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.
In the September 2001 Stereophile (Vol.24 No.9), I wrote very favorably about Polk's RT25i loudspeaker ($319.90/pair). That bookshelf model impressed me with its open, neutral midrange; its pristine, extended high-frequency response; and its low-level dynamics. On the minus side, the RT25i was fairly limited in low-bass extension and high-level dynamic slam. At the time, I was seeking a new speaker for my home computer music-composition system, and I bought the review samples—the only time I've done that since I began to write for Stereophile some 20 speaker reviews ago.
Attending a Consumer Electronics Show is enjoyable, productive, nerve-racking, and exhausting. Too many components, so little time. One has to prioritize to ensure sufficient time to cover everything intended. One needs to avoid certain rooms, such as those with new, unremarkable designs from companies whose designers would love to talk—for half an hour or more—with each audio reviewer who makes the mistake of sauntering in. There are also many rooms in that middle region—rooms on neither the Must Hit nor the Must Avoid list.
I love dealing with the colorful characters of high-end audio. One such individual is Victor (Veekh-tor) Goldstein, who has distributed high-quality European audio gear from his New York City headquarters, Fanfare International, for 23 years. A nuclear engineer by training, Goldstein transitioned into audio when the Three Mile Island incident reduced the demand for his services. (I guess he felt his skills were transferable to single-ended triode amplifiers.) Most of all, Goldstein is a passionate lover of music with a vinyl collection that numbers well into five figures, and a fixture at many of the significant classical performances at New York's major concert halls.
I love attending Stereophile's Home Entertainment shows. I get to check out the latest gear, hobnob with manufacturers and writer colleagues, hear some live music, and play a little jazz with John Atkinson, Zan Stewart, and Immedia's Allen Perkins. Unfortunately, work commitments at my day job meant I couldn't attend HE2003, in San Francisco, so I directed my team of Stereophile scouts to find me some hot new budget speakers. Robert Deutsch was quickest to respond, the week following the show: "Bob, you've got to check out these new speakers from Usher Audio in Taiwan! They have a number of models within your budget." One phone call later, and a $1000/pair of Compass X-719 bookshelf speakers was on its way to me.
It was 20 years ago that I began audio reviewing as a second career. It was also 20 years ago that I made my first very expensive audio purchase: a pair of Infinity RS-1b speakers. The RS-1b was a landmark speaker in its day, and very costly for the time at $5500/pair. (I think my dentist has just spent more than that on a TV.) In retrospect, the RS-1b was an extraordinary value. With four large towers, more than 30 drivers, and a servo network and a passive crossover, the Infinity RS-1b resolved a significant amount of detail, was capable of large dynamic swings, had pinpoint image specificity on a wide, deep soundstage, and was capable of reproducing a convincing bottom octave in the right room when paired with the right associated equipment. Its main weaknesses were a relative lack of coherence due to its use of three different types of drivers to cover the various frequency ranges, and both the midrange/tweeter towers and woofer columns were picky about amplifier matching.
When I was first getting interested in "high fidelity," as we called it back in the 1960s, there was an audio dealer in Worthing, England called Bowers & Wilkins. Their advertisement in the February 1966 issue of Hi-Fi News features their annual sale, with a Quad Electrostatic Speaker priced at $l30 instead of the manufacturer's recommended $l37 (footnote 1), and offering other bargains, from ReVox, Quad, Rogers, Leak, and Armstrong. Conspicuous by their absence from the ad are Bowers & Wilkins speakers. The first reference to those I could find was in the August 1968 issue of what was then called The Gramophone, when race-car driver turned audio critic John Gilbert raved about the P2 Monitor. Designed by avid concertgoer John Bowers with Peter Hayward and featuring an EMI bass unit and a Celestion tweeter, the two-way P2 was priced at more than twice the Quad speaker, at $l159/pair.
Bob Reina has been doing more than his share of reviewing inexpensive speakers in the past couple of years. I thought it only fair to shoulder some of the load, therefore, by reviewing a small design that had sounded interesting when I heard it at a press preview, the Klipsch RB-15.
Since 1991, Acarian Systems' Carl Marchisotto has brought home the bacon by focusing most of his efforts on conventional dynamic, three-way, floorstanding designs in the $2000-$7000/pair range—28 different loudspeaker designs in 12 years, 13 of them still in production. That's why Home Entertainment 2001 showgoers who were familiar with previous Alón efforts were taken aback when Marchisotto unveiled a new flagship for his Alón speaker line: the Exotica Grand Reference, a $120,000 line-source ribbon/dynamic hybrid system comprising five 7' towers. For those attracted to cost-no-object designs, the debut of the Exotica Grand Reference was quite a spectacle.