Audiophiles have lots of choices. Today, buyers can spend less and get more than ever before, and this is especially true with loudspeakers. Such brands as Bowers & Wilkins, KEF, Paradigm, and PSB offer multitudes of models that most aspiring audiophiles can afford. In terms of sound and value for dollar, these speakers can be really, really good.
Nor is there a shortage of superspeakers. (To make this easy, here I define superspeakers as any model costing north of $100,000 USD per pair.) Naturally, as the price rises, the number of units sold descends. This means that superspeakers, though not necessarily custom-made, are decidedly niche products, and can vary so greatly from model to model that a careful assessment of the top brands might be helpful.
So that you can put the information presented here in proper context, I’ll tell you just a bit about my own preferences (or biases, if you prefer). I’ve owned a number of superspeakers over the years -- e.g., the Wilson Audio Specialties X-2 Alexandria, the Rockport Technologies Arrakis, the Magico Q7 -- and have listened to all of them in my dedicated listening room, the Music Vault. What do I look for in a superspeaker? If I’m going to have a pair of any of these monster speaker models in my home, I want full-range sound, ultra-low distortion, and the ability to play music as loudly as I want. I tend to attach more value to companies that engineer their own drivers, and share or publish technical measurements of their speakers. The former gives me confidence in the technical expertise of the design team, and the latter tells me that the manufacturer is not afraid to pit its products against a measurement microphone. And although it’s not always directly related to sound, I also like to see heroic efforts put into quality control -- particularly in the acoustic domain -- and flawless build quality. In my opinion, above a hundred thousand bucks, there should be no shortcomings.
What follow are simply my opinions, based on my listening experiences at shows, time spent visiting the manufacturers, direct experience in the Music Vault, and observations I’ve gained from afar.
Avalon Acoustics: Avalon’s new top model is the Tesseract ($325,000/pair), designed by Neil Patel (shown). I was recently amused by a thread on the What’s Best Forum, in which an apparent Avalon representative stated, “it’s my belief that Tesseract is the most advanced and highest performing loudspeaker system that has been made . . . and I really don’t think it will be surpassed in the future.” This is, of course, preposterous. What’s more troubling is that the technical claims -- also listed in that thread -- read as if the company has created the perfect loudspeaker. If you believe their hype, they’ve solved all the problems. My problem with this is that I’ve seen nothing -- no technical measurements -- that back up any of Avalon’s claims. But who knows, right? This is another company that seems to use other manufacturers’ driver. When you consider that their speaker cabinets are made of wood-based materials, I do wonder about the high cost. On the plus side, Avalon has been around for a long time, and their speakers’ finish quality appears to be very high. I haven’t heard the Tesseract, so I can’t comment on its sound, but maybe it is the best that will ever be. [Ahem.]
Magico: The Magico Q7 Mk II ($225,000/pair) is my current reference loudspeaker. Alon Wolf and team use cutting-edge technologies -- e.g., diamond-coated beryllium tweeters and graphene midranges -- and military-grade construction techniques to produce what I think are the highest-resolution speakers available today. The Q7 Mk II is linear and brutally precise, while simultaneously presenting music with beautiful expressiveness -- talk about an open window on the music. And these speakers are wonders of industrial design. Meticulous attention to detail in the manufacturing process results in the finest aluminum finishes I’ve ever seen, and strict acoustic quality control is ensured for each pair of speakers, through Magico’s use of a Klippel QC measurement suite that is the best in the business. Magico is on fire, and the Q7 Mk II is it -- I don’t believe you can do better in a superspeaker.
Rockport Technologies: The Arrakis 2 ($225,000/pair) is easily the most beautiful speaker in this bunch. Its curved shape is made possible by the shell-within-a-shell sandwich of materials designed by Rockport founder Andy Payor. Unlike almost all other speakers, the Arrakis 2 is not glued or bolted together, but basically molded and poured. Its drive units have cones designed by Payor, who himself listens to and measures each pair of Arrakis 2s. This fanatical attention to detail constitutes some of the best quality control in the business. Rockport’s house sound -- I’ve lived with the original Arrakis, and have heard several of the company’s beryllium-tweetered models -- is characterized by deep, full bass, a finely textured midrange, and highs that present all of the detail, with none of the listening fatigue caused by so many speakers. The Arrakis 2 is easily one of my favorites.
Tidal: There’s a whole lot to like about Tidal. Founder and chief designer Jorn Janczak couples his measurements-based design ethos with great attention to detail in the physical construction and finishing of each model. Tidal’s current top speaker is La Assoluta, for $500,000/pair (optional bass towers raise the cost even higher). La Assoluta’s drivers are not strictly Tidal’s own creations -- they collaborate with German drive-unit maker Accuton -- and its cabinet is made of proprietary materials that seem to achieve a high level of inertness. One of Tidal's claims to fame are excellent step responses, and Janczak will gladly show you measurements that prove it. I believe that La Assoluta is technically excellent. I saw a pair of them at Munich’s High End this year, and heard a pair of their sibling model, the Akira, which uses the same drive units ($165,000/pair). These top-shelf Tidals are fleet, seeming to instantly respond to the music signal, and are definitely high-resolution devices -- and Tidal may produce the finest paint jobs in the business.
Wilson Audio Specialties: The current flagship of the Wilson line is the Alexandria XLF ($195,000/pair), designed by industry legend Dave Wilson. These speakers can play loud and present the music with grand scale. I’ve heard them cast a superwide, superdeep soundstage, and they’re especially energetic in the midbass, making drum solos come alive. Last I heard, Wilson did not engineer their own drive units -- the soft dome in the XLF is dated compared to more exotic tweeters -- but properly set up, these speakers can produce enticing sound. Downside? I’d like to see measurements that demonstrate the Alexandria XLF’s linearity throughout the audioband. Upsides? The cabinet is made not of MDF but of proprietary materials chosen for their antiresonant properties. One area in which Wilson Audio stands above most other companies is customer support. When you buy Wilson speakers, you can be confident that a solid company stands behind them.
YG Acoustics: Surprisingly, the top YGA model, the Sonja 1.3, costs “only” $106,800/pair -- chump change, compared to the prices of some of these other top models. Designer Yoav Geva, another measurements guy, really likes to use aluminum. Not only are his speaker cabinets made of the stuff, he makes his drivers’ cones of it. Those drivers contain lots of custom parts, and so do YGA’s crossovers. The Sonja 1.3 sounds precise, with excellent expression of dynamics. Refreshingly, moving up the price scale buys you greater value in the YG line. I’ve been critical of the company’s two-way Carmel 2, feeling it doesn’t offer enough value at $24,300/pair. The Sonja 1.3 (and 1.2, which has one fewer woofer and costs thirty grand less per pair) seems appropriately priced for what it offers.
There are other superspeakers out there that you could listen to and look at if you’re in that market. Raidho Acoustics makes some good ones, anchored by their sweet ribbon tweeters. Kharma has lots of bling for the luxury-market consumer. Focal speakers are always competitive, though their current Utopia line is a bit dated. Estelon is a relative newcomer to this market segment, and this jury is still out on their speakers. I’m sure I’ve left out some contenders.
Buy speakers made by a solid manufacturer and backed up by a good dealer -- if you ever need support for one of these beasts, those will be the best kinds of support to have. Buying a superspeaker can be frustrating and exhausting. Do your homework, and be sure of what you’re getting before you spend tens or hundreds of thousands of bucks and install several hundred pounds’ worth of speakers in your listening room. But when all that’s done, the results can be hugely rewarding.
. . . Jeff Fritz