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- Created: 08 May 2012 08 May 2012
To Doug Schneider,
Speaker reviews typically include comparisons with similarly priced models, which is certainly reasonable. What I would like to see, at least occasionally, is the view from 30,000 feet: what does the reviewer feel are the meaningful differences between the speaker under review and noteworthy speakers across a broader range of price points? (This holds for all components, of course.)
My question is prompted by your excellent review of the PSB Imagine T2, in which you made comparisons with PSB’s pricier Synchrony One. One response I had to the review -- and I suspect many other audiophiles react this same way -- was to think, hmm, perhaps here is a sub-$5000 speaker I should look at along with the $10k+ products that have been on my radar lately. This is not about finding a "giant killer" so much as it is about keeping a clear perspective on what the overall landscape has to offer.
PSB is an especially good example (along with Paradigm, Revel and a few others) because it represents decades of engineering effort coupled with manufacturing knowhow, efficiencies and economies of scale that are not available to most of the smaller high-end speaker companies. And while they produce an attractive, well-made product, they are not building the furniture-grade speakers featured in ads that show "craftsmen" hand-sanding the third of seven or 11 coats of lacquer. I don’t have a problem with loudspeakers as fine furniture, or with paying for it, but that’s got to be a huge part of their cost that may or may not have any bearing on sonic performance. If we talk strictly about performance (put all devices under test behind a screen), what really are the differences between the T2 and, for example, the Vandersteen Quatro or Aerial 7T, Dynaudio C1 or C2, Wilson Sophia, Marten Django, Vivid B1, and so on?
There's a common misconception among audiophiles (particularly those who only shop for very expensive products), and even reviewers, that the design goals of more expensive speakers differ from those of less expensive ones. It's not true, which is important to fully understand in order to answer your questions, so I'll explain that below. There is also the issue of cosmetics and how that relates to speaker price. Does the more expensive speaker actually perform better, or does it just have a fancier finish? These are things I consider whenever I review a loudspeaker.
Regardless of price, the basic tenets of good speaker design remain the same and include things such as: generally flat frequency response, controlled dispersion, wide bandwidth (bass depth is mainly limited by cabinet and driver size), low distortion, proper driver phase integration, etc. That's not to say that these are the goals of all speaker companies, but these are the overriding design goals of the good companies whether they're making a speaker that's $500, $5000, or $50,000 dollars.
When you move up in price with companies that follow established design parameters for their speaker products, the same design goals hold true, so you usually get superior performance for one or more of these design parameters, because the increased amount of money spent on a speaker allows the designers to execute their design at a higher standard. For example, it's hard to make ultra-low-distortion drivers for $500 speakers, but it's quite a bit easier if the speaker sells for $5000, and it's really easy when the price rises to $50,000. Likewise, the same can be said for cabinet and woofer size, which affects how much bass you'll get -- more money means that you can build something bigger. So when you spend more, you get more, and that usually means a higher level of performance in terms of those basic design tenets that I talked about. Of course, when people spend more, they also want to see a product that's more attractive and with a higher level of fit'n'finish. That, too, comes with the high-priced territory. Luckily, the really good speaker companies give you better performance and better cosmetics when you move up in price.
For example, Vivid Audio's B1 and Giya G2 are some of the best speakers available in their price ranges ($15,000 and $50,000 per pair respectively). Their performance is quite similar in terms of achieving flat frequency response, controlled dispersion, etc.; in fact, they share some of the same parts. But because the Giya G2 is much more expensive, the company could create a larger, more elaborate cabinet, and they could use superior woofers for much deeper bass. They could also make the G2 a true four-way as opposed to a three-and-a-half-way, which is what the B1 is. All this adds up to a speaker that has flatter frequency response, better-controlled dispersion, lower distortion, wider bandwidth, etc. than its lower-priced sibling. Likewise, PSB's more expensive Synchrony One is better than the lower-priced Imagine T2 in terms of distortion and bass extension. The One is also built better than the T2, so it's another clear case of the more-expensive speaker being truly better than the less-expensive model in one or more ways. Now, as I said in my review of the T2, some might like the sound of the T2 over the One, which can happen despite the price difference. But as I also said in the text, the One is better built and, to my ears, still the better speaker sound-wise. And if you're wondering if there's a sub-$10,000 pair of speakers that can be compared quite readily to ones costing more than $10,000, I've written many times that the Synchrony One is it.
Not all speaker companies are equal when it comes to creating better speakers, or providing better performance for more money. But, luckily, many are. I'm not familiar with Marten's and Aerial's speakers, but I am very familiar with Vandersteen and, of course, those you mentioned that I've reviewed: Dynaudio, PSB, Vivid Audio, Paradigm and Revel (I have Salon2s as references). They all build good speakers and they all tend to improve in performance as you move up in price, so there's no problem there.
But you also mention the Wilson Sophia -- my apologies to all the Wilson owners out there, but, in my opinion, their speakers just don't cut it performance-wise. Some reviewers (even our own) have raved about Wilson's speakers, but I see more attention being paid to putting on a fancy paint job than putting in topnotch engineering, which can also be seen in the measurements we have done on many of their speaker models (see www.speakermeasurements.com for our database of loudspeaker measurements). That's not to say they're really bad speakers, just that I believe them to be quite bad performers for the money they're charging, and I'd surely pick any of the Vivid Audio or PSB models I mentioned (or the Revels I use) over anything Wilson makes -- unless, of course, I only wanted a fancy paint job, which they seem to do very well.
Moral of the story: as you move up in price you can achieve better performance, but only if the company has the skill and ability to put better engineering into the products they're making, not just a better paint job. Some do it right, some don't. I hope that helps. . . . Doug Schneider