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.
John Ötvös, the father of Waveform Research Inc. and The Waveform Loudspeaker, hesitates not at inviting ultracritical examination: "The Waveform is the most accurate, the best, forward-firing loudspeaker in the world." Period. Reviewers, of course, welcome such statements, and I'll be examining that one, but I'll also try to answer the inherent reviewing question of whether the Waveform is a good place for you to park $9800 on your way to "the highest of high-end sound" (that was our slogan for the first Santa Monica High End Hi-Fi Show).
In audiophile circles, it is the "Stuart"—electronics designer Bob Stuart of the Boothroyd-Stuart collaboration—who has received most recognition. The contribution of industrial designer and stylist Allen Boothroyd has gone relatively unremarked. Yet as I unpacked Meridian's D600 "Digital Active" loudspeaker, I was struck by Boothroyd's ability to make the humdrum—a rectangular box loudspeaker—seem more than just that. The man has one hell of an eye for proportion. From the first Orpheus loudspeaker of 1975, through the Celestion SL6 and 'SL600 (where AB did the industrial and package design), to this latest Meridian loudspeaker design, his brainchildren look "right," to the extent of making competing designs appear at minimum over-square and clumsy, if not downright ugly.
Loudspeaker designers are dreamers. Something takes hold of a manthe fact that loudspeaker designers are all men must be significantand he wrestles with recalcitrant wood, arcane drive-units, and sundry coils, capacitors, and cables, to produce something which will be individual in its sound quality yet inherently more true to the original sound. An impossible task. Yet if there were to be an aristocratic subset of those dreamers, it would be those who have taken upon themselves the burden of producing electrostatic loudspeakers. For these farsighted engineers, there is no standing on the shoulders of others, there is no recourse to tried and tested combinations of other manufacturers' drive-units. Every aspect of the design, no matter how apparently insignificant, has to be created afresh from first principles. For a new electrostatic design to produce a sound at all represents a great triumph for its progenitor, let alone having it sound musical. And to produce an electrostatic loudspeaker that is also possessed of great visual beauty is indeed a bonus.
Although, historically, Asian high-performance loudspeakers have not had much impact in the US (with the possible exception of the Yamaha NS1000), it is obvious from recent events that that situation might change. Some Japanese manufacturers are determinedly attempting in 1989 to scale the high-end heights. Onkyo, for example, launched an entire range under the Precise brandname, designed by that most idiosyncratic of talented Californian engineers, Keith Johnson, while Yamaha has licensed the Swedish ACE-Bass technology to produce loudspeakers that extend amazingly low in the bass for their size. But it is Pioneer, already well-ensconced in the US pro market with their TAD (Technical Audio Devices) drive-units and monitors, who have made perhaps the biggest techno-splash with their "Elite-TZ" speakers. These feature both high-tech drive-units and a novel (if not entirely new) method of minimizing enclosure vibrations.
The TZ-9 is the top of Pioneer's new line, and costs a cool $4000/pair, placing it firmly in the high-end category. But for that outlay, the TZ-9 owner acquires a largish and quite handsome speaker, finished in a rather orange-colored oak veneer and standing some 4' high. Both tweeter and midrange units feature domes fabricated from an amorphous form of carbon termed by Pioneer "Ceramic Graphite," which is said to have 10 times the bending stiffness and two times the internal loss or self-damping of an equivalent titanium dome. The practical result should be accurate pistonic motion in each unit's passband, with a better-damped HF resonance than a metal dome. In practice, these Ceramic Graphite diaphragms can be quite brittle. Despite the presence of protective wire grilles over the mid- and high-frequency units, the first pair of TZ-9s we received had had the midrange domes shattered, due to inadequate early packaging.
When it comes to loudspeaker drivers, Dynaudio has earned an enviable reputation for quality and reliability. To use an automotive analogy, they are the Mercedes Benz of the driver universe. If you're a speaker builder, the odds are that you have already experimented with these drivers. And even if you're not a speaker builder, it's quite possible that your speakers use Dynaudio drivers. After all, some of the finest speaker systems in the world do. A case in point is the Duntech Sovereign, which single-handedly embodies almost the entire Dynaudio catalog.
