I had an illuminating conversation with a customer of mine the other day. So key was it’s message that I thought it might be a good idea to write an article around it. This particular customer of mine has a great system with me. We moved him into Vitus amplification around 3 years ago and then soon after that we upgraded his Notts Analogue deck to a Brinkmann Balance with Transfiguration Proteus moving coil. An Allnic phonostage and some TelluriumQ wires complete the picture as far as Lotus is concerned.

At the business end though, he has left his original speakers in place, a set of budget Focal floorstanders. Now these may have been a fairly decent speaker in the context of his previous system but not so anymore as everything upstream has been improved by several orders of magnitude. Much much more resolution, far greater neutrality and transparency and just a very clean, noiseless system. So really, the speakers remain quite a big bottleneck and there we were chatting away about upgrading to a Tidal or an Avalon.

The “weak speaker” story here is a very similar one to many other customers and it’s something as a dealer i’d prefer to see not happening. Why do we leave speakers till last or sometimes not at all ? Why is it that we all love spending huge amounts on amplifiers and sources but refrain from ever really getting into a properly highend set of loudspeakers ? During my chat the other day it occurred to me that as a dealer I have a growing number of customers in this particular predicament and all they are doing is experiencing maybe only 30% of the true potential of their system year in year out.

I think part of this trend stems from the difficult process that choosing speaker can be. Cheaper or lesser speakers tend to have a lot of character to them and they add an awful lot of their own sound into the system. For this reason, people spend a great deal of time choosing them whilst rejecting countless others, the variation is enormous. After this often tedious process, they get used to their “sound” and that becomes their form of neutrality. Understandably, they are then often loathed to go through that process again, not to mention tackling those other speaker complications again like the wife acceptance factor and room acoustical issues. What they sadly don’t know or realise though is that choosing a really good highend speaker is a far far easier and less vexing process as you are really just choosing from degrees of openess and not really types of sound or ‘character’. Bass response is also vastly superior so room issues are much more infrequent.

Another possible reason for this “weak speaker” syndrome is that here in the UK at least we were always told or rather brainwashed that “source first” was how it goes and that the source component is by far the most important. More on that later. Loudspeakers tend to get neglected and we all love buying big amplifiers and snazzy looking boxes.

Going back to my telephone conversation though and my customer for a second, the other interesting thing to note is that although I know that there is an awful lot more to come from his setup, he has actually been a very very happy bunny all those 3 years. His Focals, the speaker he knows and chose all those years ago, sound way way better than they ever did, the best he’s ever heard them in fact. So the important thing here really is often customers will reach a level that satisfies even only by changing electronics. Education, and demonstrating a fully balanced system in the shop which shows a fully realised potential and something to aim for in the future is perhaps what is needed more here then.

I did this very recently in fact when we moved another Naim chap into a full Vitus signature system. I strongly advised him to initially do a shop demo through a pair of Tidal Piano with good cabling and mains throughout so he could get an accurate and powerful overview of exactly how good the Vitus electronics are and what they can do within a perfectly matched and balanced setup. Something to aim for as a yardstick you could say. He duly obliged with this shop demo and then when he did his actual home demo he quickly discovered that his rather expensive £20,000 speakers (highly thought of by press and public alike) were actually not nearly good enough for the Danish electronics and fell very short of the naturalness, resolution and ability to disappear that the Tidal’s had exhibited at my place (albeit at a similar pricepoint). We ended up changing the entire system for him.

So why is it, I hear you ask, that I am raining an avalanche of Tidal Contriva pictures down on you ? Well, during this aforementioned telephone conversation I went on to explain to my customer that knowing what I know now, if I ceased to be a dealer and had a chunk of my own money to spend on my own personal system I would first beg borrow or steal to acquire a set of Tidal Contriva floorstanders (£54,000) and then just buy the cheapest (but good) Amp and Dac and cables to go with it, so probably a Vitus RI101 with the inbuilt DAC module and some basic TelluriumQ cables. He was very surprised at my comment and you might be too but knowing what I know, this ideology seems the obvious and best way to build any system but rarely do we ever see things happen that way.

Let’s look at this in more detail then and I will try and explain the why’s and how’s of it all. The important headline that I first want to blurt out is threefold:

  1. Speakers are by far the hardest component to design.
  2. Lesser speakers change and colour the sound by a large amount.
  3. You get what you pay for, speakers are expensive and step up in large jumps.


