In this issue's Product of the Year Awards feature we recognize, among many outstanding products, three very special loudspeakers. Each of the three speakers is a statement-level flagship from a venerable decades-old company. Each of these speakers is capable, in the right context, of delivering a transcendental musical experience. Each is worthy of a Product of the Year Award. Yet the three speakers could hardly be more different in technology, intent, and musical aesthetic. In fact, they sound nothing alike.
How can that be? If there's a standard of music reproduction—the absolute sound, or the sound of unamplified instruments in an acoustic space—and audio components are judged by how far, and in what ways, they fall short of this ideal, why would we exalt three speakers as different as the Magnepan MG30.7, the Zellaton Reference II, and the Wilson Audio WAMM Master Chronosonic?
The key to understanding this conundrum is the phrase "in what ways" in the previous sentence. We have to start with the inescapable fact that no loudspeaker is perfect. Every single one, no matter how expensive, falls short of the goal of being indistinguishable from live music. It is how the speaker falls short that explains why such radically different designs can not only exist in the marketplace, but can also be honored as the best products of their type we've encountered in 2017.
The speaker designer battles the laws of physics to create a device that, in his estimation, conveys those aspects of the sound that matter most to him. Take the Zellaton Reference II reviewed by Jonathan Valin in our previous issue. Employing meticulously crafted handmade drivers, the Zellaton eschews bombast and forsakes the ability to play loudly in exchange for an absolutely exquisite—and unparalleled in the world of cone speakers—delicacy, transparency, seamlessness, and lack of sonic "flavor." As Jonathan wrote (as only Jonathan could), the Zellaton is "almost as colorless as the air in your listening room." At the other end of the spectrum we have the Wilson Audio WAMM Master Chronosonic, the cost-no-object realization of everything David Wilson knows about loudspeaker design. The WAMM goes low in the bass, plays as loudly as you'd like with utter grace and ease, and renders dynamic contrasts with an authority that approaches the real thing. Our third Product of the Year Award-winning speaker is the Magnepan MG30.7. About the MG30.7, Jonathan wrote, "On acoustic music of any kind, it is very nearly peerlessly realistic (especially through the midband), making almost everything else I'm familiar with—and I think I've heard most of the contenders—sound a little less jaw-droppingly ‘there.'" Yet the new Maggie, as great as it is, isn't quite as exquisite in timbre as the Zellaton and won't do many things that the WAMM does with ease.
Each of these magnificent speakers is a manifestation of the designer's sonic priorities and musical values. Because loudspeaker makers are so polarized when it comes to what they believe is most important to the listening experience, I suspect that each speaker would be anathema to the other two designers. This diversity was highlighted recently when an industry friend, who travels the world setting up systems in audiophiles' listening rooms, told me about his recent endeavors. In the span of a single week, he set up a Living Voice Vox Olympian/Vox Elysian system (a three-quarters-of-a-million-dollar horn-based speaker) as well as a pair of Wilson WAMM Master Chronosonics. As my set-up expert friend said afterward, "What a contrast in beauty!" And approach!
Although some think that it's possible to quantify a loudspeaker's performance to prove that one product is "better" than another, that reasoning excludes the most important component in the playback system—the human brain. Miraculously, our brains translate minute variations in air pressure into sound, create the illusion of three-dimensional objects in space, and then find meaning and expression in that illusion. A lot goes on between vibrating air striking your eardrum and the chill that goes down your spine when you hear a performer realistically reproduced. We all have different sets of musical buttons, and choose components that push the ones that are most important to us. It's because of this human element that such diverse loudspeakers as the Zellaton, Magnepan, and Wilson can coexist—and be equally worthy.