The Absolute Sound Buyer's Guide to Floorstanding Loudspeakers Part 2 - $20k+ (TAS 207)

Equipment report
The Absolute Sound Buyer's Guide to Floorstanding Loudspeakers Part 2 - $20k+ (TAS 207)

The annual Buyer's Guide Issue is packed with our top recommendations in every product category and at every price. We’ve carefully selected the crème de la crème from the vast array of products on the market and then written mini-reviews of each component. The number at the end of each entry indicates the issue of The Absolute Sound in which the full review appeared.

You can read Part 1 of the Buyer's Guide to Loudspeakers here.

Usher Be-20

Among ultra-high-performance loudspeakers there can be a very fine line between models that are musically revealing and those so analytical they tend more to “deconstruct” music than to reproduce it. Happily, Usher’s flagship Be-20 loudspeaker appeals to us precisely because it lives not just near but on that aforementioned fine line. The Be-20s offer true full-range frequency response and a sound that is highly dynamic, extremely detailed, and very three-dimensional—qualities presented under an overarching umbrella of tonal richness that makes the speaker emotionally engaging in ways few others can match. In short, these substantial floorstanders represent the complete high-end package. Part of the credit, surely, goes to Usher’s exotic (beryllium/titanium) metal-dome tweeters and midrange drivers, which are lightning fast, yet blessedly free of the hard, aggressive qualities some listeners associate with metal-diaphragm-equipped drivers. As a result, the Be-20 is accurate enough to delight left-brainers, yet soulful enough to capture the hearts of right-brainers. It looks stunning, too. The Be-20 is a big speaker that is best suited for use in larger spaces. In many (perhaps most?) rooms the smaller Be-10 (a single-woofer version of the Be-20) will be the better choice. (183)

MartinLogan CLX

The CLX has been a long time coming, but this successor to MartinLogan’s one-and-only previous full-range electrostat, the CLS, bests the original in every way, particularly in tonal balance where its lower midrange and upper bass are no longer sucked The least-colored, highest-resolution, most transparent-to-sources loudspeaker JV has ever auditioned, the CLX is the very model of detail, neutrality, and realism. It is also, alas, limited to about 55Hz in the bass (though unlike the CLS there is no suckout in the CLX’s mid-to-upper bass or lower midrange, with very good large-scale dynamic impact where it plays). You’ll need a pair of ML’s Descent-i subs to get the whole orchestra. However, if you listen primarily to small-scale music, then this is the speaker for you. (190)

Revel Salon2

The result of five years of intensive research into every aspect of loudspeaker performance, the new Revel Salon2 represents a genuine breakthrough in dynamic loudspeakers. All the drivers were designed in-house and feature advanced motor structures, inverted titanium dome diaphragms, and new materials technology. The tweeter is loaded into a third-generation waveguide for a seamless transition to the midrange driver. Particular attention was paid to the enclosure shape, which avoids diffraction and helps achieve flat off-axis response. The Salon2 is extraordinarily transparent, clean, and quick, with vanishingly low coloration. This is a speaker that disappears tonally and spatially, providing an ultra-transparent window on the music. The 2007 Product of the Year award winning Salon2 reproduces music’s transients with a startling quickness on leading edges (without sounding etched) and equally fast decay. The bottom end is extended and authoritative, although not as tight and defined as some sealed-box systems. The Salon2’s treble is, along with the Vandersteen Model 7, the cleanest, most natural, and best-integrated RH has heard from any dynamic transducer—the treble doesn’t sound like a separate entity riding on top of the music. This is world-class performance at a bargain price. Bring a high-powered amplifier; the Salon2 is current-hungry and needs a substantial amplifier to realize its potential. (178)

