Q: I recently purchased Emotiva Airmotiv B1+ bookshelf speakers. Compared with my old speakers, the difference is incredible, especially considering that they sell for under $250. It makes me wonder, what does a true "high-end" speaker sound like?
A: You are hearing it now with your B1+ speakers. With modern computer-aided design techniques, these days you don't have to spend a fortune to get truly fine sound, especially if you do your due diligence when you shop.
I performed an experiment recently that illustrates this well. I have a pair of 34-year-old Celestion SL6S bookshelf speakers. Made in Great Britain by storied manufacturer Celestion, they were considered one of the finest speakers of their day. One reviewer called them "a transparent window to the musical performance," and I find that to be an apt description. Even three decades later, their performance rates as high-end. When they were made in 1986, they sold for $900 per pair, which works out to $2,062 in 2020 dollars.
I recently pulled out the speakers and compared them with two of the top bookshelf speakers in the $300 price range, the $315 Q Acoustics 3020i and your B1+ speakers. What I found is that the performance of these two speakers gets you in the same ballpark as the SL6S.
Each speaker had its strong points, but there was no clear sonic standout. (Please note that I cherry-picked the best speakers in the $300 price range, and most $300 or even $500 bookshelf speakers will not compare well with the SL6S.) Learn more at emotiva.com and qacoustics.com.
Among pricier speakers that would be more of a direct comparison to what the SL6S represented in its time, the $1,199 Polk Audio Legend L100 was better in every respect. The bass was deeper and more defined, the imaging more solid, and the L100 had a richer and more elaborate tonal palette, greater presence and sounded more real. The Legend L100 remains one of my all-time favorite speakers. (polkaudio.com)
Also impressive were the AQ Loudspeakers Pontos 9. They are handmade in the Czech Republic and use high-quality Scan-Speak drivers from Denmark, including ring-radiator tweeters. They are front-ported so they can be used close to walls, and, in fact, I found that the bass and midrange benefited from close wall placement. Vocal reproduction was especially good, as was the stereo imaging and overall sound. They list at $999 and currently are 10% off at theaudiolegacy.com.
If you want something that will make you shake your head in disbelief at what you are hearing, look beyond a traditional box speaker design. My favorites are Ohm Walsh speakers and Axiom Audio Omnidirectional speakers. Both take a radically different approach to creating sound, and the difference is clear from the moment you hear them. This comes at a price, however, with small Ohm towers starting at $1,400 and the Axiom Audio omnidirectional at $5,000. See them at ohmspeaker.com and axiomaudio.com.
Send questions to Don Lindich at firstname.lastname@example.org.