Become a member and get exclusive access to articles, live sessions and more!
Start Your Free Trial

Speaking of Speakers

I recently purchased a new vacuum cleaner, and I have to admit making the final decision was the culmination of one of the most confusing shopping experiences I’ve ever had. I mean, there are literally dozens of manufacturers of vacuum cleaners, each turning out dozens of models within an extremely wide spectrum of price points-I could have gotten out for under sixty bucks or been dinged for as much as a grand! But does the fact that a certain model is used on Air Force One make it a winner?

What does this have to do with home entertainment equipment? Well, just as confusing as buying a vacuum is the process of selecting speakers-probably more so because, instead of dozens of manufacturers, there are at least 100 or more companies offering large families of loudspeakers, so the number of choices goes up exponentially.

So if it seems as though speakers claim an inordinate amount of space in this column, it is not only because there are so many to choose from but also because, perhaps more than any other component in the audio chain, the speaker exerts the strongest set of personality traits on the overall sound of your system. That is to say, though the characteristics of amplifiers and CD players can, and do, shape a system’s sound, the speakers, because of the inherent “flaws” in the physics of making accurate sounding music from a piece of vibrating paper or plastic, will usually contribute the lion’s share to the overall character of any particular system.

And just as vacuums must be tested over miles and miles of carpet, I constantly preach in these pages that the only way to shop for speakers is to get out and listen. And listen. And listen. Listen to a stack of your favorite sides, music you know inside and out. Listen to vocals. Listen to solo piano. Do they all sound real? Do vocals sound nasally and thin and does the piano sound like paper has been stuck between the strings and hammers? Listen to cymbals. Do they ping with clarity and musicality, or do they sound distorted with an unpleasant edginess? Is the sound overly boxy and constricted, or does it appear open and transparent, as if the music has taken over the room. Is the sound flat, or do the instruments seem multidimensional, almost palpable? But most important, is the music exciting, does the music grab you, can you allow yourself to be transported by what you are hearing, or do you find yourself fidgeting halfway through a normally scintillating solo, wishing it would end sooner than later? If you start tapping your foot and grooving with the tune, then you are on the right track. Another thing to keep in mind when shopping is to be certain you ask your dealer to power any speakers under consideration with an amplifier similar to what you have at home for the most honest evaluation.

Well, after finally deciding on a vacuum cleaner, I had some time to audition a few speakers myself. So I gathered up a handful of familiar CDs and made some detailed listening notes. Here are the results of my expedition.

I started with a pair of very affordable boxes from PSB, a firm long recognized for packing lots of value into its loudspeakers, regardless of price. The PSB Image 2B ($399/pair) does just that. Anyone on a tight budget should definitely consider this entry-level member of the award-winning PSB Image family. The sound was pleasing, open and faithful tonally with a proper balance of realistic highs and lows. No, they don’t plumb the depths of the deepest bass, but for 400 bucks, they’re damned amazing, offering a good deal of the sound attainable from speakers costing several times their modest price. On a hybrid SACD of Miles Davis’ legendary Cookin’ session, his trumpet comes through clear as a bell, no pun intended-the subtleties of Miles’ breathing and blowing are all present and accounted for. From the Up for It disc by Keith Jarrett and his Standards Trio, Jack DeJohnette’s cymbals shimmer and shine without glare, and Jarrett’s piano sounds like a piano. The overall sound on this disc through the 2Bs is satisfying, with no obvious flaws. I didn’t want to stop listening, due in part to my personal bias toward this trio, but chiefly to the credible music the speakers were delivering, sucking me into the performance, hooking me to the end. Other speakers in the Image line include the 4Ts ($649) and the 5Ts ($799), each of which offer additional refinements and increased bass response.

From Denmark we get Dynaudio, a company only recently entering the United States in full force but with 25 years of delivering high profile, high-performance equipment to eager markets in Europe and Asia. Previously, Dynaudio was known primarily in this country as a source for high-quality drivers used by domestic high-end loudspeaker companies in their designs. (Most speaker makers don’t actually make their own woofers and tweeters; they outsource them from a handful of specialty manufacturers.) Since Dynaudio designs and produces its products from the ground up, you can expect a level of performance that’s hard to achieve when piecing together a speaker from off-the-shelf components-and the company delivers that quality in spades! With a product line ranging from the middle hundreds up to $85,000, Dynaudio has not failed to impress critics and consumers alike with its uncanny musicality and unparalleled smoothness, with no sacrifice of detail and resolution. On the Dynaudio Contour 1.3SEs ($3,500), Paolo Conte’s Reveries, were very musical and rich, sculpting his raspy voice front and center while the band behind him was involving and entrancing. On Cannonball Adderley’s “Mercy, Mercy, Mercy,” from the recent The Definitive Cannonball Adderley, the 1.3s brought the live club into the listening room. Joe Zawinul’s electric piano was authoritative and properly funky, while the Adderley brothers’ horn sound was defined and detailed but still dripping with that soulful gravy for which they were famous. There was plenty of definition without being forward or etched.

