In the beginning, engineers created the paradigm. And the paradigm was cumbersome; and vinyl was its vehicle of delivery. And the spirit of the paradigm progressed ever so slowly in the face of rapid technological change. And the paradigm said, “Let there be little change,” and there was little change. And the paradigm saw all the change that it hadn’t made, and behold, it was good. Then, one day, engineers regarded the paradigm and proclaimed it utterly and completely absurd. And the paradigm reflected, and endeavored to evolve. And it was good.
For decades, there was nearly zero paradigmatic development in high-end audio. Surely, strides were made in content mediums, and in amplifier and loudspeaker design. But on a fundamental level, systems of the mid-20th century look remarkably similar to systems of the ever-so-advanced 21st century. Yep, there are your preamplifier and power amplifier, with cables -- or lamp cord, ha! -- sneaking out to unreasonably large stereo speakers. A disc-like thing appears to be spinning, so yes, there’s your music. And, of course, yes, there is the de rigueur, centrally located captain’s chair or couch -- the money seat, as it were. In an age when a cell phone can run your life better than you can, this paradigm seems ridiculously archaic.
Manufacturers are beginning to agree. It could be argued that Audioengine started the trend a number of years ago. Their A2 looks like a generic computer speaker: tiny cabinet, tiny tweeter and woofer, tiny price ($199 USD per pair). Common sense would counsel that the A2s must sound like utter garbage. They don’t. They have a “soundstage,” a “clarity,” a -- wait for it -- quality. Such a novelty in the marketplace rarely finds a home in consumer hearts, but Audioengine, of which no one had heard, built quite a reputation based on the A2. Yet Audioengine had merely flexed the boundaries of what one could expect from a lowly computer speaker. Hi-fi sound quality for the proverbial song was still just beyond the horizon.
Then another odd thing happened. Proper, established high-end audio companies began to take stabs at making powered loudspeakers. And not Beats By Dre-ified, budget-friendly trash, but real speakers, designed by someone other than a marketing department. Dynaudio had the Focus 110 A ($2450/pair) and the wireless Xeo 3 ($2300/pair). The Focus 110 A is effectively a Focus 110 with an amp built in, while the Xeo 3 also includes wireless connectivity. A pair of Xeo 3s is a hi-fi stereo system in two reasonably sized chassis. But for $2300. Eesh.
Costing almost an order of magnitude less is PSB’s Alpha PS1. It looks like an adolescent version of PSB’s excellent Imagine Mini, stuffed with drivers from an Alpha LR1. Founder Paul Barton (the P and B in PSB) designed it, and uses a pair literally every day. A modest class-D power amplifier is built in, one designed specifically for use with the PS1’s unique 0.75” and 3.5” drivers. The benefit of this is that, unlike a passive speaker, which must be over-designed to play well with whatever amplifier the consumer chooses to use, with whatever attendant compromises go along with it, the PS1 is a completely integrated, harmonious package. A unified design philosophy extends from the enclosure to the drivers to the amplifier to the analog input stage. The end result costs $300/pair. And it is quite good.
While the PSB works supremely well on a desktop, however, it’s still too small to replace a bona fide stereo system. Paradigm’s appropriately named Shift A2 speaker ($559.98/pair) aims a bit higher. The company has tossed a pair of amplifiers into its Monitor model, which has 1” and 5.5” drivers, and added an active DSP crossover. The Shift A2 can fill a room with quality sound in a way that an equivalently priced passive stereo system can’t quite match. There’s also modest but usable bass. The result is a hi-fi speaker system for less than $600. And it is very good.
Even with the Paradigms, though, there are limitations. For those who’ve made the jump to computer audio -- or those who, like me, know only computer audio -- a DAC is sorely needed. With only analog inputs on offer, sound quality will be strangled by a computer’s built-in digital-to-analog conversion.
Enter KEF. The British company has earned an uncomfortable amount of praise for their LS50 bookshelf speaker ($1500/pair), while their R900 ($5000/pair) has found homes with SoundStage! Network contributor Roger Kanno and the hack typing this very article as their new reference speakers. Much of this is down to KEF’s coaxial Uni-Q driver, which is a gem. When KEF announced the X300A ($799.99/each), I noted with interest the inclusions of a built-in USB DAC and another variant on the Uni-Q. Just as significant is the use of two class-AB amplifiers in each speaker cabinet, to provide the 5.25” woofer and 1” tweeter with, respectively, 50 and 20W. The result of all this isn’t just hi-fi sound, but excellent hi-fi sound. And it is effing outstanding.
It’s astonishing what established speaker companies can do when they lavish their decades of knowledge and expertise on all-in-one speaker designs. Over a year ago, just a few weeks before Dynaudio announced their Xeo line, I wrote about my conception for all-in-one speakers. Since that time, KEF and PSB have announced and sent me their speakers mentioned above. The only remaining vestige of an old-school stereo is the wire leading from the all-in-ones to a computer or smartphone. With the advent of the aptX Bluetooth wireless standard, a CD-quality, lossless audio format, and something that Paul Barton tells me his diminutive PS1s will support going forward, the endgame has pretty much arrived.
Still, a perfect product has yet to reveal itself. The KEF X300As accept only a single digital connection, of the mini-USB variety, and lack a wireless option. And their fancy class-AB amps require a power cord for each speaker, which is a little inconvenient. But they’re the first nearly complete product that I’d recommend to anyone, audiophile or non-audiophile.
The best part? From here, it looks to get only better and less expensive. A paradigm lost, and a paradigm gained -- welcome to the future.
. . . Hans Wetzel