New Sensations

Here's what I've learned in my 35 years in the High End, first as a hi-fi salesman and then as a full-time reviewer and blogger: No hi-fi, no matter how expensive or exalted, will ever deliver the holy grail. While there have been considerable advances over the years, I can cite two 50+-year-old loudspeakers—Quad ESL electrostatics and Klipsch's big horns—whose transparency and dynamic range, respectively, blow away those of many contemporary high-end speakers. The very best of today's speakers, electronics, and source components don't zero in on a single perfected sound indistinguishable from the experience of being in the same room as the musicians—no, every one of them sounds different from all the rest. I want to experience as many of those flavors as I can.

I've had my share of great speakers, starting with the Snell Type A in the late 1970s, then the Beveridge Model 3, Snell Type C, Symdex Sigma, Quad ESL-63, Anthony Gallo Acoustic Reference, JMlab Mini Utopia, Dynaudio Special 25, Zu Druid IV, Dynaudio C1, KEF LS50, Magnepan MG3.6 and '3.7, and now the Zu Druid V. Some of these stuck around for long-term relationships—I lived with the Snell Type As and Quad '63s for more than six years each, and the Dynaudio C1s and KEF LS50s are still here.

But I'm a reviewer—there's always a parade of new gear shuffling through my home. As I write this, I'm working on a review of the Klipsch Heresy III, a rock'n'roller's dream speaker. The original Heresy debuted in 1957, and while it's evolved over the years, it still sounds like an old speaker. The resolution isn't stellar, but these 24"-tall floorstanders are total party animals! Their kind of rough'n'ready charm is a rare commodity in audiophiledom—many highly respected, $50,000+ speakers can't go all the way with the Ramones or Iggy and the Stooges. Sure, those 400-lb brutes can play stupid loud, but a lot of them sound too tightly wound when trying to rock out. My Magnepan '3.7s didn't click with Elvis Costello and the Roots' nasty-sounding Wise Up Ghost, but I love those tunes through the Heresy IIIs. Too much resolution might reveal too much information about a lot of contemporary recordings, but the IIIs took the edge off, and Wise Up Ghost sounded better for it.

I've never heard a speaker that can do it all: freewheeling dynamics, ultra-low distortion, Åbertransparency, low-level detailing, razor-flat response, pants-flapping bass, plus holographic imaging, and be able to sing with 7W 300B-tube amps and 1000W monoblocks. Now, sure, if you live in a house with Quad ESLs in one room, Wilson Audio Sasha 2s in another, and Avantgarde Duo horns in a third, you're one lucky audiophile. I'm going for my own, smaller-scale version of that—I just want to serially experience as many sounds as possible.

I know a few well-adjusted audiophiles who've settled down with a system and never changed a thing. I'm not in their camp. I like making 180¯ turnarounds in my sound, as illustrated by my swing from Maggie '3.7s to Zu Druid Vs—wildly different-sounding speakers. The Druid Vs are great communicators; through them, I feel the music's timing, pulse, and pace better than through any other speakers I've had at home. The Vs' organic, fuller-bodied tonality is more inviting, and dynamic jolts that were tamed by the '3.7s—and by every other panel speaker I've tried—come alive through the Druids. Granted, the Vs' top end can't touch the '3.7s' ribbon tweeters, they're nowhere near as transparent as the Maggies, and they make less bass.

But I'm also intrigued by the Druid V's flexibility. With a specified sensitivity of 101dB/W/m and a nominal impedance of 16 ohms, it's super-easy to drive, and can strut its stuff with flea-power single-ended-triode amps. That was never going to happen with the Magnepan MG3.7s.

My decision to move to the Zu Druid Vs rattled some of my audiophile pals. Methinks there was a bit of politically correct audiophile thinking at play here, but my home system needs to please just one person: me. Yes, of course—the Magnepan '3.7's superfast, full-range dipole ribbon makes it a higher-resolution speaker. I still love it, and if I had a big house with lots of room and money enough, I'd never let any of my favorites go. But I live in a Brooklyn apartment, and I'm ready to change course. I hasten to add that most of my naysaying audiobuds haven't actually heard the Druid Vs, and the one who has has really loved 'em—and he owns Quad ESLs!

Listening to my LP of Duane Eddy Does Bob Dylan (1965) cranked way up slams the Druid Vs into high gear. I'm loving the way Eddy's twang pop totally rejiggers Zimmie's tunes. The sound doesn't conform to any audiophile criterion—Eddy's raucous party jams just feel great. That record led to the Goldfinger soundtrack (1964, LP). When Shirley Bassey's take-no-prisoners vocal and John Barry's rip-roaring score cut loose, transparency is the last thing on my mind.

