It is not clear whether Einstein really said 'to make things as simple as possible and no simpler' just as it is unclear what sort of relationship the tousled haired physicist had with Marilyn Monroe. But if dear Albert were in the market for a pair of speakers, I submit, without reservation, that the father of the general theory of relativity would not go too far wrong with Etalon's Medio Loudspeakers. They are as adept at reproducing Marilyn's oft unrecognized great voice as they are at reproducing Itzhak Perlman's violin.
Of course, you can go simpler than the Medios. You could use single driver loudspeakers driven with single ended valve amps. You could wind up the gramophone. You might even play the fiddle. But I think Einstein's point was that Newton's theory of physics was too simple. While it answered a lot of questions, it did not answer all of them. And Einstein, I think, would happily lay aside his theory for a better one that explained more, elegant or otherwise. So seems to be the philosophy of the man behind Etalon, Mr. László Sallay. He builds multi-way speakers and accompanying (very warm-running, I might add) solid-state amplification.
Hailing from the Republic of Magyar (by way of Brazil - believe it or not) through the kind auspices of distributor Paulo Wang of AudioUno, importing them into Canada for review was, quite honestly, a nightmare.
Damn You Canadian Customs!
After much gnashing of teeth, various phone-calls, a flurry of emails, a drive in a snow storm, dealings with individuals who would make East German border guards smile, the Medio's finally arrived accompanied by the Etalon Acoustics Musicante Examplissimo integrated amplifier (a subject for future review). To cut a long story short, the wait was worth it. But unlike Shakespeare, who Borges said was all things to all men, these speakers are not speakers for all men (or women). These speakers are for lovers of jazz and small format classical music. Followers of Bad Brains need not apply.
They say it is wrong to anthropomorphize animals. You can, for example, hurt a dog, the philosopher Richard Rorty writes, but you can't humiliate him. Personally, I am not sure if this is true, and, in any event, I wouldn't want to try it, particularly if it was a big dog, but is it wrong to anthropomorphize Hi-Fi? You can certainly humiliate a nationality, but can you humiliate a turntable?
I don't mean that the Canadian Government should step in and take over the reigns at NAD or the President of the United States should make sure that there is a MacIntosh in every pot, but is it fair to impute national characteristics of living, animate people to inanimate objects? I think you can, because it is by man's handiwork that the raw materials of the world are made less raw. It is by the same handiwork that these funny things called Hi Fi, though constructed by hand, are engaged in reconstructing mechanically what once was a living, breathing performance.
And here is an example of Hi-Fi cosmopolitanism at is greatest: Etalon is a Hi-Fi company that comes to us from Hungary – a land where they play chess in the sauna – by way of an enthusiastic distributor in Brazil, a land where the girl from Ipanema certainly does not. Having visited Hungary and listened to live classical music for only a few dollars, and having listened more than a few times to Stan Getz and Joao Gilberto's collaborations, we are getting to the heart of the philosophy of Etalon.
Of rather unusual appearance (black boxes begone!), the Medio's appear to be stand-mounters, mounted on matching stands, except there is no seam. I say 'appear' insofar as the stands are integral to the speakers and their seems to be some sort of quasi-transmission line or back-loaded horn built into the stand with a square port in the back about two inches above the binding posts which, themselves, are, thankfully, about 6 inches off the floor.
The driver arrangement is classic D'Appolito with the tweeter mounted flush on the same plane as the stands, and the twin mid-range/bass drivers recessed onto twin pieces of wood, almost in the shape of an airplane's wing, that project about 3 inches in front of the tweeter. Around the back are 2 sets of high quality binding posts to facilitate bi-wiring and a small metal plate that reads 'Medio Loudspeaker System, Carefully Handmade in Hungary.'
The word 'carefully' is important. Everything about these speakers - from the way they were packed to the instructions that came with them - bespeaks 'carefully'.
The bass/midrange drivers are of doped, almost rough, paper and the drivers are made in-house. (Interestingly, there is a US based manufacturer of Ultrasonic transducers called Etalon, a division of Piezo Technologies of Indianapolis, Illinois.) The tweeter, beneath a protective grill looks to be metal. The whole arrangement is a little difficult to explain. Sometimes a picture is worth a thousand words.
The photograph captures quite well the deep cherry rich red color of the wood (a little too red for my taste perhaps) but even from the photography it can easily be discerned that the speakers have been hand finished to a very high degree and are not lacking in gloss or polish. Mr. László Sallay informs me that the review sample are in hand-finished Cherry High polish, but other options include beech, walnut, black, root, grey, maple, ash, metallic, mahogany, rosewood, silver, oak black and oak natural and white. So much for Henry Ford's "you can have it any color you like provided its black."
