals of Oregon-based high-end loudspeaker manufacturer Linaeum found out where he was staying and called him to see if RadioShack would be interested in marketing their speakers. They were rewarded for their daring by being given an introduction to the right RadioShack department head, and before you could say time-coherent, a deal was struck for RadioShack to manufacture a new line of three "audiophile" loudspeakers featuring a version of the unique Linaeum tweeter. The less-expensive Optimus Pro X77 and LX4 models use a baffle-mounted tweeter that radiates just to the front; the top-of-the-line Optimus Pro LX5 reviewed here mounts a bi-directional tweeter on the top of a diecast aluminum enclosure.
Red Rose Music founder and CEO Mark Levinson may have lost the rights to use his own name, but not the good timing that helped make him a successful businessman and an accomplished bass player. (According to his online bio, Levinson has sat in with the likes of John Coltrane, Sonny Stitt, Chick Corea, and Keith Jarrett.)
The match between amplifier and speaker for single-ended operation is critical, which is why John Atkinson suggested I let Wavelength's Gordon Rankin lead when it came to choosing a speaker to partner his special-edition Cardinal amplifiers. If you're not talking roughly 92dB sensitivity and a fairly benign load, say no lower than 6 ohms, you're just not talking single-ended. That precluded running the Cardinals on the big Avalon Ascents with their lowish 86dB sensitivity (in spite of the relatively benign impedance curve).
After more discussion it became evident that the best speakers to use were the very ones Gordon employed in his own reference systemthe Swiss-made Reference 3A Royal Master Control loudspeakers.
As names go, "Reference 3A" is awful. It sounds less like a company than it does a model number, as in the Dudco Reference 3A (on sale now wherever Fourier speakers used to be sold); I find it hard not to expect a Reference 3B with each new year. Add to that a cumbersome and somewhat meaningless model designation, "MM de Capo i"—what do the Ms stand for? what does the i stand for? haven't there been other de Capos in audio recently?—and my poor brain becomes utterly confused. And the older I get, the less I can tolerate being confused. Forgive me if, during the course of this review, I get lazy and fall back on the lazy and admittedly somewhat Clintonesque this speaker.
Revel. Interesting name for a new speaker company. The most apt definition of the word from my old dictionary is "to take much pleasure; delight." Or perhaps those who chose the name were intrigued by the wordplay they could make with "revel-ation."
Loudspeaker lore has it that a "good big'un will always beat a good small'un." But my experience has been that the traditional wisdom is often wrong. Price for price, large speakers often have larger errors compared with minimonitors, the smaller speakers offering more rigid cabinets, better-defined stereo imaging, and, because the owner can experiment with stand height, a better chance of being optimally sited in a room. So while I was as impressed as Stereophile reviewer Kalman Rubinson with what I heard from the floorstanding, $3500/pair Revel Performa F30 (footnote 1) when we visited the Revel facility in California's San Fernando Valley in spring 2000 (footnote 2), it was the big speaker's smaller sibling, the $2000/pair Performa M20, that caught my eye—and ear.
A dream I have had since I discovered the pleasures of music is to possess a time machine. Not a fancy one, just a small device that would allow me to escape modern music-making and drop in to hear what must have been some of the greatest musical experiences of all time. Classical music presents no problems: Off to 18th-century Leipzig on Sunday, of course, to hear J.S. Bach play the organ in church, after an early 19th-century Saturday evening spent in Vienna listening to Beethoven improvising at the pianoforte. During the week it would still be Vienna, but forward 80 years or so to hear Brahms premiere one of his chamber works after afternoon cocktails at the Wittgensteins', with perhaps a trip to England's Three Choirs Festival just before the Great War to hear the first performance of Elgar's Dream of Gerontius. And the time machine would have to have transatlantic range—I couldn't miss Mahler conducting the New York Philharmonic around the same time. But with jazz and rock—music that is reborn every time in performance to a greater extent than in classical—there is a bewildering choice of live events from which to choose.
Back in the early 1970s, the BBC needed a physically unobtrusive, nearfield monitor loudspeaker for use in outside-broadcast trucks. Accordingly, they instructed their design department, which at that time featured such luminaries as Dudley Harwood (the "father" of the polypropylene cone, who went on to found Harbeth) and the late Spencer Hughes (the "father" of the Bextrene cone, who went on to found Spendor), to produce such a model. Thus, not only was what was then probably the finest collection of British speaker-design talent involved in its development, there were no commercial constraints placed on the design. The only limitations were intended to be those arising from the necessarily small enclosure and the absence of the need for a wide dynamic range under close monitoring conditions.
Ever since the 1960s, when I built a pair of Altec A7 clones, I've had a preference for relatively big speakers. Yes, I was seduced by the Stax F-81 electrostatics because of their incredibly low coloration, but inevitably I felt the need to return to something that would move more air. Regardless of the type of music (I do like the big stuff) or the sound levels, unless the sound has solidity and size, I can't easily suspend disbelief.
While it is not quite accurate to say that $500/pair loudspeakers are a dime a dozen, they are by no means unusual. And since this is a price area where major design compromises are mandatory (footnote 1), the sound of such loudspeakers tends to vary all over the map, from pretty good to godawfuldepending on what performance areas the designer chose to compromise and by how much.
I approached this latest half-grander with little enthusiasm, despite Siefert's persuasive literature, I have, after all, been reading such self-congratulatory hype abiout new products for longer than most Stereophile readers have been counting birthdays. This, I must admit, was ho-humsville.
I always look forward to Stereophile's Home Entertainment Shows, where I scout out interesting new models of affordable loudspeakers. At HE2007 in New York City, I was struck by the Silverline Audio room—not only by the sound I heard there, but by the way Showgoers reacted to that sound.