I would highly recommend a large line array like the AV123 Focus LS9. These will create the 'musicians in the room' like little else.
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You might want to consider the Magnepan/Mcintosh combo showing in Lyric HiFi on the Upper East Side. I am helping a friend putting together a similarly priced system recently (also in NYC). After several trips to high end stereo places and having auditioned multiple speakers/amps, and the Maggie/Mac are the only ones that we kept talking about.
I've owned B&W Nautilus 804, and auditioned Vienna Acoustics Beethoven Concert Grand and Sonus Faber Cremona at my friends system. To my ears Beethoven sounds the best among three. There are other variables as they were in three different rooms with different electronics. But the difference was profound, and Beethoven was the most neutral sounding with excellent bass extension. I've heard good reviews on Synchrony One, but never heard them personally.
Of the speakers that you mentioned, I recently demoed the PSB Synchrony One and Vienna Acoustics Beethoven Baby Grand. I also listned to the B&W 805S, 804S, 803S, 803D, and 802D along with about 40 other speakers. I own the B+W 803S. As to your price range, if it is any help, I was fine with going up to 15k for passive speakers, did not hear anything that sounded that much if any, better to me, including the 803D and 802D. The 804S is not a far step down from the 803S but your room may be a bit large for that speaker. Additionally, the difference in the weight spec between the 804S and 803S belies a significantly different cabinet construction - a pair of 1/2 larger woofers do not account for 30 pounds. The PSB Synchrony One sounded very nice - heard it driven with a Mcintosh 402 and with an Audio Research (although I don't know the model) on separate occasions. The Beethoven Baby Grand was also a fine sounding speaker. My tastes are 99% classical and opera with an occasional classic rock CD thrown in, not too dissimilar from yours. It sounds like you have a nice lineup of speakers that you are considering, I doubt that you can go wrong with any of them. You may want to take a listen to the Dali MkII 400's - I was highly impressed - just could not get past the ribbon technology - but that is not because I think the technology is necessarily inferior - more of a personal bias. Same thing with Martin Logans and the Magnepan (3.6 I beleive was the model - couldn't find their high end model anywhere nearby) If your room is highly reflective I suggest, if possible, finding a dealer that will allow for you to demo the speakers in that room. For what it's worth, a lot of posts in various threads remark that B&W's in general are somewhat accentuated in the high midrange and above frequencies. Room acoustics are certainly a huge factor in speaker selection. Of course room acoustics can be adjusted and such adjustment need not involve the purchase of specialized or expensive treatments. Have fun and take your time.
Thanks for the continued help and thoughtful suggestions. Perhaps I'm in need of something more elemental here. I haven't really ever auditioned equipment, and I was hoping for 'buying' advice. Does one bring one's own music? What should I listen for (in non-audio speak) other than what sounds good? What should I look for in a warranty? Should I listen with both tube and SS amplification? Etc. In other words, I was hoping to have advice about how to buy speakers, more than which speakers to buy. Sorry, if the inquiry is unsophisticated.
Why not get a new cd player first if your current player is "performing erratically"? With $5K to spend on an amp, player and tt, you would seem to be on a tight budget. Check out used Cary 303's, Rega Apollos, Wadia 830 and 301's to name a few used players in the $1-2K range. As far as speakers consider used JMlabs and Merlins both of which are tube friendly. There are a ton of great tubed integrateds out there and building a tube based system is a great idea for long term happiness. Take your time, listen when you can, and most of all have fun!