Mirage /ma-'räzh/ n [F, fr mirer to look at. fr. L mirari] 1: an optical effect that is sometimes seen at sea, in the desert, or over a hot pavement, that may have the appearance of a pool of water or a mirror... 2: something illusory and unattainable, like a mirage.
Frankly it's a bit nutty for me to be doing this review. First, as Publisher of this esteemed journal, my primary duties involve financial and personnel management, as well as a good bit of public relations; I don't need and am not required to perform the exacting tedium of product reviews. Second, Jim Thiel and Kathy Gornik of Thiel are friends of mine. So what, you ask? Well, if this were going to be a uniformly positive review, I would therefore be ruled out as the reviewer; if it's to be wholly or partially negative, it will surely put a strain on one of my best audio friendships.
Thiel Audio, headed up by Jim Thiel (President and chief designer) and Kathy Gornik (Marketing Director), sets itself apart from other speaker manufacturers not only by making what I feel to be almost uniformly excellent products, but also by serving as a kind of hallmark for the good dealer: Although not all good dealers sell Thiel, just about every Thiel dealer is a good one. This comes about because, in spite of just about uniformly positive reviews and excellent customer relations, Thiel (primarily in the person of Ms. Gornik) has insisted on limited distribution through retailers they know will give their product a good demonstration. There are a few other such companies performing this hallmark function, though only Mark Levinson Audio Systems readily comes to mind. Most other successful companies prefer as wide a geographical distribution as possible, in spite of the occasional necessary compromises in dealer quality.
In 1966, two avid audiophile/music lovers—a nuclear physicist named Arnold Nudell and an airline pilot named Cary Christie—labored over weekends and evenings for 18 months in Nudell's garage to put together the world's first hybrid electrostatic/dynamic loudspeaker system. It cost them $5000 for materials, launched a company (New Technology Enterprises), and helped contribute to the popular myth that all of the really important audiophile manufacturers got started in somebody's basement or garage (footnote 1). The system was marketed as the Servo-Statik I, for the princely sum of $1795. (At the time, the most expensive loudspeaker listed in Stereo Review's "Stereo/Hi-Fi Directory" was JBL's "Metregon," at $1230.)
I like reviewing loudspeakers. The more you become familiar with the art, the greater the sense of anticipation as you open up a pair of cartons. A visual inspection of the speaker always reveals a challenging mixture of the familiar and the new. The size of the cabinet is always the first cluehas sensitivity been a design priority or was low-frequency extension uppermost in the designer's thoughts? You espy a known drive-unithas this tweeter's propensity for upper-presence sizzle been tamed? You find a reflex port on the rear panelhas the temptation to go for a "commercial," under-damped bass alignment been successfully resisted? You spot factors which intuitively seem wrong for precise stereoa wide baffle lacking any kind of absorbent covering for diffraction control; a grille frame which puts acoustic obstacles in the way of the wavefront emerging from the tweeter.
When JA suggested I review one of the "smaller" VMPS loudspeakers, I felt the hot breath of controversy in the air. The recent debate in these pages concerning the "proper" amount of bass required for true high-fidelity reproduction, and the inability of small loudspeakers (according to one camp) to provide it, hadn't yet cooled off, nor showed any sign of doing so. VMPS, a small West-Coast manufacturer most famous for its humongous Super Tower IIa/R (at 6-plus feet and 250 lbs per side, first reviewed for Stereophile by AHC in Vol.9 No.3 and the latest version of which is examined by JGH elsewhere in this issue), is hardly a fence-sitter in the debate; they are clearly pro-low-end response. I chose to request the Tower II/R, an upgraded version of the smallest of their floor-standing systems, for review; with a rated 3dB-down point of 22Hz (the same as their standard subwoofer), it's not exactly a member of the restrained bass brigade.
PSB is a small, Toronto-based manufacturer that has been collaborating with Canada's National Research Council to try and take some of the guesswork, some would say magic, out of loudspeaker design.
The NRC, financed by the Canadian government, does basic research in many technological areas and makes its findings available to any firm wishing to use them. (Most other countries provide or encourage this kind of government/business cooperation. It is against the law in the US, to our great disadvantage.) The NRC's audio division, headed by physicist Dr. Floyd E. Toole, has devoted the last several years to the rather formidable task of defining, and assigning numbers to, the various aspects of loudspeaker performance that affect listeners' subjective assessments of their sound.