Killer Values: High-Performance Speaker Systems Seen at CEDIA, Part 1

Atlantic Technology AT-1,
Atlantic Technology AT-2,
B&W Group CM8,
Cambridge Audio Minx S325,
Definitive Technology BP-8080ST
Killer Values: High-Performance Speaker Systems Seen at CEDIA, Part 1

Atlantic AT-1 and (coming soon) AT-2

Atlantic Technology’s AT-1 tower-type loudspeaker with distinctive HPAS (High Pressure Acceleration System) bass loading system was previewed at last year’s CEDIA Expo, then shown again in pre-production form at CES. At both venues, the bass performance of the AT-1 was quite promising, as was midrange performance. Upper midrange and high frequency performance on those pre-production prototypes seemed a little too rough and raw vis-à-vis the overall sophistication levels achieved in the rest of the speaker, so that I frankly wondered how well the AT-1 would fare in this keenly contested market segment.

Now that the AT-1 has finally gone into production (priced $2500/pair) I am pleased to tell you it has received two changes that have dramatically improved its performance as compared to those initial pre-production prototypes. Specifically, the AT-1 has benefitted from a new 1 1/8-inch fabric dome tweeter from Vifa (called the LRT for “low resonance tweeter”) along with a revised crossover network. Together, these changes help smooth out the speaker’s upper mids and highs while improving transient response and overall extension. As a result, the production version AT-1 offers a powerful yet sophisticated sound that offers greater openness and superior top to bottom balance relative to the AT-1 pre-production prototypes I heard several months ago. For this reason, I suspect the AT-1 will become one of the strongest players in its price class.

Also shown at CEDIA was a prototype of Atlantic’s upcoming AT-2 HPAS-equipped stand-mount monitor. Pricing is TBD, but was humorously described in the Atlantic booth as “Not Free” (a good guess, of course, is that the AT-2 will sell for significantly less than the full size AT-1). As students of HPAS technology already know, one of the coolest aspects of the HPAS enclosure system is that it can, in principle, allow quite small loudspeaker cabinets to support seriously extended bass at surprisingly high volume levels and with low distortion. Imagine, then, a 16-inch tall “bookshelf” speaker that uses the HPAS system to produce powerful bass that extends down to 39Hz (and maybe even to lower frequencies than that by the time the speaker is ready for production). Who wouldn’t like the idea of what is essentially a sensibly priced, near full-range bookshelf monitor that sounds huge but doesn’t take up much space at all? Watch for a final production version of the AT-2 to enter the market in Q1/ 2011.


B&W’s CM-series loudspeakers enjoy a special position in the B&W product line because the deliberately combine three threads of influence. First, their conservative styling and lovely construction details provide deliberate reminders of B&W’s heritage and hard-won reputation for fine, traditional, old-world craftsmanship. Second, they incorporate many technologies drawn from B&W higher end (but often more adventurously-styled) loudspeakers. Third, they are—at least relative to the quality on offer—value-priced and thus make a rewarding and refreshingly accessible “gateway” to the world of higher-end B&W sound.

For CEDIA, B&W announced a new flagship model for the CM-Series—the CM8 three-way, four-driver, tower-type loudspeaker (priced at a manageable $2200/pair). The CM8 features a 1-inch aluminum dome tweeter mounted in a tube-loaded housing featuring B&W’s signature Nautilus technology, and 5-inch Kevlar midrange driver, and two 5-inch paper pulp/Kevlar woofers.

By design, the CM8 can be used as a standalone stereo speaker, or combined with other elements of the CM-Series family to create decidedly classy-looking, upscale home theater surround systems. B&W had the CM8 on static display only, so comments on sound quality will have to wait ‘til later, but if the CM8 runs true to form with other members of the CM-Series family it should be something special.

Cambridge Audio Minx System

The Cambridge Minx has already bee then subject of an AVguide news post, so we’ll just provide a recap here. In a nutshell, Minx is an extremely compact, but exceptionally high performance sat/sub speaker system offered in several different variations on 2.1-channel and 5.1-channel packages. Pricing for stereo sat/sub packages prices start at a low $549, while 5.1-channel bundles start at $799.

But the essential point to grasp is that the Minx system sound night/day different and better than other systems in its size/price class, in large part, we suspect, because of its use of exotic NXT/BMR (balanced mode radiator) drivers—driver of a type heretofore used only in expensive flagship stereo speakers from Naim.

In simple terms, NXT/BMR drivers behave like rigid pistons over part of the audible frequency range, but transition at higher frequencies to a entirely different mode of operation where the disc shaped drivers propagate sound waves through a rippling motion that originates in the center of the driver and spreads outward (picture waves spreading out concentrically, like those you would see if you tossed a pebble into the surface of a still pond). The result is a driver that handles lower and some middle frequencies like a high-quality piston-type driver, but whose dispersion characteristics become better and better the higher in frequency the driver plays.

