I’ve always believed that high-quality music reproduction should be available to the widest possible range of music lovers, and so I was delighted to learn my CES assignment was to cover loudspeakers priced at $7000/pair and below—a category that encompasses some of the sweetest values in all of high-end audio. In this report, which touches upon some but not all of the fine affordable speakers I heard in Las Vegas, I’ll try to focus on models that not only offered good performance in an analytical sense, but that also demonstrated an ability to engage the listener on a deep emotional level. As always, let me apologize in advance to any manufacturers whose products I fail to mention; there was more to see and hear than one man could possibly cover.
Hailing from Switzerland, the Piega Premium 50.2 ($7000/pair) was a revelation at its price point, and here’s why. First, this elegant and beautifully made floorstander features a 2 ½-way hybrid mix of dual, Scanspeak-sourced mid/bass drivers mated with a proprietary Piega LDR 2642 MkII ribbon tweeter (exotic stuff for a speaker in this price range). Next, the 50.2’s feature extremely stiff enclosures whose baffles and sidewalls are formed from intricate, one-piece aluminum extrusions. But impressive though these highlights are, the real draw is the 50.2’s sound, which is beautifully balanced, highly resolving, and offers a dynamic “jump factor” that is off the charts. I would be hard-pressed to name another speaker in this price range that marries refinement and delicacy with sheer dynamic swagger and expressiveness the way this one does.
The German firm Adam Audio is known for building hybrid loudspeakers that combine Heil-type drivers (typically used as tweeters) and traditional dynamic drivers. The fact is that some Heil-based hybrids have problems with sonic discontinuities, largely because fast transparent Heil drivers can make associated dynamic drivers sound slow and opaque by comparison. Happily, Adam’s new Classic Column Mk3 ($7000/pair) solves this problem by incorporating both Heil-type (“X-ART” drivers, for eXtended-range Accelerated Ribbon Technology) tweeter and midrange drivers. As a consequence, the Classic Column Mk3 produces mids and highs that sound as if they are cut from the same sonic cloth, yielding a speaker that is exceptionally revealing yet satisfyingly coherent.
For many years, John DeVore has made loudspeakers that yield sonic results greater than the sum of their parts, and the DeVore Fidelity Gibbon 88 floorstanders ($5000/pair) are a perfect case in point. The two-way Gibbon 88, which uses a 7-inch “NewGen” mid/bass driver and .75-inch silk dome tweeter, manages to capture the musical whole with levels of sophistication that belie its structural simplicity. After listening to the 88 for a while, I came to feel that it offered an uncanny combination of unforced natural warmth, very good levels of resolution, and stunning 3-D imaging/soundstaging—the latter a quality I consider one of the defining characteristics of DeVore’s best designs.
The British Neat Momentum 4i tower ($4780/pair) is another example of a speaker that is more sophisticated than appearances would initially suggest. At first glance the 4i appears to be a simple two-way design, but in fact it is a 2½-way, four-driver speaker featuring an integral iso-baric subwoofer system based on two concealed 6.5-inch woofers. While your eyes take in a compact (roughly 8.7-inch wide x 41-inch high) tower, your ears drink in a big richly detailed sound that suggests you are in the presence of a much larger speaker. Comments from both Neat and Manley electronics representatives (Manley gear was use to power the Neats), suggest that the speakers take a bit of break-in and fine-tuning to give their best, but the end results more than justify any extra set-up work required.
Dynaudio’s cool new wireless Xeo 5 floorstanders ($4500/pair) are the first loudspeakers created specifically for people who want high-end sound, but hate all the cabling and componentry that are part and parcel of typical high-end audio systems. Accordingly, the Xeo 5’s is a self-powered, wirelessly controlled speaker featuring high-quality fabric dome tweeters, dual mid/bass drivers, DSP-controlled crossovers, and built-in tweeter and woofer amps each rated at 50Wpc. The included 2.4GHz multi-input X12 wireless module is used to select sources and set playback levels. I found the Xeo 5’s sounded much like Dynaudio’s better mid-priced passive floorstanders, but with the benefit that they require no amplifiers, preamplifiers, or speaker cables whatsoever, and can be placed wherever there are AC outlets nearby. Just connect analog and/or digital source components to the wireless transmitter and you’ve got instant high-end audio.