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Don’t Sweat the Small Stuff

Seems like just about every abode in the U.S.A. these days, no matter how large or small, has two ubiquitous fixtures: some kind of sound system and some kind of home computer. But it wasn’t always so.

Take online love. Back in the golden age of television, variety show host Art Linkletter used to play matchmaker by entering the vital stats of participating singles into the then-state-of-the-art UNIVAC computer, which was powered by thousands of vacuum tubes and filled up an entire laboratory. I can’t give you a temperature reading of Art’s infamous matches, but one is assured that the computer room was one hot place. Nowadays, our hand-held PDAs hold more computing power than those Arrow-shirt-wearing UNIVAC propellerheads could ever dream of.

But forget about dragging a pair of Altec Voice of the Theatre or Klipschhorn speakers-deluxe hi-fi in the days of Linkletter, when tubes also powered these enormous boxes-up six flights of a NYC walk-up. No way. And though compact sound has been around for decades, my family’s Silvertone, housed in something the size of an overnight bag, was maybe good enough to be called lo-fi.

Thank gawd for miniaturization.

While smaller has always been the goal in the world of bits and bytes, the modern audio industry has only begun to once again really appreciate the needs of the square-footage-challenged among us-bigger sound equipment and bigger cigars have long had explanations in Freud’s writings. At the annual Consumer Electronics Show in Vegas I’ve seen speakers larger than large refrigerators and amplifiers the size of washing machines; in what kind of rooms do these things end up? Jazz writer Gary Giddins recently recounted the tale of one New York audiophile who rents an extra apartment just for his stereo-and one chair, the selfish bastard.

Most of us can’t afford that sort of luxury, so even if we have a budget for expensive gear, we may not have the space for the big stuff. Maybe we want realistic Coltrane or Lester Young in a small apartment, an office, a kitchen or a dorm room. Whatever the reason, sometimes size does matter, and though we are talking smaller rather than larger, we would never consider reducing the quality of the performance, now would we?

Fortunately a number of creative engineers have addressed the issue of space, or lack thereof, and arrived at some nifty solutions.

England-based Musical Fidelity, founded by a former concert clarinetist, has recently made a big splash in the U.S. with some very sophisticated high-end equipment priced in the thousands. But its A Series is priced about 75% below its big siblings and sports a stylish, compact chassis that is a pleasure to behold. Most importantly, critics around the world are singing the A’s praises for tremendous sound at tremendous prices. The A3 integrated amp ($1,195) dishes out 85 watts per channel, enough juice for even hard-to-handle speaker loads and the A3 CD player ($1,195) is a very slick CD box indeed; critics compare the sound of its 24-bit processor to models costing two to three times its relatively modest price.

Roksan, another British company, primarily known on these shores for its outstanding turntables, has designed a slim-line family of electronics they call the Caspian. Each unit is only 3 inches high and is exceedingly handsome with its brushed aluminum and low-tech minimalist faceplate, but the sound inside is anything but minimal. The Caspian integrated amp ($1,500) is completely remote controlled and pumps out 70 watts per channel, while the CD player ($1,600) is of rock-solid construction and sports a cool display panel that flips down when the CD tray pops out.

Red Rose Music, New York jazzer Mark Levinson’s newest venture in audio, has just introduced a new, very compact integrated amp called the Rosette 1 ($2,000), resembling a work of art just over 4 inches wide and only 8 inches tall. The Rosette 1 delivers 50 watts a side and offers expandability through the addition of up to three other Rosettes-quite a bouquet!

We also can look at a couple of entrants offering Lilliputian electronics driven by good old-fashioned UNIVAC-style technology, namely vacuum tubes.

Antique Sound Lab’s Wave AV-8 monoblock amps represent a true bargain: they are only $99 each (you need two for stereo) and deliver a meaty 10 watts, enough for a wide range of speakers, including all those discussed below. They are just over 5 inches wide and about twice that long, and I guarantee a pair of these in your dorm or kitchen will light things up in more ways than one. You will need a preamplifier with these and ASL’s AQ2004 DT ($299) is about the same size as the Waves; this combination offers amazing performance for the size and the money. ASL also sells an economical integrated amp, the MG SI 15 DT ($749), which is a single-ended design based on the venerable KT88 tube delivering either 15 or 5 watts depending on the operating mode and is a real winner. Likewise, ASL’s cool AQ1005 300B DT I integrated ($1,799), which uses the much-lauded Coke-bottle shaped 300B tube (used in many classic amps from the ’30s and ’40s), produces some of the most pleasing 8 watts you’ll hear for this price.

But remember, with low-wattage amps, you’ll need to choose efficient speakers, though when properly matched, the sound is nothing short of jaw dropping. Surprisingly we only use 2 or 3 watts when listening to music at normal levels.

Jolida, an electronics company operating in Maryland with the goal of producing high-quality components at affordable prices, has developed several successful tube products including a couple of rather compact integrated amps. Ideal for a small room is the JD 102B ($580), a 25-watt dynamo dressed in a diminutive package. Based on the EL84 tube (the same used in the classic Dyna Stereo 35), it is a smooth operator with a highly musical sound and low distortion. In an even smaller box, the JD 301A ($350) combines a tube preamp and a 30-watt solid state amp in a chassis only 7 inches by 6 inches by 4 high; you miss some of that classic tube mellowness, but you give up less real estate. If you can spare a space about the size of an LP, Jolida’s cool JD 202A ($750) operates four EL34 tubes (this time recalling the classic Dyna Stereo 70) to achieve 40 clean watts, plus it sports a slightly less industrial appearance than its smaller sibs.

