THE Show 2015: Speakers under $20,000

Show report
THE Show 2015: Speakers under $20,000

It was the oldest of times, it was the newest of times. THE Show presented this year an intriguing mix of fresh developments—DSP in speakers seems at last really to be taking off—and old things refurbished and resuscitated—one of the most realistic sounds (above the deep bass) that I heard came from a pair of Kent McCollum rebuilds of the original Quads with EnigmAcoustics supertweeters, playing a 1953 recording of Ben Webster. From long ago but a surprisingly close facsimile of live sound.

There was in fact a lot of vinyl around—along with a lot of playing back of computer-stored music. The computer-stored music was actually a bit of a problem. Many of the exhibits playing music this way could not play it any other way, so one had no chance to hear material with which one was intimately familiar. Audio is after all about reproduction. If one does not know what is on a recording, how can one tell if it is coming out of the speakers? Still, one could get ideas, and there were enough classic recordings on hand in the computer files that all was not lost.

One theme in addition to new DSP and old vinyl was the interest in coherent sound sources—one-driver speakers, speakers with careful time alignment, phase-linear crossovers, a far cry from the fourth-order Linkwitz-Riley crossovers from mid to tweeter of much of the semi-high-end market. Many of the one-driver speakers suffered from colorations and driver-resonances, but even so they did serve to remind one of how convincing it can be to have a true point source in each channel.

Five Most Significant Products

Sanders 10D Speakers
The Sanders 10D loudspeaker was the best of the best at this show (of what I heard). Perhaps not everyone wants a speaker that emphasizes the direct arrival to this extent—the entire range above 175Hz is covered by a flat electrostatic panel, 15 inches wide, operated as a unit, hence quite beamy as frequency rises. But for the centered listener, something very close to sonic truth to the recordings emerged. And the new aluminum woofer, operated with a very steep DSP crossover at 175Hz produced bass that was awe-inspiring in power and extension, with precision to match the purity above (the bass is transmission-line-loaded). The whole had neutrality, low distortion, and sheer sonic power. Forget about the idea that electrostatics are subtly wimpy. Not so here, not at all. The Reference Recording version of Rutter’s A Gaelic Blessing was as close as one is going to get to the direct experience of live, large-scaled concert music at an audio show—or anywhere else outside a concert hall—with remarkable beauty, clarity, and delicacy in the voices, combined with power in the organ part. Wonderful stuff. This is a groundbreaking product. And the price is reasonable. The whole system, including amplification for the bass, is $15,000.

Lambert “Small Wonder” Loudspeaker
People often go around audio shows with their eyes peeled rather than their ears on the alert or their brains turned full on. People were walking by the Lambert room, which appeared almost empty, so small was the system, without much reaction. But for those who listened, this tiny system, with small midrange drivers above and below a ribbon tweeter in a very narrow cabinet, along with a small powered woofer on the floor, was making unusually natural sound, especially on the human voice. If you want uncolored mids to the max, then you need either really wide enclosures to get the baffle step below the mids (Harbeth M40 models, Sonus Faber Stradivari, Pietra Audio three-way) or really narrow enclosures (and small drivers) to get the baffle step up too high to matter. (Ironically, the current flood of eight-inch-wide floorstanders is about the worst thing.) Here was the second possibility of very narrow enclosures, and they worked superbly. And the ribbon gave refined and beautiful high frequencies. I stopped by several times just to hear something so un-speaker-like. It is a small-signal system compared to Sanders or Wilson. But in its realm, it really is a little wonder. Lambert is one of the old masters, but being from New Zealand has perhaps prevented his name from becoming the household word it deserves to be. But take my word for it: This is a masterpiece. System price: $4500 including amplification.

Janszen zA2.1A Active Hybrid Electrostatic Speakers
seems to come to THE Show each year with something new and intriguing, and this year was no exception. The new active versions of its floorstanding hybrid electrostatic (one has longer-throw woofers than the other) include internal amplification and active crossovers. The active crossovers allow for steeper slopes than the passive version, while preserving good phase behavior. This system sounded really exceptional, with the top-end purity one expects from Janszen together with power and low-end extension exceptional from an enclosure of moderate size. Not inexpensive at $14,500/pr. But a complete system—all you need is a source. (One of the very most beautiful things at the show musically for me was this system playing Sarah Chang’s recording of Gluck’s “Dance of the Blessed Spirits” from Orfeo ed Eurdice. Violin playing—and sound—from heaven, for all practical purposes.)

