I have always had an affection for speakers designed and manufactured by the Canadian conglomerate Audio Products International Corp. (API), which markets speaker designs under the names Mirage, Energy, Sound Dynamics, and Athena. In fact, it was 20 years ago that API created the first budget speaker that caught my attention, the Mirage 350. At the time, the 350 was the only speaker I'd heard that cost less than $300/pair. It sounded open, musical, and detailed without seeming bass-shy. (A larger successor, the 460, was for many years my reference home-theater speaker.) Although I've been impressed with many other API designs I've heard over the years at friends' houses, press events, and hi-fi shows, it had been more than a decade since I'd formally reviewed an API product.
For many years I have used three sets of headphones, all from Grado Laboratories: the Reference RS-1 ($695), the SR-125 ($125), and the SR-60 ($60). I've always favored Grado headphones because the minimal-resonance design philosophy that I feel is responsible for the uncolored midrange of their moving-iron cartridges extends throughout their headphone range as well. Recently, however, I've achieved a new perspective regarding the SR-125 'phones that I felt would be of interest to Stereophile readers.
Paul Barton is a legend in the speaker business. For 25 years this musician and engineer has dedicated his life to providing speaker purchasers with higher levels of sonic realism at lower prices. Barton is a frugal perfectionist, and his obsession with psychoacoustics is evident in all his designs. I was mightily impressed with his midpriced Image 4T (Stereophile, February 2001), which was, like all Barton designs, designed with the assistance of the facilities of Canada's National Research Council.
I haven't been shy in these pages regarding my love for the Mission 731i loudspeaker (reviewed in November 1996, Vol.19 No.11). It quickly became my reference standard for an entry-level audiophile speaker. Subsequent to my review, Mission significantly improved the speaker by introducing a silk-dome tweeter (see Follow-Up in April 1998, Vol.12 No.4). I bought three pairs: one for my home recording studio, one for my faux outdoor summer-home system (guest bedroom windowsills, pointing outward), and one for portable use to drag to friends' parties when their sound systems are not up to snuff.
The most exciting development in audio today isn't multichannel surround, single-ended triodes, or $10,000 phono cartridges. It's "trickle down." I get buzzed when an audio designer known for cutting-edge multikilobuck designs claims to have a product that can produce 80% of the sonic realism of his flagship design at 50% of the cost. I get even more excited when he does it again—that is, produces a product that produces 64% of his flagship's performance at 25% of the cost. Designers who have successfully trickled-down their flagship technologies abound in all quarters of audiophilia, from electronics (eg, Audio Research, Conrad-Johnson) to speakers (Alón, ProAc) to cables (MIT).
Creek Audio founder/designer/co-owner Michael Creek is a quiet, friendly, unassuming man. Unlike some ego-driven electronics designers who tout their products very loudly from their pulpits, Michael Creek has been quietly designing high-quality, musical, and affordable integrated amps in black-metal boxes for nearly 20 years. His target market is the passionate music-lover who wants something a notch above an entry-level NAD or Rotel receiver, but whose bank manager would frown on splurging on electronic separates.
I have a passion for great speaker designs at affordable prices, and with modern driver, crossover, and cabinet technologies making innovative strides, many serious high-end speaker designers are turning their attentions to coming up with the next great budget speaker. All audiophiles need affordable speakers, whether to recommend to friends to lure them into our hobby or to set up multiple, less costly systems in our own houses. I currently run a main reference system, a vacation-house system, a recording-studio system, a computer system, a portable system I take to parties, a car system, and an office system. I insist on having music playing constantly, wherever I am, unless my wife or son tells me to turn it off—which happens increasingly often these days.
As a reviewer who has focused on seeking out high-quality audiophile gear for cost-constrained readers, I'm embarrassed to say that the flagship RB-991 stereo amplifier is the first Rotel product I've had in my house. (To be fair to myself, this 38-year-old family-owned company did not develop a large US market presence until this last decade.)