Eschewing spikes, the speakers sit on odd shaped plinths, wider than they are deep. It's a good arrangement insofar as the speakers, which look top heavy, don't behave so, at least in the direction parallel to the drivers, and leave no nasty marks in the carpet or holes in feet.
In an early article for Enjoy the Music.com™, I mentioned that children should be seen and not heard and hi-fi should be heard and not seen. I now submit I was wrong on both counts. With age, comes wisdom? Just as it's occasionally nice to hear from children if they have something nice to say, it's nice to look at hi fi if it is nice to look at. At the very worst, it should not be ugly (even in a good way).
Some people liked the look of these loudspeakers, others didn't. I did like how they looked, though I would have preferred a slightly toned downed color though that probably had more to do with the surroundings, and, I as I said before, the speakers are available in other finishes. But what is more important, and what you are reading here, is how they sound. Under the mistaken impression that the speakers needed breaking in (they had had a couple of hundred hours already on them – I later learned, it was the amp that needed breaking in), I hooked them up to an inexpensive home theatre amp and placed them in our bedroom, on the basis that the wood matched (I maintain to this day) our TV cabinet and floors. (My wife begs to differ).
The first thing that shot out at me was how natural voices sounded and how clear and centered dialogue was. And this was without the benefit of a center channel. There was not a lot of bass to speak of, so I attempted to connect them to an inexpensive Velodyne subwoofer. As I should have known, adding the subwoofer was a disaster. Not an Enron style disaster mind you, but merely that the quality of these speakers and their inherent speed, rightness and what I initially took to be their brightness, would not allow me to make any kind of decent match, positive or otherwise.
In any event there is a time and a place for subwoofer bass and it is not in my bedroom, so I decided to throw in the towel and enjoy some of the most natural sounding (though often weirdly mixed) television I have ever watched. The Sunday morning omnibus edition of Coronation Street on CBC was fantastic. I had not only forgotten how funny it was, but the Medios were articulating the Mancunian accents of the Rover Regulars with frightening veracity. I could also hear all the cheesy edits and overdubbed glass chinklings. But these are not home theatre speakers and this is not a home theatre review. I did, however, know I was on to something good.
After what I thought was the break-in, I brought them to my office and started playing them through their matching amplifier and fed them on a steady diet of CBC and Jazz FM. On these two stations through a vintage Pioneer tuner, they sounded remarkable. But the Medios did not and would not tolerate any of the great 'classic rock' stations that those of us in Southern Ontario are blessed with. I can think of at least two reasons for this. One, the speakers revealed all the sound processing that these stations had used to punch up their sound for the daily commute. And, secondly, these speakers were not designed for anything associated with Rush. (How do you know when you're in Canada? When due to the Canadian Content laws they play Rush every 5th song. I exaggerate only slightly.)
Mr. László Sallay would not, I think, disagree with the point I am making here. As Mr. Sallay writes (albeit slightly out of context):
At this point, I must mention an important insight that we have discovered during our search for perfection: we cannot make one property of a system maximally good without another property becoming maximally bad. We must accept that we have limited freedom of movement in the material world and that it is simply not possible to go beyond certain limits.
I will not say the Medio's have been designed to play Q107 maximally badly, but only that they sound as if they have been voiced to sound maximally good on classical. These are loudspeakers for listening to classical music or Jazz.
On one fine occasion, I listened to a recorded live (not an oxymoron) performance of Leonard Bernstein conducting Glen Gould (in Bernstein's preface to the concert, he wonders aloud who's conducting who) and Medio's reproduced the whole acoustic before my ears. Moreover, the detail that the speakers drew out of this live recording was uncanny.
Aside from the vulgarities of the coughers – please give out Halls in paper wrappers at the door – everything came through in spades granting me one of the most realistic 'I felt as if I were there' experiences I have ever had: the room, the sound of the piano and blessedly little of Glen Gould's trademark humming.
Something Else Came Through Too
This was a live recording and the legacy that Gould has left has been primarily a recorded one where Gould fussed over every note and edited incessantly. Here was Gould in the raw, the first time I had ever heard Gould so, and I began to wonder how much else has been lost on the editing room floor. Einstein could happily listen to Marilyn on a pair of Medios.
Type: Floorstanding three driver, two way loudspeaker
Drivers: 1.25-inch tweeter and two 5-inch midrange/bass units
Nominal power: 80 watts
Nominal impedance: 4 ohms
Voice: (3 61) 275-7095