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JBH
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Speaker Reviews - Part 1

I’ve been fortunate to own several great speakers, most recently Acoustat Spectra 1100’s, previously Heybrook HB3’s, and before that the iconic Polk 10B. Due to an impending move, I sold the Acoustats and went out to find a set that would work well in a domestic environment (no dedicated room) and be able to create the type of realistic musical event to which I’d become accustomed / spoiled.

The speakers below are either what I considered the best of their type and price range that I heard, or ones that were otherwise notable.

The below are my opinions and experience.

KEF LS50

With speakers (as in life in general) the idea of a free lunch is often merely an illusion to trap the unwary. Any manufacturer with a range of speaker models won’t normally create a superior-sounding one and sell it for less than an inferior model, and if they have a model that’s significantly superior to their competitors in the same category, they’d be foolish to sell it for considerably less.
Today though, there will be free lunch, and it will be the KEF LS50. At this price point, one finds few accurate speakers, fewer musical speakers, and a smattering more with an adequate sense of scale, but not the full menu in one speaker. The LS50 breaks that mold though, and really shouldn’t sell for $1500. There’s a lot of press on this speaker, and it deserves the accolades it’s received. In my opinion though, they don’t go far enough, perhaps so as not to disenfranchise the competitors / advertisers.
Rather than go into minutia on their sonic characteristics, I say instead that they are the lowest price speaker in my experience that is capable of creating a reasonably accurate and believable musical event over their frequency range.

Dynaudio Contour 1.4

How do you define darkness? An obvious answer is “the absence of light”. In speaker terms, that’s not useful (since very few speakers produce light), and the use of the term is more confusing than illuminating.
Instead - A speaker with a “fast” tweeter that accurately depicts the leading edge of waveforms without additional distortion components will be interpreted as accurate, light, and airy. In comparison, one that does not display the leading edge quite as rigorously may be interpreted as darker and less exciting. Like a bold wine, this tends to give the “lighter” speaker an advantage in a head-to-head demo situation, and in dead rooms.
A review called the Contour 1.4’s a dark speaker. In my opinion the reviewer had been corrupted by the light side. Compared to two of it’s competitors with uber-tweeters, the Paradigm S2 v3 and the B&W 805D, the Contour is not bright or forward. It is the best at the creation of a credible musical event though. There is no audible discontinuity between the drivers, the mid-woofer well integrated with the tweeter while not being voiced because of it‘s character. The 1.4’s tweeter is not slow/muddy. It just doesn’t highlight the leading edges of notes as some others do. Instead, they get out of the way and call no attention to themselves as individual entities.
The 1.4 has adequate bass extension to create an adequate sense of scale. The bass response that is present is also well defined and integrated with the rest of the frequency range, which is a continuous characteristic of musically believable speakers. While the 1.4 may not strike one as exciting on first listen, over time its nature becomes apparent, more a fine wine than a fruit bomb.

ProAc Response D18

The problem with most small to mid-size floor-standing speakers is that they try to do too much, typically in the area of bass extension. To justify their price vs. stand-mounts, they reach lower, but like Icarus in reverse, or the monkey in the cookie jar, the price paid doesn’t justify the attempt. There’s a muddiness in the bass that destroys coherence, timing, and musical reality, as well as a lack of resolution in the mids that as often as not makes the less expensive stand-mounter a more musically satisfying solution.
ProAc has been around the block a few times though. The creators of the D18 seem well aware of this trap and are almost unique in not succumbing to it. The D18’s bass is modestly extended, but maintains its integrity with the rest of the frequency range very nicely indeed. Their overall presentation of drums, organs, and other features of the musical netherworld is both easily identifiable and placed correctly (spatially and temporally) in the musical event.
Additionally, one gets the impression that the D18’s are trying really hard to create music rather than merely producing sounds. While that’s an ambiguous statement, in their presence it comes across quite clearly I think. If they have a drawback, it’s that one is still aware to some extent that you’re listening to a pair of speakers rather than having the music exist completely independent of the enclosure. It’s minor though.
If the prospective buyer’s goal is reproducing music of the generally non-explosive sort, and doesn’t demand the lowest octave or so, then please- Stop. Beyond here lie (expensive) dragons.

Magnepan 3.7

While they don’t meet the requirements for domesticated harmony, I was interested to see how far planer speakers had advanced. I’ve listened to various Martin Logan’s and Maggies before, I’d preferred my Acoustats.
The sticky question/problem with planer speakers is whether they provide a significant performance advantage over conventional speakers at their price point. A major challenge for the 3.7’s is the demands they make for ownership, particularly the need for a large dedicated space. If the sonic advantage they hold versus the competition at a particular price point isn’t close to absolute, the share of the potential market population won‘t be large enough for them to survive.
Fortunate, to begin with, their sheer size helps to create a sense of scale that smaller speakers generally can’t match. Until you directly compare this trait, its value may not be apparent. While some musical environments may be “intimate” in nature, it doesn’t mean that the instruments and players should also have shrunk vs. reality. The 3.7 are about as good as any speaker in my experience at the creation of a life-sized event filled with life-sized instruments and voices.
The sonic signatures of each driver is very close to seamless with the others, with a sense of speed and immediacy that is compelling, but not edgy or fatiguing. While their bass isn’t world class deep, it is world-quick, which is a good compromise. They are not as dynamic as the best conventional drivers, but they are better than competitive electrostatic models, and they provide a slightly wider listening position.
The only sonic issue noted is that the high frequencies have a slight sense of a plastic-sounding haze. Perhaps it’s due directly to the driver’s material, and perhaps one becomes accustomed to it so that it isn‘t a noticeable deficiency. Though not cheap, they are a high-performance solution if you can accommodate them.

