CES 2014: Loudspeakers under $15,000

Show report
CES 2014: Loudspeakers under $15,000


My press beat for CES 2014 was loudspeakers priced under $15,000/pair—a category that I, and that many of you, love to follow. The appeal of the category is obvious given that, much though we may admire ultra-top-tier offerings, the overwhelming majority of us will base our real-world audio systems on loudspeakers that fall within this price range.

While we may have nearly Pavlovian responses to the loudspeaker world’s equivalents of big ticket Ferraris, Lamborghinis, or Bugattis, at the end of the day we’ll likely wind up buying speakers that, like Corvettes, Porsche Boxsters, or perhaps Mini Cooper S’s or Fiat Abarths, offer a more realistic blend of performance, fun, and value. In other words, we want the good stuff—loudspeakers that offer very good-to-great performance, but ones that won’t put too severe a dent in our bank accounts (or at least that’s what we tell our significant others).

For audiophiles operating within the constraints of real-world budgets, then, I come bearing great news: CES 2014 marked the launch of an impressively large number of fine affordable loudspeakers—many of which delivered eye-opening levels of performance per dollar.

Most Significant—in ascending order of price

GoldenEar Technology Triton One Floorstanding Loudspeaker
GoldenEar’s new Triton One floorstander ($5,000/pair) is arguably the most technically ambitious and best-sounding loudspeaker the firm has ever made. The tall, slim, three-way speaker is fitted with six active drivers, four horizontally opposed low-frequency passive radiators, and a built-in 1600-watt, DSP-controlled subwoofer amplifier. Importantly, the Triton One leverages new design insights on how to maximize midrange and treble openness and transparency, while also showing fresh thinking on how best to configure built-in powered subwoofers. Consequently, the Triton One offers excellent clarity, highly three-dimensional imaging, subwoofer-grade bass depth and clout, plus fine levels of low-end focus, pitch definition, and control. We suspect the Triton One will prove to be a speaker that can legitimately compete with models several times its price.

Davone Audio Riva Stand-Equipped Floorstanding Loudspeaker
The Danish manufacturer offered one of the most impressive speakers in its price class in the form of the three-way Riva “floorstander” ($6,000/per pair). We put “floorstander” within quotation marks because the slender, curvaceous Riva is the size and general shape of many mid-priced floorstanders, but actually rests upon a short, four-legged stand that creates the illusion that the speaker is “floating” about half a foot above the floor. Actually, that’s not the only thing about the Riva that floats, since the speaker lofts beautifully three-dimensional images and soundstages, exhibits admirably neutral tonal response, and can—as the situation warrants—deliver unexpectedly explosive dynamics on demand.

Raidho X-1 Stand-Mount Monitor
Raidho made waves with its upscale C1.1 monitor, D-1 monitor, and the oh-so-capable C4.1 tower, but surprised us at CES with a new compact speaker called the X-1 or “X Monitor”, priced at $7,100/pair, including stands. If you thought the C1.1 was small, then the X-1 is positively pint-sized, but that doesn’t mean it sounds small. On the contrary, the X-1 sounds big, expressive, and articulate. Designer Michael Borresen concedes the X-1s don’t produce much low or even mid-bass, but frankly the very convincing illusion is that they do. Borresen says this is because the X-1 gets the upper bass partials so right that the ear is, psycho-acoustically speaking, convinced lower frequencies must surely be present. I’ve heard designers make such claims before, but this might be the first time I’ve heard a compact monitor actually deliver the promised sonic goods. Honestly, the X-1 sounds like a much more full-range speaker that it actually is, coming across as a junior version of the award-winning C1.1, but for less than half the price!

DeVore Fidelity Gibbon X Floorstanding Loudspeaker
With the new Gibbon X floorstanders ($12,000/pair) DeVore Fidelity has taken a quantum leap into the upper echelon of high-end loudspeaker manufacturers. The three-way, four-driver Gibbon X, which like all DeVore models is named for a family of primates, at once shows the influence of several of DeVore’s high-sensitivity speaker designs (collectively known as Orangutan-series models), but is also intended as a thoroughly contemporary, full-range floorstanding loudspeaker. As an upshot, the Gibbon X delivered an exceptionally detailed and articulate sound, exhibited more or less full-range sound with exceptional treble extension, and deep, solid bass, plus extraordinarily expressive dynamics. Imaging was eerily three-dimensional as well, making the Gibbon X a viable candidate for best sound of the show.

