Although some will debate the accuracy of this statement, I can say with confidence that, of all the types of products needed to complete a stereo system, loudspeakers are the largest determinant of overall sound quality. They are easily the least perfect of components, and therefore account for the widest variances in sound output. This is why those assembling a new system often first choose their speakers, then build the electronics around that very personal choice. I endorse that way of building a sound system.
Translating an electrical signal into sound with no losses or nonlinearities from the original source signal -- in short, designing a loudspeaker -- is supremely complex, and arguably the greatest challenge in high-end audio engineering. But for the average designer, speakers are also the simplest components to get working. You can easily buy good, off-the-shelf drivers, and use commercially available software to guide your crossover design, enclosure volume, and port size. Couple this with contracting out for some good woodworking skills, and you can end up with a competent-sounding, good-looking speaker that you can market to audiophiles.
However, the gulf that exists between a merely competent loudspeaker and those vying for the title of State of the Art is the size of the Grand Canyon. I’ve heard firsthand the differences between the decent and the great, and I can’t overstate the magnitude of those differences. In the list below, I highlight a few of the technical areas in which elite speakers excel.
But before I get to that, here are a few cringe-worthy things I’ve witnessed in my more than 15 years of professional audio reviewing that might make you think twice before laying down big bucks for just any pair of speakers. Regarding one company that touts special wiring within their speakers, I discovered, when replacing a bad driver, that they use the cheapest Monster Cable available. When replacing a bad driver in a speaker from a different company -- a speaker whose drive-units were supposed to be bespoke -- I found Madisound labels under the company’s own labels. (Madisound is a reseller of DIY and OEM drivers.) I’ve also seen drivers that were supposed to be manufactured in-house sitting on display tables at a Consumer Electronics Show, being sold by the OEM that actually makes them. And, perhaps most egregious: I’ve visited several large speaker-making factories that, despite their impressive machine shops and finishing areas, do no acoustical testing of the assembled loudspeaker. None. Nada. Doesn’t happen. Scared yet?
The flip side of the coin is that the very best speakers are made by companies that have multifaceted engineering departments as well as extensive in-house manufacturing capabilities -- all of which can be quite specialized. In tours of these companies, I’ve seen staff engineers who model and prototype raw drive-units; acoustical testing that ensures that what’s coming out of the finished speakers closely matches the company’s reference specifications for that model; and quality-control stations that catch manufacturing drift early, before products are even assembled. This list could go on and on.
My point is that when spending large sums of money on expensive loudspeakers, you can really screw up. If you’ve ever read that, in the most exalted price ranges, there is no “better” or “worse,” only “different,” well, I’m here to tell you that’s simply not true. Some speakers are vastly better than others. You must do your due diligence.
As I’ve done mine -- I’ve racked my brain to come up with this list, mining all of my research data: my coverage of audio shows, my tours of speaker factories, my endless hours of listening in the Music Vault. To my ears and to my wallet, it’s pretty complete. If you desire one of the best speakers available and have deep enough pockets, I hope it helps you.
Here are the expensive loudspeaker models I’d lay down my money for.
Rockport Technologies Atria ($21,500/pair): My starting point is the three-way, three-driver Atria, also one of the best picks for a mid-size room. This speaker is high in resolution, but also has robust bass and beautiful tonality. The cabinet construction doesn’t use exotic materials -- it’s made of MDF -- but it’s rock solid due to its thick walls and designer Andy Payor’s constrained-layer-damping technique. The midrange and woofer have cones made of a carbon-fiber sandwich designed by Payor, and offer articulation that easily matches that of the beryllium tweeter. A compact, killer speaker.
Revel Ultima Salon2 ($21,998/pair): A great choice for a large space, the Ultima Salon2 is a classic loudspeaker in the making. Though it’s now getting a bit long in the tooth, the big Revel can still play with the best of them. It plays loud, low, and clean, and is superbly flat throughout the audioband. Though I would still pick the Atria over the Salon2 for use in a mid-size room, and believe the Atria has better overall cabinet construction, the Salon2 is as solid a recommendation as you could hope for if energizing a large room is your goal.
Magico S5 ($28,600/pair): This is where exotica and first-class engineering meet head on. The S5 has a fully aluminum cabinet made from huge extrusions, the company’s Nano-Tec midrange, a beryllium tweeter, and two slammin’ 10” bass drivers. With the S-series’ more fulsome bass loading, the three-way, four-driver, 190-pound S5 will fit most listeners’ desire for strong bass coupled with excellent resolution. A pair of superspeakers for under 30 bills is a real accomplishment.
TAD Evolution One ($29,800/pair): Containing most of the technology built into TAD’s flagship model, the Reference One, the junior Evolution One will give you a healthy dose of the Reference’s excellent sound. The coincident driver TAD uses is similar in concept to the KEF Uni-Q (years ago, TAD designer Andrew Jones was an engineer at KEF), and, as a result, the Evolution One exhibits very even off-axis dispersion, which means that getting good sound in a real-world room is generally no trouble. A good bet if you’re mail-ordering from out in the sticks.
KEF Blade ($30,000/pair): Although some snooty audiophiles will scoff at the Blade for being too mass-market, they’d be overlooking the huge engineering resources a company of KEF’s size can pour into a flagship loudspeaker. With the most advanced Uni-Q driver the company makes, and four woofers in a unique cabinet design, the Blade will make bold sonic and visual statements in your listening room. Who doesn’t want a pair of these? I’ll take mine in orange.
Rockport Avior ($32,500/pair): The Avior can be thought of as a much larger Atria -- its twin woofers and substantially larger cabinet will allow it to fill bigger rooms with true full-range sound. The fact that you get a hand-tuned speaker and Andy Payor’s fanatical quality control in a 220-pound Rockport model makes this a huge upgrade over something like the Revel Salon2. This is Rockport’s best bang for your buck.
Magico Q3 ($38,950): Although some listeners will prefer the more pronounced bass tuning of Magico’s S5, the Q3 is, hands down, the resolution champ of the two. This speaker’s reproduction of microdetail and articulation throughout the audioband make it a superspeaker in every area except the very deepest bass. If you want to hear more -- and more and more -- this is your speaker.
Vivid Audio Giya G2 ($50,000/pair): Doug Schneider will tell you flat out that the G2 is currently the best loudspeaker in the world. Although I wouldn’t go quite that far, I don't question that the G2 belongs in that conversation. The sound virtually explodes from the speaker -- Laurence Dickie’s drivers have a visceral sound quality that must be heard to be appreciated. Clean and slamming, the G2 is top shelf all the way -- if you can embrace its looks.
Vivid Audio Giya G1 ($68,000/pair): The G1 offers substantially the same sound quality as the G2, with a few more hertz of bass extension. If you want some of the deepest, most physically palpable bass you’ve ever heard, with a sound that’s completely free of the speaker cabinets, look to the G1. Another classic in the making.
TAD Reference One ($78,000/pair): This big-hearted speaker produces a huge, bold sound, accurate yet full, resolving yet easy to listen to. In short, it gets almost everything right. Although I still think that TAD’s Model One (discontinued) was the better overall speaker, there’s not much to fault in the Reference One’s sound. An easy recommendation.
Rockport Technologies Altair II ($97,500/pair): The Altair II ups the ante significantly over Rockport’s Avior -- as it should, at precisely three times the price. But the performance gains you get from replacing an MDF cabinet with a composite one are easy to hear. And with a huge 15” bass driver, a pair of Altairs will easily fill the largest room with sound that’s superb in every way, from deep, articulate bass to soaring highs. One of my desert-island speakers.
Magico Q7 ($185,000/pair): OK, so the Q7 is still the top dog. More than a year after I reviewed it, it’s still the best loudspeaker I’ve ever heard. And when you look at the technology that goes into it, I’m not sure how many competing companies are equipped to challenge its place at the top of the heap anytime soon. With its super-high-sensitivity, neodymium-driven woofers and midrange, NASA-grade aluminum cabinet, and COMSOL-modeled acoustical, thermal, and mechanical design, the list of technical details is off the charts. But it’s the Q7’s sound that sets the standard -- you’ll hear all that’s there in the signal and nothing more. And that is the definition of high fidelity.
If you embark on a journey that leads to a speaker costing over $15,000/pair, you should end up with something very special, and your enjoyment of your music and your pride of ownership should be almost entirely uncompromised. But beware of the pitfalls along this road -- the speakers that have no business being sold for any price, certainly not the five- and six-figure sums some companies are asking. Caveat emptor.
. . . Jeff Fritz