Bowers & Wilkins 702 Signature Loudspeakers

Rocking out with some Slayer, it’s clear that Bowers & Wilkins has produced a winner here. To be honest, I’ve been punishing these speakers for about a solid week now, and it’s clear they have major dynamic ability.

Life isn’t all metal though, (though for some it is) and after seriously breaking these speakers in, an expanded palette of music was in order. Grooving on some Black Devil Disco Club, it’s easy to see that the 702 Signatures have plenty of low frequency ability too.

Bowers & Wilkins has always been a company driven by engineering excellence. I’ve owned a number of B&W speakers since 1980, and they’ve always made fantastic products. Having visited their UK factory a few times now, the level that they implement their engineering vision is second to none. Being a car guy at heart, I’ve always enjoyed the paint shop and the level of finish they are able to achieve. On both of my recent tours to the UK factory in Worthing, my tour guides have always made it a point to say that the B&W factory in China is a mirror image of the UK factory, though it concentrates on the 600 and 700 Series product. 800 Series Diamond product is made in Worthing. These are both huge facilities.

Even a cursory look at the Signature speakers proves that they’ve left nothing on the table, in terms of quality here. Where B&W has somewhat simplified the 700 Series is in the cabinet itself, with a more traditional box shape, instead of the complex, curvy shape of the 800 Series Diamond.

Unpack and setup

If you’re planning on buying a pair of Bowers & Wilkins 702s (Signature or not) read the infographic on the top of the box before you remove your speakers from their packaging. The 702 tweeter is housed in a bullet shaped aluminum enclosure that will be instantly damaged if you just put the box upside down once you’ve opened it. Get a friend to help you unpack your 702s because even though they are not terribly heavy, they are tightly packed and close to impossible to unpack by yourself because their slippery, smooth cabinets are hard to get a grip on. Save the little white rubber thing (that looks a lot like those rubber things they use in a nail salon to keep your toes apart) under the tweeter pod in case you move or ever have to ship your speakers. Trust me on this.

Once unboxed, you’ll also notice a pair of plinths that have been included for safety reasons in certain countries. If you don’t absolutely have to use them, I suggest leaving them in the shipping cartons, as they distract from the sleekness of the 702 Signatures, and B&W says the plinths do not improve the sound.

The last style decision to make is whether to affix the grilles or not. If you have kids, dogs, or a lot of guests, you’ll probably need them, but if you don’t, admiring the 702 Signature sans grilles is quite lovely. High technology doesn’t always look as good as it sounds, but in this case, the 702 Signature succeeds brilliantly. The three woofers, with their subtle chrome rings are just beneath the midrange driver with the big, silver Continuum™ cone, and the tweeter pod at the very top.

And, ooh those cabinets. From the outside, those stepping up to the $6,500/pair Signature series models over the standard $5,000/pair models you get a cool Datuk Gloss finish. I have to say, as a Sonus faber owner, Bowers & Wilkins is right there at the top of the mountain in cabinet finish, offering a level of quality that I’d expect to come from Italy. These speakers are absolutely beautiful to behold. The depth, and smoothness of the finish is outstanding. I’d step up to the Signatures just for the finish.

The Signature models are not just a cosmetic/finish update. Though the spec sheets between the standard 702 S2 and 702 Signature reveal the same numbers – this is the perfect example of specs not telling the whole tale. Thanks to upgraded bypass capacitors in the crossover, the Signatures deliver a more grain free presentation through the mids to the highest highs. The only downside here, albeit temporary, is those upgraded components in the crossovers take a bit more time to be all they can be. Expect a slight edge on top, and a bit of haze and fog through the midband for the first couple hundred hours of use.

To observe this process in action, play the same track every day at the beginning of the day. Make it a track you know intimately. In this case it was Robert Plant’s “Sixes and Sevens,” but I’m sure you have a couple of favorites that you’ll be able to notice the slightest differences. It’s almost as if the 702 Signatures get bigger and smoother sounding as you put hours on the clock.
Sticking with Robert Plant as my go to, shifting forward in time to “All the King’s Horses,” from his Mighty Rearranger album, the backing vocals started out somewhat buried in the mix, yet as the hours went by, I could hear the separation between Plant and the backing vocals much easier and more distinctively.

In our 13 x 18 foot living room, final speaker position ended up with the speakers being about five feet from the rear wall and about two feet away from the side walls. Only a few degrees of toe-in was used, but this and whether to slightly angle the speakers back will depend on seat height and personal listening preferences. Suffice to say that the 702 Signatures were easy to set up and get satisfying sound from quickly. Those needing to place their speakers close to the room walls or corners may want to take advantage of the foam plugs to insert in the rear mounted speaker port.

Other choices

With a sensitivity rating of 90dB/1-watt, the 702 Signatures don’t need a ton of power to be musically involving. Using everything here from the 30 watt per channel PrimaLuna EVO 100 to the mighty Pass Labs XA200.8s, proved a good match. Being that person preferring a more mellow approach, I gravitated more to the combination of the 702 Signatures with the Luxman L-550 Class A (solid state) integrated, the Pass INT25 (also solid state Class A) and our reference VAC Sigma 170i (tubes), but your final sound preferences will determine what you’ll pick. Bottom line, these speakers do not need a ton of power to sound great.

We also made it a point to try the 702 Signatures with a few different sets of speaker cable, from WireWorld, Nordost, Tellurium-Q, and Cardas. Again, all excellent results, how you want to achieve final voicing on your system will determine where you go here. The Cardas Clear cable in our reference system (a touch warm) was more to our taste, but the other three turned in great performances, but are slightly more forward and revealing. My living room is very lightly treated, so this contributes heavily to my leaning more towards a slightly mellow tonal balance.

One small tip, for those purchasing a pair of 702 Signatures: invest in a high-quality pair of jumpers, if you aren’t bi-wiring your speakers. Swapping a pair of Tellurium-Q jumpers in place of the factory issued, flat metal jumpers brought yet another level of clarity in the mid and upper registers.

What’s not to like?

Pretty much nothing really. Your decision will probably be B&W or the other choices, or between the Signature and standard models. However, in terms of what’s available in the $5,000 – $7,000 range that we’ve had the pleasure to audition, the Bowers & Wilkins 702 Signature is a solid player in terms of sound quality, engineering prowess, and aesthetic appeal. Not to mention, as one of the world’s largest speaker manufacturers, you can be sure of a great sales, service, and support network to go with your purchase.

The Bowers & Wilkins 702 Signature
MSRP: $6,500/pair

Please click here to be taken to the Bowers & Wilkins website.

Bryston Mini T Loudspeaker

Bryston, the long-standing Canadian audio manufacturer, is highly respected on a number of fronts. Their gear is superbly built, rugged, and reliable. They also offer virtually unmatched support with multi-year warranties on most components. Their amplification is used worldwide in both professional and domestic audio environments. Their digital source components have been well received by the world press and remain in residence in my current reference system.

As comprehensive as Bryston’s product line is, with power amps, preamps, integrated amplifiers, digital file players, and power products, there was until recently one omission: loudspeakers. This gap in their product line has been filled with an extensive lineup of speakers ranging from the Mini A “bookshelf” model all the way up to big and bold room-filling floorstanders.

Why speakers?

The impetus behind Bryston’s drive to produce loudspeakers in an already crowded and competitive area is their VP of Product Marketing, James Tanner. Tanner, in his quest for a speaker that would satisfy him personally, came up short in his search, and thus decided to pursue an original design that would achieve certain goals. His efforts translated into results that were satisfying enough that Bryston decided to distribute these designs commercially.

Bryston put a lot of resources into R&D, doing extensive testing, listening, and measuring with the help of fellow Canadian manufacturer Axiom, whose facilities are state of the art.  The speaker lines are all manufactured in Canada – no outsourcing here – and there is an accompanying unheard of twenty-year warranty.

The Mini T monitor loudspeaker in this review sells for $3,200. The Mini T is flanked by the Mini A, its smaller brother, and at the top of the line, the mighty Model T Signature flagship multi-way tower. There is nothing actually “mini” about the Mini T, as it stands 22.5“ high and weighs in at 42 lbs. The speaker is a three-way, with a 1” dome tweeter, a 5.25“ midrange driver, and an 8“ woofer.  The frequency response is stated as 33Hz to 20kHz, impressive at this price point.  Efficiency is average, at 86 dB, 4 ohms, nominal.

The Mini T is available in Black Ash, Boston Cherry, Natural Cherry, and in custom veneers at an additional charge. There are custom stands available to which the Mini T can be bolted. Out of the box, the Mini T exudes quality. The finish, construction, and binding posts are first class – what many have come to expect from Bryston.

The Mini T takes residence in good company. The speakers are driven by an Audio Research VS55 tube amp, the Simaudio 760A solid-state powerhouse and a Coffman Labs G1-A tube preamp. Sources are Simaudio’s NEO 380D DAC, Bryston’s own BDA-1 DAC, and a Revox A77 tape deck. Cabling is Stager, Transparent, and DH Labs with the Mini Ts sitting comfortably on custom Sound Anchor stands.

Getting down to business

After a relatively short 25-hour break-in period, the listener is treated to a wonderfully coherent, integrated, and live sound. The Mini Ts are not slow, midrange heavy classic British style monitors of yesteryear. They are very much a modern product, with amazingly low distortion levels, deep, very satisfying bass, and an open, transparent midrange.

Listening reveals the Mini Ts’ opposing strengths. They are incredibly nimble and quick, yet buttery smooth and relaxed at the same time, projecting an unusually deep soundstage to boot. The reverb feels wetter, note decays are longer, and timing is better than any other speaker at this price point that I’ve experienced.

The Cars studio albums, remastered at 24/192, sound fresh, vibrant, and not the least bit dated via the Mini T. It is a real treat to hear such classics as “Good Times Roll,” “Got a Lot on My Head,” “Candy O,” and others with crunchy guitars, articulated bass lines, and the classic vocals of Ric Ocasek and Ben Orr floating holographically in the center of the mix.

The latest album from immensely gifted jazz singer Gregory Porter, Liquid Spirit, 96 kHz download, plays to many of the Mini T’s strengths: accurate tonality, correct instrumental timbres, and musical pacing. Porter sings like a human cello, with a bit of the finesse of Nina Simone, and the conversational style of Bill Withers, and the Brystons render his voice in a most astonishingly present way.

The Mini Ts do the versatility thing without breaking a sweat. Orchestral pieces, classic Blue Note jazz ensemble recordings, and classic rock are just different channels on the dial for the Bryston. No matter the source – analog or digital – the Mini Ts easily draw you in. Listening to Steppenwolf’s Gold: Their Greatest Hits on reel-to-reel is one of the highlights of the review period. The fuzzed-out guitars, psychedelic arrangements, and the ominous vocals of John Kay have the house rocking.

The Pentangle’s sublime Basket of Light, on SHM-CD, a longtime reference for evaluating speakers, is presented in a way suggesting electrostatic-like transparency and dynamics, especially on the track “The Cuckoo,” with the late, great, John Renbourn and Bert Jancsh’s acoustic guitars, the wonder that is Jacqui McShee’s voice, and Danny Thompson’s otherworldly acoustic bass. I’ve had very few true jaw-dropping moments in hifi, but this was one of them. The Mini Ts could have passed for floorstanders, given the earthy, deep-rooted foundation of the music.

The Mini Ts are also a breeze to set up. They are not super fussy about room placement, but of course a bit of experimentation is advised. Being relatively close to boundaries does not cramp their style, like so many high end speakers.  This is due to the controlled way the Mini Ts’ drivers disperse energy into the room. Despite the cabinet not being designed to to “tame” resonances into oblivion, which can cause other problems, there is no apparent transient smearing or non-mechanical distortion present.

A solid performer indeed

Bryston, with the Mini T stand-mounted monitors, eschews the “flavor of the month” design and concentrates on maximizing the potential of a three-way dynamic loudspeaker. The results are a smashing success. The Mini Ts will remain in my system as a reference in this price point. My only complaint is the stamped metal jumpers, but that is a small problem easily solved.

It must be noted the Bryston Mini T will rise to occasion with high-quality partnered equipment. Great cables, amplification, and sources will pay huge dividends due to the speaker’s low distortion. Focusing on amplifier quality rather than overall power rating will pay dividends, and the Bryston dedicated stands are definitely worth a look. The Bryston Mini T monitors are among the best deals going. An audition is highly recommended. Bring your favorite recordings and prepare to be impressed.

Additional Listening

I’ve heard the Bryston speakers a few times at various shows and have always come away impressed, but it’s always nice to set them up in a familiar environment and make a few brief comparisons. On the heels of the impressive $4,000 Eggleston Emmas that are my budget reference, the Bryston Mini T delivers excellent performance.

The size is a bit odd, as they are not really big enough to be floorstanders, but hardly small enough to be considered small monitors. For most this should not be an issue, but small kids and tail-happy dogs might be problematic.

I agree with Andre: the Mini Ts are incredibly easy to set up and get great sound with minimal fuss. After the photographs were taken, I took the liberty of trying them in three separate rooms: a small but modestly treated room (10 x 13 feet), my large listening room (16 x 25 feet) and the living room in my house, which has to be the worst sounding room I’ve ever heard, yet it makes for a great “real world” listening environment. The Mini Ts shined in all three.

Having heard Bryston amplification in a number of the world’s finest recording studios, matched with PMC loudspeakers, I’d make this comparison. The Mini T is very linear, with wide dispersion and sounds great whether you are sitting on the couch or hanging out, listening on the floor in the corner of the room – a plus for a speaker that you want to share with friends. It should come as no surprise that the Mini Ts sound fantastic with Bryston amplification, but their chameleon-like character makes them a good match for anything else on the shelf, from a vintage Marantz receiver to the Boulder 2160 I have here for review. But beware that these speakers reveal what they are fed, so if you aren’t happy with the end result, it’s probably due to something not quite right in your system. As I tend to prefer sound tipped a bit more to the warm romantic side, I preferred the Mini Ts with tube gear, to inject a little extra midrange magic into the presentation, and again, because these speakers are so natural, you can easily fine tune them to your taste.

Lastly, don’t let the 86db sensitivity rating fool you. The Mini-Ts are incredibly easy to drive and will provide more than satisfying sound pressure levels in a modest room with 20 watts of tube power. I found the Retro i-50 integrated we reviewed last issue to be more than enough in my 10 x 13 foot room. Of course, more power will provide more dynamics, especially in a larger room and on the opposite end of the spectrum, the Mini-Ts delivered an equally impressive performance in y large room with the Pass Labs Xs 300 monoblocks. These are definitely speakers you can grow with!

For just over three grand, this company, well known for their electronics, has produced a winning loudspeaker. We are very happy to give them one of our Exceptional Value Awards for 2015. If you’re speaker shopping, stop by your nearest Bryston dealer with a few of your favorite tracks. –Jeff Dorgay

The Bryston Mini T Loudspeaker

MSRP:  $3,200


Amplifier Simaudio 760A    Audio Research VS55
Preamplifier Coffman Labs G1-A
Digital Simaudio Neo 380D    Bryston BDA-1
Server Simaudio MiND    SOtM sMS-100
Tape Deck Revox A77
Cables Transparent Audio    DH Labs    Stager    Acoustic Zen
Accessories Symposium    Audience    Sound Anchor

Dynaudio Evidence Platinum loudspeakers

As the sound-level meter bounces above 105 dB during playback of the title track from Iron Maiden’s The Number of the Beast (and I see nods of approval from the non-audiophile buddies present to take this all in), I’m reminded that you need big speakers that can move a substantial amount of air to really enjoy this kind of music. The same can be said for Mahler’s Symphony No. 5 or Deadmau5, if Maiden is not your favorite faire. Dynamic swing and contrast is a big part of recreating the illusion of live music in your listening space, and a large pair of speakers with the appropriate amount of power gets the job done.

