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.
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.
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.