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.
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.