Back in the 1990s, a good number of stereo firms began branching out into the burgeoning home theater market. Many undoubtedly were attracted by the loads of cash consumers were starting to sink into custom installations. Others likely saw surround sound as a necessary product for long-term business survival.
At the time no one was sure two-channel would still be around in the next millennium. As it turns out, the movie-room trend peaked with the housing boom of the last decade, while traditional stereo sound morphed into a hobbyist endeavor. Today, some of the major high-fidelity firms that got into home theater have returned to their roots. Harman International’s Mark Levinson brand, for instance, sold surround processors for a while but jettisoned the line recently. “We’re strictly two-channel now,” a rep told me at T.H.E. Show.
Indeed it is uncommon to find many specialist companies trying to serve both markets any more. But there are some, including California-based Starke Sound.
I was very pleasantly surprised during my visit to the Starke room in Newport. While the company’s owners acknowledge that many of their customers probably want to play music and video from a single rig, they seem determined to make sure the sound is top-notch.
“Home theater enthusiasts have been told for years that you can’t have a system that produces great sound for music and movies,” reads the into to the company’s extensive catalog. “Starke Sound engineers disagree.”
Starke’s chief design director, Scott DeLoache, echoed that goal as he cued up a few test tracks for my demo.
“There’s a hybrid system model that’s evolving,” DeLoache told me. “People are wanting to play not only albums and movies in one room, but video games as well. We want to bring two-channel sound quality to those installations.”
The IC-H5 speakers were especially interesting. The 4-foot-tall, 10-inch-wide, 120-pound transducers sport seven drivers each. The bottom half of the handsome cabinet houses three 8-inch woofers and a 12-inch passive radiator, while the top half features a 1-inch beryllium tweeter flanked by two carbon-fiber midranges in a D’Appolito array. Frequency response is listed at 28-30,000 Hz, while sensitivity is 92 decibels.
To test the system, I listened to the Eagles’ “Hotel California” from the band’s unlikely reunion for the aptly named “Hell Freezes Over” tour and subsequent album of the same name. This is a very well-recorded track and the performances, as directed by Don “Bat Ears” Henley and the much-missed Glenn Frey, are impeccable. On Starke’s IC-H5s, the acoustic reworking of the group’s enigmatic “Mexican reggae” composition sounded like the listener was sitting on the front row, with the crisp strumming of the multiple guitars and the exotic percussion practically jumping out of the speakers.
Henley’s note-perfect, parched Texas drawl was isolated in the center of the mix, with good air around it, and bass was deep, tight and tuneful (no home theater bloat here). In addition to the focus and clarity of the reproduction, there was a relaxed, refined quality to the sound that was addictive. I would guess this latter attribute — which I value highly in music reproduction as it encourages long listening sessions — would also be especially welcome with crash- and boom-heavy video programming.
Starke is definitely a company to keep your eye on. Even if you have little interest in video, its products are very competitive with others in their price range for sound alone. Or, if you’re an audiophile who’s thinking of trying to assemble a “convergence” system, Starke could be the hot ticket.