Tuesday, April 10, 2007

In an attempt to make my blog less dull, I'm now featuring Cool Stuff Tuesdays™. As everyone knows, Mondays are not as awful as Tuesdays - on Mondays, the shock and horror of the work week has yet to set in. While certianly exciting, most of the stuff featured will most assuredly be of the type which we mortals simply cannot afford.

This week: Speakers.

1. B&W Nautilus

Photo courtsey of Bowers & Wilkins

Made by famous British speaker manufacturer Bowers & Wilkins, the Nautilus line is a great speaker continuing a great line of other great speakers. Originally starting as a supply house for DIY enthusiasts, their reputation for quality quickly forwarded them to making high-end studio monitors for the BBC.

Today, B&W makes studio monitors for several major record labels, in addition to a wide array of fantastic home-audio products. They have a reputation for top quality and advanced design, often featuring their signature yellow kevlar-coned woofers. They were amongst the first to utilize computers in design in the early 70s, and have not ceased, with designs nearly unrivalled in their precision. Quality has improved with technology, and today's B&W's are the best yet.

Instead of ordinary boxes and miniature chambers behind the tweeters, B&W instead used an elaborate series of several transmission lines, one for each individual driver. While hideously complex and difficult to build, the seperate enclosures allow for carefully optimized loading of each individual driver.

Bowers and Wilkins builds the speakers used to master the music, and these are an improvement upon them. They have a decades-long reputation for quality, and are well known for terrific and reliable sound. And, not surprisingly, they don't come cheap - they cost $60,000 a pair, not including the multiple high-end amplifiers necessarily to properly drive them.

2. Magneplanar 20.1s

Photo courtsey of magnepan.com. Lady in spiffy suit not included.

Most speakers have bits of metal or textile moved by a magnet and coil. They trade off size for frequency response and resonances, and at less than ideal frequencies will "store energy" - keep producing a sound even after the signal is removed.

Of course, others came up with different solutions - ribbons and electrostatic panels. The former is usable only at high frequencies by nature, and while electrostatic panels are very nice, the spectacularly thin mylar used for the diaphragm is rather fragile - and the high voltages both attract dust and hurt a LOT.

Of course, Magnepan simply combined them to solve the problem. The Magneplanar transducer, Magnepan's signature product, consists of thin strips of metal over a stretched diapgragm similar to electrostatic transducers. However, unlike electrostatics, the magneplanar uses the strips of metal as a voice coil, moving the diaphragm between magnets on opposite sides.

The added mass does, however, slightly damp treble response - and, as a result, Magnepan added a large, high-quality ribbon tweeter next to it. While standard as far as most ribbon tweeters go, that's like saying it's average for a ferrari - ribbon tweeters are expensive to build, and their popularity is not a coincidence.

Magnepan has been making their signature flat speakers for years, and the 20.1 - as the lady's attire in the photo will suggest - are not the newest of designs. However, that's not a coincidence - despite problems with off-axis response and poor low bass, they've sold extremely well, and many feel that the $12,000 a pair pricetag is worth it.

3. Wilson Audio Alexandria X-II

Photo courtsey of wilsonaudio.com

$135,000. The price of a house. Or a pair of speakers.

Wilson Audio has a long reputation for impressive - if hideously expensive - loudspeakers. Originally custom-designed as monitors for the Wilson audio labels, the speakers soon after became sold commercially to great acclaim. Some people find their less expensive speakers, the Watt Puppies, not worthy of their $22,000 pricetag - but few cannot be awestruck by the Alexandrias.

To put it simply, the Alexandrias are the furthest extension of ordinary loudspeaker design. They consist of ordinary woofers, mids, and tweeters, all in ordinary - if seperate boxes. However, each and every part of the speaker has been extended to the extreme.

Those glossy boxes are'nt just for show - the speakers are made out of a phenolic resin through and through, far stiffer and acoustically dead than any wood product. Each cabinet is carefully braced, and resonance is reduced to a minimum.

The drivers themselves, however, are now slouches - the tweeters are the best ring-radiators that scan-speak has to offer, and the mids and woofers are no slouches either. Distortion is as low as modern technology allows for, and though I have no info on the crossover itself, it's undoubtedly just as intricate.

Of course, excellent design is not cheap - and it's arguable that there are few that would argue that any loudspeakers, regardless of quality, are truly worth $135,000. However, regardless of price, these are some of the best speakers ever made.

No comments: