The Fifth Element #48 Page 2

As one example, I think that Renaissance Audio's MLP-403.5 at $1090/pair is a screaming bargain that punches far above its price class. I just love it. You (or someone you live with), however, might think its looks, its bulk, or both instantly and totally disqualify it, and might by far prefer DALI's Ikon 2, despite its bass not having the heft or punch of the Renaissance. Horses for courses.

Two other points before we get going: All of the speakers I am investigating for this project are stand-mounted. I believe (and I believe that John Atkinson agrees with me) that in this price tier, stand-mounted speakers offer less compromised musical performance for the money. I realize that the market has for several years been trending toward floorstanding speakers, and that my preference for stand-mounted speakers may be controversial; the sidebar explains my reasoning. Also, this will be an iterative process: I will take first cuts on individual components, then revisit them in greater depth as we begin building a system.

DALI Ikon 2: $1250/pair
DALI's Ikon 2 is, hands down, the fit'n'finish champ of this bunch. Everything about this speaker, from the shipping carton and packing materials to the owner's manual to the EC-compliant biwire terminals, is totally ready for prime time—it just doesn't look or sound like a budget speaker. The Ikon 2 is a ported design with a 6.5" wood-pulp mid-woofer, a 1" soft-dome tweeter, and a 2" planar-magnetic "ribbon" supertweeter, all centrally mounted one above the other; in other words, the speakers are not right- and left-handed.

The Ikon 2's cabinet is 17.3" H by 7.4" W by 11.7" D (1498 cu. in.), which makes it taller, narrower, and deeper than the traditional proportions of stand-mount designs. Each speaker weighs about 20 lbs. DALI claims –3dB points of 42Hz and 30kHz. The baffle board is some kind of matte-gray composite, which allows for very tight mounting tolerances for the driver and grille. The tweeter and supertweeter are mounted on a separate subbaffle. As I mentioned in February, the Ikon 2 gives you a lot of high tech for the money. Below the nameplate, the baffle board describes a gentle arc, and the portion of the front panel below it is recessed about half an inch; the bottom of the detachable grille mirrors in reverse the baffle board's arc, for a sophisticated look with the grilles on or off.

All surfaces, including the rear, are covered in a very convincing light walnut vinyl. The rear holds a serial-number ID plate, a well-constructed flared-throat port about 2.5" in diameter, and a hefty biwire terminal block. The EC-compliant terminals accept spades or bananas, and have large fluted or splined knobs of clear plastic. The knobs resemble old-fashioned glass doorknobs in miniature, so it's fair to assume that the intent was to preclude the use of wrenches. In normal use, the biwire terminals are connected by removable insulated jumper strips. Due to the Ikon 2's crossover design, DALI recommends that the speakers be set up with zero toe-in, which is how I did it. I listened with the grilles mostly off but sometimes on, which didn't really make a difference.

I listened to the Ikon 2s with three CD receivers—Music Hall's Trio, Arcam's Solo Music, and April Music's Aura Note—and Cardas Neutral Reference speaker cables. Then the March 2008 Stereophile arrived, with Michael Fremer's review of DALI's Helicon 400 Mk.2 (a much more expensive speaker from the range above the Ikons), and I found myself nodding in agreement. Open, airy, spacious: right. Unusually wide soundstage with generous depth: right. Excellent detail and microdynamics: right again. Upper-midrange presence region slightly accentuated (or the midrange itself slightly suppressed), and overall tonal balance slightly on the hot side: right once more.

Now, this does not mean that the designers of the Ikon 2 are charlatans or dupes, by any stretch of the imagination. At this price, it's all about tradeoffs. The Ikon 2 has great detail and imaging and transient attack. And all three of these speakers are excellent—a non-audiophile well might conclude after a brief listen that they were all far more similar than different.