Ankar: I would suggest the following ( and you likely will get a lot of responses to your question). (1)Yes, bring your own music. Bring the music that you listen to and are familiar with. Bring several selections - try to choose different items from those that you own that (a) have a good deal of bass (b) have a good deal of treble (c) vocals - if you listen to vocals (d) music to be played loud (e) music that you would play at lower volumes. (f) something with a piano - as that is not the easiest sound to reproduce. These do not necessarily have to be different items. Examples include but are not limited to Mozart Piano Concerto # 25,, Beethoven's Eroica or Ninth, vocals (Carmen -Janis - Dylan), Rock (Who live at leeds, Stones - get your ya ya's out). The idea is to see what the speaker sounds like at low volumes and high volumes, how it reproduces the different sounds, and whether part of the spectrum is overemphasized. An alternative approach to this is to buy discs that are designed for the purpose of testing a system or are well known to be very good recordings that will push a system to its limits- that is not my approach but I would imagine others can offer advice in that area. (2) realize that a speaker that dramatically impresses you may have a quality that grabs your attention immediately but that quality may get old when listening for extended periods - hence (3) listen for a while, at least fifteen minutes at an absolute minimum and come back on more than one occassion to relisten to the speaker. (4) As to what to listen for - I personally look for (a) whether one aspect overpowers the others - does the bass dominate etc, (b) what happens at high volumes - do the high frequencies get 'screechy' sounding? (c) Does it lose detail at low volumes? (d) Does all music 'sound the same' i.e. is there a quality of the speaker that adds to the music to a significant degree, or 'colors the music', (unless that is what you want) (5) Warranties on speakers - 5 years seems about average - but that has never been a big factor that I have considered - I'd be fine with a year - other responders may have more info in that area. (6)Your last question about tube or ss amplification is a very very good question. The answer depends in part on what you are going to use to drive the speakers and what kind of sound you are after. My view is if you are after accuracy and stability go with SS, if you want to tailor the sound or are looking for a richer fuller harmonic content, that is probably better achieved via tubes, at a loss of accuracy. With reference to my earlier mention of coloring the music - I have found that this is more likely to occur with tube amplification, independent of the speaker. Therefore, listening to speaker A with a tube amp and comparing that to speaker B with a SS amp may not be the best way to determine how the two speakers really compare. (7) Since you brought up amplification - keep in mind that, particularly as to higher volumes or large orchesteral pieces with a great deal of range (the difference in volume between the least loud part of the symphony and the loudest), the power available from the amplifier will have a significant impact on the sound. Also the quality of the amplifier as shown by its specifications is a factor. It would be a mistake to listen to speakers driven to high volumes by a 500 watt amplifier with very low total harmonic distortion (THD)(say .0005%) and think that you can get the same sound by driving the speaker with a 100 watt amplifier with .05% THD. In the second instance, you will run into distortion problems from 'clipping' the signal at the speakers which is unpleasant sounding (at least with SS) and potentially damaging to the speakers. )(8)Finally, keep in mind that salesman have many different reasons for directing you to one speaker or another - such as the profit margin and/or what they are trying to get out of their inventory. You are engaging in an arms length transaction, so use common sense as in any other area; take what the salesman say with a grain of salt.
You absolutely need to take your own music. You should select a few cd's (and some vinyl if you have it) that you know well, and that fits the overall genre of what you like to listen to. This will help you establish a baseline across multiple listening sessions. It also sends the message that you are serious about buying to the folks you are buying from.
This second thing is a lot harder though. Realize that you can do much better buying used. but it's pretty unethical to demo equipment at a brick and mortar store knowing you intend to buy elsewhere used.
That leaves you in a quandry. Most times you can re-sell your used purchases at a price very close to what you paid for them. That makes buying used a relatively low financial risk. But since you have not spent much time listening to what's available, you probably need the help of local stores to see what you like.
In my opinion, you'll need to suck it up and pay the brick and mortar premium. You can certainly look for used in those stores which will save you the new premium.
You can also build the system up slowly...with the main purchase being the speakers at the store. Then you can cycle through the up stream components in the used market until you are compfortable with your overall sound.
Good luck...this is a fun journey you are embarking on.
Thanks all. In particular, thanks Musicnoise for some obviously useful advice. I will make it a point to listen for both subtlety and intensity, and to listen for longer periods. I'll bring some of my own music, and try to test the speakers using amplification that's in the range of what I later intend on acquiring (no sense in testing it on equipment I'll never replicate). Again, I really appreciate the insights. Ultimately, I'll post where I wound up with all this, and my impressions (FWIW).