You know the big, full, enveloping sound you hear when walking into a club with a live band playing?  Cathedral Speakers can bring that sound to your listening room, home theater, bar, man-cave, or wherever your wife will let you put them.  At 5’4” tall and 145 lbs. each, these speakers can definitely move some air, and the custom cabinetry improves their WAF (Wife Acceptance Factor).

Cathedral Speakers are custom built by a DC area startup using a mix of vintage components that have been restored and tested, modern electronics, and hand-made cabinets. From the Cathedral site:

Made of solid wood and cabinet-grade plywood, the speakers are a throw back to a pre-MDF era when Altec Lansing, Klipsch, and JBL were the choice for tube amplification in the infancy of Stereo and Solid State electronics. The prototype speakers have captured the interest of many local audiophiles searching for an efficient full-range speaker that incorporates custom-built furniture grade cabinets and produces life-like sound. The company allows the purchaser to select the wood build of the cabinets. More exotic woods and design finishes ensure these audio instruments are a unique offering and a departure from the standard mini tower design.

The speakers utilize a proven effective transmission line design encompassing 21 cubic feet of internal volume. An Altec Lansing H 811-B horn that was made popular by the Voice of The Theater Altec Lansing product–once the standard for sound reproduction in USA movie houses–is fixed on top in a tripod fashion. This horn reinforces a one inch Selenium Audio titanium compression driver. A single 15-inch, rubberized-cloth surround, paper woofer (manufactured by Utah in the ’60s) effortlessly reproduces mid and bass frequencies with the help of a large Alnico magnet. The crossover networks are designed and thoroughly tested for top quality and performance and contain only precision audio components. The result is a speaker that is generous and accurate in bass, has convincing mids and natural highs, and horniness associated with horn speakers is eliminated.

My first impression when auditioning these speakers was that the imaging produces a soundstage accurate not just in the positioning of the instruments and vocalists, but also in their sizing.  So not only do you hear the drums at left-center, but the positions of the high-hat, toms, ride and crash cymbals seem to fill the same physical space that an actual drum kit would occupy.

The vocalist is center stage, standing behind a mic, guitars to the right with the bass slightly back, and keyboards stacked to the left.  The size and height of the Cathedrals are key to their realism — you just cannot produce this illusion with shoebox-sized speakers.

After settling into the soundscape, I began to appreciate the accuracy and detail of individual instruments: Tracy Chapman’s fingers sliding across the strings of an acoustic guitar, the pluck of Sting’s thumb against the bass strings, the ring of timbale hits by Jose Chepito Areas on Black Magic Woman/Gypsy Queen.

Vocals sound natural and focused, and you feel the bass waves on dance tracks as they roll across the room.  The Cathedrals put out a full sound even at low volumes, and don’t induce fatigue when turned up.

Does anybody really know what high-fidelity is?  Does anybody really care?

About audio quality…I don’t know.  There has long been a fringe element of audiophiles at the edge of the music market.  But after the introduction of the LP in 1948, there was pretty steady movement in the mainstream towards increased fidelity in the recording and reproduction of music.

That all changed in 1994, when MP3 files began to spread throughout the Internet.  Sacrificing fidelity for the sake of smaller file sizes (and in many cases, free music!), inferior audio quality became quickly accepted.  The introduction of the iPod in 2001 accelerated this trend to the point where some people began to prefer lower quality audio.

John Berger, Professor of Music at Stanford University, conducted an eight year study where students rated audio quality while listening to the same song in different formats.

“I found not only that MP3s were not thought of as low quality, but over time there was a rise in preference for MP3s,” said the Professor who suggests the digitising process leaves music with a ‘sizzle’ or a metallic sound.

Listening to streaming audio online, on Web sites such as MySpace and Spotify, as well as computers with small or inferior speakers have also played a role in how music is heard and perceived.

The preference for MP3 sounding music has meant some producers have actively sought to mix music specifically to be heard on iPods and mobile phones.

~ Nick Spence / CDN “iPod Generation prefer MP3 fidelity to CD

Combined with a pop music preference for electronic sounds and electronically altered vocals, it’s easy to see why the accurate reproduction of natural sound has become less and less important to many listeners.  It’s likely that this race to the bottom also played a role in the failure of higher resolution recording formats such as SACD and DVD-Audio , which were introduced in 1999 and 2000 respectively.

So technology has changed the way music is produced and recorded, and the way we listen to it.  Music started out as a communal activity, and was only heard in live performances.  Even after the introduction of the phonograph, it was considered “unseemly” to listen to recordings alone — the equivalent of drinking alone or talking to yourself.

And not so long ago, people used to sit together and actively listen to and enjoy recorded music.  If you yearn for the return of that experience, Cathedral Speakers can help take you there.

Tuition for Old School Audio

When they debuted at the Capital AudioFest earlier in June, Cathedral Speakers were one of the most affordable offerings at the show, where other speakers blew past the six-figure mark.  But with an MSRP of $8,995, they require a higher level of commitment than a big box o’ speakers you might pick up at Best Buy.

If you are serious about sound quality and have the space for them, it will definitely be worth your time to contact the Cathedral Speaker Company and arrange an audition.