You've probably seen the ad in Stereophile: a very personal account by Avantgarde-USA president Jim Smith, describing how, during a 30-year career in high-end audio, he had become increasingly disappointed with conventional loudspeakers' ability to communicate the emotional impact of live music, and how he found the answer with the Avantgarde horn loudspeakers. It's advertising copy in the best I-liked-it-so-much-I-bought-the-company tradition—with the exception that Smith did not actually buy Avantgarde Acoustic, but did become their North American distributor.
It may come as a surprise to relative newcomers to the field of audio, but some loudspeaker manufacturers are manufacturers in only a limited sense. They buy drivers, off-the-shelf or custom-built, from companies like VIFA, SEAS, Focal, etc.; cabinets from a woodworking shop; and crossovers from an electronics subcontractor. While the system design will have taken place in-house, actual manufacturing is restricted to assembling the components, perhaps tweaking the crossover, and final QC. Even some highly successful loudspeaker manufacturers use this approach, which can work well as long as the suppliers do their jobs properly.
How can you tell an audiophile from a normal person? Well, given a list of names like "Haydn, Mozart, Bach, Beethoven, and Mahler," the normal person might respond, "Composers." The audiophile's response is likely to be "Loudspeakers from Vienna Acoustics." Anyway, that's my association when I see these names, which may tell you something about my state of normalcy.
An amplifier producing nearly 400Wpc, weighing close to 100 lbs...from Rotel, of all people? Don't they know their place in the audio world? Next thing you know, Krell will start making integrated amplifiers! Oops—Krell is making integrated amplifiers...
Just in case you didn't know this when you bought the Parasound HCA-3500, it says on the cover of the owner's manual: "Designed in California, USA by John Curl." Described as an "audio design legend," an appellation with which he seems quite uncomfortable, John Curl has certainly been around the audio business longer than most. He's been employed by or has consulted for some of the biggest names in consumer and professional audio—including Harman/Kardon, Ampex, and Mark Levinson—and was the designer of at least two classic products: the Mark Levinson JC-2 preamplifier and his own Vendetta Research phono stage, still considered by many people to be the best phono stage ever built.
Although advertising copywriters would have us believe otherwise, there is not a lot of true innovation in audio. Most audio products are based on well-established principles, perhaps refined in detail and execution. Of course, some products do take novel approaches, but they tend to be too off-the-wall to be taken seriously, or simply don't do the job as well as more conventional products. What's really exciting is to encounter a product that is audaciously original in concept, yet makes so much sense that you wonder why no one even thought of it before (footnote 1).
Although the component that actually produces the sound is obviously the loudspeaker, audiophiles know that everything in the system—digital or analog source, preamplifier, amplifier, cables, room acoustics—has an influence on sound quality. No matter how good the speaker, its performance depends on the quality of the signal, the speaker's acoustical environment, and how the speaker is set up in that environment. I've heard speakers that I knew to be topnotch performers sound dreadful at audio shows and in dealers' listening rooms.
Paul Hales has been a busy guy lately. In little over a year, he has designed and brought to production four new speakers in his Revelation series (footnote 1); his cost-no-object flagship, the Alexandra, which had been seen but not heard at a number of shows, was finally demonstrated at the 1999 CES; and he has introduced the new Transcendence series, which replaces the Concept series. (He's also produced a brand-new baby girl during this period, although I believe his wife made a significant contribution to that project.)
Montreal audiophiles are a hardy lot. Last winter, the city experienced the most devastating ice storm in its history, with power lines demaged to the point that almost the entire city was plunged in darkness. At the time of the 1998 Festival du Son et de l'Image (aka the Montreal Audio/Video Show), residents were still recovering from the effects of the storm. Did this calamity stop the show? No way! By all accounts, the 1998 show was the most successful in the event's 11-year history. I missed it myself, but I made sure that I wouldn't miss the next one.
The first time I encountered Dunlavy's Signature Collection loudspeakers was at the 1993 Chicago Summer CES. I was familiar with, and had a lot of respect for, the speakers John Dunlavy had designed for the Australian Duntech brand, but I thought this new line clearly transcended his previous efforts—and at significantly lower prices. The model that I ended up reviewing—and, after the review (Vol.17 No.4), buying—was the SC-IV, subsequently honored as Stereophile's 1994 Loudspeaker of the Year and Product of the Year. In 1995, the SC-IV underwent changes, including a new woofer and a modified tweeter, resulting in some sonic improvements (see my Follow-Up review in Vol.18 No.3).