Insight

They come in pairs and men love them.

By Jack Lawson · 14th May 2018
A selection of loudspeakers currently in our listening room.

What comes in pairs and are beloved by men? Loudspeakers, of course.

Loudspeakers are the components which most reproduce your music and interact with listener, room acoustics and décor. Unfortunately, most manufacturers pursue the cheapest route to the market. Artisanal manufacturers find their products dismissed by reviewers; made in small numbers, they are hard to find. Internet research is entertaining but often misleading and therefore, counter productive.

Most retailers carry heavily marketed loudspeakers which are profitable; many are boxes with (at best) customised drivers. 99% of customers compare and buy the least worst unless they look further than the High Street brands.

In those days, as now, The Music Room is true to its founding slogan: run by enthusiasts for enthusiasts. Meaning, we sell loudspeakers that we ourselves enjoy at home. We know customers want choice, so we filter more than 90% of what we are offered and try to offer genres in pairs, two options. In the 1980s that choice was boxes and planars; the boxes were west coast v. BBC; the panels were electrostatic, ribbon, and magnetic (Quad, AudioStatic, Martin Logan, Apogee, and Magneplanar to name those we represented over decades rather than years).

Just a small selection of ProAc loudspeakers which we now, as always, are proud to have in our portfolio.

We sold Tannoy and JBL (the choice of professionals), European and West Coast [American] sounds which offer different voicing. But those were the days before corporate meddling; these two companies once had great designers with great components.

Within the genre of BBC sound we represented Rogers, Celef (ProAc) and ATC: these true monitors offered our customers a safe and accurate sound timbre with detailed imaging.

But--if you will excuse the car analogy--those aspiring beyond family saloons and hatchbacks in search of the sporty convertibles and GTs can find advanced adrenalin by way of loudspeakers featuring horns and active techniques. Some of our favourites of this type are Italians (the Ferraris not the Fiats!) and notably Diapason and Zingali always avoided OEM drivers, inert (braced) housing, veneered MDF cabinets and passive crossovers.

All zingali loudspeakers are available in a variety of finishes, veneers and colour combinations to suit any decor.

Zingali has been our most acclaimed brand because of its extreme value, true cabinetry, high technology and Italian design. Incorporating a portfolio of acoustical discoveries which evolved under one roof – incrementally and holistically – they combine horn techniques, compression drivers, dual-chamber aspiration (less costly than folded horn, similar to transmission line). One reviewer wrote, “If Zingali is right then all others are wrong.” Yet the audio press are deafening in their silence.

Loudspeakers may look the same but everything has changed.

These days, the best moving coil / crossover / braced cabinets no longer sound dynamically constricted and boxy. We began to realize that the costs and room problems no longer justify planar or electrostatic types. The turning point came some twenty years ago with Zingali’s Overture-2 – a large bookshelf / stand mounter. I remember the first pair we sold; to a Prof at Glasgow University; he ordered custom-made lower pedestals to sit on a raised dais! They retailed for £2,500 per pair which he could not believe: he said they looked and sounded £5-6,000. Today, many people are still enjoying the bargain, only laughing smugly at the sound and glowing reviews of new 10k models from B&W, KEF, Monitor, Focal.

The question is: can you still, after twenty years, buy such things for £2,500? It seems unlikely. Everything has gone up in price, especially made in Eurozone. People very rarely sell their Zingalis. A local dealer sold a pair of Overture 3 for £3,250; the owner paid £2,750 from new, ten years previously. An anomaly in today’s market.

So, you will need to buy Zingali new. At today’s prices, and with the high Euro, you would expect a lost opportunity: surely the Overture-2 successors must cost at least £8 - 10k (on a par with the likes of, say, the TAD bookshelves), but Zingali, a true Italian artisan, is as financially honest as he is musically and acoustically true to his principles. Incredibly (but bad for business) the new “bookshelf” loudspeakers, the “Zero EVO,” cost a remarkably reasonable £2,195. If they were marketed at £12,195 people wouldn’t bat an eyelid. But if you use your ears and sense, you will find one of the most astounding heirloom products, the best kept secret in audio!

