Every now and then an affordable product comes along that's so good, even wealthy shoppers want it. Past examples in domestic audio include the Rega RB300 tonearm, the original Quicksilver Mono amplifier, the Grace F9E phono cartridgeeven Sony's unwitting CD player, the original PlayStation. Based on word of mouth alone, one might add the HRT Music Streamer+ to that lauded list.
I like reviewing loudspeakers. The more you become familiar with the art, the greater the sense of anticipation as you open up a pair of cartons. A visual inspection of the speaker always reveals a challenging mixture of the familiar and the new. The size of the cabinet is always the first cluehas sensitivity been a design priority or was low-frequency extension uppermost in the designer's thoughts? You espy a known drive-unithas this tweeter's propensity for upper-presence sizzle been tamed? You find a reflex port on the rear panelhas the temptation to go for a "commercial," under-damped bass alignment been successfully resisted? You spot factors which intuitively seem wrong for precise stereoa wide baffle lacking any kind of absorbent covering for diffraction control; a grille frame which puts acoustic obstacles in the way of the wavefront emerging from the tweeter.
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.
When I reviewed Infinity's Primus 150 loudspeaker in the April 2004 Stereophile, I was very impressed with its overall performance. To this day, I continue to be amazed at the level of realism this $198/pair loudspeaker can reproduce, and I've kept the review pair to serve as a benchmark for an entry-level audiophile speaker. When I'd completed that review, my first thought was: Now—what can Infinity do within the affordable Primus series for more money? So I requested a review sample of the Primus series' flagship, the three-way Primus 360 floorstanding speaker. After all, how could I resist listening to a speaker that claims 38Hz bass extension for only $658/pair?
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.
When I reviewed JBL's S38 loudspeaker for the June 2001 issue of Stereophile (Vol.24 No.6), I was impressed with the performance of this large, inexpensive ($599/pair) bookshelf speaker. When I received a press announcement at the end of 2005 announcing JBL's new affordable speakers, the Studio L series, which incorporates innovations developed for JBL's recording-studio monitors, I began a discussion with JBL's public-relations firm. They promised many significant design innovations and sonic improvements over the S series.
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.
The penultimate stop on Bob Reina's British Invasion Tour of Affordable Loudspeakers (footnote 1) brings us to the doors of KEF. Although KEF is a large and well-established British firm, I've noticed that their product lines have not been as visible in the US as those of, say, B&W, Wharfedale, or Mission. In fact, the last time I heard a KEF speaker, it was the company's then-flagship design, at a Consumer Electronics Show nearly 20 years ago! Before that, when I lived in London, KEFs were ubiquitous, down to the older, entry-level designs tacked to the walls of the ethnic restaurants I frequented. My strongest KEF memory is a cumulative one: Every KEF speaker I've ever heard, regardless of price, venue, or setup, has always produced good, convincing sound.
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.
Bob Reina has been doing more than his share of reviewing inexpensive speakers in the past couple of years. I thought it only fair to shoulder some of the load, therefore, by reviewing a small design that had sounded interesting when I heard it at a press preview, the Klipsch RB-15.
As someone who wrestled endlessly with the nine-pin serial ports and the RS-232 protocol with which early PCs came fitted (footnote 1), I welcomed the Universal Serial Bus (USB) interface when I first encountered it a decade ago, on the original Apple iMac. Plug it in. Don't worry. Be happy. The computer peripherals work as they should, which was often not the case with RS-232. It was a given, therefore, that the then-new USB port would be seen as a natural means of exporting audio data from a PC (footnote 2), but the first generation of USB-connected audio devices offered disappointing performance.