Magico V3

Magico’s V3 is an astonishing achievement in loudspeaker design, delivering a level of performance that is in many ways competitive with $100k loudspeakers. Although it won’t play as loudly as the six-figure speakers or offer the same dynamics, the V3 has a timbral realism and palpability in the midrange that approach the state of the art. Properly set up and driven, the V3 simply disappears as a sound source. It is capable of throwing a huge, realistically fleshed-out soundstage with remarkable resolution of low-level detail. Images float in three-dimensional space completely detached from the speakers. The sealed-box bass is extremely tight, articulate, and precise rather than warm and weighty. Precision alignment of toe-in is essential to achieving the correct treble balance. The V3 is built unlike other loudspeakers, with a cabinet of stacked birch ply coupled with a curved baffle machined from aircraft-grade aluminum. This baffle is mated to the enclosure with an ingenious tensioning mechanism that obviates the need for hardware screwed into wood. Custom Nano-Tec drivers and premium crossover parts round out this tour de force in loudspeaker design. When everything is dialed-in, the V3 is musically transcendental. Our 2008 Product of the Year winner. (179)

Wilson Sasha

As the replacement for the venerable and iconic WATT/Puppy, the Sasha had big shoes to fill. And fill them it does, significantly improving upon its predecessor in every way. The Sasha’s midrange driver, derived from the X-2’s, delivers much richer timbres and greater density of tone color. The result is an increased warmth and involvement, coupled with greater resolution and transparency, that elevate this latest Wilson to a new plateau. The bass presentation, always a Wilson strong suit, is even better from the Sasha, with wider dynamics and higher resolution of textural detail. The presentation overall is not one that’s freakishly great in one sonic area at the expense of others, but rather a beautifully balanced design that seems to wring the most music out of its component parts. Based on the technology behind the X-2 and the MAXX 3, the Sasha is also upgraded cosmetically, with subtly faceted panels that exude elegance and grace. The Sasha presents a somewhat more difficult load for an amplifier than other Wilson products. (205)


Vienna Acoustics “The Music”

Here’s a thrilling full-range loudspeaker of reference quality that supplies plenty of goosebumps, but also has ’stat-like coherence, superb time and phase accuracy, and breathtaking soundstaging. It is an accurate yet musical speaker with fast transients, precise layered imaging, and articulate, extended bass. The heart of The Music is a remarkable proprietary planar midrange unit that covers a full seven octaves by itself, and coupled with its coincident tweeter extends past 20kHz, where a Murata super-tweeter soars to the heavens. It can be driven quite well with as little as 45 watts by a superb amplifier like the Pathos Inpol2, but it really comes into its own and “breathes” in larger rooms driven by more powerful electronics, like the Pass X-600 amplifier. Mind you, The Music takes several weeks to break in and fully bloom, and requires careful setup, but the reward is seamless integration throughout. While its three 9** (sub)woofers offer wonderful dynamic range and bass extension, The Music lacks the concussive impact of the big Wilsons, but the addition of a REL Studio III subwoofer helps close the gap. Perhaps the highest praise JH can give The Music is that it compares surprisingly well to a live performance. (195)

Meridian DSP7200

Meridian pioneered the concept of active digital loudspeakers in the early 1990s and has continuously refined the technology for nearly 20 years. These refinements include capitalizing on much more powerful digital-signal-processing engines, better driver technology, and improved cabinet construction. An active digital loudspeaker is driven by a digital bitstream from a CD transport or other source. Inside the speaker, DSP chips perform mathematical calculations on the audio signal to split the frequency spectrum into bass, midrange, and treble (in a three-way speaker). The three outputs are then converted to analog with their own DACs and amplified by separate amplifiers that power the drivers. This radically different approach confers several massive advantages. By splitting up the frequency spectrum in the digital domain, the designer can choose any crossover characteristics, including those impossible to realize in the analog domain. Second, each driver is powered by its own amplifier, with no signal-robbing inductors or capacitors between amplifier and drive unit. The system can also be “smart” in that it knows the sound-pressure level being reproduced and can perform signal processing to optimize the sound. Finally, active digital speakers do away with the clutter of amplifiers and thick cables on the floor; all you need is the speakers themselves and a digital source. The DSP7200 is the newest member of Meridian’s active digital loudspeaker family, and it delivers outstanding neutrality, dynamics, and goosebump-raising soundstaging. Limited only in the last bit of bass extension, its top-to-bottom seamlessness, three-dimensionality, and front-to-back depth rival the best. A stunningly gorgeous music lover’s dream come true. (194)

