In the present economic climate, budget crunching has become a favorite exercise wherever you look. Audio is no exception.
These days, even formerly profligate audiophiles wonder how to shave costs without cutting quality -- or, as one of them puts it, to be frugal without being stingy.
This leads to a search for components offering exceptional dollar value. Not always the cheapest -- for cheap goods are just that and no bargain at any price.
Rather, the quest is for those rare items that manage to match -- or at least approach -- performance levels normally found only in costlier models.
The next several columns will conduct a bargain hunt for just such products. Starting with loudspeakers seems a good idea, for it is among speakers that one encounters the greatest diversity of design, the widest range of prices and, on occasion, the least correspondence between quality and price. The latter is what we are looking for: models that sound a lot better than their price would indicate.
There are plenty of overpriced loudspeakers, some of them good. But to find a good underpriced speaker takes persistence and lots of listening. Even so, it can be done, and here are a few examples, including some less-known brands that deserve to be more widely heard.
For example, a Canadian company called PSB, based in Pickering, Ontario, has lately gained broader distribution in this country precisely because its speakers offer outstanding sound at prices below par.
Even the least expensive model in the company's line -- the PSB20MKII, listing at $225 a pair -- has the natural, spacious sound that marks all PSB designs, and even its bass response is highly creditable for its compact dimensions of 13.5 by 8.5 by 6.3 inches.
But perhaps the best bargain offered by PSB is its Model 50-MKII. This is a floor-standing speaker priced at $550 a pair that hints at no compromise.
Its sonic depth, warmth and detail are rarely matched in this price range, and even massively orchestrated music sounds natural and convincing.
In their overall sonic character, PSB speakers resemble the better British brands. They achieve clarity without overdue brightness. There is no aggressive edge to the sound. The
music is all there, but it doesn't shout about itself.
Another winning combination of tonal merit and dollar value is to be found in BIC-Venturi speakers, made in Stow, Ohio. Its Model V62 is certainly one of the best speakers to be had for under $100 (they're $199 a pair), and the elegance of the cabinet, with its beveled corners, belies the low price. Its sonic balance suits all kinds of music, classical as well as popular.
Listeners favoring a somewhat more pronounced treble to bring out the percussive detail in popular music should also audition the Mordaunt-Short MS3.10 ($229 a pair). It is notable for being able to project extremely clear sound at comparatively high volume levels -- something rare among small speakers in this price class.
Boston Acoustics of Peabody, Mass., has long been a standby for audio bargain hunters in search of speakers with a natural tonal balance. These designs are happily free of the acoustical tricks frequently used to dramatize the sound.
At $260 a pair, the Boston Acoustics A60 Series II has become something of a classic among budget models, while the Model T830 -- at $500 a pair -- sets a fine standard of performance in the mid-price range.
Getting ample bass from low-cost speakers has always been a problem. In this respect, Pinnacle Loudspeakers of Hauppauge, N.Y., has achieved wonders with its patented version of a bass reflex enclosure.
It features interior ducts, angled within the enclosure in a way that extends the lower range. As a result, a small speaker like the Pinnacle PN-5+ ($179 a pair) yields far deeper bass than is normally heard from a small, inexpensive speaker.
By the same design principle, the company's larger PN-8+ (19 by 12 by 12 inches, $399 a pair) manages to reach to the very bottom of the musical range, with audible output down to the lower depths at 30 Hz.
Even though these speakers' main strength lies in the lower part of the tonal spectrum, their upper range is more than adequate and agreeably smooth.
For listeners wanting lots of low sounds at low prices, the Pinnacle may be tops.