"Where's the tweeter?" I asked after a listen to the 97dB-sensitive Soundfield speakers, shown at Capital AudioFest in prototype form. It turned out the top drive-unit is a 12" coaxial unit, with the HF unit mounted where the dust-cap would be. "So the big-ass 18" dipole unit is the subwoofer?" No, it was explained, the18" unit in the speaker's center, behind the grille, is the woofer, covering the range from 50200Hz. The bottom 12" unit, mounted in a sealed enclosure is the subwoofer, handling frequencies below 50Hz. With the coaxial and 18" drivers operating as dipoles and the bottom12" unit omnidirectional, by varying the crossover between the low-frequency drivers, the speaker's radiation pattern can be made cardioid in the region where room acoustics might benefit. I had seen a cardioid subwoofer designed by Ken Kantor many years ago at a CES, and had wondered why no-one else had experimented along these lines.
A line of speakers that impressed me when I auditioned them at the 2004 London Show was the Vivids, from South Africa. Designed by Laurence "Dick" Dickie, the engineer primarily responsible for B&W's groundbreaking original Nautilus design back in the mid-1990s, the Vivid speakers use proprietary metal-diaphragm drivers in enclosures formed from composite materials rather than wood. Seen here in one of the Audiophile Systems rooms, with VTL amplification and dCS's new P8i SACD player (review forthcoming), the Vivid B1s produced a clean, open sound. It was announced at CES that Vivid is being distributed in the US by Musical Surroundings.
"Bugger!" A Pennsylvania state trooper had stepped out from behind the overpass on the Turnpike and was aiming his radar gun straight at me. I reflexively jammed on the anchors, which was a) pointless and b) downright dangerous, considering I was in the middle of a phalanx of cars and trucks all cruising 5-10mph over the speed limit. But what can you do?
You get used to hearing expensive over-the-top systems at an audio Show, but the real delight is discovering more affordable set-ups that sound better than you expect. Such was the case when I entered the Bluebird Music room, where the Spendor A6 two-way tower speakers were being demmed with Exposure's 3010S integrated amplifier and an Exposure CD player, wired with van den Hul cable. The total system prices was $7500, and, again playing "The Mooche" from Editor's Choice, I was struck by how seamless the presentation was, with natural tonal qualities, well-defined stereo imaging, and good dynamics, if not quite in the same class as the much more expensive system featuring the Avantgarde horns I had heard just before.
I am puzzled. No, really. I know you find it hard to believe that we sacerdotes of the golden-eared persuasion could ever be perplexed, but I have been pondering the imponderables of ports. Ever since the classic work of Richard Small and Neville Thiele in the early '70s showed how the low-frequency response of any box loudspeaker can be modeled as an electrical high-pass filter of some kind, with the relevant equations and data made available to all, there would seem to be very little reason why all loudspeakers with the same extension should not sound alike (or at least very similar) below 100Hz. Yet after reviewing 20 dynamic loudspeakers (and using 24) in the same room over the last seven months, I am led to the conclusion that speakers vary as much in the quality of their mid-to-upper bass as they do in any other region. A few are dry, more are exaggerated in this region; some are detailed and "fast," most are blurred, with the upper bass "slow" (by which I mean that the weight of bass tone seems to lag behind the leading edges of the sound).
As far as I can tell, Santa Fe–based speaker engineer John Bau had designed but four commercial loudspeakers before the TC-60 was launched at the 1994 Winter CES: in order of appearance, they were the Spica SC50i (1980), the TC-50 (1983), the Angelus (1987), and the SC-30 (1989). None were expensive, and all garnered much praise, both in Stereophile's pages and elsewhere.
In this space last January, I enthused about the sound of linear 20-bit digital recordings which, I felt, preserve the quality of a live microphone feed. "I have heard the future of audio—and it's digital!" I proclaimed, which led at least a couple of readers to assume I had gone deaf. Putting to one side the question of my hearing acuity, 20-bit technology has been rapidly adopted in the professional world as the standard for mastering. The remaining debate concerns how to best preserve what those 20 bits offer once they've been squeezed down to the 16 that CD can store. Sony's Super Bit Mapping algorithm and Harmonia Mundi Acustica's redithering device have been joined by new black boxes from Apogee Electronics, Lexicon, and Meridian; it appears likely that, in next to no time at all, all CD releases will be offering close to 20-bit resolution—at least in the upper midrange, where the ear is most sensitive.
This essay first appeared in the May 2005 Stereophile eNewsletter. But as the opinions and comments are still relevant in 2014 and in some ways the phenomenon of over-compression in recorded music (footnote 1) is just as bad, I thought it worth republishing.John Atkinson
I write these words mere hours after returning home from Home Entertainment 2005, the Show cosponsored by Stereophile magazine that took place from April 28 through May 1 at the Manhattan Hilton. A full report will appear in the August 2005 issue of the magazine.