Buy Cheap Speakers—Have Fun!

"Be like my friend Frank. He imagines that he's purchased certain products—right now he's imagining that he bought a pair of hard-to-get English speakers which he has read a review of but hasn't heard. This is ideal, since the speakers can sound better and better as Frank imagines more and more. When he tires of these speakers and gets excited about something else, he doesn't have to trade them in. He only needs to start imagining the next product." That was Sam Tellig's friend Frank, back in March of this year. No one could have said it better, but I have a followup.

Of course, I don't guess many of you really took Sam's advice—otherwise, why would you continue to read Stereophile and all the other audio magazines? Sam's advice just puts things into perspective. After all, is your current equipment really that bad? Isn't it just that you've got an itch to get a little closer to the real thing, to go out and spend some money, to convince yourself of the tremendous savvy you possess when it comes to the purchase of hi-fi equipment? From experience, you just know there's a good chance your system won't be better, just different—it might even get worse!

Recent events have been concatenating in the direction of an idea that respects Sam's cheapness, but at the same time deals with the need to buy, the need to experience differences, the need to learn. Here's the idea: Forget about big, expensive speakers—buy cheap ones. Often.

My first inkling in this direction came as I attempted to delve into yet another major speaker left over from one of our real reviewers. (You may remember that I reviewed the Altec Bias 550 in Vol.12 No.4 only because J. Gordon Holt was in the process of changing houses, and the Mirage M-1 that I wrote about in Vol.12 No.6 had been originally scheduled for TJN until it became clear that his residence was also to change—from Las Vegas to Los Angeles.) Just recently I was left with a big, heavy, hard-to-set-up and fussy speaker, diverted from Las Vegas to Santa Fe.

I dutifully set up these speakers (I won't tell you which ones—that comes in November), and, after much moving of bulk and switching of amplifiers and arranging of cables and struggling for a bit of music...well, I just got fed up and set up the Thiel CS1.2s that had just arrived from the aforementioned Sam. (You'll remember from the June issue that ST was not their biggest fan, being a bit put off by a lack of satisfying bass. We had him ship them out here to make sure it wasn't a sample-to-sample variation that caused the different 1.2 assessments. It wasn't—more later.)

Dick ("The Terminator") Olsher was over at my house to augment my impressions of the biggies, and he kept digging up nice things to say. (Even Terminators are nice to little children and big speakers.) After all this struggle I just set up the Thiels in the most elementary fashion, and, lo and behold, there it was: music! Sure, the littlest Thiels can't put out low bass, and, yes, they're far from perfect. But there it was, music—something no amount of prying and moving could elicit from the big, expensive products I was trying to review. DO was dumbstruck by the difference. "Gee, there's space on this record...where did it come from?" I, of course, being familiar with the record, knew the space was there all along, just disguised by how much was being attempted by the review speakers.

They just did too much, in the process obscuring the essence of music. As JA points out most mildmanneredly in the introduction to his report on small speakers in this issue, the more you try to get from speakers the harder it is to get it. To some extent this is due to limitations of source material and real-life rooms. True reproduction of low bass will overload most rooms, and let you know of far too much subway activity at the recording site, not to mention plain old rumble. Nevertheless, the worst problem is that most big speakers fail at what they attempt. Or, just as often, they succeed at low bass but sacrifice the midrange. Violins are no longer violin-size, basses fill the entire space between the speaker or are simply too chesty.

The late 1960s and early '70s were big on the slogan "Small is beautiful"—if you've seen pictures of me, you can guess it's not my favorite! In speakers, though, I frequently have to go along: "Cheap (and usually small) is beautiful." Of course, there's a big proviso: you have to choose from among the elite. I wouldn't say that Stereophile has identified all the good small speakers out there, but choosing from the following four—all in the same approximate price category and all of which got rave reviews in our pages—you can't go wrong: the Spica Angelus, Magnepan MG2.5/R, Thiel CS1.2, Vandersteen 2Ci.

Readers could do much worse than set up the best front end and electronics they can afford and just drop into this welcoming nest whatever small, cheap speaker is all the rage. The most you'll pay for any of the above is $1550. For many of you that won't seem so cheap, but I was knocked over by the results of our Readership Survey (Vol.11 No.10). Most of you readers seem to own relatively inexpensive electronics but quite expensive speakers, many of them costing as much as $3500–$4000/pair.

My recommendation is the opposite. It's not that expensive speakers don't deliver when you buy them (though most will be seriously compromised by inferior electronics), but they are quickly bettered in their respective price ranges—and you've invested too much in them to just sell them off and take a $1200–$5000 beating in the process.

