Mondo Audio: Speakers and Style

Bill Clinton’s actions in the Country Formerly Known As Prince, er, Yugoslavia might have restored Americans’ faith in the USA’s global image, but he really didn’t have to prove anything. (I’d like to think that his intervention was motivated by a love for peace.) While it reminded Europeans that Americans still pack the biggest punch, and it reminded Americans that the US of A is still THE supremo superpower, in cultural terms things haven’t changed one bit since the turn of the century. As we move into the 21st, it’s clear that everyone from taxi drivers in mainland China to waiters in Budapest want their MTV, Levis and Big Macs. And it’s most amusing to note that even the French haven’t been able to curb the Americanization of the planet. And that includes making the use of American expressions a crime…

American dominance exists even when it’s a case of the tail shaking the dog; the world of hi-fi is but one example. The USA is, after all, smaller in terms of population that the countries which make up the European Economic Community, and it probably absorbs no more than 30% of the world’s hi-fi. Indeed, one can name, without batting an eyelash, a dozen countries (including the odd American brand) which exports better than 90% of their output just to the Hong Kong/Taiwan/Singapore triangle. No, I won’t embarrass them, but I can also name a couple which export 100% of their output to these three countries.

Conversely, there are brands which do very nicely in Europe which don’t even have (nor want) US distribution, arguing that the market is too diverse and too dispersed, too xenophobic, too price-oriented and too political. Oh, and all-but-devoid of worthy high-end retailers. But the world of hi-fi still marches to an American drumbeat, and nearly all non-US brands seem to aspire to American acceptance, even if they don’t actually sell their wares in the USA.

So, should any unpatriotic types start telling you that American influence has lessened, tell them to think again: the home cinema and multi-room (or installation) markets have ensured that US tastes and requirements still determine the final shape, size and color. There’s no better example of this slavish pandering to the USA than a certain misguided British loudspeaker manufacturer, one that depends as much on its home market as it does on export, which produced a range of in-wall speakers that cannot be used in the majority of British homes. The British, you see, have not embraced cavity-wall house construction, so you need a jack-hammer to cut into the brickwork to fit their flushmounts.

For that matter, the British haven’t embraced multi-room either, nor have any other territories. It’s primarily an American phenomenon; one manufacturer told me, even more specifically, that it’s a Southern Californian phenomenon. And yet there are companies around the world producing full remote control systems, with wall-mounted keypads and camouflaged hardware, which appeal only to American consumers — only the Americans are buying the far less expensive homegrown equipment. Why pay over the odds for imported multi-room control systems when you can buy products from Audio Access, Crestron, Lexicon or a few dozen other American makes at prices which seem shamelessly low compared to the imports?

Whatever you call the current parlous state of the world’s economy, a recession or a depression or simply the end of the Millennium, the construction industry has been hit hard, and new homes aren’t being built with the fury that they were in the mid-Eighties. As a result, fresh new apartment blocks are not there waiting to be pre-wired for a six-zone home entertainment system. And only the absurdly wealthy outside of the USA can consider “high end” multi-room installations, because they’re the only people who are redecorating their homes to an extent greater than new wallpaper or a lick of paint. The type of apartments in London and Paris and Hong Kong that are being pre-wired for multi-room hi-fi are the sort of homes which will house oil magnates, top lawyers, show-biz types and Grand Prix racing drivers. Mere audiophiles (who don’t want multi-room junk anyway) cannot afford $30,000-plus just for the wiring and the controllers and the carpentry.

And another thing which multi-room vendors tend to forget: Americans typically have larger homes, both in terms of square footage and actual room numbers. It’s this which has also allowed American consumers to embrace home cinema, because it’s more likely that an American home has an extra room or a finished basement adaptable to the cause of home viewing. That’s not to say that all Europeans and Asians live in shoe-boxes, but it’s not far off, either. What will be amusing is to see how successful the recently-founded CEDIA-Europe is at educating both the public and the trade about the wonders of multi-room hi-fi.

What Europeans have learned from the Americans, and not a moment to soon, is that you can ameliorate resistance to hi-fi by disguising or decorating it, even if you don’t go all the way with custom installations which hide the hardware like a mad uncle locked in the attic. And since speakers are the worst culprits when it comes to upsetting domestic harmony – unlike amps and CD players, they don’t work behind the closed doors of a cabinet – one can only register surprise as to why it’s taken so long for European speaker builders to progress beyond offering different wood finishes.