In the day where $200,000 speakers are becoming more and more common, Dynaudio’s top speaker tips the scale at only $85,000 per pair. Yes, yes, the word only is going to offend a lot of people, but if you happen to be in the market for a six-figure pair of speakers, this level of greatness for $85K is a bargain—it’s all relative. After living with the Evidence Platinums for some time now, I see no need to drop $200K on a pair of Wilson XLFs. And that’s enough money left over to put a new Porsche GT3 in your garage. I know what I’d rather buy.

A number of things make the Evidence Platinum speakers unique. Though they are over 6 feet tall, they carve a very small footprint in your listening room, and thanks to a wide range of wood finishes, along with piano black, they should blend in with any décor. While minimalist yet tasteful grilles are included, the precision craftsmanship of the front sculpted baffles beg them to be left uncovered. Those without large pets or small children will have an easier time leaving the grilles off.

No Limitations

Much like a high-performance supercar, the Evidence Platinums have few limitations. And just as an Aston Martin feels different from a Porsche or a Ferrari, all three cars still provide stellar performance way beyond that of normal transportation. Sticking with the automotive metaphor, the Evidence Platinums remind me of the Audi R8: a new concept that offers similar if not better performance than its contemporaries—and with a bit more style. The Dynaudios are definitely one of the most svelte large speakers around.

Having lived with Dynaudio’s much smaller Confidence C1 Signatures for a few years, I notice a striking parallel between the two speakers. The comparatively diminutive C1s, with their highly optimized front baffle, present a musical picture almost like a point source, while the massive Evidence Platinums simply disappear. In a small room at low volume, with equally high-quality electronics driving the speakers, you’d be hard pressed to tell the difference, other than on the deepest low-frequency excursions.

However, in a larger room, when the sound level comes up and dynamic expectation increases exponentially, the Evidence Platinums justify their price tag. Queuing up the Stereophile test CD reveals solid bass performance at 25 Hz, which is lower than what you’ll need for most program material. Playing Mickey Hart’s “The Eliminators” at high volume confirms the measurement; these speakers can punch you in the chest—hard. The four 7-inch woofers move more air than a single 12-inch unit; yet, because of their small size, they are faster, providing mega bass with maximum tone and definition.

The Evidence Platinums make it a breeze to discern between bass players and their respective styles: The difference between a Hartke bass-guitar amp with aluminum cone drivers and a vintage Ampeg amp with paper cones is now easily apparent. This is what adds so much to the musical experience, making your music so much more immersive. And that’s what you should get when you write the big check.

Top-of-the-Line Technology

Dynaudio has left no stone unturned with the Evidence Platinums, taking advantage of the company’s top technological advancements. Relying on silk dome tweeters since the beginning, Dynaudio’s design requires a very labor-intensive process that involves shaping the fine-fabric dome and treating it with a specially formulated coating. The “Precision Coating” used throughout the Platinum range is Dynaudio’s latest refinement to that process. The higher uniformity of the dome’s shape results in a smoother high-frequency response and even more dispersion of mid and high frequencies.

This is clearly evident when comparing female vocals through the Confidence C1s and the Evidence Platinums. A quick spin of Ella and Louis Again uncloaks the difference in the timbre of Ella’s voice, which is already silky smooth and convincing when played through the C1s. By comparison, the Evidence Platinums dematerialize completely, even though they are so much bigger physically. This is truly the magic of these speakers: They vanish like a mini monitor and are transparent like an ESL, yet they have the drive of an enormous cone speaker.

The Evidence Platinums throw a soundstage that is staggeringly wide and deep, but they also get the height aspect right—probably due in part to their physical height. While playing the MoFi copy of Frank Sinatra’s Nice And Easy, I feel as if Sinatra is standing right in front of the speakers, with his voice coming from where his mouth would be.

Custom drivers, check. Precision optimized crossover network, check. Premium electrical and mechanical parts throughout, check. The combination of all these technologies is certainly present in most flagship loudspeakers, but Dynaudio’s DDC (Dynaudio Directivity Control) system is the heart of what makes these speakers perform the way they do.

The combination of the finely shaped front baffle, driver placement and matching the phase response of the individual drivers makes for a more focused dispersion pattern that does not require nearly as much room treatment to sound their best as do many large speaker systems. This is all trickle-down technology from Dynaudio’s professional division, taking advantage of what the company has learned building studio monitors.

Another benefit of this optimization is the ease of setting up the Evidence Platinums. We’ve spent hours (sometimes a day or more) to get reference-caliber speakers to sound their best. The Evidence Platinums sound great right out of their crates before much attention is paid to positioning. About an hour’s worth of fine-tuning brings the speakers to the point where, when Dynaudio USA’s Michael Manousselis stops by to check my work, he merely makes a few fine adjustments and then I’m on my way. These are not finicky speakers by any stretch of the imagination. Even the machined plinth offers a choice of footers for hard and soft surfaces. Once unpackaged, the Evidence Platinums only take a few days of 24/7 play at modest volume to open up and sound their best.

Still Solid, Months Later

After listening to these speakers day in and day out for months, I am still amazed and impressed. It’s easy to get carried away with premium speakers after first listen, especially after running through a number of well-recorded audiophile classics.

This is not the case with the Evidence Platinums. I go out of my way to dredge up even the worst-sounding selections in my music collection, and these speakers do a fantastic job with any program material. There is nothing I can throw at them that trips them up. Regardless of the program material and volume level, we simply cannot drive the Evidence Platinums hard enough to invoke listener fatigue.

With a sensitivity rating of 89 dB and a crossover network of 6 dB per octave, the Evidence Platinums are very easy to drive with either tube or solid-state amplification. Even in my 16-by-25-foot listening room, more than adequate volume levels are achieved with the 20-watt-per-channel Nagra 300i integrated amplifier. I would suggest about 100 watts per channel or more for best results, especially if you like to hear your favorite music reproduced loudly.

While these speakers can reproduce some great dynamic swings, they are highly linear, with their massive stereo image still intact, even at very soft volume levels—again, not unlike a great mini monitor. Chrissie Hynde’s signature vibrato comes through clearly on the original Pretenders album. The delicacy present in “Private Life” puts Hynde in the room, right near the center of the listening position.

Coupled to the amazing Pass Labs Xs300 monoblocks, with nearly boundless power on tap, the Dynaudios really come to life. As I blast Lou Reed’s The Creation of the Universe, there isn’t a point at which the wide, vivid stereo image ever collapses—no matter how high the volume. Much like the Focal Maestro Utopia speakers that we just got done auditioning, the Evidence Platinums excel at reproducing large-scale music, especially drums and percussion—and they do so without fatigue.

You Need a Pair

If you are looking for a statement loudspeaker, look no further than the Dynaudio Evidence Platinum. After six months of constant listening (and punishing) on an incredibly wide range of musical program material, I can tell you that there is nothing that the Evidence Platinums can’t handle, if you have enough amplifier power on tap.

Along with their musical performance, the Evidence Platinums offer a level of fit and finish that is in keeping with a speaker of this level. They exude luxury and will be an excellent fit for the world’s finest listening rooms, a fact that can’t be overlooked when spending this kind of money. Lastly, Dynaudio is a major player in the speaker industry, so this is a purchase that can be made with confidence, knowing the company will be around to support these speakers.

With so much capability, the Dynaudio Evidence Platinums should be your last speaker purchase.

Dynaudio Evidence Platinum loudspeakers

MSRP: $85,000 per pair

Vandersteen 1Ci Loudspeakers

Listening to the Beatles’ “All You Need is Love,” I’m thinking that you also need a great hi-fi system. (And a cool car, but I digress.) Fortunately, a pair of Vandersteen 1Ci speakers and some decent electronics can be had for a reasonable cost, putting a great system in reach of just about anyone: $1,149 for a pair of full-range floorstanding speakers is a steal in today’s hi-fi world, where you could pay 10 times that for a pair of interconnects.

Vandersteen’s higher-priced Model 2 speaker is quite possibly high-end audio’s all-time most popular speaker, with almost 100,000 pairs sold. That’s a major achievement in the context of some of today’s speaker manufacturers, many of which haven’t even sold 1,000 pairs. And if the Model 2 isn’t the most popular, it certainly has the most longevity, having been produced since the late 1970s – now at 2CE Signature II status.

While the 2 has gotten much of the spotlight, I submit that the Model 1—now the 1Ci—is the way to roll for so many reasons, the main one being its 90-dB sensitivity. Sure, the 2’s three-way design delivers deeper bass, but the simplicity of a two-way speaker has always been highly appealing to me. And that extra 3 dB of efficiency makes a much wider range of amplification choices possible. Unlike another great American speaker, the Magnepan, the Vandersteen 1Ci comes alive with 25 to 35 watts of clean power, making it the perfect choice for the music lover on a modest budget.

What the 1Ci offers perhaps better than any other speaker at its price point is balance. Everyone at TONEAudio is convinced of the brilliance of the KEF LS50, and while that speaker delivers more holographic imaging and ultimately more resolution than the 1Ci can muster, it lacks on the bottom-end, and requires a fairly powerful amplifier to deliver its best performance. For someone listening in a smaller room, or a closer field situation, the diminutive Brit speaker is still the one to beat on a tight budget, but if you have a larger room or prefer a fuller-spectrum frequency response, the 1Ci is the ticket.

Best of all, the 1Ci is resolving enough to make it easy to discern amplifier differences, so if you fall in love with a pair early in your system’s history, they will probably be the last component you upgrade. I know more than one audiophile who has progressed from the Model 1 all the way up to Model 5, as well as a few using 1C’s with some fairly expensive electronics.

Cliché but True

If there was ever a speaker that fit the definition of “greater than the sum of its parts,” the Vandersteen 1Ci is it. Richard Vandersteen has always believed in putting the money into high-quality drivers and crossover components rather than the cabinetry. Back in the late ’70s when Vandersteen hit the scene, his approach was revolutionary. Where so many of the major manufacturers were putting so much money into speaker cabinets, Vandersteen took a performance-first approach with the Model 1 and 2, concentrating on the internals, with a first-order crossover, minimum front baffle, and time-aligned design.

The results are stunning, and while other speakers have come in and out of fashion, Vandersteen audio keeps making solid, musically accurate speakers that don’t break the bank. The 1Ci features improvements to the dome tweeter and crossover network, along with eliminating the banana jacks on the rear panel, now using the same screw terminals as those featured on the Model 2. Interestingly, these terminals connect directly to the crossover network, eliminating the need to use premium wire—again, simplicity rules the day. While a tweeter contour (level) control is provided, the speakers perform best in the middle position in all three of my listening rooms. Should you need to slightly modify the tweeter output level, the control offers a 2-dB boost or cut, which is highly effective.

The Rake is the Key

To the company’s credit, Vandersteen provides one of the best instruction manuals in the industry. It takes even a complete novice through the finer points of speaker setup. Starting with the “thirds” method that has always served me well with Vandersteens over the years, I have the 1Ci speakers singing in my 11-by-13-foot room in no time at all, with just a few fine adjustments.

Vandersteen speakers have occasionally received a bad rap on various Internet forums for being “slow and dark” sounding. If this has been your experience with any Vandersteen speakers, it’s because they were improperly set up. Because of the speakers’ time alignment, getting the proper rake angle is critical. Every pair of MartinLogan speakers I’ve owned requires the same care. Get it right, and the speakers disappear in the room. Get it wrong and everything sounds a bit muffled—much like when you finally nail proper VTA with your phono cartridge.

Again, the manual gives you the perfect method to optimize this, and Vandersteen has done the work for you. Follow the guidelines in the manual, starting with its suggestions, and then alter the rake ever so slightly to fine tune. (and I’m talking less than an inch here) Having a friend help you will make the process go much quicker, and it is critical that you match the angle as closely as you can on each speaker. Five extra minutes spent here will reward you with a larger stereo image and an airier, more extended treble.

Richard Vandersteen is quick to point out that with some other speakers, adjusting the rake angle will tame a hot tweeter, but it is critical with his speakers to follow the setup parameters as the listening height and distance from speaker to listener coalesce for flat frequency response, at the specified point.

How Do You Want to Play?

These speakers totally rock, providing a high level of musical involvement. Regardless of the amplifier you choose, the 1Ci speakers throw a big and well-defined soundstage into the listening room. Thanks to the speakers’ natural character, your choice of amplification will let you easily tailor the sound to your liking.

I use four different amplification setups during of this review: A new old-stock Sansui 771 vintage solid-state receiver ($299); the Rega Brio-R solid-state integrated amplifier ($995, our 2010 Product of the Year); a factory-refurbished Conrad-Johnson MV50 vacuum tube power amplifier and matching PV-12 vacuum tube preamplifer (about $2,500 the pair); and the Devialet 110 DAC/streamer/integrated ($6,400).

The 1Ci speakers not only work flawlessly with each combination, they also easily resolve the nuances between each amplification type. If you prefer things more on the warm and romantic side, the easy load that these speakers present is a perfect match for your favorite tube amplifier. Even my 25-watt 845 SET monoblocks drive the Vandersteens with ease, offering an enveloping sound that, while the least accurate of anything else in my arsenal, proves highly seductive.

Spinning some vintage and remastered Blue Note selections is pure heaven. Drums explode from the 1Ci speakers, with a soundstage that not only feels beyond the speaker boundaries, but also beyond the boundaries of my modest listening room. Listening to acoustic instruments and, of course, solo vocals through vacuum-tube electronics and the 1Ci speakers easily convinces non-audiophile and audiophile alike that these speakers are indeed something special.

With 110 watts per channel of hybrid power, the Devialet 110 offers presentation that is 180-degrees different from those of the SET monoblocks. While the Devialet renders a more accurate presentation, the sheer grip of its Class-A/Class-D hybrid design provides a major low-frequency extension and control that the vacuum tubes cannot. Mickey Hart’s “The Eliminators” is full and deep, with forceful bass notes that punch you in the stomach—and the 1Ci speakers capture this wonderfully with the Devialet. Kraftwerk’s classic “Autobahn” also brings a big thumbs up from an informal listening panel, who are all amazed what could be accomplished with such a modestly priced yet well-executed speaker system.

No Wrong Moves

Stereophile once said about the Model 2 that “the only sins this speaker commits are ones of omission,” and 20-plus years later, the same description applies to the 1Ci. It offers a highly neutral tonal balance, wide dynamic range and a full frequency response—for $1,200 a pair! They nail the musical fundamentals better than some speakers I’ve heard that cost 20 times as much.

After living with the 1Ci speakers for a couple of months, I’m buying them—they are a fantastic reference for what can be accomplished on a tight budget. And they’re great speakers to use as a building block when auditioning ancillary components in the $1,000-to-$3,000 range.

We are very pleased to award the Vandersteen 1Ci one of our Exceptional Value Awards for 2014. These speakers are so enjoyable that, if your high-end journey stopped right here, you’d be a pretty happy human being. Even if you are a highly experienced audiophile and you haven’t heard these, you owe it to yourself to check them out. I guarantee you’ll be very surprised for the better. They redefine what is possible for a modest price.

The Vandersteen 1Ci speaker



Digital source Meridian MS200    AURALiC Vega DAC
Analog source AVID Ingenium TT    SME 309 arm    Lyra Delos cartridge
Phono stage ARC PH8
Cable Cardas Clear

Focal Maestro Utopia Loudspeakers

The second I queue up the Afghan Whigs’ album Gentlemen, I know these speakers are special. The reproduced soundstage on this record is massive, with the wind in the background of the opening track, “If I Were Going,” sounding much more expansive than I’ve ever heard it, save perhaps what I experienced at the Boulder factory last year via the Grande Utopia EM speakers and the prodigious Boulder 3050 monoblocks—the most compelling audio system I’ve yet experienced.

Yet slumming it back at my place, with the Pass Labs Xs 300 monoblocks and the Maestro Utopias, a bargain at $60,000 per pair, I’m getting in the ballpark. As soon as the drumbeats hit hard on the title track, we are indeed getting serious slam. These speakers move major air without fatigue, distortion or coloration. They are marvelous. Sure, the Grandes are even more amazing, but you need the room to let them breathe and the rest of the system has to be equally astounding to really allow the speakers to reach their full potential.

