Enjoy the Music.com's Special 20/20 Award
High-End Audio Loudspeakers --
Steven R. Rochlin chooses the most notable products during
the past 20 years.
As Chosen By Enjoy the
Director Steven R. Rochlin
little consensus when it comes to expert and enthusiast opinions as it pertains
to high-end audio gear choices. Perhaps one of the only items we all seem to agree
upon is that loudspeakers, and how they integrate within the listening space,
produces the largest contribution to how music will sound. Perhaps this is why over
the past 20 years we have seen a wide variety of designs, with many interesting
inventions along the way. It appears that no other type of high-end audio device
has as many variants as loudspeaker design. Furthermore, loudspeaker
manufacturers also tend to have one of the most hardcore cult-like followings.
This can extend to not just a single manufacturer, but a single type of driver!
Loudspeakers also tend to be the most visual item
within an audiophile system. Generally, when you walk into a listening room the
first thing that commands the eye are sizable boxes, panels, or some other type
or sound emitter. While front-end equipment does, at times, find itself extreme
stylish and visually pleasing, there are many loudspeakers that take on the role
of being the centerpiece in overall room styling. Virtually no music lover has a custom
listening room built around their preamplifier, yet there are many rooms
purpose-built to achieve sound and style synchronicity with their speakers. It is not
only for visual effect either, as recording studios find themselves having custom-built speakers within their
facility to optimize their sound at the mix board engineer's location. Affluent
audiophiles wisely have their listening room specially built and acoustically treated for a
specific set of loudspeakers.
When it comes to loudspeakers, there is no
consensus on which type and/or implementation is 'best'. Full-range drivers,
horn loading, planar magnetic panels, cone drivers in a box, and many other
types are available. While hornspeakers tend to achieve a realistic volume level
with around 10 watts, other designs might need 200 watts to achieve the same
sound pressure level. There are sub-categories, too, such as the type of magnet
(Alnico or neodymium for example) or cone material such as paper or Kevlar.
Popular engineering, the placement of drivers, includes D'Appolito with a
central tweeter flanked top and bottom by matching midranges, which are flanked
by woofers. Line arrays, many of the same type of drivers/boxes mounted
vertically as used at live concerts, also make their popularity
known within home audio. Then we have plasma and 'leaf' tweeters, woofers
that are concentrically-loaded, and far too many other scientifically-engineered
designs to briefly list here. Whatever one chooses, a very rare general
agreement within high-end audio is that the biggest changes made to your system
is the loudspeaker you choose and how they are positioned to achieve the best synergy within your
The nearly constant
barrage with 'best of' and 'top picks' featuring hundreds of products elsewhere,
there is little doubt Enjoy the Music.com is perhaps the most
conservative of magazines when it comes to giving out special accolades. With
our annual Blue Note awards possibly being the most sought-after within the
audiophile industry, as only a very small handful of products get special recognition
each year, we
want to highlight our 20th anniversary by using our 20/20 vision as it were and
look back to some of the best gear.
Editor and Creative Director for Enjoy the Music.com, it is my honor to
look back at the many thousands of reviews and choose the top 20 per category.
This month my choices are for the very best in loudspeakers over the past 20 years.
In case you missed it, we've already posted our Special
20/20 Award for Analog/Cartridges, Special
20/20 Award For Digital, Special
20/20 Award for Preamplifiers, and Special
20/20 Award for Amplifiers. Each month I'll follow up with other product
No one said that picking only 20 products during
the past 20 years would
be easy. i take this task with much reflection and contemplation as have seen
and heard many thousands of loudspeakers over the years. Using
my 20/20 hindsight to decide upon 20 pieces of high-end audio equipment is no easy feat!
Of course many of these products
have been superseded and no longer available as new, yet you may find them used
at very attractive pricing. High-end audio does not need to be high priced and
here is where some bargain hunters could greatly benefit. Of course some new
products will make a good showing as they are today's leading-edge creations.
With that said, and in no particular order, as Editor and Creative Director of Enjoy
the Music.com here are the Special 20/20 Awards for the
most notable high-end audio loudspeakers during the past 20 years.
