CES 2012 Report - Chris Martens on Loudspeakers $7000 and Below

ADAM Classic Column Mk3,
DeVore Fidelity Gibbon 88,
Dynaudio XEO 5,
Neat Acoustics Momentum 4i,
Piega Premium 50.2
CES 2012 Report - Chris Martens on Loudspeakers $7000 and Below

I’ve always believed that high-quality music reproduction should be available to the widest possible range of music lovers, and so I was delighted to learn my CES assignment was to cover loudspeakers priced at $7000/pair and below—a category that encompasses some of the sweetest values in all of high-end audio. In this report, which touches upon some but not all of the fine affordable speakers I heard in Las Vegas, I’ll try to focus on models that not only offered good performance in an analytical sense, but that also demonstrated an ability to engage the listener on a deep emotional level. As always, let me apologize in advance to any manufacturers whose products I fail to mention; there was more to see and hear than one man could possibly cover.

Affordable, High-Performance Loudspeakers

Hailing from Switzerland, the Piega Premium 50.2 ($7000/pair) was a revelation at its price point, and here’s why. First, this elegant and beautifully made floorstander features a 2 ½-way hybrid mix of dual, Scanspeak-sourced mid/bass drivers mated with a proprietary Piega LDR 2642 MkII ribbon tweeter (exotic stuff for a speaker in this price range). Next, the 50.2’s feature extremely stiff enclosures whose baffles and sidewalls are formed from intricate, one-piece aluminum extrusions. But impressive though these highlights are, the real draw is the 50.2’s sound, which is beautifully balanced, highly resolving, and offers a dynamic “jump factor” that is off the charts. I would be hard-pressed to name another speaker in this price range that marries refinement and delicacy with sheer dynamic swagger and expressiveness the way this one does.

The German firm Adam Audio is known for building hybrid loudspeakers that combine Heil-type drivers (typically used as tweeters) and traditional dynamic drivers. The fact is that some Heil-based hybrids have problems with sonic discontinuities, largely because fast transparent Heil drivers can make associated dynamic drivers sound slow and opaque by comparison. Happily, Adam’s new Classic Column Mk3 ($7000/pair) solves this problem by incorporating both Heil-type (“X-ART” drivers, for eXtended-range Accelerated Ribbon Technology) tweeter and midrange drivers. As a consequence, the Classic Column Mk3 produces mids and highs that sound as if they are cut from the same sonic cloth, yielding a speaker that is exceptionally revealing yet satisfyingly coherent.

For many years, John DeVore has made loudspeakers that yield sonic results greater than the sum of their parts, and the DeVore Fidelity Gibbon 88 floorstanders ($5000/pair) are a perfect case in point. The two-way Gibbon 88, which uses a 7-inch “NewGen” mid/bass driver and .75-inch silk dome tweeter, manages to capture the musical whole with levels of sophistication that belie its structural simplicity. After listening to the 88 for a while, I came to feel that it offered an uncanny combination of unforced natural warmth, very good levels of resolution, and stunning 3-D imaging/soundstaging—the latter a quality I consider one of the defining characteristics of DeVore’s best designs.

The British Neat Momentum 4i tower ($4780/pair) is another example of a speaker that is more sophisticated than appearances would initially suggest. At first glance the 4i appears to be a simple two-way design, but in fact it is a 2½-way, four-driver speaker featuring an integral iso-baric subwoofer system based on two concealed 6.5-inch woofers. While your eyes take in a compact (roughly 8.7-inch wide x 41-inch high) tower, your ears drink in a big richly detailed sound that suggests you are in the presence of a much larger speaker. Comments from both Neat and Manley electronics representatives (Manley gear was use to power the Neats), suggest that the speakers take a bit of break-in and fine-tuning to give their best, but the end results more than justify any extra set-up work required.

Dynaudio’s cool new wireless Xeo 5 floorstanders ($4500/pair) are the first loudspeakers created specifically for people who want high-end sound, but hate all the cabling and componentry that are part and parcel of typical high-end audio systems. Accordingly, the Xeo 5’s is a self-powered, wirelessly controlled speaker featuring high-quality fabric dome tweeters, dual mid/bass drivers, DSP-controlled crossovers, and built-in tweeter and woofer amps each rated at 50Wpc. The included 2.4GHz multi-input X12 wireless module is used to select sources and set playback levels. I found the Xeo 5’s sounded much like Dynaudio’s better mid-priced passive floorstanders, but with the benefit that they require no amplifiers, preamplifiers, or speaker cables whatsoever, and can be placed wherever there are AC outlets nearby. Just connect analog and/or digital source components to the wireless transmitter and you’ve got instant high-end audio.

