Readers often ask how I choose components for review. My method is simple: Ninety percent of what I review is gear that has impressed me at one of our Home Entertainment Shows, or new designs from manufacturers whose products I've liked in the past. The remainder are assigned by John Atkinson.
Back at the end of September 2005, I dropped by Jonathan and Kathleen Scull's Chelsea loft after work. I can't remember why; I think I was returning some gear. But we had also just finished shipping the 2006 Stereophile Buyer's Guide to the printer that day, and it was possible that I needed some high-quality musical R'n'R. Sitting in Jonathan's listening seat—the legendary Ribbon Chair"—and enjoying the sound of his system, I flashed on the days when he worked for Stereophile full-time and I occasionally used to pop round to his place, just two blocks away from what was then our office, on Manhattan's Fifth Avenue. Whatever components Jonathan was writing about, a consistent factor in the always superb sound of his system was the presence of the pair of JMlab Utopia loudspeakers that he had reviewed in the April 1998 issue of Stereophile. The Utopias delivered a seamless, full-range presentation that served Jonathan's eclectic taste in music while also allowing him to easily hear the effects, good or bad, of the various tweaks he was always trying.
The Fourier 6 has the special ability to generate large coherent sonic fields, from a box small enough to slip into an ordinary shopping bag. At $499/pair, the 6 competes directly with another remarkable-imaging, compact American speaker, the Spica TC-50 ($420/pair).
Fried Products Corporation's Compact 7 is a two-way, standmounted loudspeaker with a 1" ring-radiator tweeter and a 7" woven glass-fiberconed mid-woofer in a "line tunnel" enclosure. Its cabinet is substantial and well made, with handsome real-wood veneers. The speakers come in mirror-imaged pairs, the tweeters offset toward the inside. The Compact 7 is unusual in that its mid-woofer is above its tweeter, which is likely related to the line-tunnel bass loading. Fried insists that the speakers be placed at least 28" above the floor, which dictate I followed.
During the late 1970s and early '80s, I worked my way through college by selling hi-fi, or more precisely, mid-fi. During those years, I heard and sold several hundred different loudspeakers costing under $1000/pair. Despite the fact that I experienced them under less than ideal conditions, I was nevertheless able to get a feel for their relative performance. When switching between speakers, the differences between them were drastically juxtaposed. No two loudspeakers sounded even remotely similar tonally, indicating that they all had severe colorations.
In the last issue we published a rather enthusiastic "Quickie" report on a small, $190/pair speaker system from a new company—the FMI Model 80. It was virtually devoid of low end, even as a stereo pair (pairing effectively doubles bass output), and slightly rough as well as a shade soft at the high end, but it had a quality of "aliveness" to it that almost defied belief. Was it a breakthrough in design? A new transducing principle? No, it was neither. In fact, the Model 80 looks like any one of those hundreds of little bookshelf systems that clutter, the pages of Stereo Review's "Hi-Fi Directory" in tedious profusion.
The Gini Systems "LS3/5a" is an unlicensed and inexact replica of the celebrated LS3/5a outside (remote location) broadcast monitoring loudspeaker originally developed by the BBC in the early 1970s. (For a précis of the LS3/5a's history, click here.)
I was introduced to audiophilia by my friend Gary Gustavsen. Although I'd known Gary since I was 13, I didn't discover his passion for music until that day in high school physics lab when I blurted out an obscure line from the Doors' "The Soft Parade," and Gary bounced back immediately with the next line. It turns out I shared my friend's passions for the Doors and Frank Zappa, but not for Mahler. Before long, Gary was dragging me to every audio store in our area to listen to potential speakers for his first high-end audio system. At the beginning of each trip he'd say, "Right now I'm partial to the Rectilinear 3s." Although I heard him say that many times, I never actually got to hear a pair of Rectilinear 3s.
In the ice-cream world, chocolate is the universal end of the line. Vanilla experiments that taste great but look foul, maple syrup flavors that are more maple than syrup, tutti-frutti that's too tutti—all are recycled as chocolate flavor, their visual sins permanently hidden from view. In the world of wood, the equivalent of chocolate ice cream is the ubiquitous "black ash" veneer. The original color and character of the wood are irrelevant: it all ends up stained black.
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.
The best, most enduring audio products have in their favor more than great sound: They have some sense of history as well. Particularly good examples abound from the British companies Spendor, Rogers, and Harbeth, some of whose products were actually commissioned into being by the British Broadcasting Corporation. Better that, I suppose, than existing to fill a price point.
Everyone wants something different from a loudspeaker. Some people value midrange neutrality above all, while others will sacrifice some of that accuracy to get extended lows or a speaker that will play immensely loud with only a few watts of power. Some want stereo imaging that is sufficiently delicate, stable, and accurate that the speakers open a transparent window on the recording's original performing space. Some will sacrifice all of the above to get a speaker whose "jump factor" can jerk zombies out of their stupor. And there are those who are prepared to lose just a little bit of everything in order to have a speaker that may not excel in any of these areas, but communicates what they want from their music in the most effective overall manner.
You can bet Infinity plans on selling a respectable number of $8000/pair Prelude MTS speakers (reviewed in the May 2000 Stereophile) over this ambitious, full-range design's anticipated lifespan. But will the company make enough money to recoup the megabucks spent on researching, designing, and developing the all-new CMMD (Ceramic Metal Matrix Diaphragm) drivers, BASH (Bridge Amplifier Switching Hybrid) powered subwoofer, and RABOS (Room Adaptive Bass Optimization System) bass-equalization system? NOWAY (Never Over-Estimate What Acronyms Yield).
As much as I'm tempted by the impressive sweep and scale with which some of the large, full-range loudspeakers endow music, for some reason I find myself more at home with more compact examples of the breed. This is not through lack of familiarity with large speakers, a pair of B&W Matrix 801s occupying pride of place in our living room (which also serves as my wife's listening room). Yet I find myself hankering after that ultimate soundstage precision that only minimonitors seem capable of producing: the loudspeakers totally disappearing, vocal and instrumental images hanging in space, truly solid—the prefix "stereo-" is derived from the Greek word stereos, which means solid—so that a rectangular, totally transparent window into the concert hall opens at the rear of your room. In addition, the necessarily limited low-frequency extension offered by small speakers makes it much easier to get the optimum integration with the room acoustics below 100Hz.