Is there a country that, per capita, has produced more major loudspeaker brands than Great Britain? The British brands that immediately come to mind are Tannoy, KEF, Bowers & Wilkins, Quad, Rogers, Spendor, Harbeth, Castle, Acoustic Energy, ProAc, Monitor Audio, Epos, Celestion, Lowther, PMCand Wharfedale.
In one sense, Richard Vandersteen has been the victim of his own success. His Model 2 loudspeaker (footnote 1), introduced at the 1977 Consumer Electronics Show, put his company on the map but proved a hard product to improve on. Based on the idea that the HF and midrange drive-units should have the minimal baffle area in their acoustic vicinity, both to optimize lateral dispersion and to eliminate the effects of diffraction from the baffle edges, the Model 2 also used a combination of a sloped-back driver array and first-order crossover filters to give a time-coincident wavefront launch.
The Wilson Audio Specialties Alexandra XLF costs $200,000/pair. So does a Ferrari. Perhaps if Wilson Audio Specialties sold as many pairs of XLFs as Ferrari sells cars, the price might drop. For now, $200,000 is what you pay.
Can a loudspeaker possibly be worth that much? Add $10,000 for speaker cables, and that's what I paid for my first home in 1992. Today, the average American home costs around $272,000, which is likely less than the cost of an audio system built around a pair of Alexandra XLFs.
Loudspeakers have been commercially available for nearly a century, yet those whose drive-units are mounted to baffles of intentionally limited width didn't appear in significant numbers until the 1980s. That seems a bit strange, given that the technology to transform large boards into smaller boards has existed since the Neolithic era.
A highlight for me of Stereophile's 2011 equipment reviews was Kalman Rubinson's report on Sony's SS-AR1 loudspeaker in July. I had been impressed by this unassuming-looking floorstander at the 2009 Rocky Mountain Audio Fest, when, courtesy Ray Kimber, I had used a pair for my "Loudness Wars" demonstrationand was equally impressed when I used another pair for a dem of my recordings at Massachusetts retailer Goodwin's High End, in summer 2011. The SS-AR1 costs $27,000/pair and combines a full frequency range with an uncolored, detailed midrange, sweet-balanced highs, and excellent dynamics. "The Sony SS-AR1 is an impressive loudspeaker," summed up Dr. Kal; "it brings the analytical capabilities of studio monitoring to the listening room." So when I learned that Sony had introduced a smaller, less-expensive version, the SS-AR2 ($20,000/pair), it took me less than the proverbial New York minute to request a pair for review.
If it's rare to go to an audio show and hear most of a company's products set up properly in multiple rooms, it's rarer still to hear those products also sounding terrific in each and every room. Such was my introduction to Marten's loudspeakers at the 2010 Consumer Electronics Show. In each of the systems in which the Swedish company's speakers were set up, and no matter what gear was upstream of them, I heard distinctly neutral, open, musical sound. After having the very same experience with Marten's speakers at the 2011 CES, I concluded that they must know what they're doing, and that their speakers are the real deal. I wanted to review some.
One of my formative audiophile experiences was the first time I heard electrostatic speakers. I walked into an audio store and heard music played by a live jazz combo. But where were the musicians? I saw none, though I did notice a couple of room-divider panels in the part of the store where the music seemed to be coming from. Eventually, it dawned on me that these must be loudspeakersbut they sounded like no other speakers I'd ever heard, and nothing like the Advents I had at home.
We've all read about how bookstores, appliance stores, and other bricks-and-mortar retailers are suffering with the increasing domination of Internet sales. That got me thinking about audio dealers. I've always believed that one can't really make an informed purchase of audiophile equipment without hearing it in a system properly set up by and at at a serious audio retailer. Here in New York City, we're blessed with six first-rate audio dealers in Manhattan alone, with more in the suburbs. I estimate that 90% of the products reviewed in Stereophile can be auditioned at a dealer or two within a two-hour drive of anywhere in the New York metropolitan area.
