I have a passion for great speaker designs at affordable prices, and with modern driver, crossover, and cabinet technologies making innovative strides, many serious high-end speaker designers are turning their attentions to coming up with the next great budget speaker. All audiophiles need affordable speakers, whether to recommend to friends to lure them into our hobby or to set up multiple, less costly systems in our own houses. I currently run a main reference system, a vacation-house system, a recording-studio system, a computer system, a portable system I take to parties, a car system, and an office system. I insist on having music playing constantly, wherever I am, unless my wife or son tells me to turn it off—which happens increasingly often these days.
Paul Barton, founder of PSB Speakers International, is an icon of the North American speaker industry. A talented designer who has for many years produced innovative and cost-effective designs at a range of prices, Barton does not let time stand still, constantly updating and revising his designs. But what makes him unique, in my view, is that, unlike the designers at most North American speaker companies, whose successful affordable designs are trickled down from their more expensive models, Barton, like the British designers, seems to get most of his excitement from his budget lines. His original PSB Alpha was, in its day, the most significant entry-level speaker made in North America since the original Advents of the 1970s.
Readers frequently ask me how Stereophile's writers select equipment for review. More often than not, a writer comes up with a review candidate because he's heard it or heard about it, and then suggests it to editor John Atkinson for possible review. JA encourages this behaviora writer excited about reviewing a component is more likely to produce an article that's interesting and informative. That said, occasionally a review candidate surfaces at Stereophile HQ; in such cases, JA assigns it to one of us.
For the past few years, PSB Speakers International has been replacing its older lines with new models designed in Canada, and assembled in China from Chinese-made components. Judging from the reception here of PSB's Synchrony One and Imagine T, it's clear that the new models combine advanced performance with true economy. Now, with the new Image line, we see the result of trickling all this down to less expensive products.
I've been chipping away for some time at the task of trying to put together a music lover's stereo system for about half the money of my last such effort: $2500 to $3750 now, vs around $7500 back in 2005. My timing was good: CD and DVD receivers are a hot product category, with several attractive new entries at various prices.
The first loudspeaker I heard from the Canadian company PSB was the Stratus, an affordably priced ($1400/pair), two-way tower with a soft-dome tweeter and an 8" woofer. The Stratus had benefited from designer Paul Barton's being able to use the anechoic chamber at the Canadian government's National Research Center, in Ottawa. The Stratus was reviewed for Stereophile by J. Gordon Holt in our May 1988 issue; he described the speaker as "eminently listenable," though Gordon also felt that it was "a little lacking in guts and liveliness." I had sat in on some of his listening sessions and had been impressed by what I heard.
While large, floorstanding speakers appear to offer the most material for the buck, I feel that small stand-mounted speakers both offer the best value in sound quality, as well as standing the best chance of sounding good in moderate-sized listening rooms. In recent months Stereophile has reviewed a varied group of such speakers. In order of descending price, these include the Acoustic Energy AE2 Signature ($5495/pair, November '95); Dzurko Acoustics Jaguar ($4500/pair, reviewed elsewhere in this issue); Totem Mani-2 ($3995/pair, February '96); Platinum Audio Solo ($2498/pair, November '95); Coincident Speaker Technology Troubador ($1495/pair, January and February '96); Joseph Audio RM7si ($1299-$1499/pair, February '96); Acarian Alón Petite ($995-$1195/pair, January '96); Phase Technology PC80 II ($699/pair, December '95); and Spectrum 108cd ($399/pair, December '95).
It was a classic American tale: hearing that the head honcho of RadioShack was in town, the principals of Oregon-based high-end loudspeaker manufacturer Linaeum found out where he was staying and called him to see if RadioShack would be interested in marketing their speakers. They were rewarded for their daring by being given an introduction to the right RadioShack department head, and before you could say time-coherent, a deal was struck for RadioShack to manufacture a new line of three "audiophile" loudspeakers featuring a version of the unique Linaeum tweeter. The less-expensive Optimus Pro X77 and LX4 models use a baffle-mounted tweeter that radiates just to the front; the top-of-the-line Optimus Pro LX5 reviewed here mounts a bi-directional tweeter on the top of a diecast aluminum enclosure.
I've been a little remiss in writing about one of the best tools for travel I've experienced recently: Ray Samuels Audio's Emmeline The Hornet ($350), a tiny (3" L by 2" W by 1" H) rechargeable portable headphone amplifier. I tend to travel with my iPod packed with hi-rez music files and a pair of low-impedance headphones. That's not a marriage made in heaven, so I also need a headphone amplifier. Over the years, portable headphone amps have gotten better and better while getting smaller and smaller. The Hornet is the smallest I've discovered so far and is my current favorite.
In the beginning, I had a room adjacent to my officea room filled with bicycles, hi-fi gear, and assorted crap I'd never gotten around unpacking since our last move. Feeling ambitious, I thought I might turn it into a guest room, and emptied it.
You've heard it said that the early bird catches the worm, which is all well and good if you like worms. If you're more interested in music, you might want to follow the lead of Roy Gandy instead: He's the managing director of Rega Research, a 331/3-year-old audio company that was the very last of its kind to enter the CD market. Rega's first CD player, the Planet of 1996, was a success in virtually every way.
"We like to make things," Roy Gandy, Rega's founder and owner, once told me. "It's what we do." Or maybe it was Rega's chairman and chief engineering honcho, Terry Bateman. Rega products are designed and manufactured in the south of England. So far as I know, no one at the Rega facility, on the Temple Farm Industrial Estate, has committed suicide; the same cannot be said of workers at the factory in China where iPods are made. Al Gore is on the board of Apple. Al, what do you think?