No-one's going to spend $495 on Joey Roth's Ceramic Speakers because of audiophile considerations, then start fretting about whether they look good enough next to the iMac. People are going to buy them because of the looks, and then worry about whether the audio quality lives up to the price tag. So, does it?
It does, so long as you're happy paying a premium for design. The audio is clear and crisp, despite the small size: Roth writes that he used modified Tang Band W4-1052SD drivers, avoiding plastic and metal in the speakers' housing in favor of vibration-dampening materials like ceramic and cork. As long as you don't expect miracles, then, there's little chance of suffering "catalog remorse," as commonly experienced when buying stuff that looks great in print but doesn't live up to its looks.
The cones, vaguely reminiscent of gramophone horns, are gorgeous. They feel reassuringly heavy, and no part of the system shows a cut corner. It appears durable, too–though porcelain is what it is, so take care with setup and positioning. The technical simplicity suggests a respect for function that Roth's beautiful but unweildy Sorapot somewhat lacked.
Birch stands support the cones. The amp is made from sheet steel and sits on a block of cast iron. Plastic isn't used anywhere in the system except for cable insulation and interior electrics. It comes with all the required cables, including adapters, and a power brick.
There are limitations–obvious as they may be, with 15 watts per channel on 4-inch full-range drivers–which must be considered. If you like bowel-clearing bass, these are not the speakers for you. The amp's designed to make a show of the cabling, a choice at odds with the cones' clean vibe. There's a DC power input, standard stereo outputs for each cone, a single 1/8" stereo input, a volume slider and an old-school on-off knob, and no fancy features at all.
Most prominent of the product claims is that the Ceramic Speakers offer detail, that you'll be able to hear the difference between iffy MP3 files and lossless data. Cheap speakers are set up to make the most of noisy audio, whereas these are intended for use with quality sources.
Now, it's easy to slip into synasthesiac jargon when reviewing audio gear, but the ceramic speakers shape up in straightforward terms. Radio broadcasts and low-bitrate mp3 files sounded no better than with any half-decent (i.e. sub-$500) set of desktop speakers. Lossless digital audio and well-kept vinyl records, though, had a clarity I don't get with my $200 M-Audios. (I tried plugging an Akai Miniak into it — live music! — and that was another minor revelation compared to the mid-range headphones I'd been using) I don't have any "standard" similar kit in the Ceramic Speakers' price range, however: wait until hardcore audiophiles have had a listen if you count yourself in their numbers.
To be blunt, if you're concerned about the existence of equally good-sounding gear at lower prices, you're probably not the intended audience. The Ceramic Speakers are about marrying distinctive minimalist design with good quality and an open-minded approach to where in the home you stick them.
In any case, they look great either side of a big-ass computer display.
$495, Joey Roth Ceramic Speakers [Official site]