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The 'Ultimate' Speakers are Within Reach

by W.A.J.

As we all know, there is a lot of hype surrounding our industry. Specifically regarding speaker-systems, many manufacturers, abetted by the mainstream audio-press, are wont to make claims of exclusive earth-shattering breakthroughs, from time to time.

Only slightly exaggerated here, for emphasis, typical examples of their disingenuous claims abound: They are anxious to tell us that thru their experiments in cryogenic labs utilizing nano-technology, highly-advanced techniques in hocus-pocus, blue-magic, and other means to which even NASA is not yet privy, they've come up with drivers utilizing bullet-proof kevlar, carbon-fibre, coconut-fibre, and meticulously processed cows'-dung (a.k.a. Bull-Shi...) - displaying extra-ordinary properties - of particular benefit to the discerning audiophile. Extensive and expensive research have also engendered diamond-encrusted tweeters, and others from; platinum, iridium, unobtainium, and some utilizing the delicate petals of exotic roses, genetically engineered exclusively by whichever particular manufacturer, affording formerly unheard-of performance (and, of course, un-heard) to ultra-sonic frequencies - ideal in the event that one should opt to entertain bats and any other such specie gifted with auditory senses similarly acute. (Incidentally, the next time a bat gives you the 'thumbs-up', you'll know for-sure that your awfully-expensive tweeters are definitely playin' his tune - awesome). Exotic, and necessarily expensive, speaker-enclosures have also been lovingly crafted from the mystical boulders at Stonehenge, I seem to recall, by highly-skilled descendants of the ancient Druids - no less. Oh, and I do believe there's, at least, one speaker-system constructed from 'X-factor' materials found only in certain regions of the planet Krypton. All of which, of course, are extreeeemly expensive to research & develop - expressly for the consumers' benefit, obviously - no doubt you'll understand.

But, so far as I'm concerned, all this is is mostly designed as a scheme to siphon gallons of liquid assets, converted to cold streaming cash, from the pockets of the gullible as they negotiate second mortgages for the privilege of bragging-rights afforded by equipment worth, perhaps, a couple thou, but bought for tens, or hundreds, of thousands of hard-earned bucks. Don't get me wrong; research is good. And it does occasionally produce outstanding products (Acapella's ion tweeter, for instance) but, as distinct from genuine research which actually bears fruit, I see most of it as a load of crap tantamount to soliciting money under false pretences. Especially, and most importantly, since nearly all of these expensive 'exotic' products are completely, comprehensively, and indisputably, trounced by ancient relics, and modern replicas of ancient relics, utilizing traditional time-tested principles, methods, and materials. THIS IS THE ACTUAL FACT! (See the links near the end of this piece, for a few examples).

Before going further, I should point out that this article is actually expanded from a segment of another article; 'The Lower-Midrange In; Speakers, Passive and Active Pre-Amps, Part 2'. Though a paragraph or two remains, the bulk of the relevant segment has been removed from there, expanded, and brought here under this heading since this ploy might better facilitate ease of reference for those seeking my own two-cents worth (for whatever it is actually worth) on the subject of the 'Ultimate' speakers.

So then, continuing from that article:  In seeking to build a truly realistic audio system, do not  even consider the use of a passive pre-amp since, contrary to what many believe (and with all due respect to those who use them for their undeniable, but limited, qualities) this is actually counter-productive to the achievement of the ultimate in overall sonic realism. [For more on that, and for the lead-up to this piece on speakers, please refer to the linked article(s) above.] 

A Few Points to Consider: If an audiophile seeks the most realistic overall reproduction possible, then one is best advised to seek one of the better ACTIVE pre-amps; Coincident, Dodd, Doge, Dude, etc. (new). Or one similar to such vintage units as those from the likes of ARC, VTL, Conrad-Johnson, etc. (preferably tubed, or 'tube-like' solid-state, and post-80's vintage, generally) a good amp (ditto) AND just as importantly, but most difficult to find; a very good speaker-system that is highly efficient, very dynamic, AND truly competent at the LOWER-MIDRANGE  - you will not regret it. Relish the realism.

With the resurgence of the usage of low-powered tube-amps in certain circles, it's now become relatively easy to find high-efficiency speaker-systems. Unfortunately, however, just as with the more popular mainstream systems, many of these H-E systems are are similarly bereft of lower-midrange competence.

For reasons articulated in other articles on this site, the lower-midrange & dynamism have long been 'The Lost Frontiers'. The absolute importance of these 'frontiers' has also been stressed. And since high/efficiency seems to be making a comeback, of sorts, then the lower-midrange may well be regarded as; 'The Last Frontier', in the quest for sonic realism.  High-efficiency/dynamism AND lower-midrange competence is an extremely rare combination of attributes in speakers today. But for the ultimate in truly lifelike realism, this combination is ABSOLUTELY INDISPENSIBLE.  

Of course, all I've said, and will say, may well be totally disregarded by those who're only interested in satisfying their various tastes and preferences, in audio-reproduction.  No problem; that fact is totally respected here. But this article, this site, is not aimed at those (though all are welcome) it's aimed at the audiophile who seeks the ultimate in sonic-realism (and at 'reasonable' cost too).