Bowers & Wilkins (B&W) 800D
During 2005 our reviewer Alvin Gold was smitten with the Bowers & Wilkins (B&W) 800D
floorstander. These speakers found their way into the not only the homes of
music lovers worldwide, they could also be found within recording studio and
master facilities. Alvin felt that Bowers & Wilkins' domination of the high
end of the loudspeaker has become quite strong. "Of course there are other
brands and many of other individual high-end models out there, but Bowers &
Wilkins' share of the market with its extensive 800 series is enormous, and this
means that uniquely among high end producers, B&W is able to benefit from
the economies of scale in a way that is the envy of other producers."
Whilst on the higher side of loudspeaker investment, with 2005 cost being £13,000
a pair, the Bowers & Wilkins 800D was "a startling revision of an
already excellent high-end full bandwidth design of striking appearance and
superb build" said Alvin. "Compared to its predecessor it offers
greater musical contrasts and transparency, a less intrusive treble and an
overall balance that is finally very close to neutral. The price has gone up of
course thanks to the inclusion of the diamond dome tweeter, but B&W has done
its homework here in collaboration with their subcontractor (Element Six, part
of the de Beers group) as the premium being asked for the tweeter is much less
than only any comparable speaker using sapphire or diamond domes." You
can read Alvin Gold's full review of the Bowers & Wilkins 800D at this link.
Avantgarde Acoustic Duo Hornspeaker
In 2005 Enjoy the Music.com's Creative Director Steven R. Rochlin
asked "Why is it that music reproduction has come full circle? Vinyl records, single-ended tube amplifiers and horn loudspeakers are getting rave reviews throughout the world. After all, the new millennium is upon us! Has new computer technology lead us on the wrong path to audio nirvana?"
Avantgarde Acoustic's Duo hornspeaker ($14,470) is a three-way design
using horn loading for the tweeter and midrange plus a self-powered subwoofer
that powers a pair of cone drivers. With a sensitivity of >103dB/W/m the
highly prized Wavelength Audio Cardinal 300B amplifiers' 8 or so watts were more
than enough to reach a realistic listening level. "The Duos seemed to
effortlessly fill the room with hall 'sounds'" says Steve. "The
ambience and timing of the reflected sounds a hall provides is a good part in
the overall musical experience. The 47 Laboratories Gaincard and also the
Wavelength Audio Cardinal really mated well with the Duos in this regard as
compared to other amplifiers in my humble abode. If there is one thing the Duos
will certainly let you know, it is the quality of the equipment it is mated to.
This Chesky recording offers a reviewer such as myself a real reference for the
low level resolution of a piece of gear while also getting a great dynamic
workout. The Duos handled everything extremely well and I was especially pleased
with the clarity of the subtle details." If you've never discovered
hornspeakers, and even if you have, you
should read Enjoy the Music.com's review of the Avantgarde Acoustic Duo Hornspeaker
to learn more about the benefits of this design.
Oskar Heil Kithara Loudspeaker
Dr. Oskar Heil was one of the leading scientists of the 20th century, breaking new ground in a variety of physics and engineering disciplines. Perhaps most notable among his numerous inventions was the Field Effect Transistor, which he patented in 1934. The unusual loudspeakers that are the subject of this article are descendants of his 1973 patent for the Heil Air Motion Transformer (AMT), a mid/high frequency transducer for which the radiating surface was an accordion-pleated paper diaphragm. The latest iteration of this driver has been re-christened the OSKAR Air Velocity Transformer (AVT), although the two acronyms seem to be used interchangeably in product literature.
This diaphragm is mounted in an intense magnetic field, and is driven from its
edge so that its folds move the air. This design does not require a huge magnet
and voice coil, and it allows the driver's resonant frequency to be outside the
frequency band it reproduces. When a music signal is applied, the pleats
alternately expand and contract in a bellows-like manner, forcing air out of the
pleats on one side and sucking in on the other side. "I had a wonderful
month of enjoying the sound of the Oskar Heil Kitharas ($4900 per pair)"
says Enjoy the Music.com Senior Editor Wayne Donnelly. "Essentially,
their sonic presentation is relaxed and laid-back, blessedly free of aggressive
in-your-face behavior, either tonally or spatially. The Kitharas are as
un-loudspeaker-like as any loudspeaker I have ever lived with — and that's a
compliment! The Kitharas recreate the performing space —
especially on naturally mic'ed recordings — extremely well. Specific
vocal and instrumental images are stably located within a nicely dimensional
sound field, but without the laser-beam imaging precision and hyper-detail
retrieval that are characteristic of imaging “champs” such as the Wilson
WATT/Puppy and ambitious minimonitors. As someone who attends dozens of
live concerts every year, I can testify that listening to the Kitharas is much
closer to what I hear in the concert hall than with most audio systems, even
those with much more expensive loudspeaker systems." Wayne's
review of the Oskar Heil Kithara loudspeaker can be read here.