Another thing I've learned over the years is that audiophiles tend to play the music that sounds best on their systems, and less of the music that doesn't complement those systems' strengths. So if you love string quartets and acoustic jazz, sure—stand-mounted minimonitors might be the cat's meow. Right now, I'm more in the Black Keys/Aphex Twin mode, and the Zu Druid Vs are a better fit. Maybe you need to stop looking for what other people claim is the best, and start assembling a system that's in sync with your own musical taste. Of course, if you want to dig Igor Kipnis harpsichord recitals on Monday, ear-bleeding Black Flag assaults on Tuesday, and on Wednesday feel the earth move with Mussorgsky's Pictures at an Exhibition, you'll probably wind up with a system that doesn't do full justice to any of them.—Steve Guttenberg

prerich45's picture

  Excellent article Steve!!! You nailed it with this one. I actually own Cornwalls and a Heresy for a center channel, but I also have three identical Bag End M6 monitors - how's that for a speaker type swing!  I've stated in other places that I believe speaker companies actually voice their speakers to their particular audience, this article makes me believe that even more. Well done! 

remlab's picture

..that sounds best with your music as apposed to the other way around does make profound sense. There would be a lot more happy audio guys out there. Neighbors, on the other hand..

Utopianemo's picture

Hey Steve,

Great piece.  I don't always agree with your conslusions, but in an A/V world of stuffy, pretentious writers, I admire your straightforwardness and down-to-earth mentality.  


I also respect your opinion.  Since you typically have a keen eye/ear for value, I hope you get around to reviewing Chane ARX speakers.  I'm a guy who values value, and right now I'm leaning towards the Chane A2Rx-c as my next upgrade, just slightly more than the Wharfedale Diamond 10.2's, the bigger brother to the 10.1's you have recommended.


Back to topic, I liked this article a lot; I agree with your sentiments, which is probably why I'm forever screwed as a music appreciator.  My favorite work of all time is Rachmaninov's All-Night Vigil, but I listen to Hip-Hop, indie rock, and low-fi electronica 99% of the time.  I'll never find a speaker that sounds as good playing "Blessed is the Man" as Sade's "Bullet Proof Soul" or Shad's "He Say She Say".

johnny p.'s picture

..with the Heresys. But Steve liked the Tannoy Kensington SE more than any -ever - yet listens to Dynaudio cones.

And the Zus are controversial for a reason - they deviate from tonal accuracy. JA was slow to approve review of these (for years) for this very reason....

370lbgorilla's picture

... that some of today's speakers just aren't very good at "rocking out".  After 30 plus years of buying and selling a lot of gear and speakers, I've returned to an old favourite to fully enjoy the types of music I listen to most:  Metal, Rock, Jazz, and Blues.  A vintage pair of 102 dB Sound Dynamics 15S.  If I had thought too much about why these couldn't possibly sound good, I might have talked myself out of buying them.  After all, they have a wide baffle, are a two-way with a 1" tweeter crossing over to a 15" woofer, and aren't what I'd call "pretty", although I do dig the look.  However, when I crank Killswitch Engage, Journey, or Buddy Guy, these give me all the dynamics and slam I need without even breaking a sweat.

Looking forward to reading your review of the Heresy III.  I've always wondered if the Heritage line had a little "something" that hasn't translated to Klipsch's newer designs.

redriverhautbois's picture

This is always a struggle I have as an audiophile with eccentric musical taste.  It's taken me a long time to put together components that are versitile enough to handle my (often low-fi) punk and hardcore, while also doing justice to my classical, jazz, and prog rock.

I do however think my Mac and JBL L80T combo are currently doing an admirable job at the task...

revdocjim's picture

I'd say you are in the right line of work. After all, the type who happily settles in with one system for years or decades wouldn't enjoy having to haul in, set up, break in, listen and review, then dismantle system after system after system. For those who inherently enjoy change it's perfect. And I know the high end audio industry thanks you!

Personally, I can't afford to do it that way, and besides, it really is the music I'm after, not the gear. So I have a system that plays my favorite music beautifully and it hasn't changed very much in 20 years. 

