Wood is not an engineering material. It might look pretty, but it's inconsistent and therefore unpredictable. So we smash cheap wood into sawdust and then glue it all together again to create something that can be machined. This is called medium-density fiberboard, or MDF. We then thinly slice some classy hardwood—hopefully harvested from sustainable sources—and use it to cover the ugly MDF. This might have made sense back when Chippendale was making furniture, but it seems strangely old-fashioned in our age of plastics and composites. I haven't seen wood trim on a TV set for more than a decade. Why is it still the norm for loudspeakers?
It occurred to me recently that, after nearly a decade of specializing in reviewing affordable speakers, and with the exceptions of two entry-level Mission models, I'd never taken a look at recent designs from the large mainstream British speaker manufacturers. So with this review I embark on a Bob Reina "British Invasion" tour to seek out the most innovative and value-conscious designs from companies that have been household names in British stereo shoppes for decades.
Tetra Speakers may not be a familiar name to many US audiophiles. Based in Ottawa, Ontario, the company has been around for a decade, but has taken a slow and steady approach to building its visibility in the insanely competitive and trend-conscious world of high-end loudspeakers.
When Wilson Audio Specialties' Peter McGrath offered me a pair of MAXX2 loudspeakers to review, I reminded him of just how small (15' by 21' by 8') my room is, and how close I sit to any speakers in it.
When I reviewed Infinity's Primus 150 loudspeaker in the April 2004 Stereophile, I was very impressed with its overall performance. To this day, I continue to be amazed at the level of realism this $198/pair loudspeaker can reproduce, and I've kept the review pair to serve as a benchmark for an entry-level audiophile speaker. When I'd completed that review, my first thought was: Now—what can Infinity do within the affordable Primus series for more money? So I requested a review sample of the Primus series' flagship, the three-way Primus 360 floorstanding speaker. After all, how could I resist listening to a speaker that claims 38Hz bass extension for only $658/pair?
This lapsed fan of electrostatic speakers finds it curious that, while MartinLogan is the predominant representative of this technology in the US, I had never auditioned an ML design in my home. I've enjoyed many Janszen tweeters, a KLH 9, an AcousTech X, Stax ELS-F81s, and I've dallied with Quad ESL-63s. But as dumb luck would have it, the first MartinLogan speaker to reach me, the new Montage, is a hybrid model.
Twelve years ago, loudspeaker manufacturer NHT launched its model 3.3, a floorstanding, full-range design that Corey Greenberg summed up in the March 1994 Stereophile as doing "everything I want a He-Man reference loudspeaker to do...I find myself without a single area of performance I've heard bettered by any other speaker." The NHT 3.3 basically combined a high-performance monitor with a sideways-firing subwoofer in the same enclosure, and when I first saw NHT's Evolution T6 system at the 2002 CEDIA convention, I was reminded of the classic 3.3, but a 3.3 updated for the needs of home theater as well as music. And despite inflation and the incorporation of a line-level crossover and a pair of monoblock amplifiers to drive the subwoofers, a two-channel T6 system costs the same as a pair of 3.3s: $4000.
In 1985 or so, a middle-aged audiophile who lived in New York City called to invite me to come listen to his stereo: It was, he assured me, the best in the world. All he wanted was the pleasure of my opinion, for which he offered the princely sum of $100. (As I learned in the months and years to come, this same audiophile called virtually every other audio writer in the metropolitan area whose phone number he could get hold of, making the same offer.)
I don't know whether Sam Tellig or I first discovered the delights of some slightly idiosyncratic loudspeakers made by Triangle—Tree-ON-gle, if you add the relevant accent—in the northeastern corner of France. I do recall feeling quite relieved to find that I wasn't the only hi-fi writer who liked and wrote about them.
Over the past year or so, a parade of expensive loudspeakers has passed through my listening room (footnote 1), each claimed by its manufacturer to deliver the real musical deal. Like the people who designed them, these speakers have come in all shapes, sizes, and personalities. While the designer of every one of these speakers has claimed "accuracy" and "transparency" as his goal, the truth is, any concoction of pulsing cones, ribbons, sheets of Mylar, or whatever that's bolted into or on top of a box makes music because it is a musical instrument. How could it be otherwise, when all of these accomplished and expensive loudspeakers have sounded very different from one another, and made me feel different while listening to them?
"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.