If I had to name one “unforgettable” speaker from CES, the one I’d choose would be the Totem Element Ember stand-mount monitor ($4200/pair). Here’s why. Unlike most small monitors, the Element Embers show an almost uncanny ability to produce a big dynamically robust sound with—surprise!—very nearly full-range bass (bass that reaches down to or even below the 40Hz mark with real authority). How is this possible? Credit goes to Totem’s proprietary “Torrent” mid/bass driver, which looks like something that could conceivably have been built by Grumman Aerospace (meaning the word “beefy” doesn’t begin to do this driver justice). The result is a compact monitor that is full of subtlety and life, yet that plays with the heart of a tiger.

Loudspeaker designer Paul Barton is famous for speakers that combine sonic sophistication and value in equal measure, and many regard Barton’s flagship PSB Synchrony 1 as a modern masterpiece. But for CES Barton brought forth his new PSB Imagine T2 floorstander ($3500/pair)—a speaker that in many ways represents a cost-reduced “Synchrony 1 Junior.” Barton explained that the T2 is a “transitional 3-way, five-driver” floorstander, where mids and highs are handled by a dedicated tweeter/midrange driver array and bass is handled by a transitional three-driver woofer array. At very low frequencies, all three woofers play together, but as frequencies climb higher, the bottom-most woofer rolls off first, followed by the middle woofer. Up in the region where bass frequencies blend into the lower midrange, the upper woofer plays alone until output transitions over to the tweeter midrange array. As you might expect, this very sophisticated speaker sounds remarkably similar to its famous big brother—yet sells for considerably less.

For CES Morel has created “a new class” of the Octave speaker family in the form of the Octave 6 floorstanders ($6500/pair) and bookshelf models ($3500/pair), which leverage design concepts pioneered in Morel’s costly Fat Lady and Sopran loudspeakers. I had a chance to listen to the two-way Octave 6 bookshelf speakers just as the show was winding down, and I’m glad I did. While we could talk at length about the technologies in play in this speaker, what really carries the day is its remarkably suave, refined, and seductive sound—a sound that simply wins you over and makes you want to listen to music all night long. And isn’t that precisely what a good speaker should do?  

GoldenEar Technology’s Triton 2 floorstander has garnered awards from The Absolute Sound and The Perfect Vision, ­and now it has a little brother—the Triton 3 ($1998/pair). The Triton 3 shares all key core technologies with the Triton 2 (including Heil-type tweeters, ultra-wideband midrange drivers, and built-in powered subwoofers), but presents them in a smaller, less costly package. Importantly, the Triton 3 has almost exactly the same suave, sophisticated, full-range sonic profile as its larger sibling (trading away only a barely discernible touch of very low frequency drive or “punch”). For those who found the Triton 2 too large or too expensive for their applications, the new Triton 3 offers a great right-sized/right-priced alternative.

Every once in a while speaker manufacturers manage to pull off trade show demonstrations that stop listeners in their tracks, and this was certainly the case with Definitive Technology’s demonstration of its diminutive SM45 Studio Monitors ($400), which were driven by an ARC electronics and an Oppo universal player. These tiny two-way monitors produced a focused and intensely evocative sound that could easily have put many of the costly monitors I heard in the Venetian to shame—a point made even more compelling by the SM45’s oh-so-manageable price. In a world where value is paramount, the SM45s are disarmingly good—not state of the art, to be sure, but close enough to give you huge musical rewards for your hard-earned dollars.


Chris Martens’ Best of Show

Best Sound (cost no object)

A tie between the Nola Baby Grand Reference Series II speakers driven by ARC equipment and the MBL 101 X-treme speakers powered by MBL electronics. The former sounded supremely evocative, while the latter sounded simply majestic.

Best Sound (for the lowest price)

GoldenEar Technology’s cool three-channel SuperCinema 3D soundbar ($999) with dual ForceField 4 subwoofers ($499 each), driven by Arcam home-theater components—a soundbar system so good that audiophiles might buy it for music playback alone!

Most Significant Product Introduction

HiFiMAN’s stunning HE-400 planar-magnetic headphones are bargain-priced at $399 and sufficiently sensitive to be driven directly from iPods. Those seeking a delightful, compelling, and accessible entry point for high-end sound need look no further.

Greatest Technological Breakthrough

Cambridge Audio’s 851C DAC/CD transport, which might be the most balanced and versatile “digital Swiss Army knife” produced to date. It’s a disc player, a multi-input high-res (24/192) DAC, and a high-quality digital pre-amp.

Most Important Trend

The dawning realization, one voiced by manufacturers throught the show (not just at the Venetian), that the enduring value of great sound quality trumps the transitory buzz of "technologies du jour" or passing marketing fads.

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