Hafler XL-280 driving Magnepan MMG speakers. I recently got a new Marantz CD player and built my own passive attenuator to replace an old CD player that had its own volume control. It's not that I intentionally choose music that sounds good on my system, as you sort of suggest in the article. Exactly the opposite, I choose a system that sounds good with my music! :) 

DoggyDaddy's picture

"I want to experience as many of those flavors as I can."  This is a mentality I just don't get.  I want to experience as many flavors of MUSIC as I can.  The gear: I just want it to do the best possible job.  Yes, I realize there is no "objective" hi-fi experience.  But it would seem to me if you're listening to how different gear sounds different, you're not entirely listening to the music - it's a different kind of listening.  If you're really digging the music, who cares how you got there?  I'm not saying I don't find gadgets (SET, Class A, ruby cantilever, etc) interesting, but it's a different kind of interest and really has little to do w/ enjoyment of music per se.  It's just the means.

iosiP's picture

1. Getting different systems for different music? Usually not possible, as monetary and space constraints come into play

2. Getting one system optimised for the kind of music you most listen to? Also not possible, unless your music tastes are very limited. Very unlikely if you realy love music and have 2000+ records spanning the range from harpsichord to Yello.

3. Just a statement to the fact that different gear is better suited to different music? Sorry, but this belongs to he first  lecture of Audio 101.


Utopianemo's picture

Don't be an ass.  8 people in a row found his article interesting.  You didn't; he must not have been writing it for your benefit.  

prerich45's picture

  I can tell that you have audio experience (2000+ records), however when you go to a show - you usually hear the same type music if not the same music wink!!! You will rarely go to a show and hear R&B let alone Gospel (that's not Blues centered), or dare I say it...rap (not considered music by many).  Why is that? I beleive you know why - those genres are not what most of the High-End clientel is listening to.  Just like you won't hear a 'Beats' audio demo with Diana Krall. Its marketing to your market. Builders naturally assume what their listeners are going to listen to - and market accordingly. They voice their product to give excellent results given their market.

I heard the MBLs play some electronica a few years ago and had to leave the room after I had taken pictures.  I wasn't impressed at all!!! I had more pleasure from the Legacy Whispers and the Tidal speakers (the only demo that had Gospel at all....still blues based). Why did I dislike the MBL's ... because they didn't fit my reference for electronica - they did something unpleasant to me - also electronica is not one of my major genres.  I may have liked them with something else being played. 

I do appreciate most (not all) types of music, but I have certain types that I just listen to. Seeing that PWK designed  a few of his speakers for  dual purpose (PA or home) - my point of reference for live sound is that...choirs (mic'd), hammond B-3's with the Leslie rotory speaker, and everything else coming through Klipsch, EV, Yorkville etc.  However, Due to singing with small acoustic groups and acapella choruses I also have a reference of unmic'd music too (but lends to large dynamic swings musical presentation).  These "preferences" shape my attitude in music - and help steer my gear choices.  Where one speaker may fit my preference in one way (say my Cornwalls) my M6 monitors may sound better on a different type. I'm learning its all subjective and relative...even within one's self. smiley

iosiP's picture

... what I am listening to! From Mahler to Stephane Pompougnac and from Patricia Barber to KLF. So no, the point is not in what I can hear live (BTW, I'm living in a neck of the woods where the only genre that is well represented - I mean, by top performers - is jazz). So my point is completely different: I need a system that plays it all, from the likes of Tzadik Music to von Karajan, and including The Little Willies or Prince.

Obviously, I would appreciate a competent advice on such a system, rather than the idea of building different systems for different music. Yes I know: Jack of all tredes is master of none (hope I remembered the line), but I still cannot get the punch line of the above text...

P.S. As for being an "ass" for dissenting with the majority opinion, well, I'll leave this to the majority to judge!

prerich45's picture

   Your comment and postition is just as important as anyone else's (back to that subjective thing again smiley ).  You got the saying right - and you are correct - I'd love to have a speaker that does everything great....but I don't, however they do most of what I listen to very well.  Can my system "play it all" yes.  Will some people object to certain nuances - yep, that's why we have so many speakers.  Ultimately we all deal with compromises. One poster said his speakers have a large front baffle - big woofers like an ample baffle. Most of your no compromise speakers actually have a compromise - space (i.e. wife thinks they're too big).  They may be no compromise to us but to our significant others - they are all too compromising.  I think I've just come to a point that I know that the perfect speaker doesn't exist in my price range - but I try and get as close as I can get (while still enjoying the "flavor" of another person's system).  It's kinda like BBQ its all meat - in some cases the same cut - but its your regions representation of it.   I believe we all have cultural, socio-economic, and regional variables that indicate what we consider is great sound (remember years ago - the british sound (bbc speakers), the New England sound - snell/BA, the California sound - JBL) - now we say this speaker has no coloration (but it has still been "voiced") or that this speaker is neutral, different descriptors according to others opinions....and that's fine. I'm enjoying my music and the hobby too winksmiley

iosiP's picture

I lived in Montreal for 5 years and met people that could have used a bike (or at least a skateboard) to surf from one end of their living room to the other. My speakers (at that time) were Totem Model One: a great small speaker, but not nearly powerful enough to fill the volume of such a room. Meanwhile, I couldn't dig the propensity of some asian folks for smallish speakers and 3Wpc SET amps... that is, until I made a long business trip to Japan and saw what they call a "living room" (and I would call a closet).