Realism cannot be anything but ABSOLUTE! There can only be ONE STANDARD!  Tastes and preferences are virtually IRRELEVANT as realism cannot be adjusted to one's tastes. Nobody goes to a live concert with the option of dictating how they want the instruments to sound - more treble than natural here, or more 'air' there, more mid/upper-mid detail than natural, much-less-than-natural lower-mids 'warmth' (and detail, inevitably) more acute stereophonic imaging/sound-staging, etc. (all of which constitute the current trend in the mainstream of audio's high-end). In reality, one's only option for choice, at a musical concert, is that of one's own seating-position (near-field, far-field, etc.) and, consequently, one's perception of the sound from that position.

Likewise, several of the truly realistic speakers available, differ in their presentation in that regard (near-field or far-field, etc. - Audio-Notes are said to have been tuned for a 'far-field' presentation, for example) and just as in nature, this is the only choice that needs to be made by those in search of realism. (My only addition to that, is that those with small listening-rooms should, perhaps, opt for a system with separate adjustable sub-woofers since an all-in-one 'un-adjustable' system, with truly potent bass, may overpower a small room).

As alluded to earlier, all the 'whys' and 'wherefores' regarding my stance on speakers (among other things) have been articulated in other WAJ on AUDIO articles. Therefore, the final point I'll make before listing some of those 'difficult to find' speaker-systems is that; size really does matter. Forget about mini-monitors and systems derived there-from, or sonically influenced there-by. A system which is truly realistic WILL be BIG - there's no way around it. Some disguise their portliness, while others flaunt it. If realism is what you seek then, by any means necessary, convince your 'better-half' of the absolute necessity of having a pair, or two, of monolithic monstrosities in the home as your heart-felt and crucial contribution to the furtherance of 'world-peace', seismic-research, ecological-preservation, or whatever sincere and impassioned (lame) excuse you may come up with. Include it  as a stipulation in a pre-nuptial agreement, if needs be. It's that important.

THE "A" LIST - Some of the Speakers Which Approach or Attain* the 'ULTIMATE' in Realism: In so far as those 'difficult-to-find' speakers are concerned: Virtually any Tannoy from the 'Prestige' line would be viable, though I'd tend to prefer those at, or near, the top of the line. (Here are links to the reviews of two examples; Westminster Royal*, and Churchill). Legacy Whispers could be investigated. (A review of the Whispers is here, incorporating another rare view - from one of 'the precious few' - on the lack of the lower-mids, and dynamism, in most modern speakers). Page 6 of a recently discovered review of the $43k Legacy Helix is linked here, highlighting; 'What a Huge Speaker Brings to the Party'. (Note that the Helix, and the Whisper, utilize more cone-surface area, for the lower-mids, than virtually all other modern 'state of the art' cone-driven contenders. There are very few exceptions. However, you don't need to spend $43k, or more, for 'huge' (lower-midrange) cone-surface area, and the benefits there-of: The $4k-odd Klipschorn could also be utilized, if its middle/upper-midrange horn-characteristics prove tolerable - substitution of the mid/treble horns, for other horn-types, could also alleviate these concerns. And though I believe it's bettered by one or two others in lower-midrange tonality, it's much better than most current designs in that region, and STILL one of the handful of THE MOST realistic reproducers of sound ever made - devastatingly dynamic and ludicrously lifelike. The Klipschorn is totally awesome - Westminster too. I haven't heard the Helix, but if it's even only on par with the Whisper, then it's a force to contend with since the Whisper, itself, is no pretender.

In the process of writing an article commenting on the re-introduction of the venerable Altec-Lansing A7, I realized that I'd omitted to mention this outstanding $12k speaker in a previous piece - of relevance - a glaring omission. No list such as this could be complete without inclusion of the iconic A7 'Voice of the Theatre'.`Simple mods unleash the awesome 'world-beating' potential of this, already awesome, speaker-system. The similarly priced  Edgarhorn Titan*, along with its 'Seismic' sub, unlike the older Klipsch and Altec designs, need no modifications to be classified amongst THE very best in the world today, and truly representative of the current state of the art. Famed publisher/designer, Jean Hiraga's  limited-edition JH-MS15* (costing less than 25-grand) is reputedly another world-class contender, tested under non-optimal conditions in this review, but note the description of its sonic advantage (and that of others like it - in lower-midrange realism) over today's small-coned designs, at page 2. (However, being familiar with its predecessor; the standard Altec 604 Monitor, and also with the Altec A7/A5, I believe a DIY version of Hiraga San's previously mod'ed A5* may be a slightly better prospect, sonically, if not aesthetically - especially if super-tweeters and appropriately dynamic sub-woofers are added - such a system could be counted amongst the very best, ever, in my opinion).

