This last installment in my series on “High-Performance Loudspeakers” has been rather hard to write because of one nagging question: How can I write about all the companies that I believe make true high-performance loudspeakers when I can’t possibly have had personal experience of every one? I can’t, and there’s probably no one who can -- there are just so many speaker makers out there.
In the end, I felt the best thing to do would be to write about the companies whose products and design processes I have become very familiar with in my 16 years of reviewing. I can confidently say that, overall, these companies are leaders in producing very good-sounding, well-engineered speakers at a variety of price points. This is not to say that every model made by one of these manufacturers is a winner (everyone falls down once in a while), or that those models all sound the same (they don’t); but the bulk of what they make is good, which makes their products well worth auditioning. And to independently assess their measured performance and corroborate their makers’ claims, we’ve measured one or more speakers from nearly all of these companies in the anechoic chamber at Canada’s National Research Council (NRC), one of the best facilities in the world for doing so.
Here are the companies I’ve become most familiar with and kept abreast of:
The three big Canadian speaker makers that started in the 1970s and early ’80s -- Axiom, Paradigm, and PSB -- make some of the best reasonably priced loudspeakers in the world. None of them makes a speaker that costs more than ten grand (at least for now); instead, each made its name and earned its reputation by making affordably priced speakers that could easily outperform most competitors costing many times more. Their secret: All were involved in the exhaustive, groundbreaking loudspeaker research conducted at NRC by Dr. Floyd Toole in the ’80s, and put those findings into practice. These companies were some of the first to adopt these chief design goals: flat frequency response, wide and controlled dispersion, and low distortion. Since then, all three have advanced past that initial research, but all still adhere to sound scientific design principles, and all use state-of-the-art measurement facilities to hone their designs: Axiom and Paradigm have their own anechoic chambers, and PSB uses NRC’s. As for quality control, all three companies perform thorough inspections (including vital acoustic testing) of every speaker coming off their lines, which they do to ensure that the buyers get the product and performance they're paying for. These companies may focus on lower-priced speakers, but they set a high standard for others to follow.
A much smaller Canadian company that’s creating good speakers is Focus Audio. Last month, Aron Garrecht reviewed the Focus Audio Prestige FP88 SE and found that it performed at an exceedingly high level, particularly for the price ($6800 USD per pair). That didn’t surprise me. I’ve reviewed a number of Focus speakers over the years, and every one has been very good. Focus doesn’t have the long history of a PSB, a Paradigm, or an Axiom, nor does it enjoy those companies’ extensive manufacturing and testing facilities. However, Focus has the technical chops to get the designs right and generally follow the same, fundamentally sound design principles. I’ve visited Focus’s facility in Toronto, and they have decent manufacturing and measuring capabilities and excellent quality-control procedures. Focus Audio proves that you don’t have to be very big to be very good.
But it’s not only Canadian companies that make great affordable speakers. I have yet to find a poor-sounding or poor-measuring speaker from Denmark’s Dynaudio, another world-class speaker powerhouse. While I’ve not yet toured their facilities, from what I’ve heard, and from what I can tell from the many review samples we’ve received, Dynaudio’s technical and manufacturing capabilities must be on a par with the Canadian Big Three to be able to produce such a broad range of high-quality speakers. Like other top speaker makers, Dynaudio appears to use no magic, mystery, or voodoo in their designs. From their lowest to their highest speakers, our measuring and listening reveal the hallmarks of good high-performance design: flat frequency response, controlled dispersion, low distortion, etc. I’m sure Dynaudio has a few tricks up its corporate sleeve, but these will likely be steeped in sound engineering principles, just like the best of the rest. These Danes know how to do it.
The inclusion in my list of the next company might raise a few eyebrows, but after experiencing their products, talking extensively to their head designer, and measuring two of their best-known speakers in the NRC’s anechoic chamber, I’m confident in saying that though they place strong emphasis on visual style, the sound of their speakers is the real deal. The company is Definitive Technology, and while their Mythos STS SuperTower speaker might be tall and very slim, it exhibits extremely wide bandwidth, very flat frequency response, and well-controlled dispersion. And it sounds fantastic: a credible, high-performance design that sells for the very reasonable price of $2995/pair. The fact that it looks so good is icing on the cake. GoodSound! editor Colin Smith uses Mythos STSes in his reference system. We’ve just received for review their BP-8080ST bipolar speaker, and it measures similarly well (listening sessions to follow). DefTech is proof that high style and high performance don’t have to be mutually exclusive. The fact that Definitive Technology can offer all this at such reasonable prices is all the more surprising and impressive.