I won’t apologize for telling you to get a pair of $60k speakers, and I don’t want to hear all the tired arguments about how you can build a pair of these yourself for a lot less money. You can’t. Sure you could buy a nicely appointed 5-series BMW for the price of the Maestro Utopias, but the hi-fi system inside is rubbish. The arguments about diminishing returns are also moot—you won’t get this level of musical involvement for $10k, $20k or even $30k. You’ll have to pay if you want to play, but the good news is that the Maestros will reward you in a way that few speakers can.

What makes the Maestros so compelling is that you can build an amazing system around them for little more than the cost of a pair of Grande Utopias. And while a $150k-to-$250k stereo system is somewhat obsessive, the $500k-plus that it’s going to take to make the Grande’s sing is a completely different realm, hence these speakers will appeal to a completely different buyer. So, if you’ve drooled over the sound of the Focal Grande Utopias, and either don’t quite have the budget or the room to take advantage of them (or maybe you’re just a bit more frugal), the Maestros do not disappoint.

Spinning AC/DC’s “Rock and Roll Ain’t Noise Pollution,” I’m again reminded of how well the Maestros can create the sheer sound pressure of a live rock concert without compression or fatigue. Even at brain-damage levels, the meters on the Xs 300s are barely moving from the center position, indicating that they are working in full class-A mode throughout my listening session.

And installing the Maestros is a breeze. Though just more than 250 pounds each, the Maestros are easy to remove from their shipping cartons. Thanks to the wheels on the cartons, you can move them to your listening area by yourself, though you will probably need a friend to help you to remove the speakers, which also have wheels, and get them into a rough position.

Focal’s manual is thorough in describing setup and, depending on your room, you should be able to get the Maestros fairly close to fine-tuned while still on their wheels. Once satisfied that you’ve optimized the bass response for smoothness and weight, remove the wheels and experiment with the spikes to adjust the speaker rake angle to perfection.

The jumpers at the speaker’s base provide ultra-fine-tuning, allowing a modest adjustment of bass, midrange and treble energy. Fortunately in my listening room, I do not have to deviate from the factory settings, and trying them does show their effectiveness. The additional bass boost works well with the Pass First Watt amplifier and an 845-based SET amplifier, both of which are a little shy in the low-frequency department.

Sensitivity Makes All the Difference

Thanks to a 93-dB sensitivity rating, the Maestros work well with a 60-watt-per-channel tube amplifier, and we achieve amazing synergy with the 60-watt PrimaLuna DiaLogue monoblocks in for review (you can read the review here), but this gives the Maestros a different character. They lack some of the pulverizing dynamics that they do with a big solid-state amplifier, yet even hardcore hip-hop tracks, like Wu-Tang Clan’s “Protect Your Neck,” still hit with plenty of clarity at all but club levels.

The Maestros, like the Stella and Diablo Utopias that we’ve spent plenty of time with, are equally tube friendly, so don’t shy away from these speakers if you’re a tube user. The Audio Research REF 250 monoblocks, Octave’s Jubilee monoblocks and even the PrimaLuna ProLogue Premium monoblocks all work brilliantly with these speakers, thanks to their exceedingly tube-friendly crossover network.

As phenomenal as the Maestros are with big solid-state amps, I must confess my own personal bias and admit how smitten I am with these speakers when pairing them with vacuum-tube amplification. For those just tuning in to TONEAudio, I prefer my personal system to be a few molecules on the warm, romantic side of neutral, yet not lacking in cloudiness, detail or resolution—a tall order indeed.

Tubey Goodness

Yet this is exactly what the Maestros provide when paired with a great tube amplifier. The beryllium tweeter is as fast and transparent as any electrostatic speaker I’ve owned (and I’ve owned almost all of ’em), and a little bit of tube warmth makes them feel like a pair of giant Sound Labs ESLs but with major dynamics and punch. Put a fork in me, I’m done!

Sonny Rollins’ classic album Tenor Madness just leaps out of the speakers, with the Maestros painting a vivid picture of this quartet in my listening room. Bass is solidly anchored, with everything lovers of pace and timing will ever need to be ecstatic. No matter how complicated the program material, the Maestros never fail to keep up with the music, regardless of listening level.

The piano is reproduced with all the necessary timbre and attack to sound great, but what pushes it over the top is the scale. In a good-sized room with plenty of amplifier power (solid state or tubes), the Maestros reproduce scale in a way few other speakers can. This is what separates great speakers from truly exceptional ones for this reviewer, and you can put the Maestros solidly in that rare latter category.

These speakers have an uncanny ability to expand and contract with the music, no matter what the material. Where the large Magnepans reproduce everything with an expansive sound field, which is somewhat unnatural but pleasing nonetheless, a solitary guitarist playing in a church is rendered thusly through the Maestros. A group of jazz musicians playing acoustic instruments in close quarters feels as if they are right in my listening room. And Nine Inch Nails sounds like a giant wall of sound slapping me down with maximum force, as it should, but it does so without fatigue—another highly important aspect of mega-loudspeaker design.

Should you have major amplification, you will need to be watchful with the Maestros, as they can achieve such high sound-pressure levels without distortion that you could easily exceed safe levels. They pressurize the room so well and play without a hint of fatigue, that it’s always tempting to turn them up beyond a level that is prudent. Honestly, this is a ton of fun, especially with my favorite rock recordings.

Playing in the Sand

Going through the gamut of high-powered solid-state amplifiers is equally rewarding and revealing. Switching back to solid state provides a fascinating but different experience. The Maestros are such efficient conduits of relaying music, never sounding harsh, forward or over detailed. All of the amplifiers in my collection turn in stunning performances with the Maestros. The speakers’ high degree of resolution easily identifies the differences in tonal qualities between my references, the Burmester 911 MK3 and the Pass Xs 300s, when compared to the D’Agostino Momentum stereo amplifier and the Simaudio Moon 880Ms, which have recently passed through for review.

However, one of the more interesting performances turned in by the Maestros is not with a high-powered amplifier, but with the 10-watt-per-channel First Watt SIT-2 amplifier—a single-ended, class-A design featuring a single gain stage. This amplifier has always combined the virtues of a great 300B SET vacuum-tube amplifier with the low noise and control of the best solid-state amplifiers. But it still only produces 10 watts per channel. Lacking a bit of the ultimate bass slam that the big amplifiers possess, this amp lays bare the inner detail from only a single transistor in the gain path, which proves to be a revelation at modest volume levels.

Special Indeed

The guitar and banjo work on Neil Young’s Harvest demonstrates the potency of these speakers. The sheer speed of the Maestros expresses acoustic instruments in a very lifelike manner, without coloration. At the same time, the decay present in a great analog recording seems to carry on forever, with a fine gradation that doesn’t exist with a lesser speaker.

After countless hours with the Maestros, swapping amplifiers and other speakers for comparison, we come back to the initial question: $60k for a pair of speakers? And the answer is still a resplendent yes, for a number of reasons. First and foremost, the level of music that the Maestros reveal is considerably beyond that of the lesser speakers we’ve reviewed.

In terms of construction, Focal put innumerable hours of research, design, testing and prototyping into the Maestros, which goes hand in hand with the bespoke nature of all the company’s speakers. This level of passion is comparable to what goes into a Formula 1 car—every aspect, regardless of how minute, is scrutinized mercilessly by the Focal team. There is truly an integration of art and science taking place here. This is not another audio company installing drivers in a box. Nothing in the Focal Maestro is off the shelf, and none of the drivers, except the beryllium tweeter, is shared with the rest of the range.

The 3.5-way system uses two 11-inch woofers, one as a woofer and one as a subwoofer. The lower woofer vents through a downward-firing laminar port that eliminates any port noise or dynamic compression effects, and features a 2-inch voice coil, where the upper woofer has a 1.5-inch coil. The 6-inch midrange driver, though looking similar to the other 6-inch drivers in the rest of the Utopia lineup, is designed and optimized specifically for the Maestro. Both the midrange and woofers utilize the third-generation of Focal’s “W” composite-sandwich-cone technology, providing exceptional strength while minimizing weight. It’s safe to say that this is a major factor in achieving the low coloration that the Utopia range exhibits.

Lastly, the fit and finish: The mechanical construction of these speakers is sheer perfection. The gently curved cabinets have a timeless design aesthetic, and while available in a number of standard colors (black, white and red), custom colors can be ordered at a slightly additional cost. The finish applied is on the same level as the world’s finest luxury cars, and the enclosures are flawless. While these are speakers worthy of the price asked based on performance, they also exude build quality that will satisfy the most sophisticated owner, and will meld into any environment with ease.

And this is what you write the big check for—which is precisely why the Focal Maestro Utopia is our choice for Product of the Year in the speaker category.

Maestro Utopia

MSRP: $60,000 per pair (factory) (North American distributor)


Analog source AVID Acutus SP Reference turntable    TriPlanar tonearm    Lyra Atlas cartridge
Phonostage Indigo Qualia
Digital source dCS Vivaldi stack     Aurender S10 server    Meridian C15
Preamplifier Robert Koda K-10
Power amplifier Pass Labs Xs 300 monoblocks
Cables Nordost Norse 2

KEF Blade Loudspeakers

Time flies when you’re having fun. And the fun hasn’t stopped since the bright orange KEF Blades arrived in our studio almost a year ago. Let’s cut to the chase, shall we? For those of you who skip straight to the conclusion anyway, we’ll save you the bother. We’re giving the KEF Blades one of our Exceptional Value Awards for 2013, and they are one of our most enthusiastic choices.

Giving a $30,000 pair of speakers an award for exceptional value? You heard right. Often, newcomers to the scene can build a “giant killer” product because, during the infancy of such products, manufacturers can cut corners on things like casework, support, inventory, etc., and actually build a $5,000 box for $2,000. Everyone freaks out, thinking they are getting something for nothing, but should said company make it past the first round, the price goes up, often dramatically.

Has the luster fallen from this product? Hardly. But business is business and parts are parts. There really is no way to cheat death, taxes or cost accounting. However, there is another way to build exceptional value into a product, and that requires a company with depth. This is precisely the approach taken at KEF with the Blades.

Having been in the speaker business since dinosaurs roamed the streets of London, KEF is a real speaker company with decades of engineering and manufacturing expertise. (For a complete history, I highly suggest TONE contributor Ken Kessler’s excellent book, KEF – 50 Years of Innovation in Sound.) KEF also produces speakers in large enough quantities to enjoy an economy of scale that smaller manufacturers cannot. If the company produced 10 pairs a year and asked $100k for them, I’m positive they would sell. However, being able to amortize the raw research and development of the Uni-Q driver across a wide range of models makes the $30k price of the Blades feasible.

Granted, 30 grand is still a lot of money for a pair of speakers. (Those thinking this is sheer insanity are also free to tune out now.) But if you’re the kind of audiophile and music lover who would enjoy six-figure speaker performance for 30 grand, I enthusiastically submit the Blades. If you’ve had the chance to experience the small but amazing KEF LS-50 speakers, you know KEF can work miracles for $1,500. And I’ve listened to my share of six-figure speakers over the years, so I’ll stand by this decision.

Major Drive

The meter needles bounce fervently on the Pass Xs 300 power amplifiers as I crank Steel Panthers’ “Death to All But Metal,” and my listening room is all smiles—the Blades can move serious air when asked. Having the opportunity to use the Blades with about 30 different power amplifiers, ranging from low-powered SET’s to massive monoblocks, I have found that the key to successfully interfacing with the Blades is twofold: first is current drive; and second, yet equally important, is amplifier quality. The Uni-Q driver is not ruthless, but it is highly revealing of the signal path, so a substandard amplifier or source component will be revealed. This accounts for some of the comments I’ve heard on the Blades (e.g. “they don’t have enough bass” or “they sound kind of bright”), yet I submit that this is the character of the electronics connected to them.

The deep notes on the album 11i, from the Supreme Beings Of Leisure, confirms what the Stereophile Test Disc reveals: With a bit of room gain on my side, I’m getting solid low-frequency response all the way down to 25 Hz. Again, some kudos go to the Pass Xs 300s, which have been bass monsters with every speaker I’ve mated them to, so it’s like stacking the deck. However, even with the 20-watt-per-channel Nagra 300p, the Blades produce prodigious bass, though they can’t play as loud as they do with 300 plus watts per channel at their disposal.

Tracking through White Zombie’s Supersexy Swingin’ Sounds leaves no doubt that the Blades move major air, and do so in a chest-pounding kind of way. KEF marketing director Johan Coorg and I are convinced that we need two more speakers for a quad setup—and I’ve got the quad open-reel deck at the ready.

In a Word, Coherent

For those just tuning in to TONEAudio, I’ll reiterate that my personal bias has always been towards electrostatic speakers, full-range ESLs in particular. I’ve always been able to forgo that last bit of extension at both ends of the frequency range to get that luscious, reach-out-and-touch-it midrange, which a great ESL does more convincingly than anything.

Compared to my Quad ESL 57s, the Blades give up precious little in terms of overall coherence, bass response and their ability to play loud, damn loud. At a point where the 57s would liquefy and my Acoustat 2+2’s would lose any sense of soundstage depth, the Blades are solidly hitting their stride. Even at incredibly high volume, these speakers hold their poise like few others I’ve experienced.

This gives the bright orange Blades you see in the photos the ability to disappear in the room in a way few speakers at any price can. Too many large, multi-driver speakers I’ve experienced sound exactly that way—sitting in the listening chair, it’s as if you can distinctly hear the woofer, midrange and tweeter.

Just as you might with an ESL, you’ll fall in love with the Blades after listening to your favorite vocalist. Listen carefully to David Lee Roth’s closely miked vocal in the classic Van Halen tune, “Ice Cream Man.” His voice is rich with echo and larger than life, going way beyond the speaker boundaries, while Eddie Van Halen gently strums along on acoustic guitar off to the left of center, perfectly capturing the intimacy of this performance.

In addition to the high coherence that these speakers provide, they also have a very low level of distortion and thus fatigue. This is a speaker that reveals the finest nuance, allowing me to evaluate different components with ease, yet is also a speaker with which I love to just sit and listen to music for pleasure, even after a 12-hour day of component reviews. This is the highest compliment I can pay the Blades—they have promoted many late-night listening sessions after the work at TONE was done.

Setup and Placement

Auditioning long- and short-wall placement with the Blades in my 15-foot-by-25-foot listening room reveals the long-wall placement to be the winner, offering up the biggest, widest soundstage—highly reminiscent of the MartinLogan CLX speakers that I enjoyed as a reference for many years.

It didn’t take much time to figure out that placing the speakers roughly 10 feet apart (from center to center of each Uni-Q driver) and about 4 feet from the wall was the optimum spot; the Blades are incredibly easy to set up. Thanks to the extra-wide dispersion, something you don’t get with an ESL, the Blades offer a fantastic presentation on and off of the listening-room couch. Even sitting down on the floor, well off center, you can still enjoy the music.

The short wall proved trickier to optimize in my room, requiring the Blades to be further out into the room to avoid bass bumps. Following Coorg’s suggestion, I didn’t toe-in the speakers when they were on the short wall and that worked well. Long-wall placement worked best with a few degrees of toe-in and delivered a wider, deeper soundstage than short wall placement in my listening space. As with any speaker, I suggest optimizing for low-frequency coupling first and letting the stereo image fall where it will.

Lurking Behind Those Orange Cabinets

Though the Blades curvy shape is purpose built to minimize resonances, it has probably been the biggest hit with my non-audiophile friends. The speakers are almost unanimously appealing to both men and women, with most women gravitating to the orange and other brighter colors and most men preferring white or black. But hey, if you’re going to get funky speakers, I say paint them a funky color.

More technologically speaking, the Blades four 9-inch woofers are symmetrically placed in the vertical and horizontal planes so that the center of their output radiates from the center of the Uni-Q driver, further reinforcing the “point source” concept. The crossovers feature mild order slopes and, from our hands-on experience, we can confirm that they are indeed incredibly easy to drive with nearly any amplifier producing about 15 watts per channel or more. Those wanting further, more in-detail commentary can click here. There is more tech talk and a few video clips of Blade designer Jack Oclee-Brown outlining the bass cabinets and the KEF concept of “single apparent source,” which is the underlining principle of the speaker system.

