Sometimes, the words of the prophets are written on the subway walls and tenement halls. Other times, their words and ideas are made manifest through a lifetime of diligent and thoughtful work. As an audio prophet, the late Jim Thiel was one of the latter type. For decades he stood in his pulpit, quietly preaching to the audio world the importance of time and phase coherence in loudspeakers. His commitment to these ideas led to speaker designs that exclusively used first-order crossover networks, and driver designs and layouts that made possible time- and phase-coherent response. The speakers he created in turn built his company, Thiel Audio, into one of the more recognizable fixtures of high-end audio.
Every few years, it seems, Sony offers a statement product. Sometimes they do it to define a new product categorythe SCD-1 introduced to the world the SACD/CD player. Sometimes they do it because they can, as with the outstanding ES SS-M9 and ES SS-M9ED loudspeakers, enthusiastically reviewed by John Atkinson in Stereophile in September 1996 and August 2001, respectively. So when I heard that Sony would introduce a special new speaker at a "by invitation only" event at the 2011 Consumer Electronics Show last January, my interest was piqued. I've always kicked myself for not buying a pair of ES SS-M9s ($3500) when I could have. The ES SS-M9EDs were even better, said JAand, at $16,000/pair, a lot more expensive. Now, a decade later, Sony has decided to make another "statement."
Direct Acoustics is a loudspeaker company in Weston, Massachusetts, that sells, by mail-order only, just one product: the two-way, floorstanding Silent Speaker II ($748/pair).
Its seemingly paradoxical name refers not to any inability of the Silent to create sound, but rather is intended by its maker to indicate two aspects of its performance. First is the ability of the loudspeaker boxes to "disappear" in the sense of not being readily apparent as sound sources. Well, okay, everyone wants that. The other intended sense of Silent is that the woofer and its loading arrangement were designed to minimize stray noises created by the woofer's excursion, or by the movements of air within, or in and out of, its vent or port.
In the May 2009 issue, I gushed over the performance of Linn Products' remarkable little bookshelf speaker, the Majik 109 ($1590/pair). In particular, I was struck by how I'd never heard any speaker at any price whose high frequencies sounded more natural, detailed, or pure than the 109's. Then, wondering what a pricier Linn speaker might sound like in my system, I asked Linn which was their most expensive model that also incorporates the 2K tweeter-supertweeter array used in the Majik 109. The answer: the floorstanding Majik 140 ($2995/pair). Once I'd worked through my reviewing backlog, two 140s were on their way to my listening den.
As B&W's 800 Series has evolved, Stereophile has reported on its progress. Lewis Lipnick reviewed the Matrix 801 Series 2 in 1987, and Wes Phillips wrote about the Nautilus 801 in 1999. I reviewed the B&W 800 Signature in 2002 and the 802D in 2005. This is getting to be a habit.
Two years ago, I was drawn to the Wilson Audio Sophia Series 2then as now, the company's entry-level floorstanderby its good reputation among lovers of low-power tube amplifiers. "Forget the specs," they said. "Sophia is the one to hear." In fact, with its 89dB sensitivity (slightly lower than most of Wilson's other domestic loudspeakers) and mildly challenging impedance curve (less daunting than those of its stablemates, but not by a lot), the Sophia seemed, on paper, no better than average for use with flea-watt amps. But when I tried a pair at home with my 25W Shindo Corton-Charlemagne mono amps, I was impressed: The Sophia Series 2 was, as I suggested in my "Listening" column in the February 2010 issue, the product that will forever mark Wilson Audio's progress toward not merely excellent sound but beautiful sound.
I've always enjoyed the time I've spent with NHT loudspeakers. The two bookshelf models I've reviewedthe SB-3 (Stereophile, November 2002) and its successor, the Classic Three (November 2006)shared NHT's "house sound": liquid, balanced, and dynamic, with little coloration, and a slightly forward and lively midrange. The newer Classic Three, still in production, sounded more refined, natural, and detailed than the SB-3. I like to see speaker designers whose work improves over time.
