It all started with trains. Toy trains that is. Toodling around the Christmas tree way back in 1970. Instead of the “proudly made in the USA” Lionel trains that some of my friends had, giant things which were seemingly large and powerful enough for the smaller children in the neighborhood to ride on, my little choo-choo could fit in the palm of your hand and was foreign- made. As small as it was it impressed me even as a five year old. The engine, modeled after a pre-war German steam type, was delicately and accurately detailed. The colors were varied and authentic, as were the tiny inscriptions that would appear in a full size train as serial numbers and warning placards. Mechanically, it ran with the precision of a sewing machine and the accompanying directions sheets and brochures had an exotic flavor, punctuated by umlauts, and funny looking symbols like Ø. It was a small kit, only an engine, three cars, maybe eight feet of track, but as I found out much later this was quite a dear Christmas present— read “expensive.”
That train set was made in what used to be called West Germany by the Märklin Company. I still have the set and will probably give it to my grandkids once I’m through playing with it. This was my first experience with what seems to be a Germanic flair for injecting something special into even very ordinary things. My train was a little gem in its astonishing level of craftsmanship and, to an American, exoticism in the sheer “European-ness” of the packaging and design. The same could be said about the Volkswagen Beetle, which in the 1960s and 1970s seemed to occupy the driveways of every third house in my town. Yes, it was like any other car in having four wheels and seats, but beyond that the “Bug” was a design unmatched in every other respect. Somehow it was more than cheap transportation. The Beetle made a statement; it pulled at the heartstrings and went down its own path.
The “A” students in geography will rightly note that Vienna, the home of Vienna Acoustics, is in Austria and not Germany. Fair enough. Nonetheless the qualities that I alluded to above—practicality, superb design, unexcelled fit and finish, distinctiveness—surely were incorporated in the Vienna Acoustics Beethoven Baby Grand Symphony Edition (BBG-SE from here on) loudspeaker reviewed here.
For loudspeakers it’s not an easy thing to be truly distinctive, especially at this price point. I could accurately (if not faithfully) summarize the BBG-SE as a compact, three-way, bass-reflex floorstander, which would also describe hundreds of other loudspeakers. But this would be like categorizing a Mercedes E350 as a mid-sized V-6 sedan. While to a certain extent this is true, as you and I know that’s not nearly the whole enchilada. To understand what makes the BBG-SE distinctive is to know that at the design helm is one laser-focused Peter Gansterer, head honcho at VA, who could probably go by the nickname “Dr. No” for all the off-the-shelf drivers he approves of. Grand total: none.
Instead, Gansterer designs his own drivers and has them manufactured to his specifications, which include proprietary materials and construction methods, all very much on display on the BBG-SE. Interestingly, although VA works with some pretty famous and well-respected manufacturers including Eton, SEAS, and especially ScanSpeak, just a quick look at the patented clear polymer “Spidercone” XPP bass and X3P midrange drivers tells us that this is not merely a case of a tweak here or a modification there, as one might expect from other loudspeaker manufacturers that claim to use bespoke parts. In demanding such a major redesign Gansterer basically said: “Your technology is not good enough—do it this way.” When you think about it, this is equivalent to telling Maria Sharapova that her serve is all wrong. I hear tell that Dynaudio, for one, didn’t want to hear this and has refused such a build-to-spec arrangement. Even the quite average-looking silk-dome tweeter is well beyond the ordinary. It’s an all-new design developed for the coincident driver of VA’s $10k Beethoven Imperial Grand, which just debuted at the Consumer Electronics Show.
Gansterer and company can focus on the dynamic portions of their speakers because they have their cabinets built and finished (to VA’s specs, of course) by people who do this sort of thing for a living. Unfortunately that is all I can tell you as the identity of the custom joinery shop is on a need-to-know basis and I merely wanted to know. What I do know is that the result is spectacular; my cherry-finished samples were paradigms of the cabinet-maker’s art. It’s nice to see that while other high- end speaker manufacturers have invested in the use of non- wood construction and finishing methods, Vienna Acoustics has continued to champion the more traditional approach. Other finishes are piano-black or, for a $450 up-charge, piano-white or rosewood.