The Yamamoto YS 500, at a cost of less than $10,000, is also relevant, along with the YS 604 and YS 605. This list is, by no means comprehensive (meant more as a pointer in the general direction of the types that offer truly realistic reproduction) but others that could be looked into are; the $22k Aspara*, the $9,000 Sound Quest H-15, Volti Audio's Vittora, at around $12k, and the Zingali HM-215 at $27k. (Other less costly Zingalis such as; the HM-212 and HM-115, also meet the criteria). The active Martion Orgon*, like the Westminster and Helix, broaches the limit of our 'affordable' criterion at a cost of $40k (oops!... seems more like 50-grand, I'm told) although, in this case, the required amps are included in that price, if I'm not mistaken. Obviously, and presumably understandably, however, I'm disinclined to include many more at this elevated price-level. And at a cost somewhere below $20k today, the 93db/w/m, Escalante Fremont* is actually slightly below the efficiency-threshold of this listing but it's included nonetheless. A glance at virtually any review of this outstanding speaker will result in a hint at the reason why. Kochel's K300 is also relevant. WHT's PR4 would be too, except that I also believe it's over-priced, compared to others that are as good or better - the Kochel, for instance, which offers a similar 'scoop'-type horn and similar performance at a fraction of the price (or the Lenard Opal which offers much more at the same price).

['Affordable' speakers (within reach of ordinary audiophiles) may also be had from some of the 'elite' manufacturers of excellent ultra-high-priced speaker-systems such as: Acapella, Westlake, Sunny Cables, Avantgarde, and several others. But be also cognizant of the fact that these lesser-priced models are generally not up the 'ultimate' standard of their top-of-the-line siblings, and of the others advocated here which are; either already at that standard, or easily 'modifiable' to that 'ultimate' standard, in most cases. Therefore, if the ultimate in speaker-performance at a reasonable cost is the stated requirement then, generally speaking, 'affordable' models from these lines could hardly be recommended as such, though undeniably good - again; generally speaking.] 

And the list continues:

One of the original trail-blazers in speaker-manufacture, Vitavox HiFi, is currently charting a course for a return to the fore, I would assume. One well respected system suitable for the home was its Klipschorn clone dubbed; System 191* , employing better quality components than those of its progenitor. Whether it's returned to full production remains to be seen. (But DIY, with new components, must certainly be an option facilitated by the company). Be assured; Vitavox is unquestionably counted among the greats.

[Incidentally, the more modern Martion Orgon above is also a Klipschorn-clone, basically, employing an 18" woofer, or so I've been told (similar to an Electro-Voice Patrician of olde). Another testament to the quality of the old Klipsch design, I believe, and also proof of the level of performance a DIYer, or a hired custom-builder, could achieve with this old design and with other old designs from the classics; Altec, JBL, Karlson, Electro-Voice, etc. (hint...hint...).

The Martion was also voted TNT-Audio's 'Best Sound at Show', Munich 2010, for commercially available products. However, TNT's choice for best sound overall, at the same show, was that of an old and ancient relic (hint...hint...hint...) - see one of the forementioned links here - re; Western-Electric - for more on that. (Other mags indicated similar sentiments. However, comment from the main mainstream mags are conspicuously absent, for obvious reasons). The modern Martion Orgon's lesser accolade is also mentioned at page 3 of that report.

Apparently, the old designs of both the ancient Western-Electric* relic, and Martion's modern replica of another ancient relic (employing such traditional technologies & materials as; large paper cones and large wooden enclosures) reproduced vastly more realistic sounds than ALL the modern conventional speakers (with their 'highly-researched, technologically-advanced, ultra-expensive materials', and their physics-defying - 'small-cones-in-small-boxes' - methodologies) at this particular show. Interesting!

Of course this could only be a freakish coincidence; that two old-fashioned speakers could be rated as supplying the best, and second-best, sound at a modern expo of cutting-edge audio-gear. A bone-fide unmodified ancient relic, and a modified version of another relic, both DUSTED the cream of the crap...sorry...crop of contemptibl...pardon me...contemporary high-priced high-end speakers from the top-tier. This must most certainly be a fluke, with no reasonable explanation for such happenstance.

Could there really be any other instances of such atrocities; of even one old relic being adjudged 'good', let alone; 'better' than the typical modern conventional state of the art ultra-expensive monolith - the beneficiary of modern space-age research, technology, and materials? Surely not. Ridiculous! (Don't forget those other links near the end of this page, though).]

Nevertheless, let's move on with our 'A' List:

I'm not certain whether the Exemplar horn speaker-system is offered for sale (again) to the general public. Reportedly, after its demise coinciding with that of the original Altec-Lansing company, it had been made available (again) early in the last decade, motivated by the re-supply of 'Altec' components from the then emerging Great-Plains Audio speaker-components manufacturer. 6moons webzine promised a review scheduled for the spring of 2005, but I haven't seen it in their archives, nor am I sure this promising speaker is actually still available after re-surfacing. But based on the obvious talents of it's designers (John Tucker & Jeff Markwart of Exemplar Audio) and also based on the fact that it's equipped with some of the very best drivers of their types (Altecs - especially the 515 mid/woofer) I'd suggest that it absolutely does demand attention. It'd be a real shame if audiophiles were not offered a real opportunity to own it, whether thru purchase of complete units, full-fledged kits, or basic design-plans. (Click here to download the Sound Practices magazine article describing; The Exemplar Project).   

Now here's the real shocker: The likes of a used Altec Model 19, or a JBL S3100*, would also be outstanding, and seriously competitive (within the same 'ballpark',  at least) with those above, and others that cost upwards of a hundred grand, BELIEVE IT, OR NOT, especially if they (the 19, in particular) are just slightly modified. Furthermore, adding sub-woofers to these would almost be unfair. Yet their 'used-prices' are somewhere around $2k and $5k respectively. Hopefully this makes the point that one does not really need to spend big bucks for the big, true-to-life, dynamic, and realistic performance that all the above are capable of. Note that those with an asterix* represent the best of the best, in my view.