ADAM Audio A7X Powered Monitor Speaker
Steven R. Rochlin, Creative Director of Enjoy
the Music.com, had a love affair with the ADAM Audio
speakers since his a trip to the Munich High-End show about 10 years ago. One
look at their speakers and you know there is something very exceptional
happening here. Cutting right to the chase within the very beginning of his
ADAM Audio A5 powered monitor review ($699 per pair) he wrote, "The
ADAM A5 is not an audiophile loudspeaker. Now before you died-in-the-wool
audiophile-types stop reading, in perhaps a massive
error of quick judgment, the ADAM A5 recording studio monitor is so
good that every audiophile should go right out and hear these amazing
units". The company's ART (Accelerating Ribbon
Technology) tweeters units take a completely new approach in kinematics to move
air and improve the quality of music reproduction within the A5. The newer X-ART
with a 4" diaphragm takes it up to another level. This design is based on
the original works of Dr. Oskar Heil, who invented his "Air Motion
Transformer" back in 1972. "So for the record,
yes Steven Stone you were right as the A7X is better than the A5; as it
naturally should be of course" says reviewer Steven R. Rochlin. "You
get newer technology, better cabinet design, improved drivers, etc. At the heart
of it all is the further extended bass due to the use of a 7" midrange/woofer
versus 5". Not that the A5's smaller 5" driver was a slouch mind you,
it is just that ADAM Audio believes in accuracy versus the LS3/5’s fake bass.
Thus the A7X ($699 each) really gives you a nice, full-sounding midbass and goes
deep into the bass until about 50Hz. Instead of giving fake LS3/5 bass (read:
distortion), the A7X output level ability decreases as the music’s signal go
below 50 Hz. This is typical and normal driver/design speaker rolloff. Midrange
is very refined, detailed, yet never fatiguing. As for the high, wow! These
X-ART tweeter take the original design in the A5 to a new level! If you have not
heard how great a tweeter like the X-ART can sound, you really need to wrap your
ears on one ASAP. Fast, exceptionally extended, and clean, clean, clean." Read
our review of the ADAM Audio A7X powered monitor to learn why many nearfield and
tabletop digital audio workstation (DAW) folks use these units for their small
American Acoustic Development
(AAD) 7001i Monitor Loudspeaker
AAD founder Phil Jones is a noted speaker designer who designed
the Acoustic Energy AE-1, Boston Acoustics Lynnfield 300 and 500 monitors, the
critically-acclaimed Platinum Audio Solo and Reference One speakers, and AAD
7001i. The AAD 7001i ($12,500 per pair with stands) utilizes a neodymium magnet
horn ribbon tweeter for the midrange/high frequencies and a 5.25" front
mounted bass driver coupled to a 6.5" rear-mounted passive radiator. Don't
let the size fool you as this stand-mounted design produces a wide range of
sounds from 25Hz to 60kHz. "Yes' Fragile DVD-Audio [Warner-R978249]
also sounded as good as I ever heard it, revealing the extra separation from the
24-bit/96kHz remaster" says Enjoy the Music.com reviewer John Gatski.
"The dimensionally of the opening acoustic guitar intro to
"Roundabout" is rendered very accurately by the 7001i. Speaking of
acoustic guitar, the AAD's ability to reproduce those tones and frequencies was
clearly shown by my own 24-bit recordings of a vintage Martin D-35 (using a True
P2 Mic Preamplifier fed into Benchmark A/D into a TASCAM DVRA-1000 recorder). I
could hear that little tinge of room reverb decay, and the finger squeaks were
as real as a recording could be." You
can read John's review of the AAD 7001i at this link.
