By Greg Cahill | From the July-August 2020 issue of Strings magazine
In 1888, the American Civil War hero George Gouraud presented at a London press conference a then-state-of-the-art Edison phonograph, playing a recording (on wax cylinder) of a piano and cornet version of Arthur Sullivan’s popular song, “The Lost Chord”—one of the earliest known recordings of music. The new technology dazzled the Brits, as they listened to the music pouring from the device’s tinny brass horn, but Sullivan, whose music had been captured on the phonograph, had reservations about the invention. “I can only say that I am astonished and somewhat terrified at the result of this evening’s experiments,” he said, addressing Edison, “astonished at the wonderful power you have developed, and terrified at the thought that so much hideous and bad music may be put on record forever.”
For more than a century, the recording industry has sought to improve the quality of sound recordings. In recent years, the audiophile industry has grown exponentially, driven, in part, by the home-theater market and technological innovation in high-end audio equipment. And the sky is the limit—a pair of Focal Grande Utopia EM Evo floor-standing speakers will set you back about $250,000. Fortunately, in this hard-hit economy, innovations in the high-end market have found their way into the more affordable audiophile sector. That’s good news for cash-strapped music enthusiasts.
Every link in the audio chain—from the source (LPs, CDs, SACDs, Blu-Ray, hi-def downloads, and streaming services) to disc players or turntables to power amplifiers to digital-to-analog converters to speakers—is important. But one of the best investments you can make when upgrading a stereo system is a better pair of speakers. And some of the most noteworthy innovation—from design to electronics to construction material—has gone into the manufacture of stereo speakers.
Here are just a few options that can improve your listening experience without breaking the bank (unless, you know, you want to break the bank).
Where to Start
First, set a realistic budget (don’t set yourself up for disappointment by an endless search for the ultimate sound—after all, you wouldn’t test drive a high-performance Porsche when shopping for a Ford sedan). Read the expert reviews in Stereophile, the Absolute Sound, HiFi News, or Gramophone (which routinely offers in-depth information about hi-res recordings and equipment) and check out audiophile forums on Reddit and other online sites. Try to audition the equipment in person, or find an online retailer that allows you to audition equipment at home and return it for credit if it doesn’t suit your needs. The Virginia-based Crutchfield Audio offers mail-order sales, online chats, and trade-ins for old gear; and Amazon hosts numerous online dealers. Independent audio stores—including ProMusica Audio Specialists in Chicago, Audioarts in Manhattan, and Audio Vision SF in San Francisco, to name a few—can provide personal service from knowledgeable staff and a wide range of high-end equipment. You’ll need to consider the type of music you play (orchestral, solo instrumental, vocal, rock, jazz, and so on), the intended loudness of your listening experience, and whether your amplifier generates enough power to drive your new speakers.
Caveat: Speaker placement can be fussy—the listening room in an audio store is designed for optimal sound, but your results will be affected by the size of your room, how far you can place the speakers from walls, the height of the ceiling, the number of hard, reflective surfaces (including walls, bare floors, and windows), and the amount of absorbent furniture or drapes in the room. Still, you can always add sound-shaping panels to the room if needed. In addition, keep in mind that speakers may have a neutral sound, allowing the mix of the source material to shine through, or they may be tuned to add warmth in the mid-range or clarity in the treble range. Sound is subjective, and your taste may change over the years (leading you to “upgrade” speakers to suit your taste).
Floor-standing or Bookshelf?
Speakers come in all shapes, sizes, and price ranges, but there are two main categories: bookshelf and floor-standing (I’m excluding Sonos and other similar Bluetooth speaker systems). For the most part, a quality pair of floor-standing towers, with three- and four-way speaker systems, will cost more than comparable bass-reflex bookshelf speakers and will require a larger room for the sound-stage to develop. Bookshelf speakers often require the addition of a subwoofer to improve bass. Typically, speaker manufacturers, like Bowers & Wilkins, introduce technologies in their expensive floor-standing models and then adapt those advancements into their more popular bookshelf models (such as their flagship 800 series), contributing to various degrees of tight bass, precision, and clarity. And designers, driven by the rising market in apartment dwellers and even the tiny house market, have created impressive-sounding compact models.
The Bookshelf Option
A game-changer occurred in 2015 when Andrew Jones—who had served as chief speaker engineer at KEF, Infinity, Technical Audio Devices Laboratories, and Pioneer—took his expertise from those high-end companies and applied it to new budget lines offered by the 90-year-old Berlin-based firm ELAC, a leading innovator that had grown quiet in the marketplace. Jones’ entry-level ELAC Debut 2.0 B6.2 ($250 a pair) has garnered rave reviews. He has followed up with the Uni-Fi lines and the more recent Debut Reference series.
