What kind of speaker can you get for $250/pair? The most tightly contested sector of the speaker market in the UK is right around that price. If you want to be competitive in Old Blighty, you have to offer something pretty special in that range—and because the stakes are so high, the competition is fierce.
It occurred to me recently that, after nearly a decade of specializing in reviewing affordable speakers, and with the exceptions of two entry-level Mission models, I'd never taken a look at recent designs from the large mainstream British speaker manufacturers. So with this review I embark on a Bob Reina "British Invasion" tour to seek out the most innovative and value-conscious designs from companies that have been household names in British stereo shoppes for decades.
These diminutive little sleepers have been available in the US for quite some time but have attracted little attention because (1) they have never really been promoted and (2) they are just too small to look as if they could be worth $430 a pair.
The speed with which audiophiles have adopted a computer of some sort as their primary source of recorded music might be thought breathtaking. But with the ubiquitous Apple iPod painlessly persuading people to get used to the idea of storing their music libraries on computer hard drives, the next logical step was to access those libraries in listening rooms as well as on the move. A few months back, I wrote a basic guide to the various strategies for getting the best sound from a computer: "Music Served: Extracting Music from your PC." Since then, Minnesota manufacturer Bel Canto Design has released a product that aims to simplify matters even further.
Most of this column is dedicated to two hi-fi products for the massesnot from Lvov, via Vladimir Lamm, of Lamm Industries; or from Leningrad, via Victor Khomenko, of Balanced Audio Technologies; nor from any other Soviet-born audio hero. (Neither Vladimir nor Victor is on the list of "Name of Russia" contenders for greatest Russian of all time.) Nor from any consumer audio company, but from the world of professional audio. An Iron Curtain almost separates the two.
In his July 2003 "The Fifth Element" column, John Marks enthusiastically wrote about the Benchmark Media Systems DAC1 D/A processor and headphone amplifier. Comparing its sound playing CDs with that of a three-times-more-expensive Marantz SA-14 SACD player, he concluded that the DAC 1's "Red Book" performance was at least as good as that of the Marantz, being "slightly more articulate in the musical line, and slightly more detailed in spatial nuances, particularly the localization of individual images in space, and in soundstage depth."
The ceiling remains, but the floor has changed: Benz-Micro continues to offer a selection of rather expensive phono cartridges, including their well-established LP Ebony ($4700) and Ruby 3 ($3000) models. But in recent years, my attention has been drawn by the succession of budget Benzes: first, the Gliders ($795), then the ACEs ($550), and now the MC20E2-L ($199).
Last summer, John Atkinson and I were playing a jazz gig poolside at my local club, and during a break we began discussing equipment. As JA adjusted his microphones and I became increasingly nervous about the running, jumping kids splashing chlorinated water on his Nagra digital recorder, he asked me if I'd like to review the Z1 loudspeaker from BG Corp. "It's an interesting little bookshelf speaker featuring a ribbon tweeter." Hmm—an affordable bookshelf speaker matching a ribbon tweeter to a dynamic woofer? Very interesting. "Sounds good," said I, and resumed my ivory duties.
At the 1994 Summer CES, I was sitting in ProAc's room listening to Vangelis's Blade Runner score, when a couple of guys walked in carrying a shiny black board. "This is pretty interesting stuff," one of them said. "Want to hear it?"
While listening to Boston Acoustics' A 25 loudspeaker ($299.98/pair), I kept thinking about magic.
Paul Messenger introduced Boston Acoustics' A Series in the April 2011 "Industry Update." With the creation of the A Series, Paul reported, BA wanted to create a "global loudspeaker," one that would be appreciated by music lovers worldwide.
The Boston Acoustics A40 loudspeaker ($150/pair) has become "legendary" (ie, it's stayed around for a while), probably because a pair of them images as well as Rogers LS3/5As. Unfortunately, it is no match for the LS3/5A in terms of smooth midrange response. Of course, at $150/pair, it shouldn't be.
I was originally going to do a review comparing the Spectrum 108A ($200/pair) and the Boston Acoustics A40. On first listen, I was mightily impressed by the A40. But after Stereophile's Larry Archibald schlepped me out a pair of the 108As, I didn't much want to listen to the A40s.
In 1989, Cambridge Audio, then run by Stan Curtiswho is still active in hi-fi introduced their DAC 1. At about the same time, within a few weeks of each other, Arcam introduced their Delta Black Box and Musical Fidelity their Digilog. I forget who was first among the three. Arcam, I think. But the DAC race was on, led by the British. (There was even a DAC called the Dacula.) US companies got into the DAC race, tooat higher prices, of course.
According to the conventional wisdom, companies selling consumer products fall into two categories: those whose sales are "marketing-led" and those whose sales are "product-led." Marketing-led companies tend to sell mature products into a mature market where there are no real differences between competing products—soap powder, mass-market beer, or cigarettes, for example—whereas product-led companies tend to sell new technologies, such as personal computers and high-end hi-fi components. In the audio separates market, conventional wisdom would have a hard time categorizing any individual company: no matter which you choose, it would be simplistic to say that it is either product- or marketing-led. No matter how good the product, without good marketing the manufacturer stands little chance of success; a poor product superbly marketed may make a company successful overnight, but that success will have hit the end stops by the following night.
Late in 2006, I was watching John Atkinson set up a pair of DPA cardioid microphones in front of the stage of New York City's Otto's Shrunken Head to record a performance of my jazz quartet, Attention Screen (footnote 1). Before the first set, Wes Phillips approached me. "Bob, I found a piece of equipment you must review—the Cayin A-50T integrated amp. It's only 1300 bucks and you'll love it!"
Sure, Stereophile gets letters to the editor. We also get some colorful responses for our "Manufacturers' Comments" section. (Vince Bruzzese and Roy Hall are literary standouts among their component-making peers.) And, as one of the magazine's Contributing Editors (Audio), I get lots of personal mail from readers seeking my advice. I thought I might share some of these letters with you, and my responses.