Stirling Broadcast SB-88 Speakers

The Black Keys’ new record Turn Blue reminds me of some of the finest psychedelic tunes from the 1960s. The opening track “Weight of Love” has a very Clapton/Cream vibe. There’s something about British speakers and classic rock; they just feel right. I have used Harbeth’s Compact 7ES-3 and the Monitor 40.1 speakers as references for some time now and a few of their main characteristics seem worth noting:

First, the midrange is spectacular; second, these speakers do an excellent job retrieving the timing information from whatever music you happen to be listening to; and third, even though the 40.1 doesn’t have prodigious amounts of bass (though, with a 13-inch woofer, it’s more than adequate), it does have a lot of life.

But enough about Harbeth. (More on that later.) While that brand gets much of the British-monitor love these days, there’s another player that’s not quite as popular but that is just as interesting, if not more: Sterling Broadcast began as a company repairing and refurbishing LS3/5A and other BBC-type monitors. It soon expanded to produce its own speakers, getting the license from KEF for new drivers in order to build a version of the LS3/5A, which was very well received.

Another Classic, Updated

The SB-88 accomplishes the same thing as Stirling’s version of the LS3/5A—this time as a revamped LS/AA speaker. A two-way design with an 8-inch woofer, the SB-88 is a British monitor through and through, from the thin-walled cabinets to the basic black grille that’s nearly impossible to remove. Just like the Compact 7, this speaker performs best on a pair of 19-inch-tall speaker stands, to get the right tweeter-to-listener height.

As with the Compact 7, I suggest a very dense stand, like the Sound Anchors I currently use, to best ground the speakers, resulting in a smoother and more extended low-frequency response. In my reference system, the Devialet 110 proves a perfect match for these speakers, offering grip and control that gives them a more modern sound. When paired with a low-powered tube or solid-state amplifier, the SB-88s lean more towards the warm, wooly sound often associated with British monitors. So, choose the amplifier you want to give you the mood you seek with these—they can go either way.

While the SB-88s provide a wide frequency response, they live up to their heritage, providing a lush yet natural midrange that helps most recordings sound better than they have a right to. In the day of hyper-detailed, hyper-real-sounding speakers from YG, Wilson and Magico, the Sterling Broadcast SB-88s are a wonderful experience, almost like your favorite form of comfort food. What they lack in resolving power, they more than make up for in natural presentation. Day in and day out, they remain incredibly user-friendly and non-fatiguing. Should this be what you’ve been searching for, these are the grail. If you’d like to keep the British sound but still want a modern feel, the Harbeth Compact 7 might be more your spot of tea, as staffer Mark Marcantonio reveals on the following pages…

Harbeth Compact 7ES-3 vs. Stirling SB-88

By Mark Marcantonio
Heritage: It’s a key component to how stereo equipment is designed and how it sounds. When it comes to speakers, BBC monitors arguably have the most famous lineage. Simple, thin-walled boxes designed to be placed on stands, these types of speakers add in a sonic signature of low coloration and flat measurements, which are the basics of a successful monitor. Two companies currently epitomize the BBC design: Harbeth and Stirling.

While direct comparisons are not the norm at TONEAudio, when a pair of Stirling SB-88s arrived for review, the obvious comparison to the Harbeth Compact 7ES-3 couldn’t be helped. Possessing a nearly identical cabinet size (20.5 by 10.7 by 12 inches for the Harbeths; 19.5 by 10.7 by 11.75 inches for the Stirlings), along with similar drivers and port layouts, these speakers present instant curiosity. Even grill removal on both models calls for patience and an old credit card. Besides veneers, the biggest differences are the flat front flange, sealed back panel, and dual binding posts of the SB-88, and the slightly rounded bevel, screwed-in rear panel, and single set of binding posts of the Compact 7.

