Most-Read Opinion Articles (Last 365 Days)
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- 2017-05-01 - Is It Finally Time for Active Loudspeakers?
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- Written by Doug Schneider Doug Schneider
- Category: Monthly Column Monthly Column
- Created: 01 June 2017 01 June 2017
After a dismal start to the year with the worst Consumer Electronics Show (CES) I’d ever seen, I was thrilled to attend High End 2017, held May 18-21 at the Munich Order Center (MOC), in Germany -- the biggest and best edition yet of this annual event. According to the High End Society’s follow-up report, the number of exhibitors was up 4% over 2016, and overall attendance was up 10%. Furthermore, of this year’s 538 exhibitors, 63% came from outside of Germany, reflecting the growing international flavor of this show. High End has become the most important hi-fi event in the world.
Given High End’s growth in recent years, it should be no surprise that new-product introductions were plentiful at this year’s event. If fact, there were so many new products that our reporting team, the biggest we’d ever sent, had trouble covering it all by the end of the last day. This was the opposite of CES, where, having covered pretty much everything relevant to high-end audio in two days, we spent the remaining two days frustrated, wishing we could find more to flesh out our reports.
But as big as High End 2017 was, we were able to make it to every area of the MOC at least once. This allowed us to gather information about the most important products, which we included in our reports on SoundStage! Global. From that coverage, I’ve cherry-picked the products that I feel were the Best of High End 2017 (prices in euros or USD).
Estelon Lynx loudspeaker
The highest-profile product launch at High End 2017 was that of the Lynx loudspeaker, made by Estelon, of Estonia, who literally unveiled their newest creation by pulling sheets off the first pair on the show’s first day. The Lynx is a three-way, powered, wireless (except for the power cord) speaker with a 10” woofer, two 5” midranges, and a 1” beryllium-diaphragm tweeter (€40,000/pair) or a 1” diamond-diaphragm tweeter (€50,000/pair). It needs no other equipment, other than a smartphone or tablet to run its proprietary app. The app not only streams music to the Lynx, it allows for height adjustment of its midrange-and-tweeter section.
Very little information was given about the technology inside, other than that the Estelon Lynx subjects incoming digital signals to DSD-type processing, which, they claim, lets them implement a very simple, direct amplification scheme for the drivers that results in the purest possible sound. I did notice a very sweet and refined sound with every musical selection played.
Estelon isn’t the first super-high-end speaker brand to come out with a wireless design; still, only a few manufacturers at the upper end of hi-fi are doing it. But I think there will be more and more such products in coming years, including from Estelon. According to their statements at High End, the technology developed for the Lynx, which they call Estelon Intelligent Audio, will eventually find its way into more Estelon models.
Focal Shape loudspeakers
There wasn’t any hoopla for Focal’s new Shape series of speakers; instead, the company used their first-day press event to launch two new Utopia III models, the Maestro Evo and Scala Evo, respectively priced at €55,000 and €32,000 per pair. It’s fitting that Focal would focus on these new models -- they’re in their flagship range, and that’s often what people come to High End to see. But the new Shapes -- the 40 (€399 each) and 65 (€699 each) shown in the photo above, plus the 50 (€449 each, not exhibited) -- are what caught our eyes for their affordability, practicality, and versatility.
Each Shape is a two-way speaker with dual side-mounted passive radiators to augment the bass output, built-in crossovers and amplification (all analog, no DSP), and single-ended and balanced inputs. On the rear are switches that let you tailor the frequency response for an ideal in-room balance.
The Shapes are part of Focal’s “professional” line -- their primary role is for nearfield monitoring, as in a recording studio. But “prosumer” would be a better descriptor -- with their (ahem) shapely and attractive appearance and compact sizes, there’s no reason they can’t be used in smallish rooms in the home. We’ve asked for a review pair.
