What would you say if I told you that the state of the art in loudspeakers can be purchased for half, or even a quarter, of the price you might think? Not really good speakers. Not almost-the-best-you-can-buy speakers. But state-of-the-art speakers. As in better than what was available just a few years ago at crazy six-figure prices!
Would you be surprised? Excited?
I submit to you that we are in the midst of a speaker revolution. Case in point . . .
Today one of Great Britain's granddaddy brands, KEF, launched the Blade loudspeaker at 24,000€ per pair. This is the production version of the Concept Blade that we reported on at High End 2009, and it will be available at a KEF dealer near you in about three months. This isn't exactly the same speaker as the Concept Blade: The carbon-fiber cabinet is now gone, the four woofers have shrunk from 10" units to 9", and the external crossover of the Concept is history. But according to KEF, the Uni-Q driver in the production Blade is their best yet, the bass performance is better through more advanced driver research, and the overall design has been subtly refined in several critical parameters. Technical details abound, like the fact that each woofer and the Uni-Q are all mounted with their centers equidistant from each other, creating what KEF says is the first three-way point-source speaker. KEF's CEO, Marten Klaassen, wasn't humble in his assessment of the Blade's performance when he said, "There is no better speaker in the world."
Now, embellishment is the norm at audio shows. But the Blade did sound amazing in Munich this year. One observation is that, tonally, the Blade's sound didn't change whether I was sitting in front of it or off to the side. Talk about wide and even dispersion! And the bass seemed unusually quick and punchy, giving rock music a driving beat that's non-existent in many audiophile speakers. Yes, the Blade is special -- and available and reasonably priced -- at least for something aiming to represent the state of the art.
If the Blade is outwardly a technological tour de force, the 2.5-way Tidal Piano Cera from Germany, with its new black-anodized ceramic drivers and graphite-coated ceramic tweeter, looks quite conventional by comparison. Priced at 15,500€ per pair, the Piano Cera shrouds its sonic prowess in piano-black lacquer of a quality that is quite uncommon. In fact, the slim proportions easily conceal that this is a 117-pound speaker built quite heroically. Even still, there are no exotic cabinet materials and the drivers are made to Tidal's specs by Accuton, another German firm. That description doesn't sound state of the art.
When it plays music, though, is when you begin to understand that this is no plain-Jane loudspeaker. With bass articulation and weight that belie its modest proportions and coherence that is nigh-on perfect, the Tidal Piano Cera is a stark reminder that the underlying design -- not the cosmetic flourishes or the story -- is ultimately what is key to sound quality. The Piano Cera isn't just different from most other speakers I heard at High End 2011; it's better.
Speakers have, perhaps somewhat quietly, jumped significantly forward in sonic fidelity over the last few years. It won't be popular to say this, but yesterday's really good designs aren't competitive with today's best. A revolution? Yes, I certainly think so.
Editor-in-Chief, The SoundStage! Network