Time Flies but Some Things Stay the Same: West Coast and Retro Sound

Increasingly audio has became uniform and boring, hence the return to retro – not just vinyl and analogue (including FM radio and open reel). The corporates who own the great brands of the 60s all have retro offerings – JBL, Altec, Klipsch – and there are European boom-boxes and some very serious Japanese contenders. Tannoy, once ten miles from us, are sadly now a corporate enterprise and we see massive price increases suggesting a cashing in the Asian market.

True to form, we have eschewed the mainstream and chosen two outstanding traditions of living, legendary loudspeakers: Hørning and Unison Research. These firms make loudspeakers which are serious, heirloom, long-term value decisions. They bring room-filling, lifelike energy and musical soul. In contrast, even costly and acclaimed “modern” loudspeakers are sterile, detail machines.

Close-up of the Unison Research Max 1, a speaker which brings pleasure and wonder back to our hobby.

The Unison Research MAX series brings pleasure and wonder back to our hobby. Retro sound but without the retro-boxy look! They are made by Opera in Italy in the former Sonus Faber plant; that is why! (Incidentally, SF has long since been bought out and gone corporate). Opera Loudspeakers makes fine modern loudspeakers, but designer Mario Bon has created with huge skill a modern variant of the west coast sound: paper woofer, compression driver, bi-radial front horn, ust as JBL have reverted to, but I think with more authentic sound and beautiful cabinets; MAX-1 floorstanders cost £4,500 per pair.

Any other loudspeakers with the sound of the sixties?

From Denmark, Tommy Hørning is acclaimed for his extreme hobbyist hybrid designs exploiting the British Lowther mid range drivers, capable of room filling energy, speed, and clarity. In the past, the cabinets have been far from wife-friendly but all that has changed with the ellipse cabinets, crafted in Germany with precision and elegance. The weight is incredibly heavy and reassuring! Sonically, they kick ass, but inspiring this round up essay is a new model which might be described as a game-changer. No doubt it will be drowned out by the corporate stampede, the rush to profits, the hopeless hotel room syndrome of audio shows, but you heard it here: The Zeus might be small and elegant, but now the genius principle of small excursion drivers with folded horn has come come to fruition, meaning the four bass isobaric drivers on Aristoteles can come down to two.

At The Music Room, we attend trade fairs and are offered new brands every week. We filter 90% of what we hear and let you choose from the best of the best!

Tommy has worked for years to shoehorn his principles in an sleek, small and under £10k cabinet – yes, a pair – and in April 2018 we became the first dealer to take delivery of the Zeus. It exceeds my expectations.

Like the Zingalis, it shines because the combination of elegant and efficient loudspeakers (without crossovers) really works with today’s integrated amplifiers or all-in-one. But are we saying that conventional speaker design cannot compete? Read on...

The choice is yours.

We never forget the choice is yours and everyone has different values and budgets. The best of British, with the BBC monitor voicing, remains much as it was when the Music Room started selling them: ATC and ProAc.

ProAc’s Tablette and SC-1 soon overtook the LS3/5A and have themselves been overtaken by superior ProAc designs starting at £995… yes, per pair: the Tablette 10. It is hard to choose favourites but the DT8 at £1,995 per pair offers very big sound and the entire Response range offers amazing purity and dynamics that fully justify their slogan – perfectly natural -- as a design achievement audibly superior to their rivals. ProAc has become a serious player, but thankfully not a corporate: everything is done to perfection under the watchful eye of its founder and chief, Mr Tyler.

ATC: for over 40 years, ATC speakers are handmade in the UK. We have these neat SCM-11 on permanent demonstration and they never fail to impress.

ATC make loudspeakers to satisfy the extreme demands of professional users worldwide and they are specified by a user list that tells us something: if it is good enough for so many uncompromising engineers and musicians, it will do nicely for us.

It is sad that hundreds if not thousands of domestic loudspeakers are bought on the high street by people who could look further. Call on us, and for £1,300 -- per pair -- invest in SCM-11. The initials SCM stands for Studio Control Monitor and that is more than a slogan; they let you hear what the producer heard.

