This year at RMAF the TAS editorial team tried an experiment where two team members—Neil Gader and I—jointly shared responsibilities for covering one very large product category; namely, loudspeakers priced under $20,000 per pair. Neil sampled speakers exhibited in the Marriott’s Atrium tower, while I focused on speakers shown in the Summit tower. Although “divide and conquer” was the order of the day, I believe Neil and I both paid at least a few visits to exhibitors in one another’s towers, so that there may be some overlap between our reports.
Despite our country’s slow recovery from the great recession, the mood at RMAF was upbeat, energetic, and focused on value as never before, which made the sub-$20k speaker category a hotbed for new developments and ongoing product refinement. To give my report a bit more clarity and focus, I’m going to divide the category into four evenly divided price brackets, and then tell you which models captured my attention in each.
In this price class, which has historically represented the tipping point between high-end sound and ultra high-end sound, I thought three speakers stood head and shoulders above their peers
The Acoustic Zen Crescendo $16,000) is a large (50"-tall), three-way, five-driver, transmission line-loaded loudspeaker that it is on the one hand a true full-range design yet that manages, on the other hand, to offer a delicate, refined, and highly focused—much like a top-tier two-way monitor. In short, the Crescendo seems to track with the scale of the music, sounding “big” only when the music calls for expansiveness and dynamic power.
The Avalon Transcendent ($15,000/pr.) is a two-way, three-driver floorstander that can, in a sense, be viewed as a “baby version” of Avalon’s larger, more costly Time loudspeaker. Where some Avalon models can sound slightly cold or analytical, the Transcendent manages to be at once highly revealing yet also accessible and capable of tapping the natural warmth of live music. Though not a terribly large speaker, the Transcendent offered surprisingly good bass extension, too.
The YG Acoustics Carmel ($18,000/pr.) is a slim, two-way, two-driver floorstanding speaker that can do absolutely astounding things in small-to-mid-size listening rooms like those at RMAF. The Carmel is a near full-range design that, despite its two-driver configuration, played surprising loudly and produced soundstages so wide and deep that RMAF listeners were visibly wowed by what they were hearing. I was struck, as were other attendees, by the Carmel’s ability to retrieve tons of musical information and details, yet to avoid presenting that information in a cold or analytical way. Instead, the Carmels focused on revealing the energy, life and sheer joy of the music at hand.
Two models in this price bracket offered performance that, in my view, came tantalizingly close to the levels achieved by models in the next price bracket up.
Audio Physic is back in the U.S. in a big way, as the new Virgo 25 ($12,500/pr.) so vividly demonstrates. The Virgo 25 is a fairly conventional looking three-way, four-driver floorstander with Audio Physic’s signature side-firing, “push-push” woofers. But as you probe deeper you’ll discover the Virgo is chockfull of fresh thinking (and numerous, strikingly clever design techniques) that all work together toward the goal of decoupling the speaker’s driver units from the speaker enclosure. The aim, of course, is to let you hear the speaker—not the box, and as near as I could tell it really works. As a result, the Virgo 25 offers terrific clarity and purity, with a low, low noise floor.
The Music Culture Technology MC-331 is a four-way, four-driver floorstander that reminds me, in many respects, of a slightly more warmly voiced version of the terrific Electrocompaniet Nordic Tone speaker—but for less than half the price. $10k certainly isn’t chump change, but for this speaker it’s a very good deal—if not an outright bargain.