Do you ever notice that when makers of sleek, well-finished speakers photograph them, it’s usually in a spotless, contemporary room in a house straight out of the old “Miami Vice” series?
You can’t fault manufacturers for wanting to play to our fantasies about conspicuous consumption. Beyond the Robb Report setting, though, there’s usually another aspect of these shots that is beyond reality.
The gorgeous transducers stand alone, their sinewy lines and gleaming finish unspoiled by 12 feet of garden-hose-size cable coiled behind them.
Heck, in most of these advertisements, the speakers are sitting on a nice polished wood floor, flanking a picture window looking out on waves breaking at the beach. There’s no preamp, hefty monoblocks, power conditioner, CD player, or turntable in sight, either.
So, what is the owner doing with these speakers – listening to them or just worshipping them?
In other words, yes, they look great this way, but there’s not too many models that can actually make music in such a scenario.
One that comes close is made by Piraeus Audio, a company that was exhibiting at the California Audio Show after four years of research and development. Their new Athena speakers were among the most beautiful at the event, and also were pulling off the “look Ma, no cables” trick with aplomb.
Built in Santa Cruz, California, each Piraeus speaker contains its own preamp and amplifier. If you add something like an Apple AirPort wireless transmitter, you can beam your tunes straight in from a music server or CD player. Piraeus was using a Sony disc spinner at CAS.
“Each speaker also has a DSP processing engine for d/a conversion and some mild room correction,” said Elias Adamopoulos, who co-owns the company with Ian McNeil.
The amps are 750 watts per channel, class D. The design also features 96db/octave crossover slopes, phase-corrected drivers and a sample rate converter that supports up to 24/192 signals.
Along with working models, Adamopoulos brought an empty speaker cabinet. Peering inside, I saw construction that bordered on obsessive.
“A big focus for us is our internal bracing,” he said. “We want the cabinet as acoustically dead as possible.”
The Athena is a sealed box that uses a 10 inch woofer, 5 inch midrange and ¾ inch silk dome tweeter to produce a quoted response of 25hz-24khz.
Also included is built-in power conditioning (yes, they do need a power cord) and optical, coaxial and digital inputs. So you can choose to run an interconnect cable to them if you want to.
Adamopoulos was playing Dire Straits’ “Ride Across the River” when I entered. The track, which includes atmospheric percussion from Manu Katche and a backdrop of buzzing insects and ominous thunder from the Straits’ keyboard twins, Guy Fletcher and Alan Clark, sounded particularly harrowing.
Mark Knopfler’s voice was well-rendered, his trademark growl cutting through the gloom with ease. His layered guitar parts, meanwhile, could be followed individually, and featured excellent decay against a black background.
Overall, the track had a lot of visceral impact without being aggressive. The silk-dome tweeter, especially, did a nice job balancing out the digital program source to produce a top end that was extended without being fatiguing.
Bass response was the only area that seemed to come up slightly short of specs. The lower end was more than adequate, but didn’t seem to plumb as deep as its 25hz rating would suggest. That easily could have been a room issue, though.
Perhaps the Athenas best attribute was their top-notch woodwork. The speakers are available in bubinga (a stunning red-toned hardwood), walnut and burl, as well as silver metallic and piano black and white.
The suggested retail price is $23,500 a pair, which is a pretty good value when you consider that includes your amps, pre-amp, d/a converter and room EQ.
And, except for a power cord you can tuck behind them, the Piraeus Athenas are ready to offer high-end sound without spoiling your architectural theme, whatever it might be.
For some people, frequent equipment switching is part of the hobby. If you’d rather just concentrate on the music, but want more than a dodgy “lifestyle” system, these speakers may be the answer.
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