The Sound-Lab electrostatic loudspeakers are legendary. Many serious audiophiles have heard of them, and rumors of their existence abound in audio circles. But, like gnomes, UFOs, and poltergeists, Sound-Lab loudspeakers are sufficiently hard to find that it is sometimes difficult to prove to skeptics that they exist at all. Well, I can now report that they do. As proof of this contention, I can point to the two which are actually occupying solid, tangible space in my listening room at this very moment. I have even taken a photo of them, which will be published along with this report if they leave any sort of an image on the film emulsion. (Many such apparitions do not!)
I must confess to a certain sentimental affection for Magnepan products. An early version of the Tympani did more to rekindle my interest in audio than any other speaker I can think of. In a world which seemed doomed to finding out just how small and dull it could make acoustic suspension boxes, the Magnepans reminded me that speakers could produce a large open soundstage, real dynamics, and musical life.
What I wanted to talk about briefly this month is the new Apogee Duetta, the baby of this speaker family. This particular baby will cost you the rather grown-up figure of $2300/pair; over here in the UK it costs a demonic £3300/pair, roughly double.
One of the nicest features of the High End is its diversity. Regardless of whatever trend is fashionable, there will always be manufacturers to buck it, and sell alternative concepts and sounds. VMPS is just such a case. With few exceptions, the recent trend in speaker systems has been toward small-to-medium-sized "monitors" with good imaging and high resolution, but limited bass and dynamics (footnote 1). The VMPS SuperTowers provide the former, but buck the trend by adding reproduction of the deepest bass and outstanding full-range dynamics.
The latest edition of Audio's annual equipment directory lists 238 speaker manufacturers. At best I can claim to have heard one product from 10–15% of the manufacturers on this list, and the top of the current product line from a far smaller percentage.
Once upon a time, in audio's infancy, anyone who wanted better than average soundaverage sound during the 1940s being rich, boomy and dullhad no choice but to buy professional loudspeakers. In those days, "professional" meant one of two things: movie-theater speakers or recording-studio speakers. Both were designed, first and foremost, to produce high sound levels, and used horn loading to increase their efficiency and project the sound forwards. They sounded shockingly raw and harsh in the confines of the typical living room.
Most Stereophile readers are aware by now of why the full-range electrostatic should, in theory, be the ideal transducer. (If you aren't aware, see the accompanying sidebar.) Acoustat was the first manufacturer to design a full-range electrostatic that was so indestructible it came with a lifetime warranty. (MartinLogan is now offering a three-year warranty on their speakers, and is considering going to a lifetime warranty). But Acoustat was never able to solve another problem that has plagued all flat-panel speakers: treble beaming.
While I refuse to admit publicly how long I have been sitting on these loudspeakers before doing the report on them, I must say that it is probably a good thing I wasn't in all that of a hurry to get around to it. They did not sound very good in the room where I had initially installed them, and had I written the report on that basis, it would have been lukewarm, to say the least.
I have now had the opportunity to live with the Acoustat 2+2s in my usual listening room, which is more like a typical listening environment (19' by 24' by 9' and moderately padded), and I am more than a little impressed. This is an extremely good speaker, particularly at its price of $2100/pair.
The 2+2 resembles the Model Four in that it contains four of Acoustat's full-range electrostatic panels per side, but differs from it in that two of the panels (per side) are stacked on top of the first pair to produce a radiating surface twice as high and half as wide as that of the Four. The result, particularly in the case of the black-grilled version we tested, bears a startling resemblance to the mysterious obelisk in 2001, A Space Odyssey. The 2+2 system towers almost to the ceiling (and at just under 8' may be too high for some ceilings), and although it is more graceful in appearance than a pair of Fours, it tends to dominate a listening room at least as much.
First I should clear up what may be an ambiguity in the driver-lineup spec for these speakers. In each system, three 8" cone units serve as woofers. Two of these crossover from the midrange drivers at 100Hz. Crossover to the third 8-incher, the subwoofer, is at 40Hz. Thus, two woofers are active from 100Hz down to 40Hz, and all three are active below 40. In other words, the third woofer does not come into play until the frequency drops to the point where the radiating area of two 8-inchers starts to become inadequate for moving air, at which point the additional area of the third speaker is thrown in. Below 40Hz, all three are working together.
Warning to Purists: Despite certain qualities about the ESL-63 speakers which you will probably like, Quad equipment is not designed primarily for audiophiles, but for serious-music (call that "classical") listeners who play records more for musical enjoyment than for the sound. Quad's loudspeakers do not reproduce very deep bass and will not play at aurally traumatizing volume levels, and Quad's preamplifier is compromised through the addition of tone controls and filters, all for the purpose of making old, mediocre, and/or worn recordings sound as listenable as possible.
These speakers inadvertently managed to put me in a good mood even before I listened to them, because of a dumb little gaffe committed by Thiel's packing department. Each speaker came with an Owner's Information sheet, which is nice. Each sheet included Unpacking (and Repacking) Instructions, which is nicer. But each sheet came packed inside the carton, underneath the speaker, where it was not accessible until after the speaker was dumped out of the box, which is pretty silly!
An equipment reviewer for one of the consumer hi-fi magazines once confided to a manufacturer that he found it hard to like electrostatics because of the kind of people who usually like electrostatics. His implication—that certain kinds of people gravitate towards certain kinds of sound—is an interesting thought, and one that might bear some further investigation. But there is no questioning the fact that electrostatic speakers in general do have a particular kind of sound, that might be characterized as "polite."
In the last issue we published a rather enthusiastic "Quickie" report on a small, $190/pair speaker system from a new company—the FMI Model 80. It was virtually devoid of low end, even as a stereo pair (pairing effectively doubles bass output), and slightly rough as well as a shade soft at the high end, but it had a quality of "aliveness" to it that almost defied belief. Was it a breakthrough in design? A new transducing principle? No, it was neither. In fact, the Model 80 looks like any one of those hundreds of little bookshelf systems that clutter, the pages of Stereo Review's "Hi-Fi Directory" in tedious profusion.