Over the past year or so, a parade of expensive loudspeakers has passed through my listening room (footnote 1), each claimed by its manufacturer to deliver the real musical deal. Like the people who designed them, these speakers have come in all shapes, sizes, and personalities. While the designer of every one of these speakers has claimed "accuracy" and "transparency" as his goal, the truth is, any concoction of pulsing cones, ribbons, sheets of Mylar, or whatever that's bolted into or on top of a box makes music because it is a musical instrument. How could it be otherwise, when all of these accomplished and expensive loudspeakers have sounded very different from one another, and made me feel different while listening to them?
Gunther Frohnhöfer, Acoustic Signature turntable designer and company owner, informed me last week that the business relationship between his company and Ballmann, the manufacturer of the German Behold line of electronics, which includes a headshell-mounted 768kHz/24-bit A/D converter (see my "Analog Corner" column in the forthcoming April 2005 issue of Stereophile), has been severed. Frohnhöfer has relinquished his position as Ballmann's general manager. "Doing both my own product and the Behold electronics line was too much for one person to handle," he told me. Instead, Frohnhöfer will focus on his core turntable business, while Mr. Ballmann will continue developing, manufacturing, and marketing his electronics line.
"So what kind of music do you listen to?" I heard myself asking Leif Mårten Olofsson, designer of the Coltrane, Coltrane Alto, Duke, Miles II, Mingus III, and Monk loudspeakers, before I could take it back. The small company, headquartered in Göteborg, Sweden, where Volvos are made, has been building and marketing loudspeakers for the past six years, though Olofsson confesses he's been building them for 30 years, ever since he was 12.
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.)
To compartmentalize or not to compartmentalize, that is the question. Does one review an expensive CD player at the dawn of the 24-bit/96kHz digital age by pulling a "Clinton," standing defiantly before a jury of audio peers to deliver a speech on the state of the CD art, boxing in, roping off, and all but ignoring the new, supposedly unimpeachable medium?
If the sole criterion for choosing a winner in today's hotly contested premium arms race was original thinking, the Immedia RPM-2 might well come out on top. While some of its design details resemble those found on other products, in many significant areas the arm is unique—not for uniqueness's sake, but in order to efficiently implement some clearly considered goals. If the unipivot RPM-2 bears a resemblance to any other contemporary arm, it is Naim's highly regarded ARO—which I've never heard. The similarity, though, would appear to be superficial.
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.