Paradigm Reference S6

The S6’s have what may be the world’s best tweeter. It’s clear, fast, extended, airy, sweet, and every other positive adjective you might care to attribute to it. It has no flaws and few peers. I have not heard better. The remainder of its drivers maintain the sonic signature cue from the tweeter, as perhaps they must to some extent in order to maintain sonic cohesion. The overall result may sound initially impressive, but perhaps not entirely realistic. While bells, triangles, snare drums, or similar have these attributes, Leila’s Del Gesu, YoYo’s Strad, and Ella’s voice shouldn’t.
I don’t say that the S6 is a bad speaker, instead that it’s highly representative of the direction many modern speakers have taken, and is what differentiates them from those of times past. It’s accurate, light, airy, impactful, and in direct comparison with similarly priced models that don’t share these characteristics may come out as superior, at least initially. Whether they provide a superior long-term experience or invite one to enjoy the music rather than the sound is a different question to my mind.

Audio Technica ATH-M50S

Care to see the killer of traditional 2-channel stereo? Look no further than the ATH-M50S. I picked these up for $120 at the local Guitar Center (with a typical discount code). How many of the speakers described above have sound quality superior to the AT’s? None. Most aren’t even in the same sonic zip code.
While many will call foul at this and say that phones and speakers are not directly comparable, the market has spoken, and stereo speakers have lost, a major factor being economic. For $125, an iPod, and maybe a phone amp if you want to get exotic, you get world-class sound quality that you can listen to on the bus. For a $5000 set of speakers conversely, you get no sound at all, since you still need a source, amplification, cables, and a room to put it all in. Given the nature of the modern world, the loss of market share isn’t a surprise.
Worse perhaps, much of current pop music doesn’t stimulate the use of traditional audio systems. Why? Most CD’s have a very few listenable tracks, engendering the track-based digital purchase systems we know and love. When I listen to my 2-channel system, I’m setting aside a significant amount of time in a specific location, and in return I expect a musical Performance, not a bunch of track flipping. Are there CD’s / albums that still provide musical excellence over their entire span, and perhaps create a musical portrayal greater than the sum of their parts? Yes, but their number is few, so very few, and they mostly exist in genres other than those that attract younger buyers.

Doctor Fine
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Headphones Lack a Hologram

Your point about phones is emblamatic of someone that has never heard a life-like holographic three dimensional "alive" stereo system in a domestic environment. "Cans" don't cut it.   Once you hear something in a home that is truly 3D (which is what "stereo" is supposed to do with two signals much like a 3D television does with two signals) you will not rest until you yourself own such an animal. It is like owning a Ferrari Dino when your friends all own Toyota Corollas.

I have sold high end audio for the last 50 years and have witnessed all the confusion in our price-no-object industry.  My forte is setup knowledge gained from building playback rooms for the recording industry along with putting together synergistic systems for thousands of well heeled customers over the years.  It is such a challenge and thrill to make a system "disappear" leaving only the orchestra or combo playing there in 3D as alive as talking to you face to face.  A well engineered perfectly set up system in your home allows you to "time travel" and be a fly on the wall at sonic sessions going all the way back to Enrico Caruso.  It is a priveledge and an honor to have the musicians alive and sitting right in front of you in 3D.

I will have to refrain from comment on the merits of your specific speakers in your review.  To me a speaker design merely serves a function and there are many properly designed products which would work depending on the room size and volume level the listener desires.  I have a few reference speakers around the house including the Harbeth Monitor 30s and Spendor Ls3/5 British BBC monitor speakers.  These both get out of the way of the music and sound far superior to any phones I have heard and my current phone setup is a tube headphone amp driving Sennheiser HD650s.  If you can swing it you should make nice with someone that has a true mastering grade stereo setup so that your ears have a comparison with which to judge this and that.

You will know it is a true reference if your ears can find absolutely nothing to latch onto and your ability to describe the system is completely non verbal.  Frankly anytime someone can describe the System there is something wrong with the System.  When there is NO system, just a sense of physical presence in the room with you---Voila!  Success!!!

You will never do that with phones.

