The sole task of a loudspeaker is to reproduce a recorded electrical signal as faithfully as possible without introducing noise that might create distortion. Over the years speaker manufacturers have experimented with a variety of materials and techniques in their quest for perfect fidelity. Recently two companies have made significant strides—using remarkably different approaches.
OLD-SCHOOL For decades audio orthodoxy has dictated that for the purest sound, speaker cabinets must remain as rigid and vibration-free as can be. In effect, they should be dead shells for the propagation of sound. To achieve the former characteristic, cabinetmakers have incorporated everything from complex internal skeletons to sound-absorbing dampeners in their designs. Now, with its new 800D model, the British firm Bowers & Wilkins has taken the pursuit a step further by covering the tweeters—the part of the speaker responsible for high-frequency sound, such as that of violins—with domes made entirely of synthetic diamonds.
Renowned for their strength and clarity, diamonds can also re-create an audio signal closer to hypothetical perfection than any other material. "The unique properties of diamonds mean we can make tweeter domes that remain stiff and light throughout the audible frequency and beyond," says Gary Geaves, Ph.D., head of research at Bowers & Wilkins. Unlike the more common aluminum domes, these diamond-encased models prevent the distortion of sound until the frequency is out of the range of human hearing. The gem-lined tweeters are also paired with six-inch drivers made from Kevlar that replicate midrange frequencies (like our voices) and with woofers for low bass notes (such as thunder in movies).
Bowers & Wilkins 800D speakers, $20,000 a pair; 978-664-2870; www.bwspeakers.com.
NEW-WORLD Hans Deutsch, an Austrian duke and respected audio guru to such orchestra maestros as the late Herbert von Karajan, takes another—some would say heretical—route to composing perfect sound. He maintains that "a loudspeaker is a musical instrument and should resonate like one when it's being played."
The manifestation of Deutsch's thinking is the new VC7 by Bösendorfer, the legendary 177-year-old Viennese pianomaker. At first glance the speaker appears so traditional in style that you can't imagine what's so special about it. Closer inspection, however, reveals that the speaker is sandwiched between two half-inch-thick pieces of wood that are crafted with the same technique Bösendorfer uses in making its piano lids. Metal fasteners suspend these acoustic soundboards, leaving a thin gap between. This airspace, along with sound portals at the base, allows the sound to resonate much in the manner of a musical instrument—an effect you can actually feel by touching the VC7 when it's being used. For anyone who has owned high-end speakers (most don't vibrate at all, even at high volume), the movement is a shock. Turn up the sound and your ears quickly appreciate what your eyes missed: the VC7's astounding ability to produce lifelike music.
Bösendorfer VC7 speakers, from $17,000 a pair; 212-684-1956; www.bosendorfernewyork.com.
Even Higher Definition
Now that high-definition television—that futuristic broadcasting format that has taken a Stone Age to get up and running—is finally everywhere (almost 90 percent of prime-time shows are now available in HDTV), it may just be time to spring for a new set. Fortunately manufacturers have been fine-tuning their products, making televisions with dramatically clearer pictures and better sound. Below, three sets to choose from when you want your HDTV.
SAMSUNG HL-R6768W Turn on this 67-inch rear-projection set and you'll enjoy a picture with the highest resolution possible—1080p. (Until recently 1080i was the best. For the uninitiated, progressive [p] scanning offers a higher resolution because the entire picture is refreshed each second, while interlaced [i] refreshes half the picture each second.) The set has been made even better by the use of Texas Instruments' digital light processing (DLP) technology, which ups the brightness and detail on superlarge screens. $5,700; 800-726-7864; www.samsung.com
SONY QUALIA 005 This just might be the world's best TV. At 46 inches, it's big for a liquid-crystal display model (LCD screens are generally smaller than 40 inches). What's truly innovative about it is a proprietary LED backlight system with a high-definition video processor that produces stunning 1080p pictures. $15,000; 877-782-5423; www.sony.com/qualia
PANASONIC TH-50PX500U Early complaints that plagued plasma TVs—of poor contrast ratios and a weak color palette—have disappeared, as this eighth-generation 50-inch model demonstrates. And while the improved picture of 1080i resolution is clearly visible, the built-in six-speaker audio system is practically invisible. $4,500; 800-405-0652; www.panasonic.com