A welcome favorite feature of the Blades is their lack of jumpers between the Uni-Q and the woofers. It always seems shortsighted to build a $30k pair of speakers with cheesy jumper wires or strips that you have to replace later anyway. All that is required with the Blades is merely tightening two jumpers on the rear face of the speakers and getting on with the show. Bravo, KEF; no jumpers to lose or upgrade later.

A Great Long-Term Choice

Winding up this review with Wang Chung’s To Live and Die in L.A. soundtrack, I realize that these speakers work well with everything in my music collection, no matter how inspiring or cheesy. The KEF Blades are not fussy audiophile speakers that are limited to a short list of audiophile favorites in order for them to give their all.

Having the privilege of listening to them for the better part of the year worked well on many levels: Not only have I purchased the Blades to be my new reference speakers, but having them on hand also gives me the opportunity to put them through their paces with so many different combinations of amplification, making it that much easier to get a solid handle on their performance.

The Blades are easy to set up and work incredibly well with almost all amplifiers, making them a great choice for a system anchor from which you can build and improve as your time and budget allow. After a year of living with these speakers, I just don’t see the need to spend more money on a speaker—ever. And, to us at TONE, that level of value deserves an award.

KEF Blade loudspeakers

MSRP: $30,000


Analog Source AVID Acutus Reference SP turntable    TriPlanar tonearm    Lyra Atlas cartridge via Indigo Qualia phonostage
Digital Source dCS Vivaldi stack    Sooloos C15    Aurender S10     Light Harmonic DaVinci
Preamplifier Audio Research REF 5SE    Robert Koda K-10
Power Amplifier Pass Labs Xs 300s    Burmester 911    Nagra 300p    Octave Jubilee monoblocks
Cable Cardas Clear     Nordost Frey
Power Running Springs Dmitri    IsoTek Super Titan
Accessories Furutech DeMag,    GIK acoustic treatments     Audio Desk Systeme RCM

PMC DB1i Loudspeakers

Having listened to large electrostatic speakers for the past 20 years (Acoustat 2+2’s and now MartinLogan Summits), it was a new challenge to evaluate a pair of mini monitors; I had to recalibrate my thinking.  Unpacking the PMC DBi’s, my heart sank a bit when I saw these pint-sized speakers.  They are the smallest speakers in the PMC line and carry an MSRP of $1,995.

Somewhat atypical for an audio engineer, I use my home reference system (with MartinLogan Summits) for final mixing and mastering my recordings.  The full-range capability of the Summits really comes in handy, yet they are still enjoyable speakers to use for personal listening.  With my current list of projects out of the way, I installed these tiny speakers and prepared for some extended listening sessions, putting my biases to the side.


The DB1i’s have substantial binding posts, so the jumpers on my current speaker cable had to be spread slightly with pliers to fit properly.  Unfortunately, these larger binding posts are spaced closely together, so it took a bit of fiddling to tighten them down adequately.  I did not use the PMC Tube 104 stands, which have a height of 41 inches, but the stands I had at my disposal were barely an inch taller, so the DB1i’s stayed close to the factory-suggested height.

PMC’s well-written instruction manual got me up and running quickly, along with a bit of the company’s history and a short list of some of the albums produced with their speakers. They suggest at least 15 hours of break-in time so that the speaker surrounds can “reach their optimum compliance,” and I found this to be accurate.  During the first few days of casual listening, I experienced the stereo image getting wider and deeper as the hours piled up.

Background and construction

Before we talk about the results of listening, let’s look at the speakers themselves.  PMC is a well-established brand offering a full line of speakers for both recording-studio monitoring and audiophile listening.  Their list of users is like a who’s who of performers, professionals and studios.  Just a few examples are Stevie Wonder, Coldplay, Tony Bennett, the BBC, Sony, the NFL and EMI.

The line encompasses active and passive designs, sizes range from six-foot tall floor-standing models to smaller bookshelf models, center and surround speakers, and subwoofers.  Models generally use soft domes for high and mid frequencies and cones, pistons or “Radial™” drivers for low frequencies.  To enhance bass response, most of the full-range speakers include PMC’s ATL (Advance Transmission Line) technology.

The woofer is at one end of a “tunnel” that wraps up and down within the cabinet. It is heavily damped to absorb high and mid frequencies, while leaving the lowest bass frequencies in phase able to exit the cabinet through a large vent, acting as a second low-frequency driver.  In my early days as an audiophile, I used a pair of ESS AMT-1 monitor speakers that utilized a similar transmission-line concept.

The DB1i is no exception.  This transmission-line box has a 140 mm (5.5 inch) doped cone with a cast-magnesium chassis low-frequency driver and a 27 mm (one-inch) Sonolex™ domed fabric soft-dome tweeter and is ferro-fluid cooled.  The ATL is four sections (effective length of five feet) and exits on the upper rear of the cabinet.  Frequency response is 50Hz to 25KHz (with no + or – limits specified.)  The crossover is at 2KHz.  The speakers weigh a hair under 10 pounds each and are 11.4 inches high, 6.1 inches wide and 9.2 inches deep, plus grille.  Impedance is 8 ohms and sensitivity is 87dB, one watt at one meter.

The cabinets have four wood-veneer finishes available:  oak, walnut, black ash or cherry.  Grilles are black fabric and removable.  The speakers also offer four bolts on the back to which optional mounting brackets may be attached.

Listening results

I immersed myself in the DB1i’s for about 10 days.  They became my only source of playback and I came away highly impressed.  It was easy to forget about their diminutive size when I closed my eyes and listened.  With eyes opened, my mind kept trying to convince me that there were bigger woofers hidden somewhere in the room.

The first thing I noticed was that the rhythm section in any recording was just so clear and clean.  The small woofers combined with the transmission line design really made the electric bass pop, too.  The bass had a very rich quality, and in most instances, I didn’t miss the extra bottom octave or so that my Summits are capable of reproducing.  The bass drums were crisp and quick, yet all retained their characteristic sounds.  Snare drum and cymbals were extremely fast, but not harsh or edgy.

Most importantly, these speakers sound good at low levels, they really sing at mid volume, yet they can play LOUD when called upon to do so.  There was no listener fatigue when I pushed the DB1i’s to the extreme. If you are a drummer, bass player or just love the sound of a good, tight backbone in your listening and don’t have room for big speakers or a lot of cash, the DB1i’s could definitely satisfy you.

In general, I noticed that vocals were solid and centered, and the DB1i’s had a neutral character of a great studio monitor, never edgy or clinical.  The stereo image was wide and deep; I loved hearing the ambience and reverb on a wide variety of program material and often heard instruments three-to-four feet outside the speaker boundaries.  Trumpets and brass in general felt as if they were in the room with me.

All the strengths of a great monitor

One of my favorite John Mayer tracks, “Neon” from his Room for Squares album, adds guitar layers to each verse.  This effect was easily heard, with the side-panned tracks staying in place, while Mayer’s lead vocal was solidly center stage.  Again, the tiny PMC’s sounded much bigger than I expected.

Elvis Costello is always a “go to” when I want to hear how a male vocal sounds.  This was a perfect opportunity to listen to the new MoFi release of Armed Forces.  Track after track, the vocals were incredibly detailed, very focused but not edgy.  Listening to the Painted from Memory CD by Elvis and Burt Bacharach, the dryer vocal was haunting, very up front but lacking any of the harshness that I have heard on some other speakers.  The drums were recorded dry but again, they just jumped out on these little speakers.  Brass was sweet and high strings were smooth, with low strings being very revealing in tone and texture.

One of my new favorites, Jamie Cullum’s The Pursuit, has an almost endless pallet of cool sounds, including Jamie playing every part of the piano in every possible way and a slew of different spaces and ambiences.  On “We Run Things,” the loops and synth programming offered a very wide, three-dimensional image. But I did miss the low synth bass on this one.  I wouldn’t have known it, though, if I hadn’t heard it a bunch of times on the Summits.

The snapping sounds of the electronic percussion had incredible transient response that was almost startling.  Tom fills were “in your face” as I believe they were intended.  On “Not While I’m Around,” the bass drum and associated ambience were clear and tight.  I rarely missed the absent deep bass unless things went subsonic, but the quality of what was present was always top notch.

Continuing my musical journey with the DB1i’s, I spun some Alison Krauss and even revisited the Beach Boy’s classic, Pet Sounds. PMC’s emphasis on their monitors accurately reproducing vocals was always apparent; no matter what type of music I listened to, the vocals were very natural – one of my hot buttons as an engineer.

Taking the opposite ends of the musical spectrum, going all the way from Van Halen’s first album to some of my favorite classical pieces, I remained impressed with the dynamic abilities of these speakers.  Whenever I stopped listening critically, I kept forgetting just how big the soundfield was from these small speakers.

Small but powerful

After a wide range of test tracks, my conclusion is that the PMC DB1i’s are diminutive power houses that work well with any type of program material.  They are equally at home as part of a high-quality two-channel system as they are sitting on top of the monitoring console. Should you want to make these part of a compact multichannel surround system (PMC’s are very popular in the movie soundtrack studios as well), PMC also makes a horizontally oriented DB1i center channel speaker with magnetic shielding.  And of course, PMC makes a full range of subwoofers, from small to large.

If you enjoy a wide range of musical tastes, and don’t want to give up dynamic ability in a modestly priced system, the PMC DB1i is a major contender.  While this is the point in the review where the reviewer often comments on buying the speakers, I did exactly that, but for my recording studio!

The PMC DB1i speakers

MSRP:  $1,995 per pair

Opera Seconda Loudspeakers

For those of you unfamiliar with Opera Loudspeakers, let us enlighten you.  Opera is the “other guy” making high-quality speakers in Italy.  The Seconda is the middle model in the company’s Classica line of reasonably priced speakers.  Compared to $4,995 for Opera’s Callas speakers and $9,995 for its Grand Callas—and considering the quality of the Seconda speakers—$3,995 is indeed a reasonable price to pay for this level of quality.

The Classica line features a leatherette covering rather than the real thing to help shave a few bucks off the price point.  Opera, like a number of luxury carmakers, is able to pull this off so tastefully that the fit and finish will fool all but the fussiest connoisseur.  Our review pair of Secondas arrived finished in a striking high-gloss white lacquer, which is becoming increasingly popular in Europe and making a comeback here in the U.S. The sides are made from real wood, with the front and rear baffles, MDF.

These speakers are no lightweights:  They tip the scales at an even 100 pounds apiece.  They offer nicely finished binding posts that allow for easy bi-wiring, and the company provides spikes for the bottom front of the speaker, as well as a spiked outrigger arrangement at the bottom rear to add stability and make it easier to set the rake angle.

An Unconventional Approach

Two 7-inch aluminum cone woofers and a 1-inch silk dome tweeter sourced from Scan-Speak lurk behind the black grilles, which are easily removed.  If you have no prying paws around, I suggest enjoying the beauty of the Secondas sans grille.  While most competing products opt for a ported design, the Seconda has a sealed enclosure, which makes for a gentler impedance curve—a definite plus when used in conjunction with a tube amplifier.  (Opera’s sister company, Unison Research, just so happens to excel at producing tube amplifiers.)

The crossover point of the Seconda is a commendably low 2,200 Hz, with a second-order slope.  It also maintains good off-axis performance and high overall levels of coherence.  Eschewing the ubiquitous curved side panel for a baffle that is curved and angled, the Seconda minimizes unwanted cabinet reflections, which helps lessen interference with the front baffle.

Wait For It

Slightly tight and bright out of the box, the Seconda reveals its charms after about 200 hours—and the effort is well worth the wait.  I would suggest letting them play every day when you go to work and, after a week, you will be rewarded with a pleasant surprise.  Once broken in, the Seconda exhibits a clear, open and lively character in the midrange, with a high-frequency range that is extended and smooth at the same time.  Those familiar with traditional Italian speakers might expect a kind of laid-back and mellow presentation, but this is not the case with the Seconda.

The sealed-box design yields a very even, gradual and protracted bass response, free from the usual impedance hiccup that can plague the tuning frequency of a standard vented enclosure.  This proves to be a wonderful counterbalance to the high-frequency extension of the tweeter.  The dual aluminum midrange drivers offer quick responses, which helps eliminate any inclination of a slow or bloated low end.

Everything about this speaker’s design bodes well for the music lover.  It possesses a sensitivity of 89 dB and a 4-ohm nominal impedance, which means you only really need 35 to 50 watts of juice to adequately drive each channel.  Pairing the Secondas with the Unison Research S6 integrated amp borrowed from our publisher for this review made for an excellent combination that was the definition of musicality.  I equally enjoyed the speakers when driving them with 100 watts per channel of solid-state power from my Class A Coda amplifier.

At Ease with Any Material

Dynamic classic-rock titles like Led Zeppelin II, Taste’s recently remastered On the Boards and Jefferson Airplane’s Bless Its Pointed Little Head all favored the big solid-state sound, especially at high volumes.  The speaker’s sealed cabinets yield a visceral presentation:  Drums come alive and the electric bass has a convincing wallop, with no loss of texture.

But the Seconda isn’t only about getting down with classic rock.  Teeing up some great CD recordings from the recent past tells a lot about this speaker’s ability to accurately portray large classical ensembles and intimate jazz groups in realistic scale.

During a listening session of drummer Peter Erskine’s jazz trio on Live At Rocco, the Seconda captures the wide-open ambiance of the venue.  You can easily discern all of the audience noises, such as clinking glasses and soft whispers.  Soft brush strokes on cymbals have the appropriate shimmer and decay, while the upright bass’s sinewy plucked strings resonate with strength.  Another great live recording, Tonic from Medeski, Martin & Wood, treats the listener to that same wide-open room sound.  On the track “Buster Rides Again” Billy Martin hammers away vigorously with his funky timekeeping, which the Secondas put right in the middle of the soundstage.

As for the bass prowess of these speakers, Alberto Iglesias’ soundtrack to the film Todo Sobre Mi Madre—a beautiful score, full of deep-bass lines—accentuates the Secondas’ ability to handle the lowest notes with ease.  The score’s short track “Le Faltaba la Mitad,” a mix of massed strings and haunting bass, feels as if it migrated from a Dead Can Dance album.  Here, the Secondas easily keep the pace solid, even at high levels, without distortion or soundtrack collapse.  At the same time, the sparse percussion gently dances throughout the soundfield unaffected—a very impressive feat for speakers at this price point.

Reference Recordings’ Mephisto & Co. showcases the Minnesota Orchestra in full song.  On this recording, the classic Mussorgsky piece “Night on Bald Mountain” perfectly illustrates the ability of these speakers to go instantly from loud to soft.  Playing perhaps louder than is prudent, with my Coda amp delivering the goods, the piece builds to crescendo, all the while maintaining the orchestra’s three-dimensional space.  The Seconda portrays the big stuff faithfully and then backs off beautifully to capture the softer passages featuring flute and piccolo.  Reference Recordings’ Symphonic Dances by Rachmaninoff reveals the speaker’s ability to render size and scale, at the same time casting a spotlight on how well the dual 7-inch woofers are able to start and stop without any overhang or fatigue.

Just as I was ready to wind up the review and begin packing the Secondas to send to their next appointment, Bob Dylan’s Greatest Hits from Audio Fidelity arrived.  Again, I was reminded of the wonderful midrange that these speakers offer.  Dylan’s voice is eerily realistic and squarely in the room on “Blowin’ in The Wind,” on which I found the decay of both his voice and harp utterly captivating.  The speakers also handle male and female vocals with equal ease, so those partaking more of the latter will be equally smitten.  A quick spin of Shelby Lynne’s Just A Little Lovin’ (courtesy of the Acoustic Sounds’ remaster) is incredibly vibrant and realistic.