Hansen Audio The Prince V2

Our reviewer AHC found Hansen’s four-way floorstanding The Prince V2 capable of exquisite musicality when matched with the right sources and electronics. Demanding musical sounds like flute, the upper registers of the piano and clarinet, the “bite” of brass, snare drum, and cymbal, and the differences between older and modern violins were about as musically natural as given recordings and home-listening conditions permit. It was also clear that the driver location and shaping of the enclosure gave the Princes an exceptionally coherent sound even in something approaching nearfield listening conditions, with minimal problems with both centerfill and side reflection even when the speakers were placed closer to the sidewalls. AHC was also more than a little surprised by the level of deep bass that the Princes handled without apparent strain. The bottom octaves were clean to room-vibrating levels when he listened to the usual orchestral spectaculars or reference bass drum and solo organ records. Capable of remarkable coherence, accurate timbre, deeply extended and powerful bass, The Prince V2 also boasted fabulous build-quality and gorgeous finish. (186)

Vandersteen Model 7

Vandersteen Audio gained a reputation over the past 35 years for building affordable, practical, no-nonsense loudspeakers that anyone could afford. Creating speakers that pushed the edge of the art was not in Vandersteen’s playbook—until the Model 7. This is a world-class component competitive with any loudspeaker regardless of price. Using innovative drivers made from carbon-fiber-clad balsa wood, the time-and-phase-coherent Model 7 exhibits a clarity and resolution that are breathtaking. The midrange and treble are totally seamless, devoid of tonal colorations, and free from textural grain. Music’s spatial aspects are beautifully rendered, with correct image size within an expansive envelope. The bass is deep and powerful, courtesy of a powered 12** woofer. Extensive bass adjustments are useful in integrating the Model 7 in a room; woofer level and woofer “Q” controls are provided, along with an 11-band equalizer below 120Hz. Our highest recommendation comes with two minor caveats. First, the low 84dB sensitivity mandates a substantial power amplifier despite the powered woofer. Second, the Model 7 won’t play at really loud levels or fill a large room with sound the way other flagship loudspeakers will. Nonetheless, the Vandersteen 7 is a reference-quality loudspeaker at a bargain price. (206)

Nola Baby Grand References

These terrific floorstanders from master-builder Carl Marchisotta combine dipole line-arrays of ribbons and cones with acoustic-suspension woofers to create a hybrid that sounds more cohesive and lifelike than any other ribbon/cone speaker JV has heard. Exceptionally open, boxless, and alive, the Baby Grands will play extremely loud (or soft) with very low distortion and very high resolution—and they will do so with any kind of music, making them one of the few loudspeakers that are equally recommendable to classical, jazz, and rock fans. Wonderfully natural in tone color and superb at soundstaging, they are large enough and dynamic enough to want a bit of space around them and to require the very best in amplification. Suitably ensconced and powered, they compete toe-to-toe with the latest and greatest New School loudspeakers. (205)

MBL 101 E Mk II

MBL’s stunning-looking, four-way, omnidirectional Radialstrahler References have a treble like Maggie’s ribbons, bass like Nearfield’s eight 18** subwoofers, soundstaging and coherence like Magico’s Mini IIs, dynamics like Avantgarde’s Trios, and a “disappearing act” second only to their fabulous big brothers, the 101 X-Tremes. For sheer excitement on large-scale classical or power pop they are hard to beat. But the Radialstrahlers aren’t just world-beaters in dynamics or bass extension or treble clarity and lifelike midrange presence; with any music, at any reasonable level, they are also and everywhere simply extraordinary with the duration of notes. The MBLs simply don’t let go of the music, no matter how low-level it is. JV has never heard any speaker reproduce “stopping transients”—the way a sustained piano note or guitar note or violin note mixes its changing colors with the colors of subsequently sounded notes before bending and gradually dying off into silence—better than the MBL 101 Es. If you want to hear every bit of music that lives on the cusp between sound and silence, these speakers should be at the top of your short list. Like the 101 X-Tremes, they thrive on power, especially from MBL’s own amplification. So be prepared to factor in the substantial cost of a pair of 9011 amps and possibly a 6010 D preamp if you want to hear these speakers sound their very best. TAS’s 2005 Product of the Year. (154)

