Rocky Mountain Show Report

Robert Harley on Loudspeakers Under $20,000

Show report
Rocky Mountain Show Report

I don’t usually cover entry-level and mid-priced loudspeakers at shows, but I’m glad I did at this Denver show. I discovered quite a few worthy contenders and found a couple of real gems. Here are the highlights of the most promising speakers under $20k per pair.

I’ll start with the least expensive speaker at the show, and one that completely captivated me with its sound quality and value. That speaker is the new Sonus faber Venere 1.5. Neil Gader has just reviewed the 1.5 and is extremely enthusiastic about the product. After hearing this entry-level Sonus faber for myself, I can see why. The 1.5 had surprising bass extension and dynamics coupled with a big, open quality that made the speaker sound like a much larger and more expensive model. This show was also the world debut of the floorstanding Venere 2.5, which builds on the 1.5’s virtues with deeper bass, wider dynamics, and a fuller presentation. Frankly, my jaw dropped at how much music the Venere 2.5 delivered for $2498. Watch for reviews of more models from the Venere line when they become available.

Another stunning small speaker was the KEF LS50 that I first encountered at the Munich show. The $1499-per-pair speaker, which celebrates KEF’s 50th anniversary, houses a single KEF Uni-Q coincident driver in a tiny cube of an enclosure with a rounded baffle. Not only did the LS50 pull off a disappearing act extraordinaire, it delivered bass extension and dynamics you wouldn’t think possible from such a small cabinet.

Vienna Acoustics is finally in production of their long-awaited Beethoven Baby Grand, a slim floorstander that features the same tweeter as that used in Vienna’s more expensive models. The speaker features an all new crossover, new bases, and design features taken from the flagship The Music. The $4500 Beethoven Baby Grand sounded exceptionally clean and focused for its world premier.

Legacy has taken an interesting new technical and visual direction in the Aeris (another world premier). The Aeris features an open baffle at the top of the enclosure that houses an 8” midrange driver and a new dual air-motion tweeter with 16 square inches of diaphragm area. The two 12” woofers are powered by integral amplification (500W ICE Power) and DSP corrected by the outstanding DSPeaker 2.0 Dual Core (which is included in the $16,900 price). A 10” midbass unit rounds-out this all-new driver compliment. Powered by AVM electronics, this was the best sound Legacy has ever made at a show. I was particularly impressed by the Aeris’ ability to play loudly without congestion, the ultra-smooth and musical treble from the dual air-motion transformer tweeter, true subterranean bass extension, and dynamic ease. Sensitivity is a whopping 95dB. The Aeris is a lot of speaker for the money particularly when you consider the built-in bass amplification and DSPeaker room-correction system.  

Thiel showed off its new CS2.7, a speaker that could be considered a scaled-down version of the company’s vaunted CS3.7. The two speakers share a similar form factor, with the CS2.7 saving cost with a wood top plate (rather than metal) and foregoing the flat metal-diaphragm drivers that give the CS3.7 its distinctive look. The $9900 CS2.7 features an 8” woofer and oval passive radiator coupled to the same innovative coincident midrange/tweeter of the CS3.7. The 3”-thick sloped front baffle provides time alignment. Watch for a full review of this promising product.

Carver demonstrated the Amazing Line Source (yes, that’s what it’s called), a tall, thin column of 13 seven-inch forward-facing ribbon tweeters flanked by 22 four-inch drivers (per enclosure). This $19,700 speaker includes a line-level crossover designed to be used with a subwoofer to augment the low frequencies.

After the splash Sony made with its AR-1 loudspeaker (and later the AR-2), it’s only natural that the company would bring the technology and aesthetic down in price. That appears to be what has happened with an unnamed (and un-priced) mini version of the AR-1 that Sony demonstrated at the show. It sounded quite transparent and resolved, although it had the huge advantage of Blue Coast Records source material.

I was greatly impressed by the DALI Epicon 6 speaker at the Munich show, and even more impressed by its big brother, the Epicon 8 that made its world premier in Denver. The $19,500 Epicon 8 features all-new DALI designed and manufactured drivers built on a new motor technology. The magnets are made from a ceramic-like material with high magnetic flux density and low eddy currents. The result is vanishingly low harmonic distortion, which showed in the very pure-sounding and uncolored midrange. Robert E. Greene will have a full report on this technology in his upcoming review of the Epicon 6.

The venerable Totem Forest has received Signature treatment in a limited edition of 500 pairs. The Signature version benefits from hand-selected drivers, cost-no-object crossover components (including Mundorf capacitors), and an all-new decoupling system that also tilts the speaker back slightly. Other refinements include machined ports and custom machined input plate, along with a gorgeous polyester high-gloss finish. The Forest looked and sounded stunning. Price: $6000 per pair.

Emerald Physics, the company that pioneered the radical idea of open-baffle dipolar woofers with DSP room correction, showed a technically and cosmetically refined version of the concept in the second-generation CS2P. The open bullet-shaped baffle houses dual 15” woofers and a new custom compression tweeter. The speaker can be purchased in the passive version (the “P” in the model name) for $2990 per pair, and later upgraded by adding the Emerald Physics DSP 2.4 room-correction unit. With the DSP 2.4, the system can achieve flat bass to 24Hz. The “Full Monty” version uses a DSP 2.4 along with bi-amplification via an external crossover. This option, which removes all high-level crossover parts from the signal path (a huge advantage, by the way) increases the sensitivity to a whopping 98dB (from 93dB in the passive version). Emerald Physics makes a full range of amplifier choices, from 60Wpc to 120Wpc. The products are sold internet-direct. The complete system with the speakers, a DSP 2.4, four amplification channels, and a Peachtree Audio Nova preamp came in at $6000.