It was three or four years ago, at a CEDIA Expo, that I first happened upon Advanced Dynamic Audio Monitors, aka ADAM Audio. What grabbed me was the array of imposingly high-tech speakers comprising their elite Tensor line. Sitting out in the middle of the floor of the Atlanta Convention Center, they not only looked more advanced than anything else around, they had the audacity to sound superb in a totally inappropriate acoustic situation. Despite the surrounding busyness of the Expo, I was able to sit down and actually enjoy the Beatles' Love on DVD-Audio. Clearly, these guys knew what they were doing. I vowed to follow up on it.
The phenomenon of the "singing flame" has been known since the 19th century. Place electrodes either side of a flame and, if you apply a high enough audio-modulated voltage to those electrodes, the ionized particles in the flame will cause it to emit sound. (Search YouTube for "singing flame" and you'll find many examples.) This principle was developed into a practical loudspeaker in 1946 by a French inventor, Siegfried Klein, who confined an RF-modulated arc to a small quartz tube, coupled it to a horn, and called the resulting speaker the Ionophone. An intense radio-frequency electrical field ionizes the air between inner and outer electrodes to produce a distinctive, violet-tinged yellow flame in the quartz combustion chamber. When the RF field is modulated by the audio signal, this causes the almost massless ionized flame to expand and contract in what should be a perfectly pistonic manner.
In March 2006 I wrote a very favorable review of Monitor Audio's Silver RS6 loudspeaker. At the time, I felt this $999/pair, small-footprint floorstander produced the greatest sound quality per dollar of any speaker I'd heard. Despite the proliferation of affordable speakers of increasing quality I've heard since then, I remained particularly impressed by the Silver RS6's clarity and lack of coloration and the speed of its midbass, all of which continued to exceed the performance of any other affordable speaker I've heard.
I gasped. An almost perfect 300Hz squarewave had appeared on the oscilloscope screensomething I had never before seen from a loudspeaker.
It was the spring of 1982. John Crabbe, then editor of the British magazine Hi-Fi News & Record Review, and I had driven up to Quad's factory in Huntingdon, England. The ESL-63 electrostatic loudspeaker had been launched the previous summer, and we were to interview its designer, Peter J. Walker, for an article that would appear in the July 1982 issue of HFN/RR. Peter set up a pair of ESL-63s on wooden kitchen chairs, fed one of them a 300Hz squarewave, casually placed a mike before it, and showed us the result on the 'scope. "Of course, why should a speaker being able to reproduce a squarewave matter at all, hmmm?" he rhetorically asked us.
Take a casual look at the Mk.II edition of MBL's Reference 101E Radialstrahler loudspeaker, and you won't immediately see what's new compared with the original version, which I reviewed in October 2004. But the Mk.II has a shorter, sleeker bass cabinet, designed to, among other things, slightly lower the stack of omnidirectional drivers it supports. While the many other major revisions to this familiar and fascinating loudspeaker can't be seen, it's fair to say that, from the ground up, the Reference 101E Mk.II is a new loudspeaker in design, if not in concept.
It's hard to believe that it's been 20 years since Michael Kelly formed Aerial Acoustics, introduced the Model 10T loudspeaker, and I wandered into his demo room at a New York audio show and was smitten. That speaker did everything right and seemed to do nothing wrong. Disc after disc was played as I imposed my impression on the listening chair (I recall there being only one). At the time, the 10T was only a bit out of my price range, so for many years it was what I aspired to have. Kelly and I repeated this little play over the years as his speaker line grew, and he always was patient as he explained what he intended for each model and how he had gone about meeting his goals.
The Amati Futura is the third Sonus Faber loudspeaker to be called an Amati. The first, named simply the Amati and priced at $20,000/pair, was reviewed for Stereophile by Michael Fremer in June 1999. I reviewed the second, the Amati Homage Anniversario ($27,500/pair), in May 2006.