The Shape of Sounds to Come

Courtesy of Kef

They look weird, sound great—but is any stereo speaker worth $150,000?

For most of us, the music we hear through our home stereo system is a satisfying facsim­- ile that falls only slightly short of a concert hall experience. But for some, the re-creation of the live mu­­sical mo­­ment can become an obsession—as well as an ex­­ercise in frustration. Incremental im­­prove­ments in audio performance are elusive and ex­­pen­sive, not to mention sub­jec­tive.

Indeed, speakers are the most subjective com­ponent of any stereo system because of the array of designs and mate­rials used. While most are rectangular in shape—enclosing a variety of woofers, midranges, and tweeters—radical styles and exotic materials are sign­posts pointing toward the esoteric realm where perfect sound allegedly resides. Such models, routinely priced at a stratospheric five or six figures, generally offer controversial performance specifications that could be described as paranormal: Going with the belief that the unheard can influence sound quality, some can reproduce frequencies well beyond the range of human hearing. So even if you don’t appreciate their technical abilities, your dog certainly will. To a lesser degree, design is also meant to appease the doubtful spouse faced with twin black boxes filling up a room like black holes in an otherwise beau­tiful universe.

But such artful conceits are often just a beard that disguises the sonic intent, no matter how seemingly quixotic. That said, KEF’s new Muon speakers have a rare sense of sculpture, be­­ing nearly seven feet tall with fused sheets of aluminum that have been pinched and twisted to appear cinched at the waist. This ex­­tremely rigid cre­ation was designed by Ross Love­grove, whose work appears in New York’s Museum of Modern Art. And aping the limited editions common to fine art photography, only 100 pairs of the Muon speakers will be made and sold at a cost of $139,000 each.

Similarly priced at $150,000 and also lim­ited to 100 pairs—but less arty and more radical—is the Steinway Lyngdorf Model D, a product of a marriage between the venerable pianomaker and Peter Lyng­dorf, a longtime player on the European audio scene. The system consists of two speakers as well as a vaultlike cabinet with a brass knob and a digital readout that looks as if it is measuring the temperature of fissionable material stored inside. The knob is actually a volume control that displays decibel levels by increments of tenths (78.8, for example). The cabinet also contains a CD player, digital signal–processing circuitry, and space for future upgrades to a surround sound home theater setup. At first glance the speakers appear to be just another pair of rectangular boxes, but a closer look reveals that they do not employ a baffle or an enclosure, making it seem as if you just bought the lid of a box. Steen Lohse, chair­man of the company, says special signal processors compensate for any frequency loss created by this ap-proach, so the result is more natural-sounding music akin to that of a concert hall, free of any res­onances in­troduced by enclosures.

Just as radical are the round speakers built by Daniel Herring­ton, founder of Proclaim Audioworks. His DMT-100 speakers, which cost $26,000 a pair, resemble various-size eight balls held aloft by robotic arms. While the spherical de­­sign can be startling, Her­rington says his round en­­closures, crafted from a sand mixture squeezed be­­tween two layers of fiberglass, reproduce audio fre­quencies more smoothly than rectangular ones. Since they can be angled up to 12 inches ver­tically or horizontally, buyers can pursue the ultimate in sound quality on their own and tailor the sound to an individual room’s acoustics. The truly obsessed can also use an external crossover to decide at which point in the audible fre­quency spectrum (23 to 30,000 hertz) each sphere will reproduce bass, midrange, and treble sounds. But be warned: The pursuit of sonic perfection can turn ugly in the wrong hands.

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And for $600...

Docking ports for iPods are so commonplace that they are now being offered in every room in luxury condos. Still, the new $600 Zeppelin caught our eye thanks to its unique shape and provenance—it’s made in England by Bowers & Wilkins, the highly re­­spected speaker­maker. The iPod attaches to the float­ing arm that protrudes from the two-foot-long dock, so when scrolling and select­ing music you can grip your iPod as you normally would. A built-in amplifier sends 25 watts per channel of power to a pair of midranges and tweeters, while an additional 50 watts pump a solitary five-inch woofer for the kind of bass you won’t get through headphones.