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An Audiophile’s Realization: My Last New Speakers

by June 19, 2020
speaker collage

speaker collage

Like most audiophiles, I have a lot of interests. A lot. The same detail-oriented, technical mindset that draws us to audio also draws us to other enthusiast pursuits as well. They’re more than just hobbies or diversions. When I like something, I delve into it pretty deeply. No, very deeply. And I keep the interest for a long time. They’re not mere “phases” that I go into and then abandon when the next shiny object comes along and catches my attention. My interests are life-long obsessions. They center me, regardless of what else may be swirling around in my reality at any particular moment. In many ways, they define who I am and how I see the world.

In no particular order, here they are:

Music, especially jazz. Related to that (but different) is playing the drums. Aviation. Business (Yeah, I work in the corporate business world, but I study it as an avocation also). The worldwide energy market. History. Writing. Working out. Politics. Consumer electronics/speakers. Cars. Sports (especially baseball and boxing).

These are the things I like. When I’m involved with any one of them I am totally consumed with that one subject at that moment, to the exclusion of all else. When I’m reading and learning about World War II aviation, that’s it. That’s my focus. I’m totally absorbed. Nothing else matters. I soak in every morsel of information I can, every factoid, every nuance. When I’m watching a video of an old Joe Frazier fight, I am looking intently for anything I haven’t seen or made note of before. “Hmmm…,” I think to myself, “He really used his right hand much more effectively in the 2nd Quarry fight than I remember, much more so than in their first fight….”

Animal FarmMy interests are like the animals in George Orwell’s book Animal Farm: “All animals are created equal, but some animals are more equal than others.” All my interests are created equal, but some interests are more equal than others. My interest in speakers/consumer electronics may be more intense than my other ones. It is certainly my most expensive interest. Apart from ticket prices/admission fees, the cost of buying drums/cymbals once every 50 years or so and the purchase of various books and magazines, I’ve spent literally thousands and thousands of dollars on electronics and speakers (not to mention the vinyl records and CDs that go along with them) over the lifetime of my interest—far more money than all my other interests combined. (I guess it’s right about now that I’m glad “Classic Antique Cars” is not one of my interests. Gotta be thankful for what isn’t just as much as what is.)

Speakers. Stereo hi-fi speakers. It’s a product category from the past, a concept that most people today don’t even think about. Today, speakers are simply a part of the rest of whatever system you’re using at that moment. Your TV has speakers built in. Your smartphone has a speaker in it. Your Alexa has a speaker in it. (“Alexa, play ‘Good Vibrations’ by the Beach Boys.”) Speakers are built in. Most people don’t give them a second thought.

But from around 1950 until very recently (and still today, to a limited extent), separate speakers for home music systems were a big deal. The better home music systems during that time span were what was known as “component high fidelity systems.” The end user (your dad or uncle--it was about 95% men) would assemble a system of individual music-playing components: An amplifier from that manufacturer, a turntable or CD player from a different company and speakers from yet another company. Different companies specialized in different equipment. Names like Pioneer, Kenwood and Dynaco made the amplifiers and receivers (amplifiers with radio tuners combined); there were turntables from companies like Garrard, Technics and Dual; and finally, there were the speaker companies: names like Advent, AR, JBL, Infinity, and so on. Comparing different components and assembling your music system was great fun back in the day. Enthusiast magazines like Stereo Review and High Fidelity flourished. Stereo stores dotted the landscape, especially in areas with heavy concentrations of college-aged kids in the 1970’s and 80’s. Kids would brag about their stereos and argue which speakers and turntables were better. Remember, back then, there were no smartphones, internet, wireless earpods, downloaded songs, tablets or anything of the kind. If people wanted to hear their favorite music—and they always do—then the way it was done was by playing records or CDs on your music system.

I remember buying my first speakers, as part of my very first system. I was a senior in high school. I’d been saving my money from my part-time jobs (as had all my friends) and we were all assembling our first systems. There were a few good stereo stores in our town, places called Sound Ideas (clever, huh?) and Fred Locke Stereo. My dad had his own hi-fi stereo system, but it was located in our den. I wanted to put my own system in our basement rec room, so I could play my jazz whenever I wanted, without disturbing the house and being told to “turn it down.”

2ax w and w-o grille.jpg

Anyway, my dad had speakers from a company named AR (Acoustic Research). They were a very well-known, highly-respected company that made some of the best speakers of their day. So, I decided I’d buy AR speakers. I still remember buying them, like it was yesterday. It was in February 1972, at the Fred Locke Stereo store in Avon Connecticut. The model number was AR-2ax. They were $192 for the pair, or $204.48 with the tax. I couldn’t wait to get them home. I’d also purchased a Dynaco SCA-80 amplifier and a Phillips 202 turntable with a Shure M91ED cartridge (the “needle”). At the time, it was a nice system—very high performance for a very reasonable price. About as much a system as a high school kid could get. I loved it. It sounded great to me, just great. You have to understand, part of the satisfaction from your system came not just from being pleased by its sound, it was also immensely gratifying to know that you selected this system: you did the research, you did the in-store comparisons, you made the decisions regarding how to apportion your limited budget. (“Do I go for the better speakers and the less powerful amplifier or do I spend for more watts of power and get the step-down speakers, which are just about as good?”) Lots of choices to make. Lots of factors to weigh. Therefore, your system was highly personal, it was reflective of your taste, your priorities, your sensibilities. If you were into stereo as a hobby, your system really represented you.

