There are still a surprising number of dedicated souls out there who want simply to listen to music in stereo - on something better than an iPod and a pair of execrable earbuds. These dedicated souls seek sound that is as natural, believable, and, well - musical - as possible. Fortunately, there are still plenty of loudspeaker makers who remember how to do this.
Unlimited Class: Snell Acoustics Illusion A7 ($50,000/pr.)
Snell Acoustics is a small Massachusetts company that's been quietly producing state-of-the-art speakers, in small quantities, since the original A7 designed by the late Peter Snell in 1976. The Illusion A7 updates the concept of the full-range, price-be-damned stereo loudspeaker for the 21st century, with the latest in alloy driver technology, innovative cabinet design, and acoustical engineering by the legendary Joe D'Appolito, (inventor of the mid-tweeter-mid driver array that carries his name). The Illusion A7 towers feature a continuously curved cabinet with no flat or parallel surfaces that you really have to see in person to understand - and that, like every Snell, is hand finished and beautifully constructed. You'll need a forklift truck for delivery (200+ lb. each), and another fork-load of high-end amplifiers to hear them at their best, but with the finest recordings they'll make you a believer.
Rational Class: B&W 703 ($3,300/pr.)
Bowers & Wilkins is the best known (and most successful, at least in the U.S.) of the many British speaker manufacturers. Consequently, B&W has achieved a sort of BMW status among snobbier audiophiles here: It's easy to sneer at folks who own them without knowing or caring how to get the most from them - and at the image that inevitably trails such consumers - but hard to argue with the quality and performance of the product itself. And the 703's are classic B&W: slightly warm yet powerfully detailed; seductively smooth but excitingly dynamic; impressively wide-range yet well defined down low. They don't demand a kilowatt, megabucks amplifier, but are still able to reflect fine electronics, and fine recordings, with very fine sound.
Value Class: Paradigm Monitor 7 v.6 ($758/pr.)
For some reason, Canada is the mother lode of speaker manufacturers whose passion is value, and Paradigm is one of the best, and most value-obsessed, of the breed. The firm's Monitor series has a lot in common with the Chevrolet Corvette: It's been around forever, gets updated every four or five years without changing its fundamentals, and is not particularly exotic but manages judicious innovations to deliver legitimately Ferrari-grade performance at, well, a Chevy price. The Monitor 7 v.6 is the smallest floor-standing tower in the line, but nevertheless produces impressive range and the usual marvelous Paradigm clarity and balance. Pair these up with an inexpensive audiophile amplifier and a decent CD player, and you can have an astonishingly musical system for 'way south of two grand.
Budweiser Class: Polk Audio RTi A1 ($400/pr.)
There are simply hordes of 5-1/4-inch two-ways, as speakers of this ilk are known in the trade, and they range in cost, quite literally, from under $100 to more than $10,000 the pair. Polk's RTi A1 is an outstanding example of just how well, and how inexpensively, this basic loudspeaker layout can serve the listener. These Polks can't deliver the bottom octave of deep bass with much authority, but you'll be amazed at just how solid these little speakers sound - and you'll be even more impressed by their honest, uncolored midrange and detailed top end. You could combine a pair with a stereo receiver scavenged on trash-day and a $39 drugstore CD player, and walk away with a perfectly serious stereo music system for less than a NYC dinner for two.
Audiophile Epiphany: Quad ESL-2905 (about $12,000/pr.)
Britain's Quad was the first to market an electrostatic loudspeaker, and more than a half-century later they're still at it, with a unique design incorporating delay-lines to merge the pinpoint-imaging benefits of a point-source (like most conventional speakers) with those incontrovertible openness, clarity, and detail of a flat-panel radiator. (It was hearing a pair of the original Quads that enlightened me, like thousands before me, to what hi-fi could truly be.) Quad's current range tops out on the ESL-2905, one of the few electrostatics ever made that can fairly claim to be a full-range reproducer. Like all 'stats the 2905's are big, tricky to set up, require a goodly sized room (electrostatics radiate both forward and backwards, so placement anywhere near a wall is a no-go), and really demand the best in electronics and sources. They're also not so easy to find: There are relatively few Quad dealers in the U.S. today. But if you have the chance to hear a properly set up pair play a great recording - especially one, let's say, of a string orchestra or an acoustic jazz combo - I'll guarantee you become a yet another disciple.
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