I miss the High End Shows. Not the annual Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegasno thanks. I can do without the overpriced hotels, the 45-minute taxi lines, the frantic racing from venue to venue. No, it's the Stereophile shows I miss, with the centralized location, the rubbing shoulders with readers ("Hey, you're the cheap-speaker guy! Check out room 206!"), the listening to live music, and maybe even playing a little of it.
Perhaps there is no subject more vigorously debated among audiophiles than the primacy of the loudspeaker. Many 'philes believe there is no more important element in a hi-fi system—after all, they reason, it doesn't matter how good the components ahead of the speakers are; if the transducers can't reproduce the signal, you can't hear it. On the other hand, the source adherents maintain, speakers can't reproduce information that hasn't been retrieved from the recording. Loudspeakers can limit the amount of information you hear, but they can't increase it. This is one of those irresolvable paradoxes similar to the question of which came first, the roast chicken or the omelet.
Not every interesting audio component gets a full review in Stereophile. Many more products are covered in Sam Tellig's, Art Dudley's, Michael Fremer's, Kal Rubinson's, and John Marks' regular columns than I have the space to publish measurements for. However, I do ask for samples of products that I feel deserve to be measured, particularly when our original coverage raised more questions than it answered.
When I unpacked the review samples of Earthworks' Sigma 6.2 loudspeaker, I was reminded of a Pop Art exhibition I'd visited 30 years before, in London. Along with a stuffed drum kit and other of Claes Oldenburg's exaggerated-scale floppy sculptures, hanging from the Tate Gallery's ceiling was an enormous three-pronged, US-style AC plug made entirely of hardwood (footnote 1). Although the Sigma 6.2 is available in plain-Jane black MDF for $3500/pair, the optional solid-cherry cabinet, with its polished grain-streaked panels, has the same carved-from-solid, feel of the Oldenburg plug. I found myself wanting to stroke the speaker.
There is much to admire and to enjoy in this idiosyncratically charming hybrid loudspeaker. Eminent Technology has been around for about 25 years. Founder Bruce Thigpen was a pioneer in air-bearing technology, and ET's first product was a well-regarded air-bearing tonearm. The company later developed and was awarded patents for its Linear Field Transducers (LFTs): push-pull loudspeaker panels that operate on the magnetic rather than the electrostatic principle. Arraying magnets both front and rear of the plastic-membrane diaphragm eliminates a problem inherent in many planar-magnetic designs: as excursion increases, the magnetic restorative force diminishes. As can be expected, this technology is not efficient at reproducing bass, so most such speakers have been hybrids.
Reality check number one. Tired of reading about the latest and greatest $65,000 loudspeakers? Or even the current hot ticket at $2500? Such loudspeakers promise to bring you the audio truth, or the golly-gee-whiz, honest-to-gosh, absolutely positively real sound. And some of them do seem to come awfully close, though truth be told, we're still a long way from replicating realityand will never do it with just two channels.
The two-way Energy CB-10 ($269.99/pair) is a bass-reflex design. A large rear-firing port has an internal diameter of 2" and flares out to 2.75". The speaker uses a 1" aluminum-dome tweeter and a 5.5" woofer with a ribbed elliptical surround, the latter said to increase excursion, decrease distortion, and create a larger piston area for greater efficiency, making the CB-10 an easy match for amplifiers. The CB-10's frequency range is listed as 66Hz20kHz, its in-room sensitivity as 90dB, and its nominal impedance as 8 ohms. In Energy's Convergent Source Module design, the tweeter and woofer are meant to act as a coincident source working together to provide wide bandwidth, constant dispersion, and a flat frequency response. In theory, this would all add up to easy setup and satisfying listening from anywhere in the room.
I've long kept an eye on Michael Creek's loudspeakers (Epos) and electronics (Creek). He's always moving forward, with either updates of current designs or a revamp of an entire product line. And though I've found that many of his new-product ideas tend to feature evolutionary rather than revolutionary sonic improvements, I've found that they always represent excellent sound quality for the dollar in an increasingly competitive marketplace.
Roy Hall has his famous Music Hall MMF (Make Money Fast) turntables made for him in the Czech Republic.
Roy has also long been associated with Epos Limited, since a chap named Robin Marshall started the company in 1983. Their first product was the ES-14 loudspeaker, followed by the smaller ES-11. Both were largish, stand-mounted models, and both offered a lively, expressive, unstuffy sound. The speakers have always been fun to listen to, even if they lackedand still lackthe refinement of some far more expensive speakers.
Americans might be forgiven if they haven't heard of Epos. A small, British specialist loudspeaker manufacturer, it was founded in 1983 by its designer, Robin Marshall—an ex-BBC engineer and a onetime consultant to Monitor Audio, according to Roy Hall of Epos's US importer, Music Hall. Their first model, the ES 20, didn't make it to the US, and was apparently a bit too pricey in the UK to make much of a splash there (about £700, $1300 at the current rate of exchange—a mint in a country with the patent on sub-$500/pair (UK prices!) two-ways). In 1986 or thereabouts, the new, smaller ES 14 was introduced, using updated versions of the same drivers in a smaller, ported cabinet. Music Hall only recently began importing the Epos into the US.
Blind loudspeaker listening tests are hard work, not least because usually, most of the models being auditioned fail to light any musical sparks. But back in the spring of 1991, when a small group of Stereophile writers were doing blind tests for a group speaker review, one speaker did light up smiles on the listeners' faces, including my own. (We don't talk during our blind tests, but it's more difficult to keep body language in check.) Once the results were in, we learned that the speaker that got the music right in that test was the diminutive ES11 from Epos in England (footnote 1).
Following my favorable experience with Epos Ltd.'s entry-level loudspeaker, the ELS-3 ($329/pair; see my January 2004 review), Roy Hall, of importer Music Hall, called me with some excitement about the new Epos M5 ($650/pair). In a crowded room at the Home Entertainment 2004 show in New York, I did a quick comparison of the M5 and ELS-3 under suboptimal conditions of multiple speakers in the room and Roy answering consumers' questions while pouring scotch for his dealers. Still, I was able to hear enough from the M5 to intrigue me, and with high expectations, I asked for a pair for review.
The M5i, basically a two-way bookshelf version of the 21½-way M16i, has the same tweeter, woofer, and footprint as the larger model, less its larger cabinet and second mid/woofer, and incorporates all of the i-series updates included in the M16i. The speakers look very similar; like the M16i, the M5i is available in gorgeous cherry veneer or basic black. The price ($899/pair) is $249/pair higher than the original M5. I placed the M5is on Epos's dedicated stands.
The first time I attended the Las Vegas Consumer Electronics Show, in January 1986, I didn't get there until the second day of the Show. Still, by the beginning of the fourth and final day I'd managed to visit every high-end audio exhibit, and still had time to go back for seconds to the rooms that had sounded the best. Twenty years later, CES has grown so much that it's impossible for a single writer to visit even a quarter of the exhibits in which he might be interested. And even with the sort of team reportingStereophile now practices, covering the Show has become an exercise in applied logistics for the busy journalist: "Should I wait for the free shuttle bus? Should I get a taxi—though I might get caught in Las Vegas's increasing traffic jams, or even just get stuck at the city's interminable traffic lights? Or should I take the new monorail—though that goes nowhere near the hotel in which [insert name of hot company] is demming its products?"