I've been an audiophile for more than 30 years, and from where I stand there's never been a more exciting crop of high-end speakers to choose from. The goal--to make as lifelike a sounding speaker as possible--is exceedingly difficult, but that hasn't stopped a slew of very talented designers from trying. This top-10 list was created without price constraints and is presented in no particular order; the speakers are all exceptional performers (prices listed are for pairs of speakers). They are all currently available models, but I will soon do another top-10 list of the best speakers of the 1950s, '60s, '70s, and '80s.
I did the first "" blog post last year, with a self-imposed price limit of $3,500 per pair (two were under $1,000). Most models are still available, so if you're looking for affordable options, please refer to that list. All of the companies on today's list offer less expensive models.
. This speaker's handsome curves and strong physical presence demands respect--it all but shouts "this is very serious audiophilia"--it's made for those rare souls who would appreciate a world-class speaker small enough to fit in an apartment, with floors strong enough to support the 540-pound weight of a pair of these $39,000 beauties. For my money it's better than Wilson Audio's highly regarded Watt/Puppy speaker.
Naim Ovator S-600. Britain's Naim Audio Ltd. is best known for its amplifiers and CD players, but this new speaker breaks a lot of rules and sounds less like a box speaker than anything on the planet. With super-tight bass, uninhibited dynamic punch, superlative midrange tone, and pure treble, the S-600 is a strong contender on a number of fronts. At $10,450 it's priced near the low-end for today's state-of-the-art speakers. Review to come.
Anthony Gallo Acoustics Reference 3.5. A radical update of the Gallo Reference 3.1, with new drivers; the small, 35-inch tall floor-standing speaker projects a huge soundstage. The cast aluminum and stainless steel design feels remarkably solid. Sonically, the Reference 3.5 has the ease and poise of a much larger and more expensive speaker. At $6,000 the Reference 3.5 is the most affordable speaker on this list and offers more than a glimpse of state-of-the-art audio. Sounds great with low-power amplifiers; review to come.
. Another English contender, and this one's loaded with interesting design tricks, including a synthetic diamond tweeter. The form-follows-function design is drop-dead gorgeous. B & W's top models are favored by audiophiles and recording studios. $15,000.
Wilson Audio MAXX Series 3. More than any other company Wilson Audio dominates the upper-end speaker market. Its held that position for more than 25 years, and now with this 5-foot, 7-inch-tall, 425-pound bad boy, there's no sign that reign will end anytime soon. So sure, the MAXX 3 is brute-force powerful, capable of producing "live" sound volume, in the largest rooms or mansions. That said, the MAXX 3 also plays quiet music with beguiling refinement. It's what any demanding (and wealthy) audiophile would expect a $68,000 speaker to sound like. BTW, the MAXX 3 isn't Wilson's , not by a long shot.
JBL Synthesis 1400 Array BG. It's strange, JBL is one of those American hi-fi brands with a long and illustrious history, but it's rarely considered in contemporary terms. The JBL Synthesis 1400 Array BG should change that; it's a "horn"-loaded design, and a seriously powerful, yet perfectly transparent sounding speaker. Granted, the 1400 won't win any beauty contests; the 115-pound beast stands 46 inches tall, 15 inches wide, and 19 inches deep. $11,500.
Magnepan 20.1. The 20.1 has been in production for over a decade, but this speaker, made in White Bear Lake, MN, is still a very viable contender. It's a large panel, 79 inches high, 29 inches wide, but only 2 inches deep; the 20.1 is capable of filling very large rooms with ease. The ribbon tweeter has been cited as the world's best by many audio critics, including me. $12,000.
Vandersteen Model Seven. Vandersteen is another all-American high-end brand, and one that never in its long history made a less than outstanding speaker. The Seven uses specially developed Perfect-Piston, "ultra-high-modulus" carbon-fiber cones, made by Richard Vandersteen. The $45,000 speaker is making waves among the cognoscenti.
MartinLogan CLX. Coming out of Lawrence, Kansas, MartinLogan makes the world's finest electrostatic panel speakers. The CLX is its crowning achievement; if you want to know what "see-through transparency" means, listen to a MartinLogan electrostatic speaker. The 25th Anniversary Edition model is much the same as a standard CLX, but features a clear anodized Billet Aluminum Frame, that adds to the allure of the design. $25,000.
Focal Grande Utopia EM. A really grand speaker, the Grande Utopia EM humbles every other ultra high-end speaker I've heard. It reproduces the majesty of a symphony orchestra better than anything else, and it can rock the house at live concert levels without working hard. A technical knockout, the Grande Utopia EM is the one to buy when you're rich enough not to ask what it costs.