It wasn't so much a vow as a prediction: After selling my last pair of Ticonal-magnet drivers and the homemade horns I'd carted around to three different houses, I supposed I would never again have a Lowther loudspeaker in my humble house.
That remains literally true: The 7" full-range drivers to which I'm listening today are from a German company called Voxativ; the horn-loaded cabinets from which they play were also designed by Voxativ, and are made in Germany by the Wilhelm Schimmel piano company. And, with all due respect to Lowther, the 75-year-old English loudspeaker firm that launched a thousand DIY fantasiesnot to mention a thousand very lively wavefrontsthe Voxativ drivers and horns take the Lowther concept further than anyone else of whom I'm aware.
As metaphors go, the silver bullet is somewhat ambiguous, given that it's used to represent both the reliably destructive and the reliably beneficial. (Who would have guessed that an idea from a Lon Cheney Jr. film would prove too subtle and complex for people in the 21st century?) Nevertheless, at Montreal's Salon Son et Image on April 2, those of us who comprised Stereophile's reliably responsive "Ask the Editors" panelJohn Atkinson, Robert Deutsch, and Ivolleyed it with the sort of sprightly, vernal abandon that is the sole province of men with gray hair. To wit: We agreed that no materials, technologies, or design decisions can either guarantee or prevent good sound. Not vinyl. Not star grounding. Not class-A circuits. Neither tubes nor transistors. Neither belt nor idler nor electrostats nor multiway nor single-driver nor copper nor silver nor silk nor beryllium. Not even harmonic distortion. Each of those ideas may mean something to someone, in the short term, in the narrow view, but that's all. There are no silver bullets.
Blind though I am to the allure of blind testing, I can appreciate some degree of review-sample anonymity: Distinctive products elicit distinctive responses, but a plain black box encourages us to leave our prejudices at the door. It asks of us a certain . . . objectivity.
So it was with the Micromega AS-400 digital source/integrated amplifier ($4495), the anonymity of which was compounded, in my case, by a generous helping of forgetfulness: I suppose I was told, ahead of time, that this was a class-D amplifier, but at some point in time before my first at-home audition I apparently killed the brain cells responsible for remembering that fact. So I was innocent of conscious prejudice when I listened to this elegant cipher of a box and wrote, in my notes: "Dynamic, dramatic, and almost relentlessly exciting with some recordings. Imbued pianos with almost too much dynamism for the roomtoo much being very good!but lacked some 'purr' in the die-away. Basically fine and fun. Wish it had a little more color and spatial depth."
"Push it gently in the foam to correct." It sounds like a line from The Dairyman's Guide to BDSM, but it's actually a quote from the installation manual for Linn's latest upgrade for the Sondek LP12 turntable. The kit in questiona DC motor, plus an outboard power supply/control unitis probably the most extreme to arrive from the Scottish firm, thus earning one of the company's least abstract name in ages: It is, indeed, the Linn Radikal. And along with a newly designed onboard phono stage called the Urika, the Radikal is the latest of what Linn calls their SE-series upgrades.
It’s okay to like R.E.M. again, and not just because their latest single (“Uberlin”) is the band’s best in over a decade: In the exhibit sponsored by EgglestonWorks and Rogue Audio, R.E.M.’s “How the West Was Won and Where it Got Us” sounded so good and so clear and so utterly fresh that I literally did not, at first, recognize the music. The combination of Rogue Hera II preamplifier ($7995) and Apollo monoblock amplifiers ($10,995/pair) plus Eggleston Andra III loudspeakers (ca $24,000 per pair) contributed to my wondering if the album from which that single sprung1997’s New Adventures in Hi-Fimight be better than I thought. I guess I’ll give the LP version another try (although I maintain that NAIHF represented the very nadir of the group’s covert-art pretentiousness). The Axpona experience renewed, in particular, my admiration for Rogue Audio’s persistence in making superb tube electronics at sane, fair prices.
I tried but failed to photograph the on-screen image from the home-theater dem in one of the two Emotiva rooms, so you’ll have to take my word: Eric Clapton wore a black short-sleeved shirt and a pair of ripped and faded jeans (shame how some of these rock stars just frittered away their millions), and played a baby-blue Fender Stratocaster. But the real stars of this slick and commendably spare-sounding band were the three backup singers, who were sufficiently passionate to convince me that they had, working together, indeed murdered a sheriff somewhere. The excitement of it all was delivered by Emotiva electronics and loudspeakers, including XPA-2 and XPA-5 amplifiers ($679 and $764, respectively), UMC-1 surround-sound processor ($594), ERT-3 floorstanding loudspeakers ($1278/pair), and ERD-1 stand-mounted surround speakers ($319/pair). The sound was quite decent by any measureand exceptionally good for the money.
The sign on the door said JIB Germany, leading me to expect…well, something very different from what I found. (As the late Vivian Stanshall declared in a Bonzo Dog Band number titled “Shirt”: ‘24-Hour Cleaners’? That’s just the name of the shop, dearie!) That said, the exhibitors in this room demonstrated a pleasant-sounding mini-system, comprised of a Napa Acoustics NA-208A hybrid tube integrated amplifier ($399) and NA-208S two-way loudspeakers ($199/pair), fed by a first-generation iPod playing Abba songs. Hand not included.
A challenge for the journalist who can’t read his own notes (that would be me): The need for information regarding the Mark Neumann loudspeaker shown above led me to the world-wide web, but a Google search on the words Mark Neumann returned mostly hits that had nothing to do with audio and everything to do with politics. (It was a little like reading one of my old columns. But just a little.) I returned to my senses and visited the website of Miami’s High End Palace, the Axpona exhibitor that brought the mighty Coliseum XLS loudspeaker (approximately $40,000/pair) to New York, and learned that this open-baffle speaker’s design was inspired by a concert grand pianoand that only 12 are made each year. Fed by a Stahl-Tek CD player and driven by Tact and BAT electronics, the Coliseum XLS sounded impressive in a number of ways, although its considerable bass response tended to overwhelm the smallish room.
John Marks brought violinist Arturo Delmoni to Axpona New York, who in turn brought his 18th-century Guadagniniand his virtually unique mastery of the Romantic approach to solo violin. His Friday afternoon performance of the Ciaconna from Bach’s D-minor Partita held the audience spellbound, with extraordinary intonation, oceans of tone, and a passionate, emotional one-ness with Bach’s music that prompted JA to comment, appropriately: “The man was on fire.”
JA was sitting at the back of the ballroom and was surprised by how loud the sound of the solo violin was. Whipping out his iPhone with the Studio Six Digital SPL Meter app, he measured the typical sound pressure level at 72dB(C).