For 15 years, lovers of low-power amplifiers have clamored for more and better high-efficiency loudspeakers (footnote 1). For 15 years, their choices have remained limited to products with varying combinations of colored sound, poor spatial performance, basslessness, high cost, and cosmetics that range from the weak to the repulsive.
Though taller, narrower, deeper, more gracefully sculpted, and even more mantis-like than the MAXX Series 2 that I reviewed in the August 2005 Stereophile, at first glance the Wilson Audio Specialties MAXX Series 3 seems little more than a minor reworking of its predecessor with a major increase in price: from $44,900 to $68,000 per pair. But first looks can be deceiving. Take a closer, longer gazeor, better yet, spend some time listening (especially if you've spent time with the MAXX 2)and you'll quickly realize that while the familiar Wilson design concepts remain in play, the MAXX 3 is far more than a minor reworking of an older model.
A compact horn loudspeaker. Isn't that an oxymoron, like jumbo shrimp, or military intelligence? From such venerable speakers as the half century-old Altec Voice of the Theater and the Klipschorn, as well as more modern examples like the Avantgarde Acoustic Trio, horns have always been big. The original Avantgarde Uno was the smallest speaker in Avantgarde's line, but it was still visually imposing, with a big horn midrange on top, a horn tweeter below that, and a powered sealed-box subwoofer at the bottom. (I reviewed the Uno 2.0 in Stereophile in August 2000, Vol.23 No.8, and the Uno 3.0 in August 2002, Vol.25 No.8.) The Uno and its siblings, the Duo and Trio, are perhaps the antithesis of the in-wall loudspeakers beloved by interior designers. These speakers do not fade into the backgroundnot visually or sonically.
It ain't the stuff you don't know that trips you up, it's the stuff you know that ain't so. When, at the 2007 CEDIA Expo, I encountered Klipsch's startlingly new Palladium P-39F loudspeaker ($20,000/pair), I was impressed by its looks. Tall (56"), as beautifully contoured as the prow of a canoe, and clad in striking zebra-stripe plywood, the P-39F is possibly the best-looking speaker Klipsch has ever made.
If you have more than six or seven bucks to spend, you might consider the Imagine T floorstanding speaker from PSB Loudspeakers ($2000/pair). A year ago, John Atkinson reviewed PSB's Synchrony One speaker ($4500/pair; Stereophile, April 2008, Vol.31 No.4). The Imagine series is the next line down, and also includes center, surround, and bookshelf models. John Marks flipped over the Imagine B minimonitor in his column in the February 2009 issue.
I know from conversations with other reviewers that this sort of thing happens all the time: Something new comes alonga product from a company we've never heard of, a technology we've never encountered before, whateverand when we're impressed, we end up wondering if the thing is really as good as we think. We're insecure, just like you (footnote 1).
I've been listening with great pleasure to Verity Audio's Parsifal Ovation loudspeakers the past few years, so I was intrigued to hear the company's step-up model, the Sarastro II. At 150 lbs each and $39,995/pair, the Sarastro II weighs and costs nearly twice as much as the Ovation. Would it sound twice as good?
You've seen the ads from YG Acoustics: "The best loudspeaker on Earth. Period." It sounds arrogant. But come onhigh-end audio has never been a field of shrinking violets. When Ivor Tiefenbrun of Linn announced that the turntable, not the cartridge or loudspeakers, dictated the sound quality of an audio system, that was a man convinced that he was right and taking on the world. And was Krell's Dan D'Agostino any less arrogant when, in 1980, he introduced the KSA-100 power amplifier? In a world where small size and high wattage were the norms, didn't it take a pair of big brass 'uns to bring out a honkin' huge slab of metal that put out only 100Wpc?
It was love at first sight when I saw a Jamo Reference R 909 loudspeaker in sparkling red lacquer on the floor of the 2007 Consumer Electronics Show. It made no sound, but it was beautiful, and I wanted it. It summoned up all my latent predilections for snazzy colors, striking shapes, and dipole speakers. But, as with many passing encounters in life, nothing came of it.
It's always fun to visit the Burmester Audio suite at the annual Consumer Electronic Show. Founder Dieter Burmester and CEO Udo Besser are upbeat, fun-loving personalities who enjoy demonstrating their latest home audio gearthat is, when they're not working on the latest updates to their sound system for the $2.1 million Bugatti Veyron 16.4 supercar. This past year they introduced their new B25 loudspeaker, an 88-lb floorstander. This "baby" Burmester's suggested retail price of $12,000/pair is only one-sixth that of Burmester's flagship speaker, the B100, only one-fourth its weight, and half its height. The design goals for the B25 were a less expensive, lighter speaker that was easier to set up, while retaining Burmester products' high-quality sound and good looks. Playing my own CDs through the B25s at the 2008 CES, I found them notably smooth and detailed; they also imaged well, and were particularly good at reproducing male voices.
I got a call a while back from Stephen Mejias (Stereophile('s Sancho Panza to John Atkinson's Don Quixote), who informed me that Aperion Audio had redesigned their entire line of loudspeakers, and suggested that I check them out. I had responded very favorably to Aperion's Intimus 533-T, which I reviewed in the April 2007 issue. I loved the speaker's sound, the sexy appearance, and felt it was good value at $750/pair. And I thought Aperion's 30-day free trial with free shipping each way was a deal that few could resist. So when this factory-direct, Oregon-based company informed me that they'd updated the drivers and crossovers across their entire speaker line, I decided to give a listen to their new flagship, the Intimus 6T ($1390/pair).
Time thins the ranks of specialist industries. Trends, products, and companies come and go. High-end audio is a poster child for this reality, and most veteran audiophiles have evidence of the casualtiesliterature or orphaned products, stashed away somewhere. But a small number of true believers remain true to their visions, and persevere to help advance the state of the art.
With hindsight, it should have been obvious at the time that the 1970s witnessed a glorious flowering of high-end audio. Almost all the brands now regarded as leaders had their start in that decade, though with perhaps the exceptions of Audio Research, Linn, Magnepan, and Naim, those of us working at audio magazines missed the significance of the new names. Dynaudio, for example, was founded in 1977, but not until the end of the 1980s did I become fully aware of the ground being broken in drive-unit and overall system design by this Danish loudspeaker manufacturer.
Italian manufacturer Chario Loudspeakers has never had a strong presence in the US. No wonder, then, when confronted by these exquisitely finished beauties of solid hardwood, many American audiophiles think, "Sonus Faber rip-off." Without knowing the musical history of the 1960s, had you heard Badfinger first, you might have thought the same thing when you then heard the Beatles. Similarly, Chario, by far Italy's largest maker of high-performance speakers, was founded in 1975, eight years before Sonus Faber. While SF has its drive-units built to its own specifications by other firms, Chario designs and builds its own.
"How do you make an object common as a box iconic?" asked Bob Graffy, Snell's vice president/brand manager. He and Joseph D'Appolito, Snell's chief design engineer, were sitting in my listening room, discussing cabinet designs. Graffy noted that KEF had sought the same in their distinctive, silvery, cylindrical Muon loudspeaker ($150,000/pair). For the flagship model in their Illusion series, Snell commissioned Gerd Schmieta, former designer for Ideo, to integrate D'Appolito's wish list for an ideal enclosure: a narrow, rounded upper baffle for the midrange and tweeter, wider at the base for the woofers, holding a constant cross-sectional area while maximizing cabinet volume, and compliance with a 15° tip test.