Vienna Acoustics Imperial Liszt floorstanding loudspeaker
For CES Vienna Acoustics rolled out a product that many of us have yearned for: namely, a cost- and size-reduced version of the firm’s spectacular flagship Die Musik loudspeaker. The result is the Imperial Liszt floorstander ($14,999/pair), which serves as the flagship model in the firm’s new Imperial line. Like Die Musik, the Imperial Liszt uses a coaxial/co-planar tweeter/midrange array contained in a beefy, swiveling head unit that is mounted atop the Liszt’s tower-type bass enclosure. The head unit can be adjusted for optimal imaging and then firmly locked in place for the best overall sound. Unlike Die Musik, the Imperial Liszt uses an all-new tweeter said to obviate the need for the Murata super tweeters used in Vienna’s top-tier models. Down below, the bass enclosure houses three of Vienna’s signature “Spider-Cone” woofers, said to be unusually rigid and responsive drivers. A brief listen proved very promising, whetting our appetite for more.

Auspicious Debuts-in ascending order of price

Totem Kin 2.1-Channel Speaker System
Seeking to leverage the success of its Element-series loudspeakers while bringing their technology to a (much) lower price point, Totem introduced a new 2.1-channel system comprised of the Kin monitors ($500/pair) and matching Tribe sub ($699). Together, these components make for a suave and sophisticated $1199 system capable of producing genuinely rich, room-filling sound.

Epos K2 Floorstanding Loudspeakers
The British firm Epos has outdone itself with its new K2 floorstanders ($1,750/pair), which feature drive units mounted-from the rear, distinctive slot-loaded enclosures, and removable rear panels, which will allow Epos to offer an active version of the K2 in the future. Interestingly, it should be possible to upgrade the passive K2 model to active status simply by swapping out passive rear panel for the active rear panel, connecting a few hookup wires and bolting the active panel in place. Even in passive form, however, the K2 offers impressive low-frequency extension (41Hz) for its size.

Joseph Audio Prism Stand-Mount Monitors
Responding to the desires of quality conscious but budget-minded audiophiles, Jeff Joseph introduced his new Prism stand-mount monitors ($3,699/pair). Our observation is that the Prisms wow listeners in much the way the more costly Pulsar monitors do, offering what sounds and “feels” like big speaker performance from a compact monitor design. The sharply beveled enclosure panels of the Prism give it a distinctive look all its own.

Bryston Middle T Floorstanding Loudspeakers
Bryston, best known as a Canadian manufacturer of solid-state audio electronics, demonstrated the middle model of its new T-series range of loudspeakers, called the Middle n floorstander, ($4,600/pair). Mimicking the virtues of Bryston’s electronics, the Middle T demonstrated neutral voicing, very fine imaging, and exceptionally robust dynamics (indeed, we suspect the larger Model T would simply have overpowered the relatively small Venetian Hotel listening rooms). Oh, and did we mention that, like Bryston electronics, the speakers carry a twenty-year warranty?

Aerial Acoustics 6T Floorstanding Loudspeakers
Aerial Acoustics’ new 6T floorstander ($6,000/pair) looks much like an Aerial 7T that has gone on a slim-down diet, but the resulting speaker sounds enchanting, never thin. Indeed, the 6T sounds like a much more expensive/sophisticated loudspeaker than it actually is, having a distinctive appeal all its own vis-à-vis the bigger 7T. Best of all, the 6T is a just-right size and does not deal too severe a blow to the buyer’s wallet. The overworked phrase “It’s all good” seems a perfect description for this speaker.

ENIGMAcoutics Mythology M1 Stand-Mount Monitors
ENIGMAcoustics’ most famous product may be the Sopranino electrostatic super tweeter, but that could change with the advent of the new Mythology M1 stand-mount monitors ($14,690/pair). The Mythology M1 starts as an extraordinarily capable, full-range (yes, really!) two-way dynamic driver-equipped monitor supplemented with an included Sopranino super-tweeter. Listeners were simply slack-jawed upon hearing the compact Mythology M1, because it somehow delivers the low-end extension associated with medium-to-large floorstanders, good dynamics, and the open and airy, yet relaxed, treble response so characteristic of speakers fitted with the Sopranino super-tweeter. The result is a compact monitor that frankly sounds like something much bigger (and more expensive).

Usher Audio X-Tower Two-Piece Floorstanding Loudspeakers
Leveraging the strengths of its Mini X monitor (which is the descendant of the firm’s famous BE-718 monitor), the veteran Taiwanese loudspeaker manufacturer showed its new two-piece X Tower ($14,700/pair). The X-Tower consists of a pair of Mini Xs positioned atop a set of incredibly beefy woofer modules that doubles as floor stands. The decidedly full-range X Tower may in fact be a viable alternative to the firm’s excellent but very large BE10 floorstander.

