Killer Values: High-Performance Speaker Systems Seen at CEDIA, Part 2

Focal Bird Compact Audio System,
GoldenEar Technology Triton 2,
KEF iQseries,
Klipsch Reference II-series
Killer Values: High-Performance Speaker Systems Seen at CEDIA, Part 2

This is Part 2 of the three-part article. To read Part 1, click here. To read Part 3, click here.

Focal Bird System

OK, we admit it. We considered labeling this section with the title, “Focal Gives CEDIA ‘The Bird’”, but eventually good taste prevailed (hey, this is a family-oriented home theater publication, right?). But this leads to a key question: what exactly is Focal’s Bird system, and what makes it special?

I could tell you the Bird is an affordable sat/sub system, and though that statement would be true (at least in a sense) it would also be misleading. I could also call the Bird an attractively priced, high-end-audio-in-a-box package, but that, too, would miss out on some of the qualities and characteristics that make the Bird system seem so downright magical. So let’s tackle things from the top down.

Focal’s Bird systems (several variations are possible) are all based on small, affordable, very high-quality satellite speakers, all of which leverage technologies and design motifs similar to those found in Focal’s popular Dome 5.1-channel system. The satellites, somewhat whimsically, are known as the Little Birds ($295/pair), the Birds ($450/pair), and the SuperBirds ($595/pair). All Bird-series satellites come the “tulip-type” pedestal stands/wall brackets, and with distinctive Bird tripod-type stands (which look a bit like birds’ feet); optional floorstands are also available.

But things get really interesting when we talk about the system’s slimline, all-in-one source component/amplifier, called the PowerBird. The PowerBird features a 2 x 35 Wpc class A/B amplifier to drive the satellites, a 1 x 70 Wpc class A/B amplifier to drive the subwoofer, and a built-in 24/192-capable DAC. The PowerBird offers three digital and two analog inputs, and comes with a remote. It is also designed to support wireless connections to outboard source components via Kleer wireless technologies. In fact, Focal will offer two types of wireless dongles priced at $100/each: one will be a Kleer/iPod/iPad/iPhone dongle, while the other will be a Kleer/USB dongle. Pretty cool, no?

But wait: there’s more. Where, you might ask, is the Bird system sub? Check this out: the “sub” is actually a built-in element of the PowerBird, which incorporates a downward-firing woofer housed in a compact, reflex-type enclosure that is part of the PowerBird chassis, and whose port exits through what at first appears to be a cooling duct in the PowerBird’s faceplate. From a styling standpoint this is pure genius, because your ears hear a sub, but your eyes don’t see one (they see only the slender chassis of the PowerBird). Bird systems based on two Little Birds and one Powerbird start at $995.

How’s the sound. A brief listen suggested to me that the Bird rig offers a smooth, warm, vibrant sound that is very much in keeping with Focal’s “house sound”—a comment I intend as high praise indeed.

Golden Ear Technology Triton Two Speaker Family

Sandy Gross is an acknowledged legend in the world of high-performance loudspeakers, and with good reason. He helped found Polk Audio, later founded Definitive Technology, and now has gone on to create a third speaker company: GoldenEar Technology. At each step along the way, Mr. Gross’s products have been defined by two key characteristics: unexpectedly generous measures of high-end performance, and equally unexpected affordable prices. Based on the products I saw and heard at CEDIA, let me say that GoldenEar’s products are positioned to push both ends of the envelope harder than ever—reaching toward exceptional performance at surprisingly accessible prices.

GoldenEar’s flagship Triton Two tower-type speakers introduce certain core technologies that are leveraged, to a very high degree, across the entire product family. The Triton Two features a Heil-type tweeter (which GoldenEar calls a “Hihg-Velocity Folded Ribbon” tweeter), a pair of 4.5-inch mid-bass driver that incorporates a multi-vaned phase plug (and is said to achieve high frequency response extending to nearly 20kHz, which is pretty amazing for a mid-bass driver), two oblong 5-inch x 9-inch bass drivers, two oblong flat-panel passive radiators, and a built-in 1200-watt DSP-controlled subwoofer amplifier—all this for an almost shockingly reasonable $2500/pair. The rest of the line includes two pairs of wall or stand-mountable satellite speakers, which are offered both in vertical and horizontal (i.e., center channel) versions, plus two powered subs. It’s a neat, simple, elegant product family that can cover a variety of applications (and customer budgets) with a minimum of SKU’s.