The Better than Being There Experience

So it’s been throughout the years. As time has passed, I’ve acquired better, newer and more powerful equipment. These days, my system is truly extraordinary in its ability to reproduce impactful, detailed, lifelike music in my living room. I just recently went to a Steely Dan concert in Boston and the sound at the concert couldn’t hold a candle to the sound of that very same music as played on my system. My stereo plays with far greater detail, with more depth and power to the sound, and as the listener, you never feel like your ears are ringing from being overexposed to loud, distorted music the way you feel when you leave a too-loud live concert. No question about it—my system sounds better than an actual concert. Much better. In fact, Gene coined the term "the better than being there experience" to describe how incredible his flagship Status 8T speaker system sounded playing back live concert events or high-res music compared to hearing the music in a live amplified performance.

The key to a great home music system is, without question, the speakers. Speakers have the greatest variance in sound from one model to another. Within reasonable limits, most amplifiers sound about the same. They vary in power (more watts or less watts) but that mostly determines how well suited a given amplifier is for a large or small room. When operated within their design limits, most amplifiers sound largely alike. With small variations, the same is true for CD players or music players that store and replay downloaded songs. There may be some subtle differences, but those differences are an order of magnitude smaller than the differences between different speakers.

So for a rabid hi-fi aficionado, like myself, the day that you get new speakers for your music system is a big day. A very big day. Music is incredibly important in your life, or else you wouldn’t invest this kind of time, effort and money planning, acquiring and maintaining such an elaborate music system across the span of several decades. It’s a life-defining interest. And new speakers are a system-defining element. And if A=B and B=C, then A=C. So new speakers are a life-defining component.

Well, something like that, anyway. It’s a big deal, no matter how you look at it. I went through several speaker changes early on in my adult life. I kept those AR-2ax speakers all the way through college graduation and for a few years into my early adulthood while living in my first apartment by myself. Then as I made more money with an advancing career and still unmarried (so no ‘extraneous’ demands being put on my income), several other new speakers followed. Not less than four major new speaker models graced my music system over the next 10 years or so—a new “better than ever” speaker every few years. This was hi-fi heaven.

Then I got married. I pushed the “Pause” button on new stereo speakers and other equipment for a few decades. Things like college tuition, mortgages, home maintenance, car repairs, life insurance, kids’ weddings, etc. somehow took precedence over new speakers. Imagine that.

AR9 .jpg

Then, 10 years ago, I got wind of a used set of older top-of-the-line AR speakers (AR9’s) that were for sale. These particular speakers were like a high-end Mercedes car. Used, yes, but still incredibly highly-regarded. Still thought of as among the very best speakers of all time. And they were selling (pardon the pun) for a song. By this point in my life, virtually all of the aforementioned financial obligations were in my rearview mirror. There was no reason I couldn’t buy the AR speakers. No reason at all.

So I bought them. The AR9. Remember that model number—it comes back full circle later on. It means something. The AR9.

It turned out to be perhaps the most satisfying material purchase I’ve ever made. Material purchases are by definition unimportant. As you get older and experience the ups and downs of life, what seemed to be a critical trinket to you at age 23 pales in comparison to good health, the love, companionship and support of intimate relationships and the inexpressible, enduring value of close friends. That said (and recognized as completely true), I’ve enjoyed having and listening to those AR9’s more than you can imagine. For 10 straight years, they sounded so good, it amazed me. My dad (who passed away over 20 years ago; the two of us were incredibly close) would have loved them, seeing as he was a very early AR speaker enthusiast. We would spend hours and hours listening to music together, talking about hi-fi. My mom used to say it sounded like some foreign language, as Dad and I would toss around terms like harmonic distortion, signal-to-noise ratio, hemispherical dome tweeter and system resonance. I can see why to an outsider it sounded like a different language.

He would have especially liked the fact that I had them, since he and I had long regarded the AR9 as a dream—but unattainable—speaker. So the AR9 provided me with satisfaction and enjoyment that went well beyond just their actual audio performance as speakers. They also held an intangible but incredibly important nostalgic and emotional appeal for me as well.

But 10 years is a long time. It’s far longer than I’ve had any of my other primary speakers in my main music system. I still have a hand in the hi-fi consumer electronics/speakers/music industry, so I began to write to the presidents/owners of several high-end speaker companies whose products interested me, asking them very detailed technical questions about their design and performance. I have some very impressive audio career credentials with high visibility speaker companies like Bose, Boston Acoustics and Atlantic Technology, and I am directly responsible for the conception, engineering development and marketing of some of the industry’s most famous and most successful products over the last 30 years or so.