So yes, cultural and regional variables come into play, and no speaker can be everything to everyone. Furthermore, there are listening habits that shape acoustic preferences: while I was putting in 10 to 12 hours/day working for a multinational I had little time for listening, so I favoured a very detailed and "ruthlessly revealing" system. Now that I work as an independent consultant (with the benefit of 5-6 hours of daily audition) I switched to a more "musical" presentation.

So all in all, I just think praising the latest incarnation of technology is as delusional as going the path of nostalgia and dusting old boxes with little (if any) acoustic merit, 'cause "times, they are a-changing".

Eidolonsix's picture

Some of us want our systems to "Paint the soul, not the flesh" of the music we enjoy.  This may fly in the face of tonal/scientific accuracy. The beauty of audiophilia is that their are endless equipment and conditional variables to accomplish this. 

sazzpac's picture

Glad you are shining a spotlight on these speakers. I always seek out Zu speakers at the stereo shows for a listen - they sound refreshingly different with a live, fast, and sort of visceral quality. 

You pointed out that the Zu Druid V is very efficient. This is an underrated quality. With amps, more watts/power equals more cost, weight, size, and heat. There is a sliding scale at work here. So, let me suggest that efficient speakers save money because they mate well with lower wattage and therefore less expensive amps.   

But, check me on this: One caveat is you need a very high quality amp because high efficiency speakers readily pick up even the slightest amp noise (hiss).  

Doctor Fine's picture

I am so sorry for you Steve Guttenberg that you have never in all your years experienced a truly intoxicating "you are THERE-they are HERE" stereo system.

What a drag it must be to be such an industry "expert" and yet never have heard a system which is so real and life-like as to shock you. WITH ALL KINDS OF MUSIC.

I myself decided enough was enough and began a project to build and set up a PERFECT music system that sounded totally life-like and could handle ALL kinds of music effortlessly without risk of speaker overload and damage to components.

To be successful it would have to have 20-20000 response, no boominess or one-note bass and palpable real "you are there-THEY are HERE mid-range." It would have to give the impression on even BAD recordings that the audio was listenable and the limitations charming, not irritating.

It would have to have ZERO listerner fatique, NOT be peaky or dull. It should be INVISIBLE and throw a HUGE soundstage when the recording included same.

I surveyed all the equipment available at my price no object store and concluded that for life like electronics and speakers AND the set up furniture and treatments the budget was going to have to be around thirty thousand dollars or this woud have no chance of happening.

Thirty thousand is the price of a standard car nowadays and back in the 60s 2500 dollars was the price of a standard car and a really great system cost that in 1965. So it seemed agreeable IF it would provide a lifetime of music enjoyment. YMMV.

Oh by the way---I totally succeeded and in fact now have a system that outperforms anything I have ever heard anywhere. Because it was a planned deliberate assault and the set up and room were tuned to within an inch of their lives. This stuff WORKS, Steve.

I am so sorry others do not have what it takes to build and appreciate "the holy grail." Not MY problem. Sorry.

I am perplexed but slowly coming to appreciate that today's "experts" are not at all devoted to "value oriented high performance and total all out assault on the state of the art."

No. Today the goal is "STATUS" and "HOW MUCH DID YOU PAY FOR THAT???" and HOW BIG IS YOUR SET?" and other such nonsense.

I have stuck with the basic meat and potatoes approach to setup and component buying which dictates that the system sound EXACTLY LIKE LIVE MUSIC and so for obvious reasons people in the current "hobby" hate me.

I LIKE being hated. I LOVE having a system which is a "time machine" and sounds EXACTLY LIKE LIVE MUSIC. I have only this to say to those modern practitioners who pooh-pooh the possibility of "the Holy Grail.":

Go sit with Art Dudley.

melissassippi's picture

Never should have parted with them. Every album I owned sounded awesome on those things. Very emotional, especially drums and guitars. And that was using lamp cord cut off a big roll hanging from the ceiling at Electronic City!

melissassippi's picture

Never should have parted with them. Every album I owned sounded awesome on those things. Very emotional, especially drums and guitars. And that was using lamp cord that was cut off a big roll hanging from the ceiling at Electronic City!