And that's just the half of it. It's my observation that the bigger and more expensive your speaker, the more you have to tailor the rest of your system to just that speaker's idiosyncrasies. Right now I'm listening to the ultimate paradigm in that respect, the Infinity IRS Betas. Though they can do wonderful things (we've had our doubts upon occasion, but no more), you have to use just the right equipment. You don't want the Levinson 20.5s on the midrange-tweeter panels, though they're a most optimal amplifier in every other situation I've used them—only tubed gear will do. (I'm using the splendid VTL 500s to excellent effect.) And forget the Carver Seven T-mod on the bass towers (footnote 1), in spite of this mono amp's 575Wpc rating into 8 ohms (900Wpc into 4 ohms). Only the ultimate authority of a Krell KSA-200, or its ilk, will do. I don't mean simply that the Krell's better; I mean you don't even want to listen to the Betas with the Carvers (though first indications are that it's an excellent amplifier with more modest loudspeakers).

Those are only the most basic problems. Let's talk about preamplifier choice, CD player choice, cartridge choice, cable choice—all verrry touchy. AARRGGH! When you're finished, it's all too easy to have a system in which Betas sound magnificent but nothing else will be even tolerable. You've learned about equipment, but what have you learned about music?

Let's try something else. Say you've invested your hard-earned dollars in the few amplifiers that get universally rave reviews and recommendations, a great phono system, and a good, inoffensive, but modest CD player. Then, about two years ago, let's say you bought a pair of Spica Angeli to round everything out. They set you back all of $950—less than almost any cartridge in AB's recent cartridge roundup. Wow, you said, what imaging, what music! No esoteric conflicts here, just sit back and relax.

Of course, no speaker's forever (even an inexpensive one), and six months later—having learned volumes about imaging specificity on half your record collection (you haven't been able to listen yet to the second half of your 5000-record collection), you decide that the Angeli round off just a little too much, so you grab your latest Stereophile and read about how great the Magnepan 2.5s are, according to JA and LA. Buy 'em!

Maybe you lose $350 on your Spicas, and the new Maggies cost $1550, but that's still cheap compared to the speakers owned by most Stereophile readers—and really cheap compared to high-end speaker cables. Why, it's half as much as a 1-meter pair of highly touted interconnects! (The $350 you lost on the Spicas, that is.) Assuming that you pay attention to the caveats emphasized by JA and JGH regarding room choice and speaker placement, you'll now be happily ensconced at home enjoying the fabulous, big sound of 2.5s, with the ultra-extended, yet easy on the ears, high end of the Magnepan ribbon tweeter. You can't believe such a sound is available for so little—why, your favorite dealer can't get this kind of sound even on his $40,000 worth of gear, not most of the time. And, judging from the Stereophile reports, this is far, far better sound than any reporter hears at a CES or Hi-Fi Show!

Six months later (I think you're getting the idea), the big sound of the 2.5s is wearing a little homogeneous—but look, there's a Thiel CS1.2 with a rave review. Sounds musical. Small. Forgiving. All the right words, so you hasten to a Thiel dealer for an audition, and find a precision that's lacking in your 2.5s. Not easy to trade in a speaker that's worth more than what you're trying to buy, so you sell the Maggies to a friend (who may be following your footsteps all the way) for $1100, and that happens to be just what the Thiels cost. Meanwhile, except for carting the speakers home, unpacking them, and packing 'em up again, you're having a ball. You got to hear your second 2500 records on the Maggies and can't imagine what the first 2500 will sound like on the Thiels.

Six months later, the Vandersteen 2Ci's have found their way into your home, and you're recognizing yet another set of virtues, including real bass (for only $1395 with stands)—and who knows what's next? This is not a literal recipe, of course. You do have to choose your speakers carefully—make sure they're consensus All-Americans, but you can use anyone's ears you trust, not just ours. Keep them one year, two years at a time—whatever's comfortable. Pursue the same idea in backwards order. Don't trade in each speaker at all, just put them in a corner. Don't get past the first step, that's okay too.

I'm advocating component-of-the-month (every six months, actually), but only with speakers. Keep everything else pretty much the same—a new cartridge every once in a while, an experimental (but cheap) cable. Buy cheap speakers. If you choose carefully, they're unfussy, much less fussy than the Class A (or, for that matter, Class B) recommended speakers. Just drop them in, and learn all over again the lovely things on your records. Remember, they may be inexpensive, but there's a good chance you're hearing more from your records than your friend who spent $6000 on speakers. Have fun. That's what it's all about.—Larry Archibald

Footnote 1: The is the Seven T-mod, not the $19,000 Silver Seven on which the T-mod was based. They don't sound identical, at least according to Bob Carver talking in person; maybe Mike Kay of Lyric Hi-Fi, the only store to sell the Silver Seven, had some input in recommending that they don't sound identical. So far, Silver Seven reviewing has been confined to the environs of Sea Cliff, NY—can't imagine why.—Larry Archibald