The French loudspeaker Cabasse has returned to the US market with distribution by Esoteric. Cabasse is a huge company by high-end standards, and enjoys strong sales throughout the world. The company’s signature technology is multi-axial (coaxial, tri-axial, quad-axial) coincident drivers housed in spheres. These drivers are all custom-make by Cabasse. The product range is enormous, encompassing 60 models ranging from the $228 Alcyone Satellite to the $175,900 Le Sphere—and seemingly every price point in-between. I listened to the $17,000 Riga (pictured), a system that includes a pair of spheres each loaded with a coaxial midrange/tweeter, pair of stands, and a powered DSP-corrected subwoofer (the Riga is available without DSP room correction and the powered woofer). The bass was smooth and extended, the soundstage open and detached from the loudspeakers, and timbres uncolored.

Old timers will remember the loudspeakers produced by Irving “Bud” Fried of IMF loudspeaker fame. Fried championed transmission-line bass loading in which the woofer’s rear-firing energy is channeled through a folded labyrinth and eventually to the room. The theory is that the woofer’s rear wave is dissipated in the transmission line, resulting in optimum driver behavior and extended bass. Fried founded IMF in 1961 and passed away in 2005, but his designs have been given a second wind with the launch of the Bud Fried loudspeaker, which made its world debut in Denver. The Bud Fried Tower is based on a transmission line enclosure (of course) along with other Fried design techniques, but implemented with modern driver technology. The tall, slim tower couples a pair of 7” Peerless drivers with a dome tweeter in an MTM arrangement. The sound from these $2995-per-pair speakers was neutral and well-balanced.

German Physics, the company that resurrected the concept behind the Ohm Walsh omni-directional driver, introduced its most affordable loudspeaker yet, the $13,500 Unlimited Mk.II. The speaker employs the same omni-directional DDD driver as the company’s more expensive models, but is coupled to a smaller woofer (8”) in a compact enclosure. The cost was also reduced through an innovative use of the veneer material, along with fewer color options. Nonetheless, the heart of the speaker is the DDD driver that covers the spectrum from 200Hz to 24kHz where most of the music lives. Its omni radiation pattern provides a natural tonal balance and soundstaging from nearly anywhere in the room, not just in a single sweet spot. The Unlimited Mk. II had all the best attributes of an omni, including a spacious soundstage in which the speakers disappear. I was also impressed by the smooth yet detailed midrange.

For those of you looking for the ideal speaker for low-powered tube amplifiers, Rocky Mountain held two promising products. The first is the DeVore Fidelity Orangutan O/93, a two way in a retro-looking wide-baffle enclosure. The Orangutan O/93, with a flat impedance curve and a sensitivity of 94dB, sounded plenty dynamic when driven by the 8W 300B-based SET from LM Audio. The sound had an immediacy and verve missing from many of the exhibits. Price: $7900 per pair.

The second SET-friendly loudspeaker takes a very different approach, with a much larger enclosure and many more drivers. That speaker is the Coincident Total Victory V ($14,999 per pair). It also has a sensitivity of 94dB, but with a 14-ohm impedance—a value that allows low-powered SETs to cruise. The Total Victory V features a 12” side-firing woofer, dual 7” mids, and a planar-magnetic tweeter. The build is as tweaky as it gets, with hardwired crossovers (no circuit boards) and Mundorf caps.

The Von Schweikert VR-44 Active loudspeaker benefited from a most unusual source: a jazz recording made exclusively for release on open-reel tape made directly from the master. The label, International Phonograph Inc., uses purist techniques and vintage microphones for its tape-only releases which are priced at $150 per title. The sound had an uncanny sense of realism played back through the latest United Home Audio UHA-Q Phase 11 tape machine.

I had one musical experience at the show that literally sent shivers down my spine, but it didn’t occur while sitting in front of a pair of loudspeakers. Rather, I had that rare thrill listening to the fabulous young pianist Fan-Ya Lin as I stood six feet away from the 9’ Steinway. She combined technical virtuosity with a musical intensity that was literally spellbinding. Kudos to Ray Kimber for sponsoring this wonderful treat for all show-goers.

Overall, I was heartened to see so many promising and affordable loudspeakers. Watch for full reviews of most of the loudspeakers covered in this report.

Robert Harley’s Best of Show

Best Sound (cost no object)

Denver retailer Apex Audio produced the best sound at the show from Focal Stella Utopia EM loudspeakers driven alternately by top-of-the-line Soulution or Air Tight electronics, with both systems fronted by Transrotor turntables and sitting on Critical Mass Systems racks. The sound was extremely engaging and well balanced, even in a notoriously difficult room. This was the best I’ve heard the Stella Utopia sound.

Best Sound (highest value)

The KEF LS50 loudspeaker ($1499 per pair) driven by Parasound electronics at the entry level, and the Legacy Aeris ($16,900) powered by AVM at the top end of my category.

Greatest Discovery

The Sonus faber Venere line of affordable speakers that start at just $1200 per pair. You have to hear just how much music the $2495-per-pair Venere 2.5 delivers to believe it.  

Most Important Trend

The increasing availability of high-resolution downloads, particularly the emerging standard of DSD downloads and DSD-over-USB protocols. Native DSD files sound spectacularly great and just might usher in a new era of DSD recording.

Most Significant Product

The Vivaldi digital playback system from dCS is perhaps the most serious assault yet on the state of the art in digital reproduction.