Other space-saving electronics to look for include models previously discussed in this column such as Linn’s Classik ($1,995) integrated amp/tuner/CD combination box or its just-introduced Classik Movie System ($2,950), which includes a DVD player, 5-channel amp and tuner in one box; Marantz’s 8-inch-wide Duetto ($749 for integrated amp and CD player), one of the sweetest new box designs I’ve seen in a while, features a drop-down cover concealing all the unit’s controls; and the Parasound Zamp and Zpre, each about half the width of standard receivers, but delivering way above average sound for only $620 for the pair.

Speakers in general present more difficult “interior design” decisions since they must be on display, and essentially in your face, while in use; they can demand lots of space. The secret is to find an enclosure that minimizes the expenditure of this precious commodity. Clearly, there are a number of choices relying on the old driver-in-a-box technology most of us have at home, but there is an alternative, as we shall see in good time.

In these pages I have already sung the praises of the PSB Alpha B ($249) as a wonderful transducer of music that takes up just a fraction of the space many inferior speakers do. But consider also the Paradigm Atom ($189) or the Paradigm Reference Studio/20 ($650 in black), the latter slightly larger, but offering amazing sound. Also check out long-lived British manufacturer Wharfedale’s Diamond 8.1 ($199.98) or its Diamond 8.2 ($299.98), both of which have been garnering critical raves as fast as you can say Klactoveesedstene; I’ll be examining some other Wharfedales in greater depth in the near future.

ProAc, again from England, long the recognized leader in high-end performance for small living rooms, still sells the legendary Tablette minimonitors, considered to be some of the best speakers available, regardless of size. Ranging in price from $1,100 to $1,700, they are renowned for exceptional bass, exceptional detail and exceptional imaging.

From France comes Triangle, lately the darling of certain high-end writers and deservedly so from what I heard at CES a few months ago: for our needs, the Titus ($495) is a tight little speaker that allows surprisingly sonorous bass and clear, detailed imaging, and its 90dB efficiency rating allows it to match well with the low wattage amplifiers mentioned earlier.

Back in the U.S.A., Red Rose Music’s new Rosebud speakers ($3,000) feature a ribbon tweeter for crisp, clean highs and a 5-inch woofer that, with deep, pure bass, exceeds expectations from this munchkin box.

Another, perhaps more logical, companion for those 10-watt and under amps is the Loth-X line of speakers, which harks back to the fantastically efficient speakers originally paired with the 3-watt amps of yesteryear. The BS1 ($599) is rated at 94dB, which will rattle windows with just a couple of watts. The Loth-X Amaze is a single-driver, full-range design, which means no crossover (the internal circuitry that divvies up the signal between tweeters and woofers) and nothing to get in the way of musical coherency; its 97dB efficiency further guarantees improved accuracy and imaging with the most miniscule amounts of power.

By the way, Loth-X drivers sport stiff paper cones unlike the majority of modern speakers, which rely on synthetic materials. Paper cones, say the purists, add additional detail and offer a more natural sound. None other than Leo Fender swore by the combination of tubes and paper cones, so there must be something there. (Loth-X speakers, designed in Germany and made in Singapore, are marketed in the U.S.A. primarily through www.southernelectricaudio.com.)

Now let’s get small. From what I’ve found in this brief survey, the closest thing to high-end sound from an almost invisible speaker comes from Anthony Gallo Acoustics. Gallo has arrived at a design that more closely resembles a spray-painted softball to house his 3-inch full-range drivers. When mounted on its optional Wallflower stands, the 4-inch diameter Gallo Nucleus Micros ($300-400/pair depending on finish) resemble one-eyed aliens. But hot damn, combined with the Gallo MPS 150 powered subwoofer ($750), itself small enough to fit under a sofa, these suckers sound like real music! When I walked into the Gallo room at CES last year, I was astounded by the rich, full sound afforded by these unbelievably tiny speakers. As Gallo points out, the sphere is the most rigid shape in nature and a shape that also eliminates internal reflections, which can smear the resulting aural image. With no external baffle (the “face” upon which speakers are normally mounted in a box) there are no baffle-induced refractions, which can muddy the sound, decreasing transparency and focus. Yes, it takes, well, balls to offer such a seemingly heretical design, but Gallo has succeeded in creating a very elegant solution to the space/performance equation.

According to Gallo dealer Jim Jordan, owner of Synergistic Sound of Indianapolis, the Micros “really sound big and very relaxed which is incredible when you just see these little eyeballs looking at you.” Jordan, who describes his business as “not a mainstream store,” has successfully mated the Micros with low-wattage amps. “With good single-ended tube amps, these speakers just disappear. The combination is a very powerful system,” he says. “I’ve sold a lot of these for people setting up a second rig for an office or for home theater.”

For visual appeal, nothing comes close to these cute little balls. When you consider the sound is just as appealing, really in inverse proportion to the size, this is a speaker tailor-made for the modern, post-UNIVAC miniworld. Maybe even in audio, smaller really can be better.

Originally Published