It was 20 years ago that I began audio reviewing as a second career. It was also 20 years ago that I made my first very expensive audio purchase: a pair of Infinity RS-1b speakers. The RS-1b was a landmark speaker in its day, and very costly for the time at $5500/pair. (I think my dentist has just spent more than that on a TV.) In retrospect, the RS-1b was an extraordinary value. With four large towers, more than 30 drivers, and a servo network and a passive crossover, the Infinity RS-1b resolved a significant amount of detail, was capable of large dynamic swings, had pinpoint image specificity on a wide, deep soundstage, and was capable of reproducing a convincing bottom octave in the right room when paired with the right associated equipment. Its main weaknesses were a relative lack of coherence due to its use of three different types of drivers to cover the various frequency ranges, and both the midrange/tweeter towers and woofer columns were picky about amplifier matching.
Home Entertainment 2007 was a blast for me, as it is every year. Not only did I get to perform with two jazz bands, Attention Screen and the John Atkinson Trio, but I enjoyed good to extraordinary sound in every room I visited. I've been attending hi-fi shows more than 20 years, so I'm rarely surprised, but HE2007 had two big surprises in store. First, the percentage of rooms sporting analog front-ends—vinyl and open-reel tape—was the highest I've seen at a show in over a decade. Second, there was a surprising number of very expensive loudspeakers. In fact, I counted more speakers costing over $50,000/pair than I did costing under $500/pair.
I love dealing with the colorful characters of high-end audio. One such individual is Victor (Veekh-tor) Goldstein, who has distributed high-quality European audio gear from his New York City headquarters, Fanfare International, for 23 years. A nuclear engineer by training, Goldstein transitioned into audio when the Three Mile Island incident reduced the demand for his services. (I guess he felt his skills were transferable to single-ended triode amplifiers.) Most of all, Goldstein is a passionate lover of music with a vinyl collection that numbers well into five figures, and a fixture at many of the significant classical performances at New York's major concert halls.
The most exciting development in audio today isn't multichannel surround, single-ended triodes, or $10,000 phono cartridges. It's "trickle down." I get buzzed when an audio designer known for cutting-edge multikilobuck designs claims to have a product that can produce 80% of the sonic realism of his flagship design at 50% of the cost. I get even more excited when he does it again—that is, produces a product that produces 64% of his flagship's performance at 25% of the cost. Designers who have successfully trickled-down their flagship technologies abound in all quarters of audiophilia, from electronics (eg, Audio Research, Conrad-Johnson) to speakers (Alón, ProAc) to cables (MIT).
Let me take you back some 40 years to the mono days of the early 1950s. It's unlikely that the minimonitor genus of loudspeakers, of which this French JMlab is a prime example, would have survived back then. There was the practical problem of available amplifier power. The average amp could squeeze out no more than 10 to 15W into an 8 ohm load—far less power than the typically insensitive minimonitor demands for adequate dynamic headroom. But that in itself would not have sufficed to displace the minimonitor from the marketplace. After all, "high-power" amps (50-watters) could be had at a price.
I approached this loudspeaker much as some of today's political candidates might approach sex: as a means of reproduction, not pleasure.
I brought it on myself. I asked to review Joseph Audio's stand-mounted, two-way Pulsar because I felt an obligation to step down from the rarified air of some of the absurdly priced gear I've been reviewing lately and sample something more "affordable." The Pulsar costs $7000/pair.
Following my review of two high-performance minimonitors last November (footnote 1), I received a letter asking why I recommended a stand-mounted speaker at all when it was possible to buy a floorstanding design with more bass for the same amount of money. Furthermore, the correspondent went on, when you consider that the minimonitor sitting on its stand occupies as much floorspace as the floorstander, it's hard to see why a market for minimonitors exists at all.
Jeff Joseph always causes a stir at Stereophile's annual Home Entertainment Shows. No matter which speakers he exhibits, he invariably gets wonderful sound in his room. He's fooled more than one Stereophile writer who thought he was listening to Joseph's flagship Pearls when, behind a curtain, it was actually two of his in-wall models that were playing. And his competitors seem to envy his hi-fi show sound more each year.
KEF's Home THX speaker system is somewhat unusual in that it includes an active subwoofer. (While most Home Theater subs are powered types; it's just that few THX models are.) Although powered speakers have never enjoyed much popularity with American audiophiles, they can yield better results than the mix'n'match approach because each amplifier/driver combination can be optimized.
The tale's been told many times: Back in the early 1970s, the British Broadcasting Corporation needed a small nearfield monitor for use in remote-broadcast trucks. A team led by T. Sommerville and D.E. Shorter, both of the BBC's Research Department, developed the two-way, sealed-box LS3/5, based on a small monitor they'd designed for experiments in acoustic scaling. The speaker showed much promise, but problems with the drive-unitsa woofer with a doped Bextrene 5" cone and a 1" Mylar-dome tweeterled to a detailed redesign, the LS3/5a, carried out by Dudley Harwood, also of the Research Department (and later to found Harbeth), and Maurice E. Whatton and R.W. Mills, of the BBC's Designs Department.
Stereophile is, in one sense, like a family—us younguns have to make do sometimes because the house is straining at the seams. When I first arrived in Santa Fe, for instance, I was told not to come to the office for a few days—the good news, John Atkinson informed me, was that I had a desk; the bad news was that nobody had a clue where to put it. The dilemma was solved in Solomon-like fashion by shoehorning my desk into the "listening room," which was already serving double-duty as audition space and speaker-measurement lab. If manufacturers visited, we'd sweep up all the acoustic damping from the floor and stash it in JA's office; and if JA needed to take measurements, I would be asked to work at home. It was a manifestly fair solution: inconvenient for everyone involved.
One of the nicest surprises at any audio show is encountering a new—to me, at least—manufacturer whose products seem to stand out from the competition. At the 2002 Consumer Electronics Show, one such standout was the Kirksaeter line of loudspeakers from Germany. I spent quite a few minutes listening to and enjoying the performance of these modestly sized and priced speakers, but since my writing assignment was electronics, I tucked the experience away in the back of my mind and moved on.
Every audiophile is born sometime, somewhere. My audio birth happened on a family visit to my Uncle John's house, when he played Information Society's "What's On Your Mind (Pure Energy)" through his brand-new Klipsch Heresy IIs. Uncle John did three things at this listening session that turned 12-year-old me into the audiophile I am today: he played music I liked, he played it really loud, and afterward, he took the time to explain how his system worked and why it sounded so good. His Klipsches were powered by Nelson Passinfluenced Nakamichi gearI'd never before heard speakers play music with such ease or such startling dynamics. I was immediately hooked. In many ways, nothing I've heard since that day has impressed me as much, or been as revelatory of what home audio can do. That single experience set me on a path of caring about re-creating musical performances in my own home.