January / February 2024
Editor's Lead In
I remember this revelatory day in 2017 like it was yesterday. Following an ill-timed holiday, during which my colleagues had received the KEF LS50 Wireless, I walked into the test room and found the two speakers hooked up playing music. I'd read about these "wireless LS50s" when they were announced the November prior, and now here they were in front of me — just two regular-sized speaker cabinets plugged into the power sockets behind them, and to one another via an Ethernet cable; no transmitter box, no source physically tethered to them. Where was this music coming from? 'Only' Bluetooth, their top-panel input display revealed, though their killer feature was undoubtedly integrated Wi-Fi and network streaming.
While I'd tested powered and active speakers from the likes of Dynaudio, Dali, Linn and Meridian before, none of them had combined such an assortment of features in such an elegant and accessible (~$4,000) two-box format — primarily as they hadn't integrated Wi-Fi streaming, either at all or as smartly.
"Well, this is pretty neat," I remember thinking as I sat and listened for a while (I believe some indie-pop by Spoon was playing), trying to mentally erase the interconnecting cable that hung between the speakers and somewhat spoiled the otherwise unsullied setup (something that was, thankfully, physically erased for the sequels released two years later).
'Is this what the hi-fi system of the future should look like?', we all asked ourselves. Six years later, the fully integrated streaming stereo speaker road has been travelled down by several brands looking to offer performance and convenience in a best-of-both-worlds system. PSB, JBL, B&W, Triangle, Piega, Sonus Faber and Kii Audio have a pair or two under their belt, and some can be found in the upper echelons of the hi-fi market in Cabasse Pearl Pelegrina and Dynaudio Focus territory too. But I expected the path to be somewhat as heavily trodden as Disneyland's Main Street on the first day of the summer school holidays by now.
Testing JBL's largest example of this kind, the 4329P, earlier this year has spurred my desire for more. As you'll know, much about hi-fi is a compromise, and by their very nature (that is, cramming multiple components that are traditionally each housed in dedicated boxes, into just two cabinets), the JBLs and the like are compromised. Compromised in terms of their performance due to a) that cramming (sonic sacrifices are inevitable when circuitry for different applications share spaces and cannot be properly isolated), and b) the likelihood that the manufacturer behind them is a specialist in speakers or electronics but not both.
But for the price of what a budget-to-mid-priced system of separates would cost inclusive of stands and cables etc, the JBLs deliver a performance more mature than I'd previously heard from such a design at this level. Not much in it between them and a good comparable-cost separates system, truth be told.
JBL has taken its proven horn loudspeaker design and implemented the electronics into it very well, taking advantage of the all-in-one design's biggest strength — that every part, from streaming chips to amplifier modules to speaker components, is specifically chosen and executed to work together optimally, all under the control of one manufacturer.
I look forward to hearing what the newly announced Sonus Faber Duettos can do in the New Year, but more broadly I'm excited to see how good this all-in-one design can get, both in the (relatively) accessibly priced realm and beyond it.
Given that Class D amplification (with its facilitation of high-power outputs without high heat generation) is seemingly maturing and allowing for smaller products, and that DSP know-how and streaming architecture are going that way too, not to mention that there will likely be a continued whole-system demand for 'better from smaller', the path ahead of stereo speaker systems looks promising. If I could've asked Santa for one thing, it would probably have been hi-fi brands' 2024 roadmaps!
Speaking of the big fella, I hope you all had a restful Christmas break. And happy New Year to you — I have a feeling it will sound awesome.
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