Furthermore, the acoustic of the room in which any speaker is set up, where the speakers are set up in that room, and the associated equipment, will make for large differences. I can easily imagine a person whose musical tastes are similar to mine, but who has a more acoustically damped room and whose listening position is farther away than mine, being very happy with the Ikon 2s. And people whose listening tastes are not like mine will prefer this speaker's clarity to that speaker's warmth. Not that the Ikon 2 is cold; it's more like "nonpartisan." And with the right recording the Ikon 2s sounded absolutely heavenly, one example being Poulenc's O Magnum Mysterium, performed by the Finnish a cappella group Lumen Valo (Sigillum LVCD 1). The wrong recording, however, such as the CD version of Gato Barbieri's Caliente (A&M CD 3247), had its brittle, raspy flaws revealed in an unsentimental, matter-of-fact manner.

Usher Audio V-601: $700/pair
Usher Audio's V-601 is less high-tech than DALI's Ikon 2; the V-601 is a conventional two-way design in a cabinet not as swank but still handsome. The payoff is that the V-601 costs $700/pair, about a third less than the Ikon 2. The V-601 has a 1" fabric-dome tweeter and a 7" mid-woofer, measures 17.52" H by 9.37" W by 11.50" D (1888 cu. in.), and weighs 28 lbs. Usher claims –3dB points of 42Hz and 20kHz.

The V-601's bass loading is accomplished by a slot cut into the lower part of the baffle board. The cabinets are finished on all surfaces with a Golden Birch veneer; the other finish choice is Mahogany Birch. Basically, Golden is a pumpkin orange, Mahogany a pomegranate red. The vertical front cabinet edges are beveled, a design touch that continues on to the grille sides. The rear panel holds an ID plate and recessed, angled, non–EC-compliant biwire terminals.

Overall, the V-601's design and build quality are one step down from the standard set by the DALI Ikon 2. For example, the plastic cabinet inserts that hold on the Usher's grilles kept freezing onto the prongs on the grilles; removing the grilles pulled out the inserts and left raw holes showing in the front panels. Hardly the end of the world, but no comparison to DALI's B&O-level attention to detail. Shipping cartons and packing materials were good for the price. The speakers themselves came in cloth bags that made them easier to extract from the cartons; a nice touch.

I very much liked the sound of the Usher V-601s. They had many of the sonic virtues I associate with classic BBC monitors: midrange tactility and warmth, lack of listener fatigue, and not sounding thin at lower volumes. Of course, at this price you don't get the finesse or cohesiveness of a true descendant of BBC monitors.

Those less enamored of the classic BBC sound can point out that its "polite" listener-friendliness arguably came at the cost of lower accuracy and resolution. But at this price you can't have everything, and in general, subtractive errors often make for a more enjoyable listening experience than do additive errors, or even "neutrality."

The Usher V-601 does strike me as having a somewhat "tailored" high-frequency response, in much the same way as did the Fried Q/2. This may or may not be your cup of tea. Of these three speakers, the V-601 made for the most enjoyable listening to musically classic but technically flawed recordings such as Charlie Parker with Strings: The Master Takes (CD, Verve 314 523 984-2). It's a real contender for the crown of spiritual successor to the Fried Q/2.

Renaissance Audio Group MLP-403.5: $1090/pair
Oops—running out of space! Renaissance Audio is the former Morel USA. Their MLP-403.5 has a 1.1" fabric-dome tweeter, a 2.1" fabric-dome midrange, and an 8.75" woofer. The sealed (acoustic-suspension) cabinet measures 22" H by 11" W by 123/8" D (3001 cu. in.) and weighs 35 lbs. Renaissance claims –3dB points of 38Hz and 22kHz; however, the sealed cabinet means that the 403.5's bass rolls off half as quickly as would a ported enclosure's. A sealed-box three-way for $1090/pair that sounds this good is, as I mentioned above, a screaming bargain, and one I will return to next time out.

Those Five Great Songs
By the time you read this, the winning 12 entries, as well as all the other entries, to my write-in contest seeking nominations for the Five Great Art Songs of the Rock Age will have been posted as an addendum to my February column on the Stereophile website.

My own list in the February issue was prescient: by mid-March, my No.4, Leonard Cohen's "Hallelujah," as covered by Jeff Buckley on the latter's Grace, was the No.1 song on iTunes' download list—fueled in part by what I thought was a rather self-indulgent performance by Jason Castro on American Idol. Alas, poor Melinda, I fear we shall not see her like again. Until next time, then.