One question posed by John Atkinson at the July 1991 StereophileWriters Conference had to do with the ease of reviewing: Is it harder to write a bad review of an expensive product than a good review? I find it hardest to write a good review of an inexpensive product. If I admire a less expensive loudspeaker, for example, it may become a recommended component, and can displace a more expensive speaker (that received mixed comments) from our twice-yearly rankings. This can be a big responsibility; even a conditional rave of a low-cost product means that JA may assign another Stereophile reviewer to do an immediate follow-up report. The Snell Type E/III loudspeaker may be a good case in point.
Let's see—should I start with a discussion of conflict? Or maybe indecision? No, let's be more psychological and talk about approach/avoidance dilemmas...No, I'm supposed to be entertaining. How about a joke? Nah, that won't do. Well how about the framework for a joke? Yeah, that's the ticket!
We all know it's impossible to reproduce live music. An obvious statement, no doubt, and one that holds every audiophile hostage to the never-ending search. As a musician, I find the situation especially frustrating. The constant reminder of live vs reproduced makes living with an audio system a serious compromise, regardless of price or quality. About three and a half years ago, however, I reviewed a product which I felt, and still feel, offers the first real glimpse of that impossible dream: the B&W 801 Matrix Monitor (footnote 1). Although it wasn't perfect, I found this speaker provided more musical honesty than anything I had heard before. In this respect, it established a new standard by which others would be judged.
"No pain; no gain." Thus goes the June 1991 offering from the Cliché-of-the-Month Club(800) MOT-JUSTa saying that seems particularly appropriate for audiophiles with aspirations. High-performance loudspeakers fall into two categories. First are those exasperating thoroughbreds requiring endless Tender Loving Care and fussy attention to system detail to work at all. Take the Avalon Eclipse or the Infinity IRS Beta, for example: when everything is just fine, you put on record after record, trying to get through as much music as possible before the system goes off song again. On the other hand, speakers like the Vandersteens, Magnepans, B&W 801 Matrix, and KEF R107/2 appear to sound excellent even as you unpack them, before you've even put them in what you think might be the optimum positions in your listening room.
The question is: Are such unfussy designs really high-end? I mean, if they were truly high-performance speakers, shouldn't the owner have to suffer even just a little to reach musical nirvana? "A little pain; some sonic gain!" goes that other familiar saying.
You all know where you stand on this vitally important question. Me, I prefer to sit and construct the following graphical analogy. Draw a vertical axis and mark it "Absolute Performance." (The units are "gb," footnote 1) Now draw a horizontal axis and label it "Setup." (The units are "dU" for "deci-Ungers," footnote 2) Okay, sketch out an inverted V-shape. This curve, something like an engine's torque vs RPM curve, represents the manner in which a system's or component's performance changes according to how it is set up.
Last July I reviewed the $4850/pair Hales System Two Signature loudspeakers and enthusiastically recommended them. In fact, they displaced the B&W 801 Matrix 2 as my reference loudspeaker, and have become a fixture in my listening room. Over the past seven months, my impressions of the Signatures have been largely confirmed: transparent and uncolored midrange, resolution of fine detail, precise imaging, superb transient abilities, and, most importantly, an ability to thoroughly involve the listener in the music. These qualities earned the Signature a Class A recommendation in Stereophile's "Recommended Components." I've greatly enjoyed the many hours spent with the Signatures.
Hales Audio makes another loudspeakerthe System Two reviewed herethat is very similar to the Signature, but much less expensive (footnote 1). Because the System Two is such a close relation to the Signatureit uses identical drivers, a nearly identical crossover, and similar cabinet constructionand costs nearly 2 kilobucks less, I was eager to hear what the smaller system had to offer. Because the Signature was recommendable at $4850, the System Two just might be a bargain at $3000 if it even came close to the Signature's musicality.
The Snell Type C/IV's design has been highly influenced by both the testing methods and philosophy of Canada's National Research Council in Ottawa. Other well-known loudspeakers to have benefited from the NRC's testing facilities include the Mirage M-1 and M-3, PSB Stratus Gold, the Waveform, and Camber 3.5. The NRC provides a variety of services to loudspeaker designers, notably use of their testing facilities which include a full-sized anechoic chamber. In addition, the NRC is heavily involved in carefully controlled blind listening comparisons between loudspeakers, used to aid the loudspeaker designer while the product is under development. The NRC doesn't provide design services, but rather the means of testing and evaluating work in progress and finished products.
Despite not offering design aid, many loudspeakers created with the NRC's testing and listening laboratories share some common philosophies. Chief among these is the belief that flat amplitude response is far and away the most significant factor in listener preferences and thus should be the paramount design goal. Many NRC-influenced loudspeakers share steep crossover slopes, wide dispersion, smooth off-axis response, and pay considerable attention to the way the loudspeaker interacts with the listening room.
This must be the month I drew the right straw to review "loudspeakers with three-letter initials." Elsewhere in this issue I describe my experiences with a pair of JBLs. Everyone knows that JBL stands for "James B. Lansing," founder of that company. You do, don't you? But PSB? If you've been paying attention here, you probably remember that JGH reviewed one of their loudspeakers back in May 1988. If you haven't, well, listen up. PSB is named after Paul Barton and his wife Sue, who formed Canada-based PSB in 1971. (Paul is still their chief designer.) The company was unknown in the US until just a few years ago, and still has a lower profile here than, well, certainly that other three-letter company. But not for lack of trying. They have at least 10 models—at last count.