The AudioKinesis line could also be looked at. Their Planetarium Beta, with SWARM subs, seem interesting. Though I've never heard them, several on-line chats I had with the designer revealed an effort to be striving for the goals of dynamism and lower-midrange competence, among other things. And mini-reviews seem to confirm the accomplishment of these goals, at least, to some degree. They, perhaps, warrant investigation.

And though I believe the competent and prudent DIYer can, and does, outclass some of the best above while spending around 2 to 3-grand, or even less, those who prefer new 'turn-key' examples at such lower price levels could perhaps investigate those such as the 'baby' Audio-Note, and Edgarhorn's Slimline. (The later two are the only ones not among our 'A'-List, in this segment, obviously - cited only for examples). Nevertheless, I do believe that, while dynamic, the latter two, with their small mid-woofers, and also virtually all of the single-drivered 'full-range' genre (utilizing small-coned Fostex drivers, etc.) are somewhat compromised at the all-important lower-mids - not to mention the single-drivers' inevitable colorations - though, I believe, there are exceptions.

O.K., maybe I should explain 'exceptions', and also expand on the reason I believe the typical 'single-driver' system may be somewhat compromised, overall, despite certain specific advantages. So allow me to go off on a tangent for a moment:

Requirements for REALISM: Of all the different types of speaker-systems available to audiophiles, I believe the most realistic, overall, are those that are; (a) very dynamic (by way of being  highly efficient - above 95db/1w/1m - most popular speaker-systems are not), and (b) tonally accurate, overall (and specifically; capable of replicating the lower-midrange robustness of live acoustic instruments - again; most popular small-coned speaker-systems cannot). In addition, they should also be (c) competent at detail-resolution (many conventional small-coned speakers are excellent, in this regard, at middle-mid to high frequencies, while they fail at the two more important points). There's also a 'point (d)' but we'll get to that.

Of those in our 'A' List, above - i.e. those I've unreservedly recommended so far (with which I have a familiarity; either as complete systems, or with the capabilities of the drivers used) from the Tannoys thru to that JBL S3100, and to all those I'd add the AudioKinesis Planetarium Beta/SWARM - all meet the crucial criteria. All are highly efficient, facilitating realistic dynamism. All utilize large mid-woofers (or multiples of smaller ones) facilitating realistically robust tone, where necessary. And, consequently, virtually all have received, and continue to receive, critical acclaim because of...you guessed it...their life-like realism.

To reiterate, regarding the 'crucial criteria'; it's no coincidence that, in achieving this realism, ALL these critically-acclaimed speaker-systems utilize; (i) relatively large enclosures assisting in reproducing realistic lower-mids from mid-woofers operating down to 200hz, at least (ii) they also utilize highly efficient drivers, with (iii) huge cone-surface area (mid-woofers of 12 inches in diameter at least, 15" or double-12"s are ideal, but those, like some Altecs & Western-Electrics, designed with particular regard to lower-mids prowess have a distinct advantage - a heightened sense of realism, so to speak - see the above-linked Altec A7 article, and others here, for a little more on that). Multiple small-coned drivers are also viable only if imbued with lower-mids prowess - most are not. These highlighted features - (i) (ii) and (iii) - are critical in the quest for truly realistic sound reproduction, in my experience. Additionally those speakers which employ neutral-sounding horns, at least for the mid to high frequencies, also seem to display a distinct advantage in the attainment of realistic reproduction, in my recent experience (this; from one who spent a life-time eschewing horns, until recently - more on that at a later date). If realism is your goal, then note the foregoing points, especially; i, ii, & iii, very carefully.

These speakers do have their strengths and definite weaknesses, as do ALL speaker-systems but, unlike virtually all other speaker-types, it is important to note that all their strengths are exactly the strengths critical to the achievement of overall sonic realism (it's no accident - this was the goal set by those great minds eons ago, in the design of the original concept) and note, also, that their weaknesses are of significantly less importance in this scenario. Such speaker-systems (ie; highly efficient large-coned direct-radiators, horns, and horn/direct-radiator hybrids) constitute the 'A-List' in the quest for realism. The evidence is indisputable!

The 'Crossover-Less' Single-Driver Challenge:  So now, in approaching the crossover-less 'single-driver', and 'point (d)', as both are related in this example, allow me to relate my personal experience, even as I reveal that 'point (d)' relates to 'timing' - though I never described it as such in a previous account of my DIY speaker-build and, specifically, my encounter with crossover-less design (as employed by all single-driver systems). Here's what I said: 

A recent experiment seeking the benefits of crossover-less design has yielded extra-ordinary results. The little white-coned Yamaha (NS10) that operates as one of the mid-woofers in each channel was divested of its crossover network, and because of this, believe it or not, the sound of the whole system has improved – throughout the whole spectrum, excepting deep bass and treble (the Altec tweeter was already 'x-overless' with only a capacitor limiting lower frequencies).