Other distinguished entry-level bookshelf speakers include the KEF Q150 ($599), Q Acoustics 3020i ($315), the Focal Chora 806, with a soft-dome tweeter and an ample 6-1/2-inch bass/midrange driver ($990), and the KEF LS50 mini-studio monitor, which features a powerful 5-1/4-inch Uni-Q driver that weds the tweeter and midrange driver in a single unit ($1,299). The LS50s were introduced in 2012 on the company’s 50th anniversary as an homage to the fabled LS 3/5. The LS50s make every list of best bookshelf speakers for classical music, and the B&W 705 S2, the flagship of the brand’s stand-mount line, features a 6-1/2-inch midrange driver and a decoupled 1-inch dome tweeter crafted from a solid block of aluminum ($2,999).
The Floor-standing Option
Floor-standing models can be pricey, but those on the affordable side of the high-end gear spectrum include the Andrew Jones–designed Pioneer SP-FS52-LR—each uses a 1-inch soft-domed tweeter and three 5-1/4-inch drivers with oversized magnets, all housed in a molded cabinet ($360). Also included in this category are the highly acclaimed Dali Oberon 5, a three-driver system using a 1-1/4-inch soft-dome tweeter and dual 5-1/4-inch mid/bass drivers ($1,199), and Martin Logan’s ElectroMotion ESL model, which uses the company’s patented electrostatic technology in which a tall wire grill replaces traditional speaker cones. Electrostatic speakers create a wide soundstage and can be an immersive experience when properly positioned ($2,499); the three-way Focal Chora 826 bass-reflex tower has a 1-1/4-inch tweeter, 6-1/2-inch midrange and two 6-1/2-inch woofers ($2,200); and the slim B&W 704 S2s offers improved damping for less vibration, diamond-dome tweeters—as used in the manufacturer’s acclaimed 800 series—as well as a 5-inch midrange and two 5-inch bass cones ($2,999).
Active, Passive, or Powered?
All the aforementioned speakers are passive boxes requiring an external amplifier to make a sound. Once the signal from that amplifier reaches the unit, an internal “crossover” filters the appropriate frequencies to each of the drivers (higher frequencies to the tweeter, and so on). There also are speakers that are passive in nature, but have an amplifier built-in. These are known as “powered” speakers of the type commonly attached to a computer (the compact $219 Kanto YU2 powered speaker even has a built-in soundcard that can power a turntable, digital music player, or CD player).
And then there are active speakers, which can have one or more built-in amplifiers. So, a two-way active speaker with a tweeter and mid/bass driver will have two built-in power amplifiers, one powering each driver and fed by an active, powered crossover that works at a much lower voltage than its passive counterpart. That means the components can be optimized for precision rather than pure power, resulting in a potentially better-integrated, more finely tuned, and more precise sound. Typically, these are high-tech devices and equipped with digital-signal processing that makes them ideal for hi-res sound found in SACDs, hi-resolution downloads, and such streaming services as Tidal and Qobuz. Examples of affordable active bookshelf speakers include the KEF LSX ($1,249), the Dali Rubicon 2C ($1,249), Acoustic Energy AE1 ($1,390), Dynaudio XEO 10 ($1,499), the KEF LS50 Wireless ($2,499), and the B&W Formation Duo ($3,299).
Speaking of speakers—some key terms
Driver A transducer that converts electrical audio signal into sound waves. Most speakers use multiple drivers, each responsible for reproducing a specific audio range.
Voice Coil An electromagnet that converts an audio signal into sound waves via the speaker cone
Cone Part of a driver that is connected to the voice coil and moves back and forth to produce sound waves
Tweeter A driver that produces high-frequency sounds in a stereo system
Mid-range Driver Produces mid-range sounds in a stereo system
Woofer A driver that produces low-frequency sounds in a stereo system
Bass-reflex Speaker A speaker using a port or vent to increase the efficiency of the system at low frequencies
2-, 3- & 4-way Speakers Each term references the number of drivers in the system, affecting clarity, sound range, and sound quality.
Crossover An electronic circuit that splits the audio signal into different frequency ranges and sends them to different drivers that reproduce only those specific frequencies
The Vinyl Revival
Driven by millennials searching for analog authenticity, vinyl records earned $224.1 million (on 8.6 million units) in the first half of 2019, closing in on the $247.9 million (on 18.6 million units) generated by CD sales. Vinyl revenue grew by 12.8 percent in the second half of 2018 and 12.9 percent in the first six months of 2019. That growth has led to a flood of audiophile-quality vinyl to meet demand, and an equally vast number of brands selling turntables. Do your research and consider the three models mentioned in quick picks. —GC
Turntable Quick Picks
Budget Bargain: Pro-Ject Carbon Debut with Ortofon Red Cartridge
Better Yet: ClearAudio Concept with Concept MM or MC Cartridge
Devil May Care: VPI Industries Prime (cartridge not included)
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