Based on what I’ve seen in 16 years of reviewing, more speakers are released each year than are amplifiers, preamplifiers, CD players, or DACs. Part of the reason for this might be demand -- people seem to change their speakers more often than their electronics. But I think another reason is that, for the most part, speakers are easier to make.
Someone with good cabinetmaking and soldering skills can buy some off-the-shelf drivers and use a computer-based speaker-design program to quickly produce a usable loudspeaker. In fact, many of today’s speakers -- even some very expensive ones -- are little more than third-party drivers put in a fancy box and made to work with a conventional crossover. You can’t build an amplifier or preamplifier like that -- or that fast.
To make a truly great loudspeaker requires far more skill on the designer’s part, and far more control over the parts used. It also requires original thinking, so that the result is something that can be distinguished in a crowded marketplace.
That’s why, today, the manufacturers of the best speakers usually make their own drivers as well as the cabinets they go in, and why the results don’t tend to be something you can easily spin out of some speaker-design software. It’s these speakers that tend to be the ones I prefer to listen to and review -- and so far this year, the following six models, in order of increasing price, are my favorites.
GoldenEar Technology Aon 3
When I pulled GoldenEar Technology’s new Aon 3 bookshelf speaker from its box I had no idea what to expect, given its combination of drivers: GE’s High Velocity Folded Ribbon (HVFR) tweeter married to a proprietary 7” midrange-woofer and two side-mounted passive radiators. I’d never seen or heard of such a combo. Nor did I much care for the Aon 3’s styling. But the benefits of the company’s innovative design approach showed up in the listening experience, which I summed up in my review: “I could praise many of the Aon 3’s qualities -- its effortless highs and ample bass, its finely detailed and natural midrange, its astonishingly spacious soundstage -- but what bowled me over was how well the outputs of its tweeter, midrange-woofer, and passive radiators integrated to create a big yet sophisticated sound that can compare with those of well-designed speakers at much higher prices.”
The $999.98 USD that GoldenEar asks for a pair of Aon 3s is very reasonable, given the performance this monitor offers and the fact that it sounds unlike anything around its price. And if the styling appeals to you more than it did to me, the Aon 3 becomes a flat-out bargain. Hats off to GoldenEar for breathing some new life into the old idea of a two-way bookshelf speaker.
Most companies’ moderately priced floorstanders comprise conventional drivers in conventional cabinets that produce conventional sound. In other words, there’s rarely something special to see or hear. But KEF brought to market the astonishing Blade loudspeaker, and a lot of the technology developed for the Blade has been trickled down to the R500 and the other R-series designs. As a result, the R500 is unlike any other floorstander I’ve seen anywhere near its modest price of $2599.98/pair.
Granted, the R500’s very-well-built cabinet is rather conventional -- a rectangular box with sharp edges -- but at the speaker’s heart is the latest generation of KEF’s Uni-Q coaxial driver, in which a tweeter is placed at the center of a midrange cone. Coaxial drivers aren’t new, but KEF’s decades of research into them has produced the most advanced coaxials now on the market -- you won’t find anything like them in any other company’s speakers. There’s one woofer above and one below the Uni-Q driver, each with a shallow, concave cone -- a very interesting-looking design. The result is a small speaker with a sound that is not only shockingly robust but extremely neutral, transparent, and clean at all volume levels. The R500s also image like gangbusters, casting an enormous stage with spot-on image specificity -- something I attribute to those Uni-Q drivers. The R500 provides startlingly good performance for the price, making this small, inventive floorstander one of the best values in loudspeakers right now.
Definitive Technology BP-8080ST
Roger Kanno reviewed the BP-8080ST, but Definitive Technology dropped off a second pair for me to measure and listen to. I agree with everything Roger wrote about this interesting bipolar design, which sells for $2998/pair.
A bipolar speaker has drivers mounted on its front and rear baffles, to simultaneously project sound forward and rearward; i.e., in phase. The earliest bipolar designs sent their soundwaves equally to front and rear, but Definitive has figured out that projecting more sound to the front produced the most realistic and natural sound. The result is the Forward Focused Bipolar Array technology used in the BP-8080ST and the other models in the BP line.
The BP-8080ST has the sonic qualities of a forward-firing radiator, along with the spacious, room-filling sound that only bipolar and omnidirectional speakers seem to have. What’s more, Definitive Technology designed the BP-8080ST to be nearly full range (i.e., with usable bass output that approaches 20Hz) by using a self-powered, built-in subwoofer with a passive radiator (the drivers are mounted on the sides). The BP-8080ST was also designed to play very loud and clean, and indeed, Roger and I found that it provides big-speaker sound at a reasonable price. If bipolar sound floats your boat, as it does mine and Roger’s, then the BP-8080ST is a bargain.
