Snell Type E/III loudspeaker

One question posed by John Atkinson at the July 1991 Stereophile Writers Conference had to do with the ease of reviewing: Is it harder to write a bad review of an expensive product than a good review? I find it hardest to write a good review of an inexpensive product. If I admire a less expensive loudspeaker, for example, it may become a recommended component, and can displace a more expensive speaker (that received mixed comments) from our twice-yearly rankings. This can be a big responsibility; even a conditional rave of a low-cost product means that JA may assign another Stereophile reviewer to do an immediate follow-up report. The Snell Type E/III loudspeaker may be a good case in point.

Thomas J. Norton, who had been breaking the speaker in for me, warned me what was coming when he sent along this product's three modest-sized cartons. "I really like this loudspeaker," he said. His tone of voice suggested that the Type E/III is not at all a hobbled or downsized cousin of the Snell Type C/IV that was reviewed positively by Bob Harley (Vol.14 No.4). Later, Kevin Voecks, Snell's chief designer, informed me that Snell sells more Type E/IIIs than any other speaker in their line. Customers and dealers were voting with increasing orders and sales.

The late Peter Snell designed the first Type E as a speaker for the people, to bring some of the sonics of the Type A to the market for a price under $1000. The Type E/III appeared in early 1990 about the same time as the Type C/III (the Type C is now in its fourth version). The speaker's low price and TJN's enthusiasm suggested I might like the speaker on two counts: low price and good sound. As you see, this reports finds the Snell Type E/III meets Peter Snell's criterion all too well.

Technical description
The Snell E/III is a medium-sized, ported, nominally floor-standing system employing an 8" woofer and a 1" textile-dome tweeter. An additional rear-firing 0.75"-dome tweeter is mounted on the enclosure back. The E/III closely resembles the "slim, streamlined, elegant appearance" of the company's more expensive C/IV, but lacks that three-way system's separate midrange driver and its unique diffraction-reducing baffle mounting and grille-cloth arrangement. My review samples were finished in a dark oak veneer. Also supplied were black, boxlike stands, slightly smaller in area than the E/III's dimensions, that raise the E/IIIs 10" off the floor. Kevin Voecks finds that the stands reduce midrange colorations due to floor reflections.

The cabinet is made of ¾" high-density particleboard, the front baffle of 1"-thick particleboard. A number of internal braces are used to make the enclosure more rigid. Low-frequency signals are vented from a 3"-diameter port in the lower rear of the cabinet. As reported for the Snell C/IV, the fit and finish of the Snell Type E/III supplied for review were excellent. The cabinets were matched closely, for their veneers were taken from different depths of the same piece of wood.

The input terminals sit in a cutout well about halfway up the cabinet rear. As with the C/IV, the E/III features two pairs of five-way binding posts for bi-wire operations. Bi-amplification is possible with the E/IIIs by using two stereo amplifiers, one per channel ("vertical" bi-amping). The terminal plate also has a front-tweeter level control. Instructions from Kevin Voecks suggested that this control should be set in the 9–10 o'clock position for the flattest frequency response (all other Snell models are flattest at 12 o'clock). The slightly recessed input terminals did not interfere with speaker-cable connections, including both Monster Cable and Levinson HFC-10 types.

The Type E/III's Vifa tweeter is the same as the HF unit found in the top-of-the-line Snell Type A/III Improved. This tweeter is the major innovation in the latest Type A, and accounts for its much-improved treble response over previous Type A designs (see review in Vol.13 No.3). The 8" woofer is mounted halfway up the front baffle and has a cast basket frame. It was chosen for its flat response both on- and off-axis, and has a particularly low-distortion, controlled response in its upper range. The rear-firing, ¾" dome tweeter is similar to the unit in the Type C/IV, but has greater power handling.

The Type E/III's crossover reflects the work done by Kevin Voecks using Canada's National Research Council speaker test facilities in Ottawa. As detailed by Robert Harley in the introduction of the Snell Type C/IV review (Vol.14 No.4), many NRC-influenced speaker designs feature "steep crossover slopes, wide dispersion, [and] smooth off-axis response." The Type E/III, at half the Type C's price, shares many of its design characteristics. The E/III's 24dB/octave crossover and 2.7kHz crossover frequency can be found in the Type C's tweeter/midrange section. The higher-order filter allows the Type E/III to have fewer driver interactions, higher power handling, improved frequency and off-axis response, and lower distortion.

Why mount a tweeter on the back of the speaker enclosure? The front tweeter becomes more directional at higher frequencies, and contributes less to the reverberant sound field, or total energy in the room. As the tweeter becomes more directional, its dispersion narrows, giving a "flashlight" effect (producing music only directly in front of the driver). The back-mounted ¾" tweeter begins to play when musical information includes frequencies higher than 6kHz, gradually increasing in volume with frequency using a first-order slope. At those frequencies, the rear tweeter contributes to the reverberant soundfield and maintains the total radiated energy from the entire speaker. This maintains, as Harley noted, the speaker's "sense of air and spaciousness" while the front tweeter's dispersion narrows.

The Type E/III's crossover employs high-quality non-polarized electrolytic capacitors, Mylar capacitors, and air-core inductors. The crossover design was created with a computer program after each driver had been measured in the very cabinet used in production. Once designed, the actual manufacturing process involves tuning each speaker's frequency response, with grilles in place, to within 0.5dB of a standard, called the "reference master." This tolerance is far better than the ±4–5dB quoted by the vendors supplying the drivers. Each speaker is trimmed by a "specialist," who spends most of his time at the Snell plant just matching loudspeakers to the reference master. This is done by overwinding inductors, and then pulling turns off, one at a time; starting with smaller capacitor values, and adding trimmers; and finally, adjusting variable resistors. The tweeter-level control is also calibrated against the reference master. These final speaker adjustments require 20 minutes' labor for each Type E/III produced.

Bob Harley's C/IV review emphasized the company's cost-priority design criterion. Expenses and materials are limited to components or labor expenditures that produce audible differences. With the Type E/III, the cost reflects the speaker's high-quality woofer and tweeter, and the time spent in calibration. The stands, which help the unit's midrange, are available à la carte. Other niceties, such as expensive caps, fancy internal wiring, or very thick cabinet walls, are not included. As a result, Voecks was able to keep the price of a pair of Type E/IIIs and stands below $1200.

The Type E/IIIs were used as my primary loudspeaker for a month. Later, they were compared to the Quad USA Monitors/SW-63 system and to Snell A/III Improved loudspeakers. Anne Kelley, Snell Acoustics' Executive Administrator, provided me with a copy of the Room Analysis Computer Program, CARA, and LEO. These programs analyze room resonance mode distribution and suggest optimal speaker/listener locations for each dimension of the listening room. Following LEO's suggestions for "better" locations ("best" was not convenient!), the E/IIIs were positioned about 32" from the rear wall (middle of woofer to wall) and 36" from each side wall. The speakers were toed-in slightly and were 6' apart. The seated position was 8' away from a center line between the speakers, the seat placing my ears about 34" off the floor (about the level of the E/III's tweeters). All listening was done with the grille cloths in place. In addition, I adjusted the tweeter-level controls to 9:30, as Kevin Voecks had suggested.

Snell Acoustics
300 Jubilee Drive, PO Box 3717
Peabody, MA 01961-3717
(978) 538-6262