The Sala delle Colonne, the monastic library that is now part of the National Museum of Science and Technology Leonardo da Vinci in Milan, made a suitably sumptuous setting to worship Ross Lovegrove’s latest project. Muon, an exceptionally high-quality pair of speakers, named after a powerful and exotic elementary particle that arrives on earth from outer space, sat as megaliths on the animated light floor, their stature only matched by the barefooted, bluely attired Lovegrove. This was a true Milan event, with photographers, journalists, designers and, unusually, audiophiles, debating the relationship between sound and shape.
But what was truly impressive was that this was not Cassina or Vitra. The Muon speaker was commissioned and built by Kef, a UK audio company based in Maidstone, Kent. The UK audio industry is famous for sound quality, but rarely for visual design, which is usually lowest on the list of priorities. But here is a UK company hiring one of our most exciting and creative designers – who, though treated like royalty abroad, is largely ignored by UK companies – to build on its sonic expertise to create something truly incredible.
And Muon is incredible. The two speakers are huge, standing more than two metres tall and made from super-formed aluminium, a process similar to vacuum-forming plastic that allows the sculptural forms we associate with Lovegrove’s work to be reproduced the 100 or so times that will be needed for the limited run of this speaker.
Designing for sound is a complex business, with considerable physical and mechanical parameters required to create the realism audiophiles demand. The size, the flat front surface and the array of large and small speaker drivers required to deliver the frequencies the human ear can detect as accurately as possible are, of course, the most dominant feature of Muon. At the end of the day, a speaker is still a cardboard cone and there’s little even Lovegrove can do about that. But the science of the sound engineer and the creativity of the designer do come together in the mechanical body. Here, strength, solidity and constantly changing surfaces which remove any chance of internal resonance are the main requirements. This has allowed Lovegrove to create swooping surfaces gripped in tension, but held by the flatness of the top and bottom. The museum hall was not chosen for its acoustic qualities, but rather as a celebration of material and form, delivering the final element of the trinity of music, sound and shape.
But don’t be fooled by the gorgeous photographs you see. The finish is less glossy and shows the imperfections of the tortured aluminium surface, which in all but the most perfect lighting can be bothersome. This is a design that is imposed on the speakers, but it has to occasionally twist to get round reality, and those curving highlights can get lost. But from the side and rear, the beauty of the concept and the shape is more clearly seen.
Like any speaker at this end of the market, the sound quality is only one of the drivers and, at £70 000, Muon says as much about potential owners as it does about the artist. But for Kef, this is a brave and audacious statement of its intent to combine excellent audio quality with the highest level of design and take a lead in a competitive, international market. That is a fantastic development, and other British manufacturers should take note. Muon is an exotic addition to the hi-fi world, and to Lovegrove’s portfolio, but whatever it sounds like, beauty will surely be in the eye of the beholder.