“What’s new?” is the question that comes up first with established manufacturers when considering whether there’s something worthy of a blog item. In Polk Audio’s case, the answer was “Everything!” According to Polk rep, Jim Crowley, their entire home audio line has been revamped, with changes in the cabinetry, drivers, and crossovers. Perhaps the most significant change is that now, for the first time, some Polk speakers feature a midrange driver. And with all that, Polk loudspeakers continue to be reasonably priced: the pictured LSiM is a modest-by-audiophile-standards $4000/pair.
There’s a kind of hierarchy of prestige among speaker manufacturers (which may or may not have anything to do with the sound quality of their offerings). At the bottom you have manufacturers that use off-the-shelf drivers which are available to any hobbyist, and don’t do anything other than mount these speakers in an enclosure and connect the drivers to a crossover (which may also be an off-the-shelf unit). Then you have manufacturers that start off with an off-the-shelf unit but modify this unit to their purposes. (The modification can be as simple as adding a bit of mass to the cone or adding a foam ring around the tweeter cone.) The next higher level in the hierarchy are speaker manufacturers that have the drivers made to their specifications by a specialist manufacturer of speaker drivers. And at the very top of the hierarchy are the speaker manufacturers that make their own drivers. This allows them to not only control of every step of the manufacturing process but also the ability produce drivers that are proprietary.
It is this top level of speaker manufacturer hierarchy that Totem has reached with the new Element series, shown in JA's photo with designer Vince Bruzzese. The 7” woofers used in the Element Series are of the Canadian’s company’s own design, manufactured in-house, which requires three hours of machining and more than four hours of assembly. I don’t know enough about loudspeaker driver design to talk with any authority about how the new Totem woofer differs from other woofer designs (the magnetic design was inspired by something called the Halbach array); suffice it to say that it has a free-air resonance of 1617Hz, and its mechanical top end frequency rolloff is such that it’s matched with the tweeter without any crossover components in the woofer path. The top-of-the-line Metal ($12,995/pair) sounded good in a brief listen. I look forward to having more of an opportunity to listen to these new Totems at the 2011 Montreal show.
Several weeks before CES, I got an email from PS Audio, inviting me to a press conference that will be held during CES but not as part of the official CES itself. They promised to provide transportation from the Venetian to the Wynn, where PS Audio had a suite. I knew that PS Audio was very much into computer-based audio, an area that for the most part I’ve stayed away from, so I wasn’t all that interested in that part of their presentation; however, I’ve reviewed, and use in my system, PS Audio’s Power Plant Premier AC power regenerator, so I was intrigued by word that they would have information on the successor to the Power Plant Premier.
It turns out that they have two successors, both representing substantial reworking of the product while staying with the principle of “regenerating” rather than merely “conditioning” power. Alas, the “power plant” terminologywhich I’ve always thought was quite aptis gone: the two products are called PerfectWave P5 ($2999) and P10 ($4499). They differ mostly in terms of the amount of maximum current they can produce, the P5 putting out 1000VA and the P10 1200VA. The bigger unit also has more zones. Output impedance is lower than ever, and so is distortion.
Made in Germany, available in 12 color combinations, the Lindemann Birdland series of loudspeakers is intended to appeal to the consumer who appreciates not only great sound but also stylish industrial design and German craftsmanship. Components include German-made ceramic drivers, German copper-foil inductors, cryogenically treated Swiss-made copper terminals, and various other audiophile goodies. The demo system featured the Dixie!, the smallest speaker in the series, with Lindemann digital source and electronics. The speakers had a sound that was notably free of cabinet resonances, and had much greater dynamic freedom than I would expect from a speaker of such relatively modest size. The speakers were not fazed even by Copland’s Fanfare for the Common Man: the lowest octave was missing, but the sound did not otherwise lack in body or dynamic punch. At $9900/pair, the Birdland Dixie! cannot be considered a bargain, but it’s one of the best-sounding small speakers that I’ve heard.
One of my more pleasant duties at this year’s CES was substituting for John Atkinson at a dinner for the press held by DTS. (JA had not arrived yet from New York.) What I was particularly looking forward toin addition to dinner at Nobu, one of Las Vegas’ best Japanese restaurantswas the opportunity to meet the legendary “JJ”: James Johnston (left), audio researcher, who has been called “the father of perceptual coding” for his work while at Bell Labs on MP3 and MP4. JJ is Chief Scientist at DTS, and also a Forum contributor at stereophile.com, occasionally jousting with those who make claims about sound reproduction that he feels have no scientific basis.