Quad 57 with EnigmAcoustics Supertweeter
The combination of the EnigmAcoustics Sopranino supertweeter and the original Quad, rebuilt by Kent McCollum, in the Robyatt Audio room offered extraordinarily attractive and convincing sound, vinyl only. The Quads are classic and can hardly be considered a new development, though the McCallum rebuild offers a new feature: They retain their glorious sound but are now indestructible, thanks to McCallum’s protection circuit—which one could surely not say of the originals! The Enigma Sopranino tweeter is something new, being an electrostatic that needs no bias power. Described as self-biasing, it is apparently uses electrets to provide the bias charge (an electret is the static electricity analog of a permanent magnet). The tweeters are $4500/pr. (including stands), the McCollum Quads are $5500/pr. This was a remarkable sounding exhibit. Ignoring the bass limitations, it was really satisfying in a profoundly musical way. How much the tweeters added is hard to say without experimenting in detail, but the overall sound was quite wonderful.

Emerald Physics KC II Loudspeaker
Emerald Physics
was, as usual, showing exceptional products at really exceptionally low prices. In particular, the KC II open-baffle speakers at $2495 sounded very convincing musically and also looked spectacular, with an airbrushed faux wood finish that was to wood what Balthasar Neumann’s faux marble was to Baroque architecture—arguably more beautiful than the real thing. Emerald Physics was integrating its systems with DSPeaker’s room-correction and frequency-response adjustment devices. This seems to me very much the way that audio needs to go, offering as it does extraordinary—and adjustable—sound in domestically compatible packages at modest prices. People often wonder how serious audio can survive outside the 1% market. This is how.

Auspicious Debuts

Icono Audio was showing an unusual looking open-baffle speaker using dynamic drivers and digital signal processing. This speaker sounded very clean and pure, spatially open, and altogether beautiful. The absence of any musical material with which I was truly familiar (Icono was playing computer only) precluded my making any real judgments about exact tonal character, but I got some impression that the sound was a bit subdued in presence—but in a DSP speaker, this is presumably adjustable. I heard this system when I was near the end of my time at the show and only briefly. I left thinking that this might have been a contender for best sound of the show if I had had more time to listen and material with which I could have judged more definitively. A fascinating and promising product from a company with which I was previously unfamiliar. Price: $18,500 for the system.

Pietra Audio, one of the companies that impressed me so much last year, introduced a new two-way model, which I did not hear, but improvements in production efficiency have reduced the price of its large three-way to the point of making it fit my price class for this report—and making it a bargain as well for what is involved, a truly dead, stone enclosure in particular. This, as before, was producing what struck me as exceptionally accurate sound, one of the most truthful sounding exhibits at the show. Really excellent representation of an orchestra. Price: $19,995 /pr.

The Larsen 6, the smaller brother of the Model 8 which I reviewed not long ago, was producing the inimitable Larsen sound, which is unusually, almost uniquely, natural in its resemblance to concert hall sound. Fans of stereo per se may not be impressed. People who remember what music is actually like will be, indeed. The 6s were offering much of the sound of the exceptional Model 8s at a lower price and in a physical presentation that is almost completely self-effacing—small enclosures designed to be placed against the wall. Price: $3800/pr.

Magneplanar .7s , three of them, were playing the three-channel masters of Julie London’s Julie at Home album, which was recorded literally at home onto three tracks. How anyone got those masters I have no idea, but the result was, for a London fan like me, the opportunity of a lifetime of going to shows. The speakers sounded good, too, in what is now their final form (they were at last year’s THE Show in a slightly preliminary version). A pair also made a fine impression in the Shelley’s Stereo demo room. The .7s are a real bargain in the audio world. Price: $1395/pr.

Gamut’s new stand-mounted two-way was producing a startlingly convincing version of the drum kit solo in Brubeck and company’s Take Five. Gamut is intent on getting dynamic excitement, and it seems to be doing the job. Not inexpensive to say the least (almost $20,000 for a two-way) but impressive if dynamic excitement is your sonic goal—and spatially convincing as well. Price: $19,995/pr.