U.S.-based Aperion Audio is making significant inroads into the market for affordable loudspeakers by selling only factory direct. I was only marginally impressed by their Intimus line -- it lacked the requisite neutrality for me to consider it a true high-performance line. Still, the Intimus models represent good value for money -- they sound pretty good. Aperion’s brand-new Verus line seems a whole lot better: better sound, better looks, and even better value. A review of the Verus Grand Bookshelf speaker ($598/pair) is posted on SoundStage! Hi-Fi right now; not only is it a fine-sounding speaker for the money, it measures very well in the most important ways.
Finland may be home to Genelec, the big pro-audio speaker company that was established in 1978, but it’s Amphion that I keep a close eye on. Amphion is known for using large waveguides for the tweeters of every speaker they make. My review of their Argon2 in 2002 helped put the company on the map, but since then Amphion has needed no help from anyone, churning out model after model that sounds good, measures well, and is consistent in terms of quality control. If big waveguides seem odd or off-putting to you, our measurements of Amphion speakers show that properly implemented waveguides can help control dispersion incredibly well and lower distortion, two hallmarks of good loudspeaker design. Fellow reviewer Philip Beaudette now uses Amphion’s Argon3L as his reference.
The British have a long and distinguished history in audio. Of all the speaker companies there, these days it’s KEF that most impresses me. The company has long been a leader in using advanced techniques of computer modeling and acoustical measuring to develop speakers that often contain radical technology that’s ahead of its time. I recently learned that they were doing computer-simulated crossover designs in the 1970s, and their measurement facilities have long been ahead of most companies’. (See below for news about a new KEF speaker that appears to be another groundbreaker.) Nowadays KEF’s claim to fame is their Uni-Q driver, which is used in all of KEF’s speaker models. The Uni-Q is an advanced coaxial driver with a midrange cone that not only emits sound but acts as an ideal waveguide for the tweeter. KEF achieves very flat frequency response and controlled dispersion in all directions, something that discrete drivers mounted in different places on a baffle just can’t do.
Harman International’s Revel division doesn’t have KEF’s long history, but they, too, have design and testing facilities that can put to shame those of most other companies. Revel also has some of the best designers and researchers in the business, some of whom came directly from the NRC. Like the aforementioned companies, Revel’s designs are steeped in science, including research that continues today. The result is that every one of their models, regardless of price, adheres to all the well-accepted and respected speaker-design principles, and not only sounds very good, but often offers better performance than many of its competitors. Revel’s top model, the Ultima Salon2, is my own reference speaker. At about $22,000/pair it costs a lot, but I have yet to find a reference-quality, full-range loudspeaker from any manufacturer that can outperform it for the same or lower cost.
Two US-based companies appear to have steamed ahead of the rest in the race to claim the title of Best Ultra-High-End Speaker Maker: Rockport Technologies and Magico design their speakers using the tried-and-true design principles that all the previously mentioned companies use, which is why I believe they’ve surged ahead of other boutique manufacturers that try to market speakers to the ultra-rich but often lack the technical skills to do it right. There’s nothing like sound scientific principles gleaned from well-established research to produce great sound that’s commensurate with the high prices these companies ask. The difference between them and, say, the PSBs and Dynaudios of the world, is that Rockport and Magico take conventional speaker design to extremes. They have far less consideration for such things as a speaker’s retail price, size, and weight than most shoppers would consider reasonable. An examination of their products’ cabinets, drivers, and crossovers, and their overall attention to detail, reveals an almost complete lack of compromise, as well as where the considerable chunks of change these speakers command has been spent. Their high-performance, luxury models are rarely light or easily manageable (count on hiring some moving guys to get them set up in a room), but for those who want the very best speaker out there, even if it weighs close to 1000 pounds and costs tens or even hundreds of thousands of dollars, the speakers from Magico and Rockport are worth it.
