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AROUND HOME : Naked Speakers

SPEAKERS WITHOUT boxes? Why not? Why pay for fancy cabinetry when all you want is something to reproduce music? Tall, thin and flat as tortillas, those exotic loudspeakers beloved of high-end audiophiles cost more than their veneer-clad, mass-market counterparts. But they boast an open, transparent sound against which box speakers sound nasal, sluggish and, well, boxy.

The lower a speaker’s mass and the less its inertia, the more quickly it can respond to changes in the electrical signal from the amplifier, resulting in more detailed, lifelike sound. So it stands to reason that a planar speaker--whose only moving element is a microscopically thin diaphragm of mylar or aluminum foil--will put a conventional cone speaker to shame. Except in the bass frequencies, that is, which require the speaker to move great amounts of air. This task is a cinch for the conventional cone woofer, or bass driver, which moves freely in and out on its suspension (just peak at your own bookshelf speakers, with the grille cloth off, and marvel at how the woofer flops around reproducing turntable rumble) but difficult for a planar speaker because the flat diaphragm can only move a tiny distance.

Given a big enough surface area, however, a planar speaker can generate respectable bass. For that reason, planar speakers are so big they’re sure to dominate any listening room. And--for those home decorators not already gnashing their teeth--they demand placement not flat against the wall but a few feet from it (planar speakers radiate sound equally from front and back: For optimum bass and stereo imaging the rear-firing sound must get out into the room).

But look at the plus side: As the decor-mags put it, planar speakers make a strong sculptural statement. For instance, the skewed rectangular frame of the Apogee Diva, Duetta Signature and Caliper Signature full-range ribbon speakers evoke 1950s futurism. The tall, rectangular Magnepan MG-2.5/R (a bargain among planar speakers at $1,550 the pair) evokes the mysterious monolith from the film “2001": A stereo pair plays off against one another like minimalist sculptures. Their bigger, pricier brother, the Magnepan Tympani IV-A, comprises three pairs of raw-silk-wrapped hinged panels, each 6 feet tall, 16 inches wide and 1 inch thick.

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But the Martin-Logan CLS wins the contest for most startling looks. While most planar speakers sound transparent, the Martin-Logan’s curved electrostatic mylar diaphragm is visually transparent. Functional merits aside, this was a shrewd bit of psycho-acoustic marketing. For by reducing its appearance to the ultimate essentials, the CLS makes the listener feel that sonic veils have been similarly stripped away: One feels uncannily close to the original recording. A naked speaker, indeed.

Apogee is available at Audio by Design in Newport Beach; Audio Haven in Upland; Beverly Stereo in Los Angeles; Paris Audio in Woodland Hills and West Los Angeles; Wilson Entertainment in Woodland Hills, and David Rutledge Audio in Palm Springs . Prices start at about $2,850 the pair.

Magnepan is available at Christopher Hansen in Los Angeles; Absolute Audio in Orange, and Shelley’s Stereo in Canoga Park.

Martin-Logan is available at GNP Audio/Video in Pasadena; Absolute Audio in Orange; Upscale Audio in Canoga Park; Havens & Hardesty Audio in Huntington Beach, and Optimal Enchantment in Santa Monica. Prices start at $2,500.

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