Also from Dynaudio, the Special 25 ($4,800), designed to celebrate the company’s 25th anniversary, offered everything the 1.3s delivered but more of it. The tonal balance of these speakers is astounding, pumping out deep, pleasing bass to match the crisp resolution in the mids and highs and the transitions from woofer to midrange to tweeter are absolutely seamless. I gave them a spin with Blowing in From Chicago, a 1957 Blue Note disc (in a new RVG reissue) featuring Clifford Jordan and John Gilmore. On “Billie’s Bounce” there is a great friggin’ presence that doesn’t mask Art Blakey’s drums in any way, but rather it reveals heaps of detail, like the amazing sizzle on the cymbals, totally free of any edginess. Blakey’s short solo was mesmerizing and dynamic, and nothing short of thunderous since he relied heavily on his floor tom-a fact handily conveyed by the speakers: every stroke on that earthy tub was sharp and clean. But more important, perhaps, the Special 25s shaped Jordan and Gilmore’s cutting tenors in three-dimensional space with aplomb.

For a more esoteric approach to speaker design we turn to MartinLogan, a Kansas-based firm renowned for its electrostatic hybrid speakers. An electrostatic hybrid is a speaker that combines electrostatic speaker elements with traditional dynamic woofer to combine the best of those two worlds-in the case of the electrostat, that means extremely faithful midrange and highs, while utilizing a dynamic woofer guarantees smooth deep bass with no sacrifice in range or quality.

The electrostatic panel is a design that goes back decades but has been rarely employed-the KLH 9 and the famous Quad 63 being remarkable exceptions-because of a lack of real, thumping bass. MartinLogan has solved that hurdle by adding a conventional woofer to the mix. In short, the electrostatic panel consists of an ultrathin Mylar membrane that is stretched tight and suspended between two grids that have an electric current passing through them. Since one grid produces a positive current and the other a negative, a push-pull effect is achieved on the membrane that causes it to vibrate, thus producing music. Because the mass of the membrane is so light and its surface area so great, the listener gets amazing fidelity within the panel’s given range, i.e., the midrange and highs, and the sound is physically big, while the boxiness so often found in traditional speaker designs disappears. The electrostatic speaker is the textbook case of a speaker that is open and airy and completely uncongested. The detail is to die for, and because so much of the information that makes music seem live occurs in the midrange-voice, instrumental attacks and so forth-an electrostatic speaker is capable of creating music that is startlingly lifelike, especially with MartinLogan’s hybrid designs in which a lack of bass never occurs. I’ll also add that MartinLogan has managed to meld the sound of the electrostatic panel with the dynamic woofer in such a way that the crossover point-the transition between the two-is totally imperceptible, quite an achievement when one considers how different the two are physically.

I checked out MartinLogan’s Ascent i ($4,295) with a CD by the vastly talented but totally unknown Spanish guitarist Ximo Tebar. His Hello Mr. Bennett disc features Lou Bennett on Hammond B3 and Idris Muhammad on drums. Through the Ascents, Tebar’s guitar is nothing short of rich and meaty, like a good smothered pork chop. And Muhammad’s crisp, punchy snare on his solos is attention-getting and dynamically believable, as is the proper thwack from his bass drum. On Holly Cole’s Romantically Helpless, all the subtleties of her remarkable style and intonation were easy to hear-her intoxicating, chesty, breathy voice was vividly portrayed through the Ascents. And the band’s rhythm was conveyed spot on, chugging behind her like a well-tuned locomotive. The open, airy sound filled the room and allowed the speakers to disappear as the actual source of the music, creating a blanket of sound with amazing detail. If the Ascent is too steep price-wise, try the Clarity for only $2,695. These are both great speakers for jazz lovers, particularly for fans of vocalists and pianists, though these units can handle the softest guitar and the chunkiest fusion with equal elegance.

No matter how difficult speaker shopping can be, the result should be a more musical experience in the home that will, along with spotlessly clean floors, inevitably make life more pleasurable.

Originally Published