If there's one article in Stereophile that generated more reader response than any other, it was Peter Breuninger's review of the classic Fisher 500-C tubed receiver in June 2005. Peter reviewed another classic component from the 1960s, the Bozak B-410 Concert Grand loudspeaker; my involvement in the review, in the October 2005 issue, brought home to me with a vengeance how much the science of speaker design has evolved in the 40 years since this armoire-sized model was introduced.
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.
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.