I first heard the Totem Acoustic Tabù loudspeakers at HI-FI '96, Stereophile's Home Theater & Specialty Audio Show at the Waldorf=Astoria in New York City last June. A startlingly realistic vocal recording drew me to Totem's sixth-floor demo room. Vincent Bruzzese, the speaker's designer, was playing Michael Jonasz singing "Si si si le ciel" from la fabuleuse histoire de Mister Swing (WEA 2292-42338-2, imported by May Audio Marketing). The small, two-way Tabù cast a holographic, palpable musical image with clear highs and sizzling dynamic pace. I was bitten, and set things in motion for this review. And two other things drew me to the Tabù: its capacitor-less crossover and its similarity to Totem's Model 1.
The two-way, biwirable, rear-ported Dreamcatcher is designed and manufactured in Canada; its drive-units are designed by Totem, but made and assembled in Europe. The 1" titanium-dome tweeter, manufactured by German Acoustik, is mated to a 4" Scan-Speak woofer. Totem founder Vince Bruzzese feels very strongly about sourcing his drivers in the West. In the past, he got his small woofers from Peerless in Denmark, but switched to Scan-Speak when Peerless started manufacturing in China. Bruzzese also pointed out that the tweeter used in the Dreamcatcher costs him 16, more than 15 times as much as most similar Asian-made tweeters.
Triad Speakers has been designing and manufacturing three-piece (woofer and two satellites) loudspeaker systems since 1982. The company was formed that year by designer Larry Pexton and has enjoyed steady growth in their market niche. Their original three-piece loudspeaker was a collaboration with Edward M. Long, of "Time-Align" fame, and Ron Wickersham. It was felt that the ideal loudspeaker would have the least cabinet interference, thus the design decision to keep the woofer separate and the midrange/tweeter enclosure small. Triad speakers were selected for inclusion in the Consumer Electronics Show's Innovations 1990 Design and Engineering Showcase, the sixth time the company's products have been selected for this award.
The first reference I saw to the Count of Saint Germain was in Foucault's Pendulum, Umberto Eco's dense novel about a man whose paranoid delusions become so overpoweringly real that, by the end of the book, the reader is left wondering whether the protagonist's enemies actually exist. That their number should include Saint Germain was a nice touch: Part cabalist, part confidence man, the real-life Count was thought by some to be immortal (in Pendulum he's pushing 300), and while Casanova wrote vividly of meeting Saint Germain at a dinner party in 1757, so did the English writer and pederast C.W. Leadbetter—in 1926. Like Aleister Crowley, the Count of Saint Germain can be seen peering over the shoulders of countless parlor (but not parleur, or even haut-parleur) occultists: He keeps popping up all over the place.
When I attended the 2006 GuangZhou Hi-Fi Show in China, it seemed as though most of the Asian-built loudspeakers I saw were huge, astonishingly efficient, and had horns. When I walked into Usher Audio Technology's room, however, Paul Chen was making music happen with the Usher S-520s ($500/pair).
I love attending Stereophile's Home Entertainment shows. I get to check out the latest gear, hobnob with manufacturers and writer colleagues, hear some live music, and play a little jazz with John Atkinson, Zan Stewart, and Immedia's Allen Perkins. Unfortunately, work commitments at my day job meant I couldn't attend HE2003, in San Francisco, so I directed my team of Stereophile scouts to find me some hot new budget speakers. Robert Deutsch was quickest to respond, the week following the show: "Bob, you've got to check out these new speakers from Usher Audio in Taiwan! They have a number of models within your budget." One phone call later, and a $1000/pair of Compass X-719 bookshelf speakers was on its way to me.
The last few years at our annual Home Entertainment Show, many readers have come up to me and asked: "How do you select which speakers to review?" In my case, most candidates are either new products that have impressed me when demonstrated at our HE Shows, or new products from manufacturers whose designs have impressed me in the past. Occasionally, editor John Atkinson gets wind of a speaker and asks if I'd like to review it. But once in a while, a manufacturer reads a rave review of a competing product that makes his or her blood boil.
Silicon Valleybased Velodyne was founded in 1983 to develop a range of subwoofers that used servo-control to reduce non-linear distortion to vanishingly small levels. They succeeded in this goal to the extent that Velodyne is now perhaps the best-known subwoofer company in the US, currently employing 65 people. At the 1994 Winter CES, Velodyne launched the subject of this review: the DF-661 ($1800$2600/pair), their first full-range loudspeaker (the "DF" stands for "Distortion-Free").
The three-way DF-661 was designed from the ground up to continue the Velodyne tradition of ultra-low distortion. "We had developed the technology and resources to attack distortion elsewhere in the audio chain," wrote company President David Hall, "and started with the premise that, by definition...distortion in loudspeakers is wrong." (His italics.) "We went to the laboratory for a solution, with the living room as the ultimate goal." Velodyne calls this attention to technological detail "The Silicon Valley approach to sound."
When John Marks wrote about the Vivid B1 in his column, "The Fifth Element," in February 2011, he was so excited about the sound he was getting that he asked me to drive up to Rhode Island to give a listen for myself. Not only was I impressed by what I heard at John's, I decided to do a full review of the speaker.
I've been musing much of late on what enables some hi-fi components to sound natural while others always seem to add an edge of artificiality to their sound. This dichotomy was examined in last month's "As We See It," where I asked a representative group of Stereophile writers to discuss the fact that many high-end components regarded as being neutral in their sonic character, with apparently little wrong in their measured performance, can actually sound quite unmusical. This would seem to suggest that the nature of what a component does wrong is of greater importance than the level of what it does wrong: 1% of one kind of distortion can be innocuous, even musically appropriate, whereas 0.01% of a different kind of distortion can be musical anathema.
A while back, I received an e-mail from The Kid (Stephen Mejias): "I've been listening to and enjoying the Wharfedale 10.1 loudspeakers ($350/pair) for a couple of months. I wrote about them for my March and April issue columns, but they are good enough for a complete review. Are you interested?"
Hmm . . . so The Kid is now assigning me equipment reviews? "Sure, why not?"
The day after the Wharfedales arrived, The Kid sent me another e-mail: "Have you unpacked them yet? They are so pretty!"
Scratch an audiophile and, chances are, you'll find a closet Wilson Audio fan. The Wilson WATT/Puppy would probably make almost anyone's list of the most significant high-end loudspeaker designs. David Wilson first built his reputation with the custom-built WAMM loudspeaker—a monumental piece invariably included with products like the Infinity IRS, Genesis I, and Apogee Grand when the world's most awesome loudspeakers are discussed. But it was the WATT, followed by the WATT/Puppy—the latter now several generations improved over the original design—that really put the company on the high-end audio map.
I had had it in the back of my mind for some time to try to hear the Wilson Duette, if only because celebrated classical recording engineer Tony Faulkner had, some time ago, shared with me his opinion that the Duette's simpler crossover made it the most coherent speaker in Wilson's line. Faulkner told me that when a cramped recording venue makes it impossible for him to use his favorite Quad electrostatic speakers for monitoring, he uses Duettes.