Visit your local Best Buy, and you’ll get the idea that traditional loudspeakers are all but gone, replaced by wireless models from Sonos, Bose, Sony, and others. Visit a hi-fi show, and you’ll get the idea that the loudspeaker is in its golden age. As you move from demo room to demo room, you’ll find speakers that stretch above the height of the average human—with some priced beyond the cost of the average American home.
Although these extreme speakers have been around for decades, they started to become more common around the late ’00s, when average audiophiles were strapped for cash and high-end audio companies turned their attention to wealthy buyers who weren’t so affected by the Great Recession. Soon, it seemed like a company had to have a speaker priced in the six figures if it wanted to be taken seriously.
Some of these creations rank among the finest and most striking audio products ever made, combining state-of-the-art, no-compromise engineering with gorgeous wood finishes and eye-catching designs. One of my favorite examples is the Sonus Faber Aida, a $130,000-per-pair, 68-inch-high, 364-pound speaker with two tweeters, three midrange drivers, and three woofers. When I caught the debut of the latest version of the Aida at the 2017 Warsaw Audio Video Show, I thought it was easily one of the most natural-sounding and enveloping speakers I’d ever heard, and that its beautiful finish and elegant design made a lot of high-end furniture look like surplus from Motel 6.
But not all of these superspeakers sound great, because making a speaker bigger can actually make it worse. Some monster speakers have technical flaws that can make them acoustically inferior to a good bookshelf speaker.
500 Miles High
Building a speaker that towers over most people but still sounds realistic is a challenge. If the designer raises the tweeter and midrange drivers too high, the stereo soundstage hovers above you, as if you were sitting on the floor at the Village Vanguard. If the designer splays the drivers too far apart on the speaker’s tall front baffle, the drivers start to interfere with each other, creating sonic “beams” that can make Cécile McLorin Salvant sound like she’s singing with her hands cupped around her mouth. And if the designer packs the speaker with huge woofers but provides no way to balance their volume, the speaker may produce far too much bass for the room.
All of the best superspeakers I’ve heard were, in essence, well-designed bookshelf speakers with more and bigger woofers added. A great example is the Magico M6, a $172,000-per-pair speaker made from a combination of carbon fiber and machined aluminum billet. It’s basically a small, two-way speaker with a 6-inch woofer and a 1.1-inch tweeter, sharing a cabinet with three 10.5-inch woofers. Rap on the side of the M6 and it feels more like a chunk of granite than a speaker—and that’s a good thing, because the more solid the speaker, the less its walls will vibrate and create sounds of their own. To me, the M6’s drivers sound almost like they’re floating in space, just as John Coltrane’s Selmer Mark VI did; I get very little feeling that I’m listening to a speaker.
The shiny finish and curlicue top portion of Vivid Audio’s $93,000-per-pair Giya G1 Spirit speakers make them look like something out of Alice in Wonderland. But weird as the cabinet may appear, that’s merely a necessary outgrowth of famed designer Laurence Dickie’s acoustical concepts. Thanks to its meticulously engineered design—a small, three-way speaker section supported within a larger section holding two subwoofer drivers—the Giya G1 Spirit conjures up a colossal yet realistic sound whether you’re listening to double-bass-drum fusion or Bill Evans’ solo works.
No discussion of superspeakers would be complete without a mention of Wilson Audio, the company that made these behemoths famous (at least among audiophiles) when it introduced its towering Wilson Audio Music Monitor (WAMM) speaker in the 1980s, with each of the $100,000-plus systems personally calibrated onsite by founder David Wilson. The original WAMM was a hulking beast with multiple speaker modules that could be moved back and forth to tune the speaker. Recently, Wilson introduced an updated version of the WAMM that is, while still huge, far sleeker and easier to tune. The $685,000-per-pair Master Chronosonic doesn’t require the refrigerator-sized subwoofers that the original needed, and its three midrange drivers and single tweeter can be aligned to within a millimeter. The frame of the Chronosonic, which incorporates two large woofers, looks simultaneously organic and alien, and it’s available in a range of glossy colors (or plain black, if you prefer).
While extremely few music lovers can afford such speakers, all of these companies make models at a much lower cost that offer at least a taste of what the superspeakers can do. And if you really want to hear what these speakers sound like, just wait until the audio shows start back up again in 2021; you’re almost certain to encounter a few of them, and you can listen for as long as you want without spending a penny.