But from a design standpoint, everything flows from the “fountainhead” that is the Triton Two tower. In a nutshell, the Triton Two is one of those oh-so-rare $2500/pair loudspeakers that, if heard from behind an opaque scrim, could easily (and I mean really easily) fool you into thinking you were hearing a boutique high-end loudspeaker that carried a five-figure price tag. Part of why this is so is that the Triton Two offers terrific clarity, transient speed, and definition, yet is remarkably smooth sounding in its overall presentation—a tough combination of virtues to pull off. Frankly, I don’t think I’ve ever heard any speaker do a better job of blending the output of a lightning fast Heil-type tweeter with conventional piston-type mid-bass drivers. That is, in my view, is the sonic “special sauce” that really sets the Triton Two apart. Happily the same technologies used in the midrange/treble section of the tower carry over directly into the GoldenEar satellites.

In short: the Triton Two and its stable mates are a virtual lock to enhance Sandy Gross’ deserved reputation for building speakers that offer killer performance/price ratios. What’s more, they just might make more than a few designers of boutique high-end products nervous in the process.

KEF Q-Series Speakers

For many years Q-series loudspeakers have been the “bread-and-butter” models within the KEF lineup, serving to introduce listeners to many of the technologies used in the firm’s higher-end speakers at comparatively affordable prices. At CEDIA KEF launched its eighth-generation Q-series models, which are said to be the first KEF products to leverage new insights gleaned through the radical, one-of-a-kind KEF Concept Blade loudspeaker (a not-for-sale technology test bed or "concept" speaker).

While the new Q models look quite traditional from the outside, they actually embody a quite ambitious array of technical changes. Highlights include an all-new version of KEF’s signature Uni-Q (coincident tweeter/midrange) driver array that features a new, double-layer dome tweeter (one layer provides the optimal shape while the other adds stiffness), a completely revised version of KEF’s “tangerine” waveguide, a new aluminum midrange driver with a much larger voice coil/motor structure, and a new “Z-surround.” An exhaustive list of all the revisions that have gone into the new Q models would overflow the space allotted, but suffice it to say the changes are quite sweeping and show KEF’s ability to take ideas from the cost-no-object Concept Blade and to transfer them to speakers that will sell at sensible, real-world prices.

The flaghip model of the new Q range is the Q900 tower, a 2.5-way floorstanding speaker based on a 6.5-inch Uni-Q array with a 1-inch tweeter, a 6.5-inch woofer, and two 6.5-inch passive radiators (or as KEF calls them, “auxiliary bass radiators”). The Q900 will sell for $1599/pair, with prices stepping downward for smaller models.

The Q-series speakers were on static display only in the KEF booth, but we’re eager to hear them soon.

Klipsch Reference II-Series Speakers

Apart from Klipsch’s limited production classic models (e.g., the Klipschorn, LaScala, etc.) and Palladium-series speakers, the Reference series has for most practical purposes represented the top of the Klipsch lineup—until now. Shortly before CEDIA Klipsch announced that it had reworked the Reference line to create the new Reference II series.

It would be easy, at least at first glance, to interpret the Reference II models as a minor “refresh” of a well-established and well-loved product family, but a closer look (and especially a careful listen) shows that the changes are much more significant than that. Klipsch had a traditional booth on the CEDIA exhibit floor, but in a separate, off-the-show-floor demo room Klipsch VP of Product Development Mark Cassavant gave me a one-on-one presentation of the new line, along with the chance to hear (in a relatively quiet room) a side-by-side comparison of the previous generation Reference RF-82 and new generation Reference II RF-82II ($1200/pair) speaker models (the RF-82 II is one model down from top-of-the line). 

Sonic difference between the two generations of speakers were not small, with the new models offering a more open and transparent sound, yet one that was also smoother and that more easily broke free from the speaker enclosure to create vivid images and deep soundstages.

The top model in the Reference II lineup is the RF-7II, which sells for $3300/pair, and which incorporates a 1 ¾-inch horn-loaded (of course) titanium tweeter that is said to leverage learnings drawn from the expensive, top-shelf Palladium models introduced a few years back.

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