2019 High-End Audio Buyer’s Guide: Floorstanding Loudspeakers $9,999 – $35,000
The active, two-way, tower version of ATM’s compact, passive SCM19, the 19-AT equals or betters the stand-mounted version across virtually all sonic criteria. It has superior bass extension, although its greatly improved low-end control and pitch definition are what truly engage the listener. Images just lock in. Its comforting warmth in the lower mids and upper bass further adds to the impression of musical scale and substance. Also, the 19A has a little fuller midbass than you might expect from a two-way (piano aficionados should take note). Though this ATC may seem pricey at first glance, considering the amp-packs and precision electronics bundled in each speaker and the studio-grade performance, the SCM19-AT’s true value becomes more and more evident with every recording. Audiophiles might shrink from active loudspeakers, but the SCM19-AT makes the case for them, emphatically.
MartinLogan Impression ESL 11A
The 11A is the third from the top in MartinLogan’s Masterpiece series, replacing the Montis, enthusiastically reviewed by PS. The main advancement in the new model is the incorporation of Anthem DSP signal processing in the bass, which makes it possible to achieve exceptionally clean, clear, and powerful low end. A novel sliding-phase network allows for suppression of the backwave. As with the Montis, and other MartinLogan hybrids, the integration of dynamic bass drivers with electrostatic arrays is managed with essentially perfect coherence, and all the other familiar ML virtues are in evidence, including life-sized scaling, broad and deep soundstaging, wider than usual dispersion for a paneled array owing to the company’s unique “curvilinear” electrostatic elements, and very low apparent distortion. The tonal balance here, however, replaces the Montis’ lovely ying-like personality with an altogether more yang-like, even aggressive forwardness; thus listening before buying is highly recommended.
Focal Kanta No2
The new Kanta line from the esteemed French manufacturer is right in the middle of the range, with the Chorus and Aria series below it, and the Sopra and Utopia lines above it. All Kanta models feature a new “F-sandwich” driver construction that surrounds a flax core with glass fiber diaphragms. The Kanta No2’s 6.5″ midrange and dual 6.5″ woofers feature this driver design, while the tweeter is the latest version of Focal’s acclaimed IAL (Infinite Acoustic Loading) beryllium tweeter. This tweeter sounds superb, with very clean textures. The tonal balance is a bit on the brighter side of neutral, but not to the point of egregiously altering instrumental or vocal signatures. A stout solid-state amplifier is recommended to realize the Kanta No2’s bass extension and dynamics. Soundstage width and depth are excellent although the Kanta doesn’t throw razor-sharp image outlines.
This latest version of the venerable Quad ESL-63, which first appeared in the early 1980s, is the most physically robust embodiment of the basic design yet, and its sound has a greater solidity in the lower frequencies than did earlier versions. With the same ingenious arrangement—concentric rings in which the outer ones are activated with a time delay compared to those closer to the center—the 2812s have the same coherence of radiation pattern as always and an impressive sense of speaking with a single voice. The balance of the speaker has been somewhat altered in the direction of more brightness compared to its immediate predecessor the Quad 2805, which is flatter and more nearly neutral in both audible and measured terms. But if the balance of the 2812 pleases or is adjusted by EQ to suit, the result is a speaker of almost unique virtues when it comes to low perceived midrange coloration, low distortion, smoothness of radiation pattern, and coherent sound. There is nothing else quite like an ESL-63 descendant, and there are those for whom nothing else will do.
Magneplanar’s big, full-range, ribbon/quasi-ribbon dipoles may not be the ideal “fidelity to sources” loudspeakers (transparency to sources is not the strongest suit of dipoles); nor are they the ideal “as you like it” speakers (at least, not for rockers looking for the ultimate in dynamic range and midbass slam). The listeners for whom the 20.7s are very nearly ideal—for whom Magneplanars have always been ideal—are those seeking the absolute sound. These Maggies’ magical ability to transport you to a different space and time and to there realistically recreate (with lifelike scope and size) the sound of acoustic instruments and the venue in which they were recorded is extraordinary. It almost goes without saying (since these are Magnepans), but the 20.7s are also incredibly good values, although (as with all Maggies) you’re going to have to bring a lot of high-quality power to the party, and you’re going to need a good deal of room to house two speakers the height and width of a couple of NFL linebackers.
