Oh boy! This was one of my most eagerly anticipated auditions. At my first demonstration of an OLS loudspeaker system several years ago, I was bowled over not only by the demo, but also by the idea that OLS's Kharma line was topped by the $1,000,000 Grand Enigma system!
A company other than ProAc best describes the Future One: "And now for something completely different!" Of course, that was a company of British comedians. There's nothing funny about the talented British speaker designer Stuart Tyler's latest effort, but there is something odd: Tyler is reputed to have said of the Future One, "This is the loudspeaker I have always wanted to build."
In the Beginning Was the Word... At first blush, the sound of the Vandersteen Model 2Ce Signature transported me to a bucolic nature trail in the Berkshires on one of those high, dry August days when the amber stillness of late afternoon imparts a sense of otherness against the endless vistas of green and brown and blue. In my Wordsworthian reverie, as I made my way up the mountainside, remembrances of venerable loudspeakers past called out to me from the sturdy stands of New England foliage. Mark you the lofty maple and the supple white birch; the noble pine, the mighty oak and humble larch; there, on the crest, an Acoustic Research AR3a; farther up the ridge, a copse of Advent, KLH, and Allison—and finally, high on yonder peak, beckoning like God's own flip-top, crush-proof box, the Vandersteen 2Ce Signature.
You've probably seen the ad in Stereophile: a very personal account by Avantgarde-USA president Jim Smith, describing how, during a 30-year career in high-end audio, he had become increasingly disappointed with conventional loudspeakers' ability to communicate the emotional impact of live music, and how he found the answer with the Avantgarde horn loudspeakers. It's advertising copy in the best I-liked-it-so-much-I-bought-the-company tradition—with the exception that Smith did not actually buy Avantgarde Acoustic, but did become their North American distributor.
Bonnie and I decided to avoid the crowds last weekend, and instead settled in at home to watch the recent remake of Great Expectations, with Ethan Hawke and Gwyneth Paltrow. It seemed like a pretty good movie, but before long I found my thoughts drifting to the review I had in progress: my audition and analysis of the Magnepan Magneplanar MG3.6/R. True, Great Expectations is a little slow, and a few explosions or car chases might have better held my attention, but if ever there was an audio product to which the phrase "great expectations" applied, it's the Magnepan 3.6/R.
It may come as a surprise to relative newcomers to the field of audio, but some loudspeaker manufacturers are manufacturers in only a limited sense. They buy drivers, off-the-shelf or custom-built, from companies like VIFA, SEAS, Focal, etc.; cabinets from a woodworking shop; and crossovers from an electronics subcontractor. While the system design will have taken place in-house, actual manufacturing is restricted to assembling the components, perhaps tweaking the crossover, and final QC. Even some highly successful loudspeaker manufacturers use this approach, which can work well as long as the suppliers do their jobs properly.
I can't resist reading about a company's flagship loudspeaker—the price-no-object product that embodies the most advanced ideas from a company's research and design department. Flagship loudspeakers tend to be large, heavy, and complex, and are designed to perform best in large rooms; often, each part of each driver is hand-built to the highest level of quality, with precisely tight tolerances. The cost? Don't ask. Some two-channel, audio-only flagships cost more than a BMW M5 sports sedan or a Porsche 911.
I visited the Revel room on the last day of the January 1999 CES, expecting another dynamic demo of their Ultima line. Instead, I found a pair of floorstanding Performa F30s connected to a rack full of the best Mark Levinson electronics. Deeply impressed by the dynamics and clarity of this first model in the new Performa line, I called Revel's Kevin Voecks as soon as I got back to New York City, but was told that another Stereophile reviewer had already got first dibs on the F30. Would I be interested in one of the other Revels? Well, yes, sure, but...
Sometimes you have to wonder why big corporations gobble up small speaker companies. Most such firms are built by individualist entrepreneurs chasing an elusive dream—an up-close and personal thing that is the antithesis of the corporate mentality. That's why speaker companies are so often named after the founder.
How can you tell an audiophile from a normal person? Well, given a list of names like "Haydn, Mozart, Bach, Beethoven, and Mahler," the normal person might respond, "Composers." The audiophile's response is likely to be "Loudspeakers from Vienna Acoustics." Anyway, that's my association when I see these names, which may tell you something about my state of normalcy.
I am biased: On very little evidence, I remain convinced that, in the near future, high-quality music reproduction will be multichannel. While most multichannel demos are still egregiously and aggressively ping-pong, I have attended a few successful demonstrations of discrete multichannel reproduction that have impressed me so deeply that I hunger to have all the music I love transported to me (and me to it) in this way.
When I describe the Thiel CS7.2 to friends, the word that gets the biggest reaction is "simple." Veteran audiophiles protest, noting the big Thiel's multiple drivers, complex cabinet, and elaborate, zillion-element crossover. Nonaudiophiles just glance at the 5'-tall speaker, smile sympathetically at Bonnie, and roll their eyes.
If you've read Stereophile regularly over the past decade, you know that ProAc Audio's Stewart Tyler has a winning formula for designing loudspeakers. In review after review, this magazine's writers have celebrated the sonic profile he has created for ProAc speakers: a spacious soundstage with a big, coherent image; a clean, grain-free midrange; extended highs that don't intrude on the music; and tight, tuneful bass response.
Hard to believe it's been more than six years since NHT launched its flagship 3.3 loudspeaker (footnote 1). At the time, the floorstanding 3.3 was a revolutionary product for the company, whose product line until then had been aimed squarely at the customer who wanted good sound, but wanted it in a small, affordable package. While the 3.3 didn't change NHT's dedication to its roots, it did signal to audiophiles that the manufacturer could play ball with the big boys.
Most speakers don't come in heavy wooden crates—they come in cardboard cartons, two per box, light enough to be tucked under one arm and carried out to the car. Not so in HighEndLand, where the smallest minimonitor can test a healthy man's strength. There are plenty of good reasons for this cult of robustness, foremost among them structural stability and the suppression of resonances.