What most manufacturers, and many in the press, will not tell you is that despite some benefits, ALL passive crossover networks diminish detail, dull transients, obscure clarity, add distortion, and strangle dynamics to varying degrees. I may elaborate in another article, but suffice it to say that all the claims made for crossover-less designs are now proven to be true – for me, at least.........This simple operation has taken the system's performance to another level. The gains in transient-response, dynamics, and overall clarity and detail, are truly exceptional

What I'd omitted to put my finger on, in that account, is that all the gains articulated - in the last sentence of that account -  they all amount to a perception of vastly improved 'timing'. That crossover-less NS10 driver in my particular system is, in essence, the 'time-keeper' of the whole speaker-system.

And this is what all crossover-less 'single-driver' speaker-systems do - better than all other systems which use passive crossovers thru-out the spectrum - impeccable timing! All are truly exceptional, in that regard. Though all the speakers advocated here have it to some degree, especially and outstandingly so when actively driven, 'crossover less' full-range drivers are the 'PRaT-meisters', without doubt, generally speaking.

The major problem I have with most of them, though, is that most use small cones (5 to 8 inches in diameter) - and this is manifest in the sound they produce - evident in a diminution of the 'size', the scale, of the instruments reproduced, compared to the live experience. Similar to small-coned conventional speaker-systems, the high-efficiency small-coned single-driver system, though dynamic, cannot reproduce the full-toned realism of actual instruments - certainly not to the degree that others can. Though I believe that, in relative terms, their typically large enclosures, and oft-utilized horn-loading, do give some of them an advantage, in this regard, over conventional small-coned, mini-monitor based, designs. Some of these are very interesting, however: For example;  the small front-horn-loaded Lowther driver of the Oris 150 horn, incorporated into the design of Welbourne Labs' (Moondog Audio) Maya Horn. 

And there's even more promise of things to come: At least one or two companies lead a movement, within the single-driver community, where larger 10" to 12" full-range drivers are being utilized, crossover-less, and augmented with super-tweeters and sub-woofers, in some cases. And though I haven't yet heard any of those, I sincerely believe that they're ripe with the potential for more realism than the typical small-coned H-E 'single-driver'. (For instance, the Ocellia Calliope 30, with a 12" Phy-HP driver, even without a tweeter, could be interesting). Whether they can be as realistic as the 'Titanic' Edgarhorns and Altecs of this world is another matter, but the fact of their existence is encouraging, in my opinion.

These don't make our 'A-List', but if  one is seeking 'new' full-range speakers at 'very-reasonable' prices I strongly recommend that Tekton Design be looked into, along with others of course. Here's a related thread at Audiogon.

Furthermore, in regards to those that utilize multiple 10 or 12 inchers, I see these as having serious potential in challenging the ubiquitous 'theatre-horn/horn-reflex' paradigm for the championship, in the stakes for overall sonic realism (though their inherent colorations continue to be a concern).

In that light, perhaps other speakers like those from Zu Audio could also be looked into. In expanding on point (d) I refer you to the linked 6moons review of the $5k Zu Essence. And I'll paraphrase a few segments of the last page of that review here:

First let me point out that the Essence is equiped with a 10.3" 'full-range' driver augmented by a super-tweeter (other models sport 2 and 3 crossover-less 'full-range' drivers, likewise so augmented, and sub-woofed to boot). In comparing this to the Blumenhofer Big Fun 20 speaker-system, the writer tells us that while the Essence injects warmth into the picture, this 'warmth' doesn't derive from time-based compromises. Therefore it does not undermine the rhythmic boogie factor. Blumenhofer's 3rd-order x-over networks inject an audible blur by comparison. It dulls transients, washes out transitions and, most importantly, compromises momentum. The transient fidelity of the Essence is far more truthful. The other speaker (with its x-over) is irreparably flawed no matter what else it might do brilliantly. This is, in essence (no pun intended) exactly my experience with my own crossover-less endeavours. But the writer goes further to bolster, inadvertently, other points I've made in other articles, previously, and relevant to this one.

He goes on to tell us that transmission of the recorded energy is key and deliverance rides on pure timing and heft (or tonal weight). The Essence achieves both. While more 'modern' leaner designs focus on greater apparent detail retrieval, Zu's focus is (also?) on rhythm, coherence and (tonal) mass. He feels that those too  are ingredients vital to the 'hi' in hi-fidelity - but often neglected. He relates that these (rhythm/timing, coherence and tonal mass) are innate qualities of the recorded event but that audiophiles, invoking 'detail-resolution', never refer to these details. Anyone who has read WAJ on AUDIO extensively will certainly recognize a familiar, though uncommon, theme here.

And the same goes for the next segment: He suggests that; If you wonder what makes live sound obvious from behind a barely cracked-open window where soundstaging, timbre, separation and even frequency response are skewed, you'll likely find that it's timing, dynamics and tone density which stimulate our recognition of the real 'live' sound. He opines that if this is so then those particular aspects of the playback performance are of more importance than the rest that fill audiophile check lists (presumably; 'detail-resolution', stereophonic imagery, and 'air', etc.). This gets us to an inevitable and sobering conclusion: the Zu Essence (and, obviously, others similarly adept at dynamics, tone-density and timing) gets right what many far more expensive speakers fail to even consider. 

