Listening #31

I wish the domestic audio industry of 2005 were more like the pop-music industry of 2005, with its variety, vitality, and ability to reach beyond its boundaries to move people. And its sense of fun, which hi-fi often seems to entirely lack.

Despite what you might think, this is a pretty good time for pop music. We're unlikely to hear the unself-conscious emergence of any genuinely new styles, as happened a number of times during the previous century. But we can at least buy great new records by such original talents as Bonnie "Prince" Billy, Golden Shoulders, Spoon, TV on the Radio, Will Johnson, Grandaddy, Joanna Newsom, and hundreds of others I haven't even heard of. In 2005 it's easier to find musicians and songwriters to care about, because more people than ever are making music, and making it available to listeners.

Of course, some folks think it's not so easy to find good new music, probably because there's never been a time when artistic merit has had less to do with mass popularity, or with the likelihood of being signed and promoted by a major record company. I'm not sneering at people who still care what the major labels do, because I'm among those middle-aged listeners who can remember when almost all of the acts on big labels such as Warner Bros. and Atlantic and Columbia really were worth listening to (footnote 1). I used to be able to trust them.

The point remains, I can't do that anymore: I can't just amble into my local record shop and ask the friendly guy behind the counter to recommend something from among the best new releases on such-and-such a label. First of all, that record shop doesn't exist anymore. Second, if it did, the person behind the counter probably wouldn't be very friendly. And third, there's a ten-to-one chance that any new release on the abovementioned labels is junk, because most new mainstream pop recordings are written, arranged, or produced by marketing people instead of artists, and because a disturbing number of the new performers who are being signed are children of privilege—offspring of executives and movie stars and other successful recording artists, whose greatest talent is not for music but for self-promotion (footnote 2).

Now transpose all that to hi-fi. Some people—again, mostly older people—still expect the big names to deliver the goods. They want to go into a store and ask for a nice-sounding piece of gear from AR or Marantz or Bose or some other name they remember from their sun-dappled youth. Then comes nostalgia's slapdown: AR doesn't exist anymore; Marantz, although their product line contains a few very nice items, simply isn't the same company; and Bose...well, let's not go there today. In a field such as this, where art and commerce mingle nervously, 21st-century consumers simply can't depend on the big names to take care of them anymore. I mean, they do—but they shouldn't.

Go west, young man
In hi-fi as in popular music, it takes some digging to find the stuff that's both interesting and affordable. For some folks, that's led to the burgeoning field of do-it-yourself tube amps and high-efficiency loudspeakers—and that's totally cool. For some folks.

But not every tiny company makes products for a tiny niche: Some are actually quite mainstream in their ambitions—like Cox Audio Systems of suburban White City, Oregon. Loudspeaker designer Steve Cox has his sights set on nothing more exotic or twiddly than a product based on the tried and true cones-in-a-box formula, albeit one with higher efficiency than average. Not long ago Cox sent me his SM-081 floorstander ($3895/pair), and after three weeks of listening, I'm having trouble imagining the audiophile who wouldn't be very impressed with it in almost every way.

The midrange driver of this four-way speaker is a 4" pulp cone, the rear wave of which fires into a smallish sealed chamber, reflex-loaded with two ports. A bow-shaped metal strap straddles that cone, creating a platform for the coincidentally mounted 1" dome tweeter. Below and partly behind the midrange driver's loading chamber is another sealed box, for the upper-bass driver, a 5.5" pulp cone. That one is also reflex-loaded, with a pair of large, angled tubes. Finally there's the 7" side-firing lower-bass driver, mounted near the bottom of the cabinet, and reflex-loaded with a single, very large bent tube. The loading chamber for that one also contains the crossover components, hardwired together on a long rectangular board.

There wasn't much to prepare me for how well the SM-081 performed: At a glance, it looks like thousands of other slim towers. There's nothing extraordinary about the cabinet. The hookup wire isn't anything special. I might even have wondered if the crossover network didn't suffer from being at the bottom of the cabinet, almost 3' from the input connectors—and in the one portion of the cabinet where it's likeliest to encounter vibrational interference. And I haven't even mentioned the prominently mounted, and at least mildly puerile, company logo...

Then there are the drivers. The three cones are all thick pulp, built into frames that are merely stamped instead of cast, and two of them are from companies in Asia not associated with handbuilt, perfectionist audio components. But, as it turns out, they were all chosen for their sensitivity and their appropriateness to the job—and Steve Cox does in fact modify them, to some extent. He also builds the mounting apparatus that combines the two highest-frequency drivers into a single, elegant point source.

Why do the finished speakers sound so good? Damned if I know. But the SM-081 consistently satisfied me with every kind of music I enjoy. It took seven or eight hours for its treble to smooth out, before which the speaker called attention to itself—it was difficult for me to imagine what I was hearing as music, impressive though the sound might have been. That condition changed, literally in mid-record, while I was listening to the good Speakers Corner LP reissue of Borodin's String Quartet 2 (Decca SXL 6036): There was a point in time when I was listening with my eyes closed, and then all at once I could imagine being in the presence of the real thing. Musically, I heard a coherent, overarching line and a fine sense of flow; sonically, I heard a convincing spatial illusion, just a few feet from where I was sitting, of instruments being bowed with no small effort.

The sound of those instruments was convincing. It was neither that sterile, lifeless, inefficient, constipated, tight-as-a-nut high-end sound, nor the coarse, colored, sloppy, somewhat drunk sound of the intentionally lively and efficient speaker that doesn't seem to care if it gets anything else right.

Footnote 1: Warner Bros. in particular: I'm always amazed when I look back at those Warner/Reprise "Loss Leader" samplers of the late 1960s and '70s: For just $2 you got a double album full of music by Neil Young, Captain Beefheart, Joni Mitchell, Little Feat, Frank Zappa, the Grateful Dead, Arlo Guthrie, Van Morrison, Randy Newman, and the Faces. Good grief—did those labels ever sign a bad artist?

Footnote 2: I know a lot of people who don't agree with me on this, but one could make the case that Kurt Cobain was probably the last pop star with talent, vision, and a lower-middle-class background—which is to say, he was the last of rock's real things.