Hifi is all about lowering noise. Whether it’s in the stylus/groove interface, in the pcb of a DAC, the power supply of an integrated amplifier or the cable shielding on a mains cord, the best hifi systems are on a journey to lower distortion throughout starting with the actual mains supply itself. This is the only way you make the system go away and you hear the source material in all its pure realistic glory. The loudspeaker though, is the source of the most distortion and the most colouration in a system. It’s a transducer, converting electrical energy into what we hear. Not only are there the usual electronic considerations with the interal wiring and crossovers but then there is crossover design itself which is no easy subject. Then after that exists the huge problem of mechanical resonance from drivers and cabinets, stored resonance, radiation patters, cabinet movement and diffraction of the sound by the cabinet. All of this, before you have started to talk about the actual quality and technology of the drivers.

Let’s put it this way, whilst we would always champion our own brands when it comes to amplification and we chose them because we like them above all others, I would be the first to admit that there are many other competent amplifiers on the marketplace made in all corners of the globe. The same could be said of DAC’s, cables and also Turntables as well. The same sentiment though simply cannot be said of Loudspeakers. For me, there are very very few speakers that match the calibre of the best electronics and to date we personally have only managed to find 2 brands, namely Avalon and Tidal. There are a few others perhaps that would pass muster but these are either too similar to what we already do or they are probably not commercially robust or professional enough to incorporate into a proper retail business. As much as it pains me to say though, and as jingoistic and anglo-saxon as I am, I am afraid that with a few ‘bespoke’ or ’boutique’ exceptions, none of the speakers I would include are made in Great Britain. Crucially, it’s also these very well marketed and much-loved UK speakers that are often the ones that stick around in people’s systems for too long, relics from many of the Linn/Naim and UK ‘flat earth’ setups that we go in and improve on a monthly basis.

Really good speakers though actually don’t change the sound of the system very much but rather, are a completely neutral open window where you do not hear the cabinet, you do not hear the drivers or crossovers, the treble doesn’t stick out and a bass note is as holographic and tangible as an instrument in the midrange. They are just a completely transparent window and let you fully hear the system, they feel as though they have completely disappeared in the room and the sound isn’t actually emanating from them.

Lesser speakers though don’t do much of the above and can commit a miltitude of sins. Bass is the very hardest part of the speaker to get right and this can be ill defined, flabby, disconnected from the rest of the sound and very much stuck in the box. Uneven or an intentionally tuned response giving too much midband. Poor quality drivers colouring every single instrument (metallic or plastic sounding). A complete absence of imaging giving a paper thin flat sound. A treble that sticks out or is too lively and sparkly. A sound that is too forced and seems to be ostentaiously fired from the speakers rather than just existing naturally in an unforced manner.  An overly detailed and analytical presentation. The list goes on and on. Did I mention that speakers are very very difficult to design ?

Sometimes I work with customers systems and their speakers are so coloured, so low resolution and so compromised in performance that their amps and source which we sold them bear only just a fractional resemblance to how we know that they sound and what their true capability is. It’s like you can hear a very distant hint of an imprisoned Vitus or Allnic system hiding there somewhere. It’s always telling when they can’t hear much improvement when they try Stillpoint feet or better cabling or one melco model vs. another in the range etc.. They can’t hear the large differences these items bring about because the speaker is holding the system back so much.

So the summary on point 2 is that when you go from your old speaker to a really top notch highend speaker, it will likely be the biggest change you’ve ever experienced. Bigger than when we moved you into a set of top flight amps or a really good DAC or switched your computer out for a proper streamer. Yes, these are all big jumps for sure but moving away from a mediocre speaker is life changing ! So all-defining is it on the sytem’s openness, freedom from colouration and transparency that I advocate getting the best speaker you can for your money and never allowing it to become the weak point in the chain.

Good highend speakers are expensive. They take a lot of man hours to build are very difficult to design and develop properly and high quality drivers are massively expensive (especially when diamond coated). They also involve traditional manufacturing of large physical cabinets, wood veneers, complex enclosures, specialist lacquering or painting. This effectively means that not only is the starting price for a really good speaker all too high, but thereafter a manufacturer’s range will increase by a huge chunk of money from model to model as you climb the ladder.

The important thing to note though is that although you might be paying an extra £10,000 for every step in the range, the differences as you go up are also extremely large. Ignoring turbo chargers for a second, it might at this point be useful to call from memory that petrolhead’s cliche “there aint no substitute for cubes”. The next model in the range will mean better and larger drivers and crossovers but it will usually mean a bigger and bigger cabinet as well. Put simply, just as a 4 pot or V6 engine will never ever do what a V12 does, a small speaker can never ever do what a large speaker can. As fabulous as say an Avalon IDEA is at £9400, it will never ever be able to do an impression of a £30-£40,000 full range Avalon Indra or Compas.