Moving coil loudspeakers may look as if little progress has been made but nothing could be further from the truth. The elliptical cabinets are elegant and all the drivers, in-house crafted professional units, are far superior in performance to just ten years ago. ATC has recently released the SCM50ASL-SE, simply gorgeous legacy product finished in Art Deco Piano Black Lacquer. The active fifties are a legend. With evolved technology, built-in amplifiers, and cabinet making to grace the finest New York penthouse suite, the price of £30,000 per pair is hardly cheap but very good value. Less costly than many esteemed loudspeakers heavily promoted on the market.

So far we have mentioned two retro, two west coast, and two Brit monitors in our portfolio so let’s pair two German mainstream brands that can slip through the net.

The team at Burmester are just as serious about their loudspeakers as they are their electronics. Case in point, they chose Munich High End 2018 to launch this statement, flagship loudspeaker that is in every way as impressive as their iconic amplifiers.

The cliché (dare I say stereotype) is that Berlin’s Burmester and Swiss Revox make great electronics and also add loudspeakers almost as an afterthought. Think again! While most people feel better with an acclaimed loudspeaker badge on their loudspeakers, these two companies have dedicated development laboratories, separate departments for loudspeakers, and they are are less inclined to aspire to the prices the loudspeaker industry still manages to achieve.

Revox is most successful in its local markets, Germany, Austria and Switzerland, where people are fastidious and seek excellence. For some reason the UK has always been parochial; mediocrity has triumphed under delusion for too long.

Visiting the Revox factory and loudspeaker division a few months ago, just on the German side of the border, I was interested in their Joy systems and in secret analogue projects. (rumours of turntables and an open-reel tape deck) but I walked away with the sound of their loudspeakers etched in my brain.

Impossible for the price and the size. Not just impossible, but astounding.

How many UK audiophiles have Revox on their shortlist of loudspeakers?

I think loudspeakers clearly differentiate specialist dealers and those customers who looked further and aspired higher now look back with satisfaction on the days they spoke to us. More than any other brand, those people who discovered Zingali have written to thank us for diligence and enthusiasm. Truly an investment and an heirloom product, they grace houses and continue to delight music lovers. Many people have owned theirs for over twenty years and cringe when they hear what is offered today. You just don’t see them circulating the used market. Their pro-grade drivers are indestructible.

But while we’re still very fond of the old Zingali designs--and today’s Zingali may seem the similar on the surface--just take a look and listen to the new designs. The same solid wood and horns, but cabinets are better carved and finished; all in house. Countless refinements to the classic recipe of the patented room coupling horn principle have raised the performance almost beyond recognition. As stated, the value is exceptional, making a mockery of commercial names, and prices start from £2,195 per pair. You will be astounded by what you see and hear. Just do not ask to see and hear the flagship product and you will be steady.

Zingali Client 1.5 30th Anniversary loudspeakers. An heirloom product unlike any other loudspeaker.

Zingali Celebrates 30 Years of Awards in Japan, Asia, etc.

To celebrate its 20th anniversary, Zingali launched the Twenty series, of which the Twenty 1.2 Evo is the third and latest series ten years on. Costing £12-14,000 depending on finish, it offers very obviously and stated simply, a loudspeaker superior to almost anything else on the planet. It is in every way a rational purchase.

And the flagship, no compromise, is still called the Client Name. (To reflect its neutrality and custom solution, your name is inscribed on the plate). The latest version 1.5 EVO has “30th Anniversary 1986-2016” engraved in front of the bass wave-guide “feet.” The cabinets are strikingly sculpted exterior, brilliantly calculated geometry and dimensions internally, and the soundstage does redefine the word loudspeaker.

In a world where the giants of the genre can cost a quarter of a million in hard currency, the 30th anniversary Client Names do not seem overpriced even at £35,000. If you can accommodate them, and if you can afford them, they will surprise you. Not least, in our experience, wives instantly appreciate the transcendent musical shape and sound, form follows function, and the discerning pleasure of ownership of a hand crafted, batch of one, to your design.

And there are more surprises we prefer to discuss in our city showroom rather than publicise: these include second-hand and, well, surprises, to reward personal callers who aim higher and are prepared to travel a little further.

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