The key to great live sound is midrange magic. Here are the brands that deliver it.
While it’s impossible to fit Carnegie Hall into a living room, a good stereo system is like opening a window to a compelling soundscape that moves the listener’s soul. But creating an accurate simulacrum of live music at home is an elusive task, with as many opinions on what constitutes great sound as there are audio components designed to achieve it. And while expansive space and budget can both serve this purpose, neither is a guarantee of success without first knowing what success actually looks like.
Some audiophiles insist that without a 10-octave frequency response, from the 16 Hz of a 32-foot organ pipe to the ultrasonic frequencies audible only to bats, any reproduction lacks precision. Perhaps – but then why, if the force and large-scale dynamic range of Mahler’s “Symphony of a Thousand” can only be approached by the most ambitious systems, the same piece played through a pair of modest bookcases speakers or a good helmet can still give goosebumps and stir up emotions?
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“The soul of music is in the midrange,” says Philip O’Hanlon, an industry veteran whose company, On a higher note, distributes several major audio brands. “This is where the essence of the emotion, the passion, the joy of living is contained.” Fittingly, then, reproducing it seems to be more a matter of sensation than brute technological force. Take into account Quad 57 Electrostatic Speaker, invented by Peter Walker and released in 1957, which was limited to extreme frequencies, unable to play at high volumes, and was a single speaker to boot, as stereo was not a commercial reality at the time. And yet the Quad sounded more real than any speaker made before (not to mention many since) because it could reproduce the midrange – frequencies from around 200 Hz to 4,000 Hz, like guitar, flute and piano – like nothing else. It could also recreate the human voice, whose fundamental frequencies are even lower, with a frighteningly real fidelity that seemed to put a singer in the room with you.
Today, there are a number of speaker choices for achieving what O’Hanlon calls “midrange magic.” Not only do these options come from all over the world, but they also succeed using a variety of approaches. American companies such as sound laboratory, Volti and magnepan use electrostatic, horn compression, and plane ribbon transducers, respectively, while Italyit is Sonus Faber, Franceit is Focal, Germanyit is MBL and that of Japan TAD all use conventional conical, omnidirectional or concentric drivers.
British designers in particular enjoy a reputation for precise mediums. O’Hanlon, who is known for creating famous playlists and demos of systems that glue you to your seat, is particularly fond of speakers from Graham Audio, which extend this realism across the entire frequency range. He calls it the British Sound more. “The results are disturbingly realistic,” he says, “where the speakers disappear and all that’s left is the music hanging in the air.”