Hubris, ego, greed. These are the human frailties that steer successful companies into the perilous waters of brand extension. Consider Richard Branson’s long list of flops. Remember Virgin Vodka, Virgin Cosmetics, and Virgin Bride? Nobody else does either. The audio industry is littered with such misfires. It invariably happens when amplifier companies redirect their R&D talent into speakers. Conrad-Johnson and Carey Audio lost a bundle in the early ’90s after falling down that sonic rabbit hole. More recently, Krell, another high-end amp brand, developed a speaker that sold so poorly the company cratered.
Master & Dynamic MA770
This new speaker was created by a gifted architect with a vision, not a committee of industrial designers with budget constraints. And it looks it. The sound quality isn’t overshadowed by the aesthetic either—the MA770 has legit hi-fi chops.
This may be a wireless speaker, but you won’t be toting it from room to room. Not without a hand truck. There are anvils lighter than this.
The latest brand to test the audio gods’ wrath is Master & Dynamic, a New York startup that makes luxe headphones with impressive fidelity like the on-ear MW50 and wireless MW60. The newest addition to the company lineup is the MA770, a 35-pound speaker made of concrete (yes, cement and crushed rocks) that is equal parts art and audio. Seems like a reasonable next step. Headphones have small transducers that run at power levels measured in milliwatts; speakers have large transducers that run at power levels measured in watts. Though the MA770, priced at $1,800, is not exactly an impulse purchase unless you’re a member of the pampered elite. Is it worth it? Let’s uncrate this thing and put it through the wringer.
The man behind this speaker’s audacious, angular design is David Adjaye, the “starchitect” of the moment. Adjaye’s rise in the rarefied world of Pritzker Prizes and prestigious museums has been meteoric. Like all famous architects, he’s already designed a signature furniture piece—the dramatically cantilevered Knoll Skeleton chair—and has a stable of celebrity clients, like actor Ewan McGregor and photographer Juergen Teller. More importantly, though, Adjaye already has a legacy building under his belt: the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture, a highly praised pitch-perfect structure that occupies sacred ground, planted on what used to be the last empty plot of real estate on the Washington Mall. Adjaye was also knighted by Queen Elizabeth II last year and made Time’s “100 Most Influential People” list. Getting Sir David Adjaye to design your wireless speaker is like getting LeBron to play in your pickup game.
When David Adjaye discusses the MA770, his analysis skews toward geometry and physics. Complementing the egghead rhetoric are the observations of a museum curator. Makes sense. Adjaye is also a professional aesthete, with a master’s degree from London’s Royal College of Art. Think of a mathematician lecturing on Picasso’s cubist period. That’s Adjaye. He talks about using triangles to break down the mass of the speaker and “dissolving volume through sculptural detail.” It’s a highfalutin way of saying that he didn’t just design a speaker, he used physics and mathematical voodoo to shape-shift a box.
When I buttonholed him at the M&D launch party, he revealed why he was uniquely qualified to design the MA770: “When I was a young man, I did a stint as a DJ in West London and actually built my own speakers.” When I suggested the label “closet audiophile,” he immediately dismissed it. “No closet—simply an audiophile.” He admires the machines that make frequency extension and soundstage possible. When I point to the MA770s, three of them displayed on pedestals in the window of the MoMA Design Store, he grins like he just won a bet. “The quality of this speaker’s sound will really define the user’s relationship with it and the intimacy it provokes.” Most architects loathe the sight of hi-fi gear. They hide amps in bespoke cabinets and install speakers behind scrims. This guy says to hell with that. Not unlike architecture, Adjaye believes that a stereo component can ennoble humanity. He’s right. It’s a gorgeous piece of work. The MA770 looks like brutalist architecture sculpted in a wind tunnel by an origami artist. I feel ennobled just standing next to it.
Concrete is one of David Adjaye’s signature materials. Anyone familiar with the his portfolio would take one look at the MA770 and think: “Brilliant—a concrete speaker! That’s so Adjaye.” It was the founder of M&D, however, who first floated the pipe dream of a concrete enclosure. “In a world where every product is plastic and has the same form-factor, I liked the idea of using a unique material that is malleable and incredibly durable,” says CEO Jonathan Levine. “I imagine kids asking their parents if they can take this speaker with them when they grow up and leave home.” Only a man who makes headphones out of forged aluminum, steel, and leather would pitch his new concrete speaker as a family heirloom. Don’t bet against Levine, though. The woofers are made of woven Kevlar, the tweeter is titanium, and they’re screwed into a cabinet made of the same stuff used to build the Roman Coliseum. If Wi-Fi and Bluetooth are still around when Junior graduates from college, chances are the MA770 will still be pumping out a signal.
