Tish, Boom, Awwk! Loudspeakers at the 1985 CES

There were no surprises, innovations, or breakthrough designs in loudspeakers at the 1985 Summer Consumer Electronics Show in Chicago. By and large, those on display were nothing more than refinements of, or variations on, previous speaker designs. Of course, there's nothing the matter with that; any improvement in a product is a step in the right direction. It merely perpetuates the pattern of the past ten years: evolution but no revolution.

On a positive note, I am happy to report that there was much less truly abominable sound at this CES than at any previous—at least among the high-end exhibits. (The "Zoo" displays were another matter, which I won't belabor. Suffice it to say that, when components are sold as appliances, sound is not very important.) With but a few exceptions, mediocrity was instead the watch word—mediocrity in imaging, detail, transient response, bass performance, freedom from coloration, and plain, ordinary realism.

But the overall quality of sound at this show was really much better than the norm of a mere three or four years ago. Living with speakers which are at or near the state of the art, however, and which demonstrate what can be done, has made me exceedingly picky about certain aspects of reproduced sound (footnote 1). By those very rigorous standards, I would estimate that the large majority of the loudspeakers I heard at CES were no better than 60% accurate. Most, however, managed to achieve similar levels of mediocrity without any two sounding more than passingly similar. Among the 60 box speakers of different sizes and shapes—there were probably more—there were 60 different "boxy" colorations.

It is now unwritten tradition that subjective reporters preface their CES writeups with some sort of apologium for those exhibitors featuring exceptionally bad sound, the usual excuse being the unpredictability of display rooms. I, for several reasons, am having a change of heart.

First, some exhibitors always manage to produce very good sound at every show, each time in a different room: Audio Research, Janis, Acoustat, Wilson Audio Specialties, Infinity, and Sound Lab (footnote 2).

Audio Research must be singled out among real-world exhibitors. During a conversation, Bill Johnson told me it had taken many hours of tweaking this year to get his system sounding right, and noted that it looked for a while as though he was going to have to have another "silent" exhibit, with Audio Research products on display but not operational. This started me thinking about all those exhibitors who, through the years, have assaulted my ears with some of the most appalling sound this side of a steel foundry—and then complained about their demo room (footnote 3). But there is nothing in a CES room-rental contract that obliges exhibitors to play music. Rather than produce bad sound, they would be better off to have silent exhibits where prospective dealers could look at the lovely styling and be handed blurb sheets.

Third: While a completely bare room can make any system sound excessively bright, all CES demo rooms this year had thick wall-to-wall carpeting and moderately heavy window drapes. They cannot be held responsible for the fact that many of the systems on display sounded unbearably shrill and hard.

Fourth and last: Apart from occasional midbass problems, every speaker system that I have auditioned in my own home has sounded just about the same as at some previous CES. I conclude that one can usually tell a great deal about the intrinsic quality of a speaker from a CES demo.

On the basis of all the speakers I heard in Chicago, I would say that the most common failings of today's "high-end" speakers are poor high end and mediocre definition across the board. Several wide-range electrostatics were demonstrated at the show and their midrange and upper-range performances put practically every other system to shame! By comparison, most magnetic systems sounded slightly muddy and veiled through their entire middle range, and combined hardness through the middle highs with dullness and lack of openness through the extreme highs.

Soundstage presentation is another area which still eludes many speaker designers. Although the reproduction of soundstage breadth and depth is, to some extent, room-related—or, rather, rear-wall–related—I was nonetheless surprised at how few systems came even close to the soundstaging capabilities of the WAMM and the Infinity IRS systems, both of which do as well in that area as I have ever heard. Some systems did so poorly that I had to wonder if their designers hadn't inadvertently stumbled over the secret of superb soundstaging—and then applied it backwards!

Low-end performance is something I won't dwell on too much in this report be cause it is the area most likely to be fouled up by the smallish rooms most CES exhibitors must contend with. I shall mention in the report elsehere in this issue only those exhibits which were able to deliver outstandingly good bass performance. As for the others, I offer my sympathies.

One final note about high end before I plunge into my speaker rundown. Those of you who have been reading my loudspeaker reports in Stereophile will have noticed that I prefer a "soft" or "sweet" high end. I have, in fact, earned a reputation in some quarters for liking a "dull" top.

This is not exactly the case. I like a natural high end, which sounds dull to many audiophiles. (The average audiophile still feels that live, unamplified acoustical instruments also sound dull, which is tantamount to a TV viewer declaring that the colors of real-world objects are "washed-out.") But that "dullness" of live musical sound also goes along with an incredible amount of detail and delicacy at the extreme high end, something completely lacking from the sound of most dull or excessively sweet loudspeakers.

To date, only the best electrostatics playing the best signal sources have been able to approach that live-music combination of sweetness, delicacy, and detail. 1 am beginning to suspect that it may be impossible to equal the high end of electrostatics with electromagnetic tweeter designs. It is theoretically possible, but I offer the evidence of my ears and, for the time being, rest my case.

Footnote 1: One of the perks of subjective reviewing is that you get to listen, often for long periods of time, to borrowed components that you could never hope to afford to buy. One of the drawbacks is having, eventually, to send them back.—J. Gordon Holt

Footnote 2: I would throw in Electrocompaniet, though JGH has not been a fan of the sound they used to get from Quad ESL-63s, and might not agree.—Larry Archibald

Footnote 3: Even worse are those whose sound is that bad and who don't even know it!—Larry Archibald

ken mac's picture

That's a lotta white shirts!