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.
Gross is about to play an excerpt from a recording of John Rutter's Requiem. It's a piece that challenges just about every aspect of sound reproduction: there's an orchestra, a soprano soloist, a chorus, a pipe organ, and the acoustics of a large concert hall. Wimpy speakers need not apply. I listen, expecting to be underwhelmed.
Whoa! The low bass of the organ so fills the room that I look for subwoofers in the corners. The orchestra and chorus have great presence. There's a believable sense of space. These are some speakers! How much?
I've long been fascinated by Carl Marchisotto's speaker designs, first for Alón by Acarian Systems and currently for Accent Speaker Technology's Nola family of models. The Alón Circe has been my reference loudspeaker for over a decade, and it replaced my previous reference, the Alón V Mk.III. During my tenure at Stereophile I've also reviewed the Alón PW-1 woofer system (February 1997, Vol.20 No.2) and the Nola Mini speaker (January 2006, Vol.29 No.1), both now discontinued. In recent years, however, I hadn't paid much attention to Marchisotto's newer speakers, as he's focused on expensive designs featuring the Raven ribbon tweetercurrently, four models ranging from $15,200 to $238,000/pair. Although I've been impressed with all of the Raven-tweeter models I've heard at shows, dealers, and audiophiles' homes, my taste over the years has leaned toward Marchisotto's simpler two- and three-way, all-dynamic designs.
KEF and I go way back. As a very young man in the 1960s, I was obsessed with building speakers, and that was just about the time that KEF founder Raymond Cooke was revolutionizing driver design by using new synthetic materials for cones and surrounds, and experimenting with such innovations as transmission-lineloaded midrange drivers. I found it all very heady and, by direct import from the UK, obtained versions of the oval, flat-diaphragm B139 woofer, the Bextrene-coned B110 and B200 woofers, and the T-15 and T-22 dome tweeters. Fifty years ago, this was all cutting-edge speaker technology.
John Atkinson nudged my ribs with an elbow. "Did you bring your Cornelius CD with you?" he whispered.
It was the 2010 Consumer Electronics Show, and JA and I were nearing the end of a dog-and-pony act expertly presented by Atlantic Technology's president, Peter Tribeman, touting a prototype of his company's new loudspeaker, the AT-1. JA and I had just heard about the finer points of the AT-1's new bass-venting technology, the Hybrid-Pressure Acceleration System (H-PAS), which was supposed to combine all the benefits and qualities of a transmission-line enclosure, horn loading, and sealed and ported designs. At the time, I didn't care if it combined all of the qualities of Kim Kardashian, Sacagawea, Joan of Arc, and Marie CurieI was just thrilled that the AT-1s were sounding so good in a partitioned ballroom.
It wasn't so much a vow as a prediction: After selling my last pair of Ticonal-magnet drivers and the homemade horns I'd carted around to three different houses, I supposed I would never again have a Lowther loudspeaker in my humble house.
That remains literally true: The 7" full-range drivers to which I'm listening today are from a German company called Voxativ; the horn-loaded cabinets from which they play were also designed by Voxativ, and are made in Germany by the Wilhelm Schimmel piano company. And, with all due respect to Lowther, the 75-year-old English loudspeaker firm that launched a thousand DIY fantasiesnot to mention a thousand very lively wavefrontsthe Voxativ drivers and horns take the Lowther concept further than anyone else of whom I'm aware.