American brands deserve the credit for this, both venerable and new. Launched last year BNS Loudspeakers’ four-way Nobis with removable lower baffle trim as a separate section, available in various veneers and primary colors. It’s such a logical solution as a cost-effective way of supplying a multitude of finishes, so we can only wonder why nobody thought of it before. (I trust a reader with a long memory will remind us of any ancestor which might exist.) Best of all, for those with a near-fatal dread of upgrading and/or redecorating, future changes in the domestic environment can be addressed simply by purchasing new panels. And now a German company has followed BNS’ lead.

Heco is one of Germany’s largest speaker firms, with more ranges than I can keep straight, but the new Ascada presents a novel alternative to the BNS method. The series consists of three floorstanders and a medium sized two-way speaker, offer with glossy all-black or all-white cabinets. What’s interchangeable, though, are the top panels and the lower section of the front panel, roughly LP-sleeve-sized sections which enable the owner to color-code the speakers to match the room decor. The catalogue shows, in addition to black and white panels to create monochromatic monoliths, a half-dozen veneers, including oak and cherry, and a half-dozen bold colors like turquoise, mauve, royal blue and the like.

But you can now go even further. And again, there’s an historical precedent from the USA. Instead of offering replaceable bits, why not make it easy to refinish the entire enclosure? At the risk of sounding sexist, since reality will show that most of the objections to the presence of hi-fi in a room come from wives and girlfriends, this alternative helps the beleaguered, cuckolded, henpecked male to allow the distaff component to get involved in overall color selection. Think of it as hi-fi’s answer to the lipstick counter.

Partial color modifications have existed before in forms which didn’t involve panel replacement or refinishing. A couple of decades ago, JBL offered a choice of colored grilles for certain models in its range – I seem to recall a selection for the original Century and Decade, especially a not-too-appetizing orange — while KEF in the UK came up with a range of cloth stockings that slipped over the entire speaker like a condom. But the true antecedent for Mordaunt-Short’s new Decormatch® is the option which used to be available to Acoustic Research customers in the 1960s.

(Before the hate-mail starts, I must gleefully admit to being just that bit too young to remember what hi-fi was available before my interest started in 1967. So any other manufacturers that were also offering what I’m about to subscribe: sorry for leaving you out. And I think that Klipsch is one of ‘em…)

If you look through old AR catalogues and your now-yellowing annuals from Audio and Stereo Review, you’ll find that nearly all of AR’s mid-1960s speakers were available in raw, unfinished wood for you to paint, stain, varnish or veneer. Unlike kits-versus-built-ups, the possible savings probably wasn’t a motivating factor in buying ARs au naturel. Quite simply, this option allowed the handy-with-sandpaper customer to match his or her AR speakers to any decor. And for AR, it meant not having to offer (or keep stocks of) bizarre veneers in the hope that one day they’ll have an order for a pair of zebrawood or ebony 2AXs.

Now the British company Mordaunt-Short has revived this thirty-year-old idea, a boon for houseproud music lovers who don’t want to cut holes in their walls to accommodate flush-mounted speakers. But the finish isn’t raw tree-wood, and you don’t need to know about varnishes to benefit from the “freedom to decorate”.

Decormatch® is the name of the polymer formulation used for the cabinet material, a surface that can be painted with vinyl matt or vinyl silk emulsions. Mordaunt-Short collaborated with Dulux, the UK’s largest paint manufacturer, in the design of the cabinetry, so the system is guaranteed to work with the widest range of paint colours imaginable. Leaving nothing to chance, M-S even ensured that the grille cloths can be colored to match or contrast with the enclosure using a proprietary cold-water dye. Two coats of paint and the dyeing of the grille are all that it takes to adapt the smallest Mordaunt-Shorts to even the most pastel of dwellings.

Decormatch® will first appear on the company’s CS-1 loudspeaker, a fully-shielded, inexpensive little two-way system rather than a costlier design. Not surprisingly, Mordaunt-Short also sells loads of CS-1s for home theater systems because, even in their standard state, they’re relatively unobtrusive. While paying attention in this manner to such non-performance-related matters as looks might seem like anathema to purists such as us, it does address the real world. And, like it or not, audiophiles are outnumbered 100,000-to-1 by civilians.

(Audio, March 1996)