The one thing I've liked about designer Mike Creek of Creek Audio as much as his design talent is his predictability. I've been following his integrated-amplifier designs for nearly 20 years now, having reviewed, in sequence, the CAS4140s2 (for another magazine), the 4240SE (Stereophile, December 1995, Vol.18 No.12), and the 5350SE (March 2001, Vol.24 No.3). In each case, I was sufficiently impressed with the review sample that I bought it and made it my new reference in my second, affordable system. The predictable part comes from Creek's traditional nomenclature: an "s2" or "SE" (Special Edition) designation has always denoted a modest upgrade, and a numerical uptick in the model number a more significant upgrade, the level of significance denoted by the specific digit being increased. Hence, the update from 4240 to 5350 is intended to indicate a greater improvement in sound than the update from 4140 to 4240.
When reviewing affordable speakers, it's critical to have benchmarks and comparisons for various price points. Inexpensive speaker designs are exercises in tradeoffs and compromises, especially for the least costly products. In all of my reviews, I try to compare the speaker in question with other designs close to the review sample's price, chosen from my list of previously reviewed speakers. From time to time, if a speaker particularly impresses me, I ask the manufacturer if I can keep the speakers around a while longer, so that it can serve as a comparison reference for a certain price point. That's not to say that any speaker I don't keep around is less desirable—there's just not enough room in my house to keep a sample of every speaker I like. An audio reviewer's wife puts up with enough as it is.
Last summer, John Atkinson and I were playing a jazz gig poolside at my local club, and during a break we began discussing equipment. As JA adjusted his microphones and I became increasingly nervous about the running, jumping kids splashing chlorinated water on his Nagra digital recorder, he asked me if I'd like to review the Z1 loudspeaker from BG Corp. "It's an interesting little bookshelf speaker featuring a ribbon tweeter." Hmm—an affordable bookshelf speaker matching a ribbon tweeter to a dynamic woofer? Very interesting. "Sounds good," said I, and resumed my ivory duties.
When I reviewed JBL's S38 loudspeaker for the June 2001 issue of Stereophile (Vol.24 No.6), I was impressed with the performance of this large, inexpensive ($599/pair) bookshelf speaker. When I received a press announcement at the end of 2005 announcing JBL's new affordable speakers, the Studio L series, which incorporates innovations developed for JBL's recording-studio monitors, I began a discussion with JBL's public-relations firm. They promised many significant design innovations and sonic improvements over the S series.
When I review an affordable loudspeaker, first impressions are important. Once I've unpacked the speaker, noted the quality of its construction and finish, and have complimented or grumbled about the ergonomics of its five-way binding posts, I fire 'er up and give 'er a first listen. Occasionally, the sound will put a smile on my face, either because I'm impressed with the amount of uncolored detail emanating from such an affordable product, or because the speaker sounds so sweet that I'm intoxicated.
Each time I attend Stereophile's annual Home Entertainment Show, I look forward to two things. The first is the opportunity to perform classic and original jazz music with John Atkinson and Immedia's Allen Perkins. The second is to seek out the most exciting new, affordable speakers to review over the following year. Both buttons were pressed for me quite admirably during HE2005 at the New York Hilton, but this time it was not an affordable speaker that most impressed me.
One day last year, my friend Larry and I were talking about our college-fraternity days and loudspeakers. Those were four of the best years of my life. Strong friendships were formed, and ever since, we've kept in touch with most of our fraternity's brothers-in-heart. Ours was not a jock house, nor was it the last bastion of rampant male sexuality—it was, after all, an MIT frat house. But it was full of music lovers who fell neatly into three camps: the California School owned JBL Decades, the New England School had Smaller Advents, and the Renegades boasted bootlegged Bose 901s (footnote 1).
The penultimate stop on Bob Reina's British Invasion Tour of Affordable Loudspeakers (footnote 1) brings us to the doors of KEF. Although KEF is a large and well-established British firm, I've noticed that their product lines have not been as visible in the US as those of, say, B&W, Wharfedale, or Mission. In fact, the last time I heard a KEF speaker, it was the company's then-flagship design, at a Consumer Electronics Show nearly 20 years ago! Before that, when I lived in London, KEFs were ubiquitous, down to the older, entry-level designs tacked to the walls of the ethnic restaurants I frequented. My strongest KEF memory is a cumulative one: Every KEF speaker I've ever heard, regardless of price, venue, or setup, has always produced good, convincing sound.
The last few years at our annual Home Entertainment Show, many readers have come up to me and asked: "How do you select which speakers to review?" In my case, most candidates are either new products that have impressed me when demonstrated at our HE Shows, or new products from manufacturers whose designs have impressed me in the past. Occasionally, editor John Atkinson gets wind of a speaker and asks if I'd like to review it. But once in a while, a manufacturer reads a rave review of a competing product that makes his or her blood boil.