Harbeth SHL5plus’s were making a very civilized sound. I did not listen long here since I was already familiar with these remarkable speakers (see PS’s review in this issue). This is one of Harbeth’s masterworks, though when I heard the show setup very early on, I felt the SHL5+s were not sounding quite as convincing as I know they can from direct experience in domestic environments. Listen for yourself—these speakers are exceptional, especially in midrange neutrality. Price: $6890/pr.

Wilson’s new Sabrina was doing a fine job of reproducing Peter McGrath’s wonderful recordings, with the dynamic punch that one expects from Wilson and what sounded to me like a smoother tonal character than usual from a Wilson speaker. It occurred to me that this might be Wilson’s best effort ever, heretical though that thought might be. Price: $15,000/pr.

The Tocaro 42e speakers, which run two drivers per channel full-range with no crossover, was not the most uncolored sound one could imagine, but it had for reasons that were not entirely clear to me a rather surprising ability to make one feel in the presence of a real orchestra. Audio people would pick nits in a big way. People accustomed to live music would be intrigued. An odd experience—I knew there were things wrong, but I did not much care. I just listened to the music. (I always hate it when other people say things like this, but it’s true so I have to admit it.) Price: $14,000/pr.

Other Developments

While I was working on speakers at moderate prices (<$20,000), or what passes for moderate today, I looked into a few of the pricier items just out of interest. I was struck by the piano sound from the Langerton Configuration 217. This speaker allows adjustment of the positional relationship between the mid/bass driver and the tweeter to get phase/time exactly right for a given listening position. Whether for this reason or not, this speaker sounded remarkably like a real piano: at a price—around $15,450 for a pair.

The Kryon exhibit of its Kronos dipole speakers was impressive, though I wondered from the consumer viewpoint about the price being so high compared to the Icono system, which is similar in principle—DSP open-baffle design—and which itself sounded really good.

The large multiple-driver Quintessence Acoustics Stealth SVII was producing convincing large-scaled sound at a price considerably lower than comparable Wilson products, say, and the symmetric driver arrangement seemed to give rather better imaging (or something did anyway) than is typical of large multi-driver (non-line-source) systems. The Sony AR1s driven by gigantic EMM monoblock amplifiers were producing spectacular piano sound on Beethoven’s “Appassionata” Sonata—at an audio show! Although the mike technique, as I suppose must be the reason, was not providing much image focus, the piano tone itself was really convincing: huge power and delicacy combined. Usher was showing one of its D’Appolito-designed speakers that offer exceptional value for money (diamond tweeters in a $5000-a-pair speaker—impressive). Dynaudio’s DSP floorstander in the Focus Series was striking in its clarity and overall neutral balance, though the sound seemed to me to have a certain hardness from the drivers themselves (perhaps outside the realm of DSP fixing). This could have been due to the source material, however—from a computer and not familiar.

Best sound at the show: The Sanders 10D. For people like me who like to hear a lot of direct sound, this was like a dream experience. The room around vanished, the recorded venue and the music in it appeared.

Best sound for the money: A tie between the Emerald Physics KC II, bringing really truthful sound in at really low prices, and the Lambert system for its unique naturalness, of vocal reproduction especially, with a footprint that is miniscule.

Most significant product introduction: In the context of what Sanders has always been trying to do over the years—namely, to present a direct unvarnished picture of what is actually on the recordings, rather than a use-the-listening-room sort of thing—I think one has to say to him just, “Congratulations, you’ve done it.” Almost eerie in its truthfulness—and with the right recordings, really beautiful in the strongest sense.

Most significant trend: Digital signal processing crossovers and adjustments. The mammals are replacing the dinosaurs at last, as it were. One is still stuck with the basic sound of the drivers and the behavior of cabinets, but the power of DSP is going to change everything.

Most coveted product: I think this is supposed to be something that one would really like to have but cannot afford. If I were to have to pick the unaffordable dream, it would be something that was not there, that is never at shows, the Steinway Lyngdorf LS Concert system. Odd world, audio, where one of the best speaker systems ever is almost a secret from the general audio public. Meanwhile, the reality of the Sanders 10D is also in the running for that elusive concept, the best speaker. And one can (almost) afford to buy the Sanders!

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