True to their DNA, both models prefer slightly shorter stands for optimum performance—in this case, the 19-inch Sound Anchors. After a weekend playing with positioning, the results for the 9-by-12-foot room were identical, sans a 1/4-inch less toe-in for the SB-88. Two other rooms were used as well: an 11-by-18-foot family room and 14-by-18-foot living room. Powering the competitors is the 150-watts-per-channel Simaudio Moon i-7 integrated amp. Sources include the Rega RP1 with Ortofon Super OM 40 cartridge and Sim Moon LP 5.3 phono pre, and a MacBook running iTunes/Pure Music paired with a Sim Moon 300D DAC.

The SB-88s resolve with a sense of intimacy. Allen Stone’s bluesy vocals in a live recording of “Sleep” ache with emotional clarity. The tightness of the acoustic guitar strokes leaves little doubt as to technique. Yet, for all the purity of high frequencies, hiss and edginess are never spotted.

The midrange of the SB-88 continues the purity of signal, which is not surprising considering the design parameters of the BBC concept. Percussion is equally tight, with obvious definition between each piece of the drum kit. The strong piano-key strokes on Trixie Whitley’s “Breathe You in My Dreams” hold their own space next to her rich and complex vocals.

But the lower registers really give away the SB-88 as a monitor. The rich layering that bass brings to so many songs just never kicks in with the SB-88. The funk classic “Fire” by the Ohio Players, with its foot-tapping bass line, gives only a hint of its existence. The lack of bottom-end has always been mini-monitor territory. No matter which of the three rooms are utilized, I’m left wanting so much more.

Interestingly enough, both speakers sound their best in nearly the same position in all three listening rooms, another nod to their lineage. However, when the music begins to play on the Compact 7s, the difference is palpable. The Harbeths bring more bass grunt and detail. Listening to music with any sort of low end through the Compact 7s is a whole different experience. The bass guitar in “Fire” resolves and thumps, matching the speaker’s 46-Hz low-end rating.

The upper frequencies of the Harbeths offer a wider imaging sweet spot, while the signal coming forth just has more of everything: detail, depth, spaciousness, etc. A sense of soulfulness is present on the Compact 7s that isn’t there with the SB-88s. Through the Harbeths, the xylophone near the beginning of Steely Dan’s “Aja” rings from the deepest regions of the speaker cabinet. And Trixie Whitely’s vocals take on a sense of aged richness, much like a fine wine.

As with the SB-88s, the Compact 7s take advantage of the space in the cabinet and that in between the speakers, but the latter speakers extend all the way to the walls. Acoustic treatments do come into play, though I find no need to reset the position of the GIK panels. The music comes to the listener rather than he or she needing to step into the musical space. There’s no need to check with head/ear position to confirm the sweet spot with the Harbeths—just sit back and enjoy the experience.

The Compact 7s reproduce two of the hardest instruments for speakers—the piano and the human voice—with a naturalness and clarity that stuns. The piano notes roll over the music like waves. Jan Gunnar Hoff’s piano on a vinyl version of his album Living cascades throughout the room. Tonal structure and timbre are beautifully accurate and as non-fatiguing as one can rightfully expect at this price point.

Listening to pre-Auto-Tune vocal performances demonstrates the additional resolution that the Compact 7s have over the Stirlings. From Ella Fitzgerald to a young Melissa Etheridge and from Dean Martin to Kris Kristofferson, the Compact 7s deliver a complete vocal performance, including the imperfections that make each singer’s voice an honest and terrific treat.

The Final Tally

While the Stirling SB-88 is a nice speaker, with all the good intentions of the BBC monitor tradition, it cannot match the broad, rich sonic experience that the Harbeth Compact 7ES-3 provides. Alan Shaw (Harbeth owner and speaker designer), the BBC monitor crown belongs to you.

Stirling Broadcast SB-88

$3,450 – $3,850, depending on finish

Harbeth Compact C7ES-3

$3,690 – $3,990, depending on finish

Roksan Kandy K2 BT Integrated Amplifier

British hi-fi buffs know Roksan Audio as a company that offers extraordinary value and sonics that challenge far pricier competitors. The company, located just northwest of London, takes a complete-system approach, with analog and digital sources, amplification, speakers, cables, and power supplies among its product lineup—and it is currently making a push into the North American market.