Well said 6moons! Refer to the conclusion of my article entitled; 'From HiFi to High-End; What's Wrong?', there you'll find remarkably similar sentiments to those expressed in this particular segment. (Bye the way, it's so rare to find corroboration of items of the evidence which shape my own uncommon views that I feel compelled to highlight them, whenever  I discover them - forgive me).

Costs, and other, Considerations: For the ultimate in lifelike realism, in the context of the existing state of the art, $100k+ speakers are entirely un-necessary, in my view, though some are quite admirable. But most of these conventional speakers, despite excellence in other aspects, cannot begin to approach the afore-mentioned 'A-List' inductees in the stakes for life-like realism. 

But even among the realistic high-efficiency types we do advocate, and with all due respect to the likes of Avantgarde and Magico, super-expensive horns are not necessary, either, since others which cost much less are as good, or very nearly so. Furthermore, a few others, including relatively inexpensive DIY and modified examples, could quite possibly have them for lunch.

For instance, the $36k Westminster is a 'world-class' contender, so is the Helix at its similar price. But even the Helix's designer will tell you that the Whisper, at half the price, is just as good. More to the point, the $12k Titan challenges for position as the very best in the world today (In other words; the Edgarhorn Titan/Siesmic, at a total around $20k, is absolutely comparable with the MOST expensive - even at its 'modest' price). Yet, even more cost-effective courses can be charted along the 'used', 'custom-built', or 'DIY' routes (see below).

[Incidentally, Avantgarde Duo's original small bass-bin is reputedly questionable. And the very good alternative Basshorns may be ...ah...somewhat elevated in price (somewhere around 30-grand, I believe). But something like a Klipschorn bass-bin or, at around the same low price of a new Klipsch, the very outstanding Edgarhorn Seismic sub, may be more cost-effective options for use with the Duo's excellent horns, a la Martion. But then, why not just get the, excellent, complete Edgarhorn system for less? See the point? Excuse my omission of the Trio, in part, since many contend that the less expensive Duo is more coherent]

As I indicated, there are others which fit all the criteria of those in our 'A-List'. (An absolutely comprehensive list would have been daunting, and pretty-near impossible, not to mention un-necessary since the template, though self-evident, is also expressly stipulated - re; points a, b, c, & d, and also i, ii, & iii). And there are also other excellent examples which are deliberately not included because of their extremely-high prices.

Speaking of which; even though Sunny Cable Technology's horn/direct-radiator hybrids are expensive, I'll refer you to the StereoTimes reviews of the HW15S* and HW18S* mainly to give a sense, from another perspective, of how ridiculously superior a well-tuned horn system can be over virtually any other speaker-type - even as the, previously, 'anti-horn' reviewers compare them to some of the very best conventional speaker-systems in their collective experience. [Relevant comments are here.]

O.K., so now...(after that 'horny' escapade)... returning to the topics of costs, surface-area, etc., etc; some may argue that panel-driven speakers do have the huge surface-area necessary for lower-midrange realism. But the fact is, also, that most are not very efficient and, consequently, not very dynamic, among other things - a pity. (Hopefully, the technology which drives a 100db/1w/1m $100k Apogee Acoustic Definitive Ribbon panel-system will, some day, trickle-down to more sane price-levels).

All are encouraged to read all the linked reviews. If, for example, you agree with the reviewers that the full-toned sound of the Tannoys is 'right' in their depiction of the COMPLETE NOTES of musical instruments, and with regard to sonic realism in general, then the thin-midranged sound of MOST popular speakers must be WRONG. There CANNOT be two standards, or types of sound, for REALISM.

Other capable 'off-the-shelf' options are very few. Unfortunately, some which are somewhat capable at, lower-mids, are also deficient in efficiency/dynamism. And many which are highly efficient/dynamic also lack realistic lower midrange capability. This causes the list of viable candidates to be even further limited. Nevertheless, these next few are included for the reviews (only) highlighting the benefits of unusually 'competent' lower-midrange performance: The Osborn Grand Monument is, perhaps, unique in its reported lower-midrange capability, considering the size of its (8") mid/woofer. It, perhaps, poignantly illustrates the importance of purpose-designing the driver for this capability, over driver-size or quantity, though these are also very important factors, in addition to the particular driver's enclosure-volume, and the overall tonal balance shaped by the x-over network. The Gershman Black-Swan (and TAD-1) review is also relevant, and is, perhaps, evidence of the influence of the x-over more than that of the drivers themselves, in the case of the Swans. (Note; the original TAD-1 uses an 8" dedicated lower-midrange driver specially designed for the purpose. The Swan uses a 6" midrange unit - x-over point uncertain). The WLM Gran Viola Signature is also interesting.