In Other News—models in ascending order of price

Many of the models in this section belong in a category labeled, “Bears Further Listening.” Some models looked promising but were on static display, while others were heard too briefly for us to form clear impressions. Either way, follow-up auditions should prove rewarding.

Self-Powered Speakers and All-In-One Systems
Many music lovers value good sound, but want something smaller, simpler, or less expensive than a traditional stereo system. For them we would suggest the Bluesound Pulse all-in-one, streaming, single-chassis stereo speaker ($699), the upcoming MartinLogan Crescendo all-in-one, single-chassis stereo speaker with hybrid Heil/dynamic drivers (~$899, price TBD), or Dali’s new Kubik Free/Kubik passive self-powered stereo system ($2,000 for the package). Each of these solutions provides a kinder, gentler means of achieving high-quality sound.

Potent Stand-Mount Monitors
Significant new monitors seen at CES included Usher’s Tube 515 ($550/pair, stands included), a slim-line speaker featuring a D’Appolito-type driver array and a rigid ABS enclosure system. Based on a brief listen, we think the Tube 515 offers terrific value for money. Next up is the Epos K1 ($795/pair), the smaller sibling of the Epos K2 floorstander referenced above. Assuming the models share sonic traits in common, the K1 should be special indeed. Thiel’s new TM3 monitor ($2,999/pair) attracted attention by establishing a new design direction for Thiel, foregoing time-alignment technologies to focus on other sonic priorities. At higher price points, we look forward to hearing the hybrid ribbon/dynamic driver-equipped Lawrence Mandolin ($5,500/pair) and the BMC Pure Vox ($6,500/pair), a bipolar design featuring dual sets of hybrid Heil-type and dynamic drivers. The Pure Vox also incorporates a beautiful and seriously rigid extruded aluminum enclosure.

Ambitious Floorstanders
Among the most significant new floorstanders we saw were the Monitor Audio Silver RS 10 ($2,500/pair), said to be the highest performance Silver-series speakers Monitor has ever produced, and ATC’s SCM 40 v.2 ($5,995/pair). The new ATC represents a subtle yet significant update to the well-respected SCM 40, evincing terrific build quality and using ATC’s signature dome-type midrange driver. Higher up the pricing ladder we come to Morel’s Octave 6 Limited Edition towers ($6,995/pair), which look like standard Octave 6s but feature different/better drive units and an all-new crossover, and to the unorthodox Larsen 8s from Sweden (also $6,995/pair). Larsen speakers represent a continuation and expansion of the late Stig Carlsson’s Sonab designs, using against-the-wall placement and sharply angled driver arrays to minimize unwanted room interactions.

Finally, near the top of our price bracket we find the King Sound Prince III full-range electrostats ($9,995/pair), an improved version of the earlier Prince II, the impressive Rosso Fiorentino Volterra towers ($12,995/pair), and Sonus faber’s Olympica III floorstanders ($13,500/pair), which are the flagships of the Italian firm’s aspirational Olympica speaker lineup.

Best of Show

Best Sound (cost no object):
Nola Grand Reference loudspeakers, Audio Research amplification, and United Home Audio analog (tape) source components. This system could—and at times did—offer believable glimpses of the real thing, and who could ask for more?

Best Sound (for the money):
Magnepan “Mystery Speaker” (a $2,375 MMG-based package), Bryston amplification, and Oppo digital sources. They say mystery enhances appeal and that was the case with the spectacular Magnepan demo. Very big sounds for very small bucks.

Most Significant Product Introduction:
AURALiC’s $999 Aries wireless streaming DAC bridge and proprietary Lightning software package enables virtually any DAC to wirelessly stream DSD, double DSD, DXD, and high-res PCM audio files with minimal fuss and bother. Cool, no?

Most Significant Trend:
DSD everywhere for everybody at every price point. Bluntly, the high-end (and not-so-high-end) word has gone forth and it’s this: “If you haven’t got DSD capabilities, then you’re not a serious player in digital audio.”

Most Coveted Product:
YG Acoustics’ Hailey 1.2 floorstanding loudspeaker is a medium-sized audio art object that really works. The combination of detail and articulacy, neutral tonal balance, and the oh-so-elusive quality of “musicality” makes this speaker highly desirable.