Concrete, the thick gray slurry used to make sidewalks and car parks, isn’t the ideal speaker enclosure. It’s porous and heavy. It also has a hard reflective surface that makes the enclosure an echo chamber. That’s fine for the Holland Tunnel, but it’s not something audio engineers look for. On the other hand, concrete is inexpensive and pliable. It also has tremendous mass and rigidity, two highly desirable qualities that minimize fidelity-killing vibrations and resonance. Figure out a way to neutralize all those sound waves ricocheting around inside the speaker, and audiophiles will beat a path to your direct-to-consumer website. The M&D guys claim they’ve pulled this off. How? By adding “secret” polymers to their proprietary concrete recipe during the mixing stage. These long-chain hydrocarbon compounds smother the reverb like a blanket snuffing out a campfire. The engineers also claim they’re able to actually “tune” the enclosure by mixing in the right aggregate. That’s the ad copy theory anyway.
If Master & Dynamic wants to expand beyond the fickle Beautiful People demo and bring real audiophiles into the fold, the MA770 must deliver. Dynamic design without dynamic range won’t cut it.
Verdict: the audio gods will not rain pestilence and red ink down upon Master & Dynamic. The “secret” vibration-dampening polymer thing isn’t hokom. I recreated the company’s resonance parlor trick: blasting the MA770 at full volume next to a turntable tracking vinyl. My neighbor complained about the racket, but the needle didn’t waver in the grooves.
This also bears mentioning: The MA770 doesn’t sound like an M&D headphone—it sounds better, with the kind of arresting presence and transparency you’d expect from a well-engineered stereo component. The driver setup is two 4-inch mid-woofers and a 1.5-inch tweeter, all custom designed. Spaced tightly together, those mid-woofs are extremely efficient and produce very controlled bass. That’s because it’s much easier to move two 4-inch woofers than one 8 incher. Faster movement means a “quick attack,” which results in realistic sound production. And since it’s the same surface area, they produce equal sound pressure.
Another bonus: The MA770 streams in stereo. That’s made possible by splitting the signal, summing the two mid-woofers for bass, and letting them fire in two channels for mid to high. It’s a nearfield soundstage (a proper stereo soundstage requires distance between the speakers), but it’s fantastic. If you’re a high roller, you can sync up a pair of MA770s to create a glorious wall-to-wall stereophonic soundscape. M&D is aso quick to point out that this is the first wireless speaker to offer stereo sync via Chromecast. Whether it’s Wi-Fi or Bluetooth, the sound is excellent.
To entertain guests, remove the stainless steel grill (secured by magnets), stream a bass-heavy track, like Beyoncé’s “Partition,” and watch the long-throw (20mm) excursion woofers do their cha-cha. The bass is punchy, tight, and, as audiophiles say, “articulate.” The rest of the range is stellar, too. Cue up the Miles Davis Quintet’s “E.S.P.” and bear witness to the pristine highs notes that shoot out of the domed tweeter when Miles explodes through the upper register during his solo. The mids, where the music lives and breathes, mesh perfectly. The vocals and guitar chords on Jeff Buckley’s “Mojo Pin” (any version will do) have all the texture, detail, and tactile presence audio critics look for in high-ticket speakers. In back, below the bass port, are two recessed jacks: auxiliary analog and optical inputs for turntables, Roku, CD, and all the rest.
Operation is painless. To get Chromecast working, you download the Google Home app, sync up, and stream. The inconspicuous and elegant diamond-cut aluminum control panel along the speaker’s chin is there mostly for redundancy sake. You control everything with the app. The huge advantage of Chromecast over Bluetooth and AirPlay is that no initial device pairing is required. Simply open the app on your phone or tablet and tap to play. You can also multitask—make calls, scroll through social media, send texts—without interrupting the music. To inject a bit of AI into your wireless M&D music network, just hook up Google Assistant for instant playlist voice command. Nice.
Pay the Piper
If you think $1,800 is outrageous for a wireless speaker, consider the manufacturing process. This isn’t iPhone mass production, with handsets coming off the line faster than Foxconn workers can box them. Like pouring a foundation, each speaker enclosure requires an individual mold. After the concrete is poured into the mold, it must cure for an hour. Then the mold is split in half (to eliminate seams) and discarded. Next the concrete cabinet is sandblasted to remove surface irregularities. A rotary tool phase renders the finish even smoother. That’s followed by a lot of hand-buffing with fine grit sandpaper until the concrete feels somewhere between honed stone and crushed velvet. Finally a sealant is applied by hand, and the thing has to dry some more. That’s three days of labor before a single circuit is dropped inside. And instead of using off-the-shelf cones and domes, M&D splurged on “custom Danish drivers,” which are as pricey as the name suggests. The laser-etched “David Adjaye” plaque in the back was another expenditure. Let’s just say it was an expensive autograph. Want to talk about shipping costs? The gross boxed weight is an onerous 50 pounds.
True, you could purchase nine Beats Pill+ speakers for the cost of a single MA770, but that’s a specious argument. The more relevant comparison is the Beoplay A9, another avant-garde speaker popular with fashionable audiophiles. The MA770 is $900 cheaper, has a starchitect pedigree, and can go head-to-head with any category competitor in an A-B listening test. If none of that matters, think of your children, born and unborn. What will you give them to conjure fond family memories when they flee the nest, a broken Xbox 360?
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