Coincident Speaker Technology Total Victory IV
Longstanding Canadian manufacturer Coincident Speaker Technology produces
critically-acclaimed amplifiers and loudspeakers. Rick Becker reviewed their Super Victory loudspeaker and felt that following up with their upper line Total Victory IV
($14,999 per pair) would be a simple task. What he was not prepared for was... "The step from the Super Victory to the Total Victory will be necessary if your room is about 6000 cubic feet or larger" says Rick. "I expect when putting a TV IV in a smaller room the extra $5500 will buy you mostly the qualitative improvements (versus the smaller model)... It is not that the three models sound dramatically different from one another in tonal balance. But as you move up the line the audible quality improves and they can play in larger rooms. The common denominators: slightly warm, non-fatiguing, very revealing, transparent, dynamic, totally enjoyable."
can read Rick Becker's review of the Coincident Speaker Technology Total Victory
IV speaker here.
Klipsch Palladium P-39F Speaker
Virtually every audiophiles knows of Klipsch. Long before Sony Walkmans, CD players, chip amplifiers, Woodstock and iPods, Klipsch built loudspeakers. They began in the U.S. in 1946. Today, big ole Klipsch horns are still renowned for their large, fully horn-loaded designs providing ultra-high sensitivity and extremely low distortion. Their Klipschorns are the only loudspeakers to be in continuous production for over six decades.
"Like all horns, the Klipsch Palladium P-39F ($20,000) soundstage is wide
and deep, presenting an image much larger than their mere footprint" says Enjoy
the Music.com Reviewer A. Colin Flood. "Properly pointed, the 3D sonic
imaging of big ole horns can be spectacular, without the honkiness of which
detractors so often complain. With oodles of power backing them up, vocals
sounded effortless and very natural. With Sunfire power, the Palladiums have all
the detail and resolution anybody would want, without the hard metallic edginess
of some horns. They also have the energy and range to capture the full essence
of dynamic instruments, such as drums and piano. The quick dynamics of big ole
horns communicates the emotion of the notes. They get the real meaning of music.
Palladiums have this ability too. They capture this quality without dampening
the vibrancy and life out of the crucial mid-range." Read
Mr. Flood's outstanding review of the Klipsch Palladium P-39F Speaker here.
Audioengine A2 Powered Minimonitor
In July of 2006 my
review of Audioengine's A5 powered monitors ($349 per pair) caused quite a stir, as many
discussion board members — after reading my review — bought a set and came away
impressed. Fast-forwarding to October 2007 as Brady and
Dave of Audioengine, yeah those two scheming weasely guys who sent me the A5s, dropped another bomb in my lap. This time is was
their tiny lil' A2 powered monitors ($199 per pair). Standing a mere 6" high and
4" wide with a small
22mm silk done tweeter and 2.75" Kevlar midrange/woofer... how is the hell
does one expect to get anything near half decent sound from such a small
package, let alone one that is priced at $199? "The one constant was a roll
off in the uppermost frequency range" says Enjoy the Music.com
Creative Director Steven R. Rochlin. "The highs never, ever, almost no
matter what i tried, became aggressive and irritating. This is a good thing when
you have speakers only inches away from your ears plus, i would bet, Joe/Jane Q.
Public probably would use some less than high quality source.... The A2s passed
the out of room sound quality test. They sound quite good not just when sitting
in front of them, but also when outside the room and listening in...
Audioengine's A2 loudspeakers should produce many hours of musical pleasures
without the pitfalls of sounding like the usual mainstream small plastic junk or
apparent distortion boxes on the shelf at from your local electronics store. My
amazing woman is still trying to pry this review pair away from my
office! While i love her dearly (and yes she reads my articles), her chances of
getting my review pair are the same as us throwing snowballs at each other
during our upcoming vacation in Hawaii. Umm, maybe i
should not have called Brady and Dave of Audioengine scheming weasely guys at
the beginning of my article, as now i have to call them up to buy the review
pair plus another pair. Yes dear, am talking to Dave now on the phone and
ordering another pair of A2 loudspeakers for you. Forget
the usual reviewer comment of "highly recommended," am buying the
review pair and another set for my woman to keep her hands off
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Special 20/20 Award for high-end audio loudspeakers.