Usher Audio Technology Compass X-719 loudspeaker

I love attending Stereophile's Home Entertainment shows. I get to check out the latest gear, hobnob with manufacturers and writer colleagues, hear some live music, and play a little jazz with John Atkinson, Zan Stewart, and Immedia's Allen Perkins. Unfortunately, work commitments at my day job meant I couldn't attend HE2003, in San Francisco, so I directed my team of Stereophile scouts to find me some hot new budget speakers. Robert Deutsch was quickest to respond, the week following the show: "Bob, you've got to check out these new speakers from Usher Audio in Taiwan! They have a number of models within your budget." One phone call later, and a $1000/pair of Compass X-719 bookshelf speakers was on its way to me.

Although Usher Audio Technology may not be a household name in the US, the company has been designing and manufacturing speakers and electronics in Taiwan for more than 30 years. Only since 2003 has Stan Tracht, of Thee High End of Dallas, Texas, made Usher designs widely available to US consumers. The Compass X-719 was jointly designed by Dr. Joseph D'Appolito (of the eponymous midrange-tweeter-midrange driver array, now chief engineer at Snell Acoustics) and Usher's Tsai Lien-Shui, and is manufactured in Usher's factory in Taipei.

Both the X-719's drive-units are sourced from Taiwan. The 1" tweeter uses a silk diaphragm, with a moderate-viscosity magnetic fluid used in the voice-coil gap to dissipate heat and improve mechanical linearity. Usher claims that the tweeter is capable of reaching much lower in frequency than typical tweeters. The X-719 therefore features a lower crossover point than usual, 2kHz, which relieves the bass/midrange unit of the need to reproduce higher frequencies, which Usher claims results in superior definition. The crossover is a fourth-order acoustic design. The cast-aluminum-framed 7" woofer uses a paper cone filled with carbon fiber to increase stiffness and to damp resonances. Reflex loading is provided by a 2"-diameter port on the cabinet rear. The woofer motor has a T-shaped pole-piece with a copper sleeve and shorting ring, and provides for a peak-peak "throw" of 12mm.

The biwirable X-719's substantial cabinet has thick walls of MDF and interlocking internal braces. Actually, "substantial" is an understatement. At 37 lbs each, the not unusually large X-719 is by far the heaviest bookshelf speaker I've ever reviewed—and by far the most attractive. The cabinets have rounded edges, and my review samples were finished in an attractive black-gloss, automotive-like lacquer, with elegantly finished side panels of dark, real wood.

To ensure consistency with my continuing series of reviews of budget speakers, I set the X-719s on my trusty Celestion Si stands, declining Usher's offer to supply their own $400/pair stands. After seeing a photo of Usher's RSW708 stand, however, I regretted my decision—when coupled with the X-719, the stand's combination of wood uprights and stone base makes a striking visual statement.

Ushering in a new sound
I tested the X-719s with their grilles on and off. Although Usher recommends leaving the grilles off for the most uniform and flat frequency response, and despite the fact that I felt the X-719 sounded more transparent and detailed that way, I preferred listening with the grilles on, which provided the best integration of bass, midrange, and highs. The differences, however, were subtle.

I auditioned the Usher Compass X-719s using a wide range of vinyl, CD, and home-theater recordings. I was immediately struck by the speaker's natural, detailed midrange. Well-recorded female vocal soloists, such as Madeline Peyroux on Dreamland (CD, Atlantic 82946-2) and Aimee Mann on Bachelor No.2 or the Last Remains of the Dodo (CD, SuperEgo SE002), were vibrant and rich. On his Give It Up to Love (CD, JVC XRCD 0012-2), Mighty Sam McClain's voice was reproduced with the requisite deep, resonant growl.

The X-719's detailed and delicate rendition of well-recorded instruments with significant midrange energy, such as woodwinds, brass, and acoustic guitar, made the speaker a good match for classical chamber works such as George Crumb's Quest (LP, Bridge 9069), and small-group jazz recordings such as Jerome Harris' take on Duke Ellington's "The Mooche" (from Editor's Choice, Stereophile STPH016-2). With every classical and jazz recording I played, the X-719s "disappeared," all instruments emanating from a wide, deep soundstage.

I enjoyed the Compass X-719 most with piano recordings, regardless of genre. Bill Evans' axe on Live at the Village Vanguard (LP, Riverside RS 3006) was reproduced with all its warmth, detail, and subtle dynamic inflections intact. On the opposite side of the spectrum, Toru Takemitsu's Corona: London Version (LP, Decca HEAD 4) uses a closely miked piano as a percussion instrument, with unusually wide variations of dynamics, from the subtle to the explosive, as well as considerable use of open space and air—the piece might as well be titled When Pianos Attack. The X-719's wide dynamic range enabled the piano on this challenging recording to bloom as in a live performance.

Higher in frequency, the X-719 took on a bit of a forward perspective. This was not brightness, harshness, or coloration but, with works that had significant high-frequency content, was equivalent to moving a few rows closer to the concert-hall stage. This perspective resulted in an attractively crisp presentation of percussion on classical and jazz works. Steve Nelson's vibraphone solo on "The Mooche" sounded vibrant and tactile, reminiscent of a live performance heard from a front table in a jazz club; and according to my listening notes, the marimba on Messiaen's Des Canyons Aux Etoiles (LP, Erato STV 70974-75) was "startlingly natural."

Although the Hammond B-3 organ on the Mighty Sam disc sounded realistic, during solos it seemed as if the instrument's 1' and 2' drawbars had been pulled open another notch. However, despite the more forward perspective, the X-719's high frequencies didn't sound as detailed or as delicately presented as its midrange, particularly with classical works. Moreover, when the speaker was pressed hard during highly modulated orchestral works, such as Elliot Carter's Double Concerto for Harpsichord and Two Chamber Orchestras (LP, Nonesuch H-71312) or the Messiaen track, strings, brass, and high-frequency percussion instruments tended to sound a bit steely and brash.

The X-719's bass performance was unlike that of any other speaker I've heard. With all recordings, the bass was forceful, forward, dramatic, and deep (JA's measurements will tell us just how deep). But in searching for a word to describe the bass, the only word I can think of is buxom. With every recording I used, I kept thinking of...Dolly Parton. Adrienne Barbeau. Kitten Natividad. That is: round, tight, well-defined, dramatic, warm, supple, but slightly larger than life. Scott La Faro's solos on the live Bill Evans recording bloomed with good definition, and although the bass presentation was rather round, there was no sense of coloration, overhang, or sluggishness.

When I played well-recorded electronic rock recordings at higher volumes, the Usher's bass performance was even more dramatic. On "Feel No Pain," from Sade's Love Deluxe (CD, Epic EK 53178), the portamento from the lower-register bass synth shook the room with extraordinary definition and with no trace of coloration, overhang, or strain. Recordings such as this demonstrated the X-719's seemingly limitless capabilities of high-level dynamics—by far the most impressive I've heard from a bookshelf speaker this size.

Usher Audio Technology
US distributor: Thee High End
6923 Inwood Rd.
Dallas, TX 75209
(214) 704-6082