I thoroughly enjoyed the time spent with the Opera Secondas.  While these may not be the first name on the tip of your tongue when searching for your next pair of speakers, they are worth seeking out and even more worthy of an extended audition.  They bring a number of design elements together: a large sealed enclosure, quality drivers, elegant cosmetics and outstanding in-room performance.  And, at a relatively affordable $3,995 a pair, they offer incredible value, ranking highly on the wife-acceptance factor and also delivering great performance for the price.  If you’re looking for something other than the usual fare, and in the mood for something different, these Italian wonders are certainly worth a listen.

Opera Seconda Loudspeakers

MSRP: $3,995

Available in the U.S. through Colleen Cardas Imports:

Sonus faber Aida Loudspeaker

How many times have you heard a fellow audiophile or music lover say, “For that kind of money, those speakers should wash your car” or, “They should be better than sex”—or something to that effect? A pair of Sonus faber Aida loudspeakers cost $120,000 and are better than sex. Spend a few minutes immersed in a serious listening session, and you won’t care if your luxury car is dirty. Play a few more tunes, and you might not even notice your significant other beckoning you to the bedroom for some intimate time. They are that good. Indeed, the Aida is as close to perfection as I’ve experienced, and I’ve spent a lot of time listening to the world’s finest speakers. These, however, do nothing wrong.

Steve Martin once said, “First, get a million dollars.” Perfection doesn’t come cheap, and that’s the only bad news concerning the Aida. This speaker caters to an exclusive club, yet sales are steady, especially now that the $200,000 “Sonus faber” is no longer on the market. And while these gems flawlessly perform no matter what they’re connected to, the better your source components, the better the end result.

Listening to an old favorite, 10cc’s Bloody Tourists, the heavens align, as they do every time I listen to the Aidas (pronounced Eye –ee-dah). Regardless of the recording material or recording quality, I’m hearing more music than I’ve ever experienced on familiar recordings—and my reference GamuT S9 speakers aren’t exactly slouches. Passages decay more than they did before. There’s an extra guitar overdub here I hadn’t noticed, and an extra layer of vocals. If you audition the Aida, prepare to invest in coffee. You’ll be shutting off the lights at 2 a.m. just because you have to hear just one more record.

These rewarding experiences, my friends, are what the pinnacle of high-end audio is about. Sound so good, so real, you can just reach out and touch it. If you like smooth vocalists like Diana Krall, the Aidas offer you the opportunity to have a sonic lap dance. If you want to rock, and have enough amplifier power, the Aidas put Slash and a wall of Marshall cabinets in your room. And if you like electronica, the Aidas deliver Deadmau5 to your door, mouse mask and all. Acoustic music lovers are in for the biggest treat. The Aidas present a tonal accuracy and contrast that, by far, are the most natural and convincing I’ve ever witnessed.

When covering a Deadmau5 show with Music Editor Bob Gendron last year, he remarked, “Your system can’t do that…” Yet, on a recent visit to the TONE studio, he had recalibrated his perspective. Playing “Raise Your Weapon” from 4×4=12, and twisting the level control on the ARC REF5SE up to 80, a monstrous grin came over his face.  Switching the program to the Slayer Vinyl Conflict box set, he admitted, “These speakers play at concert-hall levels with none of the distortion and fatigue you get at a live performance. I’ve never heard a stereo system sound like this.” Another convert.

Posh Treatment

Every pair of Aidas comes with a visit from Sonus faber to make sure the speakers are optimized for maximum performance. If you live in North America, chances are high that Sumiko’s Bill Peugh will make the journey. Having heard Peugh work his magic at countless dealers and audio shows, it was a pleasure to have him take the time to set up the Aidas here.

For a speaker that weighs 365 pounds each, the Aida is a svelte tango partner. Thanks to the enclosed collapsible trolley, they are easily moved about. And the job can be done with one person, making it easy to place the speakers in a listening room. Another example of how no stone has been left unturned by Sonus faber.

After a brief listen to a single speaker in the room so we could get a handle on bass response, we introduced the second speaker into the system and found the pair beginning to optimize. The Aida uses a rear-firing midrange and tweeter, each having their own controls on the rear panel. The “Sonus faber” introduced this concept, and it’s used to great success here. For now, the Aida is the only other speaker in the Sonus faber range with this function.

Having set up the speakers for the best combination of imaging, frequency smoothness, and bass response, we turned to fine-tuning the rear firing drivers. It’s an illuminating process: The level coming from the drivers isn’t terribly high, yet when adjusted, it causes a profound difference to the overall sound. Setting the level too high destroys the Aidas’ precise imaging performance by way of brightness. Not enough, and the speakers lose some airiness and coherence. Much like fine-tuning VTA, the speakers disappear when a perfect balance is obtained. No small feat for six-foot-tall models.

How quickly the Aidas settle into a groove. We are listening in earnest by the end of the first afternoon. My review models boast very few hours of prior listening time, so they are—for all practical purposes—a fresh pair. Like those on any speaker, the drivers require a certain amount of physical break-in to open up and achieve full body. The Aida is no different, although in retrospect, it merely sounds smaller and less extended after the initial uncrating. Bass is not completely fleshed out, and coherence between drivers is not as good as it is with a couple hundred hours on the clock. By the next day, after 24 hours of continuous play, they begin to relax.

Sumiko’s John Paul Lizars assures me the speakers change character during the break-in period, but it must have happened while I was sleeping. To be clear, I left them playing 24 hours a day during the review period; they had to be back in time for the 2013 Consumer Electronics Show.

As tests evolved, all I noticed was a slight fog, which progressively dissipated.  Leaving the Pass XA200.5s Class-A monoblocks powered-up for nearly a month had consequences on my electric bill; I used three times more electricity as the average house in my neighborhood. Yikes. I’ve had a few paranoid delusions of the DEA showing up at my house with a SWAT team wanting to know where I’m growing the marijuana crop, only to give them a tour of my studio. “Sorry officers, no drugs in here, just these big amplifiers.” If I’m not at CES in January, you’ll know why.

I spent the bulk of my listening time utilizing the Pass monoblocks and Octave Jubilee monoblocks, which offer 250 watts per channel of vacuum tube power.

Under Pressure

The Aidas are polite company at low to modest listening levels. But as the volume goes up, they do an even better job at disappearing in the room. Sumiko representatives often discuss the concept of “pressurizing the room,” and I’ve never heard it better illustrated than with these speakers. Interestingly, I found myself (and guests) listening to the Aidas at higher levels than normal. Once the volume hits a certain point, the aforementioned effect becomes hypnotic, drawing you further into the presentation than you might have thought possible.

Fatigue that accompanies twisting the volume control to the upper regions? It’s just not there with the Aidas. Instead, it feels as if you can just keep turning up the volume forever, or at least until your amplifiers run out of power.

Tied to a chair and given truth serum, I’ll confess my love of the sound of a great electrostatic speaker like the Quad 57 or the MartinLogan CLX. Coherency is my hot button. It’s not so much midrange magic, but midrange correctly rendered. With no crossover in the path, the associated distortions, by design, do not exist. And distortions are a big part of what convinces your brain that you’re listening to a stereo system instead of the real thing.

Again, the Aidas do the seemingly impossible, providing a seamless soundstage that never sounds like a woofer, tweeter, and midrange in a cabinet (even though their complement of drivers has crossover points at 55, 180, 250, and 3,000Hz). There’s so much new technology incorporated in this speaker, it would take a whole book to cover depth. And that’s precisely what’s included with the Aida— a 200-page tome, illustrating every facet of the speaker’s philosophy, design, and construction. Not to mention a massive collection of great photos, beautifully printed.

The Aida’s downward-firing 13-inch woofer produces bass with incredible texture and grip. I also suspect it heavily plays into its ease. The bass isn’t as aggressive, gut-punching, or pants-flapping as that of a few favorite audiophile darlings, but it possesses a presence that provides a true musical foundation, as it should. Just like when you listen to a musician playing a stand-up bass in a club.

Vide, the acoustic bass line in Stanley Clarke’s In the Jazz Garden is rich with decay, texture, and pace. Clarke’s instrument does more than maintain a separate space from piano and drums; it projects a three-dimensional effect that bass rarely manages in a recording. When changing the program to Dan Deacon’s America, the growling synth bass line shakes my room. These speakers move serious air when required.

The high-frequency spectrum is equally well represented. Older Sonus faber speakers, while providing highly pleasing sound, are often criticized for a midrange glow that borders on coloration. The Aida retains a high degree of utter tonality and soul, and provides a high degree of resolution and the ability to render musical detail without harshness, distortion, or fatigue. It yields a greater degree of loud-to-soft gradation than anything I’ve heard shy of the world’s finest horn systems.

Moving away from the ring radiator design of the former flagship, the Stradivari, a new, 29mm “arrow point” tweeter gets incorporated in the Aida. The intriguing albeit delicate bar is a very specific wave guide. Nothing in the Aida is without function. Peugh states the soft dome allows for a more natural response as well as more even and natural room dispersion. Experiencing the Aida is remarkably similar no matter where you sit in the listening environment, contributing to the notion of musicians playing in another room when listening from afar.

While the Aidas have a sensitivity spec of 92db with one watt, they give more with tons of clean power on tap. A sampling of lower-powered amplifiers in the 25- to 50-watt-per-channel range proves acceptable. Still, small amplifiers run out of juice when called upon to really rock. And I can’t imagine an Aida owner not wanting to take advantage of as wide a range of music as possible.

Ooh, the Cabinet

Much of the Aida’s sound can be traced to the cabinet and Sonus faber’s approach. A visual tour de force, these speakers arouse and impress, coated with layer upon layer of hand-applied and hand-polished lacquer. The metal bits receive the same amount of attention to fine detail, right down to the exact formulation of the bath used to apply the anodized coatings. Words and photos do not do justice to these audible works of art.  The booklet states the processes used in the speakers’ construction is “like that in an Italian supercar,” and it isn’t kidding.

Many current speaker manufacturers live and die by the sword of completely eliminating any resonance from the enclosure. However, Sonus faber looks at speaker design like an instrument manufacturer would, working with resonances and fine-tuning to achieve a more musical result. If you like the Wilson/Magico/YG Acoustics approach, I doubt you will love the Aida—just as I wouldn’t expect an automobile enthusiast that loves the Aston Martin DBS to be equally excited about the Porsche 911 GT3. High performance, different approach.

As for the emotional connection the Aidas engender? A non-audiophile friend, who is a cabinet maker by trade, was in awe of the enclosures that take nearly three weeks to complete. Before I put Mobile Fidelity’s recent 45RM remaster of The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan on the turntable, he was explaining “no one listens to vinyl anymore.” Then, when the needle dropped, he teared up. “I used to go to the Village and see Dylan all the time. This puts him right in the room.” We switched back to the same album on CD, even played through the fantastic dCS Paganini, and the magic diminished. How can you ask for a better, more emotionally engaging experience?

Listen to Get the Rest of the Story

If you were hoping for a treatise on specs, measurements, and speaker configuration, that’s not what matters here. And none of it will matter to you after you’ve spent 60 seconds listening to one of your favorite pieces of music through the Aidas. I can’t think of a more sublime example of high technology serving fine art.

Should a $120k pair of speakers not be on your short list, try and experience the Aida anyway. And have your Sonus faber dealer demonstrate the new $2,498 Venere 2.5 speakers. A staggering amount of technology trickled down to the company’s entry-level speakers, and is only be made possible by an enterprise that has the resources to build an Aida.

Just as Verdi’s Aida took his art to its highest level, Sonus faber’s Aida takes the aesthetic and acoustic art of speaker-building to an equally lofty level. While it can be tough to justify the value with products so expensive, having spent plenty of time with most of the top models in the six-figure bracket and a considerable number of great speakers in the $20k- $50k range, I can say with absolute certainty that Aidas offer sound and build quality commensurate with price. They have provided one of the most enjoyable musical experiences of my career.

Sonus faber Aida

MSRP:  $120,000/pair (Manufacturer)


Analog source AVID Acutus Reference turntable    TriPlanar tonearm    Lyra Atlas cartridge   AMG V-12 turntable    AMG arm    Clearaudio Goldfinger
Digital source dCS Paganini stack    Aurender S10 music server
Preamplifier ARC REF5SE    Robert Koda K-10
Power amplifier Burmester 911 mk.3    Pass Labs XA200.5 monoblocks    Octave Jubilee monoblocks
Cable Cardas Clear
Power cords Furutech PowerFlux
Power conditioning  Running Springs Dmitri and Maxim
Accessories GIK room treatments    Furutech DeMag and DeStat    Audio Desk Systeme record cleaner    SRA Scuttle rack

Paradigm Reference Signature S8 Loudspeaker

Spoiler alert:  The Paradigm Reference Signature S8s are amazing speakers that don’t cost a small fortune.  They offer performance way beyond what you’d expect for $8,998 a pair.  Many of us know the Canadian company for its smaller speakers and great home-theater systems, but the Signature S8s have major audiophile cred.

Eddie Jobson’s Theme of Secrets paints an enormous sonic landscape in all directions, with low-level detail and spatial cues galore.  It’s a fantastic yet obscure audiophile freak-out record that, in a great system, feels like a surround-sound mix from two channels, which is a test that the Ref Sig.S8s pass handily.  The beryllium tweeter and line-array-type configuration give the speakers a high degree of coherence, which is a major contributor to their ability to reproduce vocals—male or female—with such lifelike ease.

The ’80s club classic “Sex (I’m a…)” from Berlin encourages twisting the volume control.  The Ref Sig.S8s keep the driving disco beat firmly anchored without losing track of the seductive lead vocals, while also keeping all of the backup vocals sorted, as they pop in from all over the soundscape, mildly suggesting what our lead vocalist might be.  The cranky, out-of-phase lead vocals in Sheep on Drugs’ version of “Waiting for the Man” takes a similar turn, with a great mix of vocal layers and spacey electronic effects zooming all over the listening room—further showcasing the fact that these speakers possess extraordinary imaging abilities.

Those with more traditional tastes, take notice:  The Paradigms perform equally well rendering the delicate shadings of Anne Bisson’s “Dragonfly” or Annie Lenox’s strong lead vocals in “No More I Love You’s.”  Tracks like these reveal that the integration of the tweeter and midrange driver directly below it is fantastic.

Thanks to their 92-dB sensitivity, the speakers barely budge the power meters of the 200-watt-per-channel D’Agostino Momentum stereo amplifier that I’m currently enjoying.  The Momentum really grips the Ref Sig.S8s’ four 7-inch woofers, proving that you won’t likely need to pair these speakers with one of Paradigm’s massive subwoofers.  Justin Timberlake’s “Let the Groove Get In” is the only track with which I can actually push the multiple woofers to their boundaries, with the Momentum’s needles moving in earnest to the song’s opening bass riff.

Taking further advantage of the powerful low-frequency abilities of the Ref Sig.S8s, I demo some Aphex Twin—and there’s loads of low-end rumble, but everything else is smooth sailing.  If you really need to rattle the foundation of your house, or love your movies loud, ­by all means peruse the Paradigm catalog.  However, most of us will be thrilled with the bass response that these speakers deliver.

Best of all, the high sensitivity of these speakers allows a wide range of compatible amplification, making them a fantastic anchor for your system.  We can continue the tired chicken/egg argument of whether one should prioritize the speakers or source components—but I suggest building around a pair of speakers that you love, because they ultimately require more effort to interface with your environment, visually and audibly.  And what’s not to love here?

Quality is Key

The Ref Sig.S8s may have a relatively small footprint—about 4 feet tall, with a base measuring 8.5 inches by 20.5 inches—but they are massive on quality.  Paradigm creates such high-value speakers by designing and building all of its drivers in house at its factory near Toronto in Canada.  Unlike many lesser speaker companies, which are often forced to work with off-the-shelf drive units—and sometimes make up for a driver’s inadequacies by tweaking the crossover network, and thus produce a substandard result—Paradigm builds it all from the ground up.

Visiting Paradigm last year revealed what a large proportion of its factory is devoted to research and design.  Paradigm is one of a very small group of speaker companies that not only builds their own drivers, but also only builds drivers specifically to meet the needs of a speaker, once that speaker’s objectives are finalized.  And because the company has such a large operation—the factory is almost 260,000 square feet—there are tremendous economies of scale in terms of the raw materials they can purchase.