By the way I enjoyed your review anyway as your passion and knowledge is quite evident.  My comments are intended to shine a light on system building and speaker integration as "King."  Your desire to analyze the characteristics of different designs has value and is fun to read.  However I am arguing that once a particular design establishes itself as a benchmark in a category (planar-compact box-horn-huge-small) the truly huge difference is that some guys know how to lock the system together and make it disappear.  And others will still hear unfortunate sonic signatures of the equipment above the music.  I am dedicated to bringing total realism out of most any good equipment.  That is where the big fun truly lives...

JBH
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I think you are correct. Sort of.

Thanks for taking the time to respond.

I have to ask - Is your conclusion that among the Acoustats, Polk 10b's, the speakers described in the review posts, the other 40 odd models I listened to in the last few months, in no case did i experience what you call an alive stereo image?

My experience is that every one of the speakers listed is significantly more capable in this regard than the LS 3/5a's for instance, with the Acoustats and 10b's dramatically so.

You're obviously correct that headphones aren't apples to apples, but there are characteristics that define musical reproduction besides imaging, a few being frequency linearity, driver integration, and hormonic accuracy. Since phones typically only have a single driver, they easily win the second, and in terms of accuracy, i.e. a musical instrument or voice faithfully mimics reality, the $125 cans easily better all but the $10k speaker models here. To beat on the 3/5a's again, i personlly have a hard time listening to them given their coloration(s) and unrealistic frequency amplitude response. To say that there are plenty of design that work is true, but it totally disregards each one's individual sonic signature, which vary significantly.

As far as making a system capable of disappearing, again i already have that, but am loosing my dedicated space, and the successors will need to attempt to disappear in what i refer to as a domestic environment. Looked at in reverse, if you were to listen to both the Acoustats and the AT cans at the sweet spot of my current listening room, the AT's clearly can't compete. However, if you stand up and move a few feet in any direction, the situation is completely reversed.

This lack of "socialability" has long been the downfall of the standard stereo speaker configuration, and those who have attempted to address the issue (Bose 901's, some Alons, Fried) have had varied acceptance. That's a different topic though... 

JoeE SP9
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Headphones

I've got to go with Dr. Fine on the headphone thing. There are some things headphones do very well. However, producing a sound stage isn't one of them. For me music without a sound stage might as well be mono. What good is wide pinpoint imaging as many lesser speakers produce if there is no depth? Cardboard cutout sounding musicians don't do it for me.

Throughout my 46+ years in this hobby I've tried all manner of headphones, from bargain basement to TOTL Stax ESL's.  While some of them sound very good, I've never been able to get used to the creepy (to me) feeling of the sound coming from between my ears. I have heard and own binaurally recorded material and it does produce a very good sound stage through headphones. Unfortunately, binaural recordings are so few and far between as to be unavailable for all practical purposes.

As for getting up and loosing the sweet spot, who cares? If you're moving around you're not really listening anyway. I'm acutely aware of this as the various Acoustat's I've been using since the early 80's have always had a rather small sweet spot. Besides, unless the phones are wireless you have a built in tether anyway.

BTW: When I bought my first pair of planars (Magnepan MG-1's) in 1976 I heard some LS3/5A's and some Watson Model 10's the same day. For the life of me I couldn't and still don't understand why anyone would want the LS3's. The Watson's had really good sound with bass to die for. I was however, already sold on the planar sound field. Since that May in 1976 my love affair with planar speakers has never lessened. I successively owned MG-2's and MG-3A's before switching to esl's around 1983. Since then I've had nothing but esl's. Currently there are two pair of Acoustats (Spectra 22's, Model 1's) in a surround setup in my dedicated room.

Allen Fant
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The Paradigm reference series

The Paradigm reference series is a great speaker.

JBH
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More 3/5 bashing...

IMO someone interested in the LS 3/5a type of response but who are put off by the colorations and lack of frequency extension may want to look at the KEF LS-50. It has a similar overall frequency response, but the mid-range in particular is far better resolved. Image sizing and placement is also impressive for a speaker at its price point.

/IMO 

JoeE SP9
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KEF

I've been hearing good things about the LS-50's, from independant sources other than the review in Stereophile.

JBH
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bump for anyone interested

bump for anyone interested

jgossman
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LS3/5a

They kind of suck.  And so do most of thier progeny, the Linn Kan, Rogers 3/5, early small Paradigm Phantom Monitors (The newer ones, later than the mid 90's, are marvelous, and cheap.  The Phantom floorstanders are still a diamond in the entry level rough), the KEF 3/5a (I don't remember the KEF model # but it WAS a 3/5a), etc. That's not a knock on Harbeth, I've heard several Harbeth (although not a ton) that are as good as the classic "British" or "East Coast American" sound can be.  Including my own pre-Kevlar midrange B&W Matrix, which I consider a floorstanding "monitor" in the truest sense.

I guess what I don't understand is the whole line of the "review".  If you know you want to spend about 1-2k on a speaker that is small-ish, looks great, and with your space constraints can be driven by anything, why not just go French or Canadian.  Which is to say, we know companies like Focal, Triangle, PSB, Paradigm make better, cheaper products by science and engineering, rather than ehem, bullshit and guesswork, make your life simple and go with the companies that are ACTUALLY the best at what they do.

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