The end result is a tiny and affordable system than not only sounds huge, but sounds surprisingly refined and sophisticated, too. Trust us on this one: the Minx can and will recalibrate your notion of what “entry-level” high-end speaker system can do.

Definitive’s Bi-Polar Speaker Family and the BP-8080ST

From the very beginning Definitive Technology built its reputation in the marketplace by offering high-performance, high-value bipolar loudspeakers. The term “bipolar” means that the speakers radiate sound wave forward and backward at the same time (and in phase), in the process creating unusually broad and deep sound stages.

Now, Definitive has revised and in certain respects “re-invented” its Bipolar Series speaker family in ways that not only makes the new models sound better, but also makes them a better value than ever before. We’ll highlight some of those key changes, below.

In the past, Definitive’s bipolar models have featured identical front and rear driver arrays, but after carefully evaluating the way these “symmetrical” bipolar arrays worked in most listened rooms, Definitive concluded that better overall sound might be achieved by using “asymmetrical” bipolar arrays. Instead of using identical groups of front and rear drivers, then, Definitive’s new BP models use similarly voiced but not identical front and rear arrays. On the new models, the front-side array is full-scaled (since it contributes most to the listener’s sense of precise imaging and focus), while the rear side array (which mostly helps balance out the speaker’s power response and creates a sense of greater soundstage depth and breadth) uses a slightly scaled-back driver array. This change helps preserve the strengths of Definitive bipolar designs, while giving them a noticeably more open and sharply focused character.

Next, Definitive gave the BP models across-the-board driver improvements, equipping them with the improved aluminum dome tweeters initially developed for the firm’s popular Mythos ST and STS speakers, and then giving them all-new, second-generation BDSS (balanced double surround system) midrange drivers equipped with a distinctive-looking Linear Response Waveguide/pole piece. The second-generation BDSS midrange driver is the most sophisticated of its type that Definitive has ever produced—and audibly superior to the first-generation BDSS driver used in the firm’s ProCinema and Mythos ST/STS-series speakers. Again, the benefit is a sound that is significantly more open and detailed, yet at the same smoother and less edgy.

Finally, the BP models feature improved self-powered subwoofer sections with new DSP-controlled class D woofer amplifiers. But one other change has also helped to improve manufacturing consistency and to control costs. In earlier-generation BP models, tower-type speaker were sold in mirror image pair (so woofers on both speakers could either face inward or outward, depending on the owner’s preference). This sounds like a nice idea on paper, but behind the scenes it was a bit of a logistics nightmare for the Definitive warehouse and (I’m told) for Definitive dealers (because it was all too easy to ship/deliver two “left” or two “right” towers by accident). But finally Definitive did carefully controlled listening tests and found that, at the frequencies where the woofers operated, there was no need to go to the costly extreme of building/shipping mirror image cabinet pairs. As a result, the new BPs all use common woofer placement while savings are effectively passed on to the customer in the form of a more accessible MSRP.

The flagship model in the range is the new BP-8080ST ($2998/pair), whose front array features a 1-inch tweeter and two 5 ¼-inch BDSS midrange drivers, whose rear array features a 1-inch tweeter and one 5 ¼-inch BDSS midrange driver, and whose bass section features a 12-inch woofer and two 12 ½-inch passive radiators driven by a built-in 400-watt DSP-controlled class D amplifier. There’s tremendous value for money on offer here, which will make the 8080ST (and its smaller, less costly siblings) a leading contender in its class.   

Energy Veritas-Series

Several years back the famous Canadian speaker manufacturer Energy was acquired by Klipsch Group, and among the first tasks on the Klipsch Group engineering team’s “to do” lists were A) to spend time learning Energy’s engineering driven culture, and then B) to begin work on a redesign of Energy’s flagship Veritas speaker line.

I spent some time with Klipsch Vice President of Product Development Mark Casavant and he mentioned four elements that distinguish and define Energy’s top-of-line models: 1) use of a signature CSM (convergent source module) that places high-performance tweeters and midrange drivers in very close physical proximity to help give the speakers a clear, coherent voice, 2) accurate, wide-range frequency response with low coloration, 3) wide dispersion, and 4) low distortion/resonance.

Keeping these goals in mind, Casavant’s team set out to re-design Energy’s Veritas line and with the two new floorstanders I saw at CEDIA—the V-6.3 ($3000/pair) and V-6.2 ($2200/pair)—they have achieved something very special. The new V-6.3 preserves (and expands upon) the clean, clear, well-defined sound for which Energy’s top speakers have been known in the past, while arguably enhancing overall musicality and rolling back price points to more accessible levels.

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