Carver Amazing Line Source
The Carver Amazing Line Source is a remarkable speaker system. It offers dynamic capacity that allows realistic SPLs for even big bands and huge orchestras, amazingly low levels of distortion, full frequency extension at both extremes, and an almost uncanny ability to reveal recorded space. Indeed, the ALS has few peers in reproducing the sense of hearing a live performance of large-scale music. The ALS is the natural continuation of the big speakers of the first few decades of high-end audio—the Infinity IRS, the Magnepan Tympani 1D, etc., a type of speaker no longer widely designed these days, when lifestyle compatibility has become a dominant force. But oddly, the ALSs are in fact domestically compatible—the slender floor-to ceiling towers are elegant and inconspicuous visually, while the subwoofer, which is a flat slab, can be hidden away. The result is a speaker capable of reproducing the largest music that can fit into almost any living room. If your goal is the reproduction of the live auditorium experience—or the sound of any room larger than your own—then these speakers will be a revelation and an ongoing pleasure.
Manger Audio p1
The Manger p1 brings the bending-wave driver to life in this svelte floorstander. Manger’s wide-bandwidth, low-mass, flat-disc-diaphragm transducer creates an intimacy and immediacy that are almost eerie in their authenticity. Tonally, there’s a neutral weighting with warmish, saturated overtones and firm acoustic-suspension bass. Temperamentally not geared to knock fillings loose or propel images forward like a studio control monitor, the p1 offers instead musical naturalism without artifice and hype. With the normally distracting multi-driver discontinuities eliminated, the timbre of orchestral instruments remains true and realistic. There’s really nothing quite like the p1.
Magico S1 Mk II
$16,500, M-Cast ($20,295, M-Coat)
Magico’s smallest floorstander sports all the key features seen in the larger models of the California company’s S Series—an extruded aluminum enclosure, a diamond-coated beryllium tweeter, a nanographene mid/bass cone driver. So it’s no surprise that the sonic character (or lack thereof) of the new S1 is highly reminiscent of the S3 Mk II and S5 Mk II, as well as, to a significant degree, the exalted Q Series products. The continuity between the two drivers is exceptional—as good as you’ll hear in a dynamic loudspeaker design—resulting in excellent imaging and realistic instrumental/vocal reproduction; in addition, bass is well defined and impactful. The lower price is for the granular anodized M-Cast finish; the higher tariff gets you the high-gloss M-Coat version.
Wilson Audio Sabrina
The Sabrina is the smallest and least expensive floorstander in the Wilson line. Entry-level, maybe, but there are no observable shortcuts. The Sabrina has commanding and linear top-to-bottom energy. It’s a ripe sound, a relaxed sound, with a slightly warmer signature that may surprise the brand’s devotees. It’s a Wilson, of course, so the Sabrina also has remarkable dynamics, outstanding low-level resolution, and the sense that it willfully wants to drive music forward rather than let it passively lay back. The Sabrina artfully combines low-level resolution with the most powerful bass dynamics, never losing grip or control. Unsurpassed in a smaller listening room, this sweetheart may be pound for pound the best Wilson Audio loudspeaker available today.
Marten Django XL
$17,000 in piano black
When designing the $17,000 Django XL full-range floorstander, Swedish speaker-builder Marten focused its considerable resources on the drivers. The Django boasts ceramic tweeter and midrange units plus three aluminum-domed woofers. Tonally, the XL is warm as a mild bath, making for a very appealing overall character. Further, the speaker is unfailingly engaging rhythmically, with precise transients and clear musical lines. Soundstage depth and width are not quite on par with more expensive models, nor are highs quite as resolved—but in each case they are close. Indeed, on much material AT found the Martens indistinguishable from his reference speakers. The Django XL is not for everyone; it needs plenty of volume as well as space around it to reach its full potential. Within those constraints, the Django constitutes a speaker about which there is precious little to criticize.
Sanders Sound Systems Model 10e
$17,000 (includes one Sanders Magtech amplifier)
The Sanders Model 10e is the culmination of decades of work by designer Roger Sanders toward perfecting hybrid electrostatic design. A flat electrostatic panel is mounted above a transmission-line loaded woofer. The speaker, which must be bi-amped, comes with a DSP crossover with a variety of user adjustments. The uniformity of radiation pattern, together with the absence of resonant coloration, gives the midrange of the Sanders a lack of coloration that is truly in the top echelon. This is one of the lowest coloration speakers there is. If you wanted to call the Sanders 10e the best speaker ever, you could definitely make a case. Within the category of speakers that emphasize facsimile reproduction of the direct arrival, the Sanders system can surely claim to be the equal of any, and far superior to most. And when you consider that even if you buy two Sanders Magtech amplifiers—one comes along as part of the $17,000 package—the total cost exclusive of source components is $22,500, and that you can adjust the speaker to suit your room and your tastes, this system seems to REG to be not only a wonder but a bargain.