So when NHT approached me about reviewing a new floorstanding model with a small footprint, the Classic Absolute Towertheir first new speaker design of the next decade, they sayI jumped at the chance. Not only had I not reviewed an NHT in a while, but I'm increasingly intrigued withand applaudthe trend of manufacturers to add small-footprint tower speakers to their lines of affordable speakers. As most speakers costing under $1000/pair tend to be bookshelf models, shoppers need to worry about buying good-quality stands of the appropriate height, and about optimizing the speaker positions with respect to the front and side walls.
Show a time traveler from the 1920s an iPad and most likely he'd neither know what he was looking at nor what it might do. Show him a loudspeaker, even one as advanced as Magico's new Q5 ($59,950/pair), and he'd probably know exactly what it was and what it did, even if what it's made of might seem to have come from another planet.
Does spending more money on audio equipment get you better sound? Some audiophiles assume that anything that costs more must be betterand that if it's relatively inexpensive, then it can't be any good. Others hold the opposite view: expensive components can't possibly be worth their prices, and those who manufacture themand audio journalists who report on themmust be charlatans.
Stereophile's founder, the late J. Gordon Holt, always had a thing for horn loudspeakers, feeling that these archaic beasts offered a "jump factor" that could never be rivaled by conventional, direct-radiating designs. A horn drastically increases the efficiency with which electrical power is converted into acoustic power, which means that for a given sound-pressure level, a smaller amplifier can be used compared with a direct-radiator, and that all distortions, both electrical and mechanical, can theoretically be much lower. Yet outside of a small circle of enthusiasts, horns never got much of a following in high-end audio, and as high amplifier power became plentiful and relatively cheap, horns largely disappeared from domestic audio use (except in Japan).
A clever engineer with an interest in home audio says that the real obstacle to high-fidelity sound is the adverse and unpredictable way in which speakers interact with most domestic rooms. To address that need, he brings to market a loudspeaker that disperses sound in a new and original way. Controversy ensues. Controversy endures.
Before last year, I had no more than a professional interest in the products of Wilson Audio Specialties. But before last year I hadn't experienced Wilson's Sophia Series 2 loudspeaker ($16,700/pair)which, like the wines I tend to order when my wife and I go out to dinner, is the second-cheapest item on their menu. Within weeks of the Sophias' arrival, respect had turned to rapture, like to love, and an entirely new appreciation for Wilson Audio was mine (footnote 1).
Considering that the crates they're shipped in are each as large as a Manhattan studio apartment, once they'd been set up in my listening room, Focal's Maestro Utopia III speakers weren't as visually overpowering as I'd anticipated. The elegant dark-gloss front baffles, the gloss-gray side panels, and the fact that the speaker's three subenclosures are vertically arrayed so that the top, midrange section is angled down, significantly reduced their apparent size.
Over the years that I've been reviewing hi-fi, I've had my share of loudspeakers that drew comments from everyone who visited during the audition period. Some of those comments were about the speakers' appearancemost often about their sizeand some were about how good they sounded. Vivid's G1Giya loudspeaker ($65,000/pair), its narrow-baffled, swirling cochlear shape molded from fiber-reinforced composite, elicited more comments of both types than has any other speaker I've reviewed.
I was greatly impressed by the performance of the Canton Reference 9.2 DC loudspeaker, which I reviewed in the March 2008 "Music in the Round" in the context of a 5.1-channel system. Those beautiful jewels not only sounded balanced and transparent, they had more sheer grunt in the low end than could be reasonably expected from their size. I wanted to hear more from Canton, but couldn't decide whether to go up in size or down in price. The problem I've always had with Canton is that they offer such a wide range of products that it's like choosing food from a multipage menu at a fine restaurant: everything looks good. It's especially difficult when your hunger is further piqued by your own past experience and the recommendations of others. (Check out the November 2006 issue to learn how much Wes Phillips enjoyed Canton's flagship speaker, the Reference 1 DC.)