It has been 20 years since Montreal-based Totem Acoustics made its name with the Model One minimonitor, and the speaker has both remained in production and been featured in Stereophile's "Recommended Components" listing all that time. I am working on a follow-up of the current production One, but taking pride of place in Totem's FSI suite was the limited-edition Model One Signature ($3595/pair). Only 2000 pairs will be made, and differences over the regular Model One include upgraded drivers, a bevel-edged, mahogany-veneered cabinet stained "root brown," and the WBT connector panel you can see in my photo. Despite the speakers' diminutive stature, the system, based on an Accuphase CD player, Plinius integrated amplifier, and Totem's own biwire cables, filled the relatively large suite with satisfying sound.
One of Gershman Acoustics's dem rooms was next door to my hotel room. I was well aware, therefore, the night before the Show opened, of the pains the Canadian speaker company was taking to get the best sound from their affordable Sonogram loudspeakers (CDN$3695/pair). The result, using a system based on Audio Research CD3 Mk.2 player, LS26 preamplifier, and Reference 110 power amplifier, and Gershman's own cables was impressive.
Something I found fascinating about the Reference 3a Veena loudspeaker that Robert Deutsch writes about below is that it (almost) dispenses with a conventional crossover. The Murata supertweeter at the top is driven directly, as is the 8" woven–carbon-fiber-coned unit beneath the tweeter, which covers the range from 94Hz upward. The soft-dome tweeter is fed via a single capacitor, and the twin woofers have a simple 2nd-order low-pass filter. Tash Goka explained to me that saving money on the crossover allowed the designer to use high-quality internal components such as Bybee Quantum Purifiers, Mundorf silver capacitors, and van den Hul wiring. I agree with Robert that the sound of the Divergent system was surprisingly good.
Dynaudio's 30th-anniversary Sapphire speakers had impressed the heck out of the magazine's scribes at other Shows, so I made a point of taking a listen in the room the Danish manufacturer was sharing at FSI with home-team electronics manufacturer Simaudio. The system included Simaudio's Moon SuperNova CD player, Moon P-7 preamplifier, and Moon W-7 power amplifier, all wired with Siltech cable. The speakers are not that large, visually, and use a pair of 8" woofers per side, but they appear to have excellent bass performance, to judge by the ease they reproduced some subterranean stirring on a performance of Miles Davis' "So What" from a Flanger CD called Midnight Sounds. Then I noticed that there wasn't a CD playing!
I was as impressed as Robert Deutsch had been with KEF's $140k/pair Muons, and enjoyed a couple of tracks from the late Joe Zawinul's Faces & Places CD, Musical Fidelity's new 750k Supercharger monoblocks driving the speakers to satisfyingly high levels. Except there was no CD playing. It turned out I was listening to a 320kbps AAC file on an iPod sitting in the Wadia dock you can see in the photo. This takes an I2S digital output from a late-generation iPod and KEF were using the S/PDIF datastream to drive the digital input of the Musical Fidelity CD player at the top of the equipment stack. Given how much ink I have spilled recently on the dangers of lossy-compressed file formats, my face must have been as red as the room’s illumination had been at the time.
Not too long after I got my first audio magazine job in 1976, I reported on the founding of a new speaker company, Harbeth, featuring the designs from ex-BBC engineer Dudley Harwood, who had pioneered the use of polypropylene as a cone material. Dudley is long since retired but I have followed his company's progress with interest since it was acquired by Alan Shaw, and the little Harbeth HL-P3ES2 has long been a favorite of mine. Harbeth's Canadian distributor, Planet Sound, was demonstrating the larger Super HL5 speakers (around $5000/pair), the next step up from the Compact 7ES-3 that has been a favorite of both John Marks and Sam Tellig in Stereophile's pages. The sound with Audio Research electronics (CD3 Mk.3 player, LS26 preamp, and Ref.110 power amplifier) suffered a bit from a rather boomy room acoustic, but Ella Fitzgerald dueting with Louis Armstrong worked her magic.
It is to be expected at Shows that cost-no-object systems will sound great. But it is also a joy to listen to modest systems that over-achieve. In one of the two rooms sponsored by Bluebird Music, a pair of Neat Motive 2 tower speakers (CDN $2195/paor) made sweet sounds driven by the Exposure 2010S integrated amplifier that had so impressed Art Dudley in November 2005 and the English company's matching 2010S CD player. System price with Chord Company Chameleon Silver Plus interconnect and Carnival 2 speaker cable was a very affordable CDN $5274. I listened to my recording of Hyperion Knight playing the three Gershwin Preludes and was impressed by the balance of performance on offer.
I believe Ken Kantor said it first: a couple of years ago, in his September 1990 interview with Robert Harley (Vol.13 No.9), he remarked that "there's no reason why a two-way 6" loudspeaker can't be the equal of almost the best speaker out there from a certain frequency point upward, with the possible exception of dynamic range." When I read those words, they rang true. If you put to one side the need to reproduce low bass frequencies and can accept less-than-live playback levels, a small speaker can be as good as the best, and allow its owner to enjoy the benefits of its size—visual appeal, ease of placement in the room, and the often excellent imaging afforded by the use of a small front baffle.
My very first review of a preamplifier, for British magazine Hi-Fi News & Record Review in May 1984, was of the Audio Research SP-10. In my opening to that review, I wrote that, "more than any other component," a preamplifier "should approximate to the late Peter Walker's 'Straight Wire with Gain.'" By this I meant that a preamplifier should not be in the business of effecting dramatic changes, and in any case, dramatic changes are not the kind that prove to be of lasting value. However, I also wrote back then that what I became increasingly aware of while using the SP-10 "was the fact that 'neutrality' is a positive virtue rather than just an absence of aberration."
I'm writing these words on the flight home from the 2008 Consumer Electronics Show, held January 7–10 in Las Vegas. I wasn't sure what to expect at this year's CES. Though the official stats show that the US economy has grown for the fourth straight year, audio retailers I spoke with before the Show feel that that economic growth has not resulted in any increase in consumers' disposable incomes. In fact, with the drying up of credit, retailers are concerned that 2008 may well be a step back from 2007 in overall sales, and that high-end audio—a niche category within a niche category—will be adversely affected by the relative impoverishment of the middle class.