A while back, out of the blue, I was contacted by audio distributor May Audio Marketing. They wanted to know if I was interested in reviewing any models from the Genius line of German manufacturer ASW Loudspeakers. I have a lot of time for distributors such as May Audio, whose primary role is to promote lesser-known European audio products on this side of the pond. All of May's principal clientsCastle, Enigma, and Gradient speakers; Sonneteer and Sphinx electronics; and Roksan turntable systemsare much better known in their home countries than in the US.
In an unfortunate coincidence, a few nights before the Cabasse team arrived to install the company's unusual-looking La Sphère powered speaker system, VOOM HD Networks, Monster HD channel, which is exclusively devoted to B horror movies, broadcast The Crawling Eye (aka The Trollenberg Terror), a 1958 black-and-white howler starring Forrest Tucker. I watched.
When I attended the 2006 GuangZhou Hi-Fi Show in China, it seemed as though most of the Asian-built loudspeakers I saw were huge, astonishingly efficient, and had horns. When I walked into Usher Audio Technology's room, however, Paul Chen was making music happen with the Usher S-520s ($500/pair).
One of the first affordable loudspeakers I reviewed for Stereophile was the original Paradigm Reference Studio/20 bookshelf model, in the February 1998 issue (Vol.21 No.2). At the time, I felt that the $650/pair speaker was a breakthrough—although not completely devoid of colorations, its ratio of price to performance set a benchmark a decade ago. I kept the Studio/20s around for several years to compare with other bookshelf speakers I reviewed, and they remained listed in Stereophile's "Recommended Components" for several years after that. The Studio/20 is now in its fourth (v.4) iteration, so I thought I'd grab a pair to hear how they compared with current affordable bookshelf designs.
The first reference I saw to the Count of Saint Germain was in Foucault's Pendulum, Umberto Eco's dense novel about a man whose paranoid delusions become so overpoweringly real that, by the end of the book, the reader is left wondering whether the protagonist's enemies actually exist. That their number should include Saint Germain was a nice touch: Part cabalist, part confidence man, the real-life Count was thought by some to be immortal (in Pendulum he's pushing 300), and while Casanova wrote vividly of meeting Saint Germain at a dinner party in 1757, so did the English writer and pederast C.W. Leadbetter—in 1926. Like Aleister Crowley, the Count of Saint Germain can be seen peering over the shoulders of countless parlor (but not parleur, or even haut-parleur) occultists: He keeps popping up all over the place.
I always look forward to Stereophile's Home Entertainment Shows, where I scout out interesting new models of affordable loudspeakers. At HE2007 in New York City, I was struck by the Silverline Audio room—not only by the sound I heard there, but by the way Showgoers reacted to that sound.
For years, I have espoused the use of the same speakers (except subwoofer) in all positions for multichannel music. To have no speaker in the system contributing a different voice to the choir seems as intuitive as having the room acoustics not color the sound. Of course, this still doesn't guarantee perfect timbral match—positioning and room acoustics usually impose some unique characteristics under all but the most perfect and symmetrical conditions. You can hear tonal imbalances even between the left and right speakers of most two-channel systems simply by switching pink noise between them. On the other hand, there's no reason to superimpose on these unavoidable differences the additional imbalances inevitable with using different speakers in a multichannel array.
Room lock occurs when a set of loudspeakers reproduces the deep-bass notes of a pipe organ powerfully enough that the sounds can be felt as pressure waves. On Day 2 of the 2007 Home Entertainment Show, in one of the Sound By Singer rooms, our own John Marks played his recording of organist James Busby performing Herbert Howells' Master Tallis's Testament through a pair of Fremont loudspeakers from Escalante Design. The sustained bass note at the end of the passage took my breath away—the stand-mounted Fremonts sounded as open and dynamic as anything else I heard at HE2007. I wondered if they'd sound as good in my home listening room.
I want to start this year's gift recommendations by briefly revisiting the results of my Musical Cultural Literacy for Americans write-in competition, which ran in the April issue. All 12 winning entries of 12 selections each are posted online (footnote 1).
In nearly 25 years, it's been rare that I've reviewed an exciting breakthrough product. The Audioengine 2 is such a product—not because it performs at an extraordinary level (though it does), and not because it's such an incredible value for money (though it is), but because it creates a new market, a new application for high-end audio, and a chance for audiophiles to enjoy music in ways they may have never considered before.
Readers often ask how I choose components for review. My method is simple: Ninety percent of what I review is gear that has impressed me at one of our Home Entertainment Shows, or new designs from manufacturers whose products I've liked in the past. The remainder are assigned by John Atkinson.
Home Entertainment 2007 was a blast for me, as it is every year. Not only did I get to perform with two jazz bands, Attention Screen and the John Atkinson Trio, but I enjoyed good to extraordinary sound in every room I visited. I've been attending hi-fi shows more than 20 years, so I'm rarely surprised, but HE2007 had two big surprises in store. First, the percentage of rooms sporting analog front-ends—vinyl and open-reel tape—was the highest I've seen at a show in over a decade. Second, there was a surprising number of very expensive loudspeakers. In fact, I counted more speakers costing over $50,000/pair than I did costing under $500/pair.