ULTRA AUDIO -- Archived Article

September 1, 2007

Loudspeaker Systems: Winding Up a Whirlwind Tour

Loudspeakers can be at once the easiest sort of audio product to review and the most cumbersome. The speakers I review -- not of the budget persuasion, and able to fill large spaces with sound -- are typically much larger than electronics, so moving them into an upstairs listening room is a hassle. There’s also the dialing-in process: with electronics, exact placement in the room is rarely an issue; with speakers, it’s always an issue. But once a speaker system has been moved in and set up, reviewing it is the easiest of jobs: a given speaker model always sounds different from the last, and the differences can be described in straightforward ways. For this reason, I like speaker reviews -- they almost write themselves.

This December will see the conclusion of a whirlwind speaker-reviewing tour that will have taken me 22 months to complete. By then I will have listened to at least 12 models in my Music Vault listening room, from stand-mounted two-ways to large, floorstanding four-ways. These speakers have varied not only in size and complexity, but in other interesting ways. First, country of origin: Audio Acoustics (UK); Sound Fusion and two Paradigm models (Canada); YG Acoustics (Israel); Silverline Audio, and two models each from Wilson Audio Specialties and Rockport Technologies (US); and Ascendo and German Physiks (Germany). The price range has been very wide: The Paradigm Signature S6 v.2 costs $4500 USD per pair, while Wilson’s Alexandria X-2 weighs in at $135,000/pair; everything else fell somewhere in between. Vastly differing technologies have been incorporated in these designs: beryllium tweeters, ribbon tweeters; molded cabinets, and cabinets made of carbon fiber, aluminum, or X-material; time-aligned and phase-coherent designs; and on and on. The speaker market is nothing if not diversified.

I take away a number of things from this transducer excursion:

As an audiophile and a reviewer, I’ve learned a lot. I began this exercise using Wilson’s awesome Alexandria X-2 as my reference. I owned that speaker system for almost three years, and though I’ve since moved on, I will have fond memories of my time with it. More recently, I’ve lived with Wilson’s WATT/Puppy 8 ($27,900/pair), an experience that showed me how the learning curve continually advances, even within a single company’s speaker line.

I’ve also developed an appreciation for the complex acoustical, electrical, and mechanical engineering that goes into speaker systems. Look at the technical tours de force built by YG Acoustics and Ascendo (you can read about the latter’s $45,000/pair flagship, the System M-S, in "The World's Best Audio System"). These companies live and breathe the more technical side of speaker design, and their products are the fruits of those cerebral labors. It may not be rocket science -- but it might not be that far off, either.

Paradigm has once again shown me that high-level engineering and superb build quality need not cost a fortune. Their Signature S6 v.2 (review coming in November) is proof that you can get a major player without spending major money. I’m constantly impressed by the value and performance of the speakers I see coming out of Canada.

I’ve also discovered Rockport Technologies. I almost gasped at the performance of their entry-level Mira ($13,500/pair), and have yet to hear a better-balanced speaker anywhere near its price. Later in the year you’ll read about Rockport’s new, far more elaborate Altair ($89,500/pair).

Ever since the planning stages of the Music Vault, I’ve deeply explored room acoustics -- the variety of speakers I’ve trotted in and out of this professionally designed room has done wonders for my knowledge of how differently different speakers interact with the same room. This past year has also seen me begin to take my own in-room measurements, for purposes of speaker placement. I like having the objective support the subjective: checks and balances are welcome.

Finally, I feel I now have a much better handle on what’s available in the loudspeaker market at different price points. Having experienced a healthy cross section of the available designs, I’m more confident in the accuracy of my opinions.

Alas, I’ll be taking a hiatus from speaker reviews after December, to delve back into electronics. This won’t be just the typical stuff, however. For example, I’ve just set up a new digital source based on an Apple MacBook and a Stello DA220 Mk II D/A converter. I’m only beginning to wrap my head around what I’m hearing, but am already reveling in the newfound functionality of such a setup.

Reviewers must regularly revisit product categories to continually expand their knowledge of them -- one thing that never changes is that the audio business is always changing. Reviewing so many loudspeakers has been a treat for me. Better still, it’s made me a more informed reviewer. Hopefully, that will help you as well. After all, that’s why I do it.

...Jeff Fritz

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