Avantgarde Acoustic Zero 1 XD
Avantgarde Acoustic’s DSP’d, active Zero 1 XD compact horn loudspeaker does the seemingly impossible: preserves almost all of the virtues of a horn-loaded loudspeaker while eliminating almost all of its vices. Digitally corrected for accurate phase, amplitude, and impulse response (via FPGAs designed by Denmark’s Thomas Holm) within a “listening bubble” of 2m to 4m, the Zero 1 XD is quite simply the least horn-colored horn loudspeaker JV has heard—the first horn loudspeaker that can actually “disappear” as a sound source. Exceptionally neutral, coherent (even in the bass), detailed, and fast, with surprisingly lifelike imaging and good soundstaging and that three-dimensional midband presence that horns give you par excellence, the Zero 1 XDs can make certain instruments and voices sound as “there” as any other speaker on the market. Perfect for a small-to-moderately-sized room or for combo use in a home-theater system, all you have to add to these powered, digitally optimized, horn-loaded loudspeakers is an AES/EBU or SPDIF cable and a digital source.
Kharma Elegance S7 Signature
A loudspeaker for connoisseurs who appreciate the finest the high end can offer. The look is sumptuous, the quality of materials stunning, and the mirror-like finish breathtaking. But it’s the sound that truly seduces—ripe with detail and harmonic complexity. Credit is owed to the new beryllium tweeter—a wonderfully coherent match with Kharma’s proprietary composite (KCD) woofers. (Say goodbye to Kharma’s traditional ceramic drivers.) Ideal for smaller to medium-sized rooms, yet so potent in output and midbass thrust it’s easy to forget it’s a mere two-way. Like all Kharma speakers the S7 has a micro-dynamic delicacy and resolving power that touch both the head and the heart.
German Physiks HRS-130
$22,500–$26,250 depending on finish
The Unlimited II’s bigger brother combines a carbon-fiber Dicks Dipole Driver (DDD) with a floor-firing 10″ woofer. The DDD is a serious attempt to mimic the coherent soundfield produced by a small radially pulsating cylinder. The design is capable of wide-range operation and by its nature generates an omnidirectional radiation pattern in the horizontal plane. Expect an exceptionally wide sweet spot coupled with palpable image outlines. The HRS-130 is almost perfect for a small-to-medium-sized room, providing that the room is acoustically tuned along the lines of live-end/dead-end to sharpen image focus. Solid-state amplification works best to tighten bass lines. Microdynamics pop right out of the musical fabric, making it a breeze to connect with the music’s emotions and drama. Midrange textures are capable of exceptional purity.
Legacy Aeris with Wavelet
The Legacy Aeris sports extraordinary drivers and cabinet design matched to advanced electronics that provide room compensation and the ability to add a wide range of equalization settings for given types of recordings. The Aeris provides outstanding performance at every frequency to the limits of hearing and beyond. Add in excellent definition, dynamics, and a visual image that might win it an entry in New York’s Museum of Modern Art. It has built-in 500W subwoofer amplifiers that provide powerful, room-filling bass, with a crossover point low enough to still get the best sound out of your regular power amplifier. The mix of other drivers provides a coherent and naturally detailed soundstage, as well as enough dipole radiation to widen the stage and give it more natural ambience. The electronics and software allow the Aeris’ response to be adjusted to be as musically realistic as possible in any real-world listening room. There are up to 30 settings to tailor its balance to given types of recordings and partly correct for the response problems in older, over-bright close-miked recordings, and even the different equalization curves in LPs. Now available with advanced Wavelet processor.
This floorstander from Switzerland boasts one of the most impressive drivers in all of high-end audio: a coaxial ribbon of Piega’s own design and construction. Mounting a ribbon tweeter inside a ribbon midrange gives the driver perfect coherence no matter what the listening position or height. This coherence combines with the manifold virtues of Piega’s ribbons—tremendous speed, clarity, transparency, resolution—to create a speaker that, above 400Hz, has few equals at any price. Four woofers (two active and two passive) in an extruded and braced enclosure couple seamlessly to the coaxial ribbon.