Monitor Audio Silver loudspeakers
Squarely aimed at the consumer two-channel and home-theater markets is Monitor Audio’s newest line of Silver loudspeakers, the sixth generation of this popular series from the venerable British brand: the floorstanding Silver 200 ($1500/pair), Silver 500 ($2500/pair), and Silver 300 ($2000/pair); the bookshelf Silver 50 ($875/pair) and Silver 100 ($1150/pair); the Silver C150 ($725) and Silver C350 ($999) center-channel speakers; and the Silver FX surround ($875/pair).
There’s a lot to like about the new Silvers. First, there are enough different models that you can choose speakers of just the right size to suit your room. (After several misguided purchases, SoundStage! Access editor Hans Wetzel has learned that bigger speakers aren’t always better if your listening room isn’t big enough -- which is why he was smitten with the Silver 300, a midsize floorstander.) Second, Monitor has incorporated into the Silvers their latest technologies -- C-CAM drivers, a newly developed tweeter, etc. Third, Monitor says they’ve put a lot of effort into the voicing of these new designs, including what they learned during the development of their flagship models, the Platinum IIs. The result, they believe, is a sonic signature reminiscent of the Platinums that will please even more listeners than did earlier Silvers. Fourth, Monitor has done a bang-up job of industrial design, with nice cabinet shapes, eye-catching finishes, and gorgeous trim pieces, particularly around the drivers -- every Silver model looks really good. And finally, they’ve kept the prices down. For example, the Silver 6, which we reviewed, is replaced by the Silver 200 (we’ve requested review samples) -- at the same price. Kudos to the Monitor team for finding ways to make the sixth generation of Silvers seem like a brand-new series.
SGR Audio Discovery loudspeakers
Before Edgar Kramer introduced me to the people who run SGR Audio, I’d never heard of the company -- nor had anyone else on our North American team. Edgar, from Australia, has just signed on to lead our new website, SoundStage! Australia, which will launch in July. SGR is also based in Australia and, Edgar tells me, is known there mainly for its powered speakers. However, what SGR displayed in Munich might change that perception.
SGR Audio used High End 2017 to showcase their new Discovery series of fully passive designs, which now are the company’s entry-level speaker models. These are the DS1 two-way minimonitor (€8000/pair with stands) and three floorstanders: the DS2 two-way (€9000/pair), DS3 2.5-way (€10,500/pair), and DS4 three-way (€16,500/pair).
Entry level? The SGR Discoverys aren’t “affordable” in the way that, say, Monitor Audio’s new Silver speakers are; but, from what I could see, they offer considerable value in build quality and technology. The wooden cabinets are very well made, with paint quality that wouldn’t be out of place on speakers costing multiples of their prices. I could see no orange-peel textures or ripples or seams -- absolutely flawless. Acoustically, too, SGR seems to be doing things right. For example, the Discoverys’ generously curved front baffles show that they’re well aware of the problems caused by the diffraction of soundwaves by sharp-edged baffles; and the tweeter waveguide indicates that they’re trying to help boost the output of the tweeter at the bottom end of its operating range, as well as better control its dispersion, for smooth response on and off axis. A nice touch on all of the Discovery cabinets is the aluminum insert on the baffle, to which the drivers are bolted -- it not only looks good, it probably better secures the drivers. This insert also forms the bulk of each waveguide -- but if you want it to look a little different, you can opt to have it coated with carbon fiber for an even snappier appearance.
As we were leaving the SGR Audio booth, I told Edgar that I’d like to see a pair of those speakers reviewed on SoundStage! Australia as soon as he can make it happen. He agreed. And I’d like to review a pair for this site. This new (to us) brand from Down Under seems to have it together in every aspect of design, and we think the world should know more about them.
Ayre Acoustics AX-8 DAC-integrated amplifier
The USA’s Ayre Acoustics introduced their new 8-series electronics, which now represent their entry-level range, taking over that role from the 5-series models, which have become their mid-level line. Currently, the 8 series comprises two models: the QX-8 streaming DAC (est. $4500) and the product that impressed me more, the AX-8 integrated amplifier (est. $7500).