Roksan has several lines that cater to different needs: The Oxygene line strips away everything to the basics, with modern design and functionality; the Kandy line offers higher performance; and the Caspian line is the top of the hill. All Roksan products have a simple but appealing aesthetic and are known for high reliability.

The subject of this review—and the first Roksan component that has been in my system—is the Kandy K2 BT integrated amplifier, which retails for $1,900. The K2 BT is one of the more feature-rich integrated amplifiers that we have reviewed, equipped with a phonostage, five line-level inputs, a tape loop, remote control, and Bluetooth connectivity—the latter of which is what the BT designation represents. (The standard, non-Bluetooth K2 retails for $1,700.) The unit’s power output is 120 watts per channel into 8 ohms.

Roksan says it uses the highest-grade parts available and that the K2’s output stage is based on that employed in the Caspian series. The company pays special attention to circuit layout and especially power supply, with the sonics coming first. The result is a product that makes for a sound investment, which has helped build Roksan’s reputation since its founding in 1985.

The Basics

The casework on the K2 BT, while not extravagant, is solid, nicely put together, and commensurate with the price point. In terms of appearance, the unit is available with either a black case and silver faceplate or the reverse.

Installing the K2 is straightforward, with connections made and sound emanating from speakers within minutes of unpacking. The amp easily drives a pair of Gallo A’Diva Se satellite speakers with a Gallo TR-3D subwoofer, and it makes light work of the Harbeth Compact 7ES-3s sans sub. (See end of article for additional full list of peripherals.)

The review sample has decent mileage on it, so only a few days are needed to get it up to optimal performance—and it does not take long for the K2’s personality to shine. It flows music to the speakers in a velvety smooth, seductive, and effortless manner, even with the relatively inefficient Harbeths. The amplifier never breaks a sweat, delivering gorgeous, dare I say, tube-like tone and imaging that is wide, deep, and always involving.

Down to Business

Nick Cave’s 2013 recording Push the Sky Away is transportative through the K2. The open, spacious mix and Cave’s superbly recorded voice are perfect for the amp to show off its way with nuance, instrumental timbres, and timing. Cave always imparts some sort of drama and tension in his songs, and on this collection he does so with more subtlety than usual. Here, the K2 lets the tension build and ebb so as to spotlight the performance, with all things “hi-fi” taking a back seat. This is truly a music lover’s amplifier.

On a lighter note, streaming a variety of recordings by lounge-pop revivalists Pink Martini is great fun, with the K2 keeping pace with the free spirit of the band’s whimsical, intoxicating sound. Such albums as Sympathique, Hang On Little Tomato, Splendor in the Grass, and Get Happy are a gas—and the Kandy is up to the task. Whether cycling through jazzy standards, French lullabies, tangos, Chinese folk songs, or Turkish pop, this amp keeps the party going, never missing a beat.

With higher-resolution digital files, the K2 pays big dividends. The 96-kHz download of Chicago’s album II is excellent, and the Kandy brings back the summer of 1972, showcasing the quality of the legendary band’s interplay and songwriting. It makes tracks like “Poem for the People” and “In the Country” sound vibrant and fresh.

The K2 not only unravels complex music but also lays out simple pleasures, like Chuck Berry’s monumental 1950s Chess recordings, with ease. Trying to resist tracks like “Little Queenie” or “Back In The U.S.A” proves futile, as the Roksan takes these mono recordings and renders them with natural authority; and the pacing is sublime. I am continually reminded that this amplifier effortlessly gets out of the way, always drawing attention to the music and not to itself.

