Why Are Audiophiles Afraid of Powered Speakers 
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Written by Jerry Del Colliano   
Tuesday, 01 August 2006

Why Are Audiophiles Afraid of Powered Speakers
By Jerry Del Colliano
August 2006

From my days in high-end retail, now more than a decade ago, to today’s current home theater market, I have always been perplexed as to why Americans are hesitant to invest in powered speakers. Seemingly stashing your amp neatly inside of your speakers provides a host of advantages including more rack space, less heat, potentially lower cost and beyond. Literally all you have to do is run interconnects from your receiver or, better yet, your AV preamp directly to your speakers. Simplicity is yet another advantage, but consumers aren’t yet breaking down the doors at retailers to invest in powered speakers.

Recording studios, mastering labs and movie mixing houses have been using powered speakers for years to make the CDs, DVDs and soon to be Blu-ray and HD-DVD discs we consume. With the rise in popularity and performance of digital amplifiers, it is also possible to get more and more powerful amps inside speaker cabinets with less heat, less failure and more audiophile-quality sound. If the pros use powered speakers as their most important audio tool, then why would consumers be fearful? Most of the fear of powered speakers comes from the audiophile press, who prey on insecure audiophiles who take to irrational suggestions easily. The idea that a topnotch speaker company with dozens of highly educated engineers on staff and on retainer can’t find an amp to match the specific, scientific needs of the conglomeration of their drivers, crossovers and cabinets is insanity. Powered speakers have the oomph to be able to hang as well as the speaker physically can. Historically, the press and many of the audiophile dealers resisted the idea of merging amps and speakers into one cabinet because it limited a consumer’s upgrade path. It is hard to sell and resell the same client the amp of the month from the audiophile magazine if the client has a highly functional powered speaker system. Powered speakers do limit the upgrade path, and for that, they have been banished by those who make speakers famous. That is, until now.

Today’s powered speakers are extremely well designed for applications ranging from whole home automation to dedicated theaters of all sizes to dedicated music systems and beyond. In today’s home theater, it is powered speakers that are often the best solution for systems that hide speakers behind screens and/or fabric walls, since professional grade powered speakers have the volume output to beam through barriers as thin as grille cloth or as challenging as a perforated screen.

Powered Speakers to Consider
Meridian: Meridian has a range of high-end, performance-oriented speakers that have not only amps in them, but also sophisticated DACs and software that allow their engineers to upgrade your speakers for better performance without you sending them back to England. System connectivity is a breeze, and it’s great to have the simplicity of only a few components to run a topnotch home theater.

Genelec: Known best in the pro audio world, Genelec is carving out a very nice niche for themselves in the custom home theater market. Somewhat utilitarian in their look, these speakers remind me of the sound of Wilson speakers, which have been my reference for nearly 10 years now. At a fraction of the price of the Wilsons, Genelecs are very worth seeking out for an audition.

Meyer Sound: The biggest secret in high-end loudspeakers is the Meyer Sound X-10. Priced up there with Wilson MAXXs and other big-baller loudspeakers, the X10 isn’t the prettiest date to the prom (to be kind), but industry types who have great ears are raving about this speaker. At a recent studio demo, AVRev.com editor Bryan Southard noted that the X10s are the only speakers he has ever heard that can recreate the true energy of a live drum kit. As a powered speaker with a horn tweeter, they might scare off some audiophiles, but it must be noted their horns don’t sound like stereotypical horn speakers. Top studios worldwide are installing Meyer Sound X10s into their mastering labs while the most cutting-edge custom installers are using X10s for their larger installations. Meyer also makes smaller speakers.

Linn: Known as the company that taught the high end world the value of a good source component - Linn makes some of the finest powered speakers in the world. A recent move into the most lofty worldwide studios has Linn as an increasing part of the music mastering process, but many consumers are taking that studio sound home with them. The Artikulat Series from Linn are a complete line of power speakers that I have heard and are about as resolute as you will find at any price. When you consider the level of refinement you are getting in terms of amps, cables, cabinet, drivers and crossovers - no wonder these speakers sound so good.

XHifi: The desktop speaker to the stars. XHifi snuck a powerful digital amp inside their slick little subwoofer cabinet that powers both the sub and the speakers. For your MP3 collection at your desk or in your home office, do you really need a full-blown home theater receiver? XHifi prefers to provide you with 2.1 channels of studio-grade digital amplification and some surprisingly open-sounding small speakers.

Wasatch Audio Labs: A newcomer to the world of ultra-high-end speakers, Wasatch is designed and implemented by former AVRev.com video writer Mike Levy. Using the Australian room correction DEQX, these $40,000 speakers are better-looking than the average powered speaker and have the added value of being able to be tuned to your room by a professional acoustician. Meyer X10s also come with room tuning included in their lofty price. Getting the most from your high-end loudspeakers at the ultra level normally requires room tuning, treatments and set-up using very sophisticated measurement equipment. Without question, it is worth every penny.

Definitive Technology: While not fully powered, most Definitive Technology speakers have beefy amps inside of their towers, which allow them to crank out bass from their internal subs like few speakers in their class.

MartinLogan: Most MartinLogan speakers are not powered in terms of having amps in them, but their technology requires power. For someone fearful of taking the leap into fully powered speakers, the classic sound of MartinLogan is always a consideration. On the right material, nothing competes with the sound of a MartinLogan speaker in terms of clarity and openness.

During a recent trip to an audiophile club meeting in the Pacific Northwest, AVRev.com’s resident speaker setup guru Bob Hodas did a demo with Meyers X10 system that left many (if not all) of the audiophiles drooling and proclaiming it to produce the best sound they have every heard. At the end of the night, one of the members who has the money and the system to easily purchase X10s asked, “If I bought a pair, could I use my own amps?” This is inherently the audiophile problem. To say something was the best you ever heard at the ultimate price point and then want to somehow change what makes its successful describes the definition of the sickness known as audiophilia. I believe AVRev readers are simply more sophisticated and more informed as to the state of the art, leaving them less susceptible to the whims of pocket protector-wearing geeks selling obscure products that will be worth pennies on the dollar the day you walk out the audiophile dealer’s door.

Powered speakers require your attention and consideration in many venues. For the music enthusiast, it is a very simple way to set-up your system and if you believe in the “less is more theory,” then a high-end powered speaker could be for you. The dynamics of powered speakers make them an excellent solution. In the professional arena, many powered speakers go light on the fancy finishes to pack more punch into their transducers at a fair price. If you are burying your speakers behind a fabric wall or screen, then a zebra wood finish isn’t worth an investment from your speaker budget (get professional speaker calibration and room treatments instead).

If I was running a high-end loudspeaker company, I might consider looking at making powered versions of my top speakers. I would license the best, most famous amp designers from the likes of Mark Levinson to Krell to Classe’ to Linn and way beyond to make modules that could be added to and/or removed from my speakers. This way, the audiophile audience that still butters the bread of the top-line speaker companies can allow their clients to play with different amps inside the scope of a more simplified system solution. Additionally, it creates the ability to sell clients five different sets of amps for their speakers, so music enthusiasts who want to collect all five amps can do so.

In the end, fear not the powered speaker – you will be shocked at what you get for the money in terms of power, performance, system flexibility and value.

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