I think Ayre’s move is wise. The trend today is toward components that are high in value and rich in features, and that’s what the 8s are. Further, Ayre brings to the table some of their proprietary technologies -- these aren’t “me-too” products.
The AX-8 is specified to deliver 80Wpc into 8 ohms, and has such proprietary Ayre features as a Double Diamond output stage, AyreLock power supply, and Equilock gain stage. Its DAC section can support PCM signals with resolutions up to 24-bit/384kHz, as well as single- and double-rate DSD, and includes Ayre’s custom minimum-phase digital filter. There are also an Ethernet port for network hookup, as well as one 1/4” and two 3.5mm headphone jacks (the latter for balanced headphones). For those who’ve long wanted to get into Ayre’s world of sound but couldn’t afford to, the AX-8 could be the entry ticket.
Audeze LCD-i4 earphones
Of all the ‘phones Brent Butterworth reported on at this year’s High End, what most interested me were Audeze’s new LCD-i4 earphones, which he described as “a greatly upgraded version of the iSine10s.” When Brent reviewed the iSine10s ($399) for SoundStage! Xperience in March of this year, he described them as providing “$4000 worth of sound for $400.” Does that mean that, at a list price of $2495, the LCD-i4s might provide $25,000 worth of sound?
I’m not sure what $25,000 can buy in earphone sound -- I’m not sure anyone does -- but the LCD-i4s definitely seem to be something aficionados will want to check out, and not only for their out-of-this-world appearance. Their enclosures are made of magnesium, not the iSine10s’ plastic. Supposedly, this less resonant enclosure lets them deliver bass down to 10Hz -- an octave below the bottom of the audioband. That’s deep. The drivers’ diaphragms are said to be made of the same 0.5µm-thick material as those in Audeze’s flagship LCD-4 over-ear headphones ($3995). Lastly, unlike the iSine10s, which Audeze says sound best when connected to a device via a Lightning cable, the LCD-i4s are purportedly voiced to sound best with an analog cable connected to a source with a decent amp. If we review them, it will probably be one of our headphone experts, Brent or S. Andrea Sundaram, who does the honors -- but I’d love to give them a serious listen myself.
Dynaudio Special Forty loudspeaker
I have an affinity for commemorative and/or limited-edition products -- I like to collect special things, because they’re, well, special in some way. But it’s also because, when a product has even a hint of significance, I’m a bit of a hoarder -- not enough to be featured on Hoarders, but if you saw my listening room, you’d know I’m well on the way. At High End 2017 I came across three such products, the first being Dynaudio’s Special Forty loudspeaker (€3000/pair), created to celebrate the company’s 40th anniversary.
Dynaudio is famous for making two-way bookshelf speakers, and the Special Forty follows suit, with familiar-looking drivers. Nonetheless, the Special Forty isn’t all that ordinary -- its 1.1” (28mm) tweeter, the Esotar Forty, is based on Dynaudio’s Esotar2 tweeter design and looks it, but they have improved its airflow and worked to better blend its output with the woofer’s. Dynaudio says that its 6.7” (170mm) woofer, based on the woofers used in their upscale Confidence and Evidence lines, is their best yet -- a bold statement from a company that’s been making drivers for four decades. The two drivers are linked by a first-order crossover. The cabinet comes in two finishes: Red Birch and Grey Birch. At first, our team thought the Red Birch looked the best, but the longer we gazed at them, the more the Grey Birch grew on us. Whichever you choose, you can’t go wrong.
I listened to the Red Birch pair that Dynaudio was playing at the back of their very large room at High End 2017, and was taken by how big these relatively small speakers sounded, how full and generous their bass was, and how smoothly and enticingly they reproduced the midrange. In that brief listen, the Special Forty seemed not only special but downright spectacular.