Even Paradigm’s tiniest Atom mini-monitors ($398 per pair) feature these same levels of design and engineering excellence and attention to construction detail.  I’m sure that a company outsourcing all of these components would have to charge twice as much for a similar speaker—and many do.

The Cradle Will Rock

Near the end of this review, HDtracks announced the release of the first six Van Halen albums on 24-bit/192-kHz download.  What better way to evaluate the performance limits of the Ref Sig.S8s than to crank Van Halen for an afternoon?

I start slow, with David Lee Roth on “Ice Cream Man,” and the speakers illuminate the delicate vocal stylings of this track, which is full of echo and reverb, with S8s reproducing Eddie Van Halen’s acoustic guitar flawlessly.  Midway through the track, as the rest of the band chimes in, the Ref Sig.S8s have no problem accommodating the driving bass line and the drums.  The amount of clean, undistorted sound these speakers produce is as impressive as the finesse with which they deliver it.

These are far from just being rock-and-roll, brain-damage speakers.  They do finesse as well as they do loud, making them a fit for whatever music you enjoy.  Bill Bruford’s The Sound of Surprise, for example, is an album that bridges classic jazz patterns with some great prog rock riffs.  On the track “Half Life,” piano floats amidst Bruford’s slower interludes, but the Ref Sig.S8s can instantly accelerate when the program material dictates.  Playing acoustic fare also underlines the speakers’ worthiness of great amplification.  The beryllium tweeter strikes a perfect balance of resolution, clarity and timbre that benefits from being fed thusly.  These speakers easily reveal the subtle differences between the megabucks power amplifiers we had in for issue 53.

Having used these speakers with a wide range of amplification, I’d suggest going the tube route if you have to compromise your amplifier budget.  The slight softness of a modestly powered tube amplifier will provide a more musical result overall than an inexpensive solid-state amplifier.  For those of you closed to the idea of a metal-domed speaker, I submit that it was probably the amplification used that ruined the experience for you, not the speaker.

The Rega Brio-R integrated amplifier proves an excellent low-price, high-performance partner for the Ref Sig.S8s, as does the PrimaLuna ProLogue Premium integrated tube amp.  And it just gets better as you go up the food chain.  The new 200-watts-per-channel Plinius Hautonga integrated amplifier that we are currently auditioning is a brilliant combination with these speakers, offering wonderfully lifelike sound and limitless dynamics.  With these speakers, those with amplification in the $5,000-to-$10,000 range might even be scratching their heads, wondering why their more well-heeled audio buddies bothered spending more.

Under the Hood

Beneath the veneered cabinets, which are available in beautifully finished cherry or gloss black, lurks the best technology that Paradigm has to offer (though the company has just released a 30th anniversary model that looks very intriguing…).  The 1-inch pure-beryllium dome tweeter of the Ref Sig.S8 is coupled to a 7-inch cobalt-infused aluminum midrange, which utilizes a dual-layer voice coil and an enormous die-cast basket that acts as a heat sink—critical for a driver that takes the bulk of the bandwidth in this three-way speaker system.

Four 7-inch woofers round out the package, with an on-axis spec of −2 dB at 39 Hz, and a typical −3 dB at 24 Hz in an average room.  Our trusty Stereophile Test CD confirms that the speakers can deliver on a strong 30-Hz track, with a dip at 25 Hz and then quickly fading off after this point, even with the massive Pass Xs 300s driving them.  This is very impressive performance for a pair of $8,998 speakers.

Don’t let the compact footprint fool you:  These slim speakers weigh 100 pounds each, so unless you turn green when someone makes you mad, get some help to unpack and move them into place.  The Ref Sig.S8s come with small rubber feet, and a full set of spikes.

Paradigm suggests that you use the speakers with grilles on, as this is the way they were voiced.  Always one to follow directions, I go this route and concur that this is a slightly smoother sound, though it makes the high-frequency response slightly more pronounced if you remove them, especially when using a tube amp.  Plus, there’s so much craftsmanship here that it just seems a pity to hide it all beneath those grilles!

Setup is straightforward, beginning with the speakers about 9 feet apart on the 15-foot short wall of my main listening room, with a slight toe-in to make the listening position about 10 feet back.  As with any speaker, I like to key in on the bass response first—going for the best combination of power and locking them into the room, and then making slight adjustments for imaging later.  The Ref Sig.S8s are not terribly fussy speakers to work with, thanks to their great power response and wide dispersion, so even those with modest skills will be happy with the results.  But, if you’re so inclined, 30 minutes of serious geeking out will reward you with a more three-dimensional soundstage.

If you’re looking for a pair of speakers that offers serious five-figure performance without a five-figure pricetag, consider the Paradigm Reference Signature S8s.  In the scheme of today’s wacky audio world, where $100k speakers are no longer rare, these are refreshingly great—and we are happy to give them one of our Exceptional Value Awards for 2013.

The Paradigm Reference S8 Signature Speakers

MSRP: $8,998 per pair (available in cherry or piano black)


Analog Source AVID Volvere SP turntable    SME V tonearm    Koetsu Urushi Vermillion cartridge
Digital Source Light Harmonic DAC    Sooloos Control 15 server
Preamplifier ARC REF 5 SE
Amplifier ARC REF 150    D’Agostino Momentum stereo    Rega Brio-R integrated   PrimaLuna ProLogue Premium integrated    Plinius Hautonga integrated
Cable Cardas Clear

Klipsch Heresy III Loudspeaker

While the original design of the Magnepan MMG harkens back to 1969, Klipsch goes back even further, to 1946, when it took a unique path for high-performance speaker design: the loaded horn. Beginning with the legendary Klipschorn—inspired by large horn speakers used in theaters—Klipsch utilized horn-loaded compression drivers for the midrange and tweeters, along with a folded horn for the woofer.

Originally introduced in 1957 to be used as a third channel for the era’s three-channel recordings, the speaker was initially deemed “heresy” by critics that viewed it as a violation of designer Paul Klipsh’s fully horn-loaded design. Legend has it that such reactions led to the speaker’s name. Unlike the gigantic Klipschorn, the Heresy III uses a more traditional direct-radiating 12-inch woofer and a much more compact box. At only 24 inches tall, 15 inches wide, and 13 inches deep, the Heresy III packs a wallop. It’s intended to be placed close to the rear wall, as to not intrude on your listening space.

Note: When I began this review, the Heresy IIIs were $749 each, just falling within the cost parameters of our all-budget issue. But now that every speaker is custom produced to order in Cherry, Walnut, or Black Ash veneer (all requiring a 3-4 week waiting period), the price has risen to $799 each. So, yes, we are making a slight exception. But where else can you get a custom-produced, hand-built, US-made pair of speakers for such dough? By such criteria alone, the Heresy III qualifies as one of the best values in speakers today.

Rocking in Five Minutes

The Heresy IIIs are ready to roll the minute you unpack them. After investigating numerous placement options, I advise sticking with the factory’s suggestion of placing the speakers close to the rear wall (a foot or less is great). However, I felt that corner loading was a bit much, as it made for whumpy bass. The spec sheet claims a frequency response of +/-3db from 58Hz-20kHz, yet a cursory listen to test tones revealed solid bass output between 45 and 50Hz. Thanks to a 99db sensitivity rating, you can use the Heresys with any amplifier.

Just like I did with all of the other speakers reviewed in this budget issue, I started my listening with a stack of 70s receivers. The Heresy IIIs proved an amazing match with them all, offering much better sound than you would expect from such minimal investment. The best pairing came with a mint NAD 3020A that just received a full refurbishment at NAD. How apt: Many an audiophile started their journey with the 3020A. Its high-current design offered a level of resolution that the other receivers couldn’t match, and yet it can be obtained for under $200.

Audiophiles might not expect a pair of box speakers placed low and close to the wall to offer up any kind of substantial imaging, but the Heresy IIIs defy convention. The soundstage extended well beyond the speaker boundaries, while a generous helping of vertical dispersion added to the experience.


While the Heresy IIIs use a horn midrange and tweeter, they don’t have the “honk” that accompanies most horn-loaded speakers. The mids and high ends are smooth, with drivers blending in a seamless, coherent manner. They will make your favorite vintage solid-state receiver sound much better than you ever thought it could while your choice low-powered tube amplifier (current or vintage) will redefine budget audio fun.

In the end, my choices centered on the Woo Audio WA6 and the Conrad Johnson MV 50A1 recently rebuilt at the CJ factory. The SET amplifier yielded a slightly larger three-dimensional presentation, but the CJ had both more extension at the frequency extremes and a more palpable midrange. Both models drove the Heresy IIIs louder than I needed. Time spent with the Dynaco Stereo 70 and PAS 3 preamplifier also made for highly enjoyable encounters.

Dynamics Make the Difference

The Heresy IIIs offer up a very natural sound. Still, the one aspect that’s usually missing from a low-budget system is the ability to play loud and clean. As the polar opposites of the Magnepan MMGs—which possess a seamless midrange presentation but can’t really rock—the Heresy IIIs give up a little bit of coherence yet have the capacity to play heavy duty rock and roll at reasonable levels. I couldn’t even think about spinning SunnO))) at anything above a whisper on the Magnepans. And the small woofers in the otherwise excellent Paradigm Millenia Ones can’t move enough air to get the job done. But on the Heresy IIIs, I wasn’t three minutes into “Etna” and my neighbors were already throwing things over the fence. Next time, I better close the door.

Subsequent metal explorations left me with the same conclusion: These speakers can really rock without any of the compression that occurs with a less-efficient speaker that’s mated to a modest power amplifier. Playing 99db speakers with a 40-watt-per-channel tube amplifier (and its warm distortion characteristics) is like having 1000 watts per channel on tap for 89db speakers. Because the Heresy IIIs play so loud and cleanly, they actually pose a slight threat to your hearing. After an hour of Ozzy and Dio classics, I noticed a slight buzz in my ears. So proceed with caution if you buy a pair.

Just as a high-powered amplifier can make moderately efficient speakers light up, the same holds for high-efficiency speakers. They take the burden away from your amplifier and no matter what music you enjoy, deliver an ease that you just can’t get from a pair of mini monitors. Another side benefit? The Heresy IIIs can play at low volume levels and retain their resolution. Even if you aren’t a metalhead, you’ll be surprised at how lifelike acoustic and vocal records sound, even at soft volumes. Plus, the Heresy IIIs are as linear as they are dynamic. When listening to complex music, the speakers did not lose their poise; they transmitted fine details at every volume level.

A Solid Choice

The Klipsch Heresy IIIs constitute a consummate blend of vintage and modern sound in a package that’s easy to drive and effortless to integrate into your listening room. No matter where you are on your hi-fi journey, these speakers provide a constantly engaging and truly thrilling musical experience. And, considering they are built with care by one of hi-fi’s true pioneers, you can’t go wrong.

After living with the Heresy IIIs for several months and listening to a wide range of music, I found no blatant shortcomings—especially considering the price. Sure, I’d love to see them made out of solid wood like they were in the 50s, and some better binding posts would be nice. But these accoutrements would add to the cost and don’t affect the sound.

One of the secrets to any good loudspeaker at any price is its ability to convey natural reproduction of the critical mid frequencies. The Heresy IIIs handle this job better than most competitors, and by adding a huge dynamics at well under $2,000/pair, they’re an unqualified success. I know this much: I need a pair.

The Klipsch Heresy III

$1,598 per pair, any finish


Analog Source Rega P3-24 w/Rega Exact 2 cartridge
Digital Source Simaudio Moon 750D    Sooloos Music Server
Amplificatio Woo Audio WA6    Rega Brio R
Cable Audioquest Rocket and Columbia

Gemme Audio Tonic G5 Loudspeaker

The name of Gemme Audio’s Tonic G5 loudspeaker is perfect. In jazz, the phrase “minor tonic” refers to the home chord containing a minor third along with a major sixth and seventh for compositions in a minor key. And seeing that the model is more modest than the Canadian company’s Katana and TantoKarbon offerings—yet shares the same high-gloss black finish and cabinet construction—the compact speaker riffs on the musical concept of making the most out of minor scales.

Sharing technology from Gemme’s highly successful Vflex line, the $699 G5 sports a smaller 5.5-inch doped paper woofer crossed over to a 1-inch soft dome tweeter at about 3.2khz, all via a single-order network. While it claims a somewhat low sensitivity of 86db, the G5 is easy to drive with relatively low output. Gemme states the in-room LF response goes down to 45hz, a mark that I had no trouble verifying when playing test tones. It’s yields impressive performance for such a diminutive box, helped in part by Gemme’s “Pressure Reflex” design, which restricts the airflow in the port and creates a venturi effect. Designer Robert Gaboury mentions that doing so “makes for a nice, fast bass boost.”

Painless Break-In and Setup

The G5s proved extremely room friendly. After running them for 50 hours and experimenting with positioning in my 15×20-foot room, I placed them three feet from the sidewalls and about 2.5 feet from the back walls, each 7 feet apart from one another. A matching black plinth on the bottom of the speaker makes it easy to use the supplied black chrome spikes. I achieved optimum imaging balance between both axis with the speakers toed in at about 5 degrees. This isn’t a tough speaker to setup and, much like my Vandersteen 1Cs (also a 2-way, single-order speaker), provided engaging sound when not aligned just so.

I experienced no problems with a variety of amplifiers—tube and solid-state, large and small—but the G5s really grooved with the PrimaLuna DiaLogue 7 monoblocks, especially in triode mode. While the latter generates less power than pentode mode (40 watts per channel vs. 70), it played to the G5s’ strength and added to their large presentation, especially when they were moved to a smaller room, where the extra 30 watts weren’t a big deal.


I couldn’t resist starting my serious listening with Medeski, Martin & Wood’s Tonic. The primarily acoustic live album challenges most speakers in terms of resolving a sense of the live space. Thanks to their excellent soundstaging abilities, the G5s were up to the task, especially on “Buster Rides Again.” On the song, Medeski’s piano is front and center, Wood’s acoustic bass is off to the left, and Martin’s drums figure prominently to the right of center stage. At least, that’s how everything should be.

Moreover, this recording sounds artificially big; many comparably priced small speakers lose the recording’s spaciousness, making the trio sound like they are in a closet. Not so the G5s. Their speed and dynamics captured the occasional rap of the drum sticks against the drum kit, nailed the cowbell, and offered a lifelike reproduction of audience participation, adding to the illusion of reality.

To determine whether the G5 could deliver with rock, I cued up Porcupine Tree’s “The Start Of Something Beautiful” from DeadWing, listening for bass compression at high level. Again, I came away impressed with how much air the little woofers could move before breaking up. A similar effect happened when playing “Immune” from Godsmack’s self-titled album; I just ran these little speakers out of gas. Turning the volume down slightly on the disc’s “Voodoo” yielded better results, as vocalist Sully Erna was placed dead center in a haunting manner that suited the album’s mood. Less bone crushing than a large pair of floorstanders, these speakers possessed quite a bit more punch than the Magnepan MMGs reviewed in this issue.

The G5s won’t win any awards when it comes to reproducing a full classical orchestra, but what small speaker does? However, on small-scale recordings like Telemann’s “Sonata #2” from Jerry McCoy’s Dialogues With Double Bass, the musicians were spread across the soundstage in proper scale with generous room ambiance. Kudos to the Gemme’s superb tweeter; the higher-register string sounds came across naturally, with no indication of breakup or edginess. Such smoothness was evident regardless of music type and represented one of the speakers’ greatest strengths. Whether it was the bite of slide guitar or the crash of a cymbal, the G5’s tweeter always stayed on the path of musical accuracy rather than veering off and artificially ringing.

A Gem

The G5’s compact stature may require an adjustment to your listening position, as the tweeter is only about 30 inches off the floor. The sweet spot in a first-order system is usually more critical than those in speakers that use more traditional crossovers. It’s easy to get too much HF bleed through in the woofer, which leaves the speaker sounding muddy and muffled. So choose your listening chair accordingly. I ended up liking the sound presented when sitting on my floor.