Wilson Audio MAXX 3

The MAXX 3 may be the baby brother of the stupendous Alexandria X-2, but it doesn’t concede much ground to its sibling, no sireee! Yes, the Alexandria has a more open and emancipated midrange, plus its own super-tweeter that sounds pretty super-duper. But the MAXX is a music-making machine par excellence. It possesses the earthshaking thrust of the space shuttle on liftoff. Think big sound. But for all the sizzle and boom, the MAXX is never less than refined and elegant. Particularly notable is its excellent octave-to-octave balance. Its measured real-time in-room response in JHb’s listening space was essentially flat, no small accomplishment. Forget the traditional potshots often taken at Wilson. The MAXX does not have a pumped up midbass or shrill treble. Quite the contrary. This powerful, luminous, and dynamic loudspeaker has been significantly improved over the MAXX 2 and is easier to drive. Quiet passages emerge with great finesse and fidelity; the percussive sound of a piano is captured by few other loudspeakers with such precision. It also displays tremendous pitch accuracy, and explores the bass region like few others. The refulgent bass helps to produce a cavernous soundstage that will fill most any room. It works best in larger rooms and produces a highly detailed rather than a lush sound. In sum, an exemplary product from a company fanatically devoted to pushing the boundaries of sound reproduction. (194)

Magico M5

The advantages of large, multiway, floorstanding dynamic loudspeakers are bass and loudness. For JV, the trouble is that you generally had to trade away some “invisibility,” top-to-bottom coherence, and low-level resolution to get these things, which is precisely why he’s preferred bass-and-loudness-limited ’stats, planars, and two-way mini-monitors to the Big Boys—until now. The four-way, five-driver Magico M5—the only Magico speaker to use all in-house-designed drivers—is the first cone multiway JV has heard that “disappears” the way a mini does. It also has an unprecedented (for a cone multiway) measure of the transient speed, resolution, transparency, and “single-driver” seamlessness of an electrostat. Combine these virtues with remarkably lifelike timbre from top to bottom and a large dynamic’s undeniable advantages in deep bass and dynamic range, and you have a truly great “big” speaker. Like all big speakers, the M5 needs room to breathe, and because of the amount of energy it generates in the low end (from its sealed aircraft-aluminum-and-birch cabinet) you’re going to need that room and, maybe, some extra damping in corners and along walls. Given the M5’s 86dB sensitivity, you’re also going to need a stout amplifier of the highest pedigree (like a Soulution 700 or an ARC 610T). But put the M5 in the right place and feed it a high-quality signal, and you may not be able to come closer to the absolute sound. (JV hasn’t.) Even at $89k, this level of fidelity is a good deal. (196)

Verity Audio Lohengrin II

The Lohengrin II is a deceptive loudspeaker. It looks lean from the front, but go around back and you’ll see that it steadily widens to include a 15** rear-firing woofer of the very highest caliber. The Lohengrin sounds nimble and transparent in the mids and highs as well as supremely agile in the nether regions, where it offers a woody acoustic sound far removed from the simple thump provided by lesser loudspeakers. It disentangles complex musical lines with a delicacy and refinement that should satisfy even the most hardcore detail freaks. What’s more, thanks to its 95dB efficiency and 8-ohm load, the Lohengrin presents amplifiers with no heavy lifting whatsoever. Any amp from 30 watts to 500 watts can drive the Lohengrin with aplomb. Verity also provides the option of bi-amping the Lohengrin, which allows users to devote one amplifier each to the separate bass cabinet. The result is a gorgeous palette of tonal colors coupled with superb dynamics. Other loudspeakers may move even more air than Lohengrin, which focuses on accuracy and nuance. Few other speakers can render a true pianissimo with the fidelity of the Lohengrin, which can also ramp up to a fortissimo in the blink of an eye. Unqualifiedly recommended. (204)

