"So what kind of music do you listen to?" I heard myself asking Leif Mårten Olofsson, designer of the Coltrane, Coltrane Alto, Duke, Miles II, Mingus III, and Monk loudspeakers, before I could take it back. The small company, headquartered in Göteborg, Sweden, where Volvos are made, has been building and marketing loudspeakers for the past six years, though Olofsson confesses he's been building them for 30 years, ever since he was 12.
Yamaha once made a loudspeaker shaped like an ear. I felt sorry for the guy (especially if he was an audiophile) who had to write the ad copy explaining why a speaker shaped like an ear would sound better than one shaped like a shoebox or a wedge of cheese. An ear-shaped loudspeaker makes about as much sense as an eyeball-shaped television. But what about a loudspeaker that is designed like a musical instrument?
Like the Reference Studio/60, which was enthusiastically reviewed in the December 2004 issue by Kalman Rubinson, Paradigm's floorstanding Reference Studio/100 is now available in a v.3 version. The '100 is the flagship model in the Canadian manufacturer's Reference line. Its earlier incarnations, the original Studio/100 and the Studio/100 v.2, were reviewed by Tom Norton and Robert Deutsch in the August 1997 and June 2000 issues of Stereophile, respectively, and both writers were well impressed at how much sound quality could be wrought from this competitively priced speaker design. Bob Deutsch, in particular, referred to the v.2 as a "a serious high-end contender, and a formidable one for just about any speaker in its price range and even well above."
Loudspeaker cabinet design has been strongly influenced by home theater. Large floorstanding cabinets, required for reproduction of bass frequencies, are being replaced by tall, graceful towers with small footprints. While these slim speakers fit more easily into home décor and living spaces, to fill out their bass response they depend on being used with the subwoofers that are standard in multichannel systems.
I am biased in favor of Paradigm loudspeakers. I've used them for 10 years; they offer good sound and good value, properties they share with a number of other Canadian makes who have taken advantage of Canada's National Research Council facilities in Ottawa. In fact, the first components I bought specifically for what is now my multichannel system were Paradigm Esprit/BP speakers, which had impressed me at a Stereophile show. When I took the step into multichannel and found that there wasn't a matching center-channel speaker for the Esprits, I replaced them with Paradigm's Reference Studio/60 v.2s. But while the smaller Reference Studio/20, and the larger Studio/100 have both been reviewed in Stereophile, the Studio/60 had not. The release of the v.2's successor, the Reference Studio/60 v.3 ($1699/pair), was an opportunity to fill that gap.
New experiences are some of the most pleasurable parts of being an audio reviewer. Despite being involved with the High End for longer than I care to think about, I had never had the experience of owning, living with, or reviewing a pair of electrostatic speakers, be they full-range or hybrid. I'd heard various Quads plenty of times at shows and in the homes of audio buddies, but in my own listening cave? Never.
Sometimes you have to make peace with a loudspeaker. You have to accept it on its own terms rather than ask it to bend to your sonic wishes, or to be something it's not. This is especially true when you're auditioning a seemingly endless succession of them, as I have this year. Like beauty-pageant contestants parading across the stage, all different-looking yet all enticing in one way or another, each speaker I've listened to of late has sounded different from the rest, and each has had a unique combination of strengths and weaknesses—yet each has been sufficiently "in the pocket" to paint a credible musical picture. Nonetheless, some required more bending on my part than did others, in order for me to believe the musical portraits they were attempting to create.
Back in the late 1980s, when I was writing for The Abso!ute Sound and couldn't afford any of the audio gear I was reviewing, my system consisted of an Oracle turntable with Magnepan unipivot arm, a pair of Spica TC-50 loudspeakers, and a heavily modified Hafler DH-200 power amp and DH-101 preamp. It was a fun system that imaged like hell, but my fondest audio memories of that time were of visiting fellow TAS reviewer Dr. Michael Gindi, who lived on Manhattan's West End Avenue, and listening to his mbl speakers. (With his shrink's paycheck, he could afford them.)
No one has ever accused Rockport Technologies' Andy Payor of under-engineering a product, and this set of gleaming black beauties is no exception. The system is available in two configurations: as the two-way Merak II for $19,500/pair, including sturdy custom cradle-stands with integrated crossover; and as the Merak II/Sheritan II, a three-way, two-box floorstander that, to afford them at $29,500, will reduce some to living in the speakers' shipping crates. You could do worse for housing than checking into the Sheritan Rockport: The wooden crates are almost exquisitely finished.
I'm never more conservative than when the subject turns to home audio. And at the end of the day, I want little more than to preserve the hobby's finest institutions: Alnico magnets. Parchment cones. Mono. Sonata form. Ballads that actually tell stories. Give me tubes. Give me vinyl. Give me thin-walled hardwood cabinets, obsolete tweeters, and handmade polypropylene woofers. Give me the Spendor BC1.
At last January's Consumer Electronics Show, one of the more musically satisfying rooms I visited in Las Vegas' Alexis Park Hotel was hosted by Canadian magazine Inner Ear Report. I had visited the room ostensibly to take a look at the Audiophile APS AC regeneration system, but I also wanted to give a listen to the Gershman Acoustics Opera Sauvage speakers that I had agreed to review for Stereophile—not just the speakers in the abstract, but the very samples that, after CES, were going to make the trek to my Brooklyn listening room.
Thirty-one flavors may work for an ice-cream chain, but a speaker manufacturer who sets out to please every sonic palate ends up with a serious identity crisis, pleasing no-one. From its inception in 1985, Audio Physic, based in Brilon, Germany, has been an event-oriented speaker company. Founder and original chief designer Joachim Gerhard focused much of his attention on providing listeners with the sensation of "live" by emphasizing coherent three-dimensional imaging and soundstaging—though not to the exclusion of timbral accuracy. Except for the Medea, based on a Manger driver (a fascinating design nonetheless), every Audio Physic speaker I've heard has fulfilled the company's mission statement.
Symphony orchestras once had definable national characters. When high-end audio came along, those characters became the national sounds of the gear. While most audio manufacturers, like most symphony orchestras, have tended in recent decades to homogenize into an "international" sound, most French audio gear has remained distinct.
Loudspeaker design is an art and a science. Anyone who tells you it's only one or the other is probably building or listening to some awful-sounding speakers. Design a speaker in an anechoic chamber for the "theoretical" world, and there's no guarantee it will sound good in the real one. Even building a speaker that excels at "real-room" measurements doesn't guarantee that it will sound all that convincing when reproducing music. We can't measure everything, and what we can measure can't be reliably ranked in terms of what's important to most listeners.
Unless you've been on active duty in the Middle East, you're aware that Mobile Fidelity Sound Lab is back in business. During Stereophile's Home Entertainment 2003 show in San Francisco last June, Kal Rubinson and I played hookey to visit MoFi mastering engineer Paul Stubblebine's recording studio, at 1340 Mission Street. As we sat spellbound, Paul played the original four-track, ½", 1-mil master tape of Stanislaw Skrowaczewski and the Minnesota Orchestra's legendary 1974 recording of Ravel's Boléro and Daphnis et Chloé (footnote 1). Stubblebine fed the four discrete channels from the specially modified ReVox reel-to-reel deck to a modern surround system. The master tape produced the cleanest, purest sound I had heard in a long time.