For the longest time after the advent of the copy machine, Xerox Corp. found itself in the enviable position of having its name becoming a noun and a verb that almost everyone took to be synonymous with the word "copy" itself. You didn't photocopy something in those days, you "Xeroxed" it. An analogous phenomenon occurred in Great Britain with Tannoy. One of the first loudspeaker makers on the continent and a technology leader for more than 75 years, the Scottish firm's name has become a popular British synonym for two words; "loudspeakers" and "hi-fi"—as in, "Let's listen to the Tannoy to catch the BBC's Beatles retrospective."
Another rep Tannoy has incurred by being a technology leader in a land that has long considered plaid the height of fashion, was one of no-frills functional enclosure design. "Just put the incredibly sophisticated works in a standard casing," the designers seemed to say. "It's not a showpiece, love, it's a loudspeaker."
That tradition has been laid to rest permanently with the Tannoy Arena surround-sound system. Looking like svelte versions of passenger-ship deck-venting tubes (sci-fi cyclopean aliens also spring to mind), the castaluminum speakers, especially when mounted on the Twiggy-thin Arena floor stands, would not be at all out of place as sculpture exhibits in any mod- ern art museum. Available in silver, white, black, or bronze, they passed my wife's living-room aesthetics test as soon as I set them up—and that's no small accomplishment, considering that the mistress of the house is a professional, minimalist abstract artist.
Tannoy's Arenas come with ample rolls of zipcord-type speaker cable, but I wanted to use audiophile-grade cables for my listening tests, which proved difficult with the stand-mounted Arena L/R satellites. Why? Because the stands are designed for cables to be run up to the speakers from the inside, but the flared bottoms of the stands offer so little ground clearance that there's not enough room for thick cables to pass through. I jury-rigged a temporary solution for my tests, but I'd like to see Tannoy either equip these stands with taller feet or a relief channel to accommodate beefy speaker wires. Trust me, the Arenas sound good enough that you'll want to use good cables.
It's the Tannoy signature technology behind the Arenas, however, that's being put to the test with the product's introduction. Developed in 1947, Tannoy dual-concentric drivers position a centrally mounted tweeter within the throat of a concentric, ring-shaped midrange or mid-bass driver. The advantages of this design have been proven for nigh on half a century in Tannoy's larger speaker models— there are no "lobing" or time misalignment effects because the two drive units share the same centerlines and fore-and-aft acoustic centers. But Tannoy has never offered this technology in speakers this small—or this affordable—until now. The Arenas, then, are potentially forging a new path that is not without risk for the venerable speaker maker.
Home Theater Atmospherics
A good surround-sound system will provide many subtle sonic cues, especially with atmospheric background, as demanded in the famous scene from Hero [Buena Vista] where the assassin Sky is playing chess in a club courtyard open to the elements. All around the hall raindrops are falling to the stone floor and into small basins. The fight scene that ensues between Hero and Sky is enveloped in an aural tapestry made up of sword clashes, warrior grunts and lunges, the twang of a blind musician plucking a koto, but most of all, the continuing fall of raindrops. The climactic moment when Hero drives forward for the kill is made intense to the point of painful beauty as his sword slices through rivulet after rivulet of falling rain water. The Arenas' soundstaging was deep and wide, and the speakers themselves transparent, during the fight scene. The bass did seem a little under damped, so I moved the powered subwoofer further from my back wall, but that didn't alleviate the slight tendency toward excess midbass richness. On the other frequency extreme, some of the koto player's high notes and the yelps of the fighters as they prepared for their lunges exhibited a bit of edginess on sharp transient attacks—a minor problem I didn't hear when I tried an almost twice as expensive Von Schweikert surround system just prior to evaluating the Arenas.
Hats off to the center-channel speakers. The dialogue of Harry Potter and his friends in The Prisoner of Azkaban [Warner Home Video] achieved a level of voice clarity I hadn't heard since last viewing the film at our local theater. The center channel paired with the subwoofer also shined in the sinister surround-sound atmospherics of Shaun of the Dead [Universal Studios]. I took advantage of the powered subwoofer's "Cinema" setting, which opens up the bass for even more low-frequency effects. In the early scenes, while Shaun is still oblivious to the mounting danger of the walking dead, suspense is built up by the soundtrack's Jaws-like "duh dump" that seems to grow more ominous with each unexpected repetition. The subwoofer didn't achieve the kind of floor rattling effects that I've heard on more expensive systems, which could be because of limited ultra-low bass extension.