Wilson Audio Alexandria X-2 Series 2

The Alexandria X-2 Series 2 delivers stunning bass extension, truly effortless dynamics, and a palpable musical realism that elevate it to world-class status. The X-2’s bass is unrivaled in its combination of extension, authority, transient fidelity, muscularity, finesse, and articulation. Despite the X-2’s sheer size and ability to reproduce the sound of an orchestra at full tilt with no sense of strain, this loudspeaker is also capable of great delicacy and nuance. Small-scale music is well served by the X-2’s resolution of inner timbral detail, reproduction of fine transient information, and ability to scale image size based on the recording. This isn’t a big speaker that always sounds “big,” but rather one that changes character to reflect the original musical event. The modular design (the two midrange drivers and tweeter are in their own enclosures) and ability to move the midrange drivers and tweeters independently in two axes allow the X-2 to be optimized for any listening height or distance. (Moving the drivers forward or backward achieves time alignment; tilting the drivers optimizes dispersion.) The X-2’s very high sensitivity (95dB) allows it to be driven by moderately powered amplifiers and to realize its full dynamic potential. The build-quality and finish are as good as it gets; the X-2 is a work of visual art as well as musical art. It’s also backed by one of the high-end’s oldest and most established companies. (186)

Focal Grande Utopia EM

For many if not most audiophiles, the cost of Focal’s Grande Utopia EMs and the space required to accommodate them will mean they remain a pipe-dream, but their tonal, spatial and temporal coherence, their extended bandwidth, and their truly astonishing dynamic capabilities (at both ends of the spectrum) put them in a very select category indeed. According to Roy Gregory, they rub shoulders with the best speakers he’s had in his home. Moreover, their adjustable baffle curvature and electro-magnetic woofer (the EM of the Grande Utopia EM) permit a degree of fine-tuning to rooms that is unique among big multiways. The Grande Utopias join a select group of what really are do-it-all speakers, whose weaknesses and shortcomings have more to do with practicality and equipment-matching than gross failings in performance. Indeed, they do less damage to the signal than a lot of electronics. From a company’s point of view there are many different reasons to build a flagship speaker, from attention-seeking to trickle-down. But confronted by a $180,000 product, reviewers and potential purchasers need ask only one question: Does this speaker go straight to the top of my “if I won the lottery” list? Well, as far as RG was concerned the Grand Utopia EM is firmly ensconced atop that pile, waiting to be shot at. (193)

MBL 101 X-Tremes

These “mirror-image array” Radialstrahler towers (like two 101 Es, one facing up and the other facing downward directly above it), with separate powered bass towers, simply don’t sound like other speakers (even MBL’s 101 Es). The Xes are tonally neutral and sonically nearly invisible; voices and instruments don’t seem to be coming from drivers in frames or boxes. Instead they hang in space—free-standing objects that are so three-dimensionally “there” that listening to the 101 Xes is like going to a play, where listening to other speakers is like going to the movies. Thanks to their dynamic range (particularly at the loud end of the spectrum), their superbly integrated bass towers (with six twelve-inch woofers per side), and the way their omnidirectional dispersion allows them to energize an entire room, the 101 X-Tremes are also incredibly exciting to hear—the thrill rides of the audiophile amusement park. They may not be as transparent to sources as some, but they rank the highest in pure goosebump-raising fun of any speaker JV has ever heard, on any kind of music. If sheer visceral excitement isn’t part and parcel of the concert-going experience, then JV doesn’t understand why people bother to go to concerts anymore. The 101 X-Tremes are like having the best seat in the house—every day of the year. To get them to show their finest, the Xes must be driven by powerful amplifiers (ideally, two pairs of MBL 9011 monoblocks) and carefully set up. TAS’s joint 2008 Overall Product of the Year award-winner (along with the Wilson X-2). (189)

You can read Part 1 of the Buyer's Guide to Loudspeakers here.