PSB Imagine T2
Give most speaker designers a retail-price target of $3500/pair and tell them to design a multiway, front-firing, compact floorstander with discrete drivers, and you’re likely to get something pretty ho-hum. Give those instructions to PSB’s Paul Barton, who has 40 years of design experience, and you’ll get something advanced and innovative enough to be considered a benchmark for that price.
The Imagine T2’s cabinetry is superb -- the front, rear, sides, top, and bottom are beautifully curved, and finished in high-quality real-wood veneers or high-gloss paint. Its appearance alone makes the T2 noteworthy for the price. But it’s Barton’s acoustical-engineering expertise that has taken the T2 a step further. The midrange cone sits above the tweeter, as in Barton’s pricier designs, and the three woofers work in unison in the low end to deliver deep, full bass. But the upper limits of the woofers’ ranges max out at different frequencies, which is why PSB calls the T2 a “transitional five-way” design -- only the topmost woofer crosses over to the midrange, for the best acoustic blend with those drivers. Our measurements of the T2 in the anechoic chamber of Canada’s National Research Council show astonishingly flat frequency response on and off axis, generous bass, and very low distortion. As I said in my review: “All told, the T2 is an outstanding loudspeaker that delivers a sophisticated, distinctive sound that qualifies it as truly high-end, but without a super-high-end price tag.” It’s hard to ask for more.
The problem with most two-way designs is bass. It’s usually stunted, ill defined, or both. In designing their 20th-anniversary “twenty” series, PMC’s solution was to use a transmission line -- basically, a long chamber that begins directly behind the woofer, and ends at a vent somewhere on the cabinet’s exterior -- to augment and deepen the bass. PMC calls their implementation Advance Transmission Line (ATL), and it’s been something of a specialty of theirs since they began, in the early 1990s.
I reviewed the largest twenty model, the twenty.24 ($5999/pair). I was wowed by its midrange transparency and detail, but was just as impressed by its bass -- it went deeper than any other two-way I’ve heard, and with as much control in that region as in the frequencies above. It was the full sound of a three- or four-way speaker.
A couple other things about the twenty.24 were as impressive as its sound. Its wonderful cabinetwork is a mix of old-world craftsmanship and modern flourishes, and the 20-year warranty -- four times the industry standard -- shows that PMC really believes in their products. Obviously, the twenty.24 is no ordinary two-way -- these nice touches not only help make the speaker unique, they help make it well worth owning, to be treasured for a long time.
Vivid Audio Giya G2
In my opinion, too few companies are working to significantly advance the art and science of loudspeaker design. But of the companies that are, the one currently at the top of the heap is Vivid Audio, of South Africa. Their designs are the brainchildren of the UK’s Laurence Dickie, formerly of Bowers & Wilkins and one of the most forward-thinking speaker designers working today. Dickie’s best work for Vivid so far shows up in the Giya series -- at the beginning of 2012 I reviewed the Giya G2 ($50,000/pair), which comes between the Giya G1 and G3 in size and price.
In the Giyas, Dickie has done away with the traditional box cabinet to create a flowing, sculpted enclosure that houses five drivers in a four-way configuration. The Giyas’ enclosures are a radical departure from everything else out there, and so is their sound. I could talk at length about the Giya G2’s reference-class neutrality, transparency, and dynamics, but what most impressed me about them was how they projected the music -- it was visceral, exciting, and realistic. In comparison, all other speakers sound merely ordinary.
The Giya G2 is the most expensive speaker I’ve ever reviewed, and the most expensive one listed here, but examining it firsthand makes it easy to see where the money has gone. One glance at the G2 and you know you’re looking at something completely different from everything else; one listen, and you realize you’re hearing something in a different league from almost all other speakers on the market today. Based on my experience, the Vivid Giya G2 represents the current state of the art of loudspeaker design.
The next six?
Different doesn’t necessarily mean better -- I could find other examples of speakers, as well as examples of cases in which producing something different proved disastrous. But again and again, I’ve noticed that when the best designers set out to produce new speakers, they almost always create something unique that pays off handsomely. It’s the kind of original thinking that leads not only to more unique designs, but to better ones -- which, at its price point, each of these six speakers proves.
. . . Doug Schneider