The very last review I wrote for Hi-Fi News & Record Review (these days just plain Hi-Fi News)—before crossing the Atlantic to take up the reins at Stereophile in May 1986—was of KEF's then-new flagship speaker, the Reference 107. That rave review appeared in the English magazine's July 1986 issue, and was followed by equally positive reports from Stereophile's writers.
Not for nothing did I name the Kharma-Lamm room at Home Entertainment 2002 the "Best Sound in Show." Show attendees slotted it 17th best [see September 2002, p.59—Ed.], behind other rooms to which I also gave high marks—mostly larger rooms featuring far bigger loudspeakers—but to me, the sound emanating from the Kharma Ceramique 3.2 ($19,000/pair), driven by Lamm electronics, possessed a sublime balance of sonic qualities heard in few other rooms.
Despite my 26 years in audio journalism, the amount of stuff I need to know seems to increase faster than I can cope with it. Thus it didn't come as too much of a surprise for me to learn that speaker manufacturer Canton, the Teutonic equivalent of England's B&W, a) was 30 years old in 2002, and b) claims the dominant market share of the German market. Yes, I'd been peripherally aware of Canton through the years, but for various reasons had never auditioned any of their models. I was amenable, therefore, when Canton USA's Paul Madsen suggested to me last May, at Home Entertainment 2002 in New York City, that I review their flagship speaker.
I first heard Eugene Gigout's pipe-organ masterpiece, the Grand Chorus in Dialogue, in the Smetana Concert Hall of Prague's Municipal House (Obecnim Dome) on a Saturday evening before the 2002 flood. I recall seeing the delicate, youthful Michele Hradecka sway from side to side to reach the pedals. In response, a massive wall of deep organ chords shook the hall, the magical acoustic blending the delicate, extended highs with the thunderous bass. But this memory mixed the music with the beauty of Prague's soaring church spires, brilliant red terracotta roofs, and lavish palaces.
It's always tough to follow an award-winning act. Wes Phillips raved about the original EgglestonWorks Andra back in October 1997, and it was subsequently dubbed Stereophile's Speaker of the Year for 1997. The Andra won many other plaudits, and found its way into a number of top-shelf recording studios as the monitor of choice. Such a reputation for excellence is the stuff most speaker designers dream of. It also imposes the burden of expectation—the "new and improved" version of such a knockout product had better be good, or else.
Rarely has the debut of a new loudspeaker company and its inaugural model created as big a buzz as did Lumen White and their Whitelight speaker at the 2001 Consumer Electronics Show. Driven by Vaic tube amplifiers in one of the larger corner rooms at the Alexis Park Hotel, the big Whitelights had a look and a sound that attracted continuous crowds. Of the questions among audio cognoscenti that I overheard at the end of each day, two of the most common were "Hey, did you hear those Lumen Whites?" and "What? Can you speak louder?"
When it was suggested that I call in on speaker manufacturer RBH Sound during a planned trip to Utah in the fall of 2001, my response was "Who is RBH?" To my embarrassment, the speaker company had not popped up on my radar screen since it was formed in Los Angeles in 1976. However, I had certainly heard some of the speakers they had manufactured for other companies, most notably the McIntosh models of the early 1980s, with their line arrays of dome tweeters.
Though each link in the audio chain is significant in its own way, we seem to spend more time agonizing over the choice and setup of loudspeakers than any other component. Floorstanding or stand-mounted? Full-range frequency extension or minimonitor coherence? Multiple-driver complexity or two-way simplicity? Pleasurable and forgiving or resolved and revealing? And even when money is no object, how much speaker do you really want...or need? It might sound splendid in the shop, but how will it couple with your room? How will it integrate with your other gear? Is it easy to set up and drive or will it involve specialized gear and a massive overhaul of your current rig?
In the past year, Stereophile has reviewed a number of cost-no-object flagship loudspeakers. B&W's Signature 800, MartinLogan's Prodigy, Burmester's B-99, Snell's XA Reference Tower, Krell's LAT-1, Linn's Komri, Dynaudio's Evidence Temptation, Sony's ES SS-M9ED, and Rockport's Antares have all passed through the review mill. Manufacturers like to submit their flagships for review for a number of reasons, not the least of which is the pride they take in showing what their engineers can do when given a blank check. However, while all these models do indeed provide great (if different) sound for the tens of thousands of dollars they demand from their owners, they are out of reach of the majority of audiophiles. It is important, therefore, for reviewers to spend time with real-world designs; when I heard the $1990/pair CS1.6 from Kentucky's Thiel at the 2002 CES last January, I requested a pair for review.
I have always had an affection for speakers designed and manufactured by the Canadian conglomerate Audio Products International Corp. (API), which markets speaker designs under the names Mirage, Energy, Sound Dynamics, and Athena. In fact, it was 20 years ago that API created the first budget speaker that caught my attention, the Mirage 350. At the time, the 350 was the only speaker I'd heard that cost less than $300/pair. It sounded open, musical, and detailed without seeming bass-shy. (A larger successor, the 460, was for many years my reference home-theater speaker.) Although I've been impressed with many other API designs I've heard over the years at friends' houses, press events, and hi-fi shows, it had been more than a decade since I'd formally reviewed an API product.
Antares is a giant red star in the constellation Scorpio. According to Rockport Technologies' Andy Payor, the $41,500/pair Antares loudspeaker is the "ultimate" reasonably sized, full-range loudspeaker, and is built to a standard "unequaled in the industry." Rockport's $73,750 System III Sirius turntable came with equally boastful claims that turned out to be anything but hyperbole. Has Rockport done it again with the Antares?
It was almost five years ago that I first spent some serious auditioning time with an omnidirectional two-piece speaker from German manufacturer MBL: the four-way MBL 111. When I reviewed the 111 in the April 1998 Stereophile, I had been extremely impressed with the speaker's stereo imaging, which was superbly stable and well-defined, with images that floated completely free of the speaker positions. The tonal balance was also excellent, with a rich midrange, superbly clean highs, and extended lows. "This Radialstrahler is one of the best tweeters I have experienced," I wrote. In fact, the 111 was let down only by bass frequencies that tended to lag behind the music slightly.
Of the small number of times I have been totally swept away by listening to recorded music, a significant proportion have involved loudspeakers from Wilson Audio Specialties. It was my experience of their X-1/Grand SLAMM in the listening rooms of reviewer Martin Colloms, then-retailer Peter McGrath, designer Dan D'Agostino of Krell, and manufacturer Madrigal Audio Labs, that led me to name it my "Editor's Choice" for 1995 and join my vote with those of the Stereophile scribes to make it the magazine's "Loudspeaker of the Year." I wrote in my December 2001 "As We See It" about how a cross-country road trip had begun with a listen to the Cantus CD on the Wilson WAMMs in their designer's Utah listening room. And, as I wrote in my April column, auditioning Peter McGrath's 24-bit Nagra-D master tapes on Wilson MAXXes in the Halcro room was, for me, the highlight of the 2002 CES.