The Fifth Element #13 Page 3

The Philips SACD1000 had a slight advantage in articulation and dynamic detail, while the Marantz enjoyed a somewhat greater advantage in musical continuity and richness. Audition both if you can. The Marantz is slightly cleaner-looking and more intuitive to use, and includes a headphone jack, but the Philips has impressive video capabilities. For audio-only use, I call it the Marantz by a nose—despite the fact that you can reset the Philips player's SACD play-mode default from multichannel to stereo, but apparently can't do so on the Marantz. Grrrrr. But the Philips is undeniably a screaming bargain.

Meadowlark's Swift is a tall, quite narrow, floorstanding two-way speaker, an ambitious design that employs transmission-line loading and a first-order crossover. At $995/pair, it's Meadowlark's price-value leader. The Swifts presented a remarkably tall and wide soundstage, with great articulateness and sense of detail, but no exaggerated sibilance—at least not with Unison's S2K.

In view of the Swift's considerable value for money, I feel a bit churlish mentioning that the necessarily small size of the woofer/mid driver perhaps resulted in a certain lack of forcefulness or heft in the upper bass and lower midrange, but that is an extremely tentative conclusion; more break-in and different associated equipment are needed before I resolve the issue. Of course, at this price, there will always be tradeoffs. By all means, try to hear the Swift for yourself; it's a most impressive product that could be just the ticket for your needs and budget.

On the other end of the see-saw, Opera Loudspeakers' Callas Gold stand-mounted two-way ($2295/pair) suffers, if anything, from an excess of energy in the upper bass and lower midrange. Careful stand-mounting at a height that does not add floor-boundary reinforcement just where the Callases are ripely plummy (You! Over there! Curb that thought!) is as necessary as is careful placement away from rear walls, which can reflect the output from the rear-facing port. The Sound Organisation's Z570 24" stands, a bargain at $245/pair, served admirably. Highly recommended. Once those positioning concerns had been dealt with, the Callases delivered warm, inviting sound with powerful bass and fatigue-free treble.

That Unison and Opera sound good together is no great surprise: the companies are not only neighbors, but share development work and partial cross-ownership, as explained by Sam Tellig in September. The Callas Golds share the design aesthetic of the Unison Research amps, with thick, solid-hardwood sides and top cut on bevels to create a faceted profile. Even the rear panel is solid hardwood—impressive at the Callas' price.

An aside equal parts nostalgia and chagrin: I briefly borrowed a friend's pair of the two-way Baby speakers from the now-defunct French firm A.S.A. (an ST fave rave from about five years back). Ah me. The Babys' midrange was clearly superior to both the Meadowlark's and the Opera's, and the bass was more continuous with the rest of the tonal spectrum.

Perhaps the converse of there not being a free lunch is that sometimes, when you pay for lunch, you get your money's worth. Pride of place (understandably so, in view of the outlay) goes to Wilson Benesch's entry-level two-way speaker, the Arc ($3825/pair with wood trim and integral stands). The Arc is based on the tweeter and midrange from the Wilson Benesch $8200 Discovery (which I wrote up in this column in November 2001), without the more expensive speaker's downward-firing isobaric woofer pair, and in a smaller and simpler cabinet, although still made from carbon fiber. The Arcs have the midrange/treble continuity that is the hallmark of the rest of the Wilson Benesch line. Furthermore, in direct comparison with the late, lamented ASA Baby, the Arc sounded even more authoritatively confident and relaxation-inducing.

As a system, Wilson Benesch's Arc loudspeakers, Unison's S2K integrated amplifier, Marantz' SA-8260 SACD player, and the wire goods total about $8750. Although that is a not-inconsiderable sum, it is a fraction of what most systems on display at HE2002 cost. Within its dynamic and bass-extension limitations, this system enveloped me in immensely satisfying music. And that's what it's for.

Flash! Just days before deadline, I received a pair of interconnects from Stereovox (a very cool site). Tremendous focus, but with not a trace of the frigidity that often comes along with it. A potential new high-water mark. More next month!