EgglestonWorks Andra Viginti Limited Edition loudspeaker
EgglestonWorks, based in Memphis, Tennessee, was incorporated in 1992. Originally, they built furniture that contained loudspeakers, an idea that didn’t turn out to be very popular. Their history as loudspeaker makers really began with the EgglestonWorks Andra, in 1997, the company’s first standalone speaker. The Andra was somewhat controversial. Wes Phillips reviewed it for Stereophile in October 1997 and loved its sound, but John Atkinson’s measurements of it revealed horrendous anomalies. The discrepancies poured more fuel on the already-blazing fire of how much or how little measurements matter. But not everyone was enamored of the Andra’s sound -- I heard a pair about the time they were released and thought they sounded bright, bass-light, and midrange-shy. There were plenty of speakers I liked more.
But 20 years is a long time, and a lot has changed at EgglestonWorks. Founder Bill Eggleston moved on shortly after the Andra was released. Jim Thompson began working with the company in 1996, became an owner in 2000, and in 2004, he and John Callery bought it outright and have run it successfully ever since. But they haven’t forgotten their roots -- at High End 2017, they introduced the Andra Viginti Limited Edition ($39,950/pair), of which they’ll make 250 pairs. (Viginti is Latin for “20.”)
The Andra Viginti’s cabinet broadly resembles the original Andra’s, and the driver count is the same, but there are substantial differences. Instead of two 12” woofers in an isobaric configuration (one woofer mounted directly behind the other), the Viginti has two 10” woofers, both mounted on the cabinet baffle. The original Andra’s soft-dome tweeter was mounted above its two 6” midranges; in the Andra Viginti, the two midranges are above and below its tweeter, which has a beryllium dome. Obviously, 20 years later, none of the drivers are close to being the same -- and neither was the sound. To my ears, the sound of the Andra Viginti Limited Edition was exceptionally good in Munich, with none of the problems of the original design.
If you’re a fan of EgglestonWorks, I have a feeling you’ll really like this 20th-anniversary design. If you’re not, it could be the model that turns you on to what they’ve been doing and makes you a fan -- the Andra Viginti Limited Edition sure has me intrigued.
Pro-Ject Audio Systems 175 Vienna Philharmonic Recordplayer turntable
No hi-fi company can compete with the Vienna Philharmonic for longevity -- so, as the old saying goes, if you can’t beat ’em, join ’em. That’s what Pro-Ject did with the creation of the 175 Vienna Philharmonic Recordplayer, a complete turntable conceived to celebrate the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra’s 175th anniversary. (Pro-Ject Audio Systems is also based in Vienna.)
For €7000, the 175 Vienna Philharmonic Recordplayer comes with a Pro-Ject tonearm and hand-selected Ortofon Cadenza cartridge. The turntable’s body is made of maple and comes in two finishes: Dark Cello or Bright Violin. Pro-Ject’s promotional copy points out that maple is used to make cellos and violins, and that the lacquer used on the turntable’s finishes is the same as that used on violins. Likewise, many of the many parts -- for the tonearm, as well as buttons and controls -- are made from the same metals as musical instruments are.
Only 175 of these turntables will be made, which has me scratching my head: it’s such a cool, original, well-thought-out product, and it’s to be made in a limited edition. As a collector, I really want one; as a hoarder, I know that it if I get one, it will probably never go away -- and do I really need more equipment around?
Can next year be better?
After CES 2017, there was plenty of bellyaching from our staff (including from me) and in other publications about how bad that show was and how far CES -- formerly the No.1 hi-fi show in the world -- has fallen. Following the 2017 edition of High End, the new No.1 audio destination, I had nary a complaint. High End 2017 was bigger and better than ever, and gave high-end hi-fi just the sort of kick in the pants the industry needs this year to get excited. My only question: If High End 2018 is even bigger, will we have to send more reporters? My sneaking suspicion is that we will. Oh, well -- everyone should have such problems!
. . . Doug Schneider