One of the odder and more unexpected surprises at this year's CES was a trio of loudspeakers that used thick sculpted sheets of tempered glass for their cabinets or, in one very expensive and remarkable case, its baffleboard. Just on the, uh, surface of it you would think these things were nothing more than novelty items, like ice sculptures (or the Ice Capades for that matter). So it came as even odder and more unexpected surprise to find out that they actually sounded quite good.
I confess that I have no idea why this should be the case. There was, several years ago, an outfit that made high-end equipment shelves out of very thick sheets of glass because, it claimed, tempered glass is an extremely dense material. A good friend of mine actually bought these shelves--and still swears by them. To me, however, using glass for anything hi-fi seems counterintuitive. (I mean window panes do anything but damp your sound. Indeed, they either reflect it or let it pass through, depending on frequency.) And yet these gorgeous glass contraptions, without any visible damping inside them (although there are, at least in the case of the Waterfall speaker, transparent internal "damping tubes" intended to terminate the backwaves of the mid/bass drivers) did not sound the slightest bit confused. All three of them did sound just a tad bright (though nothing like objectionably so), and all three of them sounded as transparent as, well, glass.
I'll start with the Crystal Cable Arabesque pictured above. A two-way floorstander priced at $45kEuro (I could not get a firm dollar price, although at the current currency-exchange rate this would translate to $60kUS) it combines a modified RAAL ribbon tweeter with three ScanSpeak sliced-paper mid/bass cones. The enclosure, which is sort of Nautilus-shaped, is made of .75" tempered glass, and despite the absence of internal damping, I heard no obvious or excessive ringing. On the contrary, the speaker was as lithe, open, and nimble as a great wood-enclosed two-way--and just as devoid of any sense of "boxiness." As noted, the Arabesque was a shade brilliant but quite coherent and highly resolved nonetheless, with damn good bass.
Next up is the Waterfall Niagra, a $53k two-and-a-half way (crossing over at 300Hz and 1.5kHz) housed in an enclosure made of diamond glass! All I can tell you is that this was one beautiful-sounding loudspeaker, with (once again) surprisingly good bass for a 2.5 way. Indeed, this thing was so impressively neutral, open, and boxless-sounding that I made the following note: "A speaker to consider for review in TAS." Like the Arabesque the Niagra might have been a tad aggressive in the treble, but it was hard to know for sure. (Waterfall was using a NuForce amp, which, in this case, might have been a good move, given Class D's very high damping factor and softish top end.)
I have said the best--and by far the most expensive--for last.
The third pictured speaker is Perfect8 Technologies' The Force--a $300k (!) glass-and-gold-baffled (yes, I said "gold") dipole line array combining a Perfect8-designed-and-manufactured 1600mm true ribbon tweeter (with FEM-optimized neodymium magnets) and a line array of 8 (per channel) seven-inch proprietary Magnesium cone mid/woofs. A couple of dipole subwoofers, each using two 12" woofers in a push-push array, are housed in separate glass boxes. Outboard super-quality passive crossovers for each speaker are also housed in glass cubes.
Like the other two glass loudspeakers, The Force was extremely open and transparent sounding, with no sense at all of an enclosure. (Of course, it's a dipole, so it had none.) It was also exceedingly realistic. Its imaging was bigger, more freed-up, and a little more diffuse than that of a box speaker (as is the case with all dipole linestages); voices and instruments sounded very "there," very lifelike. Of all the glass speakers this was the most colorless and natural. Although its bass was a little light (as dipole bass tends to be), The Force was overall so good that I came close to naming it second or third best sound of the show. It was a wonder, and though I doubt very much whether I'll get the opportunity I'd certainly like to hear it in my listening room.
I think I should note that The Force was being driven by BALabo electronics--the 2x500 stereo amp (at $77.5k) and the BC1 Mk II linestage preamp (at $59.5k) with a $4k signal-grounding cable between preamp and amp. The CD player was a Zanden. I've heard the BALabo solid-state electronics before (Alon Wolf used them a couple of years ago with his Model 6s), and they are very special.
What a system!