The devil's in the details, so here's one detail you should know going in: The El Diablo, a deceptively modest-looking, casket-like, compact, three-way loudspeaker from Danish firm Peak Consult, will cost you a penny less than $65,000/pair. Why? Yes, the dollar's continued slide has alarmingly driven up the price of imported audio gear, but even so...
Home Entertainment 2006 in L.A. The weather is fine. The restaurants are cool. The company is très neat. I can't wait to schmooze with manufacturers, writers, dealers, and meet, for the first time, writers of letters to the editor of Stereophile. Play some jazz with John Atkinson and Immedia's Allen Perkins—one smokin' drummer since he's been studying with Peter Erskine (Joni Mitchell, Weather Report, Diana Krall). Of course, my prime objective at the Show is to seek out the best-sounding affordable loudspeakers, to keep my review hopper full for the next year.
It must be difficult for makers of audio equipment to decide how to best exhibit their products at events such as the annual Consumer Electronics Show. If you're doing a demo, you want it to impress audio journalists and potential dealers, and sometimes just playing music is not enough: you need something extra. A few years ago, Joseph Audio put on a demo, supposedly of their top-of-the-line floorstanding speaker, during which Jeff Joseph removed a cloth that had been draped over what was assumed to be hotel-room furniture. Under that cloth were the speakers that were actually playing: Joseph's new in-wall model, mounted on flat baffles. Wilson Audio Specialties demonstrated their speakers with purportedly ultra-high-end electronics and digital source, then revealed that they were actually using a modestly priced preamp and power amp, and that the source was an Apple iPod.
One of the highlights of such annual events as the Consumer Electronics and Primedia Home Entertainment shows has been the demonstrations of loudspeakers from TAD, the professional division of Pioneer Electronics. Designer Andrew Jones is always generous in using recordings brought by visitors, and enthusiastic in explaining the technology behind these beautiful behemoths. Among these speakers' unique features are a beryllium dome tweeter mounted concentrically inside a beryllium midrange cone, and a cabinet built of stacked, carved horizontal sections, for incredible rigidity without using exotic materials or excessive mass. The concentric upper-range driver is a reminder that, some time back, Jones worked for KEF, where the coaxial UniQ driver was developed, but the materials and details of the TAD drivers are all new. While the TAD Model 1s are always good for musical and audiophile thrills, their price is in the upper five figures, which put them out of serious purchase consideration.
There are three requirements: You must invent a very good loudspeaker that sells for between $1000 and $2000/pair. You have to make enough of them, over a long enough time, to achieve a certain level of brand recognition and market penetration. And you must create a dealer network of reasonable size, with an emphasis on well-promoted specialty shops.
What, exactly, is one to make of a speaker named "Reference"? An easy answer might be that it will be expensive. Another easy answer is that someone might be being overly optimistic or downright deceitful. Ambitious? Certainly.
When I reviewed JBL's S38 loudspeaker for the June 2001 issue of Stereophile (Vol.24 No.6), I was impressed with the performance of this large, inexpensive ($599/pair) bookshelf speaker. When I received a press announcement at the end of 2005 announcing JBL's new affordable speakers, the Studio L series, which incorporates innovations developed for JBL's recording-studio monitors, I began a discussion with JBL's public-relations firm. They promised many significant design innovations and sonic improvements over the S series.
More than any other component, it is the loudspeaker that seems to invite the most audacious—some would say flat-out lunatic—efforts at design. There have been attempts at full-range plasma speakers, speakers one had to hook up to tanks of pressurized gas, speakers with drivers attached to what looked like copper salad bowls (the infamous Tri-Torr of the early 1990s).
When I review an affordable loudspeaker, first impressions are important. Once I've unpacked the speaker, noted the quality of its construction and finish, and have complimented or grumbled about the ergonomics of its five-way binding posts, I fire 'er up and give 'er a first listen. Occasionally, the sound will put a smile on my face, either because I'm impressed with the amount of uncolored detail emanating from such an affordable product, or because the speaker sounds so sweet that I'm intoxicated.
I am a Revel junkie. Their Ultima Studios have been my reference loudspeakers for years, and I've spent many happy hours with their Performa F-30s and Ultima Gems. They're all great speakers. When the original Gem was launched, it was made clear that all the corporate and economic weight of Revel's parent company, Harman International, was behind the development of this new line. When I visited Revel some years back, I saw cutting-edge design and development, in-house manufacturing of the most critical parts under the tightest scrutiny, and quality control of nearly compulsive meticulousness. All of this was reflected in the speakers' prices, which were reasonable for their quality and performance.
Record playback could have been designed to go from the inside out instead of the other way around. With most pieces of music ending louder than they started, doesn't it make more sense to end the side at the widest circumference, longest wavelength, least congested part of the groove spiral? Compact discs read from the center hole out, and they don't even have to.
There is a sweet spot in any manufacturer's lineup where minimum price and maximum performance meet. More expensive products in the line may offer higher fidelity, but the cost may not be commensurate with the improvement. For instance, VPI's HRX and Super Scoutmaster turntables cost more than their standard Scoutmaster model, and they perform better—but for my money, the sweet spot of VPI's line is the standard Scoutmaster, with or without such options as the outer clamp and Signature tonearm.
Were I trying to make a living by giving piano recitals, David Stanhope's new CD, A Virtuoso Recital (Tall Poppies TP184), just might tempt me to wash down a fistful of pills with a bottle of Scotch. The saving grace being that Stanhope seems to have enough things to occupy himself with in his native Australia. The risk of his showing up in New York City and playing a recital, thereby giving a lot of people existential crises and sleepless nights, seems remote.
I told a friend that I'd received a pair of Vienna Acoustics' new Beethoven Concert Grand loudspeakers for review. "They're designed more for music lovers than for audiophiles," he said. I can't imagine a more damning statement—about audiophiles.