At the 2011 Consumer Electronics Show, in Las Vegas, I wrote a series of articles about what I think are the best loudspeakers in the world, specifically interviewing some of the industry’s most talented designers. The "Jeff Fritz on Super Speakers" section of our CES coverage on SoundStageGlobal.com was quite popular, so I thought it fitting I revisit some of the brands I discussed then. Here are some details of what’s coming soon to your audio dealer -- and perhaps to my review queue.
The newest version of the Tidal Piano Cera ($23,990 USD/pair) should be installed in my listening room by the time this editorial appears. This is a two-and-half-way design (1.2" tweeter atop a 7" mid-woofer and a 7" woofer) from the mind of Jörn Janczak, owner and lead designer of Germany’s Tidal Audio GmbH. Using brand-new, all-black-anodized drivers built by Accuton specifically for Tidal, and a new, graphite-coated version of Accuton’s ceramic tweeter, the Piano Cera looks very promising. What seems to be special about its design is not the drivers, however, but the crossover filters. Yes, Tidal uses expensive Mundorf and Dueland components -- impressive, but other companies use these brands, too. What’s intriguing are the measured results, which I’ll delve into in detail in my review. The Piano Ceras that I heard at the 2010 Rocky Mountain Audio Fest were coherent and transparent in the extreme; I look forward to putting this newest version of the speaker through its paces with my music in my room.
I’ve used Rockport Technologies speakers as my references for the past four years, and have found Andy Payor, Rockport’s owner and chief engineer, to be one of the great minds in high-end audio. My session with a pair of his Altairs in a Rockport listening room in the winter of 2006 was a transcendent moment in my audio journey. So when I heard there was a new model coming that included a heap of Payor’s latest thinking on loudspeaker design, I was anxious to find out more. At this point, I know that the new Rockport Technologies Avior will be priced somewhere around $30,000/pair, and that it’s a four-driver, three-way design that breaks with recent Rockport tradition in featuring all front-firing drivers: two 9" woofers, a 6" midrange, and a 1" tweeter. Look for the Avior to hit the market this summer; here’s hoping a pair will find their way to North Carolina for a full review.
The Magico Q3 is one of the most anticipated loudspeakers of 2011 -- and my personal highlight of CES 2011. Looking like nothing if not a scaled-down version of the company’s highly successful Q5 ($59,950/pair), the five-driver, three-way Q3 costs considerably less ($34,000/pair). But while the Q3 is smaller and less expensive, it doesn’t appear to contain any less cutting-edge technology. Magico’s Nano-Tec woofer and midrange drivers? Check. Magico’s MBe-1 beryllium-dome tweeter? Check. An all-aluminum cabinet machined entirely in-house? Check. Mundorf crossover components? Check. Magico’s fanatical attention to every . . . single . . . detail? Yessiree. Magico has been on quite a roll the past few years, producing some of the finest speaker systems in the world, and the Q3 might well ramp up this success even more. If what I heard and saw during my tour of the Magico factory in March is any indication . . . well, stay tuned.
My latest super-speaker observations
In case you hadn’t noticed, the loudspeaker game has changed. This is nowhere more apparent than in loudspeakers that cost over $20,000/pair. What was considered the state of the art (SOTA) ten years ago isn’t even competitive today. Having big, heavy boxes and moving lots of air with more and more off-the-shelf drive-units no longer cuts the mustard, if your goal is to define what can be accomplished with high-fidelity speakers. The level of engineering horsepower being put into today’s top-level designs is at an all-time high.
That’s not to say that good loudspeakers aren’t commonplace, and that different models from myriad companies might not satisfy their various customer bases. But the best hi-fi speakers -- those that reproduce the input signal as faithfully as is currently possible -- are the result of high-level speaker-development programs carried out by companies putting tons of resources into solving problems that not too many years ago were considered acceptable tradeoffs.
An example of this is the drivers themselves. Although the methods and materials vary -- and the exact goals for each unit is certainly related to the specified crossover slopes and cabinet designs, not to mention company philosophy -- today’s stiffer, stronger, lighter, better-damped woofer and midrange cones are vastly superior to the old paper and polypropylene drivers. When you see companies such as Magico, Vandersteen, and Rockport independently developing drivers that push the first cone-breakup mode way out of the driver’s passband, you can be assured that this wasn’t some empty exercise dreamed up purely for marketing reasons. These companies aren’t collaborators -- in fact, each fiercely competes with the others -- but each has separately concluded that, to push their best speaker designs further, they need to develop drivers that act more pistonically. Buying whatever’s available from Scan-Speak or Vifa or SB Acoustics can yield very good results, but . . . the best results? These companies don’t think so, and from what I’ve heard of their designs, I’m sure they’re right.
There are myriad more examples of how the leading speaker companies are going further than ever before; I’ll get deeper into the subject as these various reviews are concluded. But I can assure that genuinely state-of-the-art loudspeakers are being developed all over the world, and yielding excellent results that audiophiles can easily hear. From what I’ve heard from some of these latest designs, and from what I’ve seen of the work that goes into their development -- wow. I’m excited about the musical truths that I hope will be revealed by the newest crop of SOTA speakers.
. . . Jeff Fritz