CES 2012 Report - Alan Taffel on Loudspeakers $7k to $25k

Show report
CES 2012 Report - Alan Taffel on Loudspeakers $7k to $25k

By the third day I could walk into a room and, without asking a single question, know if the speakers on view were in my price category. Not because of their sound, but because of their appearance. Speakers in this price range are of a certain stature—substantial but not extravagant. They are narrow, because high-quality large woofers are expensive. To compensate, designers use multiple smaller woofers. If you spend this much you are entitled to a furniture-grade finish and to high-quality wood, but usually not to exotic cabinet materials. Put all these factors together and, with very few exceptions, speakers that rotate around the $15k axis have a distinct “look.”

But, as I soon discovered, they do not have a uniform sound. I heard new entrants that had almost no bass—and some that had too much. Quite a few models were tipped up in the highs, like televisions with the picture control set to Vivid. But plenty of others sounded rolled off. Dynamically, there were both extroverts and wallflowers. And a handful sounded just right.

I’ll start with one of those: the brand new Marten Django, out in February at a price of $15,000 the pair. Of late Marten has been introducing higher-and-higher-priced models, all featuring expensive ceramic drivers. The Django does incorporate a ceramic tweeter and midrange, but ceramic woofers were out of the question. Marten says that if the Django’s triple woofers were made of that material, its price would have soared to $50k! That prospect was completely counter to Marten’s determination to create a “world-class,” full-range affordable speaker. So it made due with aluminum bass units. Frankly, I could not hear a down side.

How good is the Django? So good that my first listening note reads: “Nothing wrong with this sound”. So good that importer Dan Meinwald and I both got goosebumps listening to Jackson Browne’s bittersweet “I’m Alive” from Love is Strange. So good that right now your faithful TAS correspondents are in a pitched battle over who will have the privilege of reviewing them. Among the multitude of introductions at this year’s CES, in my category the Marten Django was a standout.

But not the only standout. I have yet to attend a CES where Joseph Audio was not making good sound. The company’s new Perspective model ($11,800) was no exception. Perspective slots between the $7k Pulsar and the $28k Pearl, but is meant to emulate the sound of the latter. To that end, Perspective uses the very same dual-cone tweeter that was designed to absorb back waves. Of course, the woofers are smaller and the new model is a 2.5-way rather than a 3-way (not unusual at this price point), but the piano finish is as gorgeously glossy as ever.

Most importantly, Perspective’s performance is typical for Joseph Audio—and that’s a very good thing. The sound I heard was smooth and detailed. I especially appreciated the fact that the speakers—unlike far too many at CES—did not call attention to themselves. Perspective is spec’d down to 34Hz, though at the show the bass wasn’t getting anywhere near that.

As with cars, “all-new” models are rare in the speaker business. Most “new” models are actually updates on previous versions or the result of trickle-down parts and technology from more expensive models. There’s nothing wrong with that. But when a truly new speaker comes out, it’s an event. This was the case with the Rega’s new flagship, the RS10. You know Britain’s Rega primarily for its standout CD players. What you may not know is the company also makes a gem-like line of electronics, and its speakers are grossly underrated.

The RS10 is tentatively priced at around $13k and won’t be available until the summer. The impetus for building it was the company’s need to offer a speaker that matched its recent Reference Series CD player and electronics. The speaker is unusual in that both its woofer and a mid/bass unit are side-mounted, as is its port. A control allows the bass level to be adjusted by +/-3dB for better room matching. At CES this control was set for neutral, and the resultant sound had plenty of bass and, as with all Rega speakers, an abundance of musicality.

Another entirely new speaker was Meridian’s M6. At $9k, the M6 thankfully costs much less than the BMW of the same name. This M6, like all Meridian speakers, offers only digital inputs and is fully powered. But unlike past models, the M6 was designed to “not look like a speaker.” The idea was to create an alternative to in-wall speakers, with better sound but also the ability to blend in with domestic environments. The result looks like a softer version of something mbl might have come up with.

Yet despite its appearance, the M6 is not an omnidirectional speaker; rather, it is a point source for most of its range. The main driver is a 2” full-range unit; an inherent point source. Low bass is handled by a 5.25” downward-firing woofer. Meridian chose this configuration so that the M6 would not only blend in aesthetically, but would allow listeners to enjoy its sound from anywhere in the room. At CES, the rather petite M6’s sound was swallowed up by the enormous space, but the usual point source virtues were fully in evidence.

Dynaudio didn’t just introduce a new speaker; it introduced two models of what is to be an entirely new line. The Confidence range sits just below the company’s top-of-the-line models, so it is not surprising that it incorporates some of Dynaudio’s top technology. That includes the inverted driver arrangement that positions the woofer well away from the floor, and the Esotar2 tweeter, Dynaudio’s best.

