My CES 2011 assignment was to cover loudspeakers priced below $5000—a choice product category that left me feeling I had hit the proverbial jackpot. I say this because CES 2011 offered an embarrassment of loudspeaker riches for those of us who aren’t particularly rich, with some models offering performance per dollar that, in my estimation, is clear off the charts.
Before I begin, let me acknowledge that I saw and heard more worthy speakers than I have time or space to mention here. Instead, I’ve elected to focus on a handful of exceptional models, each of which has something truly special to offer.
Evolution Acoustics’ MM Micro One monitors ($2000/pr.) appeal to high-end audiophiles on multiple levels. First, they use an exotic MTM-type driver array comprising a Heil-type tweeter flanked by two proprietary mid/bass drivers whose diaphragms are made of a ceramic/aluminum-magnesium/ceramic “sandwich.” Designer Kevin Malmgren says the drivers offer transient speed rivaling pure ceramic designs, but with superior resilience and internal damping. Build quality, too, is breathtaking, but the biggest draw involves sound quality. These slender monitors sound remarkably open, detailed and refined, with airy and extended highs, suave and revealing mids, and taut bass reaching below 40Hz.
LSA’s .5 monitors ($699/pair) are the firm’s newest, smallest, and least costly offerings, yet they sound astonishingly rich, vibrant, and full-bodied, capturing much of the performance of LSA’s larger designs. While the .5’s bass extends only to about 50 Hz, it seems to go lower than that, giving the speaker an unexpected touch of bottom-end weight.
PSB’s Paul Barton is an unassuming design genius, and for evidence of this we need look no further than to his latest pint-sized giant-killers: the PSB Image Mini monitors ($700/pr.). At CES, the tiny Image Mini’s blew minds, serving up an expansive, punchy, and richly textured sound wildly disproportionate to their size, with nary a trace of edginess or strain. The funniest part was watching listeners inquire in vain about a presumed subwoofer, only to find there wasn’t one (PSB had a sub on static display, but it was pointedly left unplugged).
Monitor Audio has been on a roll of late, successfully updating first its Silver, then its Bronze, and now its Gold-series speaker families. I sampled several new Gold GX-models at CES, but was enchanted by the smallest of the group: the Gold GX 50 monitors ($1800/pr.). Monitor’s new Gold GX models leverage technologies drawn from the firm’s top-tier Platinum speakers, and accordingly the GX 50 sported a ribbon-type tweeter along with a ribbed-for-rigidity C-CAM (ceramic-coated aluminum magnesium) mid-bass driver. The result is a delightfully revealing and nuanced compact monitor whose highs are crisply defined, yet silky smooth.
Floorstanders and $2k and below
Many Gallo Acoustics speakers use futuristic, sphere-shaped metal enclosures, but for CES the firm revealed a family of more traditional-looking, wood-finished speakers called the Classico series. The Classico models offer more than a styling exercise, since they introduce new design architecture that—in Classico floorstanding models—combines Gallo’s signature wide-dispersion CDT tweeter with 5 ½-inch carbon-fiber mid/bass drivers loaded in transmission-line enclosures. Like Gallo’s sealed-enclosure speakers, the Classicos use the firm’s proprietary S2 damping material, which—according to Anthony Gallo—performs exceptionally well in transmission line applications, giving the Classico floorstanders a dramatic jump in openness, low-level detail and overall bass performance. Sure enough, the compact Classico Series III floorstanders (estimated price, ~$1700 -$2000/pair) offered shockingly great performance for their size and price, by which I mean that they produced huge and spacious soundstages, well-focused images, evocative low-level detailing, and deep, powerful bass. Bottom line: the Classico III is one of the finest speakers Anthony Gallo has ever designed, regardless of price.
Audiophiles may fondly recall MartinLogan’s late, lamented Aerius hybrid electrostat, which was a budget classic in its day, but now history is repeating itself with the launch of MartinLogan’s ElectroMotion ESL hybrid electrostat ($2000/pr.). In a nutshell, the ElectroMotion ESL’s gives listeners a big taste of electrostatic goodness at an unexpectedly low price and in an attractive and easy-to-drive package. You get lightning-fast transient response, razor-sharp detailing, and precisely focused imaging, all leavened with a good measure of fast, well-defined and surprisingly well-integrated bass from the ESL’s piston-type woofer. There’s huge value here, making the ESL by far the least costly way to sample the time-proven joys of electrostats.
Wharfedale VP Walter Schofield had his Wharfedale Diamond 10.7 floorstanders ($1299/pr.) singing in rare form at CES. The Diamond 10.7’s, like all Wharfedale speakers, are made in China in one of the largest—if not the largest—vertically integrated speaker manufacturing facilities in the world, meaning the plant produces every single part of the speaker, right down to the wood pulp from which the MDF speaker enclosure cores are made. The may explain how Wharfedale is able to offer the four-driver, 3 ½-way Diamond 10.7’s—a speaker that sounds as if it should cost $2k/pair (or more)—for a tick under $1300. Those seeking balanced performance from a speaker that offers both sonic refinement and near full-range frequency response will discover the 10.7’s are a tough deal to beat.
Exceptional Floorstanders priced between $2k - $5k
At CES, two affordable floorstanders captured my attention, and that of many of my TAS colleagues, in ways few other inexpensive speakers have ever been able to do. The speakers in question are the GoldenEar Technology Triton Two and the Nola Contender, both of which offer exceptional performance in an absolute sense and represent stunning achievements at their respective price points. Let me supply a bit of background on each.
GoldenEar Technology was founded by two audio legends: Sandy Gross and Don Givogue (formerly founders of Definitive Technology). The two men counterbalance one another in a synergistic way, with Sandy Gross serving as a high-end visionary who wants to build world-class speakers at Everyman prices, while Givogue serves as the no-nonsense, pragmatic engineering counterpart—helping to translate Gross’ vision into practical, real-world products. You can see both influences in the Triton Two ($2500/pair), which is an ambitious and sophisticated full-range floorstander that is also, by design, both affordable and easy to drive. The tower-type speaker sports an upper MTM array consisting of a Heil-type tweeter flanked by two 4 ½-inch wideband midrange drivers, plus a bass section incorporating two forward-facing oblong active woofers, two side-firing passive radiators, and a 1200-watt, DSP-controlled, class D bass amplifier. The result is a speaker that offers fabulous imaging and soundstaging, superb low-level detailing, a health dollop of dynamic clout, and terrific bass depth and control. What is more, the Triton Two is so uncannily and disarmingly smooth that it takes some listeners a while to grasp how thoroughly revealing the speaker can be. This watershed design will, I think, force many high-end poseurs to step up their games.
Nola designer Carl Marchisotto is best known for his superb and expensive Grand-series loudspeakers, but at CES he focused on the opposite end of the price spectrum, giving us his extraordinary three-driver, 3-way Nola Contender floorstander ($3400/pair). The tower-type Contender is loosely based on the design of Nola’s Boxer bookshelf monitor and features a rear-ported upper chamber housing a silk-dome tweeter and a 6 ½-inch mid/bass driver, while a downward-ported lower chamber houses a second mid/bass driver that shoulders the low-frequency workload. Though the Contender might not look exotic at first glance, it certainly sounds exotic, channeling not just a little but a lot of the sonic character of Nola’s top-tier designs, and at a bargain basement price. Consequently, the Contender is accurate, delivers excellent imaging and soundstage depth, and produces near full-range bass. More importantly, though, it conveys the elusive sense and sensibility of music—in all its intellectual and soulful beauty—as few high-end speakers at any price are able to do. Bravo, Mr. Marchisotto.