This was an important informational search for me. looking for what will likely be my last big speaker purchase. “Big” in every sense of the word.

Legacy Audio

The speaker company whose products interested me the most is called Legacy Audio. This is a very high-end speaker company who essentially builds their speakers to order and ships them direct to the end user. They have a few retail dealers across the country who display and demonstrate their speakers, but not too many. Their web site is quite elaborate and very detailed. They also send out very beautiful full-color printed brochures on heavy gloss paper, to fulfill the main purpose of printed literature: To give the prospective buyer the ultimate “gotta have it” experience. A physical, printed brochure does that in a way that on-screen digital info never will.

 Bill Dudleston of Legacy Audio YouTube Interview

All of the major hi-fi magazines and audio web sites have given Legacy products universal acclaim, top recommendation. Their speakers are not exactly cheap—the least expensive are around $4000/pair and the no-holds-barred top models with built-in amplification and DSP optimization are well over $20,000/pair. Their in-house cabinetry/woodworking shop builds cabinets of exquisite elegance in any number of custom finishes and different wood veneers.

But as breathtakingly beautiful as their cabinetry is, Legacy is best known for their innovative, cutting-edge engineering prowess.  Bill Dudleston, their President/head designer, has been at this for a very long time and has honed his design approach over the years to a very fine point. Interestingly, when asked in an interview some years back if any great products from audio’s past had influenced his thinking and shaped his design philosophy, he said, “Absolutely: The AR9. That speaker really got it right.”

How about that. The AR9.

So, I ordered a set of Legacy’s. Not the super-duper expensive ones, but not their least expensive model either. The Signature SE, a nice middle-of-the-line model with a list price of a good used car. I’m out of my mind, I know. They’re building them as we speak. I’ve already given my AR9’s away to a good friend, an engineer I worked with at a past speaker company. He loves them and is incredulous over their sound. No surprise there.

I can’t wait to get the Legacy’s. “New speaker day” is a big event. You pull out all your favorite CDs and excitedly listen to one after another. You have every critical passage memorized—you know exactly how it sounded on your previous speakers—and you listen intently on your new ones. Invariably, the new ones sound great. You convince yourself that you hear new details in the music that were previously smeared over, that the bass is even deeper and more powerful, that the highs are sharper, with greater “air” and “sheen.” (Those are classic ‘audiophile’ adjectives used to describe how the music sounds lifelike and clear.) You call anyone who is in the house into your listening room: “You gotta hear this! Isn’t that amazing? Don’t you hear that detail? Doesn’t it sound like the musicians are right there?” They look at you and smile and say something along the lines of, “It’s very nice. As long as you like it, that’s the main thing.”

They don’t hear it. They don’t get it. They don’t understand.

Speakers and audio is a singular hobby. Sitting down for a two-hour “listening session” in front of your system on a Saturday afternoon is something you do for yourself, by yourself. You get immersed in the music. You revel in the interplay between Miles Davis’ plaintive runs up and down the trumpet scale and Tony Williams’ explosive cymbal responses. Another side of your brain, concurrent with your artistic appreciation for this amazing musicianship, makes conspicuous note that your system is reproducing the music with startling realism, that every subtle detail and nuance of the music is clearly audible and tonally accurate. You’re reacting to both the artistry of the music and the recognition of the amazing quality of the playback itself. There is satisfaction on multiple levels.  But unfortunately, this is an experience from a bygone era. Virtually no one from the Gen X or the Millennial generation sits down and “listens to their system” anymore and when us Baby Boomers die off, that’ll pretty much be the final death knell for the hobby of component hi-fi audio.

Saving the Best for Last? Audiophile Dream Realization

IMG_2937.JPGThe Legacies will be my last speakers. That makes me a bit sad and brings the notion of my being in the late innings of my life’s game clearly into focus.  For the better part of the last 50 years—from the time I was a teenager—I’ve always thought about getting new speakers. Better ones. Bigger ones. The latest, the greatest, the ones that were so good, everyone who heard them would be amazed. Now, this is it. This is the last time. (No, I don’t plan on dying anytime soon. But in an ironic twist of fate, Mother Nature robs older males around age 70+ of their ability to hear very high frequencies and discern fine acoustic details. In other words, men lose their “hi-fi” hearing for good at around age 70 or so. Some lose it even earlier. I clearly still have my good hearing, but I won’t forever.)

I just turned 66 and I’ve never given the idea of life’s finish line any thought before. However, now, I must admit, I can see it.  But these Legacy speakers will be great. They’ll be the musical and emotional/personal culmination of a life-long hobby. I’ll enjoy them to the absolute maximum on so many levels, for so many reasons. “Legacy” speakers—aptly named, no?

 

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About the author:

Steve Feinstein is a long-time consumer electronics professional, with extended tenures at Panasonic, Boston Acoustics and Atlantic Technology. He has authored historical and educational articles for us as well as occasional loudspeaker reviews.

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