Little these days is truly new -- most of the design principles on which today’s loudspeakers are based have been known for years. But it seems to me that, in terms of advancing loudspeaker design, two companies are pulling ahead: The aforementioned KEF, and Vivid Audio, whose speakers are primarily designed in Britain, by the brilliant speaker engineer Laurence Dickie, and manufactured in South Africa.
KEF’s new Blade loudspeaker, unveiled earlier this year at Munich’s High End 2011, takes their Uni-Q technology to the next level, and combines it with a stunning cabinet design that, I believe, will lay the groundwork for all future KEF speakers, and perhaps even some competitors’ models. KEF’s mounting of their Uni-Q driver on the front baffle, and two woofers on each cabinet side panel, all equidistant from the Uni-Q, is not only visually arresting but makes great technical sense in terms of controlling dispersion.
Then there’s what Vivid Audio is doing. First are the drivers Laurence Dickie has designed to eliminate resonances and reduce distortion to essentially nothing, in order to present the purest sound possible. Then there are the cabinets, with the love-it-or-hate-it styling that everyone at least agrees is distinctive. What’s not well understood is that those cabinets are as much about function as form. Dickie is a big believer in the powers of tapered tubes to dissipate the backflow of energy from the drivers. With tweeters and midrange drivers, it’s pretty easy to mount a relatively short tapered tube inside a speaker cabinet, as Dickie does in all of his speaker designs. But this is not easy with a woofer, which, to work effectively, requires a very long tube. So next time you look at one of Vivid’s top-of-the-line Giya models, know that it hasn’t been designed to look like a Smurf’s hat or Aladdin’s shoe -- it houses a very long woofer tube that has been curled around. But it’s not only the technology used in Vivid speakers that’s so noteworthy, it’s their sound -- their B1 model is the only speaker that has impressed me as much as my Revel Ultima Salon2s. I have a pair of Vivid Giya G2s in my review queue right now; I can’t wait to hear them.
The last company I’ll mention is cut from different cloth, and proves that while some loudspeaker-design principles are well established and almost universally accepted, not everyone agrees with them 100%. Richard Vandersteen, founder of Vandersteen Audio, won’t try to tell you that things like frequency response and driver dispersion don’t matter, but he considers time alignment and phase coherence to be fundamental, and thus pays more attention to them than to other design parameters. In his speakers, Vandersteen tries to keep to an absolute minimum errors in timing or phase by using strict first-order crossovers and stepped driver alignment on the front baffle of the cabinet. Doing so results in the direct sound of the speakers being as close a reproduction as possible of the signal going in. To most, that would seem the most logical and sensible thing to do, because that’s how components such as amplifiers work.
But speakers are altogether different animals from amps, or from any other device in the playback chain, because they interact so greatly with the boundaries of the room. This makes the issues of time and phase very controversial -- most designers don’t put as much stock in them as Vandersteen. For me to explain in detail just how and why time and phase are so controversial would take another article longer than this one. Suffice it to say that if you put several designers in a room to discuss the issue, they’d likely argue for hours without arriving at an agreement.
One thing speaks for itself: the sound quality of Richard Vandersteen’s designs. Every Vandersteen speaker I’ve heard has sounded very good, and the new Model Seven ($45,000/pair) sounds extraordinarily good in many regards, which is why, last November, we made it a Recommended Reference Component, and why it’s writer Pete Roth’s reference speaker. ’Nuff said.
This article concludes my series on high-performance loudspeakers, but it doesn’t conclude my journey. In the time I’ve been reviewing, I’ve not only learned a tremendous amount about speakers and the companies that make them, I’ve seen incremental improvements in speaker designs from companies that have been around for longer than I have, as well as original and fascinating products from brand-new companies that have sprung up only in the last few years. Dynaudio, Paradigm, PSB, and Vandersteen were in business long before I started reviewing, but Amphion, Magico, Vivid, and others were not. I don’t see that trend stopping anytime soon -- I foresee a nearly endless supply of speakers from old and new companies that I can write about for pretty much as long as I’m interested in doing so. And given how much loudspeakers intrigue and interest me, I expect to be doing it for a long time yet. As my list of the leaders in the design and manufacture of high-performance speakers continues to grow, I doubt this will be my last article on the subject.
. . . Doug Schneider