The last few decades have seen dramatic improvements in the art (and science) of loudspeaker design. Tannoy's budget-priced Mercury series is now in its fifth iteration. The two-way, front-ported Mercury V1 ($320/pair) measures 11.8" high by 6.7" wide by 10" deep and weighs 9.9 lbs. My samples came in a very handsome Dark Walnut finish (Sugar Maple is available) with simple black cloth grilles. I left the grilles off to reveal the speakers' attractive front baffles and accentuate their equally attractive high frequencies (more on the latter later).
I've had Vivid Audio's Oval K1 loudspeaker here for several months. Over many years, the only other speaker brands I've written about as much as I have Vivid have been Wilson Benesch and Shahinian Acoustics, whose speakers I still revere and can recommend without reservationto the right listener. But Vivid's high-tech sorcery has raised the bar. The Vivids I've had here are among the best loudspeakers I've ever heard, and that's a consensus that seems headed in the direction of critical mass.
When a reviewer specializes in seeking out innovation and value in affordable loudspeakers, certain manufacturers warrant revisiting again and againcompanies that consistently deliver high-value products, but also steadily revamp their lines to trickle down design innovations to ever more affordable models.
It was another flawlessly beautiful spring morning, and I was in Bay Ridge, Brooklyn, to help John Atkinson pack up the Lansche Audio 5.1 loudspeakers ($41,000/pair). John had only just completed his listening and bench tests (see his review in the July issue), and was not ready to let go of the lovely Lanschesbut the speakers would be picked up by a trucking company that afternoon and sent to our cover photographer, Eric Swanson, in Santa Fe, New Mexico. Each Lansche measures 40.9" tall by 10.1" W by 19.3" D and weighs 167.5 lbspacking them and securing them to a shipping pallet is definitely a two-man job. In our case, that job required a lot of wheezing, a little bleeding, and just the right amount of cursing. And because it was only 11am when we met, we were obliged to accomplish the task without the aid of beera crying shame, if you ask mebut we handled it in our usual, manly fashion.
The first loudspeaker I heard from the Canadian company PSB was the Stratus, an affordably priced ($1400/pair), two-way tower with a soft-dome tweeter and an 8" woofer. The Stratus had benefited from designer Paul Barton's being able to use the anechoic chamber at the Canadian government's National Research Center, in Ottawa. The Stratus was reviewed for Stereophile by J. Gordon Holt in our May 1988 issue; he described the speaker as "eminently listenable," though Gordon also felt that it was "a little lacking in guts and liveliness." I had sat in on some of his listening sessions and had been impressed by what I heard.
The Definitive Technology StudioMonitor 45 measures a very room- and back-friendly 11 11/16" (297mm) high by 6¾" (172mm) wide by 11 11/16" (297mm) deep, but these dimensions are attractive for reasons other than simple, efficient transport and placement. I noticed right away that something about the speaker just looked right. Paul DiComo, DefTech's senior vice president of marketing and product development, explained that while the number and size of drivers used in any DefTech design will largely dictate that speaker's height and width, the company nevertheless aims for Fibonacci, or golden-ratio, dimensions. According to DiComo, these efforts help minimize standing-wave and "organ-pipe" resonances inside the speaker's cabinet.
Back at home, I'd recently set up Polk Audio's RTi A3 loudspeakers ($399.95/pair), which, at 14.75" H by 8.58" W x 14" D, are by far the largest bookshelf models I've had in my listening room. Right out of the box, the RTi A3 impressed me with its fit and finish. In Polk's Damped Asymmetrical Hex Laminate Isolation (DAHLI) cabinet design, five layers of MDF are glued together to form a damping system, then topped by a real-wood veneer of black ash or, in the case of my review samples, an impeccable cherry. The gracefully curved cabinet narrows in width from 8.58" at the front to about 5" at the rear, and is said to create a stronger, more rigid, more acoustically inert enclosure. (Knocking on the speaker's side panels resulted in a hollow resonance.)
I thought I'd review the procedure I typically use to seek out affordable speakers for review as, in the case of the Denmark-designed DALI Zensor, made in the company's facility in China, there was a twist at the end.