It's important to note that the level of competence and, therefore, realism at the lower-mids varies with the different models, as you would imagine. A reviewer's praise of a speaker's performance, in that region, does not automatically imply competence to the level of  'lifelike'-realism, unless specifically stated (as is the case in the reviews of the Tannoys, for example) and even that serves only as a guide until you listen for yourself in a comparison with at least one live instrument - an acoustic guitar or piano would be advisable. [For instance, I would imagine that the Osborn would be similar, at lower-mids, to my former Spendor BC1, which also shared a similar reputation for 'state of the art' excellence, overall, in addition to above-average performance in the lower-midrange (and a similar sized, purpose-designed, 8" driver). And, yes, the BC1 was/is better than most in that regard. But, so far as I'm concerned (despite its 'state of the art' reputation, at the time, and its similarly highly-regarded status even today, and especially despite its reputed 'prowess' at the lower-mids) it was/is still woefully inadequate, even in this region, in replicating the realism of the live acoustic band next-door to my home - the acid-test. I suspect the situation is similar with the Osborns and others using single, or even doubled, small-coned drivers for lower-mids]. Of those I've heard, the large-diameter Tannoys and Altecs above, and the (doubled 12") KLHs below, are perhaps the best and most lifelike in realism, at the lower-midrange. 

Have it Custom-Built, DIY, or Buy it 'Used'; The Cost-Effective Options + An Experiment:  For experimentation purposes, only (to properly demonstrate the active/passive pre-amp differences, or just the general merits of first-rate lower-mids performance, for instance) a cheap option would be post-Kloss KLH models; 7500, AV4000(1) or 1203D. Two pairs on e-bay should cost only around $100 in total. (Matching the models is not necessary for this demo since all three are very similar - the light 12" driver is their most critical asset, though the cheap x-over also does help to shape the response. The overall tonal balance is remarkably similar to that of live un-amplified instruments).

Double-stacked, and with no mods whatsoever, these are ridiculously superior to most popular (mini-monitor based) modern 'state of the art' designs, at the lower-mids (only) and will definitively, if not dramatically, demonstrate all the differences and benefits of truly superior and exemplary performance in this region, provided all other components in the chain are similarly capable. (This exercise would be wasted on a permanently 'pre-amp less'/passive system, for instance, or one in which the amp similarly eradicates the lower-mids. With these, the KLH's response will be just as thin as with the vast majority of other 'neutral' speakers. But with capable amps, and a good active pre, all the lower-midrange body and detail are unleashed - realism is exponentially liberated).

However, for those who'd want to keep them after this experiment; for top-tier performance in all other regions (treble, middle-midrange, mid-bass, and deep-bass) they would have to be very extensively modified and augmented with sub-woofers. As a starting point (after discarding the KLHs' tweeters, but leaving the high-mid drivers operational, to begin with) mini-monitors - one per side - which must be absolutely excellent in the following regions could simply be used 'nearly full-range' in parallel (or series/parallel) to improve the middle-mids (the mini-monitors' better definition should, 'ideally' but only very-slightly, dominate the KLH's reticent output, here) and mid-bass (KLH is soft at the leading edges, here, assistance from a mini-monitor which also has outstanding abilities in mid-bass transients, and tone, is absolutely critical). This is similar, in principle, to the WilsonX1 / X2's method of operation, as I've discovered subsequent to my own accidental arrival at this uncommon 'modus-operandi' (as illustrated in another article here).

In this paradigm, however, the KLH's original overall (full) tonal balance must be basically maintained. Their full lower-mids must be allowed to flourish (not over-shadowed by the mini-monitor) as this is the feature which affords their uncanny resemblance to the tones and overtones, etc., of live acoustic instruments - this point is extremely important. [Unlike the situation with the outstanding X2/MAXX where-in the doubled mini-monitors literally dominate, combined with larger drivers which are, perhaps, not pre-disposed to outstanding lower-mids performance (a common feature amongst the majority, even some of the most expensive, of drivers) presenting the leaner, 'neutral', more analytical midrange - so loved by their many fans. Note; no comparison of two types of sound is being made here. And my own preference is irrelevant, in the current context.]

The mini-monitors' tweeters will also need to be augmented, or upgraded, to compensate for the increased efficiency/dynamism of each tower (see elsewhere on this site for ideas on DIY speakers incorporating similar mods). The ultimate quality of the mod will depend on the quality of the mini-monitor (most are strong at mid-mids, but it must also be strong, tight and accurate at mid-bass, for example) and on the skill of the modifier. Electronic measurements will, ideally, show the 'monitors' and KLHs to complement/compensate each other in their areas of strengths/weaknesses, but the final 'measuring-stick' should be live music - they'll pass with flying colors, if properly mod'ed, I'm confident.

You may also want to discard those cheap original enclosures for more exotic types reflecting the level of performance, and enhancing the W.A.F. But be careful; those cheap enclosures are a part of the reason for the speakers' unique performance, I believe - I'd dread the prospect of changing them, myself, since I care more about the sound than the look. Further mods to cabs, crossover components, etc., may be implemented, as time permits - yes, more work to be done, and money to be spent - it's called 'fine-tuning', as I'm sure you know.

Nevertheless, the effort would be worth it, absolutely - especially for that realistic lower-midrange body and detail  which cannot be obtained from the vast majority of even the most expensive of popular (mini-monitor derived, or unduly-influenced) speaker-systems. Main advantages compared to most others; (a) dynamism (b) the 'Big' sound/tonality of live acoustic instruments, with all their lower-midrange tones, resonances, etc., and (c) low-level lower-midrange details - instruments deep in the mix, the fade of notes, etc,. - which most speakers ignore.

And to think this could all begin with just a hundred-bucks for four - hard to believe, I'm sure. OK, it's true, you'll ultimately have to spend a whole lot more. But it all begins with just a hundred-bucks for four.

