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.
As names go, "Reference 3A" is awful. It sounds less like a company than it does a model number, as in the Dudco Reference 3A (on sale now wherever Fourier speakers used to be sold); I find it hard not to expect a Reference 3B with each new year. Add to that a cumbersome and somewhat meaningless model designation, "MM de Capo i"—what do the Ms stand for? what does the i stand for? haven't there been other de Capos in audio recently?—and my poor brain becomes utterly confused. And the older I get, the less I can tolerate being confused. Forgive me if, during the course of this review, I get lazy and fall back on the lazy and admittedly somewhat Clintonesque this speaker.
I first became familiar with Israeli speaker manufacturer Morel, founded in 1975, back in the late 1970s, when they had a drive-unit plant in the UK. Their drivers have always been well-respected—I was mightily impressed with a sample of their T33 1" soft-dome tweeter when I had the opportunity to measure it a decade or so ago—so when I heard their Octwin 5.2 dual-speaker system at the 2002 CEDIA conference, I asked for a pair for review.
While audio writers find the siren song of cost-no-object components an ever-present temptation, I do ask Stereophile's reviewers to be on the lookout for affordable products that sound better than they have any right to. So when I listened to an inexpensive system based on Monitor Audio's Silver S2 loudspeaker and Musical Fidelity amplification at Home Entertainment 2002, held at the Manhattan Hilton in May 2002, I followed my own instruction and asked the US distributor of this English model to send me review samples.
When I unpacked the review samples of Earthworks' Sigma 6.2 loudspeaker, I was reminded of a Pop Art exhibition I'd visited 30 years before, in London. Along with a stuffed drum kit and other of Claes Oldenburg's exaggerated-scale floppy sculptures, hanging from the Tate Gallery's ceiling was an enormous three-pronged, US-style AC plug made entirely of hardwood (footnote 1). Although the Sigma 6.2 is available in plain-Jane black MDF for $3500/pair, the optional solid-cherry cabinet, with its polished grain-streaked panels, has the same carved-from-solid, feel of the Oldenburg plug. I found myself wanting to stroke the speaker.
In my review of Polk Audio's RT25i loudspeaker (September 2001, Vol.24 No.9), I was mightily impressed with Matthew Polk's execution of this $320/pair design. Although it has since been replaced by the RT27i, with slightly modified cosmetics and a different tweeter, the RT25i remains my favorite loudspeaker costing less than $500/pair.
One of the nicest surprises at any audio show is encountering a new—to me, at least—manufacturer whose products seem to stand out from the competition. At the 2002 Consumer Electronics Show, one such standout was the Kirksaeter line of loudspeakers from Germany. I spent quite a few minutes listening to and enjoying the performance of these modestly sized and priced speakers, but since my writing assignment was electronics, I tucked the experience away in the back of my mind and moved on.
I first met NHT co-founder Ken Kantor in 1975 when we were both undergraduates at MIT. Kantor was sponsoring an extracurricular class entitled "Musical Ideas." The concept was to stick a dozen or so musicians in a classroom for free improvisation and hope to create music à la Miles Davis' Bitches Brew. The result was a mess; although talented guitarist Kantor meant well, there was no common vision or consistency of musical talent. Nevertheless, I had a blast trying to simulate a tamboura drone with a Hohner Clavinet, phase shifter, and volume pedal.
I had mixed feelings about reviewing the $189/pair Paradigm Atom loudspeaker. Although in the past I've been favorably impressed with Paradigm's speakers—the $600/pair Reference Studio/20 remains one of my favorite affordables—Budget Bob tends to get a bit nervous when a speaker's price drops below $250/pair. In my experience, even when the most talented speaker designers attempt to make a speaker to sell at such a low price, the result is often a very small cabinet with limited bass extension and inferior high-level dynamics.