A compact floorstander always presents challenges to speaker designers, and at $699, there are always tradeoffs to be made. In the case of the G5, all of the important boxes on the build list were confidently checked. These speakers offer a top-notch finish and faithful musical qualities as well as a beautifully rendered midband with a smooth upper treble and sense of space—and enough bass extension for most small-to mid-sized rooms. Combine such positives with above-average dynamics and a speaker that works well with modest-power solid-state or tube amplification, and you can see why Gemme Audio’s latest creation should be on your short list – this is a lot of speaker for $699.

Gemme Audio Tonic G5 Loudspeaker

MSRP: $699


Analog Source Rega P5 with Sumko Blackbird
Digital Source Mac Mini with Rega DAC
Preamplifier Audio Research LS3
Power Amplifier PrimaLuna DiaLogue 7 monoblocks
Cable Audience Au24 (speaker and IC)
Power Conditioning Running Springs Elgar

Vienna Acoustics Haydn Grand Symphony Loudspeaker

Known for naming its speakers after famous German composers, Vienna’s latest model should be rechristened the Schenker or the Jabs—as they were the two German guitarists whose music I blasted at the beginning of the review process. Small speakers often struggle to play rock music, so, to gauge potential, the Scorpions’ Blackout and Love at First Sting were first on my agenda. Powered by the mighty McIntosh MC1.2kw monoblocks and capable of delivering 1200 watts each, what better way to start a listening session?

Pondering KISS’ Alive! as my next choice, I instead stayed with Schenker, this time Michael Schenker from UFO, while turning the volume control perilously higher for a majority of Lights Out, the band’s powerful double live set. As I completely ignored the 180-watt maximum power rating on the spec sheet, the thought of reaching for my checkbook to buy the Vienna review samples crossed my mind. But not for the usual reasons; the meters on the MC1.2kws were moving way up the scale. You probably won’t hook your Haydns up to a pair of 1200-watt behemoths, but if you do, rest assured that their robust construction is up to snuff.

High Tech, Easy Setup

These elegant $1,800 mini-monitors have a small footprint. They are only 6.85 inches wide, 10.4 inches deep, and just over 14 inches tall. With the appropriate stands, perfect for a small-to-medium-size room. My review pair arrived in an optional piano white finish that was simply beautiful. No part of these understated speakers is done by chance. Featuring a 6-inch woofer made from the company’s clear X3P material and latest-generation 1-inch soft dome tweeter, the Hayden also takes advantage of enhanced technology gleaned from Vienna’s top-of-the-line speakers.

The Haydn’s unique wedge bass port places the tweeter directly in the front of the angled port. Successfully eliminating port noise, which can be a problem with small monitors featuring a high excursion woofer, the Haydn delivers the goods when called upon to reproduce lower bass frequencies. Kraftwerk’s “Boing Boom Tschak” is an excellent test for such a task. Many small, ported speakers make a muffled groan when asked to handle the deep bass on this record, but the Haydens sailed through without issue. The MC1.2kws were reading about 600 watts on the power output meters before the woofers hit their stops—indicating an end to the madness.

Bass fun aside, paying careful attention to speaker rake is key to extracting the maximum performance from the Haydns. Tilting them back slightly, about a degree at a time, reveals a spot where they just disappear from the listening position. As a result, the soundstage dramatically increases. If you have DualLevelPro on your iPhone, you can quickly get the speakers within a half-degree of one another. You’ll know when you have it right: the stereo image will extend well beyond the speaker boundaries. If it’s not perfect, the image just hovers between the speakers. Take 30 minutes, and grab a friend to help, and you will be in heaven.

After getting read on the speakers, I replaced the MC1.2kws with the Conrad Johnson MV-50C1. This EL-34 powered amplifier produces 45 watts per channel, more than enough for all but the most ambitious listening. It proved an excellent match for the Haydns’ 89dB sensitivity. Similarly, the Rega Brio-R (also reviewed in this issue) made for an excellent solid-state choice and logged a fair amount of listening time as well.

Fatigue Free

While I preferred the scrumptious match of the CJ amp with the Haydns—I really enjoy the hyperrealism of listening nearfield with a pair of high-performance monitors driven by a great vacuum tube amplifier—the Haydns’ smooth albeit resolving soft dome tweeter was never harsh. So those with solid-state amplification need not fear. Audiophiles that love solo vocalists will be very pleased with these speakers. To wit, play Keren Ann’s recent 101. The breathy, expansive vocals will melt even the most diehard Patricia Barber fan and really show off the midrange clarity offered up by the Haydens.

When moving to electronica from Deadmaus, Kruder & Dorfmeister, and Tosca, the music underscored the small speakers’ ability to produce a substantial amount of bass, even in my main listening room (16 x 24 feet). “Bug Powder Dust” from The K&D Sessions goes very deep. Yet the Haydns captured most of the fundamental tone, with a bit of sub-harmonics as well. The single 6-inch driver performed impressively, yielding solid bass reproduction and quite a bit of texture. Of all the speakers we auditioned for this issue, the Haydns were the only pair that went toe to toe with my Magenpan 1.6s in terms of upper bass detail—no small feat. I was consistently surprised at the amount of low-frequency oomph they mustered.

Great small monitor speakers also excel at pinpoint imaging, and the Haydns didn’t shirk in this area, either. Listening to the soundtrack to the 1981 animated classic Heavy Metal, the main vocals of “All of You” hovered out in front of my face, with the guitars far behind the imaginary line between the speakers. Moreover, the spacey electronic effects were distinctly placed from left to right, without ever losing the bass line.

As much as I punished these speakers at the beginning of the review, they did an equally excellent job playing music at very low levels—a great example of their linearity. Should you happen to be an apartment dweller that lacks both space and the luxury to really wind up your system, these speakers can keep you very happy until you don’t have neighbors behind your adjoining walls.

While I wouldn’t generally pair 89dB speakers with an SET, the Haydns were so easy to drive, my 9-watt-per-channel Woo Audio amplifier proved a delicious partner. Listening to Tomita’s Live at Linz, 1984–The Mind of the Universe at low-level in the nearfield made me feel like I was sitting in a gigantic pair of headphones, with synthesizer effects sounding as if they were coming right from the middle of my head.

Please Please Me

If you have a modest-sized room and won’t miss that last octave of bass, the Vienna Acoustics Haydns practically have no faults, especially at this price. There are a handful of small monitors that offer more bass and resolution, but they cost three-to-five times as much. Kept in the context of the components with which they will probably be paired, these speakers should be able to satisfy the fussiest of budget audiophiles. And, considering their small size, multiple finish options, and fact that they present a load that is easy to drive, the Haydens’ versatility seems to know no bounds.

Vienna Acoustics Haydn Grand Symphony Edition

MSRP: $1,850/pair (standard finish) $2,000/pair (piano white and rosewood)


Analog Source Rega P9 turntable    Sumiko Palo Santos cartridge
Digital Source Sooloos Control 15    dCS Paganini
Preamplifier McIntosh C500    Croft Micro 25
Power Amplifier McIntosh MC1.2kw    Conrad Johnson MV-50C1    Croft Series 7   Rega Brio-R (integrated)
Cable Audioquest Columbia

B&W 802 Diamond Loudspeaker

Having owned a pair of B&W 805 Diamond loudspeakers for the past year, I’m tuned into B&W’s current sound: Powerful, detailed and accurate. The latest diamond tweeter and crossover design combine to produce a very musical speaker that handles nuance with aplomb, yet also rocks at realistic levels when the demand arises.

And yes, the speakers are drop-dead gorgeous. Available in two wood finishes and piano black, they are visual as well as aural works of art. Gino Vanelli once said, “Black cars look better in the shade.” This statement easily applies to speakers dipped in high-gloss black. Much like my neighbor’s triple-black Porsche GT3, it looks breathtaking for about five minutes after it exits the car wash.

Much as I love the black finish on my 805 Diamonds, I let out a sigh of relief when I noticed that the 802 Diamonds that arrived for review were marked “Rosenut.” Being slightly obsessive compulsive, I knew there would be no way to roll the 802D’s around without getting them full of fingerprints. Call me traditional, or perhaps lazy, but just don’t call me Shirley—I’m digging the wood finish of the 802 Diamonds. Derived from the original Nautilus speaker system (still hand-built in small quantities), the wood woofer enclosure nicely contrasts the gloss-black tweeter and midrange modules sitting on top of the cabinets.

A Quick Tour

When I visited B&W’s UK factory earlier this year, I watched the assembly of the speakers in the company’s impressive facility. It employs close to 400 people and takes up almost 60,000 square feet in the seaside town of Worthing. Every aspect of 800 series construction takes place there. The administrative offices are on top of the factory and provide a breathtaking view of the plant, which looks more like an aerospace center than a loudspeaker firm.

Akin to an Eames Lounge Chair, which uses damp wood pressed around a die under pressure to achieve its signature shape, Diamond series cabinets are built from layers of sheets of thin wood, which is visible from the cabinet’s edge. Glued together with high-strength adhesive, this sandwich is placed in a curved die and allowed to dry under pressure. Once removed from the die, the rough cabinet back is trimmed to shape and mated to the front face. But, only after the patented Matrix inner enclosure is fitted, giving the 800 series its famed rigidity and eliminating any seam on the curved back of the enclosure.

Meanwhile, mid/tweeter pods are crafted in a clean-room facility on another side of the plant. Craftsmen wear white suits and matching booties, keeping dust to a minimum. This is also where the bare, molded enclosures (made from Marlan resin, claimed to be as rigid as granite) go from primer coat to final finish, and then off to have the drivers installed. Notably, B&W’s skilled workers utilize the same tools my good friends at Scottsdale’s European Detail Specialists use while buffing multi-million-dollar automobiles for the world-renowned Barrett Jackson Auto Auction.

Speaking of fussy, cabinets are wet-sanded multiple times with abrasives so fine that they almost feel like nothing at all. Then, the cabinets are polished to a mirror-like finish that would make a Dusenberg owner drool. Once everything is completed and inspected, any remaining blemishes—no matter how tiny—are sent back for one last pass. The end result is perfection. Driver production takes place in yet another part of the factory. B&W is one of the few speaker companies that designs and builds all of its own drivers in-house; the engineering offices are down the street in a separate location.

Once the woofer cabinets are joined with the midrange/tweeter pod, drivers and crossover networks are installed, with workers still wearing gloves for most of the process. Each finished speaker is run through a mini anechoic chamber at the end of the assembly line; an operator uses a computerized measurement system to compare each speaker to its master reference. All finished Diamond series speakers must be within .5db of the reference standard or they are sent back for another inspection and rework. During my visit to this part of the factory, the six pairs of 802 Diamonds I observed passed their tests on the first go. A technician with whom I chatted said that because of the exhaustive testing on the individual components leading up to final assembly, “precious few don’t make the cut.”

Finally, the 800 series speakers are carefully packaged for staging in B&W’s immense warehouse, ready for shipment to dealers in 90 countries. The cutting-edge packaging involves substantial engineering. My tour guide smiled and said, “We don’t want them harmed after all this work, do we?” B&W includes packaging assembly instructions on the side of the box, but I suggest shooting video while you unpack the speakers. Should you ever decide to move and repack them, you’ll be glad you did.

Luxurious Feel

Unpacking the 802 Diamonds gives you ample opportunity to get up-close and personal with the speakers, and appreciate the care that goes into their construction. Woofer grilles are wrapped in foam and attach via magnets, as do the midrange grilles, enclosed in one of the two accessory boxes accompanying the speakers. Along with a thorough instruction manual, you’ll also find a microfiber cleaning cloth and pair of jumpers, should you not have speaker cables equipped with bi-wired termination.

I highly recommend always keeping the grille on the diamond tweeter. The diaphragm is vapor-deposited a layer of molecules at a time, and is very unforgiving of fingers and noses. Unlike some speakers’ soft-dome tweeters, these will not survive a dent, pulled out with scotch tape or other methods.

They Really Do Roll…

More manufacturers should follow B&W’s lead and put casters (or, as they like to say in the UK, a trolley) on the bottom of speakers weighing more than 100 pounds (45kg). It saves wear and tear on those squishy disks in your spinal column and simplifies the set-up process. The wheels made it easy to fine-tune placement for the best balance of imaging and bass response. For final placement, B&W offers a set of traditional spikes and set of hard-rubber feet to insert in place of the casters.

Your floor’s surface may determine what method you choose, but the soft feet can also be used to slightly fine-tune the bass response, supplying a bit looser sound than that of the spikes. Your room and ears will be the ultimate judge. While the spikes allow a modest amount of tilt, it shouldn’t be necessary, as the primary purpose of Nautilus enclosure provides for proper time alignment of the drivers. Thanks to wide vertical and horizontal dispersion, I gained nothing from tilting the speakers back. However, in typical nervous audiophile fashion, I ensured both speakers were perfectly level.

The smaller speakers in the 800 series have their “flowport”—B&W’s patented and trademarked name for its bass port, dimpled like a golf ball to provide more controlled air flow and less “port noise” than a standard port—mounted on the front face. But the 800 and 802 Diamond have their downward-facing ports, making them even easier to place. Indeed, precious little jockeying was required to optimize the 802 Diamonds in my listening room.

…And They Really Rock

A prerequisite for a great studio monitor is the ability to play loud without fatigue. The Diamonds excel in this area. If you love to crank up the volume, the Diamonds do not disappoint. Peter Gabriel’s “Lay Your Hands On Me” paints a wide and deep soundstage, combining densely layered vocals with delicate percussion and explosive drums, a challenge for any system. The 802 Diamonds remain firmly anchored, breezing through while maintaining detail in all three dimensions. Mixing it up with a 12” 45RPM single of Van Halen’s “I Don’t Want To Hear About It Later” has the same effect, keeping the explosiveness of both Van Halen brothers in check, yet appealingly separating the backup vocals of guitarist Eddie Van Halen and bassist Michael Anthony.

I easily noticed the differences between the original LP pressing, 45RPM single, and recent remaster of the first Van Halen album via the track “Little Dreamer.” With the Burmester 911 mk. 3 fairly warm to the touch, and my walls thumping, the 802 Diamonds segued into “Ice Cream Man” without missing a beat, capturing the delicacy in David Lee Roth’s vocal stylings. My collegiate swim coach used to say, “Finish hard.” So the volume control took a healthy clockwise spin as “On Fire” closed out the LP at maximum volume. I see why these speakers are the tools of choice in so many recording studios.

But Above All, They Balance

An early pressing of the Talking Heads’ “Heaven” from Fear of Music illustrates the 802 Diamonds’ panel-like ability to keep everything in perspective. Tina Weymouth’s bass line lingers in the back of the soundstage yet maintains the plucky, bright bass tone for which she is famous. Moving directly to The Yes Album, the difference between Chris Squire’s growling Rickenbacker and Weymouth’s Hofner presents a study in tonal contrast, while the beats in LL Cool J’s “Big Ole Butt” have the necessary weight and power. Few speakers in this price range possess this level of discerning bass response.

As much fun as those 1989 beats are, the 802 Diamonds also do an exceptional job of anchoring in place the percussion on LL Cool J’s Walking With a Panther. When blasting hip-hop tracks at club volume, it’s easy for the rest of the information on the record to get lost in the powerful bass grooves. However, the 802s retain their composure and wring out detail, even with meters on my prodigious McIntosh MC 1.2kws almost pegged—sending nearly 1200-watt peaks to the 802 Diamonds, which take it in stride without a trace of distortion.

Your favorite vocalist will reveal a marvelous coherence from top to bottom, the transition between woofers, midrange, and diamond tweeter as flawless as one can expect from a three-way cone speaker. For example, the strings on Roberta Flack’s “Jesse” are perfectly placed, occupying their own space without overpowering the singer.

Quite Cooperative

With a somewhat high sensitivity of 90db, but more importantly, a decidedly tube-friendly crossover, the 802 Diamonds should present a formidable experience regardless of amplification. Tube amplifiers in the 20-50wpc range have no problems driving these speakers to more than reasonable levels. The highly resolving nature of the B&Ws will uncloak whatever tonal character your amplifier might possess. I tried more than a dozen amp/preamp combinations, each with disparate characteristics.