As you go up the range the resolution and what you can hear, the sheer size, weight and scale of the sound, the depth and presence of the space between music, the dimensions of the  soundstaging and the layering in your listening room, the dynamic weight and power, all these things take commensurate big leaps. Everything in fact gets elevated in performance by a substantial amount. I actually  find it a real shame that so few people have the means to afford the really best speakers because it does make your system and listening experience so special. A large cabinet speaker that has dynamic reserves to spare and seemingly never ever runs out of puff is a magical thing indeed, a very rare treat.

For my mind then, I covet these things more than what a better amplifier or DAC will bring. Enormous scale that will do full justice to a large orchestra, bass weight that will hit you in the chest when required, endless layered depth and soundstaging that three dimensionally fills the entire room and beyond. These are things that ONLY an expensive and large speaker will give you. Of course better amplification and sources are wonderful and bring many delicious things to the party but the cheapest equipment from the best brands is just so good now that I will take the multitude of benefits of the best speaker all day long. Even the entry equipment from Vitus for example is easily good enough for a £20-£25k Tidal Piano or mid priced Avalon or Vimberg and the Vitus Signature range really needs the same or even better to fully show off what it can do.

Think about it, when we were all told “source is the most important” back in the 1980’s it was kind of true because that £250 Marantz CD player from Richer Sounds was complete crap and a Linn Sondek with a Basik and K9 also appalingly bad. Things have changed an awful lot since then, even in the last 5 years hifi has progressed leaps and bounds ! Nowadays, you can pick up a DAC for under £1000 secondhand which is phenomenal compared to the sound of yesteryear and would kill the 2 box Naim CDS which was a gamechanger when it first appeared all those years ago. We put the little £3000 Exogal Comet DAC we sell well ahead of most of the £10,000-£20,000 flagship CD players of last decade. It would probably beat most turntable/phonostage combinations as well that we all used to rave about so much. Similarly with amplifiers, something like the Vitus RI-101 integrated is an incredible piece of kit, giving a sound that is better in all respects than the present day flagship pre and power from many a rival company at 2,3 or even 4 times the price. And look at the reasonably priced Well Tempered Amadeus. We don’t sell these but what a sensational sounding deck it is, preferable to many designs costing 5 figures plus.

Partly because they involve different labour intensive manufacturing techniques speakers haven’t gotten any cheaper. The entry point really for a good highend design is about £10,000 and then they go up from there right up to 6 figures and beyond. They cost a lot more than amplifiers or digital sources therefore you should spend more on them rather than less to balance things. The phono stage is the same, it’s so important and there is such a large financial spread between the worst and the very best, that we advocate spending at least 50-100% as much on one as your turntable, compromising on the arm/cart if necessary. Think about it, what would you rather be listening to, 100% of a 7/10 signal or 30% of a 10/10 signal.

If you desire all the incredible goodies that a large enclosure floorstander like a Vimberg or Avalon PM2 or a Tidal Contriva will give you then there is no substitute or shortcuts and with the rest of the system components being available for far less money but still at a very competent level of sound quality, I would always choose to get the best possible speaker I could then build the system around it.

So this then just leaves the Tidal Contriva to talk about. I think we’ve said most of it really and the tech specs you can get from Tidal’s website. It’s probably as much speaker as anyone would ever need. You want to know how good it sounds ? Go and listen and be bowled over by a Vimberg Mino or Tonda then slowly digest the fact that the Contriva is somehow whole world above the Vimberg. High enough resolution for the very best systems in the world and being a Tidal, the most neutral invisible design I have ever encountered. Like all Tidals though the real trick is giving you all that resolution and transparency but managing to sound completely natural, never once straying into an analytical dissection of the music.

To be fair to the lower priced Piano G2, it is actually not that far off in terms of resolving power and openeness (the Tidal range are closer in performance from model to model than other speaker brands) but the Contriva gives you so much more extra scale, weight, depth and bass. It is obviously an astonishing performer in a complete Tidal setup but then we do have customers using them very successfully with Vitus and other high quality amplification. And then there is the finish. Hopefully some of the pictures will give you some idea but ultimately you need to see these beauties in the flesh to appreciate just how much love goes into them and just how much value there is there at their pricepoint.

So there it is. Try not to skimp on speakers and if it all, put your money into them first of all and then build up everything else over time. There are no shortcuts and also very few really good speakers out there but once you’ve made the move you’ll soon know just how important they are and just how good the rest of your system really is.

Further Reading