Last summer, John Atkinson and I were playing a jazz gig poolside at my local club, and during a break we began discussing equipment. As JA adjusted his microphones and I became increasingly nervous about the running, jumping kids splashing chlorinated water on his Nagra digital recorder, he asked me if I'd like to review the Z1 loudspeaker from BG Corp. "It's an interesting little bookshelf speaker featuring a ribbon tweeter." Hmm—an affordable bookshelf speaker matching a ribbon tweeter to a dynamic woofer? Very interesting. "Sounds good," said I, and resumed my ivory duties.
When someone is described as having "written the book" on a subject, it is generally taken as a figure of speech. But veteran speaker designer Joseph D'Appolito, PhD, quite literally "wrote the book." His Testing Loudspeakers (Audio Amateur Press, 1998) is an invaluable resource for those of us who, lacking any talent for designing speakers ourselves, nevertheless find the subject of speaker performance endlessly fascinating. So when Snell's PR consultant, Bryan Stanton, contacted me a while back about reviewing the LCR7, the first design D'Appolito had seen through from start to finish for the Massachusetts-based company since he had replaced David Smith as Snell's chief engineer, I suffered from more than a little anxiety.
Back at the end of September 2005, I dropped by Jonathan and Kathleen Scull's Chelsea loft after work. I can't remember why; I think I was returning some gear. But we had also just finished shipping the 2006 Stereophile Buyer's Guide to the printer that day, and it was possible that I needed some high-quality musical R'n'R. Sitting in Jonathan's listening seat—the legendary Ribbon Chair"—and enjoying the sound of his system, I flashed on the days when he worked for Stereophile full-time and I occasionally used to pop round to his place, just two blocks away from what was then our office, on Manhattan's Fifth Avenue. Whatever components Jonathan was writing about, a consistent factor in the always superb sound of his system was the presence of the pair of JMlab Utopia loudspeakers that he had reviewed in the April 1998 issue of Stereophile. The Utopias delivered a seamless, full-range presentation that served Jonathan's eclectic taste in music while also allowing him to easily hear the effects, good or bad, of the various tweaks he was always trying.
Given Audio Note's early dominance of the low-power scene, you'd expect any loudspeaker from them to be a high-efficiency design, and you'd be right. What you wouldn't expect is how they go about doing it, since none of the 20-odd models in their speaker line appears to be much more than a plain-Jane two-way box, with nary a horn or whizzer in sight.
One day last year, my friend Larry and I were talking about our college-fraternity days and loudspeakers. Those were four of the best years of my life. Strong friendships were formed, and ever since, we've kept in touch with most of our fraternity's brothers-in-heart. Ours was not a jock house, nor was it the last bastion of rampant male sexuality—it was, after all, an MIT frat house. But it was full of music lovers who fell neatly into three camps: the California School owned JBL Decades, the New England School had Smaller Advents, and the Renegades boasted bootlegged Bose 901s (footnote 1).
Perhaps there is no subject more vigorously debated among audiophiles than the primacy of the loudspeaker. Many 'philes believe there is no more important element in a hi-fi system—after all, they reason, it doesn't matter how good the components ahead of the speakers are; if the transducers can't reproduce the signal, you can't hear it. On the other hand, the source adherents maintain, speakers can't reproduce information that hasn't been retrieved from the recording. Loudspeakers can limit the amount of information you hear, but they can't increase it. This is one of those irresolvable paradoxes similar to the question of which came first, the roast chicken or the omelet.
The last few years at our annual Home Entertainment Show, many readers have come up to me and asked: "How do you select which speakers to review?" In my case, most candidates are either new products that have impressed me when demonstrated at our HE Shows, or new products from manufacturers whose designs have impressed me in the past. Occasionally, editor John Atkinson gets wind of a speaker and asks if I'd like to review it. But once in a while, a manufacturer reads a rave review of a competing product that makes his or her blood boil.
Street buzz is a force to reckon with. When an audiophile whispers to me that a piece of new equipment sounds unusually good, I'm interested. When two manufacturers of other equipment independently tell me "You've got to listen to this speaker," I get excited.
NHT's Xd system is what audiophiles have been saying they want: a matched loudspeaker system that optimizes the performance of its components for a real-world domestic listening environment. But with their dollars they've voted against just such systems for years. If we put our money where our mouths are, active speaker systems such as Meridian's DSP or those used in recording studios would dominate the High End.
Canadian company Paradigm has made a name for itself over the past 20 years with affordably priced, high-performance loudspeakers. Its Reference Series designs have garnered much praise from this magazine—I was well impressed by the floorstanding Series 3 Reference Studio/100 ($2300/pair) last January, my review following hard on the heels of Kalman Rubinson's enthusiastic recommendation of the smaller Studio/60 v.3 ($1600/pair) in December 2004, while the bookshelf Reference Studio/20 ($800/pair) has been a resident of Stereophile's "Recommended Components" listing ever since Bob Reina's original review in February 1998.
Not every interesting audio component gets a full review in Stereophile. Many more products are covered in Sam Tellig's, Art Dudley's, Michael Fremer's, Kal Rubinson's, and John Marks' regular columns than I have the space to publish measurements for. However, I do ask for samples of products that I feel deserve to be measured, particularly when our original coverage raised more questions than it answered.
Following my favorable experience with Epos Ltd.'s entry-level loudspeaker, the ELS-3 ($329/pair; see my January 2004 review), Roy Hall, of importer Music Hall, called me with some excitement about the new Epos M5 ($650/pair). In a crowded room at the Home Entertainment 2004 show in New York, I did a quick comparison of the M5 and ELS-3 under suboptimal conditions of multiple speakers in the room and Roy answering consumers' questions while pouring scotch for his dealers. Still, I was able to hear enough from the M5 to intrigue me, and with high expectations, I asked for a pair for review.
My normal practice in seeking out contenders for Affordable Speaker Nirvana is to pursue speakers I stumble across at our Home Entertainment shows, and to keep tabs on new designs from manufacturers whose wares have impressed me in the past. This time, however, editor John Atkinson called me out of the blue: "How would you like to review the Amphion Helium2 loudspeaker? It's the entry-level speaker in a Scandinavian speaker line distributed by Stirling Trayle of Quartet Marketing."
Paul Barton, founder of PSB Speakers International, is an icon of the North American speaker industry. A talented designer who has for many years produced innovative and cost-effective designs at a range of prices, Barton does not let time stand still, constantly updating and revising his designs. But what makes him unique, in my view, is that, unlike the designers at most North American speaker companies, whose successful affordable designs are trickled down from their more expensive models, Barton, like the British designers, seems to get most of his excitement from his budget lines. His original PSB Alpha was, in its day, the most significant entry-level speaker made in North America since the original Advents of the 1970s.