One of the first affordable loudspeakers I reviewed for Stereophile was the original Paradigm Reference Studio/20 bookshelf model, in the February 1998 issue (Vol.21 No.2). At the time, I felt that the $650/pair speaker was a breakthrough—although not completely devoid of colorations, its ratio of price to performance set a benchmark a decade ago. I kept the Studio/20s around for several years to compare with other bookshelf speakers I reviewed, and they remained listed in Stereophile's "Recommended Components" for several years after that. The Studio/20 is now in its fourth (v.4) iteration, so I thought I'd grab a pair to hear how they compared with current affordable bookshelf designs.
Ten seconds to ignition. Relax, buckle in, and welcome to Stereophile's Good Times time machine. Flux capacitors fully energized. Ignition. Not to worry, that slight tingling sensation is perfectly normal. Roll back your calendar to...June 28, 1933. We're at the Eighth Annual convention of the Institute of Radio Engineers in Chicago. Harry Olsen is on the podium, describing a new wide-range cone loudspeaker for high-fidelity sound reproduction.
Quiet, please, Mr. Olsen is about to describe the disadvantages of multipledrive-unit systems. "The radiating surfaces must be separated by a finite distance, with the result that this system will exhibit peculiar directional characteristics in the overlap region where the sound radiation issues from both sources. To reduce this effect to a minimum, the overlap region must be confined to a very small range which requires an elaborate electric filter system for allocating the frequency bands of the units. The greater space required for the two loudspeakers is another important factor. The cost of two separate field structures and vibrating systems will be considerably greater than that of a single unit."
In some ways, building an inexpensive yet musical two-way loudspeaker is a greater design challenge than creating a cost-no-object reference product. Although the latter is a much more complex endeavor, the venerable two-way box seems to bring out the creativity and resources of the designer. Rather than throw money at the product in the form of more expensive drivers, enclosures, or components, the designer of a low-cost two-way is forced to go back to the basics, rethink closely-held tenets, and rely on ingenuity and sheer talent to squeeze the most music from a given cost. Consequently, the inexpensive two-way is the perfect vehicle for designers to develop their skills. If one has mastered this art form, one is much more likely to achieve success when more ambitious designs are attempted.
I often receive letters from Stereophile readers. I've even gotten a few letters from female readers, one an attractive young lover of tube gear who sent me a picture of herself and [sigh] her boyfriend. But most are from people who are either thanking me for a specific review that resulted in a purchase and a satisfied buyer, or are suggesting products they'd like me to review. I frequently take the advice of writers of this second category; in fact, two of the inexpensive speakers I'll review in the next year were recommended by readers.
The buzz was all over the audiophile 'net. "Pioneer has a new bookshelf speaker that's killer for the money!"
Hmm, I thought. Pioneer. Speakers?
To be fair, I've had the Pioneer brand on my mind for well over 30 years. The company was my brand of choice for car-stereo electronics in the 1970s, for Dolby S cassette decks in the '80s, for DVD players in the '90s, and for plasma TVs in the '00s and '10s. I felt a bit guilty that I hadn't focused on the fact that Andrew Jones, the very same design guru who came up with Pioneer's TAD Reference One loudspeaker ($70,000/pair), had had a hand in designing a few two-channel speaker models starting at $99.99/pair. The audio gossip was all about the second model from the bottom of Pioneer's speaker line, the SP-BS41-LR ($149.99/pair). I thought I'd better get a pair and review them.
The loudspeaker coming under the microscope this month emanates from north of the border. The Canadian loudspeaker industry has benefited enormously in the last few years from having the measurement, testing, and listening facilities of Canada's National Research Council in Ottawa made available to it on a commercial basis. Unlike the US or even the UK, where a new speaker designer has pretty much to rely on his own resources, having to invent his own test procedure as well as design the product, the Canadian equivalent can have his loudspeaker tested under standard conditions, quickly indicating whether he is on the right track or not. (He still, of course, has to rely on his own talent to get on the right track in the first place or to get back on it if it appears that something is amiss.)
Flip flip flip]...Where the heck is it?...[flip flip flip]...Got it!" What am I looking for? There, in black and white, on p.634 of J. Gordon Holt's Really Reliable Rules for Rookie Reviewers (footnote 1), is the Prime Directive On Loudspeaker Setup: "Never, ever, choose a loudspeaker that has too much bass extension for your room!"
The British speaker manufacturer PMC Ltd. has built a professional client list seemingly as extensive as its almost mind-numbingly broad line of speakers. The i series alone includes 12 models, one of which is the DB1i ($1929/pair).
I have a soft spot in my heart (some say my head) for transmission-line designs. I remember being entranced by the authoritative but effortless bass of John Wright's IMF and TDL Monitors, and I have been inspired to experiment by building my own lines in various sizes. Then, as demonstrated by Bryston's Jim Tanner at the 1997 WCES and at HI-FI '97, PMC's IB-1S loudspeakers threw an enormously deep soundstage. (I have a soft spot for that as well.)
In my review of Polk Audio's RT25i loudspeaker (September 2001, Vol.24 No.9), I was mightily impressed with Matthew Polk's execution of this $320/pair design. Although it has since been replaced by the RT27i, with slightly modified cosmetics and a different tweeter, the RT25i remains my favorite loudspeaker costing less than $500/pair.
Yeah, yeah, I know what you're thinking: "Polk? You're reviewing a $300 speaker from Polk? Get ready for the flames!"
The genesis of this review lies in a casual comment Larry Archibald made last summer. Larry travels a lot, and everywhere he goes, like the archetypical (archibaldical?) audiophile he is, he listens voraciously. After a trip to the east coast, he dropped by my office and laid a bomb on me.
"I heard a pair of inexpensive bookshelf speakers from Polk that really impressed me."
"Um-hum," I replied dubiously, waiting for the punchline.
Back at home, I'd recently set up Polk Audio's RTi A3 loudspeakers ($399.95/pair), which, at 14.75" H by 8.58" W x 14" D, are by far the largest bookshelf models I've had in my listening room. Right out of the box, the RTi A3 impressed me with its fit and finish. In Polk's Damped Asymmetrical Hex Laminate Isolation (DAHLI) cabinet design, five layers of MDF are glued together to form a damping system, then topped by a real-wood veneer of black ash or, in the case of my review samples, an impeccable cherry. The gracefully curved cabinet narrows in width from 8.58" at the front to about 5" at the rear, and is said to create a stronger, more rigid, more acoustically inert enclosure. (Knocking on the speaker's side panels resulted in a hollow resonance.)
When a reviewer specializes in seeking out innovation and value in affordable loudspeakers, certain manufacturers warrant revisiting again and againcompanies that consistently deliver high-value products, but also steadily revamp their lines to trickle down design innovations to ever more affordable models.
I always enjoy reviewing affordable loudspeakers from Polk Audio, who trumpet high value for the dollar with their philosophy of "Incredible Sound/Affordable Price." They also update their broad and deep product lines more frequently than do most manufacturers. I've always been intrigued by how much Polk has been able to deliver at the bottom of the price range. In fact, the first Polk speaker I reviewed, the RT25i (September 2001, Vol.24 No.9), is the only affordable speaker I've reviewed for Stereophile that I ended up buying (for my computer-based musical-composition system). So, when approached by Polk to review a speaker from their affordable RTi A series, I was interested in the least expensive of that line's five models: the RTi A1 ($349.95/pair).