In preparing to review affordable loudspeakers, I typically put together a list of potential candidates I've discovered at audio shows, or that have been recommended to me by other Stereophile writers. I add to that list products I've learned about from press promotions, usually from companies whose products have impressed me in the past. I boil this down to a short list, then run it by Stephen Mejias to make sure I'm not tripping over The Kid's own quest for budget sonic nirvana.
It was unusually warm for early spring, without a cloud in the big, blue sky to tame the sun's dazzling lightfar too beautiful a day to be indoors, but Uncle Omar and I had already planned a little listening session, and I was determined to show him that high-end cables would make a difference in his system. I wasn't necessarily feeling bullish about the task, though. It had taken me a couple of years to convince Omar that he should replace his old boom-box speakers with something better, and it was only dumb luck that finally made it happen: I was with him when he found a gently used pair of B&W DM602 speakers at a junk shop in Jersey City. When they were new, the DM602s sold for around $600/pair, but on this happy day they were tagged at $50. "Do it," I begged him. "Doooooo it!"
I approached this loudspeaker much as some of today's political candidates might approach sex: as a means of reproduction, not pleasure.
I brought it on myself. I asked to review Joseph Audio's stand-mounted, two-way Pulsar because I felt an obligation to step down from the rarified air of some of the absurdly priced gear I've been reviewing lately and sample something more "affordable." The Pulsar costs $7000/pair.
I had had it in the back of my mind for some time to try to hear the Wilson Duette, if only because celebrated classical recording engineer Tony Faulkner had, some time ago, shared with me his opinion that the Duette's simpler crossover made it the most coherent speaker in Wilson's line. Faulkner told me that when a cramped recording venue makes it impossible for him to use his favorite Quad electrostatic speakers for monitoring, he uses Duettes.
I have fond memories of the Paradigm Reference Studio 20. When I reviewed the original version for the February 1998 issue of Stereophile, it was the model that started me on my quest to seek out the best affordable loudspeakers. I believe that of all the speakers I've reviewed, the original Studio 20 remained in the magazine's "Recommended Components" longest. When I checked out the speaker's fourth generation, in May 2008, I felt it had significantly progressed in terms of sound quality and value for money. This didn't surprise me, however, as pushing the envelopes of sound quality and value has long been Paradigm's trademark. They've done with this with every one of their speakers I've heard, including the third and fifth iterations of the Atom (which I reviewed in September 2002 and February 2008, respectively), and the more expensive models I've heard at audio shows. So when I was given the opportunity to review the Studio 20's fifth generation, I jumped.
The sound of the Stenheim Alumine loudspeakerits openness, transparency, and freedom from temporal distortions, not to mention its good bass extension for such a small enclosurereminded me at once of my favorite small loudspeaker from the late 1980s, the Acoustic Energy AE1. On reflection, the comparison is extraordinary: The two products are as different as night and day, the AE1 being a wooden loudspeaker with a metal-cone woofer, the Alumine a metal loudspeaker with a pulp-cone woofer. I suppose one can skin a catfish by moving the knife or by moving the fish.
At present, my writing chores are divided between two fields: domestic audio and lutherie. Having invested considerable time in both, and having by now met a number of builders who are distinguished in one or the other, I can say with all confidence that the best share a simple, single point of view: Everything makes a difference.
High-end audio is in some ways a dynastic beast, though without as many "begats." One of the world's most successful loudspeaker manufacturers in the years following World War II was the Wharfedale company, from Yorkshire in the North of England. Wharfedale was founded by Gilbert Briggs in 1932, who in the 1950s handed over the reins of Technical Director to fellow Yorkshireman Raymond Cooke. Cooke left Wharfedale in 1961 to found KEF Electronics Ltd., where he subsequently appointed Goodmans designer Laurie Fincham as Chief Engineer in 1968. Fincham led a team of young engineers, including Mike Gough, who eventually joined B&W, and Yorkshire-born Andrew Jones, who became KEF's Chief Engineer in 1989, before Fincham was lured to Harman's Infinity division, in Northridge, California, in 1993. Jones followed Fincham across the Atlantic, where he worked on Infinity's Prelude, Overture, and Reference Series speakers, before joining Pioneer in 1997. The Japanese company had established a state-of-the-art speaker-design facility in Southern California, and Jones was invited to lead the design team.