Wilson Audio Yvette
The Wilson Audio Yvette is a three-way, single-enclosure floorstander utilizing drivers, or driver technology, developed for Wilson’s much larger and more costly reference products like the WAMM, Alexandria XLF, and Alexx. These marvelous drivers are housed in a highly inert cabinet made of Wilson’s proprietary X- and S-material, which lets them do their jobs without smearing. Like the latest-generation Wilson speakers, the Yvette has a richer tonal palette featuring even better resolution, clarity, and transparency than its Wilson predecessors of similar size. The Yvette packs a surprisingly powerful dynamic punch for such a relatively small-footprint loudspeaker, with extended, detailed, and controlled bass. It’s a lot like hearing the amazing WAMM but on a smaller scale. While it lacks the WAMM’s superb adjustable time-alignment, its fixed drivers, mounted on separate sloping baffles, achieve wonderful alignment in the time domain with careful in-room positioning. There’s a lot to like about this beauty—Yvette is a great value!
Rockport Technologies Atria
The Atria—a true Rockport at a more accessible price and size—embodies the best in modern speaker design. Its vanishingly low distortion leads to uncanny levels of purity and resolution, while also making the speaker easy to listen to. The Atria is also highly coherent, speaking with one voice—a voice that disappears as a source and is capable of throwing a soundstage so deep it’s spooky. Surprisingly in this size and price range, this speaker has plenty of bass heft—and dynamic range to spare. All these elements come together effortlessly, creating an experience that will hold you in its spell. The Atria is that rare component that is effortlessly “right” in its musical presentation. Further, the speaker emits a contagious vibe of simply being happy to make music. A terrific speaker and a great value, too.
The SB-R1 is traditional-looking, but its point-source configuration includes an advanced, flat, coincident midrange/tweeter flanked by a pair of long-throw 6.5″ woofers. To supplement bass, an additional pair of woofers occupies each tower’s lower half. The speakers have a capacious thirst for current, but mate spectacularly well with Technics’ own SE-R1 integrated in its LAPC mode. Thus driven, all those woofers deliver lows that are solid and assured, with no evident extension limitations. In turn, the highs are smooth and airy. Though not quite as vibrant as AT’s ribbon-tweetered reference speakers, the SB-R1 more faithfully captures the sheer beauty of music. Further, the speaker’s imaging is convincing—players are arrayed across a wide, deep, tall soundstage—and instruments are holographic. The SB-R1 dexterously handles big dynamic swings, while detail resolution, speed, and instrumental colors are all reference level. Yet these characteristics draw absolutely no attention to themselves; they simply contribute to a deeply satisfying and engaging musical whole.
Magico S3 Mk II
$28,000, M-Cast ($32,000, M-Coat)
A strong case can be made for the new S3 Mk II occupying the “sweet spot” of the company’s entire line—that is, it is a notable value-for-dollar product. The three-way S3 Mk II incorporates Magico’s latest driver technologies in the 1″ diamond-coated beryllium dome tweeter, the 6″ nanographene midrange cone, and a pair of 9″ nanographene bass cones. The four drivers function with the unified voice of a good electrostatic but with the gutsy resoluteness associated with the best dynamic drivers. They are detailed and accurate without seeming “analytical” and definitely maintain their composure with large-scale musical material of all sorts. Bass is punchy and extended; the S3 Mk IIs are completely up to the task of providing a satisfying listening experience with opera and orchestral repertoire, big band jazz, and full-throttle rock. A glossy M-Coat finish adds $4k to the price, compared to the anodized M-Cast version.
A three-way, two-panel-per-side planar with a ribbon tweeter and quasi-ribbon midrange in one section and a huge quasi-ribbon woofer in the other, the 30.7 is likely the fastest, most neutral, highest resolution Maggie JV has auditioned—phenomenally lifelike from the upper bass to the lower treble. As marvelous as it is, its tweeter may still need a little “damping down” via a resistor, depending on your electronics, your room, your sitting position, and your hearing. On acoustic music, its bass is quite natural; on electronic music, it gives up some power-range weight and slam to select dynamic speakers (as all dipoles do). Then again, rock ’n’ roll has never been the forte of any Magneplanar; however, if you’re an absolute sound listener, you’re not going to find a more realistic transducer for this kind of money—or any kind of money. If you have enough room and amplifier and want to hear voices or acoustic instruments recorded in a real space sound like voices or acoustic instruments in a real space, this is a speaker you have to audition.
