What makes someone a good hi-fi reviewer? A fine critical sensibility? A good technical background? Ears? Eyes? Nose? Throat? So many different people are reviewing audio gear these days that it's downright impossible to characterize a good reviewer. But I do know that Beavis and Butt-head would make killer hi-fi reviewers!
"Uhh! What is it?" I was being prodded on the arm. Admittedly it was gentle, almost polite prodding, but prodding it still was, a rude disturbance of the cocoon I had woven around myself in seat 31J of the American Airlines MD-11 winging its way across the North Atlantic. I pushed Pause on the Discman, insensitively not waiting for an opportune cadence in the Brahms Piano Quintet that had been my erstwhile virtual reality.
Back in the early 1970s, the BBC needed a physically unobtrusive, nearfield monitor loudspeaker for use in outside-broadcast trucks. Accordingly, they instructed their design department, which at that time featured such luminaries as Dudley Harwood (the "father" of the polypropylene cone, who went on to found Harbeth) and the late Spencer Hughes (the "father" of the Bextrene cone, who went on to found Spendor), to produce such a model. Thus, not only was what was then probably the finest collection of British speaker-design talent involved in its development, there were no commercial constraints placed on the design. The only limitations were intended to be those arising from the necessarily small enclosure and the absence of the need for a wide dynamic range under close monitoring conditions.
Okay, here you are: You're a Real World music lover trying to sling together a Real World hi-fi rig. You gotcha budget-king NAD/Rotel/JVC/Pioneer CD player, your SOTA Comet/Sumiko Blue Point analog rig, and your cool-man NHT/PSB/Definitive Technology entry-level speakers. Hell, you've even gone out and bought a few pairs of Kimber PBJ interconnects to hook it all up. This ain't no dog and pony showyou want that High-End High, not just some cheap'n'cheerful, low-rez rig to stick in the rumpus room so the kids can listen to that weak-ass, faux-grunge, watered-down Hendrix-howl that modern-day wimp-boys like Pearl Jam dish out to anyone under 30 who doesn't know any better.
On the mantel sat a stuffed Culo snake from Nuevo Laredo, with a red rubber tongue in freeze-frame flick. Above the bookcase hung the mounted head of a wild poi dog, killed in self-defense in Sri Lanka with only a Phillips-head screwdriver. A table-lamp made from a shellac'd, puffed-up frog wearing a sombrero and playing the contrabassoon bathed the room in a soft cream glow.
One question posed by John Atkinson at the July 1991 StereophileWriters Conference had to do with the ease of reviewing: Is it harder to write a bad review of an expensive product than a good review? I find it hardest to write a good review of an inexpensive product. If I admire a less expensive loudspeaker, for example, it may become a recommended component, and can displace a more expensive speaker (that received mixed comments) from our twice-yearly rankings. This can be a big responsibility; even a conditional rave of a low-cost product means that JA may assign another Stereophile reviewer to do an immediate follow-up report. The Snell Type E/III loudspeaker may be a good case in point.
Let me take you back some 40 years to the mono days of the early 1950s. It's unlikely that the minimonitor genus of loudspeakers, of which this French JMlab is a prime example, would have survived back then. There was the practical problem of available amplifier power. The average amp could squeeze out no more than 10 to 15W into an 8 ohm load—far less power than the typically insensitive minimonitor demands for adequate dynamic headroom. But that in itself would not have sufficed to displace the minimonitor from the marketplace. After all, "high-power" amps (50-watters) could be had at a price.
In some ways, building an inexpensive yet musical two-way loudspeaker is a greater design challenge than creating a cost-no-object reference product. Although the latter is a much more complex endeavor, the venerable two-way box seems to bring out the creativity and resources of the designer. Rather than throw money at the product in the form of more expensive drivers, enclosures, or components, the designer of a low-cost two-way is forced to go back to the basics, rethink closely-held tenets, and rely on ingenuity and sheer talent to squeeze the most music from a given cost. Consequently, the inexpensive two-way is the perfect vehicle for designers to develop their skills. If one has mastered this art form, one is much more likely to achieve success when more ambitious designs are attempted.