The pre-dinner presentation dealt with the latest surround sound format from DTS: Neo X 11.1, which uses 11 channels. Yes, folks, that’s 11 speakers, 11 channels of amplification, plus a powered subwoofer. There is not definite word on exactly when software and consumer hardware for this format will be available, and DTS admits that an 11.1 channel system is not something the average consumer will likely aspire to. However, a point made by JJ was that even if DTS 11.1 does not reach broad consumer acceptance, the research on 11.1 will lead to a better implementation of surround sound with 5.1 or 7.1 systems. He made an allusion to some work that he’s doing nowwhich he could not discussthat promises sonic virtual reality with a lot fewer than 11 channels.
I did get to meet and chat with JJ, and found him to be very genialnot at all like the doesn’t-suffer-fools-gladly persona that’s sometimes in his Forum postings.
I was very impressed with the Monitor Audio PL200 that I reviewed last April; apparently, so were a lot of other audiophiles, but many were put off purchasing the speakers by the $8000/pair price. The new Monitor Audio Gold GX series is intended to appeal to these folks. The GX series offers most of the technology and aesthetic appeal of the Platinum, but at substantially lower prices. The GX300 is broadly similar in appearance and driver complement to the PL200, but costs an easier-on-the-wallet $5500/pair. It was making fine sounds at CES with Simaudio electronics and Simaudio digital source.
I took this picture of a room at T.H.E. Show just because I thought it looked cool. The system featured old Apogees, long out of production. The music playing was pleasant. But what were these people selling? Maybe cables. Everyone sells cables. And then I looked at the sign on the door: N.F.S. Audio. N.F.S. Not For Sale. Here’s what a Google search turned up:
“We are a couple of Las Vegas audiophiles who love good music and wine. This will be our sixth year at T.H.E. Show. We hope to provide a fun and relaxing listening experience for show exhibitors and patrons alike. We'll have plenty of music and libations. Every year we bring an excitingly different stereo system with interesting visual effects. Come visit! . . . we'll pour you a glass. . ."
Do you hate box speakers, and can’t abide planars, either? Well, a company called Everything But The Box (EBTB), based in Bulgaria, has some products that might be just what you want. Their speaker cabinets are all rounded, made of aluminum and polyester resin. (The drivers look conventional, though.) Some, like the $3000/pair Venus in the photo, are designed to hang from the ceiling via steel cables. The speakers are finished in high gloss lacquer, available in 16,000 (!) custom colors.
The audiophile community was greatly shocked by the death, in September, 2009, of speaker designer Jim Thiel. My acquaintance with him was restricted to brief chats at shows, but he has always impressed me as a modest, gentle man, with a singular devotion to the pursuit of making the most accurate and musically pleasing speakers. Somehow, I thought he would always be around.
The Thiel/Bryston room had a system featuring the Thiel SCS4T ($3690/pair) speakers and a pair of new prototype Thiel USS subwoofers (price and delivery date TBD), partnered with Bryston electronics and digital source. The sound had that famed Thiel clarity, and an astonishing sense of depth on the well-known Misa Criolla recording. The SCS4T is the last speaker that Jim Thiel had a hand in designing: a fitting tribute to one of the greats of the world of audio.
I think it was at least a couple of years ago that I first heard that Atlantic Technologya speaker manufacturer that I associate more with value-for-money than cutting-edge productswas working on a patent-pending technology that combines reflex, acoustic suspension, inverse horn, and transmission line approaches to bass loading. Dubbed Hybrid Pressure Acceleration System (H-PAS), this is said to combine the best aspects of each approach, with deep bass extension, good system sensitivity, and reasonable enclosure size.
Well, the patent has been granted, and the floor-standing AT-1 ($2500/pair) is the first speaker to utilize the H-PAS approach. (According to Atlantic’s Peter Tribeman, they have licenzed H-PAS to five other companieswhich he understandably declined to name.)
Having listened at CES to a pair of AT-1s, in a system that included top-of-the line Halo by Parasound electronics, I’m convinced that they’re on to something with this technology. The AT-1 is a modestly-sized floorstander, with two 5¼” woofer/midrange drivers, and yet it generated bass of such extension, power, and control that left me and others who attended the demo shaking their heads in disbelief. The sound was otherwise fine, too: tonally well-balanced (the bass was there only when it was on the recording), and a precisely-defined soundstage. Most impressive.