"Boy, that's flat!" I whistled. I was looking at a quasi-anechoic TDS response Avalon Acoustics' Charles Hansen had produced for his latest brainchild, the two-way Eclipse loudspeaker that he was setting up in my listening room.
"My vision for the future is one where all manufacturers sell their products directly to the end user. In this way, even the audiophiles in Dead Horse, Alaska can have access to all the audio manufacturing community has to offer." Thus wrote loudspeaker designer David Fokos in a letter introducing his new company Icon Acoustics to the press at Stereophile's High End Hi-Fi show in San Mateo, CA last April (footnote 1). Mr. Fokos, a Cornell graduate who for some years worked for Conrad-Johnson Design and designed that company's well-regarded Synthesis and Sonographe loudspeaker models, feels very strongly that the traditional retailing setup is inefficient when it comes to exposing audiophiles to a wide enough choice of product, particularly when it comes to loudspeakers. With 300 speaker manufacturers listed in the Audio directory issue but even a major retailer restricted to probably six brands, even big-city audiophiles will only be able to audition a fraction of the total number of brands. "Our industry is suffering from product saturation of its retail distribution network."
It may surprise some readers to learn that all of the contributors to Stereophile do not get the chance to hear, at our leisure and in familiar circumstances, everything that passes through the magazine's portals. Not that we wouldn't like to, but there just isn't time. Nor are the logistics always right. I was therefore probably as intrigued as the average reader by LA's glowing report on the $5000/pair Mirage M-1 in the June 1989 issue. The M-1s had been on the market long enough for me to have heard them on several occasions, of course, but generally at shows and not under the best of conditions. I did get to hear them briefly at LA's later that same summer, but the hustle and bustle of a Stereophile Writers' Conference party isn't the optimum place for value judgments.
As Laura Atkinson shuffled into my listening room one evening, she spied the Stage loudspeakers tucked away in the corner. "Hey, Dick, those look like Apogees, but they're kind of small." Rising to the occasion, I responded with: "Honey, I shrunk the Apogees." At roughly 3' tall by 2' wide, the Stage is far from intimidating; it even feels more compact and is certainly much cuter looking than the old Quad ESL. Yet Junior's resemblance to the rest of the Apogee family is unmistakable. The canted baffle, the vertical tweeter/midrange along the inside edge of the baffle, and the pleated aluminum-foil woofer clearly bear the imprint of the larger Caliper and Duetta models. It's almost as though Apogee started shrinking the Duetta until the price tag shrank below two kilobucks.
When a loudspeaker designer produces a world-class product, it is usually the result of years, perhaps decades, of experience gained from designing less ambitious products. To review a particular designer's product history is to witness the learning curve in action as both his skill and technology advance. Successfully battling the laws of physics to produce a truly exceptional loudspeaker is thus thought of as the domain of the seasoned veteran whose vast knowledge and experience culminate in the pinnacle of his career—a world-class loudspeaker. Moreover, it is just these designers, working their way up to their masterpiece, who are the most successful at getting an ambitious design right. The high-end loudspeaker business is littered with the remains of companies that attempted to build a first product far too lofty for their skills.
John Atkinson Opens
I've said it before and I'll say it again: a would-be loudspeaker designer shouldn't even start to think about the possibility of maybe designing a full-range, multi-way loudspeaker until he (and they do all appear to be men) has cut his teeth on a small two-way design. There is still as much art as science in designing a successful loudspeaker, even with all the computer-aided this and Thiele-and-Small that, that even a two-way design requires a designer either to be possessed of a monster talent or of the willingness to undergo months, even years, of tedious and repetitive work—or of both. For a would-be speaker engineer to start his career with a wide dynamic-range, multi-way design, intended to cover the entire musical spectrum from infra-bass to ultra-treble, seems to me to be a perfect case of an admittedly well-intentioned fool rushing in where any sufficiently self-critical angel would fear to tread.
According to the conventional wisdom, companies selling consumer products fall into two categories: those whose sales are "marketing-led" and those whose sales are "product-led." Marketing-led companies tend to sell mature products into a mature market where there are no real differences between competing productssoap powder, mass-market beer, or cigarettes, for examplewhereas product-led companies tend to sell new technologies, such as personal computers and high-end hi-fi components. In the audio separates market, conventional wisdom would have a hard time categorizing any individual company: no matter which you choose, it would be simplistic to say that it is either product- or marketing-led. No matter how good the product, without good marketing the manufacturer stands little chance of success; a poor product superbly marketed may make a company successful overnight, but that success will have hit the end stops by the following night. Nevertheless, for this review, I have chosen a model from a company renowned for its marketing strength: Polk Audio.
Even to a nontechnical observer, someone without a deep grasp of the germane technical issues, the Amazing Loudspeaker should indeed prove a source of amazement. First of all, there's no box. Don't mistake the back grille for an enclosure—if you pass your hand along the Amazing's behind, you'll realize that the grille is merely a cosmetic cover; you can actually stroke the woofer magnets if you're so inclined. Yet without an enclosure or electronic trickery, this speaker boasts excellent dynamic headroom and true flat bass extension almost to 20Hz. Just think of the woodworking costs inherent in trying to coax such low-end performance from a conventional box speaker. The savings in carpentry have been put toward one heavy-duty ribbon design. The Amazing begins to sound like an incredible bargain at its modest (by high-end standards) asking price. What's the catch? Fundamentally, the answer lies in superior engineering. And, as Bob Carver will readily admit, good engineering isn't inherently any more costly than bad engineering.