The K2 clearly has a wonderful way with digital sources, regardless of program material or sampling rate. I put it through its paces further with a little analog via some pre-recorded, commercially released 7.5-ips reel tapes played back on my vintage Sony deck. The results are stunning, with the Kandy providing a clean, quiet background and excellent detail retrieval. It ups the ante on the musical involvement that tape lovers find so intoxicating.

Final Score

Ergonomically, the K2 is a dream. It offers plenty of volume steps, even with the remote, which can be a sticking point on amplifiers in the $2,000 price range. The front panel is easy to navigate and the amp is dead quiet, running cool as a cucumber. All this adds up to maximum enjoyment and flexibility.

After spending an extended period of time with the K2, listening to it with a wide variety of music and gear, I become curious about a complete Roksan system. Perhaps we’ll see a full-system review in the future.

The only area where I find that the K2 comes up short is its Bluetooth capability. The sound quality is excellent, but the connection in my system proves a bit unreliable with both an iPad Air and and iPhone 5. When the Bluetooth works, it is fun as heck, but it’s annoying when the connection is marginal. (Our publisher doesn’t experience issues with the Bluetooth. See Further Listening below.)

Roksan has rightly earned a reputation across the pond as a music-lover’s manufacturer. The K2 BT is a special component. Paired with multiple sets of speakers, sources, and cables, it never disappoints sonically. Aside from the shaky Bluetooth connection I experienced, there is nothing to quibble about. You get the complete package here, including good looks. At just under $2,000, this is an easy recommendation for those who want a full-function integrated amp that works equally well with both analog and digital sources. The Roksan Kandy K2 BT is clearly a benchmark for its price point.

Further Listening

By Jeff Dorgay

Andre sums up the essence of the Kandy K2 BT perfectly—though, lacking a turntable, he wasn’t able to comment on the phono section, which I find to be excellent, especially for a $1,900 integrated. As vinyl continues to enthrall new users, and with so many people dipping their toes in the water, a high-performance phonostage is a wonderful addition to an integrated amp, allowing maximum system flexibility.

Most people purchasing an amplifier and speakers at this level will probably be using a turntable in the $100-to-$1,000 range, and they will not be disappointed. The Kandy’s phonostage is easily on par with any outboard phonostage we’ve auditioned costing $300 to $500, so for price matching most of my listening is with the $95 Shure M97 cartridge and the $295 Rega Elys 2—both MM designs. Just to push the envelope, I use the $700 Ortofon 2M Black and have good results. This is definitely an integrated amp that an analog owner can grow with.

Where most budget solid-state phonostages are flat, two-dimensional, and relatively sterile, the Kandy’s phono section performs admirably, giving up more height and depth than is usually associated with a relatively inexpensive onboard unit. Playing the MoFi remaster of Los Lobos’ Kiko, the Roksan renders this rock classic with an extra-large sonic image, especially with the Ortofon 2M Black. Brian Eno’s Small Craft on a Milk Sea proves highly involving, with the subtle environmental textures not fading too far into black.

Interestingly, I had zero issues with the Bluetooth receiver in the Kandy, so those who may be using it in an area with a lot of wireless connectivity in the vicinity should consider a test drive to see if this part of the gear is right for you. I can see where this would be a deal-breaker if it doesn’t work properly in your environment.

I can easily proclaim that the Kandy is an incredible bargain for under $2,000, but it’s even a better deal when you take the phonostage into account. Anyone looking for a great system anchor should give this baby a test drive. We are happy to award the Roksan Kandy K2 BT one of our Exceptional Value Awards for 2014.

Kandy K2 BT Integrated Amplifier

MSRP: $1,900 (manufacturer) (North American distributor)


Speakers Harbeth Compact 7ES-3    Anthony Gallo A’Diva SE satellites    Thiel CS.24 floorstanders
DAC Bryston BDA-1    Denon DA-300USB
Sources Simaudio MiND 180D Streamer    Sony TC-350 reel-to-reel tape deck
Cables Transparent Wave speaker cables    Darwin    Kimber Kable    Stager    DH Labs interconnects