This DIY project/mod, if properly executed, provides the best of both worlds - the strengths of an excellent small mini-monitor, combined with the strengths of a large Tannoy (sub-woofed, to boot) and, arguably, surpasses both, in totality (excluding, of course, the Tannoy's point-source capability). In tonality, detail, definition, musicality, dynamism, and sheer realism, this combo has eaten conventional 'state of the art' contenders (including one I'd also owned thru many years) for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. Unlike the vast majority of those, and when tested against the real thing; this thing actually sounds like real live music - believe it, or not

Alternatively, Tannoys may be expensive, but one could purchase the drivers (15"ers are preferable - try e-bay) and have the enclosures built to one of Tannoy's 'Prestige' specifications (plans are available on the 'net). Don't scrimp on the size though - the bigger, the better - trust me, on that. In my opinion, the bass-reflex cabs are OK, but I'd aim for one of the best available (and complicated) folded-horn designs such as; the rectangular G.R.F. or, preferably; the old Westminster. 

In fact, I believe that instead of seeking new components of compromised quality, for their 'reasonable' prices, it's better to buy used top-quality gear, or to build (or to have custom-built) one's own equipment, with a view to achieving the very ultimate in quality - at reasonable cost. (Here's a link, to the thread of a discussion, along similar lines - except that our advocacy is not strictly confined to horns, though un-avoidably biased in that direction, based on merit). Design-plans for Tannoys, Altecs, E-Vs, Klipsch, Vitavox, Onkens, Jensens, JBLs, and other similar stalwarts, are all over the 'net. Any of the best of these, modified to today's standards will be at, or close to, the actual state of the art in sound reproduction and, therefore, vastly superior to most mainstream offerings!

In a proper demonstration with a fully capable system similar to any 'A-listed' above, the difference in realism between these and the more popular types will be blatantly obvious. 

Which would you prefer?

Closing Arguments:  Do not be misled by all the hype. The ultimate in realism is not (and cannot be) supplied by those slender, floor-to-ceiling, small-coned pretenders costing north of a hundred grand. Because of their small cones and small/slender sub-enclosures they excel at; middle-mid to high-frequency detail, and also at pin-point sound-staging. But, also because of those small cones and sub-enclosures operating down to below 200hz, they suffer a debilitating handicap in regards to the main goal of 'high-fidelity'; realistic sound-reproduction. Their inherent lack of efficiency, and their inherent lack of adequate cone-surface area, combine for a crippling-effect when it comes to replicating the dynamism and robust lower-midrange tonalities of live music. And this is why their builders, and friends in the mainstream audio-press, have long deceptively touted detail-resolution and soundstaging as THE most desirable aspects of sound reproduction - 'realism be damned', is the implicit stance.

For those who agree with this view, then these speakers are truly among the best in existence - go for it. Oh yes, I sincerely believe that they're among the very best at the things they do well, especially at acute imaging - nothing else can touch them in pin-point stereophonics. Absolutely. (Whether such acute imaging is representative of the reality - at a live concert, for instance - is another matter). But for others who seek the ultimate in realistic audio-reproduction, overall - the essence of 'high-fidelity' - such speakers are dismally incapable of approaching the ultimate standard, set eons ago by relics which still demonstrate their superiority today.

In truth, they're really not much more than fashion-statements; conceived and designed with convenience and aesthetics as their utmost priorities. And within those constraints, they push the limits of the only sonic attributes available to them, considering their handicaps; detail-resolution and stereophonics. That's it. I really cannot make it any clearer than that. Overall sonic-realism is/was never high on the priority-list in the design-studios of those who fathered this concept, nor of many who continue to endure with it. Yet they persist in embellishing a flawed concept with 'expensive' frills, heralded with deceptive hyperbole, in fooling the public into thinking these frills actually enhance overall 'realism'. They do not! 

In regards to overall sonic realism, their builders are too embarrassed to tell you that their glorified sub-woofed mini-monitors have been repeatedly annihilated at disparate high-end audio expos by ancient relics from Altec & W-E,  Vitavox,  Klangfilm, Western-Electric,  and too many others from a bygone era, earning 'Best Sound at Show' endorsements, TODAY, over today's seriously less-capable impostors flattering-to-deceive with their Kryptonite cabs, bullet-proof miniature cones in miniature sub-enclosures, and tweeters which brightly sparkle like diamonds in the rays of a glaring sun - figuratively and literally - visibly and audibly.

Modern greats like the Edgarhorn benefit heavily from (and improve upon) the standards set by these relics - and it costs just around 12-grand (or somewhere around 20, with its sub). Why, then, should we pay ten times that for much less realism, and a whole lotta flippin' hype?

Don't just take my word for it, though. Investigate these allegations.

And, better still, listen for yourself.

Make no mistake; the ultimate speaker-systems are within your reach. The rest is entirely up to you!

Case Closed.

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[P.S. Edit: For the past couple months I'd been caught-up in other endeavors while also enduring a catastrophic computer melt-down. Nevertheless, I apologize for the absence of updates to this site, over that period. And I sincerely apologize to all who were inconvenienced. Thanks for your patience, and for your continued interest  -  WAJ]

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