Yamaha once made a loudspeaker shaped like an ear. I felt sorry for the guy (especially if he was an audiophile) who had to write the ad copy explaining why a speaker shaped like an ear would sound better than one shaped like a shoebox or a wedge of cheese. An ear-shaped loudspeaker makes about as much sense as an eyeball-shaped television. But what about a loudspeaker that is designed like a musical instrument?
When, on his long-running TV variety show, Jackie Gleason used to order up some "traveling music" from music director Ray Bloch, he got a live orchestra's worth. But when Gleason, a composer and conductor in his own right (he wrote his show's unforgettable theme song, "Melancholy Serenade"), actually traveled, his listening options were severely limited compared to ours. By the time the comedian died in 1987, Sony had introduced the Walkman cassette player, but Apple's iPod was still more than a decade in the future.
Sometimes you have to make peace with a loudspeaker. You have to accept it on its own terms rather than ask it to bend to your sonic wishes, or to be something it's not. This is especially true when you're auditioning a seemingly endless succession of them, as I have this year. Like beauty-pageant contestants parading across the stage, all different-looking yet all enticing in one way or another, each speaker I've listened to of late has sounded different from the rest, and each has had a unique combination of strengths and weaknesses—yet each has been sufficiently "in the pocket" to paint a credible musical picture. Nonetheless, some required more bending on my part than did others, in order for me to believe the musical portraits they were attempting to create.
Back in the late 1980s, when I was writing for The Abso!ute Sound and couldn't afford any of the audio gear I was reviewing, my system consisted of an Oracle turntable with Magnepan unipivot arm, a pair of Spica TC-50 loudspeakers, and a heavily modified Hafler DH-200 power amp and DH-101 preamp. It was a fun system that imaged like hell, but my fondest audio memories of that time were of visiting fellow TAS reviewer Dr. Michael Gindi, who lived on Manhattan's West End Avenue, and listening to his mbl speakers. (With his shrink's paycheck, he could afford them.)
No one has ever accused Rockport Technologies' Andy Payor of under-engineering a product, and this set of gleaming black beauties is no exception. The system is available in two configurations: as the two-way Merak II for $19,500/pair, including sturdy custom cradle-stands with integrated crossover; and as the Merak II/Sheritan II, a three-way, two-box floorstander that, to afford them at $29,500, will reduce some to living in the speakers' shipping crates. You could do worse for housing than checking into the Sheritan Rockport: The wooden crates are almost exquisitely finished.
The lacquers from which LPs are pressed are cut in a straight line, and that's how the LP groove should be traced. Even when set up perfectly, a pivoted arm describes an arc across the disc surface, maintaining tangency to the groove at only two points on that arc. Yet despite numerous attempts at building and selling linear-tracking tonearms, few remain on the market, and most are fraught with technical problems. Linear-tracking arms can be anything but linear, committing more sins of geometry as they meander across the record surface than do their pivoted brethren.
Thirty-one flavors may work for an ice-cream chain, but a speaker manufacturer who sets out to please every sonic palate ends up with a serious identity crisis, pleasing no-one. From its inception in 1985, Audio Physic, based in Brilon, Germany, has been an event-oriented speaker company. Founder and original chief designer Joachim Gerhard focused much of his attention on providing listeners with the sensation of "live" by emphasizing coherent three-dimensional imaging and soundstaging—though not to the exclusion of timbral accuracy. Except for the Medea, based on a Manger driver (a fascinating design nonetheless), every Audio Physic speaker I've heard has fulfilled the company's mission statement.
Loudspeaker design is an art and a science. Anyone who tells you it's only one or the other is probably building or listening to some awful-sounding speakers. Design a speaker in an anechoic chamber for the "theoretical" world, and there's no guarantee it will sound good in the real one. Even building a speaker that excels at "real-room" measurements doesn't guarantee that it will sound all that convincing when reproducing music. We can't measure everything, and what we can measure can't be reliably ranked in terms of what's important to most listeners.