Monitor Audio Platinum PL500 II
It’s been said that big loudspeakers can mean big problems. What’s more, it’s not hard to spend big bucks on big speakers, especially on, say, a three-way tower with seven drivers. Happily, neither statement rings true here in Monitor Audio’s state-of-the-art flagship, the Platinum Series PL500 II. Tall, dark, and handsome, these big boys impressed JM from the very first time she heard them—and really didn’t sound like any other Monitor Audio speaker JM has heard. In fact, in some ways—in their warm, rich musicality and overall driving energy, for instance—they were slightly reminiscent of certain Raidhos (minus nearly another zero on the price). With Technical Director Dean Hartley on board, Monitor Audio has been enjoying a kind of R&D renaissance resulting in a plethora of proprietary new technologies. These innovations have paid off, as the PL500 IIs have proven infinitely enjoyable in their layers of depth and detail, delightful musicality, and overall coherence. They can also rock out with the best of them (the right electronics don’t hurt, though these transducers aren’t power-hungry). The PL500 IIs are not only high-energy, high-resolution transducers that boast beautiful sound; they also offer value far exceeding their price.
Bowers & Wilkins 800 D3
The 800 D3 is the new flagship atop Bowers & Wilkins’ acclaimed D3 series of diamond-tweetered speakers. Compared to the next model down, the 802 D3 (there is no 801), the 800 sports larger, heavily re-engineered woofers, netting more linear pistonic motion within the bass and fewer harmonic artifacts in the mids. The result is tight, meaty bass down to 15Hz, equally extended highs, and purity throughout. Dynamics, imaging, coherence, neutrality, and resolution are also reference caliber. Overall, the 800 D3 is remarkably self-effacing and transparent to the source. You’ll need a big amp to get this level of performance, and nearfield listening isn’t recommended. Otherwise, considering the technology and quality that have been lavished on this highly pedigreed speaker—and the sonic results—the 800 D3’s $30,000 price seems almost like an error. Do yourself a favor and take advantage of it.
Vandersteen Audio Model 5A Carbon
This upgrade of Vandersteen’s venerable Model 5A replaces the midrange driver and tweeter with the radical carbon-fiber-clad-balsa-wood diaphragms that make Vandersteen’s $62k Model 7 so special. You don’t get the full Model 7 presentation, but for about half the price you come awfully close. These special drivers exhibit extraordinarily low coloration and also provide a seamlessness to the music that makes you forget you’re listening to loudspeakers. Featuring a self-powered 12″ push-pull woofer with equalization adjustments below 100Hz, the 5A Carbon can deliver extraordinary bass extension. Original owners of the Model 5 can upgrade to the Carbon for $8650.
KEF’s Blade is a sonic, technological, and industrial tour de force. KEF strove to prove that a true full-range point-source speaker was not only possible, but that such a design could deliver on its theoretically predicted benefits, including coherence akin to a single-driver speaker, uniform room dispersion at all frequencies, and low coloration. The Blade realizes these ideals—and then some—with steadfast imaging, balanced tonality regardless of listening position, astounding detail and dynamic resolution, and vanishingly low distortion in both the frequency and time domains. Musically, the Blade is glory itself. Its rhythms sweep you along, its dynamics can by turns move and stun you, its resolution informs you, its timbres transport you, and its clarity makes delineating musical lines child’s play. Though advanced in every respect, the Blade is an instant classic destined to influence many speakers to come.
Paradigm Persona 9H
Along with the Legacy speakers, the Persona 9H is a product from one of only two manufacturers AHC has found that can really do room compensation well. The 9H is truly flat, has very deep, quick, and detailed bass, and a superb new beryllium midrange and tweeter with a great deal of life and detail but no hardness. With excellent driver integration and something much closer to a point-source sound than most complex speaker systems, the 9H provides some of the best imaging and soundstaging performance around. Pricey at $35k, but the sound quality really delivers, and its size and weight are far more practical than that of many contenders for the state of the art.
Von Schweikert Audio Endeavor E-5
Leif Swanson joined forces with Albert and Damon Von Schweikert in 2015 and his Endeavor loudspeaker line now proudly wears the VSA badge. The E-5 is a large (9″ x 66″ x 15″) vented box manufactured from a cellular matrix material that, especially with the damping techniques employed, is acoustically inert. The speaker incorporates seven drivers per side: a beryllium dome tweeter, a pair of 6.5″ Kevlar midrange cones, and four 7″ aluminum cone woofers, arranged in a D’Appolito configuration. The E-5 provides a vivid and robustly dynamic presentation of large-scale music. Mahler or pedal-to-the-metal rock ’n’ roll succeed as expected, though more intimate forces aren’t exaggerated in their physical dimensions. In most applications, a subwoofer won’t be necessary. Tonal nuance is revealed (if the recording has it), and the speakers can create a gratifyingly capacious soundfield.
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