My two top pairs comprised the all-tube combination of the ARC REF 5 preamplifier paired with the Decware Zen Torii, and the all solid-state Burmester 011/911mk 3. A pair of Classe M300 solid-state monoblocks also provided an excellent match, yielding a simultaneously fast, nimble and weighty presentation. The only amplifier in my stable that didn’t achieve symmetry? The Channel Islands D-500II. If you have class D amplification, insist on a test drive, as such amplifiers tend to be more speaker-dependent.

While the 802 Diamonds sound their best with world-class electronics, to their credit, they admirably sync with modest gear, making them easy candidates to stand as anchors of a system that will grow with as your budget allows. The 802 Diamonds proved exciting to hear even when paired with the humble PrimaLuna ProLogue One.


I’m pleased to offer the 802 Diamonds one of our Exceptional Value Awards for 2011.  These are truly a destination speaker at a price well under what one would expect for this kind of performance. I’ve heard my share of speakers in the $40-60k range that can’t compare to the meticulous level of finish this model exhibits, and thanks to a massive worldwide retail network, you’re guaranteed great support.

B&W 802 Diamond

MSRP:  $15,000/pair


Analog Source AVID Acutus Reference SP    SME V    Koetsu Urushi Blue
Digital Source dCS Paganini stack    Sooloos Control 15
Preamplifier Audio Research REF 5    McIntosh C500    Burmester 011
Power Amplifier Audio Research REF 150    Burmester 911 mk. 3    Decware Zen Torii    Conrad Johnson MV-50C1    Classe M300 Monoblocks    McIntosh MC 1.2kw monoblocks
Phono Preamplifier Audio Research REF Phono 2
Cable Cardas Clear
Power Running Springs Dmitri and Maxim power conditioners
Vibration Control SRA Scuttle rack    SRA Ohio Class XL amplifier platforms

Polk Audio LSiM707 Loudspeaker

“I’m a stat guy at heart. I wanted that midrange openness and neutrality,” remarks Mark Suskind, Polk Audio’s VP of Product Line Management, as we listen to the nuances in Ginger Baker’s drumming through Polk’s latest creation, the LSiM707 speakers.

Incredibly, the $3,999 pair of floorstanders is right at home in a six-figure reference system, throwing out a wide soundstage that both extends well beyond the speaker boundaries and claims three-dimensionality—each member of Cream takes up a distinct space in the listening room—that paints a vivid picture of a seemingly in-progress live event. Wait: Polk Audio and a six-figure reference system? What gives? Is this a Fringe episode where in an alternate universe Polk Audio rules the world of high-end speakers and Walter Bishop blasts Cream in his laboratory while he investigates the unknown? Nope. Just another instance of TONEAudio exploring exciting possibilities.

In the early 70s, Polk Audio grabbed the audiophile world’s attention with its legendary SDA-SRS speaker system and has since counted a number of significant milestones. The LSiM707 brings the history full circle by leaning on nearly 40 years of speaker-production knowledge. Yes, these are handsome speakers, available in a Mount Vernon Cherry medium wood finish or Midnight Mahogany a black ash wood finish. Slim, magnetic grilles keep fingers, noses, and prying guests away from the drivers, or you can use the speakers bare and showcase the gorgeous gloss-black front panel.

A Serious Audiophile Speaker in Every Way

When introduced in 2001, the LSi series garnered rave international reviews, proving Polk a solid contender in the audiophile speaker market. And you won’t find a more loyal group of speaker owners; take a cursory look at the Polk Audio Owners Group on the Web.

The LSiM707 constitutes a four-way system with many new features, some of which break new ground and some that refine past processes. A cutaway view highlights the attention paid to every facet of the design—from the Dynamic Sonic Engine that incorporates Polk’s latest ring radiator tweeter and Extended Motion midrange driver to the meticulously assembled crossover network, featuring premium capacitors and inductors. And, there are a few things the naked eye cannot see, such as the aerated polypropylene woofer cones and rigid internal cabinet bracing. For in-depth tech explanations of these aspects, visit the Polk Web site at

To ensure the speakers would perform at the top level, Polk made substantial upgrades to its in-house listening room. Visiting the company’s Baltimore office reveals a full complement of Audio Research Reference electronics—amplifier, preamplifier, CD player. No surprise, then, that the LSiM707 yields excellent results when plugged into my ARC REF 5 preamplifier and REF 150 power amplifier.


Placing the speakers five feet from the rear wall, with the tweeters nine feet apart— combined with five degrees of toe-in and a slight rearward rake—proves optimum in my room. The LSiM707s sound good without critical placement, but taking the time to make adjustments to rake angle results in superior imaging. Sure, the process requires a few minutes per speaker, but it’s made even easier with the iLevel Pro app for the iPhone. Or you can go old-school with a traditional level. Just have both speakers raked back at the identical amount and use the supplied wrench.

I utilized three distinctly diverse systems to audition the LSiM707s. The ARC REF gear and dCS Paganini CD player highlight how the speakers perform in very high-end systems. My recently rebuilt (fresh power supplies and full CJD Teflon cap upgrades for both units) Conrad Johnson MV-50 amplifier and PV-12 preamplifier, along with a BelCanto CD player, makes for a great setup that won’t break the piggy bank yet still renders highly satisfying performances. For budget-conscious music lovers that might make the LSiM707s a foundation on which to build, a vintage Pioneer SX-434 receiver and 563 universal disc player only add $200 to the cost of the Polk speakers.

I’ll Take Polk Audio For $4000, Please

The LSiM707s’ slight out-of-the-box stiffness vanishes after about 50 hours of playing time, unveiling speakers much more sophisticated than what’s intimated by their price. A few snooty local audiophile associates experienced the LSiM707s (albeit with the Polk logos hidden from view) in my full ARC system. When asked to guess the cost of the mystery component, they estimated between $10-$20k, a conclusion spurred on by my spinning of well-known audiophile favorites. After the guinea pigs became convinced they were listening to $20k speakers, I finally dropped the bomb by informing them the Polks fetch $3,995 for the pair. Consider the so-called experts successfully duped.

While listening to a $20k pair of speakers reveals the areas in which the LSiM707s fall short, this review isn’t meant as a shootout. Big bucks gear possesses extra resolution and refinement—and that’s how it should be. Comparing the LSiM707s to speaker favorites in the $4,000-$5,500 bracket is more useful and interesting.

The $4k Penaudio Cenya and the $5k B&W 805D both present more upper-range resolution, but only solidly go down to 50Hz. Also, each requires a pair of expensive stands to achieve maximum bass performance. Meanwhile, the $5,500 Magnepan 3.7s color a more grandiose aural picture but don’t really rock. Plus, to be all they can be, they necessitate a $10k high-current, solid-state power amplifier.

A Serious Music Lover’s Speaker

The 50 watts per channel that the CJ amp provides is great for most listening, but the configuration particularly excels at vocals and mellower music, as illustrated by Mobile Fidelity’s 24K CD of Tom Petty’s Full Moon Fever. The album’s multiple layers stay intact, with not only the woodblock in “Face in a Crowd” anchored in space but its timbre and scale sounding exactly right. They seem minor, yet these minute details allow you to forget about the system and concentrate on the music. Gram Parsons’ Grievous Angel and CSN’s Déjà vu supply similar experiences. The LSiM707s unfailingly render subtle shadings without missing the larger dynamic swings.

Swapping the CJ gear for the C500 preamplifier and the 450Wpc MC452 power amplifier, I effortlessly buried the big, blue power meters courtesy of albums from Van Halen, Slayer, and Nine Inch Nails. Todd Martens’ column (on page 88) inspired a maximum-volume romp through The Downward Spiral that left me invigorated and convinced that the LSi707s play at high levels without instilling listener fatigue.

Jazz and classical listeners should be equally enthralled with the Polks. It’s one trick to play really loud, but these speakers possess the necessary finesse to capture the essence of acoustic instruments. With a recent listening session to the mastering of Music Matters’ analog edition of Herbie Hancock’s Empyrean Isles burned in my memory, I eagerly played a test pressing of the LP via the LSiM707s. They did not disappoint. Hancock’s piano and Freddie Hubbard’s coronet blast from between the speakers with great dynamics and zero overhang. Cymbals are natural, and bass is pregnant with texture—no one-note bass here.

Man Up and Grab a Pair

The LSiM707s’ greatest virtue owes to their overall performance level; they have no shortcomings. Honestly. The speakers offer major bass grunt—Polk claims 22Hz-40kHz, with a -3db point at 42Hz. However, when listening to test tones, the 30Hz band remains very solid. Moreover, the smooth high-end is grain-free and the mid-band extremely natural. The well-designed crossover network also provides a top-to-bottom coherence that’s rare at this price.

It would be easy to say that these speakers’ only errors are those of omission, but such a statement sells them short. When used with the ARC REF gear, the LSiM707s easily resolved the differences between the $12k dCS Debussy, $30k TAD 600, and $55k dCS Paganini. Most sub-$10k speakers fail this challenge.

Most importantly, for music lovers on a budget, the LSiM707s still deliver a very musical performance when paired with a garage-sale receiver. No matter with what they’re mated, they put forward such substantial resolution that it will feel as if you acquire a whole new system any time you upgrade your amplification and/or source components. This experience translates to unending fun—and a TONEAudio Exceptional Value Award.

Revealingly, on our way to the airport, Suskind commented that Polk “wants the LSiM707 to be a gateway to the high end on a reasonable budget.” The company accomplished this feat—and much, much more.

Focal Chorus 826W Loudspeaker

If you’ve ever auditioned the Focal Grande Utopia EM loudspeakers, you know what a breathtaking musical experience they provide, from the deepest bass note to the highest high, with a clarity that few other models can muster. Focal is one of the world’s only speaker companies with a full research facility and manufacturing complex under one roof. All of the company’s drivers are made in-house, accompanying all of the necessary research, design, and fabrication that go into every aspect of speaker design.

Audiophiles that inquired about the cost of the Grande Utopias were probably a little bit freaked out at the $180,000 price tag. Fortunately, you don’t have to spend that much money to get a great pair of speakers from Focal. The Chorus 826W retail for $3,695 per pair and epitomize how cutting-edge engineering and design get distilled into real-world products.

Visually and Audibly Exquisite

Unboxing the 826Ws is a sensual experience. The black-lacquered finish is as smooth as glass, and the cabinet quality fantastic. Everything harmonizes with each other, and the “W” logo is engraved into the tweeter baffle. Fit and finish is better than expected at this price category, no doubt the result of utilizing a production facility trained in making the Utopia series. Because Focal also has pro and car audio divisions, it boasts incredible economies of scale that are the equivalent of a small speaker company that purchases off-the-shelf drivers from one place and cabinets from another in order to sell decent $10-$20k speakers. Few compete with Focal in this area.

The second I set the stylus down on Lynryd Skynyrd’s Nuthin’ Fancy, the track’s omnipresent opening amplifier hum instantly lets me know these speakers can rock. Courtesy of a 91.5db sensitivity rating, a 50- to 70-watt amplifier gets the job done with power to spare. For most of my listening sessions, the PrimaLuna Dialog Six monoblocks with EL-34 power were awesome. Unless I was blasting King Diamond, I took advantage of the Dialogs even sweeter-sounding triode mode because of the 826W’s sensitivity.

An inverted dome tweeter is a Focal hallmark. However, the 800 series uses a 1-inch aluminum/magnesium membrane whereas the Utopia system uses a beryllium dome that’s far more costly to produce. The tweeter in the 826W easily resolves ultra-fine musical detail, with low distortion and high speed. And that speed feels a lot like a high-quality electrostatic speaker system with a massive soundstage. W versions of Chorus speakers also boast the same W composite material used in woofers of Utopia models.  Where many speakers at this price rely on off-the-shelf drivers, Focal applies technology from its flagship models. The pair of 6.5-inch woofers is remarkably free of upper bass coloration and lower-bass distortion.

Fans of well-defined imaging will be smitten with the 826W. The piano in the Allman Brothers’ “Ain’t Wastin’ Time No More” comes in way off to the right side of the sound field, as Duane Allman’s famous slide guitar snakes in from the right and both instruments blend in with the band. Everything on Eat a Peach sounds incredible. Small details abound: A drumstick clicked on the side of the kit here, tiny percussion bits there, and the sound of a guitar slide gently moved across a guitar neck while bongos float in the distance. Such resolution is often unavailable in under-$10k speakers.

At Ease Everywhere

The 826W is equally articulate at low volume; it is not a speaker that you need to blast in order to achieve musical engagement. Even at conversation levels, the speaker’s virtues shine. A few of my audiophile buddies unfamiliar with Focal initially believed these speakers fetched much more than their list price.

Closely concentrating on Neil Young’s Harvest reveals the intricacies the 826W produce, the experience easily rendering the superiority of the 24/192 version of the album. At the beginning of the title track, the piano swells up out of the background to meet the banjo, splendidly yielding an abundance of texture and tone.

A series of test tones reveals solid bass down to 40hz, with worthwhile output at 35hz. A quick romp through a series of discs with deep, low-frequency energy is highly enjoyable. More importantly, whether playing Pink Floyd, Snoop Dogg, or Mahler, the 826 exhibits control and plenty of low-frequency detail as well. The hard-hitting beats of Mr. Scruff’s “Sweetsmoke” provide sufficient, non-fatiguing gut punch when the volume gets cranked up to party levels. Equally sublime dynamics come via the beginning of Led Zeppelin’s “No Quarter,” where neither the distorted bass line nor the pounding bass drum overpowers the other.

I even notice a few sonic bits on my favorite Doug and the Slugs album, Cognac and Bologna, I wasn’t expecting. The texture in the tom fills and keyboard riffs are rousing.  Rush’s “The Trees” offers similar surprises, as the Canadian trio is presented with the grand scale it deserves even as the chirping birds at the beginning of the track are rendered in full color.  Moving down in latitude from Canada to California calls for Van Halen. After about an hour of high-decibel use, and switching to the mighty Burmester 911mk.3, the Focals are no worse for the wear.

Environmentally Friendly

Occupying just an 11 1/8 x 14 ¾-inch footprint (282 x 375mm), the 826W physically parallels a pair of compact speakers on a pair of stands but adds the deeper bass response of a floorstander. The 826W’s ported enclosure system is called “Powerflow,” and includes one port on the front face of the speaker and another port that fires downward.

Don’t forget to mount these speakers on their stands, or you will be sorely disappointed with bass performance. Oh, yeah: The stands also receive the Utopia treatment, as they’re produced from stylish cast aluminum and include threaded leveling spikes.

Once securely mounted, the 826W is a breeze to set up. The dual-port design seems to be less sensitive to room placement than many single-port speakers we’ve tried, and because these speakers are not terribly heavy at 56.8 pounds (25.8kg) each, shuffling them to their optimum position requires minimal effort.

Award-Winning Performance

Of course, the 826Ws don’t go as deep or play as loudly as the Grandes, but all of the attributes associated with the landmark latter speaker attributes are represented:  tonal purity, wideband frequency response, and high dynamic range coupled with excellent low-level detail retrieval.

The 826W’s only potential drawback? The high resolution reveals shortcomings in the signal path more than most speakers at this price point. Its inverted dome tweeter is not harsh, but ultra-resolving. After spending a little time with the 826Ws, listeners with budget amplification will be shopping for a new amp.

Given that it incorporates so many features from Focal’s top speaker systems, the 826W could be the best bang for the buck the company has yet produced. The model is more than worthy of our Exceptional Value Award for 2012.

Focal Chorus 826W Loudspeaker

MSRP: $3,695/pair  (Factory)  (US and Canadian importer)

ACI Emerald XL loudspeakers

Back in 2006 we gave the $1700 ACI Sapphire XL loudspeakers one of our Exceptional Value Awards, and we were curious to see if the $800 Emeralds would do the family proud. This small stand-mounted two-way excelled in smaller rooms and found its calling as a nearfield monitor or part of a desktop system. When supplied with quality amplification, the Emeralds defied expectations.