The C1 bookshelf model just squeaked into my category at $7700. For $8500 you can have the Signature finish, which I’d take in a heartbeat. Either way, this little guy had phenomenal bass—and I don’t even need to qualify that by adding “for its size.” The lows were matched by sparkling open highs and vivid dynamics. The 3-way floorstanding C4 runs $20k, or $22k with the Signature finish. If you can spare that much coin, you’ll be rewarded with two apiece of high, medium, and low drivers, a much larger sonic scale and bass that nearly overpowered me in the small audition room.

If brand new speakers are rare, new speaker companies are even rarer. Yet this CES heralded the arrival of a new Italian manufacturer called Franco Serblin. The firm is named after its founder, whose name you may not know but whose work you do, for he also founded Sonus faber. The firm’s first out product is called Accordo. The speaker runs $12,995 with stands, and you really do need the latter since that is where the crossover resides. Another novel design element is the asymmetric cabinetry, meant to break up standing waves. As for the Accordo’s sound—if you go for Sonus-Faber’s lush tonality and exquisite finish, you just got a new option.

Switzerland’s Piega is not a new company, but it was new to me. That’s my bad because their new 90.2 ($18k in silver, $20k in piano black) sounded simply terrific. Perhaps this was due to the unique use of a ribbon tweeter and a ribbon midrange. If this wasn’t novel enough, the two drivers were arranged coincidentally (see photo) to create a point source. A Scanspeak woofer rounded everything out. It’s not easy to integrate planars with dynamic drivers, but the 90.2 was perfectly balanced and seamlessly integrated.

Trickle-down speakers were all the rage this year, no doubt as a result of the weak economy. This is good news for audiophiles who cannot afford the plethora of more dearly priced speakers. A case in point is the ProAc D40. Last year I was mightily impressed with company’s then-new K6, a $25k speaker. Since then, the K6’s design team has been busy working on the $12k D40. Despite the price disparity, the two models have much in common, including the glorious ribbon tweeter. Both sport dual 6” mid/bass drivers, but the D40’s are carbon-fiber rather than the K6’s Kevlar. (Who knew that Kevlar would be the more expensive of these materials?)

The company claims many listeners will be unable to distinguish between the two models, and I can see why it says that. As with the K6, the D40 perfectly integrates the ribbon with the dynamic drivers. And the D40 has the same lovely mids and highs I heard from the K6 last year. However, the difference in woofers may be why I heard less defined bass from the D40. On the other hand, it could just be that we were in a hotel room.

Morel, of Fat Lady fame, was another company nobly bringing its flagship’s technology to a lower price point. In this case, the $12k Sopran (no ‘o’) is almost a third of the Fat Lady’s $34k price tag. Nonetheless, the new model still uses carbon fiber for its cabinet—though here it is painted black or white rather than going full Monty—and the firm’s signature zero-internal-damping cabinet design.

But the Sopran has some things that the Fat Lady lacks. For example, where the Fat Lady goes grille-less, Morel felt that at this price point that might be a bit too butch. So it experimented with typical grille designs but found that they all inevitably compromised the sound. The solution was to devise metal grilles whose holes vary in diameter, a technique that smooths out peaks and phase shifts. Further, rather than a single port, Morel decided to port every driver in order to create a more spacious sound. The approach is logical when one considers that the drivers themselves are open in back. All in all, while the Sopran uses less expensive components than the Fat Lady, it is actually a more advanced speaker. So we can look forward to a little trickle up in the Morel line.

Arguably the most important trickle down introduction of the show came from Sony. The goliath introduced the SS-AR2, a $20k scaled-down follow-up to the universally acclaimed SS-AR1. The new model features the same tweeter and midrange drivers, the same internal cabinet construction and gorgeous external finish, and the same goal of musicality over sonic fireworks. The main difference is that the new model’s dual woofers are 6.5” rather than 8” in diameter. This results in low frequencies that measure down to 42Hz, whereas the larger model can plumb to 20Hz. Unfortunately, Sony had the SS-AR2 on static display only, so it remains to be seen if it is as magical as its sibling. We will let you know.


Alan Taffel's Best of Show

Best Sound (cost no object)

The Nola Baby Grand Reference Series II driven by tubed ARC electronics. One of the very few systems at CES that made me want to while away the day just listening to music.

Best Sound (for the lowest price)

The shocking new GoldenEar SuperCinema 3D Array—a “sound bar” with amazing sound and spatiality—driven by Arcam electronics. The entire system, including a pair of subwoofers, cost under $10k.

Most Significant Product Introduction

Thiel’s new CS1.7. These modestly sized, modestly priced speakers (about $5500 in 2Q) looked great and sounded even better. Apparently, Jim Thiel’s legacy is fully intact. I predict these will go like Georgetown Cupcakes.

Greatest Technological Breakthrough

DSD file support on the dCS Debussy DAC. In concert with an open standard dCS has worked out with several DAC and software vendors, this portends SACD sound via USB in the near future.

Most Important Trend

High-efficiency speakers. Many designers focused on providing a more sensitive, stable amplifier load. The result was an effortlessness and openness that, once you hear it, you realize is atypical for high-end speakers.